All the Thrills You Can Affjord

NORWAY!

(Cue opening strains of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.)

Norway. Larry F. Sommers photos, ©2016. 

You should go. I mean now. Drop what you’re doing and buy a ticket. 

Grandpa donated my surname, which is German. But Grandma Sommers was a Gunsten, with two Norwegian grandparents, Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came over in the 1850s. 

Norway in blue. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Since Grandma was half Norwegian, that means Dad was one-quarter Norwegian, so my sister and I are one-eighth Norwegian. Being even one-eighth Norwegian is pretty cool, because Norway is a gorgeous country, full of delicious food and improbable—dare I say quixotic?—heroes.

Norsk Epics

But it’s off the beaten track, on a boreal peninsula. And its population of five million is a fraction of Germany’s or France’s. Norway, to get any press at all, has had to specialize. Her great achievements are mostly explorations, and mostly nautical.

  • Around AD 1,000, Leif Erikson and friends sailed Viking longships across the North Atlantic and discovered America.
  • In the 1890s, Fridtjof Nansen built Fram, an uncommonly sturdy three-masted schooner, which he deliberately stuck in the arctic ice pack to study circumpolar drift. By 8 January 1895 the ice had carried the ship farther north than any ship had ever gone. On 14 March, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen set out in dogsleds for the North Pole. They had to turn back short of their goal, but they did reach 86°13’6″ N, almost three degrees beyond the previous record.
Nansen and Johansen prepare to depart by sled for the North Pole, 14 March 1895. The ice-bound Fram looms in the background. Public Domain.
  • On 14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen led the first expedition that reached the South Pole. Fifteen years later, Amundsen crossed the North Pole in a dirigible airship, leading what may have been the first expedition ever to reach 90°N by any means. (Three prior claims—by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926—have been disputed.)

Thus it was with great expectations that my daughter, Katie, and I drove to Stoughton, Wisconsin, to see Kon-Tiki, a two-hour film dramatization of Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft. It was shown at Livsreise, the amazing new Norwegian heritage center in Stoughton, Wisconsin. (A visit to Livsreise, by the way, is the next best thing to visiting Norway. Think of it as preliminary research for your upcoming trip.) 

Across the Pacific by Raft

In 1950, Heyerdahl, who by the way was a great storyteller, published the book Kon-Tiki, recounting his epic voyage, and it became a best-seller. Heyerdahl was a zoologist, botanist, and anthropologist. His long stay on the little island of Fatu Hiva in the 1930s, and especially a conversation with a tribal elder, persuaded him that the Polynesian islands had been first settled not by Asians traveling eastward—then the prevalent theory—but by South Americans traveling westward. He peddled his theory, in the form of a long research paper, to academics from Norway to New York; but nobody was buying. The killer objection was that South Americans of 1,000 to 1,500 years ago did not have boats that could cross four thousand miles of ocean.

“Expedition Kon-Tiki 1947. Across the Pacific” postcard.  National Library of Norway. CC BY 2.0

“But they did!” Heyerdahl protested. “They had balsa rafts in which they cruised the coast.” He was laughed out of the lecture halls. So Heyerdahl set out to prove that balsa rafts, built with strictly ancient methods, could cross the Pacific. He recruited five fellow lunatics—five Norwegians and a Swede—and they set sail from the port of Callao near Lima, Peru. I will not bore you with details, except for this BIG SPOILER: They made it. And by doing so, they proved that it could have been done, but not that it was done. His theory on the peopling of Polynesia never has become widely accepted.

Nevertheless, the Kon-Tiki story is a typical—did I say quixotic?—Norwegian exploration saga. Well worth your time. Read the book or see the movie. You’ll enjoy it.

Curious Afterthoughts

On the way home after seeing the movie, I resolved to re-read the book. It was fifty years since I had read it, and I wanted to see how much the book had been “Hollywooded” for the film. The answer is—a little bit, but not too badly. For the most part, it sticks to the facts, and certainly to the swashbuckling spirit of the Heyerdahl quest. 

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan sail the Pacific on a raft made of deluxe steamer trunks in Joe Versus the Volcano.Warner Brothers theatrical release poster by John Alvin.

Another thing that struck me is that Kon-Tiki has a curious fictional doppelgänger in the silly and profound 1990 romantic comedy film Joe Versus the Volcano, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. If you haven’t seen it, the film is, in my opinion, brilliant—though plenty of people disagree with me. 

In Joe Versus the Volcano, an average guy named Joe Banks crosses the Pacific on a quest of his own. His motives differ from Heyerdahl’s. Beyond that, however, the two men and their quests are surprisingly similar:

  • Quixotic
  • transpacific voyagers
  • who reach their destinations by raft,
  • celebrate with island natives,
  • and accomplish unexpected results.

Thor Heyerdahl and Joe Banks: Each, in his own way, a romantic. Each reaches for a goal he does not fully understand. Each comes up short, but finds a new path anyway.

The only disappointment about Joe Banks is, he’s not Norwegian. 

Uff da!

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

To an Old Buzzard

Grandpa Sommers was the first person I knew who died. I was eleven. Less than a year later, Grandpa LaFollette would die. Not long after, my friend Norbert—a fellow Boy Scout, luminous in his wiseguyness—would be snuffed out while unwisely trying to halt a runaway bulldozer in his father’s construction yard. 

Since that time, many other people I knew have passed into Eternity. Now that I am old, it has become a trend. 

Grandpa, 1944

But the first to depart was my father’s father. When we got the phone call, I threw myself down on our couch and tried to cry. But I had no tears for Grandpa. I had always feared him. Now he was gone; it was hard to see a downside.

I was ever a timid child; Grandpa was no monster. But he had a cross-grained, profane, pugnacious personality. “Hey, you goddam kids, cut that out!” His continual outbursts were mere blips on the scale of human conflict, but they terrified me. Grandpa was also a genuine eccentric who lived on an exalted plane that no ordinary man could grasp.

It is more than sixty years now since Grandpa last walked the earth. Perhaps the time has come to give the old buzzard his due.

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Sommers band cutter

William Peter Sommers was born 26 January, 1884. He grew up in Metamora, Illinois, a German farming community where his father was a Big Cheese—building contractor, implement dealer, owner of the local telephone company, and inventor of a band-cutter for threshing machines. The Sommerses, you see, were not farmers themselves but townsmen and technicians, who drank from the Pierian Spring of science and technology.

