August 14, 2020 (Asheville, N.C.) — Fieldhouse will no longer include new content as I’ve concluded my journalism career to focus on coaching and completing existing and new book projects (see Twitter @tomflynn51 for any updates there). All the best — Tom
CHATHAM, NJ (c. 1980) – To write at all of the poor tennis I played in my youth is to unduly elevate it, but it was marginally elevated by its context in something of a tennis town. Our small boro of Chatham, New Jersey, produced Peter Fleming, the lanky blonde whose own considerable talent was both enhanced and obscured by that of John McEnroe. Fleming and Mac won four doubles crowns at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In all, they landed 57 doubles titles together.
During his career, Fleming also scored isolated singles victories against Mac and other tennis greats such as Bjorn Borg and John Newcombe.
Around Chatham, there was a distinct Fleming-awareness that drifted down Main Street and diffused across the town’s plentiful tennis courts. In the younger players, Peter instilled a zeal for the put-away winner that bordered on manic. From the same courts upon which we labored, Fleming, all 6’5” of him, had smashed his way to the upper tier of tennis’s elite. If he hit a drop shot en route, word of it never made it back home.
Tennis town or not, we were in northern New Jersey so summers were replete with sweltering humidity, the steady drone of cicadas, and town courts laid bare by the relentless sun searing through hazy summer skies. With flat tennis balls, worn-out Stan Smith’s, and the occasional big hitter’s groan we’d play match after endless match in the stifling heat.
One summer, when Mac and Fleming were mid-doubles reign, my friend Chris and I played daily at a place called Minisink, a swim and tennis club named after a Native American tribe. I liked the name and mused, as a smirking teen, that local scout leaders must have somehow snuck the name past the same dozing town elders who saw fit to loftily dub our other modest town pool the Chatham Fish & Game Club in the late 1800s.
We would belt all day, relentlessly, and the dead balls would wedge into the fence twenty feet behind the baseline with regularity. We would hit overhead smashes that would go the entire summer without catching the baseline, and we’d spit in disgust as if we had reason to expect otherwise. We would sweat profusely and pursue the same string of big shots: the blistering serve that we could never master, the snapped, low-to-the-net, cross-court forehand that never cleared or never landed, and the passing backhand that rocketed sideways in a menacing, flared trajectory towards unsuspecting players on the adjacent court. Lobs were not part of our one-track repertoire.
In a weak moment, drained by summer vacations, Minisink named Chris and me second doubles for an upcoming match. We were erratic singles players at best, terrible at worst, and to my recollection never played a set of doubles. We regularly scattered other disgusted club patrons to distant courts under a shower of errant shots when they played in our vicinity. “Sorry” to a nearby player covers three to four mis-hits; after fifteen or twenty near-incidents it’s as useful as shouting, “Get my ball!”
A doubles opponent to practice against simply could not be had. So to prepare, we discussed the technique of Fleming and Mac, and we played poolside ping-pong to sharpen the finesse game we fancied a skilled doubles player possessed.
Finally, match day came, and we showed up at Minisink, poised to represent the club. Our opponents never arrived. Forfeit, victory to the untalented big hitters from Chatham and a doubles record of 1-0 on our career – a tally to hold unchanged for a lifetime. No matter. The club had fronted two tins of new tennis balls, and before they could grab them back I took my spot across the net and the balls flew wildly that afternoon, our only fresh cans of the summer. It was August, and the twentieth year for the twenty-year cicadas, and they were a raucous audience, whirring to a roar as we drilled smash after smash.
Between matches in those summers, we would adjourn to a nearby house, and if it were Grand Slam season, we’d scan the dial for doubles matches. In the pre-sports channel era, doubles matches were parked in the vacant lots of television coverage or skipped altogether. If you were going to catch a doubles set, you looked early and often.
With enough persistence, the effort would pay off, especially during the fortnight of Wimbledon. Its manicured lawns rendered everything on our ailing TV screen a shade of green, including the players. The tennis whites were overlaid with green shadows, and only Mac’s budding Afro, a cloud of smoggy brown pinned to his head by a straining terry-cloth band, could hold its color. The blonde Fleming, garbed in white, was a hard-hitting extension of the grass.
I remember early one July weekend heading down to a friend’s who lived a convenient 100 yards from the municipal tennis courts. When I got there, he was mid-battle with his father over the need to mow the lawn before playing tennis. I stood with my racquet by the front door, listening to the neighborhood lawnmowers fire up to a crescendo around me and hoping they wouldn’t inspire Mr. Johnson into holding fast.
