Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

A Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction by J. Bucknall Smith and George W. Hilton

16 October 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverMy wife and I visited the City by the Bay in September 2004, and I had the opportunity to check out the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It’s well worth the price of admission (which is free), not only for the many artifacts—a few vintage cars, many displays of old tools and grip assemblies, and even the memorial plaque of three guard dogs for the Haight Street Line who met with foul play in 1891—but also because the museum is located on a mezzanine within the main power house that serves all four remaining cable car lines. From the balcony one may see the humming electric motors and the giant sheaves (pulleys) that provide motive power to the cables. In dimly illuminated vaults below street level, one may also see the transfer sheaves that send the cables out to their channels along California, Hyde, Mason, and Powell streets.

In the gift shop, along with the usual t-shirts and cable-car-related tchotchkes were a number of books, including a few San Francisco entries in the extensive Images of America series. But one book had that added geek factor that made it impossible to pass up. A Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction is a reprint of an 1887 serial by British engineer J. Bucknall Smith, edited and footnoted by cable car historian George W. Hilton. It’s a detailed engineering overview couched in effusively optimistic language, written during the brief period when cable traction appeared to be a great boon to public transportation—it had moved beyond the infancy of a newfangled technology, but was just a few short years from being eclipsed by electric self-motive power in terms of efficiency and maintenance cost.

The book’s greatest asset is its excellent collection of beautifully-rendered illustrations, fine examples of Victorian-era draughtsmanship. The text explains the diagrams in depth, so that the reader winds up with a firm grasp of cable system designs. And I found it particularly intriguing to see how many different cable car companies criss-crossed San Francisco 120 years ago, where the steep grades are uniquely suited to cable traction’s strengths. The city’s cable-car system today is the merest vestige of what once existed.

I found this book fascinating and great fun to read, but I must be honest: despite my enjoyment of it, the book worked best for me as bedtime reading—two or three pages were the most I could muster before falling fast asleep. Ah, to have sweet dreams of open-sided cars clattering up and down vertiginous hills, steel cables whining beneath the pavement, and wooden brake shoes scraping along the rails.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

24 February 2004

coverSo, having made my way through to the completion of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece (though unwilling to bide my time until the November release of the extended edition of The Return of the King), I decided to return to the source and give it a re-read.

This was only my second time through the whole thing, the first having been back during my freshman year of college (I started and never finished it in middle school… more on that later). The following will be more of a commentary on the films rather than the book, given that I utterly agree with‘s assessment of Tolkien’s supremacy: “A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, The Lord of the Rings.”

By the way, my copy (seen above) is a three-volume trade paper box set, by Houghton Mifflin, a late-1970s reprint of the 1965 second edition. It has its share of typos, along with the occasional hole in the text where the imprint was under-struck or under-inked. Aside from this, though, it mainly suffers from the printer’s error that, sadly, is all too common today: a two-page map whose centerline is lost within the depths of the binding. Middle Earth geography is an important part of the story, and it helps to refer frequently to Christopher Tolkien’s maps to understand the relation of the places to each other (as well as to keep straight all the place-names that are alternately given in the common tongue, or Elvish, or even Dwarvish).

I realize now why, upon my first reading, I got lost and quit somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers: one of those towers, Orthanc (and for that matter the names of Isengard and Fangorn) is buried in the spine and cannot be seen on the map! The book linked above is a new printing in a single volume, as the author apparently intended, and thankfully has redesigned and redrawn maps that cure the two-page map problem. Even better is the leatherette-bound hardcover, a must for all Tolkien afficionadi, which includes large-format fold-out maps.

But I digress. Within, say, a hundred pages or so into The Fellowship of the Ring, one may already find substantial differences and departures between the book and the film. Even more major discrepancies turn up later. However, we’ll leave a complete list of all the myriad alterations to a more Tolkien-rabid, nitpicky fiend than this writer. For I am not bothered by the changes.

My reasoning is that Tolkien himself treated The Lord of the Rings not so much as a novel, but as a piece of deeply-researched lore. (Or, perhaps he found a copy of Bilbo’s Red Book.) He gives us the sense that he didn’t write the book so much as spend long hours poring over dusty tomes in long-forgotten libraries, piecing together the story from scraps of old tales jotted down by ancient scribes. As if the end of the Third Age actually occurred some time in the distant past, and Tolkien is an historian who followed a trail of clues to a hidden wellspring of timeworn knowledge.

Lore, of course, relies primarily on word-of-mouth transmission, a mode which inherently causes a tale to shift and mutate, to gain embellishments and suffer elisions. And different methods of telling a story have their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they be campfire tales, or minstrels’ songs—or modern-day big-budget theatrical releases.

