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Missing the “Memorial Day” Point, Aren’t We?

One of the best things about a blog is that from time to time I can say things that I couldn’t ordinarily express.  This may be one of those times.

But, I digress…and I likely will again.  Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, an excuse for retailers to lower their prices slightly to take advantage of the increased volume, and an opportunity for many to sleep late.  There will be parades today–I’ll take my three-year old great-grandson to one, and the service afterwards.  I’ll also sleep late, and take advantage of at least one Memorial Day sale to get some lumber and maybe some groceries.

I’ll also go up to the VA Hospital to see a buddy of mine–one of my oldest friends–who May not leave there alive. His Memorial Day “celebration” for 20+ years of service might be a lung transplant.  But he’s marginal for that, so it’s likely to be a laurel-and-hearty handshake from some stranger to thank him for his lifetime of service, and the sacrifice of his health, wealth and welfare for the freedom of the Republic.

Many of us will go to cemeteries and see the ocean of flags decorating the resting places of thousands–millions, even–of men and women who did the same as my buddy up in the VA.  Many made the ultimate sacrifice far away.  Many others were accused of crimes committed by others in conflicts they didn’t understand. Some others died ignobly of the flu, or food poisoning, or a ruptured appendix. But most of those in those graves with the flags, you understand, died at home, peacefully of natural causes, with their families around them, having done their bit years or even decades before. Not all of them were blown apart by artillery, or cut in half by machine guns, or caught by a sniper’s bullet, or met their Makers in any of the myriad ways people get killed in war.

The one thing that all of them share–all of them in those flag-bedecked graves that most Americans will honor by sleeping late, lounging in the back yard, taking advantage of five-year special financing or going to the beach–was the fact that they didn’t make their sacrifices so they could be honored with flags and five-year special financing after they did the Mortal Coil Shuffle. Nope.  They did it so the beach and sleeping late and special five-year financing would be possible in a free republic that has the honor and the luxury of putting a real estate mogul/reality TV star into the highest elected office in the land.

They paid that price so Americans can make their own mistakes, and not truly “honor” anything on the last Monday in May except their own welfare, if they are so inclined.

Get it?

So thanks guys for your sacrifice.  And for my quarter century in uniform…you’re welcome.

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Ellen Church and National Nylon Stockings Day

Among aviation pioneers, the name of Ellen Church is not exactly up there with the Wright Brothers or Louis Bleriot, Jimmy Doolittle or John Glenn, but she was pretty important in her own quiet way as the first “stewardess”. But the Ides of May (every month has ides, defined as the middle of the Roman calendar month, not just March that Shakespeare and Caesar made famous) is also known for the beginning of the Seven Years’/French and Indian War in 1756, the 1864 battle of New Market in the American Civil War, the birth of Madeline Albright in Prague in 1937, the beginning of the Women’t Army Corps in 1942, and shooting of George Wallace in Laurel, Maryland in 1972. But today, stewardesses and nylons.

In September 1904 Ellen Church was born in Cresco, Iowa, and had an early fascination with airplanes and flying. She studied nursing at the University of Minnesota and took off for San Francisco, where she took flying lessons and managed to get a job at Boeing Air Transport (BAT), the forerunner of United Air Lines.  Though they would not hire her as a pilot, Church had the idea that nurses acting as flight attendants on board (the term stewardess wouldn’t come into use until the late 1930’s) would be good for publicity, making flights seem safer.  Thought there had been stewards on airships since 1910, there were no women before Church first took to the air on a 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago on 15 May 1930–with thirteen stops and fourteen passengers.

After Church’s first flight, BAT hired more “sky girls”–registered nurses, younger than 25, single, weighed less than 115 pounds and were less than 5’4″. The physical requirements saved weight, and allowed the young women to stand up while serving drinks and snacks in the small passenger cabins of the time. In addition to their cabin duties, they also had to help fuel the airplanes and move them in and out of the hanger.  For this they were paid the then-princely sum of $125 a month–nearly twice what most nurses made, and almost as much as the average civil pilot.  While she liked the work, a car accident  ended her career with BAT after a year and a half.  She went back to nursing, and in 1942 she joined the Army Nurse Corps and rose to the rank of captain.  Church was responsible for training evacuation nurses in preparation for the Normandy invasion in 1944. Ellen Church was active to the end of her life, when she was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1965.

Now, as you ladies who read this blog at all regularly (bless you, you poor dears) know,  I have very little experience with wearing nylon stockings myself (though I have done so for a few hours at a time as a preventative against man-of-war stings), so at least some of my remarks about National Nylon Stockings Day (and no one knows why its 15 May) will seem insensitive or sexist or something.  So, as always…get over it.

