Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Books

Quanah Parker’s Star House

I have a thing about old buildings, especially ones where history took place. Whether it’s standing inside Buffalo Bill’s hunting cabin outside Yellowstone Park in Wyoming or listening to Randy Newman at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, for that matter, old buildings have a way of making history come to life. This is especially true when those buildings are in out-of-the-way places that you have to seek out.

The Star House's red roof is lower left center, not far from the railroad tracks and behind the amusement park. Only in America. (Click to bigginate.)

That’s why I want to go to Cache, Oklahoma. Yeah. Really. I just finished S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner), which traces the story of the fearsome, decentralized Indian nation that once commanded huge swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico until its leaders surrendered to U.S. forces in 1875.

As with all books about the European/American extermination of Indian tribes from the Great Plains in the late 19th century, Empire of the Summer Moon tells a sad story about a miserable, irredeemable period in U.S. history. I realized how little I knew about the Comanches or the Indian wars in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwynne masterfully points out the pros and cons of both sides.

The book drops you into the Texas frontier in the early 19th century as whites sweeping westward begin tangling with those tribes and their lifestyle on the Southern Great Plains. Gwynne’s descriptions of the tribes’ nomadic life are as breathtaking as his exploration of how the Spanish, during their ill-fated attempt at conquest of the Comanches, among their many mistakes, unwittingly gave the Comanches the very thing – horses — which the Indians would then use to drive out the Europeans and stave off, at least for a while, their own extinction.

But the magic of Empire of the Summer Moon is how all this history weaves into and around the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, the last of the great Comanche chiefs. Apparently, if you grew up in Texas, you know the story of how Cynthia Ann was captured by the Comanches in 1836 at age nine in a brutal massacre against her family’s compound – she witnessed the torture and murder of her grandfather and gang-rape of other women during the incident.

Click on this to get a close-up of the immediate area.

Cynthia Ann was spared, eventually married Chief Peta Necona, had three children and was completely assimilated into the tribe for 24 years before being recaptured by famous Texas rancher Charles Goodnight and returned to her white family. Incomprehensible as it seemed to everyone at the time,  Parker rejected white society and tried to escape many times as she was shunted through a miserable life among her relatives. She never saw Quanah or her children again and finally starved herself to death in 1870.

Her first son with Peta Necona was Quanah. Six feet tall, with long hair, a stately mien and steely stare, Quanah Parker was a highly regarded, especially fearless and murderous chief of the notorious Quahadi Comanche band. Parker fought ferociously and killed and tortured many who chased the Quahadi before finally surrendering at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma in 1875.

For the last thirty years of his life, he lived out the life his mother could never accept. Perhaps more than any other Native American chief, Parker had moderate success living within the constraints of reservation life.  Though uneducated, he had great persuasive skills, and he traveled to Washington to lobby Congress on the behalf of his tribe. He was a founder of the Native American Church Movement peyote religion.

Perhaps the best expression of his desire to live in the white man’s world was the house he built near Cache, Oklahoma. It was a ten-room, two-story structure, a place where the great and the unknown came to pay their respects to the old chief. President Theodore Roosevelt dined at Parker’s house, and his table was always filled with people who wanted to meet the great chief.

Quanah Parker

There is an old photo of the house surrounded by a white picket fence in the book, and near the end, Gwynne says that he found Parker’s Star House, behind an abandoned amusement park near Cache. Beyond the peculiarly American irony of its location, this got me very excited. I quickly went to Google Maps and typed: Cache, OK. I moved down to the local level and began scanning, found a park northwest of town, and there it was, right behind what looks from the air like an old amusement park.

But what guided me to it so quickly were the stars on the red roof. You see, one story says that old Chief Parker, perhaps in a religious vision, had stars embedded in the roof of his home like those he supposedly admired on uniforms. The Star House. So I like to think that Parker himself helped guide me, lo these many years later, right to the spot.  I have to see this.

Read about our 2014 trip to see the Star House here.

