January 28, 1959 The Mystery of Dead Mountain

Their bodies were found under a large Siberian Pine, broken branches up to thirty feet suggesting that someone had climbed the thing, to look around.  Or to get away from something.

In the world of mountaineering, climbers assign a grade to a boulder or climbing route, describing the degree of difficulty and danger, in the ascent. The group assembled in January 1959 were experienced Grade II hikers, off on a winter trek which would earn them a Grade III certification, upon their safe return. They were ten in number, colleagues from the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) Russia, bent on conquering Mount Otorten, in the northern Ural Mountains.3577059The Northern Ural is a remote and frozen place, the Ural Mountains forming the barrier between the European and Asian continents and ending in an island chain, in the Arctic Ocean. Very few live there, mostly a small ethnic minority called the Mansi people.

In the Mansi tongue, Otorten translates as “Don’t Go There”. 

No matter. This was going to be an adventure.5a171d0d4aff781d51541617f5a1479aThe eight men and two women made it by truck as far as the tiny village of Vizhai, on the edge of the wilderness.  There the group learned the ancient and not a little frightening tale of a group of Mansi hunters, mysteriously murdered on what came to be called “Dead Mountain”.

Nothing like a good, scary mystery when you’re heading into the woods.  Right?Dyatlov PassOn January 28, Yuri Yudin became ill, and had to back out of the trek.  The other nine agreed to carry on.  None of them knew at the time.  Yudin was about to become the sole survivor of a terrifying mystery.

The leader of the expedition, Igor Dyatlov, left word that he expected to return, on February 12.  The day came and went with no sign of the group but, no big deal.  It was common enough to come back a few days late, from the frozen wilds of the Ural Mountains.maxresdefault3By February 20. friends and relatives were concerned   Something was wrong.  Rescue expeditions were assembled, first from students and faculty of the Ural Polytechnic Institute and later by military and local police.

There were airplanes and helicopters, and skiers on the ground.  On February 26, searchers found an abandoned tent on the flanks of Kholat Syakhl.  Dead Mountain.

Mikhail Sharavin, the student who found the tent, described the scene: “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”  The tent was cut up the back from the inside, eight or nine sets of footprints in the snow, leading away some 1,600 feet until disappearing, under a fresh fall of snow.

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“A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on 26 February 1959: the tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot”.

Despite winter temperatures of -13° to -30° Fahrenheit, most of these prints showed feet clad only in socks.  Some were barefoot.  One had a single shoe.  Two bodies were found clad only in underwear, those of Yuri (Georgiy) Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko, near the remains of a small fire.

Their bodies were found under a large Siberian Pine, broken branches up to thirty feet suggesting that someone had climbed the thing, to look around.  Or perhaps to get away?slobodin-passThree more bodies were found leading back to the tent, frozen in postures suggesting they were trying to return.  Medical investigators examined the bodies. One, that of Rustem Slobodin showed a small skull fracture, probably not enough to threaten his life.  Cause of death was ruled, hypothermia.

It took two more months to find the last four bodies, buried under twelve feet of snow some 75-feet away.  These were better dressed than the other five, indicating they were already outside when something went wrong.  frozen-bodyThe condition of these last four, would change this whole story.  There were unexplained traces of radiation on their clothes.  The body of Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles showed massive skull fractures, with no external injury.  Lyudmila Dubinina and Semyon (Alexander) Zolotaryov showed extensive chest fractures, as if hit by a car.  Again, there were no external injuries.  Both were missing their eyes.  Dubinina was missing her tongue, and part of her face.2-The-Dyatlov-Pass-Incident-With volumes of questions and no answers, the inquiry was closed in May, 1959.  Cause of death was ruled “A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome“.  Dead Mountain was ruled off limits, the files marked confidential.  Case closed.

A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome“.

Explanations have been offered from the mundane to the supernatural, but none made sense.  Mansi hunters had killed them for encroaching on their territory.  Except, there were no other footprints.  This was the work of a Menk, a mythical Siberian Yeti, or an avalanche, or a super-secret parachute mine exercise, carried out by the Soviet military.  There were reports of orange glowing orbs, in the sky. Some believe it was aliens.

