December 28, 1914 A Little Kindness

Small acts of kindness abound throughout the long and sordid history of human strife. You need only look for them.

John Rabe was a German businessman working for Siemens China Corporation for thirty years first in Mukden, Peking and Tientsin and later Shanghai and finally, Nanking. Along the way he joined the Nazi party rising to Deputy Group Leader, in local party operations.

Germany had longstanding economic ties with China during this time while WW1 found Germany and Japan, on opposite sides. During the 1930s, aggressively militaristic views brought the former adversaries, into common cause. Meanwhile, the Great Depression brought about a slowdown in Sino-German trade. The second Sino-Japanese war saw Nazi Germany take sides with Japan, a conflict culminating in one of the great atrocities of a century, full of government atrocities. The 1937 rape of Nanking.

Rabe estimated the Nanking massacre resulted in the death of 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese civilians while later estimates put the number, as high as 250,000. Committed Nazi though he was Rabe used his party credentials to appeal to Japanese authorities delaying the inevitable and allowing nearly a quarter million, to escape.

Scene from John Rabe, the movie

Returning to Berlin in 1938 Rabe delivered lectures featuring films and photographs of Japanese atrocities, in Nanking. He wrote Hitler himself asking the Fuhrer to intervene but the letter, was never delivered. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo before being released, at Siemans’ behest.

Rabe was arrested and interrogated after the war first by the Soviet NKVD and later, the British Army. A lengthy “de-Nazification” process and subsequent legal appeals left the Rabe family impoverished subsisting on wild seeds, dry bread, and little more. Dire as they were the family’s circumstances could have been worse. On hearing of their plight the citizens of Nanking raised some $2,000 USD, to help. Nanking’s Mayor personally traveled to Berlin in 1948 to deliver a stockpile of food, for the family. From mid-1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking continued to send the Rabe family a “Care package”, every month.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika

Much the same could be said of the “Lion of Africa“, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Returning home from German East Africa in the wake of WW1 Lettow-Vorbeck was a conquering hero, the only German commander of the Great War, undefeated in the field.

Vorbeck came to detest the upstart Hitler who eagerly attempted to recruit him, to the Nazi party. But for his war hero status Vorbeck’s invitation that Hitler go “f–k himself” may have earned him a firing squad. As it was the man lived out his days financially destitute with his home destroyed by allied bombs and heartbroken, over the loss of two sons. For a time Vorbeck was able to survive mostly by the help of food packages sent by adversaries from the earlier war, British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts.

The Hutu are an agricultural people living in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the largest of three distinct groups with 85% of the population in Rwanda, and Burundi. The Tutsis are a cattle herding people who, despite minority status represent the historic ruling class in a three-tiered patronage/client system not unlike the social system, of ancient Rome. At the bottom are the Twa people, an ancient pygmy hunter/gatherer caste representing less than 1 percent of the population.

In late 20th-century Rwanda, political power lay with the Tutsi minority. Rwanda entered a four-year civil war in 1990 with the aid of neighboring, Uganda.

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcast between July 8, 1993 and July 31, 1994. Called by many “the soundtrack to genocide” RTLM reached most of the Rwandan population with a program of contemporary music interspersed with a vile stream of racist hate propaganda directed by Hutu hardliners toward the Tutsi minority, Hutu moderates and others.

Kantano Habimana was a regulair on-air personality fond of suggesting that “those who have guns [to] immediately go to these cockroaches [and] encircle them and kill them…” The station’s only female presenter, Valérie Bemeriki would exhort listeners to “not kill those cockroaches with a bullet — cut them to pieces with a machete”. Belgium born Georges Ruggiu, the station’s only white personality reminded listeners that “graves were waiting to be filled“.

Talk about Hate Radio.

A vile youth group came into being during this time, called the Interahamwe. The name translates as “Those who work together” but native speakers understood. “Work” referred to killing. Guns were distributed to older members while the younger militia stockpiled machetes and other farm implements. Teachers instructed children to ask parents about their ethnicity and report their findings, back to school. Lists were compiled.

Rwanda under President Juvénal Habyarimana was a one-party dictatorship rife, with electoral fraud. The spark came on April 6, 1994 when the aircraft carrying the president was shot down, with no survivors.

The call went out within hours, across RTLM radio. It was “time to cut down the tall trees“. The average Tutsi stands nearly five inches taller than the average Hutu with many reaching seven feet and more. No one doubted what that meant.

Husbands turned on wives, neighbor on neighbor in a 100-day orgy of violence shocking, even by 20th century standards. Interahamwe militias and others fanned out across Rwanda with guns, machetes, hammers and clubs, savagely attacking Tutsis, even moderate Hutus and Twa. Every ten to twelve seconds for 100 days someone was murdered. Usually, hacked to pieces.

Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, managed the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali. Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana, a Tutsi, fled with the children but never made it to Kigali airport. Targeted by messages broadcast on RTLM radio Tatiana’s truck was singled out from her convoy, and attacked. She was among the lucky ones and managed to flee, to the hotel. Like African Oskar Schindlers the couple took in 1,268 Tutsi and Hutu refugees and hid them, for the duration.

They were the lucky ones. Tatiana herself lost her mother, brother, sister-in-law and four nieces and nephews in the genocide. Her father paid Hutu militia to shoot him outright and not subject him, to a more painful death.

“ With their machetes they would cut your left hand off. Then they would disappear and reappear a few hours later to cut off your right hand. A little later they would return for your left leg etc. They went on till you died. They wanted to make you suffer as long as possible. There was one alternative: you could pay soldiers so they would just shoot you. That’s what her [Tatiana’s] father did”.

Paul Rusesabagina

Rusesabagina himself lost four of eight siblings, a “comparatively lucky outcome” for a Rwandan family.

The Rusesabaginas were not alone in grasping for some shred of decency in the charnel house that was Rwanda during those three months, in 1994. The 22-year-old Hutu Olive Mukankusi found herself walking down a row of torched and burned out homes when she chanced upon two Tutsi girls 15 and 17 dazedly walking among the rubble. Former neighbors, Mukankusi knew what awaited these girls when the militias returned. She hid them in a banana beer pit, behind her two-room dirt floor home.

