Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cameron Day - The Making of the French Foreign Legion

Americans have the Alamo – but the French Foreign Legion has the battle of the Cameron Hacienda.  April 30th every year commemorates this illustrious day in the history of the Legion Entranger.  Since two of my books have dealt with the Legion, I thought it only appropriate on this 30 April to provide the context of why the Foreign Legion is so highly respected. 

The Legion had been deployed to Mexico in support of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian.  Capitaine Jean Danjou led a small contingent of Legionnaires to protect a wagon train.  Danjou was a renowned warrior who had already lost a hand in fighting in Algiers, and wore a wooden replacement. 

At Cameron Capitaine Danjou and his small unit of 49 officers and men turned the small hovel into tiny fortress.  Facing them was 800 cavalry and 1200 infantry.  The fighting was bitter, driving the Legionnaires to thin cover behind a stone wall in a small building.  The leader of the enemy Juarist forces, Colonel Milan, sent out a man under a flag of truce and offered Danjou and his men a chance to surrender.  The Legionnaires refused, despite the fact that they were trapped with little water and hopelessly outnumbered. 

The Juarists sent wave after wave of troops at the men of the Legion, and each was beaten back.  When Danjou was killed, Lieutenant Vilian took command.  He called out the survivors, "Mes enfants! I command you now. We may die, but never will surrender."  After four more hours of hot bitter fighting, Vilian also fell. 

When the Juarists sent another surrender request, only a dozen Legionnaires remained alive.  Maudet, now the commander, repulsed more waves of the enemy.  After another hour, only five men remained.  The survivors were down to one bullet each.  "At my command, fire. Then follow me through the breach. We'll end this with our bayonets." 

Maudet did the unthinkable…he charged.  The men of the Legion were eventually surrounded and clubbed to death. It was the stuff of legends, where blood, sweat, and determination form myths of such daring.    

Now, on the 30th of April, the Legion celebrates Cameron Day, parading their most sacred relic, the wooden hand of Danjou at the head of their celebration parade. I’m posting this on the 29th – the day of the actual fighting, to commemorate those brave men who made the legend of the Foreign Legion a reality.     

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Seeing Space Shuttles Discovery and Enterprise Stirs Emotions and Frustration

This week I went with my wife, daughter, and grandson out to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (Udvar Hazy) at Dulles to see the departure of the space shuttle Enterprise and the arrival of Discovery.  It was remarkable to see the assembly of astronauts (including John Glenn) and the two space shuttles parked nose-to-nose.  With the Marine drum and bugle corps playing you could not help a tear welling up in your eyes at the sight of the two shuttles.   

When my daughter was younger, we attended Space Camp (yes, we’re geeks) and going to the Smithsonian this week rekindled that spark in me about the American space effort.  I expected a massive crowd, obviously so did the Smithsonian.  Yes, there were a few thousand there, but it was a paltry showing for such a historic event.  This was going to be the last time the public would ever see two shuttles together again. I understand that it was a Thursday, but this was something very special.  I would have thought every high school in the area would have had a bus or two there – but there were hardly any kids.  It was mostly older adults, those of us that remember fondly the importance of our space program.  

When I was a kid the space-race was everything.  We watched every takeoff, every splashdown, every moment we could.  We knew the crews by face and by names.  These were not wannabe’s who wanted publicity just for being alive (like celebrities today); these men (and eventually women) were genuine heroes.  I remember watching the first moon landing, and the last.  Seeing the shuttles there, proud workhorse Discovery and prototype Enterprise, I remembered my youth when I too wanted to go into space.  I wanted to be an astronaut – heck, a lot of kids did. 

For me, that wasn’t in the cards.  I had to find another way into space.  I ended up writing science fiction novels.  I got to the stars, but only in my mind.  As I watch my two-year-old grandson I wonder if he is even going to have a space program to be proud of.  While my trips into space are flights of imagination, I can only hope and pray that he actually gets a chance to go boldly into the great unknown.   

Seeing those magnificent pieces of technology and knowing the teamwork and thinking behind them made me realize that we need to get back into space.  We need a goal, perhaps a landing on Mars…anything!  We need something as a nation that we can all rally behind as we did back in the 1960’s and 70’s. With the end of the Cold War, the fizzling end to the War on Terror, and our own pathetic apathy, there is nothing that brings us together as a nation the way the space program did.  I write this with a hint of shame and a dollop of embarrassment.

Oh, I understand the pundits that say, ‘we have better things here on Earth to spend the money on.’  They ignore the contributions of space program to technological innovation in our country.  They turn a blind eye to the fact that the Apollo and Shuttle missions got tens of thousands of kids interested in engineering, computer science and space exploration.  These people only want to see the money dumped into short term social programs here on Earth – opting for a quick economic fix rather than having shared goals and ideals as a nation.

The space program was a social program.  It dumped billions into the economy of our nation.  Towns sprung up in places like Coco Beach and Huntsville Alabama.  It turned an oil-town like Houston into a thriving metropolis.  The space program employed small businesses, big corporations and generated hundreds of thousands of jobs – no – careers, for many people.  You want economic stimulus?  The space program was it on steroids! 

