January 14, 1969 Fire at Sea

For every multi-ton flying fuel tank hurtling from bow-mounted catapults bristling with armaments, a controlled crash landing of that same aircraft, takes place in the stern. Combine all that chaos with a heaping helping of Murphy’s law and the table is set, for disaster.

From the WW1-era launch of the first modern aircraft carrier to the present day, the carrier sailor has literally lived and worked, surrounded by the means of his own destruction.

In March 1953, a Corsair fighter off the coast of Korea landed on the decks of USS Oriskany, with a bomb still attached. The thing fell off and exploded, piercing the wingtip tanks of several F9F-5 Panthers, spilling flaming fuel across the decks. That time, fire crews were able to put out the fire, before the flames reached ordnance lockers. Loss of life was limited to two sailors killed and another fifteen, wounded. A decade later, the “Mighty O” wouldn’t get off, so lightly.

USS Oriskany

Oriskany began her second tour off the Vietnam coast in July, 1966. The carrier’s five fighter squadrons launched nearly 8,000 sorties in the first four months, a pace taxing to man and machine, alike.

On October 26, apprentice seamen George James, 18, and James Sider, 17, were ordered to stow 117 parachute flares. Untrained and unsupervised, Sider snagged a lanyard , and accidentally set one off. Panicked, blinded by the brilliant light of white phosphorus, Sider tossed the flare into the storage locker.

The bin already contained some 650 flares and 2¾-inch air-launched rockets, each carrying a 6-pound warhead. Temperatures inside the locker soared to 4,500° Fahrenheit and the main hatch exploded as steel bulkheads began to sag and buckle.

Water is worse than useless against a magnesium fire. Anyone who’s seen the Hindenburg tape understands why. Water breaks down to oxygen and hydrogen at temperatures over 3,000°, literally transforming into fuel, for the inferno.

Magnesium fires burn as hot as 5,600°, Fahrenheit. As a point of reference, volcanic lava ranges from 1,470° to 2,190°.

As helicopters burned and ammunition cooked off, the courage of individual firemen is scarcely to be believed. Literally surrounded by bombs staged for loading, firemen trained water hoses to cool these monsters even as their paint blistered, and fuze inlets began to smoke.

Oriskany fire, October 1966

Had the bombs gone off, the probable result would be the death of the carrier itself.

Down below, murderous heat and noxious fumes killed men where they stood. Lt. Cmdr. Marvin Reynolds wrapped a wet blanket around himself and fumbled in the darkness, for the wrench to open his porthole. “If you let this wrench slip and lose it in the smoke” he thought, “you’ve bought the farm.” Reynolds managed to open his porthole, holding his head out the small opening until a sailor passed him a breathing mask, and fire hose.

In the end, firemen could do little but hose the edge of the fire, while the inferno burned itself out. 44 men were killed and another 156, injured. So much water was pumped onboard that scuba teams were required, to rescue men trapped on lower decks.

8 months later, USS Forrestal met a similar fate. This one is personal as a close family member, was involved.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign against North Vietnam reached an intensity unrivaled, in US Naval history.

USS Forrestal, departing San Francisco bay.

Combat operations were literally outpacing ordnance resupply, which soon included AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, left over from the war in Korea.  Handlers feared these old bombs might spontaneously explode from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of Navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures, like a huge sparkler.

The problem was, the old ordnance was thinner-skinned than the modern bombs, and armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful too, as much as 50%, by weight.

On the morning of July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and “Zuni” unguided rockets. 

An electrical malfunction fired a rocket across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crew member and piercing the 400-gallon fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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During WW2, virtually all carrier sailors were trained to fight fires. That all changed by the Vietnam era in favor of small, highly trained teams of fire fighters. Damage Control came into action immediately, as Team #8 Chief Gerald Farrier spotted a Fat Boy bomb turning cherry red, in the flames.  Without protective clothing, Farrier held a fire extinguisher on the 1000-pound bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold, but composition B proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 had all but ceased to exist.

There were nine major explosions on deck during the first five minutes.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the blasts. Office furniture was thrown to the floor, five decks below.  Huge holes were torn through the flight deck while 40,000 gallons of flaming jet fuel, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

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Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Seconds later, Lieutenant Commander Fred White wasn’t so lucky.

With the life of the carrier itself at stake, tales of incredible courage, were commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The fire burned until 4:00 the next morning. 21 of the 73 aircraft on board were destroyed and another 40, damaged. 134 crewmen died in the conflagration. Another 161 received non-fatal injuries. It was the worst loss of life on a US Navy vessel, since World War 2.

They say bad luck comes in threes. On this day in 1969, the nuclear carrier USS Enterprise finished the list.

