Teaching US History Through Disasters

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My favorite restaurant after Hurricane Ike. I took my wife here on our first date and later proposed to her here. They were closed for six months after the storm.

Dear Readers,

Yet another long delay in between posts. I just finished teaching two five week summer classes this past week which took up quite a bit of my time. Also, my novel So Others May Live has gone to the editor. I realized today that I had not written a teaching related post in a long time. As it so happens, I’ve been working on creating a thematic US History course and so I decided to pen a few lines, or rather type a few lines, about it.

I’m no stranger to emergencies. With all the time I spent in public safety responding to calls as a firefighter/EMT and later as a police officer and arson investigator, I’ve built up quite the emergency resume. Fires, car accidents, hurricanes, and various and sundry medical calls still haunt the recesses of my brain. As a student and later professor of history, I’m also well aware of the role disasters have played in the American past. From the Triangle Fire to the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire to the Station Nightclub and from the 1900 Storm to the Tri-State Tornado to the Texas City Disaster, I can still recall all the photographs or videos I’ve looked at over the years. I’ve seen hurricane damage and felt the winds firsthand. Hurricane Ike was my 13th Storm to live through or work during and I experienced the eye from the front seat of my city issued SUV. We are coming up on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey which caused widespread flooding in my area, though I escaped without any significant damage.

Disasters can serve as great catalysts for change. When one considers the historical significance of disasters, we can learn social history, the history of science/technology, study human behavior, and draw lessons for the future. Since I teach at a community college, I only teach US History Survey courses. 1301 is US History to 1877 and 1302 is US History Since 1877. What I’m looking at doing is creating a thematic 1302 class where I still cover the usual items, but view it through the lens of disasters, both natural and manmade.

The first issue to tackle was which disasters. Obviously there are plenty to choose from, but I wanted a cross section of different types of disasters which struck at different times but with a focus on disasters close to home (Southeast Texas). After much internal debate, I came up with the following list:

  1. 1900 Galveston Hurricane (Galveston, TX)
  2. 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (NYC)
  3. 1935 Labor Day Hurricane (FL)
  4. 1947 Texas City Disaster (Texas City, TX)

I’m including two hurricanes since they are the most frequent disaster in our area. Plus, the Labor Day Hurricane ties in with my existing discussion of the Depression and the Bonus Army. I wanted to stay away from more modern disasters (Katrina, Ike, Harvey, etc) and I also wanted to focus on non-intentional acts (ie: not terrorism). We will discuss these disasters with an towards how they illustrate the history of science at the time, technology, race, class, labor relations, etc. I cannot assign a book on each one of these disasters, so instead I will have my students read a few articles about each one, there will be a lecture on the topic (I already do one on the Triangle Fire), and finally a discussion following the lecture. To tie it all together, I’m probably going to have them give a presentation on a disaster not covered here (as a group). I may instead assign a paper in which they trace a common theme among all four of these disasters. I’m still a bit on the fence about that one.

Have a disaster free day!

L.H.

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Dear Readers,

Forgive me for yet another long delay in posting. I’m still recovering from my surgery whilst also trying to teach two five week courses at the college. I rather doubt that is much of an excuse, but it is the only one I have. Anyway, on to today’s topic. I’ve watched a lot of author interviews and been to a few author readings in my day. One question that comes up quite frequently is “Where do you get your ideas?” Whilst I cannot answer for anyone else, I shall endeavor to explain where the idea for So Others May Live sprang from.

The genesis of my novel came from two places. Back in 2003, I interviewed a man who, from 1944-45, had been a Hitler Youth Auxiliary firefighter. He related a story to me of falling through the floor of a building and landing in the basement in a liquified pool of human fat which was all that remained of the occupants who burned alive as liquid phosphorus from an incendiary ran down into the basement. He was 14 years old when this happened and I asked him “How do you get over something like that?” He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” I never really forgot this story but it wasn’t one I dwelt on either, at least not until one night eighteen months ago.

I awoke with a start from a dream. In my dream, I saw a crippled Lancaster limping towards the airfield. Three crew members dead. The pilot at the controls, and the remaining three crewmen seated in their crash positions. As the plane inched closer to the ground for a belly landing, the crew began to sing “Nearer My God To Thee.” When I awoke, I lay in bed for several minutes pondering the dream, and then I remembered what the German firefighter told me all those years before. The dream and the interview collided in my head.

I got up and jotted down a few brief things in my notebook so I’d remember it the next day. As I went about my business that morning, I continued to think things over. Slowly, the rough ideas of a plot began to come together in my mind. A firefighter trying to save lives for a regime bent on destroying them. A Lancaster pilot on his last mission before he gets to transfer out of an operational squadron. A fiancé trying to plan for a future that may not pan out. And a woman playing a dangerous game with the Gestapo.

