Book Review
The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili
Dann Woellert

History of Cincinnati Chili coverThere is definitely a lot of information in this book. That’s why it’s here. I’ve often said that all my reviews are positive not because I like everything I read but because I see no reason to spend time reviewing something I don’t like. The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili had me wavering. The subject matter is clearly in my strike zone. History? Check. Cincinnati? Check. Chili? Are you kidding? This looks like a book that could have been written specifically for me, right? Digging into it, however, was not quite as tasty as I thought it would be.

As I read, I noticed some repeats and the occasional oddly formed or slightly out of place sentence. There were many tiny details, like the address of a parlor owner’s home or the what movies played in nearby theaters, that pushed the too-much-information boundary. I was about halfway through the book when I had an epiphany. I’m not sure it was a real epiphany in which truth was revealed or a pseudo-epiphany in which i concocted a theory that made things make sense to me but it suddenly struck me that I was reading somebody’s notes. Not completely raw notes but notes that had been jotted down to record every bit of information that an interview or newspaper article provided then wrapped in enough conjunctions, adverbs, adjectives, and punctuation to turn bulleted lists into paragraphs. There are exceptions. The introduction and a chapter called “Unlocking the Flavor Secrets”, perhaps because they are overviews of multiple chili operations and recipes, manage to avoid the just-the-facts but all-the-facts style of most of the book.

All-the-facts is a lot. Woellert obviously did extensive research and interviewed several members of Cincinnati Chili’s founding families. Founding family members also supplied several photos from the early days of Cincinnati chili for inclusion in the book. There is a family tree type chart showing how it all goes back to Empress. If you have a question about the history of chili in the Queen City, chances are the answer is in this book; maybe more than once.

I did not have a question but I did have a suspicion that was validated by this book. Tradition has it that Skyline Chili’s name came from the view of downtown Cincinnati from the chain’s original restaurant. Some versions of the story claim it was the view from the kitchen. I readily accepted that until I visited the site on Glenway Avenue last year. The original building is gone but I couldn’t imagine how anyone could see down town from the ground floor of any building at that location. Bill Lambrinides, one of the founders, tells a different story which, since it’s one of the few “revelations” in The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, I won’t retell beyond saying that Bill confirmed that the view was not from the restaurant.

There are some errors in the book but I’ve a feeling that all the dates and addresses associated with actual chili parlors are not among them. In my most recent book review, I used the phrase “well researched and well written”. I can’t use it here. One out of two it is. I found myself scratching my head or chuckling at some of of the writing but still ended up believing the collection of information made this book worth keeping around.

The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, Dann Woellert, The History Press (April 16, 2013), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 176 pages, ISBN  978-1609499921

Book Review
Thus Fell Tecumseh
Frank E. Kuron

Thus Fell Tecumseh coverOne of the few undisputed facts of Tecumseh’s life is the date of his death. The date of his birth is only known approximately and there are multiple possibilities for its location. He was born about March 1768 somewhere in the Ohio territory. It’s pretty much accepted that he met his end at the Battle of the Thames but that statement isn’t quite as precise as it might appear. While it is generally believed, as most reports indicate, that he died as a combatant in the battle, reports do exist that describe his death as an accidental shooting some distance away from the actual fighting. What no one questions is that Tecumseh was alive on the morning of October 5, 1813, and dead at the end of the day.

Use Grammarly’s grammar check because smart words should be presented smartly.

A little more than half of Thus Fell Tecumseh involves that day which means that nearly half of it doesn’t. Kuron spends that other half providing a well researched and well written description of the early part of the War of 1812 and the circumstances that led to it. He also manages to fit a pretty good biography of Tecumseh in there. By the time the Battle of the Thames begins, the reader has a more than decent idea of what those British, Canadian, American, and Indian forces are doing there.