Olive knew that she herself would be killed if found out and yet she added a third, a 55-year-old woman, to her backyard hiding hole. The best of our kind met the worst when Olive was betrayed to the Interhamwe, by a neighbor. Brought to one of many killing places the four were saved only by the discovery of 20,000 francs sewed into the hem of Olive’s skirt, equivalent to $140 USD. She had just sold the year’s crop. It was all she had.

Olive Mukankusi, now 47

Taking the money the would-be killers wandered off, probably in search of something to drink. Olive’s husband supported her throughout the ordeal and yet was imprisoned for twelve years suspected of being a killer, and not a protector. No good deed goes unpunished.

No fewer than 300 such episodes have been identified during those 90-days in Rwanda when as few as a half-million were hacked to death by their neighbors and perhaps, as many as 1.2 million.

With over 200,000 combatants the Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the largest and bloodiest battles, of the American Civil War.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland gathered up as many canteens as he could carry and stepped into the no man’s land, between the two watching armies.  Sergeant Kirkland stayed out there for an hour and a half while no one fired. None so much as even moved.  There between two hostile armies which had only yesterday torn each other to bits, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” tended to the wounded and dying adversary here straightening out a shattered leg and there covering a wounded man with a warm overcoat and always, the mercy of a drink of water.

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Under cover as a visiting nurse Irena Sendler removed as many as 2,400 Jewish infants and children and another 100 teenagers from the Warsaw ghetto with the help of a little dog, trained to bark at Nazi soldiers.

Irena Sendler

Sendler would travel daily to the ghetto, and soon started to smuggle Jewish babies out in the bottom of a medical bag.  She’d place soiled bandages around and over sedated babies to keep guards from looking too closely. She carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck. Sometimes she’d use that or even a coffin to smuggle larger children and even teenagers out of the ghetto, other times leading them out through cellars or sewers.

She was caught by the Gestapo in 1943, betrayed by a colleague under torture, and by a nosy landlady.  Nazi interrogators beat her savagely, but she never gave up any of those children.

Irena lasted 100 days in Pawiak prison, a place where the average inmate survived less than a month.  She was at last returned to the Gestapo and stood against a wall for execution, too broken to care. One SS guard said “not you” and roughly shoved her out of the door, and into the street. He’d been bribed by her friends and was himself later discovered, and executed.

The B-17 bomber “Ye Olde Pub” made a successful run against the munitions factory in Bremen, but paid a terrible price. The aircraft was savaged by German fighters, great parts of the air frame torn away, a wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn 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.

Pilot Charles Brown had been knocked out at one point and came around just in time to avert a fatal dive. Barely able to maintain altitude and well inside of German air space the pilot’s blood ran cold at the sight of that sleek German fighter arriving just off his left wing tip.

The two men were so close they could look into each other’s eyes.

“He’s going to destroy us,” the American said out loud. This was his first mission.  He was sure it was about to be his last.

Franz Stigler needed only one more kill to become an Ace and this one, was going to be easy. Except, peering into the eyes of his adversary Stigler remembered the words of his flight instructor, Hans Roedel. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy” Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

Stigler knew the Nazis would shoot him if he got this close without making the kill and so he signaled “proceed”, and he peeled away.

Charles Brown and Franz Stigler met many years later and became fast friends, and frequent fishing buddies. The pair died only six months apart when Stigler was 92 and Brown, 87.

In their obituaries, each man was mentioned as the other’s “Special Brother”.

Perhaps the best known of many such acts of human kindness began on Christmas eve 1914 and continued through this day and in some sectors, for another two weeks.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

Tommies responded back. Silent Night. They saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

In the wake of the Doolittle raid of 1942, 250,000 Chinese civilians were destroyed by Japanese soldiers in the hunt for the American flyers. Not one was ever betrayed.

So, as we close this Christmas season 2021 and turn to a new year we might remember, that these stories are but a few. Our kind is capable of great savagery but also, great kindness.

What if it’s as simple as that and it’s always been, nothing more than a choice?

December 25, 1942 Dreaming of a White Christmas

White Christmas hit Number 1 on the Hit Parade that November, and never looked back. By Christmas day 1942 the song had barely made it halfway through a ten-week run, at the top spot.

Israel was the youngest of eight children borne of the Baline Family in western Siberia and emigrated to the United States, in 1893. In grammar school “Izzy” delivered telegrams and sold newspapers, to help with family finances. Israel’s father Moses died when the boy was only 13 and he took work as a “ Busker”, to support himself.

Everyone who will read this has bought a record I suspect, but the sale of music came long before the age of the phonograph. Buskers or “song pluggers” would perform songs in vaudeville theaters, railroad stations and even street corners in hopes of selling sheet music, of the latest songs.

Even at a young age Israel Baline had a pleasing voice and a natural ear, for music. By 16 he was a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in New York’s Chinatown. It was there he taught himself to play the piano and to compose music, with the help of a friend. The boy’s first published work led to a name change when Marie from Sunny Italy came back from the publisher, with a typo. I. Baline was now I. Berlin.

At least that’s the story. Others will tell you Irving Berlin changed his name to sound less ethnic. Be that as it may, the author of American standards like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, had come of age.

In 1911, Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” sold a million copies and inspired a dance craze still remembered, to this day.

Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” during World War 1 but only used it, in 1938. A love song to an adopted country from a kid escaped from the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms of the age the song went on to earn $9.6 million. Every dime of it was donated to the Boy Scouts of America, and Campfire Girls.

Christmas was an unhappy time for Irving Berlin. A devoted husband of 62 years Irving and Ellin (Mackay) lost their only son (also Irving) on Christmas day in 1928, to Sudden Infant death Syndrome. Every year at Christmas was an occasion to visit their baby’s grave.

Berlin wrote the best selling record of all time in 1941 but it didn’t start out, the way you might think. In 1940, the composer signed to score a musical for paramount Pictures, about a retired vaudeville performer who opened an inn. The hook was that this particular inn was only open, on holidays. “Holiday Inn” would guide the viewer through a years’ worth of holidays, in music.

