February 4, 1936 A Damnable Travesty of Justice

“This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.” Walter Lippmann – New York World

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer began to feel soreness in her jaw. She was 23 at the time and too young to have her teeth falling out, yet that’s exactly what was happening. Fryer’s doctor was able to identify the problem, but he couldn’t explain it. The woman’s jawbones were so honeycombed with holes, they looked like moth eaten fabric.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the 88th element of the Periodic Table on December 21, 1898. This new and radioactive element was Radium, one of the ‘alkaline earth metals’. Marie curie would go on to become the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in 1906, and the only person of either sex to ever win two Nobels.

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From goldfish swallowing to pole sitting there have been some strange fads over the years, but none so strange as the radium craze, of 1904. Newspapers waxed rhapsodic about cities of the future, streets aglow in the light of radium lamps as smiling diners enjoyed luminescent cocktails, in restaurants.

While serious doctors had early successes killing cancer cells, quacks and charlatans sold radium creams, drinks and suppositories to cure everything from acne to warts.

An unseen benefit of the craze, at least for a time, was that demand for radium vastly outpaced actual production. Prices skyrocketed to $84,500 per gram by 1915, equivalent to $1.9 million today. Authorities warned consumers to be on the lookout for faux radium, while the business in fake radium products soared.

At the outset of World War 1, it didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of glow in the dark instruments. A number of companies stepped up to fill the need, perhaps none larger than US Radium and their glow-in-the-dark paint, “Undark”.

Hundreds of women worked in the company’s factories, hand painting the stuff on watches, gun sights and other instruments. Radioactivity levels were so small as to be harmless to users of these objects, but not so to the people who made them.

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Grace Fryer

The harmful effects of radiation were relatively well understood by 1917, though the information was kept from factory workers. Camel hair brushes tended to splay out with use and supervisors encouraged workers to sharpen brushes using their lips and tongues. The stuff was odorless and tasteless and some couldn’t resist the fun of painting nails and even teeth, with the luminous paint. The only side effects of all that radium they were told, would be rosy cheeks.

The active ingredient in Undark was a million times more active than Uranium, and company owners and scientists knew it. Company labs were equipped with lead screens, masks and tongs, while literally everything on the factory floor, glowed.

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In 1925, doctors began to suspect that Grace Fryer’s condition may be related to her previous employment in US Radium’s Orange, New Jersey factory. By that time she was seriously ill, yet Columbia University “Specialist” Frederick Flynn and a “Colleague” pronounced her to be in “fine health”. It was only later that the two were revealed to be company executives.

These US Radium guys must have been genuine, mustache twirling, villains. In the early 20s, company officials hired physiologist and Harvard Professor Cecil Drinker to report on working conditions. Drinker’s report detailed catastrophically dangerous working conditions, with virtually every factory employee suffering blood or bone conditions.

The report filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor omitted all of it, describing conditions in glowing terms (pun not intended), claiming that “every girl is in perfect condition”.

Reports of illness among other women came flooding in. In a tactic that may sound familiar today, US Radium took to assassinating the character of these women, claiming such symptoms resulted from syphilis.

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Attorney Raymond Berry filed suit on Fryer’s behalf in 1927, the lawsuit joined by four other dial painters seeking $250,000 apiece in damages. Soon, the newspapers were calling them “radium girls”. The health of all five plaintiffs was deteriorating rapidly, while one stratagem after another was used to delay proceedings. By their first courtroom appearance in January 1928, none could raise her arm to take the oath. Grace Fryer was altogether toothless by this time, unable to walk and requiring a back brace even to sit up.

Another dial painter, Amelia Maggia, had had to have her jaw removed in the last months of her life. Maggia’s cause of death was ruled as syphilis, but her dentist wasn’t buying it. Dr. Joseph Knef placed the jaw on a piece of dental film. The image resulting showed “absurd” levels of radiation.

The radium girls were far too sick to attend the next hearing in April when the judge ordered a continuation to September, an accommodation to several company witnesses “summering” in Europe.

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Walter Lippmann of the New York World called the proceedings a “damnable travesty of justice”. “There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, the reporter wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.”

Delay was a deliberate and sleazy tactic, and it worked. Plaintiffs accepted a settlement of $10,000 apiece, plus legal fees and a $600 annual annuity. The deal was mediated by Judge William Clarke, himself a US Radium stockholder. None of the women lived long enough to cash more than one or two annuity checks.

