With autumn in full swing and with holidays descending on us, I am reminded of my repertoire of holiday films, those movies that warm my heart and tickle my funny bone.
One of my favorite movies of all-time is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, a comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy. When the film was released in 1987, both of the actors were well-known comedians in their own right but neither was known a successful actor. Steve Martin was just 42 and John Candy was an even-younger 37. (Candy died in 1994 only seven years after the movie’s release.)
Yet “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” became one of the most critically-acclaimed movies of the 80s decade. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies Collection and Martin’s and Candy’s roles can probably be regarded as their best on film.
Martin plays Neal Page, a business man trying to get home by plane. Candy, as Del Griffith, is a bungling shower-ring salesman who inadvertently trips up everyone’s plans. Martin and Candy traverse the eastern United States desperately trying to get to Chicago for Thanksgiving and by movie’s end they’ve taken nearly every mode of transportation available, including a plane, a train and an automobile.
And just as you may have finally finished massaging the stitch in your side caused by laughing until you’ve cried, you are caught with a lump in your throat when are reminded what life is really all about.
And those happy thoughts bring me back to books so I’ve included some about trains, planes … and travel in automobiles.
“Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk” (2009) was written by Larry Tise. Oroville and Wilbur Wright were born four years apart in Dayton, Ohio and spent their lives as bachelors. They were in their thirties when they spent five years, under the radar, so to speak, experimenting with air flight and most especially, with the instruments to control that flight. Tise chronicles the critical eleven day period in 1908 when the brothers tried desperately to carry out their trials in secret. Somewhat unlike the 21st century, however, news traveled fast across the globe as the brothers scrambled to test their equipment and they made history at the same time.
In another book published in 2009, Jay Spencer begins much earlier than the Kitty Hawk trials in “The Airplane: How Ideas Gave Us Wings”. Sir George Cayley investigated flight in the last years of the 18th century and has been referred to as The Father of Aviation and Aerodynamics. Spencer includes not only complete history of the engineers and inventors involved but also of the machinery behind successful flight.
Another book about the race to give us faster and faster flight is “Jet Age: The Comet, the 707 and the Race the Shrink the World” (2010) by Sam Howe Verhovek. It includes the story of two jet aircraft, the British Comet and the Boeing 707 Jet Stratoliner, in a competition to provide jet travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
Railroads traversed the eastern part of the United States before the Civil War. Yet, there was no final connection to the west. Shortly before his death in 2002, historian Stephen Ambrose gave us “Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869” (2000). The newly-built Pacific Railroad finally connected San Francisco to Omaha and joined the railroad systems of the U.S.
The northerly route described in Ambrose’s book smacked of decisions that were made for political reasons rather than logical ones. A logical or practical route might have been in the southern part of the western U.S., a countryside free of snow. In “Rival Rails: The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad” (2011), American historian Walter Borneman tells the story of the two of the largest railroad companies, Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe who ate bought up the smaller railroads in their contest to forcefully and vigorously build the southern route.
(For more, read “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America” (2011) by Richard White.)
In 1935 a powerful hurricane destroyed the Florida East Coast Railway, an 153-mile rail line across the open ocean. It connected Florida’s east coast to Key West and it was built by Henry Flagler who began the project at the age of 74 years in 1905. Les Standiford chronicles the entire story in “Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean” (2002).
The railway to Key West was never rebuilt for many reasons and one of those was the rise of the interstate highway system. That story is portrayed by Earl Swift in “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways” (2011).
The system of interstate highways in the United States has been attributed to President Eisenhower and is known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways which began in 1956 with the signing of the Federal Highway Aid Act and ended with the last leg of the journey thirty-five years later in 1991. Yet, Earl Swift tells a story that begins much earlier in the first part of the 20th century with a race-car driver who spread his enthusiasm for the Good Roads movement.
“Onramps and Overpasses: A Cultural History of Interstate Travel” (2009), written by Dianne Perrier, takes an exit from the fast-paced travel we have all made a part of our lives. Fast-food and service companies have made their name and their wealth right on our onramps and offramps. Many of our interstates are built right over the original paths that Americans in past centuries traveled and Perrier looks deeper than those modern logos and new American icons. Her stories include those of Davey Crockett and Horace Greeley.
For help finding these and other books at the Morrill Memorial Library or in the Minuteman Library Network catalog, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the library.