As for White Christmas that started out, as a spoof. A satire sung under a palm tree by music industry sophisticates enjoying drinks, around a Beverly hills swimming pool:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L. A.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up north….
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
(Chorus continues)

Bing Crosby was already famous in 1941. Berlin agreed to include White Christmas in the film, provided that Crosby perform the tune. Crosby himself was on board, from day 1. On hearing the song he told Berlin “You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving.”

And then the world changed. A mighty sucker punch came out of the east on December 7, 1941, a sneak attack by the air and naval forces of imperial Japan on the American Pacific naval anchorage, at Pearl Harbor.

President Franklin Roosevelt asked for and received a congressional declaration of war on Japan, on December 8. Nazi Germany piled on and declared war on the United States, three days later. The US had entered World War 2.

A generation of men signed up for the draft including Bing Crosby. He would prove too old but this was a loyal American. Crosby would use his gifts at every opportunity and perform for the troops.

Seventeen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor was Christmas eve, 1941. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that even then, the last survivors on board the USS Oklahoma down there at the bottom of Pearl Harbor were making their last marks on the wall of that black, upside down place in the vain hope of a rescue, that would never come.

Bing Crosby performed the track live that Christmas eve and over the following January, the shortwave broadcast of the Kraft Music Hall reaching troops then fighting for their lives on Corregidor and the Philippines. The set list always started out with a tune, destined to become the official anthem of the US Army: “AS The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”.

President Roosevelt asked Hollywood to step up, and do its part. Crosby and others formed the Hollywood Victory Caravan in support of the war effort, Carey Grant, Desi Arnaz, Olivia de Havilland and others raising over $700,000 in support of the Army and Navy Relief Society.

When Holiday Inn was released in 1942 Berlin expected Be Careful It’s My Heart to be a hit, a song tied in the film, to Valentine’s day. But a funny thing happened. White Christmas was received by the people who heard it not as satire but a heartfelt reminder of Christmases past and a promise, of Christmas yet to come. Soldiers abroad and their families dreamed alike of a white Christmas, “just like the ones I used to know“.

That first verse quietly went away, never to return.

Fun Fact: Despite Berlin’s songwriting success he didn’t write music and only played the piano in F Sharp. He bought special transposing keyboards so his songs didn’t all sound the same and paid music secretaries to notate and transcribe, his music.

Crosby himself had mixed feelings about performing White Christmas. “I hesitated about doing it” he once told an interviewer, ” because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad. Heaven knows, I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”

White Christmas hit Number 1 on the Hit Parade that November, and never looked back. By Christmas day 1942 the song had barely made it halfway through a ten-week run, at the top spot.

Bing Crosby appeared in over 70 radio shows over the course of the war including 30 Command Performance spots, 13 on Mail Call, 5 appearances on Song Sheet, 19 on GI Journal and at least twice on Jubilee, all in addition to his regular Kraft Music Hall show transcribed on discs and personal appearances before troops on the front lines. A survey among soldiers after the war revealed that Bing Crosby had accomplished more in support of troop morale than Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or even, Bob Hope.

Bing Crosby signing autographs in France, in 1944

It’s a new perspective to look at one of the seminal events of the 20th century, through the eyes of the artist. Imagine for a moment you are Bing Crosby himself, performing for the troops in Belgium and France and Luxembourg in December, 1944. What must it have been like a month later to realize that 75,000 of those men were now casualties in the last great feat of German arms of World War 2, the Battle of the Bulge.

Bing Crosby performing for the troops in 1944

Today, the Guinness Book of World Records names Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” not only the best-selling Christmas single in the United States, but also the best-selling single of all time with estimated sales of over 50 million copies, worldwide.

I hope you enjoyed this story and wish a you Merry Christmas and a safe, healthy and prosperous new year.. May this be the first of many more.

Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”.

December 24, 1814 I’ll have the Miss Piggott Special

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Infamous “crimps” like James “Shanghai” Kelly were happy to help, with both problems.

In modern times, governments have employed various strategies to meet the personnel needs of national armed services. Recruiting methods range from voluntary to compulsory service, and even a lottery or other form of draft, in times of national emergency.

During the age of sail, vast numbers of skilled and unskilled seamen alike, were required to meet the needs of naval vessels at sea. Governments resorted to more straightforward methods of meeting manpower requirements, namely, kidnapping.

Such involuntary service or “impressment”, was first made legal during Elizabethan times, but the practice dates back to the 13th century.

impressment-of-american-sailors-granger

“Press gangs” would patrol waterfronts looking for vagrants, raiding taverns and even pouncing on unsuspecting victims in their beds. Prints from the time show armed gangs barging into weddings and hauling away the groom. I can’t imagine the bride was too pleased but, good news. In 1835 the practice was limited to a single impressment per man with a maximum term of impressment, of five years.

Such “pressing” often took place at sea, where armed gangs would board merchant ships and take what they needed, sometimes leaving victims without sufficient hands to take them safely back to port.

Such methods were essential to the strength of the British Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often targets. The British Navy impressed over 15,000 American sailors alone, between 1793 and 1812.

impress

The American public was outraged and there were calls for war in 1807, when HMS Leopard overtook the USS Chesapeake, kidnapping three American-born sailors and one British deserter, leaving another three dead and 18 wounded.

This time, American retaliation took the form of an embargo. Five years later, continued impressment of American seamen would be a casus belli for the war of 1812, a conflict ended with the Treaty of Ghent signed this day, in 1814.

Crimping 1

Outside of the British Royal Navy, the practice of kidnapping men to serve as shipboard labor was known as “crimping”. Low wages combined with the gold rushes of the 19th century left the waterfront painfully short of manpower, skilled and unskilled. “Boarding Masters” had the job of putting together ship’s crews, and were paid for each recruit. There was strong incentive to produce as many able bodies, as possible. Unwilling men were “shanghaied” by means of trickery, intimidation or violence, most often rendered unconscious and delivered to waiting ships, for a fee.

