July 16, 1963 A Happy Little Tree

On this day in 1963 and, for that matter, every day between April 22 and August 20, the sun never seems to set in that part of Alaska. A personal friend jokes about a family trip from Fairbanks to Florida in which he learned his kids associate warmth and cold not with the change of season, but the presence or absence of light.

Anyone who served at Eielson Air Force Base in the early 1960s remembers Sergeant Ross. A man with a voice like a jackhammer, striding into the early morning stillness. The sleeping recruits. The voice let loose like the roar of a shotgun, fired over their heads.

RISE AND SHINE DIRTBAGS! EVRYBODY UP! EVERYBODY OUT! LET’S MOVE IT!

For 20 years Ross served as a training instructor, ordering this man to drop and give him fifty, and that one to scrub the latrines.

And yet, here in the last frontier Sgt. Ross grew and nurtured a secret, softer side of himself, one that wasn’t so secret, at all. This was the land of the Midnight Sun, Alaska style, just outside of Fairbanks. Here the Orlando Florida-born 1st Sergeant learned to appreciate the beauty of a fresh fall of snow. The majesty of the Aurora Borealis and the magnificent mountains and tall trees.

Image of the Aurora Borealis from the official website, of Eielson Air Base

First came the art classes, to fill the quiet hours, off-duty. The large brush, wet-on-wet painting techniques that allowed Sgt. Ross to wolf down a sandwich and complete an entire canvas, all in a half-hour lunch. Painting gave the man a moment of joy and then it was…back to work.

COME ON LADIES, WE’RE NOT ON VACATION. LET’S GET THE LEAD…OUT!

On this day in 1963 and, for that matter, every day between April 22 and August 20, the sun never seems to set in that part of Alaska. A personal friend jokes about a family trip from Fairbanks to Florida in which he learned his kids associate warmth and cold not with the change of season, but the presence or absence of light.

So it was this human bullhorn of a man had an abundance of daylight in which to appreciate the beauty of Alaska and to hone and practice, his art. He produced hundreds of paintings during this period perhaps thousands and sold them, for a few extra dollars spending money.

”I developed ways of painting extremely fast. I used to go home at lunch and do a couple while I had my sandwich. I’d take them back that afternoon and sell them.”

Sgt. Robert Norman Ross

All things, must come to an end. Today, Eielson Air Base hosts the 354th Fighter Wing with a mission statement, “[T]o provide USINDOPACOM combat-ready fifth-generation airpower, advanced integration training, and strategic arctic airpower basing”.

Robert Norman Ross left the military after twenty years to pursue different interests and died too soon at the age of 52, of lymphoma. The New York times obituary said simply that the man “Was A Painter On TV.” There was no picture, nor any mention of the ugly battle that was about to break out, over his fifteen million dollar estate.

U-2 Spy Plane, Eielson AFB, Alaska

But, imagine if you will the surprise of any of those Air Force recruits from the height of the Cold War, on turning on the TV. To their favorite PBS channel to see their former drill sergeant. The man with a voice that could crack rocks sporting not the crew cut and close-shaved face of the early 1960s but a beard and an afro, the size of a basketball.

And there it was again, that oversized brush and that voice, now speaking in the soporific tones of Mr. Rogers. The cerulean reds and the burnt umbers, the tranquil almost somnolent words painting a picture, of the Joy of Painting. The happy little tree I think we’ll put…right…Here.

Hat tip to Mike Rowe and a fun podcast he calls “The Way I Heard It”, without which I would remain entirely ignorant, of this tale.

May 9, 1914 Mother’s Day

In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So strict was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity.  For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.

The earliest discernible Mother’s day comes down to us from 1200-700BC, descending from the Phrygian rituals of modern day Turkey and Armenia. “Cybele” was the great Phrygian goddess of nature, mother of the Gods, of humanity, and of all the beasts of the natural world, her cult spreading throughout Eastern Greece with colonists from Asia Minor.

Much of ancient Greece looked to the Minoan Goddess Rhea, daughter of the Earth Goddess Gaia and the Sky God Uranus, mother of the Gods of Olympus. Over time the two became closely associated with the Roman Magna Mater, each developing her own cult following and worshipped through the period of the Roman Empire.

