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Antietam and National Monte Cristo Day

Mid-September and the fall cleanup should be well underway in the Great Lakes. The air conditioner shouldn’t run most nights by now, and the leaves here should be turning. Great time of year.

On 17 September 1787, the US Constitution was adopted by the Congress that, at that time, existed only by habit and the Articles of Confederation. The new document would replace the body that created it. Interesting juxtaposition. And on this day in 1944, Operation Market-Garden would commence with a mass drop of nearly 20,000 paratroopers on three large areas in Holland to be joined together by an armored column. Nice in theory, but the disaster came when the Germans rallied faster than anyone expected and put up a stiff defense against the ground attack with a front ten yards wide by five miles long. And on 17 September 1996, Spiro Agnew, once Vice-President under Richard Nixon and once Governor of Maryland, died in Berlin, Maryland. Agnew resigned as vice president when he pled guilty to tax evasion in October 1973, less than a year before his boss would. Today is also Apple Dumpling Day because someone said so and they haven’t changed their minds. But today we’re going to talk about bloodletting and sandwiches.

While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

By the summer of 1862, the American Civil War in the east–the 90 miles between the two opposing capitals–was in a sort of stasis mostly imposed by two stale realities: the timidity of George McClellan and the relative poverty of the Confederate armies. While the Confederates could win battles, they couldn’t win and hold territory. While the Union armies could hold turf–and was doing just that in the west–the Army of the Potomac was commanded by a brilliant administrator who hated the idea that his troops had to fight. While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

Civil War Trust
Maryland Campaign

To break this stalemate before another winter in camp, Lee conceived a plan to bring McClellan’s army to battle on northern soil. There Lee would defeat the Union. This would demoralize the Union in time to influence the mid-term Congressional elections, destabilize Lincoln and the radical Republicans and bring the conflict to a negotiated conclusion, leaving The South (TM) to go on its merry way. All this depended on Lee’s ability to get the Army of the Potomac to fight somewhere outside Virginia and defeat it. Thus was born the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

Conceptually it was something of a hail-Mary. Everything depended on everything else going in the Confederacy’s favor, something that had not really happened yet in the war. While the Manassas campaign of 1862 was something of a Federal rout, the Confederates lacked the wherewithal to capitalize on Federal disorganization.  Even if the Confederacy were victorious in the east, elsewhere the Union armies were moving more or less unencumbered by Confederate forces. Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

But Lee launched his campaign on 3 September 1862 with the best of intentions, fighting a minor battle in the mountain passes where McClellan had stolen a march on Lee and cut him off. After two weeks of marching and fighting, Lee’s depleted army came to rest near Sharpsburg, Maryland on the evening of 16 September, knowing that the Army of the Potomac was just across the small tributary of the Potomac called Antietam Creek. There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

While Lee knew that the big enemy army was badly handled, he also knew that even a badly handled but huge force could simply run over his weakened force in an afternoon.

That’s one version. Another is that Lee knew full well how timid McClellan was, and also knew that concerted action by corps commanders was not a Union strength. Lee almost certainly had taken the measure of McClellan many times and found him wanting as a field commander. While the Army of the Potomac was large, it was not as destructive as all that. While Lee knew that the big enemy army was poorly handled, he also knew that even a badly-handled but colossal force could run over his weakened host in an afternoon.

The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

The battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg has been described by better scribes than I so I won’t duplicate those efforts or paraphrase from them. The critical thing to remember about the bloodletting of 17 September at the bridge or the wheat field or the cornfield or anywhere else is that it was an uncoordinated mess that actually used less than 40% of the available Union forces. By the time McClellan stopped fighting not only was Lee pretty well beaten but it was just late afternoon, with as much as another three hours of daylight left. The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

…rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.  

But he didn’t. He liked having his army, not fighting it. The result was a tactical draw, but a partial Federal victory for having turned Lee back to Virginia again. But it disgusted the Federal commanders enough to prompt McClellan’s replacement, and the battle itself affected the mid-term elections, not at all: rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.


And there’s National Monte Cristo Day, originated in 2015 by Bennigan’s, one of many Irish-pub-themed restaurant chains struggling just like the rest of them in the face of me-too competition. A Monte Cristo is a pan- or deep-fried ham and cheese sandwich, a variation of the French croque-monsieur, sometimes called a French Sandwich, a Toasted Ham Sandwich, or a French Toasted Cheese Sandwich. A Monte Cristo is typically savory rather than sweet. It is usually dipped in egg batter. Variations may include sliced turkey and different types of cheese. It can be served grilled or open-faced and heated under a grill or broiler. It can also be sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with jam or preserves.

Eh, whatever. Typically I won’t get that elaborate about sandwiches: slice it up raw, save the time and energy and put it on a plate or a napkin, all the same to me. Or just hand it to me. Powdered sugar? Jam or Preserves? What for? It’s a ham sandwich, for all love.

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US Grant and National Vanilla Ice Cream Day

Re-post for the benefit of Linkedin, which disconnected again.

Summer, hot and sweltering and muggy. Just the kind of day in the Great Lakes you need to get something cold and wet as long as it’s not a fish.

On 23 July 1827, the first swimming pool in the United States started operation in Boston; it was almost certainly private or members-only, and no trace of it now exists. The oldest existing pool is probably Deep Eddy in Texas. And on this day in 1904, the ice cream cone was first sold commercially at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis; cones of various descriptions had been privately made from recipes as early as 1823, and patents for cone-making machines date from the 1890s. And, on 23 July 1967, a failed police raid in Detroit led to a riot that, over the course of nine days, would kill 43 people and require the use of federal troops to quell; as a young man living in suburban Detroit at the time, I can attest to the kind of confusion that the riot engendered, but “race” wasn’t the only issue. But today, we’re talking about Captain Sam and plain vanilla.

Young Ulys got sick when he was nine with a fever–probably malaria–that would cause him headaches and “ague” for the rest of his life, and would often be mistaken for other things.

US Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on 27 April 1822 in the little shack by the Ohio River. His father Jessie was a prosperous businessman; his mother Hanna indulgent of her only son. Young Ulys got sick when he was nine with a fever–probably malaria–that would cause him headaches and “ague” for the rest of his life, and would often be mistaken for other things.

He took a volunteer job as a mustering officer and drillmaster, then asked for and got a commission as colonel, and he never looked back.