Thus in my opinion, Peter Jackson’s alterations of The Lord of the Rings in getting the story to the big screen are justified. So what if the subtext of the Sackville-Bagginses, and Frodo’s move to Crickhollow, and the strange interlude of Tom Bombadil, and the barrow-wights, to name several early examples from Fellowship, have all been omitted from the film. Tolkien told the old tale with lots of detailed filigree of genealogy, chronology, and Elvish linguistics. Jackson has taken it and streamlined it for a different medium, taking some dramatic liberties, simplifying many of its complexities and deleting some of its digressions (though at over twelve hours for the extended trilogy, some may question his success at the latter). In much the same way, Bilbo’s thirteen-stanza nonsensical drinking song has been trimmed (according to Tolkien, anyway) to become the nursery rhyme “Hey-diddle-diddle,” with no loss of meaning or entertainment value.

(My wife complains that The Return of the King lacks in proper character exposition, and I can’t disagree, but I suspect that the extended DVD will fill in those spaces. Aragorn’s backstory was told in The Two Towers, but only on the extended DVD, not in the theater. His ascendancy to the throne is significant in ways that the theatrical Return does not show, but perhaps that’s because the theatrical Two Towers did not lay the groundwork. One hopes that Jackson will pull out all the stops in this fall’s DVD.)

Any hey, this latest adaptation could have been a helluva lot worse. Two words: Ralph. Bakshi.

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky

4 February 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverLately, I’ve been trying to trace the evolution in my opinion of military service, and frankly, I’m not sure how I got to where I am today.

For much of high school I wore an Army coat, bought at a secondhand store. For a while it even bore on one shoulder a 1st Infantry Division patch that I had found in sixth grade. Though I was too young to vote, I fell for Reagan’s charisma in both 1980 and 1984, not realizing how much danger his “Evil Empire” posturing would put us in.

Yet somehow I believed in the anti-military line: that all enlisted are meatheads, every officer the purchaser of a $600 hammer. Films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon didn’t help, especially considering I saw that particular movie on the day before my eighteenth birthday. I walked out of the theater with the stylized horrors of war in my head and knowing that when the sun next rose I would be compelled by law to register for “selective service,” aka the draft. I was a cynic and an anti-authoritarian, and seeing myself in the potential line of fire rankled.

I suppose that was the start of the hippie peacenik phase of my life. I actively protested the Gulf War in 1991. And being a know-it-all, I “knew” that I was right, and the entire military-industrial complex, to use a popular phrase, was wrong. I fell in with a group of similarly minded people, yet ironically, much of that supposedly “free-thinking” community—myself included—was incredibly closed-minded. I tried to migrate away from that, and those days are now just a hazy memory.

I’m not sure yet what changed my mind over the past several years. I hate to give too much credit to Robert Heinlein, as so much of his philosophy is specious at best. Yet I’ve begun to agree with his notion, as expounded in Starship Troopers, that citizenship should be predicated on military service. The soldier is the only one who knows, first-hand, the true cost of going to war, and thus knows that every effort in diplomacy is worthwhile.

For me, the closest I’ve ever come to anything quasi-military would have to be the Boy Scouts, and the Spartan Marching Band. The latter has military origins—it began as an Army cadet band and to this day includes vestigial military strictures, such as removing one’s uniform hat when entering a building—yet even that is a far, far cry from military service.

My attitude had quite definitely changed by the time of my ten-year high school reunion in 1997, when I met up with two friends and former teammates who both graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. One was still in active duty, flying ASW missions in P-3 Orions. The other had mustered out after 6 years, having completed two master’s degrees (one during his service, one after, I believe). Both impressed me with their intelligence and success.

Nowadays, I have the utmost respect for those who serve this country, and I have more than a little regret that I didn’t consider the military to be an option when I was young enough to make a difference. I have also become a big fan of Stephen E. Ambrose’s military histories.

And now, further contributing to my positive impression of the military is Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point. Author David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, grew up with much the same attitude as me—although in his case, his influence was quite clear: his vehemently anti-military father threatened to break his legs if he enlisted. He was reluctant, to say the least, when RS assigned him to do an article about the U.S. Military Academy, at the Academy’s invitation. But when the USMA told him that he could have full, unrestricted access to the students and the campus, Lipsky found that even several months were not enough to really get the whole story. He wound up spending four full years there, following one class from plebe year all the way to firstie year and graduation. In the process, his view of the military did a complete about-face, from scorn to near-reverence.

