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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 18, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ike, Wheelchair, Wallander, First Draft

Last week our fearless editor reminded us that George W. Bush had the good taste not to play golf while soldiers were fighting and dying. In reading a new Eisenhower biography, I noticed that Ike, a devoted golfer, had the same policy throughout World War II, even when his headquarters was located at a commandeered European country club with a famous golf course.

My favorite example of compassionate good judgment, though, is that back in Washington DC during World War II, Mamie Eisenhower refused to go to any of the fashionable Washington parties, even though her husband's prominence as commander of U.S. forces in Europe made her one of the most socially prominent women in the city.

Why didn't she accept invitations? As best I remember her words, she explained, "Every day my husband sends young soldiers out to die. I can't be seen going to parties as long as that is true."

Admittedly, President Obama has withdrawn most of our soldiers from any kind of combat role -- though plenty of people are still in harm's way, since, because of his pusillanimous policies, our enemies keep moving "harm's way" wherever they want.

But Obama's tendency to frolic on the golf course or play cards while barbarians murder innocent people whom he could have protected is as sickening as "let them eat cake" or fiddling while Rome burned.

The difference is that Marie Antoinette never actually said the "cake" line, and Nero didn't play the lyre while Rome burned. Those were just rumors spread by their enemies.

Obama's utter unconcern, bad taste, and lack of either compassion or seriousness comes to our attention from White House press releases and photo ops. Even though he likes to deny what we watched him do and say, his toadies in the press are finally refusing to go along with his pretense.

The only saving grace in this is that at least while playing golf Obama isn't doing anything, and since, where foreign policy is concerned, everything he actually says and does has been somewhere between disastrously dumb and cataclysmically clumsy, the world is safer while he plays golf.

*

Recently a friend of ours sent a package off to her son, who is going to be away from home for a couple of years. He wanted his beautiful carved-wood chess set and a book that contained all the contact information of friends he had made during a summer trip.

His mother sent it to him by Federal Express, and, as with most of us, she was so confident that it really absolutely would get there on time and in good condition that she didn't make copies of the contact info in that book.

So when the package didn't arrive, and every day the website kept saying it would come the next day, she called someone and finally found out the hard truth: The Fedex delivery truck that was taking it from the airport burned up, and everything on that truck was destroyed. (The driver was unhurt.)

"Sometimes when there's a fire we can salvage something, but this time it was a total loss," said the rueful Fedex employee she talked to.

The destroyed items can never be duplicated, but our friend used the insurance money to buy her son a convenient travel chess set. And she'll never again be so confident as to send the original of a document without making a copy. Because no matter how careful a company's employees are, bad stuff sometimes happens.

In fact, my wife could not rest till she looked up Fedex truck fires and found out there were five of them in the past year or so. To be fair, she looked up UPS truck fires and found comparable numbers. Given how many thousands of these vehicles are on the road, the surprise is that the number is so low.

There are traffic accidents, collisions with bridges, and other mishaps. And, as the movie Cast Away showed us, sometimes Fedex planes go down in violent storms and packages wash up on desert islands.

Well, no, that is the one that has never actually happened ... I think.

But still, I can't help thinking that at least some of the fires were caused by people shipping highly combustible items. Not bombs, but things that could turn into firebombs or accelerants in the event of an accident.

So if you have been shipping highly flammable or explosive substances by Fedex or UPS: Stop it, please! Some of us are shipping things we care about which would burn or melt in the event that your item goes kaboom.

*

Speaking of shipping gone awry, a friend of ours who recently came out of a coma and needs to use a wheelchair on two different floors of her house decided that instead of making her husband wrestle the one chair up and down the stairs, she'd order a second one.

She knew exactly what she wanted. She found it on Amazon.com (from one of their associated dealers) and ordered it.

When it arrived, she says, "It looked like a child's wheelchair." The seat was too narrow for her to sit in comfortably, yet the armrests were so high they came up to her armpits, which made them feel more like crutches than armrests.

Careful inspection of the paperwork revealed that the wheelchair that was sent was not the model pictured online, and did not fit the specs listed for the wheelchair she had ordered.

Worse yet, neither the seller nor the shipper had any phone numbers listed anywhere online. Even when she finally found a way to talk to somebody, the company apparently had no provision for returns and refunds -- not even when it was their mistake in shipping the wrong item.

Fortunately, she told me, "the wheelchair that was sent to me is a great brand" and, even though it was wrong for her, it is in considerable demand. So she found a local dealer near her hometown -- Lincare, a medical supply company in Chantilly, VA -- and drove out and traded the chair she had for a different-sized model by the same manufacturer.

"He was only too glad to make the switcheroo. It was the same price, too." The manager, Gary, even hefted it into their car for the trip home. On the way home, she and her husband stopped for a Very Berry Sundae at Costco, which does not happen when you buy online.

So it had a happy ending, and she loves her new upstairs wheelchair.

But the ending turned downright funny when the online seller, which had failed to provide any satisfaction whatsoever, actually emailed her:

"We are contacting you to ensure that your expectations were met for your order with MEDICAL FOR YOU on Amazon.