Since the age of the Wright brothers, aircraft designers have often left out the excess weight of starters and batteries. Early piston engines were startd by hand and, in the jet age, gas turbines often use auxiliary starters powered by gas or other combustible material.

On the morning of January 14, 1969, USS Enterprise was training 70-miles off Hawaii, preparing for her 4th tour of Vietnam. Her flight deck was crowded with F-4 Phantoms and A-7 Corsair II bombers, each loaded with Zuni rocket pods and 500-pound Mk-82 bombs. At 8:18am, an MD-3A “Huffer” aircraft engine starter was parked near the wing of an F4 Phantom, its exhaust a mere 24-inches from a rocket pod.

The 15-pound warhead on a Zuni rocket, goes off at 358° Fahrenheit. A Huffer exhaust burns between 362° and 590°. For a minute and 18 seconds, no fewer than four crew members were aware of the problem. None took steps to fix it and each, paid the ultimate price.

In the flash of an eye the exploding rocket ruptured several nearby fuel tanks as fuel vaporized and immediately, burst into flames. That’s when all hell, broke loose. The nearest 15 aircraft carried a combined fuel load of 15,000 gallons with a combined armament of 30 500-pound bombs and 40 Zuni rockets. 18 massive explosions went off in close succession, tearing great holes in 2½-inch deck armor.

Men and machines were tossed by each explosion, “like dust”. Three bombs went off at once opening a 22-foot hole in the deck, damaging a nearby tanker and spilling burning fuel, six floors below.

Knocked unconscious in the initial blast, Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank Neumayer of Fighter Squadron VF-96 awoke to find his goggles melting and his clothing, on fire. “The roar of the fire was just horrendous,” he later said. “It just blotted out any other sound. The stench… was horrible.” He managed to crawl to the catwalk below just as 2 500-pound bombs went off, not 30-feet from his previous position. Neumayer lost his left leg in the blast and twice received last rites, but survived.

The Destroyers USS Bainbridge and Rodgers came alongside, to lend their hoses. Helicopters arrived within two hours from Pearl Harbor, to medevac the wounded. Within three hours the last flames, were out.

The USS Enterprise fire resulted in the death of 34 men and another 341 non-fatal injuries. The fire resulted in a redesign of the Huffer starter and repair costs equivalent to $912 million, today. No formal inquiry was ever held, to determine fault. Everyone plausibly to blame for the catastrophe, had been among the first to die.

January 13, 1920 Fake News

In the English Standard Version of the Bible, proverbs 12:15 translates: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice”. Socrates famously observed “I know one thing, that I know nothing. The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

It was a fine day in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. A good day to rob a bank. So thought 44-year-old McArthur Wheeler, but Mr. Wheeler was no ordinary crook. As they might say in the Shiddy o’ Bwahshtun, McArthur Wheeler was schmaht. Wikid schmaht.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. – Charles Darwin

As any 10-year-old will tell you, lemon juice makes a great, invisible ink. What better way to make Yourself invisible to bank cameras, (thought McArthur Wheeler), than to smear your face with lemon juice. The man even ran an experiment. A Polaroid selfie. The experiment was a success, notwithstanding the polaroid’s tendency to “wash out” subjects photographed, too close-up. No matter. The photo showed an over-illuminated blob where the face was supposed to be. Hypothesis: correct. Lemon juice Did make your face invisible, to cameras.

With his face slathered in lemon juice, McArthur Wheeler robbed not one bank on that day in 1995, but two. Law enforcement released surveillance video. By the end of the day, Pittsburg police had their man, incredulous though he was, that such a well-laid plan could have somehow, come off the rails.

That video must have been faked.

Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger got wind of the caper and thought they’d study the episode, a little more closely. PsychologyToday.com tells us: “The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile”.

The article continues: “The Dunning-Kruger effect results in what’s known as a “double curse:” Not only do people perform poorly, but they are not self-aware enough to judge themselves accurately—and are thus unlikely to learn and grow”.

If you’re thinking that explains a lot about certain politicians, you’re probably not alone. And what of the ‘News’? The one thing we all expect whether Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, is accurate information. From our politicians and from our “News” media.

Are we then to believe an industry, merely because it buys ink by the proverbial barrel? After the last few years, I certainly hope not. From the Russia “Collusion” hoax to Fox News’ reporting that President Obama…”at the end of his rope…sent [a] rambling, 75,000-word email to the entire nation” (it was an Onion story), our news and information media have worked overtime to earn the epithet, “Fake News”.

In October 2019, ABC “News” broadcast man-on-the-street video from Syria, depicting an attack by the Turkish military, on Kurdish civilians. ABC later apologized that the video was shot…at a gun range in Kentucky.

In April 2020, CBS did its part to add to the national COVID-19 hysteria, using Italian footage as a stand-in for a story about the failure, of New York hospitals. A month later the company staged lines and faked “patients” at the Cherry Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But hey, it all made for some swell footage, right?

