Willful Misconduct: The Tragic Story of Pan American Flight 806 – William Norris

Norris806During a recent flight from San Francisco to New York, the aircraft encountered rough air while making its descent into John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport. The flight attendant began to speak on the intercom and informed all passengers to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts. He also added “don’t worry, the pilots are trained for this”. I thought to myself that it is good because if they are not, then we have a big problem on this plane. Thinking back on it today, I have come to realize that passengers place an enormous amount of trust in the hands of pilots across the globe every day. When we board an aircraft, we are confident that the people in the cockpit are sufficiently trained to do the job required of them. Air travel in the United States is the safest it has ever been with incidents becoming rarer by the day. But the reality is that there is always a certain level of risk associated with flying. On January 30, 1974, ninety-one passengers boarded Pan American (“Pan Am”) Flight 806 at Auckland International Airport in New Zealand for the short flight to Pago Pago International Airport, American Samoa. The aircraft was staffed with ten-person flight crew who were seasoned employees in the aviation industry. As the aircraft made its final approach to Pago Pago, it crashed short of the runway. Though the passengers survived the crash landing, eighty-seven of them perished as fire and smoke engulfed the plane. The disaster remains one of the worst accidents in commercial aviation history. This is the story of that crash and its relevance to air travel today.  

Prior to reading the book I knew nothing of Flight 806. Of course, the name Pan Am is legendary in air travel. Though now defunct, it was once an airline that held a world-wide reputation for class and efficiency. My brother has two bags with its logo that he travels with today. But as author William Norris shows, the company was not above skirting rules and regulations. And when backed into a corner, profit and reputation took priority over the lives of those who died at the hands of pilots employed by the airline. After providing background information on the flight crew, the story moves forward as we learn about notable passengers on the flight. Through fate, they are destined to board Flight 806 which was routine, but the final approach turned into a nightmare and by the time emergency crews arrived on the scene, dozens of passengers met a grisly fate as they remained trapped on the aircraft. In the aftermath of the crash, litigation commenced, and the details of what transpired serve as the basis for this book that exposes the truth about a crash that should have been avoidable. The author makes a statement quite early in the story that sets the tone of the book: 

“Judge Matthew William Byrne Jr. ordered the records of Petersen, Phillips, and Gaines to be kept from the jury and put under seal, and he consigned them to room 64G. Which is where I found them.”

As someone who works in the legal field, my eyebrows became raised. Documents are placed under seal typically is exceptional circumstances. It became clear to me that the information contained in those records was highly damaging to the reputation of Pan Am and the pilots on Flight 806. I had no idea what was to come as the book progressed. Years ago, during a conversation with a former attorney regarding the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1960-1999), he said to me “in the air the margin for error is very slim”. I have never forgotten those words and they certainly apply here. Lawyers for all sides inevitably become involved and I thought to myself what could Pan Am’s defense be? Barring any malfunction with the aircraft, the next conclusion typically reached is pilot error. However, Pan Am was not going to let that happen if possible and the lengths it went to during the trial are nothing short of astounding. Readers may find themselves seething with anger as the legal drama plays out. Sadly, the people who ended up suffering are those who were on the plane or lost their loved ones in the crash. 

A disturbing fact that becomes known is that dozens of passengers remained on the aircraft even though they were alive on impact. You may be thinking “planes have multiple exits in case of emergency”. That is correct but why did the emergency doors not open on this flight? That is just one of several questions that lawyers for the victims tried to find answers to. The first course of action would have been to examine the wreckage, however that proved to be an issue in the case of Flight 806. Readers will be aghast at the attitude towards evidence by Pan Am and the names Robert Benedict and United States Aviation Insurance Group will be seared into their minds by the book’s conclusion. Benedict is a pivotal character in the book but far from the only one. To the victims, the case was simple: what was Pan Am going to pay to compensate them for their injuries and losses? If the airline had its way, that number would have been zero. In its defense, it spared no amount of money as expert after expert takes the stand promoting outlandish theories that even laypeople would balk at. To be fair, the airline knew it would have to pay and did attempt to do through Benedict. Shockingly, those who professed to be “for the victims” exercise questionable discretion that readers may find mystifying and distasteful. 

Due to the nature of the incident, aircraft safety became a critical issue during the trial. The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is the governmental agency responsible for ensuring that you and I reach our destinations safely each time we fly. However, the FAA and its regulations are part of a larger picture. Airlines are also responsible for maintaining strict maintenance schedules and enforcing safety procedures. But as we learn from the book, Pan Am’s internal system of operation was in dire need of overhaul. A chilling example of its malfunctioning safety program is summed up in this quote by the author regarding evidence disclosed during the trial: 

“It was simple, it was direct, and it proved to be the most important single piece of evidence in the whole trial: when Pan American sent Flight 806 into Pago Pago loaded with excess fuel, to crash and burn and to take the lives of ninety-seven people, the company was flaunting its own regulations.”

These words sent a chill down my spine and highlighted the danger that accompanied air travel less than fifty years ago. Throughout the trial, a dark cloud hovered over the proceedings. And the question remained, was the flight crew negligent in its actions? The legal maneuvers executed by the lawyers are exhausting and readers may stare in disbelief while they read the accounts of the arguments put forth by attorneys for Pan Am and the United States itself. Testimony from former pilots, radar operators, engineers and those aboard the flight adds complexity to the story but, the jury had the final word. And its verdict had a profound impact on the airline industry and Pan Am.  

Today we often take for granted the improvements in safety and the advancements in technology that have made flying the safest it has ever been. However, complacency has no place in air travel and mistakes do cost lives. The passengers and crew of Flight 806 know this all too well. Norris’s account of the impact of Flight 806 is beautifully written and well-researched. I can only imagine the range of emotions he must have felt as dark truths were uncovered during his research. Those truths explain why Judge Byrne ordered the records sealed from the public. The lives of Flight 806’s eighty-seven passengers and nine crewmembers who perished are gone forever. But this book may prove to be an invaluable tool in preventing similar disasters in the years to come. This is the story of Pan Am Flight 806 and the tragic repercussions of willful misconduct. 


Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir – A.E. Hotchner

HemingwayOn July 2, 1961, legendary author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), took his own life in the small town of Ketchum, Idaho at the age of sixty-one.  His suicide shocked fans and even today, the details of his death are unsettling and puzzling.  It seems unthinkable that the man who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and Old Man and the Sea, would end his life in such a tragic manner.  However, what we see from the public view often stands in stark contrast the reality behind the scenes. And one of the best ways to understand the life of the departed is to learn from those that were closest to them as their lives came to an end.  A. E. Hotchner (1917-2020) spent fourteen years with Hemingway as the author moved from one city to the next across the globe in what can only be described as an extraordinary life. This is his memoir of the time he spent with the man he called Papa.

Interestingly, Hotchner points out early in the book that no one is really sure why Hemingway pulled the trigger.  And although he did see Hemingway shortly before his death, he never thought that Papa would take that final and tragic step.  This quote by Hotchner explains it best:

“I was his close friend for fourteen years, right up to the day he died. I knew about his life: the adventures, the conversations, the dreams and disillusions, the triumphs and defeats of this complicated, unique, humorous, intense, fun-loving man who was Ernest Hemingway but I cannot tell you why. No one can.” 

The world had lost one if its greatest literary minds and no one could ever replace Ernest Hemingway.  But the focus here is not on his death, but the incredible life he lived as he aged and matured. Hotchner had been dispatched to conduct an interview with Hemingway but got cold feet at the last moment. He sent Hemingway a short letter and to his surprise, the author called himself to set up a meeting.  Neither could have known that a fourteen year friendship would develop as a result.   And to say the two had a wild ride would be an understatement.

Hotchner did not write a biography of either Hemingway or himself here and readers in search of an account of the author’s life will not find the entire story here although there is a short discussion of the important facts in Hemingway’s life, in particular his service in the military and four marriages.  However, in the account here, his last wife Mary Welsh Hemingway (1908-1986) appears largely through the second half of the story and was with him up until the very end. And while she does not have a speaking role in the story, her importance in Hemingway’s life cannot be over-stated.  As Papa explains to Hotchner later in the book, he truly did love Mary who remained devoted to him even as he slowly unraveled. But before that happened, she enjoyed life with Papa as well as Hotchner and those memories are presented here to show the larger than life character we have come to know and revere.

The story begins in Havana, Cuba in the years before a young lawyer named Fidel Castro (1926-2016) seized the country and forced Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) to flee into exile.  Life is easy and for a big name author such as Hemingway, heaven on earth. At the time Hotchner meets him, he is much older but still the fascinating figure the world was shown.  Cuba became a second home for Hemingway and Hotchner would spend a great deal of time there. In fact, he explains that:

“Over the years, with the exception of 1956 and 1957, when I was living in Rome, I visited Ernest in Cuba at least once a year, often more, and daiquiris at the Floridita, pigeon shoots, excursions on the Pilar, and days at the finca became familiar.” 

From the moment Papa enters the story, he takes it over and we become witnesses along with Hotchner as we watch the show.  A scotch is never far away and always accompanies a sharp line of wit from Hemingway that sprinkles humor into every situation.   And even when other celebrities enter the story, Hemingway is always jovial with an endless supply of quips about those he has come to know which include the likes of Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961).  The friendship between Cooper and Hemingway is deeply moving.  Shortly before Cooper’s own death, Hotchner saw him one last time and the legendary actor passed along these poignant words for his close friend:

“Please give Papa a message. It’s important and you mustn’t forget because I’ll not be talking to him again. Tell him … that time I wondered if I made the right decision”—he moved the crucifix a little closer so that it touched his cheek—“tell him it was the best thing I ever did.” “I’ll tell him.” “Don’t forget.” “Don’t worry, Coops, I‘ll tell him.” He died ten days later.

We do not know if the message reached Papa, who had only weeks to live himself. But it captures the deep bond between the two friends who each left their mark on the American experience.  It seemed as if everyone loved Papa and quite frankly, I cannot blame them as the Hemingway we come to know in the book is the star of the show.  Whether it was his near disastrous trips with Mary in Africa or the comedy of errors that takes place as he and Hotchner gallivant across the globe, Papa is never short on material to brighten any situation.

As the story moves along, we see changes in Papa’s physical condition and health issues become a central part of the story. We do learn of some ailments but even Hotchner did not the full extent of Papa’s health troubles. However, what we do learn gives rise to the question, did Hemingway know something about his health that he kept from those around him as he decided to take his own life?  Hotchner notes a change in Papa’s writing and appearance.  And their conversations take on a much darker and confusing tone.  It becomes clear that Papa is having a breakdown one step at a time and those around decide to step in.  He would find solace at the Mayo Clinic but even the doctors there did not understand the demons running through the mind of Ernest Hemingway.   And those demons became too much to bear as Papa first tries and then later succeeds at making his departure from this world in a hauntingly tragic manner.  Hotchner was expectedly devastated after learning of Papa’s death and this memoir is a fitting tribute to his late friend who captivated an entire planet and still stands out today as one of the greatest writers in history.  It is place he will continue to hold for all eternity.  If we can take one thing from Papa, I think it is this summation by Hotchner:

“Ernest had had it right: Man is not made for defeat. Man can be destroyed but not defeated.

Highly recommended.


Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason – Chidanand Rajghatta

LankeshI saw this book in my list of recommendations but did not know the face on the cover.  However, the high rating caused my interest to raise and I decided to see why it is so highly rated.  The name Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017) did not sound familiar but I thought to myself that she must have been someone unique to have a memoir written about her life by ex-husband Chidanand Rajghatta.  As he explains, they had been divorced for more than twenty-five years but had remained close friends to the day she died.  On September 5, 2017, Lankesh was shot and killed at her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bangalore. She was fifty-five years old.  Her death marked a very dark turn in the ongoing battle between extremism and rationalism. And as Rajghatta points out throughout the book, Lankesh was never one to hold her tongue.  She stood by her beliefs and gave her life for what she believed in.  This book is his tribute to his former wife, close friend and pioneer for a more tolerate and diverse India. 

India truly is one of the most fascinating countries on earth and I do believe many of us fail to appreciate just how diverse it is. There are hundreds if not thousands of languages and faiths spread across the country sometimes with large variations in practices. Growing up, the people I encountered here in New York from India subscribed to the Hindu belief system. Former classmates whose families had emigrated from India explained as best they could what Hinduism was. As a result, my friends and I had to come to associate Hinduism with India and remained unaware that it is only one of the many system of belief. Now that I have aged, I see how much we did not know and I am proud to say that I am no longer young enough to know everything. Hinduism is indeed a fascination belief system and the author addresses the confusion surrounding Hinduism, relaying it in layman’s terms with this statement:

“Hinduism itself is not considered a dogmatic religion and not strictly a religion of any one book. Some would say it is not even a religion but a loose set of beliefs constructed around many books—the Vedas, the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata) and the Ramayana.” 

Here, the author steps deep inside the topic of faith in India, allowing us to see how extremist and rationalist have been set on a collision course that shows no signs of changing direction. And while I read through the book, I began to see that there is much about religion in India that I still did not yet know. However, the author did not write a book solely on that topic but rather an account of his memories of Gauri. Religion is central to the story but certainly not its basis. Readers who are not well versed in Indian may find the discussion on faith to be slightly overwhelming. The main focus is on Lingayatism, a Shaivite Hindu tradition which both the author and Lankesh know intimately. However, neither are religious and the author admits that he is in fact agnostic. And others who are a part of the story are of the same mindset and even atheistic. This may surprise some readers who expect to find dedication to a strict belief system but I feel that the book shows without question that within India, faith has no set standard.

By the author’s account, Gauri Lankesh was truly one of a kind. And it is admirable that the two remained friends for so many years after divorcing. But it does show that what existed between was genuine love, not necessarily entirely romantic, but simply between one person and another. Rajghatta truly misses her and her rhetoric which even he had to admit was nothing short of challenging. I felt that this statement about her sets the tone for the book:

“Gauri Lankesh was disputatious to a fault. I should know. We argued relentlessly, mostly good-naturedly, in our exuberant youth when India was so full of promise and problems, as it still is. But she was also a large-hearted and fair-minded woman, a trait that extended our friendship beyond marriage.”

It is not always common to receive such words of praise from a former spouse but it is a testament to her influence on those who knew her best. As Rajghatta gets into the story, what develops is a picture of a changing India once known as a place for liberal and progressive expression, into one that does not tolerate dissent from ideology. Lankesh was appalled at this shift and throughout her life crusaded against fundamentalism taking over Indian society. She paid the ultimate price but her spirit shall always remain present. Disturbingly, her death was one in a series of murders of those who spoke out against the shift to the religious right. The murders are brutal and following the deaths of each, Rajghatta and Gauri ponder what is happening to the India they called home. Gauri never left India but Rajghatta moved to the United States in the years that followed their divorce. And when taking a look at India, he makes this keen observation:

“A word about the title: as an Indian who has worked abroad for nearly twenty-five years, I’ve often felt it is only when you reside outside India you understand India better. Distance lends perspective. Living in India tends to desensitise us to both its good and bad.”

To help us understand the sharp divisions surrounding faith, Rajghatta focuses on the scriptures that have formed part of Indian culture. The most famous are the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He discusses them but not in extensive detail as that would have required another and much longer book. But they are relevant to the story at hand so that we can see their influence of dogma and its development. I believe that it may help readers to look up each book independently for further reading as there is a good story to be found within both.

What I liked the most about the book is that it did not read like a standard biography but felt more like a discussion about a friendship that was unique. It is clear that Gauri Lankesh was unorthodox in mainstream India (she never had children and abhorred religious customs) and because of her free spirit nature, she had earned the wrath of those committed to fundamentalism. She continued the Lankesh Patrike, the publication that was created by her father P. Lankesh and backed legislation opposed to funamentalist expansion. Her position was not an easy one to take but her courage shines brightly in the memories of Rajghatta. As India continues to change, we can only wonder which direction it will go and what Lankesh would think if she were still alive. Those in the west may not know her story but I do recommend this book to learn who she was and why she matters in India. Further, it should remind Americans of the value in freedom and why extremist ideology poses a constant threat to our way of life. Lankesh is gone but her work is far from done and others are proudly carrying the torch.

In old India, it was a badge of honour to be called a radical, a liberal, a progressive—labels that conveyed a readiness to shed one’s selfish concerns to fight for a better world. Today, they are words of abuse and any action that questions the status quo or seeks to alter it can be deemed extremist, or worse, anti-national.” – Chidanand Rajghatta

Highly recommended.




Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present – Harriet A. Washington

20200907_235936It is not often that I need a moment to myself after finishing a book but alas, it has happened once again.  Prior to reading this breathtaking and riveting book by author Harriet A. Washington, I last found myself at a loss for words after finishing David E. Stannard’s  American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.  As I explained in that posting, the book was so unsettling that I needed a drink and a moment of silence afterwards.  That process was repeated upon completion of this book which is bound to jolt anyone who decides to voyeur within.  The title alone is enough to catch a person’s attention but I believe it only tells part of the story that is to be found within the pages of this book. Quite frankly, the full story is far darker and disturbing.  However, it is history as it was in all of its ugliest and rawest form.  When viewed in that context, the requirement of facing it head on becomes readily apparent if we are truly intent on fixing the disparities in health care between people of different ethnic backgrounds. In fact, in the epilogue, the author makes it clear that although the book does not paint a flattering picture of history, it is still necessary for blacks to seek medical care and participate in the health care industry as their lives depend on it.

