March 14, 1964 Skyline Lounge

Five musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months at that burned out dive bar.  The Skyline Lounge.

Jacob Leon Rubenstein was a problem child, growing up on the west side of Chicago. Marked a juvenile delinquent in his adolescence, Rubenstein was arrested for truancy at age 11, eventually skipping enough school to spend time at the Institute of Juvenile Research.

As with Peanuts cartoonist Charles M Shulz, those who knew Jacob Rubenstein called him “Sparky”. Some say the nickname came from a resemblance to “Sparkplug”, the old nag with the patchwork blanket from the Snuffy Smith cartoon strip.4924951094_21a71fd652_bRubenstein hated the nickname and was quick to fight anyone who called him that. It may have been that hot temper, that made the name stick.

Rubinstein spent the early 1940s at racetracks in Chicago and California, until being drafted into the Army Air Forces, in 1943. Honorably discharged in 1946, he returned to Chicago before moving to Dallas, the following year.

Rubenstein managed a seedy collection of Dallas nightclubs and strip joints, featuring such fine ladies as “Candy Barr” and “Chris Colt and her ’45’s”.  Somewhere along the line, Rubinstein shortened his name to “Ruby”.g2011m11_26Ruby was a low-rent gangster, involved in typical underworld activities like gambling, narcotics and prostitution. There were rumored associations with Mafia boss Santo Trafficante.

Not-so-honest members of the Dallas police force knew that Ruby was always good for free booze, free prostitutes, and other favors.

This was not a good guy.7fdd7be055bca87dc57f10f527755c4eToday, you may know Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson as musicians who played with Bob Dylan in 1965, later going on the road as “The Band” and performing such rock & roll standards as “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight”.

In the early days, these guys were playing with a Canadian/American rocker named Ronnie Hawkins.  The joints these guys played were so rough they performed with blackjacks, hidden in special pockets sewn into their coats.   Robertson writes in a new memoir:  “We bought small derringer pistols, switchblades, black-jacks, brass knuckles, even tear-gas pens – whatever could be easily concealed and quickly accessed”.

In 1963, the group played a week in one “burnt out, blown up” dump in Fort Worth.  It was an enormous venue with no one there that first night, save for two couples, a pair of drunk waiters and a one-armed go-go dancer.  The band had yet to finish the first set when a fight broke out.  Some sort of weapon came out and a man was tear-gassed at point blank range.   Coughing and choking the band played on for no one, with teargas wafting across the stage and faces wet with tears.r1274_fea_robbie_b-6159b441-955d-4f3a-bcef-1a4d8f090b35Part of the roof had blown off this joint.  Either that or it burned off, depending on which version you believed.  Jack, the club owner, tore off the rest of it and kept the insurance money, calling this fine establishment, the “Skyline Lounge”.

Jack felt no need to pay for security, not even with the roof gone.  Jaws grinding from a seemingly endless appetite for “uppers”, Jack said “Boys, this building ain’t exactly secure enough for you to leave your musical equipment unattended.” Band members were told they’d best stay overnight, with guns, lest anyone come over the wall to steal their equipment.

Problem solved.

That November, John Fitzgerald Kennedy came to Dallas.  The Presidential motorcade departing Love Field the morning of November 22.  The open car  with the President in the back with First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Texas Governor and First Lady John and Idanell “Nellie” Connally, in the jump seats.   At 12:29, the Presidential limousine executed a right turn from Main Street onto Houston Street and entered Dealey Plaza. Kennedy Assassination: Kennedy in CarA minute later, shots rang out.

The President of the United States was shot, the first bullet striking the upper back and exiting his throat.  With mouth open in anguish and clenched fists rising to his face and neck, the stricken man turned to his wife as his head exploded, the second shot tearing into the right side of his skull.  The First Lady, splattered with the blood and brains of her husband and now screaming, crawled onto the trunk as Secret Service Agent Clint Hill scrambled on board the car, now speeding away.  Somewhere along the line, Governor Connally was also shot.  A spectator was wounded by flying debris.