Time eroded all of our enthusiasm for space though.  I stopped watching liftoffs after the Challenger explosion.  When I saw a liftoff after that fateful day came with a hesitation and fear that it might happen again.  The loss of Columbia stung just as deeply. We had gotten reckless and careless and it came back at us. In typical American political maneuvering, this became a call to cut funding on Capitol Hill…the exact wrong response.  Congress is more interested in assigning blame rather than leading our nation…but I digress.    

We lost good men and women to the exploration of space, damn good people.  We dishonor their memories by turning a blind-eye to the space program now.  Part of the space program was that we looked beyond our own materialistic needs and instead did something that benefited all of mankind.  We went out there, into the black unknown, but we stopped and came back home because we lacked the courage and conviction to not carry on the mission and continue out to other worlds.  Shame on us. 

I have not forgotten the International Space Station and the six individuals up there every day conducting experiments that might change our knowledge of the universe or cure disease.  They pass by in the night sky, a white dot, and we all seem to ignore what they are doing up there.  They are the last bastion of our vanguard of men and women with one foot in the final frontier.

We need to get our collective act together.  We need to go to Mars, and beyond.  Yes, there are risks, but exploration is a part of who we are as a people.  Going back means jobs, stimulus, and our future. 

They can’t take my dreams and memories from me…yet.  And as long as a few of us still believe in the future of space exploration, the hope yet remains.  Tonight, look up and remember there are still men and women up there on the ISS, still keeping the dream alive for the rest of us. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Game Review - Wizkids Star Trek Tactics

The buzz around GenCon 2012 is already starting and my thoughts are turning to what I want to play and do when there. Yes, I'm a geek, but I embrace that openly. A few games I want to play are not out yet. The two biggest are Leviathans by Catalyst Games and Fortress America - a FFG reboot of the Milton Bradley Classic (sans the Saddam Hussain image on the cover…dang it!) I did some of the background work on Leviathans and my son Alex and I were playtesters, so I'm really hoping it will be out by this GenCon because I enjoyed the thing so damned much.   I have to admit, FFG is probably going to pry some cash out of my wallet for X-Wings too.  If I can I'm going to squeeze in Wings of Glory WWI, BattleTech, and Flames of War. Okay, on Flames of War, I say it every year but honestly I never seem to make it. Maybe this year will be different.

Another game I was looking forward to playing was Wizkids Star Trek Tactics. I've been a Star Trek fan since my youth. I loved playing FASA's ship combat game (I was writing Star Trek sourcebooks for them at that time and the game was eloquent and easy to play). I tried, I really did, to get into StarFleet Battles but let's face it, that game system is just massive and the two times I played, it was slow, ponderous, and painful.

So, when I saw Wizkids was coming out with Star Trek Tactics - ship-to-ship combat in the Star Trek universe…I was really looking forward to it.

In fairness, I have a predisposition in that I like the click-system mini's of Wizkids. For my kids at the time, it was a great way to get into playing because you didn't have to paint the minis, the tracking of damage was done on the miniature base, and the rules were mostly simple. Rather than wait for GenCon I jumped the gun and ordered a copy.

My review is as follows:

The Minis:
Okay, they are not proportional. A Bird of Prey is bigger than the Enterprise A. I can cope with that. If you made them proportional, then the Defiant would be the size of a pencil eraser.

In the starter you get four ships, two Federation, two Klingon. The paint colors are a little inconsistent, but that's marginal. I've heard from friends that the nacelles of Enterprise might be crooked but mine were just fine. Wizkids has made the click-bases a little thicker than back in my Mage Knight/MechWarrior days and these are nice to use.

My biggest complaint was the mix of miniatures. The Star Trek universe covers various generations. So you have the Enterprise A from the movies, the USS Rhode Island (from 20 years in the future after Voyager's return), the Bortas from The Next Generation and the IKS Rotarran from DS9. Only the Klingon ships are from the same time era - and would never face either of the Federation ships in battle. The Federation ships included are 80+ years apart time-wise. What does this mean? It means buy the booster packs if you want to get ships from the same time period.

With this initial release - only Klingons and Federation ships. If you want the Rommies or Cardies, you have to wait for future releases…I hope.

The Maps:
Two two-sided maps. Nice. Wolf 359 (site of the Borg battle), the Kobayashi Maru, DS9, and the Mutara Nebula. I wish one had just been a plain space map. The "terrain" features are a little goofy - because it is space and you could conceivable fly around obstacles. These maps are smart, but lack experience. They represent two dimensional thinking - as does the game play.

The Game Play:
When I saw the rules at first I thought it was a mistake. These were Heroclix rules for superhero combat. So was the quick reference card. Then, it dawned on me, these are the rules for the game. Oh…this is intentional.  Two words came to mind quickly - not cool. 

I pieced it together myself from the cards that came with the minis. So Energy Explosion becomes Photon Torpedo; Regeneration becomes 'Give us a miracle Mr. Scott' There was no documentation to guide me through this realization.