The tale Lipsky tells may not be indicative of West Point as a whole, and certainly there must be alumni who take exception to much of it, for he gives us a clear vision of the fact that these are normal, if exceptionally high-achieving, college students. That their attitudes run the gamut from totally “huah” to completely cynical about the military. That they indulge in all the things that virtually all post-adolescents do—drinking, drugs, sexual relations—things that are especially frowned upon in a military environment. Some pay dearly for their transgressions, and some manage to keep them under wraps.

The book is also an important snapshot of a significant period in history. For one, the Academy was struggling at the time with a number of new policies known as “The Changes,” essentially trying to find a proper balance of old-guard military training systems in an era of gender equality and political correctness. For another, the fourth year of the book begins the fall semester with the “firsties” (seniors) watching, with the rest of the world, the horror of 9/11. Suddenly these students had to face the knowledge that graduation would mean not assignment to a quiet homefront base, nor a vague peacekeeping mission, but an overseas deployment to war.

Most of all, even as he dishes some dirt, Lipsky shows us the strength of an institution that Teddy Roosevelt called the most “absolutely American” of all. All the ideals of this nation—of truth and honor, of being rewarded for hard work and taking personal responsibility for failures—are openly embraced there. Every person associated with West Point—its staff, instructors, students and graduates—should take great pride in their accomplishment, and I, as a mere civilian, am proud to know that this country has a place like the U.S. Military Academy.

Most of all, Absolutely American made me care deeply about several very real people who are serving their country today, in a time of intense trial. I would very much like to know how these soldiers are faring, folks like Whitey and Iggy, and “Huck” Finn, and the indomitable-if-dogged George Rash.

Book recommendations: The Histories of Stephen E. Ambrose

10 September 2003
Categories: From the armchair
coverCitizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose

One of Ambrose’s strongest popular works, in part because he allows his sources to tell their stories in their own voices. The result is about as close as one can get to the actual experience of the infantry in the European Theatre, even though that still leaves it worlds away from having been there.

Ambrose takes us from D-Day through to the Bulge, then takes a lengthy interlude of several chapters that focus on specific aspects of the war. Most, especially the chapter on medics, nurses, and the aid station system, are excellent. One chapter, on the air war, is somewhat redundant to his later work The Wild Blue, but is also fairly short. Finally, he returns to the chronology and takes us across the Rhine into Germany.

Structurally and informationally, the book is quite solid. My only real complaint is that the ETO maps that lead off many chapters are not particularly helpful. They usually show the big picture but do not show the smaller towns and villages in which the events of the accompanying chapter take place, leaving the events in a sort of geographical limbo. Also, all are two-page maps, and so the central front line, where the maps have their greatest detail, almost always winds up buried in the depths of the spine. Overall, this book would be my first recommendation for those interested in getting started with WW2 history as seen through the pen of Stephen Ambrose.

coverBand of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

The basis for HBO’s extraordinarily-well-rendered 10-part miniseries. After about episode 5, I found myself wishing 1) I had been better able to place names with the faces on the screen, as it was becoming quite obvious that nearly every character was an actual, real-life person, and not some dramatic-license amalgam as in, say, The Tuskegee Airmen (a notable flaw of that otherwise excellent HBO production); and 2) I had a better knowledge of the various battles in which these men fought, and a more detailed understanding of what they went through. Ambrose’s book provides all that and more. It’s based—often directly, with long quoted passages—on numerous lengthy interviews with many of the soliders of Easy Company, including Dick Winters, Carwood Lipton, and many others. Best of all, the book allows one to see how one company could fight in the D-Day invasion in France, Operation Market-Garden in Holland, and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and manage to wind up in Austria by the end of the war.

coverThe Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose

The story of the Fifteenth Air Force as told through the eyes of one pilot, his crew, and a squadron of the 455th Bomb Group stationed in Cerignola, Italy during 1944–45. The pilot is George McGovern, a South Dakota native who flew 35 missions over Germany and Austria, later to become a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate. McGovern’s tale is neither typical nor atypical, and is told with candor and a scholar’s eye for detail. Overall, this is a well-written and interesting book, but at times the book is hampered by a feeling of disjunction, as if various chapters did not know of the existence of others. For example, Chapter Nine describes the emergency use of parachutes tied to the waist gun mounts to slow an aircraft with its brakes shot out. Two chapters later, McGovern uses this technique, which is explained to us anew, as if for the first time. Also, many of the chapters bog down at their ends because Ambrose resorts to reciting mission statistics for the time period covered in the chapter. This is useful information, but might have been better served by a table in an appendix, with the body of the book reserved for more analysis than merely the raw numbers of missions flown, aircraft deployed, bomb tonnage, and losses of crew and aircraft.

coverNothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose

This time Ambrose has moved away from military history and writes about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, though he does often refer to the crews, populated by Civil War veterans, as being similar to a fighting force as they pushed the line forward. (He even works in a few half-sequiturs regarding World War II soldiers.) The book alternates chapters between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, a decent way to structure the tale even though it’s forced to chronologically backtrack to cover the same year from the other railroad’s perspective. (This disconnect is more pronounced as the lines near each other, and their surveyors and graders cross paths.) The book includes some good maps, following the lines on a state-by-state basis, with the only drawbacks being that the the maps are insufficiently detailed to show all the towns along the lines that are mentioned in the text, and the California map (the start of the CP) is inexplicably placed near the very end of the book.