Young Grant was a smart lad but Jessie was cheap. When it came time for the boy to go to school beyond the reaches of Ohio he was sent to West Point because it was free. When he got there, he discovered that his name was entered as Ulysses Simpson (his mother’s maiden name) Grant, and he stuck with it for the rest of his life. In 1843 US Grant was commissioned in the infantry upon his graduation, 21st out of a class of 39. He went to his first post in Missouri, and from there to Mexico. He served largely as a supply officer in Mexico and later in Detroit, New York, and California while many of those who would be leading lights in the Civil War served with him. In 1854, for unstated reasons that have always been ascribed to drink (there are no surviving official written records of a drinking problem) he resigned from the Army. Grant struggled to support his wife and three children for the next seven years. At one point he was selling kindling door-to-door and felt compelled to sell his Army coat. The outbreak of war in 1861 found him working in his father’s dry goods and harness shop in Galena, Illinois. He took a volunteer job as a mustering officer and drillmaster, then asked for and got a commission as colonel, and he never looked back.

Grant was practically broke when he left office in 1877.

His story after that should be familiar. Grant was breveted a brigadier, then promoted to major general, then the first officer to equal Washington’s rank as lieutenant general, then the first to exceed him as a full general. He was the first American officer to wear four stars on his shoulder. And as often was the case then, he rode that success right into the White House in 1869. But Grant wasn’t a politician, and he was probably the worst personal money-manager who ever took the oath as president. Grant was practically broke when he left office in 1877.

The royalties for his posthumously-published memoirs provided just under half a million dollars for his family in their lifetime.

Always scrambling to make a living, he sold articles to Century Magazine about his experience in the war. In time he attracted the attention of Samuel Clemens–Mark Twain–who persuaded him to write a memoir. He finished those memoirs in a borrowed cottage on Mount McGregor, New York just days before he died on 23 July 1885. The royalties for his posthumously-published memoirs provided just under half a million dollars for his family in their lifetime. Captain John J. Pershing, commanding the Corps of Cadets at West Point, commanded the honor guard for Grant’s funeral.

If you’re driving along the Ohio River on US 52, you’ll probably miss the little state-run US Grant birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio: we nearly did. It’s not something that you can get to on the way somewhere else because it’s not near anything else. That about sums up Grant’s life: always on the way somewhere else.


https://www.thirddrawerdown.com/products/giant-vanilla-ice-cream-scoop-bank
Called a Giant White, worth nearly $42–not to me, but maybe you.

And today is National Vanilla Ice Cream Day because, again, someone said it was. Ice cream, as everyone knows, predates mechanical refrigeration by at least a century. The easiest way to make it cold is to use an ice cream churn that uses a steel drum and rock salt to reduce the temperature of the mixture. Even before this, the ancient Egyptians and nearly everyone else was flavoring natural and manufactured ice and snow.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have brought a recipe for vanilla ice cream back from France in 1790, but there are records of extant vanillas before then, those introduced by the Quakers as early as the 1750s. There are at this writing more than 30 different flavors of vanilla ice cream retailed in the US…who knew?

So, to celebrate National Vanilla Ice Cream Day, have a bowl or two or, like the young lady above, a cone. Or, like me, just smile and let others enjoy it. I, myself, never quite got the point of ice cream. But maybe you did.


And today in News of the Future-Past, on 23 July 2018, Dr. Huckleberry Dogbreath of the University of Doodle-Patch in Oregon announced the invention of the pedal-popper, a development of a bicycle that, used correctly, either goes back in time or simply disappears…no one’s sure just which because Dogbreath is the only person who’s ever seen it. At the same time, Professor Dogbreath announced that his government research grant to develop the pedal-popper has so far totaled in the vicinity of $2,000,000,000,000, and he plans to apply for more. Senator Makeme Grabitall (R/D-Everywhere) stated unequivocally that this was the kind of innovation that the US Congress should back.

Take that to the bank, or the poor house.


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Trinity and National Personal Chef Day

OK, mid-July at last. Now if you haven’t fired up that grill yet, you’d better, because the siege of the mosquitos is about to begin, and you have to have a way to roast the little buggers. And, as we all know, People for the Ethical Treatment of (some) Animals is requiring that all of us homo saps provide food for all living creatures…except the annoying ones.

On 16 July 1790, the District of Columbia was established, carving out parts of Maryland and Virginia on the Potomac River; while Congress was aware that most of the land was still a swampy wilderness, they apparently felt at home there–and still do. And in 1863, the New York “draft” riots ended with the Union Army’s VI Corps patrolling the streets; while the draft offices were the easiest targets, the riot is also attributed to unrest over jobs, the payment of substitutes for the draft, and a general feeling that “outsiders” who included Negroes, Irish, and Germans were taking advantage of war-driven shortages. On 16 July 1940, Philippe Petain, French hero of WWI, became the Premier of the new French government at Vichy; while Petain felt he was only doing duty to his country, postwar Frenchmen would condemn him to life in prison and exile. And on 16 July 1969, Apollo XI launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida; in three days they would orbit the moon, and in four, land on the Sea of Tranquility.  Today is also National Corn Fritters Day because, somewhere in the long-ago past, someone said it was. But today, we talk about mushroom clouds in the desert and personal chefs.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_(nuclear_test)#/media/File:Trinity_Site_Obelisk_National_Historic_Landmark.jpg
Trinity National Historic Landmark, NPS

In 1933, the legend goes, Leo Szilard conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, and everything after that was just a matter of engineering. Szilard was also credited with drafting the letter that Albert Einstein signed to President Roosevelt that has been ascribed to have been the trigger for the Manhattan Engineer District and the development of the atom bomb.

Nonetheless, the Americans began official, government-funded research on a nuclear weapon when the Manhattan Engineer District was formed on 6 December 1941. 

The letter wasn’t a suggestion to build a bomb, but a warning that the Germans might be on the way to building one. What no one outside of Germany knew at the time was that, yes there were eminent scientists in Germany working on a nuclear weapon, but their leader, Walther Heisenberg, had the theory wrong and couldn’t have built one based on his work. Nonetheless, the Americans began official, government-funded research on a nuclear weapon when the Manhattan Engineer District was formed on 6 December 1941.

They  made weird-looking explosive bricks and wedges, they turned metals into shapes with tolerances of zero, they watched columns of water change color, they built a tower in a sandy desert miles away from everything.

In the course of the next four years, an entire industry was formed in six states, employing nearly 120,000 people in total. Only a handful of these people knew exactly what they were working on. They extracted enriched uranium and plutonium, they made weird-looking explosive bricks and wedges, they turned metals into shapes with tolerances of zero, they watched columns of water change color, they built a tower in a sandy desert scores of miles away from everything.