Marie Curie herself was dead by 1934, poisoned by radiation. With a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks remain “too hot to handle”, to this day.

Radium was synthesized for the first time two years later, on February 4, 1936. Presumably, factory workers were no longer encouraged to sharpen their brushes using lips and tongues.

January 24, 1935 It’s Beer Can Appreciation Day

Today as we gather to celebrate National Beer Can Appreciation Day, January 24, 2021, let us pause in solemn reverence to contemplate the meaning, of such a day as this. Sláinte.

The early brews of Egypt and Mesopotamia were transported in clay vessels called “amphorae”.

Wine was better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate leaving beer, to the barbarians. Even so, letters from cavalry commanders of the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia“ for the legions.

Wooden barrels replaced the clay of antiquity in the early centuries AD made by skilled artisans, called “coopers”.

Glass came into use in the early 1700s, the same thick, black glass used for wine and hard liquor. Twist-offs were a thing of the distant future in those days and bottles were sealed, with corks or caps.

The screw cap came into being in 1870 thanks to English inventor Henry Barrett, but there were problems. Glass was heavy to transport over long distances, and easily damaged. Inspecting for cracks and chips and cleaning for re-use was both time consuming, and expensive. There had to be a better way.

Breweries toyed with the idea of canning beer since the early 1900s, but not without challenges. A can must survive pasteurization while containing pressures up to 80psi and still deliver a product, that was fresh and tasty. The metallic afterbite of early attempts was enough to repel even the most devoted of beer drinkers.

Prohibition put an end to such efforts, but not for long. Pabst and Anheuser-Busch both bet on an end to Prohibition by the late 1920s and asked the American Can Company, to help figure it out.

The answer was a polymer coating called Vinylite, a material familiar to anyone who’s ever handled a vinyl record. Early tests by Pabst proved favorable but major breweries were reluctant to commit, without a real-world test.

Like most smaller breweries, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Newark New Jersey was badly hurt, by Prohibition. When American Can offered not only to install a canning line but to pay for a test, it was an easy decision.

In June 1934, two cans each were delivered to 1,000 homes in Richmond Virginia. 91 percent gave the beer can, a “thumbs up”. 85% said it tasted more like draft, than bottled beer

On this day in 1935, Krueger went on sale all over the city. The beer can was born.

These weren’t the paper-thin cans we think of today. They were thick, heavy flat tops requiring a ‘church key’ to open, the can itself weighing in an at a ¼-pound apiece.

Krueger got their canning line paid for, but other brewers were still tooled up for bottles. New production lines were expensive. The answer came in the form of a “cone top”. With no need to upgrade equipment, the style appealed to smaller brewers. J. Heileman was the first to roll out a cone top in 1935 followed by Schlitz, the first national brewer to do so. The cone style remained popular until 1960 when the big nationals drove many of the regional guys, out of business. The cone top faded from use.

A beer can revolution came about in 1963 in the form of a pull tab or “pop top”, easy opening can. The Pittsburg Brewing Company was the first to use the pull tab on its flagship Iron City brand. Schlitz was the first of the nationals. By 1965, 75% of all beverage cans produced came with pop tops

These things were pure, unmitigated evil. Pop tops by the millions began to appear on beaches, lakes and parks, each one a self-contained, locked and loaded anti-personnel weapon lying in wait for the next bare foot. Pets and wild animals alike limped away with mangled feet or died after ingesting the things. There’s barely a child or teenager alive in the 1960’s, who doesn’t have a horror story about stepping on a pop top.

I blew out my flip flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home”.
Jimmy Buffet

The answer came in 1975 in the form of “Stay Tabs”. First introduced by the Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, Kentucky, stay tabs have changed almost not at all since that time and remain the state-of-the-art for nearly all carbonated beverages sold, to this day.

So it is we celebrate “National Beer Can Appreciation Day” this January 24, 2021. May it be a day filled with good health and hearty celebration. Sláinte.

For every wound, a balm.
For every sorrow, cheer. 
For every storm, a calm.
For every thirst, a beer. – Irish toast, author unknown

December 21, 2012 The Mayan Apocalypse

We are privileged to live in an age of great learning and wisdom. The internet brings us the sum total of human knowledge, with but a few keystrokes. Social media has right-sized the planet to a single community where we all discuss the Code of Hammurabi, the collected works of Shakespeare and the vicissitudes of interplanetary physics.

