This Week’s Book Review – The Story of Greece and Rome

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Story of Greece and Rome’ an entertaining history lesson

By MARK LARDAS

Nov 20, 2018

“The Story of Greece and Rome,” by Tony Spawforth, Yale University Press, 2018, 392 pages $30

Modern western civilization sits atop a foundation built by the ancient Greeks and Romans. How much do you know of these civilizations?

“The Story of Greece and Rome,” by Tony Spawforth offers a short, one-volume introduction to ancient Greece and Rome.

Spawforth starts at the beginning and carries the story to the present. He opens at the dawn of Greek history, and shows the influence these civilizations continue to have today.

The book starts by examining ancient Minoan and Mycenaean societies. Spawforth shows how they grew from societies into civilizations. This includes examination of how they gained, lost, and regained literacy, as well as the development of political systems and art forms.

He also shows how as Greek civilization grew, it impinged on neighbors to the west, east, and south. This includes showing how they borrowed from neighboring civilizations and fought with them. This section includes the conflict between Sparta and Athens, and how these two city-states eventually involved their neighbors.

This included the Macedonians, who eventually swallowed the Greek peninsula, the surrounding civilizations south and east (including Egypt and Persia) and then thrust east into modern Afghanistan and India. He also shows the results of the Macedonian empire fracturing after Alexander the Great’s death.

As Alexander is moving east, a new civilization was developing in the Italian peninsula: Rome. Spawforth presents the emergence of Rome and its struggles with its Etruscan, Greek, and Carthaginian neighbors. He also presents a factor allowing them to gain power – the willingness to let outsiders become Roman citizens. It was a previously untried innovation, and proved decisive.

Chapters follow showing Rome’s growth to regional domination. More importantly, he shows how Rome borrowed from Greece, and how Rome “Romanized” its territories. Rome’s arts, engineering and culture became fused with Greece.

Spawforth, emeritus professor of ancient history at Newcastle University (UK), presents the story in engaging language, mixing history with his personal experiences over the course of his career. His tales illuminate the historical discussion, humanizing the discussion.

“The Story of Greece and Rome” is entertaining and informative. Although short, it offers a succinct concentration of information.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – I’m Dr. Red Duke

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘I’m Dr. Red Duke’ a study in greatness

By MARK LARDAS

Oct 2, 2018

”I’m Dr. Red Duke,” by Bryant Boutwell, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 284 pages, $30

“Red” Duke was known to millions for his televised broadcasts about medicine. He was one of those larger-than-life Texas characters who left people wondering if he was for real.

“I’m Dr. Red Duke,” a biography of Dr. James H. “Red” Duke, by Bryant Boutwell, provides the answer. Not only was he the real deal, but in many ways he was greater than his public persona.

Duke a native Texan, grew up in central Texas. He always took pride in being an Eagle Scout and an Aggie (he was a yell leader at Texas A&M). His Texas accent was authentic.

Although he planned to become an engineer, his career path changed many times. He studied to be a minister and then served as an armor officer in Germany. He finally settled on medicine after leaving the army. While finishing up his residency in Dallas, Duke was on duty at the trauma room when Kennedy was shot. Duke operated on Texas Gov. John Connolly that day, saving Connolly.

Duke went on to teaching medicine and did medical research on the East Coast before doing a two-year stint in a teaching hospital in Afghanistan. He came to Houston after his Afghanistan tour, joining the staff of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston in the late 1970s. He became one of their greatest teachers.

Among his other accomplishments, he helped start Houston’s Life Flight air ambulance service, pioneering rapid-reaction trauma surgery techniques. He became a television star, when UT used him as the spokesman for a series of medical advice programs. They became nationally syndicated and made him a household name.

Boutwell is well-positioned to write this book. He was a colleague of Duke, who worked with Duke for many years and knew him professionally and personally.

Boutwell presents Duke’s many strengths and virtues, but Boutwell also discusses Duke’s shortcomings, ones that led to two failed marriages and left Duke a prisoner of his celebrity.

“I’m Dr. Red Duke” is a focused and balanced look at one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary and talented surgeons. It is worth reading as a study in greatness.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Battle of the Brazos

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Battle of the Brazos’ a fascinating sports and mystery story

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 29, 2018

“Battle of the Brazos: A Texas Football Rivalry, a Riot, and a Murder,” by T. G. Webb, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 184 pages, $27

Football is often compared to war.

