Goodreads is giving away TEN paperback copies of Flying Conquistadors! Click the link below to enter!
Goodreads is giving away TEN paperback copies of Flying Conquistadors! Click the link below to enter!
Was legendary Mayan archaeologist (and Flying Conquistadors character) Sylvanus Morley the real-life Indiana Jones?
If you Google Morley’s name, you’ll find multiple references suggesting he was an inspiration – perhaps one of many – for everyone’s favorite idol-seeking adventurer. You’ll also come across this picture of a young Doctor Morley in the field, with his glasses and scruff, looking remarkably like a cleaned-up Doctor Jones from the college scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That’s not the only similarity. During World War One, Morley used his archaeological credentials for cover as he spied for the United States. Known as “Agent 53,” he covered over 2,000 miles scouting for rumored German submarine bases throughout Mexico and Central America and kept tabs on pro-German sentiments in the region. He filed over 10,000 pages of reports. His Wikipedia page includes a quote stating he was “arguably the best secret agent the United States produced during World War One.” (His dual-natured activities, which only came to light after Morley’s death, drew criticism from some in the archaeological community, a topic covered on Morley’s Wiki page. For deeper reading, see The Archaeologist was a Spy by Charlie Harris.)
And some of Morley’s adventures would seem to right out of a screenplay:
In 1916 Vay almost lost his life when his party, returning from his great discovery of Uaxactun with its earliest known dates, was mistaken for a party of revolutionaries and ambushed by a detachment of Guatemalan troops. The doctor and the guide, who were at the head of the party, were killed. Morley owed his life to the fact that a few minutes before a liana had caught and ripped off his glasses; by dismounting to pick them up he lost his position at the head of the column, and was still in the rear when the action began. Many a time Morley has described those events to me: the sudden volley of rifles, the helter-skelter diving into the sea of forest on each side of the narrow trail, and the hours that he lay hidden in a clump of thick vegetation, afraid that a movement would bring a fresh volley of shots. That must have been the only time that Vay ever felt the forest was friendly. Then the night journey to safety on the British Honduras side of the boundary had to be undertaken. On another occasion, when relations between U.S.A. and Mexico were at their worst, an inebriated Mexican general, with a revolver in each hand, was dissuaded with difficulty from shooting Morley and his party who had taken insecure refuge under tables and behind lampposts. (taken from a remarkable obituary on Morley)
So it’s tempting, at least on first glance, to say Doctor Morley might be Doctor Jones. But if you dig deeper, you’ll find the real-life temple-finding archaeologist had little else in common with his rumored Hollywood counterpart. Sylvanus Morley hated the jungle, hated the heat and humidity, and despised the bugs. Over the decades he had numerous bouts with malaria and other jungle ailments. He was a small man, shorter and less athletic than most of his counterparts, and not the type that made a habit of swinging from vines or outrunning boulders. He didn’t wear a leather jacket and a fedora, preferring suits and ties (despite the heat) and tall boots that only accentuated his slight size. To protect himself from the relentless heat, he almost always wore a pith helmet or a sombrero.
Note: We have reached out to the Spielberg and Lucas camps for comment. While we await an answer, here’s a list of possible Indy inspirations that places Morley at #3.
There is, of course, no debate about Morley’s place in the history of American archaeology. His contributions to our understanding of the Mayan culture and their language continue to influence archaeologists today. But his legacy is most noticeable in the magnificent Mayan sites he helped uncover and restore. It was Morley who persuaded the Carnegie Institution to engage in large-scale work on Mayan sites, at a time when much of the archaeological community was focused on Egypt (this was before Tut’s tomb was discovered) and the Old World.
Morley’s involvement with Chichen Itza is a story unto itself. Early in his career (1912), he made a bold proposal to the Carnegie Institution to excavate and restore much of the ancient city. Morley believed fervently that by showing people the majesty of the Mayan civilization would lead to greater interest in (and greater funding for) excavation and research projects. Unrest in Mexico led to his ambitious project being delayed until the early 1920’s, when he would lead a team of professional archaeologists, researchers and artists in a massive project to uncover the city. (The Hacienda Chichen – headquarters for Morley and many other researchers, and now a luxury hotel – has a great list on their website of all the noted archeologists who helped dig out Chichen Itza).
