Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Bloody Century


This semester I am mostly teaching US 1302 which is American History Since 1877.  I make it from 1877 through Vietnam.  To go any further than that would require me to take out some other important things that happened earlier in the century.....you know......like World War 2.  I have heard of some professors who spend as much time, if not more, talking about post Cold War America than they do about World War 1 and World War 2.  That bothers me because that appears to me that they are using their classes as a platform to talk about their own political beliefs rather than history, but I digress.

I've spend the last 15 weeks teaching about the 20th Century and last night as I drove home from my night class (which ironically enough is a 1301 course), I got to thinking about something which is always a dangerous thing.  On the surface it seems as though the 20th Century is the bloodiest one in the history of the world.  Part of that might be because of media coverage, photographs, and videos.  Of course, history is full of stories of massacres and wars going back to the earliest people.  However, photography has only existed for about the past 170 years or so.  Video less than that.  24 hour news coverage even less.

So is the 20th Century really the bloodiest century in the history of the world or does it just appear that way?  I tend to think that it was because of the military technology involved and the scale of World War 1 and 2, plus Stalin's Purges, Mao in China, genocide in the Congo, Rwanda, Armenia, etc.  In a way it is kind of disheartening.  I fear that at the end of it all, my students are left wondering exactly what kind of creatures we are that can permit things like this to happen.  I wish I had an answer to that question.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Interview With Michael Frost Beckner


Pardon the lengthy gap between posts.  I have been without internet for about ten days.  No one seemed willing (or able) to fix the problem.  And then magically this morning it reappeared!  So I am plunging back into blog-land just like I've had internet all along.  And today, we have a special treat.  I was lucky enough to secure an interview with Michael Frost Beckner, who has a Civil War mini-series in development entitled To Appomattox.  I'm sure that some of you Civil War Addicts have probably already heard about it at some point.  But Mr. Beckner kindly agreed to allow me to interview him.  So here it is.

     Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in filmmaking and the Civil War.

Hi I’m Michael Frost Beckner, actually my love for film came at an early age as my best friend from Elementary School had a grandfather, Yakima Canutt, a bronc-bustin’ champion, an real honest-to-goodness cowboy who had a big California ranch, built way back in the ‘20s, where we’d spend summer days swimming in his pool and watching old Tom Mix silents and other two reeler westerns he’d made.  He pretty much invented the “stunt man” industry for which he ultimately won an Academy Award.  Listening to his stories, meeting the old stars he used to stand in for or direct in their action scenes lit the spark.  Then on summer nights we’d climb the fence at CBS/Radford studios—it was pretty much just a backlot then—and the old security would let us play with the rubber rifles they used in Wild Wild West, The Rifleman and Gunsmoke…and playing at the Gilligan’s Island lagoon, blew it up for me and I never had another thought about doing anything else.

The Civil War has been part of my life as long as I remember.  We have a deep history in my family; my grandmother told me at an early age to stand up when Dixie is played.  She was, and my mother continues to be very involved in preservation and historical groups.  As I write this I’m facing the portraits of my Civil War ancestors on the wall across the room.

  What gave you the idea to start on this project?

I’d been working on my CBS series THE AGENCY to which I had extraordinary access to the CIA at Langley.  I’d remarked once that the site of CIA headquarters were where Thaddeus Lowe launched his observation balloons to provide the very first US aerial reconnaissance.  After this conversation went on for awhile, my wife at the time, remarked that I knew just as much about the Civil War as I did about espionage.  She wondered why I didn’t write about it.  Actually, I knew even more, but I also knew that the Civil War does not sell in Hollywood.  I told her I’d write a play.

Entitled “To Appomattox,” it was a two character play about the four meetings between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant over the course of their lifetime.  The Richmond Theater at the University of Richmond was keen on my opening it there and we got together on the dates and I got to writing.  Tell you what, theater deadlines are even tighter than television deadlines.  And the more I researched, the more I was writing.  I also discovered reared a bit “Lost Cause,” the reality of US Grant and who he really was had been treated quite unfairly in the popular version of that history.  His was the story that needed telling.  .  The story was so incredible, I quickly forgot my own admonishment, that Hollywood axiom that Civil War doesn’t sell, and the two-character play soon became a feature script…which soon became a 4-hour mini…which finally became the 8 scripts/10 hours I have today.
   Given the scope of what you are seeking to accomplish, what hurdles have you faced along the way?

