April 25, 1976 A Passing Stallion

“If you’re going to burn the flag, “don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.” – Rick Monday

That Sunday was an away game for the Chicago Cubs, an afternoon matinee with a 1:00 start time at Los Angeles’ Dodger stadium. April 25, 1976 was hazy with a light breeze and a high of 70 degrees. It was a great day for a ball game.

The count was 1-0 with Dodgers second baseman Ted Sizemore, at bat. It was the bottom of the 4th and announcer Vin Scully, doing the play-by-play:

“Wait a minute, there’s an animal loose . . . two of them . . . all right . . . I’m not sure what he’s doing out there . . . it looks like he’s going to burn a flag . . . and Rick Monday runs and takes it away from him!”

Vin Scully

These particular animals had succeeded in soaking an American flag with lighter fluid, but they weren’t quite fast enough with the match.

Monday, possum

Rick Monday was playing Center Field for the Cubs.  Describing the scene, Monday said “He got down on his knees, and I could tell he wasn’t throwing holy water on it”.

Monday dashed over and grabbed the flag, to thunderous applause from the 25,167 in attendance. All but two, that is.  By that time. those fools were being carted off in handcuffs.

Monday came out to bat in the top of the 5th and got a standing ovation from Dodger fans, while the message board flashed “RICK MONDAY… YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY…”

The arrested were later identified as 37-year old William Errol Thomas and his eleven year old son. Poor kid. He’d be about 56 now. I wonder how he turned out.

Thomas was convicted of trespassing and ordered to pay a $60 fine or spend three days, in jail. The man was unemployed and didn’t have anything better to do with his days, so he took the time.

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Rick Monday was serving a six-year tour with the Marine Corp Reserves in fulfillment of his ROTC obligation after leaving Arizona State. The man had no use for flag burners. “If you’re going to burn the flag”, he said, “don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.”

Rick Monday requested the flag after the game but it had to be held, pending police investigation. Nine days later, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis presented Monday with that same flag, during a pregame ceremony at Wrigley Field. He’s been offered up to a million dollars for that flag but declines, all offers.

“As the cheering died, everybody in the stands started singing ‘God Bless America,’ ” Monday recalled. “I was stunned. I stood there and got chills.”

Los Angeles Times columnist, Bill Plaschke

You can see the whole episode at the link below. My favorite part has got to be that impotent little temper tantrum at the end, when the protester throws his little bottle of lighter fluid, at the outfielder’s back. Like a runt piglet, squealing at a passing stallion.

April 24, 1915 Armenian Genocide

“The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.” – Enver Pasha

In the waning years of the 13th century, Osman Gazi led a relentless conflict against the Byzantine empire centered in Constantinople, for control of western Anatolia in modern day Turkey.

In 1453 the empire founded by Osman I captured Constantinople itself, seat of the Byzantine Empire and now known as Istanbul.

At the height of its power in 1683, the Ottoman Empire under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent ruled over an area spanning three continents. From the shores of north Africa to the gates of Vienna, east to the modern Russian Federation state, of Georgia. Nearly 4% the landmass of the entire planet, was under Ottoman rule.

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman empire entered a period of decline. Serbia went to war for independence from the Sultan in 1804, followed closely by Greece, Crete, Bulgaria and others.

As yet one of the Great Powers of the Eurasian landmass, the Ottoman Empire was now “the Sick Man of Europe”. By mid-century, many minority populations were pushing for independence.

Punch cartoon dated November 28, 1896, caricatures the weakend state of the Ottomans, under Sultan Abdul Hamid II

One such were the Armenians, an ancient people living in the region for some 2,000 years. Mostly Christian, Armenians were among the earliest to adopt the new faith as their own having done so, even before Rome itself.

Mid-19th century reforms such the repeal of the “Jizya”, the tax on “unbelievers,” brought about a measure of equality. Even so, non-Muslims remained second-class citizens. Without the right to testify at trial, for all intents and purposes it was open season on Armenian Christians and other religious minorities. In some locales, such treatment rose to the level of officially sanctioned public policy. By 1860, Armenians began to push for greater rights.

Where his subjects saw the righteous quest for equal rights the Sultan saw, insurrection.

Obsessed with personal loyalty to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II once told a reporter that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear” for their impudence. The Hamidian massacres begun in 1894 and lasting until 1897 killed between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians, leaving in their wake, 50,000 orphaned children.

It was but a prelude of what was to come.

“An Armenian woman and her children who were refugees of the massacres and sought help from missionaries by walking great distances.” H/T Wikipedia

In military planning, a “decapitation strike” is an action, designed to remove the leadership of an opposing government or group. The Ottoman pogrom began with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians of the Empire, of leadership.

The order came down from Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha on April 24, 1915. “Red Sunday”. By the end of the day an estimated 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals were arrested, in Istanbul. By the end of May, their number reached 2,345. Most, were eventually murdered.

“Some of the Armenian intellectuals who were detained, deported, and killed in 1915:
1st row: Krikor Zohrab, Daniel Varoujan, Rupen Zartarian, Ardashes Harutiunian, Siamanto
2nd row: Ruben Sevak, Dikran Chökürian, Diran Kelekian, Tlgadintsi, and Erukhan” – H/T Wikipedia

The “Tehcir” Law of May 29, a term derived from an Ottoman Turkish word signifying “deportation” or “forced displacement”, authorized the forced removal within the empire, of such detainees.