How nine experienced mountaineers got caught out in a frozen wilderness or why their tent was cut from the inside, remains a mystery.  Missing eyes and tongues may be explained away by small animals.  Maybe.  The massive internal injuries suffered by three of the victims, defy explanation.  The place where it all happened has come to be known as Dyatlov Pass.  What happened in that place remains an enigma, to this day.1_mmE2n4cSrUIU8T_4kL4gMg

January 26, 2004 Exploding Whales

A whale washed ashore in Denmark sometime in 1991, when some bright bulb decided a poke here and a prod there would release the highly pressurized gasses of decomposition.  Did I mention, Highly pressurized?  Few among us can ever imagine how lucky we are, we were somewhere else and not in that time and place.

images-9On November 12, 1970, a 45 foot, 8-ton, dead sperm whale washed up on the beaches near Florence, Oregon.  State beaches came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation at that time, and officials came down, to have a look.

Administrators discussed the matter with the US Navy and someone came up with a bright idea.  It wasn’t every day they had to remove 16,000 lbs of rotting whale meat, from the beach.  They’d remove the carcass the same way any self-respecting DOT would deal with a large boulder.  They’d blow the thing to pieces.

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H/T, Offbeat Oregon History

The gulls and crabs could take care of cleanup if the pieces were small enough.  The only trick was to use enough dynamite.

No one could know it at the time, but the incident had already reached its high water mark.  From here on it would only be, downhill.

By sheer coincidence, there happened to be an ex-military guy around, Walter Umenhofer, who had explosives training.  Ol’ Walt tried to tell the Sages of Florence that 20 sticks of dynamite would do the trick if they were put in the right place, but no one wanted to listen.

Someone had decided to use a half-ton of the stuff, and that’s what they were going to do.

It may have been the worst idea, since Rudolph Hess flew that plane into Scotland.

The appointed day was a “blast” in more ways than one.  Spectators assembled in their hundreds, TV cameras rolling.  There was a sense of anticipation.  No one had ever seen a whale explode.

Spectators were backed off a quarter-mile and at last, the appointed hour had arrived.  The plunger was pushed, the resulting detonation tearing through the whale like the proverbial hot knife, through butter.  Thousands of reeking chunks soared trough the air, raining down over a square mile of buildings, houses and streets. Spectators ran for their lives through the evil, pelting rain.

olds-88Umenhofer was among the crowd that day.  A great slab of the stuff the size of a coffee table came down from the sky, and landed on his brand new Oldsmobile 88.  He’d just bought the car from a dealer running a “Whale of a Sale” deal.  You can’t make this stuff up.

It turns out that exploding whales aren’t even that unusual.  Iceland, Australia and South African authorities routinely blow up whale carcasses to avoid hazards to navigation.  They’re usually towed out to sea, first.

There are even spontaneously exploding whales, when gasses build to a point of ripeness which can no longer be contained.  It happened on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where locals reported that blubber “hung in the trees for weeks”.

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Neighborhood residents look on as the body of a whale is removed with a bulldozer, on Yoff beach in Dakar, Senegal Wednesday, May 21, 2008. The bodies of at least 38 whales have washed up on a Dakar beach and wildlife officials say as many as 100 swam up close to shore. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

A whale washed ashore in Denmark sometime in 1991, when some bright bulb decided a poke here and a prod there would release the highly pressurized gasses of decomposition.  Did I mention, Highly pressurized?  Few among us can ever imagine how lucky we are, we were somewhere else and not in that time and place.

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Exploding whale, Denmark, 1991

In 2014, reporters for The Atlantic spoke with Canadian fisheries scientist Jack Lawson, who warned: “The worst thing would be for a person to get too close to the whale and fall inside it: “The [whale] skin is starting to lose its integrity and if someone were to walk along, say, the chin — that is full of all that gas — they could fall in the whale. The insides will be liquefied. Retrieving them would be very difficult.””  “I have fallen through the side of a whale up to my chest,” Lawson added.  “It’s not very nice.”

On this day in 2004, a ripened sperm whale exploded in the streets of Tainan City, in Taiwan.  That time, they’d managed to get the thing onto a flatbed and were hauling it through town when the whale, went off.  A memorable day was had by all, including passing pedestrians, nearby traffic and local shop keepers.040129_exploding_whale_bcol_8a.grid-6x2Nigh on fifty years ago, folks in the Pacific Northwest learned an important lesson on the beaches of Florence.  Nine years later, 41 dead sperm whales washed ashore on the nearby coast.  This time, the things were burned and buried, where they lay.