First set of hurdles were accuracy.  I have been blessed to have the most remarkable team of historical advisors ever assembled for a television miniseries.  My mentor on this project, the late Dr. John Y. Simon, put me through three years of intense research and revisions.  The story I’m telling here is NOT a military history—sure we have the battles, more than anyone has every attempted to portray—but the heart and soul of this work are the personal relationships between men who met as brothers at West Point, fought side-by-side in the Mexican War, then took up sides against each other in the Civil War; it is about how these relationships continued and more importantly their relationships with their wives and children, and how all of these intersect and combine.  That sort of stuff is not the interest of non-fiction Civil War books.  Really hard to find.  But Dr. Simon just made me search harder and didn’t allow me to make stuff up.  What Grant says to his children or his wife, what Lee tells his daughters, what Sherman’s nine year-old son tells his father, mother and her priest as he dies of typhoid are exactly what was said and how it happened.

Once the scripts were vetted by the rest of the historians who Dr. Simon and our incredible historical adviser J. D. Petruzzi gathered, then I had to face that Hollywood axiom.   My producing partners and I believed the way around that was to bring in stars the networks/studios/audience would want to see in anything. This was the easiest part.  Every actor whose read these scripts has volunteered the attachment and have stuck with this for these past six years.  In some cases other obligations have pulled them away, but even in many of those, when those obligations were filled, they’ve come back.  Country Music has deeply embraced this project, as I tell the story of the heritage of American music.

But that axiom.  That’s been the biggest most difficult hurdle.  These last five years of concentrated effort have brought many champions at studios and networks to this who after reading the script have shown incredible passion and have committed to proving their own rule wrong.  Since you can only offer something like this to one network at a time, there’s been months of this rollercoaster—passion, commitment…defeat.  Always at the top we’ve heard the same response: “There is no audience for a Civil War drama.”The Kickstarter campaign is an effort to prove them wrong.  There is an audience—a huge audience—and through their support they will tell the networks just that. 

   At this point, have any actors or actresses expressed support or signed on for the project?

All actors on the Kickstarter site are committed to the roles portrayed contingent on availability.  

   Do you plan on shooting the film on location or will you use suitable alternatives?

For the first two hours we plan to shoot this summer we plan to use New Mexico for our scenes that take place in the Mexican War and in California.  We will also do most of our soundstage/interior work there.  Once that’s finished we plan to move to Virginia for the rest of the show.

   What are your plans for the future of the project?

The two hours we produce this summer will be shopped back to the networks to secure broadcast and production of the remaining eight.  If this is unsuccessful, we will release these two hours as an independent film.  Depending on the success of that we plan to continue this as a series of four films.For more information:KickstarterTo AppomattoxFacebook

Thank you to Mr. Beckner for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from a Half A$$ Historian who knows nothing of the film industry.  The list of Historical Advisors who are and will be assisting with this project is quite impressive.  The names will be familiar to all Civil War Addicts (John Michael Priest, Gordon Rhea, John Marszelak, Thomas Fleming and others.)  I for one really would like to see this project succeed.  I wish the best of luck to Mr. Beckner and his crew and I urge all of you loyal readers to spread the word about this film.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Death in the Ranks


About an hour and a half ago I learned of the passing of one of my dearest friends, Robert York.  We met way back in 1997.  He and I were charter members of a Civil War Naval Reenacting unit based in the Greater Houston area.  Over the years, our numbers dwindled until he and I were the sole survivng members.  Robert took me to my first reeanctment in the fall of 1997.  Always a thoughtful guy, he drove out of his way to pick me up in Huntsville where I attended college at the time.  Then we drove over to Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana to help send the Yankees running!  Little did I know that those miles would be the first of a thousand or more that we would travel together over the next decade and a half.  I think back on all of those conservations we had about the Civil War, history in general, or women with great fondness.  He was always quick with a joke.....usually at my expense and I have to say I provided him with lots of ammunition.  When I was single, he found my attempts to find a girlfriend through reenacting to be particularly funny as there just aren't a lot of 18-21 year old ladies out there who go to reenactments!   

When I went through a divorce, he was one of the first people I talked to about it.  When I got remarried, he was one of the first to know.  Since I've struggled financially from time to time, Robert was always willing to purchase a needed piece of equipment for me at an event and let me pay him back when I had the funds.  Come to think of it, I probably still owe him a little money.  Two books that belonged to him sit on my bookshelf.  I read them and intended to return them, but I never had the time to drive them down to his house.  After reading the email telling me of his death, I called his cell phone so that it would go to voicemail and I could hear his voice one more time.

