May 3, 1915 Keeping the Faith

“Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.”. – Moina Michael

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Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Based on his age and training, Dr. McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting lasting more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment please, what this looked like, what this horror smelled like, in color.

Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend on May 3, fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. McCrae performed the burial service himself when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance just north of Ypres, he composed this poem, the following day.  He called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember Dr. McCrae’s work as:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Michael

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen. Over a long career Michael worked in nearly every part of the Peach State’s education system.

In 1918 she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal Moina came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. 

Two days before the armistice.

John McCrae lay in his own grave by this time, having succumbed to pneumonia while serving in the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

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Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in honor of the dead. She scribbled a response, an ode to an act of remembrance on the back, of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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A century and more has come and gone since the events, told in this story. The red poppy is now an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in All wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. It’s a reminder of where we come from, the prices paid to bring us to this place and to always keep the faith, with those who have come before.

April 30, 1900 An Ordinary Man

Driving that train,
high on cocaine.
Casey Jones you better,
watch your speed.
It’s a nice rhyme but the cocaine part is a lie, told and retold across generations, of popular culture. For most of us it’s all we will ever know of a hero, called Casey Jones.

Acts of heroism have a way of popping up in the most unexpected places. Ordinary people rising to the occasion, in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Temar Boggs and Chris Garcia were two teenage boys who chased down a kidnapper – on their bicycles no less – to free a little girl. Eight-months pregnant mother-to-be Lauren Prezioso dove into an Australian undertow to save two boys, being swept out to sea. Six-year-old Bridger Walker threw himself in the path of a vicious dog to take the mauling directed at his little sister, only seconds earlier.

This is one of those stories.

Jonathon Luther Jones lived near Cayce Kentucky as a boy, and the nickname stuck. For reasons which remain unclear he preferred to spell it, “Casey”.

Casey Jones was a train man, working on the I.C.R.R. The Illinois Central Railroad.

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An example of the man’s character comes to us from 1895, when Jones was thirty-two. Outside Michigan City Mississippi, a group of children darted across the tracks, fewer than sixty yards from a speeding train.  Most made it across except one little girl, who froze in terror before the oncoming locomotive.

With fellow engineer Bob Stevenson hauling back on the emergency brakes and buying precious extra seconds, Jones ran across the running boards and inched his way down the pilot, better known as the “cow catcher”.

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Jonathon Luther “Casey” Jones

He was no trick rider.  No circus acrobat.  Casey Jones worked on the railroad and yet, bracing himself with his legs, Jones reached out and scooped up the terrified little girl, at the last possible fraction of a second. 

On this occasion, the man had every hope and expectation of remaining alive.  Five years later Casey Jones’ last act of heroism came in the face of certain, and violent death.

Casey Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he performed well, receiving first a promotion to brakeman, and then to fireman. He met Mary Joanna (“Janie”) Brady around this time, whose father owned the boarding house, where Jones lived. The pair fell in love and married on November 11, 1886, buying a house in Jackson Alabama where the couple raised their three children. By all accounts the man was sober and devoted to his work, a dedicated family man.

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Several crews from the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) were down with yellow fever in the summer of 1887. Fireman Jones went to work for the IC the following year, firing a freight run between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

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Jones achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an engineer in 1891.  He was well  known, for being on time. Jones insisted he’d never “fall down” and get behind schedule. People learned to set their watches by his train whistle, knowing he would always “get her there on the advertised” (time).

Jones moved his family to Memphis in 1900, transferring to the “cannonball run” between Chicago and New Orleans. The run was a four train passenger relay, advertising the fastest travel times in the history of the American railroad. Experienced engineers were worried about the ambitious schedule and some even quit. Jones saw the new itinerary as an opportunity for advancement.

How a steam locomotive, works

On this day in 1900, Engine #382 departed Memphis at 12:05am, ninety-five minutes behind schedule due to the late arrival of the first leg, of the relay. The Memphis to Canton, Mississippi run was 190 miles long and normally took 4 hours, 50 minutes at an average speed of 39 MPH. 95 minutes was a lot of time to make up but #382 was a fast engine and traveling “light” that night, with only six cars.

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Fireman Simeon “Sim” T. Webb

Fireman Simeon Taylor “Sim” Webb was one of the best. He would have to be. This would be a record breaking run.

Jones hit the Johnson bar, throttling #382 up to 80 MPH despite sharp turns and visibility reduced, by fog. There were two stops for water and a brief halt on a side track, to let another engine through. Despite all that, #382 made up most of those 95 minutes by the 155-mile mark. On leaving the side track in Goodman, Mississippi, Jones was only five minutes behind the advertised arrival, of 4:05am.

Jones was well acquainted with those last 25 miles into Vaughn Mississippi.  There were few turns and the engineer throttled his engine up to breakneck speed. He  was thrilled with his time, saying “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!”