I’ll follow up with another post on Doctor Morley soon, where I’ll look at the Carnegie Institution’s ambitious project to rebuild Chichen Itza. Thanks for reading!
Flying Conquistadors will be released on Tuesday, March 28.
You can buy the paperback or ebook from Amazon, BN.com, iBooks and directly from me. You can also pre-order from any of those sites. (Note: the iBooks link on the “Buy the Book” page is not active yet, but the book is available for pre-order in the iBooks store.)
You can also order the book from your local independent bookstore! The world needs more good bookstores, and that’s not gonna happen if we all buy our books online. If your wise and wonderful independent bookseller has interest in stocking the book, they can find the wholesale information here.
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Thanks to my family and friends for putting up with me! And thanks to everyone at Mill City, Hillcrest and Salem for all they did in getting this crazy book ready to fly.
Charles Lindbergh – or a fictional version of him – is a major character in Flying Conquistadors. He’s a fascinating individual who played a very large role in the development of aviation, and was instrumental in the early days of both Pan Am and Eastern Airlines. His legacy is, of course, complicated by his involvement with the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. involvement in what would become World War II. But those later years (I define “later” in this instance as post-1930), also marked by the tragic murder of Lindbergh’s son, are not the focus of this piece . . . or the book, for that matter.
Fame came to Lindbergh in an instant. When he landed The Spirit of Saint Louis at Le Bourget Airport in France on May 21, 1927, he instantly became the world’s most famous man. 150,000 people were waiting for him that night in Paris, dragging him out of the cockpit and carrying him over their heads. When Lindbergh returned to the U.S. (he and his plane rode back on the U.S. cruiser Memphis), some 4 million people witnessed his ticker-tape parade in New York City.
But Lindbergh wasn’t through flying the Spirit yet. To promote aviation – and in conjunction with the release of his autobiography, “We” – Lindbergh embarked on a Guggenheim-sponsored tour of across the United States, taking his famous monoplane to 82 cities in all 48 states. Huge crowds swarmed Lindbergh and the Spirit at every single stop.
Lindbergh had first met Dwight Morrow, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and the pilot’s future father-in-law, in Washington on his return from Paris. It was Ambassador Morrow who first suggested that Lindbergh do a second “Good Will Tour” to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. On December 13, 1927, The Spirit of Saint Louis took off on its final grand tour, flying from Washington, D.C. to Mexico City.
While he may have been expecting smaller crowds outside the U.S., the opposite was the case. Some 200,000 people witnessed his arrival in Mexico City, which was followed by a workers’ parade with 100,000 participants and hundreds of thousands more lining the parade route. In the days that followed Lindbergh would be the star attraction at a bullfight, more ceremonies, and countless tours with dignitaries.
(Historical note: it is during this visit to Mexico City that Lindbergh was first introduced to Ambassador Morrow’s daughter, Anne. As legend has it, she was not happy to see the famous flyer invade the tight Morrow family environment. Charles and Anne would marry a year and a half later.)
From Mexico City, Lindbergh then travelled to Guatemala where he received another rousing reception. He then flew the Spirit from Guatemala northeast toward Belize, flying over hundreds of miles over the dense jungle. It is during this flight Lindbergh reported seeing Mayan ruins from the air. Some reports say he spotted “a white city,” while others maintained he saw “an amazing ancient metropolis.” These reports sent archaeologists into a tizzy, trying to determine in Lindbergh had identified previously unknown Mayan sites. Those sightings of ruins by Lindbergh in the Spirit inspired parts of Flying Conquistadors.
In Belize – which was the British Honduras at the time – Lindbergh was again treated like a king, and thousands turned out to hear him speak. The scene would be repeated time and time again, as Lindbergh then flew the Spirit south over Central America. After visiting Bogota and Caracas in the final days of his epic 1927, Lindbergh flew to St. Thomas and then across the Caribbean to Havana.