Overall, this is a typical Ambrose book in that it’s an enjoyable read, densely researched (if not perfectly notated), mildly repetitive but otherwise written with élan. During his research, Ambrose was invited to ride on the UP’s gigantic steam locomotive № 844, where he saw first-hand the enthusiasm of railfans for the old beast. Reading this book, it’s apparent that much of that enthusiasm rubbed off on old Stephen.

Footnote: The fact that I managed to be in Sacramento while reading this book, and saw the actual Gov. Stanford, the CP’s first locomotive, in the California State Railroad Museum there, helped to bring this book to life for me. Maybe someday I’ll take a long drive down Interstate 80, much of which follows the old Transcontinental grade, for a full-immersion history trip.

The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and its Waterways by David M. Solzman

29 May 2003
Categories: From the armchair

coverDavid M. Solzman has written a terrific book on the Chicago River. It’s chock full of all sorts of details and historic background. Though I tend to be fastidious in the care of my library, this is one book I can see getting dog-eared and ratty from frequent use. I suspect that sooner or later it will even wind up in a zippered plastic bag travelling very close to the surface of said river, because the book has genuinely whetted my appetite for a whole series of canoe trips throughout its branches.

For anyone interested in history, Chicago, or rivers in general, this book is a satisfying read. Unfortunately, due to the high frequency of typos and grammatical errors, it must also be placed on the Shut List. In addition, I must share two items, one a minor quibble, the other a major qualm.

The quibble has to do with the number of times the author mentions, not in passing but as if telling us for the first time, the fact that the river has had its direction of flow reversed. In a quick re-scan I counted eight times. Yes, the Sanitary and Ship Canal that reversed the Main and South Branches of the river in 1900 remains one of the greatest feats of civil engineering this country has ever seen. Yes, more earth was moved in the creation of this canal than in the more famous one down in Panama a decade later. Yes, the reversal of the Chicago River was easily the most momentous hydrological change in this region since the Ice Age. I’m just not sure how many times the point has to be hammered home: our drinking water comes from Lake Michigan, our effluent (to put it nicely) goes to St. Louis.

Solzman has done a nice job of organizing the book in terms of a riverboat tour, and for this reason it would make a handy companion on any canoe or tourboat trip. First he starts at the northernmost reaches of the North Branch and follows it south to the Forks at Wolf Point, downtown near the Merchandise Mart. Next he backtracks a little to describe the North Shore channel. Then he takes us on what he calls the “Great Circle Tour,” a circumnavigation of the Loop and the southern portion of the city that starts at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, exits the river via the Chicago Locks to Lake Michigan, heads south along the shoreline to enter at Calumet Harbor, passes through the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel (like the Chicago River, these flow from the lake toward the west), through the O’Brien Locks, and finally up the Sanitary Canal and the South Branch of the Chicago River back toward downtown.

It is when we reach the Sanitary Canal that the biggest problem with Solzman’s book reveals itself. The problem is one of river terminology. Repeatedly he points out sites along the way in terms of being on the “left bank” or “right bank,” using them relative to the hypothetical boat in which we are riding. However, the banks of a river are properly named relative to the direction of flow of the river. In other words, the “left bank” is to the left when facing downstream. After all, Paris’ “Rive Gauche” does not become the “Rive Droite” the moment le bateau turns around. Solzman could have used “to the left” or “on the north (or west) bank” to describe something on that side of the Canal and South Branch as we move upstream, and frequently does, but he just as often misuses the terms “left bank” and “right bank.” Obviously, this is only an issue on this stretch of the tour, since at all other times we are moving downstream with the flow. But for someone with as much knowledge of river systems as the author appears to have, I am very surprised to see him make this mistake not once, but frequently and casually.

Thus, between the typos and the inaccurate terminology, my copy is now beginning to fill with pencil notations and corrections, and The Chicago River has been sluiced into the Shut List. But I do this only with regret. I have met the author and he is a scholar and a nice guy, and his book will long be an important reference work in my collection.