BOOK BRIEFS: Movie Stunts, Famous Bandits and a World War I Regiment – #bookreview

Cowboy Stuntman

From Olympic Gold to the Silver Screen
Dean Smith with Mike Cox
(Texas Tech University Press – hardback, Kindle)

Dean Smith won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter relays at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Then the 20-year-old returned home to Northwest Texas, where he had been a rodeo cowboy. Later, he dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin, spent time in the Army and briefly played professional football with the Los Angeles Rams. But he dreamed of working in Western movies. He finally got his break in 1957, in Dallas. He met up with a friend from Oklahoma whom he had known as Jim Bumgarner. Bumgarner now called himself James Garner, and he was the star of a new TV show, “Maverick.” Garner got Smith into the Hollywood movie and TV stunt business. More than 50 years later, Smith’s entertaining memoir covers not only his rural Texas years but his long career “doubling” in risky action scenes for some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Roy Rogers, Robert Redford, and even Maureen O’Hara.

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Butch Cassidy: The Lost Years

William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
(Kensington Books – hardback, Kindle)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid most likely are dead — very dead — by now. But rumors persist that the two famous bandits survived a shootout with Bolivian soldiers after they stole a Bolivian silver mine’s payroll in 1908. Then they escaped back to America and disappeared. Prolific author William W. Johnstone has taken those rumors one step further and created a clever, pleasant novel set in 1950. It features a dedicated young Pinkerton detective who happens to be the son and grandson of Pinkerton agents who tried and failed to track down the famed bandits. But the book’s key character is an 85-year-old West Texas rancher who can spin a very good tale–and who might be, or may not be, be Cassidy himself.

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They Called Them Soldier Boys

A Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I
Gregory W. Ball
(University of North Texas Press – hardback)

Historian Gregory W. Ball’s new book is a well-written study of the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment, its combat experiences in France in World War I, and what happened to many of its soldiers after they returned home to Texas n 1919. One of the Texas National Guard regiments that made up the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division, the 7th Texas  took part in some of World War I’s biggest battles. “What those soldiers experienced, what they felt, and how they expressed themselves to their loved ones back home,” Ball writes, “is important to the history of World War I and of Texas, as their experiences form an important, albeit neglected, part of the Texas military experience.”

Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Four Works of Fiction & Nonfiction from the American Southwest – #bookreview

A Texas Jubilee: Thirteen Stories from the Lone Star State
James Ward Lee
(TCU Press – paperback, Kindle)

James Ward Lee, former English department chairman at the University of North Texas, has earned his membership in the Texas Literary Hall of Fame the hard way. He has written numerous books, short stories and other well-received works.

A Texas Jubilee, his entertaining and absorbing new short story collection, focuses on life in fictitious Bodark Springs, a small East Texas town, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The interconnected stories often have colorful characters, richly detailed local conflicts, and troubling events such as the arrival of an aged man claiming to be Jesse James and the occasional appearance of a bike messenger who delivers World War II death-notice telegrams. One of the best stories, “A Blue and Gray Christmas,” reflects on a grandmother’s early childhood memories of the Civil War.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West
W.C. Jameson
(Taylor Trade – paperback, Kindle)

Many of  writer and treasure hunter W.C. Jameson’s books and articles have entertained readers who love “the Old West and a good mystery.” This second edition contains 21 “baffling” tales that still stir up people’s imaginations and sometimes continue a few disputes.

One of the best of the “unsolved mysteries” in Jameson’s book involves an alien spacecraft that may–or may not–have crashed north of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1897, in the tiny town of Aurora.

On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest
Char Miller
(Trinity University Press – paperback, Kindle)

The American Southwest is a hotbed of water-supply controversies and immigration disputes, plus sharp political clashes over how to deal with both major issues.

In On the Edge, former Trinity University history professor Char Miller’s taut, insightful essays zero in on “the American Southwest, a region I have known, loved and misunderstood.” He reflects on San Antonio and Los Angeles and what is happening to “the borderlands that stretch between them.”

He puts special emphasis on sustainability and “the environmental pressures, judicial struggles, social injustices, and economic disparities that have troubled the communities I have resided in.”

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence
Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
(Arte Publico Press - paperback)

Mexico’s gruesome narcotics wars and heightened U.S. border security efforts have disrupted many economic, cultural and personal ties between the American Southwest and Mexico.

This  eye-opening book’s 12 bilingual essays highlight key losses, including the casual ease with which tourists used to cross the border. One writer notes: “The typical American tourist (including Mexican Americans) had no passport; it wasn’t needed. They often did not plan ahead. People walked or drove across the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, San Diego/Tijuana and…Nogales/Nogales…and found a vibrant restaurant with delicious food and even better music. This happenstance border crossing allowed for adventures and exploring for the day….”

