My Personal History: 2019

On the eve of 2020, I wanted to put up a personal post recapping my own history this year. It can be hard to summarize a whole year of someone’s life. Luckily, I have been thinking about it for a while and I think I can do it.

2019, you sucked.

That may seem harsh as I did have many good things which happened to me. I’ll get to those. But first, let me wallow please.

The year started with the loss of one of my friends. He took his own life and it was a painful shock to many of us who knew him. He was in the military with me and really woke me up to just how much was going on around me. When you open your eyes to something you never took seriously then you find yourself feeling like a complete fool. I noticed many of my friends were in tremendous pain and dealing with serious complications from our time at war. In an effort to better understand and process all of this, I finally went to a therapist.

Turns out, I am one of those people dealing with PTSD. I went to a therapist to better understand what the people around me were going through and ended up joining the club instead. Turns out, I was already in it.

Next, I won’t be adding many details to this one, but we lost a family member entirely too soon. It was another shock and one none of us will be getting over anytime soon. If at all. No, probably not at all.

Then, my marriage fell apart. Nothing drags you out of a stupor faster than watching your entire life be thrown into disarray. It’s very funny how divorce can be so prevalent and yet you never think you are ever in any danger of becoming another one of the numbers. Look, I joined yet another club I had no intention of joining!

All that being said, there was also amazing highs to balance the lows. My family and friends are more than I could ever ask for. A little website called History Nerds United started this year (and analytics say that more than just my mother actually comes here!). Now, I’ve interviewed honest to God authors who treated me with more kindness and patience than I could have expected and have others planned. Dealing with my PTSD is challenging at times but I’m fighting my PTSD and winning. And finally, I’m realizing I need to challenge myself more and I’m excited to find some new adventures.

2019, you tried to break me. You failed. Let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Happy 2020, Nerds!

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette (Part 4)

Lafayette was due a major vacation and he decided now was the time to head home. There was a minor problem which needed to be dealt with, however. When he last left France, the king told him not to go. And he went anyway. Surely, there would be hell to pay when he returned.

Nope, not really. The king put him under “house arrest” for 8 days in a swanky place which was befitting his new status in France. Lafayette was now a bona fide hero and the 18th century equivalent of a rock star. He was invited to hunt with the king, be at parties with the best of the best, and join all the most influential clubs. Not bad for a guy laughed out of court by the current queen.

Did Lafayette party? Or course he did. But, he never forget what he came back for and started working for the American cause from day 1. Benjamin Franklin and Lafayette were a juggernaut of charm on the people of France and they worked tirelessly.

So tirelessly, in fact, that Lafayette did not spend nearly as much time with his poor wife as he probably should have. The story of the Marquis and Adrienne is a complicated one which I will look at in a later post, but safe to say at this point in time the Marquis had other priorities. Well, not entirely. Adrienne did give birth to a son. George Washington Lafayette. I wonder how they came up with the name.

A little over a year after coming back home, Lafayette was once again crossing the Atlantic. He had new promises from the King of France for the fledgling United States and was once again ready to do battle. He would not be disappointed nor would the people who put their trust in him.

Soon, Lafayette would be integral in this little siege at a place called Yorktown.

(Part 5 coming soon)

For more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_du_Motier,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/marquis-de-lafayette/

The Girl on the Velvet Swing by Simon Baatz

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A whole lotta crazy going on.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story from the early 1900s. A famous architect rapes a woman and he is later murdered publicly by the woman’s husband.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Stanford White was a famous architect who designed one of the versions of Madison Square Garden. He was also a pedophile and rapist. He gets shot in the face. In public. At Madison Square Garden.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: If you think our justice system is screwed up now then this book will make you realize we have come a long way. Apparently, during the early 1900s, temporary insanity was pretty easy to plead and if you escaped a mental asylum, there was no clear way to get extradited back if you made it to another state. If they did Law and Order: 1900, no one would have any idea what is happening.

My Take: It’s a story old as time. Man meets woman. Man falls in love. Man marries woman. Man shoots her rapist in the face at the end of a play in front of hundreds of people.

Then man needs a couple of trials to attempt various insanity defenses without actually pleading insanity. Hilarity ensues! No seriously, some of this is really funny considering the subject matter.

This book takes you through the entire sequence of events and every time you think, “hmm, seems to be a lot of pages left and this is almost over,” you find there is a lot more of crazy things about to happen.

And as with any true crime from this time period, there is just enough doubt about what happened to leave you guessing from beginning to end.

Verdict: Oh, go ahead and read the hell out of this if you love historical true crime. It’s insane!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette (Part 3)

It was a legendary bromance that would echo through the ages. George Washington and the Marquis. It started like all great stories, at a pub. George was introduced to the Marquis and to say Lafayette was star struck would be underselling it. The Marquis was already completely taken with the American cause and Washington was the epitome of it. George liked him well enough, but he also knew he needed to be kind to the Marquis because of his patriotic zeal. Just kidding, he knew he was rich and well connected.

