Why Do We Read Books?

The answer to that question is as varied as individual preferences and literary genres. As a young boy, my tastes tended towards adventure stories. I saw myself as a Knight of the Round Table, a buccaneer or pirate roaming the high seas, an explorer in deepest darkest Africa, a defender at the Alamo. The descriptions of far away places, heroic deeds, and narratives about mythical kingdoms and creatures fueled my imagination.

As I grew older, the power of the written word translated into thoughts and emotions about the human condition. I learned details about history and insights into other people’s lives that caused me to view things from different perspectives, and my awareness of the world past and present built a sense of community and empathy with different cultures, languages, religions, social situations and mores. It opened me up to the connection that we have with one another in spite of our differences and the shared manner in which we handle life’s challenges. The expression of this commonality can be found in flowery language or gritty realism, beautiful and captivating imagery, deeply personal pain and suffering, the triumph over adversity, or in the extraordinary nature of commonplace things.

My love of literature led me to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas A&M University, and more recently to write books of my own. My first book Silver Taps looks at death, suffering and growth, the importance of family in healing, past regrets, faith… a very personal reaction to my father’s passing. If you’ve suffered loss because of the ongoing COVID-19 virus, I cannot claim to know what you’re going through, but my thoughts and emotions might mirror your own or perhaps help you out of such an emotionally significant event. My second book Palo Duro hearkens back to my love of westerns. It looks at westward expansion and the Southern Plains Indian Wars. It is an ode to a genre that is fading from public consciousness, and a tribute to the the individual ruggedness that forged this nation. My latest book Tarnished Brass is based on my experiences in El Salvador during its ten-year civil war. It looks at America’s involvement in that war and how our immigration and border issues and the rise of the brutal street gang MS-13 evolved from this conflict.

Books can be the pathway that lessens our isolation from one another and in these uncertain times that bond is essential. Obviously, I’d love to have you as one of my readers, and should you choose to do so, I’d very much appreciate your feedback by providing comments on this website or by writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Most importantly, I encourage you to read! Today many of our libraries and book stores are closed to the public but are finding ways to offer curbside service or availability of books online. Virtual book club meetings and readings are ongoing. Podcasts allow authors to discuss their books, and social media platforms offer blog tours of the latest releases. Support them all if you can. You’re sure to find something to your liking that will ease your social isolation and lift your spirits.

The Law West of the Pecos

One of the most colorful characters to come out of the Old West was Judge Roy Bean, the self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos.” As Justice of the Peace, Bean had a reputation as a tough hanging judge. However, while he was known to occasionally stage hangings to scare away criminals, he never actually hung anyone.

Bean settled in Vinegaroon, Texas in 1881 at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers where he set up a tent saloon to sell liquor at exorbitant  prices to railroad workers (mostly Chinese laborers.) Two years later with the construction of the Pecos High Bridge the rail lines shifted away from Vinegaroon and Bean relocated to the town of Langtry where he built the Jersey Lily Saloon and Judge Roy Bean’s courtroom on the railroad right of way.

Western legend holds that the town was named after the British stage actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean is said to have fallen in love with a portrait of the lady though he never actually made her acquaintance. Nonetheless, he followed her career, wrote her letters inviting her to visit the West Texas town, and even constructed an Opera House adjacent to his saloon in the hope that she would one day perform there.

As Justice of the Peace, Judge Roy Bean’s methods and rulings were often questionable, mainly carried out to line his own pockets. One of the more humorous judgments handed down was fining a dead man $40, the exact amount found in the deceased’s pockets! Judge Roy Bean died in 1903 after a particularly heavy drinking spree.

Lillie Langtry did visit the town six months after Bean’s death during a brief stop of the Sunset Limited on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Among the gifts presented to the actress by the townspeople was Judge Roy Bean’s six-shooter. The Jersey Lily Saloon and the Opera House were sold to a wealthy Texas cattleman and later donated to the state of Texas.

Judge Roy Bean’s story has often been portrayed on the silver screen, most notably in William Wyler’s 1940 movie, “The Westerner” (Walter Brennan won an Academy Award for his portrayal) and in John Huston’s 1972 film, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” starring Paul Newman.