Crimps made $9,500 or more per year in the 1890s, equivalent to over a quarter-million, today. The practice flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. You also didn’t want to be caught out alone and drunk, in east coast port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Today the area from North Beach to Jackson Square in San Francisco, is ‘Frisco’s’ Chinatown. During the Gold Rush era this was the infamous Barbary Coast, a raucous red-light district of taverns and whorehouses where fewer left, than than ever came in.

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Happy to help with both problems James “Shanghai” Kelly kept several bars and a boarding house on the Barbary Coast. This character once shanghai’d 100 guys, in a single evening.

In the early 1870s, Kelly rented the paddleboat Goliath and widely publicized a free booze cruise, to celebrate his birthday. Bartenders drugged unwitting revelers with opium-laced whiskey, and then offloaded them to waiting ships. Shanghai Kelly’s biggest concern was returning after such a public event, with an empty boat. His luck held, when another paddle wheel steamer, the Yankee Blade, struck a rock and began to sink. Goliath rescued everyone on board, and continued the party. Nobody back at the waterfront, noticed a thing.

The Laurel & Hardy short film “Live Ghost” (1934) is about the practice, of crimping

Joseph “Bunko” Kelley was another infamous crimp, also working out of the San Francisco waterfront. The “King of Crimps”, Kelley once set a record rounding up 50 guys in three hours. The Bunko name stuck, when Kelley delivered one crewman for $50, who turned out to be a cigar store Indian. In 1893, Kelley delivered 22 guys who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid, from a local mortuary. He sold them all for $52 apiece though most of them were dead, a fact to which the ship’s captain only became wise, after returning to sea.

Crimping 3, Bunko Kelley
James “Bunko” Kelley

The “Shanghai tunnels” of Portland run through the Old Town/Chinatown section to the main business district, connecting the basements of hotels and taverns to the waterfront at the Willamette River. The tunnels themselves are real enough, though their history is shrouded in mystery. Originally constructed to move goods from the Willamette waterfront to basement storage areas, the number of unconscious bodies hustled down the dark chambers of the Portland Underground”, remains unknown. There are those who will tell you, the practice continued well into the WW2 period.

State and federal legislatures passed measures to curb the practice after the Civil War, but crimping didn’t go away easily. In their heyday, the owners of sailor’s boarding houses had endless supplies of manpower, fanning out across polling places to “vote early and often”.

crimping 2

San Francisco political bosses William T. Higgins, (R) and Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley (D) were both notable crimps, and well positioned to look after their political interests. Notorious crimps such as Joseph “Frenchy” Franklin and George Lewis were elected to the California state legislature. There was no better spot from which to ensure that no legislation would interfere with such a lucrative trade.

A brief list of infamous crimps includes Andy “Shanghai Canuck” Maloney of Vancouver, Anna Gomes of San Francisco, New Bedford’s own “Shanghai Joe” and Tom Codd the “Shanghai Prince”. William “Billy” Gohl, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” of Aberdeen Washington, also happened to be, a serial killer.

In the 1860s and 70s, one “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. This “ferocious old harridan” would maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door and serve them her “Miss Piggott Special,” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with either laudanum, or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall to the waiting mattress, below.

(From left) Colonel Jack Gamble, Miss Piggott and Sam Roberts of the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday June 18, 2014. (photo by Beck Diefenbach / Madam Tussauds)

Imagine the hangover the next morning, to wake up and find you’re now at sea, bound for somewhere in the far east. Regulars knew about the trap door and avoided that thing at all costs, knowing that anyone going over there, was “fair game”.

Widespread adoption of steam power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did as much to curb shanghaiing as did any legislative effort. Without acres of canvas to furl and unfurl, the need for unskilled labor was greatly diminished. The “Seaman’s Act of 1915”, sometimes called the “magna carta of sailor’s rights,” ended the practice for good.

You might want to do yourself a favor, though, if you’re ever at Miss Piggott’s place. Look out for that trap door.

December 23, 1884 American Hippo

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “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”.

Only hours from now, families will gather far and near around, 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 that silver tray the golden brown, delicious, roast hippopotamus.

Wait…Umm…What?

water-hyacinth-eichornia-crassipes
Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, 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 delicate purple and blue flowers floating across tranquil ponds on a mat of thick, dark green leaves.

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”, an 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.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During 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 a free-range hippo herd could produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “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.

All well and good.  The problem is, those things are dangerous.

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

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

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Be 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.

Back to Broussard’s bill, 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 averted.  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 men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for four years for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream.  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.  Forget the Dos Equis guy. Frederick Burnham really was the “most interesting man in the world“.

Fritz Duquesne? Well that’s another matter. Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla 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, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to become a German spy it is he who lends his name to the infamous Duquesne Spy Ring.  Frederick Burnham described this, 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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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 is 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.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote but never entirely went 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 was already happening, 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 “Superbugs”. 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.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

That 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’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the hippopotamus came out of the oven.

December 20, 1812 The Horrors of the German Language

“In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language”. – Mark Twain

Planning a business trip from Sunny Cape Cod™ to Presque Isle Maine I found myself pondering. What shall I do with the eternity it will take me to get there, or six hours, fifty minutes, whichever comes first? I hit upon the idea of teaching myself German, and why not? Books on Tape are free at my local library. I shall arrive at my meeting with mind fresh and horizons expanded by new adventures, in learning.

Right.

I emerged from my rolling inquisition some seven hours later, blinking like a marmot, flummoxed, exhausted and thoroughly convinced, of my own inadequacy. How the hell is anyone supposed to learn that stuff?

Illustration by Max Kellerer from German edition of Die Million Pfund-Note from the Dave Thomson collection

Turns out, I was not alone. No less a giant of the literary world than Mark Twain once said a person of modest gift could learn English in 30 hours, French in thirty days and German, in thirty years.

“I would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”

Mark Twain

Consider for example, verb separation. The German verb ankommen is a separable verb, a trait wisely shunned by the rest of the world’s 6,500 languages save Dutch, Afrikaans and Hungarian:

a. Sie kommt sofort an. she comes immediately at – ‘She is arriving immediately.’
b. Sie kam sofort an. she came immediately at – ‘She arrived immediately.’
c. Sie wird sofort ankommen. she will immediately at.come – ‘She will arrive immediately.’
d. Sie ist sofort angekommen. she is immediately at.come – ‘She arrived immediately.’