The DuPont Chemical Company first made their miracle of chemistry dubbed “nylon” in 1935: a woven material made of threads manufactured in chemical factories and thus, theoretically infinite.  The product’s first practical commercial product had been nylon toothbrushes first marketed in 1938.  In 1939, legend has it, that a young woman who worked for at the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware complained that her silk stockings didn’t fit right.  Seeking a wider market, the company reasoned that weaving nylon threads into a fabric pulled over a mold in the desired (by the makers) shape and color (early formulas could be made in nearly any color by adding aniline dyes) of a woman’s legs would be technically feasible. The rest, as they say, is history…maybe.  Still, legends often have roots in facts, so it sounds plausible.

At the World’s Fair in 1939, DuPont showed their mass-produced ladies nylon stockings to rave reviews, and sales of the more easily-obtainable stockings (more available than silk since Japan’s war with China started in 1937) skyrocketed right up until 1942, when manufacture of stockings was suspended for the duration of the war.  Manufacture resumed in 1945 and has continued unabated, with demand far outstripping supply in the 1940’s to the point of riots in late 1945 and early 1946.

But there was (and is) a catch: nylons weren’t and aren’t perfect.  They are more flexible than the cotton and silk they replaced, but not infinitely: until the 1980’s and the introduction of longer-chain “memory” polymer yarns, they squeezed the leg into the shape of the maker’s dies whether the wearer’s flesh was that shape or not.  This created not just discomfort but, in some cases, pain.  Modern hose are more forgiving of thicker thighs or longer calves but are still very form fitting, so the slightest hair stubble will catch in their mesh.  And shaving legs is not like shaving faces, you guys: leg skin never really toughens up like cheeks and chins…so I’m told. Further, the seams were unsightly (though they were eliminated by continuous weaving in 1965) and hard to keep straight.

Worldwide sales of nylon stockings has always been high and is still mind-boggling.  Since their introduction sales of nylon hosiery has been consistently in the mid-hundreds of millions of units–at first because of their fragility, and then because of population explosions, the introduction of nylons for younger girls, and increasing social acceptability of…well, more exposure of the leg. Since 1958 and the development of panty hose the sale of accompanying garters  and belts has declined: since 1980 panty hose demand has exceeded single hose demand.

The silky wonders of science are still popular, despite the discomfort to the wearers. Demographically, regular nylon wearers have been women under fifty since wearing trousers became fashionably acceptable for ladies in the 1960’s.  I’m told by reliable authorities (better than you, wiseguy) that this has been first because of the shaving requirement, second the expense (better-quality units can run $25 and more, and only last three months of weekly wear), and third because of the general discomfort that accompanies having one’s flesh squeezed into someone else’s idea of what their legs should look like because sizing–even three quarters of a century–hasn’t been perfected.

Ellen Church almost certainly wore nylons: hard to imagine such a trailblazer not wearing them at least once.  One wonders if she stood in one of those outrageously long lines for them. My late mother once said she stood in line for half a day outside Hudson’s in Detroit for a pair in about 1946: she would have been 23 or so, a bride of three years.  Then again, that may be more legend than fact, too.  Still, a bit of personal history for context.

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Harry Truman and VE Day

The 8th of May has been a very popular day for momentous events.  For one thing, it’s early enough in the traditional Northern Hemisphere’s spring “campaign season” to be able to mark battles like Palo Alto in 1846, and Spotsylvania in 1864, among many others.  But also on this day in 1541 Hernan DeSoto reached the Mississippi River near modern Memphis, Tennessee, and a new celebration for Armistice Day–11 November–was proposed in a London newspaper on this day in 1919.  But today, we’re going to remark on a coincidence too big to miss.

On 8 May 1888, Harry S. Truman was born at Lamar, Missouri (the “S” was chosen to honor both his grandfathers).  Living most of his youth on various farms in central Missouri, he didn’t attend a conventional school until he was eight. Truman worked various non-agricultural jobs around Independence and Kansas City, including haberdasher.  He finished high school in Independence but never finished college.  Even though he was legally blind he joined the Missouri National Guard in 1905.  In WWI he rose to the rank of captain in Battery D, 129th Artillery in the hard-luck 35th Infantry Division.  Even after the war, Truman officially stayed in the Army Reserves until he was retired a Colonel in 1953.

After WWI Truman became active in Missouri politics until 1934, when he won election to the US Senate with the backing of the notorious Pendergast political machine.  Despite the stink of corruption that wafted around him, Truman kept winning elections, freinds, and a reputation for integrity and plain-speaking. While investigating waste and fraud in the War Department during WWII he is thought to have saved billions of taxpayer dollars–and enough notoriety to get him on the cover of Time Magazine. Truman was popular…and electable.

