A Pair of Great Historical Novels

One of the pleasures of my trade is reading the historical fiction other people are writing. This week it is my pleasure to give enthusiastic endorsement to a couple of wonderful books by female writers with female protagonists.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Mary Rowlandson is a contented, if repressed, minister’s wife on the Massachusetts frontier in the 1670s. When Indians raid her village in an early phase of King Philip’s War, she and her children are taken captive, with other English colonists, in a harrowing ordeal. Eventually she is released and resumes life as a proper colonial wife.

But her season of captivity has changed her outlook on the world, and she finds that extisence within the normal Puritan channels of the Massachusetts Bay Colony no longer is a comfortable fit for her. 

Amy Belding Brown’s prose is straightforward and workmanlike, rising sometimes into the lyrical, as she tells Mary’s tale. We meet a number of actual historical figures besides Mary herself, including Increase Mather, King Phillip (Metacomet), his sister-in-law the female sachem Weetamoo, missionary to the Indians John Eliot, and James Printer (Wowaus)—one of Eliot’s “Praying Indians” who mastered English, worked in the printing trade, and lived in both worlds.

The external movements of this sweeping novel are all, in the author’s words, “consistent with historical records.” However, the heart of its narrative lies in the inner turmoil of Mary Rowlandson: the easy assumptions she finds shattered, the travail of adjusting her old viewpoints to fit often-unpleasant new realities of her life, and her fearless encounter of love’s contradictory pulls on her heart.

Anyone interested in history, in the mysteries of the human heart, or both, will enjoy this book.

Tinsmith 1865 by Sara Dahmen

In Tinsmith 1865 a young woman, Marie Kotlarczyk, transplanted to the Dakota frontier, must take up and succeed at her family’s trade of tinsmithing, despite being a woman. The voice of Marie, often tormented by the decisions she must make and the feats she must perform, is strong and compelling. Romance is a strong part of this story but it would be wrong to call it a “romance.” It is historical fiction, with emphasis on the real struggles of a community of well-drawn characters in the post-Civil War American West. The book highlights the varying ethnicities present in the fictional Flats Town—especially Marie’s Polish family and friends and several Norwegians who sometimes help and sometimes hinder her quest to be her own woman. I was fascinated by the story’s authentic historical detail and was continually drawn into Marie’s personal struggle. 

The author, Sara Dahmen, says, “Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.” Besides the practice of smithery and the design and marketing of her own cookware line, Sara is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books, including her Flats Junction Series, of which Tinsmith 1865 is the second installment.

Hope you will enjoy one or both of these outstanding books as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Birth of a Book, Part 2

You were regaled last week with the tale of how I became a full-time writer and embarked on a major work of historical fiction. (If by chance you missed out on this gripping account, you can make up for lost time here.)

My novel, Freedom’s Purchase, tells of a young man, Anders, and a young woman, Maria, who sail from Norway to America and settle in Central Illinois just before the Civil War. Those were years when our nation was in great turmoil, when slave hunters roamed the prairie looking for escapees from Southern plantations, or even for free blacks they could kidnap into slavery. It was inevitable that my characters, Anders and Maria, would come in conflict with Slavery and its minions.

Anders and Maria are based on my real-life ancestors—but they are wholly fictional characters. In other words, they are not the real Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro from whom I am descended. But there is some basis, you see, in the common usages of our common past

A Norwegian woman about to start for America bidding her people farewell. Stereopticon card. From Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Immigrant Saga

While starting to work out the plot for my novel, I attended the University of Wisconsin – Continuing Studies Program’s annual “Write by the Lake” conference; my breakout was a workshop on “Know Your Genre,” taught by Laurie Scheer. We learned what genres are: Mainly, they are categories that allow agents and publishers to know how to pitch your story, and booksellers to know where to shelve it. I told Laurie my idea for a historical novel about Norwegian immigrants in the time of the Civil War. 

“An immigrant saga!” she said. 

“Yes,” I said. “That’s it.” 

She encouraged me to write it. Because of her encouragement, I started to think, “Maybe I could.”

How to Be a Writer, in 1,672 Easy Lessons

I was finding my niche. I had taken T.S. Eliot’s lines as my watchword—

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 

By the time I began writing the first draft of Anders and Maria, I had hooked up with a great writing critique group, Tuesdays With Story. We meet twice a month, under the leadership of Jerry Peterson—to read and comment on one another’s work. This task is indispensable to any writer who is serious about developing his or her craft. You need to hear just how your work strikes someone who does not have the big advantage you have—the advantage of living inside your own mind and already knowing what it is you’re trying to convey. It’s all too easy to write things that convey to readers something other than what you intended. The Tuesdays with Story Group is a valuable backstop.