Unknown to both men there was a problem, up ahead. Three trains were in the station at Vaughn with a combined length of ten cars longer, than the main siding. Rail yard workers performed a “saw by” maneuver, backing #83 onto the main line and switching overlapping cars onto the “house track”. Then there was that problem with an air hose. Four cars remained stranded on the main line.

#382 sped through the final curve at 75MPH, only two minutes behind schedule. Clinging to the side board, Sim Webb was the first to see the red lights, of the caboose. “Oh my Lord”, he yelled, “there’s something on the main line!”

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Jones didn’t have a prayer of stopping in time. He was moving too fast. He reversed throttle and slammed the air brakes into emergency stop, screaming “Jump Sim, jump!” Sim Webb jumped clear with only 300 feet to go as the piercing shriek of the engine’s whistle, split the air.

Jones could have jumped. Having ordered Webb to do so demonstrated, the man understood the situation.  Casey Jones stayed on the train as “Ole 382” plowed through the red wooden caboose and three freight cars, before leaving the track.

By the moment of impact, Jones frantic efforts had slowed the engine down to 35 miles per hour. Untold numbers of passengers were saved from serious injury, or death. As the pieces came to a stop Jones himself, was the only fatality. His watch was stopped at 3:52am, only two minutes behind schedule.

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Adam Hauser of the New Orleans Times-Democrat was a passenger in a sleeper car, at the time of the wreck: “The passengers did not suffer” he said, “and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life”.

Legend has it that, when Jones’ body was removed his dead hands still clutched the whistle cord, and the brake.

Since that day Casey Jones has achieved mythological status, alongside the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Jones’ son Charles was 12 at the time of  his father’s death at age 37. Jones’ daughter Helen, was 10.  The  youngest, John Lloyd (“Casey Junior”) was 4.  Janie received two life insurance payments totaling $3,000 as Casey was “Double Heading” at that time, as a member of two unions.   Casey Jones widow would receive no other compensation.  The Railroad Retirement Fund wouldn’t come about, for another 37 years.

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Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady Jones lived another 58 years and never had so much as a thought, of remarrying. The idea that the hero she married was intoxicated at the time of the accident was a thorn in her side, for the rest of her life. What’s more there were allegations that she herself, was an unfaithful wife. According to one version of the song she told her heartbroken children to stop crying. They had “another papa on the Salt Lake Line.”

One particularly snotty article in Time Magazine informed the reader the “Widow Jones” … “looks well and buxom,” in a piece that couldn’t so much as get Jones’ engine number right. To their credit, Time Magazine itself criticized their tone, in 2015. 57 years after Janie died, at the age of 92.

Janie Jones lived another 58 years. She wore black every day, for the rest of her life.

A Trivial Matter

In 1907, brakeman Jesus Garcia stuck to the controls to drive a flaming train away from the small mining town of Nacozari, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The train was carrying dynamite, and blew up,  Killing Garcia.  His quick actions had saved the town where Jesus Garcia is remembered as a hero, to this day.

April 29, 1944 The White Mouse

To WW2-era British Special Operations she was Hélène.  To the Maquis she was Andrée. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”. To the Gestapo who wanted her dead, she was the “White Mouse.”

It was March 1944 in occupied France, when the French Resistance leader Henri Tardivat found her, dangling from a tree. Her name was Nancy Wake, and she had just jumped from a B24 bomber, with a pocketful of classified documents. Tardivat couldn’t help himself. “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”. “Don’t give me that French shit” she snapped, as she cut herself out of the tree.

Nancy Wake was not a woman to be trifled with.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia as a young girl. She later moved to Paris where she met her future husband, the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca.

As a freelance journalist, a Parisian newspaper sent Wake to Vienna in 1933 to interview a German politician, by the name of Adolf Hitler. There she witnessed firsthand the wretched treatment meted out to Austrian Jews by followers of the future dictator. She vowed she would oppose this man, by any means necessary.

She would get her chance in 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg tore through Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

The couple had the means to leave but chose to stay in France, to help the Maquis. The French Resistance. For two years, Nancy and her husband Henri worked to hide downed allied flyers and get them out, of Nazi occupied France.

With the Gestapo reading their mail and staking out the Fiocca home the writing was on the wall. Nancy fled while Henri remained in Paris, to continue the couples work with the resistance.

Henri would be captured and tortured before execution, to reveal the whereabouts of his wife. Nancy would not learn until after the war, the man never gave up her whereabouts.

The British SOE called her by the code name, Hélène. To the Maquis she was Andrée. It was during her flight from France that Wake earned the name which would stick, given by the Gestapo who wanted her dead. “White Mouse,” they called her, for her ability to hide in plain sight and to disappear, without a trace. “A little powder and a little drink on the way” she later explained “and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me? God”, she said, “what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

Once picked up on a train outside of Toulouse she spun a wild tale about being the mistress, of one of the guards. She pleaded with her captors that her husband could never know. Astonishingly, they let her go.