“Battle of the Brazos: A Texas Football Rivalry, a Riot, and a Murder,” by T. G. Webb shows what happens when fans overdo that analogy.

The book relates events from an October 30, 1926, football game between Baylor University and the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (today Texas A&M University). Interscholastic rivalry flared into a halftime riot. One A&M cadet died.

Astonishingly, the game resumed after the riot and was played to completion. More astonishingly, although the fatal assault occurred before thousands of spectators, the perpetrator was never caught. The crime was never officially solved.

Webb examines all aspects of this incident. He opens with a history of college football in Texas. This includes the increasingly bitter rivalry between two of the Texas schools on the Brazos River: Baylor and Texas A&M. The annual matchup soon became labeled “The Battle of the Brazos.” Webb shows how both student bodies took that title too seriously. In the 1920s, incidents of increasing violence accompanied games before the fatal 1926 riot.

Webb provides a detailed study of the 1926 game. He looks at the buildup to the game, taking readers through a step-by-step examination of its events, including the halftime riot. He follows this by relating the aftermath of the riot. He shows how the schools reacted and what both schools did afterward. (He also peels away some myths. Despite many stories there is no evidence the Aggies commandeered a train to take a cannon to Waco to avenge the death.)

Webb also examines the mystery of who killed the cadet, and why the culprit was never caught. He offers several reasons contributing to the crime’s going unsolved. It was suspected the assailant was related to a politically connected Waco family. State law enforcement was primitive. A hired private investigator lacked authority to compel witnesses to speak. He came close to identifying the assailant, but lacked sufficient proof to obtain an indictment.

“Battle of the Brazos” is a fascinating mix of sports history and true crime mystery. Webb’s book offers insight to a bygone era in Texas sports.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – The Woolly West

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Woolly West’ examines sheep industry in storied region

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 21, 2018

“The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes,” by Andrew Gulliford, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 420 pages, $40

Settling the West is often associated with cattle and cattlemen. Overlooked is a second, important stock-raising industry: sheepherding.

“The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes,” by Andrew Gulliford, fixes that.

The book examines the sheep industry in the West, from its origins in Spanish America through the present. While Gulliford’s focus is Colorado (especially Western Colorado), he also examines other sheep-raising regions of the West: New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Cattle and the cowboy captured the American imagination. Sheep and shepherds usually fell outside Western legend. Gulliford explores the major reasons for that difference. He shows this was partly due to the nature of the two industries. Cattle were kept by men on horseback, who worked in teams to herd cattle. It was a social activity. Sheep were raised by individual shepherds, who used packs of dogs to herd sheep. It was a solitary activity.

Shepherds were generally those willing to undergo long isolation. They kept apart from society. While cowboys were Anglo, part of mainstream, sheep were herded by outsiders: Hispanics and Basque and Greek immigrants.

Gulliford relates the interaction between cattle raising and sheepherding. The two industries were like children on a teeter-totter. When one was up, the other was down. This often led to conflict, including range wars between cowboys and shepherds. Gulliford presents the compromises the two groups eventually reached.

Gulliford also looks at how sheepherding changed the West. It altered the vegetation of the lands grazed by sheep, and even the physical terrain. He also looks at the rise of the environmental movement and its effects on sheep-raising and the shepherds.

Gulliford intersperses each chapter with a “sheepscape” — an intermission in his history where he traces his personal interactions with sheep herders past and present. In them he documents his own research and musings. These include explorations of the traces left by past generations of herders and conversations with current sheep raisers or descendants from sheep-raising families.

“The Woolly West” is a fascinating study about a neglected part of American history. Gulliford captures something forgotten yet important to the heritage of the West.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Shale Boom’ an even-handed look at fracking

By MARK LARDAS

July 24, 2018

“Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth,” by Diana Davids Hinton, Texas Christian University Press, 2018, 192 pages, $30

Twenty years ago, the United States was running out of oil and gas. Fracking changed everything. Today, the United States is the world’s largest producer of petroleum products.

“Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth,” by Diana Davids Hinton tells the history of a key part of that transformation. It examines how the Barnett Shale helped trigger the fracking revolution, and explores its consequences.