And who can forget NBC’s exploding truck video, concocted at the expense of General Motors. Worried that the crash test might not show the desired result, NBC rigged an incendiary device, just to be sure. The test worked swell and the sight of flaming pickup trucks, sure does make for some great “News”. But rest assured, Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips apologized, concluding that “unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”

There’s a knee slapper for you. “Unscientific demonstrations”.

Back to Dunning and Kruger. On this day in 1920, an unsigned editorial in the New York Times, made mockery of none other than Robert Hutchings Goddard. Yeah. THAT Robert Goddard. The guy with the space center, named after him.

Robert Goddard, a man who all but invented the space age, has 214 patents to his name. Two of them, a multi-stage rocket and a liquid-fuel rocket were patented as early as 1914.

On January 13, 1920, the New York Times opined that space flight was an impossibility, because propulsion systems had nothing to push against. Such a position seems defensible in 1920, but the Times just couldn’t resist that snotty, mean-girl touch, replete with sneer quotes: “That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills”. – PsychologyToday.com

“The knowledge ladled out in high schools”. Good one.

In 1932, that same New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for Lying, about the systematic extermination by starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians, by the Soviet government of Josef Stalin. To this day the “Grey Lady” has failed to repudiate that Pulitzer.

The “Newspaper of Record” printed 24,000 front page articles over the course of the second world war but oddly seemed oblivious to the Nazi holocaust, front page articles about which numbered precisely, twenty-six.

Front page, above-the-fold stories ran 44 days in a row about that mess at Abu Ghraib, just in case anyone missed the point. And the Times was certainly quick to defend that Dan Rather memo as Fake but Accurate. Never mind that the font didn’t exist, when the thing was supposed to have been written.

But fear not, the New York Times retracted that 1920 editorial. In July 1969. The day after the Apollo 11 launch. At that rate we can expect those East Anglia stories to come in, around 2050.

January 12, 1992 Daisy Bell

In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

We live in an age when pocket sized devices are capable of producing text from speech, and speech from text. We’ve all tried with varying degrees of success, to dictate a text message or email. It may come as a surprise as it did to me, how long the idea of other-than-human speech has been around.

According to Norse mythology, Mímir was the wisest of the Gods of Æsir. Mímir or Mim was beheaded during the war with the rival Gods of Vanir after which Odin carried the thing around (the head), so that it may impart secret knowledge and wise counsel.

The Brazen Head of the early modern age was the legendary automaton of medieval wizards and necromancers and always said to give the correct answer, provided the question was…just right. William of Malmsbury’s History of the English Kings (c. 1125) contains the earliest known reference to such a talking, Brazen Head. Similar legends followed the polymath Pope Silvester II (c. 946 – 1003), the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus (c.1200 – 1280) and the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294).

Roger Bacon’s assistant is confronted by the Brazen head in a 1905 retelling of the story. H/T Wikipedia

In 1779, the German-Danish scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein built a model of the human vocal tract which could produce the five long vowel sounds of the international phonetic alphabet.

Wolfgang von Kempelen of Pressburg, Hungary, described a bellows-operated apparatus in a 1791 paper, including facsimiles of tongue and lips to produce the nasals, plosives and fricatives required to mimic most (but not all) consonant sounds. Charles Wheatstone actually built the thing in 1846 after Kempelen died, calling his acoustic-mechanical speech machine, the ‘euphonia’.

“A replica of Kempelen’s speaking machine, built 2007–09 at the Department of Phonetics, Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany” H/T Wikipedia

At Bell Labs in the 1930s, the pioneering work of acoustic engineer Homer Dudley led to the Vocoder, a portmanteau of voice and encoder, capable of synthesizing and encrypting voice transmissions for use in  secure radio communications. The receiving apparatus or Voder, a keyboard operated device capable of independent speech synthesis, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair.

In the late 1940s, the pattern playback machines of Dr. Franklin S. Cooper and the Haskins Laboratories converted pictures of acoustic speech patterns, into recognizable speech. In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

“Daisy, Daisy / Give me your answer, do. / I’m half crazy / all for the love of you…”

By sheer coincidence, the English futurist, science-fiction writer and television host Arthur Charles Clarke was visiting his friend and colleague John Pierce at this time, at Bell Labs’ Murray Hill facility.

If you think that name sounds familiar, you’re right. Today, Clarke joins American writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as the “Big three”, in science fiction.

It is Clarke who wrote the script for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 dystopic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke was so impressed with the Daisy Bell demonstration he wrote it into his screenplay. You may remember the climactic scenes of the film as fictional astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman battle for their lives against Discovery’s supercomputer-gone-bad, the HAL9000, “born” this day in 1992 at the HAL Labs in Urbana Illinois, according to the screenplay.

