Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Death In Belmont

A picture is worth a thousand words. And sometimes, a picture is as easily misunderstood as a thousand words.

Here's a lovely multigenerational family photo: young mother beaming down at her toddler on her lap, the proud handsome father standing behind her, both watched lovingly by a grandfather? Favorite uncle maybe?

Hmm. Images are not always what they appear to be.

The older man is actually a carpenter -one who built the house the young woman lives in. He and his assistant have spent the better part of the last two months building an studio addition to the young woman's home - going in and out at all hours, generally unsupervised, while her husband is away at work.

The young woman is an artist, and the child on her lap is most definitely loved and cherished.

That child will grow up to be an accomplished author, one with no memory of the day this photo was taken.

And the proud young father? That handsome young man is actually a part-time laborer, the assistant to the carpenter. He is strong and muscular, quiet and polite, conscientious about his work -always arriving on time and always particular about details.

His name is Al.

Albert DeSalvo. And he is about to become better known as The Boston Strangler.

A Death in Belmont is the strange story of author Sebastian Junger's brush with the infamous. It's the story of the day his mother hired a carpenter to build an addition to her home, and found herself staring down her basement steps, into the eyes of a man that would turn out to be a serial killer. That particular day, Albert DeSalvo had murdered a woman several blocks away, and then reliably showed up for work. When called to the top of the basement steps, something about his eyes served as warning, and the young mother stepped back, shut the door, and threw the bolt. In hindsight, entire lives turned on that one little uneasy feeling, that one small thought, that one glimmer of premonition.

This is one of those books you can't put down.

A Death in Belmont, by Sebastian Junger (2006).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Crazy Horse and Custer

"On the sparkly morning of June 25, 1876, 611 men of the United States 7th Cavalry rode towards the banks of the Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory where three thousand Indians stood waiting for battle. The lives of two great warriors would soon be forever linked in history.

"This is the story of two men who died as they lived - violently. They were both war lovers, men of aggression with a deeply rooted instinct to charge the enemy, rout him, kill him. Men of supreme courage, they were natural-born leaders in a combat crisis, the type to whom others instinctively looked for guidance and inspiration. They were always the first to charge the enemy, and the last to retreat. Both became leaders in their societies at very early ages; both were stripped of power, in disgrace, and worked to earn back the respect of their people. Both had much to win and only life to lose.

"There were other parallels. Neither man drank. Both were avid hunters, for whom only the excitement of combat exceeded the joy of the chase. Each man loved horses, and riding at full gallop across the unfenced Great Plains of North America, day after day, was a source of never-ending delight for both of them.

"Yet Crazy Horse and Custer, like their societies, were as different as life and death."

Crazy Horse and Custer, by Stephen Ambrose (1975 BCE with dj). Offered for sale by Chewybooks as of June 16, 2010.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Moveable Feast: Sketches of Paris in The Twenties

"You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people sat outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard.

"There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when he was hungry.

"I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry.

"Later I thought Cezanne was probably hungry in a different way."

A Moveable Feast:Sketches of the Author's Life in Paris in The Twenties (Ernest Hemingway), First Edition, BMC (1964). Offered for sale by Chewybooks, as of June 14, 2010.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fly Boys

Wartime is the mothership of invention. So many words and phrases were created by soldiers and sailors during World War II; figures of speech that we've long since forgotten the origin of (not just the immortal FUBAR) but more obscure "slanguage", such as....

Tin fish (an aerial torpedo), flak (Abbreviation of "Fleiger abwehr Kanone", a German phrase meaning anti-aircraft cannon fire), grease monkey (any member of a aircraft ground crew), lame duck (a crippled airplane) and....

V-Mail (Mail for World War II military, where the original was written on a specially printed form, then photographed on 16mm microfilm, sent to its destination by air, where it was enlarged and delivered to its recipient. V-Mail forms were available at any post office, and could be dropped into any mail box. 200,000 microfilm letters fit into one mailbag.

In 1942, it was also necessary for pilots to know how to dock and pilot airships, a skill now sadly lost.

There were several sorts of airships: non-rigid, pressure-rigid, rigid, and semi- rigid. There were airship stations, airship hulls, airship gangplanks, airship cabins, bumper bags, an aerostat center of buoyancy, bridles, axial cables, and bow-weighing devices. All of those long-lost definitions are described and illustrated in exquisite detail, straight from 1942 and those who lived it.

Jordanoff's Illustrated Aviation Dictionary, (1942). Offered for sale by Chewybooks, as of June 12, 2010.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thoughts From Will

Sonnet XXX.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The canary in the coal mine

"In migratory flights most birds apparently progress at a speed of twenty to fifty miles an hour, and the long journeys made by some are accomplished by moving for long hours at a steady rate rather than by tremendous bursts of speed for short distances. Observations of birds flying by night, made at lighthouses and other favorable points, have shown that migrants pass in regular unhurried flight. If we postulate ten hours as a fair period for a nonstop migration flight over land, the speeds that have been cited would in that period carry the smaller birds from 200 to 270 miles, and ducks and geese from 420 to 590 miles. These are instances of magnitude, particularily when travel is in a direct air line, and would enable the birds to cover the ordinary migration route from Canada or the northern States to the Gulf coast region, or even to Central and South America....."*

Wonder how the birds will be able to make the non-stop flight when the "Gulf coast region" is closed due to oil?

*Smithsonian Scientific Series, Vol 9, Signed Patrons Edition, 1934. Complete 12-volume set offered for sale by Chewybooks as of June 3, 2010.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In Memory of Memorial Day

World War II

It was over Target Berlin the flak shot up our plane

just as we were dumping bombs on the already

smoking city

on signal from the lead bomber in the squadron.

