November 5, 2004 I did not die

The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies the world over and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft. Even so, the name and even nationality of the author, remained unknown.

For many among us, 2020 has been a time of grievous loss. My family is no exception.

During the 1930s, Mary Elizabeth Frye was a Baltimore housewife and amateur florist, the wife of clothing merchant, Claud Frye.

A young Jewish woman was living with the couple at this time, unable to visit her sick mother in Germany, due to anti-Semitic violence of the pre-war period.  Her name was Margaret Schwarzkopf.

Margaret was bereft when her mother died, heartbroken that she could never “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Mrs. Frye took up a brown paper shopping bag, and wrote out twelve lines. Eighty-seven words arranged in iambic tetrameter, save for two lines.

She didn’t title the poem, nor did she ever publish, or copyright the work.  People heard about it and liked it. Frye would make copies and send them to those who asked, but that’s about it.

Do not stand at my grave and weep…

The short verse came to be read at funerals and similar occasions, the world over. The first four lines appear on the Chukpi Lhara, that cold and silent memorial to climbers who never returned, from the slopes of Everest. “Desperate Housewives” character Karen McClusky recited the verse as she spread the ashes of her best friend on a baseball field and yet, for three-score years and more, few knew from whence the elegy had come.

Chukpi Lhara

There were many claims to authorship, including attributions to traditional and Native American origins.

I am not there. I do not sleep...

The unknown poem has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and other languages, appearing on countless bereavement cards and read over untold services.

In the United Kingdom, many heard it for the first time in 1995, when a grieving father read it over BBC radio in honor of his son, a soldier slain by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The son had left the poem with a few personal effects and marked the envelope ‘To all my loved ones’.

I am a thousand winds that blow…

For that year’s National Poetry Day, the British television program The Bookworm conducted a poll to learn the nation’s favorite poems. The top picks were published in book form, the preface describing the untitled work as “the unexpected poetry success of the year…despite it being outside the competition.”

The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft.

Even so, the name, even nationality of the author, remained unknown.

I am the diamond glints on snow…

Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby”, researched the history of the poem in 1998 and determined that Mrs. Frye was, after all, the author.

Mary Elizabeth Frye passed away in Baltimore Maryland on September 4, 2004. She was ninety-eight.

The Times of Great Britain published the work on November 5, as part of Frye’s obituary. ‘The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss”, wrote the Times. “It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status”.

November 4, 1918 Dulce et decorum est

And finally it came, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The church bells rang out in celebration that day in 1918, even as his mother and father, opened the dread telegram. “Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

The words come down to us some 2,000 years from the Roman poet, Horace. Dulcē et decōrum est prō patriā mōrī. It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, Wilfred Owen was working as a private English tutor, in Bordeaux. At first in no hurry to sign up, Owen considered joining the French Army before returning home, to England.

In October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists Rifles Training Corps. Originally formed in 1859, the Artists Rifles was a British special forces regiment, raised in London and comprised of painters, musicians, actors and architects, symbolized by the heads of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva.

It must have felt natural.  Wilfred Owen was a poet, a talent first discovered about ten years earlier, at the age of ten or eleven.

Owen was commissioned Second Lieutenant after six-months training, and posted with the Manchester Regiment of line infantry.  An application to the Royal Flying Corps was rejected in 1916 and he was shipped to France, joining the 2nd Manchester regiment near Beaumont Hamel, on the river Somme.

He was contemptuous of his men at first, considering them all to be louts and barbarians.  He wrote home to his mother Susan in 1917, describing his company as “expressionless lumps”.  The war was soon to beat that out of him.

Owen was close with his mother, his letters home telling a tale of mud and frostbite, of endless hours under heavy bombardment, sheltered only by a muddy, flooded dugout, of the fall through shell-shattered earth into the cellar below, that earned him a trip to the hospital.  It would not be his last.

He was caught in an explosion during the bitter battle of St. Quentin, blown off his feet and into a hole, there to spend days fading in and out of consciousness amidst the mangled remains of a fellow officer.

Following this experience, soldiers reported Owen behaving strangely. He was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock, what we now understand to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, for treatment.

There, Dr. Arthur Brock encouraged Owen to work on his poetry, to overcome shell shock.  There he met another patient, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. The chance meeting would elevate Wilfred Owen to one of the great war poets, of his generation.