Washington opens the story with a discussion of Dr. James Marion Sims (1813-1883) whose attempts to treat the condition of vesicovaginal fistula set the theme for the story to follow. I warn readers that the first half of book will sound like something out of a horror film.  The issue of slavery does come up and is directly relevant to the story at hand. Furthermore, what the author reveals, should put an end to any discussion of one slave having a better life than the other.  The full barbarity of the system of slavery is on full display, supported by physicians who were supposed to preserve life.  Readers who are sensitive to this subject matter may want to use discretion when deciding whether or not to read this book.  Once you begin the story, it is ride that moves full speed ahead and the author pulls no punches.  Sims emerges quickly as a controversial figure whose legacy is summed up by Washington clearly when she states:

James Marion Sims is an important figure in the history of experimentation with African Americans because he so well embodies the dual face of American medicine to which racial health disparities owe so much.”

The doctor is only one of a long list of physicians remembered as pioneers. But as can be seen in the book, they also had a darker side which led to them committing even darker acts at the expense of blacks and others considered to be inferior or undesirable. Racial ideology cloaked under the banner of eugenics, resulted in some of the most atrocious events I have ever read about. Washington does not mince words and some of what she reveals might be hard to take even for the most stoic readers. Some of the darkest components of racism come back to life, showing American history without the glory. This truth is ugly and upsetting, and is bound to anger and appall. Today, such actions would be unthinkable and rightly subject to criminal prosecution but in the 1800s, this did not happen and the we can see in the book must how widespread the belief in black inferiority truly was, which allowed doctors to put into practice thoughts that are completely insane.

Any discussion of American medical experiments would be incomplete without commenting on the Tuskegee Experiment. The story is included here and Washington does an excellent job of summarizing what did happen and clearing up misconceptions that have festered for too many years. It is an honest and thorough discussion of a medical experiment that went terribly wrong and carefully hid the truth for those taking part as test subjects. It remains one of the darkest chapters in American history but it far from the only one. In fact, there were others and Washington takes us down memory lane so that we can see just how disturbing these events truly were. As I read through the book, I found myself aghast not only at the bizarre thoughts of physicians such as being able to negroes white, but at the unnecessary procedures that were carried out under the guise of black patients not feeling pain the way whites do. These parts of the book are a reminder of how primitive medicine was less than two hundred years ago. They are also a reminder of how far we still have to go in eliminating the disparities that exist in our health care system that have been fueled by bias for far too long.

Some readers may be triggered by this book for it pulls back the curtain on what we have been told was a storied medical history that placed America at the forefront of scientific advancement. In prior years, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was seen as a champton of reproductive responsibility as the founder of Planned Parenthood. Yet Sanger also had a dark side and her true goals were left out of official narratives. Washington takes another look at Sanger and readers will either be surprised or vindicated in their beliefs about her. What is adamantly clear is that the times in which she lived , certainly contributed to her views which today seems nothing short of draconian. She was part of a growing eugenics movement, perfected in Nazi Germany and nearly replicated many times over after World War II. Concentration camps were replaced by medical laboratories and covert plans enacted by intelligence agencies including American’s own Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Operation Big City is a name I was unfamiliar with but its purpose which has never been confirmed by the CIA, should make the hair stand up on the back of anyone’s neck. If it really did happen, then it speaks volumes about America’s darkest secrets. And for readers who cannot imagine the U.S. Government being involved in anything nefarious domestically, I do recommend that research Operation Northwoods, which was presented to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a pretext for an invasion of Cuba.

To say that there is a wealth of information in this book would be a severe understatement. Readers should be prepared to have their minds blown. Just when you think that the story might be winding down it picks up even more of a pace as the revelations keep coming. And as they do, it should be perfectly clear why Black Americans are distrustful of the medical field and tend to received less medical care than their white counterparts. And that is really Washington’s goal. She is showing us how and why blacks came to view the medical field as harbingers of death and destruction. Civil rights and basic human decency were nowhere to be found as doctors were left to their own devices with free reign to wreak havoc on the bodies and minds of black people.

I want to reiterate that this book is not an easy read and there is no happy ending. Much of it is haunting and reveals a very dark side of human nature that some of us may be shocked to learn of. These are the events in history that were never included in history books. It is America’s history and a legacy of medicine gone horribly wrong. The endless number of victims is staggering and some are still alive today. This book is a testament to their struggles and the long road out of the darkness upon which we are still traveling. And may Washington’s work stand as compendium of a key component of the African-American experience in America.

“I challenge us to change, because as Charles Darwin once observed, “It is not the strongest species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Harriet A. Washington

ISBN-10 : 076791547X
ISBN-13 : 978-0767915472

To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace – Jeffrey D. Sachs

jfkPeace is a state of being that mankind constantly seeks to achieve even as tensions flare between nations making the threat of armed and nuclear conflict a very real possibility.  The detonation of the bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, changed modern warfare permanently.  Man had entered the nuclear weapon era and the fear of complete annihilation reached even the most hardened leaders of the free world.  In the wake of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union took center stage in the battle for global supremacy.  The Cold War ushered in a new level of caution as Washington and Moscow became increasing distrustful of each other. 

In January, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected over Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in one the slimmest election margins in United States history.  The young Irish-Catholic president had pulled off a stunning victory in a race that seemed destined to be decided in Nixon’s favor. Upon assuming office, Kennedy inherited the successes and failures of his predecessor, retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969).  Moscow watched the election with keen interest and tested the new president in ways he could have never imagined. Under the command of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the Soviet Union became determined to continue the spread of its communist ideology and confront American whenever and wherever necessary.  In October, 1962, tensions reached an all-time high when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. For thirteen days, the world watched with fear as the two superpowers threatened the planet with extinction.   Crisis was averted by back-channel communication between the two nations and the commitment of both Khrushchev and Kennedy to avoid total destruction.  The Cuban-Missile Crisis changed Kennedy’s view on U.S. foreign policy and he became determined to avoid a similar situation in the future.  And he had begun to visualize his quest for peace. Author Jeffrey Sachs takes a close look at Kennedy’s in this short yet remarkable account of a time in world history that will be studied for years to come.