The plane jumped again and again as the shells burst

under us

sending jagged pieces of steel rattling through our


It was pure chance

that none of us got ripped by those fragments.

Then, being hit, we had to drop out of formation

right away

losing speed and altitude,

and when I figured out our course with trembling hands

on the instruments

(I was navigator)

we set out on the long trip home to England

alone, with two of our four engines gone

and gas streaming out of holes in the wing tanks.

That morning at briefing

we had been warned not to go to nearby Poland

partly liberated then by the Russians,

although later we learned that another crew in trouble

had landed there anyway,
and patching up their plane somehow,

returned gradually to England

roundabout by way of Turkey and North Africa.

But we chose England, and luckily

the Germans had no fighters to send up after us then

for this was just before they developed their jet.

To lighten our load we threw out

guns and ammunition, my navigation books, all the junk

and, in a long descent, made it over Holland

with a few goodbye fireworks from the shore guns.

Over the North Sea the third engine gave out

and we dropped low over the water.

The gas gauge read empty but by keeping the nose


a little gas at the bottom of the tank sloshed forward

and kept our single engine going.

High overhead, the squadrons were flying home in


—the raids had gone on for hours after us.

Did they see us down there skimming the waves?

We radioed our final position for help to come

but had no idea if anyone

happened to be tuned in and heard us,

and we crouched together on the floor

knees drawn up and head down

in regulation position for ditching;

listened as the engine stopped, a terrible silence,

and we went down into the sea with a crash,

just like hitting a brick wall,

jarring bones, teeth, eyeballs panicky.

Who would ever think water could be so hard?

You black out, and then come to

with water rushing in like a sinking-ship movie.

All ten of us started getting out of there fast:

there was a convenient door in the roof to climb out by,

one at a time. We stood in line,

water up to our thighs and rising.

The plane was supposed to float for twenty seconds

but with all those flak holes

who could say how long it really would?

The two life rafts popped out of the sides into the water

but one of them only half-inflated

and the other couldn’t hold everyone

although they all piled into it, except the pilot,

who got into the limp raft that just floated.

The radio operator and I, out last,

(did that mean we were least aggressive, least likely

to survive?)

we stood on the wing watching the two rafts

being swept off by waves in different directions.

We had to swim for it.

Later they said the cords holding rafts to plane

broke by themselves, but I wouldn’t have blamed them

for cutting them loose, for fear

that by waiting for us the plane would go down

and drag them with it.

I headed for the overcrowded good raft

and after a clumsy swim in soaked heavy flying clothes

got there and hung onto the side.

The radio operator went for the half-inflated raft

where the pilot lay with water sloshing over him,

but he couldn’t swim, even with his life vest on,

being from the Great Plains—

his strong farmer’s body didn’t know

how to wallow through the water properly

and a wild current seemed to sweep him farther off.

One minute we saw him on top of a swell

and perhaps we glanced away for a minute

but when we looked again he was gone—

just as the plane went down sometime around then

when nobody was looking.

It was midwinter and the waves were mountains

and the water ice water.

You could live in it twenty-five minutes

the Ditching Survival Manual said.

Since most of the crew were squeezed on my raft

I had to stay in the water hanging on.

My raft? It was their raft, they got there first so they

would live.

Twenty-five minutes I had.

Live, live, I said to myself.

You’ve got to live.

There looked like plenty of room on the raft

from where I was and I said so

but they said no.

When I figured the twenty-five minutes were about up

and I was getting numb,

I said I couldn’t hold on anymore,

and a little rat-faced boy from Alabama, one of the


got into the icy water in my place,

and I got on the raft in his.

He insisted on taking off his flying clothes

which was probably his downfall because even wet

clothes are protection,

and then worked hard, kicking with his legs, and we all


to get to the other raft

and tie them together.

The gunner got in the raft with the pilot

and lay in the wet.

Shortly after, the pilot started gurgling green foam from

his mouth—

maybe he was injured in the crash against the


and by the time we were rescued,

he and the little gunner were both dead.

That boy who took my place in the water

who died instead of me

I don’t remember his name even.

It was like those who survived the death camps

by letting others go into the ovens in their place.

It was him or me, and I made up my mind to live.

I’m a good swimmer,

but I didn’t swim off in that scary sea

looking for the radio operator when he was

washed away.

I suppose, then, once and for all,

I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today,

although at that time I believed in being heroic, in

saving the world,

even if, when opportunity knocked,

I instinctively chose survival.

As evening fell the waves calmed down

and we spotted a boat, not far off, and signaled with a

flare gun,

hoping it was English not German.

The only two who cried on being found

were me and a boy from Boston, a gunner.

The rest of the crew kept straight faces.

It was a British air-sea rescue boat:

they hoisted us up on deck,

dried off the living and gave us whisky and put us

to bed,

and rolled the dead up in blankets,

and delivered us all to a hospital on shore

for treatment or disposal.

None of us even caught cold, only the dead.

This was a minor accident of war:

two weeks in a rest camp at Southport on the Irish Sea

and we were back at Grafton-Underwood, our base,

ready for combat again,

the dead crewmen replaced by living ones,

and went on hauling bombs over the continent of


destroying the Germans and their cities.

Edward Field

Reprinted from Poets of World War II
(The Library of America, 2003), pages 195–200.
© Copyright 1967, 1987 Edward Field.
By arrangement with University of Pittsburgh Press.
From Counting Myself Lucky: Selected Poems 1963–1992 (1992).
Reprinted in After the Fall: Poems Old and New
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007).