 

 

December 24, 1822 Santa Claus

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

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

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1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

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

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

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

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Santa Express

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

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

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

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

December 16, 1884 Lake Bacon

Biologically, there seems little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast. Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Short days from now, families across the nation will gather for the Christmas table. There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole. Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce. And there, the centerpiece of the feast. Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

vokM434dW5z3NafMBwpvHS-768-80.jpgWait…What?

The story begins on December 16, 1884, the opening day for the World’s Fair, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen, Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation. The Water Hyacinth. Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of beautiful delicate purple and blue flowers, floating across tranquil ponds on thick, dark green leaves.

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Eichhornia crassipes

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans, and remain viable for 30 years. Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, the aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”. Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species, while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small. The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

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Left uncontrolled, water hyacinth quickly becomes a hazard to navigation

In the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat. The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage. Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems. “Lake Bacon”.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times. One Agricultural official estimated that such a free-range hippo herd would produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

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Lippincott’s monthly magazine waxed rhapsodic about the idea: “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation. Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today. Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The problem is, these things are dangerous.

The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial. Heaven help anyone caught between a cow and her young. Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little slower than Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

Google the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa”. You’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities, than any other large animal, in Africa.

the-hippopotamus-is-considered-to-be-the-most-dangerous-animal-5981600.pngBe that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

What could be better than taking care of two problems at once. Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos. The meat crisis would be solved, and America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction African wildlife into the American food stream, some four years earlier. A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”. A “man totally without fear.” One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.

He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts. Frederick Burnham was the “most complete human being who ever lived “.

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Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa. A smooth talking guerilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld. An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duqesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to be a German spy and saboteur through two world wars, Frederick Burnham described his mortal adversary, thus: “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

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Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne

During the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other. In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there seems little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast. Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by one vote, but didn’t entirely go away. Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what we’re already doing, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges, and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”. Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbug”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

27232.jpgThat golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination. Who knows, it may be for the best. I don’t know if any of us could see each other across the table. Not with a roast hippopotamus.

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November 24, 1962 Kilroy Was Here

Kilroy was Here became a protective talisman, a good-luck symbol expected to provide good juju, for the American GI.  Soldiers began to write the graffiti on newly captured areas and landings.  Kilroy was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived.  He was still there when you left.

The Fore River Shipyard began operations in 1883 in Braintree, Massachusetts, moving to its current location on the Weymouth Fore River on Quincy Point, in 1901.  The yard was purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1913, and operated under the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation.

Most of the ships built at Fore River were intended for the United States Navy, including early submarines built for Electric Boat, the Battleship USS Massachusetts, and the Navy’s first carrier, the USS Lexington. In the inter-war years, non-US Navy customers included the United States Merchant Marine, the Argentine Navy, the Royal Navy of Great Britain and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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USS Salem CA-139 museum ship, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy

The Navy Act of 1938 mandated a 20% increase in American Naval strength. Much of that increase came through Fore River. The Shipyard employed 17,000 personnel the day Imperial Japan invaded the American Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor. That number increased to 32,000 by 1943 with a payroll equivalent to $9.69 Billion, in today’s dollars.

Kilroy-3Necessity became the mother of invention, and the needs of war led to prodigious increases in speed.  No sooner was USS Massachusetts launched, than the keel of USS Vincennes, began to be laid. By the end of the war, Fore River had completed ninety-two vessels of eleven different classes.

Builders at the yard were paid by the number of rivets installed. Riveters would mark the end of their shift with a chalk mark, but dishonest co-workers could erase their marks, marking a new spot a few places back on the same seam.

Shipyard inspector James Kilroy ended the practice, writing “Kilroy was Here”, next to each chalk mark.

With hulls leaving the yard so fast there was no time to paint the interiors, Kilroy’s name achieved mythic proportions. The man literally seemed to be everywhere, his name written in every cramped and sealed space in the United States Navy.

For the troops inside of those vessels, Kilroy always seemed to have “been there”, first.  This was a symbol, an assurance that this particular troop ship, was well and truly sealed.

Kilroy was Here became a protective talisman, a good-luck symbol expected to provide good juju, for the American GI.  Soldiers began to write the graffiti on newly captured areas and landings.  Kilroy was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived.  He was still there when you left.

Kilroy-6German Intelligence believed Kilroy to be some kind of  “super spook”, able to go anywhere he pleased and to leave, without a trace.

The challenge became, who could put the Kilroy graffiti in the most difficult and surprising place.