The nation was stunned.  It was the first Presidential assassination in over a half-century. I was 5 at the time and remember that day, like it was just last week.

Abraham Zapruder Film, European/French Copy, HD, stabilized and slow Motioned

An hour after the shooting, a former marine and a rare defector to the Soviet Union named Lee Harvey Oswald killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had stopped him for questioning. Thirty minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a movie theater.

By Sunday, November 24, Oswald was formally charged with the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit.  He was taken to the basement of Dallas police headquarters, where an armored car waited to transport the prisoner to a more secure county jail. The scene was crowded with press and police.

Half the country watched on live television as a figure came out of the crowd, firing a single bullet from a .38 revolver into the belly of Lee Harvey Oswald. Lee-Harvey-Oswald-Is-Shot-By-Jack-Ruby-November-24-1963Five musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months at that burned out dive bar.  The Skyline Lounge.

Lee Harvey Oswald was taken unconscious to Parkland Memorial Hospital.  The same hospital in which the president had died, two days earlier.  Within two hours he too, was dead.

On March 14, 1964, Jack Ruby was sentenced to death in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Ruby’s conviction in October 1966, on the grounds that the trial should have taken place in a different county than that in which his high profile crime, had taken place.  Ruby died of lung cancer the following January, while awaiting retrial.ea92d9a35a5e2889c5114510117ed161The Warren Commission found no evidence linking Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, to any broader conspiracy to assassinate the President.  What became of Jacob Leon “Sparky” Rubenstein’s Skyline Lounge, is unknown to this writer.

March 13, 1992 Friday the 13th

At least one psychotherapist asserts that 21 million Americans are literally afraid of Friday the 13th.

From the dawn of Christianity, faithful believers have traveled from the length and breadth of Europe to the Holy City of Jerusalem, to renew and affirm a lifelong faith in scripture.

Pilgrims-to-JerusalemThe Rashidun Caliphate captured the Holy City in 637, following a long siege. Except for one 88-year period following the first crusade in 1099, the Temple Mount in the old city remains under Islamic administration, from that day to this.

Regardless, the number of pilgrims increased over time. Many suffered robbery and even murder at the hands of Muslim fanatics, who considered it their Islamic duty to kill the “Infidel”.

The French knight Hugues de Payens approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Warmund, Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1119, with a proposal. He would create a monastic order of warrior knights to protect these pilgrims, to be headquartered in a wing of the recaptured Al Aqsa Mosque, built on the ruins of the Temple of Solomon.

TemplarThese were monks and they were warriors, “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon”. For 200 years, these “Knights Templar” provided for the safe passage of Christian pilgrims.

The original nine knights of the order lived up to the “poor knights” part of the name, relying on financial donations for their survival. So destitute were they that their emblem showed two knights riding a single horse.

That would change.

In time, the Templars gained favored charity status, their new-found wealth helping them to found an early banking system. Pilgrims to the holy land could deposit gold coins in Paris and take them out in Jerusalem, or vice-versa. The knights Templar achieved vast wealth in this manner, at their height running over 800 castles, every one of which ran as a full service banking institution, financing military campaigns and bailing out the treasuries of Kings.
Knights-Templar2-1Following wars with the Flemish and with English King Edward I, King Philip IV of France found himself deeply in debt.  Needing to wriggle out of it, Philip expelled the Jews of France, in 1306.  The following year he came after the Knights Templar.

It was Friday the 13th of October, when Philip sent out his arrest warrant.  Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay and scores of French Templars were simultaneously arrested. Charges included everything from obscene secret rituals to financial fraud. “Confessions” were extracted by torture.knights-templar-gettyimages-526100152

Under pressure from the French King, Pope Clement issued the bull “Pastoralis praeeminentiae” in November, instructing Christian monarchs throughout Europe to arrest Templar officials and seize their assets.

8a3725e09bcde1dee419e5b25281d25a--spa-birthday-th-birthdayThousands of knights fled to areas outside Papal control.  Many were burned at the stake, some absorbed into the rival Knights Hospitaller.  Within a couple years, the order of the Knights Templar had ceased to exist.

