Museum Review: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Museum Focus: This is the annex of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Where is it: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, VA 20151. Just outside of Washington D.C. to the west.

What does it cost: Free! Well, sort of. It’s $15 for parking although every time I go there is no one at the gate and you go right in. Maybe I’m stealing, I dunno.

How long should I plan to stay: This is an all-day museum. Bonus is that it’s so spacious, you can bring the kids and let them run a bit. There’s a McDonald’s for lunch in the museum. Nothing shuts them up faster than a happy meal!

Best Exhibits: The actual Enola Gay is here. The entire plane in all it’s glory. Not many airplanes can give me goosebumps but that bad boy sure as hell did.

There’s a small exhibit for hot air balloons which I am irrationally in love with.

They also have the entire spaceship Discovery in one of the hangars. I’m not a space nerd but it’s still pretty cool. I didn’t see any aliens but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

There’s also a bunch of old timey and contemporary aviation doohickeys.

Is it worth it: Heck yeah. Come for the Enola Gay, stay for the kids running around so much they will actually sleep in the damn car on the way home.

Murder Aboard by C. Michael Hiam

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Of course, they blamed the minority and not the previously incarcerated crazy dude.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story about murders aboard a ship in 1896.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Canadians used to call New England the “Boston States.” I feel like everywhere but Boston would find that offensive.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: It sucked being a second mate. You couldn’t eat with the captain and the first mate and you couldn’t eat with the sailors. You ate alone after the captain and first mate did.

My Take: I definitely could have gotten away with murder in 1896. Hear me out.

This book really details just how inept (and racist!) law enforcement was at the time. It is not a spoiler to say that by the time the ship pulls in there is a story the whole crew is sticking to and they will not deviate. Even though it is pretty clear the (literal) crazy person is not the main subject and even though the actual “facts” don’t make any sense.

Basically, in 1896, I would just need to convince 2 people that the violent felony I was sent to an insane asylum for has nothing to do with the triple murder that occurred. No sir.

It helps if you can find yourself a minority to pin it on. Or at least half a minority, maybe. Actually, we aren’t even sure the guy they pinned it on was a minority. He might just be good at getting a tan! Racism doesn’t need to make sense.

Verdict: Short book and competently done. If you like historical true crime, then this is right up your alley.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar
  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Victoria Bruce and William Oldfield, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl on the Velvet Swing

Wolves at the Door

And now for something completely different. Yes, I wrote a poem. Skip this article if that bothers you. I was inspired by Stalingrad written by Antony Beevor. Towards the end, you start to feel the helplessness of the German soldiers as they know the inevitable red crush is coming. I turned that feeling into an acrostic poem (Stalingrad is spelled out with the first letter of each line). I hope you enjoy it.

Wolves at the Door

Sons of the Eagle down to their last morsel

Terrified and exhausted from the fight

Alive in nothing but frozen soul and spirit

Lying within their cold encrusted tombs

Iced to the ground, like trees long dead

No longer understanding why they came

Gone from their families, lost and alone

Round and round the circle has closed

And it all comes down to this, a final push

Die in the snow soldier, and know not why

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Which mass murderer is dumber, Hilter or Stalin? You decide!

Quick synopsis: A chronicle of the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II. Basically, the soldiers were heroes and all the megalomaniacs at the top were…well megalomaniacs.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Yes, Russians actually shot their own troops if they tried to retreat.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The sheer stupidity of both Stalin and Hitler is truly amazing to see. They refused to listen to anyone who actually knew what they were talking about and only heard what the sycophants would say.

*Cough* Reminder that history repeats itself.

My Take: I’d like to start by mentioning D-Day. It was, in many ways, a true masterpiece of planning. Weather, supplies, routes of attack, and above all, advice from experts were all taken into account. This led to one of the most amazing military actions in all of history.

Stalingrad, on the other hand, was the exact freaking opposite. Hitler failed to learn from the one truism in all of war. If you attack Russia, don’t stay for winter.

Beevor does a really good job of skirting the line between military history and narrative history. There are a few characters, but they are never totally fleshed out. In the same vein, Beevor does discuss the maneuvers of various units without bogging down in the minutiae. And from someone who took military science in college and then made it his job, I can assure you the minutiae can be soul crushing.

If you know nothing about World War II, this is probably not where to start. If you know enough to be dangerous, then this is perfect for you.

Verdict: A very good book which will give you all the highlights (and lowlights) of the battle.

If You Liked This Try:

  • James Carl Nelson, The Polar Bear Expedition
  • Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles
  • James Scott, Rampage

Battle of the Books Alfred the Great by Justin Pollard Vs. The White Horse King by Benjamin Merkle

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: He did more than just whoop the Vikings.

Quick synopsis: Biography of Alfred the Great, England’s first king (well, kinda. It is a super long story about who the first “king” is and well, let’s just assume he is.)

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Alfred the Great was the first English ruler who showed the Vikings who’s boss.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The book is filled with them. I’ll pick Alfred’s ingenious use of country planning to ensure he could always have a military force in the field by taking into account distance and the harvest.

My Take: Pollard and Merkle have no business making these books so good on so many fronts. The biggest challenge with this time period is a severe lack of documentation and scholarship to pull from. Luckily, Alfred was pretty learned and at least provided more than most. Additionally, I love that Pollard in particular will indicate a story may be apocryphal but doesn’t shoot it down entirely. Let us have some fun!

