October 20, 1952 Mau Mau

The violent uprising of the early 50s was called “Mau Mau”, an anagram of Uma Uma, translating as “Get out, Get out”.

By the 1940s, the Kikuyu people of Kenya had been under British Colonial rule for nearly fifty years.  At this time, there were primarily three political blocs among Kenyan Africans.  First, the conservatives, who tended to support the status quo. Next were moderate nationalists, those who sought an orderly return to indigenous rule over African soil.  Last were the radical nationalists.  These wanted African rule, Right Now, no matter the cost.

The first attempt to form a country-wide political party began in 1944, with the formation of the KASU, the Kenya Africa Study Union. KASU was anti-colonial from the beginning, becoming increasingly radicalized through the WW2 period and into the late 1940s.

mau mauThe violent uprising of the early 50s was called “Mau Mau”, an anagram of Uma Uma, roughly translating as “Get out, Get out”.  The first “blow against the Colonial regime” was struck on October 3, 1952, when a white woman was stabbed to death near her home in Thika, in the Kiambu County of Kenya.

Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kungu was shot to death in his car less than a week later. Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency on October 20, arresting hundreds of suspected leaders of the uprising.

There was little reason and less restraint in the events that followed. Thousands of black Africans were hacked, burned or shot to death by Mau Mau militants, many of them mutilated and horribly tortured before death. Militants attacked the settlement of Lari on the night of March 25-26, herding Kikiyu men, women and children into huts before setting them on fire. Anyone who tried to escape was hacked with machetes, and thrown back into the flames.

mau mau2
BRITISH ARMY OPERATIONS AGAINST THE MAU MAU IN KENYA 1952 – 1956 (MAU 867) At the Naivasha Rifle Range the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers give members of the Rift Valley Home Guard the chance to handle modern weapons including a Vickers machine gun. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212530

The scene played out on dozens of occasions. Massacres were met with retaliatory raids by African security forces, at least partially overseen by British commanders.
There was even biological warfare, when Mau Mau radicals used the poisonous milk of the African milk bush, to kill cattle.

Displeased with the government’s response to the uprising, settler groups formed their own “Kenya Police Reserve’s Special Branch”.  God help the unlucky militant who fell into their hands.

Black Africans were victims of most of the violence, their deaths numbering in the thousands. Combined with those who “disappeared”, their number may have run into the tens of thousands, by the time the violence ended in 1956. 62 Asians, predominantly Indians, were also killed, along with 58 whites.

Barack Obama wrote in his memoir “Dreams from my Father”, that his grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama was captured and tortured by British authorities during the Mau Mau uprising. The now-former President wrote that his father was “selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a university in the United States, joining the first large wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa“.

The elder Obama’s real history seems to differ from the public version, though the American media is remarkably quiet on the subject. The UK Daily Mail reports, under the headline “Obama’s grandfather tortured by the British? A fantasy (like most of the President’s own memoir)“, that Onyango was inclined to create “[H]istory to conform with the image he wished for himself…Following on from his forebears on both sides”.


If you’re interested in a little pop culture sauce for this turkey, the Mau Mau uprising inspired a number of similar rebellions throughout the region. One of them occurred in the East African coastal city of Zanzibar.

Thousands of Arabs and Indians were murdered in the 1964 Zanzibar rebellion, while thousands more fled for their lives.

Among those to escape were Bomi and Jer Bulsara, along with their 17-year-old son, Farrokh. The Bulsaras were Parsis from the Gujarat region of India, who had sent Farrokh to piano lessons from the age of 7.  By the time he was 12, the boy had formed a school band, called “The Hectics”.

freddiestoryFarrokh was attending St. Peter’s boarding school at the time of the rebellion, and calling himself “Freddie”.

After fleeing Zanzibar, the family settled in Feltham, Middlesex, in England. Freddie Bulsara resumed his studies while joining in a series of bands through the late sixties. First “Ibex”, then “Wreckage” and finally, “Sour Milk Sea”.