The last time I talked to him was on March 16th.  He seemed upbeat.  I filled him in on some of the stuff going on in my life health wise.  How selfish of me.  When I hung up the phone I didn't know that it would be the last time I talked to him.  If only I had known that, I would have thanked him for everything he has done for me over the years.  Thankfully I am left with some fond memories.  If you read my post about reenacting, when I referenced the "Belle Chasse Ballet".....that was Robert!  I'll never forget that scene!  I knew that no matter what, he'd always have a spot for me in the truck or tent if I decided to attend an event at the last minute.  We logged a lot of miles together both by vehicle and on foot.  We worked artillery pieces and stood side by side in the ranks.  Robert was my comrade until the end.  Plus, he could make a jug of grog that would knock your brogans off!  Or at least make you forget where you left them.

So Robert, keep the campfire going and bacon frying.  I'll join you in Heaven or Valhalla when it is my time to go.  Say hello to my Civil War ancestors for me and tell them that I said that you are a worthy addition to their ranks.  I'll miss you down here, but they need the reinforcements up there.

R.E. York, 1951-2014
Ich hatt' einen Kameraden
I'll see you again in Vallhalla, brother.
Keep the grog ration ready for me!

Lee Hutch   

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cool Gadgets of History


The best laid plans of mice and bloggers often get sidetracked by outside forces.  I got home on Tuesday afternoon and began to mull over some blog post ideas for the evening's post when my little redhead arrived home with a cool new toy.  I am now in proud possession of my first iPhone.  Yes, I was transformed within a few moments into a giddy teenage girl.  In the past, I've always carried a flip phone as I am slow to embrace new gadgets.  How wrong I have been.  I must apologize to the Apple people (didn't Forrest Gump have something to do with that?) for not purchasing their product sooner.  I have discovered a whole new world.  Imagine, I can access Face Tube or You Book anytime I want!  They even have history trivia apps.  So all of this got me thinking, which is a dangerous thing to do, about how people reacted to some of the gadgets that appeared in previous generations.

I am not an overly scientific person.  As a former arson investigator, I know my fire science, but that is about it.  I've always been fascinated by the thought process that went into the concept behind many inventions.  For example, what was the guy who invented the flame thrower thinking?  "Gee, I'd really like to set that thing over there on fire, but I'm too lazy to walk the 15 yards to do it.  Wouldn't it be nice if I had something that could just shoot the fire from here to there?"  And next thing you know, we have the flammerwerfer.

And let's not forget those, who like myself, are slow to embrace new gadgets.  I am the first to admit that I would be the guy telling the Wright Brothers "There will never be a military use for the airplane!"  I would argue against the use of firearms by saying that the crossbow has worked so well, why replace it!  And tanks?  Who needs tanks?  In some ways the reactions to the technology are more interesting than the technology itself.

So, Dear Readers, I leave you with this question.  What is the coolest military gadget that has ever been invented?  Or, to be more broad, what is the coolest gadget in history?

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ed Historian.

Who needs Kindle when you can have the real thing?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Teaching History


I would assume that all of us have had history classes in our lives.  I took the usual social studies curriculum in high school.  At the time, we had the option of either World Geography or World History followed by the second half of US history in 11th grade.  We took the first half in 8th grade.  Our senior year we took a semester of government and a semester of Economics.  I graduated in 1996 and so the curriculum has changed a few times since then.  The way it is taught in Texas with the first half of US history in 8th grade and the second half in 11th grade makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but I digress.

As a history major, I took a whole lot more classes in college and then even more in graduate school.  Needless to say, I've seen all sorts of history teachers in my life.  Some excellent, some average, and some were, shall we say, below average.  I've been teaching in one capacity or another since 2004.  I place myself in the average category, though I strive for excellence.  It seems like the big focus in education (both at the secondary school and the college level) is to "teach with technology".  I use power points, though mine usually just have pictures and a few words of text that have the main idea.  I show video clips.  And I use primary accounts of things whenever possible.  I also use a lot of music when I can.

However, I see a problem with the heavy focus on technology.  Throwing up a power point slide that has paragraphs on it does nothing for students.  Plus, all the bells and whistles in the world doesn't make up for a poorly planned lesson.  Some of the best teachers that I have ever had never turned on a computer or a projector.  They never used ipads in the classroom (of course, we didn't have them back then).  They never used fancy software programs.  All they did was stand in front of the classroom and tell us stories about the past and we learned.  Quite a bit.  Their passion for the subject came through and was contagious.  Though I try very hard myself, I can't help but feel sometimes that I don't quite live up to their standards.