The observers were told that when the light beams came together and stopped, they would have ten seconds to turn away–or it would be the last thing they ever saw.

In the summer of 1945, all the pieces were together in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Over the course of a week, the eggheads assembled the big round ball with its exotic triggers, thick wires and that ball of shiny material in the middle. Near midnight on 15 July 1945, the thousands of watchers started to fill the bleachers. At about 2 in the morning of 16 August, two searchlights started to sweep the air over the tower in the desert. The observers were given goggles, and were told that when the light beams came together and stopped, they would have ten seconds to turn away–or it would be the last thing they ever saw.

One member of the Special Engineering Division said that, among his coterie, the only subject of conversation afterwards was “so that’s what we’ve been doing.”

At 5:29 on 16 July 1945, the Trinity site–what the entire effort to assemble and detonate the “gadget” in that lonely patch of desert was called–became like a sun as the implosion-type plutonium-core nuclear device was detonated under those light beams. The explosive power of the weapon was rated at about 20 kilotons–20,000 tons of TNT. Blind persons fifty miles away were said to have seen the flash of light brighter than a star for a millionth of a second. One witness miles away from the official viewing stand–a member of the Special Engineering Division of technicians hired to do scut work–said that, among his coterie, the only subject of conversation afterward was “so that’s what we’ve been doing.”

On the same day, USS Indianapolis left the Mare Island naval station for San Francisco, where they would load parts of the bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later.

By the standards of 2018 it would be a large tactical nuclear device, but by the standards of 1945, it was an enormous device. On the same day, USS Indianapolis left the Mare Island naval station for San Francisco, where they would load parts of the bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later.

For those of you who might plan to actually go there, you have to want to find it–the Park Service didn’t make it easy to find in 1976 when I was there (in fact, our bus driver got lost). Take your own water, because there’s nothing out there other than the obelisk shown above–not even a gift shop. Fittingly, it’s a lonely, desolate place in the middle of what is now the White Sands Missile Range.


Today is also National Personal Chefs Day by decree of the folks at the National Day Calendar and the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA).  Now, why it’s on 16 July is still a mystery, but there really has been an (apparently) professional organization for this kind of thing since 1991. Their description:

A Personal Chef is a culinary professional that comes directly to your home to provide you a wide variety of personalized cooking services. Each Personal Chef is an independent business owner who will work closely with you to provide personalized and customized services that fit your specific tastes and needs.

And here I always called them “cooks.”

But if you’ve got a personal chef, do something nice for them today, for it’s their day, like take them out for lunch. Or something.


And, in News of the Future-Past, on this day in 2018 King Fred of Wahoozistan (also known as Joyce the Broad-Shouldered) launched his campaign against their sworn enemies in neighboring Jeosophat in a lightning campaign that was stopped dead in its tracks by a lone goatherd just inside the border. Surviving accounts attribute the forever-nameless nomad with turning his shepherd’s crook into a dozen Krispy Kream glazed doughnuts with a mere wave of his cell phone. The aroma of these delectable fat pills so attracted the starving army that they started to fight among themselves, causing the ill-starred invasion to collapse.

And now you don’t know that, either. Take that, future researchers.

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Saipan, National Sugar Cookie Day, and News of the Future-Past

Nearly mid-July and the weather is–or should be–warmer than it was six months ago. If not, Prince Albert Gore of St. Albans and his disciples of climate change have some explaining to do. As a reminder to my readers–climate changes. This does not mean we all have to start walking to work.

On 9 July 1540, Henry VIII annulled Anne of Cleaves, his fourth wife. Of all his divorces, this one was probably the one that everyone agreed with but robbed the headsman his fee for beheading her. Also on this day in 1686, the League of Augsburg (also known as the Grand Alliance) was first formed between the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, and Spain; at various times nearly every country in Europe would join to oppose expansionist France. Today in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read to the troops on Long Island as they were preparing to meet some 11,000 oncoming British troops; the reaction, according to most, was mixed. But it worked, since on 9 July 1795, the national debt of just over $2,000,000 was paid off–the last time that happened all at once. On this day in 1887, Samuel Eliot Morison was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Morison was a well-known scholar when he was appointed to write the US Navy’s official history of WWII, and left a lasting legacy of maritime and naval history, best remembered for coining the term “Long Lance” describing Japan’s oxygen-fueled Type-93 torpedo after the war. Today in 1993 is also the day when remains found near Ekaterinburg, Russia was identified as those of the Romanovs using mitochondrial DNA studies, the 75-year-old mystery of the fate of the last monarchs of Russia finally solved. But today, we’re talking about the end on Saipan, and the most delectable possible taste in all of creation (other than the kiss of your most precious loved ones).

In the Pacific War, much of the fighting was simply for bases. The prewar US plans were for a methodical march across the central Pacific, seizing the Mariana Islands as a prelude to a distant blockade of the Japanese Home Islands. But the prewar plans did not have the B-29s in them, and the Marianas were in range of the new super-heavy bombers out of Seattle.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Saipan#/media/File:Battle_of_Saipan_map.jpg
Saipan Campaign, Wiki Commons

Japan had moved into the Mariana Islands when they took them from the Germans in 1914 and had treated them as extensions of the Japanese Empire. Strategically, they were important to prewar Japanese planning as air bases for attacks on the expected US Navy fleet assault. Over 30,000 Japanese civilian colonists lived on Saipan in 1941.

While only isolated parts of Saipan were out of USN battleship range, none of it was out of the range of their carrier-based aircraft.

The American invasion fleet left Pearl Harbor for Saipan on 5 June 1944, a day before a much larger Anglo-American force hit the beaches of Normandy. The US naval force, 5th Fleet, was commanded by Raymond A. Spruance; V Amphibious Corps of two Marine and one US Army divisions on board the amphibious fleet was commanded by Holland M. Smith. Opposing them was the Central Pacific Area Fleet, led by Nagumo Chuichi of Pearl Harbor infamy, that included the Thirty-First Army commanded by Saito Yoshitsugu,  and 14th Air Fleet commanded by Nagumo. Tokyo knew the Americans were coming, and more-or-less when based what they gleaned from intercepting the radio traffic of the chatty Americans. The bombardment of the island started on 13 June, the invasion started on 15 June. The landings were essentially unopposed. Having tried to meet the invaders at the beaches at Tarawa with no success, Japanese strategy shifted from that to a defense in depth, in part to stay away from the pinpoint gunfire that American destroyers and other light ships were capable of. While only isolated parts of Saipan were out of USN battleship range, none of it was out of the range of their carrier-based aircraft.