Hinton puts fracking in its historical context. It was not new. Some form of fracturing was done as early as the 1920s. This included injecting liquids into wells under high pressure — hydraulic fracturing. Hinton reveals what was new. The Barnett Shale is a large but narrow layer of oil bearing rock beneath Fort Worth and the area west of it. Fracking techniques of the 1980s and 1990s meant wells failed to yield economic levels of gas and oil.

George Mitchell owned lease rights in the area. Hinton shows how the Galveston-born Mitchell financed new fracking techniques. The new technology unlocked the Barnett Shale, producing unprecedented levels of natural gas. Directional drilling techniques developed during this century’s first decade multiplied yields.

It kick-started a shale gas boom around Fort Worth. Much of the best yield area was under Fort Worth, complicating things. What followed included some craziness of the type accompanying every oil boom. Hinton traces the action.

Hinton looks at the impact urban drilling had on both drillers and residents. She also examines the bust inevitably following a boom, the backlash against drilling, and the impact of environmental concerns fueled by fear of fracking.

Hinton is refreshingly even-handed. She looks at both the benefits and costs (societal and environmental as well as financial) of drilling and the hydrocarbon industry. She also explores both the benefits and excesses of environmental opposition to fracking. Hinton is unafraid to expose the follies and dodgy activities of individuals in both drilling and the environmental movement.

Hinton closes with an examination of the impacts of fracking — long and short term — around Fort Worth, and its global implications. “Shale Boom” a fascinating and balanced look at what technology revolutions yield.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Forty-nine Years Ago Today…

…men from Planet Earth set foot upon another world.

Will you celebrate?

Perhaps, next year, on the 50th anniversary, we should host a global celebration synchronised with the events half a century before.

(I have defined “today” using the conventional date of 1969-07-20 in my local time zone.  The actual landing occurred at 20:18:04 UTC on 1969-07-20 and the first footstep on the Moon was at 02:56:15 UTC on 1969-07-21.)


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This Week’s Book Review – The Presidents and the Pastime

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Presidents and the Pastime’ perfect summer read

By MARK LARDAS

July 11, 2018

“The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” by Curt Smith, University of Nebraska Press, 2018, 504 pages, $29.95

There is nothing so All-American as baseball, except maybe U.S. Presidents. Or maybe it is the other way around.

With “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” by Curt Smith, it does not matter. He combines the two to examine how baseball and the presidency have interacted through the life of the republic.

It seems all presidents had some relationship with the game. Washington played a version of stickball. His troops played “rounders” at Valley Forge, and the general played catch with an aide. Smith takes a brief look at baseball’s development into today’s modern game, but his book really takes off with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, who was in office when the major leagues took their familiar shape. From Roosevelt on, Smith spends a chapter on each president’s relationship with the game, from Taft to Trump.

Some presidents, including Taft, Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were enthusiasts. No president was a bigger baseball fan than Nixon. He was asked to head the players’ union and to serve as baseball commissioner before becoming president. Some presidents, both Bushes, and Trump, played the game in college. Trump was scouted by the Red Sox.

Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were indifferent or hostile to the game but affected warmth for baseball for political reasons. Roosevelt considered it a mollycoddle game. The only game that interested Johnson was politics. A few, notably Jimmy Carter, preferred softball to baseball.

Smith traces the rise and decline of professional baseball as America’s pastime and its rivalry with professional football. Baseball was at its apogee in the middle of the 20th century, the 1950s, when Truman and Eisenhower were president. Since the 1960s it has been supplanted by pro football. Smith, an unabashed baseball partisan, yearns for the days when “the NFL rivaled pro wrestling — except that wrestling had a niche.”

“The Presidents and the Pastime” is a sunny book and a perfect summer read. While acknowledging faults, Smith focuses on the good in baseball, and the presidents covered regardless of party. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it is a refreshing break.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Persian Gulf Command

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Persian Gulf Command’ shows WWII roots of state turmoil

By MARK LARDAS

July 3, 2018

“Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq,” by Ashley Jackson, Yale University Press, 2018, 432 pages, $30

The 1990 Gulf War was not the first time the United States and Great Britain intervened militarily in the Persian Gulf region. Both fought there during World War II.

“Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq,” by Ashley Jackson, tells the story of that often overlooked and frequently forgotten intervention.

Iran and Iraq were one of Britain’s most important sources of petroleum during World War II. They were also strategically located, linking Britain to India (then the jewel of Britain’s imperial crown), and providinga route to the Soviet Union. Iraq was a British protectorate; Iran independent.