Der Zungenbrecker: Tongue Twister, or literally, The Tongue Breaker

And forget about Gender. Every noun has a gender in German for which there are no means save brute memorization, to learn. Then it turns out, a young lady has no gender at all while a turnip, does. A fish scale has a gender but a fishwife, an actual female, does not.

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it”.

Mark Twain, a Tramp Abroad

Take an art class sometime and the first thing you’ll learn about, is perspective. In the German language whole sentences run together into single words so long as themselves, to have perspective. Consider “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen“. For the German as a second language learner, what does that even mean!? The native speaker will tell you that means, General Assemblies. For the rest of us it’s all in the perspective.

‘Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.’

Mark Twain

Today we remember Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm for their collection of folklore and fairy tales, first published on this day in 1812 and expanded seven times, by 1857. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. There are few among us not steeped in the work of these two but, did you know? The Grimm brothers also wrote the dictionary of the German language? Well, sort of.

Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm needed to pay the rent. Taking a local publisher up on its offer to create a dictionary of the German language the first part was released on this day, in 1852. Two years later, the project included ‘A’ all the was to “Biermolke”. (Beer whey). “Biermolke” through E came about in 1860 the year after Wilhelm, died. Jacob died three years later with the last entry, “Frucht,” (Fruit).

The Grimm brothers project outlived the formation of the German state and two world wars coming at last to completion, in 1961.

The “Deutsches Wörterbuch“, the dictionary of the German language fills a whopping 330,000 headwords in 32 volumes, but that’s not all. The structure of the language allows users to stay within grammatical rules and yet combine words in ways bewildering to the non-native speaker. This tower of babel amounts to a befuddling 5.3 million words according to some sources with as many as a third, introduced in the last 100 years.

By way of comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary is enough to make a bookshelf groan with 171,146 words plus another 47,156 obsolete terms all contained, in 20 bound volumes. 

124 years in compiling and THAT, was by native speakers. So, about that 30 years thing, to learn the German language. Sure thing, Mark ol’ buddy . Sure thing.

December 18, 1944 Typhoon

Hulls would creak and groan with the pounding and rivets popped. Captains in wheelhouses would order course headings, but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended course. Some ships rolled more than 70°. The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock, scooped tons of water onto its flight decks, 57-feet above the surface.


In September 1935, the Imperial Japanese Navy was caught in foul weather while conducting wargame maneuvers. By the 26th, the storm had reached Typhoon status.  The damage to the Japanese fleet was near catastrophic. Two large destroyers had their bows torn away by heavy seas. Several heavy cruisers suffered major structural damage.  Submarine tenders and light aircraft carriers developed serious cracks in their hulls. One minelayer required near total rebuild and virtually all fleet destroyers suffered damage to superstructures. 54 crewmen lost their lives.

Nine years later, it would be the turn of the American fleet.

The war in the Pacific was in its third year in December 1944. A comprehensive defeat only weeks earlier had dealt the Imperial Japanese war effort a mortal blow at Leyte Gulf, yet the war would slog on for the better part of another year.

Carrier Task Force 38 was a massive assembly of warships, a major element of the 3rd Fleet under the Command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.  In formation, TF-38 moved in three eight-mile diameter circles, each with an outer ring of destroyers, an inner ring of battleships and cruisers and a mixed core of 35,000-ton Essex class and smaller escort carriers. TF-38 was a massive force fielding eighty-six warships, all told.

By mid-December 1944, Task Force 38 was underway for three weeks, having just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines, suppressing enemy aircraft in support of American amphibious operations against Mindoro.  Ships were badly in need of re-supply.  A replenishment fleet, 35 ships in all, was sent to the nearest spot near Luzon still outside of Japanese fighter range. 

Rapid movement into previously enemy-held territory made it impossible to establish advance weather reporting.  By the time that Task Force meteorological service reports made it to ships in the operating area, weather reports were at least twelve hours old.

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Three days earlier, a barometric low pressure system had begun to form off Luzon, fed by the warm waters of the Philippine sea.  High tropospheric humidity fed and strengthened the disturbance as counter-clockwise winds began to develop around the low pressure center.  By the 18th, this once-small “tropical disturbance” had developed into a compact but powerful cyclone.

Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th as increasing winds and building seas made refueling increasingly difficult.  Refueling hoses were parted in several locations. Thick hawsers had to be cut to avoid collision as sustained winds built to 40 knots.  Believing the storm center to be 450 miles to his southeast, Admiral Halsey declined a return to base.  It would take too long and beside, and combat operations were scheduled to resume, two days later.  Halsey needed the carrier group refueled and on station, so it was decided.  Task Force 38 and the replenishment fleet would proceed to a second replenishment point, hoping to resume refueling operations on the morning of the 18th.

Cobra

Four times over the night of December 17-18, course was corrected in the search for calmer water.  Four times the ships of Task Force 38 and it’s attendant resupply ships turned each time moving closer to the eye of the storm.  2,200-ton destroyers pitched and rolled like corks, towering over the crest of 70-foot waves only to crash into the trough of the next, shuddering like cold dogs as decks struggled to shed thousands of tons of water.

Hulls creaked and groaned with the pounding. Rivets popped.  Captains in wheelhouses order course headings but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended direction.  Some ships rolled more than 70°.  The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock scooped tons of water onto its own flight decks, 57-feet up.

USS Cowpens during Typhoon Cobra

Typhoon Cobra reached peak ferocity between 1100 and 1400 with sustained winds of 100mph and gusts of up to 140.

The lighter destroyers got the worst of it, finding themselves “in irons” – broad side to the wind and rolling as much as 75° with no way to regain steering control.  Some managed to pump seawater into fuel tanks to increase stability, while others rolled and couldn’t recover, water cascading down smokestacks and disabling engines.

Cobra 4

146 aircraft were either wrecked or blown overboard.  The carrier USS Monterrey nearly went down in flames as loose aircraft crashed about on hanger decks and burst into flames.  One of those fighting fires aboard Monterrey was then-Lieutenant Gerald Ford, the former Michigan Wolverine center and future President of the United States.

