December 24, 1822 Santa Claus

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

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

St. Nicholas going to school
1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

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

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

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

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Santa Express

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

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

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

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

December 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 23, 1932 Holodomor

“THE worst memory I have brought out of Russia is the children,” observed American consultant and charity worker Whiting Williams after a tour in 1933. “There was one youngster I saw in Kharkov. Half-baked, he had sunk, exhausted, on the carriageway, with the kerbstone as a pillow, and his pipestem legs sprawled out, regardless of danger from passing wheels.”

In 1928, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding such as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Holodomor_Novo-Krasne_Odessa_11_1932.pngArmed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Nearly half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31 alone, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter.  Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

pic_giant_110913_D-2Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

no-nb_blds_01867-beskåret-1200x1278.jpgAt the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under. How many died in total, is anyone’s guess. Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

Holodomor, children.png2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”. Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the Times. Duranty even commented that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

1um1ow.jpgTo this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed. Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union, to see for herself.

Holodomor-Great-Famine-Ukraine-emaciated-horse-1932-1933-Alexander-Wienerberger-photographer.jpgTo do so at all was an act of courage.  single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history.  Particularly when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in a world of Soviet propaganda and ignorant of the world as it was.

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside, as it really was.

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Rhea Clyman

Duranty’s idea of “good-bye” was the cynical offer, to write her obituary.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens in Ukraine.

To read what Clyman wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  And then the moment of discovery:  “They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

A tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.  “We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….” 

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”  What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people starved to death, every day.  Even then, many they believed the government in Moscow, was going to help.  If only comrade Stalin knew…

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley once explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

holodomor-1.jpgThe Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev. A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

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Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected individuals. I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor means. We are a self-governing Republic. All 100 should be acquainted with the term.

 

 

October 30, 1773 Hannah’s Rock

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII. The appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble, third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Empire, who ruled the lands of South Asia from modern-day Afghanistan to Kashmir and south to the Deccan plateau of South India.

Sha-Jahan-and-Mumtaz-Mahal-600x600As Empress consort and beloved by the Emperor above all his wives, Arjumand was better known by the title “Mumtaz Mahal”, translating from the Persian as “the exalted one of the palace”.   Jahan called her ‘Malika-i-Jahan’.  She was his “Queen of the World”.

The labor and delivery of a daughter, the couple’s 14th child was a terrible trial for the Empress Consort, a 30-hour ordeal resulting in postpartum hemorrhage leading to  her death on June 17, 1631.

The Emperor went into secluded mourning, emerging a year later with his back bent, his beard turned white.  There followed a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable to the Queen of the World.

This was no ordinary building, this grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor.  The English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”  Today the palace is known among the 7 “Modern Wonders of the World” or simply, the Taj Mahal.

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The “Pillarization” of northern European society constituted a separation along religious and political lines, so strict that many individuals had little to no contact, with people outside their own pillar.  19th century Belgian society divided along three such cohorts,  segregating itself largely along Catholic, Protestant and Social-Democratic strata.

The worst days of the South African Apartheid system had nothing over the European society of the age, when it came to social segregation.  Pillars possessed their own institutions: universities, hospitals and social organizations. Each even had its own news apparatus.

The romance between Colonel J.W.C van Gorkum of the Dutch Cavalry and Lady J.C.P.H van Aefferden was a social outrage. The 22-year old noblewoman was a Catholic.  33-year old Colonel van Gorkum was a Protestant and not a part of the nobility.  The couple’s marriage in 1842 was the scandal of Roermond but, despite all that taboo, theirs was a happy marriage lasting 38-years.

The Colonel died in 1880 and was buried next to the wall, separating the Catholic and Protestant parts of the cemetery.  Van Gorkum’s Lady died some eight years later, wishing to be buried next to her husband. Such a thing was impossible.  She would be buried opposite the wall in the Catholic part of the cemetery, as close as she could get to her beloved husband.

Such was The Law for this time and place, but neither custom nor law said anything about a little creative stonework.  So it is the couple joins hands in death as in life, together and inseparable, for all eternity.

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 Oud Kerkhof cemetery in Hasselt, Belgium

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

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Few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair, of the unfortunate Hannah Robinson.

Hannah Robinson was one of the most beautiful women in all Colonial Rhode Island, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Narragansett planter Rowland and Anstis (Gardiner) Robinson. Years later during the time of the American Revolution, the opulent Robinson mansion entertained the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

As a young girl, Hannah had nary a care in the world and spent countless hours on a large rock, enjoying the view overlooking Narragansett Bay.

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The view as it looks today, from Hannah Robinson tower

When she grew older, Hannah attended Madame Osborn’s finishing school in Newport. There she fell in love with the French and Dancing instructor Pierre Simond, the son of an old family of French Huguenot ancestry who liked to go by the name, Peter Simon.

