Book Review and Commentary: Lord of the Flies

Life imitates art, so it is said. Perhaps it is just that artists and especially authors have sometimes observed the human condition, and expressed their observations in their art. And it is the written word where the observations are most clear. English literature is of especial interest to us today with its underpinnings of Christian philosophy and individualism.

At another time I will address my favorite author, Charles Dickens. But today let us take a look at William Golding, Nobel laureate and author of the seminal story, Lord of the Flies. As the allegory of life without God it is not only an essential part of every child’s reading syllabus in my youth, Lord of the Flies is plainly prophetic of the condition of western political life, where God has been told to go away.

When I was a child I was pleased to see that the majority of adults seemed to behave in rational ways. The teachers who taught at my Catholic schools, be they priests, nuns or “laic” all showed a calm and reasoning demeanor. The science and mathematics classes, reading and spelling and literature all promoted logical and serious contemplation of matters scientific or human. Even the religion classes had a rational approach to deriving rules for good living, traceable to interpretation of the Ten Commandments. If there was an element of accepting higher authority in life than the laws of lawyers and politicians, it stood in opposition to a far more demanding and less rational authoritarianism of pure materialists. Communism, that remorseless killer of spirit and life’s energy, was a thing to be fought. Politics generally however was a matter outside of religion. Christ’s saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” was respected by even the most pious of our religious teachers.

One warning I remember from Sister Mary Elizabeth: “There will come a time when you will be reviled for your Christian faith.” I did not take it much to heart at the time, because we still lived in a land where religious differences were tolerated. But I have come to see her warning come true: there is an all-out war against Christian belief and values in our politics, in our culture, in our universities and lower education. From courtroom bludgeoning over gay wedding cakes to social media shaming over company ownership and friends, to the erasure of Christian or historic names from buildings and parks, the assault is such as I would never have imagined in my youth.

All this becomes the real-life acting out of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  In Golding’s tale, a group of English schoolboys is stranded on a deserted island, perhaps during World War II. With no adults around – no authority to whom they might appeal for guidance in their lives, they soon dissolve into two camps: the “Cool” kids led by Jack, the charismatic, mercurial egomaniac who soon gathers absolute power to himself, and the “nerdy” kids Ralph (rational and caring) and Simon, the four-eyed little kid the “cool” kids love to torment. As things progress Peter is soon in fear for life itself, as Jack’s gang hunts about the island for him, to burn him at their stake. “Kill the Pig” they shriek. Only after they catch and murder him do the adults arrive, in the form of a navy ship with men in crisp blue uniforms, landing on the beach to take them home. It is like God coming down to set things straight. The salvation is a wondrous thing to contemplate.

Golding lived from 1911 to 1993, spending his post-War years in teaching. When he wrote his great book, in 1954, he was informed by his observations of the behavior of the children he taught, particularly when no adults were present. Quite likely too he was thinking about the way the Germans had behaved under Hitler, the Japanese in their armies and others elsewhere. But the story works as an allegory, or extended parable, about how humans behave whenever they see no God around them. With no absolute moral authority at hand, people can and do behave – sometimes – as animals. The selfish and the cruel and above all the sociopathic tend to gain power, with mobs soon gathered around them.

I am not an especially religious person, nor do I claim to be any paragon of Christian virtue. I have not been in a church, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, since I left home at 19. But I do remember my religious schooling, and it is an attitude of mutual trust and understanding among men, based in Christian ideology, that is the foundation of my world view.

More to Come…

Book Review: Robert S Johnson, Thunderbolt!

“She was big, and on the ground she wasn’t pretty.”  I remember those words decades after I first read Robert S Johnson’s Thunderbolt!  They were a pilot’s reaction on first seeing the monster fighter plane that was to make him America’s first top ace in World War II.  In fact I  remembered them so well that when I recently bought an old print from Amazon and couldn’t find them near the cover, I looked again and bought an original 1958 print, where I found them on the  inside cover.  Details like this sometimes show the tenor of a book, and this description aptly sets a tone for reading Johnson’s narrative.

A big machine, and not too pretty, the P-47 Thunderbolt was emblematic of an age when America was not afraid to fight and win. The plane was an engineering feat of big metal and big guns that did as much as any of the prettier and better-known planes – Hurricanes, Spitfires, Mustangs – to turn the skies over Germany into Allied airspace.  The  Thunderbolt – AKA “‘The Jug” for its ungainly appearance – was not built for beauty, and it wasn’t as light and maneuverable as the Spitfire or Mustang, but it was as solid as a tank, it could dive like a rock and out-roll anything else in the sky, and when it finally got a big enough propeller to make full use of its 2000-hp engine it could outclimb them as well.

