January 3, 2000 There will Never be Another

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, though Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus.

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Charles Shulz, high school yearbook photo, class of 1940

Charles Monroe Schulz loved to draw.  He was good at at, too.  Already one of the brighter kids at Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Shulz skipped two half-grades graduating youngest member of his class, in 1940.  Already a shy boy, rapid academic advancement did little to help his social life.

In those days, the family owned a hunting dog.  “Spike” had a number of cringe-worthy habits, including eating sharp objects. It didn’t seem to bother him much, and the boy sent a drawing to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!  The magazine ran it, complete with a description of ol’ Spike’s more unusual predilections.

The drawing was signed, “Sparky”.

Even with Schulz later celebrity, you could always weed out those who merely claimed to know the man, as opposed to those who did.  If Schutz-Letterthey called him “Charles”, or “Chuck”, that was a sure sign of the mere pretender.   Schulz’ uncle called him “Sparky” as a boy, after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google.  He always signed the strip “Schulz”, but friends and family knew him as Sparky, until the day he died.

Schulz was drafted into the Army in 1943, a Staff Sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe and squad leader of a .50-caliber machine gun team.

He never got a chance to fire his weapon, though he did come face-to-face with a Wehrmacht soldier, once.  His blood must’ve turned cold in his veins when he realized he’d forgotten to load, but the man he faced was no Nazi fanatic.  This was a regular guy, who wanted to go home as much as Shulz himself.  The German surrendered, happily.  I hope he got home.

Schulz returned to Minneapolis after the war where he did some lettering for a Catholic comic magazine, Timeless Topix. He took a job in 1946 at Art Instruction, Inc., reviewing and grading lessons submitted by students, a job he held for several years while developing his talents as comic creator.

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Charlie Brown, that lovable little loser who was always close but never quite made it, first appeared in a series of single-panel jokes called “Li’l Folks“, along with a dog who looked something like Snoopy.  The comic was published in local papers from June 1947 to January ’50, and later syndicated.  That first strip was published in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950, but United Features thought the name was too close to two strips already in syndication:  Li’l Abner, and “Little Folks“.

So it was they called it “Peanuts” after the peanut gallery of Vaudeville days, the cheapest and rowdiest seats in the theater. Schulz didn’t like the name, saying it “made it sound too insignificant,” but the name stuck.

Schulz took pride in his service during the war.  At various times, Peanuts paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle.  More than any other, he’d honor “Willy & Joe”, those two GIs from the imagination of war correspondent and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a man to whom Schulz always referred as “My Hero”.  Over the years, Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times. Always on Veterans Day.PeanutsA Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, though Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus. ABC executives thought Linus’ recitation of the birth of Christ too overtly religious.  The “suits” wanted a laugh track as well, but Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it, who will?” In the end, the scene remained.  Perhaps the most memorable moment in cartoon history.  The laugh track version was produced, but never aired.Charlie Brown’s love interest in some of those TV specials, the “Little Red-Haired Girl”, was based on an accountant from that old job at Art Instruction, named Donna Mae Johnson.  The couple had an office romance for a time, but she turned him down when Shulz proposed.

Johnson wasn’t the only character based on a real person.  Linus and Shermy were patterned after Schulz’ close friends Linus Maurer and Sherman Plepler.  Peppermint Patty was inspired by a cousin on his mother’s side, Patricia Swanson.  Snoopy himself resembles that old family dog, though Spike was a Pointer, not a Beagle.

In 1967, American opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for the war in Vietnam.  1968 was a wretched year in American politics, beginning with the Tet Offensive in January.   Media reporting turned the American military victory over the Vietnamese New Year, into a thing of despair.  President Johnson withdrew from the Presidential election, that March.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that April leading to riots across the country.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June, after winning the critical California primary.  The Democratic National Convention that August was more of a riot, than a political convention.

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Franklin Armstrong

Race relations were particularly vile in 1968, when a Jewish Mom and Los Angeles schoolteacher wrote to the cartoonist, asking if he would add a black character.  Harriet Glickman never expected a response from the now-famous Charles M. Schulz, but respond he did.  He said he liked the idea but expressed concern the character might seem condescending, to black families.

With Schulz’ permission, Glickman asked friends of African ancestry, how to make such a character “more relatable”.

Franklin Armstrong made his first appearance on July 31, 1968.  What was remarkable for the time, was how unremarkable, he was.  Just another little boy, at first confused about the strange stuff going on in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  Particularly Linus’ obsession with the ‘Great Pumpkin’.  Franklin first met Charlie Brown on a beach.  He said his father was a soldier, off fighting in Vietnam.  “My dad’s a barber,” said Charlie Brown.  “He was in a war too, but I don’t know which one.”

One newspaper editor wrote saying he didn’t mind a “negro” character, but please don’t show them in school together.  Schulz didn’t bother to respond to that one.

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Peanuts went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, with countless animated specials combining with merchandise sales to produce revenues in the Billions.  At it’s peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages.  Schulz himself is estimated to have earned $30 to $40 million, a year.

I wonder if Donna Mae Johnson ever regretted turning down that marriage proposal.

