Twelve days a month John Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform to fly jumbo jets out of Logan Airport, but he always returned to the land he loved.
A great wave of immigrants came into the United States around the turn of the 20th century, 20 million Europeans or more making the long journey to become Americans.
Among these was the Ogonowski family, who emigrated from Poland to make their home in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, along the New Hampshire line.
The earliest members of the family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well acclimated to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate. Four generations later the Ogonowski family still tilled the soil on their 150 acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.
Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force. During the war in Vietnam, the farmer-turned-pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.
Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There he met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to her friends. The two would later marry, and raise three daughters.
Twelve days a month Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform to fly jumbo jets out of Logan Airport, but he always returned to the land he loved.
Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into what used to be open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field” he would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.
Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming as well. The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.
That was the year when the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Southeast Asian immigrants from Lowell.
It was a natural fit. Ogonowski felt a connection to these people, based on his time in Vietnam. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago had helped his twice-great grandfather.
Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. There was taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, and they would sell it into nearby immigrant communities and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.
The program was a success. Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.”
So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC. It was September 11.
By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11.
He was one of the first to die, murdered in his cockpit by Islamist terrorist Mohammed Atta and his accomplices.
It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and mentor had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.
The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined that John’s dream would not die. Peg said it best: “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.”
John Ogonowski had been working with the Land Trust to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34 acre farm in Dracut, previously slated to be developed into a golf course with housing. Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress. The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003, a living memorial to Captain John Ogonowski. The pilot, and the farmer.
“The running I can do, even if I have to crawl every last mile. We need your help. The people in cancer clinics all over the world need people who believe in miracles. I am not a dreamer, and I am not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer. But I believe in miracles. I have to”. Terry Fox, letter to the Canadian Cancer Society, October 1979
We’ve all known a “natural”. Be it academics, sports or what-have-you, we’re talking about that person who is naturally wired for a task. Who just…”gets it”. Then there is a second type. One born without that natural talent whose success depends on guts, drive and determination to succeed.
When it came to sports, Terrance Stanley Fox was one of those.
The second child of four born to Betty and Rolland Fox, Terry arrived on July 28, 1958 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the family later moving to British Columbia, the westernmost province in Canada.
Terry’s best buddy Doug Alward was a basketball natural, starting for the Mary Hill Jr. High School Cobras. Fox loved the sport but basketball is difficult for a guy who stood barely five feet high in Jr. high. Coach Bob McGill suggested he go out for cross country which he did, but he never lost the desire to play hoops.
Fox would practice every morning before school and during the summers. He finally made the team in grade 8, dead last, and only played a single minute for the whole season. By grade 10 Fox and Alward were first string guards for the Port Coquitlam High School Ravens. Later that year the two shared the school’s Athlete of the Year award. Fox continued with cross-country running and also soccer and rugby. By grade 12 Fox was actually the better basketball player while Alward went on to distinguish himself, in long distance running.
The year was 1976. The year when Terry first noticed that pain, in his right leg.
Terry began college that year at Simon Fraser University where he tried out and won, a place on the schools Junior Varsity basketball squad. A car wreck later that year did little to help that sore knee. Terry worked through it but, a training run the following spring left him in so much pain he could barely move. Suspecting something more serious Rolly took his son to the family doctor.
Dr. Michael Piper suspected osteogenic sarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer which often begins in the knee. The diagnosis was confirmed on March 4. The only choice was amputation.
The night before his surgery, high school basketball coach Terri Fleming brought him an article. It was about an amputee named Dick Traum who went on to run the marathon, in New York city. “Someday” he told nurse Judith Ray the following morning, “I’m going to do something like that”. Doctors amputated the leg above the knee on March 9, 1977.
Terry was walking again in a few weeks, with the help of an artificial leg. There were chemotherapy sessions and physiotherapy. Golf dates with his father and through it all, a growing sense of…something. Yes his hair was falling out but Terry saw other cancer patients during this time and somehow, he felt like one of the lucky ones. Many of these people were destroyed by this disease, some were dying, but…Terry…he had a Future.