I’ve never been there, but I I understand there’s a Kilroy, at the top of  Mt. Everest.  The cartoon was scribbled in the dust of the moon.  There’s one on the Statue of Liberty and another on the underside of the Arch of Triumph, in Paris.  There’s on the great Wall, in China.

The World War 2 Memorial in Washington, DC could hardly have been complete without a Kilroy, engraved in granite.  If you look closely enough, you’ll find two of them.DSC07960 (1)

Under-water Demolition (UDT) teams, predecessors to the United States Navy SEALs, swam ashore on Japanese-held Pacific islands, preparing the way for amphibious invasions.  More than once, UDT divers found that Kilroy had already been there, the silly cartoon nose scribbled on makeshift signs, and even enemy pillboxes.

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, “Who is Kilroy?”Trumanstalin

Ask a Brit and he will tell you “Mr. Chad” came first, cartoonist George Chatterton’s response to war rationing.  “Wot, no tea”?

kilroy_no_spamThe cartoon appeared in every theater of the war, but few knew the mythical Kilroy’s true identity.

In 1946, the Transit Company of America held a contest, asking the “real” Kilroy to come forward.

Nearly forty guys showed up to claim the prize, a real trolley car.  Doubtless they all felt they had legitimate claims, but James Kilroy brought a few riveters and some shipyard officials along, to vouch for his authenticity.  That was it.

That Christmas the Kilroy kids, all nine of them, had the coolest playhouse in all of Massachusetts.

trolleycarJames Kilroy went on to serve as Boston City Councillor and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, from Halifax.  Surely there is a doodle, somewhere in the “Great & General Court” up there in Boston, to inform the passer-by.  Kilroy was here.

James Kilroy passed away on this day, November 24, 1962, at the age of sixty.

November 17, 1558 Strange Beauty Secrets

The archaeological record suggests humans have been coloring their lips, for 4,000 years.

Popular ideas of what is beautiful have changed with time and place, but strange beauty secrets are as old as history itself.

Live-Persian-Miniature-Painting-12.jpgIn ancient Greece, blond hair was perceived as beautiful, probably because it was unusual. Women would lighten their hair using a mixture of ashes, olive oil & water, and sometimes arsenic.

Cleopatra used a lipstick of mashed up beetle guts and powdered her eyes with the dried excrement, of crocodiles.  She would bathe daily in the sour milk of donkeys, 700 of the animals kept on-hand, for the purpose.

The stuff was supposed to have smoothed out wrinkles and just might have worked too.  Soured lactose turns to lactic acid, capable of removing the top layer of skin.  The Greek princess-turned Egyptian Pharoah all but owned the hearts of the most powerful men of the age, but at a cost.  Burning your own skin off seems a tough way to go.

cleopatra-last-queen-egypt-main.jpgThe 12th century Queen Isabeau of France likewise favored the sour donkey milk routine, followed up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars.

empress-elisabeth-of-austria-by-georg-raab-1867
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, considered by many to be the most beautiful woman, on earth

History remembers Empress Elisabeth of Austria for helping to bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in 1867.  Less well known is the woman’s obsessive dedication to her own youthful figure and exceptional beauty.

Elisabeth would crush strawberries over her face, neck and hands, followed by a bath in warm olive oil.  She would sleep in a mask lined with raw veal.

Elisabeth emphasized her already slender figure by “tight-lacing” a leather corset, a practice which infuriated the mother-in-law who regarded the queen’s duty, as being perpetually pregnant.

Even after four pregnancies, on her death at age 60 at the hands of an Italian anarchist, the woman’s waist measured 18½”-19 inches.

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“Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

During the Heian period in Japan, 794 to 1185AD, a woman’s beauty was judged by the length of her hair. The ideal was considered to be about two feet below her waist.

The Hungarian “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory who lived from August 7, 1560 – August 21, 1614, may be the most prolific female serial killer in history, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins, to keep herself looking young.

Erzsébet’s four cohorts were convicted in the murder of 80, while the Countess herself was neither tried nor convicted due to her exalted rank. She was simply thrown into a cell on her arrest in December, 1610 and there left to die, four years later.

