Monday, August 10, 2015

Book R & R: The First "Great Escape"

This "Book Review and Recommendation" is on "Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape" by Mark Felton.

I must have watched the movie "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen more than a dozen times. Of course, since the first time I watched it was back in the sixties when I was just a kid (it was one of my dad's favorites) I never got around to reading the book it was based on. This movie and book are about a mass escape of allied POWs from Stalag Luft III in 1944. In this escape the prisoners dug a tunnel under the camp's perimeter fence. Because of the movie, this "Great Escape" has long over shadowed an earlier escape, that while did not free as many prisoners, certainly scores just as high in audacity.

In "Zero Night" author and historian Mark Felton tells the story of an escape from Oflag VI-B in August 1942. Unlike the great escape of Stalag Luft III nearly two years later, the forty allied officers who attempted this breakout chose to storm the double fence perimeter with ladders. They called their escape plan Operation Olympia, but it became known as the "Warburg Wire Job," named for the local town in Germany where the camp was located. The twelve-foot ladders were constructed out of bed slats and other scrounged wood. During preparation they were hidden in plain sight as bookshelves. Because of a design error in the camp's construction, a prisoner was able to cut the lights that enabled 36 men to escape during a mad three minute, well rehearsed, scramble over three scaling ladders.

St. Martin's Press provided an advance copy for this review. The book will be available on Amazon on August 25th. I found the book to be a fast paced read that kept my interest through the entire book. I was reminded of the movie "The Great Escape" several times while reading the book, not only because of the same POW jargon, but also because of the pace and suspense that the author has woven into this reality tale. So much so that the book has already been optioned for a movie version. For more information and pictures of the ladders over the perimeter fence, check out these two articles on War History Online.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Day Trip to Sequoia NP or "A Tale of Two Trees"

The vacation part of my summer has consisted of a few day trips and overnighters rather than a long trip. It's a good thing, California has a lot to see. Since we live only an hour and a half drive from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and my daughter had not been there since she was very young, a day trip to see the big trees again was a logical choice to start out the summer.

The sequoia tree or "Sierra redwood" should not be confused with the coastal redwoods in northern California's Redwood National and State Parks. The coastal redwoods grow taller, up to 379 feet. However, the sequoia grows in heights up to 311 feet and have thicker trunks and branches. So in mass the sequoias are larger, and live to be older at up to 3,200 years. Reminiscent of the Griswold's family vacation, we set out to visit the two largest trees in the world, the General Grant Tree and the General Sherman Tree.

Highway 180 will take you from Fresno to the Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park in about an hour and a half or a little less if there is no traffic. Lucky for us we are early risers and were the second car to arrive in the parking lot about 7:30 in the morning. There is a short walk of about a half mile on a paved path (completely ADA accessible) around the General Grant tree. The General Grant tree is the second largest living tree in the world at 267.4 feet tall and a trunk diameter at the ground of 107.6 feet. Although these famous named trees are a huge tourist attraction, if you arrive before the crowds it is still a peaceful walk in nature and you stand a good chance of seeing some wildlife. We saw a mule deer, chipmunks, and squirrels. You also stand the chance of seeing a black bear. Some other visitors told us they had spotted one.

After a quick stop in the Kings Canyon Visitor's Center to look at the books, we drove the fifty minutes down the General's Highway (198) to visit the General Sherman tree that is located in Sequoia National Park. The General Sherman is the
largest tree (by volume) in the world. It is approximately 275 feet tall and 106.4 feet around its trunk at the ground. The walk to the Sherman tree is a little more challenging, about a mile with an elevation drop of about 300 feet. Then of course it's a mile climb back up to your car. But the Sherman tree is still ADA accessible with a special parking area closer to the end of the trail for cars with
handicap placards. By the time we got there (around 11:00 am on a Friday) there were already a large number of tourists. This includes several tour buses full of visitors speaking French and German. Most people are well behaved and courteous. But like anywhere else you go, the more people trying to see the same thing the more frustrating it gets. So we finished our day with a scenic drive down from the mountains on Highway 198 through Visalia then back up to our home in Fresno.

