A brief remembrance of John W. Thomason

I was out-and-about not long ago when I saw something that instantly seemed familiar. It was a sketch by John W. Thomason. The name may not ring many bells but Colonel Thomason was one of the great sketch artists of the early twentieth century. He also authored what many consider to be the authoritative account of American involvement in the First World War. That was why the image looked so familiar, because I had seen his work decades ago when I first read Fix Bayonets! Naturally I bought the small, framed image. It now hangs in my office.



The image shows a young French woman walking past a trio of weary marines. It is hard to make out, but the wear and tear on her shabby clothes are testimony to how difficult things had become in Europe by 1918. The duck is something of a Thomason trademark. He included them frequently in his work. Growing up in Texas, he was quite the hunter and outdoorsmen. Thomason was born in Huntsville in 1893.

I had not read or thought about Thomason for more than two decades until seeing the framed sketch. Eager to know more, I checked out a few books from the library.  His grandfather was Major Tom Goree, who had served on James Longstreet’s staff. The Lost Cause is an obvious cultural reference point for Thomason. How could it not?



The bare feet are a poignant touch. Thomason grew up surrounded by many men who had fought with Hood’s Texans.



The editors of the sketchbook from which I took these photos were helpful in including the studies of the revolver, spurs, etc. Too often we think art “just happens,” not understanding how much thought and toil the artist invests in his work.

Thomason attended the Art Students League in 1914 and was a struggling artist for a few years. He found his calling as soldier/artist when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. He was a marine with the 2nd Division and fought at Château-Thierry, Soissons, and the Meuse-Argonne.



Thomason stayed in the military after the Armistice. He was a good friend of Hemingway’s, who called Thomason the best soldier he knew. In the ensuing decades Thomason short stories were much in demand in such places as the Saturday Evening Post. He even collaborated with Ted Roosevelt, who as an officer in the 1st Division had fought in many of the same battles as Thomason.

John W. Thomason died in 1944.

The Burning of the World: a Strawfoot interview

burning of the world cover.inddBéla Zombory-Moldován was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the Great War. His grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldovan, spent the past few years carefully and lovingly translating the written account his grandfather left behind. The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 was released last year by New York Review Books. This week Mr. Zombory-Moldovan took time from his busy schedule to answer some questions.

The Strawfoot: Your grandfather, Béla Zombory-Moldován, was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Great War. What was his experience?

He was called up on 28 July 1914, the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. An artist aged 29, he was a junior officer in the reserve, having done a year’s military service after graduation. He reported for duty on 4 August in Veszprém, in the west of Hungary, with the 31st infantry regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army, the Honvéd.

His battalion was sent to Galicia on 2 September 1914, where they were immediately thrown into action against the Russians at the battle of Rava-Russka – the climax of a titanic clash of four Austro-Hungarian and five Russian armies around what is now the Polish-Ukrainian border. The Russians had broken through, and Béla’s unit was ordered into a last-ditch attempt to hold up their advance. Hopelessly ill-prepared, poorly equipped, outnumbered, and comprehensively out-gunned, the Hungarians were pinned down in open ground by enemy artillery, without cover or prepared positions. Standing orders forbade the digging of fox-holes, on the grounds that these “undermined discipline and led to cowardice”; nonetheless, Béla – determined to survive – dug himself in, as best he could, with a discarded tin-lid, telling his men to do likewise. Between dawn and dusk on 11 September, under a relentless barrage of shrapnel and high-explosive shells, Béla’s company were cut to pieces. He was the only officer in the company to survive that day unscathed. Continue reading

Rod Serling: a daughter’s appreciation

Rod_Serling_Twilight_Zone_premiere_1959The other day I finished As I knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. The memoir was written by his younger daughter Anne. Rod Serling became so identified with The Twilight Zone that most people believe they know the man through the show’s beginning and closing monologues. Ms. Serling seems eager to dispel any possible misconceptions and give a fuller, better rounded description of who her father was. In this she succeeded.

Serling was first and foremost a member of the Greatest Generation and his children were very much baby boomers. I remember meeting his widow Carol when I spoke at the Rod Serling conference in 2009 and how sharp and good-natured she was. Daughter Anne shares with her father a sense of lost time that seems straight out of Proust. Two of Serling’s teleplays–“Walking Distance” from Twilight Zone and Night Gallery’s “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”–are the best examples of his yearning for things past. The latter starred William Windom, who a decade earlier appeared in TZ episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”; it is always jarring seeing actors one thinks forever preserved in Twilight Zone amber wearing the styles of the 1970s.

Ms. Serling speaks at length about her father’s WW2 experiences in the Pacific. He seems to have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder on some level. This was more common among WW2 (and WW1) veterans than we tend to realize. I have a good friend whose father was also in the Pacific. Like Serling, he too did not speak much of his experiences. Still, he had a fear of snakes to such a degree that when he took his family to the zoo he would never enter the snake room.