When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. . . . I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.

US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.

Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert. Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and summary execution. By the early 1920s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Turkish historian Taner Akçam has examined military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness reports to write what may be The definitive history of the whole episode entitled, A Shameful Act, The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. In it, Akçam writes of:

“…the looting and murder in Armenian towns by Kurds and Circassians, improprieties during tax collection, criminal behavior by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial.”

Taner Akçam

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler

To this day it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times declined to use the term, until 2004.

In April 2019, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

April 23, 1982. Where the Weird Go Pro

“[T]he variety of flora and fauna – rich though they are – do not approach the variety of people on the island. Pirates, fighter pilots, smugglers and cops. Shrimpers and singers. Sculptors and sword-swallowers. Bone carvers, body painters and musicians of every sort. A small fleet of commercial fisherman and more Pulitzer Prize winners per capita than any other city. – The Tennesseean

The competition is fierce come December 31 for intergalactic bragging rights: who will go home with the coveted title, “where the weird go pro”. New York drops that famous ball on New Year’s Eve and Miami drops an orange, but that stuff is all JV. Bethlehem Pennsylvania drops a 450-pound “peep”, that marshmallow children’s treat that only comes around, at Easter. Not to be outdone, Eastover North Carolina drops a 39-pound, ceramic flea (don’t ask). Mobile Alabama has a 600-pound Moon Pie (ya got an RC Cola for that?). Prairie du Chiens Wisconsin drops a live (dead) carp called “lucky”, selected by (I kid you not), a carp committee. For Eastport Maine, it’s a sardine. Others have their apples and pine cones and olives, but nothing the likes of “Sushi”, the live Drag Queen descending in a 13-foot stiletto heel.

“Weird” is no mere annual occurrence in a place where businessmen in suits ride about, on electric skateboards. Where crowds cheer dachshund parades and bed races down the main, err, drag. Where the most famous headstone in the town cemetery says: “I told you I was sick!

From “Robert” the evil doll of Fort East Martello to the wild chickens who roam the streets, where conch fritters are considered a food group and history is literally built on salvaging shipwrecks, we’re talking about Key West Florida, where the “Weird go Pro”.

On December 5, 1937, bar owner Joe Russell faced an increase in rent. From three dollars a week to a whopping four bucks. Lucky for Joe, the former Victoria Restaurant owned by one Juan Farto (I didn’t make that up), was available. That night, everyone in the place grabbed his chair, picked up his drink, and “moved” the bar across the street.

None other than Ernest Hemingway pitched in, (yeah, That Ernest Hemingway), helping himself to the urinal. “I’ve pissed enough of my money into this thing to pay for it‘ he said, bringing the object home to his wife Pauline, who converted it to a fountain. The peacocks who once roamed “Papa” Hemingway’s yard are gone now but the fountain’s still there, not far from “Sloppy Joe’s Bar” on the corner of Greene and Duval Street.

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Papa Hemingway’s fountain

Ladies? You married guys out there? Can you imagine bringing such an object home to your wife? Mrs. Hemingway turned the thing into a fountain.

Where else but Duval Street could you watch a “bed race”, pulled by women and men in Wonder Woman outfits, or men in grass skirts.

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Duval Street Bed Races, July 2015. H/t CBS, Miami

Speaking of the town cemetery. One long-suffering wife got the last word on a philandering husband, proving you should always be careful, who orders your headstone. This one says “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight“.

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Oh.  Did I tell you the place seceded?  No, really.  It’s the “Conch Republic”, now.

Except for the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and Coast Guard installations in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, most of the economic activity in the Florida Keys, comes from tourism. It’s no wonder that, when the federal government shuts down the only road into the Keys, the locals are going to get cranky.

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In April 1982, the Mariel boat lift was a mere two years in the past, and very much in the public memory.

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The United States had a border in those days, which the Federal government attempted to enforce.

On April 18, Border Patrol set up a roadblock in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, shutting down US Route 1, the only road in and out of the Florida Keys.  Originally intended to intercept illegals entering the country, the roadblock soon morphed into a hunt for illegal drugs, as well.

Cars waited for hours, in lines stretching 19 miles. Predictably, the attitude of Federal officials was one of towering indifference. Not so local business owners. Robert Kerstein wrote in his Key West on the Edge — Inventing the Conch Republic, “No one in Key West doubted that drugs were trafficked widely in the Keys by road and by boat. But tourism’s boosters had little tolerance for interruptions to their business.”

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Dennis Wardlow, then-Mayor of Key West, contacted the chief of police, the Monroe County sheriff, his State Representative and then-Governor Bob Graham, demanding the roadblock’s removal. With none of the above having any knowledge of the barrier and lacking the authority to pull it down, Wardlow contacted INS directly. When the Border Patrol told him it was “none of his business,” the Mayor’s response may best be summed up in the words of Bugs Bunny: “Of course you know, this means war!

Suffering a blizzard of hotel cancellations, this “attack on Key West’s sovereignty” could not stand. On April 22, Mayor Wardlow, local attorney & pilot David Horan and Old Town Trolley Tours operator Ed Swift flew to Miami seeking legal remedy. When District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue an injunction, the Key West delegation took to the courthouse steps.

“What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, asked the assembled media. Swift leaned over and whispered into the Mayor’s ear, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede!” “We are going to go home and secede!”, said Wardlow. And that’s what they did.