Wake eventually escaped occupied France moving first through the Pyrenees into Spain and then, to England. There she joined the British Special Operatives Executive (SOE). The training was intense: infiltration/exfiltration techniques, tradecraft, weapons, even hand-to-hand combat. Her trainers called her as competent, as the men in her class.

On April 29, 1944, Wake parachuted into the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of occupied France, part of a three-person team sent to support three Maquis organizations, operating in the region. She participated in a major combat operation pitting resistance members against the German wehrmacht. It was a major defeat for the Marquee. She later said she bicycled 500 km to bring a situation report, to her SOE handlers.

One day she found herself on an SOE team, on the inside of a German munitions factory. An SS guard nearly gave up the whole operation when he arrived, to investigate. Wake killed the man, with her bare hands. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff” she later explained, “with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

SOE official historian M. R. D. Foot said “her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her”. Henri Tardivat may have given her the ultimate compliment, after the war. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts” he recalled. “Then, she is like five men.”

She was the most decorated woman of World War 2, awarded the George Medal by Great Britain, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance by her adopted home nation, and three times, the Croix de Guerre. 

After the war

She worked for a time with the intelligence department at the British Air Ministry and dabbled in politics, after the war. She remarried, the union with RAF officer John Forward lasting 40 years until his death but producing, no children.

The White Mouse died of a chest infection on August 7, 2011, after a brief hospitalization. She was 98. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”.

She sold her medals along the way, because she needed the money. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said. “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”

April 28, 1752 American Cincinnatus

The loss of his German ally led in no small part to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s defeat, at Saratoga.  Stark served with distinction for the remainder of the war and, like Cincinnatus before him, returned home to his farm.

The Roman Republic of antiquity operated on the basis of separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of authority. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

The retired patrician and military leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was called from his farm in 458BC to assume the mantle of Dictator and, despite his old age again, twenty years later. With the crisis averted, Cincinnatus relinquished all power and the perks which came with it, and returned to his plow.

The man’s name remains symbolic, from that day to this. A synonym for outstanding leadership, selfless service and civic virtue.

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

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Outside of his native New Hampshire, few remember the name of John Stark.  Born August 28, 1728 in Londonderry (modern day Derry), the family moved up the road when the boy was eight, to Derryfield. Today we know it as Manchester.

On April 28, 1752, 23-year-old John Stark was out trapping and fishing with his brother William, and a couple of buddies. The small group was set upon by a much larger party of Abenaki warriors. David Stinson was killed in the struggle, as John was able to warn his brother away. William escaped, in a canoe.

John was captured along with Amos Eastman.  267 years ago today, the hostages were heading north, all the way to Quebec, where the pair were subjected to a ritual torture known as “running the gauntlet”.

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Frontiersman Simon Kenton, running the gauntlet

In the eastern woodlands of the United States and southern Quebec and Ontario, captives in the colonial and pre-European era often faced death by ritual torture at the hands of indigenous peoples. The process could last, for days.  In running the gauntlet, the condemned is forced between two opposing rows where warriors strike out with clubs, whips and bladed weapons.

Eastman barely got out alive, but Stark wasn’t playing by the same rules.  He hit the first man at a dead run, wrenching the man’s club from his grasp and striking out, at both lines.  The scene was pandemonium, as the tormented captive gave as good as he got. To the chief of the Abenaki, it may have been the funniest thing, ever. He was so amused, he adopted the pair into the tribe.  Eastman and Stark lived as tribal members for the rest of that year and into the following Spring, when a Massachusetts Bay agent bought their freedom. Sixty Spanish dollars for Amos and $103, for John Stark.

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Seven years later during the French & Indian War, Rogers’ Rangers were ordered to  attack the Abenaki village with John Stark, second in command.  Stark refused to accompany the attacking force out of respect for his Indian foster family, returning instead to Derryfield and his wife Molly, whom he had married the year before.

John Stark returned to military service in 1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, accepting a Colonelcy with the 1st Regiment of the New Hampshire militia.

During the early phase of the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Colonel William Prescott knew he was outgunned and outnumbered, and sent out a desperate call for reinforcements. The British warship HMS Lively was raining accurate fire down on Charlestown Neck, the narrow causeway linking the city with the rebel positions. Several companies were milling about just out of range, when Stark ordered them to step aside. Colonel Stark and his New Hampshire men then calmly marched to Prescott’s position on Breed’s Hill, without a single casualty.

Stark and his men formed the left flank of the rebel position, leading down to the beach at Mystic River.  The Battle of Bunker Hill was a British victory, in that they held the ground, when it was over. It was a costly win which could scarcely be repeated. At the place in the line held by John Stark’s New Hampshire men, British dead were piled up like cord wood.