I’m neither an plotter (one who writes out a detailed plot outline) or a pantser (one who just starts writing). I guess you could call me a plantser. I sketched out the format of the book and listed out the order in which each chapter would be written by character name. All I had to go on was a one sentence description of what I wanted in each chapter, and the rest came from the seat of my pants. 96,000 words and one year later I had a finished novel. As to what will come from that, well, time will tell.

L.H.

Follow D-Day As It Happened

Dear Readers,

For those of you who are interested, I’ll be posting live updates from June 6, 1944 as they were reported by CBS radio beginning at 0250 CST on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. I’ll be doing it from my Facebook page which you can find here.

They will run for the first twelve hours of so of the invasion, or until the Facebook Nazis put my page in jail for too many posts.

L.H.

Two Classics Express the Human Condition

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A woman loves two men and loses them both amidst a catastrophic war which sweeps away an entire way of life. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst a war and ensuring revolution which ushers in a world unlike that which existed before. Sound familiar? The first is the basic plot (boiled down for simplicity) of Gone With the Wind while the second is the main plot (also boiled down) of Dr. Zhivago. The films are classics, of course, but the novels are as well. Russian literature in particular has great depth to it. I’ve been able to read Zhivago in the original language, as well as the English translation. And I am proud to own a first edition of Gone With the Wind which belonged to my great-grandmother’s sister.

What interests me about these books when compared to one another is that they explore similar themes, though they were written in different times and places. Gone With the Wind was published first, in 1936, but it is nearly impossible that Pasternak could have read it because it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1982 and the movie was not released there until 1990. The fact that love and loss amidst the backdrop of war serves both books so well speaks to universal human condition and emotion. Just as the Civil War transformed the American South, so too did World War One, the Russian Revolution (really a Civil War of its own), followed by the Red Terror transformed Russia. In both books, you have people trying their best to survive amidst terrible hardships.
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I love epics, be they of screen or page. There’s something about a sweeping story which catches you up and brings you along for the ride which appeals to me. Sadly, not everyone feels this way. When I was a young single man, I invited a girl to my apartment to watch a movie and popped in Dr. Zhivago. That was our third date. She declined a fourth. 😊

If you want to take this one step further, Sholokov’s masterpiece Quiet Flows the Don can be compared to the two as well. It is a magnificent epic of Cossack life starting in 1912 and ending in the early 1920s. It also involves the story of a man in love with two women who loses them both. Forbidden love. War. Revolution. Death. They are all present. Whereas Mitchell probably never read Sholokov before she wrote Gone With the Wind (though it is remotely possible as the first English translation was in 1934), it is highly likely that Pasternak read it at some point. But how much it influenced his own work is anyone’s guess.

Dramatic times make for dramatic fiction which is why I think historical fiction will always appeal to people. Not only is it escapism into the past, but it can flesh out the traditional history that you get in school where you may only be served up a litany of names, dates, and facts but without any life. You can learn as much from a good historical novel (by that I mean well written and researched) as you can from an academic book.

Of course there are differences between the books as well, but the purpose of this was to mention what they had in common. Also, as a final note, in 2015 Russian television filmed a 14 part masterpiece based on Quiet Flows the Don. You can find it free on YouTube here Be warned that it is not subtitled, but you don’t have to be a Russian speaker to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and you can pick up on the basic plot line too.

And there you have my thoughts, Dear Reader.

L.H.

What’s In A Name

SoOthersMayLive

Dear Readers,

I’ve finished with a full set of revisions to my novel. It is presently in the hands of some Beta Readers whom I am waiting to hear back from (hint, hint) which will then spark more revisions. After that, it goes to the editor in mid August. My target date for the ready to submit version is November 1, 2018. At that point, I’m not sure precisely what I’m going to do submission wise as I have a few options. Self publishing is an option, of course, but I’m holding on to that as my backup plan. I could always submit it to agents, secure one, and then try to land a traditional publishing arrangement with one of the big houses. This option doesn’t really appeal to me too much for several reasons. First of all, I know that this book isn’t really something a traditional publisher would like. It doesn’t have bestseller stamped all over it. Second, the process to land an agent first would slow down publication by at least a year, if not more and that’s assuming I could get an agent interested in the first place. So what is my plan? I think I’m going to approach some small independent presses. There are some positives, but there are also some negatives (no marketing budget, etc). But overall I think it is worth giving it a shot.