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Over the next 24 hours, secessionist co-conspirators worked feverishly to form a new government, filling cabinet positions such as “Secretary of Underwater Affairs” and “Minister of Nutrition”.

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On April 23, with federal agents on scene to monitor the proceedings, a crowd gathered before the old customs building. Mayor Wardlow and a gaggle of allies mounted the back of a flatbed truck, to read the proclamation of secession. “We serve notice on the government in Washington”, Wardlow began, “to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people, may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats“.

With that, Mayor Wardlow declared “war” on the United States.  The “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” broke out in the harbor, when the Schooner Western Union commanded by Captain John Kraus, attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters and toilet paper.  Diligence fought back with water hoses, as the new “Prime Minister” broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a Navy uniform.

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Naval History was forever changed on this day, as the “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” raged across the waters of Key West

Pandemonium broke out as onlookers launched stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personnel. One minute after declaring his “verbal shot” at the Federal government, Mayor Wardlow surrendered to a nearby Naval officer, demanding a billion dollars in “foreign aid” in compensation for “the long federal siege.”

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Apparently, that’s what it takes to get the attention of a Federal government bureaucrat. The roadblock lifted.  The restaurants, stores and hotels of the Keys soon filled with tourists and, once again, happiness smiled upon the land.  Key West never did get its “foreign aid”, but secessionist leaders never received so much as a letter saying they couldn’t leave the Union, either.

ConchRepublicSpecialForces

So it is that the micro-nation of Key West celebrates its independence, every April 23. The “Conch Republic’ issues its own passports, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “We seceded where others failed”.

And if the Federal government ever comes back to mess with the sovereign nation of Key West, it had best be prepared to deal with the Conch Republic’s very own “Special Forces”, the motto for which is “Sanctus Merda”.  “Holy Shit”.

Tip of the hat to

“Conch Republic Military Forces, The Official Site of the Conch Republic Military” for the “Conch Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  Lyrics by First Sea Lord, Admiral Finbar Gittelman, October 14, 2012 © Finbar Gittelman

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sunshine and the sea
Right here upon our islands, where we love to live so free 
But in April 1982, the peace was not to be 
And we went rolling on

CHORUS
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
From Key to shining Key

They were setting up a check point, tween the mainland and the Keys 
They had put a US Border, where it shouldn’t ‘oughta’ be 
So that’s when we seceded, and declared our sovereignty 
And the fun had just begun

(CHORUS)

We went forth into the harbor and a cutter we did spy 
And we sailed up along side her and we took her by surprise 
We hoisted up our battle flag, so proudly and so high 
And we went sailing on

(CHORUS)

The water and Conch fritters and the Cuban bread did fly 
Our bombers, they were raining toilet paper from the sky 
Our cannons they did thunder to proclaim our victory 
And we fought bravely on

(CHORUS)

We have faced the silly forces of misguided zealotry 
We have stood up to their foolishness for all the world to see 
And we’ve showed the other nations what America can be From
Key to shining Key

(CHORUS)

April 22, 1918 The Red Baron

“I started shooting when I was much too far away. That was merely a trick of mine. I did not mean so much as to hit him as to frighten him, and I succeeded in catching him. He began flying curves and this enabled me to draw near”. – Manfred von Richthofen

Early in the “Great War”, Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen was a cavalry scout, serving with the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in the Verdun sector. As the war of movement ended and armies dug into the ground, cavalry quickly became obsolete. Leutnant Richtofen served as a messenger over the winter of 1914-15, but there was no glory in crawling through the mud of shell holes and trenches. He applied to the fledgling Air Corps, writing to his superiors, “My dear Excellency! I have not gone to war to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

Manfred_von_Richthofen

Following four months of training, Richtofen began his flying career as an observer, taking photographs of Russian troop positions on the eastern front.

After transferring to Belgium and becoming bombardier, Manfred’s first air-to-air kill occurred in late 1915, while acting as observer and rear gunner on a two seat reconnaissance plane. The French pusher bi-plane went down over unfriendly territory and couldn’t be confirmed, so the victory was never counted. Neither was his second kill, when Richtofen shot down a French Nieuport fighter from an Albatross C.III bomber. This one also went down over enemy territory, and could not be confirmed.

Richtofen had his first official victory on September 17, 1916, after being transferred to a fighter squadron. He ordered a silver cup to mark the occasion, engraved with the date and make of the aircraft he had shot down, a British F.E. 2B. Tom Rees of the British Royal Flying Corps, has the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim, of the Red Baron.

Before it was over, there would be many more.

Richtofen got his 5th kill to become an ace on October 16, 1916, and the coveted “Blue Max” medal for his 16th, the following January. He shot down 22 enemy aircraft in April alone, four of those in a single day. He was Germany’s leading living ace, fast becoming the most famous pilot of his day. German propagandists spread the rumor that the Allies intended to award the Victoria Cross to the man who shot him down.

Fokker Triplane

Ever aware of his own celebrity, von Richtofen took to painting the wings of his aircraft blood red, after the colors of his old Uhlan regiment. It was only later that he had the whole thing painted. Friend and foe alike knew him as “the Red Knight”, “the Red Devil”, “Le Petit Rouge” and the name that finally stuck, “the Red Baron”.

Like Ted Williams, who was said to be able to count the stitches on a fastball, Richtofen was blessed with exceptional eyesight. Gifted with lightning fast reflexes, he became the top ace of the war. In an age when it was exceptional to score even a few air combat victories, Richtofen accumulated sixty engraved silver cups before the metal became unavailable in war ravaged Germany. Even then he was far from done.