Both books go chronologically through Alfred’s life and builds a clear portrait of the would-be king. Both books take all the stories told about the young Alfred and gives us a three-dimensional character who is not without his faults but is also clearly special for his time.

Most people will remember Alfred for extinguishing the Viking threat (just kidding, only nerds know that). Pollard and Merkle give us plenty of detail in this regard both good and bad for Alfred. I was personally impressed how well everything flowed throughout both. They do not drag.

And seriously, it should drag when Pollard starts explaining the non-warfare changes Alfred made to England. But it doesn’t! I never thought I could care about how a burh came into being but here we are. I won’t spoil it from you.

Verdict: Read either book. Even if you don’t necessarily like this time period, Pollard and Merkle make it worth your while.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Michael Jones, The Black Prince: England’s Greatest Medieval Warrior
  • Kristin Downey, Isabella
  • Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great
  • Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great

The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You won’t want to be a criminal profiler after this. You may want to be Dirty Harry, though. Is that reference too old? Ok, you’ll want to be the Punisher.

Quick synopsis: John Douglas (the guy who made criminal profiling a “thing”) recounts four scum he interviewed. They are all really, really terrible and disgusting people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: None of this is fun. It’s very interesting, but certainly not fun. Douglas writes about not reacting to the killers no matter how disgusted he is. Yeah, I’d fail at that.

Fun Interesting Fact for History Nerds: There are four typologies of rapists: power-reassurance, exploitative, anger, and sadistic. Douglas posits that only power-reassurance can be helped by therapy if caught early enough.  I’m not sure that makes me feel any better.

My Take: This book is two things: interesting and gross.

The killers are pretty disgusting, and their actions are detailed through the book. If you find the show Criminal Minds to be too graphic, then DO NOT GO NEAR THIS. The show is loosely based on the unit created by John Douglas only greatly toned down for network TV. If you liked the show Mindhunter and made it through the gruesome parts, then this is for you. Also, the show is literally about John Douglas.

The book focuses on four major interview Douglas conducted. Three were face to face and one was through a survey. Douglas will sprinkle in the similarities he sees with various other famous serial killers and how their minds work.

The whole thing is a little disjointed. While each story is interesting, there doesn’t seem to be one solid theme throughout, other than true crime of course. If this is your thing (like me), it won’t bother you much. If you are jumping in, then this may leave you a little lost.

Verdict: Not for the squeamish but definitely for people who love true crime and the science behind profiling. I recommend you read Mindhunter first as it’s a bit better organized and sets the scene for this book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter

Versailles

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: T&A with a touch of history.

Quick synopsis: The story of Louis XIV and his buildup of Versailles as the center of the French aristocracy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: They do a whole story arc on the Man in the Iron Mask! It’s probably made up though. But maybe not!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: They actually shoot some stuff at Versailles! And it makes me wish I were born a king….

My Take: This show was so trashy. I loved it.

Chronicling Louis XIV’s move to make Versailles the epicenter of France, this show takes you through various intrigues from he Affair of the Poisons to the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession. All of these things take back seats to boobs, butts, and pretty clothes.

Like a lot of historical shows loosely based on actual events, Versailles plays fast and loose with the facts. At various points, people’s ages at the time of events are grossly incorrect, but the show needs pretty faces so what can you do?

It could quickly go off the rails every episode if not for my MVPs of the show, Philippe d’Orleans and Chevalier. The lovers are an open secret at court and the actors obviously have so much fun. Philippe’s extremely screwed up childhood (seriously, google it) allows Alexander Vlahos, the actor, to be a million different awesome people in one.

Plus, a lot of nudity.

Verdict: It’s a fun watch. Maybe 20% accurate but when a guy reigns for 72 years you need to do a little compression of events.  

If You Liked This Try: *Note: Not all are historically accurate, but they are lots of fun. Like Versailles, some are ridiculously inaccurate (enjoyable) trash.

  • Vikings
  • Hatfields and McCoys
  • The Tudors
  • The Crown

The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I love it when the good guys blow stuff up!

Quick synopsis: The story of a group of Norwegian commandos in World War II trying to take out an important enemy site tied to an atomic bomb.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: It seems like something made up for a James Bond movie, but yes, commandos in World War II would fight while skiing.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Heavy water is super complicated. It seems obvious after reading but the Winter Fortress was one of the few places in the world to get heavy water which was needed to figure out the bomb.

My Take: This book seems like a pretty straightforward story. Norwegian commandos need to blow up the Winter Fortress. But it is a hell of a lot more than that.

It is a story about heavy water and what it can do. I still don’t understand it, but that’s because I’m dumb.

The book is also the story of the Norway resistance to Nazi rule during World War II. Bascomb introduces the main players and takes them from their flights (or hiding) from Norway. You learn who they are, who they put in danger by resisting, and the challenges they have before they even start their mission to destroy the Winter Fortress.

And then the mission happens, and you are only halfway through the story. This is not a book about one sabotage mission, it’s actually three in one. And each mission varies greatly about how successful it is.

Bascomb really brings home the danger, heartbreak, and sacrifice of his subjects. And hey, it’s always a good book when the Nazis lose in the end.

Verdict: Great book for everyone. It reads like a novel and has a lot of twists and turns which will keep even non-history nerds interested.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artist
  • Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann
  • Michael Zuckoff, Lost In Shangri-La