Thursday, 19 August 2021

America on Defense

   Most Americans are only vaguely aware that their government spends about $750 billion dollars a year on the nation's defense budget. However, few really comprehend that this is only the tip of the iceberg of money that goes into defense in all its various categories. There are at least ten different pots of money that are dedicated to fighting wars, preparing for future wars and dealing with the consequences of past wars.

   A brief tally of the expenses of the U.S. national security state in 2019 includes: $544 billion for the Pentagon's base budget, $174 billion for its private slush fund called the War Budget, $25 billion for the development of our nuclear arsenal, $216 billion for the Veterans Affairs budget, $69 billion for the Homeland Security budget, $51 billion for the International Affairs budget (mostly military aid to foreign nations), $80 billion for the Intelligence Budget (those intel agencies that Trump never listened to) and $156 billion for the defense share of the National Debt (figures from the Center for Defense Information). There are a number of smaller amounts in other areas I haven't bothered to list here, though they total in the tens of billions.

   Final total: $1.2542 trillion spent on our national security state every year. It is almost beyond comprehension and is easily way more than the defense budgets of the next ten major powers combined.

   What on earth is going on here? It kind of reminds me of my annual insurance premiums which go up every year, nickeling and diming my policies endlessly with hidden extra fees and charges. We have committed ourselves, virtually without any real knowledge or understanding, to wasting vast amounts of our nation's capital. President Eisenhower warned us about the ever growing military industrial complex. He would be astonished to see what has happened since he uttered those prescient words.

   The United States government runs the largest military state on earth. We currently have 750 military bases in some 80 countries. Now that is truly an empire on which the sun never sets. Every time a politician says that we are the greatest nation on earth, what he is really saying is that we spend the most money on our military. This obeisance to the military is our nation's greatest sin. A day never goes by that one doesn't hear at least a dozen statements from politicians about how wonderful our selfless soldiers are. Every president says it daily. President Biden ends every speech with "God bless our troops."

   I suppose this has to be done in order to dupe millions of our citizens into joining the military, now that we have a completely volunteer service. Of course, the real reason most enter the service is because they can't find a real job in our struggling economy. One of the reasons the Vietnam War was finally brought to an end was because parents were tired of seeing their kids come home in body bags or with serious injuries. The voluntary army made it all the harder to stop our endless string of costly and unnecessary wars all around the globe.

   Imagine the good we could have done with an extra $1.2 trillion that we could have been investing in our own nation every year. Free medical care? No problem. New technologies developed to fight global warming? Easily done. A modern transportation system, finally equal to all those tiny European countries we love to visit? A drop in the bucket.

   The list goes on and on. Instead of killing millions of people, we could have been saving millions of lives all these years. We would be living in a very different country today if we had invested in our own people instead of in fighting wars in other countries. How well did Vietnam work out for us? Korea? Iraq? Afghanistan? It is hard to see any war since the Second World War that was justifiable.

   We could have used our nation's incredible wealth to influence other countries along the lines of the Marshall Plan after WW II. Seeding new democracies instead of ceding countries to life behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, we have squandered and continue to squander our health, our economy and the very future of our world by ignoring climate change.

   It's a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Ice at the End of the World

   This new book by Jon Gertner is a fascinating look at how exploration and technology worked together for over a century and a half on the island of Greenland to lead the way to a possible solution for global warming in the modern world of today.

   The early explorers of this strange land, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen and many, many others, risked sanity, starvation, falling into the oblivion of crevasses, the loss of frozen toes and noses and ultimately death in the frozen wastelands.

   Greenland is five times the size of California with a population of just 56,000. The ice sheet that covers it is 700 miles wide and 1500 miles long. It is composed of some three quadrillion tons of ice. Gertner explores how Greenland evolved from one of our planet's last frontiers into a multi-national home and laboratory for scientific exploration.

   Those early explorers had little notion of the journey they were embarking upon. What drove them was a desire for conquest, exploration, fame and a need to fill in the map of one of the last frontiers on earth. They traveled at first by foot and sled dog, then by horses, skis and crude motorized sleds. The first of these men braved the wastelands at the turn of the 20th century and many of them died cruelly on the ice. They would have shaken their heads in disbelief if one had tried to tell them that just a few decades later, exploration would spread out across the massive ice sheet via men sitting in the comfort of heated airplanes, mapping and exploring the depths of the ice with lasers and GPS.