Kuron also provides a good summary of the battle before starting to present the various accounts of Tecunseh’s death. There are accounts from eye witnesses with details that, if there were no other reports, would make them readily accepted as absolute truth. But there are other reports. Lots of them. Some name different individuals as the slayer and some name the same man but differ in other significant details. Even more problematic are the differing reports that one witness might give over time. Like testimony in a trial, the reports are presented unmodified. Kuron never urges the reader to accept one report or another. He does point out the discrepancies in each. If this was a real trial where the killer would be punished rather than glorified, every suspect named would almost certainly be acquitted thanks to mounds of reasonable doubt.

Of course, the killing of Tecumseh was no crime. The Shawnee chief was almost universally admired and respected by friend and foe but another of those rare undisputed facts about him is that he was a very active and effective enemy of the young United States. There was fame to be gained from his killing and the man most often named as the killer, Colonel Richard Johnson, was boosted to the Vice Presidency by that fame. Of the three most popular candidates for the honor, one (David King) shied away from any publicity and another (William Whitley) died on the battlefield. Johnson himself never quite claimed to have slain Tecumseh but supporters did make the claim for him and his political career clearly benefited.

Part of the difficulty in identifying the slayer is in identifying the slain. At least two of the bodies left on the field of battle were identified as Tecumseh plus there are claims that the body was carried away by companions and even that it was never there.

Kuron does not offer an answer to the question of who killed Tecumseh. He does supply a terrific amount of testimony, from participants in both sides of the battle as well as others, that suggests several possibilities. Interest in the War of 1812 has certainly increased during its bicentennial but has been overshadowed even in that by the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. As the final use of the British military against the United States and nearly the last, and possibly the largest, organized resistance by Native Americans to advances of the new country, the War of 1812 is extremely important in this country’s development. Thus Fell Tecumseh is a very well done look at the war, the Battle of the Thames, and the many ways in which Tecumseh might have fallen.

Thus Fell Tecumseh, Frank E Kuron, Kuron Publishing (January 14, 2011), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0615415222

Book Review
The House on Hathaway Road
The Henkalines

The House on Hathaway Road coverNot only did I graduate from high school smack dab in in the middle of the ’60s, it was smack dab in the middle of the Henkalines, too. There were four of them; a girl and three boys. The girl was a few years older than the boys. The oldest boy graduated a year before me and the next a year after. Though I was most familiar with the two boys closest to me in age, I knew them all. It was a small school in a small town in rural Ohio. Everybody knew everybody.

All four siblings contributed to the book. Jack, the guy just a year behind me, got things started in the 1990s by recording remembered stories on his laptop during idle time on business trips. The idea was to provide some personal history to his own children. This was a low priority and sometimes forgotten task until the death of a friend gave Jack a nudge. The friend had long maintained a journal and his widow told Jack how much that helped her and the children deal with the loss. It prompted Jack to return to his recording. In time, the brothers and sister became involved in filling in some blanks and recording their own stories and ultimately producing The House on Hathaway Road.

After introducing their parents and the house they grew up in, each of the four “kids” provides a chapter. Chapters on the final days of the parents and on the next generation follow. A member of that next generation died in an automobile accident in 2007 and there is a chapter dedicated to her. A Henkaline family tree concludes the book.

Jack’s original goal, to pass on some history to the next generation, is clearly accomplished and then some. There are certainly items in the book that will be of little interest for non-Henkalines but there are many more that provide glimpses of the 1950s and ’60s that almost anyone can enjoy. There are some truly universal memories like 24 cent gas and gathering in front of the TV to watch whatever Dad wanted to watch. The Henkalines even include a chapter titled “Nostalgia” with pictures of things that most people of a certain age will remember. Things like skate keys, TV test patterns, and Burma Shave signs. Other memories might not be exactly universal unless you lived in “the country” in the Midwest. In that case, things like chicks in the mail, laundry day with a wringer washer and “on line” drying, party line telephones, and all-purpose aprons might sound familiar.