Then, miraculously, onto the living room television screen slowly strode McEnroe and behind him our Fleming. The English roared their approval of the bratty American and his partner.
The argument simply ceased midstream, Dave no longer wishing to play tennis and Mr. Johnson forgetting altogether the encroaching grass or any relationship it had to his son. He stopped talking, crossed his arms, ignored us, and stared at the screen. We stood and watched, and the first hour passed and then a second and then the 1979 Wimbledon crown was won, and part of it belonged to us.
With time, we drifted into the back of the local tennis pack as pickup players with fading interest and skills, contentedly spending less time with the game. As the sport moved to the periphery of our lives, Fleming began to fade from the national scene, and my peers and I left our small town for colleges across the East.
For a brief while, a handful of us were stirred again to interest when Colin Dibley, the talented Aussie who once held the record for the world’s fastest serve, moved next door to a close friend of mine. It was a passing fancy, however, as our college diversion by the time of his arrival was Wiffleball, a game in which hitting towering shots is the primary accomplishment, and an avoidance of aerobic activity the secondary. Our interaction with Dibley was largely limited to extricating without incident from his yard the errant Wiffle balls that nightly littered it. He will never write nostalgically of those lazy summer evenings and the loud roars of “It’s outta here!” from over the hedges.
My last class of college in the late 1980s proved to be a one-credit introductory tennis class. I’d miscalculated my transfer credits tally required to graduate, and I needed to take a single-credit class to don the cap and gown that same month. Rather than panic, I saw it as a small bit of good fortune that I would graduate while playing tennis every day.
For a complete month, I awoke early each morning and hit one big forehand after another and rallied at length with a like-minded student from Ohio. They played unskilled big hitter’s tennis outside Cincinnati too, apparently. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that with a little tutelage I was a much-improved player and still loved the game.
Returning home that summer, my last in Chatham, I found that a small-circuit pro tennis team had set up shop on the edge of town. The team was an entry in a league headed by Billie Jean King, and our local club featured Tracy Austin, the one-time teen phenom who won the U.S. Open at the precocious age of sixteen. She was in her late twenties now, and like Fleming her tennis star had dimmed considerably.
I drove with a high school friend out to the small outdoor court illuminated by the cartoonishly oversized lights brought in for the pro team. We sat in the temporary bleachers, sipped our tepid beer from plastic cups, and watched the incessant rapping of the team’s hitters, the pace a considerable amount slower than that of the power hitters of the day. All the while, hundreds of moths tapped at the lights above, the court bordering a murky seasonal bog known locally as “the freshet” and now inundated with its summertime residents. They were a quiet, vaguely adult version of our long-ago cicadas.
As we watched, an appreciation for Austin’s ability to maneuver around the court – she was nursing a foot injury at the time – set in. She was undoubtedly still a skilled player, and seeing her set up and polish off shots without any true velocity was in its way an awakening to the many subtleties of the game, including courage. It was uniquely timed with my pending departure from town and ultimately, the tennis of my youth.
In the intervening years between seeing that match and now, I’ve played an increasingly infrequent game much more akin to Austin’s. Age has proven a whole-body replication of Tracy’s foot injury, something to be worked around and pushed through, your shots placed to account for its hobbling effects. Occasionally I still go for the big hit with the same youthful lack of acumen. But going for the kill and slamming it loudly off the back fence, fun though it may be – and it is – smacks of Wiffleball rather than tennis. Done with salt and pepper hair among the mid-40’s set*, it also smacks of arrested development.
I still like to think Fleming would approve. – T. Flynn
(*written in 2008)
Baltimore (Feb. 17, 2014) – Some at the Sochi Games who’ve complained about the state of their accommodations, while not entirely without cause, would do well to read the The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis for needed perspective on comfortable lodging.
The book describes the valiant efforts of the Ross Sea Party (RSP), who a century ago supported Ernest Shackleton’s attempted journey across Antarctica by laying food depots for the latter part of his trip from the far side of his planned route. While there, their vessel, the Aurora, broke free of its moorings with much of their food and supplies aboard, leaving part of the RSP stranded on the continent.
Shackleton failed in achieving his ambitions, but was spectacularly successful in returning his men safely home after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the pack ice before ever reaching Antarctica. Their story became legend.
The RSP’s efforts ultimately were successful, if in vain, but came at a dire cost and in conditions nearly too severe to imagine, let alone withstand. Consider Tyler-Lewis’s description of the “accommodations” of some of the men as they traveled overland to lay the depots for Shackleton.