Naah. Just kidding. We live in as nonsensical an age as any other. One of the sillier bits of pop culture foolishness of the recent past, may be when the world came to an end. Eight years ago today. December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe and Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru. Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If only I’d been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times. The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

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Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain, but I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body comes around but once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

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French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910. And then it went. There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the appearance, of the comet.

The world has seen no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is to be believed. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty nations revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

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5,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

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Get it? No, neither do I. Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

Calamity. An estimated 2 percent of the American public believed the end of the world, was nigh. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all these crazy Gringos. The world wasn’t coming to an end. The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like those old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.

What a party that could have been. The “New Year” to end all New Years. Only comes around once every 5,125 years, & 133 days.

Happy 14 b’ak’tun.

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November 26, 1941, Franksgiving

Popular comedians of the day got a laugh out of the Franksgiving ruckus including Burns & Allen, and Jack Benny. One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.”

The first Autumn feast of Thanksgiving dates well before the European settlement of North America.

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Historian Michael Gannon writes that the “real first Thanksgiving” in America took place in 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in modern-day Florida, and “had the Indians fed and then dined himself.”

Likely, it was salt-pork stew with garbanzo beans. Yum.

According to the Library of Congress, the English colony of Popham in present-day Maine held a “harvest feast and prayer meeting” with the Abenaki people in 1607, twenty-four years before that “first Thanksgiving” at Plymouth.

George Washington proclaimed the first Presidential National day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1783, “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness“.

So much for the “separation of Church and state”.

President Abraham Lincoln followed suit in 1863, declaring a general day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November.  The date seemed to work out OK and the tradition stuck, until 1939.

Roughly two in every seven Novembers, contain an extra Thursday.  November 1939, was one of them.

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In those days, it was considered poor form for retailers to put up Christmas displays or run Christmas sales, before Thanksgiving.  Lew Hahn, General Manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, was afraid that extra week was going to cut into Christmas sales.

Ten years into the Great Depression with no end in sight, the Federal government was afraid of the same thing. By late August, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to deviate from the customary last Thursday and declared the fourth Thursday, November 23, to be a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.

Opposition to the plan was quick to form.  Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the earlier election, complained of Roosevelt’s impulsiveness and resulting confusion.  “More time should have been taken working it out” Landon said, “instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

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In Plymouth Massachusetts, self-described home of the “first Thanksgiving”, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen James Frasier, “heartily disapproved”.

The short-notice change in schedule disrupted vacation plans for millions of Americans. Traditional Thanksgiving day football rivalries between school teams across the nation, were turned upside down.

Unsurprisingly, support for Roosevelt’s plan broke along ideological lines.  A late 1939 Gallup poll reported Democrats favoring the move by a 52% to 48% majority, with Republicans opposing the move, 79% to 21%.

Such proclamations represent little more than the “’moral authority” of the Presidency. States are free to do as they please.  Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia observed Thanksgiving day on the non-traditional date, and twenty-two kept Thanksgiving on the 30th.  Colorado, Mississippi and Texas, did both.

The next two years, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia celebrated what came to be called “Franksgiving” on the third Thursday of the month, while the remainder observed a more traditional “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last.

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In 1941, a Commerce Department survey demonstrated little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date. A joint resolution of Congress declared the fourth Thursday beginning the following year to be a national day of Thanksgiving. President Roosevelt signed the measure into law on November 26.

Interestingly, the phrase “Thanksgiving Day” appeared only once in the 20th century prior to the 1941 resolution, that in President Calvin Coolidge’s first of six such proclamations.

Most state legislatures followed suit with the Federal fourth-Thursday approach, but not all.  In 1945, the next year with five November Thursdays, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia reverted to the last Thursday.  Texas held out the longest, celebrating its fifth-Thursday Thanksgiving for the last time in 1956.

To this day, the years 1939, ’40 and ’41 remain the only outliers, outside the fourth-Thursday tradition.

Popular comedians of the day got a laugh out of the Franksgiving ruckus including Burns & Allen, and Jack Benny.  One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.”

The Three Stooges short film of the same year has Moe questioning Curly, why he put the fourth of July in October.  “You never can tell”, he replies.  “Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

Joe Toye, the “Easy Company” character in the 2001 HBO miniseries “A Band of Brothers”, may have had the last word on Franksgiving.  Explaining his plan to get the war over quickly, the paratrooper quips “Hitler gets one of these [knives] right across the windpipe, Roosevelt changes Thanksgiving to Joe Toye Day, [and] pays me ten grand a year for the rest of my f*****g life.