Personally, I think that you have to know your subject, have a passion for it, and be able to tell a story in order to succeed as a history teacher.  Technology makes a good teacher a better one.  It will not turn a bad teacher into a good one.  I have students that have loved my classes.  I have others who have hated it.  I do believe that, based on feedback that I have received from the students and the colleges where I have taught, I have more than the former category than the latter.  But I could be wrong.

So I think that every history lecture should be a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  How you want to go about that is entirely up to you.  Use technology if you like.  But if you don't, that isn't a big deal.  Your enthusiasm for what you are doing is far more important than any piece of hardware, which may not work when you need it anyway!  (That is an entirely different subject for another time!)

So I'll ask you this, Dear Readers, what did your best history teachers do that made them the best?

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who tries not be be a Half A$$ Teacher.

The Half A$$ Historian in an open air classroom.
My favorite type!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Writer's Life


For those of you who have the, shall we say, good fortune, of working with me, it will come as quite a surprise to find that I did not always have the personality that I do today.  In fact, much of my outgoing style at work is really an act.  Growing up, I was very shy and also withdrawn.  By nature, I am an introvert.  I have to work very hard to overcome that.  Sure I can be the life of the party now, but much of that is an attempt to overcome what I see as my own personal shortcomings, which are numerous.  I am sure if you asked my little redhead, she could give you a list!  (I jest, of course.)

As a child I found my escape through the written word.  Just as I can with music, I can also tell you which books I read that had an impact on my life.  I'll never forget readings Rifles for Watie, a children's Civil War novel, when I was in fourth grade.  I would often read in class and at first, the teacher's would chastise me for it, but then they gave up and let me!  Sure I played football outside with the kids in the neighborhood, but that was not where my true passion lay.  I could not wait to escape into my room where I could open a book and discover a new world.  To be more accurate since my passion was historical fiction, I should say to discover a world that existed prior to my own.  When  I was in fifth grade, my teacher Mrs. Simonsen made us a write a journal entry and say what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I wrote a page detailing my plan to be a writer.  Alas, I have failed in that plan.

My life took me in other directions.  In a way, I spent a lot of time running away from myself.  Though I enjoyed my time as a firefigher and a police officer, and I was d--n good at it, my heart was never fully with it.  History and the written word were still inexplicably linked in my mind.  Standing in front of a classroom gives me just as much of an adrenaline rush as making a fast attack on a structure fire or getting in a vehicle pursuit.  So does writing.  I wrote my first novel in high school.  Handwritten, mind you.  I did so after reading Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson.  It is a freaking awesome novel about British fighter pilots in the early months of World War 2.  In fact, ALL of his novels are good.  I don't think they are still in print, but you can get them cheaply from Amazon if you don't mind used copies.  Do it today!  You won't be sorry.  Piece of Cake was also made into a mini-series by the BBC, but read the book first.  Those of you who are military aviation enthusiasts like me will NOT be sorry!  His has several WW2 and WW1 novels.  All are good, but he is a relatively unknown writer.  What he can do with the English language defies all attempts to describe it. You'll just have to read it and find out for yourselves.

I lack the drive anymore to finish any of the novels that I have in progress.  I'm too busy trying to eek out a living and also deal with chronic pain.  Maybe one day, but I doubt it.  I still try but it is hard.  Luckily others write novels that I can read.  Plus, I have my blog which is a lot more difficult than it may look.  I live in a 900 square foot house with about 1800 books and 5 cats!  It gets a little crowded at times.  I add anywhere for 50-100 books per year depending on how much money I make that year.  If things get rough financially, which they often do now, then I have a library just a few blocks away.  As long as I have books (and cats) in my life, I'm happy.  Happier still if my little redhead is with me.  Who knows, maybe I'll finish either my Civil War novel or my WW2 novel one day.  Maybe.

Here are my favorite novels by subject:

Civil War: The Black Flower, Paradise Alley
WW1: Losing Julia (Everyone should read that one!), Goshawk Squadron
WW2: Piece of Cake (Read this today!), Bomber (Len Deighton's masterpiece), Das BootLove and Hate (sort of a War and Peace type novel by Vasily Grossman)

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.  Why?  Because sometimes you can learn more from good historical fiction than you can from boring textbooks or monographs by professor who can't write!

I'd rather be reading.