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31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things. So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913. And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese. But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway. But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.
By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else. The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do. A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences. These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See, were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death. Great if one could afford it, but very few could. This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them. Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.
Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.
While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts. Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable. The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.
Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.
But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half. Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions. Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months. The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922. One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly. Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.
Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.
And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean. USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off. The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law. While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”
The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation of US law.
Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year). While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections. And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves. At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.
Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.
Where to start, where to start. In planning this little missive, your intrepid researcher dithered for some time to find a common theme (yes, he does try), and finally settled on the lessons of war and peace. But on 24 October also marked the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861 (which gave California the first breaking news of the Civil War), and the invasions of Ethiopia (in 1935, reported by live radio feeds for the first time) and Hungary (1956, reported by live television for the first time), and of course the first nylon stockings in 1939. But, today, we look at the lessons of war and peace.
Beginning in 1337, a dynastic conflict called the Hundred Year’s War between the Plantagenet-Angevins of Normandy and England and the Anjous that controlled what is now eastern and southern France (modern France is largely a construction of the Bourbons in the 17th century) raged. By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain. After a peasant revolt threatened the food supply, John finally agreed to a treaty. The Treaty of Brétigny was ratified on 24 October 1360 at Calais. Also called the Treaty of Calais, the peace was only a nine-year breathing space, and barely that.
By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain.
Of a somewhat more permanent nature, the Peace of Westphalia (Westfälischer Friede) in 1648 ended a great deal more, for a little while at least. Traditionally Westphalia was the end of the last of the four phases of the Thirty Years’ War, where much of Europe was ready to fight to the last German. It was also where the Protestants and Catholics ended their Eighty Years’ War, where they were willing to burn the last German at the stake with any available torch for the heresy of being in the way. That Germany survived the bloodletting, it is said, can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular mostly because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies. Westphalia was the result of over a hundred different belligerent delegations ranging in size and importance from three-county dutchies to multi-national empires that negotiated three major legal instruments. First, there was the Peace of Munster, ratified 15 May 1648, between the Dutch Republic and their allies and the Kingdom of Spain and theirs that recognized the independence of the modern Netherlands. There was also a Treaty of Munster between the Holy Roman Empire and their gang of allies and France and theirs, and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden’s allies. Both Munster and Osnabrück were ratified in Westphalia on 24 October, 1648. While Westphalia didn’t end war or even all the wars that raged across Europe and the New World at that moment, it did create a structure for a European congress, or at least a diplomatic protocol for recognizing the possibility that the bloodletting could end without destruction.
That Germany survived can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies.
And while Europe learned to make peace, it still made war…terrible war. By October 1916, the failed German offensive at Verdun had turned into a killing machine beyond the imagination of the diplomats at Westphalia, or, indeed, of anyone before or since. Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day for just short of a year, and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning. Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans in February and was pounded by French artillery for nine months. On 24 October, 1916 the French recovered the ruined Fort Dounemount from the Germans. The months of shelling had finally breached Dounemount’s eight foot thick steel-reinforced concrete roof that was also cushioned by four feet of earth. The prominence that the ruined fort was built on became known at Le Morte Homme–Dead Man’s Hill–and today is the site of an ossuary.
Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day, for just short of a year and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning.
It should be said that humanity had learned something of all the wars and treaties by 1962. After two decades of brinksmanship following WWII, the Soviet Union began to emplace nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. On 24 October 1962, after the Americans discovered the missiles that were within range of most of the lower 48 states, John Kennedy imposed a blockade-called-quarantine on Cuba, challenging the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev to not only acknowledge the installations (that the US showed photos of in the UN) , but withdraw them. Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours. Writing in their memoirs decades after the events, American, Russian and Cuban officers at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis fully expected the bombs and missiles to begin falling at any moment for over a week. But the quarantine worked, and four days later Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles. Though the true “why” of that decision went to the grave with Khrushchev in 1969, it seems likely that the Politburo decided that Cuba was the wrong war in the wrong place over the wrong issue to risk the destruction of the Communist promise.
Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours.
If humanity learns no lessons ever, the lessons of Westphalia and Cuba should be clear: annihilation is not the answer to diplomatic issues. But because of that lesson, we are left with Verduns and all their spawn. We get to destroy each other in middling-sized groups.
