March 31, 2016 A Talent for Music

The 1104th worked to find and defuse explosives, though on several occasions, the unit had to drop its tools and fight as Infantry.

James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn.

The Kaminskis named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. The elder James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.

download (41)The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, named Buddy Rich.  By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.

Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion of the 78th Infantry Division, in the European theater.  There, he served through the end of the war.

He and his unit worked to find and defuse explosives, though on several occasions, the 1104th had to drop its tools and fight as Infantry.

download (40)At one point, Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. The Americans were so close they could hear German soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, crooning out an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform, in black face:  “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  After he was done, polite applause could be heard, drifting across the river.  I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried singing to their Nazi adversaries, during World War II.  The ones who actually pulled it off, must number precisely, one.

Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.

images (45)Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.

Soon he was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC program “The Admiral Broadway Review”.

In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to create a play so awful that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with investors’ money.  The problems started, when the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”.  Even before the time when taking offense became an industry, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks who could have gotten away with that one.

There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. Three of his movies made the American Film Institute’s top 100 list of comedy films.  From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).

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“As long as the world is turning and spinning”, Brooks says, “we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes”.

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Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.  As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT”, in history.

Two years ago, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three-day production of “Young Frankenstein”.  Let me know if you can think of another 90-year-old guy, who remains that current.  I can’t think of one.

“Well, just being stupid and politically incorrect doesn’t work. You can be politically incorrect if you’re smart”.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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March 30, 1282 Sicilian Vespers

On Easter Monday, March 30, 1282, the Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Since the early 12th century, the southern Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily were united as the Kingdom of Sicily.  Until the invasion of the French King Charles I of Anjou, who ousted Sicilian King Manfred in 1266.

The Anjou King’s rule in Sicily was vicious and repressive, the French King himself absent for long periods. Charles’ Sicilian subjects could not have hated him more.

download (42)On Easter Monday, March 30, 1282, the Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Accounts vary as to what happened, but there’s a good chance he was just looking for a feel, and that’s what he got. The lady’s modesty thusly offended, someone in the crowd avenged her honor, with a knife to the French guard.

At first merely agitated, this first taste of blood drove the mob to a frenzy. Spreading across the Capital and into the countryside, Sicilians killed every Frenchman they could get their hands on.

Revolutionaries devised a linguistic test, to see who was authentically Sicilian. Native French speakers can’t pronounce the word “ciciri”, even to save themselves. And that’s the way it worked out.  God help you if you couldn’t say that word. Over four thousand Frenchmen would die over the next six weeks.

Meanwhile in Spain, Peter III, King of Aragon, Peter I, King of Valencia, and Peter II, Count of Barcelona (they’re all the same guy), had a claim to the Sicilian throne through his wife, Constance.

download (43)The Italian physician John of Procida had been a loyal subject of Manfred’s, fleeing to Aragon after the Anjou invasion. John proceeded directly to Sicily where he spent several weeks stirring up Sicilian resentment against the French King. Sicily then appealed to the Spanish King to intervene, while John sailed for Constantinople to procure the help of Michael VIII Palaeologus.

History records what followed as the War of Sicilian Vespers. The Angevins were supported by the Papacy and his Italian supporters (Guelphs), while the Aragonese received help from Sicily itself, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Ghibellines, Italian supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Several players changed sides over the course of the next twenty years. In the end, the son of the Spanish King took the Sicilian crown in 1302, becoming King Frederick II, beginning near 400 years of Spanish rule over the island.

So it was that a French soldier molested an Italian woman, and lost the Kingdom of Sicily, to Spain.

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March 29, 2017 Vietnam Veteran’s Day

In the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war.

Since the late 19th century, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam was governed as a French Colonial territory.  “French Indo-China” came to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese after the fall of France, at the onset of WWII.  There arose a nationalist-communist army during this period, dedicated to throwing out the Japanese occupier.  It called itself the “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, or “Viet Minh”.

images (40)France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat ending WWII, but soon faced the same opposition from the  army of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. What began as a low level rural insurgency, later became a full-scale modern war when Communist China entered the fray in 1949.

The disastrous defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 led to French withdrawal from Vietnam, the Geneva Convention partitioning the country into the communist “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the north, and the State of Vietnam in the south, led by Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Communist forces of the north continued to terrorize Vietnamese patriots in north and south alike, with aid and support from communist China and the Soviet Union.

The student of history understands that nothing happens in a vacuum.  US foreign policy is no exception. International Communism had attempted to assert itself since the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871, and found its first major success with the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917.

download (39)US policy makers feared a “domino” effect, and with good cause. The 15 core nations of the Soviet bloc were soon followed by Eastern Europe, as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. Germany was partitioned into Communist and free-enterprise spheres after WWII, followed by China, North Korea and on across Southeast Asia.