In two days, 19-20 June, the Japanese lost three fleet carriers, two oilers, over 600 aircraft, and any hope of resupplying the Marianas, compared to just over 100 US aircraft (of some 900 engaged) lost.

On the day the invasion started, the Japanese committed to A-Go, the implementation of their mid-ocean ambush that they had drilled regularly since 1922.  A-Go is known to historians as the battle of the Philippine Sea, or colloquially as the Marianas Turkey Shoot. In two days, 19-20 June, the Japanese lost three fleet carriers, two oilers, over 600 aircraft, and any hope of resupplying the Marianas, compared to just over 100 US aircraft (of some 900 engaged) lost.

Ominously, civilians and wounded men joined in the largest banzai charge of the war.

The result of the fighting on Saipan was never really in doubt. The biggest delay was caused by interservice rivalry. Marine General Smith relieved Army General Smith because his troops were taking too long to clear a particularly tricky defile dubbed Death Valley. The area was finally cleared, using the original commander’s plan but implemented by his relief. On 7 July, after Nagumo killed himself, over 4,000 men committed themselves to a final banzai charge that, for fifteen hours, battered two already-decimated Army regiments to tatters. Ominously, civilians and wounded men joined in the largest banzai charge of the war. Saito killed himself shortly afterward.

If Saipan was a preview of the future, it was also ammunition for arguments against an invasion of the Home Islands and for a strategic bombing campaign.

But the bloody slog was over, and Saipan was declared secured on 9 July 1944. Within hours of the first landings, engineers were laying out the future airfields for the Superfortresses. It is thought that at least 22,000 Japanese were killed or killed themselves during the battle for the island. Saipan was the first part of the prewar Greater Japanese Empire to fall to Allied forces and was regarded as a preview of what was to come in any invasion of Japan. If Saipan was a preview of the future, it was also ammunition for arguments against an invasion of the Home Islands and for a strategic bombing campaign.


No one knows why, exactly, National Sugar Cookie day is 9 July, but who cares?

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/9870/easy-sugar-cookies/
The Perfect Dessert, Unadorned as the Creator Intended

Originally known as Nazareth cookies, these delectable confections were thought to have been invented in the mid-1700s around Nazareth, Pennsylvania by German Protestant settlers who were known to make them. Made with sugar, flour, butter, eggs, vanilla and either baking powder or baking soda, most people have the ingredients on hand at all times and can have the kids help make a batch on any day. The fun just begins with cutting the dough with fun shaped cookie cutters and then getting creative by decorating with icing and sprinkles.  Recipies abound on the internet, but here’s one of the easier ones from Allrecipies.com.

Sugar cookies are holiday favorites, often polluted–excuse me, decorated–with various icings and supposed enhancements including raisins. But for the love of all that’s holy, just don’t. Consume the unadorned delights plain, like you should take you pound cake and your angel food cake: simple, elegant, irresistible.

Or not.


Today, I’m starting a new segment, News of the Future-Past, a homage to the future rewriting of history, which as we all know will happen because we’ve done so much of it before and we continue to do it today, and we will continue to do it until we all get tired of it–the day after never. Continual re-interpretation of the historical record is so rampant and expected it shouldn’t be remarkable…but I can have fun with it. Future historians take note: these vignettes are presented for amusement, entertainment, and punditry. Almost none of them didn’t ever happen.

And you thought you were confused before.

In News of the Future-Past, on 9 July 2018, nuclear war with North Korea was narrowly averted by the courageous intervention of President-Emeritus Legtingle Lightworker and his tireless Secretary-of-State-Forever-in-the-Mind Swift-Boat Johnny. It should be recalled that Johnny was the same former presidential candidate whose memory of a Nixon speech denying that US forces were in Cambodia was seared–seared–into his mind when he was more than a hundred miles outside that country–and he later said he was in it at the time. More history that didn’t happen.


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Sealion and Independence Day 2018

Hot time, summer in the Great Lakes, back of my neck gettin’…um…that doesn’t work. Well, let’s see what does.

On 2 July 1566 the seer called Nostradamus died in Provence, France; whether or not he predicted his death is impossible to know since his prophecies have been so bowdlerized over the centuries, many original texts having been lost:  he might have, or not. Also on this day in 1644, William Gascoigne was killed at the battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire, England; Gascoigne was the inventor of the micrometer and the telescopic sight, and Marston Moor was the decisive battle in that phase of the English Civil War. But never mind, James II disbanded Parliament on 2 July 1687, partly as punishment for his grandfather’s ouster. On 2 July 1871, Charles Tupper was born–and he had nothing to do with Tupperware but was a Father of Confederation and the 6th Prime Minister of Canada. And today in 1900, the first Zeppelin flew over Lake Constance in Germany, and just sixteen years later Hans-Ulrich Rudel was born in Konradswaldau, in what is now Poland but was then part of Germany; Rudel was the most decorated German airman in WWII, and author of the memoir, Stuka Pilot.  It’s also National Anisette Day because, well, somebody said so. But today we’re going to talk about an invasion that never could have been, and the difference between declaring independence and being independent.

While this story has been peddled for decades by book writers and movie-makers, the truth is that the Germans were never particularly serious about invading England, and much of their preparations were meant to merely frighten her to the peace table.

After the British Army had its head handed to it in France and the Low Countries in June 1940, the story goes, Hitler was merely waiting for Britain to give up and make peace. When that didn’t happen, the Germans prepared to invade the British Isles. This scary prospect supposedly shocked and galvanized Britons into all sorts of gyrations to defend their island against the dreaded invaders. While this story has been peddled for decades by book writers and movie-makers, the truth is that the Germans were never particularly serious about invading England, and much of their preparations were meant to merely frighten her to the peace table.

In addition, neither the Luftwaffe nor the Kriegesmarine had any enthusiasm for the project. In short, Seelowe (Sea Lion) was a plan without willing participants or a shred of a possibility for success.