Kennedy constantly walked a tight rope in dealing with foreign powers and satisfying domestic opponents as home. His determination not to be seen as a dovish president, had taken him down a path in which Cold War warriors exerted their influence with the final objective of refuting Soviet expansion by force if necessary. It should be noted that the book is not an examination of the Cold War but rather it places its focus on Kennedy himself and the decisions he made when faced with the threat of catastrophe. Of course, the author addresses the most important events during his short time in office which came to a tragic conclusion on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. The assassination itself is not discussed in detail for obvious reasons. The focus here remains throughout on Kennedy’s plan for peace which he put into action through a series of events that were quite bold for his time. And although he did not live to see many of his ideas come to pass, he did lay the groundwork for many things, most importantly the Civil Rights Act which would signed into law by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) on July 2, 1964. Kennedy was not only concerned about world peace but was highly aware of domestic issues at home that centered on the issue of race in America. In recalling Kennedy’s words, Sachs writes:

“The heart of the question, said Kennedy, was this: If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?” 

Peace became Kennedy’s dominant focus and his actions n the later half of his administration showed his commitment to seeing the world truly change. Whether through his appeals to the United Nations or the creation of the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy was putting his plan into action to see change materialize. But he also understood that peace does not happen overnight. In fact, Sachs explains Kennedy’s vision perfectly in this statement:

“Kennedy’s third precept was that peace is a process, a series of step-by-step confidence-building measures. He recognized that moves by one side lead to moves by the other. A situation of high distrust necessitated a series of confidence-building steps.” 

Had he lived, I believe that President Kennedy would have continued his plan of peace and that America would not have remained in Vietnam. He fully understood that the world was heading down a dangerous path and sought to reverse course before mankind destroyed itself. His assasination changed America and to this day, his murder haunts this nation as a reminder of what could have been. However, in just a few short years, he set into a motion a number of events. His commitment to true peace is sometimes overlooked or not fully understood. Here, Jeffrey Sachs explains it all perfectly so that readers can see what Kennedy wanted to accomplish and how he planned to do it. And as a bonus, the author includes text from Kennedy’s speech at American University on July 10, 1963 which is considered by many, including myself, to be his finest. And the fact that he was murdered only five months later, speaks volumes about how much of a threat the young president was to what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.

I do admit that Kenney’s administration as not perfect and at the beginning of his tenure, he made a series of missteps that increased tensions between America and opponents abroad. But his removal of holdovers from previous administrations, finally allowed him to chart his true course. And by the time he was ready to speak at American University, he had become a seasoned leader who understood that not everyone can be pleased. There are times when being president means doing what is best even if it may be unpopular. And to fully drive home where Kennedy’s thoughts lay in the months before his death, we can turn to this snippet of his speech before that graduation class:

“What kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.” 

John F. Kennedy has been dead for more than fifty years but his legacy remains with us. There are many what if questions surrounding his death and what it meant to the United States. However, he left behind quite a bit of ideas and material for us to study, understand and learn from. One of the most important was his desire to move the world in his quest for peace.


Into The Blast – The True Story of D.B. Cooper – Skipp Porteous, Robert Blevins and Geoff Nelder (Editor)

PorteousOn November 24, 1971, Northwest Airlines Flight 305 departed from Portland International Airport with a destination of Seattle, Washington. Among the passengers was a middle man who gave the ticket agent the name “Dan Cooper”.  Minutes after takeoff he handed a note to a stewardess Flo Schaffner a note that he had a bomb in his briefcase.   To prove his point, he had the suspicious flight attendant sit down next to him and opened the case for her viewing.  Upon realizing that Cooper could in fact destroy the aircraft, authorities were alerted that a hijacking was taking place.  After refueling in Seattle, the plane took off again but with $200,000 aboard as per Cooper’s instructions. Once airborne, Cooper had flight attendant Tina Mucklow show him how to operate the aft stairwell on the Boeing 727.   Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the warning light went off in the cabin indicating that the aft stairwell had been deployed.  When the plane landed in Reno, Nevada, Cooper was nowhere to be found.  And to this day, his whereabouts are unknown. Or are they? And had D.B. Cooper been hiding in plain sight while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) struggled to solve the case?  Authors Skipp Porteous and Robert Blevins decided to examine the D.B. Cooper mystery and what they found is sure to catch the eye of even the most ardent supporters of the theory that the hijacker died after jumping from the aircraft.

The premise of the book is set early: the authors feel that they have solid reasons to believe that D.B. Cooper was Northwest Airlines employee Kenneth Peter Christiansen (1926-1994). And while they stop short of saying conclusively that Christiansen was in fact Cooper, they provide a significant amount of information about Christiansen and the investigation itself that leaves us with even more questions about what really did happen to Dan Cooper. It should be noted that there are no conspiracy theories here, just old fashioned investigative work, filled with sleeping in cars, long miles on the road aided by coffee and the tenacity to keep moving forward several decades after the hijacking. The authors make every attempt to cross-reference what they learn as their investigation moves forward. It is an incredible story that is certainly not over.

A biography of Christiansen is included but contains only the most relevant facts about his life as they relate to the investigation. In particular, focus is placed on his employment with Northwest Airlines and just how unpredictable a steady salary was for a flight attendant in small airline in the 1970s. The precarious nature of his choice of occupation surely is not enough for confirmation of guilt. However, his background in the military and as a mechanic should have made him a person of interest at the least. Curiously, the FBI never interviewed any employees of the airline. And as can be seen in the book, at least one of the people interviewed had suspicions that Christiansen might have been involved.

