October 22, 1962 Thirteen Days

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock. The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock, reset. Even so, the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any other time in history, before or since. A scant handful of seconds is all that remained, before worldwide nuclear incineration.

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In 1947, members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists envisioned a “Doomsday Clock”, a symbolic clock face to dramatize the threat of global nuclear catastrophe.  Initially set at seven minutes to midnight, the “time” has varied from seventeen minutes ’til with the 1995 collapse of the Soviet Union, to two minutes before midnight with “Operation Ivy”, the first American thermonuclear detonation, in 1952.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock, reset.  Even so, the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any other time in history, before or since.  A scant handful of seconds is all that remained, before worldwide nuclear incineration.

All that needs to be known about Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista, is that he fled office with $300,000,000 US, on December 31, 1958.  The triumphant rebel columns streaming out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, were quick to establish themselves in power.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro dismissed the need for elections, proclaiming his government to be a “direct democracy”.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports arenas, in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of Batista supporters were executed or imprisoned as Castro’s “Revolutionary Socialist State” purged itself of the former regime.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he’d personally order a retrial.

Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, described the Ambassadorship as “the second most important man,” in Cuba.  Now, the Castro administration distanced itself from the US, adopting an increasingly leftist posture and seizing US controlled oil installations, banks and sugar refineries.  By October 1960 the government had “nationalized” 166 such businesses, including Coca Cola and Sears, Roebuck.

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Since the Presidency of James Monroe, US foreign policy has opposed outside intervention in the American hemisphere.  The government was not about to permit a communist state, 90 miles from Key West.

A secret operation to overthrow the Cuban government was conceived and initiated by the Eisenhower administration, and put into motion in April 1961.  1,400 CIA backed Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón“ (Bay of Pigs), intending to overthrow the communist government.

The effort was doomed to failure.  The New York Times had been reporting on the “secret invasion”, for a month before it began.

Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration sought other means of removing communists from power.  “Operation Mongoose” sought to embarrass and discredit Castro personally, with tactics ranging from print & radio propaganda, to hallucinogenic chemical-laced cigars.  Some dedicated public servant had the hare-brained idea of lining Castro’s shoes with thallium salts, to make his beard fall out.

The Communist government consolidated power, taking control of trade unions, jailing opponents, suppressing civil liberties and sharply limiting freedom of speech and the press. Secretary of State Christian Herter described Castro’s single-party political system as “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern”.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the American President was impotent and indecisive.  One Soviet adviser described Kennedy as “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations… too intelligent and too weak.”

Cuban and Soviet officials reached a secret arms agreement in July, 1962.   By late summer, American intelligence discovered Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 jet bombers in Cuba.

Worse yet, construction had begun on several missile sites.  On October 14, ultra-high-altitude Lockheed U–2R reconnaissance aircraft photographs revealed the presence of medium and intermediate range ballistic nuclear missile sites, under construction in Cuba.

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A redesigned version of the U-2, the U-2R, was used from the late 1960s through the 1990s

President Kennedy warned of the “gravest consequences” resulting from the introduction of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, while Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko insisted that Soviet aid was purely defensive. U-2 photographs gave lie to Gromyko’s protestations.  Images taken on the 17th revealed the presence of 16-32 missiles.

The administration went to great lengths to portray “business as usual”, while behind the scenes, policy makers wrangled over options from quarantine to tactical air strike to outright military invasion.  President Kennedy himself suddenly departed a political event in Chicago, his aids concocting a “cold” diagnosis to explain his sudden absence.

Cuban Missile Crisis, cold

In a televised speech on October 22, Kennedy publicly revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and called for their removal.  A naval quarantine would close off the island, Kennedy said, until Soviet leaders agreed dismantle missile sites, and to make certain that no additional missiles were shipped to Cuba.

From the Soviet perspective, Cuba was a small ally behind enemy lines, no different than the Americans toehold, in West Berlin.  Beside that, the Americans already had missiles in Italy and Turkey.

Kruschev had gambled and lost, that he could “[I]nstall nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them”.

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba
1962 — This newspaper map from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The President warned “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”  There was no mistaking American intent.

Kruschev replied, “I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace…”

Soviet nuclear submarines moved in response to the quarantine, as Cuban waters became the scene of a tense, naval standoff.