December 10, 2011   3 Comments

Among the Truthers: Life in Conspiracy World

In Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, journalist Jonathan Kay, an editor at the National Post in Canada, examines the history of conspiracy theory in America and takes a long look at some of the people and ideas behind the 9/11 Truth movement.

I feel a lot like Kay in that I did an honest search of 9/11 theories. After reading the Truth material and the official Commission Report and many books, including The Looming Tower, and watching, ad infinitum, the videos of the event, like Kay, I concluded that it was much more likely that al Qaeda operatives hijacked four jets, of which three hit their targets than it is to believe that American neo-cons used passenger jets to hit three iconic, already explosive-rigged buildings, attacked the Pentagon with a missile and made several hundred people go away, presumably under hidden identities, never to be seen by their families again.

And like Kay, I don’t consider “truthers” to be, as he puts it, nutbags. If al Qaeda committed the crime, why do so many people believe that Cheney did it?

If you’re looking for more on thermite in WTC debris, or analyses of how Building 7 collapsed or what flying object hit the Pentagon, you won’t find it here. But if you want to better understand why so many people believe in things like this, it’s good background. Kay devotes chapters to conspiracism’s history and mythology, its psychological and religious roots and its advancement through media and academic and activist networks. Especially interesting are the sections on earlier alleged conspiracy plots – Ku Klux Klan, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Holocaust revisionism JFK etc. Kay does a great job of showing how many of the old themes and mythologies are woven into many of today’s conspiracy theories.

He also makes a good point that, though conspiracy theories have always been with us, it is the Internet that has accelerated and advanced the 9/11 Truthers’ cause and conspiracy theory in general. Virtually anyone with web access is free to check any of this out in the privacy of your own home. Gotta love it.

(More of my thoughts about 9/11 Truth.)

December 3, 2011   No Comments

The Windup Girl and The Infernals

From the cover of The Windup Girl, a megadont walks the streets of Bangkok. Imagine the smell.

I just finished a couple of science-fiction/supernatural books that I highly recommend to fans of either genre.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Nightshade Books 2009) is set about 250 years in the future in Bangkok. The world has long ago experienced both climate change (lotsa sweat) and the end of oil (or the Great Contraction, as it’s called).

Even worse, tinkering genetic bioengineering corporations have created food-borne plagues that have swept across continents, and bio-gen corps called “calorie companies” located in the U.S. are ever in search of the remaining germinating seed banks so they can destroy them and control food.

One of those banks is in Thailand, and that’s about all you need to know. There are genetically modified elephants called megadonts that help generate a kind of spring energy. There are genetically altered people (the windup girl is one) who serve mankind in ways both wonderful and twisted, all working in a cityscape so deliciously rendered and alluring that I went back and reread descriptive passages.

At the time I was reading this, Boulder County is seemingly split over whether to allow genetically modified crops on its land. (Hint: If you read this book, you will probably come down on the side of not allowing bio-gen crops anywhere.) And while reading, much of the supercity of Bangkok and its twelve million inhabitants, which in the novel has built even more elaborate walls to keep out the sea, were under water. Creepy when sci-fi slips into reality.

Somehow I get the feeling that Pacigalupi will create more stories and novels for this futureworld. In its scope and ambition, this world reminded me of how I felt when I first read Dune. Good as it is, I’d hate to see it go to waste on just this one tale.

John Connally’s The Infernals (Atria Books 2011) continues the story of Samuel Johnson, the twelve-year-old English boy who again winds up, thanks to a devil’s assistant and some laxity on the part of the scientists running the Hadron Collider, sucked into another dimension. We were introduced to Sam and his dog (of course he’s named Boswell) in The Book of Lost Things.

This time Mrs. Abernathy, a demon who has morphed into a middle-aged woman (albeit a particularly execrable and nasty one), having been thwarted in her bid to enter the real world in the earlier novel by Samuel, is trying to nab him to take back to her boss, the Great Malevolence, to gain back what self-respect she feels she has lost after Samuel and Boswell dashed her hopes for world dominance.