After HAL hurled Frank Poole off into the black void of space and shut off life support to the rest of the crew while still in suspended animation, Dave Bowman is now the sole survivor of the Discovery mission, desperately seeking to unhook the power modules, to the HAL9000.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave”.

In the end, the servant of mankind-turned-evil supercomputer reverted to his most basic programming:

“It won’t be a stylish marriage / I can’t afford a carriage.”

“But you’ll look sweet/on the seat/of a bicycle built, for two.”

Fun fact: English songwriter and composer Harry Dacre first came to the United States, with a bicycle. Complaining about having to pay duty on the thing, Dacre’s American friend and fellow songwriter William Jerome quipped, “It’s lucky you didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, otherwise you’d have to pay double duty.” Dacre was so taken with the phrase he soon used it in a song, first popularized in a London music hall and first performed in the United States, in 1892. “Daisy Bell”.

January 11, 1693 Feeling Puny?

Such an event could happen tomorrow, next year or ten thousand years from now. No one knows. We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

In his 1897 short story The Open Boat, Stephen Crane writes of the puniness of humanity, when bared and exposed to the wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please. “If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? 

Deep in the ground beneath your feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer shell, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet. Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a solid core of material which remains viscous over geologic time, measuring approximately 1,802 miles thick and comprising some 84 percent of the volume, of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate that pressures within this outer core generate temperatures of 1,832° Fahrenheit near the boundary with the crust, to 6,692° Fahrenheit approaching the core boundary.

As a point of reference, the surface of the sun is about 10,340°, Fahrenheit.

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction Zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

The planet is literally “eating’ itself.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and one of twenty regions of Italy, lies on the convergent boundary of two such pieces of the planet’s outer shell, where the African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate.  Over time, the forces built up along these subduction zones, are nothing short of Titanic.

Sicily is also home to the terrifying Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. On this day in 1693, those Seven Mad Gods got together and unleashed on the puniness of humanity, the wrath of the ages.

The first foretaste of what was about to happen began at 21:00 local time, January 9, 1693. The earthquake, centered on the east Sicilian coast and felt as far away as the south of Italy and the island nation of Malta, had an estimated magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale with a perceived intensity on the Mercali Intensity Scale of VIII – XI: Destructive to Very Disastrous.

Mercali describes a Category XI earthquake: “Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges damaged or destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly”.

This thing was only stretching and yawning.  Just getting out of bed.

The main shock of January 11 lasted four minutes with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 and a very large area reaching X on the Mercali scale and XI, in the province of Syracuse.

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The soil beneath our feet, ordinarily so substantial and unmoving, behaves like a liquid at times like these in a process called soil liquefaction. Low density, sandy soils compress in response to applied loads while dense soils expand in volume or dilate. Saturated soils are like unto quicksand, as underground liquids are driven up to form miniature volcanoes called “sand boils, water spouting up from the ground in geysers, rising 30-feet and more.

Reflect on that for a moment, if you will. The soil. Behaving like a liquid.

The catastrophic eruption of 1669 was well within living memory and reports describe minor eruptions on this day as well.  As if even a small volcanic eruption could be called “minor”.

Several large fractures opened in the earth, one 1,600-feet long and nearly seven-feet wide.

Meanwhile the ocean withdrew from the coast as the Ionian Sea gathered itself, to strike. The initial withdrawal left the harbor dry at Augusta, damaging several Galleys owned by the Knights of Malta.   The tsunami when it came was eight meters in height (26-feet), inundating an area nearly a mile inland from the coastline.

The final death toll of as many as 60,000 is uncertain, unsurprising in light of the fact that whole regions, were blotted out. 63% of the entire population was wiped out in Catania, 51% in Ragusa. Syracuse, Noto, Augusta, Modica – all lost between one-out-of-five, and one-in-three.

Reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe was so extensive, as to spawn a new and unique form of art and architecture, known as Sicilian Baroque.

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The Cathedral of Noto is one of the many buildings constructed in Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693

Today, the colossal Mount Etna remains one of the most active volcanoes, on earth.  Sensors placed along the land and seaward flanks of the volcano reveal the alarming discovery that the volcano itself, is moving.  Mount Etna is sliding at a rate of an inch per year and sometimes more.  One eight-day period in 2008 showed a movement of two inches, raising concerns that Mount Etna may one day collapse into itself.

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in 57 deaths and inflation-adjusted property damage, of $3.3 Billion.  The US Geological Survey called the resulting collapse of the north face of the volcano “the largest debris avalanche on earth, in recorded history”.  Should such an event strike the Stratovolcano that is Mount Etna, the result would be felt from the Spanish coast to the shores of Israel, from North Africa to the French Riviera.