 

Losing Ground

I would normally be publishing a literary related post today (look for a Lone Star Book Blog Tour post 3/7/20), but I’ve just returned from a trip to  Muskegon, Michigan and thought to comment on the erosion along the banks of the lake that I observed while there.

Climate change is triggering record high water levels on the Great Lakes impacting not only the coastline, but inland communities as well. Heavy winter and spring precipitation is to blame and lake levels are expected to remain high. Normal evaporation which might otherwise offset the rising waters isn’t occurring due to the extremely cold weather.

Gusting winds and high waves have created swift water currents that have washed away people, roads, bridges, and embankments that previously protected private property. The soil is being undercut by the waves, destroying homes that previously offered spectacular views of long sandy beaches and beautiful sunsets. Desperate efforts are underway to move houses away from the shoreline before they too fall into the water.

Due to the dangers of getting too close to the edge and the extreme cold that kept me bundled up inside, I only got these two photos of the property belonging to my sister and her husband. They’ve lost about 15-20 feet of land in just the last two years, and the gradual disappearance of their yard continues unabated. Fortunately their home was moved back years ago and isn’t in any immediate danger, while their neighbors home is perilously close to the receding embankment.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Wilson has yet to declare a state of emergency. Local jurisdictions like Muskegon are working with county emergency managers, but there is little that can be done to alter the course of Mother Nature.

 

 

Print the Legend – The Life and Times of John Ford: My Review

Print the Legend Book CoverI do not often read biographies. In fact, I can only think of two in recent years, this book and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, both given to me by my son Sean, who knows of my love of history and my admiration for John Ford’s movies. Both are detailed accounts; Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a daunting 995 pages, while Scot Eyman’s Print the Legend runs 660 pages. I guess he also understands my love of reading!

Print the legend has its origin in Ford’s last great western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the film Jimmy Stewart’s character, Senator Ransom Stoddard, returns to the town where his political career began to bury his old friend, Tom Doniphan (played by actor John Wayne.) The senator’s fame as the man who shot and killed the stagecoach robber Liberty Valance is a lie, and Stoddard comes back not only to pay tribute to his friend but to finally reveal the truth that it was Doniphan who killed Valance (portrayed on screen by the actor Lee Marvin,) not him. However, the truth is never printed. The newspaper editor interviewing the senator kills the story, with the now famous line, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Just as the myth of the Old West is what people want to remember, it is the myth that surrounds John Ford that moviegoers most want to associate with one of cinema’s greatest directors.

After this motion picture, John Ford was no longer the master  of his craft; age and infirmity had taken its toll. With illness (cancer) overwhelming him, he no longer had the energy to direct movies that so vividly depicted early American life. He had created the mythology of westward expansion and the transition from wilderness to civilization using beautiful landscapes and richly drawn characters who embodied the spirit of the new nation; so much so that Ford became known as “the man that invented America.”

His genius lay in his ability to visualize the scene in his head, positioning the camera in the right spot (never moving it) to recreate that scene, minimizing dialogue, and manipulating actors to achieve the desired performance in one take. He could be a tyrant, humiliating even the biggest names in show business to get the performance that he desired.

Ford also demanded total loyalty from his cast and in return used the same actors in multiple movies often carrying them on the payroll for an entire shoot regardless of how small or even non-existent their role was in the finished film. Contradict or question him on set, however, and though he would outwardly remain your friend, you might never again work in another one of his projects.

Scott Leyman doesn’t spare the reader the many inconsistencies between the man and the legend. Ford was an alcoholic who would go on binges that left him totally incoherent. He was stereo typically Irish, subject to melancholy and self-doubt.  The son of a bartender from Maine, he never felt at ease in society, and created a persona that didn’t care about anyone’s opinion but his own. He could be cruel, crude, arrogant and snobbish, but underneath that facade was a very private sentimental old man that simply didn’t know how to relate to the people he most loved. A Roman Catholic, Ford never considered divorce from his wife of over fifty years, Mary, though he apparently had both flings and affairs with other women, most notably Katherine Hepburn. He was estranged from his son Pat and would later disinherit him, while he indulged his daughter Barbara in spite of her alcoholism. Politically he was thought to be a die-hard conservative, while in fact he was a life-long Democrat and liberal. He filmed many of his movies in Monument Valley using Navajo Indians to portray Apache, Comanche, and Cheyenne. It didn’t matter. He saw the plight of the Navajo Nation and tried to assist it economically by using the locale over and over casting the same people each time. He argued against racism in his masterpiece, The Searchers, and strongly advocated equality and dignity towards the black race in the film Sergeant Rutledge.

