December 24, 1822 Santa Claus

In some German speaking regions, a malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, carrying a twig broom with which to spank wicked children. Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of affluent parents, both of whom died in a plague leaving young Nicholas a very wealthy orphan.

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1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church.

One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry his three daughters off. On two nights in a row, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window and dropped a small sack of gold coins.

On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret.

Saint Nicholas died on December 6 in the year 343.  He was entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in the Roman town of Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

In time, the Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around December 6.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  Secret gift giving appeared sometime around the year 1200.

Krampus-340x540.jpgOn the European continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.

As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch up bad little tykes in parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good and worked hard over the year.  Those who’d been naughty or lazy would be slit open and their organs replaced, with pebbles and straw.

Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls.

In some German speaking regions, a malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, carrying a twig broom with which to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

In the 13th century, the “Little Ice Age” of led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were common objects, often the things of thieves and vagabonds.  The chimney was different, a direct pathway to the warm heart of the home.  So it was St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas itself.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

The unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

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Santa Express

“A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus.  It was a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, for  the control of unruly children.

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.69c173c1af76a36f2aae98f4dfe183b6

Santa Claus is the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not too bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Merry Christmas.

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Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade, brought back to Venice or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.

The teeth and small bones of the real St. Nicholas are enshrined in over a dozen churches from Russia to France and the Palestinian territories.  Some of these cherished relics were believed to reside in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, in New York City, destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and never recovered.

December 21, 1861 The Medal of Honor

George Orwell once pointed out. People sleep peacefully in their beds at night, only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

As General in the American Revolution, George Washington once wrote that the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all”. European armies of the time bestowed honors, only on high-ranking officers who had achieved victory in battle.

There was no such honor for the common soldier.

The American military of the colonial era had precedent for such an award, but only under limited circumstances. Congressional medals were awarded to Washington himself on March 25, 1776, following the British evacuation of Boston, to General Horatio Gates in November 1777 in recognition of his victory over British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, and to Major-General “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Civil War-era Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in recognition of his 1779 attack on the British position at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

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Fidelity Medallion

A “Fidelity Medallion” was awarded to three militia men in 1780, for the capture of John André, the British officer and spy whose capture uncovered the treachery of General Benedict Arnold.

The future 1st President’s general orders of August 7, 1782 established a “Badge of Military Merit” to recognize those members of the Continental Army who performed “any singular meritorious action”.

In time, General Washington’s Badge of Military Merit morphed into what we now know as the Purple Heart, but the precedent had been set. This was the first such honor available to any United States military service member, who had distinguished himself by act of valor.

Around the time of the Mexican-American war (1846 – ’48), Congress created the “Meritorious Service Citation Certificate”, a recognition for “any private soldier who had distinguished himself by gallantry performed in the presence of the enemy”. The award came in and out of use in the following decades, later becoming the Distinguished Service Medal, an award available to United States and foreign military service personnel and, in limited circumstances, civilians.

moh.jpgIn the early days of the Civil War, General-in-chief of the army Winfield Scott argued against such an award, claiming it to be “too European”.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles adopted the idea on behalf of the Navy, following Scott’s retirement in October 1861. President Abraham Lincoln signed “Public Resolution #82” on December 21, 1861, creating a Navy medal of honor.

An Army version of the medal was created the following July, first awarded to six Union soldiers for hijacking the Confederate locomotive, “The General”.  Several were caught and hanged as Union spies including leader of the raid, James Andrews.   He alone was Not awarded the Medal of Honor, as he was a civilian.

Medals of Honor are not awarded casually, reserved only for the bravest of the brave, and for well-documented acts of valor. Permit me to share a few examples, each from his own moment in history.

Few soldiers on the Civil War battlefield had a quicker route to death’s door, than the color bearer. National and regimental flags were all-important sources of inspiration and communication.

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William Harvey Carney

Reverend W. Jamison Thomson of Hartford, CT described the importance of the battle flag: “It represents the cause, is the rallying point, while it is aloft proclaims that victory is still intended, is the center of all eyes, is the means of communication between soldiers, officers, and nation,” he said, “and after the engagement, and after many of them, is their marked memento so long as its identity can be preserved.”

William Harvey Carney was born a slave in Norfolk Virginia, in 1840. How the man made it to freedom is uncertain but, in 1863, Carney joined the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, with the rank of Sergeant.

During the ill-fated assault on Fort Wagner of July 1863, Carney took up the Regimental Color as the color guard fell, mortally wounded. Carney continued all the way to the parapet despite multiple serious wounds and struggled back across the battlefield, as the 54th retired under intense fire. At last handing the colors over to another survivor, Carney said “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

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Calvin Pearl Titus

Sergeant Carney’s heroism of July 1863 was the earliest such action to result in a Medal of Honor given to an American of African Ancestry, though the medal itself was not awarded until 1900.

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Chaplain’s assistant and regimental musician Calvin Pearl Titus of Vinton, Iowa volunteered to scale the 30-ft walls of Peking, raising the American flag over the outer walls of the city.

