Monday, February 25, 2013

The Alamo!

Between February 23 and March 6, 1836 approximately 182 Texans held off roughly 1500 soldiers of the Mexican Army.  Few battles in American history have had such an impact on the psyche of people.  There are a lot of reasons we find ourselves drawn to this battle. 

First, it was a battle against the odds and that is something that appeals to Americans at an almost genetic level.  We are a country built by underdogs and admire nothing more than someone facing incredible odds.  These men didn’t have to make a last-stand, they could have departed.  It is part of our culture and the besieged men of the Alamo represent that to all of us. 

Secondly what appeals to us is the characters involves.  I've read William Davis's book, Three Roads to the Alamo which is the definitive biographies of the main characters (Crockett, Travis and Bowie).  While Hollywood has painted these men as heroic, they were all flawed in some way.  Yet they made a stand and fought until they were killed. When you read the stories of these men you discover that Bowie and Travis were flawed, they are like every other human being, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.   
Colonel David Crockett in particular resonates with people.  Here was a man that had made a mark in the world already.  Yet somehow events conspired to put him at the Alamo at the time of the siege.  It is hard for us to imagine a modern-day former congressman putting his/her convictions on the line the way Crockett did. 
Third, there is a spirit of independence in what the fighters at the Alamo fought for.  I have always maintained that one of the mystiques of Texas is that it was its own nation and never forgot that.  The Alamo was a struggle for freedom, which the US still manages to embrace from time-to-time. 

Militarily when you study the battle, there isn’t much to it.  When you look at any heroic last stand from a pure military standpoint, they seem cut and dry.  But last stands like this are rarely that simple or easy to comprehend looking at weapons, tactics, or manpower.  They are about bravery and conviction in the face of death.  That is why the Alamo appeals to us to this day. 
So, as you wait for March to come in like a lamb or lion - remember those brave men who fought to buy their country time and for Texas to be free.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame – Harriet Quimby Award

Sometimes life throws you a pleasant surprise.  In my case, I recently learned that I was to be honored by the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame with a Harriet Quimby Award on May 11. Also receiving the award will be Warren Benjamin Kidder.  I’m deeply honored by this award. 

Harriet Quimby was a Michigan-born journalist writing for magazines like Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  An adventurer at heart, she became the first female to be given a aviator’s certificate and the second female to be given a pilot’s license.  She was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912 and died later that year in an airplane accident. 

The Kalamazoo Air Zoo, where the Hall of Fame is located, is a great museum and when my books on aviation come out, I always make a point to speak there.  I will be there at 1:00pm on May 11 discussing my latest aviation history book, The Bad Boy

When you are a writer the honors and accolades are few and far between.  I’m glad I’ve been able to draw attention to aviators of the Great War in the books that I write, especially Lost Eagles which is about a Galesburg Michigan airman of the Lafayette Flying Corps, Frederick Zinn.  Zinn went on to create the system for tracking, locating, and identifying missing airmen. 

If you are in Kalamazoo on May 11, please feel free to stop by my presentation or better yet, grab a ticket and show up for the dinner and awards ceremony.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review of Balance of Power

Okay I’ll preface this review with a disclaimer.  I do freelance writing and game design with Catalyst Game Labs.  Now that that’s on the table, let me also say I didn’t have anything to do with the game Balance of Power and I’m actually a little ticked they didn’t include me on the playtest.  Why?  This game rocks. 

I’m an old school Risk player and on the surface this looks like Risk.  It’s allegedly set in 1815, but that only provides you with the context of the game map.  The game comes with a hard backed map of Europe.  Each player (up to six) has a bag of 45 game pieces broken down into Kings, Generals and Bankers.  These three pieces represent the balance of power in the game – yes I realize I used the title of the game in the description – cool eh?

There are six quick reference cards to help you with the rules.  The rules are pretty darned simple.  You can move – duplicate – or attack.  Generals eliminate Kings.  Kings can take out bankers.  Bankers can take out Generals.  Simple so far?  The pieces are thick wooden material – top notch quality. 