I first read “Thunderbolt” when I was eight or ten, and it was a book I could relate to.*  Johnson grew up in Lawton, OK, a smallish town among hills and plains, in an era when boys grew up to be red-blooded Americans.  He spent his boyhood hunting and fishing, camping out with friends, walking without fear and working when he needed to.  When he was 8 his father took him to an air show, and he fell in love with the Army’s barnstorming aircraft, the Three Musketeers.  His future was set that day – he would fly.  Wikipedia fairly recounts his childhood, from the book, and I need not repeat that here.  But there are features of his life that are important to me – a life lived in relative freedom, where boys grow into men not by learning to be callous or selfish or devious, nor by studying Picasso or Marx or Sartre or playing video games, but by putting hands on the physical world around them and learning its rules and its leanings.  Once he decided to learn to fly, he had to pay for it, so at age 11 he started working in a furniture factory owned by family friends.  He worked indeterminate numbers of hours for $4 a week and he was glad of it, because it allowed him to earn the money to fly.  There were no minimum wage laws or proscriptions against young folks working, to interfere.  By age 12 he made his first solo flight.

Everything he did and everything he became, Robert Johnson earned; it wasn’t given to him, and it didn’t come from some spreadsheet written by someone in green eyeshades.  I don’t think Robert had any thought as he hunted rabbits and other critters in the hills that this was training for air combat or when he was in the boxing ring, that this too was a piece of that plan.  But as he noted in “Thunderbolt”, from these and from football and scouting he learned the skills of a hunter (lead the target, for instance), he learned to conquer fear, he learned teamwork and he learned to fight and win.  Some of Goering’s best became prey for Johnson the hunter in the sky over Germany in 1943 and 44, and he gave credit to all those early experiences for giving him the instincts and the toughness to fight them. In the end he had to give credit to God too, for the difference between living and dying was often still not in one’s own hands.  Whether one invokes God – a natural but not obsessive matter for him – or just dumb luck, there are things the wise man knows are beyond his control.

Johnson never despised book learning.  Though his first flight lessons at age 12 came from local barnstormers and wouldn’t have had much paperwork, Johnson had gone through junior college and spent a hundred hours in the air learning his skills before he joined the Army Air Corps in 1941.   He spent another two hundred hours in AAC flight training before he even heard of the P-47, and it was all those hours in smaller planes, learning all the things that can happen, how the airplane feels when things are right or wrong, and how to get it right instinctively, that got him ready for the Jug.  And still before he took his first flight in a P-47 he had to pore over thousands of pages of technical manuals, to understand how and why each part of the machine operated.  There was a cockpit full of dials and switches monitoring engine conditions, trim and fuel and navigation.  All those little details like getting oil up to temperature and knowing when to open or close various cooling vents, are things you had to learn from the book.  But the first time he pulled off the starting line it still surprised him as he discovered just what the torque from that big engine and that big prop would do to the plane, when first that locked tail wheel came off the ground; the book just couldn’t quite convey the feeling.

Other things the book could not prepare him for: (1) the first time he flew, after getting the feel for big engine torque, he got a stunning smack on the skull as the canopy flew back, striking him with its handle.  He jerked back the throttle and aborted, returned to the starting line, closed the canopy and latched it again, asked permission and started again.  AGAIN the canopy handle smacked him, but this time he kept going, and made an exploratory flight in the monster.  This was shakeout time for the new plane as well as the pilots, so a few things like this latch were being discovered by guys like Johnson.  (2) he and several other pilots discovered “compressibility” – the name they gave to the aerodynamic effect that occurred when you reached the sound barrier.  The Thunderbolt and the P-38 Lightning were the first planes to reach that speed, diving, and when you did it your controls locked up – it felt like the stick was embedded in concrete.  The P-38 got some minor control system modifications that didn’t really do any good, but the boys in the P-47s just learned what to do.  You could only reach the sound barrier in a dive, and only at high altitude, where the air is very cold (and the speed of sound is lower than here on the surface, in proportion to the square root of absolute temperature) and the density is low.  As they continued down the temperature and the speed of sound came up, the density increased, the airplane slowed down, and somewhere under 20,000 feet you regained control.  Of course by this time, at 8 or 9 miles per minute, you had less than 15 seconds to pull out, and both times Johnson did it he found himself waking up from blackout, in a zoom climb.  (The g forces also wrinkled metal, presumably at the wing roots.)

