…Of a lost father, an abandoned airplane and a composer’s dilemma

John Darnton—who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage, for the New York Times, of the Solidarity movement in Poland—is writing a book about his father, also a New York Times correspondent. The senior Darnton was killed by shrapnel in 1942 on a transport ship off the coast of New Guinea while covering the war in the Pacific. Says John: "It's going to deal with how somebody you don't know—I was 11 months at the time of his death—could be such a formative influence in your life." And, he adds: "For the last four years or so, I've realized that I had to go to the place where it occurred."

Even before he left for Papua New Guinea last May, Darnton began hearing about a crashed U.S. World War II bomber there—known, intriguingly, as the "Swamp Ghost." Some airplane salvagers wanted to take it out of the country, but others felt that moving it would be a sacrilege. Darnton looked into the story and discovered that airplane salvagers are a breed apart. "When they hack their way through the jungle and come upon a wreck, and crawl over it and maybe sit in the cockpit, they get an incredible feeling, as if they've discovered a time capsule," he says. "They try to figure out how the plane went down, what the pilot did—did he try to eject?—and they feel the thrill of the treasure hunter." Darnton thought he might like to write about the Swamp Ghost. Would Smithsonian be interested in a story that would weave his search for information about his father into the salvage controversy? Uh, yeah! The result, "Swamp Ghosts," can be read here.

Michael Walsh is the author of Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works, A Critical Biography. Webber's breakthrough musical, Cats, opened in New York City 25 years ago this month. Audiences flocked to it; critics hated it; in June of 1997, it became the longest-running musical in Broadway history. (It racked up 7,485 performances before closing in September 2000.) "That's the musical that made him very wealthy," says Walsh. "It was also the one nobody thought would work, that people thought would be the end of him." More important, Walsh adds, "it's the show that symbolizes this conflict with him: 'Should I write a great opera or should I please the public?' That is something that composers are always grappling with, and that's why Cats makes a good introduction to the central conundrum of his life." "The Curiosity of Cats" can be read here.

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