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Many of the ships of TF-38 sustained damage to above-decks superstructure, knocking out radar equipment and crippling communications.

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790 Americans were killed by Typhoon Cobra:

USS Hull – with 70% fuel aboard, capsized and sunk with 202 men drowned. There were 62 survivors.
USS Monaghan – capsized and sunk with 256 men drowned. There were 6 survivors.
USS Spence – rudder jammed hard to starboard, capsized and sunk with 317 men drowned after hoses parted attempting to refuel from New Jersey because they had also disobeyed orders to ballast down directly from Admiral Halsey. There were 23 survivors.
USS Cowpens – hangar door torn open and RADAR, 20mm gun sponson, whaleboat, jeeps, tractors, kerry crane, and 8 aircraft lost overboard. One sailor lost.
USS Monterey – hangar deck fire killed three men and caused evacuation of boiler rooms requiring repairs at Bremerton Navy yard
USS Langley – damaged
USS Cabot – damaged
USS San Jacinto – hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts and sprinkling system causing widespread flooding. Damage repaired by USS Hector
USS Altamaha – hangar deck crane and aircraft broke loose and broke fire mains
USS Anzio – required major repair
USS Nehenta – damaged
USS Cape Esperance – flight deck fire required major repair
USS Kwajalein – lost steering control
USS Iowa – propeller shaft bent and lost a seaplane
USS Baltimore – required major repair
USS Miami – required major repair
USS Dewey – lost steering control, RADAR, the forward stack, and all power when salt water shorted main electrical switchboard
USS Aylwin – required major repair
USS Buchanan – required major repair
USS Dyson – required major repair
USS Hickox – required major repair
USS Maddox – damaged
USS Benham – required major repair
USS Donaldson – required major repair
USS Melvin R. Nawman – required major repair
USS Tabberer – lost foremast
USS Waterman – damaged
USS Nantahala – damaged
USS Jicarilla – damaged
USS Shasta – damaged “one deck collapsed, aircraft engines damaged, depth charges broke loose, damaged“

It could have been worse.  The destroyer escort USS Tabberer defied orders to return to port, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage conducting a 51-hour boxed search for survivors despite the egregious pounding being taken by his own vessel.  USS Tabberer plucked 55 swimmers from the water, survivors of the capsized destroyers Hull and Spence.

Cobra 7, Pittsburgh

Typhoon Cobra moved on overnight, December 19 dawning clear with brisk winds. Admiral Halsey ordered “All ships of the Task Force line up side-by-side at about ½ mile spacing and comb the 2800-square mile area” in which they’d been operating.  Carl M. Berntsen, SoM1/C aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven, recalled that “I saw the line of ships disappear over the horizon to starboard and to port”. The Destroyer USS Brown rescued six survivors from the Monaghan and another 13 from USS Hull.  18 more would be plucked from the water, 93 in all, by ships spread across fifty to sixty miles of open ocean.

When it was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz said typhoon Cobra “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”

Afterward

CARL MARTIN BERNTSEN PASSED AWAY ON OCTOBER 13TH, 2014 IN KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA. HE WOULD HAVE BEEN 94, THE FOLLOWING MONTH. I AM INDEBTED TO HIM AND HIS EXCELLENT ESSAY FOR THIS STORY.  VIRTUALLY ALL SHIPS OF TASK FORCE 38 WERE DAMAGED TO VARYINHG DEGREEs.

December 11, 1919 Monument, to a Bug

It was hardly coincidental that the thing was installed outside of Fleming’s General Store, but hey. This was a guy who let guinea hens loose inside his store and offered a discount, to anyone who could catch one. Roscoe Fleming had style.

Few machines have changed the course of history, like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

The long, hot summers of the southeastern United States have always been ideal for growing cotton, but there was a time when the stuff was extremely expensive to produce.  Cotton comes out wet from the boll, the protective capsule requiring about ten man hours just to remove the seeds to produce a pound of cotton.

By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.

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In 1792, the year that Whitney invented his machine, the southeastern United States exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and to the northern states.  Two years later, that number had risen to 1,600,000 pounds.  By the time of the Civil War, Britain alone was importing ¾ of the 800 million pounds it consumed every, from the American south.

Enterprise, Alabama got its start when John Henry Carmichael first settled there, in 1881.  Within a few years the Alabama Midland Railway came to Enterprise.  By the turn of the century the place was a major cotton growing hub.

Anthonomus grandis, the Boll Weevil, is a small beetle, about the size of the nail on your little finger. Indigenous to Mexico, the beetle crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, sometime around 1892.  The insect spread rapidly, producing eight to ten generations in a single growing season and preying mainly on the young cotton boll.

weevil in a ball of cotton

The insect is capable of destroying entire cotton crops and did just that in 1915, the year the insect reached Enterprise and most of Coffee County.  Facing economic ruin, local farmers were forced to diversify their crops, just to recoup the losses caused by this wretched insect.

Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the nation.  Not only had farmers been able to stave of disaster, but they were already becoming prosperous as a result of the thriving new crop base.

Town fathers decided to build a monument, their “herald of prosperity”, to the boll weevil.  The bug that had almost ruined them.

Roscoe Owen “Bon” Fleming

The idea was the brainstorm of one Roscoe Owen “Bon” Fleming, a man roadsideamerica.com describes as a “businessman, city councilman, and rogue promoter of the town of Enterprise”.

It was hardly coincidental that the thing was installed outside of Fleming’s General Store, but hey. This was a guy who let guinea hens loose inside his store and offered a discount, to anyone who could catch one. Roscoe Fleming had style.

Designed in Italy (or maybe not), the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head and holding in her hands, a trophy. Maybe the whole thing came from the Bama Iron Works 90 miles down the road, who knows. There’s nothing like a good story.

George Washington Carver

Critics railed against the $1,800 cost of the project, half of which came out of Fleming’s own pocket. The punditry also took aim at the subject of the monument. Why would you have a statue of a boll weevil in segregated Alabama when you could honor George Washington Carver, the African American agronomist who championed the peanut, in the first place?