In April 1970, Bulsara changed his name to “Mercury”, forming a band with guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor. The group went on to record 18 #1 rock music albums, 18 #1 singles and 10 #1 DVDs. The group sold close to 300 million albums, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Music Hall of Fame in 2001, as “Queen”.


October 12, 1859 American Emperor

Though he was penniless, the “Official Norton Seal of Approval” was good for business. Some restaurants even put out brass plaques, declaring their “Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born around 1818, in England.  He lived most of his early life in South Africa, immigrating to the United States in 1849 following an inheritance of $40,000 from his father – equivalent to $1½ million, today.

As a San Francisco businessman, Norton sextupled his fortune to $250,000, then blew it all on a bad Peruvian rice deal.  A lawsuit followed, which the now-formerly wealthy businessman, lost.  Somewhere along the line, Joshua Norton appears to have lost his mind.

Emperor_Joshua_A._Norton_IFor a time, Norton disappeared from the public eye.  In September 1859, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States, his Royal Ascension announced to the public in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin.   “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens”, it read, “I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” The letter went on to command representatives from all the states to convene in San Francisco, “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”

The edict was signed  NORTON I, Emperor of the United States”

To many of his “subjects”, “Emperor Norton” was a harmless eccentric.  A kook.  Many were pleased to go along with the gag.

On October 12, Emperor Norton abolished the United States Congress, declaring “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.”

When Congress failed to disperse, Norton issued a second edict, ordering General Winfield Scott to Washington to rout the rascals. “WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;  WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;  NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress”.

ProclamationBuildThat December, Norton fired Virginia Governor Henry Wise for hanging abolitionist John Brown, appointing then-vice President John C. Breckinridge in his stead.

As America teetered on the brink of Civil War in 1861, Norton abolished the Union altogether and established an absolute monarchy, with himself at the helm.  France invaded Mexico later that year, when Norton added “Protector of Mexico” to his titles.

images (4)Norton wore an elaborate blue uniform with gold epaulettes, carrying a cane or saber and topped off with beaver hat with peacock feather.  By day he “inspected” the streets and public works of San Francisco, by night he would dine in the city’s finest establishments.  No play or musical performance would dare open in the city, without reserved balcony seats for Emperor Norton.

Mark Twain, who lived for a time in Emperor Norton’s San Francisco, patterned the King in Huckleberry Finn, on Joshua Norton.  Among his many proposals, Norton envisioned flying machines, the League of Nations, and the construction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Though he was penniless, the “Official Norton Seal of Approval” was good for business. Some restaurants even put out brass plaques, declaring their “Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.

Norton was often accompanied by two stray dogs.  “Bummer” and “Lazarus” became quite the celebrities themselves, and usually dined for free along with the Emperor.

nortonsmIn 1867, police officer Armand Barbier arrested Norton, attempting to have him involuntarily committed to an insane asylum.  The public backlash was so vehement that Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered Norton’s release and issued a public apology.  The episode ended well, when Emperor Norton magnanimously pardoned the police department.  After that, San Francisco cops saluted Emperor Norton whenever meeting him in the street.

The 1870 census records one Joshua Norton, age 50, occupation, Emperor, along with a note, declaring him to be insane.

Admiring supporters gave aid in the guise of “paying taxes”.  A local printer even printed “Imperial bonds”, emblazoned with Norton’s likeness and official seal.  To this day, Norton’s Notes are highly prized collector’s items.

Norton10dThe San Francisco Board of Supervisors once bought him a new uniform, when the old one got too shabby.  Norton responded with a very nice thank you note, issuing each of them a “Patent of Nobility in Perpetuity”.

On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on a sidewalk and died before help could arrive.  The San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on the front page, under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). “On the reeking pavement”, began another obituary, “in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”

Emperor Norton’s funeral was attended by 10,000 loyal “subjects”.  His reign had lasted for twenty-one years.


October 6, 1945  Curse of the Billy Goat

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the “Curse of the Bambino”. Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren and even great-greats, and still the drought wore on.  It was 86 years, one of the longest World Series championship droughts in Major League Baseball history.

Yet the suffering of We who love the Red Sox™ pales in comparison, with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs, since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.