One of the stories that Jerry (the guy a year ahead of me) tells might be simply entertaining to most readers but for anyone attending Ansonia High School in 1963 it’s a major highlight on the memory reel. Jerry was a starting tackle on the team that broke a 38 game losing streak. I recall a story that newscasters Huntley and Brinkley, who ended most programs with something lighthearted, used our first victory since 1958 as that night’s closer. I’ve never found any documentation for that but Jerry’s reporting of an uncle in Oregon who first heard the news on radio indicates there was some national coverage and that the Huntley-Brinkley story could possibly be true. I’ve always considered my time at AHS to have been excellent preparation for being a Bengals’ fan.

The book’s dust cover speculates that readers might find themselves saying, “That story reminds me of what happened to me growing up.” That’s likely true of almost any member of my generation regardless of where that growing up occurred and absolutely true for those of us who grew up within a few miles of Hathaway Road. Those in other generations will still enjoy the book but they might get jealous.

The House on Hathaway Road: Where Memories Began, The Henkalines, Aventine Press, February 18, 2013, hardcover, 9 x 6 inches, 286 pages, ISBN 978-1593308124

Also available on eBay.

We Have Ways of Making You Talk

Ohio Lincoln Highway League West meetingWhen the Lincoln Highway Association was reborn in 1992, Ohio’s organization took the form of three chapters operating as a “league”. However, until late last year, that was on paper only. In October, a West chapter was formed to join the existing East and Central chapters and Larry Webb was elected its first president. Larry knows my cousin who lives in Van Wert and one day she mentioned my recently published book to him as something he might be interested in. He ordered his own copy and gave me a call after he’d looked it over a bit. He asked if I was making presentations related to the book and I answered, “No, but I probably should be.” He then offered up the recently formed chapter as “guinea pigs” at their next meeting on February 18. Although I put him off for a bit, I eventually agreed and found myself asking, in a conversation with myself, “Just what have you gotten us into now, Bunkie?”

During my working days, I had spoken to a few small groups but was never very comfortable with it and it was a long time ago. The book in question is By Mopar to the Golden Gate which tells of a cross country drive on the Lincoln Highway which is why a Lincoln Highway Association group was interested. It contains a lot of photos and I had taken many more on the trip so that’s where my planning headed. A few pictures would help a bunch. Not only would each one reduce my speaking requirement by a thousand words and give the audience something to look at, they could be my notes. With a little time to refresh myself on dates and such, I could rattle on about some pictures I’d taken without a teleprompter or learning a lot of new stuff.

I started browsing through my pictures and, at the same time, started looking for a way to present them. Larry had told me a projector and screen would be available that I could (hopefully) run from my laptop. I looked at a few slide show programs and ended up settling on OpenOffice Impress, a free PowerPoint-like application. It allowed me to add information (reminders) to photos as well as create non-photo slides to provide other information.

I made a pass through the photos picking out candidates. I reduced this rather large list to about 125 photos that I thought might be good for some presentation then to about 50 that I thought would be good for this presentation. I recorded myself going through things a couple of times to get a handle on the length and to determine where my memory was going to need more help than a photograph provided. I made up a couple of slides with some general statistics and other items. I decided I was as ready as I was going to get.

When I’m on the road, leaving a motel is often a slapdash sort of thing. Half the time I’m packing up the power supply while my computer is doing its shutdown on batteries. As I got ready to leave home on the day of the presentation, I took no short cuts and made sure everything shutdown in the right sequence. I drove to Van Wert and, as soon as Larry arrived, carried my computer in and turned it on. “Gotcha!”, it said. Or something along those lines that meant things are not right and I’m going to run a disk check. It ran the check, it fixed a thing or two, and it completed powering up. All was well and any risk of me becoming too relaxed during the evening was effectively eliminated.

Main Street Van Wert adAll really was well. Not only did the computer function properly, so too, within limits, did I. The audience of approximately twenty-five was just about perfect. They knew enough about the Lincoln Highway to be interested but not enough to be bored. There was even applause, which is something I’m not at all familiar with, at the end and their interest was further demonstrated through several very good questions. It remains to be seen whether I do any more presentation of this sort but I survived this one and even enjoyed it. For me, the primary purpose was to get some experience and not to sell books but I did sell some. Four copies were sold and a few more placed on consignment with the canal museum in Delphos. Add to that the fact that I arrived in Van Wert early enough to take advantage of a $1 pie sale at Balyeats (apple) and that I spent the night and chattered away the next morning with friends who came to the presentation and I count this as a darned good trip.