This is no benign ideology.  Current estimates of citizens murdered by Communist  ideology in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

Agree or disagree with policy makers of the time, that’s your business, but they followed a logical thought process. US aid and support for South Vietnam increased as a way to “stem the tide” of international communism, at the same time that French support was pulling back. By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the “National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam” (“NLF”, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders. JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.

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The war in Vietnam pitted as many as 1.8 million allied forces from South Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand, against about a half million from North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

images (38)Even then it wasn’t over. Communist forces violated cease-fire agreements before they were signed. Some 7,000 US civilian Department of Defense employees stayed behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting an ongoing and ultimately futile war against communist North Vietnam.

The last, humiliating scenes of the war played themselves out on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 29 – 30, 1975, as those who could boarded helicopters, while communist forces closed around the South Vietnamese capital.

The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia followed between 1975 – ‘79, when the “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

images (39)Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone so hard it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among more than three million “boat people”.  Three million from a combined population of 56 million, fleeing the Communist onslaught in hopes of temporary asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia or China.

They were the Sino-Vietnamese Hoa, and Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Ethnic Laotians, Iu Mien, Hmong and other highland peoples of Laos.  The 30 or so Degar (Montagnard) tribes in the Central Highlands, so many of whom had been our steadfast allies in the late war.  Over 2.5 million of them were resettled, more than half to the United States.  The other half went mostly to Canada, Europe and South Pacific nations.   A half-million were repatriated, voluntarily or involuntarily.  Hundreds of thousands vanished in their attempt to flee.

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The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979 – ’80, but reverberations continued into the 21st century.

Today, we remember John Ogonowski as Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11, one of thousands killed by Islamist terrorists, on September 11, 2001.  When he wasn’t flying jumbo jets, John Ogonowski was a farmer.  For years, John mentored Cambodian farmers on his Dracut, Massachusetts “White Gate Farm“, helping them grow familiar crops, in an unfamiliar climate.  Just as those old Yankee farmers had mentored his Polish immigrant ancestors, years before.

There were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the day it opened in 1982. Over the years, the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall. As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307.

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In the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war.  We continue to feel the political repercussions, to this day. I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968.  I remember the way some of my fellow Americans conducted 47e9d75dc1c766456546bb7f54a5ede3themselves, and came to feel as I do to this day, that anyone who has a problem with our country’s war policy, needs to take it up with a politician.  Not with a member of the Armed Services.

In 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) co-sponsored a measure to declare March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day, to honor US service members who served in the war in southeast Asia. The measure passed the House of Representatives on March 21 and the Senate on February 3. President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on March 28, designating the following day, March 29, Vietnam Veteran’s Day.

It’s about time.

Vietnam Veterans Day Tweet

March 28, 1918 A White Feather

Gangs of “feather girls” took to the streets, looking for military-age men out of uniform. Frederick Broome was fifteen years old, when “accosted by four girls who gave me three white feathers.”

At different times and places, a white feather has carried different meanings.  For those inclined toward New-Age, the presence of a white feather is proof that Guardian Angels are near.  For the Viet Cong and NVA Regulars who were his prey, the “Lông Trắng” (“White Feather”) symbolized the deadliest menace of the American war effort in Vietnam, USMC Scout Sniper Carlos Hathcock, who wore one in his bush hat.  Following the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, plucked three white ostrich feathers from the dead body of the blind King John of Bohemia. To this day, those feathers appear in the coat of arms, of the prince of Wales.

The Edward and John who faced one another over the field at Crécy, could be described in many ways.  Cowardice is not one of them.  For the men of the WW1 generation, a white feather represented precisely that.

In August 1914, seventy-three year old British Admiral Charles Cooper Penrose-Fitzgerald organized a group of thirty women, to give out white feathers to men not in uniform.  The point was clear enough. To gin up enough manpower, to feed the needs of a war so large as to gobble up a generation, and spit out the pieces.

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Lord Horatio Kitchener supported the measure, saying  “The women could play a great part in the emergency by using their influence with their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country’s defence, and every girl who had a sweetheart should tell men that she would not walk out with him again until he had done his part in licking the Germans.”

The Guardian newspaper chimed in, breathlessly reporting on the activities of the “Order of the White Feather“, hoping that the gesture “would shame every young slacker” into enlisting.