Fun Fact: While Snoopy, that ultimate “dogfighter” has done much to cement the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane in the public imagination, Richthofen only scored his last 19 kills while flying his famous red triplane. Three quarters of his victories were won in different makes of the Albatross and Halberstadt D.II. By May 1918 the Dr.1 was generally considered, obsolete.

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

If I should come out of this war alive, I will have more luck than brains.

Manfred von Richtofen

Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on July 6 1917, causing severe disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He returned to duty after October 23, but many believed his injury caused lasting damage, leading to his eventual death.

Red Baron, last flight

Richthofen chased the rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May behind the lines on April 21, 1918, when he found himself under attack. With a squadron of Sopwith Camels firing from above and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, he was shot once through the chest with a .303 round. He managed to force land in a beet field and died, just as the first Allied soldiers were arriving.. He was still wearing his pajamas, under his flight suit.

Red Baron Crash Site

The RAF credited Canadian Pilot Captain Roy Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but the angle of the wound suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. A 2003 PBS documentary demonstrated that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen, while a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that it was Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the Royal Australian Artillery. It may never be known with absolute certainty, who killed the Red Baron.

British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers while other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor for the Red Baron’s funeral on April 22, 1918. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

April 19, 1961 Bay of Pigs

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

Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista seized power in March 1952, proclaiming himself president and labeling his new governing philosophy “disciplined democracy”. While Batista enjoyed limited popular support when he canceled presidential elections, many Cubans came to see the administration as a one-man dictatorship.  Opponents of the regime formed several anti-Batista groups, taking to armed rebellion to oust the government. The best known of these groups was the “26th of July Movement”, founded by the lawyer Fidel Castro and operated out of base camps in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

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Batista’s repressive tactics led to widespread disapproval by the late 1950s, culminating in his resignation on December 31, 1958.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro proclaimed his administration to be an example of “direct democracy”, and dismissed the need for elections.  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 stadia in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of supporters of the former regime were executed.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he would personally order a retrial.

American influence had once been widespread on the island, but that went away as the Castro regime adopted an increasingly leftist posture. “Until Castro”, said Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, “the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”

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When US authorities objected to being required to process oil purchased from the Soviet Union, Castro nationalized US controlled oil refineries run by Esso and Standard Oil as well as Anglo-Dutch Shell.  Tit-for-tat retaliations resulted in the expropriation of American owned banks and sugar refineries. By October 1960 the Castro regime had “nationalized” a total of 166 such businesses including Coca Cola, and Sears & Roebuck.

Secretary of State Christian Herter publicly stated that Castro was “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern” by instituting a single-party political system, taking control of trade unions, suppressing civil liberties and sharply limiting both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Castro fired back, criticizing the way blacks and the working classes were treated in New York City, attacking US media as “controlled by big business” and claiming that the American poor were living “in the bowels of the imperialist monster”.

A “secret” operation was conceived and initiated under the Eisenhower administration, and approved by the incoming Kennedy administration.  Beginning on April 15, 8 B-29 CIA bombers attacked Cuban military aircraft on the ground at several locations. A B-26 bearing Cuban markings and perforated with bullet-holes later landed at Miami International Airport, the pilots claiming to be defecting Cubans. The story began to unravel, as soon as reporters noted the plane’s machine guns, hadn’t been fired.  Furthermore, Cubans didn’t operate that type of aircraft. Fidel Castro quipped, not even Hollywood would have tried such a feeble story.

The invasion began on the 16th, when 1,400 Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón”, or “Bay of Pigs”.  Snagged on razor sharp coral that reconnaissance had identified as seaweed, landing forces were pinned down as government forces responded in the early morning hours of April 17. The landing achieved a beachhead, but things quickly started to go wrong.  A freighter containing food, fuel, medical equipment and ten days’ ammunition, was sunk. The Cuban Air Force had taken a beating two days earlier, but “Brigade 2506” wasn’t supplied with fighter aircraft at all.  Wanting to preserve “plausible deniability”, President Kennedy refused to allow US fighters to go into combat, leaving the remnants of the Cuban Air Force unopposed. 

Landing forces were bombed and strafed, at will.

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In the end, Kennedy was persuaded to authorize unmarked US fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Essex to provide escort cover for the invasion’s B-26 bombers, most of which were flown by CIA personnel in support of the ground invasion. Fighters missed their rendezvous by an hour, due to a misunderstanding about time zones.  Unescorted bombers are easy targets, and two of them were shot down with four Americans killed. The fiasco came to and end on April 19 with 118 dead and 1,202, captured.

In reality, the Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed from the start. Castro was popular at that time and the project had not exactly been a secret. The New York Times ran a story a month earlier, predicting a US invasion of Cuba in the coming weeks.  Another story ran on April 7, headlined “Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases,” reporting that invasion plans were in their final stages. When Kennedy saw the paper, he said that Castro didn’t need spies. All he had to do was read the news.

May 4, 1838 King of Cons

“I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what.
This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us”

In January 1848, a carpenter and sawmill operator named James Marshall discovered gold on the American River near Coloma, California.  Some 300,000 flocked to the “Golden State” over the next few years from the United States and abroad, in search of fortune. For most, the “California Gold Rush” was tedious, dirty and difficult work.  For Jefferson Randolph “Soapy“ Smith and his merry  band of grifters, it was easier simply to fleece the miners out of their hard won gains through rigged poker games, scam three-card Monty and a catalog of petty deceits. 