On 2 July 1940, the OKW,  (Oberkommando des Wehrmacht, or Armed Forces High Command) instructed the three branches of Germany’s military to do some studies for the invasion, with the preconditions that air and naval supremacy had already been established in the English Channel and much of southeastern England. The services dutifully prepared elaborate estimates, some of which required equipment that Germany didn’t have. On 16 July, having heard a synopsis of the estimates, Hitler issued his Directive 16 that ordered that preparations be made for the invasion. The services dutifully complied, again, and started collecting landing craft and troops. Absent in Directive 16 was the reality that the RAF and the RN were still viable forces in the area, and no matter what else happened they would still be viable when the preparations were supposed to be complete at the end of August, nor was a combined headquarters provided for. In addition, neither the Luftwaffe nor the Kriegesmarine had any enthusiasm for the project. In short, Seelowe (Sea Lion) was a plan without willing participants or a shred of a possibility for success.

Though Prime Minister Churchill was aware of all these non-gloomy official assessments, he was counseled to assume that the worst could happen if nothing else to get Britain moving in aggressive directions; that was his public persona.

But on the other side of the Channel, despite having only one fully equipped division in Britain–and that Canadian–the higher-ups in the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy were somewhat sanguine. They had access to the tidal charts and eggheads who had been studying them for centuries. These eggheads were queried time after time since 1935 about the possibility of an invasion of England from France, and the answer was always the same: surprise was impossible because of the slow tides; an invasion force big enough to create a lodgement had to be larger than the Channel ports could accommodate; the Channel current flow was a bear that any force could overcome only with large numbers and concentration beyond German capacities. Besides, the intelligence men were saying, the Germans had zero experience with large-scale amphibious operations. Though Prime Minister Churchill was aware of all these non-gloomy official assessments, he was counseled to assume that the worst could happen if nothing else to get Britain moving in aggressive directions; that was his public persona.

After the failure of the Battle of Britain, Seelowe was postponed indefinitely on 17 September 1940.

The preconditions for the invasion, of course, were never met. The Luftwaffe never got close to air supremacy over the Channel or over England itself–they could barely keep the RAF from shooting up the collections of barges for the land forces. The Kriegsmarine was never more than a commerce-raiding force and were never a serious challenge to the Royal Navy. Thus the British Army could build up its forces in Britain and send troops to North Africa and wherever else the Empire needed them. After the failure of the Battle of Britain, Seelowe was postponed indefinitely on 17 September 1940.


Wednesday is Independence Day in the US–the 4th of July. It celebrates the day in 1776 that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved the text of the Declaration of Independence, and to mark that approval John Hancock affixed his signature to it. But, as those of us who have adult children living with them can attest, declaring independence is a far cry from being independent. For one thing, there were forces already in motion that, within two months, would largely destroy the largest American Army, Washington’s on Long Island. There was nowhere in the American colonies that the war was going particularly well for more than a year until about 1782. Another six years of often desperate fighting makes the 1776 declaration presumptuous, at best.

But it was a necessary step to get all the colonies at least thinking in the same terms. Thought the fractious United States would bicker and fight and argue with the others for the next four score and nine years–until 1865–the basic notion that they made up a self-governing republic without the need of a monarch on the other side of the Atlantic wasn’t seriously questioned. But financial independence had to wait until WWI when the center of the financial world gradually shifted from London to New York.

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Simon B. Buckner and National Splurge Day

Mid-June already? Where does the year go? With no snow to punctuate life with, how does one know the passing of time? Eh, not that hard: just look at my bank account. But yesterday was Father’s Day in the US, and for all those of you who forgot, the Big Guy probably did too. For those of you who are fathers, hope you were at least as well treated as you treated the mothers in your life.

On this 18th day of June, a number of important and trivial events were known to have taken place. One was the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in China in 618, sometimes regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization. The Tang saw the rise of Buddhism in China and its decline; by the end of the dynasty in 907 the mechanisms of central administration were breaking down due in part to a population explosion. And on this day in 1682, William Penn founded Philadelphia, and on the same day in 1778, the British would abandon it under pressure. The last day of the Waterloo campaign, the climactic clash between Napoleon and Wellington that is the best-known 19th-century battle was on 18 June 1815: Napoleon ran out of time before dark, and his men simply ran out of energy. Speaking of generals, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov died in Moscow on 18 June 1974, a victim of many things, including his own success. Zhukov was arguably the best Soviet general of the Stalinist period, who won far more than he lost in an age of military inefficiency. Today is also National Go Fishing Day, which for some is a way of looking like they’re doing something when in fact they are not. But today, we’ll talk about legacies and self-indulgence.

Simon B. Buckner was one of US Grant’s best friends, and Grant didn’t have many friends.

The name Simon Bolivar Buckner should be a familiar one to most anyone who has studied either the American Civil War or World War II. Simon B. Buckner Senior was one of US Grant’s best friends before the war broke out, and Grant didn’t have many friends. When the rift came in 1861, Grant remained loyal to the Union, and Buckner remained loyal to Kentucky, where he landed in 1857 after leaving the Army.  While Kentucky remained neutral–perilously–and Buckner assembled militiamen to defend it, Illinois, where Grant was, started assembling militiamen to send to fight to preserve the Union. Grant, even before he was commissioned, began organizing men even as he was eying the secessionists just across the Ohio River.

Buckner, knowing that fighting it out would only result in more casualties, surrendered his command to his old friend Grant.  

The crisis came for Grant and Buckner in February 1862, when General Grant and General Buckner faced each other at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Grant had already taken Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and was poised to push the Confederates out of Kentucky altogether. Expecting, perhaps, to be afforded the “honors of war” to be offered, Buckner appealed to his old friend Grant for surrender terms. Grant’s famous reply of “unconditional surrender” electrified the Union, which was starving for action and especially victories. Buckner, knowing that fighting it out would only result in more casualties, surrendered his command to his old friend Grant.

Simon B. Buckner had the unique distinction of being both the first and the last Confederate general to voluntarily surrender a command.

Buckner was exchanged in August 1862 (that was still done at the time) and promoted to major general. He fought well at Perryville in October 1862 and was sent to Mobile, Alabama to prepare defenses there. Back in field command in the fall of 1863, Buckner missed Chickamauga and was relieved of command for trying to get Braxton Bragg replaced as a field commander. In the spring of 1864, Buckner was sent to the Trans-Mississippi theater.  Simon B. Buckner had the unique distinction of being both the first (Fort Donelson) and the last (the Trans-Mississippi) Confederate general to voluntarily surrender a command.*

Buckner fils commanded troops in Alaska before he was given the command of the Tenth Army and the invasion of Okinawa.