There were sixteen months of chemotherapy and, despite the nausea, Terry took up wheelchair basketball. His hands would blister and bleed as he struggled to master this new approach to an old game. Within two years he had made the national team.
But he never forgot that article, or his own sense of responsibility to those who, like himself, suffered from this terrible disease.
Fox began to train at night, first a half-mile, and then more. Prosthetist Ben Spencer helped with modifications to his artificial leg, making it easier to withstand the impact of running.
There was a half-marathon in 1979 in which he finished dead last but only ten minutes behind, the last two-legged runner. Around this time Terry had an idea that turned into an obsession. A fund raiser for cancer research. He would run across Canada in a “Marathon of Hope” and he would do it, the following spring. The goal to raise $24 million, representing a dollar from every person in Canada.
The marathon of hope got off to a wet, cold start on April 12, 1980, when Terry dipped his artificial leg in Atlantic waters, off of Newfoundland. He filled two bottles, one for a souvenir and the other, he would dump into the Pacific.
The response was disappointing throughout much of the maritime provinces. Little had been done to publicize the run. Very few even knew it was happening. Terry pushed on running about 42km a day, supported by Doug Alward in the van and later joined by Terry’s brother, Darrell.
Nothing whatever had been done to publicize the run throughout all of Quebec but that all changed in Ontario, with the help of businessman Isadore Sharp and Bill Vigars, of the Canadian Cancer Society. Journalist Leslie Scrivener of the Toronto Star began to write a weekly column on Fox’s run.
He became a national star in Ontario, gaining personal meetings with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, British actress Maggie Smith and NHL Greats Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr.
For 143 days Fox ran ever westward covering a total of 5,373 kilometers, equivalent to over 128 full-length marathons. It all came to an end on September 1 in a place called Thunder bay.
The pain he could live with. Terry Fox had demonstrated that but the cough was relentless, and debilitating. The cancer had returned and now, it was in his lungs. He was airlifted on September 2.
The CTV telethon airing later that week raised $6.5 million, for cancer research. Fox received the Companion to the Order of Canada two weeks later, becoming the youngest person ever to win Canada’s highest civilian honor. That December he won the Lou Marsh trophy as Canada’s Athlete of the Year.
Port Coquitlam High School was later renamed, in his honor.
Donations topped $24.17 million on February 1, 1981, achieving Terry’s goal of raising a dollar from every person in Canada. Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope was a success. His struggle against that hideous disease which had taken his leg, was not.
There were long months of cancer treatments but this thing was relentless. In June 1981 Terry contracted pneumonia. He went into a coma on June 27. Terry Fox died at 4:35 am on June 28 at Royal Columbian Hospital. He would have been 23 in about a month.
Flags across all of Canada were lowered that day, to half-staff. Let Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau have the last word in this story as he himself spoke, before the House of Commons:
“It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death. Our profound gratitude for the gift which Terry gave to all of us, the gift of his own boundless courage and hope.”
The humor of the situation was hard to resist, and the “ass jokes” all but told themselves. (Sorry, but we’re talking about Marines, here). Dozens of Marines laughed uproariously in that mess hall in 2009, belting out a mangled version of an old Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooove youuuuuuuuu.”
Al Taqaddum Airbase or “TQ” in military parlance is a military airbase, 45 miles west of Baghdad on the Habbaniyah Plateau of Iraq. In 2008, Al Taqaddum was home to the 1st Marine Logistics Group, under the command of Colonel John D. Folsom.
Early one August morning, Colonel Folsom awoke to a new sound. The thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopters, the endless hum of the generators – those were the sounds of everyday life. This sound was different. This was the sound of braying donkey.
Folsom emerged from his quarters to find the small, emaciated animal, tied to a eucalyptus tree. Standing all of 3′ tall, a sergeant had spotted the donkey roaming outside Camp Taqaddum and thought it would be amusing to catch him. Folsom thought it might be fun to have one around. Time would tell they were both right.
The website for a UK donkey sanctuary recommends a diet of highly fibrous plant material, eaten in small quantities throughout the day. I read the list twice and nowhere will you find bagels and yet, for this little Iraqi donkey, there was nothing better. Preferably frozen. He’d hold them in his mouth and walk along, scraping the bagel in the dirt before eating it. He liked to play the same game, with a deflated rubber ball.