Given geologic time scales, such an event could happen tomorrow, next year, or ten thousand years from now.  No one knows.  We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

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Ruins of the Norman castle in Noto Antica

Featured image, top of page:  New life before the shattered ruins of the old city of Not (Noto Antica), destroyed on January 11, 1693.  The new city of Noto was built, eleven kilometers away

January 10, 1927 Poisoned Hooch

Not to be defied, federal officials poisoned industrial alcohol until the very last day, running up the tab to no fewer than 10,000 dead Americans. The government didn’t even pretend not to know, what was going on.


A French proverb comes down to us from 1742, attributed to one François de Charette: “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs”. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was a big fan of socialism in his day and an enthusiastic supporter of the gulags, of Josef Stalin.“[The] unfortunate Commissar” he wrote, must shoot his own workers “so that he might the more impressively ask the rest of the staff whether they yet grasped the fact that orders are meant to be executed.”. 

Yikes

Connoisseurs of the animated series South Park will remember the Prime Directive of Mr. Garrison’s favorite third grader, Eric Cartman.  “You will respect my authoritah

All well and good for a cartoon.  Few would have guessed the real-world Federal Government would poison its own citizens. To enforce its own authoritah.

The Eighteenth Amendment establishing national prohibition of intoxicating liquors was passed out of Congress on December 17, 1917 and sent to the states, for ratification. The  “Volstead” act, so named for Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, was enacted to carry out the will of congress.

At last ratified in January 1919, “Prohibition” went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell intoxicating liquor, wine or beer in the United States.Prohibition-midnight-e1568752688531-1024x511 (1).jpg“Industrial alcohol” such as solvents, polishes and fuels were “denatured” and rendered distasteful by the addition of dyes and chemicals.  The problem was, it wasn’t long before bootleggers figured out how to “renature” the stuff.

The Treasury Department, in charge of enforcement at that time, estimated that over 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen during Prohibition.

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Not to be defied, the federal government upped the ante.  The Parasite Leviathan, was not to be defied.

By the end of 1926, denaturing processes were reformulated with the introduction of known poisons such as kerosene, gasoline, iodine, zinc, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, quinine and acetone.

Treasury officials went so far as to impose a requirement of no less than 10% by volume of methanol, a virulent toxin used in anti-freeze.

You will respect my authoritah.

You can renature this stuff ’til the cows come home.  It will kill you.

Sixty people wound up at New York’s Bellevue Hospital on Christmas eve 1926, desperately ill from contaminated alcohol.  Eight of them died.  Within two days, the death toll stood at thirty-one.  The number soared to 400 by New Year’s Day , with no end in sight.

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A copper still and bucket, like those used in the creation and renaturing of alcohol at home. H’T allthatsinteresting.com, and Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many who didn’t die, probably wished they had. Holiday revelers experienced hallucinations, uncontrollable vomiting, even blindness.

TIME Magazine reported a doubling in toxicity levels in the January 10, 1927 issue, compared with the old method:  “The new formula included “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol”. TIME noted, “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness. (In case you didn’t guess, “blind drink” isn’t just a figure of speech).”

To paraphrase Wikipedia, Pyridine is a highly flammable chemical structurally related to benzene, with the unpleasant smell of dead fish.

New York medical examiner Charles Norris was quick to understand the problem and organized a press conference to warn of the danger. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol.  Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Norris pointed out that the poorest people of the city, were most likely to be victims: “Those who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low-grade stuff”.

The towering sanctimony of the other side, is hard to believe.  Teetotalers argued the dead had “brought it on themselves”.  Long-time leader of the anti-saloon league Wayne Wheeler proclaimed “The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”

You will respect my Authoritah.

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In its thirteen years of existence, Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster.  Portable stills went on sale within a week of enactment and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of Rhine” or “blocks of Port”. The mayor of New York City himself sent instructions to his constituents, on how to make wine.

Smuggling operations became widespread as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This lead in time to competitive car racing, beginning on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks. It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

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Organized crime muscled up to become vastly more powerful, due to the influx of enormous sums of cash. The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

Gaining convictions for breaking a law everyone hated became increasingly difficult. The first 4,000 prohibition-related arrests resulted in only six convictions and not a single jail sentence.

It’s hard to compare alcohol consumption rates before and during prohibition but, if death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption never went down by more than 10 to 20 per cent.

In the end, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce support for repeal.

On December 5, 1933, the state of Utah triggered the magic 2/3rds requirement to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth and voiding the Volstead Act, returning control over alcohol policy to the states.

Not to be defied, federal officials poisoned industrial alcohol until the very last day, running up the tab to no fewer than 10,000 dead Americans.   The government didn’t even pretend not to know, what was going on.

You will respect my authoritah!

Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Seymour Lowman had the last word among those who would tell you, “I’m from the government.   I’m here to help”.  If deliberately poisoned alcohol resulted in a more sober nation Lowman opined, then “a good job will have been done”.