At the age of 64, Buckner fathered a son while he was governor of Kentucky, Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr, who was born on 18 July 1886 and accompanied the old gentleman on his presidential campaign in 1896. Buckner Sr. lived long enough to see his son graduate from his alma mater, the US Military Academy at West Point, in 1908. Buckner pere passed in January 1914, nearly 90. But the son spent WWI in the Philippines and drilling aviation cadets, but would spend the next seventeen years as an instructor and a student in the burgeoning graduate education system. Buckner fils commanded troops in Alaska before he was given the command of the Tenth Army and the invasion of Okinawa.

Evacuated immediately to a nearby aid station, Buckner died on the operating table. His command fell to Roy Geiger.

After more than six weeks of fierce struggle on Okinawa, Buckner was visiting a forward observation post about 300 yards behind the front lines on 18 June 1945. Regardless of personal security, his vehicle arrived festooned with three-star flags, making it an inviting target for the observant Japanese. Belatedly exchanging his three-star helmet for one without, Buckner was observing the Marine assault on Ibaru Ridge when a small-caliber, flat-trajectory Japanese shell (thought to have been 47 mm) struck a nearby rock and sprayed fragments into his chest. Evacuated immediately to a nearby aid station, Buckner died on the operating table. His command fell to Roy Geiger.

*Stand Watie, who held out for fifteen days longer than Buckner, was a part of Buckner’s command.


Today is National Splurge Day because Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith wanted it to be in 1994. Now, this woman bills herself as America’s Premier Eventologist, and as the only “eventologist” that I’ve ever heard of, I suppose that could be. But CNN covered her and a few other oddballs in a story in February 2018.

Its-National-Splurge-Day
Really?

In any event, “splurge” is a common reference to spending resources on ones’ self. As the bride above could be spending her father’s money, it is more likely that she splurges on her own. While marrying couples can spend money like drunken sailors or ad execs at a convention these days, such things aren’t called “splurging,” just spending on things of dubious value. While you can do whatever it is you want to do on this particular day, just don’t spend my money doing it. In other words, if you’re living off student loans, don’t use it to get yourself a full body wax.

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Hamburger Hill and Memorial Day 2018

The last week in May in the Great Lakes is met with great fan…fare as the weather heats up to its customary humid burst until mid-September, when it calms down to merely obnoxious until the snow falls, sometimes as early as October. Why I have put up with it for these three score plus years I really don’t know, but I find other weather patterns dull.

But 28 May is known for several momentous events, such as the 585 BC solar eclipse visible in the Eastern Mediterranean; recorded by Herodotus and called the Eclipse of Thales after the Greek philosopher who predicted it; the event is used as a benchmark for other date calculations. On 28 May 1533, the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was voided; the grounds have always been shaky, but the Great Harry usually got his way. On 28 May 1818, steamboat Ontario was launched at Sackett’s Harbor, New York; she was the first steam vessel to work any part of the Great Lakes. And, on 28 May 1923, the United States Attorney General declared that it was legal for women to wear trousers anywhere; talk about your dress code on steroids… Today is also National Hamburger Day, no doubt to commemorate the millions of pounds of beef rendered inedible on Memorial Day grills across the country; and National Brisket Day, ditto. But today we’re talking about useless firefights and the passing of a buddy.

Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

On most of the maps, it’s called Ap Bia Mountain, but in 1969 it was officially known as Hill 937. It was situated a little more than a mile from the Laotian border on the western end of the A Shau Valley. This was Screaming Eagle territory, where the US 101st Airborne/Airmobile Divison fought most of its war in Vietnam. It was also very close to North Vietnamese Army Base Areas at an outlet of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

Nobody thought much of Ap Bia when they moved around it, but the NVA was dug into the elephant grass and bamboo thickets such that their positions could only be seen from directly on top. The Americans, who had been relying on firepower to dislodge and destroy enemies since George Washington’s time, were unaccustomed to having to fight like this in Vietnam, even if their fathers did it time and again a quarter century before against the Japanese. Two battalions, then three, then four were used up in the fighting against barely 800 NVA regulars. It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

The press transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto Hamburger Hill. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.

The hill was secured on 20 May, but it had limited strategic and no tactical value, having been denuded of vegetation in the fifteen-day firefight. On 28 May 1969, after a little less than two weeks of occupation, the decision was made to pull off Hamburger Hill, the withdrawal being completed 6 June. The press, as they were wont to do, somehow transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto the Hamburger Hill action, and as the blowhards of Congress denounced the action, that was one of the arguments used. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.


Today, 28 May 2018, I’ll be memorializing a buddy who passed last October. Bill Crum got to Vietnam at about the time Hamburger Hill was wrapping up and spent a year as an artilleryman with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He got hurt over there, and came home to the protests and the media distortions, went to school, eventually got married, fathered two kids, divorced, got sick, and died alone.

That, regrettably, was the sum of his life. But Bill was my buddy, and that’s all anyone needs to know. We met on Veterans Day in 1982 at the Student Union in the basement of UWM. He was a fellow Army Reservist and veteran of the deeply misunderstood conflict in Southeast Asia. He had a very droll sense of humor, but he at least had one, unlike many others who were hurt in that war and didn’t come back quite whole. Bill did his 20 years in the Active and Reserve and got his small pension and health care benefits at last on his 60th birthday. He used them for eight years. His last four few months were spent tied to a hospital-grade oxygen concentrator because his lungs had nearly stopped working. He was working on getting strong enough for a transplant.

I was out of town when his son called me, saying that his father had passed that morning. I saw Bill on my regular weekly visit just the Saturday before. He seemed like he was gaining weight, but in retrospect, it was as likely he was retaining water, and that’s what killed him. But, I understand his passing wasn’t prolonged. I had been looking forward to having another beer with my buddy on Veteran’s Day last year, but instead, his sister and I were planning his memorial.

RIP, Wild Bill/Floogle Street. This Memorial Day is for you and every other person who gave his health, wealth, welfare and life for our freedom.

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Bicycles and National Waitstaff Day

So, May is well underway, and summer is right around the calendar corner. If there’s still snow in the Great Lakes, climate change is a bummer.

Traditionally, on 21 May 102 BC, Aurelia Cotta, Julius Ceasar’s mother, was born in Rome; almost certainly not by caesarian section–then again. neither was Caesar. Also on this day in 1471, England’s King Edward IV entered London; on that same day, England’s King Henry VI was beheaded in the Tower of London–not a coincidence. On 21 May 1807, Napoleon lost to Austria at Aspern-Essling; one of the few stand-up battles his army would lose, but also a harbinger of things to come for his increasingly clumsy armies. Charles Lindberg landed in Paris on this day in 1927; Amelia Earhart landed in Ireland on 21 May 1932–Lindberg the first man to solo across the Atlantic, Earhart the first woman. But today, we’re talking about bicycles and about waiting tables.