Owen’s work was different before this time, vaguely self important but never self pitying. Never the pacifist – he held those people in contempt – Owen’s nightmares now brought forth a savage honesty and bottomless compassion for the burdens of the ordinary soldier.  Tales of trench life:  of gas, of lice, of mud and death, of hell and returning to earth, steeped in contempt for the patriotic sentimentality of non-combatants and the slurs of cowardice, so lightly dispensed by the women of the “White Feather” movement.

Anthem for Doomed Youth gives a sense of this period:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Owen continued to write through his convalescence, his fame as author and poet growing with the late months of 1917 and into March of the following year. Supporters requested non-combat postings on his behalf, but such requests were turned down. It’s unlikely he would have accepted them, anyway. His letters reveal a deep sense of obligation, an intention to return to the front to be part of that life and to tell the story of the common man, thrust by his government into uncommon conditions.

Wilfred Owen well understood his special talent.  He wanted to return to front line combat, made all the more urgent when Sassoon was once again wounded, and removed from the front.

Back in France, Owen captured a German machine gun position on September 29, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.  Posthumously.

He wrote home to his mother on October 31, from the shelter of a cellar in a small wood called Bois l’Évêque, near the Sambre–Oise Canal.  It was the last such note she would ever receive.  “Of this I am certain” he wrote, ” you could not be surrounded by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Sambre-Oise Canal, now

The 44-mile Sambre-Oise Canal flows through the Meuse river basin, a network of 38 locks directing the water’s flow and connecting the Netherlands and Belgium with the central waterways of France. Forces of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex forced the canal on November 4 in coordination with elements of the 2nd Manchester Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers. British forces were to cross surrounding fields lined with high hedges, then to traverse the canal by portable foot bridges or climbing across lock gates.

The battle of the Sambre–Oise Canal was one of the last Allied victories of the Great War, but not without cost. Lock houses on the opposite side formed strong points for German defensive fire, from small arms and machine guns.

Wilfred Owen was leading a raiding party when the German machine gun barked and chattered to life, the bullets tearing into his body. The armistice ending the ‘War to End All Wars” was to come a week later, nearly to the hour.

Sambre-Oise Canal, then

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The church bells of Shrewsbury rang out in celebration that day in 1918, even as Tom and Susan Owen, the 25-year-old’s mother and father, opened the dread telegram.

“Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

Wilfred March 18, 1893 – November 4, 1918

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 1917

November 3, 1954 King of Monsters

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry.


It was 6:45am local time on March 1, 1954, when a flash lit up the sky over the Pacific, like the sun itself.   Then came the sound. An explosion outside the experience of all but the tiniest fraction among us, followed by the mushroom cloud, towering into the atmosphere.  It was a test, the detonation of a TX-21 thermonuclear weapon with a predicted yield of 6 megatons with the unlikely codename, of “Shrimp”.

The 23 men of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) were working the grounds near the Marshall Islands that day, in the equatorial Pacific. For a full eight minutes, these twenty-three men watched the characteristic mushroom cloud rise above them.  An hour and a half later came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll, falling from the sky, like snow.

None among the twenty-three recognized the material as hazardous, and made no effort to avoid exposure.  Some men even tasted the stuff.

Operation_Crossroads_Test_Baker_In_Colour

Over the next three days, several fishermen developed acute radiation sickness.   By the time they returned to Yaizu two weeks later, all 23 were suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums and other symptoms.  One was destined to die six months later from a liver disorder, brought on by radiation sickness.  They had entered the ranks of that most exclusive of clubs that no one, Ever, wanted to join. They were “hibakusha”.  The “explosion-affected people”.

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry. A monster, “Godzilla”, Ishirō Honda’s first film released by Toho Studios on this day, in 1954.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, (gorilla), and “kujira”, meaning whale.  Godzilla was the Gorilla Whale with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on his back and skin modeled after the hideous keloid scarring, of the hibakusha.

The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin and then changing the speed, at playback.

1-g54-bridge-1

The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, defining the standard for most of the Godzilla films, to follow.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little complicated with the 1998 American remake when “Zilla” started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. Godzilla is the best known but certainly not the only such creature of the Japanese entertainment industry. You may remember other kaiju including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

2-g55-angirus-1

Godzilla has appeared in 28 original films, with more in the works. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” in 2004, timed to coincide with the release of the 29th film of the genre, “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version was spawned by “environmental pollution”. It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole.

The film was a flop, grossing less than $12 million after a production budget over half again, as large.