Book Review
Twelve Years a Slave
Solomon Northup

Twelve Years a Slave coverLike most of the world, I had no idea this book even existed before the movie about the New Yorker kidnapped into slavery came out. When I saw the movie, I was moderately less impressed than some but I left the theater with two basic questions: was the book an actual memoir and how close did the movie track it? As I poked around the internet, I encountered no suspicion that either Solomon Northup or the story he told were fiction which made the answer to the first question “yes”. I then located a free PDF copy of the book and set out to answer the second question myself. I had my doubts as I read the book’s early pages but it became apparent before too long that that answer was “very close”.

The real Solomon Northup did not have quite the wealth and social rank that the movie Solomon Northup seems to have. My guess is that’s to make his enslavement more shocking and I have no problem with that. Quite a few pages of print are used to establish that Northup had little reason to fear for his safety. On film, fancy clothes and strolls in the park do that more quickly. There are a few cases of the movie combining multiple incidents into a single event or more than one person into a single character but that’s a fairly common practice and does no damage to the gist of the story. I might not be crazy about the too long shots of unmoving faces or moss draped trees but I have to say the movie is fairly well done and more than fairly accurate.

But, just as the book didn’t become a movie without compromise, neither did Northup’s story get to the page completely pure. The book is one of those “as told to” things. In this case, the printed story is as told to and edited by David Wilson. The prose at times becomes more flowery and stilted than how I imagine Northup actually communicated his tale but there is nothing at all wrong with that. That’s why professional writers are employed in situations such as this. Wilson’s job was to make the story readable and attractive. Did he also alter or embellish things? I can’t really say, of course, but my sense is that he did little or none of the former but did slip in some amount of the latter. I suppose that’s to be expected since his job also involved making the book successful. That it was; selling 30,000 copies and being considered a best-seller in its day.

About halfway through the book, I thought of posting a review of it. Nothing too serious, as the book was 161 years old, but something as sort of a novelty in the midst of all the bustle around the movie. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, I decided there was something else I needed to do first.

Twelve Years a Slave was published less than a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally a serial, was published as a book. Northup dedicated it to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Thinking that I had not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin since high-school, I decided that reading it now was a good idea so that I might compare the two. So I found a free PDF of Stowe’s book and soon after I started reading it came to the realization that I had not just gone since high-school without reading the book. I may have read some chopped down “Cliff’s Notes” style version and I’ve seen skits and other portrayals but it was soon obvious to me that I had never read the full original novel. I found myself very impressed with Stowe’s writing as well as her story. I found her story quite similar to Northup’s or at least to Wilson’s recording of it. By the time I finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin and got ready to do this review, I was starting to think that Wilson might have taken nearly as much from Stowe as he did from Northup. I was, however, very wrong.

I saw the movie in early December and searched out the free PDF shortly thereafter. Then as now, the search phrase “12 years a slave” yields a list of hits that almost all reference the 2013 movie one way or another. It takes adding “book”  or some other qualifier to get much else. I must have done something like that in December — I did find that PDF somehow — but now there seems to be more. I’m sure there are things that I simply didn’t notice before but it’s also true that there are new things. One example is a USA Today article that is just a few days old and talks about the recent growth of interest in the original writing that I felt but could not quantify.

One of the things I became aware of only after reading both Twelve Years a Slave and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the work that Dr. Sue Eakin and Dr Joseph Logsdon did in verifying events in Northup’s narrative. I shelled out 99 cents for an electronic version of the recently published “enhanced” version of Twelve Years a Slave that includes some of their findings and more. I did not reread Northup’s story or even all of the notes but just skimming over them made it evident that the story was firmly anchored in reality. Another real world connection popped up in the search list. An article here tells of the diary of a Union captain who reached the plantation from which Northup was rescued some ten years after that event.