Women in Rome

In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So inflexible was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity.  For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.

In the sixteenth century, it became popular for Protestants and Catholics alike to return to their “mother church” whether that be the church in which they were baptized, the local parish church, or the nearest cathedral. Anyone who did so was said to have gone “a-mothering”. Domestic servants were given the day off and this “Mothering Sunday”, the 4th Sunday in Lent, was often the only time when whole families could get together. Children would gather wild flowers along the way, to give to their own mothers or to leave in the church. Over time the day became more secular but the tradition of gift giving continued.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis
Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis was a social activist in mid-19th century western Virginia.  Pregnant with her sixth child in 1858, she and other women formed “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs”, to combat the health and sanitary conditions which were leading at that time to catastrophic levels of infant mortality.  Jarvis herself gave birth between eleven and thirteen times in a seventeen year period.  Only four would live to adulthood.

Jarvis had no patience for the sectional differences that led the nation to Civil War, or which led her own locality to secede and form the state of West Virginia in order to rejoin the Union.  Jarvis refused to support a measure to divide the Methodist church into northern and southern branches.  She would help Union and Confederate soldier alike if she could.  It was she alone who offered a prayer when others refused for Thornsbury Bailey Brown, the first Union soldier killed in the vicinity.

Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis

Following Jarvis’ death in 1905, her daughter Anna conceived of Mother’s Day as a way to honor her legacy, and to pay respect for the sacrifices all mothers make on behalf of their children.

Obtaining financial backing from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, thousands attended the first Mother’s Day event at Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia.

Anna Jarvis resolved that Mother’s Day be added to the national calendar, and a massive letter writing campaign ensued. On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure declaring the second Sunday of May, to be Mother’s Day.

Mothers-Day-1919

Anna Jarvis believed Mother’s Day to be a time of personal celebration, a time when families would gather to love and honor their mother.

In the early days she had worked with the floral industry to help raise the profile of Mother’s Day. By 1920 she had come to resent what she saw as the commercialization of the day.  Greeting cards seemed a pale substitute for the hand written personal notes she envisioned. Jarvis protested a Philadelphia candy maker’s convention in 1923, deriding confectioners, florists and even charities as “profiteers”. Carnations had by this time become symbolic of Mother’s Day. Jarvis resented that they were being sold at fundraisers.  She protested at a meeting of the American War Mothers in 1925 where women were selling carnations, and got herself arrested for disturbing the peace.

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Soon she was launching an endless series of lawsuits against those she felt had used the name of “Mother’s Day”, in vain.

During the last years of her life, Anna Jarvis lobbied the government to take her creation off the calendar, gathering signatures door-to-door to get the holiday rescinded. The effort was obviously unsuccessful.  The mother of mother’s day died childless in a sanitarium in 1948, her personal fortune squandered on legal fees.

Today, some variation of Mother’s Day is observed from the Arab world to the United Kingdom. In the United States, Mother’s Day is one of the most commercially successful days of the year for flower and greeting card sales, and the biggest day of the year for long-distance phone calls. Church attendance is the third highest of the year behind only Christmas and Easter. Many churchgoers celebrate the day with carnations:  colored if the mother is still living and white, if she has passed on.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

March 28, 1918 White Feather

“Righteousness cannot be born until self-righteousness is dead”. – Bertrand Russell

At different times and places, a white feather has carried different meanings.  For those inclined toward New-Age, the presence of a white feather is proof that Guardian Angels are near.  For the Viet Cong and NVA Regulars who were his prey, the “Lông Trắng” (“White Feather”) symbolized the deadliest menace of the American war effort in Vietnam. USMC Scout Sniper Carlos Hathcock wore one in his bush hat.  Following the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, plucked three white ostrich feathers from the dead body of the blind King John of Bohemia. To this day, those feathers appear in the coat of arms, of the prince of Wales.

The Edward and John who faced one another over the field at Crécy, could be described in many ways.  Cowardice is not one of them.  For the men of the WW1 generation, a white feather represented precisely that.