December 31, 1695 Fleeced

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


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

lady-godiva-statue

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

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

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

bricked-up-window

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

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

Czar Peter I returned from a trip to Europe in 1698, hot to “modernize” Russia. All those European guys were clean shaven, so Peter instituted a tax on beards. No, really. When you’d paid your beard tax of 100 Rubles, (peasants and clergy were exempt), you had to carry a “beard token”. Two phrases were inscribed on the coin: “the beard tax has been taken” and “the beard is a superfluous burden”. Failure to shave or pay the tax might lead to your beard being forcibly cut off your face. Some had theirs pulled out by the roots by Peter himself, all 6-foot 8-inches of him.

In Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself.

singel-7
Singel #7

Those are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house barely wider than its own front door.

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

shotgunsingle-camelback
Shotgun Single, Camelback

England has a “Telly Tax” paid in the form of a television license. There’s good news though; you only have to pay half if you’re legally blind. This is in addition to the council tax, income tax, fuel tax, road tax, value added tax, pasty tax, national insurance, business rates, stamp duty, and about a thousand other taxes. But hey, the health care is free.

 In Canada, makers of children’s breakfast cereal are tax exempt if their cereal contains a free toy. The exemption is limited to toys not containing “beer, liquor, or wine.” Good to know.

Sweden has had a “name ordnance” in effect since 1901, requiring parents to obtain blessings from the government for what they name their children.

In 1991, Elisabeth Hallin and Lasse Diding gave birth to a baby boy. The couple failed to register a name by the age of five and received a fine of 5,000 Kronor, equivalent to $1,206, US. The pair petitioned the court in 1996 to call the kid Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 (pronounced “Albin) and failed to gain permission. The couple then tried to change the boy’s name to “A” (also pronounced Albin). The court rejected that one too, and upheld the fine.

Tennessee has a “Crack Tax” you’re supposed to pay on illegal drugs (don’t ask), and Massachusetts will charge you a “meals tax” on five donuts, but not 6. The state of Illinois taxes candy at a higher rate than food. Any item containing flour or requiring refrigeration is taxed at the lower rate, because it’s not candy. So yogurt covered raisins are candy, but yogurt covered pretzels are food. Baby Ruth bars are candy, but Twix bars are food. Get it? Neither do I.

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

vespasiani

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

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

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

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

antarctica-icebound-ship-1

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

Honest, I wouldn’t make this stuff up.

December 30, 1863 Bermuda and the Confederacy

“As a consequence of the naval blockade, Bermuda — along with the Bahamas and Cuba — became a centre of Confederate commerce. A steady stream of fast-running ships from the South clandestinely skirted the Union blockade, passing through St. George’s carrying cotton from Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina for English manufacturers; they made the return journeys freighted with European armaments. Bermuda was both a transhipment point where cotton was directly exchanged for British weapons warehoused here and a refuelling depot for Confederate blockade runners making transatlantic runs.” – Hat tip BerNews.com


South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. The CSA needed manufactured goods as well, goods no longer available from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.

For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.

slide_18President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic coastline and Gulf of Mexico, up into the lower Mississippi River.

Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds succeeded. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.

runnerbritanniawilm

Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston, Wilmington and other ports while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage.  Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.

North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.

The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception was the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer which ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground, attempting to escape threatening weather. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination, to this day.

shipwreck-in-bermuda
The blockade runner “Nola” was known at various times as Montana, Gloria, and Paramount.

President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death, in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade.  Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.

“The British colonial government monitored both sides to try to maintain strict neutrality, but only the latent threat of the powerful Royal Navy fleet based at Bermuda kept the belligerents from open warfare within British boundaries”. – Hat tip BerNews.com

Bermuda-National-Trust-Museum

Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George, leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.

Once the office of Confederate Commercial Agent John Tory Bourne and Confederate Shipping Agent Major Norman Walker, today the Bermuda National Trust Museum tells the story of the island’s history, including Bermuda’s role in the American Civil War. The museum’s guide book explains: “The opportunities for Bermudians to profit from blockade running were boundless. Ships needed coal and provisions. Crews required lodging, food and entertainment between runs. Cargoes had to be unloaded, stored and reloaded, while crews and cargoes had to be ferried to ships lying at anchor. Bermudian pilots guided the ships through the reefs; those with skills as mates, carpenters, firemen and ordinary seamen signed on as crew. The Civil War proved to be the road to riches.

[http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-us-cs/csa-sh/csash-ag/advance.htm DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY — NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER WASHINGTON NAVY YARD WASHINGTON DC] Sepia wash drawing by R.G. Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, and visited the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten married women living in Bermuda, were widows.