Even with the help of a professional, Twelve Years a Slave is not as well written or easy to read as Uncle Tom’s Cabin but the stories they tell are frighteningly similiar. Maybe the totally factual basis of the one compensates for the skill of the other (and neither is poorly written). I’m actually somewhat glad that I was mistaken in believing I had read Stowe’s novel decades ago because reading these two back to back made quite an impression on me. The movie is really good and deserving of awards and praise. I’ll even offer my own praise for it being a whole lot truer to the book than many I’ve seen. But, as is very often the case for some of us, the book is better.

Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup through David Wilson, Derby & Miller, 1853, hardcover, 5 x 7.5 inches, 336 pages

Book Review
How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips
Terri Weeks

How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips coverI thought of reviewing this ebook when it came out last March but it didn’t happen. There were actually multiple items, including a couple of CDs, that were review candidates about that time which got pushed aside by stuff like preparations for the coming summer. By releasing this second edition, Terri Weeks combines a reminder that I missed posting a review last year along with a second chance.

Terri lives within ten miles of me, does a goodly amount of traveling, and writes a blog about it. Add to that the book she’s co-written called Adventures Around Cincinnati and the travel related lecturing she does around the area and you might think it almost a given that I’ve met her. Not so and what at first might seem odd, might not be at all surprising once you learn that the full title of that book is Adventures Around Cincinnati: A Parent’s Guide to Unique and Memorable Places to Explore with your Kids and that her blog is called Travel 50 States with Kids. I’ve nothing against kids, of course. I did, once upon a time, some traveling with my own and my trip journals include at least one outing with just me and a grandson. But it’s an obvious fact that I seldom travel with anyone and that I travel with kids even seldomer.

But kid-friendly attractions are hardly uninteresting attractions and I’ve been following Weeks’ blog for some time as she describes visits to quite an assortment of them. I did — and continue to — read the blog through its RSS feed but I also have an email subscription. Why email? Because signing up for email is the ticket for getting a free download of How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips.

The twelve trips described in the ebook are not just theoretical lines on a map. The routes are practical and mostly proven. They are the routes that the Weeks family has or will follow to taste every state in the union before the youngsters finish high school. Terri Weeks has an engineering background which I’m sure served her well when she set out some years ago to devise a plan to accomplish the family’s travel goals. They are getting close. One change for the second edition is an update of “…eight states and three years to go” to “…six states and two years to go”. If I understand the scoring properly, nine trips are history and three are yet in the future.

Even if you exactly share Weeks’ goal of visiting all 50 states with your offspring before they finish high school, you might not want to do it in exactly twelve trips or exactly the same twelve. In fact, I imagine the chances of someone using this book as a precise blueprint for their own travels are pretty low but I’m confident that’s not what Weeks intended. The twelve trips are her way of making sure her family accomplishes its goal. They provide an obvious way to organize the nice catalog of attractions which is the book’s primary offering and they serve as an example of how the 50 state task can be accomplished.

For Weeks, the goal is not to simply reach each state but to actually visit each one; to experience, where possible, something unique for which a state is known. Things like the Grand Canyon in Arizona, a Mardi Gras museum in Louisiana, the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Yosemite National Park in California, and even the Mall of America in Minnesota.

How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips mapThe book is not large, 40 pages, 4.5 KB. There are no detailed directions. There is a general map, like the one at left, for each trip followed by a daily itinerary. Itinerary entries are usually one-liners with any details provided through a web link. Being an ebook, How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips can assume some connectivity that paper books can’t. That means web links for many attractions. Sometimes the links lead directly to an attraction’s website and sometimes, for attractions already visited, to a Travel 50 States with Kids blog entry which often contains a link to the attraction’s website along with a report on the family’s visit.

As indicated, identifying various attractions is the ebook’s strong suit. The trip routes and itineraries are also quite useful if only as examples for creating your own. And there is a third subtle value in the the ebook. Both it and the blog behind it serve as gentle reminders that, if there is a long term goal in your life, you will probably need some sort of plan in order to reach it. In the case of getting kids to fifty states before graduation, merely keeping score won’t get it. Having just three or four states to go when the senior year rolls around sounds good unless those states are Maine, Florida, Alaska, and Hawaii.