Some will tell you that’s where the Friday 13th superstition began. Others say it goes back to the Friday when Eve offered Adam that forbidden apple, or the Friday crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Ancient Egyptians and Chinese believed the number 13 brought good luck, but some actually fear Friday the 13th. It’s called “Friggatriskaidekaphobia”.

People in Spanish-speaking countries will tell you it’s the 13-part that brings bad luck, but for most, it’s Friday.  At least one psychotherapist asserts that 21 million Americans are literally afraid of Friday the 13th.

Smithsonian Magazine reports that fear of the number 13 costs the United States a Billion dollars a year in absenteeism, train and plane cancellations and related commerce.

Franklin Roosevelt avoided dinner parties with 13 guests. In France, there are professional 14th party guests called “quatorzieme“.

I wonder how you get that job.

Who knows, maybe Friday 13th really is bad luck.  On this day in 1992, the Erzincan earthquake hit 6.8 on the Richter and a terrifying max of VIII on the Mercalli scale of intensity.  13 steps lead to the gallows, where the condemned meets the 13 knots of the hangman’s noose. The guillotine’s blade falls 13 feet. Diana hit the 13th pillar at Place d’Alma. Tupac was shot on Friday the 13th, and Fidel Castro was born on one.unnamedSo knock on wood and cross your fingers. Watch out for black cats. Don’t look at the full moon through a pane of glass.  Be sure to throw salt over your shoulder and don’t mind the Wuhan plague.   You’ll be fine.

March 12, 1894 A Marketing Blunder for the Ages

Early focus group results were favorable, but for a minority of 10 to 12 percent. Angry and alienated at the very thought of a “new Coke”, these people insisted they’d stop drinking Coke products, altogether.  The way things turned out, the company should’ve listened to this group a little more carefully.

By the Colonial era, Europeans had long believed that natural mineral waters held medicinal qualities, and favored the beverages over often polluted common drinking water.  British chemist Joseph Priestley invented a means of carbonating water in 1772.  Jacob Schweppe’s Geneva, Switzerland company was bottling the stuff by the 1780s. The first soda water manufacturer in the US was Yale University chemist Benjamin Silliman in 1807, though it was Joseph Hawkins of Baltimore who secured the first US patent in 1809.

PembertonAt first sold for their therapeutic value, consumers increasingly bought carbonated beverages for refreshment.

By the time of the Civil War, “soft drinks” were flavored with ginger, vanilla, fruits, roots, herbs, and countless other flavorings. The first cola drink appeared in 1881.

In 1865, Confederate Cavalry officer John Stith Pemberton was wounded by a saber slash across the chest at the Battle of Columbus, Georgia. Like many wounded veterans, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine given him to control the pain.  Unlike many wounded veterans, he possessed the means to do something about it.

A chemist in civil life, Pemberton experimented with painkillers to take the place of opiates, landing in 1886 on a combination of the coca plant and kola nut. Vicksburg, Mississippi pharmacist Joseph Biedenharn installed bottling equipment in the back of his soda fountain, selling the first bottles of Coca Cola on March 12, 1894.

coca-cola-bottle-historyThe most famous rivalry in the soft drink business began in the 1930s, when Pepsi offered a 12oz bottle for the same 5¢ as Coca Cola’s six ounces.

The Coca Cola Company’s flagship brand had a 60% share by the end of WWII, but that declined to less than 24% by the early 1980s, most of the difference lost to Pepsi and their “Pepsi challenge” blind taste test promotions of the late ’70s.

1221499-coke_vs_pepsiBy the ’80s, market analysts believed that aging baby boomers were likely to switch to diet drinks and any growth in the full calorie segment was going to come from younger consumers, who preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi.

Roberto Goizueta came to Coca Cola Company as CEO in 1980, saying that there would be “no sacred cows” among their products.  He meant it. Before long, the company launched the top secret “Project Kansas”, to test and perfect the flavor for a new version of Coke. The company’s marketing department fanned out, holding taste tests, surveys, and focus groups.