You won’t find cigarettes on the list either, but he stole one once, and gobbled it down. It didn’t seem to matter that the thing was lit. For that reason and because of the color of his coat Marines called him, “Smoke”.
Before long, Smoke was a familiar sight around Camp Taqaddum. After long walks around the wire, Smoke learned to open doors and wander around. If you ever left a candy dish out on your desk, you were on your own.
Regulations prohibit the keeping of pets in a war zone. A Navy Captain helped get Smoke designated as a therapy animal, and he was home to stay. As it turned out, there was more than a little truth to the label. For young women and men thousands of miles from home in a war zone, the little animal was a welcome reminder of home.
The humor of the situation was hard to resist, and the “ass jokes” all but told themselves. (Sorry, but we’re talking about Marines, here). Dozens of Marines laughed uproariously in that mess hall in 2009, belting out a mangled version of an old Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooove youuuuuuuuu.”
That was the year Folsom’s unit cycled out of Camp Taqaddum, to be replaced by another contingent of Marines. These promised to look after the 1st MLG’s mascot, but things didn’t work out that way. A Major gave the donkey away to a Sheikh who in turn dumped him off on an Iraqi family, and that was the end of the story.
Except, it wasn’t.
Colonel Folsom couldn’t get the little animal out of his head and, learning of his plight in 2010, determined to get him back. There were plenty of kids who had survived trauma of all kinds in his home state of Nebraska. Folsom believed this animal could do them some good, as well.
There ensued a months-long wrangle with American and Iraqi authorities, who couldn’t understand why all the fuss over a donkey. For the family who now owned him, the neglected, half-starved pack animal out back suddenly became a “beloved pet”. They couldn’t possible let him go for anything less than $30,000, US. (But, of course).
900 donors pitched in and, despite seemingly endless obstacles and miles of red tape, Smoke the Donkey slowly made his way from al-Anbar to Kuwait and on to Turkey and finally, to a new home in Nebraska.
ABCNews.com broadcast this announcement on May 18, 2011. Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, “mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy” was now, an American. Semper Fi, Smoke.
Man and dog stepped off the ship in 1928 to a throng of reporters. There were flash bulbs, shouted questions and the din of traffic and honking horns that can only be New York City. Buddy never wavered. At the end of that first day, Dorothy Eustis received a single word telegram: “Success”.
Morris Frank lost the use of an eye in a childhood accident. He lost his vision altogether in a boxing mishap, at the age of 16. Frank hired a boy to guide him around but the young man was easily bored and sometimes wandered off, leaving Frank to fend for himself.
German specialists were working at this time on the use of Alsatians (German Shepherds) to act as guide dogs for WWI veterans blinded by mustard gas. An American breeder living in Switzerland, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, wrote an article about the work in a 1927 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. When Frank’s father read him the article, he wrote to Eustis pleading that she train a dog for himself. “Is what you say really true? If so, I want one of those dogs! And I am not alone. Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own. We can then set up an instruction center in this country to give all those here who want it a chance at a new life.”
Dorothy Eustis called Frank in February 1928 and asked if he was willing to come to Switzerland. The response left little doubt: “Mrs. Eustis, to get my independence back, I’d go to hell”. She accepted the challenge and trained two dogs, leaving it to Frank to decide which was the more suitable. Morris came to Switzerland to work with the dogs, both female German Shepherds. He chose one named “Kiss” but, feeling that no 20-year-old man should have a dog named Kiss, he called her “Buddy”.
Man and dog stepped off the ship in 1928 to a throng of reporters. There were flash bulbs, shouted questions and the din of traffic and honking horns that can only be New York City. Buddy never wavered. At the end of that first day, Dorothy Eustis received a single word telegram: “Success”. Morris Frank was set on a path that would become his life’s mission: to get seeing eye dogs accepted all over the country.