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In 1969, the command module for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon was named Charlie Brown.  The lunar module was called Snoopy.  President Ronald Reagan was a fan, who once wrote to Schulz that he identified with Charlie Brown.

Imitation of Charles Schulz cartoon, madOver fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997 to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all those years, that five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

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Stephen Shea, H/T Huffington Post

Fun fact: Former child actor Stephen Shea inherited the speaking role for Linus van Pelt when his older brother Chris’ voice changed, and went on to perform in eight animated specials. Chris went to summer camp with a boy who happened to be President of The Doors fan club. It turns out that Jim Morrison was a big Peanuts fan, and invited Chris and his father to be his special guests, at a Doors concert.

By the late 1990s, Schulz’ health was beginning to fail.  His once-firm hand, now had a tremor. He never really recovered from the stroke that hit him in November 1999 and announced his intention to retire, on December 14.  The last original Peanuts comic strip was published on January 3, 2000.

This son of a barber and a housewife, just like Charlie Brown himself, passed away just over a month later, a victim of colon cancer.

There will never be another.

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January 2, 1819 Time Me, Gentlemen

Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing, “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus (all else being the same) the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness”.

With the invention of gunpowder in the year 142, the Chinese of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a handy if somewhat noisy way, to scare off evil spirits.

The first millennium of the common era was a time of ever improved and more efficient ways for humans to slaughter one another, from the gunpowder slow match of 919 to the fire bombs and gunpowder propelled fire arrows of the Southern Tang, of 975.

The Wuwei Bronze Cannon of 1227 may be the first such weapon in all history.  By 1453, the terrifying bombard of the Ottoman Turks were capable of hurling stone balls up to 24.8-inches in diameter, more than enough to shatter the formerly impregnable Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

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Ottoman siege cannon, 1453

For a thousand years, gunpowder weapons large and small businesses and a inflicted massive injury to the human frame, resulting in damage beyond even the skills of the modern surgeon.  Often the only answer was amputation, seemingly by the bushel basket.

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General Dan Sickles leg, destroyed by a 12-pound ball at Gettysburg, 1863

The carnage of the gunpowder era experienced something of a golden age in the 19th century.  Projectiles traveled at a bone-shatteringly slow pace compared with the high velocity weapons of today while innovations such as percussion caps, shrapnel shells and breech loading weapons geometrically increased the rate of fire.

It’s been said the most common objects removed from the bodies of front-line soldiers, were the shattered bones and teeth of the next man in line.

This was a time before anesthesia, when the speed of the surgeon’s knife spelled the difference in the pain experienced by the patient, to say nothing of the poor unfortunates’ chance of survival.  Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing:  “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus” (everything else being the same) “the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness“.

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Robert Liston’s surgical instruments

First came the burly assistants, to hold down the writhing victim


.  In skilled hands the surgeon’s knife could cut all-round in a single stroke, through skin and muscle and sinew clear down to the bone before the saw completed the work of separation.  Screams of agony rent the air as veins, flesh and arteries were cauterized with red-hot irons, vitriol (sulfuric acid) or boiling hot tar.  Should the victim survive the experience the wound would then be sewn shut.  God help the poor soul if there was any infection left after all that.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 –’71, one surgeon amputated 200 shattered limbs in one 24-hour period, a nearly unbelievable average of one every seven minutes.  Perfectly healthy fingers were occasionally severed in the gore and confusion.

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A 19th-century surgical illustration detailing amputation at the thigh. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. H/T Military-History.org

This was the world of the “Fastest Knife on West End”, a Scottish-born physician who, on this day in 1819, had just embarked on the first year of a medical career which would last until his death, in 1847.

Robert Liston, always the showman, would stride into the operating theater and call out, “Time me Gentlemen.  Time me”.  English surgeon and author Richard Gordon, an expert on Robert Liston, describes what that looked like:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”. 

16944174-0-image-a-45_1565084128752Liston once amputated a leg in 2½ minutes from incision to suture but accidentally severed the poor bastard’s testicles, in the process.

On another occasion, he amputated a leg in 2½ minutes while severing the fingers of one assistant and piercing the coat of an observer.  The spectator was so terrified at the blood and so certain that his own vital organs had been pierced, he died right then and there from heart failure.

Both patient and assistant later died from hospital gangrene, a common problem in the days before Joseph Lister.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Liston remains the only surgeon in history to achieve 300% mortality, on a single procedure.

January 1, 45BC Happy New Year

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

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

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

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Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”

Happy New Year, from Mr & Mrs Cape Cod Curmudgeon, Rick & Sheryl.

December 24, 1822 Santa Claus

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

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

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1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

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

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

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

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Santa Express

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

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

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

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

December 21, 1861 The Medal of Honor

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

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

There was no such honor for the common soldier.

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

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Fidelity Medallion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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William Harvey Carney

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

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

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

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Calvin Pearl Titus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal Dunham was twenty-two years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 1943 Special Brothers

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

Franz Stigler
Franz Stigler

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

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

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

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Charles Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

December 19, 1986 The Lost Dogs of Chernobyl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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