By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

1. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. ix-12

Foreword; Prologue: A Rite of Succession; Book I, Becoming an American: 1. Ellis Island and a Tragedy in Texas, 2. A Benefactor and the House on the Twelfth Green, 3. The Virtues of Golf
A slow start: Once the prefatory stuff is got through, Sheehan gives us the obligatory family history, childhood and education chapters for his subject, Bernard (né Bernhard) Schriever. The foreword gives us the thesis:
This other [space] race initiated America's exploration and exploitation of space and was for the highest stakes -- preventing the Soviet Union from acquiring an overwhelming nuclear superiority that could tempt Soviet leaders into international blackmail and adventurism with calamitous results for human civilization. 
The "Prologue" takes us to January 1946, when Gen. Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold -- so nicknamed, Sheehan tells us, "because of his unusual smile" (telling us why it was unusual would have been more useful) -- is getting ready to retire and turn over command of the Army Air Forces to Carl "Tooey" Spaatz (whose nickname is not explained here). Gen. George Marshall had made Arnold a member of the Joint Chiefs during the war, preparing the way for the independent branch of the service that the Air Force became.

Arnold wasn't an innovator, but now he wanted to cultivate scientists and technologists to face postwar challenges, realizing that the war had proved air power to be essential to U.S. security. So he called on Col. Bernard "Bennie" Schriever (who had "acquired his nickname from the sportswriters" in San Antonio, where he was "a champion amateur golfer as a youth and they had wanted a snappy moniker for their articles about his exploits on the links").  So much for nicknames -- or "snappy monikers." Arnold emphasized to Schriever  the importance of technological innovation: "The Third World War will be different. It will be won by brains." He wanted Schriever to head a Scientific Liaison Branch in the Research and Engineering Division of the Air Force.
He would go on to become the father of the modern, high-technology Air Force and play a pivotal role in preserving peace during the grim years of the Cold War by building the first weapon in the history of warfare that was meant to deter rather than to be fired in anger -- the intercontinental ballistic missile.
So after that moniker-riddled prologue, we go back to the beginnings. Schriever's German-born parents, Adolph Schriever and Elizabeth Milch, meet in America and marry in Hoboken in 1908. They return to Germany and she gives birth to their first son, Bernhard Adolph, in Bremen in September 1910, and their second, Gerhard, two years later. When the war begins in August 1914, Adolph, an engineer on the George Washington, a passenger ship of the North German Lloyd line, is in New York and is detained for the duration of the war. In 1917 Elizabeth and the boys manage to sail from Rotterdam, in neutral Holland, to the United States, arriving just two months before the Americans enter the war. Adolph is allowed to join them -- although he and his fellow engineers had tried to sabotage the George Washington's engines before they left the ship.

The Schrievers move to the Texas hill country, which has a large German community, and Adolph goes to work in a brewery in New Braunfels and then in a factory in San Antonio where he's involved in an accident that fractures his skull in two places. He dies shortly after his thirty-fifth birthday in 1918. Elizabeth and the boys go to live with an uncle of Adolph's in Lubbock for a year, and then move back to New Braunfels where she works in a butcher shop and as a housekeeper. Unable to make living for the family that way, she puts the boys in an orphanage in San Antonio for six months until she she finds a job.

More nicknaming: At some point Bernhard becomes Bernard and then Ben. His brother, Gerhard, becomes Gerry. In third grade, Bernard makes friends with Felix McKnight, who grows up "to become a prominent Texas newspaperman -- co-publisher and editor of the Dallas Times Herald." Elizabeth gets a job as head housekeeper in the mansion of a banker, Edward Chandler, in San Antonio. Chandler builds a house for them on the edge of a golf course, as well as a refreshment stand near the twelfth green of the course where the boys sell soft drinks and lemonade to golfers. After Chandler's death, Elizabeth takes over the refreshment stand and makes a business out of it.

The brothers learn to play golf, and Bernard becomes very good at it. Sheehan makes maybe a little too much of this, claiming that "The game requires enormous and sustained powers of concentration and self-control, because it is as much mental as physical" and that this explains the stability and patience Schriever exhibited later in life when, after missile test failures, "He would remain calm and press on with the searching and questioning." In any case, "There was a kind of Teutonic quality about him. Reserve was his most natural state." On the other hand, during his career as a teenage amateur golfer, "The self-control Schriever displayed in tournaments did not mean that he lacked a temper. When he was playing badly for some reason, he would curse vehemently and fling whatever club he happened to have in his hands a remarkable distance." So much for "sustained powers of concentration and self-control" and "Teutonic reserve."

He enters Texas A&M in 1927, with tuition help from his mother's sandwich stand and his father's brother George, who was a successful businessman in Union City, New Jersey. He becomes a star amateur golfer, and "gained a mention in Ripley's Believe It or Not for three times driving more than 300 yards to the same green on the Brackenridge course and one-putting for an eagle." (I have no idea what any of that means.) He majors in construction engineering at A&M and on graduation in 1931 is offered a position as golf pro at a course in Bryan, Texas. But he decides to join the Army Air Corps and become a flier.

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