Image from nps.gov.
If you've seen one sequoia, have you seen them all? Well, maybe. No doubt it is hard to tell from the ground which trees are taller or bigger around. It is more impressive to me to see the forest rather than the trees. What I mean is that in the groves of sequoias located in the Sierras there are some impressive groups of trees and some individuals that I find more attractive than either the Grant or Sherman tree.  They have an interesting history. Protected before the area was made into a national park and before park rangers were in service, these trees were originally guarded by the United States cavalry. And of course there are other things to do in these national parks besides standing at a large tree looking up. Years ago, before the bad knees came on, the wife and I hiked into the mountains on several occasions. There is indescribably beautiful scenery in the mountains, away from the giant trees but also away from the crowds. But everyone should come to visit the giants at least once.When you do look at them, you might wonder, like I do, why anyone would have wanted to cut them down.

Since it's hard to capture these giant trees in one photograph up close, here's a couple of videos courtesy of my daughter's iPhone. First the General Grant tree:

And the General Sherman tree:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Professional Development Idea: DailyLit

Summer is in full swing. Although I’ve always enjoyed summer for getting outdoors, riding my bike, and taking vacation trips, in previous years I just didn’t get it. Now that I have spent a year as a teacher I know how important it is to have this time to recharge. Along with a little R & R it also makes me very happy to have the time to do some research and whittle down my reading pile. So while I compile what I’ve been reading and doing this summer, I thought I would share with you a website I’ve been using to help out with professional development.

I remember reading several of the classics when I was in school. Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Letter. But no one has read them all. I find that in teaching high school we wind up talking about certain classics that find their way into the history class. Immediately The Red Badge of Courage, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Jungle come to mind. I mean, these books had an influence on history and we talk about them in class. I'm thinking we should probably have read them, no? So, being the type A nerd that I am I added these titles to my reading list for the summer. But who has time to read these along with everything else you want to get through? That’s where Daily Lit comes in.

All you have to do is go to DailyLit.com and signup for free. Then look through their catalog and choose a book that you would like to read. Daily Lit will then send the book to you in short email installments. I’m currently on the 20th installment out of 50 of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. The installments are less than a thousand words and I’m guessing it takes me about five minutes to read each day. Seeing the email in my inbox provides me a form of discipline to read the installment before deleting and also to not allow the installments to pile up. Daily Lit allows you to make these classics into the bathroom book of the Internet age. Give it a try!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book R & R: Some Spring Reading

One of the great things about spring break was the opportunity to read some books of my choosing. I've had a couple on the shelf that I've been saving for the break. One is historical fiction, the other is California history. Both were good reads.

The Road to Kandahar, A Novel of the Second Afghan War, 1878-1880 by David Smethurst.

I've said before that I believe that reading a historical fiction is a great way to gain some familiarity with a historical period or event. David Smethurst sent me a copy of his book several weeks ago. I've been a bit of an Anglophile lately, having read a number Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series. So given the chance to read a book about the British competing with the Russians for influence and control over Afghanistan peaked my interest. Here's the description from the author:
October 6, 1879. The roar of guns and the shout of men reached a heightened pitch as the Highlanders and Gurkhas crested the ridgeline and attacked the Afghani trenches. Khaki and green uniforms mixed with the scarlet of the Afghans as the battle sea-sawed for a few minutes. Then the line of scarlet-clad Afghani troops wavered and broke. British Army lieutenant Robert Burton watched as thousands of Afghani troops fled in headlong retreat. The British had seized the first line.
The Road to Kandahar is an historical fiction novel about a forgotten period of history when Britain and Russia fought the very first Cold War in the heart of Asia. In this book, a British political officer, Robert Burton, and his friends, Richard Leary and Ali Masheed, fight a battle of wits against a cunning Russian political officer, Count Nikolai Kuragin. Against a backdrop of the high passes and deserts of Afghanistan, Burton, Leary and Ali must stop a potential Russian invasion during the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and fight against treachery and injustice within their own ranks.
Without giving anything away, that pretty much sums up what the book is about. But I have to say that it is well written, and has all the elements of a good adventure story: a likable protagonist, a sidekick, a girl (of course) and an easy to hate bad guy. There's plenty of action and the book is faithful to its historical accuracy. As the author sums up in his historical notes, there might be a lesson for the United States in evaluating the British experience in Afghanistan during the nineteenth century.