This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after The Year Without a Summer caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.

The bicycle is said by some to date from as early as the 16th century when a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci is said to have sketched a vehicle resembling a modern “pusher” (two wheels and frame but no pedals or steering means). An 18th-century French vehicle of similar design shares the same provenance. The earliest two-wheel, steerable frame bicycle dates from 1817 Germany, called a Laufmaschine (running machine) or Draisine, hobby horse, dandy horse or Velocipede in the English press. This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse, after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after the summer of 1816’s widespread crop failure–The Year Without a Summer–caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.

The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet… 

Now, I know there’s those of you out there who will say “horse-hockey” to any suggestion that a mere volcano could change the global weather, but it almost certainly did after 5 April 1815. The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet above Sumbawa Island in what are now the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer. 

The next year, killing frosts hit in Europe and North America as late as June. Whole counties, entire countries’ crops failed; millions of acres of forests died; mountain meadows were covered by new glaciation; famine struck large swaths of Europe not yet recovered from a generation of war with France. In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer.

There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.

It was on 21 May 1819 that the first “swift walker” neo-bicycles were introduced in the streets of New York. Almost certainly either copies or original versions of Denis Johnson’s 1818 versions that were the toast of London, if briefly. They were largely seen as novelties even then because the original crisis had passed: the winter of 1816-17 was especially violent for most of the United States and much of Europe and is thought to have largely cleaned the upper atmosphere. Two years of good crops and imports from the Middle East had restored a good deal of the horse market. Though the popularity of these early machines waned, the idea stuck around. There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.

And all because a volcano starved the horses. Makes you think again about the rationale for Boulle’s Monkey Planet, doesn’t it? You remember: a plague wiped out the dogs and cats, so the humans reached for apes as companions. Well, from a lack of horses came the bicycle.


From https://twitter.com/hashtag/nationalwaitstaffday
Or, when I get to it…

And 21 May is National Waitstaff Day. This is the one day a year when we should all tip our hats–and our waiter/waitress–generously to the grunts that put up with our intrusions into their domains. Of course, it’s their domain, dummy: they clean it, put it together, spend more waking hours in it than they do in their “homes,” smile at visitors, put up with your bad days, and get paid squat for it. In the US, a sub-minimum wage is the expected norm for compensation, a travesty that should have been addressed by legislation generations ago. Living on the off-chance that the last table for the night in their section will pay more than 10% over their $100 dinner check (consumed, mostly, after the kitchen is closed and the bussers have left) is no way to live.

Now, I’ve never had to wait tables, but I did tend a little bar. And my wife waited tables in her youth, so did my granddaughter. And my daughter has made her living at it for, well, most of the 21st century. Their living is precarious, mostly hand-to-mouth. Benefits include…tips, and maybe some vacation after a year or so.

Like doctors, they see people on their best behavior, in the best of times…and in their worst. When I laid my mother to rest a few years back my wife and I had a sit-down with my step-sister and her husband, a distant cousin and her daughter in a small restaurant in rural Iowa. We were probably the biggest group they had that day, and even at lunch, the place wasn’t half-full. But in that small town, it was the only eatery. The food wasn’t stellar but the coffee was hot. We must have sat there for two or three hours, and the waitress kept refilling the cups. Can’t remember how big a tip we left, but we didn’t actually eat that much, and considering the amount of time we spent there the gratuity probably wasn’t big enough.

Keep your cards and letters coming, folks.

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Sugar Loaf Ends and National Women’s Checkup Day

OK, 14 May. Yesterday was Mother’s Day (you did remember, didn’t you?), and I hope all you mothers out there were well feted and pampered. I also trust that those of you who still have mothers or mothers-in-law or ersatz-mothers did your duty in pampering and honoring them. One can only hope. We can also pray for a snow-free Mother’s Day in the Great Lakes.

On 14 May 1610, the colony known as Jamestown in Virginia was founded; my ancestor arrived there in chains from Ireland about a year later. Also on this day in 1686, Daniel Fahrenheit was born in what was then Prussia; he would later develop the Fahrenheit temperature scale based on the freezing and boiling points of water, then a revolutionary development. Also in the world of science, on 14 May 1796 Edward Jenner would first innoculate a patient using a cowpox strain; while Jenner was the first to inoculate using scientific means, primitive inoculations had been used using other sick patients’ weeping pus to bring on a milder form of the disease for some time before that. On this day in 1919 Henry J. Heinz–famous for ketchup–died; and on this day in 1954, Heinz Guderian–famous for armored warfare–died. But today we talk about rocks on islands and women’s health.

Announcements of the end of the war in Germany on 8 May did not affect the chaos and slaughter on Okinawa at all.

By the beginning of May 1945, most of the island of Okinawa was in American hands. Since the invasion on 1 April by the Tenth Army’s half million men, the Japanese had defended the island’s mountainous southern parts with their Thirty-Second Army’s 76,000 men plus conscripts with far more tenacity than the flatter parts to the north. The main Japanese holdouts were on the southern 1/3rd of the island, where a series of defensive lines of mutually supporting killing zones made the fighting a nightmare of noise and dust. Announcements of the end of the war in Germany on 8 May did not affect the chaos and slaughter on Okinawa at all.

To crack the Shuri Line, Sugar Loaf had to be secured. It fell on the 6th Marine Divisions to do the job.

One of these defensive lines was centered on Shuri Castle, which had been the seat of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1879. The castle itself had been shelled and bombed repeatedly, but the Japanese held firm on the defensive line. One of the many defensive positions on the Shuri Line was dubbed Sugar Loaf Hill by the Marines fighting there. Barely fifty feet above the surrounding ridgeline and perhaps three hundred yards long, Sugar Loaf Hill is just east of the city of Naha, one of Okinawa’s principle municipalities and the western anchor for the Shuri Line. To crack the Shuri Line, Sugar Loaf had to be secured. It fell on the 6th Marine Divisions to do the job.

From https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/npswapa/extcontent/usmc/pcn-190-003135-00/sec5a.htm
Shuri Line, March 1945

If only it were a simple job. Not only were the Japanese positions mutually supporting, they were mutually supporting in all directions. In some cases, it became necessary to attack in three directions at once to clear a single position. An entire book has been written on this one insignificant land feature. From the Marine Corps Association website:

The Japanese were so entrenched that many Marines fought … without ever sighting the enemy…[describing] a colonel shaking hands with the Marines who returned from one of the fights…one Marine refused to shake hands, saying: “I don’t deserve any commendation. I took the worst licking of my life and never even got one of them in my sights.”

