Lawrence in Arabia: How one man influenced the modern Middle East

October 3, 2013

Wonder about all the turmoil in the Middle East?  I recently discovered a book that gives me a lot better idea of how these countries currently in the headlines were established, and their relationship to one another.  Non-fiction, but written like a thriller, the book is Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson.  Hot off the press, it describes  the events surrounding World War I almost a century ago, yet with the perspective of today.  For some of us, Lawrence is a very familiar character, thanks to the 1962 epic movie, Lawrence of Arabia.  But this is the REAL story.  Researched in detail from letters, memos, military reports and in some cases biographies that allow an in-depth accounting of those times.

lawerence in arabia coverIn additon to T. E. Lawrence, Anderson also introduces us to an American oil company representative, who in addition was a spy.  A German academic, who was also a spy.  A Jewish agronomist, who –wait for it– was a spy. Which of course, so was Lawrence!  How these men, and numerous others, crossed paths and engaged in activities that directly influenced the structure of the Middle East today is told in a straight forward fashion that is hard to put down.

The subtitle of the book: “war, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern middle east” is an accurate summary of the volume.  The high-level back room deals that were being made, often in conflict with one another, provide a chilling look at how the imperial powers did business. And how the US fit into the picture.

I found Anderson’s writing style to be refreshing and crisp.  He explains the mind set of William Yale, the American oil company rep who later becomes the state department’s “special agent” in the Middle East, as follows:

An  exemplar of the American can-do spirit, William Yale also held to the belief, quite common among his countrymen, that ignorance and lack of experience could actually bestow an advantage, might serve as the wellspring for ‘originality and boldness.’ If so, he promised to be a formidable force in the Middle East.

Anderson brings this period of history to life, providing insights into the forces, and personalities, that clashed during the war. He doesn’t sugar coat the actions of the allies, which often lead to the seemingly needless loss of thousands of lives.  The book has maps in the  inside covers, which greatly aides the reader if you don’t happen hold the geography of the Middle East in your head. Even so, I found myself going to Google Earth on occasion to appreciate the distances and terrain, which are important elements of the story. I would highly recommend this book.  An will now take a look at some his other works.  A grateful thank you to Terry Gross and her interview on Fresh Air which first brought this book to my attention!


More than a Hunting Book

August 20, 2013

John Hewitt grew up with a passion to hunt.  And fish.  His book, The Model 12 Winchester as a way of life, gives us a look at what it was like to grow up in Kansas during the 1950’s and 60’s, saddled with that affliction.  Fortunately, it seems his twin brother Tom and close friend Terry shared these conditions and were co-conspirators when it came to getting out to pursue game.


While growing up with guns and game meat, I lack the gene or whatever it is that makes hunting an obsession for John and many others.  I haven’t read a huntin or fishin tale in years, but devoured this collection of thirty nine stories, many of which revolve around shotguns.  To share just a flavor of his style, at one point John tells how he lusted after, and finally bought a ten gauge.  The reality of his new shotgun soon came to light.  Here is the highly technical way he describes the new acquisition:

“The gun weighed in excess of ten pounds, and looked like if only it had had wheels under it, John Paul Jones might’ve bought it to sink His Majesty’s Ships of the Line with.  Quite a firearm, that, balanced not too differently from a good bumper jack.  A little more drop in the stock and it would have made a deadly hockey stick, though a touch heavy…”

While the book is composed of individual anecdotes, collectively they tell a bigger story.  The competition with his twin brother is a major theme, along with a lot of plotting and scheming, normally encountered among siblings.  John’s description of their interaction gives a clue.

“While getting Tom’s goat didn’t involve a great deal of effort, it yielded certain satisfactions that catching fish did not.  On the right day I could do it just by walking around and breathing air.”

While some interest in hunting and fishing is probably required to properly enjoy John’s work, it is really a story about life, including the Vietnam War, which profoundly impacted the Hewitt family.  Contemporaneous photos of chief members of the cast are lightly sprinkled thorough the volume, almost always displaying a “catch” of one type or another.  And often the implement used to obtain it.  The book covers times both fun and sad, is told with wit and humor, and I found it a pure delight to read!