The degree to which the penniless Simond reciprocated the young woman’s feelings is difficult to know, but Hannah fell hard.

Peter took a position as private tutor to one of the Robinison cousins, a short two miles away.  It wasn’t long before Simond was secretly visiting Hannah, at home. He’d hide out in a large cabinet in Hannah’s room.  The pair called it the “Friendly Cupboard”.  At night, Simond would hide out in a large lilac bush where the couple would talk for hours, and exchange letters.  Anstil was quick to get wise but she never let on, to her husband.

Then came the night Rowland spied the white paper, fluttering to the ground. He rushed to the lilac and beat at the bush with a stick, until there emerged a ragged French teacher.  After that, Rowland kept his eldest on a very short leash.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  If Hannah Robinson was stubborn, she came by it honestly.  In a rare moment of weakness, Rowland allowed Hannah and young sister Mary to attend a ball at Smith’s Castle some ten miles up the road, accompanied by a black “servant” called “Prince” who really was, it turns out, an African prince.

So it was, the trap was sprung.

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Smith’s Castle house, one of the oldest homes, in Rhode Island, is now a National Historic Landmark

The trio came to a place on horseback, where there awaited a carriage.  Peter’s carriage.  Mary cried and Prince begged her not to go but, to no avail.  This was the couple’s elopement.  Hannah would have it no other way.

Rowland was apoplectic and cut off his daughter, from her allowance.  The happy couple moved to Providence, but Dad proved to be right.  Now penniless, Simon soon lost interest in his young wife and left her.  Sometimes for days on end.  Others for weeks at a time.

Hannah’s health went into a steep decline.  Not even the little dog sent by her mother, nor her childhood maid – a woman also named Hannah, could bring back her spirits.  The young woman wasted away in Providence as, just 35-miles to the south, Mary contracted tuberculosis, and died.  Anstis’ health, failed.

Rowland Robinson would come to relent, but too late.  Hannah’s health was destroyed.  The fast sloop from Providence delivered a sickly shadow of her former self.

The four strong servants carrying the litter were asked to stop by the rock, where Hannah had passed all those happy hours as a girl.  Watching the bay.  She picked a flower.  “Everlasting Life”.

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Everlasting Life

A sad reunion followed between the two women, the sick mother and the sick daughter.  Anstis would recover and live to see a Revolution bring Independence to the American colonies.  Not so the unfortunate daughter.  Hannah Robinson died at home on this day in 1773.  She was 27.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built an observation tower in 1938, at the place where Hannah used to watch the Bay.  At four stories in height the thing was used for coastal watch, during World War 2.  The tower was rebuilt in 1988, using timbers from the original construction.

You can climb the Hannah Robinson tower to this day if you want, there in North Kingstown, not far from the rock where that little girl spent a happy childhood.  Watching the bay, all those many years ago.

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Hannah Robinson Tower, North Kingstown Rhode Island

 

 

 

April 1, 1961 Wonder Drug

Despite documented cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, scientists believed no drug could pass the placental barrier, passing from mother to unborn child. Within three years, the new compound was licensed to 14 pharmaceutical companies under 37 different trade names and sold in 46 countries.

In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding in the Socratic dialogue “The Republic”, introducing a “guardian class” to watch over over his ideal society.

In the 19th century, the British statistician Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying them to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called this 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.

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1935 Sterilization map. H/T PBS.org

In the United States, 30 states passed legislation at the height of the movement, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

The race to perfect worldwide “genetic hygiene” reached its zenith with the “sterilization law” enacted in Nazi Germany on July 14, 1933. The German measure borrowed heavily from the statutes of American educator and Eugenics Record Office (ERO) Director Harry H. Laughlin, taking such measures a step further by allowing compulsory sterilization of any citizen displaying one of a long list of supposed genetic disorders, not just those confined to institutions.

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Two-Step Thalidomide Synthesis

In the wake of World War II, West German authorities were loath to apply such strict congenital examination. Pathologist Franz Büchner would go on to propagate his theories of Teratology, stating that healthy nutrition and behavior of expecting mothers was more important for the health of the child, than genetic considerations. The idea would prove to be a disastrous oversight.

The German company Chemie Grünenthal (now Grünenthal GmbH) was established to address the urgent need for antibiotics. and other pharmaceuticals. In 1953, company scientists developed a two-step procedure for synthesizing a new molecule. The compound underwent rodent testing and further revision, the new drug “Thalidomide” introduced in 1956, as a sedative.

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Life Magazine

Researchers at Chemie Grünenthal found the drug an effective remedy for vomiting and nausea, an important remedy for morning sickness in expectant mothers. It was a “wonder drug”, a cure for ailments from insomnia to coughs and colds, claiming to cure “anxiety…gastritis, and tension”.