Grandpa immersed himself in telegraphy and telephony. As a young man, he worked for his father but even then showed signs of a truculence that may have been genetic; the old man, hence the whole family, had broken with the Roman Catholic Church over a money dispute with the parish priest, whom they saw as a robber baron.

Grandpa at telephone company, early 1900s

William P. Sommers expected to beat the world through natural superiority, by mastering the new field of communications technology. The Metamora Telephone Company, however, was a cramped corporate space. There was not room enough for two egoes such as Will’s and his father’s. Will left the family business in 1907 and went to work for the Chicago and Alton Railroad as a telegrapher. 

Millie Marie
Gunsten at 18

In 1912 he married Millie Marie Gunsten, a telephone operator from Springfield. They begat children, five in all: Edward, Mabel, Stanley, Lloyd (my father), and Franklin.

In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Telegraphers were nationalized and deployed strategically where the government thought best. Grandpa at age 33 went to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to help move freight shipments across the U.S./Canada border. This may have been his first travel beyond central Illinois. Later that year, he was sent by train to the Pacific Northwest, leaving Illinois on 23 September and arriving in Seattle six days later. Judging by his breathless dispatches home to Millie by postcard—two or three per day—long-distance travel made his blood race. 

Grandpa, age 30

He returned to Metamora and continued as a railroad telegrapher until 1927, when he jumped to the Sinclair (Oil) Pipeline Company. It was the same kind of work he had done for the railroad, only now he dispatched flows of oil by telegraph, not carloads of freight and passengers by rail.

He moved his family to Dahinda, tiniest of prairie towns but the location of a pipeline pumping station. They lived there three years before moving to the metropolis of Knoxville, Illinois (population 1,867), which had its own high school. Grandpa drove nine miles from Knoxville to his job in Dahinda every day in his Pierce-Arrow touring car, the one with isinglass curtains. When the Depression made money scarce a couple of years later, he had to sell the Pierce-Arrow; then he walked nine miles each way three or four days a week.

Franklin’s Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross

In 1942, when he was 58, his second son, Stanley, was killed while flying a B-17 mission in the Southwest Pacific. Stanley was a golden boy, bright and handsome, with a captivating smile, a fluent swing clarinet, and a lovely young wife. Less than a year after Stanley’s death, the youngest son, Franklin, was killed in a B-26 over occupied France. 

Bear in mind, Gentle Reader: I was not born yet when all this happened. I did not observe how Grandpa took these wartime deaths; nor did it ever occur to anyone in the family to tell me. I do know that people in those days—not just my family, not just Germans, but Americans in general—kept emotions to themselves. When I first became acquainted with Grandpa, after World War II, he was a hard-bitten old man. But he was that, quite likely, even before losing Stanley and Frankie.

Will and Millie Sommers at Frankie’s grave, 1950s

In 1949 he “retired” from the pipeline; that’s the word used in his 1957 newspaper obituary. The word Dad told Mom was “fired.” I remember that very distinctly. I was four years old. When Daddy said Grandpa had been “fired,” my mind’s eye saw him as a blackened cinder. My parents had to persuade me it only meant he had lost his job. 

It’s easy now to guess how he got fired: He lipped off to somebody whom he regarded as a moron but who held the power of dismissal. It turned out all right, though. He was 65; no point looking for another job. He devoted himself to his large vegetable garden, probably half an acre; to a couple of long trips he took with his wife, Millie (additional details herehere, and here); and to a whole raft of personal eccentricities and foibles.

  • The CB&Q railroad ran just behind his house. As an old railroad man, he had a duty to count the cars on every freight train that went by, many of them more than a hundred cars long. 
  • He drank a bottle of Hires Root Beer every day. He had a theory it was a health tonic. And not to waste the drop or two of this elixir remaining at the bottom of the bottle, he refilled the bottle with water and drank it down.
  • He also advocated eating the royal jelly of bees—not that he could afford to buy it—and the white insides of orange peels. Again, health measures.
  • He wrote long, typewritten letters to editors and to politicians in Springfield and Washington, favoring them with his definitive views on how to run things.
  • He bought tiny shares of wildcat oil-drilling ventures in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. He had a large U.S. geological map of the region. He could and did—for the benefit anyone in hearing range—pinpoint the location of each of his wells and rattle off incomprehensible data about its production prospects, or at least the plain fact that it was about to “come in a gusher.”
  • He purchased, for his own use, a Violet Ray Machine. It was a Bakelite handle on an electrical cord, with glass tubes of varying shapes that could be locked into the handle. When he plugged it in, there arose a penetrating hummmm; a gas inside the glass tube glowed bright lavender; and the air smelled of ozone. He would fire this up in a darkened room and move the radiant purple tube across his joints, or sometimes across mine. It was a marvelous device. Cured arthritis and rheumatism. Guaranteed.
Violet Ray Machine.
  • He took nitroglycerin pills for periodic chest pains and was vastly amused that the most explosive stuff on earth was prescribed as a balm for his heart.
  • He never bought a car from the Big Three automakers. After he lost the Pierce-Arrow, the next car he bought was a Hudson. After that, in the mid-1950s, he bought a neat little sky blue Studebaker Commander. He would have argued forcefully, to anyone who would listen, that these were better-built products than Fords, Chevrolets, or Chryslers. Really, he was simply contrary.

His one-thousand-one-hundred-eleven weird sayings and doings, in my mother’s view, added up to a strange, disgusting old crank. But he was Dad’s father. What could she do?

On 27 January 1957, the day after his 73rd birthday, he drove the Studebaker to the post office, five miles away. He picked up his mail and drove homeward. Something happened. The car came to rest against the corner of the Steak & Shake Drive-in on East Main Street in Galesburg. Grandpa lay slumped over the wheel, dead.

1953 Studebaker Commander, part of the Studebaker National Museum collection in South Bend, Indiana. Photo by Tysto. Public Domain.

All the world’s royal jelly, orange peel linings, and root beer could not repair his old heart. The world’s first coronary bypass surgery was still three years in the future, and it would be another decade or two before the procedure became common.

Grandma drove the Studebaker until she was no longer able, then it came into our family and I drove it to work most of the summer of 1965. Nice car. 

