September 21, 1937 Lord of the Rings

Arthur Reuel Tolkein died unexpectedly in South Africa, when his older boy was four.  The family’s departure left John Ronald Reuel with only “slight but vivid” memories of Africa. One of them involved an encounter with an enormous, hairy, spider.

Sometime around 1890, opportunities for promotion led Arthur Reuel Tolkien to South Africa, where the bank clerk became manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa.  Tolkein’s fiancée Mabel joined him in the Orange Free State in 1891, and the couple was married that April.  The first of two boys arrived the following year. They called him John Ronald Reuel.

Mabel returned to England shortly after the birth of their second son, believing the climate to be healthier than that of the African continent.  She may have been right. Arthur died unexpectedly in South Africa, when the older boy was four.  The family’s departure left John Ronald with only “slight but vivid” memories of Africa. One of them involved an encounter with an enormous, hairy, spider.

Jrrt_1911The family lived for a time next to a rail line, south of Birmingham. John always had an interest in languages, even before he began to invent words of his own. It must have fired the young boy’s linguistic imagination to see the Welsh coal trucks go by, with names like “Nantyglo“, “Penrhiwceiber” and “Senghenydd”, painted on their sides.

These  were difficult times for the Tolkein family, which only became worse when Mabel succumbed to diabetes.  Now orphaned, John Ronald Reuel was only twelve years old.

At King Edward’s school, one Father Francis looked after the boys’ spiritual and educational development.  Here J.R.R. mastered Latin and Greek, while gaining competence in a number of other languages.  John would make up entire languages for fun, while he and a few school chums met regularly after school as the “TCBS” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), exchanging and criticizing one another’s literary work.

Around this time, Tolkein discovered Christ II also known as The Ascension, one of only four signed works known to survive by the 9th century Olde English poet, Cynewulf. One couplet captured the boy’s imagination: “Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast, Ofer middangeard monnum sended” – Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.

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Tolkien served briefly on the Western Front of the Great War, before contracting a typhus-like infection called “trench fever”. He convalesced back in England, and served out the rest of the war on Home Duty. Most of JRR’s TCBS friends had been killed by this time, and he wrote of his experiences in their memory. “…in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire“.

It’s easy to see these early experiences in the author’s first works, the notes he called his “Legendarium”: the Deep Elves, the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond.

Tolkien took a professorship at Oxford after the war, where he one day found himself correcting papers. For some reason or no reason at all, one of his students had left a page blank. Who knows what possessed the professor but he wrote on the page “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit“.

Hobbit Cover

In typical Tolkien fashion, he then felt the need to discover what a “Hobbit” was, why it lived in a hole, and on, and on, and on.

Tolkien’s musings grew into a narrative tale, a story he shared with his children. It grew from there when the publishing firm George, Allen and Unwin got hands on an incomplete typescript, and encouraged the professor to finish his work. J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale was published on this day in 1937, under the title “The Hobbit“.

The Hobbit was so successful, the publisher asked if Tolkein had similar material available for release.  By this time, Tolkien’s Legendarium had taken a more complete form which he was calling his “Qenya Silmarillion”.  Tolkien submitted the work to mixed reviews. the prevailing sense being that the work was not commercially viable.

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The author was disappointed by the setback, but agreed to take up the challenge of writing “The New Hobbit”.  This writer was anything but hurried.  It took 16 years of coaxing and prodding by the now-grown son of one of the publishers, Rayner Unwin. Tolkien even offered the work to a rival publisher at one point, but they backed off the project on realizing the scope and size of the work.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale grew and blossomed into far more than a children’s story, published in three parts in 1954-1955 under the title “Lord of the Rings“. Early misgivings that the project would be a financial loss, soon evaporated.

Author and publisher alike had greatly underestimated the public appeal of Tolkien’s work. As of 2017, the Lord of the Rings trilogy ranked among the top-ten selling books of all time, including the Holy Bible, the Islamic Qu’ran and the book of Mormon. Taken together, the Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy of 2012 achieved the highest worldwide Box Office, of all time.

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September 11, 2001 Fallen Angel

2,977 innocents died this day in 2001, not counting the beasts responsible for the slaughter. They’re not worth counting. Over ten thousand children were orphaned, in whole or in part. This is a story of one of those fallen angels. They have earned the right to be remembered.

At the turn of the 20th century, a great wave of immigrants came to the United States, 20 million Europeans and more, making the long journey to become Americans.

Among those vast multitudes came the Ogonowski family, emigrating from Poland and making a new home in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, along the New Hampshire line.

Those early members of the Ogonowski family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well accustomed to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate.  Generations later, the family still tilled the soil of the 150-acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.

Ogonowski 2Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Alexander Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force.  During the war in Vietnam, this farmer-turned military pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, often returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard that giant, C-141 transport aircraft.

Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There John  met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to friends and family. The two would later marry and raise a family of three daughters, Laura, Caroline, and Mary Catherine.

Twelve days a month, Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform, flying jumbo jets out of Logan Airport.  When he was finished , he would always return to the land he loved.

Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into formerly open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field”, John would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.

Ogonowski 4John Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the growing town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming, as well.  The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.

That was the year the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Cambodian immigrants from Lowell.

“This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both”. – Margaret “Peggy” Ogonowski

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It was a natural fit.  Ogonowski felt a connection with these people, based on his time in Southeast Asia. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago, had helped his ancestors.

Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots, growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. They raised taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, the food they knew.  They would sell their produce into nearby immigrant communities, and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.

mrkimcilantroThe program was a great success.  Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.

So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC.  It was September 11.

By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11. He may have been the first to die, attacked from behind and murdered in his cockpit by Islamist terrorist Mohammed Atta and his accomplices.

It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and benefactor had been hijacked and murdered, his body flown into a New York skyscraper.

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The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined.  John’s dream would not die.  Peg said it best:  “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.

9-11 as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge

John Ogonowski was working with the Land Trust at the time of his death, in an effort  to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34-acre farm in Dracut, slated for development.  Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress.  The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003.  A living memorial to one day that changed the world.   And to John Alexander Ogonowski.  Pilot.  Farmer.  Fallen angel.

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Loyalty

Another tale to emerge from that hideous day concerns one of the many first responders who rushed to the inferno, and never returned. This man was one of the lucky ones, in a way.  This firefighter’s family would have a body to bury.

The night before the funeral, the firefighter’s wife and his buddies “stole” the body, casket and all, with the connivance of the folks at the funeral home.  They brought him to the beach, where they spent that last night with a case of beer, laughing together, crying, and sharing stories. The next morning, they brought him back to the funeral home as promised, and their loved one was buried with honors.

I don’t know this man’s name or that of his wife, but that part matters more to those precious few.  For the rest of us, this is a story of a short life well lived, a story of love and friendship and loyalty.

May we all be so fortunate, to be blessed with friends such as these.

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September 1, 911 The Royal “We”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

A story comes down from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland intoned: “We are not amused“.

VictoriaThe story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub” concerning a Queen whose name wasn’t ‘Victoria’ at all but Alexandrina Victoria, after her godfather Tsar Alexander I.

Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster.  At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” never was given to public displays of mirth.  The Queen’s lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, the lives of the Royals of history may seem very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula, so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae (“Little Boots“), the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father, famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to do as much.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm, never mind.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

There are those who contend the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island
Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, attacked Paris in early 911. By July, the “Normans” were holding the nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

Rollo the Walker
Rollo “The Walker”

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

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Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match up with the living descendants of the King.

The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.

Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.  Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there is no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but, if I were, my money’s on all those old guys, staying in the ground