They say it’s the fault of Billy goat.

billy-goat-curseIt was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.   Anyone who’s ever found himself in the company of a goat understands the problem.  Right?

There are different versions of the story, but they all end with Billy and Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team.  “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”

cubs-goatBilly Sianis was right.  The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series.  They’ve been losing ever since.

Billy Sianis himself tried to break the curse, prior to his death in 1970, but no dice.  Billy’s nephew Sam brought a goat out onto the field in 1984, 1989, 1994 and again in 1998.  All to no avail

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named “Virgil Homer” to Houston, during the division championship series.  They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

That got them through the series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the National League championship.  It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6.  Chicago was ahead in the series, when a lifelong Cubs fan named Steve Bartman deflected what should have been an easy catch for Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou.

Steve BartmanAlou slammed his glove down in anger and frustration.  Pitcher Mark Prior glared at the stands, crying “fan interference”.  The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning.  Steve Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

For fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across a statue of Harry Caray.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings.  Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

Five fans and a goat set out on foot from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  Calling it “Crack the Curse”, the group hiked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field.  The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but did nothing to lift the Curse of the Billy goat.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the infamous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the gag “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson?  They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”.  With due respect to Mr. Buckner, he was better than that story would have you believe, there’s something my fellow Sox fans may not know.  The former Cub 1st Baseman was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt.  For “luck”.


In 2011, a philanthropic enterprise sprang up called “Reverse the Curse”, selling goat milk lip balms, soaps and more, and, according to their website, “[C]ollaborating with an institution that provides technical cooperation for agriculture in the U.S., Dominican Republic and Haiti to develop goat breeding centers, vegetable gardens, and chicken farms for small producers”.

2015 was once again the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac.   That September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in a Bag”.  The goat was gone.  Surely that would work.

The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run.  Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.), but he wasn’t the first.

As the 2017 season draws to a close, the Chicago Cubs find themselves champions of the National League Central division, and defending World Champions.  That’s right.  On October 22, 46 years to the day following the death of Billy Sianis, the Cubbies defeated the LA Dodgers 5–0 to win the 2016 National League pennant.

Steve Bartman ringThe mother of all droughts came to a halt on November 2 in a ten-inning cardiac arrest that had us all up Way past midnight, on a school night.  I even watched that 17-minute rain delay, and I’m a Red Sox guy.

The drought has ended, the curse is broken.  Steve Bartman has emerged from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by the 108 diamonds of his very own World Series ring.  Billy Sianis and Murphy may, at long last, rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I learned that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, named Fatima.  Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

1913 Brewers
1913/14 Milwaukee Brewers.  And Fatima.

October 5, 1968 Magic Carpet Ride

Joachim‘s mother Elsabeth had to flee with the baby in the harsh winter of 1945, as the oncoming Soviet Red Army destroyed all in its path. The two would escape the Iron Curtain one more time in 1948, this time in a dangerous nighttime dash which the then-four year old remembers to this day.

Joachim Fritz Krauledat was born in Tilsit, East Prussia on April 12, 1944, a region later absorbed into Soviet Russia. The boy never met his father.  A German soldier on the Eastern Front of WWII, Fritz Krauledat would be killed months before the birth of his son.

Joachim‘s mother Elsabeth had to flee with the baby in the harsh winter of 1945, as the oncoming Soviet Red Army destroyed all in its path. The two would escape the Iron Curtain one more time in 1948, this time in a dangerous nighttime dash which the then-four year old remembers to this day.

“Pack your rucksack Joachim. We’re going on a trip.’ That was all my mother told me the night we escaped from East Germany” ….. We crossed near the Hartz Mountains south of Brunswick and Hannover. I remember seeing search lights moving, ……… As the women passed under the wire, one of our guides took me by the hand and led me through, As I crouched I could hear a commotion, then gunfire, maybe a machine gun burst. Hurry, hurry, hurry just keep running implored our guide.” *

JohnKayYoungThe family settled for a time in Hannover, West Germany, barely avoiding the communist noose as it closed around their former home in the East.