"Here are the details for Amazon order: {17-digit number}

"Self Transport Folding Wheelchair with Detachable Desk Armrests, Swing-away Detachable Elevating Leg Rests, Solid Castors and Large Rolling Rear Wheel

"Our goal is for you to be completely satisfied with this transaction.

"If this is not the case, we would appreciate it if you would give us a chance to address your concerns by replying to this email before leaving feedback.

"If you've had a pleasant buying experience, we would be grateful if you would leave us positive feedback by clicking on the following link."

And given my friend's experience trying to get the problem corrected by telephone, it's hard to give much credence to the idea that replying to their feedback email would lead to any kind of satisfaction.

It doesn't matter now -- an attentive, helpful local dealer did the job. The online purchase was easier to find; but when it came to getting it done right, it was the local guy -- with a name, a face, a phone number, and an address -- who brought it off.

I buy a lot of things online; but let's face it. Shopping locally has wonderful advantages, when you can find the item you want at all.

*

Articles and essays at LinkedIn.com are usually about job searches and other business matters, but here's one by Jeff Haden about leaving a job. A friend sent it to me, and I think it applies to life in general -- whether you've quit a job or not.

*

When I picked up An Event in Autumn I didn't really know I was reading a book in a series -- and that it was well along in the series to boot. Apparently, Swedish author Henning Mankell is a literary writer of some repute, who created a detective named Wallander as a character in a standalone novel and then realized he might be useful in providing a point of view for other books. The result was a series of first-rate detective novels that sell very well outside Sweden as well as in.

Now Mankell has many of the kind of fan who speaks as if the detective character were real. When Sweden was voting on whether to enter the European Union, someone asked Mankell, "How will Wallander vote?"

The best Mankell could come up with was, "The opposite of me."

For which I give him great credit -- he actually considered, "How would the community of policemen vote on this issue?" -- assuming that his character would differ from other police officers only for good reason.

Unlike the authors of violent, vigilante-style detectives who nevertheless made their characters hate George W. Bush to the same absurd, mouth-frothing extent as the authors' ignorant intellectual friends, Mankell seems to be that rare thing: an intellectual who is willing to concede that good, intelligent people might reach a heartfelt conclusion different from his own.

So it's no surprise that in reading An Event in Autumn, I found all the characters fascinating, and the author both wise and ruthless. His characters suffer what they suffer; they do not always win; sometimes they are saved by chance; sometimes they know they're behaving badly and can't stop.

But set aside the issue of the series. This very slim book -- only three hours to listen to -- contains a powerful story set in a small semi-rural town during World War II. But since the action of the novel takes place only a few years ago, it comes to Wallander as a cold case.

But still a highly personal one. Because the case wasn't dragged out of the deep files of the Swedish national police force -- instead, Wallander stubs his toe on it. He's looking at a house that may just be the one he wants to buy, so he can keep a dog for company as he nears retirement age, when he trips over something in the yard.

Only as he's getting in his car to leave does he realize that there was something unusual about what he tripped on; when he goes back and looks again, he realizes that it's a skeletal human hand.

The body turns out to be that of an unidentified woman in her fifties, dead for half a century. And soon they discover that a man was buried there at about the same time. Wallander traces back to the owner of the property during the war (in which Sweden remained neutral); but nobody was reported missing at the time. So who are these dead people?

Even though the events took place decades before, to some they are a fresh wound that will not heal, and it reaches an exciting resolution -- but, more importantly, a truthful one. And it's brought to fruition in fewer than 200 pages. Quite a masterful work.

In the audiobook, we get the author's afterword, in which he talks about the whole series in an interesting way. I do enjoy informative afterwords about the writer's life and craft.

Which is odd, because I consider my own life and work as an author to be boring in the extreme. I sit in a room and type! Yet I do enjoy it when an author has something to say about his process -- especially when it's different from my own.

*

I love thick biographies, full of story and quotation, well-sourced, even-handed, and reliable, evoking not just the life, but the times the person lived in, and probing a wide-ranging mix of relatives, friends, enemies, and acquaintances.

The trouble is, bios like that take a long time to read.

Yet sometimes it's good to learn about a life -- or refresh your memory -- without having to spend approximately forever to do it. Which is why I'm grateful that I heard about and bought Paul Johnson's new, very brief biography of Dwight David Eisenhower: Eisenhower: A Life.

I became aware of politics during Eisenhower's presidency, and I remember how pundits in the newspapers and magazines I read -- middle-of-the-roaders like Life, U.S. News & World Report, The Saturday Evening Post -- took it as common knowledge that Eisenhower was little more than a placeholder president.

Not terribly bright. "Just a general" who was elected because everybody was glad he didn't screw up the D-Day invasion.

Since then, I've learned just how delusional those pundits were. Eisenhower is certainly one of the smartest, most capable people ever to serve as President of the U.S., and also one of the wisest and most self-restrained. He deliberately cultivated the not-all-that-bright image because it allowed him to keep control of events without being swamped by politics.