There is an interesting story about Lindbergh’s departure from Havana, a story that might have had a very unhappy ending. Keep in mind the Spirit had no radio and it was the middle of the night. Here’s Lindbergh in his own words from a later autobiography:
Over the Straits of Florida my magnetic compass rotated without stopping…. I had no notion whether I was flying north, south, east, or west. A few stars directly overhead were dimly visible through haze, but they formed no constellation I could recognize. I started climbing toward the clear sky that had to exist somewhere above me. If I could see Polaris, that northern point of light, I could navigate by it with reasonable accuracy. But haze thickened as my altitude increased….
Nothing on my map of Florida corresponded with the earth’s features I had seen…where could I be? I unfolded my hydrographic chart [a topographic map of water with coastlines, reefs, wrecks and other structures]…. I had flown at almost a right angle to my proper heading and it…put me close to three hundred miles off route!
The gods of aviation looked favorably on Lindbergh that day, and he was eventually able to find Florida and made his way back to St. Louis. A few months later, The Spirit of Saint Louis would make its final flight, with Lindbergh piloting it to Washington where it would become a star attraction for the Smithsonian.
Just a few weeks until Flying Conquistadors is released! The paperback is already up for pre-order on Amazon, BN.com and my website. The e-version should be available for pre-order on those sites (and on iBooks) shortly.
As I patiently await (ha!) my first book’s birthday, I figured I’d use this space to let people know more about how the book came to be. I also want to pay tribute to the real-life individuals and organizations that inspired this fictional story.
The cover of Flying Conquistadors was designed by Alan Flinn (www.alanflinn.com). Alan took a rough idea I had in my head and ran with it. I was beyond pleased with the results, and since the cover was done before I was done writing the book it served as a great personal motivator!
Let’s break this beautiful cover down in a bit more detail:
The Pyramid: Yes, that is El Castillo – also known as the Temple of Kukulcan – from Chichen Itza, located in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Chichen Itza, perhaps the most recognizable of Mayan sites, has a long and fascinating history: it was an important center of late-period Mayan culture, overflowing with ancient archaeological masterpieces. Like the rest of the Mayan world, Chichen Itza went into decline and was but a shadow of its former self when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. The Spaniards attempted to settle Chichen Itza themselves, only to be driven away by continued Mayan assaults.
Deserted, Chichen Itza fell into decline and the jungle slowly took over. The entire site became overgrown with vegetation, the roots taking hold in between the limestone blocks laid by the ancient Maya. Over the centuries, those roots grew and pushed the limestone blocks out, and many of the structures collapsed.
That was the state Chichen Itza was in when two unexpected visitors arrived in the early 1840s. John Lloyd Stephens was an explorer who had gotten himself appointed to a diplomatic post so he could explore and catalogue the Mayan world. He was accompanied by Frederick Catherwood, an artist who used a camera lucida to create unbelievably detailed illustrations of the incredible ruins they came upon. When Stephens’ first book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan was published, Catherwood’s drawings revealed to the outside world a mysterious “lost” civilization – the Maya – of which little was then known. Stephens’ books, and Catherwood’s remarkable illustrations, would inspire generations of archaeologists and adventurers, eager to see the remains of this ancient civilization. (note: I’ll be posting a longer piece on Stephens and Catherwood at a later date.)
In 1875 French photographer/archaeologist August Le Plongeon and his wife, Alice, made the journey to Chichen Itza, exploring the site and unearthing a “Chac Mool” statue. A few years later the site was visited by explorer Teobert Maler and archaeologist Alfred Maudslay. Maudslay was a pioneering architect, using papier-mache to duplicate carvings and taking numerous photographs of the site. On one of Maudslay’s many expeditions, the below photograph of El Castillo was taken. It almost looks like one of Catherwood’s camera lucida drawings:
I was captivated by the image of this iconic structure in its pre-restoration glory and knew it would be a good model for the cover. You can see how little trees and shrubs worked themselves into the cracks between the stones, and began to eat away at the pyramid itself. And I was intrigued by the little man standing in the doorway of the temple on top. It might be Maler, maybe even Maudslay himself. But I asked Alan to incorporate that little dude into his artwork, as it fit well with my story.
(Full disclosure: Flying Conquistadors is set in the late 1920s, meaning this particular photograph predates my story by a few decades. By the time of Flying Conquistadors, the Carnegie Institution – under the direction of Edward Thompson and then Sylvanus Morley – had almost finished restoring El Castillo to the condition we are familiar with today).