Early results were favorable, the newer, sweeter mixture overwhelmingly beating both Pepsi and Coke itself. Most tasters said they would buy the product, but a minority of 10 to 12 percent were angry and alienated at the very thought of it. This small percentage was adamant. These people would stop drinking Coke products altogether.  So determined were they that this small splinter group often swayed other members of their focus groups.

The way things turned out, the company should have listened to this group a little more carefully.

Redhead woman holding soda refreshment with angry face, negative sign showing dislike with thumbs down, rejection conceptOn an April Friday in 1985, Coke let the media know that a major announcement was coming the following Tuesday. Coca Cola officials spent a busy weekend preparing for the re-launch, while Pepsi Executives announced a company-wide holiday, taking out a full page ad in the New York Times, crowing that “Pepsi had Won the Cola Wars”.

Skepticism was high on the day of the Big Announcement. Reporters were fed questions by Pepsi officials, and Goizueta fumbled the ball, refusing to state the reason for the change. He certainly wasn’t going to give Pepsi any credit for their performance in taste tests and his explanation hardly met the standards for “the Real Thing’.  “[It’s] smoother”, he said, “uh, uh, rounder yet, uh, yet bolder…a more harmonious flavor”.

Yeah.  That’s the ticket.

Goz, Keough
Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta, left; New Coke, center; and President Don Keough, right. Source: Bettmann, via Getty Images, H/T Bloomberg News

The backlash was ferocious, closely tracking results from those earlier focus groups.  Atlanta based Coca Cola’s southern customers described the change as another surrender to the “Yankees”.  More than 400,000 calls and letters came into company headquarters, including one addressed to “Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company”.  Another letter asked for Goizueta’s autograph, since the signature of “one of the dumbest executives in American business history” would surely become a valuable collector’s item. One psychiatrist hired by Coke to listen in on phone calls, told executives some people sounded as if they were discussing the death of a family member.

Newcoke_maxheadroomNot even Max Headroom and his stuttering “C-c-c-catch the wave!” could save the company.

Ads for “New Coke” were booed at the Houston Astrodome while Pepsi ran ads in which a smiling first-time Pepsi drinker exclaimed “Now I know why Coke did it!”

Even Fidel Castro weighed in, calling the change a sign of capitalist decadence.

Company President Donald Keough realized it was over on a visit to the Mediterranean Principality of Monaco.   Coming to the diner’s table, the small restaurant owner proudly proclaimed that he had “the real thing, it’s a real Coke,” offering Keough’s party a bottle of the old stuff.

images (62)So it was that, in 1985, Coca Cola announced they’d bring back the 91-year old formula.  One reporter asked Keough if the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. Keough’s answer should be taught in business schools the world over, if it isn’t already. “We’re not that dumb,” he said, “and we’re not that smart”.

 

March 11, 1958 The Day the US, Nuked Itself

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.

If you’re ever in South Carolina, stop and enjoy the historical delights of the Pee Dee region. About a half-hour from Pedro’s “South of the Border”, there you will find the “All-American City” of Florence, according to the National Civic League of 1965. With a population of about 38,000, Florence describes itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance.

Oh.  And the Federal Government dropped a Nuke on the place. Sixty-two years ago, today.

maxresdefault (29)To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Those of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The Air Force Boeing Stratojet bomber left Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, on a routine flight to Africa via the United Kingdom.  Just in case thermonuclear war was to break out with the Soviet Union, the B47 carried a 10-foot 8-inch, 7,600-pound, Mark 4, atomic bomb.

The Atlantic Coastline Railroad conductor, WWII veteran & former paratrooper Walter Gregg Sr. was in the workshop next to his home in the Mars Bluff neighborhood of Florence, South Carolina while his wife, Ethel Mae “Effie” Gregg, was inside, sewing. The Gregg sisters Helen and Frances, ages 6 and 9, were playing in the woods with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies as the B47 Stratojet bomber lumbered overhead.b47-7aAt 15,000-feet, a warning light came on in the cockpit, indicating the load wasn’t properly secured.   Not wanting a thing like that rattling around in the back, Captain Earl E. Koehler sent navigator Bruce M. Kulka, to investigate.  Kulka slipped and grabbed out for something, to steady himself.  That “something” just happened to be, the emergency release.