How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips – Second Edition, Terri Weeks, self published, February 2014, ebook, 8.5 x 11 inches, 40 pages, free with email subscription at How to Visit All 50 Atates in 12 Trips

By Mopar to the Golden Gate coverBy coincidence, the first review of my own book, By Mopar to the Golden Gate, appeared yesterday. Written by Ron Warnick at Route 66 News, the very positive in depth review can be read here.

Book Review
By Mopar to the Golden Gate
Denny Gibson

bmttgg_cvrThis book has thousands of words, many with multiple syllables, and dozens of pictures in 50+ shades of grey. It tells the story of an old man in an old car on an old road and is available here and at Amazon, including Amazon UK and Europe, on an old medium — paper.

By Mopar to the Golden Gate, Denny Gibson, Trip Mouse Publishing, 2013, paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 140 pages, ISBN 978-0615921990.


Book Review
Fallen Timbers 1794
John F Winkler

Fallen Timbers coverEveryone loves a winner and, in 1794, the United States Army finally became one. In his earlier work, Wabash 1791, Winkler tells of the new nation’s first military campaign and the disaster that resulted. Fallen Timbers 1794, describes the campaign that led to a victory at Fallen Timbers and ultimately to the Treaty of Greenville.

The 1791 Battle of the Wabash, more commonly known as St Clair’s Defeat, essentially destroyed the United States Army. In 1792, congress created a new one. To lead this new army, The Legion of the United States of America, President Washington chose Revolutionary War veteran Anthony Wayne. Wayne did things quite a bit differently than did St Clair. He made sure his troops were trained and equipped before setting out and he placed a series of defensible forts so as to protect his supply line. Perhaps more importantly, he understood the Indian methods of combat and devised tactics to counter them. Like St Clair, Wayne had difficulties with supplies and contractors but it seems that now it was not only greed and incompetence that fueled them but an actual conspiracy aimed at causing his failure.

As he did in Wabash 1791, Winkler sets the scene for the campaign by describing the “strategic situation” and with chapters on the opposing commanders, armies, and plans. In many respects, the world situation was still much like it was in 1791. The United States was only a few years older and only a tiny bit more stable. Britain’s support and encouragement of the natives may have actually increased and neither France not Spain had vanished from North America. In fact, French elements were very much at play, often for the worse, inside the young nation. Of course, there were also plenty of homegrown problems. That previously mentioned conspiracy was one of them and, in the westernmost reaches, open revolt was a real possibility. These were the days of the Whiskey Rebellion. Less than three weeks before the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a crowd of 7,000 threatened to march on Pittsburgh. It was less than two months after the battle that President Washington personally went into the field to put down the uprising.

Three dimensional maps, like those that helped in understanding the Battle of Wabash, do the same for the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Other maps, along with period portraits and modern photographs, help understand the people and places involved. Peter Dennis’ wonderful paintings, one of which is used for the cover, provide realistic visualizations of specific battle scenes.

Winkler’s book on the Battle of the Wabash had nowhere near the shortcomings of the battle it described but he did manage to improve on it a little with Fallen Timbers 1794. I resorted to the word “scholarly” in describing the front end of Wabash 1791. It was justified, I offered, because it presented a lot of information that made later portions of the book flow more smoothly. But in this latest book, I never did get the feeling of slogging through mounds of dry facts that I had before. I have no way to quantify this and it may be simply that less preliminary facts are required or that they are less dry or that I am better prepared. Any or all of those could be true but my gut feel is that Winkler has refined his language and maybe even the structure to produce something more easily read.