Cuban Missile Crisis, contest

Kruschev responded on the 24th, describing the US blockade as an act of aggression.  Castro urged the Soviet leader to initiate a nuclear first strike, should the Americans invade Cuban soil. The Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a “Defense Readiness Condition” status of DEFCON 3.  The United States Air Force was now ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.

U-2 photographs of the 25th & 26th showed accelerated construction on the island, with several silos approaching operational readiness.  US air forces were placed at DEFCON 2.  War involving Strategic Air Command, was now “imminent”.

Cuban Missile Crisis, mushroom cloud

On day twelve of the standoff, October 27, an American U-2 was shot out of the sky by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.  The pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson Jr, was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross in history, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

Anderson’s was the only combat death of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he wasn’t alone.  Three reconnaissance-variant Stratojets crashed between September 27 and November 11, killing 11 airmen.  Seven more died on October 23, when their C-135B Stratolifter stalled and crashed delivering ammunition to the Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay.

The most dangerous phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end on October 28, when Radio Moscow announced that Cuban missiles would be removed in exchange for an American pledge not to invade.  In a secret “side deal”, the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove American “Jupiter” missiles, from Turkey.

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The most dangerous thirteen days in world history, had come and gone.  The American quarantine would continue until November 20, when the Soviets agreed to remove their bombers.  The Americans removed Turkish missiles, the following April.

Throughout this period, a blizzard of communications both direct and indirect, were exchanged between Washington and Moscow.  With little to go on but mutual distrust, Kennedy, Kruschev and both their aids each sought to discern the true intent of their adversary.

If there is no intention,” wrote Kruschev, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

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In 1963, American and Soviet governments established the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link, from a mutual desire that we never again, get that close to the brink.  Contrary to popular culture, this “hotline” has no “red phone”. Never did.  The Moscow–Washington hotline was at first a dedicated teletype, replaced by direct-link fax machine in 1986. Since 2008, the Pentagon maintains a secure computer link with the Russian Federation, where messages are exchanged by email.

October 21, 1797 USS Constitution

That soon to be famous “iron” hull would have been useless in a five to one fight. A common naval tactic of the day was to close to short range and fire at the masts and rigging of opposing vessels, disabling the ship’s “power plant”. A vessel thus disabled could be boarded at will and a bloody fight would ensue, with cutlass and pistol. Surely, those 5 British captains considered the American frigate to be a great prize. USS Constitution faced a race for survival. The stakes were life and death.

When the United States won independence from Britain in 1783, the young nation soon learned that freedom was not without disadvantages. America had just lost her protector at sea.

British and French vessels harassed American merchant shipping, kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve in their own navies, a practice known as impressment.

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Barbary pirates were a problem for Mediterranean shipping, and throughout parts of the Atlantic. Predominantly North African Muslims with the occasional outcast European, the Barbary pirates operated with the blessing of the Ottoman Empire, the Barbary Coast states of Algiers, Tunis & Tripoli, and the independent Sultanate of Morocco.

The Barbary Corsairs had long since stripped the shorelines of Spain and Italy in search of loot and Christian slaves. Many villages would not be re-inhabited until the 19th century. 

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, thousands of ships were captured and held for ransom.  Somewhere between 800,000 and 1.25 million Europeans disappeared into the Arab slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East.

Barbary pirates began to harass American shipping as early as 1785.  They captured 11 American vessels in 1793 alone, holding both ships and crew, for ransom.

Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, appropriating funds to build a fleet of 6 three-masted, heavy frigates for the United States Navy. The act included a clause halting construction, in the event of a peace treaty with Algiers.   No such treaty was ever concluded.

Launched this day in 1797 and named by George Washington himself, USS Constitution was one of those six. Her hull was made of the wood from 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, and built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

USS_Constitution_underwayConstitution’s first duties involved the “quasi-war” with France, but this was not the France which helped us win our independence. France had been swallowed up in a revolution of its own by this time.  Leftists calling themselves “Jacobins” had long since sent their Bourbon King and his Queen Consort to the guillotine. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and Hero of the American Revolution, languished in an Austrian prison.

The French Monarchy would one day be restored, but not before a certain Corsican artillerist would rise to the rank of Emperor to meet his Waterloo, fighting (and winning) more battles than Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal, combined.  But I digress.

