January 7, 1927 Harlem Globetrotters

Wilt Chamberlain said “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon”.

In 1926, 24 year old Abraham Saperstein organized a basketball team.  He called it the “Savoy Big Five,” after Chicago’s famous Savoy Ballroom.  At least that’s what the official team history says, except the Savoy didn’t open until 1927, so we may have to just go with it.

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Harlem Globetrotters, 1927

Saperstein renamed them the “Harlem Globetrotters”, even though they were from Chicago, the team arriving in a Model “T” Ford for their debut game on January 7, 1927.   For two years it had been exhibition games before dances.  Now, the big game in Hinckley, Illinois would be played in front of 300 fans, with a total game payout of $75.

They toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, playing almost every night against any and all challengers. Saperstein himself sometimes suited up to fill in for an injured player.  The Globetrotters played their 1000th game in Iron Mountain, Michigan in 1934.

In 1941, Negro League 1st baseman Reece “Goose” Tatum caught Saperstein’s eye.  A goose-tatummulti-sport athlete and teammate of Satchel Paige, Tatum would entertain the crowd with comedic routines whenever he put a runner out.  He was 6’4″ with an 84″ wingspan, able to touch his knees without bending. He’s credited with inventing the hook shot, an early version of the “skyhook” that would make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famous, 30 years later.

Tatum was the original “Clown Prince” of the Globetrotters, though that title more often goes Meadowlark Lemon and his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine.  Tatum combined natural athletic ability with a comedic timing that would change the whole direction of the club.  He passed away in 1967 at the age of 45, when sports reporter Lawrence Casey of the Chicago Daily Defender wrote, “Like Joe Louis in boxing, Babe Ruth in baseball, Bobby Jones in golf, Goose Tatum was king of his chosen sport.”

When Goose was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942, the Globetrotters signed their bob-karstensthird Caucasian, the first-ever white player to be offered a contract, Bob Karstens.  Karstens was the newest showman on the team, creating the signature pregame “Magic Circle,” the behind-the-back backhand shot, the “yo-yo” basketball and the “goofball,” a basketball filled with weights to give it a crazy bounce.  It was the early 1940s and the Harlem Globetrotters were the most famous, and the most profitable, professional basketball franchise in the world.

A near-fatal car accident cost Boid Buie his left arm when he was 13.  Never a great athlete before the crash, he worked so hard on his goals that Buie became the “One Armed Firecracker”.  He signed with the Globetrotters in 1946, playing 9 seasons as a starter and averaging 14 points per game.  Ever since the 2011 Elite Showcase Basketball Classic, the MVP Award is presented in the name of Boid Buie.buie

The Globetrotters were a serious basketball team throughout the early years, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament as late as 1940.  They gradually worked more comic routines into their game in the late 40s and 50s as the newly founded NBA gained popularity until finally, they were better known for entertainment than for sport.

“Playing the bones” has a musical history going back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  Part of 19th century minstrel shows and traditional to musical genres ranging from Irish, to Bluegrass, to Zydeco. Freeman Davis’ “Brother Bones” recording of the 1925 jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” became the Globetrotters’ theme song in 1952.

Former point guard with the NBA Baltimore Bullets, Louis “Red” Klotz, formed an exhibition team in 1952 to play against the Globetrotters.  In a nod to future President Dwight Eisenhower, he called them the Washington Generals.  The Generals played serious basketball while their opponents juggled balls, spun them on fingertips, and made trick shots.  The two teams played 13,000 games between 1953 and 1995, of which the Generals actually won 6.

Those of us who came of age in the 70s remember Curley Neal and Meadowlark Lemon,

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Wilt Chamberlain, the 1st Globetrotter to have his jersey retired

who joined the club in 1954.  Who remembers that Wilt “the stilt” Chamberlain joined theteam four years later?  Chamberlain would be the first Globetrotter to have his jersey retired.

Chamberlain and the Globetrotters did their part to warm the Cold War, with a nine game series in Moscow, in 1959.  The Generals stayed at home, this time they brought the “Chinese Basketeers”.  An audience of 14,000 sat in stupefied silence, finally warming when they realized that this was more show than sport.  The team was paid the equivalent of $4,000 per game which could only be spent in Moscow, prompting the American press to observe that the Soviets were becoming capitalists.

abe-sapersteinAbe Saperstein passed away in 1966, aged 63.  The owner and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, he was also founder and first Commissioner of the American Basketball League, and inventor of the three point shot.   Elected to the Basketball of Fame in 1971.  Here’s a great trivia question for you.  At 5’3″, Saperstein is the shortest male member in the place.  In 2005, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

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Meadowlark Lemon “defends” against Betty Ford, in 1974

Saperstein’s creation went on, signing Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard their first ever female player in 1985.  Pope John Paul II became an honorary Globetrotter in 1986, in a ceremony in front of 50,000 in Saint Peter’s Square.