That beautiful bird is a Sikorsky S-38, one of the first widely produced “amphibious aircraft,” meaning it could land and take off on land or water. Pan American owned 24 S-38s, and the aircraft was indispensable as the young airline established routes throughout the Caribbean and then into South America. (Historical note: Prior to the S-38 Pan Am operated a handful of Sikorsky S-36s, a less glamorous but still functional amphibian).
Despite its fame, and the fact that it was the “air yacht” of choice for millionaire and adventurers, none of the 101 original Sikorsky aircraft survived to present day. But two were “re-created” in the 1990s, and one of those two was featured in the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator. It’s the plane used in the scene where Howard Hughes (Leo) takes Kate Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) flying over nighttime Los Angeles. During that scene Hughes reaches down and pulls a pin to move the entire steering column over to the co-pilot’s side, giving Hepburn a surprise flying lesson. That movable steering column was a feature unique to the S-38.
Interestingly, a few years ago the owner of the replica plane used in The Aviator was able to use his S-38 for a transatlantic crossing, taking advantage of some strong tailwinds. My understanding is the plane is now in storage in Florida (note to family: would make a great gift!).
The S-38, despite its modest cabin size, played an outsized role in helping Pan Am during those early days. Getting into it was no easy feet: the hatch for the passengers was located on top of the plane, requiring airline crew to have ladders at the ready. But it was an important milestone in the development of passenger-focused aircraft, and it allowed Pan Am to establish regularly-scheduled flights to locations that didn’t (or couldn’t) have a landing strip. The success of the S-38 led to the creation of the bigger S-40, the first “true” Pan Am Clipper, and those Clippers would in turn revolutionize air travel in the Americas and beyond.
Charles Lindbergh was a frequent operator of Pan Am’s S-38s, not just for mapping out the early routes but also for more relaxing pursuits. He used an S-38 to take Doctors Kidder and Ricketson from the Carnegie Institution on that first archaeological reconnaissance mission over Central America and the Yucatan. Later, after his marriage to Anne Morrow, the Lindberghs and the Trippes used S-38s to tour around the Caribbean and Central America, including the Panama Canal.
It’s a fascinating airplane from a fascinating time in history, and if you are interested in learning more about the S-38 you can find a wealth of resources online. And if you want to see the S-38 in action (and in full living color) click here!
That’s all for today, class . . . remember Flying Conquistadors will be released on March 28th! Thanks for reading!
As a lifelong supporter of locally-owned independent bookstores, I’m working to get Flying Conquistadors into as many indy shops as possible. If you are a bookseller interested in carrying Flying Conquistadors, please contact me for a complimentary copy so you can read before ordering.*
More details, including wholesale ordering information, can be found on the Sell Sheet!
(* offer may be revoked if I get too many requests!)
Greetings, and thanks for visiting!
Flying Conquistadors will be released on March 28th, and the paperback version is already available for pre-order on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and through this website (click on “Buy the Book” to see your options). We’re making some last-minute adjustments to the electronic versions, so you’ll also be able to enjoy Flying Conquistadors on your Kindle, Nook or other electronic device.
I should point out that the paperback is $2 cheaper if you buy it from me directly. $2 and one cent cheaper, to be exact!
As I countdown to my first publication date, I thought I’d use this blog to let readers know a bit more about Flying Conquistadors and how it came to be.
At the beginning of the book there is a note to the reader. I wanted to people to understand that this was a fictional story, a story that I made up in the dark, musty recesses my mind. But many of the fictional characters populating this story were inspired by real-life individuals, some of them famous, others not as famous as they should be. After forcing these caricatures to go through hell in service of my story, I think it is only right that I spend some time letting you know about the “real” people behind the characters in the book.
I also have some great photographs and other materials focused on Pan American Airways and the Carnegie Institution, two legendary entities that are featured in the book. And lest anyone think I’m nuts for writing a story involving Pan Am and the Carnegie Institution, you should know that Charles Lindbergh did, in fact, fly Carnegie Institution archaeologists over several Mayan site in the Yucatan in a Sikorsky S-38 owned by Pan American. I”ll post some of the pictures taken on those early flights.