Frank and Eustis established the first guide dog training school in the US in Nashville, on January 29, 1929. Frank was true to his word, becoming a tireless advocate of public accessibility for the blind and their guide dogs. In 1928, he was routinely told that Buddy couldn’t ride in the passenger compartment. Within seven years, all railroads in the United States adopted policies allowing guide dogs to remain with their owners while onboard. By 1956, every state in the Union had passed laws guaranteeing access to public spaces for blind people and their dogs.
Frank told a New York Times interviewer in 1936 that he had probably logged 50,000 miles with Buddy, by foot, train, subway, bus, and boat. He was constantly meeting with people, including two presidents and over 300 ophthalmologists, demonstrating the life-changing qualities of owning a guide dog.
Sadly, no dog is given the span of a human lifetime. Buddy’s health was failing in the end, but the team had one more hurdle to cross. One more barrier to break. Frank wanted to fly in a commercial aircraft with his guide dog. The pair did so on this day in 1938, flying from Chicago to Newark. Buddy passed the time curled up at Frank’s feet. United Air Lines was the first to adopt the policy, granting “all Seeing Eye dogs the privilege of riding with their masters in the cabins of any of our regularly scheduled planes.”
Buddy was all business during the day, but, to the end of her life, she liked to end her work day with a roll on the floor with Mr. Frank. Buddy died seven days after that plane trip, but she had made her mark. By this time there were 250 seeing eye dogs working across the country, and their number was growing fast. Buddy’s replacement was also called Buddy, as was every seeing eye dog Frank would ever own until he passed away, in 1980.
Four decades and more since Morris Frank left this earth, his dream lives on. Today there are an estimated 10,000 seeing eye dogs currently at work, in the United States.
Father Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star by running through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. This was no rear-echelon ministry.
Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, he spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.
Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946 and rejoining, in 1948.
Father Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.
Kapaun’s unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. He would minister to the dead and dying performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.
Father Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. This was no rear-echelon ministry.
A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.
Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of fellow prisoners.
Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.
Chinese Communist guards would taunt him during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.
Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. A short time later, he was incapacitated. Chinese guards carried him off to a “hospital” – a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “Death House”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”
In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. United States Army records report that Fr. Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.
His fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on the 23rd, of malnutrition and starvation. He was only 35.
Scores of men credit their survival to Chaplain Kapaun. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumously, for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.
Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican. A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification and delivered a unanimous decision on June 21, 2016, approving the petition.
In January 2022 it was announced, that the Vatican is considering a declaration of martyrdom for the Catholic faith. If granted it’s an important step on Father Emil Kapaun’s continuing road, to canonization.
The job of the Arlington Ladies is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Linda Willey of the Air Force Ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris yet littered the cemetery.
The first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864. Two more joined Christman that day, the trickle soon turning into a flood. By the end of the war between the states, that number was 17,000 and rising.
In modern times, an average week will see 80 to 100 burials in the 612 acres of Arlington.
In 2005, a news release from the Department of Defense reported “Private First Class Michael A. Arciola, 20, of Elmsford, New York, died February 15, 2005, in Al Ramadi, Iraq, from injuries sustained from enemy small arms fire. Arciola was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Casey, Korea”.
Private Arciola joined a quarter-million buried in our nation’s most hallowed ground on March 31. Two hundred or more mourners attended his funeral, a tribute befitting the tragedy of the loss of one so young.
Sixteen others were buried in Arlington that Friday, most considerably older. Some brought only a dozen or so mourners. Others had no friends or family members whatsoever on-hand, to say goodbye.
Save for a volunteer, from the Arlington Ladies.
In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and the general’s wife Gladys made a practice of attending military funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sometimes, a military chaplain was the only one present at these services. Both Vandenbergs felt that a member of the Air Force family should be present at these funerals. Gladys began to invite other officer’s wives. Over time, a group of women from the Officer’s Wives Club were formed for the purpose.
In 1973, General Creighton Abrams’ wife Julia did the same for the Army forming a group calling themselves “Arlington Ladies”. Groups of Navy and Coast guard wives followed suit, in 1985 and 2006.
Traditionally, the Marine Corps Commandant sends an official representative of the Corps to all Marine funerals. The Marine Corps Arlington Ladies were formed in 2016.