Although neutral when World War II began, both were also, as Jackson shows, pro-Nazi. Persia took the name Iran to highlight their Aryan roots. Jackson shows the consequences of this combination the indigenous populations’ fascist sympathies with their nations’ significance to the Allies.

Jackson covers the entire war, from 1939 through 1945. Despite its strategic significance, in the opening stages of World War II, Britain could devote few military resources to Iran and Iraq. After British reverses in 1940, it had few reinforcements available. What few spare military forces Britain had were needed elsewhere.

The opening chapters show the results. A civil war erupted in Iraq, with pro-Nazi forces attempting to overthrow the British-friendly government. Britain and Germany both assembled scratch forces to support their side in that war. Germany sent aircraft. Britain rushed troops and aircraft from Africa and India. Jackson describes how Britain won that race.

He goes on to show how Germany’s invasion of Russia changed the Soviets from a threat to an ally, albeit one dangerous to Britain’s Persian Gulf interests. He shows how Britain and Russia took over the Iranian oilfields, and later, after the United States entered the war, turned Iran into a major conduit to bring supplies to the Soviet Union.

This book is filled with delicate diplomacy and tantalizing “what-ifs.” “Persian Gulf Command” shows how the roots of the turmoil in the Persian Gulf region in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries had its roots in World War II.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Lost, Texas

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Exploring Texas and its forgotten places

By MARK LARDAS

June 12, 2018

“Lost, Texas: Photographs of Forgotten Buildings,” by Bronson Dorsey, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 244 pages, $40

Buildings and towns have lifespans, just like people.

“Lost, Texas: Photographs of Forgotten Buildings,” by Bronson Dorsey underscores that. A photoessay, the book captures forgotten and abandoned buildings throughout the state of Texas.

His photography is stunning. Readers make an extended road trip through Texas exploring forgotten places, buildings and towns. The trip takes readers around the state visiting east, south, central, north and west Texas and the Panhandle.

Dorsey explores the Texas that can be seen off the interstate, on state, county, Farm-to-Market, and Ranch-to Market roads. Small towns, including ghost towns, predominate, but he has a few small cities, such as Palestine and Marshall.

All buildings featured outlived their original purpose. Some, such as the old International and Great Northern Railroad Hospital in Palestine, seem in good shape, abandoned, but capable of revival if a new use could be found. A few, like the Koch Hotel in D’Hanis, are still in use, restored as bed-and-breakfasts or museums. Most, however, are abandoned in various states of deterioration.

“Lost, Texas” charts the rise and fall of both buildings and communities. The reasons for abandonment are many. Entire towns die when bypassed by the railroad, and later the interstate. Changing travel tastes make tourist courts and railroad hotels. Gas stations and stores become uneconomical when new highways bypass them.

Technology matters, too. Mechanization reduced the need for farm labor. As a result, farm communities dwindled, the schools, stores, and restaurants that served the departed community became unnecessary. Industry closings, such as the Sulphur plant at Newgulf or Presidio Mines in Shafter cause communities to whither.

Dorsey captures these trends in his photographs. The book is filled with poignant and sometimes haunting images testimony to dead dreams: A crumbling service station in Pep, the decayed sheriff’s office in Langtry, collapsing World War II bomber hangers in Pyote, a lonely red, one-room schoolhouse on the Panhandle plains in Wayside.

Each set of photos is accompanied by the story of the building captured. They are all different, yet all similar. “Lost, Texas” takes readers into the Texas of yesteryear.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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TOTD 2018-06-05: First to Fly in Space Twice

Puzzle: Yuri Gagarin was the first person to fly in space.  Who was the first person to fly in space twice?

For the purposes of this puzzle, I adopt the definition of space flight used by the Fédération Aéronautique Interationale (FAI) and NASA: flight above the Kármán line, which is by convention defined as 100 km (330,000 feet or 62 miles) above sea level.  This is the altitude where the Earth’s mean atmosphere becomes sufficiently thin that a winged vehicle would have to be travelling at orbital velocity or greater to develop sufficient lift to support its weight.

Please don’t just type this question into a search engine.  That’s no fun and the odds are many of the results you’ll get will be wrong.

I’ll identify the first correct answer in the comments or, if nobody gets it, post the answer in a spoiler block to-morrow.