The franchise came roaring back ten years later, when Godzilla was released in 2014, grossing $200 million domestically with $529.1 million in worldwide sales.

To this day, the man who played those original 12 films is considered the best “suit actor”, in franchise history. In 2018, asteroid 110408 Nakajima was named in his memory.

34622

A film franchise 66 years in the making is still going strong and will continue to do so, for the foreseeable future. Godzilla: King of the Monsters released in 2019 with a Box Office of $386.6 million and a production budget, of less than $200 million. Godzilla vs. Kong, originally scheduled for release this year, went the way of so many things in 2020 and fell victim, to the Chinese Coronavirus. The 36th film in the series is complete and currently scheduled for release in May, 2021.

Tip of the hat to http://www.mykaiju.com, for most of the images used in this story.

November 2, 1985 The Curse of Colonel Sanders

Much has been written of 1930’s Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century could have been, had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

Baseball as we know it was introduced to the country in 1872. To this day, the game remains the most popular sport in the nation for participants and spectators, alike. In 1907, Tsuneo Matsudaira commented: “the game spread, like a fire in a dry field, in summer, all over the country, and some months afterwards, even in children in primary schools in the country far away from Tōkyō were to be seen playing with bats and balls“.

Oh. Did I neglect to mention? The nation we’re talking about, is Japan.

Professional baseball got off to a rocky start in 1920s Japan and continued to flounder, until 1934. That’s when media bigwig Matsutarō Shōriki pulled off a “goodwill tour” with an all-star American team including Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Connie Mack and Charlie Gehringer. Even Moe Berg was part of that 1934 entourage, the Jewish catcher known as “the brainiest guy in baseball,” who went behind enemy lines during World War 2, to spy on Nazi Germany.

“The [1934] party included future Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Foxx and Ruth, along with several other American Leaguers (asked to accompany the tour when the National League forbade its stars from coming along). Even Moe Berg, the big league catcher who would eventually work as a United States government spy, was a member of the ball playing entourage”. H/T baseballhall.org

Much has been written of 1930’s Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century could have been, had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

The first Japanese professional league was formed in 1936, becoming large enough to split into two leagues in 1950, the Central and Pacific.

Today, the Kansai region of Honshu is the 2nd largest metropolis, in all Japan. That’s where you’ll find the Hanshin Tigers, those perennial underdogs of Nippon Professional Baseball and arch-rival to the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, widely regarded as the kings of Japanese baseball.

As a life-long Red Sox fan, this story is beginning to sound familiar.

35 years ago today was a time of unbridled joy for delirious Tigers fans, following Hanshin’s 6-2 drubbing of the Seibu Lions to win the ultimate prize, the Japan series pennant of 1985.

Now you may not know this, but Japan is one of the largest markets in the world for Kentucky Fried Chicken, #3 behind the United States and China. Not bad for a fast food outfit that opened its first Japanese franchise, only fifteen years earlier.

The Boston baseball fan is well acquainted with the “Curse of the Bambino”, the 86-year World Series championship drought, second only to the “Curse of the Billy Goat” that denied victory to long-suffering Chicago fans, for 106 years.

Since 1985, Japanese mothers have scared wayward children into acting right, with the curse of Colonel Sanders.

The Hanshin club emerged victorious in 1985, due in large part to the efforts of American slugger, Randy Bass. Delirious after unexpected victory in game one and superstitious as baseball fans the world over, Hanshin supporters gathered at the Ebisu Bridge over the Dōtonbori river in Osaka, to partake in one of the most bizarre spectacles, in modern sports.

Fans would shout out the names of Tigers players and someone who resembled that player, even vaguely, would jump into the river. There being no Caucasians in attendance to represent Mr. Bass, the crowd took hold of a storefront statue of Harlan Sanders, and threw it into the River.

What the hell. They both had beards.

Thus began the curse of Colonel Sanders, a losing streak brought on by the ghost of a man who didn’t appreciate being thrown into a river. Brief rallies in 1992 and again in ’99 brought hope once again to the Hanshin faithful, (gosh, this story sounds Really familiar now), only to have cruel fate, block the way. Repeated efforts were made to retrieve the Colonel from the river, only to be met with failure. The curse, dragged on.

The joy of victory smiled upon the land of Hanshin once again in 2003, when Yomiuri Giants MVP Hideki Matsui was traded to the New York Yankees, clearing the way to a Central League pennant for Hanshin. Even so, final victory remained elusive. The Japan series went to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks that year, in 7 games.