Bomb bay doors alone are woefully inadequate to hold back a 4-ton bomb. The thing came free and began a 15,000-foot descent, straight into the Gregg’s back yard.

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This hole 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep was made after an Air Force nuclear weapon accidentally fell from a B-47 and exploded in Florence, South Carolina, March 12, 1958. The home of Walter Gregg (background) was almost destroyed. Several members of his family were treated for injuries. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

The Mark 4 atom bomb employs an IFI (in-flight insertion) safety, whereby composite uranium and plutonium fissile pits are inserted into the bomb core, thus arming the weapon. When deployed, a 6,000-pound. conventional explosion super-compresses the fissile core, beginning a nuclear chain reaction. In the first millisecond, (one millionth of a second), plasma expands to a size of several meters as temperatures rise into the tens of millions of degrees, Celsius. Thermal electromagnetic “Black-body” radiation in the X-Ray spectrum is absorbed into the surrounding air, producing a fireball. The kinetic energy imparted by the reaction produces an initial explosive force of about 7,500 miles, per second.

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.  Effie gashed her head when the walls blew in but miraculously, no one was killed except for a couple chickens.  Not even the cat.

screen_shot_2016-05-11_at_60319_pmThree years later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crew members ejected from the aircraft at 9,000-feet and landed safely, another ejected but did not survive the landing. Two others died in the crash.

In this incident, both weapons were fully nuclear-enabled.  A single switch out of four, is all that prevented at least one of the things, from going off.

goldsboro_bomb_0
One Mk 39 nuclear weapon from the Goldsboro incident remained largely intact, with parachute still attached. The second plunged into a muddy field at about 700mph, and disintegrated.

Walter Gregg described the Mars Bluff incident in 2001, in director Peter Kuran’s documentary “Nuclear 911”. “It just came like a bolt of lightning”, he said. “Boom! And it was all over. The concussion …caved the roof in.” Left with little but the clothes on their backs, the Greggs eventually sued the Federal Government.

The family was awarded $36,000 by the United States Air force.  It wasn’t enough to rebuild the house let alone, replace their possessions.  Walter Gregg resented it, for the rest of his life.

download - 2020-03-11T083015.786Over the years, members of the flight crew stopped by to apologize for the episode.

The land remains in private hands but it’s federally protected, so it can’t be developed.   They even made a path back in 2008 and installed a few signs,  but those were mostly stolen by college kids.

You can check it out for yourself if you want to amuse the locals.  They’ll know what you’re doing as soon as you drive through the neighborhood, the second time.  Crater Rd/4776 Lucius Circle, Mars Bluff, SC (Hat tip roadsideamerica.com)

A month before the Mars Bluff incident, a hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in the ocean, off Tybee Island, Georgia.  Incidents involving the loss or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons are called “Broken Arrows“.  There have been 32 such incidents, since 1950.  As of this date, six atomic weapons remain unaccounted for, including that one off the Georgia coast.

Feature image top of page;  “C. B. Gregg looks at the bomb damaged home of his brother Walter Gregg who was injured after an Air Force bomb hit about 100 yards away on March 12, 1958, in Florence, S.C. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

March 10, 1748 Amazing Grace

“I endeavored to renounce society, that I might avoid temptation. But it was a poor religion; so far as it prevailed, only tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable, and useless”. John Newton

It was the Golden Age of Greek history, a time when “[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief…”, according to the Greek poet Hesiod. A time of Confucius and the Buddha in the east while the Olmec peoples ruled over much of South and Central America, a time when the Italian city-state of Rome overthrew a Monarch, to form a Republic.

Ancient Greece Costume - circa 500 BC2,500 years ago, Bantu farmers on the African continent began to spread out across the land as the first Africans penetrated the dense rain forests of the equator, to take up a new life on the west African coast.