The list of official honorary Globetrotters includes Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Jesse Jackson.  Jesse Owens, the track star who stuffed Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin olympics, accompanied the Globetrotters to Berlin in 1951.  Bill Cosby and Magic Johnson are both signed to $1 a year lifetime contracts, though Cosby’s contract was increased to $1.05 in 1986.

Ninety years after their founding, the Harlem Globetrotters show no signs of slowing down.  In 2015, the team drafted 6’6″ 2015 college slam dunk champion LaQuavius Cotton from Mississippi’s Delta State University, and trick shot expert “Dude Perfect” of Mickinney, Texas.  How do you not root for a team with two guys named LaQuavius Cotton and Dude Perfect?

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“Flight Time Lang” teaches Pope Francis to spin the ball

Shortly before passing in 1999, Wilt Chamberlain said “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen.  People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”  Meadowlark Lemon played over 16,000 games with the Harlem Globetrotters.  He passed away on December 27 in Scottsdale, Arizona, aged 83.  Rest in Peace, sir.  You brought a lot of smiles to the little boy in me.

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January 6, 1929 A Saint from the Gutter

Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”

In the language of Albania, “Gonxhe” means “Rosebud”.   Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born August 26, 1910, in the capital of Macedonia; now Uskup.  Then it was Skopje, part of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother raised the girl in the Roman Catholic faith after her father died in 1919.  By age 12, she was committed to a religious life.  “Agnes” was always fascinated with the lives of missionaries, joining the Sisters of Loreto at the age of 18 to become one.  Though she would live to 87, she would never again see her mother or her sister.

mother-teresa-at-18The Sisters taught English to school children in India, a language which Agnes learned in the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland.

She arrived in India on January 6, 1929, beginning her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayas. There she learned to speak Bengali, teaching at St. Teresa’s School, near her convent. She took her first religious vows as a nun in 1931, choosing the name Thérèse de Lisieux, after the patron saint of missionaries. Another nun in the convent had already chosen the name, so Agnes adopted the Spanish spelling, becoming Sister Teresa on May 24.

She would take her solemn vows six years later, while teaching at the Loreto School in Entally, eastern Calcutta, a position she held until 1944.

Today, about 10% of the world’s Muslims live in India, making up close to 15% of the population. It was much higher in 1944, as much as 2/3rds in some regions. The idea of the Muslim population breaking off of India and forming an independent Pakistan had come up as early as 1930, and become a major force with the breakup of British rule over the Indian subcontinent, the “British Raj”, at the end of WWII.

Tensions spilled over in the province of Bengal in August of 1946, as violence between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh mobs left thousands dead. Violence was particularly bad in Calcutta, where the massive riots of August 16-19 left over 4,000 dead and more than 100,000 homeless.

India was partitioned the following year, and Pakistan declared an independent nation in August. For now, the violence of 1946, following on the heels of the Bengal famine of 1943, left Calcutta in a state of despair.

Sister Teresa was looking out from the train that carried her from Darjeeling to Calcutta on September 10, when she heard the call. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith”. No one knew it at the time, but “Sister Teresa” had become “Mother Teresa”.

She would spend a few months at Holy Family Hospital receiving medical training, calcutta-1
venturing into the slums of Calcutta to begin her missionary work in 1948. A small group of women joined in her ministry to the “poorest among the poor”, as she wrote in her diary of begging for food and supplies. The hardships were severe, as was the near-constant temptation to return to the ease and comfort of the convent.

Teresa received permission from the Vatican on October 7, 1950, to start the diocesan congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity.  With only 13 members in Calcutta, their mission was caring for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”

kalighatAwarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she refused the traditional honor banquet, requesting instead that the $192K cost of the banquet be given to help the poor of India.

With the help of Indian officials, Teresa opened the Kalighat Home for the Dying in an abandoned temple, where dying Muslims were read from the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics were read the Last Rites. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted”.

Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”.

By the time of her death on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members. They operated 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for victims of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis. There were soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools.