John Stark’s service record reads like a timeline of the American Revolution. The doomed invasion of Canada in the Spring of 1776. The famous crossing of the Delaware and the victorious battles at Trenton, and Princeton New Jersey. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and his Brunswick mercenaries ran into a buzz saw in Bennington Vermont, in the form of Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys and John Stark, rallying his New Hampshire militia with the cry, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”  When it was over, Stark reported 14 dead and 42 wounded. Of Lt. Col. Baum’s 374 professional soldiers, only nine walked away.

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Battle of Bennington

The loss of his German ally led in no small part to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s defeat, at Saratoga.  Stark served with distinction for the remainder of the war and, like Cincinnatus before him, returned home to his farm.

In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered for a reunion. Stark was 81 at this time and not well enough to travel. Instead, he wrote his comrades a letter, closing with these words:

“Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

The name of the American Cincinnatus is all but forgotten today but his words live on, imprinted on every license plate, in the state of New Hampshire.  “Live Free or Die”.

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A Trivial Matter
Neither George Washington nor Samuel Adams liked political parties, believing that such “factions” would splinter the Congress and divide the nation.

April 26, 1336 Because it’s There

Not being blessed with the luxury of surplus time and resources our forebears were more interested in survival, the mountains being more the object of religious veneration and supernatural terror.

Helmut and Erika Simon were visiting that day they found the body, German tourists hiking the mountains of the South Tyrol where the Austrian border, meets the Italian. On September 19, 1991, the couple was climbing the east ridge of the Fineilspitze in the Ötztal Alps, when they found him.

A fellow mountaineer perhaps, injured and succumbed to the cold? Who else would be up here at 3,210 meters above sea level (10,530 ft) but a fellow mountaineer.  The couple returned the following day, with a mountain gendarme.

Ötzi the Ice Man, as he may have looked

Eight groups would visit the site in the following days struggling with ice axe and pneumatic drill, to free the corpse from his ice tomb.

Among these were some of the modern-day royalty of the mountaineering community. There was Hans Kammerlander who, along with fellow climber Reinhold Messner, became the first in 1984 to traverse two 8000m peaks without descending to base camp. Messner himself was the first to ascend Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen, the first to climb all 14 of the world’s “eight-thousanders” – mountains with peaks above the 8,000 meter “death zone”, of 26,000-feet.

The body was freed from the ice on September 22 and extracted, the following day. Subsequent analysis revealed not a modern climber but the stunning realization that this man breathed his last, before the Old Kingdom of Egypt moved the first rock to build the first pyramid. This relic of the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) turned out to be Europe’s oldest known mummy, preserved in the ice since the day he died sometime, around 3230 BC.

Artist’s interpretation of Ötzi the Ice Man as he may have
looked, in life.

The media called him Ötzi for the Ötztal Alps, in which he was found. Forensic analysis uncovered a nearly bone-deep defensive wound on the man’s hand between the thumb and forefinger. Not yet fully healed the injury suggests a days-long flight from attackers, until the arrow which would take his life was released by unknown pursuers to find its way, deep inside of Ötzi’s back.

Mountaineering is enjoyed today by any number of enthusiasts. There’s rock climbing and ski touring, trekking, spelunking and more. For the truly adventurous there are the hulking massifs of the world’s greatest peaks. The eight-thousanders. To the purists the sport has become little more than adventure tourism, but it wasn’t always that way.

Mountain climbers ascending Mount Rainier looking at Little Tahoma Peak. H/T Wikipedia

Humans have lived on and among the mountains since the dawn of time but the peaks were rarely visited. Ötzi himself had good reason to find himself at 10,530 feet and it wasn’t, “because it’s there”. Not being blessed with the luxury of surplus time and resources our forebears were more interested in survival, the mountains being more the object of religious veneration and supernatural terror than an object to be enjoyed, for its own sake.

Such was the case throughout the early history of our kind, through the rise and fall of the Roman republic and subsequent, empire. A timeline of the middle ages is pockmarked with conflict great and small from the early 5th century until the dawn of the Renaissance, a thousand years later.

The fourteenth century, the “calamitous 14th century” in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, was a time of tectonic shift in the old order. The three horses of the apocalypse converged in the 14th century to form the “crisis of the late middle ages”. The Great Famine of 1315-’17 was followed a generation later by the Black Death, a calamity resulting in the death of half or more, of all Europe. Political and religious chaos followed demographic collapse, all of it set against the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the advent, of the “Little Ice age”.

This was the world of Francesco Petrarch, a man many consider the first of the modern alpinists.

Today no fewer than three paved roads and a network of walking trails crisscross the face of Mont Ventoux, a landmark in the southeastern French province, of Provence. French and foreign tourists alike climb the 6,263 limestone summit to munch on brie and baguette and to take in the views of the Calanque range all the way down the Mediterranean coast, to the Rhone Valley.