The Islamic crusades of the 7th and 8th centuries turned much of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) to Islam and displaced the Sahelian kingdoms of the sub-Saharan grasslands.   The hunters, farmers and traders of Coastal Africa remained free to make their own way, isolated by those same rain forests from the jihads and other violence of the interior.

Sahel_Map-Africa_rough
Sahelian Kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa

The first European contact came around 1462 when the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra mapped the hills surrounding modern Freetown Harbour, naming an oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lioness Mountain).

ded91e87f93966f1ffcbc100d634a97dHome to one of the few safe harbors on the surf-battered “windward coast”, Sierra Leone soon became a favorite of European mariners, some of whom remained for a time while others came to stay, intermarrying with local women.

From the 6th century to a peak of around 1350, Arab slave traders conducted a rich trans-Saharan trade in human beings.

According to the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, slavery among and between the African peoples of Sierra Leone appears to be rare at this time. Portuguese mariners kept detailed records and would have described such a thing though there was a particular kind of “slavery” in the region: “A person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a “slave” of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale“.Arabslavers (1)While this type of “slave” retained rudimentary rights at this time, those unfortunate enough to be captured by Dutch, English and French slavers, did not.

It wasn’t long before coastal kidnapping raids gave way to more lucrative opportunities.  Some chiefs were more than happy to “sell” the less desirable members of their own tribes while others made a business out of war, taking prisoners to be traded for a fortune in European goods, including muskets.

While slave “owners” were near-exclusively white and foreign at this time, the late 18th century was a time of rich and powerful African chieftains, many of whom owned large numbers of slaves, of their own.1_bUM2OMXstOAZukyNAc8oFgThis was the world of John Newton, born July 24 (old style) 1725 and destined to a life, in the slave trade.

The son of a London shipmaster in the Mediterranean service, Newton first went to sea with his father at age 11 and logged six such voyages before the elder Newton retired, in 1742.

His was a wild youth, the life of a sailor bent on drinking and carousing and raising hell. That was all brought up short in 1743, when Newton was captured and “pressed” into service with the 50-gun HMS Harwich, given the rank of midshipman.

The teenager hated everything about it and tried to desert, earning himself a flogging for his troubles. Eight. Dozen. Lashes. Imagine enduring something like that.

Reduced to the rank of common seaman Newton was disgraced, wounded and humiliated. He plotted to murder the captain and hurl himself overboard but it wasn’t meant to be. His wounds healed over in time and, with the Harwich en route to India, Newton transferred to the slave ship Pegasus, bound for West Africa.

Pegasus would trade goods for slaves in Sierra Leone to be shipped to colonies in the Caribbean and North America.maxresdefault (28)Newton hated life on the Pegasus as much as they, hated him. In 1745, they left him in West Africa with slave trader Amos Clowe. Newton was now himself a slave, given by Clowe to his wife Princess Peye of the Sherbro tribe.  Peye treated Newton as horribly as any of her other slaves. Newton himself later described these three years as “once an infidel and a libertine, [now] a servant of slaves in West Africa”.

Rescued in 1748 at the request of his father, Newton was returning to England aboard the merchant ship Greyhound, when he experienced a spiritual awakening. Caught in a dreadful storm off Donegal, Greyhound seemed doomed when a great hole opened in her hull. He prayed for the mercy of God when a load somehow shifted, partially blocking the hole. In time, the storm died down. Greyhound made port in Lough Swilly, Ireland, four weeks later.

With this conversion, John Newton had come to accept the doctrines of Evangelical Christianity.  On March 10, 1748 he swore off liquor, gambling and profanity.  He would remember this day as a turning point, for the rest of his life.

There’s a popular story that Newton’s life was changed then and there but it didn’t work out that way. Those hours of despair on board the Greyhound were an awakening, yes, but Newton would return to the slave trade. Even after the 1754 stroke which ended his seafaring career, he still invested in slaving operations.

His was a gradual conversion.  “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word” he later said, “until a considerable time afterwards.”

While working as tax collector in the Port of Liverpool, Newton studied Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, preparing himself for serious religious studies. He applied to become an ordained minister of the Anglican Church in 1757. Seven years would come and go when the lay minister applied with Methodists, Independents and Presbyterians.  He was ordained a priest of the Anglican church on April 29, 1764.