While some of the essays are dispiriting, hope also emerges within this important collection.

Si Dunn

The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn

Five Dark Riders – A novel rich with history, intrigue, action & romance – #fiction #bookreview

Five Dark Riders
Bill Sloan
(Zipp City Press, paperback, Kindle)

Bill Sloan is an acclaimed historian and veteran newspaper journalist previously nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He also is one of America’s best writers of World War II Pacific-theater combat narratives. (His latest, Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor, was published in April.)

With Five Dark Riders, his new “fact-based novel,” Sloan demonstrates that he can write engrossing, entertaining historical thrillers, as well.

Drawing upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s real-life 1936 trip to Dallas, Texas, Sloan has concocted an absorbing tale built around American domestic political intrigue, international espionage and an unfolding assassination plot.

In Sloan’s novel, Nazi agents have infiltrated a rural area of Texas where German immigrants first arrived in the 19th century, and pro-German culture and sympathies remain strong as Adolph Hitler continues to gain power. The agents’ goal is to assassinate FDR in Dallas, so Vice President John Nance Garner, an avowed isolationist, will take over the White House and keep the United States from going to war with Germany.

The only people who can stop the plot are two South Texans who don’t seem to stand much of a chance: Adam Wagner, a mildly disabled World War I combat veteran who now tends to his father’s sheep and goat farm in South Texas, and Elena Velasco, the beautiful and Anglo-distrusting daughter of an Hispanic family that operates a drugstore in a small Texas town.

Adam and Elena decipher the plot while trying to figure out who killed Elena’s cousin, Julio, who Adam had known since Julio was a baby. The local sheriff, an Anglo of German descent, has done little to investigate the young Mexican’s death, and now he has been duped by a close friend who secretly is at the center of the assassination plot. The sheriff has come to believe Adam may be Julio’s killer and may be involved in other crimes, as well. In reality, one of the Nazi agents killed Julio, and Adam and Elena have figured out how and why.

No one in authority, however, will listen to, nor believe, Adam and Elena and relay what they have discovered to the Secret Service. So, in desperation and with very few resources, the two South Texans begin a journey to Dallas to try to stop the plot themselves.

It’s a dangerous gamble. The Nazis want them dead. And the Secret Service has become aware that there may be some kind of plot against FDR and is trying to maintain very tight security in Texas. Meanwhile, the president’s protectors also are having trouble keeping track of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who keeps slipping away from them. And now they have been alerted to the movements of a suspicious, dangerous couple – Adam and Elena – who seem to keep trying to get close to the president, most likely to harm him.

It’s an excellent setup for a thrill-ride finish that’s full of history, intrigue, action, and romance.

Si Dunn

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present – #bookreview #in #music

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present
Jean A. Boyd
(Texas Tech University Press, hardback, list price $65.00; paperback, list price $39.95)

Fans of 1930s and 1940s western swing will find plenty to enjoy in this entertaining book by Jean A. Boyd, a  Baylor University music history professor and native of Fort Worth, Texas.

She celebrates the distinctive music and its Texas roots and highlights several groups that, unlike Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, did not or have not made it into the national spotlight.

Yet these bands have picked, fiddled, strummed and sung their way to regional stardom in Texas and Oklahoma.

Her book likely will also appeal to musicologists and performers. She includes musical analysis and transcriptions of recorded performances, as well as histories and recollections.

Si Dunn 

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The New London explosion – Two views of America’s worst school disaster – #bookreview #texas #history

 My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion
By Ron Rozelle
(Texas A&M, hardback, list price $24.95; Kindle edition, list price $24.95)

 Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History
By David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin
(Potomac Books, hardback, $29.95; Kindle edition, list price $29.95)

On March 18, 1937, in East Texas’ tiny New London community, a natural gas explosion killed some 300 students, teachers and others at London Junior-Senior High School.

Seventy-five years later, the exact death toll in America’s worst school disaster remains uncertain. But its grim lessons are relevant and timely again as school districts across the nation struggle to cut their operating expenses without endangering student safety. 

Briefly, at least, the New London catastrophe made world headlines. Even Adolph Hitler sent a message of condolence. One of the reporters who covered the explosion’s aftermath was a young Dallas newsman named Walter Cronkite.

But 1937 was a year full of troubling currents and undercurrents, including the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Germany, Italy and Japan as military powers, and the Roosevelt Administration’s continuing struggles to lift the American economy out of the Great Depression.

Across most of the world, the devastating event soon faded into the global swirl of tensions and distractions. 

But not in New London. The shock continued to run so deep, townspeople “refused to speak of the explosion or of its victims, to the press or even to each other,” Ron Rozelle notes in My Boys and Girls Are in There.