Krauledat was an indifferent student, possibly due to poor eyesight. He’s legally blind, afflicted since birth with achromatopsia, a condition which left him totally colorblind and severely averse to light.  Even as a child, he was rarely seen without the dark glasses which would later become his trademark.

The boy became interested in music, listening over the British Forces Broadcasting Service and US Armed Forces Radio.  Listening to his transistor radio, Little Richard singing in a language he didn’t understand, Joachim Krauledat knew.  He was going to become a rock ‘n roll singer.

The family moved to Canada in 1958, where the Canadian National Institute for the Blind offered him a Wollensach reel-to-reel tape recorder.   The “Talking Book Program” was intended to bring the spoken word to visually impaired students.  This 14-year old was more interested in the “record” button.

The gym teacher called him “John”, while his mother became “Mrs. K,” to the other kids.  The name stuck.  Years later, Joachim Krauledat legally changed his name to John Kay.

“ From as far back as I remember, I always liked music.”

– John Kay

The family moved to Buffalo in 1963, where the young musician found his possibilities limited.  At age 20 he and his buddy Klaus packed up the ’62 Chevy, and headed west.  The “Mother Road”.  Route 66.

The next several years were spent honing and developing his music, a folk and blues singer performing throughout North America. Kay joined a blues rock and folk group called “The Sparrow” in 1965, becoming part of the rock music scene in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Heading West, Route 66

The band added a couple new members in 1967, changing their name to a character from a Herman Hesse novel. They called themselves Steppenwolf.

Steppenwolf became one of the world’s foremost rock bands, with standards like “The Pusher”, and “Monster”, releasing “Magic Carpet Ride” on this day in 1968. They gave us the term “Heavy Metal” with the rock anthem “Born to Be Wild”, but that didn’t refer to the music. “Heavy Metal Thunder” referred to large, loud, motorcycles.

Steppenwolf toured for over 40 years. There isn’t a Baby Boomer alive who wouldn’t read this and come away with one of their songs in his head. They’ve sold over 25 million records and licensed their songs in over 50 motion pictures. The music is iconic, from the sound track of the 1969 “Easy Rider” film to their last performance on July 24, 2010, at the three day HullabaLOU music festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

John KaySteppenwolf gave us 22 albums.  We all know them in one way or another. Yet, the lead singer’s escape from the horrors of the Iron Curtain, not once but twice, is all but unknown. That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the Rest, of the Story.


  •  John Kay from his autobiography, Magic Carpet Ride

October 1, 1918 Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence tried to convince his superiors that Arab independence was in their own best interest, but found himself undermined by the Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated in secret between French and British authorities with the backing of the Russian government, back in May 1916.

In 1879, 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence arrived at Killua Castle in Tremadog, Wales, the estate of Sir Thomas Chapman and his wife, Edith.  Sarah had come to work as governess for their four daughters, but would soon become more than a mere employee.

The affair between the Victorian Aristocrat and the domestic servant produced a son, born in secret in 1885.  When the scandal was discovered, Chapman left his wife and moved his new mistress to England.  Edith never did grant a divorce, so the couple adopted Sarah’s last name and pretended to be husband and wife.  The couple’s second of five children, Thomas Edward Lawrence, learned the true identity of his parents only after his father’s death in 1919.

TE LawrenceTE, as Lawrence preferred to be called, was reading books and newspapers by the age of four.  He first went to the Middle East as an archaeology student in 1909, walking 1,100 miles across Syria, Palestine, and parts of Turkey, surveying the castles of the Crusaders for his thesis.  During this time he was shot at, robbed and severely beaten.  Despite all of it, TE Lawrence developed an affinity for the Middle East and its people, which would last a lifetime.

In 1914, the British government sent Lawrence on an expedition across the Sinai Peninsula and Negev desert.  Ostensibly an archaeological expedition, this was in reality a secret military survey, of lands then controlled by the Ottoman Turks.

Lawrence joined the Army after WWI broke out that August, taking a desk job as an intelligence officer in Cairo.