Robert gives us a taste of life on the ground as well as in the air. The 56th fighter group traveled across the Atlantic aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth, in winter, loaded to the gills with airmen and soldiers and other support personnel; a fast trip by sea, but still a heaving mess for the folks below decks and cold for those above.  When a crewman fell overboard from the bridge there was no turning back to save him.  They arrived in Scotland, transferred to a northern British base and waited some weeks before they could join their planes.  On leave in London on several occasions, he describes spending two hours in that famous London fog in wartime blackout, looking for a hotel that should have been fifteen minutes walk from the railway station.  (And stumbling across the same drunk two times on one such foray, an hour apart.)  There was also the incident in the barracks, before the planes arrived: One of the wise guys had got in the habit of scaring the heck out of everyone by shooting his .45 into the ceiling every night when he snuck in.   The group got together and planned to greet him with their own barrage, but they couldn’t wait until he got there to start shooting, and they had no ammo left by the time he arrived.  Management, as they say, was not pleased when they looked at the ceiling after the pilots moved out…

As for his career as ace pilot, it was not how you would plan a perfect career.  Robert never qualified as a fighter pilot before he saw combat.  He had never fired an aircraft’s guns before he reached England, and he didn’t quite pass gunnery school in the available trainer while the group was waiting for the Thunderbolts.  The first time he fired all the guns in the P-47 was in combat, and he just about jumped out of his skin.  The P-47 had eight 50-cal Browning machine guns – that’s 8 guns shooting .50-inch (1/2-inch) bullets at about 2700 ft per second – and each of those guns was shooting about 15 rounds per second, for a total of 7200 rounds per minute.  The racket had to be shocking, as did the shudder from the momentum transfer to all those bullets.  The first time he shot down an enemy plane he got chewed out for breaking formation, and the next time he went up he got shot nearly to pieces because he didn’t break formation when he saw the Germans coming and he couldn’t get anyone to hear his warning.  (The radios weren’t entirely reliable at the time.)

That episode showed the incredible toughness of the P-47.  Robert found himself in a diving spin, on fire and with hydraulic fluid in his face.  His flying instincts took over and he pulled out of the dive, and at that moment the fire went out.  He tried to bail out but couldn’t get the canopy open.  He then found that the engine, sounding terrible at full power, smoothed out when he pulled the throttle back.  He started to fly south, thinking to crash land in the far south of France and run to Spain as other pilots had done.   But he realized that he could just as well ditch in the channel, and he would be picked up right away by air-sea-rescue, so he headed north.   As he approached the coast, slowly losing altitude and figuring to ditch, he picked up company: a German fighter pilot decided to earn an easy kill, so after flying alongside for a look, he pulled in behind him and hammered away with his guns.  He pulled alongside again, shook his head and swung behind to do it some more.  Eventually he ran out of bullets and headed for home.  (We think he reported a kill, as there is a report in Luftwaffe files that matches the time and place.)  All that hammering couldn’t take his P-47 down, and after the German left Johnson discovered that the plane could still climb after all.  Johnson afterward figured it had to be God’s will (or fate if you insist) that a German fighter, with only his 7MM guns firing (his 20mm cannon presumably depleted) would escort him across the coast, where at his speed and altitude he would certainly have been shot down were he alone!  And just as fortuitously, he had been clutching his mike button throughout the encounter, so Air Sea Rescue was listening in, and when he let go the mike button they asked him to climb higher because they were losing his signal.  Once he realized he could climb he kept on going and landed at home base, with hundreds of bullet holes, a number of cannon holes (20mm exploding shells), holes in the propeller and missing some rudder. And by the way a few of those cannon shots had hit the armor plate a few inches behind his head, testing one more feature of the plane.

Another time he came home with a coil of rudder cable pulled up in the cockpit, after enemy fire had cut it somewhere.    That time he had to use rudder trim instead of main rudder control to fly, as he never did get all the slack out of that rudder cable.  It gave less control, but enough for an experienced pilot to fly and land with.  Another pilot came home with a chunk of telephone pole embedded in a wing on one occasion, and there are numerous other examples in the book, of just how tough it was.