Those crazy oil leases that Mom ridiculed have brought our family a minor yet welcome flow of dollars right up through the present day.

I don’t know what became of the Ultraviolet Ray Machine. I’ll bet if I had it now I could sell it to a rube for a buck two-eighty.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Flim-flammery and the Long Foul Ball

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.

Something there is, in us, that prefers to deny boundaries. 

I don’t know whether this is only American or universal. But when faced with limitations, hemmed in by rules and customs of society, or bound by mere laws of physics—our minds skip sideways, embracing whatever solution is beyond reach and all the more attractive for that.

Lottery Mindset

Lottery promotion in Dickensian London. Public Domain.

Think about this when you’re in line at the Kwik-Trip waiting for someone ahead of you to buy a Powerball ticket. Don’t imagine he or she is longing to get four dollars or seven dollars back on a two-dollar bet. It’s the big jackpot that draws wagering interest—the forty-gazillion-dollar, once-in-many-lifetimes win. Never mind that it’s all but impossible.

For the same reason, fifty thousand spec scripts are registered each year with the Writers Guild of America. The chance of success is slender, but fifty thousand people see themselves on stage at the Academy Awards. They see that so clearly and convincingly that they write 120 pages of screenplay—a hard thing to do—in case it may come true. 

This urge to shoot for the moon is, not coincidentally, the theme of many Hollywood films, which often feature, again not coincidentally, flim-flam artists.

A pair of examples: 

Flux capacitor. Photo by JMortonPhoto.com  & OtoGodfrey.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
  • In Back to the Future, Marty McFly is a lad stuck in a doomed cycle of frustration at home and humiliation at school. It’s a cycle from which he has no chance of escape—except that his friend, Doc Brown, has invented a Time Machine. Now, Dear Reader, the beauty thing about a Time Machine, for a screenwriter, is the many strange plot twists you can set up and pay off—as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale realized when they wrote the script. But the beauty thing about a Time Machine for the character Marty McFly is that you can escape the bounds imposed on you by the Space-Time Continuum. All you need is a Flux Capacitor and a DeLorean. How cool is that? You might think Doc Brown, inventor of the Time Machine, is some kind of a flim-flam artist. But you would be wrong, due to Exception 7a of the Screenwriters’ Rules of Plot Etiquette: “If an eccentric inventor somehow finds his way around the Laws of Physics . . . Well, that’s okay, then—because he’s a Scientist!” 

But my main point is, we love the story because Marty cheats the normal rules of reality and (SPOILER ALERT) hits a home run.

  • On the other hand, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, in the MGM film of that name, clearly is a con artist. He is nothing but a carnival trickster, transported to a fairyland where he bamboozles the locals into thinking he’s something special. When Toto the dog gets too curious, Oz desperately pleads, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” But it’s too late. The jig is up. He is exposed as a fraud. But, wait—He solves the besetting problems of the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Three up, three down, just like that. Then, he takes Dorothy Gale back home to Kansas—which is all she’s ever wanted, anyway. So maybe he’s not a fraud, after all. That would fall under Exception 7b: “If an inveterate charlatan somehow solves real problems by the Power of Suggestion . . . Well, that’s okay, then—because he’s a Psychologist!” (Or maybe a Meteorologist; cf. Burt Lancaster as The Rainmaker.

Again, the point is: We love the story because Dorothy solves her problems not within the dull, inelastic boundaries of her life, but by escaping to a magical world where she gets a magical fix. Case closed.

Inside Baseball

Hermann R. Muelder. Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois. Used by permission.

How can all this fail to bring to mind the late Hermann R. Muelder? Muelder was a distinguished professor of History at Knox College, but he was also well-known for his campaign to eliminate the outside-the-park home run from the game of baseball. “The home run takes less skill than a well placed hit that a fielder can’t get to,” Muelder said. “You don’t have to know anything about baseball to hit a home run. You just have to be strong.

“Nothing happens when a homer goes out of the park. All the fielders stand there, helpless. There`s nothing they can do. There`s no finesse in a home run. I want to see finesse returned to the game.

“The bunt is more interesting than a home run.”

Another of Muelder’s arguments: “Baseball is the only game in which it is the person—and not the ball—that does the scoring. And that is essentially the game. The home run violates that principle.”

Sadaharu Oh, world record holder for “long foul balls.” Photo by Mori Chan. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dr. Muelder’s argument was logical to a fault. Its essence was that the game consists in how well the players make use of the ball within the field of play. The beauty of the thing lay in its exquisite timing—the duel between pitcher and batter and the race between fielder and base runner to determine the score. Removing from the field of play the object of all this dueling and racing extinguished the whole point of baseball. To cure this outrage, Muelder proposed that if you should happen to belt one over the outfield fence, it would simply be a long foul ball. On the other hand, if you hit the ball so cunningly, and ran so fast, as to score an inside-the-park home run, well—THAT was real baseball. Exempting the ball from any possibility of defense was the only thing Muelder wanted to outlaw. 

Despite the obvious logic of these arguments, baseball has not yet criminalized the outside-the-park homer. 

I think that’s for the same reason we admire Marty McFly and plucky Dorothy Gale: We refuse to tolerate a situation in which our limits are absolute. 

There’s got to be a way to beat the system. Anything else would be un-American.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Cool Runnings, with Lateral Displacement

Groundhog, without shadow. April King photo, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Today is January 21. In twelve days The Groundhog will emerge and see, or not see, his shadow. Either way, we in Madison, Wisconsin, may not reasonably expect warmth until May. 

The question inevitably arises: Where would I rather be? 

That’s easy: The 1950s! Where else? 

Care to join me? 

Those Winters

It was no more than ordinarily cold in those days. Snow did gleam white—except on city streets, where it sank into a purple-pink paste after workers laid down coal cinders for traction. Snow tires being, at that time, hidden somewhere in the future.

The house we lived in sat on high ground. Behind it, a wooded hill tumbled down to the river bottoms. From the corner of our backyard, a narrow trail twisted between scrub maple and willow trees. We called it “The Snake Path.” 

Flopping down on your wood-and-steel sled at the top of The Snake Path, you hurtled downward through a patchy meadow, picking up speed. Then you entered the trees, where dodging left and right became a survival skill. Sleds had wooden bars for steering, but steel runners could warp sideways only so far. Kids with short sleds and pointy-toed engineer boots had an advantage. My sled was long, and I wore round-toed, five-buckle galoshes. 