The similarities between Cooper and Christiansen are striking and the authors sum up their belief with this simple yet direct statement:

“If Kenny Christiansen were alive today, he would have difficulty explaining to a jury where he got all the money to do the things he did in the months following the taking of Flight 305. Christiansen, I discovered, had one life before the hijacking and another one afterward.” 

In addition to Christiansen there are several people who enter the story that knew him personally. The FBI agent who was assigned to the case also gives his thoughts on the case but makes it clear that he is no longer involved. But of all of the figures in the book, none is as shadowy as Mike Watson (real name Bernie Geestman). And the information provided by his former wife Katy (real name Margie Geestman) reveal some very dark actions by Geestman whom the authors believe was Cooper’s accomplice. Added to the mix are the interviews of Dawn Androsko (Bernie Geestman’s sister) and Helen Jones. And what each has to say about Christiansen actually leads more credence to the authors’ theory. And while they always stop short of declaring for a fact that Christiansen is D.B. Cooper, the more they uncover, the more it seems that it most certainly was the case.

In January, 2011, the History Channel premiered Episode 6, Season 1 of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded which explored the Christiansen story. The episode is based largely on the book and can be found on YouTube here. It is a good episode and brings the crux of the book to light. The authors discuss the filming of the show and all that goes into a television production. We also see that the History Channel does not slack when it comes to fact finding. And while the show does not find concrete proof of the two men being one in the same, it is highly convincing and a great watch.

Undoubtedly there are many mysterious surrounding Dan Cooper that are lost to history. But the authors here make a compelling case against the man they believed pulled off on the history’s greatest capers that has earned a permanent place in American pop culture. This is the story of Dan Cooper, Kenneth Christiansen and an aircraft passenger’s jump into the blast.


The Battle for God – Karen Armstrong


Though there are hundreds if not thousands of religions in the world, the primary focus here is on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which are considered the world’s largest monotheisitc faiths. Although Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is polytheistic and it is not organized in the exact same manner as the others. God, Yahweh and Allah take center stage in a book that it sure to provoke deep thought about how we view the concepts of the supernatural and life after death. I want to point out that at no time does the author degrade any of the religions discussed within. Her goal is not to slander but to show the inner struggles within each as opposing forces battle for the direction of their faith. It is imperative to keep this in mind to see the true value in what she has written.

During what are certainly usual times, many of us have turned to faith to cope with the dreadful news surrounding Covid-19. The virus has changed our lives in ways we could have never imagined and in these times, faith is one of the few things that some people have left. Whether it is Jesus, Allah, Yahweh or another God, belief in the higher power has proven to be a clutch as fears of the unknown settle in. Depending on where and to whom you were born, your faith may be Christianity, Islam, Judaism or one of hundreds of religions and denomination. Regardless of what you faith is, we can all agree that next to politics, religion is one of those topics that can bring people together in peace or drive them apart with anger and rage. And even within a culture, disputes about religion are bound to surface as fundamentalism and modernity clash head to head. Author Karen Armstrong has taken a closer look at the passionate struggle between fundamentalist and secular forces in what she appropriately calls the battle for God.

I do warn readers that the author moves between three religions as the book progresses and the changes may seem abrupt to some. But what is taking place is actually three discussions woven into one main account. Putting that aside, there is a wealth of information in the book and a rock solid presentation of how religion became a battleground between opposing points of view. And to entice us early on, Armstrong does give us a telling clue:

This statement sets the stage for what is to come and it is a roller coaster ride in which we see how widely practice religions have virtually taken two different tracks of development as society continues to evolve. To help us understand the divisions, Armstrong takes us back in time to when fundamentalism was normal and modernity was an unknown concentp. But as humanity moved forward and science became a larger influence in society, the fundamentalist began to feel that their way of belief was in imminent danger of extinction and those who considered themselves true believers were willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their faith, even resorting to acts of violence. The emergence and proclamations by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) only increased the fundamentalists’ paranoia and as we see in the book, they believed that the writing was on the wall.

Readers may find themselves taking a significant amount of notes. As the story moves between the three faiths, it is easy to get sidetracked and I did find myselfpreferring to read the book when I had periods of near absolute silence. Names of historical figures are peppered throughout the story. Some are easily recognizable while others may be known for the first time to the reader. However, they all have a role to play as the West and Middle East become hotbeds for religious extremists. I will refrain from listing too many names here because the amount of figures who enter the story is quite large. But I will say that Armstrong presents deeply interesting discussions of how religion has developed in the United States, home to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant simply known as a WASP and in the Middle East where Shiite and Sunni Islam became the dominant forms of Islam. And her analysis of events leading up to the assassination of Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) and the Iranian Revolution are just right for anyone seeking a condensed explanation of how radical Islam has gained so much power. And as one would expect, the story of Iran includes an in-depth focus on Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini known to the west as Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). However, I do feel that the most eye-opening part of the book is the discussion of Zionism versus Orthodox Judaism in Israel. I personally found myself glued to this section as I learned more about Zionism and how Israel is actually two belief systems in a nation that also grapples with continuing tensions with its Palestinian neighbors. There is certainly more than meets the eye. In fact, some readers may be surprised to see what Armstrong says about the early relationship between Jews and Muslims.

One of the most popular concepts of American democracy is the separation between church and state. Armstrong touches on this as the religious right that has become a significant force in American culture. it is fascinating and older readers will recall the nearly earth shattering revelations of Tamm Faye and Jim Bakker. And who can forget the video of Jimmy Swaggart crying on national television? Their escapades and the constant battle between Christian fundamentalism and secular society continues to this day as televangelists grace the airwaves reminding us of our need to repent. What Joel Osteen and Crefo Dollar are able to do, follows but also exceeds the prominence of televangelist Oral Roberts (1918-2009). And as technology continues to improve, the battle between opposing forces within Christianity will continue to do battle for the God they believe in.