When Truman was approached by party officials at the 1944 Chicago Democratic Convention to stand as FDR’s Vice President, it was realized at the time that Roosevelt’s health was deteriorating, and that a replacement for the sitting VP–the unpopular Henry A. Wallace–had to be found. FDR was elected to a fourth term with Truman as his running mate in November, but less than three months after he was sworn in as VP, Roosevelt died and Truman took the oath as president.

April 1945 was an awkward time for a two-term senator from a rural state to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful force of military projection the world had yet seen. Nearly four million Americans were in uniform in over a hundred countries, and only fifteen sovereign states worldwide had not gone to war by that fateful spring.

Though the end of the war in Europe was in sight, the war against Japan did not appear to be abating.The Soviets were hammering Berlin from the suburbs while they shook hands and swapped uniforms with the Americans on the Elbe; Vienna was on fire; concentration camps containing stark testimony of the enormity of the Nazi’s crimes were being found daily; Tokyo or some major city in Japan was being razed every fifth night; on a high spot in the ocean called Okinawa nearly 70,000 American soldiers and Marines had begun a campaign that was planned to last a month but was to go on for nearly three.

By the end of April the carnage in Europe reached it’s horrible crescendo.  Hitler killed himself on 30 April; German forces in Italy surrendered effective 2 May; the Berlin surrendered on 3 May.  On the evening of 8 May, 1945–Harry Truman’s 61st birthday–the German authorities signed an Instrument of Surrender at Karlshorst, a Berlin suburb. “The mission of this command was concluded…” Dwight Eisenhower telegraphed his Commander in Chief that evening.  One wonders if Ike knew (or if Truman remembered) that Eisenhower’s older brother Arthur worked and lived with Truman in Kansas City before they both became famous.

When we think of all the coincidences in daily life, this one–VE Day on Truman’s birthday– hangs on for a while.

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Manila Bay and Law Day

Chosen only because of their harmonics…not.  The first day in May marks a number of historic events, including the birth of Wellington in 1769, and Calamity Jane in 1852, the beginning of the concept of “Great Britain” in 1707 and the founding of the Illuminati in 1777, the opening of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and the opening of the Empire State Building in 1931.  But today, Manila Bay and the law.

For reasons both obscure and obvious, the United States began its war with Spain in late April 1898 (the exact date is a matter of taste: 21 April or 25 April…don’t ask; just look it up). For propaganda reasons, Americans on the West Coast were terrified (supposedly) of the small Spanish squadron based in the Philippines, so Assistant Secretary of the Navy alerted the US Navy’s Pacific Squadron in Hong Kong under George Dewey days before the war was actually declared. Dewey loaded up his squadron of four fairly new protected cruisers (warships of about 6,000 tons with armored decks), two gunboats, a revenue cutter and two colliers and set off for Manila Bay, where the Spanish squadron was based.

Entering the Bay on the night of 30 April (technically violating international law because the news of the war had not yet reached Manila), the little American battlegroup sailed unopposed to the Spanish anchorage off Cavite.  The Spanish squadron that supposedly struck fear into the heart of America was led by Patricio Montojo, who had been told in Madrid that the war could not be won, and that any resistance would only be token.  His obsolete squadron of older two protected and four unprotected cruisers was manned by sailors who had not trained for over a year.  The ensuing daybreak battle on 1 May was a one-sided affair that saw all six Spanish warships sunk and no serious damage to any American ships. One American died of heat stroke and nine others were wounded to somewhat over three hundred Spanish casualties. The long American involvement in the Philippines can be said to begin with the decisive action at Manila Bay, but many long years of conflict, building, colonization and nation-building was to follow until both the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption and Typhoon Yunia covered the Subic Bay Naval Base in a foot of rain-soaked ash in June 1991.  The base was closed in 1992, to become the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.

The First of May is denoted in many countries as Labor Day, and in others as International Workers Day.  It is often marked by parades of military equipment, of workers and of children all marching in some symbolism of freedom.  But in the US, Law Day was declared by Dwight Eisenhower on 5 February 1958 as a day to mark the power of law as opposed to the power of force.  Like other national and international days, it isn’t often a legal holiday, but rather one of commemoration.  Bar associations often hold luncheons and symposiums to recognize the importance of codified rules legitimately enforced. Forgetting (or not caring) that the most important tool of law is the power of incarceration and compulsion behind it, lawyers and other pundits like to talk a great deal on Law Day about their important work in making laws that are often not enforced, or enforceable, while lining their pockets with the money made by those who actually create capital by making tangible goods from raw material.