Mother Teresa was canonized on September 4, 2016 in Vatican City, becoming Saint Teresa of Calcutta, the ceremony at St. Peter’s Square attended by over 1,500 homeless people.  Even saints have critics, even a tower of rectitude like Mother Teresa.  In her case, it was usually the warm and well fed likes of Christopher Hitchens, the “New Left Review” and the German magazine Stern.

Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu once said “Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”.  Let that be the answer to her critics.mother-teresa-1

 

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

In most English speaking countries, the traditional end to the New Year’s celebration is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

emperor-julius-caesarWhen Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way they handled their calendar.  He hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. 2,062 years later, we still have July and August.

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days.  By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752.  The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since then, we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

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Boston Time Ball, 1881. Equitable Life Assurance Society building, corner of Devonshire and Milk Street.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.time-ball

A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert
Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

times-square-ballThe Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.
The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition 2014 New Year's Eve Waterford Crystal Installationcontinues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors.  It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year.  The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

 

In most English speaking countries, the traditional end to the New Year’s celebration is
the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
          “Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
           wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
           An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
           An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
                                        CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
                                        CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”.

December 31, 1695 A Tax on Windows

Tax revolts are nothing new. Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes

Somewhere in the English midlands, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, there lay the Kingdom of Mercia. It was 1054 or thereabouts, and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had a problem. Leofric was the kind of ruler who never saw a tax he didn’t like, his latest the “Heregeld”, a tax to pay for the King’s bodyguard. His wife was Godgyfu, in the Olde English, meaning “Gift of God”.  Today we call her “Godiva”. Take pity on the people of Coventry, she said, they are suffering under all this oppressive taxation.

A guy can only take so much, even if he is an Earl. Tired of her entreaties, Leofric agreed tolady-godiva-statue repeal the tax on one condition; that she ride a horse through the streets of town, dressed only in her birthday suit and her long hair. Lady Godiva took him at his word.  She issued a proclamation that all townspeople stay indoors and shut their windows, and then she took her famous naked ride through town.

The story probably isn’t true, any more than the one about Tom, the guy who drilled a hole in his door so he could watch and lost his sight at what he saw.  But a thousand years later, we still use the term “Peeping Tom”.

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes.

bricked-up-windowOn December 31, 1695, King William III decreed a 2 shilling tax on each house in the land. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to “stick-it-to-the-rich”, there was an extra tax on every window over ten, a tax that would last for another 156 years.

It must have been a money maker, because the governments of France, Spain and Scotland followed suit with similar taxes. To this day, you can see homes where owners have bricked up windows, preferring darkness to the payment of yet another tax.

In Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you

singel-7
Singel #7

paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself. Those are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house barely wider than its own front door.

You can find the same thing in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, where the “shotgun single”, a home so narrow you can fire a shotgun in the front door and pellets will go out the back, and the “Camelback” (second story out back) are the architectural results of tax policy.

 

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Shotgun Single, Camelback

The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79AD, levied a tax on public toilets.

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Vespasiani

When his son, the future Emperor Titus wrinkled his nose, Vespasian held a coin under the boy’s nose. “Pecunia non olet”, he said.  “Money does not stink”.  2,000 years later, his name is still attached to public urinals. In France, they’re called vespasiennes, in Italy vespasiani.  If you need to piss in Romania, you could go to the vespasiene.  History fails to record the inevitable push-back on Vespasian’s toilet tax, but I’m sure that ancient Romans had to look where they walked.

Environmentalists in Venice, Italy have been pushing a tax on tourism, claiming that the city’s facing “an irreversible environmental catastrophe as the subsequent increase in water transport has caused the level of the lagoon bed to drop over time”. Deputy mayor Sandro Simionato said that “This tax is a new and important opportunity for the city,” explaining that it will “help finance tourism”, among other things. So, the problem borne of too much tourism is going to be fixed by a tax to help finance tourism. I think. Or maybe it’s just another money grab.

As of December 2015, state and territory tax rates on cigarettes ranged from 17¢ per pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, on top of federal, local, county, municipal and local Boy Scout council taxes (kidding).  Philip Morris reports that taxes run 56.6% on average, per pack. Not surprisingly, tax rates make a vast difference in where and how people buy their cigarettes.  There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, measuring a few miles square and home to a few hundred people. Tax rates are close to zero there, on a pack of butts.  Until recent changes in the tax law, they were selling 100 million cartons per year.