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“The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting”, Collier’s Weekly (1914)

In theory, such an “award” was intended to inspire the dilatory to fulfill his duty to King and country.   In practice, such presentations were often mean-spirited and out of line.  Sometimes, grotesquely so.

The movement spread across Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations and across Europe, encouraged by suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, and feminist writers Mary Augusta Ward, founding President of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, and British-Hungarian novelist and playwright, Emma Orczy.

Distributors of the white feather were almost exclusively female, who frequently misjudged their targets. Stories abound of men on leave, wounded, or in reserved occupations being handed one of the odious symbols.

MvicSeaman George Samson received a white feather on the same day he was awarded the British Commonwealth’s highest military award for gallantry in combat, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor:  the Victoria Cross.

Gangs of “feather girls” took to the streets, looking for military-age men out of uniform.  Frederick Broome was  fifteen years old, when “accosted by four girls who gave me three white feathers.”

The writer Compton Mackenzie, himself a serving soldier, complained that these “idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired“.

389px-1915_Women_of_Britain,_say_Go!James Lovegrove was sixteen when he received his first white feather:  “On my way to work one morning a group of women surrounded me. They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did?  They struck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed.” Lovegrove went straight to the recruiting office, who tried to send him home for being too young and too small: “You see, I was five foot six inches and only about eight and a half stone. This time he made me out to be about six feet tall and twelve stone, at least, that is what he wrote down. All lies of course – but I was in!”.

James Cutmore attempted to volunteer for the British Army in 1914, but was rejected for being near-sighted. By 1916, the war in Europe was consuming men at a rate unprecedented in history. Governments weren’t nearly so picky. A woman gave Cutmore a white feather as he walked home from work. Humiliated, he enlisted the following day. In the 1980s, Cutmore’s grandchild wrote “By that time, they cared nothing for [near-sightedness]. They just wanted a body to stop a shell, which Rifleman James Cutmore duly did in February 1918, dying of his wounds on March 28. My mother was nine, and never got over it. In her last years, in the 1980s, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember the names of her children, she could still remember his dreadful, lingering, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and my grandmother ironed his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice.”

figure-1Some of these people were not to be put off. One man was confronted by an angry woman in a London park, who demanded to know why he wasn’t in uniform. “Because I’m German“, he said. She gave him a feather anyway.

Some men had no patience for such nonsense. Private Ernest Atkins was one. Atkins was riding in a train car, when the woman seated behind him presented him with a white feather. Striking her across the face with his pay book, Atkins promised “Certainly I’ll take your feather back to the boys at Passchendaele. I’m in civvies because people think my uniform might be lousy, but if I had it on I wouldn’t be half as lousy as you.”

white-feather-3Private Norman Demuth was discharged from the British Army, after being wounded in 1916. A woman on a bus handed Demuth a feather, saying “Here’s a gift for a brave soldier.” Demuth was cooler than I might have been, under the circumstances: “Thank you very much – I wanted one of those.” He used the feather to clean his pipe, handing it back to her with the comment, “You know we didn’t get these in the trenches.”

Inevitably, the white feather became a problem, when civilian government employees began to receive the hated symbol.  Home Secretary Reginald McKenna issued lapel badges to employees in state industries, reading “King and Country”, proving that they too, were serving the war effort. Veterans who’d been discharged for wounds or illness were likewise issued such a badge, that they not be accosted in the street.

So it was that the laborer from the small town in Germany was sent to kill the greengrocer from St. Albans, spurred on by their women and the whole sorry mess driven by the politicians who would make war. The white feather campaign was briefly revived during WW2, but never caught on to anything approaching the same degree as the first.

The English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC, was decorated for bravery on the Western Front.  Sassoon would become one of the leading poets of WW1.  Let him have the final word.

“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death…
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.”

Siegfried Sassoon

March 27, 1912  Cherry Blossoms on the Potomac

On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, joined First Lady Helen Taft in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, first of a gift of 3,020 such trees from the people of Japan, to the people of the United States.

Eliza Scidmore was an American journalist, world traveler, author and socialite.  The first female board member of the National Geographic Society, her brother was a career diplomat, who served 38 years in the Asian Pacific. Frequent visits led her to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the ‘Sakura’, the Japanese blossoming cherry tree.  She called it “the most beautiful thing in the world”.

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In January 1900, Federal judge William Howard Taft was summoned to Washington, to meet with the President. He hoped it was to discuss a Supreme Court appointment, but it wasn’t meant to be. One day judge Taft would get his wish, becoming the only man in United States history to serve both as President, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For now, the American war in the Philippines was ongoing. Taft was directed to head up the commission to organize civilian self-government, on the island nation.