Arlington Ladies’ Chairman Margaret Mensch explained “We’ve been accused of being professional mourners, but that isn’t true. I fight that perception all the time. What we’re doing is paying homage to Soldiers who have given their lives for our country.”
The casual visitor cannot help but being struck with the solemnity of such an occasion. Air Force Ladies’ Chairman Sue Ellen Lansell spoke of one service where the only other guest was “one elderly gentlemen who stood at the curb and would not come to the grave site. He was from the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D. C. One soldier walked up to invite him closer, but he said no, he was not family”.
The organization was traditionally formed of current or former military wives. Today their number includes daughters and even one “Arlington Gentleman”. 46 years ago they came alone, or in pairs. Today, 145 or so volunteers from four military branches are a recognized part of all funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, their motto: “No Soldier will ever be buried alone.”
The volunteer arrives with a military escort from the Navy or the United States Army 3rd Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard”. The horse-drawn caisson arrives from the old post chapel, carrying the flag draped casket. Joining the procession, she will quietly walk to the burial site, her arm inside that of her escort. A few words are spoken over the deceased, followed by the three-volley salute. Off in the distance, a solitary bugler sounds Taps.
The folded flag is presented to the grieving widow, or next of kin. Only then will she break her silence, stepping forward with a word of condolence and two cards: one from the service branch Chief of Staff and his wife and a second, from herself.
Joyce Johnson buried her husband Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Johnson in 2001, a victim of the Islamist terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Johnson remembers the Arlington Ladies’ volunteer as “a touchingly, human presence in a sea of starched uniforms and salutes”. Three years later, Joyce Johnson paid it forward, and became one herself.
Any given funeral may be that of a young military service member killed in service to the nation, or a veteran of Korea or WWII, who spent his last days in the old soldier’s home. It could be a four-star General or a Private. It matters not a whit.
“We’re not professional mourners. We’re here because we’re representing the Air Force family and because, one day, our families are going to be sitting there in that chair”. – Sandra Griffin, Air Force volunteer, Arlington Ladies
Individual volunteers attend about five funerals a day, sometimes as many as eight. As with the Tomb of the Unknown sentinels who hold their vigil heedless of weather, funeral services pay no mind, to weather conditions. The funeral will proceed on the date and time scheduled irrespective of rain, snow or heat. Regardless of weather, an Arlington Lady Will be in attendance.
The job of the Arlington Ladies is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Linda Willey of the Air Force Ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris yet littered the cemetery. Paula McKinley of the Navy Ladies still chokes up, over the hug of a ten-year old girl who had just lost both parents. Margaret Mensch speaks of the heartbreak of burying one of her own young escorts after he was killed in Afghanistan, in 2009.
Barbara Benson was herself a soldier, an Army flight nurse during WWII. She is the longest serving Arlington Lady. “I always try to add something personal”, Benson said, “especially for a much older woman. I always ask how long they were married. They like to tell you they were married 50 or 60 years…I don’t know how to say it really, I guess because I identify with Soldiers. That was my life for 31 years, so it just seems like the natural thing to do.”
Elinore Riedel was chairman of the Air Force Ladies during the War in Vietnam, when none of the other military branches had women representatives. “Most of the funerals were for young men,” she said. “I saw little boys running little airplanes over their father’s coffins. It is a gripping thing, and it makes you realize the awful sacrifices people made. Not only those who died, but those left behind.”
Mrs. Reidel is a minister’s daughter, who grew up watching her father serve those in need. “It doesn’t matter whether you know a person or not”, she said, “whether you will ever see them again. It calls upon the best in all of us to respond to someone in deep despair. I call it grace…I honestly feel we all need more grace in our lives.”
I dedicate this “Today in History” to the man for whom I am namesake. The man who gave me the love for history you see, on these pages. United States Army Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr., 2/25/37 – 3/31/18.
In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying these ideas to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world. He called it his theory of “Eugenics”.
In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding. In the Socratic dialogue “The Republic” Plato introduced a “guardian class” to watch over over the ideal society.
In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying these ideas to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world. He called it his theory of “Eugenics”.
Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when countries from Brazil to Japan adopted policies regarding the involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients.
“Better Babies” competitions sprang up at state fairs across the United States. Babies were measured, weighed, and “judged”, like livestock. By the 1920s, such events had evolved into “Fitter Family” competitions.
One of the leaders of the eugenics movement was the pacifist and Stanford University professor, David Starr Jordan. After writing several books on the subject, Jordan became a founding member of the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders Association. The higher classes of American society were being eroded he argued, by the lower class. Careful, selective breeding were required to preserve the nation’s “upper crust”.
Margaret Higgins Sanger believed that birth control should be compulsory for “unfit” women. She claimed that these mothers “recklessly perpetuated their damaged genetic stock by irresponsibly breeding more children in an already overpopulated world.”
An early advocate for birth control, Sanger has her supporters to this day, including former Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously”, Clinton said. “Her courage, her tenacity, her vision…” Time Magazine points out that “Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States”, describing her as “An advocate for women’s reproductive rights who was also a vocal eugenics enthusiast…”
Detractors have described Sanger as a “thoroughgoing racist”, citing her own words in What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1910: “In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets”.
Admire or detest the woman as you choose, Sanger’s work established organizations. These evolved into what we know today, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Around the world, such ideas took the form of involuntarily terminated pregnancies, compulsory sterilization, euthanasia and, in the case of Nazi Germany, mass extermination.
Madison Grant, the New York lawyer best known for his work in developing the discipline of wildlife management, was a leader in the eugenics movement, once receiving an approving fan letter from none other than Adolf Hitler.
Public policy and academic types conducted three international eugenics conferences to discuss the application of programs to improve human bloodlines. The first such symposium convened in London in 1912, discussing papers on “racial suicide” and similar topics. Presiding over the conference was none other than Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, with Harvard president emeritus Charles William Eliot serving as vice President.
The 1912 conference was followed by two more in 1921 and 1932, both held in New York City. Colleges and universities delved into eugenics as academic discipline, with courses exploring the ethical and public policy considerations of eliminating the “degenerate” and “unfit”.
In Pennsylvania, 270 involuntary sterilizations were performed without benefit of law, between 1892 and 1931. On March 21, 1905, the Pennsylvania legislature passed “An Act for the Prevention of Idiocy”, requiring that every institution in the state entrusted with the care of “ idiots and imbecile children”, be staffed by at least one skilled surgeon, whose duty it was to perform surgical sterilization. The bill was vetoed by then-Governor Samuel Pennypacker, only to return in 1911, ’13, ’15, ’17, ’19, and again in 1921.
By the height of the eugenics movement, some 30 states had passed legislation, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.
In 1945 the state of California required Charles Follett to undergo an involuntary vasectomy. His crime? Follett found himself abandoned by alcoholic parents. He was 15 years old. Charlie Follett was but one of some 20,000 Californians forced to undergo such a procedure.
Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, aimed at what then-University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins called the “rural degeneracy problem.” An untold number of “defectives” were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization, including Abenaki Indians and French-Canadian immigrants.
Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, but the measure was legally flawed. To remedy the situation, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), founded in 1910 by the the former Harvard University Zoology Professor Charles Benedict Davenport, Ph.D. crafted a statute, later adopted by the Commonwealth of Virginia as state law in 1924.
That September, Superintendent of the ‘Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’ Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, filed a petition to sterilize one Carrie Elizabeth Buck, an 18-year-old patient at the institution whom Priddy claimed to be “incorrigible”. A “genetic threat to society”. Buck’s 52-year-old mother had a record of prostitution and immorality Priddy claimed. The child to whom Buck gave birth in the institution only proved the point.
Buck’s guardian brought her case to court, arguing that compulsory sterilization violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. After losing in district court, the case was appealed to the Amherst County Circuit Court, the Virginia Supreme Court, and finally the United States Supreme Court.