Sounds like a plan.

November 16, 1959 Pepsi’s Navy

Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of “New Coke” has been described as the “marketing blunder of the ages” but, what really turned business rivalry to blood feud, was when Pepsi bought it’s own navy.

Coca-Cola was first introduced in 1886. Pepsi appeared seven years later, in 1893. The most famous rivalry in the soft drink business really heated up in the 1930s, when Pepsi offered a 12-oz. bottle for the same 5¢ as Coca Cola’s six ounces.

The Coca Cola Company’s flagship brand had a 60% share by the end of WWII, but that declined to less than 24% by the early 80s. Most of the difference was lost to Pepsi and their “Pepsi challenge” blind taste test promotions, of the late 1970s.

Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of “New Coke” has been described as the “marketing blunder of the ages” but, what really turned business rivalry to blood feud, was when Pepsi bought it’s own navy.

Alright, it didn’t happen quite that way but, still. The company did have its own navy. Not a little one, either. In 1990, Pepsi owned the 6th largest navy, in the world.

Permit me to rewind, just a bit. The “Cold War” experienced a period of thaw in 1959. Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikita Kruschev came to visit President Eisenhower in the White house, and the two agreed on a bit of cultural exchange. A display of each civilization for the benefit of the other’s citizens.

So it was the American National Exhibition came to Moscow in the summer of 1959 followed by a Soviet display, in New York.

An argument broke out between Vice President Richard Nixon and Leader Kruschev, over the benefits of Capitalism vs Communism. A heated debate really, it was July, and the Soviet leader looked thirsty.

Pepsi Cola VP Donald McIntosh Kendall thought it was a swell idea, to offer the man a Pepsi. That’s Kendall, pouring, below. That drink was a propaganda coup, the image itself a victory, so much so that on this day in 1959…nothing happened. The “Sound of Music” opened on Broadway. I don’t know, maybe they were all distracted, but one thing is certain. Nikita Kruschev loved him a Pepsi

The exhibition opened the way to the Soviet market for several American companies including IBM, Dixie-cup, Disney and…you got it…Pepsi. That image was a coup for Kendall as well. Within a few years he was CEO and, in 1972 Pepsi negotiated an exclusive marketing agreement, for the Soviet consumer. Coke was out. Pepsi was in. It was the first popular consumer product to make its way to the soviet consumer, a market which would come to be worth $3 Billion, with a capital “B”.

There was a problem however, in the form of payment. The Ruble was no good on the international currency exchange. There had to be a more…umm…liquid form of transfer.

Vodka.

The Russians had tons of the stuff, and so it was agreed. Pepsi would be transferred in exchange for…Vodka.

The system worked so nicely that “Stoli’s” become a household word but, by the late 80s, it was time to renegotiate. Pepsi had 20 bottling plants on Soviet soil. Vodka wasn’t about to pay for all that. Did I mention the USSR was a $3 Billion market for sugary, bubbly water?

It happened by this time, the Soviet Union was looking to get rid of surplus equipment from the Cold War, including a Destroyer, a Cruiser, 17 Submarines and a Frigate.

So it was, at least for a time, Pepsi became owner of the 6th largest navy, on the planet.

Lucky for Coke, the Cola Wars were destined to remain cold. Ice cold. The Pepsi Fleet was sold to a Swedish outfit, for $3 Billion worth of scrap. Donald Kendall left this world on September 19 of this year but we must give him the last word, in this story.

According to his New York Times obituary Kendall once quipped to Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to President George H. W. Bush: “We’re disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are”.

November 14, 1902 Silly Old Bear

The piece went on to describe the medical afflictions, common to Brunus Edwardii. Clearly satire, the Veterinary Association’s article was overwhelmingly popular, save for the usual curmudgeonly contingent who seem to experience life as one never-ending complaint, in search of a target.

Theodore Roosevelt was in Mississippi in November 1902, helping local authorities settle a border dispute with Louisiana. There was some downtime on the 14th, and Governor Andrew Longino invited the President and a few dignitaries on a bear hunt.

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Holt Collier

The hunt was a high profile affair, attended by a number of reporters and led by a former slave and Confederate Cavalryman, the famous bear tracker Holt Collier:  a man who had killed more bears than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, combined.