   They strove to survive hurricane force winds and blinding hail and snow storms. They struggled to find food and ways to shelter from the Arctic cold. Exhaustion and starvation would be the reward for most, while a few made contact with remote Inuit tribes. For the most part, the Inuit welcomed these intruders who seemed so helpless and taught them how to survive. Some of the explorers, like Robert Peary, took wives and had children, whom they eventually deserted to return to their civilized homes and families in Europe.

   But they laid the first steps that would lead to scientific exploration. Gradually, scientists began to leave the idea of exploration for its own sake behind. The new breed built lonely encampments far out on the ice and began to drill, eventually going down miles and drawing out ice cores that would reveal the greatest mysteries of our planet's past, going back hundreds of thousands of years.

   Over time, the U.S. military became interested in rare mineral deposits and in the installation of radar stations. One young scientist, Carl Benson, was hired to locate radar installations near Thule, the military's vast new air base in northwestern Greenland. By the spring of 1952, Benson related how Thule had become "a place of chaos and wonder, a project so massive and crowded with contractors and equipment that the total economic costs struck him as beyond compute."

   Surely this new wonder on the icecap would have shocked Peary, Rasmussen and the others. But the need for scientists to unravel the mysteries of the deep ice grew by leaps and bounds as men began to contemplate the possibility that the icecap might be moving...and a result of the buildup of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere from industrial development and other causes. The race was on to determine whether, if the icecap melted, all the great cities of the planet would soon be underwater.

   Today, scientists from all over the world are using every tool at their disposal to uncover Greenland's secrets. Through the miracle of computers and technology, they may now sit in the comfort of their homes and offices and contemplate the latest scientific discoveries. No longer any need for endless treks in the cold or starvation or being lost in the wilderness. Greenland has been mapped and studied, all in the name of saving the human race, if such a thing is even possible.

   Only time will tell. Time and the movement of ice at the end of the world.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Family Business

   This is an exciting time for my son, Callum Angus, who has just published his first book, A Natural History of Transition. Cal is the fourth generation writer in our family. No pressure there, right Cal?

   In truth, Cal may be the best of the lot. He writes fluidly and beautifully. But what stuns me is how purposefully he has gone about his business. This is not an easy time to be a writer. Publishing houses have consolidated into fewer and fewer outlets available, and they no longer coddle their writers as they did in my parents' day. Less promotion and fewer editing services are offered. While some independent bookstores are hanging on, they face daunting competition from online booksellers like Amazon.

   As an older writer myself, perhaps the most difficult part for me has been adapting to the altered landscape. If you are unable to navigate social media, your chances of having your work seen, much less published, are negligible. Fortunately, Cal has found his own way. Like many of his generation, social media and computer technology are second nature. His path to success was infinitely different from mine.

   When I started out, manuscripts or magazine articles and essays were submitted after a laborious process of typing and retyping to get a perfect copy, then packaging them up and snail mailing them to publishers, who for the most part took anywhere from a few months to seven years to make a decision on them. Yes. Seven years. That happened to one book of mine that was eventually published, after what they called a "seven year study period." One thing I learned from that experience is the importance of finishing one work and immediately starting another. No sitting around waiting to hear that your best seller has been accepted.

   Today, everything is done online. With spell-check, voice recognition, even automatic editing in some cases, preparing a clean text is much less trouble, though there is no substitute for a good, live editor. And no mailing. Manuscripts are submitted by email in seconds. Indeed, I have fielded a request from an editor for a piece, written it and submitted it in just a matter of days for publication within a week. This feels more like reporting than literature to me.

   Cal has become expert at this and at developing contacts across the country and around the world using social media. His resume consists of an impressive list of credits, many in online publications that didn't exist when I started out, things with names like BuzzFeed, Pulpmouth, them  (wasn't that a scary movie with James Arness?) and The Millions. He has also published in the L A Review of Books and Nat. Brut, for which his short story, In Kind, was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

   I'm sure my grandfather, a frustrated dentist in Manhattan, who translated Russian poetry out of a pure love for words, would have little idea what I am talking about here. But what he did counts in my book. He was the first writer in the family, so far as I know, seventy or eighty years ago. He immigrated from Siberia in the early twentieth century, traveling around the world at the age of sixteen and passing through Ellis Island like so many others to establish himself in America.