On a less macabre note, Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either.  Novelist George Sands liked to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

Nofretete_Neues_Museum.jpgNefertiti ruled as Egyptian Queen ca. 1351–1334 BC, the Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhenaten, predecessor to the great Tutankhamun. Nefertiti , her name translates as “The Beautiful Woman has Come”, would shave herself hairless from head to foot, donning a wig and lining her eyes with Egyptian kohl, a substance derived from lead. In case that wasn’t enough, Nefertiti would color her lips with a combination of seaweed and bromine nitrate, a plant-derived toxin so powerful, some believe the stuff to be the origin of the phrase, “the kiss of death”.

Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was crowned this day, November 17, 1588.  As queen, Elizabeth followed a path taken by women for thousands of years, sporting the high forehead and daubing her face with a powder makeup called ceruse. High lead content made the practice deadly enough, but women would top it off with a rouge containing mercury, leading to an untold number of birth defects and miscarriages. It’s all but certain the combination of lead and mercury led to her complete loss of hair.  Small wonder she was the “Virgin Queen”.

Virgin Queen.jpgThe European quest for the perfect, porcelain complexion lasted well into the 19th century, for which some women ate clay.  The ladies of the French Court obsessed over flawless, alabaster skin, until the end of the 18th century. They would fake it with thick layers of white powder, made from white lead, or talcum powder, or pulverized bone.  Whatever they could get hold of. Combined with wax, whale blubber, deer fat or vegetable oil, the stuff had a nice, greasy consistency that stayed where they put it.

ots32styherapghk5a1539c073789Meanwhile, African women of antiquity favored lavender oil for its distinctive feminine scent and a red tea called Rooibos to keep skin looking young and supple. With its naturally high levels of zinc and vitamin D2, the stuff was an important defense against the hot African sun.

Marie Antoinette washed up with “Eau Cosmetique de Pigeon”, the stuff bearing the promise right there on the  label,  that every bottle contained no fewer than “eight pigeons stewed.”

55b1b8d611d27aa735b1fd0267fc1f33.jpgHers was a time of big hair, when hair was piled high on top of the head, powdered and augmented with the hair of servants and the fur of pets. The do was often adorned with fabric, ribbons or fruit, sometimes holding props like birdcages complete with stuffed birds and even miniature frigates, under sail.

It wasn’t just women’s hair, either. Fashionable European men of the 18th century wore wigs made of both animal and human hair, a practice that soon spread across the water and into North America.

The wealthy wore longer wigs, often powdered and curled while those who couldn’t afford them wore shorter versions, usually styled into a braided ponytail.

custer (1).jpgGeorge Edward Pickett, he of the famous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, was acclaimed for his oiled and perfumed locks.  The “Boy General”, the youngest Civil War General in the Union Army, would anoint his hair with cinnamon oil.  A lock of George Armstrong Custer’s hair recently sold at auction, for $12,500.

Well into the 20th century, women and men alike chose between slicking their hair down with a greasy brilliantine, or spraying it with shellac dissolved in an admixture of water and alcohol.

Weird beauty tips are easy to find on-line.  Some say that Preparation H under the eyes reduces puffiness (I hear it works).  Hot pepper sauce applied to the roots of the hair will help it grow, (the jury’s out on this one). Some believe that urine works as an astringent to clear up acne, (it doesn’t), and rubbing your face with a potato dries up oily skin (that one’s false as well).

MIrrorTheme.jpgToday we look on past practices as bizarre, but maybe we shouldn’t. If those people from the past were to peer into their own future, they’d see spray tanning, teeth bleaching, and Brazilian bikini wax. They’d see people injecting the neurotoxic output of Clostridium Botulinum into their faces, and sticking metal objects through all manner of body parts.

You have to wonder what our own future will bring. Not even Nostradamus could have foretold tattooed grandmothers.

Ancient Beauty

 

September 1, 911 The Royal “We”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

A story comes down from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland intoned: “We are not amused“.

VictoriaThe story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub” concerning a Queen whose name wasn’t ‘Victoria’ at all but Alexandrina Victoria, after her godfather Tsar Alexander I.

Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster.  At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” never was given to public displays of mirth.  The Queen’s lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, the lives of the Royals of history may seem very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula, so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae (“Little Boots“), the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father, famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to do as much.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm, never mind.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

There are those who contend the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island
Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, attacked Paris in early 911. By July, the “Normans” were holding the nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

Rollo the Walker
Rollo “The Walker”

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

Mitochondrial_DNA
Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match up with the living descendants of the King.

The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.

Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.  Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there is no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but, if I were, my money’s on all those old guys, staying in the ground