On September, 13, 1859, just south of San Francisco, a California State Supreme Court judge shot and killed a United States Senator from California. It was the culmination of a decade long argument over whether to allow slavery in the Golden State. 

These days we teach California history in the fourth grade. So you can imagine that the story get sanitized a little bit. For many years I accepted the version that California was rushed to statehood because the gold rush. Well, what does that even mean? Author Leonard Richards will explain that the forty-niners wanted to keep Southerners from bringing slaves to work the claims in the gold rush. Moreover, if California skipped the whole territory status thing and went straight to being a state, the residents could decide whether the new state would be free or allow slavery. This situation also upset the delicate political balance in Washington that had been kicking the can of possible secession down the road for decades. Needless to say, coming to a compromise was a bit of a pickle. 

This was my nonfiction choice for spring break, and it turned out to be very enlightening and very readable. My one criticism might be that the book goes into too much detail on the debates and political moves in both California and Washington D.C., but that might be that I'm not a huge fan of political history. That being said, the history of California is a lot more interesting when told at a level above fourth grade.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

La Purisima Mission State Park

Or, what I did on my Spring Break.

As you can tell by my lack of posts that I am still busy with working on a masters in education and working full-time at an alternative education school. I will not kid you, having a Spring Break is as good for the teachers as it is for the students. Sheila and I had our first days off together in two and half months. So what's the first thing we do? That's right, road trip to a historic site.

The first stop is the museum at the  
visitor's center.
We chose to visit La Purisima Mission State Park in Lompoc, California.  La Purisima was the 11th of the 21 missions established in California. The first mission was established at a site that is now in Lompoc on December 8, 1787. But that site was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and the mission was rebuilt on its present site about three miles northwest of the city. When you visit you'll notice that the new site is actually an improvement over the old. The mission is tucked into a hillside that will help block the winds that come with being so close to the ocean. There is a fresh water source via a spring and creek that flows through the site. Also, being at a slightly higher elevation you have an excellent view of the farm fields in the valley below.

The walking tour will take you past
the heritage animals kept at the
Mission: sheep, pigs, foul, donkeys...
and this critter. Very impressive.
Your first stop is a fairly new visitor's center with a great little museum that devotes a large amount of space to the Civilian Conservation Corps project that rebuilt the mission in 1934. We joke that once you've seen one mission, you've seen them all. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I visited seven missions at different times in my life and they are all a little different. What they usually have in common is a beautiful garden surrounded by historic buildings. Many are still owned by the Catholic Church and are still active. What is different about La Purisima is that it is not owned by the Church but rather the State of California and operates as a state park. The only way I can describe it is that La Purisima seems to be in more of its "natural" state. There is not a perfect garden and there are no church services. But there are historic buildings that are not surrounded by suburbia. There are active displays and even heritage animals on display (the bull and the donkeys are very popular). As a result it's a lot easier to get your history on and try to imagine what mission life was really like.

A real benefit is that the mission
buildings are not surrounded by
modern life.
Admission is free but it will cost you a dollar for a brochure/walking map to the site, which is worth much more than a buck. There are no food or drinks sold on the site, but there are some nice shaded picnic benches. I highly recommend brown bagging it, but Lompoc is only three miles away for restaurants and hotels. Some weekends there are living history folks demonstrating weaving, woodworking, and other skills from the mission days. So check out the State Parks site or much better the foundation site, Prelado De Los Tesoros, at lapurisimamission.org, for hours and a calendar of events.



Nothing like a nap after breakfast.
We finished our weekend with drive up the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur to Monterey. So enjoy a picture of a pile of elephant seals just north of Cambria. :-)

There is a recreation of the Native
American Chumash houses that would
have been located at the mission.
Inside the buildings are working
museum displays.
If you visit during the week, you'll have
the place to yourself. That is until the
elementary school field trip arrives.