Boy on sled. Photo by father of JGKlein, used with permission. Public Domain.

If one made it through the trees—and all of us got very good at doing so—then one shot forth from the woods like a bottle rocket and zoomed up a mound of earth near the bottom of the hill. Just short of supersonic, we flew off the top of that mogul and sailed as much as ten feet through the air. If you were still connected to the sled when it slammed down on Mother Earth, you wrenched the steering bar violently and shot off to starboard like those little cash carriers that skimmed the ceiling at J.C. Penney’s, and with full momentum intact, coasted a quarter mile down an old dirt road to the little bridge that spanned the perfectly-named Stink Creek.

This place, I tell you, does exist in the 1950s.

But not now. The coordinates can be plotted. There is still a hill, a road, and a meandering river; but the woods are gone, The Snake Path is no more. The mound of dirt that flung us skyward was leveled long ago. If you knew the place in the Fifties, and if you stood today at the bottom of that hill, you might note the routes traced by all those steel runners, etched invisibly in the air about you. But to see that vision, you must bring the software inside your head. 

Flexible Flyer sled. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Disappointingly, the historical society has not even posted a plaque.

Other events in life have occasionally yielded more excitement—a commodity of dubious worth—but few have ever matched the plain satisfaction of navigating The Snake Path on a Flexible Flyer.

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“But wait, wait—what’s this about cash carriers at J.C. Penney’s?”  

Oh, did I mention cash carriers? 

Perhaps you have heard—or have you?—that in bygone days, we operated on a cash economy. People paid for things, if not with gold eagles like in the Old West, at least with metal coins, or with paper money that was, in theory, redeemable for precious metals. We carried dollar bills that looked much like those of today. But ours were Silver Certificates. 

A silver certificate, this one specially issued for use in pre-statehood Hawaii. National Numismatic Collection,
National Museum of American History, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Each bill was emblazoned:

“This certifies that there is on deposit in the Treasury of the United States of America One Dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”

If I happened to be in Washington, D.C., I could walk into the Treasury Building (which is still there, by the way), present my paper dollar, and get a silver dollar for it. Good deal, eh? 

Still, not many of us actually did that. We simply believed, as we do today, that the piece of paper itself was worth a dollar. We just spent them. Or we put them in a bank and wrote paper checks against them for large purchases or for monthly bills. 

No Credit

Old BankAmericard “welcome sign.” Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

We did not use credit cards. There were a few credit cards or “charge plates,” issued by stores or gasoline companies for favored customers. But the general purpose credit card did not make its way into our lives until the launch of BankAmericard (later called Visa) in 1958. For most purchases, we used cash—crumpled up dollar bills or fives (but seldom a ten or a twenty, because then you would be talking about Real Money); and silver dollars, half dollars, quarters; dimes, nickels, and copper or steel pennies.

This worked well at your Mom and Pop grocery store down the block. You bought a quart of milk for twenty-four cents and handed Pop a dollar. He punched a key on his cash register and the lap drawer flew open with a bang. He placed the dollar in the drawer, fished out a half dollar, a quarter, and a penny, and added them back up as he handed it to you: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”

Flying Gizmos Like Skates

But big stores, like J.C. Penney, preferred not to have cash registers on the sales floors. They needed to record their transactions. So, say you bought a little flimsy scarf at Penney’s—something that cost twenty-four cents—and you gave the saleslady a dollar, then the routine went like this: She wrote down the transaction on a sales slip. She put the sales slip and your dollar inside a little skate-like gizmo; and she stuck the little gizmo to a circulating-cable rail system inside an elongated cage strung across the store’s ceiling; and it zoomed upstairs to the bookkeeping office on the mezzanine. There, Unseen Hands opened the little gizmo—a cash carrier—took your dollar out, and put back in a half-dollar, a quarter, and a penny, along with the sales slip marked “PAID.” The Unseen Hands then sent the cash carrier shooting back through its cage. The sales lady opened it, handed you the receipt, and counted back the change: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”

The best thing about this process, to a small boy, was simply watching the cash carriers ricochet along the ceiling. And the stellar thing about that was how they turned right angles with no loss in velocity, just a tantalizing thunk!

If you’ve never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and watch this little video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w75jOy-r5rg. Be patient, Gentle Reader; the demonstration starts at 00:54. This demonstration video was shot at Joyner’s, a general store in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1994, when the store closed its doors. They ran the cash carrier system just once more, for old times’ sake. But in the heyday of our all-cash economy, this same system was used, hundreds of times a day, in many stores all over the country. It became obsolete when credit cards and electronic registers were invented. 

The careening little cash pods, with their abrupt changes from one plane to another, defied all normal laws of physics, in precisely the same way extraterrestrial spacecraft are thought to do. 

Or, as in our first example, kids on sleds at the bottom of the snake path. 

. . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Book Notes

Three recent posts have explored the early history of Pan American World Airways, a great airline, which employed my uncle as a pilot from the 1930s into the modern era. 

Content for these posts came from old family stories, from photos and reminiscences provided by my cousin Steven Sommers, and from information easily available on the Web. However, two good books also provided a wealth of information. Each of these two books is a little treasure in its own right. One or both may interest you as a reader.

An American Saga

One book is An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley (Random House 1980, 529 pages). This book is available in hardback from Amazon for $54.30. Fortunately, a Kindle version is also available for $7.99. It is highly readable, though the Kindle edition has a few typos. It tells the story of Pan Am from Juan Trippe’s youth through the founding and early years of Pan Am, the glory days of the China Clipper era, the global success of the postwar years, and the airline’s ultimate demise in 1991. Encapsulated in the overall story are many tales of dogged persistence and even heroism. Looming above all is the enigmatic figure of Trippe—a legendary entrepreneur who was modest, collaborative, visionary, and inspiring; while also being secretive, cold-blooded, manipulative, and ruthless. In the process of building Pan Am, Trippe became midwife to the worldwide aviation industry. Daley has boiled down an enormous mass of information into a readable and compelling narrative. If you’re interested in the details of Pan Am’s fascinating history, this is where you’ll find them.