Bon Fleming was not insensitive to such criticism and invited Carver to be the principal speaker, at the unveiling. It wasn’t meant to be. Rain washed out the tracks into town and Carver never made it.

So it is, a monument to a bug was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of the business district, of Enterprise Alabama.

Now, you can’t have a boll weevil monument without a boll weevil, right?  Thirty years later one Luther Baker added a bug to the top of the trophy.  A big one, about the size of a Bassett hound. At the base of the memorial appears this inscription: 

“In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

The original has been vandalized so many times it was moved it to a protected facility and a replica, put in its place.  So it is you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama, and there you will find a monument…to a bug.

December 10, 1986 Toxic Sanctuary

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone.

The accident 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 smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

Chernobyl_burning-aerial_view_of_core

Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of 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“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called 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 December 10 the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

Abandoned nursery
A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

Officials 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 that 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 apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km 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 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

Abandoned amusement park
Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There 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.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

Abandoned gym
View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

Today the descendants of those dogs, some 900 in number occupy an exclusion zone some 1,600 square miles, slightly smaller than the American state, of Delaware. They are not alone.

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In 1998, 31 specimens of the Przewalski Horse were released into the exclusion zone which now serves as a de facto wildlife preserve. Not to be confused with the American mustang or the Australian brumby, the Przewalski Horse is a truly wild horse and not the feral descendant, of domesticated animals.

Named by the 19th century Polish-Russian naturalist Nikołaj Przewalski, Equus ferus przewalskii split from ancestors of the domestic Equus caballus some 38,000 to 160,000 years ago, forming a divergent species where neither taxonomic group is descended, from the other. The last Przewalski stallion was observed in the wild in 1969. The species is considered extinct in the wild, since that time.

Today approximately 100 Przewalski horses roam the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone one of the larger populations of this, possibly the last of the truly wild horses, alive today.

In 2016, US government wildlife biologist Sarah Webster worked at the University of Georgia. Webster and others used camera traps to demonstrate how wildlife had colonized the exclusion zone, even the most contaminated parts. A scientific paper on the subject is linked HERE, if you’re interested.

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone. Wildlife spotted within the exclusion zone include wolves, badgers, swans, moose, elk, turtles, deer, foxes, beavers, boars, bison, mink, hares, otters, lynx, eagles, rodents, storks, bats and owls.

Not all animals thrive in this place. Invertebrates like spiders, butterflies and dragonflies are noticeably absent, likely because of eggs laid in surface soil layers which remain, contaminated. Radionuclides settled in lake sediments effect populations of fish, frogs, crustaceans and insect larvae. Birds in the exclusion zone have difficulty reproducing. Such animals who do successfully reproduce often demonstrate albinism, deformed beaks and feathers, malformed sperm cells and cataracts.

Tales abound of giant mushrooms, six-pawed rabbits and three headed dogs. While some such stories are undoubtedly exaggerated few such mutations survive the first few hours and those who do are unlikely to pass on the more egregious deformities.

Far from the post-apocalyptic wasteland of imagination the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a thriving preserve for some but not all, wildlife. Which brings us back to the dogs. Caught in a twilight zone neither feral nor domestic the dogs of Chernobyl are neither able to compete in the wild nor are many of them candidates for adoption, due to radiation toxicity.

Since 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.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America.

For most there is no future beyond this place and a life expectancy unlikely to exceed a span of five years.

Thirty five years after the world’s most devastating nuclear disaster a surprising number of people work in this place, on a rotating basis. Guards are stationed at access points whose job it is to control who gets in and to keep out unauthorized visitors, known as “stalkers”.

BBC wrote in April of this year about the strange companionship sprung up between these guards, and the dogs of Chernobyl. Jonathon Turnbull is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge. He was the first outsider to recognize the relationship and gave the guards disposable cameras, with which to record the lives of these abandoned animals. The guards around this toxic sanctuary had but a single request: “please, please – bring food for the dogs”.

December 9, 1952 The Great Smog

Visibility was down to a meter at times and driving, all but impossible. Public transportation shut down requiring those rendered sick by the fog, to transport themselves to the hospital.

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“Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. Czarek Sokolowski / AP” H/T CBS News, Inc.

In 2018, climate activists and world leaders gathered in Poland to discuss carbon pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, and ways to combat what they see as a future of anthropogenic global warming.

In a speech before the assembly, Arnold Schwarzenegger swore that he’d go back in time if he could and “terminate” oil, coal, gasoline and natural gas. “The biggest evil is fossil fuels” Schwarzenegger thundered, “it’s coal, it’s gasoline, it’s the natural gas”.

A doubling of average life expectancy in the US from 39.41 in 1860 to 78.81 in 2020 went entirely, unremarked. Perhaps allowing actors to direct public policy is a greater evil than fossil fuels, but I digress.

Adherents to currently fashionable climate change theories hold onto such ideas with a fervor bordering on the religious while skeptics raise any number of questions, but one thing is certain. There was a time when the air and the water around us was tainted with impunity, with sometimes deadly results.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio caught fire, resulting in property damage worth $100,000, equivalent to nearly $700,000, today. The fire resulted in important strategies to clean up the river, but this wasn’t the first such fire. The Cuyahoga wasn’t even the first river to catch fire. There were at least thirteen such incidents on the Cuyahoga, the first occurring in 1868. The Rouge River in Michigan caught fire in the area around Detroit in 1969, and a welder’s torch lit up the Buffalo River in New York, the year before. The Schuylkill River in Philadelphia caught fire from a match tossed into the water, in 1892.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River burning, in 1952. H/T Getty Images

Today, the coal silts, oil and chemical contaminants at the heart of these episodes are largely under control in the developed world, but not the world over. One section of Meiyu River in Wenzhou, Zhejiang China burst into flames in the early morning of March 5, 2014. Toxic chemical pollution and other garbage dumped into Bellandur Lake in Bangalore India resulted in part of the lake catching fire the following year, the fire spreading to the nearby Sun City apartments.