Between 1869 and 1872, the German actress and amateur “banker” Adele Spitzeder became the wealthiest woman in Germany, handsomely rewarding suckers…err…investors, with cash derived from new marks. Sarah Emily Howe ran the same con throughout the 1870s and ’80s through the “Ladies Deposit Company”, of Boston.

In the 1920s, Italian swindler Carlo Ponzi elevated this “rob Peter to pay Paul” scheme to such heights as to have the scam, named after himself. In the classic Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid above-average returns with the proceeds coming from new investors.

The wisely skeptical among us may question the legitimacy of consistently spectacular returns on investment but the money is real. Until it isn’t, and then heaven help the person left without a chair, when the music stops. For investors with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities company, the music stopped in 2008 with early losses estimated at $18 billion dollars.

For New York’s Tammany Hall, the machinations of William Magear “Boss” Tweed elevated political corruption to such dizzying heights that the cost to taxpayers of building a single courthouse, nearly doubled that of the Alaska purchase.

Yet in all the annals of humbuggery these are as nothing, a mere spark compared with the rising of a malign sun compared with the “Cazique of Poyais”, Gregor MacGregor, the man who “sold” a continent. Or at least, part of one.

Between 1807 and 1814, a coalition of Spain, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Portugal went to war with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for control of the Iberian peninsula.

Gregor MacGregor of the clan Gregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer, an officer of the Peninsular war at the ripe old age of 16, the youngest age it was permitted to do so.

Having little interest in working the seven years required to become Captain, MacGregor prevailed upon the substantial dowry of his wealthy wife Maria Bowater and purchased the rank of Ensign and finally, Captain.

In 1810, a running feud with a superior officer caused MacGregor to resign his commission and receive a refund of the £1,350 he’d paid to become an officer. In 1811, actions of the 57th Foot Regiment at the Battle of Albuera earned considerable prestige for the regiment and the nickname, “Die-Hards”. MacGregor would make much of his association with his former unit even though the man had been gone by this time, for a year.

The now 23-year old MacGregor and Maria moved into a house rented by his mother in Edinburgh for a time where he adopted the title of “Colonel” and took to referring to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor, Bart“.

The latter is a term of nobility equivalent to a Baronet, indicating chieftainship among the clan, Gregor.

Despite parading about in extravagant finery and a badge indicating membership in an elite order of Portuguese knights, Edinburgh society failed to take notice. So it was the MacGregors moved to London, where an entirely fanciful family tree filled with Dukes and Barons, had the desired affect.

Being the kept man of a wealthy wife has its advantages but disaster struck, in 1811.

Maria Bowater MacGregor died that December. With her went the income and the support of the influential Bowater family. Most especially Maria’s father the Admiral who wasted no time in punting his now-former son in law.

For Gregor MacGregor, options were limited. Too soon to announce an engagement with any sense of decency to another heiress, a return to soldiering made sense. But not with the home team. Not after that ignominious departure, back in 1809. So…what about South America?

Since Napoleon’s 1807 invasion, Spain was beset with problems, at home. Inspired by the United States’ recent independence from Great Britain, Spanish colonies from Peru to Mexico rose up.

Venezuela was embarked on a full scale revolution at this time when General Francisco de Miranda visited London. And didn’t the man cut a dashing figure through London society, with all that military finery.

It’s unclear whether the two met at this time but, for MacGregor, this was the answer. Gregor MacGregor arrived in Venezuela in April 1812 and headed directly for Caracas. There, Miranda was delighted to entertain such an accomplished British military officer…a member of the famous “Die hards”, no less.

With Maria dead a scant six months back at home, MacGregor married the heiress of a prominent Caracas family and a cousin of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, that June.

Venezuelan independence was a forlorn hope. General Miranda was captured and carted off to Spain, destined to end his days in a prison cell, in Cádiz.

Now “Colonel” MacGregor skedaddled with Josefa to the Dutch island of Curacao and on to Jamaica before returning to South America and accepting the rank of Brigadier General in service to New Granada, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west.

MacGregor’s South American military career is best remembered for a 34-day nation-wide retreat pursued by two Royalist armies and a hare-brained invasion of Amelia Island in Florida, resulting in the short-lived “Republic of the Floridas”. Then there was that time under fire in Porto Bello Panama, when he paddled out to his ships on a log and sailed away, abandoning his men to a miserable life, in captivity.

“Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819” – H/T Wikipedia

Even then there were those who proclaimed the “New Xenophon”, a latter-day Hannibal come forth to liberate the new Carthage. One of the more perspicacious New Granadan officials took the opposite view: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us“.

In 1820, MacGregor happened upon the Mosquito Coast (aka “Miskito), a swampy and inhospitable wilderness spanning the coasts of modern day Nicaragua, and Honduras. There, MacGregor persuaded a leader of the indigenous tribes to grant him land, to found a colony.

Woodcut depicting the non-existent “Black River Port”, of Poyais

Besotted with dreams of empire, MacGregor told tales back on British soil, of the independent Kingdom of “Poyais”. A land of vast wealth and welcoming natives where a man might work for a day and provide for his family, for a week. A land where he himself was “Cazique” or Royal Prince, a prestigious honor bestowed by none other than King George Frederic Augustus himself, of the Mosquito Coast.