In many regards these films reflect the political realities of Vietnam and the changing attitudes and tastes of his viewing audience in the 1960s. The public desire for movies that glorified the Old West had been replaced by the demand for a more nuanced portrayal of the events and those involved in them. Ironically, it led John Ford to dismantle the very mythology that he had created in his earlier movies.

There is absolutely no way that I can capture the essence of John Ford in this post. His career and filmography spanned several decades, 1914-1971. He remains the most decorated film director of all time, winning six Academy Awards. He received the Purple Heart Medal for wounds suffered during the Battle of Midway in WWII, and rose to the rank of Admiral in the Navy. Prior to his death August 31, 1973, he became the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the President of the United States.

I wrote previously of his influence on my decision to write my western novel, Palo Duro:

The western genre no longer holds the public’s attention as it once did in cinema and published media. But I grew up in the age of Director John Ford and his rousing tributes to the U.S. cavalry in the film trilogy “Fort Apache,” She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande,” as well as his homage to one of the most recognized icons of the Old West, Wyatt Earp, in the classic film “My Darling Clementine.”

I have watched John Ford’s movies countless times in my youth and into my adult life, and there is no doubt that they have left a lasting legacy not only on me, but on the motion picture industry. After reading Scott Eyman’s book, I now know many details about Ford’s private life that are contradictory to my image of him, but while it has often been said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” I prefer to remember his towering achievements.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Femme Fatale

The origins of the sexually attractive woman who sets out to seduce men for her own purposes can be found in ancient biblical and historical texts as well as in classical literature. The temptress Delilah is cited in the 16th chapter of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament as the means by which the Philistines discovered the source of the Israelite Sampson’s strength. The first century historian Josephus writes of Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter in exchange for an erotic dance on Herod’s birthday. Even Greek mythology speaks of half-birds, half-maidens whose “siren song” lured sailors to a rocky shore and certain death. In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so that he can experience the allure of the Sirens without succumbing to their temptations.

However, that sultry allure, sex or the promise of sex, characteristically results in either a lifetime of regret or self-destruction. Deliberate seduction is a weapon that draws some men into compromising and even dangerous situations leading to their downfall or death. There’s a price to pay for the pleasures of the flesh – loss of one’s manhood,  manipulation and commission of acts on the woman’s behalf that can result in blackmail or even murder, and choices that compromise or even endanger the lives of others.

The seductress has existed throughout history and has often been used as a plot device in literature. In my latest book, a novella of the Salvadoran civil war, the fictional character Diana Montego (an urban guerrilla) serves that purpose.

She was exposed to training like any other recruit, learning weaponry, explosives, tactics, and strategic objectives under Nidia’s tutelage. These were all secondary, however, to her sexuality, and she was soon given her mission. Use her looks and wiles to find and seduce an American staying at the Hotel Presidente. The endgame, of course, would not be this one individual. Her task was to get inside, become totally familiar with the layout of the hotel, and specifically identify the rooms where the American advisers were lodged. To be successful, she would need to use all her womanly skills. That it proved so easy was a surprise both to Diana and the FMLN leadership. — Excerpt from Tarnished Brass.

Follow Diana’s story and learn more about American involvement in the war and the repercussions that continue to affect the United States and this small Central American country.

 

 

The Soccer War

SoccerSoccer arrived in Latin America in the 1800s. In the beginning it was primarily played by affluent Europeans, but was soon adopted by people from all socio-economic classes bridging the divide between the ruling elites and the indigenous population.

As a cultural institution, it quickly became synonymous with national identity and disputes on the field of play frequently resulted in violence between players, fans, and in extreme cases even countries.