Also, to be a writer in today’s market, you must become a Major Literary Figure on day one. Besides writing and revising your own work, you spend many hours reading and commenting on other people’s work. You do theirs because they do yours; one hand washes the other. 

But you also find yourself constantly immersed in many already-published books, both within and outside of your genre. The good, the bad, and the ugly. You can learn something from each one of them, Grasshopper.

And let’s not forget magazines—The Writer and Writer’s Digest—which are de rigeur, and conferences, such as “Write by the Lake” and the UW’s annual spring Writers’ Institute. A good writers’ conference brings together hundreds of people who share this creepy compulsion to put words on paper and have people read them. 

The first time I attended the UW Writers’ Institute, in 2018, I knew right away I had found my tribe. We are all different, yet all the same. We have to write. Whether or not we’re any good at it. Whether or not we can sell it. Whether or not we grab the brass ring of fame and fortune. 

Later this month I will attend my third Writers’ Institute. I will see old friends and make new ones. I will pitch my book to bona fide literary agents and learn new and better ways to navigate the literary marketplace. 

Standing on a Platform

Above all, experts say, “an author needs a platform.” But “platform” has no exact definition. Arnold Palmer, the golfer, had a platform, only it was called an army—“Arnie’s Army,” thousands of devoted fans who showed up and paid good money to follow Arnie across any golf course, in fair weather or foul, whether he was shooting well or ill. That is a platform. 

Say you’re famous. You’re Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Wayne Gretzky, or Ellen DeGeneres. You already have a platform. Just whisper a hint that you might write a book, and top publishers will give you a seven-figure advance.

If you’re a regular person and just hope somebody will read your book, a platform is harder to come by. If you’re already a published author, that’s a start. Readers who loved your cozy mystery The Chocolate Cake Caper might also buy The Apple Pie Fiasco. But if you’re not famous and have nothing in print, then all you have is friends and family. And—what else?—Social Media.

So, about the time I started writing Freedom’s Purchase, I added a “Larry F. Sommers, Writer” page to my Facebook presence. I didn’t know what I would do with it, and in truth, I have not done much. But I use it now and then to mention some little victory or struggle in my ongoing quest as a writer. Right now there are 227 followers on that page. I also have 611 friends on my regular Facebook page. What does that mean? It just means I have friends and followers. Which is good, right? (If you’re not already a friend and follower, I invite you to hop on the bandwagon at https://www.facebook.com/larryfsommers and https://www.facebook.com/LarryFSommersWriter/.)

Into the Blogosphere

Then, about a year ago, I decided to launch this blog. Let me assure you, Kind Reader, I did not do so lightly. 

Some folks told me, “Oh, a blog is so easy! No trouble, no time, a lead-pipe cinch.” 

Well, Gentle Reader, Your New Favorite Writer is not among those who just fell off the turnip truck yesterday. No, sir. I knew it would be a grind. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished without significant time and effort.

I decided to do it anyway, because: This blog—titled “Reflections” and subtitled “seeking fresh meanings in our common past”—is not just a promotional device for my novel. Rather, it is a way to relate directly with you and others who like to read about old times and ponder what meanings we might derive from them. So it is not only a way to promote my writing; it IS my writing, so far more than 50,000 words and counting.

Though I approached the project with trepidation, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy doing it. Especially I enjoy getting hints from time to time that my work has really connected with a reader. When I read a comment on my blog, or on my Facebook page, that just makes my day. Especially when that person says, “Your story reminded me of . . .”—and then proceeds to tell me a little story from their own experience and recollection. What I wrote stimulated their thoughts about their own past and its meaning.

That is why I am doing it, friends.

So I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll spread the word to others—by mentioning this “Reflections” blog at https://LarryFSommers.com, by sharing it on Facebook, by tweeting it on Twitter, or whatever. And I hope you’ll come back often. We’ll explore a diverse range of human experiences and try to puzzle them out together. And when Freedom’s Purchase—or my new novel, which is completely different—is published, you’ll be among the first to know.

Until then, happy reading, and 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Birth of a Book

Who is a writer? 

What is a writer? 

How does a writer come to be?

Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?

Athena emerges from Zeus’ forehead, armed and ready for battle. Attic exaleiptron (black-figured tripod), ca. 570–560 BC. Found in Thebes. Public Domain.

All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write. 

Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter. 

I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey

My Odyssey

Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.

I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.

Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold. 

I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.

I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started. 

For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—

How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 
As tho’ to breathe were life! . . .
. . . but every hour is saved 
From that eternal silence, something more, 
A bringer of new things . . . . 

New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?

A New Chapter

There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.

The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:  

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 

Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.

I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.

Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016. 

But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.

A Novel Obsession

My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award. 

The Main Office of Larry F. Sommers, Writer–a spare corner of my bedroom. The mess is essential to the creative process.

Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”

So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois. 

Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.

I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!