   I used to fear Cal's career choice, made shortly after getting his undergraduate degree. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to be a writer. It was more difficult for me than it was for my parents. Even after a certain amount of success on my part, I have learned the hard lesson that previous success comes with no guarantee that it will continue. I have known many quite successful writers, even an American Book Award winner, who had to teach their entire lives in order to make ends meet. Fewer than 5% of writers are able to make a living at it. But I believe it may be easier for Cal, for he writes in a more academic, literary style. This will make it easier for him to have an academic career, if he so chooses, along the lines that my parents had. They were both university professors of English. But this may not be Cal's choice. I believe he has an expansive world view and has already had experience working in teaching, publishing, book selling and university administration.

   As I peruse Cal's resume online, I am astonished at the number of jobs he has already had, the number of colleges where he has taught, the publications he has produced and the number of skills he has perfected, all at a much younger age than I was before publishing my first serious work.

   I no longer have any fear about his career choice. He is self-directed and capable, I truly believe, of achieving anything he sets out to do.


Sunday, 14 February 2021

How Smoking Rewrote History

   My parents made a big deal about my not smoking when I was growing up. It was one of many important things they taught me. This is somewhat surprising given that one of my clearest memories of growing up in my parents' big, old Victorian home was of the academic cocktail parties they gave.

   My parents were both university professors of English. In the 1950s and 60s, smoke-filled cocktail parties were de rigueur in their crowd. Our house would fill up with forty or fifty people, virtually all of whom smoked nonstop. The room was literally blue with smoke. They also had regular bridge parties where, of course, everyone smoked. I tell my friends today, some of whom were family friends from that period, that I knew all the damaging gossip on the college faculty circuit. My bedroom upstairs had a heat duct that connected with the living room. I would sometimes lie on the floor and listen to the party. That duct seemed to amplify and clarify voices. I heard many things that would never have been said around a ten-year-old. Of course, that duct also wafted clouds of smoke into my face until I had to give it up and close the vent. I knew all about second-hand smoke by the time I was ten.

   The amount of talent lost to the world as a result of smoking seems almost infinite. Of course, we see this all the time when watching old movies on TV. Everyone smoked. A list of those who died young or before their time as a result of smoking includes: Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Richard Boone, John Candy, Johnny Carson, Chuck Connors, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, John Huston, Burl Ives, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Michael Landon, Dean Martin, Lee Marvin, Groucho Marx, Water Matthau, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, George Peppard, Vincent Price, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Rod Serling, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwick, Robert Taylor, Gene Tierney, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and John Wayne.

   The list is nearly endless. Certain categories of professions seemed particularly susceptible. In addition to actors there were musicians, politicians, writers, directors, artists, professional athletes and on and on. Again, the numbers are incalculable. Royalty also carried their own weight. Four monarchs that we know of died of smoking related illnesses, including Edward Vll, George V, Edward Vlll and George Vl. Also Queen Mary and Princess Margaret. I'm sure that is just the tip of the royal iceberg.

   But I think the actors stand out because we can see them still, over and over, being cool on the big screen while they puff in the fumes that will kill them in their forties, fifties and sixties. So much talent lost. I love to watch Casablanca, but every time I see Bogie take a deep and oh so cool puff on his ever handy cigarette, I have to think about his wife Lauren Bacall and their young children he left behind when he died at only 57.

   Cigarettes became a prop for actors and actresses. Anytime a director wanted to show an actor lost in thought or being sorrowful or lovelorn, he would tell them to light up and stare off into the sunset. Cigarettes made many a successful scene, from John Wayne flicking his butt away as he steps forward to outdraw some villain to Paul Henreid who started a popular cultural fad when he lit two cigarettes at once in the movie Now, Voyager and gave one to Bette Davis, who later died from lung cancer. Guys across America and the world followed suit. For ten years after that scene, I doubt many women ever lit up their own cigarettes. There were smokers with famously hoarse voices like Louis Armstrong, Tallulah Bankhead and Rod Serling.