The Barbary pirates were paid “tribute” during this time to keep them quiet, but that ended in 1800.  Yusuf Karamanli, Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the incoming Jefferson administration. Jefferson refused, and Constitution joined in the Barbary Wars in 1803, a conflict memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

In the early months of the War of 1812, Constitution faced off with the 38-gun HMS Guerriere, about 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. Watching Guerriere’s shots bounce off Constitution’s 21-inch thick oak hull, one American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” In twenty minutes, Guerriere was destroyed. All that remained was an unsalvageable hulk. The legend of “Old Ironsides” was born.

[http://www.stuartswanfurniture.com/ironsides.htm#Guerriere Stuart Swan] USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere 19 August 1812 This painting by Anton Otto Fischer depicts the first victory at sea by the fledgling US Navy over the mighty Royal Navy.

One month earlier, Constitution had put to sea intending to join a five ship squadron off the coast of New Jersey. Spotting five sails and thinking they had found their rendezvous on July 17, Constitution was disabused of that notion when lookouts reported the next morning. These were 5 British warships, and they were giving chase.

That soon to be famous “iron” hull would have been useless in a five to one fight. A common naval tactic of the day was to close to short range and fire at the masts and rigging of opposing vessels, disabling the ship’s “power plant”. A vessel thus disabled could be boarded at will and a bloody fight would ensue, with cutlass and pistol. Surely, those 5 British captains considered the American frigate to be a great prize. USS Constitution faced a race for survival. The stakes were life and death.

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Conditions were near dead calm as all six vessels wetted sail, trying to get the most out of light winds. In a process called “kedging“, Constitution’s boats were rowed out ahead of the ship, dropping small “kedge anchors”. Sailors would then haul the great ship up the anchor chain, hand over hand, repeating the process over and over. British warships soon imitated the tactic.  What followed was an exhausting, slow motion race lasting 57 hours in the July heat.

Constitution’s crew dumped everything they could find overboard to lessen the weight, including 2,300 gallons of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the shots fell short of their mark. By July 19, Constitution had pulled far enough ahead that British vessels abandoned the chase.

USS Constitution is still in service today. She goes into drydock every twenty years for below-the-waterline repair, most recently in May, 2015. Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides took her first sail two years later, in July 2017.  220 years since her first launch, in honor of the 242nd birthday of the United States Navy.

A structural tour, below decks

Today, USS Constitution may be boarded at leisure at the Charleston Navy Yard, just north of Boston. To walk her decks is to go back in time. To experience first-hand, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat.

October 20, 1937 The Swarm

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states. It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.

In the decade following 1932, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells a tale of grasshoppers, of a time when locusts wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs as to destroy all hope for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creekpublished  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the biblical plague.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous feeding habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, given the need and the opportunity.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

Such swarms have been reported since the time of the Pharaoh. The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine during the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, come to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again during the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

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NPR reports in a 2020 segment about locusts in Africa, that such a swarm measuring one square kilometer, about a third of a square mile, can consume as much in a day, as would have fed 35,000 people.

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C.

“Albert’s Swarm”, the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, is estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

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It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so in a few weeks.

One farmer reported “a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Check out what these things sound like. Video taken this year, in Ethiopia.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go and then the root vegetables: potatoes, carrots and turnips. They were devoured, right out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of the sheep.  At its worst, the ravenous horde was known to eat the clothes, right off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

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Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

It was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  

Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

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And then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

October 19, 1864 Civil War comes to Vermont

Toronto was a logical outpost for Confederate operations, a natural relay point with Great Britain and a base from which to foment rebellion, in the north. All this fomenting cost money, and lots of it. The Confederate States came south to Vermont, to make a withdrawal.

The name of Vermont conjures many things in the mind of the hearer, the forested landscapes, ski slopes, maple syrup and mountain trout brooks. The first state to be admitted into the union formed by the 13 former colonies, the 14th state existed for as many years as an independent Republic, a distinction shared with only three other states: Texas, Hawaii and California.

Fun Fact: For a time, western districts of Florida also formed their own sovereign state: the Republic of West Florida. If you ever want to get a Texan going, ask them about the First Lone Star Republic“.