Connally writes with a professor’s delightful glee, using many assorted snotty asides and footnotes, as he leads Samuel and Boswell through the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic landscape of Hell, including a look into the Great Void itself, and a bewildering scourge of smelly, loathsome demons, dwarfs, elves, trees with claws, wraiths and rams, some of help to Samuel and some not so much, and a herbaceous beverage known to produce temporary blindness, an occasional inability to remember your name and explosive burping.

My favorites were the four dwarfs, and I laughed out loud while reading passages on the bus ride commute more than once. All I could think of while reading it was that, in the right hands, this would make an incredible animated film.

November 13, 2011   No Comments

Hound Dog Men: Leiber and Stoller’s Story

When we think of the great songwriters of the 1950s, we usually concentrate on Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Leiber-Stoller doesn’t immediately come to mind. I didn’t even know their first names – they have always been Leiber-Stoller to me.

All that changed after reading Hound Dog: The Leiber-Stoller Biography (Simon and Shuster 2009), written with David Ritz. Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were at least as important as songwriters as Berry or Holly, but like their first names, we don’t remember them because they weren’t performers.

Both of them grew up on the East Coast, but they didn’t meet until they had moved to Los Angeles, and their partnership, which began in 1950, has lasted through many decades, if their popularity and creativity pretty much dried up by the 1970s. But they will be remembered for the many songs they wrote for the Drifters, the Coasters and other great doo wop groups of the 1950s.

They were young Jewish men completely enchanted with black music. Stoller, a pianist, studied jazz and classical music and wrote all the music for the team. Leiber was a lyricist literally without peer at the time, and the pair created some of the most fascinating songs of the era: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Kansas City,” “The Chicken and the Hawk,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Along Came Jones,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Little Egypt,” “Stand by Me,” among them.

Oh, yeah. And “Hound Dog.” “You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog,’“ Atlantic Records co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun told them. They knew he was right, naming their autobiography after the song and highlighting the quote on the first page.

One thing not many know is that along with their songwriting skills, they were involved in producing records before we came up with the term “production” in the making of records. Listen to the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” and read how they came up with the recording. The Cups were in the studio to put final touches on a song they recorded a few days earlier, “People Say,” and warming up their voices with the old Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko.”

Stoller writes, “We decided to cut it there and then. No band was present … Jeff (Barry) and Ellie (Greenwich) picked up a coke bottle, a plastic bowl and a few can openers. That became the percussion. There was also a souvenir kalimba box from the West Indies, a sort of giant version of an African thumb piano. I found a way to tune it and used it to play a bass line. The Dixie Cups sang the song with tremendous feeling and authenticity. When we were finished, we loved it … We had another Top Twenty hit.”

There are plenty of stories like that one in Hound Dog, their on-off involvement with Elvis Presley and Col. Parker, their experiences with everybody from Phil Spector to Shadow Morton to Norman Mailer, as well as many other stories about the early days of rock and roll. And I finally got their names right.

April 5, 2011   No Comments

They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

April 30, 2009   2 Comments

Shadow Divers Titanically Out of Their Depth

“It hit an iceberg, and it sank. Get over it.”
– Robert Ballard

One of the best books I have read recently was Shadow Divers: The True Adventures of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II. The book, a non-fiction story that combined deep-sea adventure, history and two divers caught up in a suspenseful search for the identity of a German U-boat they found sunk off the eastern coast of the United States, completely captured my imagination.

So I was pretty excited to see that John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the two Shadow Divers, were partners in a new book, Titanic’s Last Secrets. My enthusiasm abated rather quickly as the book’s only secret is that it’s a cheap knock-off that does nothing more than fulfill a contract.

Titanic’s Last Secrets, written by Brad Matsen, wants to make us believe that the great ship actually sank because of faulty design and workmanship. We are supposed to believe this because Chatterton and Kohler, who became bigger fish in diving circles after the success of Shadow Divers and even had their own underwater television adventure show, decided to ride one of the submersibles down to the Titanic because an earlier traveler convinced them he saw part of the shattered hull.