   Entire generations studied Paul Henreid's cigarette lighting technique. And we also learned how to hold a cigarette, how to flick it away, how to talk with a fag handing from our lips, how to roll our own, how to blow smoke rings, how to inhale and then let it out through our noses and how to insult someone by exhaling in their faces. It was technique, it was art, it was culture, it was cool. And it killed off entire generations.

   Then there were the politicians. They all smoked. We have historical film of FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, all of whom smoked heavily. Stalin was gone at 75 from cerebral hemorrhage. FDR succumbed to a stroke at 63. Churchill, as in most things, was a standout in this area. Despite smoking 15 cigars a day (and drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol) he lived to be 90.

   So here's a big thank you to my parents. They both smoked in the 1950s. Given those smoke-filled parties, how could they not? But I distinctly remember them both giving up the habit around the time I became a teenager. And it wasn't easy for them. I came across each of them sneaking a smoke from time to time. But they kicked the habit, for my benefit as much as anything, and I will be forever grateful.


Saturday, 12 December 2020

Amazing story of survival in WW II

     There seem to be an endless number of amazing WW II stories that have, for the most part, been forgotten. As a history buff, I have used many of these incidents in my work as an author. One source for many of these stories has come from reading the obituaries of WW II veterans. Their numbers dwindle now to only a precious, remaining few. Still, every few weeks, I read of another. They are inevitably in their late nineties and now some even over a hundred. I highly recommend reading these obituaries of the last members of the Great Generation. There are stories about those who unraveled wartime secrets, stories of inventions that affected the war, stories of women who played major rolls in the outcome and stories of spies and heroes and sacrifice. In just a very few years, these stories will no longer appear.

     I recently came upon one such story, not from an obituary but from watching an old war movie on TV. The movie was "A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH."  It stars David Niven as an air force pilot who is shot down. Wiith his plane on fire, he bails out without a parachute. The movie goes off into issues of the afterlife. How could he survive? Well, in the movie, it is because of an error in heaven and there follows a trial up above as Niven argues that he should not have to report to die because he had survived and come back long enough to fall in love. Now, the powers that be owed him and the woman he loves, a full life. Of course, he gets his wish.

     In commentary after the movie, it is mentioned that there actually was a man who fell out of his plane during the war and survived. I had never heard this story and so looked it up.

     The man's name was Nicholas Alkemade. He was a Flight Sergeant in the 115 Squadron RAF during the second World War. On the night of March 24, 1944, 21-year-old Alkemade was one of seven crew members in a Lancaster bomber, returning from a 300-bomber-raid on Berlin. They were attacked by a German Junkers Ju 88 night-fighter--flown by Hauptmann Gerhard Friedrich. As a result, the English bomber caught fire and started to spiral out of control. Alkemade's parachute had gone up in flames and was no longer serviceable. So Nicholas Alkemade jumped from the plane without his parachute, preferring to die by impact rather than burn to death.

     Alkemade fell 18,000 feet to the ground below. Incredibly, his fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. His only injury was a sprained leg. The Lancaster crashed in flames, killing several other members of the crew. Alkemade was captured by the Germans. It was his bad luck to still be over Germany when he fell, though it would seem to have been better luck than if he had fallen into the British Channel. The Gestapo, who interviewed him, was initially suspicious of his claim to have fallen without a parachute until the wreckage of the plane was found and examined. The Germans actually gave Alkemade a certificate testifying to the truth of his incredible survival, and he became a celebrated prisoner of war before being repatriated in May 1945.

     After the war, Alkemade worked in the chemical industry. He appeared on the ITV series Just Amazing, a program that interviewed people who had, through accident or design, achieved feats of daring and survival. He died in 1987.

     It's interesting to speculate whether or not the movie, made in 1946 but not released until 1947, could have been partially inspired by Alkemade's 1944 true life adventure. But I will leave that to another researcher to determine.


     Fritz Julius Lemp came on my radar while I was doing research for my novel, The Last Titanic Story. The U-boat commander had, simultaneously, one of the most celebrated and most disastrous of naval careers. So of course, I had to find a place for him in my story.

