Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 27, 1975 · Page 96
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July 27, 1975

Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 96

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Charleston, West Virginia
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Sunday, July 27, 1975
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The Phantom Ship SPEAKING OF BOOKS By Doane R. Hoag CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, July 27, 1821--It was almost dusk when the lookout in the bow of the British frigate H.M.S. Severn, on its way from Liverpool to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, saw the strange ship approaching. It was bathed from keel to truck in an eerie red glow, as if it were on fire. But there were no flames, and no smoke. As it drew closer the lookout thought he saw the figures of men standing about the deck, motionless as dead men, staring straight ahead into the gathering mist. He shouted for his captain, and soon the entire crew of the Severn had lined up at the rail to watch in awe as the strange vessel, with its sails hanging in shreds from the yards, ghosted past them. Moments later it disappeared, swallowed up in a bank of fog. To the Severn's shaken crew there was no doubt that they had seen the dreaded Flying Dutchman, the hoodooed phantom ship that had been condemned to go sailing around the world forever, never stopping never resting, never making port, because its captain, Bernard von Falkenberg, had blasphemed God. For two hundred years the Flying Dutchman has been sighted all over the world. In 1881, the British battleship Bacchante, homeward bound from Australia with the Prince of Wales, later to be King George V, on board, sighted the ghost ship off the coast of Tasmania** In 1899, the Hannah Regan sighted it off Okinawa and was wrecked soon afterward. Only last year the Nippon Maru reported the famous old ghost ship in the South Pacific. Ancestral newsreel Most people laughed at the stories of the Flying Dutchman, just as many laugh at Flying Saucer, sightings today. But one man did not laugh. His name was Matthew Fontaine Maury. A one-time Navy midshipman, crippled in a stagecoach accident in 1839, he had been relegated to a desk job in Washington. There, as chief of the Department of Charts and Instruments, he spent hours poring over the crumbling yellowed pages of old ships' logbooks, studying the reports of ghost ship sightings. Meticulously he began plotting the sightings on a great chart that hung on the wall of his office. Were all those reports just illusions? he wondered. Or was there a grain of truth in them? One day, in 1843, an old sea captain, a long-time friend, dropped into his office and said: "Matt, I've seen it! With my own eyes! The Flying Dutchman!" "Where?" said Maury. "Tell me exactly where!" The captain told him, and Maury plotted the position on his chart. Over the years he collected thousands of such reports, along with details of winds and currents all over the world. Out of his studies came a whole new concept of the ocean: not a stationary body of water, but one that was laced with .hundreds of currents that moved through its depths like rivers in the sea. And the mystery of the Flying Dutchman was solved. It was not a phantom ship, nor was it just a single ship. It was hundreds of differ- - ent ships, derelicts that had been abandoned by their crews and left to go drifting around the world forever on the ocean currents that Maury had discovered and plotted. Today the shipping lanes are safer and voyages snorter because navigators have a better understanding of the sweep of the ocean'.s currents . . . thanks to a crippled seaman who took the time to learn instead of to laugh when an old friend came into his office and said, "Matt, I've seen it! With my own eyes! The Flying Dutchman!" (Copyright Doane Hoag 1975) Famous Fables B y K . K . ROBBERY: During his early years in baseball, Paul Richards also had a basketball team in Wax- ahatchie, Tex., he relates in '"Strawberries in the Wintertime", by Red Smith. "Carl Hubbell, the great pitcher of the New York Giants, had a basketball team in Meeker, Okla., and they came down to play us. We had a^referee around there who was about half blind. " 'Now listen, Tom,' I told him, 'don't you favor us. I don't want Hubbell saying he got jobbed in Waxahatchie.'" "Well, he must have called about 30 fouls on us and maybe four against Meeker. They beat us by a point or two. The next spring, I met Hubbell in training camp and we got to talking about our basketball game. " 'We would beat you by 50 points,' Hub said, 'if it wasn't for that burglar you had refereeing.'" 22m CHARLESTON, U. V.4. POWER OF SUGGESTION: A new comedy by Moss Hart was to open on Broadway and, as usual, the playwright was suffering from first night jitters. At home, several hours before curtain time, the tension became unbearable. He decided to get into his evening clothes and go to the theater. As'he opened the door to leave, he suddenly remembered that he was throwing an after-theater party in his apartment. He closed the door, went into the bedroom and removed the coverlet from the bed, so that his guests would have a place to drop their coats. He stood there for a moment, staring at the bed in abstract contemplation. Then, with a shrug, he removed his clothes, got into his pajamas and went to sleep. "RAGTIME," By E.L. Doctorow. Random House. $8.95. E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" is a highly original experiment in historical fiction. But the first thing to. be said about it is that it works. It works so well that one devours it in a single sitting as if it were the most conventional of entertainments. And the reviewer is tempted to dispense with heavy breathing and analysis and settle down to mindless celebration of the-pure fun of the thing. Of the passages in which one Harry Houdini. grown dissatisfied with being "a trickster, an illusionist, a mere magician," sails to Europe, learns to fly a Voisin biplane and performs a few turns before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who "gazed... with stupid, heavy-lidded eyes" and "didn't seem to know who Houdini was. He congratulated him on the invention of the airplane." Or of the scene in which a J.P. Morgan and a Henry Ford get together in a mansion on New York's West 36th Street, exchange their respective thoughts on reincarnation and "found the most secret and exclusive club in America, The Pyramid, of which they were the only members." Or of Doctorow's version of the early 20th-century poverty-ball phenomenon: "Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs. Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miner's lamps. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor gardens look like dirt farms and dining rooms like cotton mills. Guests smoked cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface. One hostess invited everyone to a stockyard ball. Guests were wrapped in long aprons and their heads covered with white caps. They dined and danced while hanging carcasses of bloody beef trailed around the walls on moving pulleys. Entrails spilled on the floor. The proceeds were for charity." Indeed, so entertaining is Doctorow's experiment in historical montage that one almost wishes he hadn't bothered with his main plot development, in which a fictional black ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr.. seeks retribution for the vandalization of his Model T Ford by the members of a firehouse company, and in the process starts an armed rebellion that costs nearly a dozen lives, including his fiancees's and finally his own. For though this serves a purpose similar to the many semifictional historical vignettes, it is melodramatic and exciting to a degree that throws the novel slightly off kilter. We root so hard for the black pianist to get revenge on the white people who have humulitated him that we forget his story, is fundamentally an epiphany of black militancy in the 20th century. But "Ragtime" works--and works so effortlessly that one hesi-' tates to take it apart. Still, the questions, persist: How does it work? Why do these historical images--half documentary-half invented--seem truer than the truth? And the answer is. for one obvious thing, they- reflect all that is most significant and dramatic in Ameri- ca's last hundred years or so--the rising tide of immigration from Europe and the decline of the WASP Establishment: the development of the industrial assembly line and the crystalization of a radical critique of capitalism; the birth of Freudian sexual awareness and the changed consciousness of the American woman. Yet the images are delightfully concrete and immediate: Freud visits America and suffers fainting fits in the presence of C.G. Jung; Emma Goldman politicizes the whore of capitalism (played by one Evelyn Nesbit. over whom one Harry K. Thaw murders one Stanford White); Harry Houdini, an entertainer, grows jealous of Admiral Peary, a discoverer. For another-obvious thing, it is our own personal past we seem to be reading about. At the very center of "Ragtime." knitting the his- torical threads together, are two fictional families--one composed of.Father. Mother. The Little Boy. Grandfather and Mother's Younger Brother; the other composed of Mameh. Tateh. and The Little Girl. (I've already referred to the third fictional family that is instrumental to the plot of ··Ragtime"-Coal- house Walker Jr.. his fiancee and their illegitimate baby.) The nameless narrator of "Ragtime" addresses us as if these were the forebears of us all. So it seems, reading "Ragtime," as if we were experiencing the intimacies of our historicalheritage.as if we were watching home newsreels of our ancestors. Christopher Lehman Haupl Mr. Lehmann-Haupt is a staff writer for the New York Times. Plot to kidnap Churchill "THE EAGLE HAS LANDED," Jack Higgins, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $8.95. This new entry in the best-seller derby is offered as about half fiction and the remainder historical fact. By any description, it's a crackling tale of adventure, suspense and high drama, so the reader will be more than willing to ac- . cept the author's challenge to decide for himself what part of the story is speculation. The title is the short and simple message received at 1 a.m.-on Nov. 6. 1943, by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of Nazi Germany's SS and Chief of State Police. The words mean that Oberstleutnant Kurt Steiner and his small band of . German paratroopers, disguised as Polish soldiers, have landed safely near the little village of Studley 1 Constable on England's east coast. Their mission: to abduct British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from the Norfolk County estate where he is scheduled to spend a restful weekend. Obviously, because history is history, the mission fails and the German force is destroyed in "a raging and often confused battle in the quiet countryside. Steiner dies on the steps of Churchill's reported retreat as he takes aim on the man he thinks is the Prime Minister, but. who really is a double. Military records show that, on that particular weekend, Churchill actually was getting ready to leave in HMS Re- ·nown for the Tehran Conference. The German tailure is triggered, however, by a highly unusual and innocent happening. Four-year-old Susan Turner falls into a rain-swollen creek in the village, and one of the Germans rescues her. but at the sacfifice of his owti life. His Polish uniform inadvertently is pulled open as comrades try fever- ishlv to revive him, to reveal the Nazi attire he was wearing beneath the disguise. Higgins' story covers a period of two months, beginning in September, 1943. when' an angry Adolf Hitler tells his intelligence chief, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, during a meeting in Hitler's Wolf Lair in East Prussia: " . . . you should be capable of bringing me Churchill out of England if I asked for it!" Steiner's mission results, with preparations for the final chapter including a series of intriguing assignments handed German agents in England to obtain transport, weapons and other supplies for use of the paratroopers as they land. Higgins. on a fictional or other base; develops his story after finding the hidden graves of Steiner and 13 of his men in a Catholic churchyard in Studley Constable. He immediately encounters intense hostility on the part of all of the village's residents as he sets about to unravel the mystery. Only sometime later does he learn from the Rev. Father Philip Vereker. pastor of the Church of St. Mary and All the Saints for many years, why the villagers reacted as they did. There was a complete security - dampdown after Steiner's mission. Every single Studley Constabe resident--and Higgins develops a fascinating word picture of many such individuals -was interviewed by intelligence and other official personnel. Britain's Official Secrets Act was invoked. "Not that it was really necessary." F a t h e r Vereker says. ·'These are a peculiar people. Drawing together in adversity, hostile to strangers, as you have seen. They looked upon it as their business and no one else's Again, how much of Higgins' story is true, and how much is fiction? Read it. and make up your own mind. , --Charles R. Lewis ·Jul\-27.

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