February 2, 1887 Groundhog Day

Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.

Here on Sunny Cape Cod™, we have a joke about the four seasons.  There’s “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”.

Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed season of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.

Groundhog Day.

The ancient Romans observed a mid-season festival on February 5, the pagan Irish on February 1. For Christians, it was February 2, Candlemas day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ritual purification of Mary.  For reasons not entirely clear, early Christians believed there would be six more weeks of winter if the sun came out on Candlemas Day.

Clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, their length representing how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on the idea by selecting an animal, a hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once a suitable number of Germans had come to America, they switched over to a more local rodent: Marmota monax. The common Groundhog.Groundhog Day In IllinoisGroundhogs hibernate for the winter, an ability some people of my acquaintance, would love to master. During that time, the animal’s heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to 5 as the slumbering rodent lives off stored body fat.  Another ability some of us could learn to appreciate, very much.

The male couldn’t care less about the weather; he comes out of his burrow in February in search of a mate. If uninterrupted, he will fulfill his groundhog mission of love and return to earth, not coming out for good until sometime in March.new_groundhogday_163820174But then there is the amorous woodchuck’s worst nightmare in a top hat, the groundhog hunter.

Groundhogs are something of a regional delicacy, said to taste like a cross between pork, and chicken.  In the 1880s, groundhog hunters hosted annual Groundhog day festivals in addition to summer hunts, followed by picnics featuring steaming dishes like Country-Style Groundhog, Groundhog and Sweet Potatoes and Waco Groundhog in Sour Cream, all of it washed down with “groundhog punch” consisting of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice “and other ingredients.”  Yumm.

One group of groundhog hunters in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, imaginatively called themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887, that their groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary“, was the only true weather forecasting rodent.5bb14c7a200000e800ff9957There are those who would dispute the Gobbler’s Knob crowd and their claims to Punxsutawney Phil’s weather forecasting prowess. Alabama has “Birmingham Bill”, and Canada has Shubenacadie Sam. New York can’t seem to decide between Staten Island Chuck and New York City’s very own official groundhog, “Pothole Pete”.

Today, Phil himself is no longer on the menu.  Groundhog punch has given way to a magic elixir said to give Punxatawney’s hundred-year-old rodent, seven more years of life.  Since 2010, Punxatawney Faithful can get text message alerts concerning the prognostications of their favorite rodent.  (Text “Groundhog” to 247365, if you’re interested).

There is no word for groundhog in Arabic.  Accounts of this day in the Arab press translate the word as جرذ الأرض or, “Ground Rat”.  If that’s not enough to make us all the life of the party, I don’t know what is.

If anyone were to bend down and ask Mr. Ground Rat his considered opinion on the matter, he would probably cast a pox on all our houses. It’s been a long winter. Mr. Ground Rat’s all dressed up for a date.  He has other things on his mind.groundhog-raising-paw-7195-21b14fc90e3aa60210825a1411bca610@1x

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

November 28, 1949 Simon

Equivalent to the American Medal of Honor or the British Victoria Cross, the “Dickin Medal” is the highest award in the British system of Military honors, awarded to animals for service in time of military conflict. The Dickin has been awarded only 71 times. Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat. A ship’s cat. The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River. Simon.

According to the archaeological record, the earliest trade dates to the Neolithic period of the 10th millennium, BC. The Austronesian peoples of island Southeast Asia established trade routes with the Indian sub-continent, as early as 1500 BC. Egyptians traded with Asian merchants from the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty.  The Greco-Roman palate of antiquity would not have been the same without the spice roads, plied first by land and later, by sea.

From the earliest times when man took to the ocean, food stores and trade goods alike were an attractive food source for the Black Rat, Rattus rattus.

Black Rat

Able to climb obstacles from trees to buildings to ship’s ropes, DNA and other evidence suggests the black rat originates not from Europe, but southeast Asia.

Also known as the “ship’s rat”, the animal reaches sexual maturity in as little as three to four months and completes the act of reproduction, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 7 or 8 “kittens” with an average gestation period of only 20 to 22 days and a weaning period, of 20 to 28.

Rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.  Left uncontrolled, rats will destroy a ship’s stores in a matter of weeks.  This is to say nothing of the black rat’s prodigious ability to carry disease without itself, being affected.  From Bubonic plague to Typhus to Toxoplasmosis, Trichinosis and any number of Streptococci, this third to half-pound animal has done more than any creature in history, to alter the course of human events.

Unsurprisingly, the “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea since man first took to the water.

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Ship’s cat “Blackie” greets Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Simon” was about a year old in 1948, one of countless and nameless feline waifs, starvelings roaming the dockyards of Hong Kong in search of a morsel.  17-year-old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom smuggled the animal on board the frigate HMS Amethyst, the job of “ship’s cat” being open at that time.

Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather of that time and place.  As Hickinbottom recalled, ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

simon-hms-amethyst-catSimon earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s hat.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.

On April 29, 1949, Amethyst was on her way up river when she came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The frigate returned fire but she was soon disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, killing Commander Skinner and badly wounding the ship’s cat.

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“Yangtse Incident by Timothy OBrien. HMS Amethyst about to return fire while a Sunderland of 88 Squadron makes a hurried departure, 23rd of April 1949”. H/T worldnavalships.com

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last, desperate transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate.  Some managed to swim across to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months became a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was carried to the sick bay where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his little body, and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was grievously wounded and wasn’t expected to make it, through the night.

As weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties as rat killer, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rodent known as Mao Tse-tung.

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HMS Amethyst makes a nighttime dash for freedom. Painting by Montague Dawson

The Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained extensive damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Dickin_Medal.jpgAll but unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War 1, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the Dickin is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor and bearing these words, “We Also Serve”.

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Simon the cat received the Dickin Medal, for catching rats and protecting food supplies during the time the ship was trapped by the Chinese. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Excepting the 2014 blanket award to all animals of the “Great War”, the Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception.  Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat.  A ship’s cat.  The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River.  Simon.

Simon arrived to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon didn’t survive his war wounds, after all.  Placed in quarantine like any other animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to severe infections of his wounds and died on this day, November 28, 1949.

More than a thousand people including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst, attended the funeral for the two-year-old feline.  Simon’s gravestone at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford reads: “Throughout the Yangtze Incident his behavior was of the highest order.”

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August 31, 1959 Sergeant Reckless

Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard the weapon go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t bother to look up. She was happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

A Recoilless Rifle is a type of lightweight tube artillery.  Kind of a bazooka, really, only the Recoilless fires modified shells rather than rockets.  Think of a portable cannon, excepte the back blast of these shells compensates for the mule’s kick which would otherwise be expected from such a weapon, making the rifle “recoilless”.

While that reduces projectile range, reduced gas pressures permit a thinner-walled barrel, resulting in a weapon light enough to be served by a 2 to 3-man crew, and shoulder fired by a single infantryman.

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The “RCLR” weapon system has provided the punch of artillery to mobile troop formations since the early days of WWII, including Airborne, Special Forces and Mountain units.

The problem arises when combat operations consume ammunition faster than the supply chain can replace it. Mountainous terrain makes the situation worse. Even today in the more mountainous regions of Afghanistan, there are times when the best transportation system, is horsepower.

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Ah Chim-hai was a chestnut mare of mixed Mongolian and Thoroughbred lineage, a race horse at a track in Seoul, South Korea, her name translating as “Flame of the Morning”.
Lieutenant Eric Pedersen of the recoilless rifle platoon, anti-tank company of the 5th Marine Regiment, needed a pack animal to carry the weapon’s 24-lb shells up Korean mountain passes. In October 1952, Pederson received permission from regimental commander Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, to buy a horse.

Lt. Pederson and stable boy Kim Huk-moon agreed on a price of $250, which Pederson paid with his own money.  Kim cried on watching his “Flame” leave the stable, but the sale had a higher purpose.  The boy’s sister had stepped on a land mine, and badly needed a prosthetic leg.

The Marines called the new recruit “Reckless” – a nod to the weapon system she was intended to serve, and to the fighting spirit of the 5th Marines.

Pederson wrote to his wife in California to send a pack saddle, while Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham and Private First Class Monroe Coleman provided for her care and training.