After spending $150,000, the divers don’t find what they went down for, but on a subsequent dive, they discover two hull pieces. After a subsequent twenty-minute dive to Titanic’s sister ship, Brittanic, which sunk off the coast of Africa, and a search of the historic record, they conclude that Titanic was designed poorly and destined to fail.

Much of the joy of reading Shadow Divers was the way the evidence unfolded over several years of diving and research. Several times Chatterton and Kohler follow leads that, though promising enough to believe, wind up wrong, which makes the final identification that much more satisfying.

But there is no suspense in Titanic’s Last Secrets. The first sixty pages do a good job describing the process that led Chatterton and Kohler to the Titanic. Then, with no explanation, Matsen begins telling the story of Titanic’s last voyage, using historical accounts, with lots of innuendo about Bruce Ismay and the other owners of the giant ships. This interminable section takes up more than half of the book’s length before the story finally shifts back to Chatterton and Kohler and describes their theory that the ship didn’t sink as Robert Ballard or the James Cameron film version showed. To say their argument is unconvincing would be an understatement.

“They found a fragment, big deal. Am I surprised? No. When you go down there, there’s stuff all over the place.”
– Robert Ballard

Feb. 25, 2009

February 25, 2009   3 Comments

Shadow Divers: Death and Discovery at 230 Feet

During World War II, Nazi U-boats, in a campaign of terrorism using stealth, mines and torpedoes, sank more than 3,000 ships. The Allies struck back with depth charges, radar and, after breaking the Enigma code, limited and ended the U-boat threat. By the end of the war, more than 50 percent of the fleet had been destroyed and 30,000 German seamen sent to watery graves.

Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers: The True Adventures of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II tells the story of two deep-sea divers who become unlikely friends after discovering an unidentified German U-boat and some of those seamen in deep waters off the Massachusetts coast.

John Chatterton and Richie Kohler both become obsessed with finding the identity of U-Who, a wreck most divers avoid as hazardous and off-limits. Those fears aren’t idle ones: three men die during the examination of the wreck over a six-year period beginning in 1991, and Kurson’s underwater adventure chapters resonate with the experience of diving dangerous wrecks at depths where narcosis dulls the senses and one mistake can bring on a particularly terrifying death.

The underwater scenes are great, but the real story begins after Chatterton and Kohler begin to unravel the secret of which boat U-Who actually was and why it had been destroyed where it was found. The community that deep dives old wrecks are mostly concerned with recovering artifacts, and Kohler was part of a group of divers who prided themselves on how much they could take out of ships.

Both find skulls and bones and other personal memorabilia inside the U-boat, but even after several years of diving, nothing that can prove its identity. They comb wartime documents, read books on U-boats and their activities, tour the captured U-boat on display in Chicago and sought the services of every government office and historian, especially on the German side, they can find before finally stumbling onto the answer. Shadow Divers has as much as I can ask for in a book: a great story, a great adventure and a great mystery.

January 23, 2009   1 Comment

The Andrea Doria Still Claiming Victims

A lifeboat nears a rescue ship as the Andrea Doria lists soon before its sinking.

The famous Life magazine cover of the Andrea Doria listing dangerously before sinking.

The Life photos of lifeboats pulling away from the badly listing Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria before the ship finally drops below the gray waters in July 1956, were mesmerizing.  But much as the photographs moved me, I never knew much about the circumstances of the accident, in which the Swedish liner Stockholm broadsided the Doria, considered the finest trans-Atlantic luxury ship and the pride of the Italian post-war fleet, some fifty miles southeast of Nantucket. Blame was never really assessed – go figure. The Stockholm was far north of the traditional eastern ocean highway, it was foggy, and each ship made enough mistakes after seeing each other on radar to guarantee the final outcome.