In the late 18th century, lands granted by the governor of New Hampshire led the colonial province into conflict with the neighboring province of New York.  Conflict escalated over jurisdiction and appeals were made to the King, as the New York Supreme Court invalidated these “New Hampshire grants”. 

Infuriated residents of the future Vermont Republic including Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys”, rose up in anger.  On March 13, 1775, two Westminster Vermont natives were killed by British Colonial officials.  Today, we remember the event as the “Westminster Massacre”.

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The New Hampshire Grants region petitioned Congress for entry into the American union as a state independent of New York in 1776″ – H/T, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Hampshire_Grants

The battles at Lexington and Concord broke out a month later, ushering in a Revolution and eclipsing events to the north.  New York consented to admitting the “Republic of Vermont” into the union in 1790, ceding all claims on the New Hampshire land grants in exchange for a payment of $30,000.  Vermont was admitted as the 14th state on March 4, 1791, the first state so admitted following adoption of the federal Constitution.

Organized in 1785, the city of St. Albans forms the county seat of Franklin County, Vermont.  15 miles from the Canadian border and situated on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect for a Civil War story.

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St. Albans Vermont, 1864

The Confederate States of America maintained government operations in Canada, from the earliest days of the Civil War.  Toronto was a logical relay point for communications with Great Britain, from whom the Confederate government unsuccessfully sought to gain support.

Secondly, Canada provided a safe haven for prisoners of war, escaped from Union camps.

Former member of Congress and prominent Ohio “Peace Democrat” Clement Vallandigham fled the United States to Canada in 1863, proposing to detach the states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio from the Union in exchange for sufficient numbers of Confederate troops, to enforce the separation.  Vallandigham’s five-state “Northwestern Confederacy” would include Kentucky and Missouri, breaking the Union into three pieces.  Surely that would compel Washington to sue for peace.

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In April 1864, President Jefferson Davis dispatched former Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, ex-Alabama Senator Clement Clay, and veteran Confederate spy Captain Thomas Henry Hines to Toronto, with the mission of raising hell in the North.

This was no small undertaking. A sizeable minority of Peace Democrats calling themselves “Copperheads” were already in vehement opposition to the war.  So much so that General Ambrose Burnside declared in his General Order No. 38, that “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this” (Ohio) “department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department“.

Hines and fellow Confederates worked closely with Copperhead organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of the American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, to foment uprisings in the upper Midwest.

In the late Spring and early Summer of 1864, residents of Maine may have noted an influx of “artists”, sketching the coastline.  No fewer than fifty in number, these nature lovers were in fact Confederate topographers, sent to map the Maine coastline.

Rebels on the great Lakes

The Confederate invasion of Maine never materialized, thanks in large measure to counter-espionage efforts by Union agents.

J.Q. Howard, the U.S. Consul in St. John, New Brunswick, informed Governor Samuel Cony in July, of a Confederate party preparing to land on the Maine coast.

The invasion failed to materialize, but three men declaring themselves to be Confederates were captured on Main Street in Calais, preparing to rob a bank.

Disenchanted Rebel Francis Jones confessed to taking part in the Maine plot, revealing information leading to the capture of several Confederate weapons caches in the North, along with operatives in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.

Captain Hines planned an early June uprising in the Northwest, timed to coincide with a raid planned by General John Hunt Morgan.  Another uprising was planned for August 29, timed with the 1864 Democratic Convention in Chicago.   The conspirators’ actions never lived up to the heat of their rhetoric, and both operations fizzled.   A lot of these guys were more talk than action, yet Captain Hines continued to send enthusiastic predictions of success, back to his handlers in Richmond.

The Toronto operation tried political methods as well, supporting Democrat James Robinson’s campaign for governor of Illinois.  If elected they believed, Robinson would turn over the state’s militia and arsenal to the Sons of Liberty.  They would never know.  Robinson lost the election.

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Bennett Henderson Young

All this fomenting cost money, and lots of it.  In October 1864, the Toronto operation came south to St. Albans, to make a withdrawal.

Today, St. Albans is a quiet town of 6,918.  In 1864 the town was quite wealthy, home to manufacturing and repair facilities for railroad locomotives.  Located on a busy rail line, St. Albans was also home to four banks.