If you happen to visit the “Iron City”, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, photographs can be easily found of streetlights turned on in the middle of the day. In November 1939, St. Louis brought a new meaning to the term “Black Tuesday”, when photographs of the Federal building at Twelfth Boulevard and Market Street show the sun little more than a “pale lemon disk” and streetlights on at 9:00 in the morning.

Federal Building, St. Louis
Federal Building, St. Louis

Air pollution turned deadly in the early morning hours of October 26, 1948 when atmospheric inversion trapped fluorine gas over Donora Pennsylvania, home of US Steel Corporation’s Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire. By the 29th, the inversion had trapped so much grime that spectators gathered to watch a high school football game, couldn’t see the kids on the field. The “Death Fog” hung over Donora for four days killing 22 and putting half the town, in the hospital.

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Donora Smog at Midday with streetlights on. H/T Donora Historical Society

The Donora episode was caused by an “anticyclone”, a weather event in which a large high pressure front draws air down through the system and out in a clockwise motion.

When such a weather system occurs over areas with high levels of atmospheric contaminants, the resulting ground fog can be catastrophic. 63 people perished during a similar episode in 1930 in the Meuse River Valley area, of Belgium. In 1950, 22 people were killed in Poza Rica, Mexico. In 1952, the infamous “Great Smog of London” claimed the lives of thousands over a course of five days.

Nelson's_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952

On December 5 of that year, a body of cold, stagnant air descended over a near-windless London, trapped under a “lid” of warm air. London had suffered poor air quality since the 13th century and airborne pollutants had combined to create “pea soupers” in the past, but this was unlike anything in living memory. The smoke from home and industrial chimneys and other pollutants such as Sulphur dioxide combined with automobile exhaust, with nowhere to go.

Yellow-black particles of the stuff built and accumulated at an unprecedented rate. Visibility was down to a meter and driving, all but impossible. Public transportation shut down requiring those rendered sick by the fog, to transport themselves to the hospital.  Outdoor sporting events were canceled and even indoor air quality, was affected.  Weather conditions held until December 9 when the fog finally dispersed.

There was no panic. Londoners are quite accustomed to the fog, but this one was different. Over the weeks that followed, public health authorities estimated that 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog by December 8, and another 100,000 made permanently ill. Later research pointed to another 6,000 losing their lives in the following months, as a result of the event.

More recently, research puts the death toll of the Great Smog at 12,000.

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A similar event took place about ten years later in December 1962, but without the same lethal impact. A spate of environmental legislation in the wake of the 1952 disaster began to remove black smoke from chimneys.  Financial incentives moved homeowners away from open coal fires toward less polluting alternatives such as gas or oil, or less polluting coke.

Today, the wealthier, developed nations have made great strides toward improvement in air and water quality, though problems persist in the developing world.  In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that:

“[B]etween 1980 and 2017, gross domestic product increased 165 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 110 percent, energy consumption increased 25 percent, and U.S. population grew by 44 percent. During the same time period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 67 percent”.

EPA

The same report shows that, during the same period, CO2 emissions have increased by 12 percent.  Policy makers continue to wrangle over the long-term effects of carbon.  At this point, it’s hard to separate the politics from the science.

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While politicians and climate activists jet around the planet to devise trillion dollar “solutions” for “Global Warming”, let us hope that cooler heads than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, will prevail.  There is scarcely a man, woman or child among us who do not want clean air and clean water and a beautiful, natural environment around us, for ourselves and our posterity.  It is only a matter of how we get there.

December 8, 1941 The Game that Never Was

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. An outing like that was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, only not for the reason any of them expected.

In December 1941, the San Jose Spartans and the Willamette Bearcats of Oregon, went on the road. They were college kids, enjoying a few days in paradise and a chance to play, the game they loved. What could be better than that?

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. The Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13, followed by a Spartans- Bearcats matchup, on December 16.

An outing like that was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, only not for the reason any of them expected.

On December 7, 1941 a great sucker punch came out of the southeast. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Air Field and the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, lying at peace in the early morning sunshine of a quiet Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 80 years ago yesterday destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the Islamist terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

The President of the United States addressed a joint session of Congress on December 8, requesting a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

Back on the mainland, the families of players now stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive or dead. Hawaii was locked down, under Martial Law.

Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players were sent to work with Federal authorities and Honolulu police to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders. Willamette players were assigned World War 1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire on the beaches.

If you’ve heard of Punahou High School it probably involves the school’s most famous alumnus, the former US President Barack Obama. 80 years ago today all hell, was about to break loose at Punahou high.

United States Army Corps of Engineers troops began to appear at the Punahou gates at 1:00am, on December 8. By 5:00am, Dole Hall Cafeteria Manager Nina “Peggy” Brown was ordered to prepare breakfast, for 750 men. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.

Many players had never so much as handled a gun. Now in the darkness every shadow carried the menace, of an enemy soldier. Wild gunfire would break out at the sound of a stealthy invader which turned out to be nothing, but a falling coconut. Shirley McKay Hadley was a Willamette student in 1941 accompanied by her father, then serving as state Senator. She joked it all, many years later, “They were lucky they didn’t shoot each other.”

Female members of the entourage were assigned nursing duties. Spartan Guard Ken Stranger delivered a baby, on December 7.

On December 19, players received two-hours notice. It was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge had been commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home complete with Naval escort, a defense against Japanese submarine attack.

Seven San Jose players stayed behind and joined the Honolulu police force , for which each was paid $166 a month. Willamette coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay behind as none had been able to speak with their parents, first.

Nearly every member of both squads went on to fight for the nation. Willamette Guard Kenneth Bailey was killed over Bari Italy in 1943 and awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Bill McWilliams served 27 years in the United States Air Force, as a fighter bomber pilot. He’s written a book about 12 of these guys who went on to fight the conflict, of the “Greatest Generation”.

The book came out in 2019 and it’s still in print, if you’re interested. It looks like one hell of a story.

Andy Rogers played for the Willamette squad and went on to serve for the duration of the war, with the 3rd division of the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Rogers is 98 today and lives in Napa Valley, California. The only living member of either traveling squad who would have played that day, in the game that never was.

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