Despite documented cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, scientists believed no drug could pass the placental barrier, passing from mother to unborn child. Within three years, the new compound was licensed to 14 pharmaceutical companies under 37 different trade names and sold in 46 countries.

Thalidomide acceptance was far from universal. Regulatory authorities in East Germany refused approval. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied widespread marketing and distribution though large quantities were released, for testing.  Approximately 875 people were involved in such trials, including a number of pregnant women.

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Phillipa Bradbourne, a Thalidomide baby born without arms. 1963. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The drug first arrived in Canada on this day in 1961. Several variants entered the Canadian market, the most common sold under the name, Talimol. Within two months, pharmaceutical companies were warning physicians of the risk of birth defects. Canadian authorities banned all variants within a year, instructing physicians to destroy stockpiles.

The first birth defects began to appear around 1958, peripheral nerve palsies or Phocomelia, a malformation or entire absence of arms and/or legs, hands & feet.  Some cases showed malformation of eyes, ears and internal organs, others born with no anus and no genitals and doomed to die.  Some five to seven thousand children were born with such birth defects in West Germany alone, four-in-ten of whom, survived.  Worldwide, some 10,000 “Thalidomide babies” were born with such defects, half of whom survived infancy.  An estimated 123,000 others miscarried, or were stillborn.

“Today, fewer than 3,000 are still alive. In Britain, it’s about 470. Among the nearly 50 countries affected are Japan (approximately 300 survivors), Canada and Sweden (both more than 100), and Australia (45). Spain’s government only recently acknowledged the drug was ever distributed there. No-one knows how many Spanish survivors there are. It could be hundreds”. H/T BBC

Despite such egregious side effects, Thalidomide remains in use today, albeit under conditions of strict birth control.  Thalidomide is in fact a “wonder drug” for the treatment of certain skin conditions related to leprosy, and is useful for treatments relating to HIV, Crohn’s Disease and certain cancers.

Sadly, Brazilian strictures are not so severe, leading to the birth of a whole new generation of “thalidomiders”, as adult survivors call themselves.  Research has uncovered circumstantial evidence connecting Thalidomide’s origins to Dr. Otto Ambros, the “Devil’s Chemist”,  alleging Dr. Ambros helped develop the nerve agent sarin, while experimenting on thalidomide as an antidote on concentration camp inmates.

Eight years ago, German survivors’ marked the fifty-year mark, in the Thalidomide debacle. Spokesman Gernot Stracke quipped:

“On 26 November – 50 years on – we, the German survivors, will march, waddle, limp or roll in wheelchairs from the Brandenburg Gate to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin.  To celebrate that we are still alive, and to remember those who never lived”.

Feature image, top of page:  Survivors tell tales of frequent falls leading to scores of stitches as the armless and legless attempt navigation with contraptions like the British prosthesis, on the left.  Right, young German girl uses crude boxing glove-like prostheses, in place of hands.  H/T Life Magazine.

 

A Trivial Matter
In the United States, federal regulator Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey denied no fewer than six applications to bring Thalidomide to market, on the basis of insufficient testing.  Thanks to her stubborn refusal, such cases were held to seventeen in this country, a fact which earned Dr. Kelsey a Presidential award for distinguished service from the federal government.

March 31, 2005 Arlington Ladies

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.

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.

1200px-SMA_Dunway_Burial_at_Arlington_National_Cemetery_2008Fourteen years ago, 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.

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Sixteen others were buried that same Friday. Most were 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, regularly attended funeral services at Arlington National cemetery.

nn_lho_arlington_ladies_180102_1920x1080.nbcnews-fp-1200-630Sometimes, 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.

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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.”

arlington_lady_joayn_bahr_at_funeral_es_053011The 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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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23-year veteran of the United States Air Force Sandra Griffin, now serves as an Arlington Lady.
This “Today in History” is dedicated to the man for whom I am namesake. United States Army Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr., 2/25/37 – 3/31/18. Rest In Peace, Dad. You left us too soon.

March 26, 1958 How can they Hate me, when they don’t even Know me

“In a real sense we must all live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools”. – Reverend martin Luther King, Jr.

Daryl Davis is an American R & B musician, a master of Delta & Chicago Blues and the boogie-woogie style, on piano. The man can sing too, well enough to perform with the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis and BB King.

“Both Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson, considered to be the greatest Blues & Boogie Woogie and Blues and Rock’n’Roll pianists respectively, both have claimed DARYL as their godson”. – daryldavis.com/musician-biography/

Davis has acted on stage, film and television. He’s a Christian, a writer, an activist and lecturer, who’s spent the last thirty years befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and. Oh…Did I mention, he’s black?