While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

download (37)Years later, the Japanese Consul in New York learned of the First Lady’s interest in the Sakura, and suggested the city of Tokyo make a gift of Cherry trees, to the government of the United States.

For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream 34 years in the making.  It was she who raised the money to make it happen.

On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States joined First Lady Helen Taft in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River.  Near the Jefferson memorial. The two were planted in a formal ceremony, the first of 3,020 such trees.

Cherry BlossomsIt was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived from Japan two years earlier, in January 1910, but they had fallen prey to disease along their journey. A private Japanese citizen donated the funds to transport a new batch of trees. The 3,020 were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin, East Potomac Park, and the White House grounds.

The blossoming trees were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. In 1934, city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the late March blossoming cherry trees, which grew into a national Cherry Blossom Festival.

During WWII, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.

It’s not clear to me, if the trees which line the Arakawa River today are entirely from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock.  After the conflagration that was the war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters.  It may even be the whole point.

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Cherry Trees line the Arakawa River, Tokyo, Japan

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 26, 1937  I Yam What I Yam

Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on.  Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character. 

Eighty-nine years ago, Popeye the Sailor appeared for the first time in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theater”, a newspaper comic strip revolving around the lives of Olive Oyl and her extended family, including her brother Castor and then-boyfriend Harold Hamgravy.

download (29)The strip was around for ten years or so, when Olive & co. decided to recruit a sailor to get them to the casino on Dice Island.  Approaching a rough looking character on the docks, “Popeye’s” first line was “Ja think I was a cowboy? He was supposed to be an extra, but he became so popular he soon developed into the center of the strip.

Like Olive, who was patterned after the real-life Dora Paskel, the one eyed, fighting, pipe smoking sailor was based on a real man:  Chester, Illinois boxer Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegal.  The boxer didn’t mind being associated with a cartoon character.  When Fiegal died in 1947, his gravestone was inscribed with the words “inspiration for Popeye.”

popeye__eugene_and_bernice_by_fourpanelheroBefore spinach, Popeye gained his superhuman strength patting the head of a magical “whiffle hen” named “Bernice”.

Back in 1870, a misplaced decimal point in a scientific journal led readers to believe that spinach had ten times the iron than it actually does.  Some ideas die hard.  Sixty years later, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those people still believed it to be true.

Bluto beat our sailor up in 1932 and tossed him into a spinach field, with predictable results.  Following that episode, spinach sales increased by 33%.  At one point, children voted spinach their third favorite food, behind turkey and ice cream.

To the everlasting joy of depression-era spinach producers, Popeye found extra muscle in the leafy vegetable, ever since.  On March 26, 1937, Crystal City, Texas spinach producers unveiled a statue of Popeye, the first time in history that a statue had been erected in honor of a cartoon character.

What-is-SpinachPopeye’s pet “Eugene the Jeep” first appeared in a 1936 strip called “Wha’s a Jeep?”.  Eugene was sort of magical dog who could go anywhere.  Five years later, military contractors worked to develop the iconic off-road vehicle of WWII.  Like Popeye’s pet Eugene, the General Purpose GP (“Jeep”) could go anywhere.  Eventually, the name stuck.

Jeep isn’t the only word we get from the Popeye cartoon franchise.  The inveterate moocher J. Wellington Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, gave us the word “wimp” and the burger chain that goes with it.  The comic strip introduced a character called “Dufus”.  To this day, a Dufus (Doofus) in the American vernacular is a “silly fool, a dimwit, or a stupid person”,

Just about every cartoon character who ever was, appears in the 1988 “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, except for Popeye.  Disney didn’t forget him, the problem was that they couldn’t get legal permission to use the character, from Paramount Pictures.

Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on.  Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character.   Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea, during National Adoption Month (November).

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“Later that year (2004), the Empire State Building was lit in spinach green to celebrate Popeye’s 75th, and Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea during National Adoption Month (November)”. H/T The Coronado Times

On December 8, 2009, Google featured the character to honor the birth of his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar. Google’s famous Doodle appeared along with the mouseover text, “E.C. Segar’s Birthday.”

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 25, 1914 Borlaug

Most of us remember the names, of the great monsters of history.  Who remembers the name of the man who saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

Too often, history is measured in terms of its monsters.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive a single vote.  Josef Stalin deliberately starved as many as ten million Ukrainians, in a “terror famine” known as Holodomor.  Pol Pot and a Communist cadre of nine – the Ang-Ka – killed between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow citizens of 1970s Cambodia: about a fifth of the population.  Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million of his own people, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest twenty-nine million.