Mont Ventoux

It was all different this day in 1336 when the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch first scaled the heights of Mont Ventoux, because it was there.

In 1350, Petrarch wrote of his ascent of Mont Ventoux “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.” While certainly not the first human being to climb a mountain for fun we remember the man today as the first modern tourist and the spiritual father of untold women and men who take to the outdoors to fix a broken soul, to take in the magnificence of nature or simply to take on the challenge of climbing a mountain, because it is there.

George Mallory

Once asked by a reporter why he wished to climb Mt. Everest, the British adventurer George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there”. Left out of Mallory’s facile response was the cataclysm of World War 1, a war so awful as to destroy a generation and leave a continent for the first time, in ruin. Mallory himself enlisted in the artillery in December 1915 and helped to fight out that whole terrible ordeal in the rat filled trenches, of France.

No list of the great and terrible battles of the war they thought would “end all wars” would be complete, without the horrors of the Somme. George Mallory was there throughout and might as well have answered that reporter, because I may at last find peace in that place, for my soul.

Did George Mallory find the peace he sought on the slopes of Mount Everest?

On June 8, 1924, expedition member Noel Odell last witnessed George Mallory and Andrew Irvine traverse what may have been the then-unknown “third step” at 26,000 feet on the way, to the peak. Cloud cover then obscured the pair and the two men disappeared, for the next 75 years. Was George Mallory the first to summit the world’s tallest mountain? Tantalizing clues exist that maybe he did, or maybe not.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are credited with being the first to summit Mount Everest nearly twenty years later, in 1953. In 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition discovered the frozen corpse of George Leigh Mallory at 26,760 feet, 2,271.7 feet short, of the summit.

No helicopter will ever visit the summit of mount Everest. The human form is barely capable of survival at so great a height let alone the attempted salvage, of the body of a fellow climber. So it is that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine remain to this day on the slopes of the world’s greatest mountain, two among some 200 who died in the attempt and lie still on those towering heights, because it’s there.

April 25, 1898 Newsies

We hear a lot these days about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series describing civilization, on the moon. 

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US presidential election results from 1796 to 1820 gives a good idea of partisan press circulation, where Green shaded states usually voted for the Democratic-Republican Party, while brown shaded states supported the Federalist Party

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were little more than “wretched little” sheets according to America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep the presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

We hear a lot these days about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series describing civilization, on the moon.   The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, one of the best known astronomers of the age.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades by ages 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

For thousands of them newspapers were all that stood in the way, of an empty belly.

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Homeless children sleeping in Mulberry Street district of New York, circa 1890

Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

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For that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

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Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, and hundreds of them descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.

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Several days later, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?”

The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted. Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

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Brooklyn newsboys, 1908

Newsies struck the two in 1899, refusing to sell their papers. 5,000 newsboys blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill. Competing papers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.  The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite: “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but they did agree to take back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

Long before modern notions of child welfare, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.  “Dutch” Johnson, Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie”, caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious, and he was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed that it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no chance.

“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com for this image

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could have easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers.   Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.  So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and their dimes.  For $53.40, Dutch Johnson would have his plot in Linden Hill Cemetery, complete with small stone marker.  Not a plain black wagon and a nameless grave in some anonymous Potter’s Field.

April 14, 1912 A Penny, to Remember

Warm and dry in our rooms we can only wonder what went through the minds, of those lowering the lifeboats. Among them was Thomas Millar who must have wondered why. He had wanted to give little Tommy and Ruddock, a better life. He was about to leave his sons, orphans.

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Captain Edward Smith

The great ship left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, narrowly averting an accident only minutes into her maiden voyage. 

The largest liner in the world at this time, the bow wave of the RMS Titanic lifted the liners SS City of New York and Oceanic at their moorings.  Dropping into the trough, New York’s mooring cables snapped with a sound like a rifle shot as the vessel swung about, stern-first. The crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled frantically to bring New York under tow as Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith ordered starboard engines hard astern. Collision was averted, by a scant four feet.

The liner to the left is the Oceanic. The stern of the New York edges towards the Titanic” H/T http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org

The idea for this largest of all luxury liners came about in 1907, construction beginning on March 31, 1909 at the Harland and Wolff shipyards of Belfast, Ireland.

Thomas Millar

In its prime Harland and Wolff was the largest shipyard in the world with some 40,000 workmen tramping to work across the cobblestone paved streets, of Belfast.

Thomas Millar was one of those workers. The son of a sailor Millar grew up in the shadow of the great vessels of northern Ireland and all but destined, for the shipbuilding industry. First came the apprenticeship with Harland & Wolff and later work at Vickers of Barrow, Workman, Clark & Co. of Belfast before returning to work, at Harland & Wolff.