If all those taxes are supposed to encourage people to quit smoking, I wonder what income taxes are supposed to do?

antarctica-icebound-ship-1Back in 2013, EU politicians were discussing a way of taxing livestock flatulence, as a means of curbing “Global Warming”. At that time there was an Australian ice breaker, making its way to Antarctica to free the Chinese ice breaker, that got stuck in the ice trying to free the Russian ship full of environmentalists.  They were there to view the effects of “Global Warming”, before they got stuck in the ice.

Honest, I wouldn’t make this stuff up.

December 28, 1955 Juche

The nuclear relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother

We tend to look at WWII in a kind of historical box, with a beginning and an end.  In reality, we feel the effects of WWII to this day.  Just as the modern boundaries (and many of the problems) of the Middle East were shaped by WWI, the division of the Korean Peninsula was born of WWII.

Korea’s brief period of sovereignty ended in 1910, when the country was annexed by Imperial Japan. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea was divided into two occupied zones; the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States.

The Cairo Declaration of 1943 called for a unified Korea, but cold war tensions hardened the separation. By 1948, the two Koreas had separate governments, each with its own diametrically opposite governing philosophy.

Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land and other means of production. South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.

Both governments sought control of the Korean peninsula, but the 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts along the 38th parallel led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

koreanwar-fourmaps1200Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid, about 90% of them Americans.  The Soviets sent material aid to the North, while Communist China sent troops. The Korean War lasted three years, causing the death or disappearance of over 2,000,000, combining military and civilian.

The Korean War ended in July 1953, though the two sides technically remain at war to this day, staring each other down over millions of land mines in a fortified demilitarized zone spanning the width of the country.

The night-time satellite image of the two Koreas, tells the story of what happened next.kim_il-sung  South Korea went through a series of military dictatorships from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, since developing into a successful Republic.  In the North, Kim Il-sung built a communist hellhole, a cult of personality established under a North Korean ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay).

The term translates as “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance”, its first known reference in a speech given by Kim Il-sung on December 28, 1955.  Theoretically based on independent thought, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defense, “independence” applies to the collective, not to the individual, from whom absolute loyalty to the revolutionary party leader is required.  In practice, this principle puts one man at the center and above it all.  According to recent amendments to the North Korean constitution, that man will always be a well-fed member of the Kim family.

Son of the founder of the Juche Ideal, Kim Jung-il, was a well-known film buff. In a movepulgasari that would make Caligula blush, he had South Korean film maker Shin Sang-ok kidnapped along with his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. After four years spent starving in a North Korean gulag, the couple accepted Kim’s “suggestion” that they re-marry and go to work for him, producing the less-than-box-office-smash “Pulgasari”, a kind of North Korean Godzilla film.

The couple escaped, unlike dozens of South Korean and Japanese unfortunates “recruited” with the help of a chloroform soaked rag.

ryugyong-hotelNorth Korea broke ground on what foreign media called “the worst building in the world” in 1987, just in time for the Seoul Olympics the following year. With 105 stories and eight revolving floors, the Ryugyong would have been the tallest hotel in the world, if it ever opened.  Construction shut down in 1992, partly because Soviet funding dried up, and partly because construction was so bad that it’s unsafe to stand within 10 blocks of the thing.  In 2008, Orascom Telecom of Egypt agreed to spend $180 million to put glass on the outside, in exchange for a $400 million contract to build the nation’s first 3G cellular network.  Whether there will ever be more than one customer, is unclear.   Perhaps 2017 will be the year that the Ryugyong becomes more than the world’s largest telecommunications antenna, but so far the place remains “too popular to take reservations”.

north-korean-prison-concentration-camp-life-04Anywhere from 1 to 3 million North Koreans starved to death during the ‘90s, while it’s estimated that one in every hundred North Korean citizens are incarcerated in a system of gulags, torture chambers and concentration camps.

As of 2010, the North Korean Military had 7,679,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, in a nation of 25,000,000. Over 30% of the nation’s population, and absorbing almost 21% of GDP. Today, that military is under the personal control of a 32 year old who had his own uncle Jang Song-thaek executed, presumably by anti-aircraft machine gun fire, before being incinerated by flame thrower. The same method used to kill two of Mr. Jang’s associates, a week earlier. The New York Times reports that the execution was for a coup plot, but others say he didn’t clap his hands long enough and with the right amount of enthusiasm, over some pronouncement of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jung-un. The same Dear Leader who controls the nuclear arsenal.kim-jong-un

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea have had more or less “normal” relations, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  The relationship isn’t all moonbeams and lollipops, the DPRK sought relations with Baghdad throughout the Iran-Iraq War.  The IRI maintains relations with South Korea as well, but a cordial hatred for the United States has always kept the two united.