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This Week’s Book Review – Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Seawriter

Book Review

‘Ignition!’ explores the ‘golden age’ of rocketry

By MARK LARDAS

May 22, 2018

Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants,” by John D. Clark, Rutgers University Press Classics, 2018, 302 pages, $24.95

Today, rocket science commonly refers to anything dealing with space. Originally, it meant rocket design, especially fuel development.

“Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants,” by John D. Clark, harks back to those day. While informal, it is a comprehensive account of rocket fuel development.

In “Ignition!” Clark reveals what went on behind the scenes in the early days of rocketry. He was the perfect man to do so. A pioneer rocket scientist, an active chemist from the early 1930s, between 1949 and 1970 he was one of the leading developers of liquid rocket fuels. A talented writer (publishing science fiction in 1930) he knew all the players, inside and outside the United States.

Clark shows what made rocket science challenging is not that it is difficult. It is that rocket fuels are very finicky. Do anything wrong and the rocket does not go whoosh. It goes boom.

Clark shows all the ways they go boom. He explains what makes a good rocket fuel, shows readers what works and shows readers what does not work and why. He starts with Tsiolkovsky in the late 1800s, and ending with the Saturn V and the moon missions in the late 1960s.

His focus is on the golden age of rocket fuel development, from 1946 through 1961. Those years saw development of the liquid fuels still used in rockets today, with a lot of dead ends. Clark spends chapters on the dead ends, such as peroxide fuels and monopropellants. Frequently those chapters are books’ most entertaining.

There is chemistry involved, including formidable chemical equations. Readers unfamiliar with chemistry should skip them. They are for the chemistry geeks reading the book. Between the equations are what makes the book entertaining; the technician attacked by bats after a fuel test, the propellant developer who took a year off to develop hula hoops and many similar stories.

“Ignition!,” originally written in 1972, is back in print after a long hiatus. A classic book, it tells a rollicking story of an era when space was the frontier. An informative history, it reads like an adventure story.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – A Little History of Archaeology

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Seawriter

Book Review

‘A Little History of Archaeology’ a study of the past

By MARK LARDAS

May 1, 2018

A Little History of Archaeology,” by Brian Fagan, Yale University Press, 2018, 288 pages, $25

Archaeology is the study of the history of mankind through examining its artifacts.

“A Little History of Archaeology,” by Brian Fagan is the study of archaeology through examining its artifacts.

The book is part of Yale University Press’s “A Little History” series. It examines different topics in a short and readable, yet comprehensive manner.

In this book, Fagan, an internationally recognized archaeologist, puts archaeology under the microscope. In 40 brief chapters he takes readers through archaeology’s past, going from the dawn of archaeology through to the present.

Following an introductory chapter, Fagan starts by examining the first attempt to treat the study of the past scientifically: Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt. Napoleon brought a collection of “savants” (literally “wise men”) from France’s academic community to study Egypt. They examined artifacts from Egypt’s past. Among the antiquities found was the Rosetta Stone. (In a later chapter Fagan describes how that was used to decipher hierogylphics.)

This triggered a fashion for studying antiquities. Fagan’s later chapters take us through archaeology’s three ages: the age of the gentleman antiquarian, the heroic age (think Indiana Jones) and modern archaeology, organized, systematized and using tools like carbon dating and remote sensing.

Fagan follows the history of archeology chronologically. One result is Fagan’s account skips back and forth through human history. Ancient Egypt is followed by Ancient Babylon, and then a skip across the Atlantic to look at the Maya, and back to Stone Age Europe. (There is even a chapter explaining how the three-age Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age division was created.) This works remarkably well. Readers are never bored. Time and place changes kaleidoscopically.

Fagan introduces a vast cast of fascinating characters; Heinrich Schliemann, Howard Carter, and Louis and Mary Leakey are among the most famous, but there are many more. There is even a cameo appearance by Agatha Christy.

He also shows how archaeology evolved from a gentleman’s pastime into a modern science. “A Little History of Archaeology” is aimed at a literate reader who wants a readable, entertaining and accurate introduction to archaeology. Fagan succeeds admirably in all three objectives.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Book Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Damien LewisAfter becoming prime minister in May 1940, one of Winston Churchill’s first acts was to establish the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was intended to conduct raids, sabotage, reconnaissance, and support resistance movements in Axis-occupied countries. The SOE was not part of the military: it was a branch of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and its very existence was a state secret, camouflaged under the name “Inter-Service Research Bureau”. Its charter was, as Churchill described it, to “set Europe ablaze”.