Along the way, “Tommy” married Jane “Jennie” Ruddock, the marriage producing two sons, Thomas born February 9, 1901 and William Ruddock born March 5, 1907.

Millar took pride in his work, assigned to help build the great engines of RMS Titanic and proud to take some small part in the technological wonder, of the age. At night Millar would tell the boys about his work, wanting to instill in them the same pride he felt, in seeing the great liner take form.

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One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

Disaster struck the family in January 1912 when Jennie died suddenly, of tuberculosis. With work now nearing completion on Titanic, the grieving father thought about a fresh start. He would improve his lot and that of his small family. So it was he left the dockyards to work, for the White Star Line. He would get himself settled and, when the time was right, he would reunite with his boys to pursue their new life. In America.

Thomas accepted work as assistant deck engineer for the White Star Line responsible for the upkeep of cranes, davits and the like. As things turned out he was assigned to the maiden voyage of the vessel he had helped to build. RMS Titanic.

With 16 transverse bulkheads Titanic could survive the breach, of as many as four. Shipbuilder Magazine dubbed the vessel “unsinkable”. The name was never officially sanctioned by her builders, but no matter. From that day, to this the name lives on, in the public imagination.

At last came the day. Time to leave. The work would be constant, and Thomas knew this was no place for children. He left the boys with his aunt Mary bidding the two, goodbye. “Be good to your aunt” he told the boys, “and try not to fight with your cousins”. He reached in his pocket and pulled out two new pennies. “Don’t spend these” he told his sons, “until we’re together again”.

Later that day the boys stood on the shores of Belfast Loch watching the liner, steam away. So tightly did each grip his penny the date imprinted into the palm of his small hand. 1912.

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The story from here, is familiar. On Sunday April 14, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Conditions were clear, calm and cold, just a few degrees above freezing. There had been warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but no ice was believed to pose a danger, to such a ship as Titanic. Captain Smith said it himself, that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge. Iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines in reverse, veering the ship to port. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision was averted. Below the surface, the starboard side ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

The ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear. The great ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The vessel was built for 64 wooden lifeboats but only carried, 16. Based as they were on ship size and not the number of passengers and crew, regulations required enough for 990. Titanic carried enough for 1,178.

There was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. And yet, many boats were launched only half-full. Confused and still sleepy in the midnight air many refused the small boats, reluctant to leave the “safety” of the 40,000-ton ship. In other cases so strictly did some adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that evacuation included women and children, only. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard. Lifeboat #1 rated for 60, contained 12.

Only 20 miles away the crewmen of the SS Californian saw distress rockets but dismissed them, as fireworks. Titanic’s wireless operator pleaded for help but the dits and dahs fell on deaf ears. Californian’s wireless operator, had gone to bed. 57 miles away the steamship Carpathia turned and dashed to the rescue but, too late.

In the hour and ½ it took to lower the lifeboats Titanic’s enormous propellers were visible above the water. Warm and dry in our rooms we can only wonder what went through the minds, of those lowering the lifeboats. Thomas Millawas one of those. Did he wonder in those last hours of his life…why? He had left to seek a better life for little Tommy and Ruddock. He was about to leave them orphans.

1,496 died that night of 2,223 passengers and crew. Mostly from hypothermia. Thomas Millar’s body if it was ever recovered, was never identified. Tommy and Ruddock never did spend those pennies. The coins remain treasured family heirlooms from that day to this. You can still see those two pennies if you like, on the streets of Belfast. There Thomas’ Great-Granddaughter Susie Millar directs “the original & ONLY Titanic themed tour in Belfast guided by the direct descendant of a crew member”. http://www.titanictours-belfast.co.uk/

April 13, 1917 A Sealed Train

Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

The “War to End all Wars” dragged into its third dismal year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever.   Like two exhausted prize fighters, neither side could muster the strength to deliver the killing blow.  Many single days of the great battles of 1916 alone  produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

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By 1916 it was widely understood that the German war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the war had started, in the first place.  Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better.  On the “Triple Entente” side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was teetering on the edge of the precipice.

The first of two Revolutions that year began on February 23 according the “Old Style” calendar, March 8, “New Style”. Long-standing resentments over food rationing turned to mass protests in and around the Russian capital of Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eight days of violent demonstrations pitted Revolutionaries against police and “gendarmes”, that medieval remnant combining military units with the power of law enforcement.

By March 12 (new style), mutinous units of the Russian military had switched sides and joined with the revolutionaries. Three days later, Car Nicholas abdicated the Imperial throne.

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German propaganda postcard depicting Russian peasants begging for food. With the size of the Russian empire and the difficulty in transportation, the propaganda wasn’t far from the truth.

Amidst all this chaos, Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” and his largest adversary would collapse. He was right.

Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

March 8, 1917 A Political Plague

In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” after the River Lena, the easternmost of the three great Siberian rivers flowing into the arctic ocean. The middle-class son of a professor of mathematics and physics and the daughter of a well-to-do physician, Ulyanov became radicalized after the 1887 execution of his brother, for plotting to murder the Czar.Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

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Lenin

The man was soon convinced that capitalist society was bound to give way to socialist society with a natural transition to communism, not far behind.

Lenin was in exile when the war broke out, arrested and briefly imprisoned for his Russian citizenship. The radical revolutionary was released due to his anti-czarist sentiments when he and his wife, settled in Switzerland.

Lenin makes his way to the sealed train which would take him out of exile.

British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Lurching toward food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser. Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, this political plague bacillus traveled the length of Sweden arriving in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites destined to bring down the mighty oak, this small faction inserted into the body politic that April, would help to radicalize the population and consolidate Bolshevik power.

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By October, Russia would experience its second revolution of the year. The German Empire could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller” was out of the war, and none too soon. With the United States entering the war that April, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could now move their divisions westward, in time to face the American Expeditionary Force.

On July 17, 1918, an assassination squad from the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies murdered Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, family physician, servants and dogs. The Romanov Dynasty was no more. It was the end of Czarist Russia. The death toll of human beings murdered by the totalitarian state which would rise to take its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

April 11, 1970 Apollo 13

 With communications being impossible, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  On board Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible as the idea that the stranded astronauts could get out and walk home.

Apollo 13 liftoff

The seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program was scheduled to be the third moon landing, launching at 13:13 Central Standard Time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Jack Swigert was the backup pilot for the Command Module (CM), officially joining the Apollo 13 mission only 48 hours earlier, when prime crew member Ken Mattingly was grounded, following exposure to German measles.

Jim Lovell was the most seasoned astronaut in the world at that time, a veteran of two Gemini missions and Apollo 8.  By launch day, April 11, 1970, Lovell had racked up 572 space flight hours. For Fred Haise, backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11, this would be his first spaceflight.

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Apollo 13, original crew photo, Left to right: Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., CM pilot Ken Mattingly, LM pilot, Fred W. Haise Jr.

Two separate vessels were joined to form the Apollo spacecraft, separated by an airtight hatch. The crew lived in a Command/Service module called “Odyssey”.  The Landing Module (LM) dubbed “Aquarius”, would perform the actual moon landing.

56 hours into the mission and 5½ hours from the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence, Apollo crew members had just finished a live TV broadcast.  Haise was powering the LM down while Lovell stowed the TV camera.  Mission Control asked Swigert to activate stirring fans in the Service Module’s hydrogen and oxygen tank. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang”.

Apollo 13 Schematic

Manufacturing and testing of the vessel had both missed an exposed wire in an oxygen tank.  Swigert had flipped the switch for a routine procedure, causing a spark to set the oxygen tank on fire. Alarm lights lit up all over Odyssey and in Mission Control.  The entire spacecraft shuddered as one oxygen tank tore itself apart and damaged another.  Power began to fluctuate.  Attitude control thrusters fired, and communications temporarily went dark.

The crew could not have known at the time.  The entire Sector 4 panel had just blown off.

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The movie takes creative license with Commander James Lovell saying “Houston, we have a problem”.  On board the real Apollo 13 it was Jack Swigert who spoke:  “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.

205,000 miles into deep space with life support systems shutting down, the Lunar Module became the only means of survival.  There was no telling if the explosion had damaged Odyssey’s heat shields.  It didn’t matter. For now, the challenge was to remain alive.  Haise and Lovell frantically worked to boot up Aquarius, while Swigert shut down systems aboard Odyssey.   Power needed to be preserved for splashdown.

The situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but considered unlikely. As it happened, the accident would have been fatal without access to the Lunar Module.

annexe6 A13-S70-34986 Fifteen years before Angus “Mac” MacGyver hit your television screen, mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to “MacGyver” life support, navigational and propulsion systems. For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only a day and one-half.

With heat plummeting to near freezing food inedible and an acute shortage of water, this tiny, claustrophobic “lifeboat” would have to do what it was never intended to do.

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Apollo XIII timeline

Atmospheric re-entry alone presented near-insurmountable challenges. The earth’s atmosphere is a dense fluid medium. If you reenter at too steep an angle, you may as well be jumping off a high bridge. As it is, the human frame can withstand deceleration forces no higher than 12 Gs, equivalent to 12 individuals identical to yourself, piled on top of you.  Even at that, you’re only going to survive a few minutes, at best.

We all know what it is to skip a stone off the surface of a pond.  If you hit the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, the result is identical to that stone. There is no coming down a second time. You get one bounce and then there is nothing but the black void of space.