Celebration turned to tragedy that year, when thousands of Tigers fans jumped into the river. 24-year-old Masaya Shitababa, drowned. The Osaka city council ordered construction of a new bridge over the Dōtonbori beginning in 2004, making further such jumps, next to impossible.

Divers discovered the upper part of Harlan Sanders’ statue on March 10, 2009 and the lower piece, the following day. And yet the Colonel’s other hand and eyeglasses, were nowhere to be found.

Colonel Sanders’ left hand and spectacles remain missing to this day and the KFC where it all started, is closed and gone forever. So it is for long suffering fans of the Hanshin Tigers, the curse of Colonel Sanders, lives on.

“Dangerous! Do not dive into this river. Osaka Regional Development Bureau and Osaka-Minami Police station” sign at the new Ebisubashi bridge H/T Wikipedia

November 1, 1959 Game Face

For NHL hockey, the face mask became standard equipment on this day, in 1959. I’m not sure if goalies are any prettier these days, but they have a lot more teeth.

Stanley Cup

In the Netherlands, modern ice hockey began sometime in the 16th century.  North Americans have played the sport since 1855.   For all that time, flying hockey pucks have collided with the faces of goaltenders.  The results have not have been pretty.

The name of Montreal Canadien goal tender Jacques Plante is engraved five times on Lord Stanley’s cup, once for each of five consecutive championships between 1956, and ‘60.  

For a lifelong Bruins fan, that isn’t easy to say.

Jacques Plante Putting on Mask
Original caption: 11/1/1959-New York, NY- His face and shirt bloodied, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante puts on a special plastic mask after being treated for a facial cut received in the opening period of the Rangers-Canadiens hockey game. Plante suffered a severe gash on the left side of his face when he was struck by a shot off the stick of Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. After donning the mask, which he had designed himself, Plante returned to the game. November 1, 1959 New York, New York, USA

Plante literally wrote the book on NHL goal tending. He was the first to take the position outside of the crease, making himself the third defenseman. He was the first to take the puck behind the net and the first to bring anything even vaguely resembling stick handling, to the position. Before Plante, a Goalie’s job was pretty much to deflect the puck and let the defenders take it from there.

On this day in 1959, Jacques Plante decided he’d had enough. It was three minutes into a game with the New York Rangers when he took a puck to the nose on a shot fired by Andy Bathgate. The puck broke his nose, opening a wound requiring seven stitches to close.  When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a fiberglass mask.

Coach Toe Blake was furious. He had allowed the mask during practice, but this was regulation.  Nobody wore a mask.  Coaches believed they cut the goaltender’s field of vision, and, besides.  These were supposed to be the “fearless” guys, who jumped in front of the puck.

Easy for him to say.  It wasn’t his face.  Plante was adamant, and Blake wasn’t about to bench the best goalie in the NHL. There would be one more game when Plante played without the mask, the only game the Canadiens lost in that series, and that was the end of it.  

For Jacques Plante, the mask had now become standard equipment.

In 1966, Life Magazine published an image of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Terry Sawchuk, “a face only a hockey puck could love“. “Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor” read the accompanying article, “are some of the more than 400 stitches he had earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Terry Sawchuk’s face was bashed over and over, but not all at one time. His wounds healed. The scars weren’t easily seen – except for a few of them. The re-creation of his injuries was done to help show the extent of his injuries over a span of years”.

During a 1968-’69 season playoff game against the Boston Bruins, a puck fired by Phil Esposito hit Plante in the forehead, knocking him out, cold.  He later said that the mask had saved his life.  He’s probably right.

Gerry Cheevers, who played for the 1970-’72 Bruins, famously had his mask marked up with stitches. That started when a puck hit him in the face during practice. When Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed Cheevers to the dressing room, he found the goalie enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden sent Cheevers back out on the ice and John Forestall, the team trainer, painted stitches on his mask. Every time Cheevers was hit after that, he would have new stitches painted on. The mask became one of the most recognizable symbols of the era, and now hangs on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.

Gerry Cheevers
Gerry Cheevers

Jacques Plante wasn’t the first NHL goaltender to wear a face mask.  Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict wore a crude leather mask in 1929, to protect a broken nose.

clint-benedict
Montreal Maroon’s goaltender Clint Benedict, 1930

It was Plante who introduced the face mask as everyday equipment, now a mandatory fixture for all goaltenders.

I’m not sure if NHL goalies are any prettier these days, but I bet they have a lot more teeth.