A funny thing happened shortly after. The Marquis won over Washington quickly with something he would use effectively throughout his life: his humility. Washington invited the Marquis to review his troops and found them sorely lacking. Each soldier was wearing different clothes if they were barely clothed at all. Washington was horribly embarrassed and admitted it to Lafayette. The Marquis replied with a comment that is often cited as the very moment George Washington took on Lafayette as adopted son. Lafayette replied to Washington’s admission by saying, “I am here to learn, not to teach.” Washington realized this extremely privileged, rich, and well-connected aristocrat was not cut from the same cloth as the others. Moreover, Washington never had children of his own (Martha Washington had children from a previous marriage) and Washington would treat Lafayette as a surrogate son from that point on.

The Marquis would find very soon that being a favorite of Washington had its advantages. Even though the Marquis was supposed to be a glorified staff officer (i.e. never leading men in battle), he quickly found himself in the thick of it at the Battle of Brandywine. Lafayette would be wounded in the battle and Washington would send his personal surgeon to care for him.

Washington would eventually throw his weight behind getting the Marquis the command position he sought after. He would prove to be a very capable officer and an extremely loyal friend to Washington. In fact, he was instrumental in one of the most famous battles in American history.

But first, he needed to take a trip home.

(Part 4 next week)

For more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_du_Motier,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/marquis-de-lafayette/

Nitro by Guy Evans

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: “He’s reviewing a professional wrestling book? I told you this guy was white trash.”

Quick synopsis: A look into the rise of World Championship Wrestling (WCW) when it took on the Word Wrestling Entertainment (WWE formerly WWF).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You think wrestling is just for white trash? When Turner Broadcasting actually did a study, they found most of the wrestling viewing audience was well educated. Not that it matters, wrestling is fun so stop being a snob.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: America Online (AOL) was kind of a mess back in the day. The merger with Time-Warner is a well-documented mess and was driven mainly because the powers that be at AOL knew they were sitting on a timebomb. When you think about it, they had very little real assets and dozens of businesses were coming in behind them. I still have my AOL email, though. Got to have somewhere to send junk mail, right?

My Take: Did I enjoy this book? Mostly, hell yeah. Is this a good book? Not really.

Guy Evans certainly did his homework. The book is packed with information from primary sources and covers everything WCW for more than ten years. The problem? He needed to cover less.

Pure nostalgia got me to finish this book but ultimately, it is too disjointed as it jumps between the business side of things to the wrestling. Each subject has its own fun little tidbits, but it is very distracting trying to understand where you are in the timeline. Plus, some of it is just not that interesting and Evans doesn’t move on fast enough. And many times, a subject will be hinted at but unexplored and you are left wishing he focused on that.

Also, if you didn’t live through this period and watched wrestling then you will be completely lost. The people and characters will not resonate.

Verdict: Read it for pure nostalgia if this is your thing. All others need not apply.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Carreyrou, Bad Blood

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette (Part 2)

The Marquis heard about the American Revolution and immediately fell in love. I mean that almost literally. He would expound upon the cause of liberty for the colonies and would wear people out with his fire and passion. And since he was rich, he decided to do something most people couldn’t.

He bought a boat. A really big boat.

I don’t want to understate this. Buying a boat is not an easy thing back at this time. Want to know what else is not easy? When the government, including the king, tell you not to go because it’s bad for public relations.

And then he went anyway. He was 19. For comparison, at 19 I was drinking in the barracks and trying not to get caught. The Marquis decided to defy his KING.

When the Marquis got to America, the reception was rather…muted. You see, a bunch of Frenchmen were showing up to the colonies demanding commissions and generally acting like entitled jerks. (Try not to make a snooty French joke, try not to make a snooty French joke). The Marquis was able to sidestep these problems by being humble, passionate, and a Freemason. Just kidding, it really is because he said he’d do it for free because he’s rich and didn’t need the money. The other stuff helped, but Congress never had any money. The Marquis became a major general in the Continental Army in July of 1777.

Well, kinda. No one actually intended for the Marquis to be anything but a political sock puppet. He was never supposed to serve as a commander of troops because back then, as now, Americans have a problem getting ordered around by non-Americans.

Then a funny thing happened. The Marquis was introduced to this guy named George…

(Part 3 next week)

For more:

http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/lafayette.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_du_Motier,_Marquis_de_Lafayettehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_named_for_the_Marquis_de_Lafayette

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Better than the movie. Certainly shorter.

Quick synopsis: The classic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic. Enough said. This book was used as reference material for James Cameron when he wrote Titanic. Walter Lord wrote it in 1955. I believe that’s the definition of timeless.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The head baker was one of the few survivors picked up later by lifeboats. Mainly, it was because he downed a bottle of alcohol right before ending up in the freezing water.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Fifth Officer Lowe organized a rescue effort using lifeboat number 14. Number 14 is the only lifeboat from the Titanic to return for survivors.