Today, I thought I’d write a short note and explain how I came by my title. I’ve read some cool stories about how some authors came up with the names of their book. I do not have a cool story, but what I do have is the reason for the novel. To get there, I first have to tell you how I came up with the idea for the book in the first place. I awoke one morning with an image in my head of a Lancaster pilot trying to land a crippled plane while the surviving crew huddled on the floor behind him and sang Nearer My God to Thee. This image merged in my mind with a conversation I had with a man who’d served as a Hitler Youth Auxiliary Firefighter during World War Two. This got me thinking about the strange juxtaposition of an occupation in which your job is to save lives in the midst of a destructive war and on behalf of a regime bent on destroying them. As a retired firefighter myself, I know the demands the job puts on those who do it in peacetime. So imagine doing that same job in the middle of a war.

So Others May Live sums up the reasons why firefighters do the job today, just as it sums up the reasons why they have done the job for hundreds of years. Sometimes, the job requires you sacrifice your life on behalf of the greater good. In wartime or peacetime, firefighters stand ready to answer the call. I hope my title captures this and conveys it to the reader. If it does, then I’ve done my job.

Lee Hutch

Just the Facts, Ma’am….

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Just the facts, ma’am. 

Dear Readers,

I am re-listening to the radio version of Dragnet which ran from 1949-1957. Along with Gunsmoke and Tales of the Texas Rangers, it is my favorite OTR program. I picked up something with this listen that I actually missed the first time I listened to it. In the first season, each episode was dedicated to the memory of a fallen officer. Most of them were killed in 40s with a few from the late 30s. I made a point to look up the names on the Officer Down Memorial Page and found out the circumstances. The dedications were to officers who were feloniously killed in the line of duty (as opposed to accidental deaths) for the most part.

If you look at every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s, the 40s were the second safest (with only the 50s being safer) while the 20s followed by the 30s were the deadliest. This makes sense, if you know your history. With Prohibition and then the Depression, it was open season for organized crime and consequently open season on law enforcement. During World War Two, with so many people away in the military, law enforcement deaths declined, however, they did tick upwards slightly in 1946 and 1947.

In my own career, I personally knew two officers who were shot and killed in the line of duty, but we tend to think of crime as a recent thing, it seems. The idea that law enforcement deaths were double in the 1920s what they are today is shocking to most people. But crime never takes a holiday, nor did it suddenly emerge in the 1970s. (The third deadliest decade, by the way.) As time permits, I plan on sharing some of the stories of officers who were killed during the 40s, particularly those who were murdered during the War years. So stay tuned for further information.

Hutch

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Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate

Robert

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar Jack

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar Jack

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore Jack

Faldee raldee raldee raldee rye eye ‘O

We are coming up on the end of another semester, a particularly trying one at that as I spent the first three weeks in the hospital after an emergency surgery, another week in the hospital in March, and I face another larger surgery as soon as it ends, but it is nearly over. I close my 1301 classes covering the Civil War which is something I sincerely enjoy teaching about, but it always makes me a bit melancholy now. In 2014 I lost one of my oldest and best friends unexpectedly. You can read what I wrote an hour or so after learning of his death here. I miss him quite a bit, more so when I’m covering our favorite subject in class.

Robert was my friend and comrade for neigh on 17 years. We met when I was in college and I became a Civil War reenactor. We served in the same unit during all that time and for a good chunk of it, we were the entire unit. Our impression was that of Union sailors during the War. He portrayed a grizzled petty officer and I the Master at Arms and later Ship’s Surgeon. (I also doubled dipped as an Army surgeon.) We traveled thousands of miles together, marched God only knows how many more, stood side by side in the ranks, worked artillery pieces, and shivered in tents while a cold rain fell outside. I never got much sleep as Robert snored loud enough to summon the dead.

But the best of friends must part, fair or foul the weather

Hand your flipper for a shake, now a drink together

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore Jack

Faldee raldee raldee raldee rye eye ‘O

I know he’s up there in Valhalla right now, no doubt enjoying a tin cup of grog around the campfire. I suppose I’ll join him when it’s my time, which is seemingly going to be sooner rather than later at the rate my body is falling apart. Last Monday when I received a phone call offering me a regular full time position as a professor, my first thought was “I can’t wait to call Robert.” And then it hit me. He isn’t here. But he knows, that I’m sure of. Time doesn’t heal the hurt that comes with the loss of a family member or friend, but it does make it more manageable. By teaching, I am helping keep his legacy alive as he touched thousands of lives over the years by sharing his knowledge and damaged a few ears playing the concertina.

So I won’t forget my old shipmate. Not ever.

L.H.