It happens sometimes that coincidental events, years apart, have a great effect on each other. A flood of beer in London led to the invention of cast steel that was a boon to generations of beer workers who would supply the steel mill dives with brew: Trans-Atlantic radio service would increase the demand for radio receivers that would lead to the creation of the first global electronic firm. And all on 17 October. Oh sure, Ivan VI was crowned in 1740, and the Nine Regicides were executed in 1660 (hanged, beheaded, disemboweled, drawn and quartered and all that stuff), and the sieges at Saratoga ended in 1777, and the one at Yorktown ended in 1781, but we’re talking about important stuff here today: beer and steel and entertainment.
The facts of the case in London’s St Giles rookery seem to be simple. On 17 October 1814, an iron band on a 135,000 Imperial gallon vat at a Meaux Company Brewery broke, which caused other vats to burst, which spilled about 4.14 million bottles of beer into the streets in a fifteen foot wave. The tidal wave of suds destroyed a tavern and two houses, and flooded innumerable basements around Tottenham Court Road. At least eight people were either crushed by debris or drowned, including mourners at a wake for a two year old who died the day before. In the midst of this tragedy, “lucky” citizens who survived scooped up as much “free beer” as they could.
The tidal wave of suds destroyed a tavern and two houses, and flooded innumerable basements around Tottenham Court Road.
On a brighter note, the elusive process of casting steel from iron (steel is an alloy of elemental iron) took a great leap forward on 17 October 1855, when Henry Bessemer patented his refractory-lined iron converter. The Bessemer converter was essentially a great, closed pot that allowed air to be blown through molten pig iron. This removes impurities like silicon and manganese out and introduces carbon, strengthening the ionic bonds in the iron and forming the steel alloy. The ability to cast steel, as opposed to cruder processes of making blister steel by cementation or by pounding out impurities on a forge. The ability to cast steel shapes like beams, rods, sheets, and blocks made large steel structures like bridges across the Mississippi and the Ganges possible, in addition to skyscrapers and Diesel engines and cooking pots and almost everything else that makes the technological conveniences of modern life possible. Cast steel manufacturing was later improved by the open-hearth furnace. And, yes, it did improve the manufacturing of beer because, after all, there’s nothing better than sucking down a cool one with the boys after a 14 hour shift at the mill in July that hasn’t flooded a few streets and basements.
The ability to cast steel shapes like beams, rods, sheets, and blocks made large steel structures like bridges across the Mississippi and the Ganges possible, in addition to skyscrapers and Diesel engines and cooking pots and almost everything else that makes the technological conveniences of modern life possible.
Just as important as steel (arguably) was when Marconi’s wireless telegraph began transAtlantic service between Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and Clifden, Ireland on 17 October, 1907. Guglielmo Marconi was an inventive genius who was fascinated with wireless telegraphy, following the work of Heinrich Hertz on radio waves, (called Hertz waves at the time). In the 1890s, when he was twenty, Marconi developed an entire panoply of devices that made a moveable transmitter and receiver work over a distance of two miles. As power and range increased Marconi’s reputation rose, and eventually commercial interest developed in his inventions. By the time Marconi’s stations started commercial network began (with mostly personal messages at first, weather reports and warnings to and from mariners soon followed), transmissions across the Atlantic were still sporadic. Nonetheless, his first stations showed that it was not only possible, but at intervals practical. But there was still no real good reason to sit by the radio and suck beer on a Saturday night.
In the 1890s, when he was twenty, Marconi developed an entire panoply of devices that made a moveable transmitter and receiver work over a distance of two miles.
But radio grew. In 1912, the Marconi stations were instrumental in sending rescuers to the stricken Titanic, and during the 1914-1918 war it became a vital means of communications when the trans-Atlantic cables were cut. In 1919, the US government, then controlling many of the American Marconi company’s patents, struck a deal with General Electric, which then formed the Radio Company of America on 17 October 1919. As it grew in wealth and influence, including patents on the superheterodyne receiver among thousands of others, RCA bought independent radio stations and formed them into the National Broadcast System (NBC) Gradually, through the efforts of David Sarnoff among many others, RCA came to dominate everything on the airwaves, in phonographs, and in electrical and electronics technology. By the time of its demise in 1986, RCA put its imprint on everything from pocket radios to satellites, from televisions to electron microscopes. Probably even on some beer-making stuff, too.