Nicholasville, Kentucky native Bennett Henderson Young was a member of the Confederate 8th Kentucky Cavalry, captured during Morgan’s 1863 raid into Ohio.  By January, Young had escaped captivity and fled to Canada. On October 10, Bennett crossed the Canadian border with two others, taking a room at the Tremont House, in St. Albans.  The trio said they had come for a “sporting vacation”.

Small groups filtered into St. Albans in the following days, quietly taking rooms across the town.  There were 21 altogether, former POWs and cavalrymen, hand selected by Young for their daring and resourcefulness.

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On this day in 1864, the group split up.  Announcing themselves to be Confederate soldiers, groups simultaneously robbed three of St. Albans’ four banks while eight or nine held the townspeople at gunpoint, on the village green.  One resident was killed before it was over and another wounded. Young ordered his troops to burn the town, but bottles of “Greek Fire” carried for the purpose, failed to ignite.  Only one barn was burned down and the group got away with a total of $208,000, and all the horses they could muster. It was the northernmost Confederate action of the Civil War.

StAlbansRaid, memoriaized

The group was arrested on returning to Canada and held in Montreal.  The Lincoln administration sought extradition but Canadian courts decided otherwise, ruling that the raiders were under military orders at the time and neutral Canada could not extradite them to America.  The $88,000 found with the raiders, was returned to Vermont.

The million dollars the Confederate government sunk into its Canadian office, probably did more harm than good.  Those resources could have been put to better use, but we have the advantage of hindsight.  Neither Captain Hines nor Jefferson Davis could know how their story would turn out.  In the end, both men fell victim to that greatest of human weaknesses, of believing what they wanted to believe.

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October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

At first the people liked their new Queen-to-be, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the Dauphine “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

Political alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770. Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Queen Maria Theresa, the formidable Sovereign of Hungary and Bohemia, married their little girl to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France. Her name was Maria Antonia. She was twelve years old.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was carried out by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna with the groom near-800 miles away, in Paris. She was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, pre-teen wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

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There was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This wasn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space.  Ohhhhh, no. This was the bizarre spectacle of courtiers crowding into the bedchambers, peering down at the frightened couple to be sure the marriage was consummated.

Unsurprisingly, it was not. In time, that failure would do damage to both their reputations.

At first the people liked their new Dauphine, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the French Queen-to-be “The Austrian Woman”.  She would come to be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naïve of the vicious circles into which she was cast. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, and Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out. The King’s daughters on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry or their unsavory relations, with their father. She literally couldn’t win. The sisters bellyached about feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress: “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_Ducreux

Louis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

The French government was staggered by debt at this time, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame. As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, the Queen Consort was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen had taken root as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Bastille

Food shortages magnified the unrest. That October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. They attempted to flee the escalating violence the following June, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

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Unrest turned to barbarity as Antoinette’s friend and supporter, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

Louis XVI was charged with undermining the First Republic in December 1792, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. He was 38 years old.

Marie-Antoinette was now prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and suffered frequent bleeding, possibly as the result of uterine cancer.

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and subjected to a sham trial whose outcome was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke out in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

marie-antoinette over the years

On October 16, 1793, Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off. She was paraded through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. On mounting the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.  The last words of the most hated woman in Paris, were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

“Let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there’s no evidence that she ever said it. The phrase appears in “Les Confessions”, the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which the woman was subjected, it’s easy to believe this was just more of the same.

October 15, 1582 Double Dating

Confusion reigned well into the 18th century. Legal contracts, civic calendars, and the payment of rents and taxes were all complicated by the two calendar system. Military campaigns were won or lost, due to confusion over dates.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method often fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. Days were added to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled the calendar. The Roman statesman hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated a proper year to be 365¼ days, more accurately tracking the solar and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said. The new “Julian” calendar went into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1.

October 1582 missing days

This “Julian” calendar miscalculated the solar year by 11 minutes every year, resulting in a built-in error of 1 day for every 128 years.   By the late 16th century, the seasonal equinoxes were ten days out of sync, causing a problem with the holiest days of the Roman church.

In 1579, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius, to devise a new calendar to correct this “drift”.  The “Gregorian” calendar was adopted on this day in 1582, omitting ten days that October and changing the manner in which “leap” years were calculated.