China Clipper

Of equal interest is Robert L. Gandt’s China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats (Naval Institute Press 1991, 214 pages). This one is available in hardcover for $17.50, or in a Kindle edition for $14.49. While Daley’s book chronicles the swashbuckling upstart company that became the world’s most successful airline, Gandt’s volume tells the story of the airplanes themselves—most specifically the seaplanes designated “flying boats” that dominated international aviation in the 1930s and 1940s. Best known are the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42, the Martin M-130, and Boeing’s B-314—all airframes that Juan Trippe purchased for Pan American, and simply by placing his orders, caused their development. What you may not know is that British, French, and German designers developed other flying boats of varying size, range, and carrying capacity. Gandt, himself a former Pan American captain, lovingly traces the development of all these designs. He includes enough cultural and economic context to give the reader a sense why each plane did or did not succeed in the marketplace. Along with his illuminating text, he provides a large gallery of photos, so the reader can see the obvious differences among these planes, and a full set of line drawings by J. P. Wood at 1:300 scale. Read in tandem with Daley’s book on Trippe and Pan American, this book gives a very full picture of the Golden Age of the great flying boats.

Happy reading!

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Most Unusual Day

Uncle Ed was First Officer (ranking copilot) on the Anzac Clipper, a flying boat westbound over the Pacific on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. 

The plane had left San Francisco on December 5 but developed mechanical trouble and had to turn back. She was rescheduled for a 2:00 pm departure on December 6, but the pilot, Captain Harry Lanier Turner, requested and received a half-hour delay so he could attend his daughter’s first piano recital in Oakland.

Anzac Clipper at Clear Lake, California, 1941. From Fandom.com, licensed under CC-BY-SA.

The Boeing 314A was the ultimate flying boat. With four huge 1,600-horsepower engines faired into its 152-foot wingspan, it could cruise at 183 miles per hour, with a service ceiling of 19,200 feet and a range of 5,200 miles without refueling. The plane was so large an engineer could creep through a passage in the wing to observe or service any of its engines in mid-flight. 

A DeLuxe Ride

Even with all that power on the wings, passengers could talk normally in its elegant soundproofed cabin. There was a dining lounge amidships, where two stewards catered four-star meals on white linen using real silver and china. Best of all, you could cross the Pacific in a week, not the three or four weeks that a boat took. But you had to pony up $760 for a one-way passage. That’s equivalent to almost $14,000 in 2020 dollars. 

Cutaway view of Boeing 314 Clipper by Kenneth W. Thompson. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The seventeen passengers aboard the Anzac Clipper that day were no doubt well-heeled. Movie stars, royals, and high government officials often rode Pan American’s Clippers. With their morning juice and coffee, they got a reminder from the stewards to set their watches to Hawaii Time, which was 8:30 am. 

In the spacious crew compartment over their heads, Radio Officer W.H. Bell left his console and strode forward to the “bridge”—Pan Am used nautical terms for everything—with a message for the captain: The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, just an hour’s flight ahead of them. 

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane early in the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Imperial Japanese Navy. Public Domain.

This was serious, for Pearl Harbor was the Clipper’s actual destination. Hostilities did not come as a complete surprise, however. For months, Pan Am captains had carried sealed envelopes to be opened if war broke out. Captain Turner now reached for his envelope and ripped it open. Meanwhile, the radioman began to hear Japanese and American signals from the furious fight being waged.

“Divert to Hilo”

Pan Am’s secret orders instructed Turner, in the event of an attack on Pearl Harbor, to land at Hilo Bay, on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. He put the Boeing into a slow turn toward the south. Passengers were not told of anything amiss until the Anzac Clipper splashed down two hours later.  

Hawaii map showing Pearl Harbor and Hilo. From Visitpearlharbor.org.

The passengers were gathered in the dining lounge and told that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The Clipper would refuel at Hilo and fly back to San Francisco as soon as possible. They were welcome to ride back or to stay in Hawaii and make their own way to their final destinations. 

Special Passengers?

Who were these passengers? According to an April 2016 article by Nam Sang-so in the English-language Korea Times, “There were two VIPs on board; His Imperial Majesty of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was on his way home after visiting President Roosevelt promising that he would cooperate with the United States. The other distinguished guest was U Saw, the Premier of Burma (now Myanmar). He too was on his way home also after visiting that same president and was disappointed by Roosevelt’s refusal to honor his plea for the independence of Burma from Britain. As the western globe route back to Rangoon was blocked by the Japanese fleet, he had to take the eastward route home, stopping at the Japanese Embassy in Lisbon and secretly informing the ambassador that Burma would help Japan in the war against America. The confidential Japanese message sent to Tokyo was decoded by the U.S. Navy. He later played a major role in the assassination of Burma’s national hero Aung San in 1947 and U Saw was later executed by his own people.” 

The presence of these two high-level personages is a remarkable claim, inasmuch as I haven’t found it anywhere else; and Mr. Nam does not state his sources. I have sent him an email asking for more information. 

I also heard rumors within our family, years ago, that the passenger list included Japanese diplomats flying home after unsuccessful negotiations in Washington, D.C. Like Mr. Nam’s assertion about the Shah and U Saw, it seems remarkable. 

However, Pan Am’s Clippers were a remarkable resource in that pre-World War II world—so I can’t completely discount either account.

At any rate, none of the passengers accepted the offer of a free ride back to San Francisco. They all chose to stay in Hawaii and make their way to Honolulu or wherever they were going.

Eastern Exposure

As the Anzac Clipper and its passengers coped with these events, a frenzy had overtaken Pan American headquarters on the 58th floor of New York’s Chrysler Building. Juan Trippe and his lieutenants worked feverishly to save three other Clippers that also stood in harm’s way. 