Real history is so much more interesting than the political and pop culture varieties, isn’t it?.

Late that afternoon, Collier and his tracking dogs cornered a large female black bear. Roosevelt hadn’t “bagged” one yet, and Collier bugled for the President to join him. He would have ordinarily shot the bear when it killed one of his dogs, but Collier wanted the president to get this one. He busted the bear over the head with his rifle, hard enough to bend the barrel, and tied the poor beast to a willow tree.

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Roosevelt declined to shoot the beast. He said it was “unsportsmanlike” to shoot a bound and wounded animal. Instead, he ordered the bear put down, putting an end to its pain.

The Washington Post ran an editorial cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman. “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” depicted both the state line dispute and the hunting incident. Berryman first drew the animal as a large, fierce killer, but later redrew the bear, turning the creature into a cute, cuddly little cub bear.

Morris Michtom owned a small novelty and candy store in Brooklyn, New York at that time. Michtom’s wife Rose had been making toy bears for sale in their store, when Morris sent one of them to Roosevelt, asking permission to call it “Teddy’s Bear”. Roosevelt detested that nickname, but he said yes. Michtom’s bear became so popular that he went on to start what would become the Ideal Toy Company.

In 1972, the weekly journal of the British veterinary profession, the Veterinary Record, ran an article in their April 1st edition. The piece described the diseases common to “Brunus Edwardii”, a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article reported that “Pet ownership surveys have shown that 63.8% of households are inhabited by one or more of these animals, and there is a statistically significant relationship between their population and the number of children in a household”.

Brunus Edwardii

The piece went on to describe the medical afflictions, common to Brunus Edwardii.  Clearly satire, the Veterinary Association’s article was overwhelmingly popular, save for the usual curmudgeonly contingent who seem to experience life as one never-ending complaint, in search of a target.

Did I mention, the thing was published on April Fool’s Day?

One such curmudgeon was the humorless A. Noel Smith, a zany funster if there ever was one to be sure, who sniffed, “I have been practising veterinary medicine for the past 12 years or more “across the pond” and my Veterinary Records arrive a month or more late. However, I still open them with interest and read what is going on “at home”. April 1st’s edition thoroughly soured my interest. How three members holding sets of impressive degrees can waste their time writing such garbage in a journal that is the official publication of the B.V.A. is beyond my comprehension, as is your effrontery to publish it under “Clinical Papers”.

I bet that guy would be a hoot to have a beer with.

November 14, 1902 Teddy Bear

For the record,”Brunus Edwardii”, is latin for Edward Brown. The internet dictionary etymologyonline.com explains the origins of “Brown” as, among other things, Dutch, for  “Bruin”.

Edward Bruin. Hmmm. Edward Bear.  Author A.A. Milne’s proper name, for Winnie-the-Pooh. That silly old bear.

November 3, 1954 King of Monsters

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry.


It was 6:45am local time on March 1, 1954, when a flash lit up the sky over the Pacific, like the sun itself.   Then came the sound. An explosion outside the experience of all but the tiniest fraction among us, followed by the mushroom cloud, towering into the atmosphere.  It was a test, the detonation of a TX-21 thermonuclear weapon with a predicted yield of 6 megatons with the unlikely codename, of “Shrimp”.

The 23 men of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) were working the grounds near the Marshall Islands that day, in the equatorial Pacific. For a full eight minutes, these twenty-three men watched the characteristic mushroom cloud rise above them.  An hour and a half later came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll, falling from the sky, like snow.

None among the twenty-three recognized the material as hazardous, and made no effort to avoid exposure.  Some men even tasted the stuff.

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Over the next three days, several fishermen developed acute radiation sickness.   By the time they returned to Yaizu two weeks later, all 23 were suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums and other symptoms.  One was destined to die six months later from a liver disorder, brought on by radiation sickness.  They had entered the ranks of that most exclusive of clubs that no one, Ever, wanted to join. They were “hibakusha”.  The “explosion-affected people”.

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry. A monster, “Godzilla”, Ishirō Honda’s first film released by Toho Studios on this day, in 1954.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, (gorilla), and “kujira”, meaning whale.  Godzilla was the Gorilla Whale with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on his back and skin modeled after the hideous keloid scarring, of the hibakusha.

The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin and then changing the speed, at playback.