Serling was always a better dramatist than comedic writer. His attempts at humor and satire almost always fell flat. Personally however, he was exceptionally funny and always gracious with others. He was especially good with young people, never condescending to them. This was true in his encounters with child actors or the friends of his two daughters. The world Serling grew up in in the 1920s-40s was vanishing rapidly in the years after he returned from the war. So many of the Twilight Zone take place in dingy bars, cold water flats, and neighborhood stoops. It is easy to forget that by 1959 Serling and family were living on the West Coast, where the show was filmed on Hollywood soundstages.

Rod Serling himself has been gone forty years now. He died in 1975. In his work he captured so much of the essence of post-WW2 America. Now his daughter has captured some of that world forever lost to us.

(image/”Rod Serling Twilight Zone premiere 1959″ by CBS Television via the Bureau of Industrial Service. During the 1950s and 1960s, television networks, program sponsors and studios often used either advertising or public relations agencies to distribute publicity materials. The Bureau was a division of ad agency Young & Rubicam. – eBay itemphoto frontpress release for photos. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rod_Serling_Twilight_Zone_premiere_1959.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Rod_Serling_Twilight_Zone_premiere_1959.JPG)

Rainy Sunday coffee

It is a rainy Sunday here in Brooklyn. My gosh, has it been a full seven days since the last post? It has been a busy week.

I noted with pleasure on Monday that Dan Carlin just released part v of Blueprint for Armageddon. I am listening to the fourth hour of the broadcast as I type this. If you have not heard Carlin’s series on the Great War, I can testify that this is an extraordinary work of interpretation. I stumbled upon the series when the centennial began last summer and listened to them over a weeks-long period going into the fall. I cannot imagine how much time it takes to put these together. It is extraordinarily thoughtful and shows what a passionate generalist can bring to a subject.

Though the United States has not yet entered the fray, the Americans play a larger role in Part v than they do in i-iv. There is an eloquent breakdown of Woodrow Wilson and his role in the leader-up to American involvement. Fittingly Carlin’s Wilson is inscrutable, neither saint nor scapegoat. Carlin understands that history is complicated.

Blueprint requires a significant time commitment–three to five hours apiece–but the reward is high. If you think of how much time you spend on other internet and television content though, it is not that much. One can find them on iTunes and elsewhere too. I usually listen in 30-45 minute chunks when I’m doing something else. As you are stuck inside this January-March, make Blueprint for Armageddon part of your winter.

Governors Island in January

I was on Governors Island this past Friday and  took a few quick photos before heading to the NPS office . The timing could not have been better because it had snowed the night before.

Fort Jay, flying the 48 star flag

Fort Jay, flying the 48 star flag

Nolan PArk

Nolan Park

Parade Ground

Parade Ground

Fort Jay moat looking north. One doesn't get such a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline from this vantage point when the leaves are on the trees.

Fort Jay moat looking north. One doesn’t get such a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline from this vantage point when the leaves are on the trees.

Fort Jay moat looking south

Fort Jay moat looking south

It was ever thus . . .


I spent much of the evening working on the second of my two encyclopedia articles. They are not due until mid-February but I am determined to hammer them out and move on to other things. Besides, when it’s this cold out what else is there to do? This one is about the early years of the Y.M.C.A. I am really killing three birds with one stone. First, there is the article itself. Then, it ties in with the Roosevelt Sr. project; Roosevelt was not a major factor in the history of the Y, but good friends like William E. Dodge Jr. were. Finally, the YMCA ties into something I am hoping to do at Governors Island this summer. The Y faded a little during the Civil War when its membership fell. It was probably just as well. Many of its leaders were preoccupied with important work for the U.S. Christian Commission at the time.

Things were different a half century later. By 1917 the YMCA was fully entrenched and better able to help in a larger, more systematic was than it was in 1861 when it was only a decade old. The Y contributed here in the United States, and in France as well. It was hugely influential. The Governors Island YMCA, for one, helped so much in the war effort during the First World War.

I have been having too much fun reading old reports in Google books and the like. I have also been reading old New York Times articles to cross-check facts and get a sense of the spirits of the period. Brooklyn was an independent city until 1898. So, in the early 1850s its YMCAs had their own bureaucracies and infrastructure.  About 120,000 lived here. It was a large city, but its residents prided themselves on its small time feel. One letter to the editor from April 1854 caught my eye and made me laugh out loud. Alas it is not signed but the writer opines of the city across the river: “Brooklyn, so near to New-York, the focus of all good and bad influences.”


Schuyler, Olmsted, and Roosevelt

I submitted an encyclopedia article to the editor earlier tonight. It was a small, 500 word piece about Frederick Law Olmsted. My Olmsted was a little rusty and I thought it would be an opportunity to refresh myself. My great friend Charles Hirsch used to say that writing the occasional encyclopedia piece was good training in how to write to spec, work within tight guidelines, and give an editor what he/she wants.

19 West 31st Street: the home of Louisa Lee Schuyler's parents. This is where Ms. Schuyler founded the S.C.A.A. in 1872. Olmsted and Roosevelt Sr., were both executive members.

19 West 31st Street: the home of Louisa Lee Schuyler’s parents. This is where Ms. Schuyler founded the S.C.A.A. in 1872. Olmsted and Roosevelt Sr., were both executive members.