The SOE consisted, from its chief, Brigadier Colin McVean Gubbins, who went by the designation “M”, to its recruits, of people who did not fit well with the regimentation, hierarchy, and constraints of life in the conventional military branches. They could, in many cases, be easily mistaken for blackguards, desperadoes, and pirates, and that’s precisely what they were in the eyes of the enemy—unconstrained by the rules of warfare, striking by stealth, and sowing chaos, mayhem, and terror among occupation troops who thought they were far from the front.

Leading some of the SOE’s early exploits was Gustavus “Gus” March-Phillipps, founder of the British Army’s Small Scale Raiding Force, and given the SOE designation “Agent W.01”, meaning the first agent assigned to the west Africa territory with the leading zero identifying him as “trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy”—a license to kill. The SOE’s liaison with the British Navy, tasked with obtaining support for its operations and providing cover stories for them, was a fellow named Ian Fleming.

One of the SOE’s first and most daring exploits was Operation Postmaster, with the goal of seizing German and Italian ships anchored in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po off the coast of west Africa. Given the green light by Churchill over the strenuous objections of the Foreign Office and Admiralty, who were concerned about the repercussions if British involvement in what amounted to an act of piracy in a neutral country were to be disclosed, the operation was mounted under the strictest secrecy and deniability, with a cover story prepared by Ian Fleming. Despite harrowing misadventures along the way, the plan was a brilliant success, capturing three ships and their crews and delivering them to the British-controlled port of Lagos without any casualties. Vindicated by the success, Churchill gave the SOE the green light to raid Nazi occupation forces on the Channel Islands and the coast of France.

On his first mission in Operation Postmaster was Anders Lassen, an aristocratic Dane who enlisted as a private in the British Commandos after his country was occupied by the Nazis. With his silver-blond hair, blue eyes, and accent easily mistaken for German, Lassen was apprehended by the Home Guard on several occasions while on training missions in Britain and held as a suspected German spy until his commanders intervened. Lassen was given a field commission, direct from private to second lieutenant, immediately after Operation Postmaster, and went on to become one of the most successful leaders of special operations raids in the war. As long as Nazis occupied his Danish homeland, he was possessed with a desire to kill as many Nazis as possible, wherever and however he could, and when in combat was animated by a berserker drive and ability to improvise that caused those who served with him to call him the “Danish Viking”.

This book provides a look into the operations of the SOE and its successor organisations, the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, seen through the career of Anders Lassen. So numerous were special operations, conducted in many theatres around the world, that this kind of focus is necessary. Also, attrition in these high-risk raids, often far behind enemy lines, was so high there are few individuals one can follow throughout the war. As the war approached its conclusion, Lassen was the only surviving participant in Operation Postmaster, the SOE’s first raid.

Lassen went on to lead raids against Nazi occupation troops in the Channel Islands, leading Churchill to remark, “There comes from the sea from time to time a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.” While these “butcher-and-bolt” raids could not liberate territory, they yielded prisoners, code books, and radio contact information valuable to military intelligence and, more importantly, forced the Germans to strengthen their garrisons in these previously thought secure posts, tying down forces which could otherwise be sent to active combat fronts. Churchill believed that the enemy should be attacked wherever possible, and SOE was a precision weapon which could be deployed where conventional military forces could not be used.

As the SOE was absorbed into the military Special Air Service, Lassen would go on to fight in North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, then occupied by Italian and German troops, and mainland Greece. His raid on a German airbase on occupied Crete took out fighters and bombers which could have opposed the Allied landings in Sicily. Later, his small group of raiders, unsupported by any other force, liberated the Greek city of Salonika, bluffing the German commander into believing Lassen’s forty raiders and two fishing boats were actually a British corps of thirty thousand men, with armour, artillery, and naval support.

After years of raiding in peripheral theatres, Lassen hungered to get into the “big war”, and ended up in Italy, where his irregular form of warfare and disdain for military discipline created friction with his superiors. But he got results, and his unit was tasked with reconnaissance and pathfinding for an Allied crossing of Lake Comacchio (actually, more of a swamp) in Operation Roast in the final days of the war. It was there he was to meet his end, in a fierce engagement against Nazi troops defending the north shore. For this, he posthumously received the Victoria Cross, becoming the only non-Commonwealth citizen so honoured in World War II.