Gradually, through the efforts of David Sarnoff among many others, RCA came to dominate everything on the airwaves, in phonographs, and in electrical and electronics technology.
Though this entry has a lot of blather about beer, the Great London Beer Flood was no laughing matter. Industrial safety was becoming a serious problem at the industrialization of urban areas accelerated in the 19th century. There was a molasses flood in Boston in January 1919 that killed 21 people. Other industrial spills and accidents, increasingly in the developing world, have killed thousands.
Note to my LinkedIn Readers (all five of you), sorry about last week, but something in WordPress (where this column is created) got discombobulated. My apologies.
Most weeks this blog discusses births, deaths, and the occasional battle, but today battles in France, Tennessee and Korea will occupy us. Decisive warfare, defined as an action that concludes a conflict, has been an elusive thing. More common before national and industrial warfare, the subject was covered exhaustively by the late Russell Weigley in Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Battle brom Breitenfeld to Waterloo.
But Tours, our first battle from 10 October, 732, predates any battle in Weigley’s work by nearly a thousand years. Also called Poitiers (which makes it confused with the 1356 battle between the English and the French by that name) and, by Arab sources, the Palace of the Martyrs, Tours was one of the actions covered by Victor Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. After two centuries of incursions into former Roman provinces of Gaul, the Franks and Burgundians (proto-French) under Charles, Prince of the Franks, defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate under the command of Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Governor-General of al-Andalus, a province of modern Spain that then bordered Aquitaine. Very little definitive is known about the battle itself. Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely. The battle did stop further Umayyad incursions into “Christian” Europe, and formed the basis for the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne. Three things are known for certain: Charles, the grandfather of Charlemagne, earned the nickname “Martellus, the Hammer” (Martel), Al Ghafiqi was killed in the fight, and the Franks fought the battle without horse cavalry. The location, thought to be at the junction of the Clain and Vienne rivers between Tours and Poitiers in north-central France, has been the site of several archeological digs with mixed results, other than to establish that at least two pre-industrial battles were fought there.
Very little definitive is known about the battle itself. Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.
Much more recently, much more is known about a little-known 10 October, 1863 skirmish in Tennessee. Confederate forces under John S. Williams met a part of Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio. A Federal cavalry division under Samuel Carter at Bulls Gap on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad in Greene County clashed on 3 October, sparred for a week, and met in earnest a Blue Springs on 10 October. By then, the Federal horse soldiers had been reinforced by infantry. After a day of indecisive fighting, Edward Ferrero’s 1st Division of IX Corps attacked the Confederates, breaking their line just before dark. The Confederates withdrew into Virginia. Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar: East Tennessee was being cleared of Confederate troops. Much less well known than Tours, the Civil War in East Tennessee has been graced with a good account by Earl Hess, The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee, a few memoirs, and that’s about it.
Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar
On 10 October 1951, after a little more than a year of bloody and inconclusive fighting in Korea, a rather messy and prolonged fight over another mass of hills began. This one was nearly seven miles long and about a mile north of Bloody Ridge, near Chorwon, and was called Heartbreak Ridge by the American forces, Bataille de Crèvecœur by the French, Wendengli by the Chinese (who also confuse it with Triangle Hill a year later). The fighting for Heartbreak started as early as 13 September, but the main UN attack began on 10 October. The US 2nd Infantry Division and an attached French battalion were savaged in piecemeal fights over limited objectives by well-entrenched NKPA (North Korean) and PVA (Chinese) forces before a concerted armored thrust was mounted 11 October into the Mundung-ni Valley west of Heartbreak to destroy the communist supply dumps there. While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass. Eventually, forces from South Korea, the Netherlands and the Philippines joined the American and French in the battle. While the United Nations forces “won” Heartbreak, senior planners were horrified at the cost (nearly 3,700 UN to over 25,000 Chinese and North Korean). The cost of such attacks by the casualty-averse UN forces would be weighed against the “benefits” gained against opponents that disregarded losses. Arned Hinshaw’s Heartbreak Ridge: Korea 1951 is a worthy effort, and the only known book-length treatment of Heartbreak, aside from a couple of novels (one of which was the basis for the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge that had absolutely nothing to do with Korea). There is also an excellent description in T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War.