Indeed, four decades passed before the first commemoration could be organized. And, 75 years after the school tragedy, some people still shudder when the explosion is mentioned. Pains and fears it created continue to be carried forward by survivors, witnesses, family members, and friends of the dead and injured.

“Sorrow is ambulatory, and refuses to be left behind,” writes Rozelle, an author and educator who grew up 80 miles from New London. Rozelle’s father was one of many volunteers who helped search the destroyed school for survivors and victims.

Rozelle’s book is written to read like a novel, yet its chapters arise from historical records, extensive follow-up research, and interviews with people who lost loved ones, survived injuries or otherwise were scarred.

Meanwhile, one of the authors of  Gone at 3:17, David M. Brown, also grew up in East Texas and has spent more than two decades interviewing New London survivors, rescuers and others. His co-writer, Michael Wereschagin, is a veteran journalist who has covered several large disasters. Their factual account likewise reads like a story. And, benefitting from doubled manpower, it offers some additional details on survivors, witnesses, investigations, and where victims were buried.

Both works are well-researched and well-written, and they bring fresh perspectives to the New London school explosion and its aftermath.  They also can be emotionally wrenching to read.

A key lesson from New London remains valid today as states struggle to reduce their school budgets. New London’s school was part of the London Consolidated School District, which may have been America’s richest rural school district in 1937. Tax revenues from oil production and related industries were plentiful. Indeed, London Junior-Senior High was the first secondary school in Texas to get electric lights for its football field. Yet, the superintendent and at least some of the board members still bore down hard on costs, to the point that money finally was put above student safety.

Late in 1936, the superintendent, with quiet approval from four board members, decided to disconnect the school from commercial natural gas and tap into a free, unregulated and widely available byproduct of gasoline refining: waste natural gas. Their hope was to save $250 a month.

Refineries pumped the waste gas back to oil rigs through networks of bleed-off lines, and rig operators were required to dispose of it. Most released it into the air through tall pipes, and the gas was burned, lighting the sky night and day with flaring orange flames.

“The practice of tapping into waste gas lines was something of an open secret in the oil patch,” Brown and Wereschagin write. Homeowners and business owners welded valves to some of the bleed-off lines, and they installed regulators to try to control gas pressures that varied widely. “With no one monitoring it, it came with no bill,” they note.

One pipeline passed 200 feet from New London’s school, and in 1937: “The [connection] crew had gone out in early January—a janitor, two bus drivers, and a welder the school had contracted….”

Blame for the blast often has been placed on the superintendent and on some of the board members he reported to. However, both of these new books highlight bad choices made by others, as well.

For example, refiners failed to enforce policies barring gas line taps, Brown and Wereschagin point out. And no one could smell the odorless gas as it leaked and collected in the school’s big basement, Rozelle emphasizes.

A single electrical spark from a basement light switch apparently set off the explosion.

Afterward, Texas quickly passed laws that might have been enacted sooner, if politics had not stood in the way. One law added a malodorant, “a distinctive, faintly repulsive scent,” to natural gas to provide as leak warning. Another law required “anyone working with gas connections be trained and certified as an engineer by the state.” Other states soon followed Texas’ action.

Today, Brown and Wereschagin stress,  most Americans “have never heard of the New London, Texas, school explosion” and have no idea how or why natural gas got its noxious smell.

These two timely books provide painful but important reminders why the New London school explosion and its grim lessons should never be forgotten.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available now in paperback. He is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

 

The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case That Shook the Texas Prison System – #bookreview #in

The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case That Shook the Texas Prison System
By Michael Berryhill
(University of Texas, hardback, list price $29.95; paperback, list price $25.00)

A prizewinning journalist has dug deeply and impressively into a double killing that still haunts the Texas Department of Criminal Justice more than 30 years after it happened.

In 1981, a prison farm manager and a warden were killed by a black inmate who claimed self-defense. Many predicted the inmate, a convicted burglar and robber named Eroy Brown, would be executed.

But just a year earlier, Texas inmates had won a huge federal civil rights victory against “unrelenting cruelty” and brutal civil rights violations within the Texas prison system. In three trials that followed the killings, juries repeatedly considered the state’s evidence and found Brown innocent each time.

The verdicts, writes Berryhill, “marked the end of Jim Crow justice in Texas.” His account of Eroy Brown’s “astonishing” defense is based on trial documents, exhibits, and journalistic accounts and also draws upon Brown’s story told in his own words.

Berryhill, an excellent writer and researcher, chairs Texas Southern University’s journalism program. He previously has won a Texas Institute of Letters prize for nonfiction.

He has written for a number of well-known publications, including Harper’s, the New Republic, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times magazine.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available soon in paperback. He also is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.