You may picture the man as 6’3” Peter O’Toole, especially if you’ve seen the movie.  In reality, Lawrence was always self-conscious about his 5’5” stature.  It irritated him to have a safe desk job, while millions were dying on the front.  The guilt must have become overwhelming when two of his younger brothers were killed in 1915.

TE Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, of 1916 – 1918

The Ottoman Empire was in decline at this time, the “Sick Man of Europe”, though still one of the Great Powers.  The Hashemite Kingdom of the Arabs had long chafed under Ottoman rule, particularly following the “Young Turk” coup of 1908, when secular, Turkish nationalism replaced the formerly pan-Islamic unity of the Caliphate.

Seeing his chance to break away and unify the Arab Lands and trusting in the honor of British officials who promised support, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs, saw his chance and launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, in 1916.

Despite having zero military training, Lawrence took to the field at the outbreak of hostilities.

Lawrence and FeisalDressing himself in the flowing Arab Thawb, Lawrence joined the forces of Ali’s son, Feisal.

In theory, the Hejaz Railway could take you from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople to the Arab city of Medina, some 1,800 miles distant, without your feet ever touching the ground. In reality, the rail line was a ripe target for attackers. By his own count, TE Lawrence “scientifically” destroyed 79 bridges, a method of his own perfection by which bridges were destroyed but left standing, requiring Turkish workmen to dismantle the wreckage before repairs could begin.

Lawrence was captured in 1916, subjected to beatings, torture, and homosexual rape by the Governor of Daraa, Hajim Bey, a man he described as an “ardent pederast”.

Lawrence at Aqaba
Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917

Lawrence escaped, though shattered by the experience, joining the desert guerilla war against the Turk.  He would take risks that he would not order on his followers, spying behind enemy lines, leading camel charges, blowing up trains and enduring the hardships of the desert.  Lawrence would suffer dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, in raids that tied up thousands of Ottoman troops and undermined their German ally.

By the summer of 1918, there was a price on his head.  One officer wrote “Though a price of £15,000 has been put on his head by the Turks, no Arab has, as yet, attempted to betray him. The Sharif of Mecca [King of the Hedjaz] has given him the status of one of his sons, and he is just the finely tempered steel that supports the whole structure of our influence in Arabia“.

2,000 years after the Apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Road to Damascus, “Lawrence of Arabia” entered the defeated city on October 1, 1918.  Like many, Lawrence saw Damascus as the future capital of a united Arab state.  Lawrence tried to convince his superiors that Arab independence was in their own best interest, but found himself undermined by the Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated in secret between French and British authorities with the backing of the Russian government, back in May 1916.

Feisal party at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. H/T Wikimedia Commons

Lawrence was furious, believing that what had been won by Arab arms, should remain in Arab hands.  Interrupting the praise of his own exploits at a war cabinet meeting, Lawrence snapped ‘Let’s get to business. You people don’t understand yet the hole you have put us all into.’  He refused a knighthood personally given him by King George V, thinking instead that he’d been summoned to discuss Arab borders.

Lawrence_in_Arabia, 1919
Lawrence of Arabia, 1919

In the end, the pan-Arab kingdom of the Hashemites was never meant to be.  The Middle East was carved into zones of English and French influence, and Lawrence never did come to terms with the betrayal.

Today, Lawrence of Arabia is the subject of three major motion pictures, and at least 70 biographies.  A prolific writer himself, author  of countless letters and at least twelve major works, Lawrence seems to have disliked the fame which had come his way.  “To have news value”, he would say, “is to have a tin can tied to one’s tail”.  TE Lawrence would go on to serve under a series of assumed names, his latest being TE Shaw, possibly a nod to his close friend, the Irish playwright and noted polemicist, George Bernard Shaw.

The Brough Superior motorcycle, T. E. Lawrence’s eighth, was awaiting delivery when he died. It is at the Imperial War Museum.

An avid motorcyclist, Lawrence would ride 500-700 miles a day, once even racing a Sopwith Camel biplane.  He owned several Brough (rhymes with rough) motorcycles, the last a Brough Superior SS100.  This thing came with a certificate, guaranteeing that it would do 0-100 within ¼ mile.