President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Titus the medal of Honor, for “Gallant and daring conduct in the presence of his colonel and other officers…”

President Roosevelt would one day become the only President awarded the Medal of Honor for actions performed on July 1, 1898, in Cuba.  Titus himself is now remembered as the last American standard-bearer.

Alvin_C._York_1919.jpgOn October 8, 1918, Tennessee native Corporal Alvin Cullum York of the 82nd Division lead a group of seventeen against a numerically superior German force, dug in at Chatel-Chehery, France.

Let his citation tell the story: “…After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring toward a machine gun nest, which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.”

download - 2019-12-21T080643.761.jpgKingston Texas 2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy found himself senior officer of a company of 18, whittled down from 235 by disease, wounds and casualties.

On January 26, 1945, Murphy’s small force found itself under assault by six German tanks and a large infantry force.

A man the Marine Corps had once turned down for being too small, Murphy climbed aboard a burning tank destroyer. Out in the open and exposed to German fire from three sides, the 19-year old single-handedly fought off the entire assault, killing or wounding fifty and causing the German tanks to withdraw.

Emil Kapaun.jpg Chaplain Emil Kapaun, the “Shepherd in Combat Boots” selflessly sacrificed himself on behalf of fellow prisoners in 1951, in the frozen hell of a North Korean prison camp.

President Barack Obama awarded Kapaun’s family the Medal of Honor during a ceremony in the east wing of the White House, on April 11, 2013.

Father Kapaun’s body lies in an unmarked mass grave, somewhere in Pyoktong county.

PFC Sammy Lee Davis distinguished himself during the small hours of November 18, 1967, when the 4th Artillery of 9th Infantry Division came under heavy attack west of Cai Lay, Republic of Vietnam.

Repeatedly knocked to the ground by enemy mortar fire and suffering multiple injuries, the Cannoneer from Dayton, Ohio fought back first with a heavily damaged, flaming howitzer, then with recoilless rifle and finally, a machine gun.

That’s his picture, at the top of this page.

Two Medals of honor were awarded posthumously, to Delta Force snipers Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart, for their hopeless defense of the crash site of a downed UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter against hundreds of fighters loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

images (57).jpgCorporal Jason Lee Dunham of Scio New York deliberately threw himself on an Iraqi grenade on April 14, 2004, saving the lives of fellow Marines at the sacrifice of his own life.

John 15:13 of the King James Bible teaches us: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

Corporal Dunham was twenty-two years old.

Sergeant 1st class Jared Monti of Abington Massachusetts was killed in the mountains of Nuristan Province in Afghanistan, while attempting to rescue a wounded soldier from a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

Sgt. Monti was the sixth person from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Lee Brice song “I Drive your Truck“, voted Song of the Year at the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, is his story.

The nation’s highest medal for military valor has been awarded 3,525 times since its inception in 1861, to 3,506 individual recipients. 624 were awarded posthumously.  Nineteen men have received the Medal of Honor, twice.

Doctor Mary Edwards Walker received the Medal of Honor on November 11, 1865. The Army changed eligibility criteria in 1917 and revoked 911 such awards given to non-combatants, including Dr. Walker. Fifty years later, an Army board restored Walker’s Medal of Honor, praising her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” She is the only female so honored and only the second woman in American history, licensed as a Medical Doctor.walker-header1024.jpgThe youngest Medal of Honor recipient was 11-year old drummer boy, Willie Johnston.

Possibly without exception, every one will tell you they are not heroes. They were doing a job and those who gave their lives, are the Real heroes.

If that’s not the very definition of heroism, I’m at a loss to understand what might be.

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Fun Fact:  Just last month, the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery was instituted in the Unites States, to recognize the extraordinary contributions of animals in times of war and peace. Patterned after the Dickin Medal awarded in the United Kingdom, recipients include Cher Ami, a pigeon who served with the US Signal Corps in WW1, Chips, a Military Working Dog (MWD) who served in WW2 and Sergeant Reckless, the Mongolian Mare who served with the United Sates Marine Corps, during the Korean conflict.

December 20, 1943 Special Brothers

“You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy”, his commander had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

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Franz Stigler

At the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August, earlier in the war.

Stigler was no Nazi.  This was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills, doing what the nation required him to do.

On December 20, 1943, Stigler needed one more kill for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber struggled overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

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Charles Brown

21-year-old Charles Brown held the throttle of that B17, an aircraft named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew had paid a dreadful price.

Brown’s bomber was set upon by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail ripped off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.yeoldepub.jpgThe battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude.  The American pilot was well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into each other’s eyes.  Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” was Brown’s reply. This had been his first mission. He was sure it was about to be his last.

Long ago before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer Lt. Gustav Roedel, had explained the warrior’s code of conduct:  “Honor is everything here. If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”.

The German ace must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified American airmen inside that B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy”, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.big-hole.jpgThe German had to do something.  Nazi leadership would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and peeled away.

Ye Olde Pub lumbered on, pierced and holed through and through, across 250 frozen miles of the North Sea.  At last, she made it to Norfolk.