The temperature was dropping markedly with the advancing season, hovering around zero degrees….The damp was inescapable. Their clothing never completely dried and the wet garments rendered them far more vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. In the cold night air, the steam from cooking froze on the tent walls. An incautious jostle showered frost down on their heads. Perspiration and breath froze, forming an icy rime that thawed from body heat and soaked their woolens and fur sleeping bags….Mornings became a grievous trial as they struggled to don their stiff clothes and boots.
Fieldhouse spoke with Ms. Tyler-Lewis about The Lost Men and how she came to offer such a riveting account of the heroic efforts of men largely forgotten by history. The interview was conducted via phone and e-mail and edited for length and clarity.
Fieldhouse: I first learned of Shackleton when I went to see an exhibit at National Geographic in DC about 15 years ago on George Mallory’s failed attempt on Everest. On the walls they also had photographs from Shackleton’s trip.
KTL: Yes, the Hurley photographs from the glass plate negatives that they saved.
Fieldhouse: So that was my route to Shackleton and it sounds like your route to The Lost Men was also via Shackleton but through his book South.
KTL: Yes, reading Shackleton’s South and then reading Shackleton and the Antarctic by Margery Turner Fisher and James Fisher. They mentioned the Ross Sea Party in the Fisher biography in passing and that sounded very intriguing. They actually had a footnote in the book that said, “this is a story that deserves further research and consideration.”
That piqued my interest that these biographers were marking that out and saying that it hadn’t been done yet.
So in the early 1990’s I started rooting around in archives and looking in that direction and feeling sure that I was going to discover that it had by then been done. I was surprised that nothing thorough and comprehensive had been published.
Fieldhouse: In the choice of title you were alluding partially to the fact that they were largely lost to history.
KTL: Yes, the expedition was eclipsed by Shackleton’s feat on the Endurance for a number of reasons. Shackleton was a national hero, so he was naturally in the spotlight. The story of the ship and its men was breathtaking, so it’s not surprising.
Another element of it is that the Endurance story was so visual. They did save those beautiful glass plate negatives and so there was this really tantalizing and stunning eyewitness material that didn’t exist for the RSP.
There are some photographs for the RSP but they are more rough and rudimentary and primitive images. Another factor was that the men of the RSP were quite modest, and modest about their achievements, and didn’t set out to put themselves in the spotlight.
They knew their mission was to be the support team and they didn’t seek the spotlight in the years after the expedition, either.
Fieldhouse: A presumably enjoyable part of writing the book was the contact that you had with the descendants of the RSP. For some of these men, even within the narrow confines of their family, their story was lost.
KTL: Absolutely. To begin with I had to do genealogical research to find the families, because they did not seek attention after the passing of their fathers or uncles or whomever had been on the expedition.
So it was a task to find them all or a good number of them in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. They were very generous in sharing family material and I was able to share material with them that they found very illuminating. They were justifiably proud when they learned the full scope of what their ancestors had done.
One of the most amazing things was interviewing Aeneas Mackintosh’s (the RSP’s commander) daughter, Elizabeth Dowler, who was still alive when I was first doing my research and she just passed on. She was a lovely, gracious, wonderful woman and I tremendously enjoyed interviewing her.
She was born after the expedition left British shores and her mother was pregnant and of course her father didn’t come home. But Joseph Stenhouse (the RSP’s first officer) took it upon himself to go and help the family and look after her mother who was a widow at that point. He wound up years later falling in love with her mother and became her stepfather.
She had many wonderful memories to share about Stenhouse as her father.
Fieldhouse: You wrote of the friction between Mackintosh and crew member Ernest Joyce and various other members at times. I was curious as to the laws governing the crew and their impetus to complete their task. It wasn’t a Royal Naval vessel but still had a chain of command. I wondered what would be the consequences of mutiny on such a trip.
KTL: They were primarily merchant marines, and Ernest Wild and Joyce were the only former Royal Navy seamen aboard the ship. It would have influenced how they worked and viewed authority, but not overall command. Mackintosh and Stenhouse were from the mercantile marine, so there wouldn’t have been a Royal Navy flavor to the expedition as there was with Robert Scott’s.
Mackintosh had his disputes with Joyce but he never labeled it as mutiny and never took it to discipline him as such, however, aboard the ship.
Two of the men toward the end of the drift of the ship after it broke free, actually suddenly decided to mutiny. They were arrested upon landing but all charges were dropped.
What was interesting was while having no compulsion at their back, just how dedicated to duty they were. After the Aurora had torn out of its mooring and disappeared one night, the men who were remaining in the hut on shore sat and had a discussion about what they were going to do.