It occurred to me. All those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda.  The possibility that followed soon morphed into probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace paternity back to the Confederate States of America.

Bonnie Blue
‘The ‘Bonnie Blue’ flies over bonnie St George’s’ H/T Royal Gazette

December 29, 1895 Fatherly Advice

During the whole ordeal, Jameson never revealed the degree to which politicians had supported the raid, nor the way they had betrayed him, in the end.


February, 1853 dawned cold and clear in Edinburgh, Scotland. Robert William Jameson went for a walk while his wife and mother of his 11 children, a woman with the unlikely name of Christian Pringle, labored to deliver the couple’s 12th. Jameson slipped on a grassy embankment and into a frigid canal where he would have drowned, but not for the kindly stranger who came to fish him out.

The man said he was an American. Leander Starr.  Before the day was over, Leander Starr would become godfather to a newborn Scottish baby boy.  Leander Starr Jameson.

ec213-afr

Forty years later and half a world away, what would one day become South Africa was divided into four entities: the two British possessions of Cape Colony and Natal, and the two Boer (Dutch) Republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, better known as Transvaal. Of the four states, Natal and the two Boer Republics were mainly agricultural, populated by subsistence farmers. The Cape Colony was by far the largest, dominating the other three economically, culturally and socially.

There was considerable friction between Dutch and English settlers, stemming largely from differing attitudes toward slavery. British authorities passed legislation back in 1828, promising equal treatment for all under the law, regardless of race. Boer farmers argued that they needed forced labor to make their farms work, and that slaveholders were too little compensated upon emancipation.

Cetshwayo,_King_of_the_Zulus_(d._1884),_Carl_Rudolph_Sohn,_1882

The situation was exacerbated in 1867, with the discovery of vast diamond deposits near modern day Kimberly, in Orange Free State territory. The Cape soon annexed the territory as its own, which I think is a fancy term for “stole”.  The Boers found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, pressed by the British from the south and west and by the Zulu “Impi” (army) of King Cetshwayo kaMpande to the north.

War broke out between the two sides in 1880-’81 called the “First Anglo-Boer War” by one side, the “First Freedom War” by the other.

Gold was discovered near Johannesburg in 1886, massive amounts of it, drawing tens of thousands of “Uitlanders”:  English, American and Australian foreigners, in search of fortune.

Governor of the Cape Colony Cecil Rhodes wanted to incorporate the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a single federation under British control while the Transvaal government of Paul Kruger feared just that. Soon outnumbered by Uitlanders two to one, Transvaal limited the right to vote to those having many years’ residency, and imposed heavy taxes on gold mining profits.

By mid-1895, Cecil Rhodes had concocted a plan. In a scheme which could only be described as hare-brained, Governor Rhodes sent an armed raid into Johannesburg, inciting an uprising of Uitlanders with the aim of stepping in to take control. Back in London, the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, thought that was a swell idea and did everything he could to encourage it.

On December 29, 1895, 400 Matabeleland Mounted Police and 200 assorted volunteers crossed from Rhodesia into Transvaal with Leander Starr Jameson, in the lead.

The raid was a humiliating failure.  Transvaal authorities were tracking the raiders from the moment they crossed the border. They cut a wire believing it to be a telegraph wire but it was only, a fence.  Meanwhile Chamberlain got cold feet, saying that “if this succeeds it will ruin me” and went up to London, to crush it. Chamberlain ordered Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor-General of the Cape Colony to repudiate the raid, threatening Rhodes and calling on British settlers in the Transvaal not to lend any aid to the raiders.

After several sharp encounters with dug in and well-prepared defenders, what remained of the raiders entered Pretoria on January 2, in chains. The Transvaal government received almost £1 million compensation from the British South Africa Company, turning their prisoners over to be tried by the British government. Jameson was convicted of leading the raid and sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Leander_Starr_Jameson

During the whole ordeal, Jameson never revealed the degree to which politicians had supported the raid, nor the way they had betrayed him, in the end.

From his home in Vermont, the poet Rudyard Kipling was so impressed with Jameson’s display of stoicism under adversity, he wrote a poem in 1896. He later gave it to his son, Lieutenant John Kipling.

Chamberlain Tries to Avert the Jameson Raid
Boer cartoon: Chamberlain Tries to Avert the Jameson Raid

The younger Kipling would not survive his father. He entered the First World War and disappeared during the Battle of Loos, in 1915. He was last seen “staggering in the mud” with what appeared to be, a facial wound. His body was never recovered.

The elder Kipling’s gift would live on. Words of fatherly advice to an only son in a poem, called:

“If”

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

On a personal note:

Yesterday, a doctor’s diagnosis did much to explain the last six days. Now, to be abed with COVID19 seems a perfectly imperfect way to close out this most wretched of years.