Wizkids dropped the ball on this. They should have reprinted the quick reference card with the Star Trek game powers and abilities. At minimum, a sheet explaining how to adapt the game to Star Trek would have been nice. Perhaps they should have just done a two hour edit on the rules to make them Star Trek-ish.

Some of the rules like "knockback" which is when a superhero knocks another across the board…just don't seem applicable to Star Trek. I had a Bird of Prey knock an Enterprise Class ship back eight squares and that just didn't seem right. Ultimately this is a minor nit. Oddly enough, the game system works! In fact, it's almost fun once you make the conversions to the ships included. Some things I noticed quickly in my first run, the Klingons become more powerful as they get battered down. Nice.   

The reference cards for each ship are important but are very ship specific.  In other words, if you are looking to pilot an Enterprise-Class ship as opposed to the USS Enterprise A, you're kinda hosed.  (Yes, I know the original Enterprise was Constitution Class.  This is the refit which was Enterprise-Class.)

Missing:  Transporters.  Come on guys, we all saw that episode of DS9 when the Klingtons sent armed boarding parties about the station.  Boarding parties seem like they should be in the game in some way. 
If you are looking for a 'historically' accurate Star Trek simulator, this is not it. What it is, is a great beer and pretzel's Star Trek ship combat game. If you want the detailed game, shell out the bucks and wade into StarFleet Battles. If you want something you can play, play fast, and just have some fun with - Star Trek Tactics is your new default.  I'm ordering a USS Reliant on eBay just to fight The Wrath of Kahn engagement all over.  My overall rating is B- but bear in mind, I have been wanting an alternate game to SF Battles for some time now, so my rating is slanted upward.  Your results may vary.   

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Books Are Never Really Done

Part of writing non-fiction books is that even when you think you're done, you're not. My wife always wonders why I don't purge all my research when I'm done with a book. I understand her concerns, but it took a lot of time to pull all of that material together and you never know, you might need it again.
I keep the material so that if new evidence or data emerges, I can cross-reference it. Despite the hard work I do in archives around the globe, there are things that come out that both surprise and delight me every year about the subjects I write about.
A few cases in point:
This week I was reached out to by a member of the Rapson family regarding my book, Terror of the Autumn Skies. They wanted to connect with the members of the family I had talked to and to fill n some of the genealogy of their family tree. Wow. I hadn't looked at that material in years - but I had it. Also, the person that does genealogy for me, was all over this request as well. We both got over names and addresses etc., so that this person could connect with their roots. It was pretty cool. Two of the people I had interviewed had passed away, but she was finally able to make contact with one of her long lost cousins.
A San Diego historian reached out to me on the same book a month ago, attempting to explore my research into the Rapson family in terms of their San Diego ties. Very niche research and - very cool.
I get things like this every few months or so, and answer them best that I can as long as they aren't belligerent. I had this guy write me a message about Cruise the Sea Eagle, my book on Count Felix Von Luckner about three months back. This guy, let's refer to him as "Mr. Ass," sent me two pages of "corrections" I needed to make to the book. His "credentials" (his word, not mine) was that he was born in Germany and, "I know more about Count Luckner than you." To be blunt, he had two mistakes that I learned of after the publication (back in 2005). The rest were either wrong, subject to his twisted interpretation, or just pointless. One I couldn't even find in the book. I didn't respond to Mr. Ass. The lack of a time machine (mine disappeared six months ago and, according to my calculations, should be reappearing in six weeks) makes such messages pointless. I'm not going to go back in time and correct the book, though I'm more than willing to make updates in future editions… if necessary. As I've written in Cubicle Warfare, 'Don't wrestle with a pig. You'll get dirty and the pig likes it."
You have to have a little more credibility than saying 'I'm an expert.' There are a handful of exceptions to this - like Jon Guttman and Alan Toelle, who are very intelligent and have strong areas of expertise. In these cases they have never said they were experts - I made that determination on my own.
I am in a constant state of learning. Look, I'm a historian - my whole career here is about learning new things. I enjoy that part of my work. No matter what, there are always things that people find that they question - and that's healthy. I had one person argue with me on Lost Eagles about the spelling of a small French town. I was quoting an official report and used their spelling, which was off by a letter or two. I should have stuck a (sic) next to it but missed it. Oddly enough that minor nit was something that drove him nuts. I didn't mind this though, because he was friendly and nice about raising the point with me.
I do want to know if I have made mistakes…but tone and presentation is everything. If you are seeking validation of your importance in the universe, I'm not the guy to reach out to.
I know you're all dying to know if I responded to Mr. Ass and what I said. I did not. This blog entry will have to serve and I assume, because he reads everything I write so he can refute it, he will see this and respond…so watch the comments below!
The difference in these requests is simple. One was a request for information or assistance. Glad to help as long as you realize it will take some time to dig up the info. The other is a scathing critique from some self-proclaimed expert with his head firmly planted between the pale white cheeks of his own butt.
Rant mode: OFF