There is a roadside memorial in Dorset, marking the spot where TE Lawrence went over the handlebars, trying to avoid two boys on bicycles.  He was forty-six.  Mourners at his funeral would include Winston and Clementine Churchill, novelist EM Forster, and his last surviving brother, Arnold.

LawrenceTo most of us, the desert is an inscrutable place, as is the mind, culture and history of the Middle East.  Few westerners would ever get to know this part of the world like TE Lawrence.

Lawrence taught us a bit about all of it, when he said “Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the free holding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression”.


September 21, 1937 The Hobbit

Tolkein discovered Christ II by Cynewulf in the course of his studies, one of only four surviving works by the 9th century Old English poet.  One couplet captured his imagination. “Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast, Ofer middangeard monnum sended” – Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.

Opportunities for promotion led Arthur Reuel Tolkien to South Africa sometime around 1890, where the bank clerk became manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa.  Tolkein’s fiancée Mabel joined him in the Orange Free State in 1891, and the couple was married that April.  The first of two boys arrived the following year.  They called him John Ronald Reuel.

Mabel returned to England shortly after the birth of their second son, believing the climate to be healthier. She may have been right.  Arthur died unexpectedly in South Africa, never rejoining his family.  The older boy was four that year, the family’s departure leaving him with “slight but vivid” memories of Africa.  One of them involved an encounter with an enormous, hairy, spider.


The family lived for a time next to a rail line, south of Birmingham.  John always had an interest in languages, even before he began to invent words.   It must have fired the young boy’s linguistic imagination to see the Welsh coal trucks go by, with names like “Nantyglo“, “Penrhiwceiber” and “Senghenydd” painted on their sides.

Finances were difficult for the family, becoming worse when Mabel succumbed to diabetes when John was only 12.

A Father Francis looked after the boys’ spiritual and educational development at King Edward’s school, where J.R.R. mastered Latin and Greek, becoming competent in a number of other languages, as well. He would make up entire languages for fun, while he and several buddies met regularly after school as the “TCBS” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), exchanging and criticizing each other’s literary work.

Tolkein discovered Christ II by Cynewulf in the course of these studies, one of only four surviving works by the 9th century Old English poet.  One couplet captured his imagination. “Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast, Ofer middangeard monnum sended” – Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.

Tolkien served briefly on the Western Front in WWI, before contracting a typhus-like infection called “trench fever”.  He convalesced back in England, serving out the rest of the war in Home Duty. Most of his TCBS friends had been killed in action by this time, and he wrote of his experiences in their memory. “…in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire“.

It’s easy to see these early experiences in his first works, the notes he called his “Legendarium”:  the Deep Elves, the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond.


Tolkien took a professorship at Oxford after the war, where one day he found himself correcting papers. He found that one of his students had left a page blank. Who knows what possessed him, but he wrote on the page “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit“. In typical Tolkien fashion, he then had to find out what a “Hobbit” was, why it lived in a hole, and on, and on.

Tolkien’s musings grew into a tale he told his kids.  It grew from there when the publishing firm George, Allen and Unwin got hands on an incomplete typescript, and encouraged the professor to finish his work.  J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale was published on this day in 1937, under the title “The Hobbit“.

The Hobbit was so successful that the publisher asked if Tolkein had similar material available for publication. By this time, Tolkien’s Legendarium had taken a more complete form which he was calling his “Qenya Silmarillion”.  Tolkien submitted the work to mixed reviews. the prevailing sense being that the work was not commercially viable.

The author was disappointed by the setback, but agreed to take up the challenge of writing “The New Hobbit”. It took 16 years of coaxing and prodding to accelerate the snail’s pace of this unhurried writer, by the now-grown son of one of the publishers, Rayner Unwin. Tolkien even offered the work to a rival publisher at one point, but they backed off the project on realizing the scope and size of the work.

Hobbit Cover

J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale developed into far more than a children’s story, published in three parts in 1954-1955 under the title “Lord of the Rings“.  Early misgivings that the project would be a financial loss, soon evaporated.