While the Swedish-American ship, its prow a shattered pile of rubble, made its way back to New York, the Doria, eleven hours after the collision, turned over onto its right and sank in more than two hundred feet of water. Forty-seven people were killed, all in the collision, but more than a thousand people made it to New York safely onboard several ships, including the Stockholm, in a great rescue effort before the Doria went down.

Among those rescued was Mike Stoller, whose name immediately caught this rock critter’s eye while reading Richard Goldstein’s Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria (Wiley & Son 2001), a knuckle-gripping, journalistic account of the accident and rescue effort.

Stoller and his partner, Jerry Leiber, had gotten an unexpected royalty check of $5,000 when Edith Piaf recorded their “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” for French release, and Stoller, 22, and his new wife, Meryl, were returning from a three-month vacation in France. They were both rescued, drenched but unharmed, from the Doria.  Goldstein relates that Leiber was there to greet them when they finally came ashore with some big news.

“We have a hit record: ‘Hound Dog.’ ”

Big Mama Thornton had recorded the song in 1953.  “You mean the Big Mama record,” asked Stoller. “No. Some kid named Elvis Presley.”

“Hound Dog,” paired with “Don’t be Cruel” on a single 45, would become the most popular two-sided single of all time, and Leiber and Stoller would go on to write a myriad of famous rock ‘n’roll hits, including “Love Potion #9,” “On Broadway” and “Stand by Me.”

I always wondered how Life got all those incredible photos of the Doria disaster. As it turns out, Life publisher Andrew Heiskell and Life photographer Loomis Dean, were both onboard the Ile de France, another cruise ship heading to Europe that became a rescue vehicle. Dean took the dramatic photos that stirred my imagination, while Heiskell turned reporter, interviewing people as they were brought onboard the Ile de France.

But the Doria story didn’t end with its sinking, and the ship, even as a wreck, continues to take lives. I knew nothing about this until this week when I read Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria (Pocket Books, 2001).

Author Kevin McMurry is a journalist and diver, and he tells the story of how the Doria, which sits deep enough and is unstable enough to make it among the most dangerous of dives, has become a kind of Mt. Everest for underwater divers. At 225 feet, the limits of human endurance are tested every second, and only the most technical of divers are even supposed to be allowed on the wreck. The book was written in 2001, but the story continues; the latest Doria fatality was just four months ago.

Divers continue to die trying to bring up a momento of the Andrea Doria.

Divers continue to die trying to bring up a memento of the Andrea Doria.

In many respects, the book reminded me of Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Year (Henry Holt, 2008), Nick Heil’s account of the disastrous 2006 Everest climbing season, when eleven people died. Like Deep Descent, it is a tale of those who do things most of the rest of us wouldn’t. Some die because of a medical condition exaggerated by being too deep in the water or too high on the mountain. But most perish because they didn’t pay attention to their equipment, took unnecessary chances in a treacherous place or simply thought they couldn’t die.

The most dramatic stories, though, involve divers eager to grab items from the wreck, especially dinnerware, which leads to a curious, often fatal “disease” known to aficionados as “china fever.” It was hard not to compare those who have died trying to bring up booty, despite the warnings and death around them, with Wall Street financiers in the last couple of years, diving again and again for that one final treasure  — until they realize the air is running out and they’re still on the bottom.

(Read the gripping first chapter of Deep Descent.)

December 30, 2008   2 Comments

Teddy Roosevelt’s River of Doubt

I love books about people who do things that I wouldn’t. Whether it is Lynne Cox, who swam a mile in freezing Antarctic waters, the mountaineers who climb into air thin enough to stop bodily functions or the astronauts of Apollo 13 returning to earth in a crippled spacecraft, I am fascinated by these exploits.

Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey certainly fits into this category. I knew nothing of the former president’s trip down an uncharted Amazon tributary called, aptly, the River of Doubt, after his final political defeat in 1912. As Millard tells it, tribulation, poor planning and a hostile environment led the expedition to a place that killed expedition members and seriously taxed Roosevelt’s survival skills. He would never really recover, and the journey would contribute to his death six years later at age sixty.