The Cazique of Poyais set about recruiting settlers and investors, raising a dizzying £200,000, a sum equivalent to nearly 12 million, today. Settlers were invited to exchange their pounds sterling for Poyais dollars, the notes conveniently printed by none other, than Gregor MacGregor.

Seventy settlers departed England in the Autumn of 1822 bound for the tropical paradise, of Poyais. Another 200 followed a few months later only to be met by desperately poor natives, the bedraggled survivors of the earlier expedition and two American hermits.

Some evacuated to Honduras while fifty returned to England arriving in October, 1823. Inexplicably, most refused to blame MacGregor for the disaster. Even so, with Poyais dominating the headlines, the Cazique wisely performed a disappearing act. Across the channel to France where he ran the very same scam, this time raising £300,000.

French authorities got wind of the racket, impounding the ship and trying MacGregor, for fraud. Still unrepentant, the man was acquitted while an “associate” was convicted, in his stead.

“La Force Prison in Paris, where MacGregor was detained from December 1825 to July 1826, before his trial and acquittal” H/T Wikipedia

Back in England, MacGregor was re-arrested but released in a week, without charges. He persuaded the firm of Thomas Jenkins & Company to issue a new bond in the amount of £300,000, many believing the earlier debacle to be the result of someone else’s embezzlement. There followed another bond issue, this time amounting to £800,000. It was generally regarded as a humbug by this time, not that anyone ever thought to doubt the existence of Poyais itself. It’s just that those previous bonds, had failed to generate a profit.

Gregor MacGregor continued to dine out on the same sting but, by this time, the Poyais fix had seen its best days. An attempted sale of a few land certificates in 1837 marks the final appearance of the Poyais con.

Left: Poyais stock certificate, part of an £800,000 loan package, 1827

Josefa died on this day in 1838 in Burghmuirhead near Edinburgh. MacGregor immediately departed for Venezuela where he applied for reinstatement of his former rank, complete with back pay and a pension, of course. With MacGregor’s contributions to the Venezuelan Republic having been “heroic with immense results”, the Scotsman’s petition was approved in March, 1839. He settled in Caracas and died peacefully at home in December, 1845. The Cazique of Poyais was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral with Presidente Carlos Soublette leading the procession, marching behind MacGregor’s coffin followed by a phalanx of cabinet ministers and military chiefs.

Back in Scotland, the Glenorchy Kirkyard near Loch Katrine has served as the ancestral burial ground for the Gregor clan, since 1390. There you will find an “octagonal-shaped Gothic church with its square tower and pointed stained-glass windows [set] in a peaceful graveyard on top of a knoll” according to find-a-grave.com. There is no mention of Gregor MacGregor nor the tropical paradise, he invented.

April 16, 1933 A Fish Story

Future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

The American Revolution was barely 15 years in the rear-view mirror, when the new State House opened in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.  The building has expanded a couple of times since then and remains the home of Massachusetts’ state government, to this day.

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On January 11, 1798, a procession of legislators and other dignitaries worked its way from the old statehouse at the intersection of Washington and State Streets to the new location on Beacon Hill, a symbolic transfer of the seat of government.  The procession carried with it, a bundle.  Measuring 4-feet eleven-inches and wrapped in an American flag, it was a life-size wooden carving.  Of a codfish.

For the former Massachusetts colony, the lowly cod was once a key to survival.  Now, this “Sacred Cod” was destined for a new home in the legislative chamber of the House of Representatives.

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Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World”, laments the 1990s collapse of the Cod fishery, saying the species finds itself “at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.”

Records date back as early as AD985 when Eirik the Red, Leif Eirikson’s father, preserved Codfish by hanging them in the cold winter air.  Medieval Spaniards of the Basque region improved on the process, by the use of salt.  By A.D. 1,000, Basque traders were supplying a vast international market, in codfish.

By 1550, Cod accounted for half the fish consumed in all Europe.  When the Puritans set sail for the new world it was to Cape Cod, to pursue the wealth of the New England fishery.

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Without codfish, Plymouth Rock would likely have remained just another boulder. William Bradford, first signer of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 and 5-term governor of the Plymouth Colony (he called it “Plimoth”), reported that, but for the Cod fishery, there was talk of going to Manhattan or even Guiana:  “[T]he major part inclined to go to Plymouth, chiefly for the hope of present profit to be made by the fish that was found in that country“.

There are tales of sailors scooping codfish out of the water, in baskets.  So important was the cod to the regional economy that a carved likeness of the creature hung in the old State House, fifty years or more before the Revolution.

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Massachusetts’ old Statehouse

The old State House burned in 1747, leaving nothing but the brick exterior you see today, not far from Faneuil Hall.  It took a year to rebuild the place, including a brand new wooden Codfish.  This one lasted until the British occupation of Boston, disappearing sometime between April 1775 and March 1776.

The fish which accompanied that procession in 1798 was the third, and so far the last such carving to hang in the Massachusetts State House where it’s remains, to this day.  Sort of.

It was April 16, 1933 with the country mired in the Great Depression, when someone looked up in Massachusetts’ legislative chamber, and spied – to his dismay – nothing but bare wires.  The Commonwealth had suffered “The Great Cod-napping”, of 1933.

Newspapers went wild with speculation. What had happened to The Sacred Cod.