Author and publisher alike had greatly underestimated the public appeal of Tolkien’s work.  To date, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit have sold well over 300 million copies. But for exchange issues related to a rising dollar and plunging foreign currencies, the Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy of 2012 would have grossed $1 billion at the world-wide box office.

August 22, 565 Loch Ness Monster

An entire study called “Cryptozoology” (literally, the study of hidden animals) has sprung up around Nessie and other beasts whose existence is never quite proven, and never completely debunked. There is Big Foot, who seems to have made it to stardom with his own series of beef jerky commercials. You have the Chupacabra, the Yeti, Ogopogo and Vermont’s own Lake Champlain monster, “Champ”.

As the story goes, an Irish priest named Columba was traveling the Scottish Highlands, teaching Christianity to the Picts. He was walking along the shores of Loch Ness one day, when he came upon some local villagers burying one of their number. The poor unfortunate had swum out to retrieve a boat that was loose from its moorings, when he was bitten by a water creature of some sort. The priest sent one of his followers swimming across the loch to get the boat. The monster rose from the depths once again and was just about to eat the man, when Columba commanded it away.

There’s no telling how it actually happened, because the story was written down 100 years later. The events described took place on August 22nd, 565, meaning that people have been talking about the Loch Ness monster for close to 1,500 years, at a minimum.

Heron-Allen ImageLoch Ness is formed by a 60 mile, active tectonic fault, where the hills are still rising at a rate of 1mm per year. It’s made up of 3 lochs; Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, with Loch Ness being by far the largest. There is more water in Loch Ness than all the other lakes in England, Scotland and Wales, combined. It is 22½ miles long and varies from a mile to 1½ miles wide, with a depth of 754′ and a bottom “as flat as a bowling green”.

Loch Ness never freezes. There is a thermocline at 100′, below which the water remains a uniform 44° Fahrenheit. As the surface water cools in winter, it’s replaced by warmer water rising up from below, causing the loch to steam on cold days. The heat energy generated has been compared to burning 2 million tons of coal. With the steam rising off the water and the occasional seismic tremor, it must be a very eerie place at times.

The first photographic “evidence” of the Loch Ness monster was taken on the 12th of November 1933, by Hugh Gray. Some said the picture showed an otter, while others believed it was “some kind of giant marine worm”. The UK Daily Mail sent a team to look for evidence, headed by the famous big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell. There was great media excitement when Wetherell discovered enormous footprints along the shore in December. Researchers from the Natural History Museum examined the tracks, which they determined to have come from a dried hippo’s foot; probably one of the umbrella stands popular at the time. That was the end of that.

Nessie, Robert Wilson
Surgeon’s Photo

A British surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson, took what might be the most famous picture of “Nessie” the following year. He didn’t want his name associated with it, so it became “The Surgeon’s Photo”, showing what appears to be a head and neck rising above the waters of the loch.

In one of history’s more interesting death bed confessions, Christian Spurling claimed in 1994 at the age of 93, that the surgeon’s photo had been a hoax.  According to Spurling, his step-father Marmaduke Wetherell, was smarting over his hippo-foot humiliation.  Spurling remembers Wetherell saying “We’ll give them their monster”, and asking his stepson to build a credible model of a marine creature.  And so he did, the photo was taken, and Dr. Wilson became the respectable front man for the hoax.

CryptoAn entire study called “Cryptozoology” (literally, the study of hidden animals) has sprung up around Nessie and other beasts whose existence is never quite proven, and never completely debunked. There is Big Foot, who seems to have made it to stardom with his own series of beef jerky commercials. You have the Chupacabra, the Yeti, Ogopogo, Vermont’s own Lake Champlain monster, “Champ”, and more.

Hundreds of images have been taken over the years, purporting to demonstrate that these critters really exist. Some have been transparent hoaxes, for others there is less certainty. In the end, people will believe what they want to believe. The existence of these mythical creatures may never be proven, short of one of them washing up on shore somewhere. Even then, there will be those who argue otherwise.