  • More than 2,500 miles west of Hilo, the Philippine Clipper, a Martin M-130 flying boat captained by John “Hammy” Hamilton, had just left Wake Island en route to Guam. Hamilton received orders to turn around, fly back to Wake, and evacuate all Pan Am personnel from the tiny atoll. While the Clipper was being refueled at Wake, the station came under aerial attack. After climbing out of the ditch where he had taken cover, Hamilton found the aircraft, though stitched by strafing fire, had not been seriously damaged. She was still flyable. After stripping all non-essential items out of the plane to lighten the load, Hamilton took off with 34 passengers, including two seriously wounded. He flew to Midway, an island which had also been attacked, and the next day onward to Hawaii.
Captain Robert Ford, panam.org.
  • At Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Clipper, a Sikorsky S-42 flying boat, was destroyed in an onslaught of Japanese Zero fighters. Captain Fred Ralph and his crew escaped to the Chinese mainland in an emergency airlift of land-based planes operated by CNAC, Pan Am’s Chinese affiliate.
  • Captain Bob Ford and the crew of the Pacific Clipper, another Boeing 314, were stranded in Auckland, New Zealand, with the Imperial Japanese Navy blocking their way home. Eventually, Pan Am headquarters ordered them to fly to New York the long way around—via Asia, Africa, the Atlantic, and South America. Without adequate maps, prepared runways and ground crews, or even reliable supplies of aviation fuel, the intrepid crew worked their way around the globe. Their epic 31,500-mile, month-long trek brought them back to New York in early January—the first circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial airliner.

Whither the Anzac Clipper?

First Officer Edward F. Sommers gets a kiss from his daughter Elaine. Clipped from the San Francisco Chronicleof December 10, 1941, and scanned.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Anzac Clipper had brought their plane home without incident. They left Hilo the evening of December 8, flew in the dark while maintaining radio silence, and arrived in San Francisco the next day, unshaved and missing about three days’ sleep. The San Francisco Chronicle published a photo of Uncle Ed being welcomed home by Elaine, his four-year-old daughter. 

#

Thus ends the glamor era of flying boats—with a bang, not a whimper. The ocean bases Pan Am had painstakingly built at Wake, Midway, and other places, fell to the Japanese. The company’s fleet of nine B-314s were purchased by the U.S. government for a million dollars each. Under the aegis of the U.S. Navy, they flew thousands of hard miles from 1941 until the end of the war. In 1945 the government offered to return them to Pan American at $50,000 apiece, but Trippe declined the offer. Longer-range, land-based aircraft were the future, especially now that most cities fhad built airports.

The B-314s’ war service, however, was noteworthy. They were used for critically important passengers and cargo. They flew badly-needed aircraft tires to China for use by the Flying Tigers. They flew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to and from the 1943 Casablanca Conference with Churchill and other leaders.

Since Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer as well as a Pan American pilot with experience flying B-314s, I can’t help wondering whether he was one of the pilots who flew them for the Navy. Guess I’ll have to ask my cousins. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Flying Down to Rio

Note: Last week I rashly promised that this week’s post would mention my Uncle Ed’s flight to Hawaii in the Anzac Clipper on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Oops! I was a week ahead of schedule. Please excuse the error, and enjoy Aunt Mary’s trip to South America instead. Next week: PEARL HARBOR. Really. For sure.

Juan Trippe’s upstart venture, Pan American Airways, was twelve years old when Uncle Ed joined the company as a pilot in 1939.

Pan Am’s Clippers were already changing the shape of the world. In those days of high international tension, Pan American’s interests were so closely identified with the official interests of the United States that flying for Pan Am was like flying for the Navy. In fact, Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer, having received his college education and initial flight training through the Naval ROTC program.

Ed and Mary, late 1930s.

Pan Am assigned him to South America, where the young airline’s routes were most fully  developed. So on 20 September 1940, Ed flew with his wife, Mary, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elaine, from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They traveled there via Antilla, Cuba; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and San Pedro de Macario, Dominican Republic. Their entire journey, from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, would take them a mere three days! 

Sikorsky S-42, aircraft registration NC-822M, “Brazilian Clipper”, Pan American Airways. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Public Domain.

Mary sent a letter home—in pencil on both sides of four sheets of white typing paper— describing the adventure. In her letter she comments that little Elaine was “good as gold” throughout the trip. She complains of food prices—$3.50 for “very little,” she says, at the hotel in San Juan. However—

The trip was beautiful. At one place we landed on a river, and it was a thrill. I’ll always remember when we came down on that muddy water at about 100 mi. per hr. (Elaine and I had never rode in a seaplane before.)
Steward serves dinner aboard a Martin M-130 flying boat. Pan American World Airways, Inc. Via University of Miami Libraries Special Collections. Public Domain.
The Capt. is a peach & both stewards were nice. Same Capt. goes tomorrow.

Who could resist the thrill of landing on water at a hundred miles per hour? Especially with such peachy flight and cabin crew. Pan Am, from the start, tried to provide the ultimate luxury experience for their passengers.

On the second night, they stayed in Belem, state of Pará, northern Brazil. Mary did not enjoy the town’s peculiar odor, “which they called distilled wood, but smelled like raw sewage to me.” 

We got in late, waited for a long time to get through customs, then rode in a rackety bus for miles into the town.
It was a wild ride. The one who toots first has the right-of-way, so we went tooting madly while native children scampered in all directions. 

On the third day, flying from Belem to Rio in a land-based Boeing 307 Stratoliner, they made a mid-day stop at Barreiras, an inland city in east-central Brazil. 

Barreiras Airport, 1940s. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 
That was surely interesting. There’s nothing but the landing field on a high plateau in the middle of the jungle. The natives swarmed out of their huts to stare at us, especially at Elaine and I, as we were the only females on the plane. 
The airport manager carried an 8 in. knife, just in case, he said.
A native woman served good coffee in a thatched hut. 
We were at 18,000 ft.  in the strato-liner, it was very comfortable, but I think I enjoyed the first day in the Clipper most, & Elaine liked to watch the water landings too.

The Stratoliner, a sleek, cigar-shaped vessel that entered commercial service in 1938, was the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at altitudes to 20,000 feet. It was basically a B-17 bomber with its fuselage expanded to accommodate 33 passengers and a crew of six, instead of bombs. 

A Pan Am-labeled Boeing 307 Stratoliner, on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Originaly uploaded by the photographer, Kaszeta, under terms of the GFDL. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Once the young family arrived in Rio, it did not at first match expectations. For one thing, the weather was cold and clammy and remained so for a week or more after their arrival. “Most of our heavy clothes are in the trunk that is being shipped, & I sure wish we had them,” Mary writes. “I have never been so cold I think.” 

And the local cuisine took some getting used to.