Navy Hospitalman First Class George “Doc” Mitchell provided most of Reckless’ medical care.  Latham taught her battlefield skills: how to step over communication wires, when to lie down under fire, how to avoid becoming entangled in barbed wire. She learned to run for cover at the cry of “Incoming!”

The platoon built Reckless a bunker and fenced off a pasture, but soon she was allowed to roam freely throughout the camp. She’d enter tents at will, sometimes spending the night if it was cold.

Reckless would eat just about anything: bacon, mashed potatoes, shredded wheat.  She loved scrambled eggs.  Just about anything else a Marine wasn’t watching closely enough. Reckless even ate her horse blanket once, and she loved a beer. Mitchell had to warn his fellow Marines against giving her more than two Cokes a day, which she’d drink out of a helmet. Once, she ate $30 worth of winning poker chips.

General Randolph McCall Pate, a veteran of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Korea, served as the 21st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1956 – ’59.  Pate wrote: “I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her.”  Reckless was a Marine.

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Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard an RCLR go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t bother to look up.  She was happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

Recoilless rifle tactics call for fire teams to fire four or five rounds, and then relocate before the enemy can shoot back. Reckless usually learned the route after one or two trips, often traveling alone to deliver supplies on the way up, and evacuate wounded on the way down.

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In February 1953, Captain Dick Kurth and his Fox Company were fighting for a hill called “Detroit”. Reckless made 24 trips by herself, carrying a total 3,500lbs of ammunition over 20 miles.

She made 51 solo trips that March, during the battle for Outpost Vegas. Reckless carried 9,000lbs of ammunition in a single day, over 35 miles of open rice paddies and steep hills. At times, artillery exploded around her at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. She was wounded twice during the battle. That night, she was too exhausted to do anything but hang her head while they rubbed her down.

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

On August 31, 1959, Reckless was promoted to Staff Sergeant in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. 1,900 of her 5th Marine comrades attended, as did two of her sons, “Fearless” and “Dauntless”.  A third, “Chesty”, was unavailable to attend.

General Pate wrote: “In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did. . .Reckless.”

 

Life Magazine published a collector’s edition in 1997, listing 100 heroes from American history. Alongside the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Sally Ride and Abraham Lincoln, was that of a small Mongolian race horse. Sergeant Reckless.

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April 21, 2019 The Easter Bunny

Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring.  And rabbits.

In Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on Good Friday, arising from the dead two days later to reveal himself to his disciples, before finally ascending to heaven.

So where did the Easter Bunny come from?

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“Titian’s painting The Madonna of the Rabbit depicts this relationship. Mary holds the rabbit in the foreground, signifying both her virginity and fertility. The rabbit is white to convey her purity and innocence.” H/T Ancient-Origins.net

Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring.  And rabbits.

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Hat tip Ancient-Origins.net for this image

It’s small wonder that the latter symbolized fertility.  A female Hare, called a “Jill” has a 42-day gestation period, and is capable of conceiving while still pregnant.  Kriss Kringle and an egg laying Easter Hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” came to America in the 1700s, with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Children would make nests of clothing and blankets, in which the creature could lay its colored eggs. This is the origin of the Easter basket.

Hares and rabbits are different species of the same family, like sheep and goats. Until the 18th century, rabbits were called Coneys, after the Latin “cuniculus”. The word has all but disappeared from American English vernacular, its only use today relates to Coney Island, in New York.  It was around that time that the diminutive, fuzzier “bunny” came to replace the Easter Hare.

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The Three Hares – A Curiosity Worth Regarding by Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman

More recently, the discovery of a Medieval “Three Hares” motif in a minor cathedral in Devon England led archaeologist and historian Tom Greeves, art history researcher Sue Andrew and documentary photographer Chris Chapman on a trans-continental odyssey, from Great Britain across the Eurasian landmass, to discover the origins of the enigmatic symbol.

The design depicts three hares in a triangle, each possessed of one ear and making in all, six.  The image appears in tapestry, architecture and/or precious objects emanating from at least four of the world’s great faith traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, cropping up from English cathedrals to Italian monasteries, German synagogues, Iranian metalwork and Russian reliquary caskets to Buddhist cave temples in North West China.