Dr. Priddy died along the way, Dr. John Hendren Bell taking his place. SCOTUS decided the “Buck vs Bell” case on May 2, 1927, ruling in an 8–1 decision that Carrie Buck, her mother, and her perfectly normal infant daughter, were all “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”
In the majority ruling, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. did more than just greenlight the Virginia statute. He urged the nation as a whole to get serious about eugenics, and to prevent large numbers of “unfit” from breeding: “”It is better for all the world“, Holmes wrote, “if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind“. In writing about Carrie Buck herself, her mother and infant daughter Vivian, Holmes delivered one of the most brutal pronouncements in all American jurisprudence: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
It was later revealed that Carrie Buck had been raped by a member of the Dobbs family, the foster family who had taken her in and later had her committed. To save the family “honor”. No matter. Buck was compelled to undergo tubal ligation, later paroled from the institution to become a domestic worker with a family in Bland, Virginia. Buck’s daughter Vivian was adopted by the Dobbs family.
In a later examination of Vivian Buck, ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook pronounced the child “feeble minded”, claiming that she “showed backwardness” supporting the “three generations” theory expressed in the SCOTUS opinion.
“Vivian Alice Elaine Dobbs” died from complications of measles at the age of 8, after only two years in school. Dr. Estabrook’s report failed to explain how she seemed to do well for those two years with grades ranging from As and Bs in deportment and Cs in most academic subjects except mathematics, with which she always had problems. She actually made honor roll in April 1931, a fact which goes unexplained in Dr. Estabrook’s report.
In order to keep the family from reproducing, Carrie’s sister Doris was sterilized without her knowledge when she was hospitalized, with appendicitis. Doris later married. She and her husband tried for many years to have children, without success. It was only in 1980 she learned the true reason, for her inability to get pregnant.
Carrie Buck went on to marry. Twice. Both marriages ended only with the death of her husband. Later interviewers labeled her a woman of “normal intelligence”. In later life she said she always wanted more children but that, of course, was denied her. Carrie Buck died in a nursing home in 1983, 56 years after her sterilization. She was buried in a cemetery in Charlottesville. In a nearby gravesite lies the child the government took away from her, all those many years before.
“The god Prometheus stole fire from heaven to give to the human race, which originally consisted only of men. To punish humanity, the other gods created the first woman, the beautiful Pandora. As a gift, Zeus gave her a box, which she was told never to open. However, as soon as he was out of sight she took off the lid, and out swarmed all the troubles of the world, never to be recaptured. Only Hope was left in the box, stuck under the lid. Anything that looks ordinary but may produce unpredictable harmful results can thus be called a Pandora’s box”. – Merriam-Webster.com
On March 4, 2018, a father and daughter enjoyed a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. Two hours before sunset, the two took ill. A passing doctor and nurse found the couple unresponsive, on a park bench.
Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white. The Skripals were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”
Like the Russian State Security operative turned defector Alexander Litvinenko before them, Sergei Skripal knew his former boss had a very long reach. In 2006, Litvinenko took ill on the streets of England, poisoned by the radioactive element Pollonium-210, slipped into his tea. Skripal it turns out was a former Russian military officer and double agent for British intelligence. Twelve years earlier Litvinenko suffered a long and terrible death. Skripal and his daughter recovered. The former spy is rumored to be living in New Zealand, under an assumed name.
British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian “diplomats” following the 2018 incident. While Vladimir Putin’s government vehemently denies the charge, the Skripal matter has been classified as an attempted assassination using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.
The terrifying history of nerve agents began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides. Dr. Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms. Within days the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed.
Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.
Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un, in 2017.
Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death follows within minutes caused by asphyxiation, or cardiac arrest.
In the 1950s, British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon judged too dangerous for safe use and taken off the market. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.
In 1961, the American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war. The Soviet military developed an analog called VR in 1963 later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.
The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) compounds.
A 1994 the US GAO (General Accounting Office) reported:
“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.
Skull Valley is a geologic formation bordering the Great Salt Lake Desert near Dugway, in the south of Utah. On March 17, 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.
The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”
Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident. Total sheep fatalities were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized. With even a suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatsoever either for meat, or for wool.
A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open as the test aircraft, gained altitude.
Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding. President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.
Few nations possess stockpiles of nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it. The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation should any nation so attacked, possess the capability.