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The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, defining the standard for most of the Godzilla films, to follow.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little complicated with the 1998 American remake when “Zilla” started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. Godzilla is the best known but certainly not the only such creature of the Japanese entertainment industry. You may remember other kaiju including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

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Godzilla has appeared in 28 original films, with more in the works. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” in 2004, timed to coincide with the release of the 29th film of the genre, “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version was spawned by “environmental pollution”. It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole.

The film was a flop, grossing less than $12 million after a production budget over half again, as large.

The franchise came roaring back ten years later, when Godzilla was released in 2014, grossing $200 million domestically with $529.1 million in worldwide sales.

To this day, the man who played those original 12 films is considered the best “suit actor”, in franchise history. In 2018, asteroid 110408 Nakajima was named in his memory.

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A film franchise 66 years in the making is still going strong and will continue to do so, for the foreseeable future. Godzilla: King of the Monsters released in 2019 with a Box Office of $386.6 million and a production budget, of less than $200 million. Godzilla vs. Kong, originally scheduled for release this year, went the way of so many things in 2020 and fell victim, to the Chinese Coronavirus. The 36th film in the series is complete and currently scheduled for release in May, 2021.

Tip of the hat to http://www.mykaiju.com, for most of the images used in this story.

November 2, 1985 The Curse of Colonel Sanders

Much has been written of 1930’s Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century could have been, had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

Baseball as we know it was introduced to the country in 1872. To this day, the game remains the most popular sport in the nation for participants and spectators, alike. In 1907, Tsuneo Matsudaira commented: “the game spread, like a fire in a dry field, in summer, all over the country, and some months afterwards, even in children in primary schools in the country far away from Tōkyō were to be seen playing with bats and balls“.

Oh. Did I neglect to mention? The nation we’re talking about, is Japan.

Professional baseball got off to a rocky start in 1920s Japan and continued to flounder, until 1934. That’s when media bigwig Matsutarō Shōriki pulled off a “goodwill tour” with an all-star American team including Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Connie Mack and Charlie Gehringer. Even Moe Berg was part of that 1934 entourage, the Jewish catcher known as “the brainiest guy in baseball,” who went behind enemy lines during World War 2, to spy on Nazi Germany.

“The [1934] party included future Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Foxx and Ruth, along with several other American Leaguers (asked to accompany the tour when the National League forbade its stars from coming along). Even Moe Berg, the big league catcher who would eventually work as a United States government spy, was a member of the ball playing entourage”. H/T baseballhall.org

Much has been written of 1930’s Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century could have been, had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

The first Japanese professional league was formed in 1936, becoming large enough to split into two leagues in 1950, the Central and Pacific.

Today, the Kansai region of Honshu is the 2nd largest metropolis, in all Japan. That’s where you’ll find the Hanshin Tigers, those perennial underdogs of Nippon Professional Baseball and arch-rival to the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, widely regarded as the kings of Japanese baseball.

As a life-long Red Sox fan, this story is beginning to sound familiar.

35 years ago today was a time of unbridled joy for delirious Tigers fans, following Hanshin’s 6-2 drubbing of the Seibu Lions to win the ultimate prize, the Japan series pennant of 1985.

Now you may not know this, but Japan is one of the largest markets in the world for Kentucky Fried Chicken, #3 behind the United States and China. Not bad for a fast food outfit that opened its first Japanese franchise, only fifteen years earlier.

The Boston baseball fan is well acquainted with the “Curse of the Bambino”, the 86-year World Series championship drought, second only to the “Curse of the Billy Goat” that denied victory to long-suffering Chicago fans, for 106 years.

Since 1985, Japanese mothers have scared wayward children into acting right, with the curse of Colonel Sanders.

The Hanshin club emerged victorious in 1985, due in large part to the efforts of American slugger, Randy Bass. Delirious after unexpected victory in game one and superstitious as baseball fans the world over, Hanshin supporters gathered at the Ebisu Bridge over the Dōtonbori river in Osaka, to partake in one of the most bizarre spectacles, in modern sports.

Fans would shout out the names of Tigers players and someone who resembled that player, even vaguely, would jump into the river. There being no Caucasians in attendance to represent Mr. Bass, the crowd took hold of a storefront statue of Harlan Sanders, and threw it into the River.

What the hell. They both had beards.

Thus began the curse of Colonel Sanders, a losing streak brought on by the ghost of a man who didn’t appreciate being thrown into a river. Brief rallies in 1992 and again in ’99 brought hope once again to the Hanshin faithful, (gosh, this story sounds Really familiar now), only to have cruel fate, block the way. Repeated efforts were made to retrieve the Colonel from the river, only to be met with failure. The curse, dragged on.