In August 1914, seventy-three year old British Admiral Charles Cooper Penrose-Fitzgerald organized a group of thirty women, to give out white feathers to men not in uniform.  The point was clear enough. To gin up enough manpower to feed the needs of a war so large as to gobble up a generation, and spit out the pieces.

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Lord Horatio Kitchener supported the measure, saying  “The women could play a great part in the emergency by using their influence with their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country’s defence, and every girl who had a sweetheart should tell men that she would not walk out with him again until he had done his part in licking the Germans.”

The Guardian newspaper chimed in, breathlessly reporting on the activities of the “Order of the White Feather“, hoping that the gesture “would shame every young slacker” into enlisting.

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“The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting”, Collier’s Weekly (1914)

In theory, such an “award” was intended to inspire the dilatory to fulfill his duty to King and country.   In practice, such presentations were often mean-spirited, self righteous and out of line.  Sometimes, grotesquely so.

The movement spread across Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations and across Europe, encouraged by suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, and feminist writers Mary Augusta Ward, founding President of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, and British-Hungarian novelist and playwright, Emma Orczy.

Distributors of the white feather were almost exclusively female, who frequently misjudged their targets. Stories abound of men on leave, wounded, or in reserved occupations being handed the odious symbols.

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Seaman George Samson received a white feather on the same day he was awarded the British Commonwealth’s highest military award for gallantry in combat, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor:  the Victoria Cross.

Gangs of “feather girls” took to the streets, looking for military-age men out of uniform.  Frederick Broome was  fifteen years old when “accosted by four girls who gave me three white feathers.”

The writer Compton Mackenzie, himself a serving soldier, complained that these “idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired“.

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James Lovegrove was sixteen when he received his first white feather:  “On my way to work one morning a group of women surrounded me. They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did?  They struck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed.” Lovegrove went straight to the recruiting office, who tried to send him home for being too young and too small: “You see, I was five foot six inches and only about eight and a half stone. This time he made me out to be about six feet tall and twelve stone, at least, that is what he wrote down. All lies of course – but I was in!”.

James Cutmore attempted to volunteer for the British Army in 1914, but was rejected for being near-sighted. By 1916, the war in Europe was consuming men at a rate unprecedented in history. Governments weren’t nearly so picky. A woman gave Cutmore a white feather as he walked home from work. Humiliated, he enlisted the following day. In the 1980s, Cutmore’s grandchild wrote “By that time, they cared nothing for [near-sightedness]. They just wanted a body to stop a shell, which Rifleman James Cutmore duly did in February 1918, dying of his wounds on March 28. My mother was nine, and never got over it. In her last years, in the 1980s, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember the names of her children, she could still remember his dreadful, lingering, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and my grandmother ironed his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice.”

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Some of these people were not to be put off. One man was confronted by an angry woman in a London park, who demanded to know why he wasn’t in uniform. “Because I’m German“, he said. She gave him a feather anyway.

Some men had no patience for such nonsense. Private Ernest Atkins was riding in a train car, when the woman seated behind him presented him with a white feather. Striking her across the face with his pay book, Atkins declared “Certainly I’ll take your feather back to the boys at Passchendaele. I’m in civvies because people think my uniform might be lousy, but if I had it on I wouldn’t be half as lousy as you.”

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Private Norman Demuth was discharged from the British Army after being wounded, in 1916. A woman on a bus handed Demuth a feather, saying “Here’s a gift for a brave soldier.” Demuth was cooler than I might have been, under the circumstances: “Thank you very much – I wanted one of those.” He used the feather to clean his pipe, handing the nasty thing back to her with the comment, “You know we didn’t get these in the trenches.”

Inevitably, the white feather became a problem when civilian government employees began to receive the hated symbols.  Home Secretary Reginald McKenna issued lapel badges to employees in state industries, reading “King and Country”. Proof that they too, were serving the war effort. Veterans who’d been discharged for wounds or illness were likewise issued such a badge that they not be accosted, in the street.