The visible displays of nationalism include flag waving, national anthems, even colorful clothing. They are an expression of the emotional attachment that individuals feel for their teams. So when deliberate physical injury to a player or perceived bias by referees alter the outcome of games, fan violence is inevitable. Add to that political tensions between the governments of the competing teams, and international competitions have even led to war. Such was the case in 1969 between the neighboring Central American countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

The Soccer War (sometimes referred to as the 100 Hours War) was fueled by extreme national pride. Violence erupted between fans during the first two 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. The teams split the first two contests spawning yet greater tumult between the two fan bases as the third and deciding match approached.

Tensions had been building for months between the two governments over new immigration laws in Honduras that stripped land ownership from Salvadoran citizens settling in that country. The expulsion of over eleven thousand such immigrants and migrant workers just happened to coincide with the timing between the first and second games. Citing Honduran nationalism and fan violence as the reason for its action, El Salvador severed all diplomatic ties with its neighbor and deployed soldiers onto Honduran soil.

The war was brief, beginning on July 14, 1969, and ending on July 20, 1969, with a cease-fire negotiated by the Organization of American States (OAS). El Salvador initially demanded that Honduras agree to reparations for those Salvadorans who had been displaced and assurances of fair treatment for those settlers who chose to remain. It finally withdrew its forces on August 2, 1969, after promises of protection for its citizens on Honduran soil.

The dispute simmered long after the Salvadoran soccer team defeated Honduras 3-2 in the final qualifying match in Mexico City and long after cessation of hostilities between the two armies. A final peace treaty would not be signed until October 30, 1980. — Excerpt from Tarnished Brass.

 

 

 

New Year’s Eve: History and Current Celebrations

Most of us in the United States associate the Ball Drop in New York’s Times Square, fireworks, champagne toasts, kisses at midnight, and personal resolutions with bringing in the new year. Few of us, however, are aware of when these traditions began or how the rest of the world celebrates New Year’s Eve.

The earliest recorded celebrations go back 4,000 years to the Babylonians who made sacrifices and promises to their gods that, if kept, were believed to ensure a good harvest. The rituals were tied to the vernal equinox that occurs in March and heralds the advent of spring.

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar was the first to establish January 1st as the beginning of the new year in honor of the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, endings, and transitions. He is depicted with two faces, one looking to the future and the other looking to the past.  However, the Roman celebrations were hardly religious in nature. The Romans engaged in drunken orgies that represented the chaos that existed before their gods and the Roman legions brought order to the world.

The beginnings of Christianity again altered the official beginning of the new year with early Christians celebrating either March 25th, Annunciation Day (also known as Lady Day) when the Virgin Mary received word from the archangel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Son of God, or December 25th, the date that Jesus Christ was born. It would not be until the papacy of Pope Gregory the XIII and the introduction of the Gregorian calendar that January 1st would again be recognized as the start of the new year.

Today, New Year’s Eve celebrations are mainly secular although in Chile church services are held in cemeteries to include deceased family members in the New Year’s festivities, which brings us to other cultures and other practices. There is no way to cover them all, but here are a few from around the world.

In Russia that traditional glass of champagne has ashes in it! Wishes for the coming year are written down, the paper is then burned, and the ashes are ingested along with the sparkling wine. In Spain twelve grapes are eaten, one at a time as the bells toll twelve times at midnight. Their consumption is said to bring about good fortune and prosperity. In Germany “Bleigieben” is celebrated by melting a small amount of lead or tin which is then poured into a glass or bowl of cold water. The shape formed is said to reveal a person’s fate in the coming year. The Scots celebrate “Hogmanay,” which holds that if a dark-haired man is the first to cross a home’s threshold after midnight good luck is guaranteed. The dark hair is significant because the tradition hearkens back to the days when light-haired Vikings raided Scotland. The last thing anyone wanted to find at their door was a Viking raider! In the Netherlands the Dutch eat “oliebollen,” doughnut like balls, the fat of which is said to cause the sword of the ancient Germanic goddess Pertcha to slide off your belly if she attempts to cut it open for failing to sufficiently partake in yuletide cheer!

Readers intrigued by these traditions and countless others will need to do a little research on their own. I’ll be bringing in the new year with a dinner out with friends followed by that champagne toast… without the ashes, of course! And I’ll probably watch the Ball Drop on TV which, by the way, didn’t become a tradition until 1907. It has occurred every year since then with the exception of 1942 and 1943 when lighting restrictions were in place during World War II.

However you choose to celebrate, have a very Happy New Year!