The joy of victory smiled upon the land of Hanshin once again in 2003, when Yomiuri Giants MVP Hideki Matsui was traded to the New York Yankees, clearing the way to a Central League pennant for Hanshin. Even so, final victory remained elusive. The Japan series went to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks that year, in 7 games.

Celebration turned to tragedy that year, when thousands of Tigers fans jumped into the river. 24-year-old Masaya Shitababa, drowned. The Osaka city council ordered construction of a new bridge over the Dōtonbori beginning in 2004, making further such jumps, next to impossible.

Divers discovered the upper part of Harlan Sanders’ statue on March 10, 2009 and the lower piece, the following day. And yet the Colonel’s other hand and eyeglasses, were nowhere to be found.

Colonel Sanders’ left hand and spectacles remain missing to this day and the KFC where it all started, is closed and gone forever. So it is for long suffering fans of the Hanshin Tigers, the curse of Colonel Sanders, lives on.

“Dangerous! Do not dive into this river. Osaka Regional Development Bureau and Osaka-Minami Police station” sign at the new Ebisubashi bridge H/T Wikipedia

November 1, 1959 Game Face

For NHL hockey, the face mask became standard equipment on this day, in 1959. I’m not sure if goalies are any prettier these days, but they have a lot more teeth.

Stanley Cup

In the Netherlands, modern ice hockey began sometime in the 16th century.  North Americans have played the sport since 1855.   For all that time, flying hockey pucks have collided with the faces of goaltenders.  The results have not have been pretty.

The name of Montreal Canadien goal tender Jacques Plante is engraved five times on Lord Stanley’s cup, once for each of five consecutive championships between 1956, and ‘60.  

For a lifelong Bruins fan, that isn’t easy to say.

Jacques Plante Putting on Mask
Original caption: 11/1/1959-New York, NY- His face and shirt bloodied, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante puts on a special plastic mask after being treated for a facial cut received in the opening period of the Rangers-Canadiens hockey game. Plante suffered a severe gash on the left side of his face when he was struck by a shot off the stick of Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. After donning the mask, which he had designed himself, Plante returned to the game. November 1, 1959 New York, New York, USA

Plante literally wrote the book on NHL goal tending. He was the first to take the position outside of the crease, making himself the third defenseman. He was the first to take the puck behind the net and the first to bring anything even vaguely resembling stick handling, to the position. Before Plante, a Goalie’s job was pretty much to deflect the puck and let the defenders take it from there.

On this day in 1959, Jacques Plante decided he’d had enough. It was three minutes into a game with the New York Rangers when he took a puck to the nose on a shot fired by Andy Bathgate. The puck broke his nose, opening a wound requiring seven stitches to close.  When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a fiberglass mask.

Coach Toe Blake was furious. He had allowed the mask during practice, but this was regulation.  Nobody wore a mask.  Coaches believed they cut the goaltender’s field of vision, and, besides.  These were supposed to be the “fearless” guys, who jumped in front of the puck.

Easy for him to say.  It wasn’t his face.  Plante was adamant, and Blake wasn’t about to bench the best goalie in the NHL. There would be one more game when Plante played without the mask, the only game the Canadiens lost in that series, and that was the end of it.  

For Jacques Plante, the mask had now become standard equipment.

In 1966, Life Magazine published an image of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Terry Sawchuk, “a face only a hockey puck could love“. “Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor” read the accompanying article, “are some of the more than 400 stitches he had earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Terry Sawchuk’s face was bashed over and over, but not all at one time. His wounds healed. The scars weren’t easily seen – except for a few of them. The re-creation of his injuries was done to help show the extent of his injuries over a span of years”.

During a 1968-’69 season playoff game against the Boston Bruins, a puck fired by Phil Esposito hit Plante in the forehead, knocking him out, cold.  He later said that the mask had saved his life.  He’s probably right.

Gerry Cheevers, who played for the 1970-’72 Bruins, famously had his mask marked up with stitches. That started when a puck hit him in the face during practice. When Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed Cheevers to the dressing room, he found the goalie enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden sent Cheevers back out on the ice and John Forestall, the team trainer, painted stitches on his mask. Every time Cheevers was hit after that, he would have new stitches painted on. The mask became one of the most recognizable symbols of the era, and now hangs on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.