Yet Eisenhower was brilliant at politics -- he could assess men and their weaknesses and play them off against each other in order to get his own work done. That was half his job during World War II -- keeping the English and Americans working well together, while placating the Russians and, not the French, but DeGaulle -- who thought he was the French.

That balancing act served him well when six of his eight years as President were served with an opposition Congress. Real Presidents don't get huffy and refuse to work with an opposition Congress -- they quietly make deals and get their agenda passed by letting the other guys save face and get some of what they want, too.

General Douglas MacArthur once met with Ike when they were both still responsible for the postwar occupation of Japan and Germany, respectively. "Either you or I will be President," said MacArthur, thinking of the 1948 election.

Eisenhower responded that the presidency was one of the worst jobs in the world and he didn't want it. "My country has already given me more honors and awards than I deserve," he said.

Then, as Eisenhower reported to a friend, MacArthur leaned over, patted his knee, and said, "You keep talking that way, Ike, and you'll be President for sure."

Eisenhower was furious -- because it implied hypocrisy, and at that time he meant every word. But after Truman won the election of 1948 and then fired MacArthur as U.S. field commander for insubordination during the Korean War, Eisenhower changed his mind and allowed his name to be put in the field for the 1952 Republican nomination.

Ike partly did this because he thought the conservative Taft wing of the Republican Party was loathsome, and only Ike had the public following to derail them. Eisenhower was that now-mythical creature: a liberal Republican (though it used to not be an oxymoron).

Yet he was fiscally conservative and very skeptical of the arms manufacturers who had huge influence with Congress.

After two terms of peace and prosperity, he was appalled that the choice in 1960 was between Nixon, the vice-president that Ike did not choose and had never liked or respected, and Kennedy, a man whom Ike detested, and who lived up to Ike's worst fears -- of being an ignorant adventurer in foreign policy.

It is not really a coincidence that Eisenhower presided over the most peaceful, prosperous years in American history, let alone the 20th century. His policies fostered exactly that result. Had he wanted things otherwise, he didn't lack for opportunities -- or advisers pushing him to make some very colorful mistakes.

In Paul Johnson's very brief biography, many stories are glossed over quickly. Yes, we're told how horrible it was to serve as Douglas MacArthur's second-in-command in the Philippines before World War II. History's verdict is clear: MacArthur was a vain fool who happily profited from Eisenhower's excellence as a staff officer, taking credit for all his achievements, while bad-mouthing him as a glorified clerk rather than a good general.

But we don't get to experience Ike's frustration the way we would in a thicker, deeper biography. When a story moves this quickly, you have to pay attention.

Johnson doesn't waste a paragraph or a sentence -- everything counts, even if it gets only a quick mention. After all, the whole book is only 144 pages. The audiobook is so brief it feels like it's over almost as soon as it began.

With that warning in mind, that the brevity can cause us to miss the significance of some points, I heartily recommend Eisenhower: A Life, by Paul Johnson.

The book puts his whole life in perspective -- not just as general and president, but also as a husband and father, and as president of Columbia University. He disgusted intellectuals with his talk of how the highest aim of higher education should be to create good, responsible citizens. But he meant it -- and I think he was right.

Here's an Eisenhower quote that is not in the book: "Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage."

Instead, of course, most of our voters get their ideas from entertainers like Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh, and vote for the image rather than the man. And our "intelligentsia" threw out the baby and kept the bathwater as they turned up their noses at the Western tradition created by all those "Dead White Males."

Since people claimed that the reason Ike kept winning elections was only because of his grandfatherly image, perhaps we merely got lucky that time, accidentally electing a great president instead of the empty suit we have right now.

President Obama could profit from another Eisenhower aphorism, especially as he proves himself as incompetent to deal with our enemies and rivals as with Congress: "Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all."

Of course, Obama's first job is to find the string.

*

Centipede Press has created an extraordinarily beautiful special limited edition of my novel Ender's Game. Slipcased and gorgeously illustrated in full color by David Ho, with an introduction by YA author Brandon Mull (Fablehaven), this is definitely not the edition you give to a kid to read -- not at $295 a copy.

What really thrills me about this edition is that there's a second book included in the same slipcase -- a hardbound reprint of the original first draft of the novelet that appeared in the August 1977 Analog magazine.

Not only did Centipede Press faithfully reproduce my actual typed pages, they also included all my editing marks in red -- exactly the way I handed it to my perfect-typist mother to create the clean copy that I mailed off to Analog.

The published version is different -- I made some changes in response to editor Ben Bova's suggestions -- so those collectors who really do want to chart every stage in the story's evolution can be sure this is very first version of the story that ever existed.

I realize that few people will have any interest in spending this kind of money on a book you can buy as an ebook, audiobook, or cheap paperback -- but a certain small percentage of readers of this column are in that category, and I thought they should know about it before the edition is completely sold out.

Here's the website where you can order one of the 300 copies in existence:

http://www.centipedepress.com/sf/endersgame.html


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