Millard paints the story vividly, drawing on journals, accounts, books and photography. Here comes the famous American ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, and Col. Candido Rondon, Brazil’s most celebrated explorer and a national hero, to navigate and chart a river never before navigated.

Millard makes us feel what it would have been like to spend six weeks in an environment almost completely hostile to humans. Her descriptions of Amazonian ecology and evolution bring you into this colorful, alien world, which, at least in the first days, brought only awe and admiration from the travelers. “Far from its outward appearance, the rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite,” Millard writes. “Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, a the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”

Without giving anything away, those inhabitants — flora, fauna, reptiles, insects, mammals, fish, and a formidable aboriginal tribe – and the weather gather in a kind of perfect storm of a story that I couldn’t put down until I finished. Billie said it right when she handed it to me after she had finished it, “It’s a page-turner.”

December 15, 2008   No Comments

Betty James, Keeper of the Slinky, 1918-2008


The original Slinky, 60 years later: "Nothing to wind ... nothing to wear out."

The original Slinky, 60 years later: "Nothing to wind ... nothing to wear out."

Just mention the word, and almost everyone holds out his or her hands, palms up, and bounces them up and down, imagining Slinky’s back-and-forth motion and the shifting “slinky” sound. Its 80 feet of coiled steel spring jiggles, shuffles, bounces and stretches back and forth between the hands. It “walks” down stairsteps, with the momentum of its weight propelling its shiny coils end over end.

I mention this after reading this morning that Betty James, keeper of the Slinky, the first real Baby Boomer toy, died Thursday in Hollidaysburg, Pa., where Slinkys are still made. She was 90.

Although it’s been sold in all sorts of variations and materials, the basic Slinky remains virtually unchanged. It is the perfect toy, self-contained, easy to manufacture, inexpensive to buy and endlessly fascinating to children and adults alike.

When Gil Asakawa and I began writing The Toy Book in 1989, we flew to New York in February to attend the Toy Fair, the annual gathering of toymakers. And there we met Betty James. She was 71 at the time, bright and clever and full of life. Several of her sons, salesmen for the company, were there with her. I don’t remember anybody else we met that day in the halls of toy companies, but I will never forget Mrs. James.

She told us the story of how her then-husband, Richard, a civilian naval engineer working for a shipyard in 1943, noticed a torsion spring aboard a ship he was inspecting fall off a table and wiggle and bounce back and forth.

Amused, he took it home to study it. He figured he could make the spring bounce down stairs and perhaps manufacture one and sell it as a toy. It took two more years before the Jameses formed James Industries. When the spring was perfected, it needed a name. Betty flipped through a dictionary and stopped at a word she thought suited the coiled spring.

The toy didn’t sell well until the Gimbel Brothers set up a sloping board that allowed Slinky to “walk” in the front windows of their department store. They haven’t stopped selling since.

In 1959, Richard James became a missionary in Bolivia, leaving Betty, her six children and James Industries to fend for themselves. Betty told us how she took over the company, and she was still running it forty years later. “We get calls to buy the company almost every day,” she said with a knowing smile. She was proud of the fact that Slinky was the perfect toy — simple, inexpensive and imaginative – and that it had provided her family with a good life.

We needed a starting place for The Toy Book, and we walked away from our meeting with Mrs. James with exactly that. The place to begin a book about baby-boom toys was with Slinky, which came on the market in 1945, arguably the first year of what became known as the Baby Boom, and with entrepreneurs like the Jameses. Technology was reshaping American life after the end of WWII, and Slinky, like Silly Putty (a byproduct of the effort to find a synthetic substitute for rubber), Frisbee and Hula Hoops (both made of the new post-war material, plastic) were perfect examples of that shift.

James Industries was finally sold — to POOF Products in 1998 — and Betty James was deservedly inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame. You might not remember her name, but you will remember her toy.

What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs
And makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing,
Everyone knows it’s Slinky.
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky.
For fun it’s a wonderful toy,
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky
It’s fun for a girl and a boy.

November 23, 2008   3 Comments