Most of the supplies were still aboard the ship, as they had primarily unloaded Shackleton’s provisions, which they had decided not to touch for their own nutrition. They had their clothes they stood up in and very little else at their disposal.
It was wonderful to have multiple diaries to talk about what they discussed, and I think at that moment I was reading four different diaries with an account of that event. They were all unanimous and they all stated that they were so in deciding that they were going to complete their mission. They believed that Shackleton and the lives of his men depended on them. There was no question in their mind, there was no argument, there was no discussion.
I got a draft of that chapter back from my editor, and the editor said “Really? There was no discussion? This is unbelievable.”
In our minds, our 21st century minds, it’s really hard to conceive of someone who would say “It’s our duty, and no matter how hamstrung we are, we’re going to do this.”
I think the assumption is that people would say, “Are you kidding? This is beyond the pale. I’m not going to do this.” But they did.
Fieldhouse: You’d written that the dogs needed a visual marker as incentive to continue to proceed when pulling the sledges to lay the depots. The men’s invisible marker was knowing that if they didn’t get the food depots out there, Shackleton would starve.
I read that you’ve been down to Antarctica, so you would know how hard it must have been to have a goal so firmly fixed in what would have been at times a blank landscape. It must have taken such determination in the vast whiteness to say, “Our mission is this, I can’t see it, but we absolutely have to complete it.”
KTL: Yes, you have to see it and also the landscape can be very illusory. You can look across McMurdo Sound to some mountains that appear to be a three-mile walk. I remember when I was there on my fellowship a scientist saying, “That’s actually fifty-four miles.”
You lose perspective with the clear atmosphere and the lack of a frame of reference. They had some familiarity because they were taking a route into the interior that Scott had followed roughly and that Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition had followed.
However, they had only done brief running surveys and when they got out near the Beardmore Glacier, they looked at this array of mountains and they had incomplete maps, and so it was really quite bewildering which course to take.
It was fortunate that they were so diligent with their navigation. Because it really was kind of walking blind at a certain point.
Fieldhouse: Just the simplicity of depth perception in such an environment was difficult, but that’s what makes the book and the story so compelling.
KTL: I think ultimately they were ordinary men, doing the extraordinary. That’s what I found so compelling and appealing about the story.
There’s a 22-year old schoolteacher, a Navy man, a merchant seaman, a scientist. A number of the guys were just out of college, just finished their training, and only two of them had experience with the Antarctic in the past.
They were quite modest and unassuming guys, and it’s amazing what they managed to achieve. In the end, the journey they completed, it was the only successful part of Shackleton’s expedition. And it was completely successful.
They laid every one of those depots, and in the process they made – this period of time was called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration – the longest journey in duration of anyone during this period of time, including Scott and Roald Amundson.
In terms of distance, their journey ranked right up there with Scott and Amundson’s. It was not an insignificant achievement. It was a breathtaking achievement.
Fieldhouse: Your book reminded me of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon in that you both located journals from the respective trips that were critical. You excerpted language from the journals for context of the period. But the ability to take their language and essentially put it in a contemporary voice is critical in making it meaningful today. Their “voice” is not as distant and gets renewed. In this case, you had a story that wasn’t renewed because much of it had been forgotten.
KTL: I spoke at the Explorer’s Club in New York shortly after my book came out and Candice Millard was speaking there the week after me, when I first heard of her book. It sounded fantastic.
When I started my research, two authors had published books on the Ross Sea Party, but they were handicapped by not having access to more diaries. An author named Lennard Bickel, for one, but he only had access to three diaries and logs and when I started my research I thought that’s all there was. Dick Richards, a physicist in the RSP, published a slim volume about 30-pages long laying down the story from his point of view. But I thought I would keep digging and see if I could find more supporting correspondence and other materials.
I dug and did genealogical research and I was frankly amazed to find 16 of the diaries.
Fieldhouse: That’s incredible.
KTL: Yes, then it became an embarrassment of riches and how to deal with it. It became a much more challenging job to deal with that level of material.
But it gave me an advantage. I don’t like to go out on a limb about people’s motivations, I don’t like to impute motivations to people that aren’t there. I felt it so much more meaningful that people could tell their story in their own words.
And you could see multiple viewpoints of the same incident. You would get the Rashoman effect from reading these multiple viewpoints. But sifting through you start to get a feel for people and their motivations and why and how things were happening, that also gave me much more material to tell the story in a narrative way.
My goal was to write a piece of narrative non-fiction that had a storytelling pace.
Fieldhouse: You talk about an embarrassment of riches, it’s not as if it was a story in which you had to figure out two people. You had a real crew there both literally and figuratively to integrate.