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From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, from Enver Pasha to Hideki Tojo and Leopold II of Belgium, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls.  Most of us remember the names, of the great monsters of history.  Who remembers the name of the man who saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

Today, we live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) writes “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and accordingly has high obesity rates; one-third of the population has obesity plus another third is overweight”. 

It wasn’t always so.  In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in “absolute poverty.” The American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner (with Douglass North) of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote that: “Individuals in the bottom 20% of the caloric distributions of France and England near the end of the eighteenth century, lacked the energy for sustained work and were effectively excluded from the labor force.”

It’s hard to get our heads around the notion of “food insecurity”.  I’m not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

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Norman Borlaug

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born this day in 1914, on his grandparents’ farm near Cresco, Iowa.  The boy’s grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, once told the boy “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.”

A farm kid educated during the Great Depression, Borlaug periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money.  As a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps working with unemployed people on Federal projects, many of his co-workers faced near-catastrophic levels of hunger.  He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

Borlaug earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry, in 1937.  Nearing the end of his undergraduate education, he attended a lecture by Professor Elvin Charles Stakman, discussing plant rust disease, a parasitic fungus that feeds on phytonutrients in wheat, oats, and barley crops. Stakman was exploring special breeding methods, resulting in rust-resistant plants. The research greatly interested Borlaug, who later enrolled at the University of Minnesota, to study plant pathology under Stakman.  Borlaug earned a Master of Science degree in 1940, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, in 1942.

Borlaug attempted to enlist in the military following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but his application was rejected under wartime labor regulations.  He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

136250-004-46BB7BC1Between 1939 and ’41, Mexican farmers suffered major crop failures, due to stem rust. In July 1944, Borlaug declined an offer to double his salary, traveling instead to Mexico City, heading a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

“Pure line” (genotypically identical) plant varieties possess only one to a handful of disease-resistance genes. Random mutations of rusts and other plant diseases overcome pure line survival strategies, resulting in crop failures. “Multi-line” plant breeding involves backcrossing and hybridizing plant varieties, transferring multiple disease-resistance genes into recurrent parents.  In the first ten years Borlaug worked for the Mexican agricultural program, he and his team made over 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. Mexico transformed from a net-importer of food, to a net exporter.

In the early sixties, Borlaug’s dwarf spring wheat strains went out for multi-location testing around the world, in a program administered by the US Department of Agriculture. In March 1963, Borlaug himself traveled to India with Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson, along with 220lbs of seed from four of the most promising strains.

norman-borlaugThe Indian subcontinent experienced minor famine and starvation at this time, limited only by the US shipping 1/5th of its wheat production into the region in 1966 – ’67.  Despite resistance from Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies, Borlaug imported 550 tons of seeds.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestselling book The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

He could not have been more comprehensively wrong.

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Borlaug’s initial yields were higher than any other crop, ever harvested in South Asia. Countries from Pakistan to India to Turkey imported 80,000 tons and more of seeds. By the time of Ehrlich’s book release in 1968, William Gaud of the US Agency for International Development was calling Borlaug’s work a “Green Revolution”. Massive crop yields substituted famine and starvation with a host of new problems. There were labor shortages to harvest crops, and insufficient numbers of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed, along with trucks, rail cars, and grain storage facilities. Some local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, for his contributions to the world food supply. The man’s name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution.

bios-newAccording to former Director General of the International Water Management Institute David Seckler, “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.”  The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank.

Well fed environmentalist types congratulated themselves on their “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1984-’85 destroyed over a million lives.  Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug became involved in 1984, at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation (now the Nippon Foundation).  Sasakawa wondered why methods used so successfully in Asia, were not being employed in Africa. Since that time, the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has trained over 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques.  Maize crops developed in African countries have tripled, along with increased yields of wheat, sorghum, cassava, and cowpeas.

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Norman Ernest Borlaug died of Lymphoma in 2009, at the age of 95. Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil paid tribute, saying “Borlaug’s life and achievement are testimony to the far-reaching contribution that one man’s towering intellect, persistence and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress”. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described Borlaug as “… a towering scientist whose work rivals that of the 20th century’s other great scientific benefactors of humankind”. American author and journalist Gregg Easterbrook wrote in 1997, “[The] form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.

The world population when Ehrlich released his book in 1968, was about 3.53 billion.  Today, that number stands at 7.6 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such events are almost exclusively man-made.  The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette described Norman Borlaug as “The greatest human being who ever lived…and you’ve probably never heard of him.”  Let that be the answer to the self-satisfied and well-fed, environmentalist types.

 

“I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.” – Norman Borlaug, 2000