Gerry Cheevers
Gerry Cheevers

Jacques Plante wasn’t the first NHL goaltender to wear a face mask.  Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict wore a crude leather mask in 1929, to protect a broken nose.

clint-benedict
Montreal Maroon’s goaltender Clint Benedict, 1930

It was Plante who introduced the face mask as everyday equipment, now a mandatory fixture for all goaltenders.

I’m not sure if NHL goalies are any prettier these days, but I bet they have a lot more teeth.

June 16, 1980 The Blues Brothers

Dan Ackroyd tells a story about long days of rehearsals on the SNL set. An exhausted John Belushi would wander off and let himself into the house of a friend or a stranger, scrounging around for food before falling asleep in the house, unable to be found for the next day’s work. These outings were the inspiration for the SNL horror-spoof sketch “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”.

Dan Aykroyd developed his musical talents during the late fifties and early sixties at an Ottowa club called Le Hibou, (French for ‘the owl’).  “I actually jammed behind Muddy Waters”, he once said.  “S. P. Leary left the drum kit one night, and Muddy said ‘anybody out there play drums?  I don’t have a drummer.’ And I walked on stage and we started, I don’t know, Little Red Rooster, something. He said ‘keep that beat going, you make Muddy feel good.’

Eric Idle of Monty Python once guest hosted, for Saturday Night Live.  Idle paid the greatest tribute to Aykroyd’s comedic talent, saying he was “the only member of the SNL cast capable of being a Python”.

John Belushi joined The Second City comedy troupe in 1971, playing off-Broadway in “National Lampoon’s Lemmings”. He played The National Lampoon Radio Hour from 1973 to 1975, a half-hour comedy program syndicated on over 600 stations.

Belushi appeared from 1973 to 1975 on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, along with future SNL regulars Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. A number of their radio segments went on to become SNL sketches in the show’s first couple seasons.SNL-original-castDan Ackroyd tells a story about long days of rehearsals on the SNL set. An exhausted John Belushi would wander off and let himself into the house of a friend or a stranger, scrounging around for food before falling asleep in the house, unable to be found for the next day’s work. These outings were the inspiration for the SNL horror-spoof sketch “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”.

Lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues (John Belushi) and harmonica player/backing vocalist Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) had their musical debut on January 17, 1976 in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live. “The Blues Brothers” appeared twice more on SNL sketches, both in 1978, before releasing their first album that same year: Briefcase Full of Blues.the-blues-brothers-57e6837c76b1dThe Blues Brothers film premiered in Chicago on this day in 1980, four days before general release. Set in the windy city and sprawling across the Midwest, the musical/comedy film tells the story of a paroled convict and his brother, and their mission to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised from foreclosure. The Blues Brothers’ “Mission from God” needs to raise $5,000 to pay the orphanage’s property tax bill. To do so, the pair sets out to reignite their old R&B band, pursued by the police and wrecking 103 cars along the way, a world record for that time.

While filming one of the night scenes, Belushi disappeared and couldn’t be found. Looking around, Dan Ackroyd found a single house with the lights on and knocked on the door. Before he could ask, the homeowner smiled and said “You’re here for John Belushi, aren’t you?” The man told his visitor that Belushi had entered the house, asked if he could have a glass of milk and a sandwich, and crashed on their couch.

To some, John Belushi may have been a real-life Thing that Wouldn’t Leave. To Dan Ackroyd, the man would always be “America’s Guest”.

John Belushi died in his hotel room on March 5, 1982 of a “Speedball”, a combined injection of heroin and cocaine. The cause of death was originally ruled accidental overdose, but Catherine Evelyn Smith was extradited and tried on first degree murder charges after her National Enquirer interview, in which she admitted giving Belushi the shot. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter.  She served fifteen months in prison.

Belushi’s wife Judith arranged for a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral in which he was interred, twice. The first was in Abel’s Hill Cemetery in the Chilmark section of Martha’s Vineyard.  A classic New England slate tombstone complete with skull and crossbones, marks the location. The inscription reads, “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.”belushi-funeral-service“Fans” repeatedly felt the need to desecrate the grave.  The body was removed at Mrs. Belushi’s request and reburied in an undisclosed location.  An unmarked tombstone in an undisclosed location marks the final burial location, where the man can at last rest in peace.

John Belushi is remembered on the family marker at his mother’s grave at Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois. The stone reads, “HE GAVE US LAUGHTER”.