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“Astronaut John L. Swigert, at right, with the “mailbox” rig improvised to adapt the command module’s square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the lunar module, which took a round cartridge”. /T Wikipedia

The world held its breath it seemed for seventy-eight hours, waiting for the latest update from newspaper and television news.  With communications being impossible, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  On board Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible as the idea that the stranded astronauts could get out and walk home.

As Odyssey neared earth, engineers and crew jury-rigged a means of jettisoning the spent Service Module, to create enough separation for safe re-entry.

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Shooting star as seen by night, H/T contentbuket.com

One last problem to be solved, was the crew’s final transfer from Lunar Module back to Command Module, prior to re-entry.  With the “reaction control system” dead, University of Toronto engineers had only slide rules and six hours in which to devise a way to “blow” the LM, by pressurizing the tunnel connecting it with the CM.  Too much pressure might damage the hatch and seal.  Too little wouldn’t provide enough separation between the two bodies.  Either failure would result in one of those “shooting stars” you see at night, as the searing heat of re-entry incinerated the Command Module and everything in it.

By this time, the Command Module had been in “cold soak” for days.  No one knew for certain, if the thing would come back to life.

Apollo 13 after it came back to Earth.
Apollo 13 landing

Crashing into the atmosphere at over 24,000mph, the capsule had 14 minutes in which to come to a full stop, splashing down in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. External temperatures on the Command Module reached 2,691° Fahrenheit, as the kinetic energy of re-entry converted to heat.

The Apollo 13 mission ended safely with splashdown southeast of American Samoa on April 17, 1970, at 18:07:41 local time.  Exhausted and hungry, the entire crew had lost weight.  Haise had developed a kidney infection.  Total duration was 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.

April 11, 1970  Houston, we Have a Problem

April 7, 451 Attila the Hun

The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The military might of Roman and Visigoth alike, was no more.

In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west.  That much is relatively well known, but the “why”, is not.  What would a people so fearsome as to bring down an empire, have been trying to get away from?

The Roman Empire was split in two in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments.  Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Roman Empire in 402 and would remain so until the final collapse, in 476.  In the east was Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine empire and destined to go on another thousand years. That would come to an end in 1453 at the hands of the 21-year-old Mehmed “The Conqueror’, 7th sultan of the ottoman Empire. Today we know this crossroads between east and west as Istanbul, but that must be a story, for another day.

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Back to the 5th century vast populations moved westward from Germania, into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest:  that would come later. These tribes were fleeing a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.

The Huns.

Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west to Turkey and most of Ukraine, in the east. They were a nomadic people, mounted warriors all but born to the saddle whose main weapons were the bow, and the javelin. Often, Huns acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.

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Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered.  To the Huns this was tribute. Tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s problems with the Hun, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

Relations became strained between the two powers during the time of the Hunnic King Rugila, as his nephew the future King Attila, came of age.

Attila

Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The following year, the brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople, giving the Byzantines time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included the first sea wall, a structure the city would be forced to defend a thousand years later when even the Theodosian Wall could not stem the Islamic conquest of 1453.

The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.

Bleda died sometime in 445 leaving Attila the sole King of the Huns.  Relations with the Western Roman Empire had been relatively friendly, for a time.  That changed in 450 when Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, sought to escape a forced marriage to the former consul Herculanus.  Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to Attila, asking the king to intervene on her behalf.  She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity. Attila took this to be an offer of marriage.

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Valentinian was furious with his sister.  Only the influence of their mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile rather than have her put to death while he frantically wrote to Attila saying it was all, nothing more than a misunderstanding.

The King of the Huns wasn’t buying it and sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his.  Attila demanded delivery of his “bride” along with a modest half of the empire, as dowry.

In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong though that number is almost certainly exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army to oppose them while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg and Trier.

Some 1,500 years later the headlines announced the impregnable city of Metz, had fallen to US 95th Infantry.

On April 7, 451 the streets of Metz ran red with the blood of the slain followed in quick succession by those of Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.

The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped the army of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons.   Some sources date the Battle of Chalons at June 20, 451, others at September 20.  Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation.  Sources may be found to support the conclusion that the battle was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory.

Be that as it may it was a Pyrrhic victory in the end. Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but the military might of Roman and Visigoth alike, was no more.

Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace of it was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.

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“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI (en:Project Gutenberg e-text). Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885). img url: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/1/9/5/11951/11951-h/images/135.jpg

Attila himself died the following year at a wedding feast, celebrating his marriage to the beautiful young Ostrogoth, Ildico.  She may have been yet another alliance bride weeping in her innocence, at the death of her newly wed husband. Or perhaps she was the assassin, come to settle some ancient blood feud between the Germanic peoples, and the Hun. The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor as the result of a massive nosebleed, or possibly esophageal bleeding.  This was not the first such event.

The last of the Hunnic Empire died with King Attila as he choked to death on his own blood. In 454 the Hunnic Empire was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals following the Battle of Nedau.

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