Food is good & plentiful here but different. Tea is served in the afternoon, but we are always so full that we don’t bother with it. 
Coffee is so strong it looks thick, and is combined with hot milk, and is, surprisingly, very good. … Elaine drinks hot boiled milk and likes it too.
A typical lunch consists of hors d’oeuvres (celery, sardines, olives, etc.) chicken or veg. soup, cold veal covered with spiced mayonnaise, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cottage pie (diced meat with mashed potato covering), rolls, molded pudding or ice cream, coffee.
Everything is served in separate courses. Salad is also available, but we skip it, or anything raw on account of dysentery.

After a week’s leave, Ed reported to Pan Am’s office and began preparing for his first flight from Rio, a four-day trip to Belem. Meanwhile, Mary grew concerned about housing. “The Co. pays expenses here for 7 days & after that we are on our own, so must find an apt. as soon as possible.” Yet, after the first week, they were still living in a beachfront hotel, and “[it] looks as if we will be here for some time.” 

After all, it was 1940. There was a war on in Europe. “The place is full of French & Eng. refugees, many of them wealthy who either have, or are looking for Apts. & willing to pay well for them.” 

Still, there were consolations to living the high life oin Rio.

We are on the 7th floor & scenery is very beautiful. Sugar [Loaf] Mountain & its cable car going up the side can be seen when it isn’t foggy. All the mts. are tall & narrow & green. …
There are a troupe of show people here, including two midgets that we saw in Long Beach, Cal. when we first went there.
They amuse Elaine as she is bigger than they.
Elaine before the trip to Rio.
They are friendly & fun to talk to. The woman is knitting herself a dress.
Elaine can count to 5 in Portuguese as well as Eng. & knows a few other words. At dinner she handed her napkin back to the waiter & told him holey & showed him the holes.
Weather has turned warm & we all like it here very well.  Everyone is very nice.
I am tired of eating meat & fish.  I’ve finally learned how to use a fish knife.  The fish fork is held in the left hand, and knife in the right, and then go after it.
The waiters serve each course from a silver tray & manipulate both a fork & serving spoon with one hand. I’m going to practice that when I have time.
Street cars here have an open car as a trailer, marked “Secunda classe (second class)” which is half price.  People hang on the sides, too.

Eventually they did find an apartment, for a longer-term stay. But, as is the fate of junior airline employees in every time and place, they did not stay put for long. Sometime between February and December, 1941, they moved back to the United States, settling in Oakland, California, just uphill from Alameda, where Ed began flying Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” flying boats across the Pacific. 

Next Stop: PEARL HARBOR. Be sure to tune in.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

He Gave Us Wings

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

For Pan American World Airways, the shadow was that of Juan Trippe. He, more than anybody else, invented not only Pan American but the airline industry of which it was a part. 

Juan Trippe on the cover of Time magazine, July 1933. Public Domain.

Despite his Latin-sounding name, Juan Terry Trippe was strictly Anglo. Scion of an old, well-to-do family, he was a great-great-grandson of naval hero John Trippe, who had fought France and the Barbary Pirates around 1800.

Juan was born on the eve of the twentieth century. He enrolled at Yale in 1917 but left to join the Navy, with many of his classmates, when the United States entered World War I. After training, he was commissioned an ensign and designated a Naval Aviator. The war ended before Trippe could get into action. But in his brief naval service, the aviation bug had bitten him.

He returned to college, organized the Yale Flying Club, entered and won an Ivy League intercollegiate air race. On graduation, he sidestepped the family’s traditional business of banking. Instead, he sold stock to his Yale classmates and started an air-taxi service called Long Island Airways. 

The tiny airline soon folded, but Trippe had gained valuable experience and expanded his vision. He arranged to fly the United Fruit Company’s shipping documents over rugged mountains in Honduras, from the port of Tela to the capital at Tegucigalpa—a 90-minute flight that eliminated an overland trek of three days. 

Tycoon in the Making

In the 1920s, Juan Trippe organized or purchased a string of small airlines: Alaskan Air Transport, Buffalo Airlines, Eastern Air Transport, Colonial Air Transport, and others. He applied himself to buying new and more capable aircraft, securing landing rights and airmail contracts with U.S. and foreign governments, and recruiting a corps of able associates. In 1927, just six years out of college, Trippe formed the Aviation Corporation of America on $300,000 raised from thirteen of his wealthy Yale friends. Almost immediately, the company managed to acquire a newly-organized airline called Pan American Airways, Inc. That October, Pan American made its first regular flight, a mail run from Key West to Havana.

Though a qualified aviator, Trippe resisted the urge to be a swashbuckling pilot-entrepreneur. Instead, he majored in running the business. He became an ace negotiator, driving shrewd bargains with a mix of stubbornness and patience. He had a sure vision for where the airline business would be two to five years in the future. He ordered planes and developed routes accordingly.

The young airline mogul also was a genius at what today we call branding. As Pan Am’s routes expanded around the hemisphere, to many cities which had no airports but did have decent fresh or salt water harbors, Trippe came to rely on seaplanes. He bought ever-larger flying boats from builders Igor Sikorsky, Glenn Martin, and William Boeing. 

“The walls of the den of his Long Island weekend home bore prints of the American clipper ships that had once crossed the oceans at the fastest speeds of the day. Trippe determined that henceforth all Pan Am airliners would be called Clippers . . . . Aboard, all would be as nautical as Trippe’s men could make it. The pilot henceforth would be called captain, and the copilot would be called first officer. Speed would be reckoned in knots, and time according to bells. . . . As aboard any ship, life rings would hang from the walls of the lounge.”

Daley, Robert, An American Saga—Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire. Riviera Productions Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Trippe was targeting well-heeled travelers who regularly cruised the oceans on sumptuous White Star and Cunard ships. He wanted Pan Am to provide a familiar experience.

Sikorsky S-42, the Brazilian Clipper, 1934. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Public Domain.

His S-40 Clippers from Sikorsky pioneered air service over a large Caribbean and Latin American route system. They were soon supplanted by the larger S-42s, by Martin M-130s and finally, by Boeing B-314s, the most formidable of the flying boats. Trippe’s endless appetite for bigger and longer-range planes set the industry’s course through the 1930s.

Trippe started planning transoceanic service before ocean-capable aircraft existed. Manufacturers scrambled to meet his needs. When Sikorsky’s S-42 opened the possibility of crossing the Atlantic, Trippe found the way barred by legalities. The British, still developing their own long-range flying boats, would not grant landing rights in their domains until they were in a position to run a competing or at least complementary service. But Trippe already had S-42s and Martin M-130s arriving in his fleet. He needed an ocean to cross, pronto.