Bf-109-pilot-Franz-StiglerOver 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada.  Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter, explaining that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on December 20, 1943.’  Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said of that first meeting. “Like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

Ye-Old-pub-9The two former enemies passed the last two decades of their lives as close friends and occasional fishing buddies.

The two old warriors passed away in 2008, only six months apart. Franz Stigler was 92, Charles Brown 87.

A book called “A Higher Call”, tells the story in greater detail, if you’re interested in reading more about this signal act of kindness, between once mortal enemies.

In the two obituaries, both men were mentioned each as the other’s, “Special Brother”.

 

December 19, 1986 The Lost Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

It all began as a test.  A carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of small mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off.  Inexperienced reactor operators, failing to follow checklists. Inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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On the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear chain reaction expanded beyond control, flashing water to super-heated steam.  Violent explosions shattered reactor and building alike as reactor #4 belched massive amounts of nuclear material into the atmosphere.  For the next nine days, intense updrafts created by the open-air graphite fire spewed vast quantities of radiation into the air, raining radioactive  particles over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe.  Some 60 percent of the stuff came down in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and yet, this was 1986.  The Soviet government didn’t tell its own people for days, what was going on.  In the West, the first alert came not from the USSR, but from Sweden.

images (56).jpgAn estimated 4,000 to 93,000 died in the aftermath of the accident, many of whom, were children.

The death toll could have been higher but for heroic self-sacrifice, by first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire:

Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

Work began within three weeks on the design and construction of a concrete sarcophagus, large enough to contain 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium, trapped inside the twisted wreckage. It was the largest civil engineering project in history involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By this day in December, work was substantially complete.

A Chernobyl liquidator pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1986.jpgOfficials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became evident, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-kilometer exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of another 68,000.

Before it was over some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

c3a6c209f69a1fe061fc35ef7d9e4e09.jpgThe chaos of these forced evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding now-homeless civilians onto waiting trains and vehicles by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals and lifelong family members, were abandoned to fend for themselves.

The government didn’t bother to explain.   There would be no return.

chernobyl-cleanup-crew.jpgThere were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” 0720-dogsfront.jpgThere was no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot the animals, left behind.   Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka.  She’s a good dog.”  Most of these abandoned pets, were shot.  Some escaped notice, and survived.

vegan-plant-based-news-dogs-livekindly-Cropped-1-1-1068x601 (1).jpgLater on, plant management hired someone, to kill the 1,000 or so dogs still remaining.  The story is, the worker refused.

1424 (1)Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages.  Descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  For some,  radiation can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

chernobyl-dogs-2Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Most are released back to the “wild”.

ynimas0uSome have been successfully decontaminated and socialized for human interaction.  In 2018, the first batch became available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, some forty puppies and dogs.

 

To this day, hundreds of dogs eke out a living, in the exclusion zone.  The work of rescue is ongoing.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

Dogs of Chernobyl.jpgBelieve it or not there are visitors to the area.  People actually go on tours of the region but they’re strictly warned.  No matter how adorable, do not pet, cuddle nor even touch any puppy or dog who has not been through rigorous decontamination.

For those lucky few the search for good homes goes on, for the lost dogs of Chernobyl.2016_Chernobyl-NB-1-4.jpg

December 16, 1884 Lake Bacon

Biologically, there seems little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast. Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Short days from now, families across the nation will gather for the Christmas table. There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole. Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce. And there, the centerpiece of the feast. Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

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The story begins on December 16, 1884, the opening day for the World’s Fair, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen, Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation. The Water Hyacinth. Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of beautiful delicate purple and blue flowers, floating across tranquil ponds on thick, dark green leaves.

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Eichhornia crassipes

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans, and remain viable for 30 years. Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, the aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”. Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species, while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small. The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

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Left uncontrolled, water hyacinth quickly becomes a hazard to navigation

In the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat. The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage. Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems. “Lake Bacon”.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times. One Agricultural official estimated that such a free-range hippo herd would produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

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Lippincott’s monthly magazine waxed rhapsodic about the idea: “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation. Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today. Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The problem is, these things are dangerous.

The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial. Heaven help anyone caught between a cow and her young. Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little slower than Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

Google the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa”. You’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities, than any other large animal, in Africa.

the-hippopotamus-is-considered-to-be-the-most-dangerous-animal-5981600.pngBe that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

What could be better than taking care of two problems at once. Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos. The meat crisis would be solved, and America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction African wildlife into the American food stream, some four years earlier. A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”. A “man totally without fear.” One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.

He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts. Frederick Burnham was the “most complete human being who ever lived “.

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Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa. A smooth talking guerilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld. An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duqesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to be a German spy and saboteur through two world wars, Frederick Burnham described his mortal adversary, thus: “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

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Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne

During the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other. In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there seems little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast. Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by one vote, but didn’t entirely go away. Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what we’re already doing, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges, and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”. Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbug”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

27232.jpgThat golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination. Who knows, it may be for the best. I don’t know if any of us could see each other across the table. Not with a roast hippopotamus.

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