     Lemp is credited (if that is the word) with having sunk the first ship fired upon in World War II. The unfortunate vessel, the Athenia, was traveling from Glasgow, Belfast, and Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal. It was carrying passengers of British, Canadian and U.S. citizenship as well as a number of refugees from Europe. There were about 1400 passengers and crew on board when she was hit by Lemp's torpedo from his U-30 off the northwest coast of Ireland on September 3, 1939 just hours after war had been declared.

     The Athenia  has long been a little known chapter of the war. It is easy to see why it was overlooked, given all of the disastrous consequences that followed during the next five years. I have a personal relationship to the tragedy. My former brother-in-law, Arch Miller, was a passenger on the Athenia. He was traveling home to Canada with his mother and older brother. Arch was about ten years old. I talked to him at length about his experience, and in reading the 2012 book, Athenia Torpedoed, by Francis M. Carroll, I was surprised at how true Arch's memories were, compared to the memories of others who had been on board.

     Arch had been alone on deck when the torpedo hit and clearly remembered the feeling of impact. In the panic that followed, he managed to locate his brother and mother and they all got onto one of the lifeboats. About 112 passengers died. The rest were picked up from their lifeboats by several passing ships and taken to various ports, including on to Canada.

     Lemp tried to deny that he had taken the action because he understood that Hitler was furious that he had sunk a ship with American passengers, which the Fuhrer feared would bring America into the war. Instead, Germany made up a story that it was Winston Churchill who had ordered the ship sunk by his own navy in order to bring the U.S. into the war. The true story did not fully come out until after the war crimes trials in Nuremberg in 1946.

     Lemp went on to a highly decorated career as one of the most successful U-boat commanders in the early part of the war, receiving the Iron Cross and other awards from Hitler. Being successful, in this context, means Lemp sank a huge number of ships during the conflict.

     However, Lemp had another direct impact on the war's outcome. In a new submarine, the U-110, during a "wolf pack" attack on a convoy southwest of Iceland on May 9, 1941, Lemp's luck ran out. During the attack, Lemp successfully sank three freighters. But in the ensuing destroyer counter-attack, the U-110 was badly damaged and forced to the surface. Lemp ordered his crew to abandon ship, as he expected the destroyers to ram and sink his vessel. But somehow, Lemp ended up in the water and drowned. However, HMS Bulldog, under Commander A.J. Baker-Cresswell, attempted to take U-110 under tow, though it sank before they could reach Iceland. But before that happened, British sailors were able to board the submarine and retrieve a working Enigma cipher machine. This feat, unknown to the Germans, contributed substantially to the ability of the British to read German naval radio messages throughout the rest of the war.

     It was also Fritz Julius Lemp's second major blow to the German war effort. Sinking the Athenia had been the first, as it led to the United States increasing its support of the British war effort and indirectly to the Americans coming into the war. The Enigma helped defeat Germany itself by contributing to the end of the U-boat menace that had threatened to isolate Britain from receiving food and munitions during the conflict.

     So here was U-boat commander Fritz Julius Lemp, one of Germany's most successful and decorated U-boat captains and simultaneously the man who, perhaps more than any other, contributed to Germany's defeat. Quite a career run for a man who never made it out of his twenties.

Tuesday, 03 November 2020

Election Year 2020

     It is early morning on election day, 2020, as I write these words. Many have called it "The most important election of our lives." It is hard to dispute that notion.

     Joe Biden leads narrowly in final polls, both nationally (remember how well that worked out for Hillary) and in battleground states. We need to get rid of the electoral system which utterly distorts our elections. A state with half a million people gets two senators, while a state like California with forty million people gets the same number. Early voting turnout approaches 100,000,000, a record. Final tallies after election day may approach 150,000,000, which will also be a record.

     Still, Democrats, burned by the 2016 election, remain worried. President Trump has broken all norms as president. He has lied more than 20,000 times. Virtually no word escapes his lips that is not a lie or distortion of the truth. It has been an amazing display and further proof, if any is needed, that he is a con-man of the first order. Add in his other character traits: racist, bigamist, white nationalist, misogynist, accused rapist, tax cheat, corrupt businessman...the list goes on and on...and voters know he will go to any lengths to lie, cheat and manipulate the election results. His need to remain in office is existential. The list of federal and state charges that will be brought against him the moment he is no longer protected by the office he holds, is long. He could end up in prison.