Daryl Davis was born this day in 1958, the son of a State Department foreign service officer.  His first ten years were spent in the world of foreign diplomats where children of every race and nationality were schooled together.  This was a world of easy integration, not so the world he entered on returning to the United states, at age ten.

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As a member of an all-white Cub Scout troop in the racially backward Boston suburb of Belmont Massachusetts (you thought I was going to say “Selma”), Davis speaks of being struck with rocks and bottles thrown by the crowd, until encircled by members of the troop.

Lest anyone object to my characterizing the “Liberal” bastion of Massachusetts as “racially backward”, the affront to common decency below was photographed in Boston in 1976, nineteen years after President Dwight Eisenhower sent Federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas.

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“The Soiling of Old Glory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Stanley Forman during the Boston busing crisis in 1976” – H/T Wikipedia

Any fool can mistrust and even dislike those unlike himself.  Most fools do.  At ten years old, Daryl Davis understood as much and asked his father about the cub scout incident.  The conversation led to a lifelong impression in Davis’ mind, that it made no sense.  How can they Hate me, when the don’t even Know me.

Davis’ career as an activist began in a “white” bar in Frederick, Maryland, in 1983. Davis was playing Country & Western music when a white man commented, he’d never “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis“. Davis explained “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine.” The patron was skeptical and, over drinks, admitted to being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Eventually, the pair became friends, a relationship which would guide Daryl to leaders of the KKK.

3258E1E800000578-3499658-image-m-11_1458344520932Years later, Davis decided to write a book, answering the question that had dogged him, all those years: ‘Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?’ That question had never been answered from my youth.” To satisfy his own curiosity, Davis reached out to Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard of the KKK in Maryland. Let him tell the story:

“My secretary called him, and I told her, ‘do not tell Roger Kelly I’m black. Just tell him I am writing a book on the Klan.’ I wanted her to call because she’s white. I knew enough about the mentality of the Klan that they would never think a white woman would work for a black man. She called him and he didn’t ask what color I was, so we arranged to meet at a motel”.

The human brain is an awesome thing, the mind a strange and impenetrable place. Weighing in at about 3-pounds, the organ is comprised of some 86 billion neurons, each made of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit data over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper.

20170629_daryl_davis_015_custom-b6e5c20f962425b2d795ba585f3cc5e5943ef0f0-s300-c85There are roughly a quadrillion such synapses in any given brain, meaning any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe.

The possessors of such organs are themselves, strange and impenetrable beings.  Some among us are impervious to new information. We all know the kind. Others are capable of the most gut-wrenching honesty, of challenging even the most deeply held beliefs in the face of new information.

When Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West” made the “Monstrous proposal” of arming slaves in the waning days of the Civil War, General and former Georgia Governor Howell Cobb gave us the faintest glimpse through that keyhole: “You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

“And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

Roger Kelly himself was a man, capable of looking through that keyhole.  What he saw didn’t make sense to him either.  Kelly arrived with an armed bodyguard, himself armed and wearing military-style fatigues.  That first meeting must have been as tense as two cats in a wet sack.  In time, the man’s views began to soften.  Later on, Davis invited Kelly to be godfather, to his daughter.  Kelly left the Klan and gave his outfit to Davis, who kept the robes in hopes of one day showing them in a “Museum of the Klan”.

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Davis claims to have befriended over 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan.  He claims direct responsibility for 40 to 60 of them leaving and indirectly, another 200. Davis believes Klansmen hold misconceptions about blacks based on brainwashing and unfamiliarity.  He wrote of one such conversation in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan:

One Klansman informed Davis, “All black people have a gene in them that makes them violent “.  Davis responded, ‘You know, it’s a fact that all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers. Name me three black serial killers.’ He could not do it. I said ‘you have the gene. It’s just latent.’ He said, ‘Well that’s stupid.’ I said, ‘It’s just as stupid as what you said to me.’ He was very quiet after that and I know it was sinking in.”

The man left the Klan several months later, giving Davis his robes.  They were the first he ever received.

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In an age of political race baiters and racial arsonists, (they’re a dime-a-dozen on TV), Daryl Davis is a man with the strength of character, the intellectual curiosity and the physical courage to challenge long-held stereotypes that many among us, hold about one another.

The man is a living tribute to the idea that if we just ignore the crazies, the rest of us can figure out how to get along.

 

Afterward
The documentary film Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America debuted on the PBS TV series Independent Lens, in 2016. Frank Ancona, Imperial Wizard of the Missouri-based Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was depicted at the opening and close of the documentary. Ancona was shot and killed in his bed on February 11, 2017, two days before the airing of the film.  Ancona’s wife and step-son have been charged in the murder.
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Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Frank Ancona
“In a real sense we must all live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools”. – Reverend martin Luther King, Jr.