The 6th Marine Division was practically destroyed by the time they secured the hill on 14 May 1945. Nearly a thousand Marines were killed there, and more than 2,500 wounded, at a cost of just over 1,000 Japanese. But their sacrifice helped outflank Shuri Castle itself, even though it would be another two weeks of hard fighting to before the ruins of the castle itself were secured.

When I write stories like this, I come back to the penultimate scenes in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). In its 2002 restoration form, the film becomes more than a western–it becomes an anti-war film on the scale of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1959). The cemetery where the Maguffin is buried is called Sad Hill. That cemetery is only accessible using a single bridge that has been fought over for months by opposing forces. But once the bridge is no longer an issue…no more futile battles.

What if there were no more hills and bridges to fight over? We would still fight over something…it’s in our nature.


This is National Women’s Checkup Day (the second Monday in May), a part of National Women’s Health Week (the week after Mother’s Day every year*). While women procrastinate about checkups as men do, the latest polling numbers indicate…not as much. An annual no longer costs anything in the US but time and may save your life. But…

From https://www.pinterest.com.au/bobnbarb71/funny/
Wile E. Coyote says…

But seriously, folks. Health is important for everyone. I’ve come to like going to my internist, a lovely younger woman (about my daughter’s age) who has put up with my intransigence about my shaky health for going on eighteen years. She says I’ve got at least another decade in me. Good for her.

Stop by next week, folks.

*There’s also an observance of Women’s Health Week the week of Labor Day in some locations.

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Conch Republic and National Picnic Day

Warm, balmy breezes blowing through the window; lazy sunbeams dancing on the wall; grass popping up through the sleeping ground. Yes, these are what we should be seeing now in the Great Lakes. But this little missive is being written on a February day with a high of 51 and bright sunshine, so by the end of April, we could have another foot of snow on the ground for all I know.

So, 23 April. Sir Francis Bacon calculated that it was on this date in 32 AD that the Christ was crucified on Calvary outside of Jerusalem; to that few scholars have ever had a great deal to say. But Brian Baru was killed at Clontarf on this day in 1014, and he was a myth only to those who don’t believe in Irish Exceptionalism (if you’re Irish, you’re exceptional). And on 23 April 1564, Will Shakespeare was (traditionally) born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died there on that same date in 1616, which is also St George’s Day, which celebrates yet another decapitation that took place way back in 303. On this day in 1702, we solemnly remember the passing of Margaret Fell, co-founder of the Religious Society of Freinds, known as the “mother of Quakerism.” And speaking of pioneering women, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in the United States on 23 April 1872.  And, for those who really get into the esoteric, GRB (Gamma Ray Burst) 090423 was observed/captured on this day in 2009; it is the oldest and most distant (13 billion light-years away) object known to man; that explosion happened before Earth was formed. It’s also National Cherry Cheesecake Day (for those of you who like that kind of thing) and National Talk Like Shakespeare Day (if you did, according to some linguists, no one could understand you). But today we’re talking about important stuff, like micronations and picnics.

As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

Way back when the Earth was young and dinosaurs weren’t all CGA, the little island of Key West was a fishing village, smugglers port and little more. By the time of Prohibition, it was realized that it was a lot closer to Cuba and a steady source of rum than the mainland, so the town grew. A fella named Flagler built the Overseas Railroad earlier in the century, and the extension that went all the way down the Keys to Key West was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Well, it was mostly destroyed in the hurricane of ’35, so it matters very little to us. As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Other than a boat or an airplane, the only way to get to Key West is on the Overseas Highway (US 1) that connects Key West with the rest of the Florida Keys of Monroe County, Florida. This roadway also carries electric power, telephone, telegraph and natural gas lines down from the mainland. It is, literally, Key West’s lifeline. In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Latitude 25
One of many versions of the Flag of the Conch Republic; this one, a beach towel

In retaliation, the City Council of the City of Key West declared the Conch Republic on 23 April 1982. Now, this declaration had about all the legal validity as a divorce decree written on a cocktail napkin, but it created what some oddballs call a micronation. Stamps and even passports bearing the Conch Republic seal have been sold as souvenirs; one 9/11 hijacker was said to have had a Conch Republic passport. While they boast a military force that possesses nothing more powerful than any civilian arsenal, a navy of civilian pleasure boats and an air force of single-engine aircraft, the Conch Republic is about as dangerous and independent as Chicagoland.

With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and desalination plantadequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

I was stationed on Key West with the Army from 1975 to 1976, and aside from the large Navy population )about 1/3 of the residents) the citizens of the Conch Republic are mostly involved one way or another in either tourism or in commercial fishing. With commercial fishing dying out, tourism becomes all consuming. With restricted egress, any traffic in or out becomes problematic.  While even the most ardent Conchs in their most inebriated states will agree that Key West is still a part of the US, the declaration did point up a salient fact: Key West, the southernmost city in the Continental US, is terribly vulnerable to the least disturbances on its lifeline. With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and a desalination plant adequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

If you ever get that far down the Florida coast, toast the independent spirit of the Conch Republic. Frankly, it lost its appeal for me, even then.


Today is National Picnic Day in the US, and no one is quite sure why. The concept of a picnic is familiar to most, but its origins are somewhat obscure. Other than a farm hand’s or a hunter’s repast in the field or forest, the idea of finding a scenic location far from the cares and woes of routine dates from the 18th century, and was primarily restricted to the upper classes. Though the term may have appeared in a 17th-century dictionary as pique-nique, the actual usage began as pique un niche meaning to “pick a place,” an isolated spot where family or friends could enjoy a meal together away from distractions. The term morphed into pique-nique and after years of usage entered common French usage, and entered English sometime in the 18th century.

Tewksbury Lodge
An anachronism in a flower field…too bad.

In modern usage, the picnic has been confused with the newer and growing habit of tailgating at athletic events and other outdoor venues. In American hands, the picnic has also gone mainstream, the kind of event that can be enjoyed by anyone with a brown bag and a sandwich on a lawn…any lawn. But the traditional picnic with the basket and the ants and the blanket is almost extinct, except for the photographers’ models that you’ll find on the internet. For me, I’ve had my fill of eating out-of-doors…out of cans and pouches…cold. But, it’s the thought that counts. Try it sometime.