The 1908 New York to Paris Race

August 12, 2013

The “aerial perspective” isn’t always about being in the air, and it was a rare treat to attend a presentation by Jeff Mahl about the 1908 Great Auto Race from New York to Paris. Organized by the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks, it was a natural venue for the event.  While I had read about the race years ago, vaguely recalling that at one point it came to Valdez, and had planned to proceed to Fairbanks, “down the Yukon River” to Nome and across the Bering Straits.  That clearly didn’t happen.  But what did?  Why? And what difference did it make?  I got answers to all these questions, and a lot more.

Thomas Flyer used in the 1908 New York to Paris race, driven by George Schuster. photo from

Thomas Flyer used in the 1908 New York to Paris race, driven by George Schuster. photo from

Jeff Mahl has a direct and personal connection to the Great Auto Race.  He is the great grandson of George Schuster, who drove the Thomas Flyer, the American entry in the four-way international race, around the world.  As a child, Jeff heard his great grandfather tell stories of the race.  Today, he gives a truly riveting presentation by stepping into the character of George Schuster and telling the story of the race, laced with fascinating anecdotes which are both historical and personal in nature.

He also puts the race in perspective, in terms of the importance of the race which contributed to changing the mind-set of the public about cars.  Before the race, public perception held that automobiles (horseless carriages) were toys for the rich, and far to unreliable to be considered  a practical form of transportation.  After the race, (and thanks to Henry Ford developing a low-cost, mass produced line of cars), the automobile quickly became an essential mode of transportation.  It also illustrates that the fantastic road infrastructure we enjoy today (even as sparse as it is in Alaska) developed since that time. Many of the stories of the race illustrate that there was  little or in some cases no road infrastructure, even to cross the US, in 1908.

And about the segment of the route that was to go from Valdez to Fairbanks and Nome…  Upon reaching Valdez, the towering mountains covered with snow gave the first clue that there might be some “challenges.”  The race team had expected snow in April, but were told that a crust on top of the snow would allow automobiles to drive on top. No problem!  After taking a dog sled as far as Thompson Pass, it was clear the auto’s weren’t going to make it even that far (about 25 miles).  A creative solution was proposed by Schuster.  He learned that a dog sled (the prevailing mode of transportation in winter in Alaska) could haul up to 600 pounds.  Shuster thought he could dismantle the car and pack it in units of 600 pounds and mush to Nome.  The cost to do so was more than organizers were willing to shoulder, so the cars were packed back on a ship and taken to San Francisco, eventually to cross the Pacific on other ships to Japan, and continue the race.

If you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend taking in Jeff’s presentation. You will soon think you are listening to George Schuster tell his own story, illustrated with photographs taken during the race.  Future speaking engagements are listed on his website

One final detail. The auto that Schuster drove from New York to Paris was located years later and restored. Not to factory new, but its condition at the end of the race that made it famous.  Today it lives at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, NV.  Next trip to Reno I plan to go see the Thomas Flyer that won the New York – Paris race in 1908. And put automobiles on the map!

Power of the Sun!

March 21, 2013
Note decaying snow block, with two leaves burrowing in, thanks to solar radiation.

Note decaying snow block, with two leaves burrowing in, thanks to solar radiation.

As we pass through the equinox in Fairbanks, and enter the half of the year with MORE than twelve hours of daylight, the power of the sun is starting to make its mark.  About a week ago, our neighborhood road had the hardpack removed, generating a fresh snow bank along side the roadway with blocks of snow compressed by time, cars, and in my case foot–traffic both of my own making and our 17 year old lab, going for his morning walk.  Along the way, I noticed that the snow on the south-facing snowbank is showing marked signs of ablation.  The blocks of snow are showing a crusty, eaten away look, as snow starts to evaporate.

I looked at the temperature record from our weather station during the time since the road was plowed, and during this past week, it varied between -6 and +27 degrees Fahrenheit, but at not time did it rise above freezing. So we aren’t talking about snow melting due to warm air.  It was also interesting to notice that any dark object; specks of dirt, twigs and most impressively leaves from last fall, have burrowed their way into the snow blocks.  In the case of the leaves seen here, by several inches.  Thanks to the sun!

Temperatue plot for the preceeding week, which stayed below freezing.

Temperature plot for the preceding week, which stayed below freezing.