From the April loss of the love of my life to the day-to-day nightmares of running a small business in 2020 to the terrifying spectacle of Mom having that stroke, the day before Thanksgiving. It’s been a year.

(She was discharged on Thanksgiving Day, giving us all something to be thankful for).

Yet I write none of this in a spirit of “woe is me”. Self-pity is a waste of time. I want to say that life is good, after all. Maybe despite it all. Life is good. So, may you enjoy the love and laughter of friends and family. May you take a hike or a nap or a glass of wine, if it pleases you. May you tell someone you love them and be told the same, in return. May the New Year be all you hope it will be and may 2021 be the first, of many more.

Rick Long
“Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

December 27, 1897 Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Perhaps the little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead. Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real.

In the summer of 1897, the 25th President of the United States William McKinley, had barely moved into the White House. The nation’s first subway opened in the city of Boston while, in Seattle, the Klondike gold rush was just getting underway. Thomas Edison was granted a patent for an early projector called a Kinetoscope. Mark Twain penned a rebuttal as only Mark Twain could, to his own obituary in the pages of the New York Journal: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

(Left: Laura Virginia O’Hanlon. around 1895)

One day there came the Dread Question asked by eight-year-olds the world over and answered by fathers since the dawn of time: “Go ask your mother”.

Just kidding. This was the Other dread question. The Santa Claus question.

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Perhaps the little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead. Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real.

He was coroner’s assistant, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. She was 8-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon.

Dr. O’Hanlon neither sent his little girl to ask her mother nor did he try to answer, himself. He suggested she write the New York Sun newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun”, he said, “it’s so.”

So it is a little girl’s note made its way across the city to the New York Sun, to the desk of Edward Page Mitchell. The hard core science fiction buff will remember Mitchell for tales about time travel, invisibility and man-computing-machine cyborgs long before the likes of H.G. Wells ever thought about such things but on this day, the editor and sometimes author had a job to do.

Mitchell believed the letter was worthy of reply and brought the assignment to copy writer Francis “Frank” Pharcellus Church.

It was a curious choice.

Church was not the dilettante, partisan idler who’d style himself today, as “journalist”. This was a hard-bitten News Man of the old school, a cynic, street reporter, atheist and former Civil War correspondent who’d seen it all and didn’t believe the half of it.

Picture Perry White, the irascible editor-in-chief of the fictional Daily Planet newspaper in the old Superman series, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Frank Church. You can almost hear the walrus-mustachioed old curmudgeon grumbling across the ages on the way back to his desk, a little girl’s note in his hand. “Why me”?

The old grump didn’t even want his name associated with the reply.

The New York Sun published Church’s reply on September 21, 1897.

Dear Editor, I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.

Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

Church’s friends, family and colleagues scarcely knew the man had it in him. You can almost imagine the excitement of a little girl, scouring the pages of The Sun for two months to find nothing and then…THAT. Through the rest of that Christmas season to this day and on for the rest of her 81 years she would never forget, that reply.

Frank Church’s letter would become the most widely reprinted editorial in the history of the English language albeit anonymously until the year of his death, in 1906. According to New York Sun internal policies, that’s when Church was finally revealed as responding editor and author of that timeless response.

Virginia went on to marry one Edward Douglas in 1910, a man who stuck around just long enough to abandon her with the couple’s first child, as yet unborn. Not exactly a credit to his sex, that one.

Perhaps the childlike sense of delight in that newspaper column is what helped the young mother through her darkest hours. Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas went on to devote her life’s work to children.   Following Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctorate degrees at Hunter, Columbia and Fordham University, O’Hanlon went on to become a lifelong teacher, assistant principal and finally principal.

Virginia’s childhood home is now a school called The Studio School offering an academic scholarship, called the Virginia O’Hanlon.

In 1932, The Sun’s response was adapted to a cantata, the only known newspaper editorial ever set to classical music.  The 1989 film Prancer contained a fictional editorial entitled “Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia“.
Every year at Christmas, Virginia’s letter and Frank’s response are read aloud at a Yule log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College.

In a 1960 appearance on the Perry Como Show, Virginia told the host her letter has been “answered for me thousands of times.”

Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas kept the name of her long-since absconded husband for the rest of her life, according to the custom of the day. She passed away on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81.

She received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her long life and never failed to pen a personal reply, including a copy of Church’s column. She was quite sickly toward the end but, throughout countless interviews over the course of her 81 years she’d always credit the Sun’s editorial with changing her life, for the better.

Perhaps it was that Christmas Spirit or whatever you’d like to call it, which most of us have learned to experience, but one time a year. For Virginia O’Hanlon that sense of warmth, of generosity and kindness to be found at the bottom of all human hearts but one time a year, never really seems to have gone away.

So, may all the cynics come to understand, at this Christmas season and beyond. Yes, Virginia, there really IS a Santa Claus.

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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