My Take: When you’re good, 146 pages is enough.

I also don’t think we need to even rehash the plot here.

Walter Lord wrote a masterpiece by doing something more authors should do. Let the story tell itself.

Lord runs through characters with little or no background. He pulls from eyewitness accounts whenever possible but also points out when they may not be reliable. His prose is effortless. He wrote this in 1955 but you would never know it.

I won’t belabor the point. Read this book.

Verdict: This is a classic for a reason. Lord writes plainly, never adds words where they are not needed, and tells the story with an almost dispassionate affection for his subjects. Everyone should read this book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Joan Druett, Island of the Lost
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette

Ever heard of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier? How about the Marquis? Still no? How about any of the literally dozens of places named either Fayette, Lafayette, or Fayetteville? All of these places are named after one man who is my favorite historical figure. He is the Marquis de Lafayette and he is one of the most important people of the American Revolution. He was also French in case you couldn’t tell by all those names in the first line.

He was born in 1757 in Chavaniac-Lafayette. As you can tell by the name, he was a big deal based on his family name alone. He was from a very long and distinguished lineage in France and to say he was rich would be an understatement. And he was rich. Mainly because his family members kept dying very early on in his life including his father who was killed by British cannon. As you will see, he never quite got over it. But back to how rich he was. I’m not great with conversions, but by the time everyone in his family died and left him an orphan, they also left him a fortune of about 120,000 livres a year. How much is this? Again, conversion is a huge pain, but let’s just say there were not many richer than him maybe even the King included.

Lafayette grew up in the same court that would see the rise of Marie-Antoinette. In fact, she and Lafayette were in the same social circles. What did they think of each other? In today’s parlance, she found him to be a huge loser. He was skinny, awkward, and his manners did not befit a gentleman. He was roundly whispered about in the French court.

It didn’t hurt his marriage prospects all that much. He was engaged to Marie Adrienne Francoise when he was 14 and she was 12. The Marquis and Marie didn’t actually find out they were engaged for two years however. Marie’s mother thought they were too young, so they were slowly and inconspicuously introduced in social settings for two years before getting the news. The whole thing feels so very French, in a good way! Marie would become the most loyal person to the Marquis for the entirety of her life. In many respects, Marie would be one of the most devoted wives I have ever read about. The same could not necessarily be said of the Marquis. We do have to remember that this was France in the 1700s. Taking another lover was part of the scene back then. However, the Marquis certainly did love Marie, and would return the devotion she showed in due time.

As much as Marie loved him, the Marquis had his sights on one passion first and foremost. He always had his sights on winning glory in war. Couple that with his undying hatred of the British for killing his father and his next steps became crystal clear. You see, there was this little revolution that had started across the Atlantic…

(Part II next week)

For more:

http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/lafayette.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_du_Motier,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_named_for_the_Marquis_de_Lafayette

A Wretched and Precarious Situation by David Welky

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Wretched and precarious for them, fun for us.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Crocker Land expedition where Artic explorers went in search of Crocker Land first glimpsed but unexplored by a previous expedition.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Go to a map and find Crocker Land. I’ll wait.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Robert E. Peary, famed explorer was the genesis of the expedition because he claimed to see Crocker Land on a previous expedition. This is the same Peary purported to have made it to the North Pole first but with some controversy. This book does not solve the puzzle of who made it first, but it gives a lot of context for it.  

My Take: Welky has a hell of story to tell and he does it well. He gives us the background of the main players and really sets the stage to understand how these people tick and what drives them. The story in and of itself is quite fascinating because it does have so many complex characters and tons of twists and turns. Very often, there are no heroes in this book, just humans trying to survive and make scientific discoveries.

If that were not enough, there is also a surprising death early in the book and a murder later on. If I didn’t know this was history, I would swear it was fiction. Welky’s biggest strength is keeping the story moving without rushing to the payoff. The book runs over 400 pages, but it never slows down too much to lag. Arctic and Antarctic survival stories need to make the point of crushing monotony when stuck in the extreme north or south. Welky makes his points but keeps the story moving.

And the final quarter, which covers the attempts to escape the Arctic, is truly a comedy of errors in a literal sense. You will find people who have been quite adept at making the right decisions for an entire book end up acting like complete idiots before it’s over. Welky never paints this survival story as anything but serious, but you will find yourself laughing at how ridiculous the escape becomes.

Verdict: Great book which is well written and has a great story. This is a good book for anyone as it almost reads like a novel, but it is a must read for anyone into the Arctic/Antarctic or survival stories.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce Henderson, Fatal North
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice
  • Stephen Brown, Island of Blue Foxes
  • Leonard Guttridge, Ghosts of Cape Sabine