Book Review: Empire on Ice– A look back in time

March 11, 2013
Empire on Ice book cover, published 1990

Empire on Ice book cover, published 1990

Alaska has made great strides toward improving its transportation infrastructure in the past almost 70 years.  While 82% of the communities in the state are not connected to the core road system, they do have better connections to the aviation transportation system than in the past.  To appreciate just how much change has occurred, pick up a copy of Willy Lou Warbelow’s book, Empire on Ice, and take a trip back in time.

The year was 1945, just after the end of World War II, and a young couple from the northern Wisconsin found themselves headed north to Alaska.  They traveled by ship from Seattle to Seward, rode the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks. After a delay in Fairbanks waiting for weather, they took off in a small aircraft to make a 300 mile flight, attempting to reach the village of Sungnak, where they would teach school for the next three years.  But as is often the case with travel in the bush, things didn’t go as planned.  There was no runway at Shungnak at the time, and the ice on the river in front of the village wasn’t solid enough for a landing.  They diverted upstream to the nearby village of Kobuk where the river ice was thick enough for the skiplane to land, and walked the last ten miles to reach their new home, in twenty-five below temperatures.  And they stepped into a very different culture.


Empire on Ice provides a fascinating snapshot in time that describes the highly seasonal nature of life in the Eskimo village of Shungnak, where the residents lived a largely subsistence life-style. Travel was primarily tied to the river—summer time by boat, and dog sled or on foot in the winter.  Mail arrived by airplane in the winter and boat from Kotzebue in the summer, nominally on a monthly basis.  This left a period of several weeks each year during freeze-up in the fall and break-up in the spring when you hoped not to need to travel.  Emergency messages were delivered by notes dropped from an airplane.

Airstrip at Shungnak, providing air access to this Kobuk River village.

Airstrip at Shungnak, providing air access to this Kobuk River village. Photo courtesy of the FAA Alaska Flight Service Station Program.

Today, both Shungnak and Kobuk enjoy their own airstrips.  While weather still influences when aircraft can come and go, other than soft runways in the spring, wheel planes provide year-around access.

While I have focused on the transportation aspects of the story, the book offers a far richer view into the nature of life in this part of Alaska immediately following WWII, before changes in transportation, communication, land claims and technology shaped the world we know today.  It is a trip back in time that is worth making!

Geographic Bodies

December 9, 2012

Folks in Fairbanks have a chance to see an unusual art exhibit this month at the Well Street Gallery.  Local artist Mary Matthews is displaying a series of “sculptures” in the shape of full-scale dresses, made of paper maps.  People interested in the world of maps, landscapes and things geographic should check out this unique exhibit with more than a dozen different figures. A sampling is shown in the photos that follow:

gb overview sm IMG_1903 IMG_0955IMG_1901 smIMG_1902 smIMG_0956 IMG_0953IMG_0954 IMG_1898 smArt FAI map dress tom george   12-12-12   sc00063

Originally from New Jersey, Matthews has lived in Fairbanks since 1980, and created fascinating pieces using wasp nests, mushrooms and other natural objects collected from the landscape. This exhibit will be on display during the month of December.  Well Street is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.   It is worth taking in!

Book review: Follow the River

September 7, 2012

I find it fascinating to step back in time, and try and put one’s self in the shoes of our ancestors.  Picture a 23 year old woman, with two children and a third one on the way, going about her chores in the wilderness on the western edge of Virginia only to have an Shawnee raiding party murder most of the men in the community. And then take her along with children and a sister-in-law, on a forced march to places unknown further west.

James Alexander Thom makes this story come alive in his historical novel, Follow the River, as he tells an incredible story of survival in the pre-revolutionary times of the French-Indian War.  The meat of the story, which is hard to put down, involves the story of the captured party, their lives with the Indians, and her  subsequent escape and journey by foot “up the river” back home, a distance of several hundred miles. The book is a novel, however the notes at the end provide additional insight into the historic accounts of this tale.

Written in 1981, Thom provides insight into both the mindset of the settlers and the contrasting culture, practices and situation of the Indians, as they were being pushed off their traditional homelands. One can’t help but admire the grit and determination of this woman who two and a half centuries ago fought her way back home, not knowing if her husband was still alive, and shared her story.

If you read this book, be prepared to step into a time machine!