It did not make its way into the piece, but Frederick Law Olmsted was a great friend of both Louisa Lee Schuyler and Theodore Roosevelt Senior. The three worked together in the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War; later they collaborated in the New York State Charities Aid Association. Roosevelt Senior died in 1878, and Olmsted in 1903. It is incredible to think, but Schuyler was still very much active when the Great War started in 1914. Indeed she continued in some of the same capacities she had with her old friends during the Civil War. New York State suffered greatly during the First World War, which had disrupted the economy and negatively impacted the social fabric of life in New York City. Schuyler was in her seventies by this time, and though her old friend were long gone she picked up the mantle yet again.

The Roosevelts’ Union Square

Lincoln's funeral procession passing Cornelius Roosevelt's house, 25 April 1865

Lincoln’s funeral procession passing Cornelius Roosevelt’s house, 25 April 1865

A few of us got talking yesterday afternoon at the TRB about the famous image of Theodore and Elliott watching Lincoln’s funeral from their grandparents’ window. This is a well-known photograph and very much part of both the Lincoln and Roosevelt iconography. Still, I had always had trouble visualizing the exact spot, in part because Broadway does not run a straight line but cuts diagonally through Union Square. It’s hard to visualize but the southwest corner of Broadway stands adjacent to the northeast corner of the southern tip of Union Square. See what I mean?

Anyways I printed out a NYT article about a building that stands today on this same property. Oddly enough, one of the rangers just wrote a Facebook post about 841 Broadway that will appear in the next week or so. With printed article in hand and a few scribbled notes I headed out after the 1:00 tour to get to the bottom of things.

My water-logged article

My water-logged article, complete with faulty map of Broadway

Looking south from Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway. Cornelius and Margaret Roosevelt's house stood where the white building is today.

Looking south from Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway. Cornelius and Margaret Roosevelt’s house stood where the glass, white building is today.

Here is the view looking north from 13th Street and Broadway.

Here is the view looking north from 13th Street and Broadway.

The building here in the foreground was built on the Roosevelt property in the 1890s. For more, here is a link to the article I pictured above. When I got back one of the rangers and I began investigating on Google maps and figured the funeral image was taken south of where I took this photo. I intend to do more digging but the Lincoln/Roosevelt photograph was taken at approximately 838 Broadway. If you know this area, that would be just north of the Strand Bookstore.

A detail on 841 Broadway:. Look closely above the arch. On the left is an R and on the right a B, which stand for Roosevelt Building.

A detail on 841 Broadway:. Look closely above the arch. On the left is an R and on the right a B, which stand for Roosevelt Building. Yes, that is falling snow that you see.

(funeral image/Dickinson State University and NPS)





Sunday evening coffee

You know New Years is close when The Lives They Lived hits the stands.

You know New Years is close when The Lives They Lived hits the stands.

I hope everyone had a good holiday. Posting will continue to be light between now and the first of the new year. A friend from outside the country was visiting us these past few days. After he left for the airport I walked up to the newsstand to get the Sunday Times. Because it is the final Sunday of the year the magazine has its annual The Lives They Lived edition. I have written about this before and so will not go into the details again. Looking quickly through the contents I see that they have covered Red Klotz, the owner of the Washington Generals; Tony Gwynn, and together Casey Kasem and Don Pardo. As I get older the end of the year is increasingly a time of introspection. This is especially true since my father and father-in-law died. At their best the vignettes in the Times end of the year special evoke moments and worlds that no longer exist. The strangest thing is that I am now old enough to remember many of them. I suppose it was ever thus.

Details will be forthcoming if it comes to pass, but I am trying to get Park Service permission to write and conduct a program for the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln assassination. The next step is to write the outline and explain the scope and parameters. I am really hoping this comes to pass. If it does I will announce it here. It is hard to believe the Civil War sesquicentennial will be coming to an end in April. The Hayfoot and I began marking the 150th over five years ago with the anniversary of John Brown’s raid. The Roosevelt Sr. books proceeding apace. I have what I think are some good ideas for the Great War centennial.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday season.


The USS Jason’s Christmas voyage

Workers and volunteers pack the last of toys donated to the children of Europe rendered homeless in the early months of the Great War, 14 November 1914

Workers and volunteers in Brooklyn pack the last of the toys donated to the children of Europe rendered homeless in the early months of the Great War, 14 November 1914

Millions of children in Europe had at least a semblance of Christmas a century ago today in part due to the people of the United States. The USS Jason left Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal on 14 November 1914 en route to Europe. Its mission was to deliver six million toys to the children of war-ravaged Europe. The Jason was the first Christmas ship of the Great War. It left so early because it had many stops to make. British torpedo boats escorted the Jason into Devonport England in late November. The toy project maintained strict neutrality. After unloading toys for the children of England, the Jason sailed to Holland to drop off a shipment for the Belgians. Then it was on to Genoa Italy in mid-December for a final unloading intended for the children of Germany, Russia, and Austro-Hungary.

(image/Library of Congress)


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