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Business Book Club: ‘The Way I Heard It’ by Mike Rowe

Unknown stories of well-known people.

It is always a joy to learn from the experiences of others. Having pored over numerous biographies, I am constantly reminded of how much I am affected by the challenges others face and how they overcome them.

Mike Rowe is known for hosting Dirty Jobs as well as several other programs on the Science, Discovery, and National Geographic channels. He also hosts the podcast The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe, which he describes as “short stories designed specifically for the curious mind plagued with a short attention span.”

This month’s selection, The Way I Heard It, is a transcribed collection of these podcasts that follow in the tradition of Paul Harvey with a unique twist. The stories themselves are only a couple of pages long. Mike’s commentary, sometimes directly related and other times only vaguely inspired by the story itself, follows thereafter. As Rowe states, “Like Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story, the mysteries in this book tell some true stories you probably don’t know, about some famous people you probably do. Your job is to figure out who or what I’m talking about before I get to the end.”

Again, this is an ideal collection for non-readers. The time investment for each story is minimal, but the insights are priceless. This is a great one to keep in your bag to pull out while waiting for a plane or while your spouse is in the grocery store. You can read it front to back or hop around in no particular order. Each piece stands on its own.

These are heartland stories about regular people in irregular situations. They are people from all walks of life, with whom you can empathize and relate. You will find yourself laughing and crying. Most of all, you will find yourself retelling the stories to friends, family, and colleagues.

Let me give you a couple of examples. The first story is about Corporal Kaminsky on the top of a 40-foot pole in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium during World War II. He was connecting the last wire to a loudspeaker directed at the German Army just through the trees. The Germans had been blasting the German National Anthem and rantings from Hitler and Axis Sally, urging our boys to surrender.

The U.S. troops were freezing in foxholes preparing to defend against a major German assault. Kaminsky wanted to find a way to lift their spirits, and he had just the right idea. He placed an acetate 78 on the record player and drowned out the German propaganda with a refrain known to millions: “Toot, Toot, Tootsie goodbye! Toot, Toot, Tootsie don’t cry!”

For several glorious, confusing minutes the only thing the soldiers on either side could hear were the dulcet tones of the one and only Al Jolson. Who, like Corporal Kaminsky, was very, very Jewish. Here the Jew-hating Nazis were being serenaded by one. Now that was funny.

Mel Kaminsky figured, if he could make soldiers laugh on the battlefield, he could make people laugh anywhere. And he has been for decades. Through his comedy routines, records, and movies he has entertained millions. Of course, that was after he changed his name to Mel Brooks.

Rowe talks about a Manly Man standing on a California beach with an Olympic gold medalist watching the devastating breakers at a place called the Wedge. These huge waves are in shallow water that had pounded many people into submission. The Olympian said, “I’ll take the first pass” and trotted out into the water.

His Olympic swimming prowess was on display as he glided through the riptide and gracefully caught his first wave. He slid effortlessly down the face on his belly with his chest thrust forward with one arm extended and the other curled behind his back like he was flying before sliding gracefully onto the sand. The locals greeted him with wild applause.

“Okay champ, you ready?” said the Olympian. “I am,” said the Manly Man. He slid into the water and imitated everything he saw the Olympian do. As the wave began to break with earth-shattering force, the Manly Man’s strength and confidence were not enough. Instead of sliding onto the sand, his body was driven into the bottom. With the snap of his collar bone, crack of his arm, and the dislocation of his shoulder, the Manly Man’s football scholarship to USC, the future law degree, and everything he had worked so hard for was gone.

The only job the Manly Man would later find was in the props department at 20th Century Fox. He never imagined it would lead to an audition. One that would require him to change his name to something more masculine. The name is in the credits of over 200 films. He battled Indians, Nazis, Mexicans, and Viet Cong. He also battled cancer, a fight he eventually lost. There is a cancer foundation, a park, and an airport that bear his name. The kid was born as Marion Morrison and died a Manly Man named John Wayne.

This book is packed with stories like this. They are sure to inspire, motivate, enthrall, and entertain. This is a fun one. I only hope there will be a sequel.

Check out all the titles in Dave Donald’s Business Book Club.