Today on the morning news we hear of “scum” and “insects” who must be “purged” from the Russian nation. These are the pronouncements of the dictator Vladimir Putin, words we haven’t heard since the days of the Third Reich or the terrible monstrosity of Stalin’s USSR, words directed this time at Putin’s own countrymen, objectors to the war of aggression being carried out even now, against their neighbors in Ukraine.
The nations of the world release statements but stand at bay, fearful of the horrors as yet locked away in the darkness, of Pandora’s box. Like the hideous three-headed dog Cerberus standing guard at the gates of hell we shrink in horror at that terrible and yet benign sounding term, NBC. We hold a wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on yet unable, to let go.
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” ― 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.
2,500 years ago, Bantu farmers on the African continent fanned 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.
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).
Home 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“.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 chieftains 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.This was the world of John Newton, born July 24 (old style) 1725 and destined for 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 raising hell. That was all brought up short in 1743, when Newton was captured and “pressed” into service with the 50-gun HMS Harwich and given the rank, of midshipman.
The teenager hated everything about the naval service and tried to desert, earning himself a flogging for his trouble.
Eight. Dozen. Lashes. Imagine for a moment, enduring something like that.
Reduced to the rank of common seaman Newton was disgraced, wounded and humiliated. He vowed to murder the captain and hurl himself overboard but it wasn’t meant to be. The wounds healed over in time and, with the Harwich enroute 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.Newton hated life on the Pegasus as much as his shipmates, hated him. In 1745 he was abandoned in West Africa with a slave trader, named Amos Clowe. Newton was now himself a slave, given by Clowe to his wife Princess Peye of the Sherbro tribe, of Sierra Leone. Peye treated Newton as badly as she treated any of her other slaves, treatment as wretched as that meted out to the human beings who had fallen into his own hands, as a slave trader. 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 by his father’s request, 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. Newton prayed for the mercy of God when a load somehow shifted, party blocking the hole. With pumps operating around the clock, 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. For the rest of this life he would regard this day, as a turning point.
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. In 1757 he applied to become an ordained minister, of the Anglican Church. 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.
Moving 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 he 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 an act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade, in 1807.William 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
John Newton was a drunk, a carousing sailor and a slave trader who saw the light and left us one of the great hymns, of the last quarter-millennium.
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.
Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C., after the diagnosis. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”
The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. The nation was about to know the name, of Lou Gehrig.
Gehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Columbia would lose the game but Gehrig struck out seventeen batters that day, to set a team record.
The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful, left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450-foot home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street & Broadway.
New York Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.
Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the New York Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.
He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr.
Gehrig hit his 23rd major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.
This was the last one.
Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, and went into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.
The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2 but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.
Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking and a life expectancy, of fewer than three years.
Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”
Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939, his once mighty body now so weakened, as to barely be able to stand upright. Only two months earlier, manager Joe McCarthy had asked Babe Dahlgren to take the Iron Horse’s position. Now he asked the 1st baseman to look out for his dying teammate. “If Lou starts to fall, catch him.”
Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.
As the event drew to a close, Master of Ceremonies Sid Mercer asked for a few words. Overwhelmed and struggling for control, Gehrig waved him off. The New York Times later wrote, “He gulped and fought to keep back the tears as he kept his eyes fastened to the ground”. 62,000 fans would have none of it. The chant went up. “We want Lou!” We want Lou!”
Eleanor Gehrig, a “tower of strength” throughout her husband’s ordeal, watched from a box seat. New York Daily News reporter Rosaleen Doherty wrote that she did not cry, “although all around us, women and quite a few men, were openly sobbing.”
At last, Lou Gehrig shuffled to the microphone, and began to speak. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.” As if the neurodegenerative disease destroying his body, was merely a “bad break.” He looked down and paused, as if trying to remember what to say. And then he delivered the most memorable line, of his life.
“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941. He was 37.
I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and I thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013. The sign out front said “United we Stand” and beside it, a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games, since 1997.
I’ve always been a Boston guy myself. I think I’m required by Massachusetts law to hate the Yankees. But seriously. What a class act…