Suspects were questioned and police chased down one lead after another, but they all turned out to be red herring (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).  State police dredged the Charles River, (Love that dirty water).  Lawmakers refused to d’bait (pardon), preferring instead to discuss what they would do with those dastardly Cod-napper(s), if and when the evildoers were apprehended.

Soon, an anonymous tip revealed the culprits to be college pranksters. Three editors of the Harvard Lampoon newspaper, pretending to be tourists.  It was a two-part plan, the trio entering the building with wire cutters and a flower box, as other Lampoon members created a diversion by kidnapping an editor from the arch-rival newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.  The caper worked, flawlessly.  Everyone was busy looking for the missing victim, as two snips from a wire cutter brought down the Sacred Cod.

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On April 28, a tip led University Police to a car with no license plate, cruising the West Roxbury Parkway. After a 20-minute low speed chase, (I wonder if it was a white Bronco), the sedan pulled over.  Two men Carp’d the Diem (or something like that) and handed over the Sacred Cod, before driving away.

Once again the Sacred Cod ascended to its rightful place, and there was happiness upon the Land.  The Cod was stolen one more time in 1968, this time by UMASS hippies protesting some fool thing, but the fish never made it out of the State House.

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The “Holy Mackerel” of the Massachusetts State Senate

Years later, future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

Not to be outdone, the State Senate has its own fish, hanging in its legislative chambers.  There in the chandelier, above the round table where sits the Massachusetts upper house, is the copper likeness of the “Holy Mackerel”.  No kidding.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

Legend has it that, when you see those highway signs saying X miles to Boston, they’re really giving you the distance to the Holy Mackerel.

A tip of my hat to my friend and Representative to the Great & General Court David T. Vieira, without whom I’d have remained entirely ignorant of this fishy tale.

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Beacon Hill, seat of Massachusetts state government, where the author addresses an empty chamber. Who knows. Maybe The Sacred Cod™ was paying attention.

April 15, 1889 Damien of Moloka’i

“I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work I am perfectly resigned to my lot”. Saint Damien of Molokai

It’s one of the oldest diseases in recorded history, the first written reference coming down to us, from 600BC. Ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Middle Eastern sources wrote about the condition as did the Roman naturalist Pliny the elder, in the first century.

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. Left untreated the condition produces skin ulcers, damage to peripheral nerves & upper respiratory tract, and muscular weakness. Everyday injuries go unnoticed due to numbness and lead to infection. Advanced cases result in severe disfigurement, crippling and/or the physical loss of hands, feet & facial features, and, finally, blindness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a death rate among leprosy sufferers four times that of the general population.

First discovered by Norwegian physician G.H. Armauer Hansen in 1873, M. leprae is the first bacterium identified as the causative agent of disease, in humans. Today, Leprosy is curable with multidrug therapy (MDT). The world saw 208,619 new cases in 2018, 185 of which occurred, in the United States.

The horrors of the condition and resulting social stigmas, are plain for anyone to see. Today, sufferers fear loss of jobs, separation of familial and other connections and social isolation. Though not as widespread as commonly believed, victims of “Hansen’s disease” were historically sent off to quarantine in asylums and “leper colonies” from which few, ever returned.

In the 19th century, Mycobacterium leprae came to the Hawaiian islands.

According to research, long-distance explorers first came to the Hawaiian islands around the year 300. For the next 500 years, settlers arrived from French Polynesia, Tahiti, Tuamotus and the Samoan Islands. Other research indicates a shorter timeframe, settlement occurring between 1219 and 1266. Be that as it may the Hawaiian islands were first unified in 1810 to become the Kingdom of Hawai’i, under King Kamehameha the Great. Captain James Cook made the first known European contact in 1778 followed by waves of others both European, and American.

King Kamehameha statue, stands in front of Aliiolani Hale (the judiciary building), Honolulu, Oahu

According to archaeological evidence, indigenous peoples occupied the Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, for more than 900 years. Before first contact with Europeans their numbers are estimated, between 1,000 and 2,700, . Following the arrival of Captain Cook and others, Eurasian diseases decimated native populations. By 1853 only were 140 natives were left on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Overhead view of the Kalaupapa peninsula

Leprosy first arrived on the Hawaiian islands around 1830, believed to be carried by Chinese laborers. The disease was incurable at that time, the first effective treatment didn’t come around, until the1940s.

By 1865, sugar planters were concerned about the labor supply. The Kingdom passed a measure to remove the Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian inhabitants occupying the peninsula, in preparation for a leper colony.

The first such isolation settlement was established at Kalawao on the windward side of the peninsula and then on Kalaupapa, itself.

Even after a year of family disruption brought about by government response to Covid-19 the catastrophe of such a policy, is hard to process. In native Hawaiian tradition, Aloha ʻĀina means not only “Love of the Land” but a deep sense of connection, to all living things. For the descendants of those forcibly removed from the ʻĀina as well as those “lost” to Kalaupapa the wounds remain open, to this day.

By 1890, 1,100 ‘lepers’ lived in this remote, inhospitable place, prisoners of their own deteriorating bodies and a greater culture who loathed, and feared them.

Over the years some 8,500 unfortunates would come to live in this place, the last one, in 1969.

Rudolph Wilhelm Meyer set out from his native Germany in search of the California gold rush. He made it as far as Molokaʻi. By 1866, Meyer was a father and husband to Kalama Waha, settled on the steep cliffs above Kalaupapa. As the peninsula became a leper colony, Meyer became supply agent to the colony and liaison to those few healthy individuals, willing to work there.