*  Where I grew up three decades later I didn’t hunt or do much fishing  (though there were some who did), but we DID  live free. At age eight or ten I could hike or ride my bicycle 3 or 5 miles out on country roads, squeezing down into the ditch as cars passed by, to visit a friend or just to explore. I could ride about a mile, through a busy truck stop and down a gravel lane to where there was a grass air strip, and I could ride among the planes tied down in the grass, or up to the hangars and talk with pilots or mechanics who were servicing the planes.  And I could at age 16 work in a local gas station for 50 cents an hour pumping gas and occasionally changing a belt or a starter or giving a tune-up, learning about the world with my own two hands.  This is very much the world Johnson describes, where he could work for $4 a week in a furniture factory in depression-era Lawton, to pay for the flying lessons he had to have once the bug had bitten him.

THIS is the America that was and shall be.

Book Review: Evan Sayet’s Kindergarden of Eden

There is a common assumption among the West’s “intelligencia” that liberals are smarter, more open minded and more reasonable in their thinking than are we conservatives.  The message is there, from university studies of the differences, to the sneering of Joe Biden in his debate with Paul Ryan, to the self-congratulatory rants of Hollywood celebrities and the blather of news readers, that THEY are the smart ones, that THEY are the ones with the ideas.  Evan Sayet, in his new book, The Kindergarden of Eden, does an excellent job of debunking this mythology.

I had been personally estimating for some years the mental stages of various celebrities: Madonna who spent 20 years showing us her body parts like a budding adolescent (and seems to have moved on at about age 50 to late adolescence, where she flirts with Kabala and mystic crystals); Babs who seems stuck in the Elektra complex (still hurt that her father didn’t love her enough); various males who act like two-year-olds throwing their diapers on the wall and daring us to stop them.  Having grown up in a family where we children used to psychoanalyze our parents, and with a brother who was emotionally explosive, with an IQ of 160 and an obsession with philosophy and psychology (and who at age 41 offed himself after 25 years of manic-depression), I am no stranger to psychology or philosophy, and I yield to no liberal “expert” in recognizing when someone isn’t thinking straight.  But perhaps I am prone to overanalyze.  Evan Sayet has nicely boiled down the situation with Modern Liberals to its essence.  Incidentally he distinguishes them from the classic liberals, whom many of us conservatives more closely resemble than do the Modern Liberals.  Taking his cue from the title of the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Evan summarizes the position of Modern Liberals succinctly, as being five years old and living in an imaginary Garden of Eden.  (Hence KindergarDen.)

I have to say that “kindergarden” is a good generalization, and for educational purposes a lot simpler than analyzing them into a hundred various mental conditions.  “Kindergarden” works on many levels: it ties into the message of that book, it places them about where the modern educational establishment puts people, it is a nice average of their mental ages, and it ties into Eden, where the unthinking children can remain in perpetual innocence.

Lest you think this is merely an exercise in insulting the Modern Liberal, Evan puts this assertion in context, giving it history, showing how Howard Zinn’s anti-civilizational theories motivate the Modern Liberal leaders, and explaining how these thoughts and motives lead directly to childish thinking, wrongheadedness and a propensity to take a destructive position on literally ALL – not just “almost all” – issues and events of the day.  Hence after 9/11 the Modern Liberal would immediately start looking for ways America had called this upon ourselves, rather than recognize the existence of evil.  (It was this reaction that alienated Evan from the “liberal” society in which he previously lived.)  And everything that America has accomplished, everything that represents success, is trashed, while everything that is pathetic and destructive is cherished and encouraged.  I had decided some years ago that the liberals had made every virtue a vice, and every vice if not a virtue then a tool in the quest to enslave all humanity.  Evan shows us how and why.

I don’t expect this book to be safe on the shelves of a public library (though I may donate some copies for the cause), and it certainly will not be welcome in the public school reading lists.  I strongly urge you, if you have been letting the Liberals get you down, or if you want to clarify your thinking and help your friends do the same, to buy this book and enjoy.

Hello world!

Hello world.  We live, as they say, in interesting times.  Contrary to the imaginings of some of our fellow denizens, history is not in fact over.  Not everything that can be invented has been invented, and not everything that will happen has happened.  For those of us who refuse to be frozen in amber, there are new things to do and writing to be done.  We at Norwalk Writers are making it our business to keep the fingers limber and toss our words into the maelstrom.  We will comment on history, philosophy, politics and science.  We trust we will add a little something to your day.  More to come…