KTL: 28 people, yes.
Fieldhouse: Not a small task.
KTL: But I also feel very fortunate that I was able to find the material to be able to do what I did. It was really important to withhold judgment and try as much as possible to understand people’s driving motivation. Rather than judging and saying “this is a poor leader, he’s a flawed individual.”
First of all, looking at their accomplishments, and having spent time in the Antarctic, and thinking about myself, I’m quite clear, that I couldn’t have done what they did.
I don’t think I could have marched 1,400 nautical miles with rags on my back, even to save someone else’s life. I would like to think that I was that person. However many flaws they may have had, that was a deeply admirable thing to do. So I really needed to stand back and try to appreciate each of their perspectives and also honor who they were. By steeping myself as much as possible in each of their points of view if that makes sense.
Fieldhouse: It does.
KTL: I have to say it was a real pleasure to write the book. It was humbling to be in their company but it was a joy to be in their company. I spent over 10 years on the research.
After the book was finished, and a year after the the book was published, I would start opening the diaries and re-reading them and I realized at a certain point that these people had been a constant in my life and their voices were in my head on a daily basis. It was a sad moment to realize that they would not be part of my daily life anymore, because they were really admirable people.
Fieldhouse: It’s a hardship story and there is no sugarcoating because there’s not a lot of room to sugarcoat how difficult that was. Reading the book, it felt good, knowing those attributes could be in Everyman, and “spending time” with them. It propels you forward to find out more about what were essentially good men.
KTL: It would be difficult to spend that much time with someone disagreeable, wouldn’t it? The folks who have read the book find them inspiring. A gentleman from Malta read the book, and he was surprised to read that the RSP’s Ernest Wild later died on a ship in Malta while serving in World War I.
So he sought out and discovered the grave. Wild’s family is in England, and he was so moved by the story, that he has appointed himself as caretaker of the grave. So he cleans the headstone and he brings flowers to the headstone every year, he and his wife. It’s a testament to how inspiring these men were. I was so enormously touched by that.
Fieldhouse: These men were doing something so far outside the comfortable, which they found rewarding. Today we have so many creature comforts, that the notion is almost inconceivable that people would seek out such hardship. Dean Karnazes, the ultra-marathon runner, had a great quote on how we’ve essentially come to equate comfort to happiness, when in fact too much can make you miserable.
KTL: You’re reminding me of something that Irvine Gaze of the RSP wrote. I’m writing an essay right now for an event on stewardship in the Antarctic, with the idea of care-taking of the environment there. So I’m writing something relating the Ross Sea Party to that. There was a wonderful quote that I’m going to include in it from Gaze in March 1915, after he endured the first grueling season of sledging.
“It’s quite impossible as a matter of fact for me to give even a faint impression of the wonder and beauty of this place, it’s quite beyond anyone, except the most gifted. No doubt there are times when one simply longs for civilization again with its attendant comfort and luxury…but these fits don’t last and you thank your lucky stars that you’re down here, living a real life.”
– Tom Flynn
The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis (photo / thelostmen.com)
July 14, 2020 (Asheville, N.C.) — With so much uncertainty at the major league level on the resumption of play, it seemed increasingly inevitable in June that any affiliated minor league baseball season would need to be scuttled. That inevitability became a reality on June 30 when MiLB announced that it was canceling the 2020 season.
Locally, that translates into the Tourists being sidelined for the summer. In the past week, the team made the most of an empty stadium and a challenging situation when they announced the opening of McCormick’s Summer Grill at McCormick Field. Fans can enjoy the rare opportunity to eat on a minor league baseball field without dodging liners and the team will offer a portion of its ballpark menu for diners.
College Football — Area college football (including Western Carolina, Mars Hill, and Brevard) will likely make initial decisions on the conference level as to fall play this season. Nationally, there’s been a steady stream of updates on anticipated play, including the cancellation of the Ivy League fall sports seasons. The PAC-12 and Big-10 have announced conference-only seasons, with that still subject to change. The New York Times recently ran an excellent article on the probability, or lack thereof, of college football this fall.
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (June 22, 2020) — While its season ended in March, there is still good news coming from the UNCA baseball team, as senior right-hander Blake Brown signed a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies last Thursday. “We are very excited and happy for Blake and his family,” said Bulldogs’ head coach Scott Friedholm in a press release announcing the signing. “He has worked extremely hard over the past few years to put himself in this position. The Phillies are getting an extremely smart and competitive young man.”
Brown is the first Bulldog to sign a contract with an MLB team since pitcher Ryan Dull was selected by the Oakland A’s in the 32nd round in 2012.