Screen shot 2013-11-21 at 11.02.31 PMMoving to London in 1780 as the Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth church, Newton became involved with the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

In 1788, Newton broke a long silence on the subject to take a forceful stand, against the “peculiar institution“.  In his Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, Newton writes:

“So much light has been thrown upon the subject…for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.”

Newton apologized for his past in “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.

The tract went on to two printings, describing the hideous conditions on board the slave ships and leading to the abolition of the slave trade, in 1807.67452William Cowper was an English poet and hymnist who came to worship in Newton’s church, in 1767.  The pair collaborated on a book of Newton’s hymns including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!,” “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare” and others.

“I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon”.  His last words

Today, the carousing sailor and slave trader-turned English clergyman John Newton is remembered the world over for his 1772 work, the most famous hymn in history… “Amazing Grace“.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

March 9, 1942 Alcan

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it was never more clear. The Pacific coast was vulnerable to foreign attack.

Discussions concerning a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

As the first wave of Japanese aircraft descended to the final attack on Pearl Harbor, a force of some 5,900 soldiers and marines under Lieutenant General Tomitarō Horii invaded the American garrison on Guam, some 4,000 miles to the west.   American forces on Wake Island held out a bit longer but, by the 23rd it was over.

Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.   It was never more clear that the Pacific coast, was vulnerable to foreign attack.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes and fewer than 22,000 troops to defend an area four times the size of Texas.

Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began on  March 9 as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, hostile, wilderness.

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island and murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

Radios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

alcan-hwyTent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day.  Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

Alaska Highway Black SoldiersThat October, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. Sims slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

24SOLD-popupA gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.NPR ran an interview about this story sometime in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

 

March 8, 1917 A Political Plague

British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

The “War to End all Wars” dragged into its third dismal year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever.   Like two exhausted prize fighters, neither side could muster the strength to deliver the killing blow.  Many single days of the great battles of 1916 alone  produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1-Timeline-1917By 1916 it was generally understood in Germany that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the war had started, in the first place.  Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better.  On the “Triple Entente” side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was teetering on the edge of the precipice.

The first of two Revolutions that year began on February 23 according the “Old Style” calendar, March 8, “New Style”. Long-standing resentments over food rationing turned to mass protests in and around the Russian capital of Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eight days of violent demonstrations pitted Revolutionaries against police and “gendarmes”, that medieval remnant combining military units with the power of law enforcement.

By March 12 (new style), mutinous units of the Russian military had switched sides and joined with the revolutionaries. Three days later, Car Nicholas abdicated the Imperial throne.

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German propaganda postcard depicting Russian peasants begging for food. With the size of the Russian empire and the difficulty in transportation, the propaganda wasn’t far from the truth.

Amidst all this chaos, Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” and his largest adversary would collapse. He was right.

Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” after the River Lena, the easternmost of the three great Siberian rivers flowing into the arctic ocean. The middle-class son of a professor of mathematics and physics and the daughter of a well-to-do physician, Ulyanov became radicalized after the 1887 execution of his brother, for plotting to murder the Czar.

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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The man was soon convinced that capitalist society was bound to give way to socialist society with a natural transition to communism, not far behind.

Lenin was in exile when the war broke out, arrested and briefly imprisoned for his Russian citizenship. The radical revolutionary was released due to his anti-czarist sentiments when he and his wife, settled in Switzerland.

British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Lurching toward food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser. Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, this political plague bacillus traveled the length of Sweden arriving in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917.  Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, this small faction inserted into the body politic that April, would help to radicalize the population and consolidate Bolshevik power.Sealed TrainBy October, Russia would experience its second revolution of the year. The German Empire could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller” was out of the war.  And none too soon, too.  With the Americans entering the war that April, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could now move their divisions westward, in time to face the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force.

On July 17, 1918, an assassination squad from the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies murdered Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, family physician, servants and dogs.   It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia.  The citizens murdered by the totalitarian system of government which would rise in its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’