During the last few years, any time that the average person felt like devoting to history was spent, more than likely, on the Civil War sesquicentennial. I have absolutely no disagreement with that but still thought it nice that, here and there, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 got some attention. The territory in dispute in 1812 was not all that different than what was being fought over in 1791 and 1794. Some of the nations and even some of the individuals involved were the very same. To the War of 1812 and especially to the Battle of the Thames, the battles at Wabash and Fallen Timbers were “prequels”.

Fallen Timbers 1794: The US Army’s first victory, John F Winkler, Osprey Publishing, February 2013, paperback, 9.8 x 7.2 inches, 96 pages, ISBN 978-1780963754

Book Preview
Walking to Listen
Andrew Forsthoefel

Walking to Listen - Andrew ForsthoefelYes, that says “Preview”. The book does not yet exist. I don’t know exactly when it will exist or if Walking to Listen will even be its title. But I am confident that it will exist and that it will be worth reading.

In a recent blog post, I told how, when I travel, I quickly get behind on the RSS feeds I subscribe to. The same thing happens to the few podcasts that I follow. Heck, I even get behind on them when I don’t travel. So I am seriously behind on This American Life. So much behind that yesterday, October, 15, I listened to the program from May 3. My timing was perfect.

It was a three act program named “Hit the Road”. Act one was “The Slowest Distance Between Between Two Points” which was Andrew Forsthoefel’s story. Andrew had walked across the country, from Philadelphia to the San Francisco, covering 4000 miles in eleven months. He wore a sign bearing the phrase “Walking to Listen” and that is what he did. He met lots of people and he listened to them. He recorded lots of what he heard. From that he produced a one hour audio program that can be heard here. In some regards, the This American Life program is a trimmed down version. It can be heard here.

I was walking when I listened to the podcast and I suppose that might have had a tiny bit to do with my liking of the podcast but only a very tiny bit. The idea of seeing the USA through its people is always intriguing and that’s what Andrew was doing with his walk. He was twenty-three years old and he was asking people what advice they might give to a twenty-three year old version of themselves. Listening to some of the answers was intriguing to the extreme. So too was Andrew’s commentary recorded both during and after the walk.

Near the end of the program the host, Ira Glass, shared information about the one hour program and also mentioned that a book was in the works. When I got home, I listened to the longer audio program and I visited Andrew’s website at There are pictures there and more information about the walk and a blog. Andrew started the blog about two weeks into the walk. I haven’t read the entire thing but it looks as if he posted every few days during the walk and mentioned everyone he had recently talked to. Thanked them, actually. After the walk, the entries slowed, as they should, to a trickle. The most recent was posted on October 14; The day before I first heard the podcast and the second anniversary of the walk’s beginning. In addition to noting the anniversary, the post announced that Houghton Mifflin had picked up the book. As I said, my timing was perfect. I’ve subscribed to Andrew’s blog and will be anxiously watching for a publication date.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew’s mother as he set off to walk and listen. I hope neither she nor Andrew are too angry at me for snitching it.

Book Review
Ten Years Behind the Mast
Fritz Damler

Ten Years behind the Mast CoverBefore I get around to actually talking about this book, I am going to tell how I learned of its existence. I first saw Theodora R, the boat whose mast the author was behind, in July of 2011. I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a friend tipped me off to a nearby museum called Tinkertown. The museum was different than anything I’d ever seen and the boat was different than anything else in the museum. There were similarities, of course, because the same man who created the museum of small items, many hand carved, had also created the signage and other details in the display of the thirty-five foot boat. Then another similarity occurred to me. The unique folk art museum created by Ross Ward represented his “Follow Your Heart” attitude and the boat that Fritz Damler sailed around the world represented that same attitude. Now the boat didn’t seem out of place at all.

TinkertownTinkertownI had chatted with Ross Ward’s widow, Carla, when I first arrived and learned just a bit about the man who passed away in 2002. I spoke with her again before leaving and learned that Fritz Damler was her brother and that he now lived in the Bahamas. I can’t recall why I didn’t buy this book on that first visit. Maybe I was really watching cash flow on the way home from a west coast road trip or maybe I wasn’t even aware that it existed. Carla is not much into high pressure sales. I bought it three months ago on my second visit.