Authorities warned the nation of yet another impending famine in March 2016, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorializing that “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”

The Obama administration recently concluded a nuclear “deal” with Iran, secretly sealed with pallet loads of taxpayer cash.  CIA Director John Brennan conceded in September that his agency is “monitoring” whether North Korea is providing Iran with clandestine nuclear assistance.  It doesn’t seem a stretch, there have been arms sales and “peaceful nuclear cooperation” between the two since the 1980s. The nuclear relationship between the two is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother.   I cannot imagine what could go wrong.

December 27, 1913 My Favorite Curmudgeon

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’s number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun.

bierceAmbrose Bierce was born in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce, the 10th of 13 children, all with names beginning with the letter “A”.

Marcus and Laura never had much money, but they were inveterate readers and imparted a love of books that would last young Ambrose all his life. At 15, Bierce left home to become a “printer’s devil”, fetching type and mixing ink, following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his contemporary, Mark Twain.

He enlisted with the 9th Indiana Regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War, where he developed map making skills.  Bierce would frequently find himself in the hottest part of the front lines, while he drew out and mapped some difficult terrain feature.  He would later say of the experience that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”.

For Ambrose Bierce, the Civil War ended at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, when a severe head wound took him out of the war for good. He later headed west, making the first usable maps of the Black Hills, before winding up in San Francisco.

Long hours spent in a boring job at the San Francisco mint, gave him plenty of time to read the classics and brush up on his writing skills. He soon found himself in the newspaper business, one of the top columnists in the city.

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’sambrosebierceoncabbage number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun. Ambrose Bierce didn’t shy away from politics, he jumped right in, frequently using a mock dictionary definition to lampoon his targets. One example and my personal favorite, is “Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

Bierce worked for the Hearst Newspaper The San Francisco Examiner in 1896, when he was sent to Washington to cover a railroad bill that was working its way through Congress. The Union and Pacific Railroad received $130 million taxpayer dollars (about $3 billion in today’s money) laundered through the Federal Government and lent to them on extremely favorable terms. One of the railroad’s builders, Collis P. Huntington, had persuaded a malleable congressman to forgive the loan altogether, if only they could keep the measure quiet.ambrosebierceonego

Bierce lampooned the crony capitalist and the politician alike.  The offending bill was anything but quiet when an infuriated Huntington confronted Bierce on the Capital steps. When asked his “price”, Bierce answered “My price is $130 million dollars.  If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States”. The bill went on to defeat.  We can only wonder how things would be today, if such a man were to replace the partisan lapdogs who pass themselves off as the national press corps.

Bierce’s biting satire would often get Hearst and his newspaper in trouble.  Nothing wasambrosebierceonphilosophy off limits. Politics was a favorite target of his columns, such as: “CONSERVATIVE, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others”, or “POLITICIAN, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive”.

These mocking definitions became so numerous that they were published in 1906 as “The Cynic’s Word Book”.  It is still in print today as the “Devil’s Dictionary”. The topics are seemingly endless. On Motherhood: “SWEATER, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly”. On the Arts: PAINTING, n.: The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic”. Or “MARRIAGE, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two”. And then there’s education, “ACADEME, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught”.

Bierce left San Francisco in October 1913 at the age of 71, to revisit some of his Civil War battlefields. He then headed south into Mexico, which was at that time a whirlpool of revolution. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in Ciudad Juárez, arriving in Chihuahua some time in December. Bierce’ last letter was written to a close friend, Blanche Partington, on December 26, 1913. He closed the letter saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

And then, he vanished.

If you visit Sierra Mojada, in Coahuila, Mexico, they’ll tell you that Ambrose biercemarkerGwinnett Bierce was executed by firing squad in the town cemetery. It’s as good an ending to this story as any, as one hundred and three years ago today is as good a day as any on which to end it. The fact is that in that 103 years, there’s never been a trace of what became of him, and probably never will be.

He would have had a good laugh, reading the monument that Meigs County, Ohio erected in his honor in 2003. So many words to commemorate a life, when his own words would have done so well. “MONUMENT, n:  A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated.”ambrosebierceonplan

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything”.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

It was different 25 years earlier, at the outbreak of “The Great War”. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.  France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.  The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.  In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing Christmas carols.  They saw lanterns and small fir trees, and messages were shouted along the trenches.  In places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs.

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

christmastruce2Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang
syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire ofChristmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News. December 24-25, 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but they were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

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Private Ronald MacKinnon

Even so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.