The three hares image may have spread across the 4,000-mile “Spice Road” during the  “Pax Mongolica” period of the 13th and 14th centuries, in which it was said  “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

For Greeves, Andrew and Chapman, three decades of work has culminated in The Three Hares, a Curiosity Worth Regarding, a volume I have personally added to my must read list.

Hat tip Three Hares Project 2018 and Chris Chapman photography, to whom these images are copyrighted  http://www.chrischapmanphotography.co.uk

History gives us one tale concerning rabbits having nothing whatever to do with Easter, but it’s  too good not to tell here.

download (34)The story involves no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte.  In July 1807, Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Tilsit, ending the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia. As a means of celebration, Napoleon suggested a rabbit hunt, and ordered Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier, to make it happen.

Berthier put together an outdoor luncheon, inviting the highest brass from the French military. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s men ranged far and wide, collecting rabbits for the hunt. As many as 3,000 of them.

Napoleon arrived at one side of a grassy field with his beaters and gun bearers, with all those caged rabbits lined up on the other side. Rabbits and Hares are predictably shy and retiring creatures, but Berthier’s soldiers had found it easier to pilfer domesticated rabbits instead of flushing out the wild variety, and these things were hungry.

The hunt was supposed to begin when all those cages opened but, instead of scattering, a swarm of rabbits thought it was dinner time and pelted straight across the field.

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H/T wearethemighty.com

The most powerful man in the world thought it was funny at first, until all those rabbits started coming up his legs. Coachmen cracked bullwhips and men grabbed sticks.  There was shooting and shouting and pandemonium, everywhere.  Still, the bunny horde came on.

French General and diarist Baron Paul Thiébault was there, let him tell the story:

“The intrepid rabbits turned to the Emperor’s flank, attacked him frantically in the rear, refused to quit their hold, piled themselves up between his legs till they made him stagger, and forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field”.

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H/T Warner Bros., Napoleon Bunny-Part

Napoleon retreated to his carriage, but the onslaught, continued. Historian David Chandler picks up the story:

“With a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”

The tide of bunnies continued the advance, some even got into the carriage.  The bunny blitz finally ebbed away, only as the Royal Conveyance drove out of sight.

So it is that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a General who fought and won more battles than Hannibal Barca, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great, combined, was defeated and driven out of town…

By bunnies.

Featured image, top of page: The Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral, Germany. Photo source: Public Domain. H/T ancient-origins.net

 

A Trivial Matter
According to WomansDay.com, Americans are expected to spend over $2 Billion on Cadbury eggs, jelly beans and other Easter candies, this year. Peeps, the number one seller (sorry Cadbury), came out in 1953 when each one was extruded, from a pastry tube. In those days, Peeps took twenty-seven hours to set. These days’ they’re ready to eat in about six minutes.

April 20, 1949 Ship’s Cat

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon. 

Mankind first crossed the line from hunter-gatherer to farmer, some ten thousand years ago. The earliest civilization known mainly for agricultural subsistence is the naturally well-watered region around Jericho, circa 8000BC. From that day to this, grain stockpiles and domesticated livestock have attracted vermin.  With that came the wild ancestor of the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus.

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From the earliest times when man took to the sea, food stores were an attractive free ride, for rodents.

Rats reach sexual maturity in as little as four to five weeks and complete the act of procreation, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 8 to 14 “kittens” and run as high, as 21. With an average gestation period of only 21 to 23 days, rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.

Left uncontrolled, rats and mice can destroy ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from the earliest days, first controlling damage to pantries, ropes and woodwork and, in more modern times, electrical wiring.  To say nothing, of rat-borne disease.

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Not without reason, are cats seen as good luck at sea. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, able to detect even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the cat’s behavior, often the first sign of foul weather ahead.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) is believed to descend from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to the Scandinavian peninsula from the modern-day United Kingdom, sometime in the first millennium.

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Norwegian Forest Cat

“Simon” was found in 1948, one of countless and nameless cats roaming the dockyards of Stonecutter’s Island, in Hong Kong. He was about a year old at that time, a sickly little waif, smuggled on board the HMS Amethyst by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, George Hickinbottom. Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats, and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather in that time and place.  Happily, the job of ship’s cat was open at that time, however (says Hickinbottom), ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

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Simon, the Amethyst cat

Simon quickly earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s cap.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.  On this day in 1949 and only a hundred miles upriver, Amethyst came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

yi4Amethyst returned fire but it wasn’t long before she was disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, mortally wounding Commander Skinner and badly injuring the ship’s cat.