     One could hold that Trump's one saving grace is that he is really stupid. He never reads. He has no idea how government works. He knows nothing about history. But the result of that is that he does whatever he wants to do. He breaks laws, fires anyone who opposes him, has taken over the Justice Department, ignores his own intelligence officials. He has pointed out as we have never had pointed out to us before, how strong the office of the presidency is and how few controls there are on that institution for someone who simply ignores the law. His admiration for dictators around the world is well known. He clearly would like to emulate them, destroy our democracy and establish his own family as an autocratic dictatorship. And he has managed to pack the courts on every level all the way up to the Supreme Court with his own sycophantic supporters.

     Virtually the only resistance to Trump at this point comes from the fourth estate. Here, he has another backstop. Fox News gives Trump his own arm of the media, essentially state run media. Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and other billionaires try to manipulate in his favor. And of course, all those foreign dictators work around the clock to interfere in our elections, including, most importantly, Vladimir Putin, the man who helped swing the 2016 election to Trump and who put bounties on the lives of American troops. And we shouldn't forget social media. Facebook, Twitter and the rest have made it much easier to spread the lies and misinformation and to enlist conspiracy theorists to further strengthen Trump supporters. Expect them to be out in force today, strutting about carrying assault weapons and "guarding" poll stations. I will consider it a minor miracle if some crazy doesn't shoot voters waiting in line somewhere.

     So today will be crucial in deciding whether or not the American democratic system will survive. Like everyone else, I will be glued to the TV tonight watching returns. High voter turnout suggests people are tired of Trump. Lord, let it be true. But win or lose, we can expect months of watching Trump lawyers try to undo the results of the election. Meanwhile, Covid will kill hundreds of thousands more in our country.

     How did we ever get here? We have dropped the ball in so many ways. Millions of Americans are tired of government that never seems to affect their lives. Income inequality has become endemic. Workers see no way to get ahead. Higher education has become prohibitively expensive, blocking the only way forward for many. The lack of leadership on things like global warming has led to the displacement of people all over the country because of floods, super hurricanes and fires. The failure to at long last end racial discrimination is another major problem. Having an avowed racist in charge for four years has only exasperated this. And the loss of millions of jobs and hundreds of thousands of businesses threatens us all with another Great Depression.

     It all comes down to voting. That is our last chance. If Trump gets four more years, none of us will recognize the country that we will have to live in...or die in.

Friday, 03 April 2020

America unprepared for pandemic

My book, "Flypaper," is about a pandemic that starts in China and sweeps across the world. The book came out in 2014, but many have written about this possibility. Stephen King wrote a book about a pandemic that was published back in 1979. And then there was Albert Camus, who wrote "The Plague," published in 1947.

One of the great calamities about the situation we are now facing is that humanity has never prepared for something like this, despite the many warnings that have been issued, not only by novelists but by scientists and health officials as well.

Humans, it appears, are not good about preparing for things that only happen once in a while. Famine was a big craze back in the 1960s. Warnings about the coming food shortages were all over the papers, on TV, in magazines and so forth. For once, we actually managed (by accident for the most part) to come up with new ways to farm and to develop genetically resistant strains of crops, that enabled us to delay the siren calls of famine for a time.

Climate change has been an even greater challenge. Serious warnings have been around for at least thirty years. Yet today there are still many science deniers who insist there is nothing to worry about. This, despite the evidence before our eyes in nightly news casts of apocalyptic forest fires, flooding and super hurricanes.

Our current president is one of the greatest science deniers in history. Worse, even, than the Inquisition, that in 1633 wanted to lock Galileo away for announcing that the Earth was not the center of the universe and actually rotated around the sun rather than the other way around. Trump is denying the science of pandemics even in the middle of a pandemic. "One day," he declares, "It will all go away, like a miracle."

So we are not prepared.

In the magical thinking of our President, it will all be over by Easter. I'm sure evangelicals love this thought. Why waste money on ventilators and masks? This too will pass, along with many of our elders, just when we need them more than ever to inject a small bit of reality based thinking.