After finishing the book, I took a moment of silence to sit and digest all that I had read. And while I do know there is far more to the story than could have been included here, the book is simply amazing. I do feel that everyone can find value in it regardless of who God they believe in. Armstrong never attempts to sway anyone from belief. But the value she does provide is that she takes a neutral view at the inner struggle from an analytical standpoint as any good author would. Those who are religious will need to be able to read it with an open mind for it is not so much a challenge to faith but an examination of it. And that examination is needed as fundamentalism shows no sign of going away. But we could ask, should fundamentalism have no place at all in society? A knee-jerk reaction would say no but upon closer inspection, through Armstrong’s words, we see that those in power did not seek to abolish fundamentalism but rather find a way to placate all as reasonably possible. But what we also see is that fundamentalism eventually took a dark and even deadly turn inspite of concessions as adherence to the scripture took priority over liberal freedoms.



Titanic: A Survivor’s Story – Colonel Archibald Gracie

GracieThis past April marked 108 years since the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southhampton to New York City.   By the time the SS Carpathia had arrived to rescue passengers, the Titanic had sank and more than 1,500 passengers lost their lives. It is still one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.  Survivors of the Titanic have given interviews and written their memoirs. Among them was Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (1858-1912).  On the night of April 14, 1912, Gracie was relaxing in his cabin when shortly before midnight, he was jarred awake and soon realized that the ship’s engines had stopped.  Unaware that the ship had suffered a fatal blow, considerable time passes before the shocking reality begins to settle in.  But when it did, Gracie went into action and this is his account of what he saw that night and what he did as the RMS Titanic met its doomed fate. 

This book was published in 1913 but Gracie never saw the reception it received. He died on December 4, 1912 due to the injuries he suffered on the night of the collision, making him one of the earliest Titanic survivors to died in the wake of the tragedy.  As the story begins, Gracie recalls what he was doing in the days before April 14.  What he discloses gives no indications that anything was amiss with the ship.  Passengers are passing the time with a number of activities.  But on the night of April 14, all of that changed.  Upon impact, Gracie relatees that:

“My stateroom was an outside one on Deck C on the starboard quarter, somewhat abaft amidships. It was No. C, 51. I was enjoying a good night’s rest when I was aroused by a sudden shock and noise forward on the starboard side, which I at once concluded was caused by a collision, with some other ship perhaps.”

It was a collision indeed, but one that none of the passengers could have ever imagined.  Soon it became clear to passengers that the Titanic was in trouble and as the ship began to take on water, urgency creeped in. But even in the face of death, the majority of passengers remained relatively calm.  However, ominous signs were soon upon them and forty-five minutes later, Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1912) gave the order to lower the life boats.  Gracie provides a keen observation about the distress signals launched by the Titanic’s crew:

“I was on the Boat Deck when I saw and heard the first rocket, and then successive ones sent up at intervals thereafter. These were followed by the Morse red and blue lights, which were signalled near by us on the deck where we were; but we looked in vain for any response. These signals of distress indicated to every one of us that the ship’s fate was sealed, and that she might sink before the lifeboats could be lowered.”

Soon the loading of passengers into the lifeboats was underway and Gracie provides insight as to how the process took place and his own efforts in assisting Second Officer Charles Lightoller (1874-1952).  Gracie did not initially get into a boat himself but insted remained on the ship where he also makes acquaintenance with victim James Clinch Smith. His description of the ship’s final moments made the hair stand up on my neck. And it was nothing short of miraculous that Gracie eventually ended up in a lifeboat himself.  And it was not until he was board the Carpathia that he realized the full extent of his injuries and his ordeal.

As a first-hand witness, Gracie found himself in a position to debunk rumors about the night’s events, in particular whether an explosion took place, if the the ship broke in tow and whether some officers shot themselves.  Conspiracy theories may not believe what he has to say but as far as a I know, Gracie’s account stands as credible to this day.  And there is no doubt that he was a passenger and a survivor.  However, there is more to the book than just his memories and clarifying rumors.  What follows in the second half of the book is a solid discussion of the events that took place on other lifeboats taht were dispatched by the White Star Line’s crew.  Also included are statements provided by survivors to eithe the British of American inquiries and in appearances such as that of Lightoller, testimony is sampled from both.  It is an interesting read and provides insight into what the survivors were contending with as they drifted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no rescue ship in sight.

Gracie is adamant in his belief that the crew of the White Star performed admirably that night.  He expresses praise for Officer Lightoller and others who rose to the challenge that night. However, he does have an interesting observation about Edward J. Smith and also provides a statement by retired Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) that was submitted to the Evening Post in which the retired Navy officer shares his views on J. Bruce Ismay (1862-1937. Readers may recall that Ismay was Managing Director of the White Star Line at the time of the disaster and that he survived the disaster after getting into the last lifeboat that left the ship.  Mahan minces no words about his feelings on Ismay’s actions that night but ultimately, it is up to the reader whether Ismay deserves the criticism leveled against him.

The book is quite short but still a fascinating yet tragic read.  The most haunting moments are undoubtedly the Titanic’s final moments as passengers still aboard the ship realized the pending doom before them.  All hope for them was lost and those who managed to find a lifeboat could only watch in disbelief and horror and what was occurring before their eyes. It is a memory that none of them would ever forget. Their memories which have been recorded for history are reminders of one of the darkest nights in maritime history.  Gracie’s story here has stood the test of time as a key addition to the wealth of material regarding the RMS Titanic.


Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror – Charles Lane

hiramYesterday America once again celebrated its independence from British Colonialism.  Cookouts and fireworks were held all over the country as people sought out even the smallest amount of happiness during what are surreal times.  The Coronavirus Pandemic and murder of George Floyd (1973-2020) have placed America at a crossroads.  As a nation we are forced with both an invisible enemy that spreads from person to person and a highly visible one which has festered in our nation for far too long.  But what is paramount to remember is that America has faced these enemies before but what we do moving forward will truly define what type of country we wish to have.  I found this book on Amazon while browsing through a list of daily recommendations and the cover caught my attention instantly. I do confess that did not have the slightest idea who the person on the cover was and why he is important in American history.  All that changed as I opened the pages of this book and learned a history lesson that I have never seen in any textbook.