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate and some managed to swim to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months turned to a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was brought to the sick bay, where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his body and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was not expected to make it through the night.

Simon-HMS-Amethyst

As the weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rat known as Mao Tse-tung.

peopleThe Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained heavy damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War One, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, it is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon.

Simon returned to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon did not survive his war wounds, after all.  Required to be placed in quarantine like any animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to complications of his injuries and died on November 28, 1949.

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Hundreds attended Simon’s funeral at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in east London, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. These words were inscribed on the stone, which marks his grave:

IN
MEMORY OF
“SIMON”
SERVED IN
H.M.S. AMETHYST
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
AUGUST 1949
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER

    

A Trivial Matter
“Oskar” was plucked from the ocean on May 27, 1941 by sailors from HMS Cossack, following the sinking of the German Battleship, Bismarck. So named from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’, code for “Man Overboard”, Oskar became ship’s cat aboard the British warship until October 27 when a German torpedo blew off the forward one-third of the destroyer, killing 159 sailors. Oskar survived this disaster as well, making his way to land and thence to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and dubbed “Unsinkable Sam”. The mighty carrier was herself sunk by a German torpedo on November 14, leaving Unsinkable Sam “angry but quite unharmed” clinging to a plank, in open ocean. World War Two would would rage for another four years, but not this particular ship’s cat. A superstitious lot, no sailor wanted any part of a shipmate who’d been through three wrecks. Sam was transferred first to the Governor of Gibraltar and then back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his days, at the “Home for Sailors”, in Belfast.
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April 4, 1926  American War Dog

With the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I, with virtually no service dogs in its military.

sgt_stubby_7 (1)By the last year of the Great War, the French, British and Belgians had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield.  Imperial Germany had 30,000.

General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I, with virtually no service dogs in its military.

America’s first war dog, “Stubby”, got there by accident, and served 18 months ‘over there’, participating in seventeen battles on the Western Front.

He looked like a terrier of some kind, similar to a pit bull.  Nobody knows anything more about him.  He showed up as a stray at Yale Field in New Haven, Connecticut, while a group of soldiers were training. The dog hung around as the men drilled and one soldier, Corporal Robert Conroy, started taking care of him. Conroy hid Stubby on board the troop ship when the outfit shipped out in 1917.

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Stubby saved his regiment from surprise \gas attacks, located and comforted the wounded, and even once caught a German spy by the seat of his pants. The Hun, who’d been prowling behind allied lines at the time, was mapping trenches for artillery bombardment.   He was found spinning in circles with a large, muscular terrier affixed to his behind.  The Bosch was easily disarmed, but it took a considerable amount of coaxing before Stubby could be persuaded to let go of that German’s rear end.

Stubby-Conroy-HistoricalStubby saw his first action at Chemin des Dames. Since the boom of artillery fire didn’t faze him, he learned to follow the men’s example of ducking when the big ones came close. It became a great game to see who could hit the dugout, first.  After a few days, the guys were watching him for a signal. Stubby was always the first to hear incoming fire.  We can only guess how many lives were spared by his early warning.

Following the Armistice, Stubby returned home as a nationally acclaimed hero, and was eventually received by presidents Harding and Coolidge. Even General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the AEF during the war, presented Stubby with a gold medal made by the Humane Society, declaring him to be a “hero of the highest caliber.”

Stubby toured the country by invitation and probably led more parades than any dog in American history.  He was promoted to honorary Sergeant by the Legion, becoming the highest ranking dog to ever serve in the Army.

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Old age caught up with the small warrior on April 4th, 1926, as he took ill and died in his master’s arms.

Sergeant Stubby and a few of his contemporaries were instrumental in inspiring the creation of the US K-9 Corps.  Just in time for World War ll.

 

A Trivial Matter
On returning home following service during WW2, only 4 of 592 Marine Corps dogs failed to adapt to civil life.