In "Flypaper," the Earth is devastated, leaving only a handful of individuals left, interspersed around the world. They face the daunting tasks of not only survival but also of reconnecting with tiny pockets of other survivors in an effort to keep humanity going.

Covid-19 will not go this far. It is, in reality, a relatively weak virus, and we shall overcome it. There is already evidence of its decline in other nations as a result of social distancing. But our government's incompetence will mean the death of possibly hundreds of thousands more than would have been necessary. But the big question remains: will we once again ignore the teachings of history or will we instead begin to prepare for the next pandemic? It is out there, and one day, the virus we really fear, one as deadly as Ebola, will once again threaten our world.

Tuesday, 04 February 2020

Turning Points

One of the most fascinating TV programs of the past decade has to be Henry Louis Gates's "Finding Your Roots." If you haven't seen this PBS special on Tuesday nights, you are really missing something important. As Gates interviews his guests, many of them well known names, the viewer finds a growing understanding of how we are all connected and how important family is, at least equal to genetics, in forming who we are. As guests discover that their ancestors fought in the American Revolution, were slaves, or slave owners, spent time in prison or made important contributions to American society in the fields of business, discovery, education, government and so on, many are profoundly moved by the lives of their newfound ancestors.

The shows inevitably make me think about my own life. I know many stories about my own ancestors, some passed on through my parents, others meticulously investigated by my aunt Virginia who tried valiantly to fill in some of the gaps in the family's history. But the family on my mother's side had Russian roots, and while we know a few interesting stories, she was unable to track down relatives in Russia, even though we knew there had to be scores if not hundreds still living there, particularly in Siberia. One of the most interesting of these stories was about my grandfather. His father, my great grandfather, was accused of murder in Tsarist Russia of the late 1800s. The family was exiled to Siberia where they were not imprisoned but allowed to live their lives as best they could in this remote place. My great grandfather started a business and became quite successful. He was part of a literary group which included Maxim Gorky, the famous Russian and Soviet writer. After about ten years, the man who actually committed the murder my great grandfather had been accused of, confessed. The authorities told my ancestor that he could return, leaving Siberia behind. He refused and spent the rest of his life there. My grandfather was one of a dozen or so children. When he was just sixteen, he traveled alone across all of Russia and Europe and took a ship to America, arriving through Ellis Island to New York in the first decade of the twentieth century. There, he eventually became a dentist and a writer and had a family of his own, which included my mother and her two sisters.

So today, my own son is the fourth generation writer in our family. One has to wonder if this could somehow be something for which we have a genetic component. It was uncertain that I would become a writer until I was about thirty when I began, in somewhat stumbling fashion, to explore the pursuit as a profession. Both my parents were university English professors and so certainly there had to also be an element of family influence involved in my choice. When I came home from school as a child I would find both my parents and my older sister all writing away in their rooms. It took me longer to get to it, but to some extent it seemed preordained. But I always credit my mother with influencing me to become a writer. She had a curious mind and though an English professor, she was also fascinated by the sciences. I also picked up this interest.

Still, deciding what and how to write is always a struggle. It took me many years to work out what I liked best. A turning point for me came not long after I published my first book, which was a compilation of columns and essays I wrote largely for newspapers and magazines. I was also working on picking up a mystery series my mother had begun and had become too ill to continue. I wrote three more in her series. They were never published but formed the basis for my interest in continuing to write. Then, out of the blue, I received calls from two people I had met during my years as something of an activist in the environmental politics of the Adirondack Park in New York State. They asked me if I would consider writing the biography of a very well known Adirondack figure, Clarence Petty.

This was a daunting prospect for me. I knew of Clarence by this time, and he was not just a famous Adirondacker but also a beloved figure in conservation history. I made a couple of visits to his home, trying to get my head around what the task of writing his biography would entail. I liked the man immensely and would over time become a close friend. But I felt I was in over my head. I had been a newspaper columnist and unpublished fiction writer. Writing a biography was a beast of an entirely different nature. Clarence was then in his late eighties and I only gradually began to realize that his ENTIRE life was interesting, from his childhood as a hunting guide in the wilderness to the many different professions he undertook throughout his long life to still, at nearly ninety, the recognized expert on everything Adirondack. I was thoroughly intimidated and hesitated to agree to take on the task. I credit my mother and my wife for pushing me to realize that this might be the most important thing I would do in my life: to chronicle the life of this extraordinary man. The task took up much of the next five years of my life. Most of that time, I felt like I needed to hurry because I wanted to finish the book while Clarence was still alive. In fact, Clarence lived to be 104 and remained sharp as a tack till the end.