Winning the game is done on points.  You get a point for controlling enemy territory.  When you occupy a capitol with one of each of the game tokens, you get three points.  Depending on the number of people playing you need to have anywhere from 30 to 18 points to win. 

The rules are remarkably easy – I’ve actually covered almost all of them above.  This is the kind of game you can jump into in about fifteen minutes.  Best of all, it’s more simple than Risk which means you can play it with your kids (or grandkids). 

When I dug into the rules I kept wondering, “where are the dice?”  There aren’t any.  Attacks take out the enemy, plain and simple.  But you don’t need them.  This game is all about strategy.  Despite its simplicity there are nuances to this game that are important.  You have to have the right kind of units in the right place in order to successfully attack.  Play is fast, for the most part, and can be vicious.  The games I’ve played with it have lasted no more than an hour.

This is one of those sleeper games that is a great guilty pleasure.  More importantly there’s a bit of cunning and strategizing that comes into game play.  It’s fast – it’s fluid – it’s fun.  Balance of Power trades accuracy for ease of play and does it remarkably well. 

My rating – five out of five stars.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Bad Boy is finally released!

It has been a long journey but my book on Bert Hall (The Bad Boy, Fonthill Media) is out in hardcover. The digital version will be forthcoming shortly. This book was one of the more challenging ones for me to research and write given the colorful nature of Bert Hall. Hall was a chronic exaggerator and teller of tale tales, which made getting to the truth (or as close as you can get with Hall) a difficult exercise.  Difficult - but fun.

Hall was a member of the French Foreign Legion at the outbreak of the war and transferred into the French Air Service - eventually becoming one of the original members of the Lafayette Escadrille. Hall was at one point or another a movie star, producer, technical consultant, writer and director; an aviation mercenary in China; an arms dealer; a convicted felon; a race car driver; a gambler; a bigamist, and a few dozen other roles in his life. He had the distinction of being kicked out of the Lafayette Escadrille, yet was an accomplished aviator. Hall managed to find himself at the right place at the right time throughout his life. He was in Paris when WWI broke out. He was in Russia during the revolution. He was in China during the civil wars there.

I'll be doing a presentation on Hall's life at the semi-annual meeting of the League of WWI Aviation Historians in March and an event on May 11th at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo.

I was drawn to writing his life story after my work on Lost Eagles. He was a lifelong friend of Frederick Zinn, the subject of that book. I came to appreciate that Bert Hall was a force of nature. If I could sit and have a drink with any members of the Lafayette Escadrille, Hall would top my list (followed closely by Thaw and Luftbery). He was, by all accounts, a "bad boy," and there is something romantic and fascinating about such a man. A reprobate? Yes. Despicable? At times. A rogue? Of course! An adventurer? Definitely.

Writing about the Lafayette Escadrille is intimidating. It is the holy-of-holy's in terms of WWI squadrons if you are American. Putting my foot into that water was something I was excited about and dreaded. At the same time it was impossible to tell Bert's story without telling the story of the formation and early months of this unit. Over the decades some historians have diminished Bert's contributions, usually at the prodding of Paul Rockwell. I had to go back to source material and really reconstruct what truths I could find about Hall. In the end, I was pleased with my results.

People have asked me do I admire Hall? I certainly don't admire how he led his personal life. Professionally, Bert Hall was the Howard Stern of his day - the master of self promotion. He did remarkable things in remarkable times - which makes him interesting. I admit a tinge of envy at how he literally lived in the moment and changed his career with wild abandon. He was a man that did not perceive limits and lived his life accordingly. Bert lived his life by not dwelling on what others thought of him - how many of us could do the same?If he were alive today I have no doubt that he would have a reality TV show of some sort…and it would be a damned sight better than many of the other shows on.

I Invite you to read the book for yourself and form your own opinions.