We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War. 

To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences. 

Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway. 

He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.

What a novel this would make.

The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast. 

Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?

Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!

Which is how my novel, Freedom’s Purchase, came to be.

Next Week:  Update on the novel project.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Books and Ambition

This is a guest post by Sara Dahmen, coppersmith, entrepreneur, and author of the Flats Junction Series of historical novels and the nonfiction book Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey.

Sara Dahmen

When I wrote my first novel, I had no ego. No expectations. No ambition.

I was planning simply to write a book for fun and give myself a place to escape. I had nothing but a girl on a train and a wisp of a half-dream to guide me. I didn’t know where she was going or what would happen to her. I didn’t know who she was, or her name, or where she was going. I only knew she lived in the past, and she was pregnant.

That was the very beginning of my “serious” career as a writer and novelist. I say “serious” because I have always been a writer. I wrote stories before I could spell (like when I would say “She went to the vigge” and “vigge” meant “village”) and when they were primarily cartoon drawings with a sentence or two explaining the plot, but the dialogue in bubbles over the people’s heads. I wrote a lot of angst-y stories as a pre-teen. It got worse in high school and then peaked in college, when I’d write epic, 250+ page dramas instead of studying for philosophy class.

And then I stopped. I actually stopped writing for years. It wasn’t writer’s block—I don’t believe in writer’s block—but it was simply life. I fell in love and got married. (There went the angst.) I had children. (NO TIME TO WRITE!) I built businesses. (That time thing again . . . .) 

But then somewhere in the middle of running a household, cooking meals, running a company, and chasing babies (and having more babies!), I found my voice again. It was therapy of a sort, but it was also like discovering a long-lost skill. I am inherently a storyteller, and I pour all my heart, soul and gusto in telling any tale. Writing that first book was like coming back to my spirit and recognizing what I was capable of doing, once again. 

After several starts and stops between self-publishing and working with small presses, I eventually landed a mid-sized publisher based in Canada. They have published Tinsmith 1865 and Widow 1881, the first two novels in my Flats Junction Series. It was vindication that I could indeed do something with this storytelling skill I could apparently not stifle no matter how busy I stuffed my life with activities!

While these two fiction books were in the middle of the hairsplitting process of editing, re-editing, and more editing, I had previously started to research cookware. So much of what happens in my novels is either about the building or using of vintage cookware. The women characters either create it or use it, and I wondered how I could learn more about how such things were made and used in the 1800s. I also believed such wares should be made again in America; so without much thought or preparation, I started to build an American cookware company

This meant learning an entire new industry. Sales! Tax! Inventory! Cost of Goods Sold! Tooling! Metallurgy! It was one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever had in my life. I’m horrible at math and chemistry, and this utilized both. I had to learn how to talk to engineers and fabricators. I had to research old cookware. I had to decide how much of my savings I’d push into this crazy venture. 

By serendipity I discovered that one of the top metalworking artisans in the country, master tinsmith Bob Bartelme, lived near me in Wisconsin. He took me under his wing to show me the original methods of building cookware. By spending time in his shop, I organically became his apprentice! (Now, four years later, I still go up several times a week to his shop and we work the tools from the 1700 and 1800s to build cookware.) 

Sara Dahmen tins one of her copper skillets in her Wisconsin garage. Photo by Christian Watson 1924.us.

Suddenly, I realized I could not only write about what I was learning, which I did in Tinsmith 1865, but I could actually build the cookware in my own line. Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them. 

All the work that went into building cookware meant I learned way more than I had ever bargained for as a historical fiction writer and novelist. It became obvious that so much of my knowledge was oral, gleaned from tales of old tinsmiths, from Bob, from my research, from translating books out of German and French and talking to makers around the country. It was impossible to find such information about cookware in one place, so I wrote a non-fiction book about the history, science, use and care of traditional cookware—ironware, copperware, and pottery. That book has been bought by William Morrow/HarperCollins and will be released on April 28, 2020 as Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey

So suddenly, I have a brand, and it’s very cohesive. I’m a fiction writer, who writes about 1800s women in the west who use and make cookware. I make the cookware using the tools from the 1800s. I wrote a non-fiction book about being a smith. And when people ask me how I became a smith, I point to the fiction books! Around and around it goes! 

Now what? I suppose I have more ambition than when I started. I want to share information about cookware. I want to teach about coppersmithing. I want people to fall in love with my characters, since they are no longer simply my own entertainment. I want people to learn from my non-fiction. I want them to stop filling landfills with cheap cookware and invest in a few pieces that will last generations. 

Ambition, it seems, is impossible to escape when one is an invested writer.

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I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse at the life and work of Sara Dahmen, Wisconsin’s leading female coppersmith/businesswoman/novelist.

Next Week: How I Became a Writer

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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. 

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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