Sunday, October 14, 2018

"First Man"

I caught a matinee this afternoon. I've been very excited about this one, because (a) duh, aerospace engineer and life-long space geek, a movie about Neil Armstrong is like catnip and (b) the author of the original biography, James Hansen, was my history professor at Auburn, and he is an all-around great guy. 

The movie was not at all what I'd expected, which is not the same thing as saying I didn't like it. It's very claustrophobic up until the last act on the Moon (I trust there need be no spoiler warnings about the most famous event of the latter 20th Century), which seems like a strange artistic choice for a movie about space travel, but when you consider the tight confines of a cockpit or space capsule, which are vividly emphasized throughout the movie, it makes sense. 

The movie is obviously very heavily influenced by Kubrick, in visual style, tone and narrative. There's very little exposition, considering all the heavily-technical aspects of space travel, which was fine with me, but I always wonder if people who aren't immersed in the field will be able to follow it. I also don't think the script adequately captures Armstrong's quiet and extraordinary humility, but then again, that might have made for a dull movie, and this (unlike Hansen's book) is drama, not history. 

Anyway. I was particularly glad to see the (very) dramatic focus on the Gemini/Agena near-disaster, Armstrong's crashing of the LEM simulator (he actually crashed two of them), and the very-near crash-landing on the Moon itself. Entirely too few people today know anything about what a near thing Apollo and the '60's space program in general actually were, and this is a fine, and unusually accurate by Hollywood standards (I think we can thank Jim Hansen for that; he's credited a co-producer) primer on what went on behind all the "Right Stuff" gauzy portrayals. 

So check it out. I liked it, and much more importantly, Jim Hansen likes it, and Neil Armstrong himself trusted Jim. That should be more than good enough for anybody.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Hurricane Memories: Opal, 1995

I moved to Fort Walton Beach in the spring of '95, had an apartment on the Sound over in Mary Esther. Opal was hanging out off the Yucatan when it suddenly strengthened and picked up speed. It arrived two days earlier than the early forecast had predicted. 

The day it caught fire, I hadn't turned on the radio or TV, and back then nobody had the Internet at their desks all day. I had gone to bed, just switched off my lamp when the phone rang. It was my dad, asking when I was leaving town. "I dunno... maybe early Thursday?" (I think this was Monday night.)

Long pause. Dad said, "Have you seen a forecast today?"


"Get up and turn on the TV!"

I did, and the screen was full of a Cat 5 monster bearing down on, basically, me. 

"Uh, maybe I'll leave tonight."

"Good plan, Einstein."

I evac'd to my folks' home Enterprise, AL (with a lot of help from Dad) ahead of the horrific panic traffic, and of course that beyotch Opal followed me.  The storm died down to "only" a Category 3 by landfall (which still devastated the Gulf Coast from Pensacola to Appalachicola), but like Eloise a generation earlier, she was going north so fast that hurricane damage lasted well into three states.  

She kicked the crap out of everything from FWB to pretty much Atlanta. My folks' power was out for two weeks. Mine was back on by that Sunday, I think thanks to Hurricane Erin having gone through about 6 weeks earlier, clearing out all the dead limbs and giving the recovery crews a lot of practice.

To be honest, I was shocked to find out I had power.  The last update on Opal that I'd seen before the power in Enterprise went out declared that she'd made landfall at Hurlburt Field.  As I could see Hurlburt from my balcony, I figured that was it, anything I'd left down there was wiped out, so I stayed around to help Mom and Dad clean up.

My sister called Sunday.  "Your answering machine is picking up."  

I didn't believe her.  "Kitty, I don't have an answering machine.  I don't even have an apartment any more."

"Okay, smart-ass, you call it."  I did, and it picked up.

I snuck back across the state line on a back road after hearing the State Troopers weren't letting anybody but emergency crews in, allegedly to prevent looting (to this day I don't know whether that was actually true or not, but I wasn't taking any chances).  Driving through the wreckage of Fort Walton, I was convinced I'd find one wall with an answering machine hanging from it.

But I was lucky, a lot luckier than most in that area.  The storm surge stopped six feet shy of the building, and I had the worst damage in the complex:  a single broken window.

Everything else, though, was a hell of a mess. Every boat left in the Destin and Fort Walton harbors either sank or was washed up on the mainland. There was a huge sailboat stuck in the median of Highway 98, pointing west with its keel buried in the dirt for weeks. They had to pull it out with a crane. 98 itself was cut just east of Okaloosa Island, and the old Eglin Officer's Beach Club was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. That next year there was a rash of insurance-collecting arson fires in the old restaurants down on the water that had been trashed; FWB was always big for firebugs.

Two huge oaks fell on my old fraternity house in Auburn. The knucklehead brothers figured they were man enough to cut them down themselves... but forgot to move their cars first. When they got out the chainsaws, one of the trees rolled off the side of the roof and smashed three or four cars.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Elly Welt

Elly Welt was Auburn University's Writer-In-Residence from the late 80's through the 90's. She retired around 2000 and moved to Seattle to be with her children. She died this last weekend, after struggling with heart failure for many years.

I had to talk my way into Elly's fiction writing class my junior year. She didn't want to accept anybody who wasn't an English major, and looked at me like I had two heads the first time I strolled into her corner office on the ninth floor of Haley asking for a seat. It took two quarters to convince her she ought to allow in this weird Engineering major who hung around the English department a lot.

Elly's classes were not for the faint of heart. We were required to write a short story a week, and pass out copies to the rest of the class (to say nothing of Elly herself) for criticism. If you were really unlucky she'd call on you to read it out loud, and then tell you in no uncertain terms what you'd done wrong--or right, on rare occasions. One poor girl started her first story with a long quote from a Tiffany song, and was never seen again.

She was tough. She was smart. She was one of the best writers I've ever encountered. You should go buy a copy of Elly's novel "Berlin Wild" right now, and you'll see what I mean. And she was very quickly enchanted by this odd Land Grant college where she'd landed a highly-coveted position. 

Elly had never spent any time in the Deep South before coming to Auburn. She was a Jewish mama from New York the Midwest, and a product of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the gold standard of academic fiction training. With that background you'd have expected her to look down her nose at the motley pack of public school kids from Alabama and Georgia and the Florida Panhandle who'd bluffed their way into her classes.

Instead, she and her husband Peter, a retired M.D., embraced the students, the town and the college. By the end of Fall Quarter in 1989, she was bugging me with questions about how Pat Dye was going to keep from having an aneurism over the looming First Time Ever game against UAT. 

I wish Bruce Pearl could have met Elly. They'd have got on like a house on fire.

Elly set me on the path. I kept taking her classes anytime they were offered, including going to the dean of the graduate school to get permission to take her MA class as an undergrad (and an undergrad engineer at that). She recommended me for the first Auburn Birdsong Scholarship that sent me to Oxford in 1991, and after I graduated she helped Scott Brown and me bash the manuscript of "The Uncivil War" into something publishable. 

We always kept in touch, even after her retirement and Peter's death, along with a few other of her former students from Auburn. The last time I heard from her was an email last fall. She was tickled to tell me that the conversation at her (ritzy) retirement complex dining room in Seattle was buzzing about the Tigers' November surge, and as a former Auburn professor, she'd been quizzed by most of the male residents for "inside info."

Elly struggled with ill health for a long time, but she kept writing, even after tastes changed and the New York publishing houses lost their interest in literary fiction. She finished three or four more novels after leaving Auburn (I've read one of them; it is magnificent), and I believe her daughter will be publishing them with Amazon in the future. I hope so. She deserves to be read much more widely.

I miss Elly terribly already, but I was very lucky to have known her. I hope you did, too.