The Catholic countries of Europe were quick to adopt the Gregorian calendar, Portugal, Spain, pontifical states, but England and her overseas colonies continued to use the Julian calendar. Confusion reigned well into the 18th century.  Legal contracts, civic calendars, and the payment of rents and taxes were all complicated by the two calendar system. Military campaigns were won or lost, due to confusion over dates. Sound familiar?

Between 1582 and 1752, many English and colonial records included both the “Old Style” and “New Style” year.  The system was known as “double dating” and resulted in date notations such as March 19, 1602/3.  Others merely changed dates. Keyword search on “George Washington’s birthday” for instance, and you’ll be informed that the father of our country was born on February 22, 1732.  The man was actually born on February 11, 1731 but, no matter.  Washington himself recognized the date of his birth to be February 22, 1732, following adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.

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Virginia almanack of 1752

Tragically, the exploding heads of historians and genealogists alike are lost, to history..

The “Calendar Act of 1750” set out a two-step process for adoption of the Gregorian calendar.  Since the Roman calendar began on March 25, the year 1751 was to have only 282 days so that January 1 could be synchronized with that date.  That left 11 days to deal with.

So it was decreed that Wednesday, September 2, 1782, would be followed by Thursday, September 14.

You can read about “calendar riots” around this time, though such stories may be little more than urban myth.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a prime sponsor of the calendar measure.  His use of the word “Mobs” was probably a description of the bill’s opponents in Parliament.   Even so, some believed their lives were being shortened by those 11 days, while others considered the new calendar to be a “Popish Plot”.  The subject was very real campaign issue between Tories and Whigs in the elections of 1754.

There’s a story of one William Willett, who lived in Endon. Willett bet that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights, starting his jig about town the evening of September 2, 1752. He stopped the next morning, and went out to collect his bets.

I am unable to determine how many actually paid up.

Ever mindful of priorities, the British tax year was officially changed in 1753, so as not to “lose” those 11 days of tax revenue.  Revolution was still 23 years away in the American colonies, but the reaction “across the pond” could not have been one of unbridled joy.

The last nation to adopt the Gregorian calendar was Turkey, formally doing so in 1927.

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Back in the American colonies, Ben Franklin seems to have liked the idea of those “lost days”. “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2″ he wrote, “and not have to get up until September 14.”

Much to the chagrin of Mr. Clavius, the Gregorian calendar still gets out of whack with the solar cycle, by about 26 seconds every year.  Clever methods were devised to deal with the discrepancy and several hours have already been added, but we’ll be a full day ahead by the year 4909.

I wonder how Mr. Franklin would feel, to wake up and find that it’s still yesterday.

October 14, 1912 To Kill a Bull Moose

The 9000+-member audience was stunned when the candidate announced “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!” Roosevelt spoke for 80 minutes, before going to a Milwaukee hospital for treatment.

The first “Progressive” era began as a local movement in the 1890s, largely in response to the corruption of the political machines, and the monopolistic excesses of the “gilded age”.  By the 1920s, Progressivism had come to dominate state and national politics, bringing with it the national income tax, direct election of Senators, and Prohibition, with the 16th 17th and 18th amendments, respectively.

progressive

Great believers in the perfectibility of the public sphere, Progressives dismissed old methods as wasteful and inefficient, leaning instead toward the advice of academics and “experts”. A never ending quest for that “one best way” to get things done.

Progressive politicians covered both sides of the political aisle, with leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette Sr. and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes on the Republican side, and Woodrow Wilson, and the attorney, politician and orator William Jennings Bryan (he of the famous “Monkey Trial”), on the side of the Democrats.

When Theodore Roosevelt first appeared on the political scene at age 23, there was little to hint at the Progressive he would later become.  “TR” was sworn into office in 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley.   At 42 he was the youngest man to ever take the oath of office, and possibly the most energetic.

As President, Roosevelt pushed executive power to new heights, attacking “Captains of Industry” with a two-pronged strategy of anti-trust legislation, and regulatory control.  TR was the “Conservation President”, creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing no fewer than 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.  All told, Roosevelt protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.

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Roosevelt retired from politics after two terms to go on African safari, backing William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination.

Taft easily defeated Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1908 election, but his presidency proved to be a disappointment to the Progressive wing of the party.