The righty from Dallas, North Carolina, made four appearances in 2020, all as a starter, and posted a 1-0 record, with a 1.89 ERA. He struck out 26 and held opposing batters to a .141 average. Brown struck out a combined 17 batters in his final two starts of the shortened campaign.
Brown will strive to become the fourth Bulldog to make the bigs as a player, following Ty Wigginton, Dull, and Kevin Mattison. Former Bulldog Mike Schildt is currently the skipper of the St. Louis Cardinals.
ASHEVILLE, NC (June 13, 2020) — Tourists Baseball — Minor League Baseball (MiLB) remains in something more troubling than limbo as 2020 continues with no sign of a return of baseball. At the game’s highest level, MLB and the MLB Players Association cannot agree on how or when to begin a 2020 season. Given that, there is nothing that MiLB teams can do to size up rosters that are effectively set by their major league affiliates.
Compounding that, this past offseason MLB indicated its desire to pare 42 teams (following the 2020 campaign) from the ranks of the 160 teams that currently comprise the affiliated minor leagues. The Asheville Tourists (as well as the Greenville Drive), fortunately, were not included on that list. That removes one layer of concern, but still leaves open the question of how long a minor-league team can exist without baseball. Teams in the greatest peril are those that funded recent expansions, or new ballparks, with bond issuances that they will have difficulty servicing.
College Baseball — More disappointing news for area baseball fans included the announcement in mid-May that Furman would be permanently discontinuing its program, as well as its men’s lacrosse program. The program dated back 118 years, and last advanced to the NCAA Regionals in 2005.
The program cuts were to reduce costs, as both baseball and lacrosse have (relatively) large rosters and are non-revenue sports. Reducing college athletic programs is occurring nationwide during the pandemic. It is an unfortunate development. University accounting departments often lack the ability to conceptualize and assign an intrinsic valuation to teams that serve as cost centers in operating budgets.
Football budgets, when treated as revenue centers at the Division I level, are much more readily understood by both internal staff and boosters.
ASHEVILLE, NC (May 2, 2020) — While there are certainly some good sports movies out there to pass the time, limiting yourself to a steady diet of them while confined to quarters might only make the pandemic feel that much longer.
An easy alternative is to rent the epic “1917” which made its way into theaters late last year and is now available to stream/rent for those who missed it on the big screen. The film won two Oscars and two Golden Globes and was directed and co-written by “American Beauty” and “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes.
Its premise is simple and proves the cornerstone of its overall strength. It begins with two short sentences, “Blake – Blake, pick a man. Bring your kit.” Blake is Lance Corporal Tom Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman), and the man he picks is fellow lance corporal, Will Schofield (George Mackay). In response to the abrupt order that awakens him from an open-field doze in northern France, Blake rouses a nearby sleeping Schofield and the two are quickly directed to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to find out why they’ve been summonsed.
Erinmore informs the pair that they are to hand deliver an urgent message to call off a British attack planned for the next morning, one that has been baited by a refortifying German army feigning withdrawal.
The second battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, or “Devons” as they’re called among the troops, is under the direction of Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is planning the attack under the mistaken belief that he has the Germans on the run. The Devons are some nine miles from where Blake and Schofield are stationed, in woods just beyond the French town of Écoust and – critically – on the far side of what is believed by the British rank-and-file to be the German front line. The two need to reach Mackenzie by the following morning if they are to avert a looming massacre.
A slight insight as to why a general would randomly select a lance corporal for such a critical task comes when Erin tells Blake, “The sergeant tells me you’re good with maps.” Erinmore also chooses Blake as the corporal’s older brother Joseph is in the Devons, and is likely to die in the attack along with 1,600 other troops if it isn’t halted. That gives Blake ample motivation, coupled with an important working skill, to take on the nearly impossible task with the needed zeal.
With that scene, Mendes quickly puts the audience on a soldier’s footing. For the remainder of the film, we only know what has just happened or what is unfolding at the moment. There are no long descriptions, no cutaways, no subplots developing elsewhere that are then woven back into the main of the story or that afford viewers some insight that the soldiers lack. Through the use of an innovative filming method, Mendes simulates a single, continuous take, and we move along with the two men immediately from Erinmore’s dugout and into the fray.
Shortly after their meeting with the general the pair encounter a grizzled and battle-weary Lieutenant Leslie played briefly (and perfectly) by Andrew Scott. Leslie’s job is to inform them of where the best spot is to go “over the top”, the WWI term for climbing out from a trench and into the cratered, barb-wired, and casualty-laden stretch of earth separating the stalemated British and German front lines known as “no man’s land.”