So it was that the laborer from St. Albans was sent to kill the greengrocer from some small village in Bavaria, each spurred on by their women, the whole sorry mess driven by politicians who would make war, from the comfort of home. The white feather campaign was briefly revived during World War 2, but never caught on to anything approaching the same degree as the first.

British infantryman Siegfried Sassoon was wounded multiple times on the Western Front, one of the great poets of the War to End All Wars. Marching off to fight the Hun for King and country, these were the boys who returned, embittered by the horrors of the trenches to speak for a broken generation, no longer able to speak for itself. And those were the lucky ones.

Let the man who earned it, have the last word:
“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death…And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.”

Siegfried Sassoon

March 16, 1968 Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

Otis Redding’s iconic song and #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

With his father suffering tuberculosis and often hospitalized, Otis Ray Redding Jr. quit school at the age of fifteen to help support the family. He worked at a gas station, but it was the occasional musical gig that got him noticed.  From Macon (Georgia) talent contests to local bands, Redding later joined Little Richard’s band “The Upsetters” when the singer abandoned rock & roll music, for gospel.

Redding began his musical career touring the “chitlin circuit” at a time of racial segregation:  a string of venues hospitable to black musicians, comedians and entertainers throughout the American south, northeast and upper Midwest.  Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and others.

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Redding joined STAX Records in 1962, a portmanteau of the founding partners and siblings Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax).

The label’s use of a single studio and a small stable of musicians and songwriters produced a readily identifiable sound based on black gospel and rhythm & blues which came to be known as Southern soul, or Memphis soul.

Singer-songwriter-musician Otis Redding became STAX Records’ biggest star in the five years before the plane crash that took his life: the “Big O”, the “King of Soul”.

Musicians from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Janis Joplin and virtually every soul and R&B musician of the era have taken musical influence from Otis Redding. It was he who wrote the ballad R-E-S-P-E-C-T made famous by the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.

His initial recordings were mainly popular with black audiences, but Redding and others crossed the “color barrier”, performing at “white owned” venues like Whisky a Go Go in LA, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and venues throughout Paris, London and other European cities.

Redding’s iconic song and  #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.  The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

The song wasn’t intended to turn out the way it did.

Redding wanted to expand his musical footprint beyond the soul and R&B genre and took strong influence from the Beatles, particularly the layered sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  If you listen to the song – the seagulls, the sound of lapping waves – that’s what he was going for.  Redding remembered those sounds from the rented houseboat in Sausalito where he wrote the first lines and asked Stax producer and guitarist Steve Cropper, to dub them in.

The “outro”, the twenty-five seconds’ whistling at the end, were nothing but a place holder. Cropper explains there’s “this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an ad-lib. He forgot what it was so he started whistling.” No trouble, it could all be fixed an a second recording session session, after the tour.

That second session was never meant to be.

The kid who once pumped gas to help support the family boarded his own Beechcraft H-18 aircraft on December 10, 1967 along with Bar-Kays guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, trumpet player Ben Cauley, drummer Carl Cunningham, their valet Matthew Kelly and the pilot, Richard Fraser.

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Bar-Kays trumpet player, Ben Cauley

The band had played two nights in Cleveland.  The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. The plane took off despite warnings of foul weather.  The show must go on. Ben Cauley remembers waking from a nap to see band-mate Phalon Jones look out a window and cry out “Oh No!”  He then found himself alone, clutching a seat cushion in the 34-degree waters of Lake Monona.  He was the only survivor.

True to his word, Cropper mixed Dock of the Bay as he said he would, adding in the crashing waves and the seagulls and keeping the outro, the way Otis had left it.

Rhythm & Blues stations were quick to add the song to playlists already saturated, with Otis Redding. The song shot to the top of R&B charts and pop charts, weren’t far behind. Dock of the Bay reached #1 on the billboard Hot 100 on March 16, 1968 and stayed there, for four weeks.

Since that time an impressive list of musical talent has joined Otis Redding, for producing # 1 songs released after the artist was gone. David Bowie. Biggie Smalls. Janis Joplin. Tupac Shakour. John Lennon.

It must be some kind of band they’ve got going up there.

March 16, 1914 The Cailloux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen, of the apocalypse.