In desperation he looked westward. But the Pacific was wider than the Atlantic. The S-42 might, with some difficulty, be made to fly 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After refueling, it could cross 1,300 miles of ocean to the tiny Midway Atoll. But then came a 2,600-mile stretch from Midway to Guam—an unbridgeable gap. In the New York Public Library, Trippe pored over navigation logs of 19th-century clipper ships and found his answer: Wake, an uninhabited coral atoll even smaller than Midway but perfectly located, almost halfway from Midway to Guam. If Wake became a port for flying boats, Pan American could fly from California to the Philippines and on to China.

Aerial view of Wake Island August 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo. Public Domain.

Trippe chartered a freighter, S.S. North Haven, filled it with equipment, supplies, and college men eager for adventure, and sent it to Wake with instructions to make a harbor. He had passenger seats stripped out of a Sikorsky S-42 and replaced with extra fuel tanks. The plane, commanded by Captain Edwin C. Musick, began trial runs for long-range flying out of Alameda on San Francisco Bay. 

Meanwhile Trippe induced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to place Wake and Midway under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy, with which Trippe was on good terms. From its beginnings, Pan American had been treated well by the United States government, which found it a useful cat’s paw in the ambiguous realm of international affairs. Pan Am had been formed by Army aviators, including Henry (“Hap”) Arnold and Carl (“Tooey”) Spaatz, mainly for the patriotic purpose of countering the growth of German influence in the Caribbean and Central America. 

America’s Airline

Unlike other nations, the U.S. had no state-sponsored airline. Thus, Pan Am—as America’s unofficial, that is, quasi-official, state airline—was ideally suited to project a private U.S. presence in the face of Japan’s quest for hegemony in the Pacific. So FDR willingly gave Trippe all the support needed to knit a web of passenger service over what was becoming, arguably, an American pond.

In April 1935, Musick and a crew including crack navigator Fred Noonan took an S-42 from Alameda to Pearl Harbor. A few days later, they flew back, nearly running out of fuel because of stiff and prolonged headwinds. Nevertheless, the era of transpacific air service had begun. 

Pan American Airways (PAA) construction workers lighter building materials from the SS North Haven to the dock at Wilkes Island, Wake Atoll, 23 May 1935. National Air and Space Museum Archives. Public Domain.

In a dizzing succession of events, Pan Am cleared a deep enough channel inside the reef at Wake to make flying boat landings practical; the Martin Company delivered the first three M-130 flying boats, which were christened China ClipperPhillipines Clipper, and Hawaii Clipper, respectively; Trippe caused hotels with Simmons beds, private baths, and hot showers to be constructed on both Midway and Wake; the U.S. government awarded Pan Am the U.S.-China mail contract; and Trippe skilfully maneuvered the British government into granting landing rights at Hong Kong.

Martin M-130, the China Clipper, 22 November 1935. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. Public Domain.

Pan Am Clippers had been delivering the mail from San Francisco to Manila for eleven months. At last, on October 21, 1936, full Clipper service was initiated for both mail and passengers all the way to Hong Kong. Technically, China Clipper was only the name of the first M-130 airplane delivered to Pan American. Because the China Clipper received great fanfare in the press, with thousands of people attending its inaugural takeoffs and landings; and because the full extent of the service was from the United States to China; that service itself became identified with the China Clipper, and the great heyday of transpacific flying boats—which would last only about five years, until the outbreak of war in the Pacific—has come down to us as the “Era of the China Clipper.”

“Orient Express” by Pauline Darley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

The China Clipper—the plane itself, as well as the service—was both romantic and historic. Think of it as America’s westbound answer to the Orient Express. It was expensive and luxurious. The world’s movers and shakers rode it. It became, inevitably, a setting for exotic intrigues in the international power games. 

Elsewhere I have mentioned my late uncle, Pan American Captain Edward F. Sommers. What I did not say was that, in his early years as a pilot, he flew the giant flying boats, first in South America and then in the Pacific. One of his interesting experiences was flying the Anzac Clipper, inbound for Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Tune in here next Tuesday, and I’ll tell you more.

Next Tuesday: Day of Infamy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Stop the presses!

“Down the Hall on Your Left,” a blog that has been the source of much innocent (and not so innocent) merriment for many since 2014, is shutting down.

Man alleged to be John Kraft.

World-class curmudgeon John Kraft has posted more than 1,500 entries and now, of all times, claims to have run out of things to say. Well, John, all I can say is, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.

I personally (that is, myself, in the first-person singular) have become practically addicted to John’s weekly dash of cold blather. I will miss it.

AND HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS:

I checked directly with His Bloggishness, and there are no near-term plans to extinguish the site itself. So, if you happen to like writing by Old Guys (and if not, Dear Reader, why are you here?), then be sure to check out “Down the Hall on Your Left,” where plenty of past delicacies and indelicacies remain for your enjoyment.

So long, fellow blogger, and Happy Trails to You.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Child’s Christmas in Downstate Illinois, Part II

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie. 

Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—

It’s morning. Christmas morning!

I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.

Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.

“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe. 

“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.

“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums. 

“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”

“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set. 

Girl and doll. Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash.

Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.

Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping. 

“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.

There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that. 

We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.

A Flexible Flyer sled within the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of IndianapolisCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.

Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.” 

“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.” 

More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.” 

“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.” 

My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.

From left: Aunt Linda, Cynda at 2, Steve at 6, Betsy at 1, Larry at 7. Christmas 1952 at Grandma LaFollette’s house.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in. 

We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.

It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.

Grownups in Grandma LaFollette’s dining room, Steve and Larry in foreground, Christmas 1952.

I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.

Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.

The kids’ table, Christmas 1952. Clockwise, from lower left: Steve, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, Cynda, Larry.

Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.

“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”

“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”

Really? There are rules for wishes?  I didn’t know.

So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.

I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.” 

I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl. 

Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.

An earlier Christmas: 1950.

“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then  it turns and falls off the side.

“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.

Otto Graham. Bowman’s football card, 1954. Public domain.

By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun. 

We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.

Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.

Blessings and Merry Christmas, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author