The more conservative Taft didn’t take the expansive view of his predecessor.  By 1910, Roosevelt had returned to a public speaking tour against his own hand-picked successor.

The federal government needed to assume a larger role in the lives of every-day Americans, argued Roosevelt, who, despite repeated assurances that he was done with politics, challenged Taft for the 1912 Republican nomination.  When asked if he was up to another campaign season, Roosevelt replied he was ready and felt as “fit as a bull moose”.

The final split came with the June Republican party convention in Chicago, when the party rejected Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” platform, nominating Taft as its standard bearer for re-election.  Roosevelt and his reform-minded supporters broke with the party, forming the “Progressive”, or “Bull Moose” party, as the Democratic convention selected former Princeton University President and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, to be its candidate.  This was going to be a three-way race.

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1912 Election

John Flammang Schrank emigrated to America in 1885, at the age of 9.  His parents died a short time after, leaving him to work for an uncle, a tavern keeper in the Kleindeutschland, (“Little Germany”) section of New York.  Schrank’s aunt and uncle left him a sizeable inheritance on their passing, in hopes that he would live a quiet and peaceful life.  Schrank was heartbroken at losing this, his second set of parents.  When his first and only girlfriend Emily Ziegler died in the General Slocum disaster of 1904, John Schrank became unhinged.

He drifted up and down the east coast for several years.  In September 1912, he became obsessed with Theodore Roosevelt.  For three weeks, John Schrank followed the Roosevelt campaign, stalking the candidate across eight states.  On the afternoon of October 14, Roosevelt was in Milwaukee, dining with local dignitaries at the Hotel Gilpatrick, before a planned speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium.  As the former President was getting into his vehicle, he turned to wave to well-wishers. Schrank was four or five feet away when he fired his .38 caliber revolver, hitting the former President in the chest.

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John Flammang Schrank smiles as he’s taken into custoy for the attempted assassination of Theodore Roosevelt

The bullet pierced the fifty folded pages of Roosevelt’s speech and a metal spectacle case, before lodging in his chest.  The former President coughed once into his hand, to see if there was blood.  Seeing none, TR concluded that his lungs were fine, and decided to give the speech.  The 9000+-member audience was stunned when the candidate announced “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!” Roosevelt spoke for 80 minutes, before going to a Milwaukee hospital for treatment.

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Roosevelt x-ray

Theodore Roosevelt lived the rest of his life with that bullet in his chest.  Six more years. As for John Schrank, he claimed in a letter found on his person, that the ghost of William McKinley had instructed him to avenge his death with the assassination of his former Vice President.  He would live out the rest of his days at the Central State Mental Hospital for the criminally insane, in Waupun, Wisconsin.

Schrank letter

Woodrow Wilson easily defeated his opponents to become the 28th President of the United States, garnering 435 electoral votes to his opponents’ combined total, of 96.

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Fifty pages long and folded in half, Elbert Martin holds the speech that saved TR’s life

September 28, BC551 The Power of an Idea

Many of the man’s teachings are as fresh and meaningful today as when he himself trod the earth, 2½ thousand years ago.

A boy was born this day in the Zou state of eastern China, a region now known as the Shandong Province. 

The year was BC551.  He was born into the class of Shi, one of four loose castes or “categories of people” comprising the social structure of ancient China and represented by “gentry scholars”.  Kǒng Fūzǐ (Master Kǒng) was educated in the “six arts”:  Traditional Rites, Music, Archery, Chariotry, Calligraphy and Arithmetic, the mastery of which was believed to represent a state of perfection known as junzi, or “respectable person”.

Kǒng’s father Kǒng He died when the boy was three. He was raised in poverty by his mother, Yan Zhengzai.  Even as a teenager, the boy showed a voracious appetite for learning, a trait which would serve him well, in later life.

Kǒng Fūzǐ worked a number of government jobs through his twenties such as bookkeeper and caretaker for sheep and horses and finally, “Minister of Crime”. He is best remembered not for his political career however, but as the learned teacher, scholar and philosopher, his name transliterated by a 16th-century Jesuit missionary as…Confucius.

 Confucius’ teachings emphasized personal and governmental morality, uprightness in social relationships, respect for family and the veneration of ancestors.  2,500 years later, countless tidbits of conventional wisdom begin with the words “Confucius say“.