Ten Years Behind the Mast was published seven years ago. Fritz Damler completed his circumnavigation fifteen years before that. Maybe taking fifteen years to finish a book about a ten year journey is a little higher than average but it makes me feel less guilty about coming to it seven years later. A friend and I once met a couple who were sailing south along the Americas’ east coast. Fritz’s publishing — and living — schedule reminds me of something they said often: “If we were in a hurry, we wouldn’t be on a sailboat.”

You also wouldn’t be living on a sailboat without wide ranging skills and the willingness to learn more — sometimes instantly. It isn’t too far fetched to believe that Fritz spent his first thirty-two years training for this journey. He was building guitars for a living immediately before acquiring the Theorora R and he was actually well into building his own wooden boat for the trip when he was betrayed by the epoxy he used and it fell apart. Some of his other jobs included paramedic, volunteer fireman, musician, and ski instructor. Each of those, and no doubt others, provided experience and training that served him well on his journey.

His wife was along when the trip started but it turned out she wasn’t as keen about living on a thirty-five foot boat as she initially thought and she was nowhere near as keen on sailing around the world as Fritz was. Before long, Fritz was without a wife which also meant he was without a permanent crew. Some of the sailing was done solo but most of it was done with an ever changing cast of characters which are all identified and described to some degree. So too are most, if not all, of the ports where Fritz and Theodora R dropped anchor and many of the people he met in those ports. It is a lot to pack into a couple hundred pages but Damler does a pretty good job of covering the ten years evenly.

There are visits from friends and family and Damler never really loses connection with the USA but he does get up close and sometimes personal with a lot of different cultures. He is able to report that fruit bat, the daily special of a Madagascar restaurant “tastes like sweet chicken”. He determined that a small village on New Guinea’s Sanaroa Island was the most remote he ever visited with the help of his guitar. It was the only place where not one person showed even a flicker of recognition when he played “House of the Rising Sun”. That is remote indeed.

Through lots of little glimpses, Damler provides something of a feel for what cruising through far off waters is like. Theodora R was far from alone in doing this. Apparently a sizable “cruisers” culture exists though not everyone is heading around the world or living aboard full time. It is ever so slightly like the RV culture with distances and degree of isolation cranked up to imagination challenging levels.

This is not a guide book or a how to sail book. It is a story book that tells a true and entertaining story. Damler’s writing style makes the reading easy without excess tension or artificial suspense. The final phrase of the back cover blurb sums it up pretty well. “…his story of a decade at sea has it all: Discovery. Heartbreak. Misadventure. Salt.”

Ten Years Behind the Mast, Fritz Damler, Jackson Harbor Press, 2006, paperback, 8.4 x 5.5 inches, 211 pages, ISBN 978-1890352202.

On my first visit to Tinkertown, seeing and reading about Damler’s boat instantly reminded me of one of my favorite Michael McCloud songs, Chasin’ the Wind. I quoted from it in the journal entry for that 2011 visit. Here is a little longer quote:

The job got to feel just like an anchor
and that young wife started to roll just like the waves.
So he traded them both for a sturdy old boat
and the one dream that he’d always saved.

And another couple of lines:

Seen most of the world and a few lovely girls
who spent a short time working as the crew.

When I left Tinkertown after the 2013 visit, I had Damler’s book in my trunk and McCloud’s song in my head. The day after arriving home from that trip I listened to Chasin’ the Wind as I drove to meet friends. Before the song was even half over, I had decided where I would be going for Christmas. For several years now, I have made a “Christmas Escape Run” around the year end holidays. I have been to Key West and seen Michael McCloud just twice; Most recently on on my 2008 “Christmas Escape Run”. Sometime around Christmas 2013, I intend to be in Key West, Florida, where I can listen to Michael McCloud and at least look at some sailboats.

ADDENDUM 21-Aug-2015: It took a new comment to draw my attention to one I’d missed over a year before and, when that happened, I reread my announcement of firm intentions to head to Key West for Christmas. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t until Christmas of 2014 that I made it to Key West.