By the time I was finished, I realized I really was a writer. But boy, I did not want to take on another book of that type. The years of research, interviews, travel and so forth were exhausting. But I finished the book and it was published. Quite possibly the best thing I have written, though that sense changes with each subsequent book I write. For I returned to fiction and that is what I have concentrated on ever since.

My only point here is that life provides us all with important, sometimes unrecognized, turning points. My decision to take on the life of Clarence Petty was one such point.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Vikings in Space

For archaeology buffs like me, it was fascinating to learn about the work of a woman named Sarah Parcak, who has been taking the archaeology world by storm in recent years with her use of satellite technology to unearth amazing new sites. I first heard about Parcak's work in Egypt. One might think virtually every inch of earlier civilizations had already been unearthed in what is probably the most explored region in the world. But using satellite data, Parcak has uncovered not just a tomb here and there but entire cities never before known, including probable new pyramids still beneath the sands. With the click of a button, Parcak turns what appears to be a barren landscape into an entire city. There are hundreds of buildings, temples, large public squares, graveyards, etc. never before seen or even speculated about by Egyptian researchers. It is, quite literally, magic, via science.

Another of Parcak's initiatives has been to locate more Viking sites in North America. To date, only one such site has been confirmed, at L'anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland that has been dated to 1000 A.D., basically obliterating the myth that Columbus discovered the new world. I visited L'Anse aux Meadows way back in the 1970s and was so enthralled by that discovery that I have since written two novels about the Vikings. In one of my mysteries, I imagined the discovery of another Viking site in a bog in Nova Scotia. Turns out I wasn't too far off. Parcak has located via satellite what looks to be only the second such site in North America. It is located on the southwestern coast of Newfoundland, an island offshore actually named Point Rosee.

Parcak and colleagues, using suggestive satellite images of rectangular construction to direct their searches, began test digs on Point Rosee that turned up evidence of a hearthstone likely used for working iron. This method was used by the Vikings and is the basis for the belief that the site was Viking. It is only the second pre-Columbian site for iron working found in the Americas. The excitement of the archaeologists involved is infective. One can only imagine the new realms opening up in the study of archaeology as a result of satellite technology.

Another, equally fascinating, archaeological discovery was made about a dozen years ago deep in a flooded underground cave system in the Yucatan of Mexico. The long, connected caverns go for hundreds of miles beneath the surface. Thousands of years ago, these caverns were not flooded and were visited by Paleoamerican people. Here, in a deep underground pool, Explorers found the bodies of dozens of long since extinct creatures like saber-toothed tigers, cave bears and giant sloths. And, incredibly, they also found the skeletonized body of a fifteen-year-old Paleoamerican girl. She had for some reason, probably searching for water, in what was then a very dry climate, worked her way deep into the caverns where she likely took a fall and died. After her remains were recovered they were dated to thirteen thousand years of age, among the oldest remains ever found in North America. It was the first discovery ever of an early human in direct association with the remains of the animals they must have actually hunted.

About half of the young girl's bones were recovered, along with her remarkably preserved skull. She clearly lived a life of incredible hardship. She was rail-thin, suffered from a poor diet and had serious injuries to some of her limbs. Scientists were also able to determine that she had given birth prior to her death. The most stunning find of all was enough of her DNA to confirm the idea that a single group of Asian emigrants gave rise to the earliest American settlers and to the Native American populations of North America.

As a fiction writer, I am always reminded of the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. It's one reason that I have used archaeology as part of the impetus for my books. I inherited this interest from my mother, who wrote murder mysteries in the 1960s and 70s. Her books were set among the ancient Hittites of Turkey and the early Maya civilizations in Mexico. What might she think today, I wonder, if she knew about our fifteen-year-old Paleoamerican ancestor found in the Yucatan. I can see her planning her next mystery.

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