While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.
Today, the second Monday in October, 2016, is designated as “Landing Day,” a Federal holiday in the United States, that is intended to “honor” all the many discoverers of the New World by concluding that the all arrived on some floating day in October. Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Caribbean on 12 October 1492. From the 19th century up to the 1970s Columbus was regularly honored in the United States on 12 October, but since then the Italian explorer has become associated with slavery, oppression, disease, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of what are now North and South America. Further, certain influential groups have determined that the “other discoverers” of the Americas, such as the Norse and Polynesians, should also be honored. This gesture would have a great deal more meaning if, a) history had any idea who these discoverers were by name (Leif Erickson is thought to have led the Norse expedition that may have hung around Newfoundland briefly ca 1000 AD), and b) if there were any contemporary records of their “discoveries” that would have made them have some meaning. As it is, the current reasoning only makes for an excuse to make another three-day weekend for banks and some Federal workers. While this correspondent doesn’t get a day off for it and doesn’t recall even the Active Army doing it, his wife does.
Eh, whatever. Another excuse for pre-Christmas sales.
Since this blog is published on Monday (for the moment), Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday it talks a great deal about. But this year, it happens that discussions of Thanksgiving Day (American, not Canadian, nor Australian, nor Liberian, nor Dutch) has links to 3 October, and to a most miraculous Thanksgiving event in Germany.
Proclamations of “thanksgiving” were common in Britain for survival from floods, wars, famines, larger fires, plagues or invasions. In the American colonies, there are well-known stories of a “first Thanksgiving” being celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers and their Native American neighbors (surely at least some of my readers were turkeys or lobsters or something in at least one school pageant). Records are scarce, but most historians agree that as early as 1621 there was a feast in October or November where much food was consumed in company with some of the locals. No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. As early as 1631 some fall day was declared a holiday somewhere in America, mostly in New England. On 3 October 1789, George Washington (who had become president just that February) proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November should be “a day of public thanksgiving.” There is some speculation about why a Thursday was chosen (to be exclusively a day of thanks separate from a day of worship) and why November (harvest in some parts of the new republic could last, in good years, at late as mid-November), but no one thought too much of it at the time.
No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river.
By the American Civil War generations later, the Thanksgiving tradition had died out in parts of the country, or had been moved from November to as early as October (following several of the Canadian provinces, which had different dates). On 3 October 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that fixed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. This was an attempt to unify the states in at least something, but the Confederates weren’t interested. Most southern states paid no attention until after Reconstruction in the 1870s, but as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history). The holiday remained there until 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt, after much lobbying by the larger commercial outlets and the labor unions, fixed the day as the fourth Thursday as a goad to the economy, and as a tool to manage factory scheduling,. Factory tooling improvements are traditionally performed during a “holiday shutdown” between Christmas and New Year’s. Moving the Thanksgiving holiday earlier for most years allows for vacations before the shutdown for maintenance crews, adds as much as another week of “shopping days” till Christmas, and even more time for the mass media to saturate their audiences with ads for the same thing.
… as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history)
In 1989, mass migrations across the Hungarian frontier into Austria were not opposed. When this part of the Iron Curtain was drawn back, East Germans trickled through Czechoslovakia and into Austria and on to West Germany. Germans, like Israelis, have the “right of return” from anywhere. Soon, as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn open by mobs of civilians and border guards. This triggered the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe by the end of the year, the eventual breaking of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the end of that entity in 1991, and the traditional end of the Cold War. On 3 October 1990, one of the largest symbols of the Cold War was eliminated when East and West Germany were officially rejoined after more than half a century of separation. The date is celebrated as Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) in Germany, a national holiday. Though “Germany” has existed as a vague geographic idea, customs union, kingdom and empire off and on since anyone can remember, this was the first time it could have been called a “modern” state since 1945.
…as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down.
Though Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and ODing on TV, for this family German Unity Day a month and a half earlier has a different meaning. The wife was one of the Germans that the Americans and Soviets was willing to fight over, and many family members were still in Berlin when the Wall came down. The above image of the Brandenburg Gate is much different from this writer’s memory of Berlin when he was last there in 1976. Besides, Uncle Absalom always made such a fool of himself on Thanksgiving it’s become a family embarrassment. But that’s what family is for.