Very few people under 90 years old remember the summer of 1927, but all of us have been affected by it one way or another.
Prior to picking up Bill Bryson’s new book, “One Summer, America 1927,” I had heard of the big Mississippi River flood, and Babe Ruth’s home run record. I grew up hearing about Charles Lindbergh’s big flight to Paris. And who could miss mention of the first talking picture “The Jazz Singer” or “Shipwreck” Kelly’s flagpole sitting stunt? What I didn’t realize was the full enormity of these events, and that that these–and more–occurred between May and October of 1927–the season America stepped into the white-hot spotlight.
Bryson, the ex-pat author of humorous travel books including “A Walk in the Woods” “In a Sunburned Country,” and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” has struck another home run with “1927.” In the conversational tone of the great David McCullough, Bryson offers a feast for history buffs everywhere. He digs beneath the surface to bring you “the rest of the story” as only he can tell it.
Lindbergh’s breathtaking flight almost didn’t happen for several reasons, not the least being the takeoff. Due to the fuel tank up front, the cockpit was located in such a way that Lindbergh could not see straight ahead. The plane became airborne twice, only to drop back to earth, eventually pulling up at the last second, barely clearing telephone wires at the end of the runway by only a few feet.
And for those who think today’s news of mass murder and mayhem are unprecedented, consider Andrew Kehoe, the disgruntled Bath, Michigan school board member who stashed dynamite in the basement of the local school, detonating one wing of the building, killing 39 children and teachers, injuring many more. His beef: high taxes forcing him to foreclosure. The disaster almost went unnoticed by the national news media; it occurred just three days before Lindbergh’s triumphant flight that would trump everything else for weeks thereafter.
The big flood, meanwhile, took place after unusual rains that blanketed the Midwest, eventually causing the Mississippi and her tributaries to flood fields, towns and everything else from Illinois to Louisiana–a water disaster greater than several Katrinas. President Coolidge put in charge of the disaster recovery Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, who established himself as a humanitarian–an image that would quickly tarnish when he, as president, saw the beginning of the Great Depression just two years later.
1927 was the year Al Capone, who weekended near Bath, Michigan, in fact, was tightening his murderous grip on his illegal booze empire in Chicago.
“The Jazz Singer,” featuring Al Jolson, was filmed and released in 1927, forever changing the motion picture industry.
And so it went.
“One Summer, America 1927” underscores the old chestnut, the only true news in the world is history we don’t know.