The lieutenant’s response to what he sees as a ludicrous request is first contempt and then resigned sarcasm. Despite both, Leslie maintains a practicality under duress that is far more valuable to the two than his lapses in social niceties are costly. He provides Blake and Schofield with critical information on what awaits them once they enter no man’s land.
The interaction with Leslie gives a glimpse into the heart of the movie, one which proves especially valuable in the throes of a pandemic and couldn’t possibly have been anticipated when it was being made. The success or failure of the two corporals on their mission to save the Devons ultimately falls not on their skill with a rifle or a map (although both help), but on their ability to read people who have lost or kept some semblance of grounding as the normal world abruptly gave way beneath them into the lethal unreality of World War I.
The simple structure of the plot and the movie’s unique filming leaves viewers with ample opportunity to focus fully on those moments when the two come upon others, without fear of missing some important thread of the overall narrative. It is through those moments that the message of “1917” is delivered, and to this eye it is done exceptionally well.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than through Schofield’s chance encounter with a young French woman (Clair Duburcq) and an infant hiding in the midst of a war-ravaged Écoust. The infant is not hers, nor does she know whose baby it is, but she retains the humanity that is fully absent from the horror engulfing her village and cares for it. We watch Schofield’s reaction to the woman and infant and wonder if his own trials in simply reaching Écoust have cost him the ability to extend kindness to the two.
For the full answer, you’ll need to watch “1917.”
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (April 10, 2020) — Baseball – Greensboro’s Guilford College (pictured) and all the state’s college baseball diamonds closed for the spring sometime around mid-March due to the current COVID-19 crisis. While college baseball is officially done for the 2020 season, the status of the state’s minor and college summer leagues remains up in the air.
On March 12, MiLB made a formal announcement about the indefinite delay of the 2020 season, which the Asheville Tourists posted to their website. MiLB’s site continues to post updates on their own site, understandably with nothing yet that indicates when the season might start. It did announce that fans looking to see baseball can watch archived MiLB.tv (typically a paid service) for free until play resumes.
Books — With life as we’ve come to know it on hold due to the pandemic, a trip to a local Asheville bookstore to see what this spring’s new baseball books hold isn’t the easy thing it once was. To fill the gap, there are more baseball books than can ever be read already in print, many of them unfortunately worth missing. Such is not the case for The Classic Mantle by Buzz Bissinger which includes a plentiful serving of photos from Marvin E. Newman. With due deference to Bissinger’s well-paced storytelling, Newman’s photos make it worth the purchase. Here’s a review of the book from the summer of 2015, when I first came across the keeper.
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (April 4, 2020) — With all sporting and other events involving a gathering of people cancelled at present, it comes as no surprise that Asheville City made the decision to cancel its 2020 men’s and women’s slate of games. The teams intend to return in 2021. During the offseason, the men’s side moved into the USL2 while the women will continue to compete in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), next season, where they finished 4-4 in 2019 in league play.
College Soccer — In better news of soccer on the horizon, the Brevard College Tornados women’s soccer team announced its 2020 fall schedule. In addition to their annual slate of USA South foes, the Tornados will play area rival Warren Wilson to conclude their regular season on October 24. Brevard went 5-10-3 last fall.
On the men’s side, a familiar name to Asheville soccer fans, Mathes Mennell, took over as the new head coach at Warren Wilson early in March. Mennell is the former UNCA head coach (2015-2019) and is currently on staff with Asheville’s ABYSA/Highland Football Club.
Books — As we make our way through an extended period of hardship and close quarters, a good book is one of the best alternatives to the sports we’d typically be enjoying here in Western North Carolina.
It’s hard to picture a more compelling story of overcoming both hardship and close quarters than Kelly Tyler-Lewis’s The Lost Men. Ms. Lewis is a researcher and author whom I spoke with some time ago about how she came to write such an inspiring story for hard and good times both.
ASHEVILLE, NC. (March 4, 2020) — The Carolina Panthers have more unknowns than knowns during this offseason, including a new coach and the absence of a clear defensive leader after the early retirement of All-Pro linebacker, Luke Kuechly. I took a look at some of their offseason possibilities in a recent article for Forbes.
Local Preps – In football nearer at hand, Asheville School head coach Gus Schill announced his retirement in late January from coaching on the gridiron. He will continue on as head baseball coach and also a humanities instructor at the school. Schill led Asheville School to an NCISAA Division III state runner-up finish in 2018.