As a person of color, I am sometimes placed in a tough position.  I love America deeply but I am sometimes ashamed of the image that we project to the rest of the world. Domestically, we all know of and may have even been to the region simply called “the South”.  For black men and women, the southeastern part of the United States was nothing short of hell on earth.  And the enslavement of people of color remains entrench in America’s dark past.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Republican Party had embarked on a path to eradicate all traces of the Confederacy and rebuild the South from scratch as a part of the Union in which freedom, liberty and equality held true for all.  In the state of Georgia, a Radical Republican named George W. Ashburn (1814-1868) had pushed for the reconstruction of Georgia and firmly believed that African-Americans were human beings and should have a part to play in a new society.  His actions and beliefs enraged former Confederate officers, slave owners and racists still seething from losing the war. On the night of March 31, 1868, several hooded men burst into the lodgings of Hannah Flournoy where Ashburn was staying and shot the politicaan to death.  The group that carried out the murder became known to the public as the Ku Klux Klan.

Founded in 1865 by a group of disgruntled Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan grew into a widespread organization that terrorized white and black citizens through horrific acts of violence. Their savagery however, was always saved for Black Americans and the atrocities committed by the Klan’s upon people of color is too extensive and disturbing to discuss here.  In Washington, D.C., President Ulysses G. Grant (1822-1886) took notice and the government created its plan to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. The division tasked with such a daunting objective was the Secret Service under the direction of officer and Second Chief Hiram C. Whitley (1834-1919), whom author Charles Lane calls Freedom’s Detective.

As I started the book, I kept asking myself how a figure like Whitley has gone unmentioned in history books?  It was clear that he was not a major political figure or military leader but after starting the book, I soon realized why he is important and his story should be known.  To be clear, Whitley will most likely never be seen as a “social justice warrior”. In fact, an incident in Kansas involving an abolitionist named John Doy initially put me on the defensive regarding his character.  However, I pressed on and as the story develops Whitley is transformed from deviant into a law enforcement officer willing to fight fire with fire.  Some readers may be surprised that he was a Secret Service agent and not a typical law enforcement officer.  The reason is that upon its creation, the Secret Service was mainly tasked with cracking down on counterfeit money which was a highly lucrative business.  And as Lane points out towards the end of the book, it was not until the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, that the Secret Service was assigned to protect the president.  Prior to this, the agency had its primary area of investigation but was also asked to take action in other areas which are thoroughly explored in the book.  And interestingly, there is a surprising fact about its  creation that many of us might not be aware of.

Following Ashburn’s murder, Whitley is dispatched to Georgia to bring the assailants to justice. And what he accomplished marked the first successful infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan and proved to Washington that the organization was far from a myth as some right wing southern newspapers had proclaimed.  By no means was the task easy and there were many who still sympathized with the South and had no desire to see African-Americans on equal footing. However, Whitley was undeterred and believed in breaking down the Klan for good.  But he was not without his faults, some of which were exposed during the trial of New York City counterfeiter Joshua D. Miner.   The arrest of the highly respected Miner and the trial that ensued could have changed the course of history had the old veteran Whitley not been quick on his feet and armed with the support of Washington which was ramping up its war on the Klan.

On June 7, 1871, Senator John Pool produced witnesses from North Carolina to testify before the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.  The committee became known informally as the Ku Klux Committee and heard from witnesses, stories of the atrocities being committed in the south.  Washington was paying close attention as Whitley was joined by fresh faces including Joseph G. Hester, whose own past was just murky as Whitley’s. However, Hester figures prominently in the mission to defeat the Klan and Whitley’s agents dealt staggering blows to the Klan as part of their goal to see its extinction.  But as readers will learn in the book, silencing the Klan was as much a political issue as it was a social issue.  And what I learned caused me to hang my head in shame and disbelief.

You might be wondering, if the government had begun to eradicate the Klan, why did it not go all the way? I began to ask myself the same question and Lane provides the answer to it.  What should have been the moment for the U.S. Government to end the Klan once and for all, turned into a moment of the highest lack of foresight. And one result is that it paved the way for Jim Crow and the battle for civil rights that continues to this day.   Whitley, Hester and the other agents who fought valiantly against the Klan began to see the writing on the wall.  And the recapturing of power by Southern Democrats sealed the Radical Republicans’ fate and their mission to bring true equality to all people in the United States.

Towards the end of the book as the Klan fades away from Washington’s concern and Democrats take control of Washington, Whitley finds himself embroiled in a mind-boggling fiasco that left me speechless. The events surrounding Columbus Alexander felt as if I were reading an eerie premonition of what we now refer to as Watergate.  I can only imagine how many investigations would take place and how many hearings would be held if a Secret Service chief attempted what Whitley concocts.  The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction applies all throughout this book. And if you need more confirmation, play close attention to Whitley’s actions regarding James Ivins, the stepson of former Attorney General George H. Williams (1823-1910).  I cannot put into words just how mind-boggling this part of the book is.

Hiram C. Whitley was certainly an unorthodox figure and while he was far from a beacon of equality, he did lead the way in the battle against the Ku Klux Klan and had his vision prevailed, the organization might have met its demise as early as the 1870s.  But the rise in power of the Southern Democrats and the reluctance of Liberal Republicans to go after the Klan, allowed the South to reincorporate its power and for black people, life would become more burensome than any could have predicted.  Readers will be left with many what if questions regarding the aftermath of the Civil War. I firmly believe that every American should read this book.  And if all men are created equal, we have to understand where we went wrong as a nation so that we can actually do what is needed to correct it.  The past is always prologue. Highly recommended.