We heard a lot this past election, about “Left” and “Right”, “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By this time, it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

100 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second, Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many believed war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’s 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis was a series of diplomatic mis-steps, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, even as Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

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Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which military planners sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were there in July 1914, wouldn’t be alive to see November 11, 1918.

March 9, 1953 Always be a Good boy

For that one moment one signal operator was the only man in the free world, who knew what the world would soon learn


All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive even one vote. During the late 1970s, Pol Pot and a revolutionary leftist cadre called the Angka murdered 1/5th the population of the southeast Asian nation, of Cambodia. Communist Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million fellow Chinese citizens, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest thirty million.

Life in Mao’s China was quite different from that depicted in the propaganda posters.

From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin joined this parade of horribles with the deliberate starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians in 1932-’33, a political famine known as the Holodomor. Estimates of the dead attributed to the Communist monster run as high as 60 million, surpassing that of even the National Socialist dictator, Adolf Hitler.

Stalin suffered from poor health in his final years. He was found on the floor of his Kuntsevo Dacha on March 1, 1953, semiconscious, suffering from a brain hemorrhage. His was “a difficult and terrible death” according to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, lasting four days. Josef Stalin died on March 5, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps he was murdered. Few knew. Fewer cared. The beast was dead.

Fifteen hundred miles to the west in Landsberg Germany, a young staff sergeant was listening. Landsberg was a forward base at this time in the decades-long standoff we remember, as the “Cold war”.

John enlisted in the Air force in 1950, reporting for duty at Lackland AFB, in Texas. He met the woman who would become his first wife there, Vivian, but that was all four years in the future. For now, the budding romance would have to wait. John had deployment papers, to Landsberg.

Today if we want to talk with someone we pick up the phone, but it wasn’t always that easy. In the early 19th century, Europeans experimented with various electrical signaling devices.

Samuel Morse developed a system of timed signals in the early 1840s. Two tones, one short and one long, combined to represent every letter in the alphabet, and every number.

Dots and dashes. Dits and Dahs

John had talent when it came to Morse code. Signals were anything but clear but he could almost anticipate the patterns, coming out of the ether.

Rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant, John was often placed at the forward position, straining to derive meaning through the static from the distant Dits and Dahs of Soviet communications.

The work was demanding and highly secretive. He wasn’t allowed to leave base and when he did, privileges were sharply limited. He couldn’t even share the work with his sweetheart, back in Texas. In hundreds of letters home he never could talk about what he did. He may as well have been in prison.

John saw an American film around this time, a film noir crime drama called Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison. He could relate.

At night, “Johnny” would seek a kind of lonely solace with his old guitar. He found a rhythm, a melody of sorts in the dots and dashes, of Morse code.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-Dah

He even started a band, called the “Landsberg Barbarians”.

So it was the young Staff Sergeant was listening to Soviet chatter on March 5, 1953, straining to pull some order out of faint and distant signals confused and all but obliterated, by static. And then it came to him. The one word standing out from the sequence.

DDah-Dit-Dit
EDit
ADit-Dah
DDah-Dit-Dit

He listened to it again, and again. The news was momentous if true but he had to get this right. In all the free world he alone knew, what the rest would soon learn. The Soviet leader, the Great Beast Josef Stalin, was dead.

Sergeant Cash told his superiors of what he had learned, and the rest is history. Josef Stalin lay in state for three days at Moscow’s House of Unions where the crush of crowds killed 100 people. He was laid to rest in Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square on March 9.

Johnny went back to his job. At night he’d pick up his guitar. The Dits and Dahs. The words would come later but, for now, the melody. A song begun in Landsberg so many would come to believe had arrived later, following that famous visit to Folsom Prison.

For many years, Johnny Cash could tell no one about the Stalin intercept. 3 Hall of Fame inductions, 9 CMA awards and 17 Grammys would have to wait. For now he went back to his job save for nights spent alone. Nights when the talent which had found its voice in that rare ability to find patterns in Morse code found another voice, one we could all understand.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-DahWhen I was just a baby, my mama told me “Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns…“”

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.

Franksgiving calendar

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.