Mostly, those were Belgian missionary priests from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the first of whom was Father Damien, who served there from 1873 until his death, in 1889.

Fr. Damien in 1873 before sailing, for Hawai’i

Father Damien arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa on May 10, 1873. At that time there were 600 lepers. He spoke to the assembled unfortunates as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”

After the Fr. Damien’s death of leprosy, commentators complained of contemporary accounts diminishing the work of native Hawaiians, some of whom served prominent roles on the island. While such are accounts are likely true enough there is no diminishing what the man did there.

For 16 years, father Damien lived and worked among the lepers of Molokaʻi. He ate with them, from the same bowls. He smoked with them, from the same pipe.

While the government had no desire to make this place a penal colony, outside support was slim to none. And this was no isolated population of yeoman farmers, these people were sickened and made weak by this most dreadful of medical conditions, many barely able to care for themselves.

Damien was not only a priest and teacher, he pitched in painting houses, organizing farms and building roads, hospitals and churches. He dressed the wounds of the stricken, built their coffins, dug graves and lived with the lepers, as equals. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Father Damien and sister Marianne Cope have both received Roman Catholic Sainthood, for their actins on Molokaʻi

One day, it happened. In December 1884, he accidentally put his foot in scalding water. It was so hot that his skin blistered and peeled but he didn’t feel a thing. Father Damien was now himself, a leper.

Despite the illness destroying his body, Damien worked even harder in the last years of his life. He completed several building projects and improved orphanages, all while aiding his fellow lepers in their treatments and medical baths and spreading the Catholic faith. King David Kalākaua bestowed on the priest the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua.” When Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani arrived to present the medal she was said to be too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of those poor people, to even speak.

Princess Liliʻuokalani spoke of her experience bringing the plight of Father Damien and his flock, to the eyes of the world. European and American protestants sent money to help with the work. The Church of England sent food, medicine and supplies. It is believed that Fr. Damien never wore his medal but he went to his grave, with it by his side.

Japanese leprologist Masanao Goto arrived to treat the lepers of Molokaʻi with medical baths, moderate exercise and friction applied to parts, benumbed by disease. Goto’s treatments were popular with his patients but, in the end, there was little hope. Four volunteers arrived in the end to aid the ailing missionary including sister Marianne Cope, a woman who would one day join Father Damien, in Roman Catholic sainthood.

Father Damien on his deathbed, 1889

By February 1889, the end was near. With his foot in bandages and an arm in a sling, his other leg dragging uselessly behind, Damien went to his death bed on March 23. Father Damien died of leprosy at 8:00am on April 15, 1889. He was 49. The entire colony turned out the following day as the Belgian missionary was laid to rest beside the same pandamus tree under which he had slept those sixteen years earlier, on his first night in Molokaʻi.

In John 15:13, the King James Bible teaches that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Today, I wonder how many know the name of Father Damien, of Molokaʻi . Or the faith which would bring a person to willingly submit to the literal rot, of such a hideous condition.

Let Mahatma Ghandi, himself no stranger to the horrors of leprosy, have the last word on that subject: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who, after the example of Fr. Damien, have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism“.

Feature image, top of page: Kalaupapa leper colony in 1905

April 14, 1958, Pupnik

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took the small dog home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”


At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

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“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

Laika
Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11-pound mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

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Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika and capsule

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that only allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

Mach2Sputnik2

In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

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Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

AFTERWARD

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As a lifelong dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript to this thoroughly depressing tale.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 and returned safely, to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

Charlie, Pushinka
Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev gave one of them, a puppy called “Pushinka,” to President John F. Kennedy.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies. JFK called them his “pupniks”. Rumor has it their descendants are still around, to this day.

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Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn

Tip of the hat to the 2019 Vienna Film Award winning “Space dogs” for the artwork at the top of this page.

April 12, 1861 A Lady’s Thimble

Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, leaving state government officials to consider themselves, a sovereign nation. Six days later, United States Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small garrison from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

Moultrie

President James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson via the unarmed merchant vessel, “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.

For the newly founded Confederate States of America, the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor could not be tolerated. Secessionists debated whether the problem was that of South Carolina or the national government, in Mobile.

Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as independent states.  It was a standoff. Both sides needed the support of border states, and neither wanted to be seen as the aggressor.

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Fort Sumter

Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers.  By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union and even that state, contributed troops to the Union war effort.  A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few.  

Fun fact: When South Carolina seceded that December the world waited to see, who would be next. With her January 9th departure from the federal union Mississippi was the next state to actually leave, though not the next to talk about it. That honor went not to a southern state but a northern city called New York on January 7, 1861.   Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the Common Council, requesting New York assert its independence as a “free city” by “disrupt[ing] the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master” (the federal government).

Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.

Battle-Sumter

Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in service to 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, nearly half of whom were non-combatants, mostly workmen and musicians.

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum:  the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.

Major Anderson lacking the appropriate response, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”

Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men in furious fighting at a critical breach near the ”copse of trees”.  One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground.  His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole so, once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.

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The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, 1861

Over 34 hours, thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter. Though vastly outgunned federal forces, fired back. For all that, the only casualty was a Confederate mule.

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The only fatalities in the whole mess occurred after the federal surrender, on April 13. One gun misfired performing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.

The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.

Charleston, 1861

The Civil War had begun but few understood the kind of demons, now unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

The war between the states would lay waste to a generation and end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, World War 1, World War 2 and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Combined.