It is a cliché to say that a work of history “reads like a thriller”, but in this case it is completely accurate. The description of the raid on the Kastelli airbase on Crete would, if made into a movie, probably cause many viewers to suspect it to be fictionalised, but that’s what really happened, based upon after action reports by multiple participants and aerial reconnaissance after the fact.

World War II was a global conflict, and while histories often focus on grand battles such as D-day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, and the fall of Berlin, there was heroism in obscure places such as the Greek islands which also contributed to the victory, and combatants operating in the shadows behind enemy lines who did their part and often paid the price for the risks they willingly undertook. This is a stirring story of this shadow war, told through the short life of one of its heroes.

Lewis, Damien. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. New York: Quercus, 2015. ISBN 978-1-68144-392-8.

Here is a video review of this book by Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons.

 


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Today’s Kipling – The Dawn Wind

(The choice was inspired by the 2018 SOTU speech.)

The Dawn Wind

The Fifteenth Century

Rudyard Kipling

At two o’clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun.
And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done.

So do the cows in the field. They graze for an hour and lie down,
Dozing and chewing the cud; or a bird in the ivy wakes,
Chirrups one note and is still, and the restless Wind strays on,
Fidgeting far down the road, till, softly, the darkness breaks.

Back comes the Wind full strength with a blow like an angel’s wing,
Gentle but waking the world, as he shouts: “The Sun! The Sun!”
And the light floods over the fields and the birds begin to sing,
And the Wind dies down in the grass. It is day and his work is done.

So when the world is asleep, and there seems no hope of her waking
Out of some long, bad dream that makes her mutter and moan,
Suddenly, all men arise to the noise of fetters breaking,
And every one smiles at his neighbour and tells him his soul is his own!


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TOTD 2018/01/13: Annie Sullivan, Liberatrix

A local public library had not yet, I found, thrown out all its books. Indeed, in the Childrens’ Room someone had turned a book so that the attractive, mysterious cover beckoned from a shelf at kid face height.

Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher is a 2008 large-format Juvenile book published by National Geographic as part of a series. M.F. Delano combines summary biography of Sullivan and Keller with historical photographs highlighted with quotes from the principals and their friends.

Annie Sullivan suffered as a child from trachoma, increasing blindness, paternal beatings, death of her mother, poverty, dirt, no education, and abandonment to years in a poorhouse. But she made it. Delano throws us this quote from Sullivan’s Valedictorian address on her 1886 graduation from the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston:

We . . . have the power of controlling the course of our lives. We can educate ouselves; we can, by thought and perseverance, develop all the powers and capacities entrusted to us.

So Annie Sullivan got help and freed herself. Then she turned around and freed Helen Keller, herself trapped in a poorhouse without brick-and-mortar walls, but walls of blindness, deafness, and isolation. Here is the famous water pump by the Keller home in Alabama. Sullivan pumped away at that handle, making the water flow all over Helen’s hand, while spelling the word “water” into her other hand. She breached the wall; the child was free:

The mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

Radcliffe College dedicated a water fountain to Annie Sullivan. Here is Radcliffe alumna Helen Keller, by then a little old lady, at the ceremony in 1960:

 

Annie Sullivan, Liberatrix, freed Keller, and consequently others, by enabling her to use the English language when that had seemed impossible.

If hers was an act of liberation, what, then, do we call certain other acts which make it near-impossible for so many of our countrymen to learn the English language, and so free themselves from initial constraints in their lives, to become self-reliant and to live as fully and independently as they can?

What do we call, for example, the invention and promotion “Ebonics” in lieu of Standard American English? I say it is hobbling; or it is harnessing with blinders, as with a draft horse.

What do we call the promotion of gangster culture, and the setting up of gangsters as exemplars for little kids? I say it is ensnaring.

What do we call the preservation of compulsory public schools where the unionized public employees cannot be fired? I say it is a form of kidnapping.

What do we call political opposition to charter schools, and mobbing in the streets to protest and smear Betsy DeVos because she approves of the charters and of parental choice? I say it is slaving, for not all fetters are made of metal.

 

 


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