DXMachina (dxmachina) wrote,

Formative Years...

Some blasts from the past.

When I was ten or so, my parents bought us a copy of the Reader's Digest Treasury for Young Readers (1961), a collection of stories and articles culled from the magazine aimed at, well, young readers. A couple of years later we got a second volume, the New Reader's Digest Treasury for Young Readers (1963). I loved these books unreservedly, and as an adult they were always in the back of my mind whenever I'd wander through a used bookstore. I found a copy of the 1963 edition this way a few years back. It's not a great copy. The little girl who'd owned it had filled in some of the puzzles. Still reads fine. But I never found the earlier book. I was thinking about it a few weeks back, and I decided to see if I could find a copy on eBay. Sure enough, there it was, a pristine copy that I managed to win for $5.50 (including shipping!).

So many good stories, stories that I read so many times that they became embedded in my consciousness. This was the book that first made me aware of Houdini, and Blondin, and Roger Bannister, and Amelia Earhardt, and Blackbeard, and the Dead Sea scrolls. I was inspired by the story of the team from Monterrey, Mexico, that won the Little League World Series in 1957 and 58. There was a fictional account of the first flight to the moon written allegedly by Wernher von Braun (a man whose allegiance was ruled by expedience). (I say allegedly because the language used seems way to idiomatic for a man for whom English was a second language.) The flight was, of course, via direct ascent. There was the heroic story of the family stranded in the desert who survived by eating diluted Elmer's Glue All. There was "Many Moons" by James Thurber. A lot of the stories were followed by activity articles based on the theme of the story. The story about Houdini was followed by an article on simple magic tricks, some of which I remembered well enough to have taught my niece when she was little. (I was quite the amateur magician when I was a kid. This was where that started.)

The later book was just as good or better. It had the stories of Wilma Rudolph (which I now discover was written by Alex Haley), Elsa the lioness (Joy Adamson), John Glenn, Shackleton, and the story of the real Great Race. The fiction included the first Sherlock Holmes I ever read ("The Speckled Band"). Good stuff.

A lot of really old TV shows are starting to appear on DVD, including one of my favorites as a tad, Sky King. Sky was the epitome of what every young lad in America wanted to be in the fifties (well, apart from being Ted Williams). Schuyler King was a cowboy who flew an airplane instead of riding a horse, and used his plane to fight crime. What more could a young aviation-mad lad want? (I happened to mention the DVD to Al, and discovered that he'd been a huge fan back in the day, too.) The DVDs are cheap, so I picked one up. Four shows from late in the series (when Sky was flying a Cessna 310). Kirby Grant, the actor who played Sky, was a pilot, and he actually owned the original plane (an old wooden Cessna T50) used in the series (although most of the stunt flying was done by Paul Mantz). The plots are simple, but most of the flying scenes are first rate. It's fun stuff. There are even a few of the original commercials. I especially liked the one for the combination microscope/clue examiner/secret decoder that you could order direct from Sky, himself. Way better than Ralphie's Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

My parents were big on giving us books for presents. In addition to the Treasuries mentioned above, we got the Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift, Jr., and Landmark books. Landmark books were non-fiction for pre-teen boys, mostly history and biography, published by Random House. Some were written specifically for the series, while others (Guadalcanal Diary and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo) were kiddified editions of adult books. The Sinking of the Bismarck, by William L. Shirer, falls into the latter group. Shirer was a CBS News colleague of Edward R. Murrow. In the early days of the war, they were CBS's correspondents in Berlin and London, respectively. (Interestingly, in the film Sink the Bismarck, it's Murrow who provides the exposition.)

The whole Bismarck affair was a huge clusterfuck on both sides. Very few of the participants come out looking good. There were misidentifications (the British very nearly attacked a US Coast Guard cutter thinking it was Bismarck), and miscalculations (literally, the navigator on King George V sent the Home Fleet haring off in the wrong direction because of an error in his arithmetic). The German commander, Admiral Lütgens, should've headed back to Norway to repair his ship after sinking Hood. Admiral Holland, in command of Hood and Prince of Wales, mistook Prinz Eugen (a cruiser) for Bismarck, and so ordered his ships to attack the wrong ship. Planes from Ark Royal attacked Sheffield by mistake. Lütgens never realized that he'd managed to lose his pursuers, so he kept broadcasting messages back to Germany that let the British home in on Bismarck again. In the end, it was only a freak hit on Bismarck's rudder by a torpedo from one of Ark Royal's aircraft that allowed the Home Fleet to catch up with her. The worst mistake came at the end, after Bismarck went down. With hundreds of survivors still in the water, lookouts on the British ships spied a periscope, and broke off their rescue operations for fear of being attacked while motionless. It turned out the U-Boat in question had no torpedoes left. Only 118 men (out of 2200) were saved. There's a picture in the book of some of the survivors floating next to Dorsetshire as British sailors toss them lines, and even as a kid I wondered how many actually made it aboard, and how many faces in the picture were of dead men floating.

The book does a good job of telling the tale without making any of it seem terribly heroic (as, say, the movie did). In fact, it does a pretty good job (for a children's book) of showing how horrific warfare can be, simply by recounting the abandonment of the German sailors. Shirer is manages to be even-handed in his treatment of both sides, although the German side necessarily contains more speculation, because none of the ranking officers survived. This was one of the better books in the series.
Tags: aviation, blast from the past, books, history, movies, reminiscence, television

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