One month following Schill’s announcement, the Blues announced the hiring of Shawn Bryson as his replacement. Bryson played his prep football at North Carolina’s Franklin High School. From there he played college football for the Tennessee Vols from 1995-1998 and went on to become a third-round selection of the Buffalo Bills in 1999. Bryson spent time with the Bills and Lions and totaled 2,144 rushing yards and six touchdowns during his six-year NFL career.
“Coach Bryson has extensive experience at every level of football and has
earned a reputation for consummate leadership at every stop he has made. He will be a great asset to our school and our student-athletes,” said Asheville School athletic director Carl Boland in a press release.
College Lacrosse – Montreat, Mars Hill, and Lees-McRae are all underway in their 2020 men’s lacrosse campaigns. So far Mars Hill is proving the class of the group as they’re out of the gate with a 3-3 record, and on February 11 registered a 20-13 victory over the Bobcats in the only matchup between WNC teams. The Bobcats have played a challenging schedule to date and our 0-6 on the year. Brevard suspended men’s lacrosse play for the 2020 season and will return in 2021.
In Black Mountain, Montreat is 0-4 on the season and is scheduled to host the University of Cumberlands tonight at 5:00 p.m. in a matchup of NAIA rivals.
Next Up: Baseball & women’s lacrosse
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (December 17, 2019) — Tourists Baseball — As reported nationally last month, Major League Baseball (MLB) is considering a major realignment of its current network of 160 affiliated minor-league teams. Plans call for the potential elimination of 42 currently-affiliated teams following the 2020 season when the existing Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) expires. The PBA governs the relationship between MLB and Minor League Baseball (MiLB). Some leagues, such as the 80-year-old Pioneer League, would be eliminated from affiliation in their entirety.
The Tourists were not listed on the 42-team “Hit List” (as it’s been informally dubbed) of teams targeted as candidates for unaffiliation. MLB cited multiple factors in their decision for which teams to potentially eliminate, including the proximity of a club to its parent organization.
The Colorado Rockies are the Tourists’ current parent, and the distance between Coors Field in Denver and Asheville’s McCormick Field is 1,447 miles, making speculation reasonable that the Tourists could align themselves with a new parent team following 2020. The 42-team list includes the teams directly above the Tourists (High Class-A Lancaster JetHawks) and a franchise below them (Rookie League Grand Junction Rockies), meaning in the very least there would be reconfiguring within the Rockies’ system. Even in non-PBA renewal years, a minor league team realigning with a new parent is a common occurrence for a variety of logistical and economic reasons.
Parent organizations typically pay for a minor league organization’s coaches and players, while the local franchise covers the cost of everything else (the field, equipment, uniforms, and travel, among other expenses). Teams eliminated from MLB affiliation would have the opportunity to join a proposed “Dream League” with rosters populated largely by undrafted and released players, and receiving a yet-to-be-defined level of support from MLB that would fall well short of the current financial arrangement provided with affiliation.
An additional alternative for newly unaffiliated teams would be aligning with existing independent leagues, such as the 21-year-old Atlantic League. Independent leagues formally operate outside of MiLB, however, they routinely interact as players are signed and released from team rosters, with independent league players typically seeking a return to the improved advancement prospects of MiLB.
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (November 25, 2019) – College Football – The Brevard Tornados capped off WNC’s best college football campaign of the fall with a 42-28 win in the ECAC’s Scotty Whitelaw Bowl on Saturday. The victory over Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon (8-3) concluded what was the best season in the program’s 10-year history, as Brevard finished with an 8-2 overall mark under third-year head coach Bill Khayat. The contest was one of four NCAA Division III bowl games held annually by the ECAC and was the first-ever appearance in a bowl game for the Tornados.
Khayat played his undergraduate football at Duke, where he earned honorable mention All-American recognition (1994). As a player, he spent time in camp with the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers. As a coach, he’s served on the staff of the Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins.
The Western Carolina Catamounts had a predictably long day on the road in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, falling to the FBS’s Crimson Tide (10-1) 66-3. With the loss, WCU concludes its 2019 campaign with a 3-9 mark and a 2-6 record in the Southern Conference. At the DII-level, the Mars Hill Lions concluded their season last week with a 64-34 loss to Wingate. On the season, the Lions finished 5-6 after going 4-6 in 2018.
Pro Football – The Carolina Panthers season may not be quite at its tipping point, but it is close, especially after yesterday’s heartbreaking loss to the Saints. At 5-6, and with the return of Cam Newton nowhere in sight, how they do for the remainder of their 2019 season will have a long-term impact on the team’s profile in the years ahead. Here’s a look at what’s at stake over the remainder of the 2019 campaign.