Many of the man’s teachings are as fresh and meaningful today as when he himself trod the earth, 2½ thousand years ago.

A disciple called Zi Gong once asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” Centuries later, the master’s response would find voice in the great Jewish scholars Hillel and Philo of Alexandria, and in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Seneca. We in the West, know it as “The Golden Rule”. The Teacher replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

To some, Confucianism represents a continuation of an aboriginal Chinese religion, dating back some three thousand years.

Confucius himself claimed to have invented nothing, that he was only transmitting ancient ideas, but European admirers such as Voltaire saw in his teachings not the endless inheritance of “noble virtue” but a “meritocracy” of a sort which would have been familiar to the American founding fathers. A belief system in which the virtuous commoner who cultivates the teachings of the master was a superior being, better in every way to the shameless and wastrel sons of kings.

Such thinking took hold during the mid-Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907) in the form of “Imperial Examinations”, and lasted until the late Qing reforms of 1905. In theory, Confucian meritocracy took the form of written examinations, necessary to enter the civil service. In practice, the three-tiered examination produced a vast unemployable class among those holding the shengyuan or basic degree, while the highest or jinshi achieved degrees of difficulty to be feared as nothing short of savage.

Hong Xiuquan (born “Hong Huoxiu” on January 1, 1814) began studying for the exam, at age 5. By six the boy could recite from memory, the Four Books of Confucianism. Preliminary civil service examinations were easy for a boy who placed first and yet, the third level remained elusive. Years later, Hong Huoxiu took his first stab at the jinshi, an exam which fewer that 1%, ever passed. There was a second attempt at age 22 and a third in 1837 and each time…defeat. It was too much. His was a lifetime’s labor met with failure and the nervous and mental breakdown, was absolute. Hallucinations wracked his body and his mind for weeks and, when he emerged, he did so as the younger brother of Jesus Christ. According to him, quite literally.

Hong set about burning and destroying all the Confucian and Buddhist statues and books he could find, first in his home village and then others. The uprising of the “God Worshippers” would cascade and grow to straight-out civil war. Twenty to thirty million Chinese lay dead by the end of the “Taiping Rebellion”, by some counts as many as 70 million, a death toll only surpassed by World War II, some 100 years later.

Today, a likeness of the Master appears on a marble frieze, located on the courtroom’s south wall of the United States Supreme Court, along with the likes of Hammurabi, Octavian, Moses and Solomon.

Fun Fact: The Analects of Confucius is a written record of the sayings of the philosopher and his contemporaries, compiled in the centuries following his death in BC479. 

In it, a follower called Yen Yüan asked the Master about perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him”. 

“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked Yen Yüan, to which the Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety.  Listen not to what is contrary to propriety.  Speak not what is contrary to propriety.  Make no movement which is contrary to propriety”.

The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.

In medieval Japanese, mi-zaru, kika-zaru, and iwa-zaru translate as “don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak”, -zaru being an archaic negative verb conjugation and pronounced similarly to “saru”, the word for monkey.

The visual play on words, then, depicts Mizaru, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, covering his ears, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth. Although it’s rare to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey. Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, the name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.

The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from the Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”. He is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Gandhi owned almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948, preferring instead, a life of simplicity and poverty. Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles, and a carved set of 3 monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

September 1 (estimated), 911 Normandy

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.

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

In the year 911, these “Norsemen” or “Normans” attacked the city of Paris. By July, they 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 people 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 loyalty to Charles.

Rollo the Walker

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

So it was the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day or thereabouts 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.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

At some point in the proceedings, The Walker 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. The chieftain motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the king’s foot. The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes

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

August 6, 2011 Tell me a Story

In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol returned from World War 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided his family a decent standard of living, but his heart wasn’t in it.  What Sabol liked more than anything else, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film Steve’s games. He found that he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong  it blew the ball off the tee three times, before opening kickoff.  Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

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The league’s 14 owners rejected commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal to buy out the filmmaker, instead giving him $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight reel for each club.

Thus was born the storybook production company, called NFL Films.  The production style was unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you yourself were personally, on the field.

With the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small compared with the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on this day in 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at the time, a condition which would take his life the following September.   In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.