And we woke up on 31 January to learn a new place name: Khe Sanh. That afternoon we learned that Jeff’s there. No longer was Vietnam some abstract.
White bread America was as affected by that conflict as the rest of the country.
The controversial McNamara Line of outposts and electronic monitoring systems along the 17th parallel was built starting in 1967, and was anchored by combat bases like the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), which was a series of revetments and artillery batteries that was a most impressive sandbag fortification with an air strip and helicopter landing pads enough to maintain a Marine battalion. In January 1968, there were some 6,000 Marines based out of the Combat Base, and an unclear number of South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops. The struggle for Khe Sanh and the I Corps area started nine days before Tet ’68, but William Westmoreland insisted that Tet was a diversion from Khe Sanh.
Was the tail wagging this dog?
The day after the Tet offensive exploded on the news, the war became very personal for some of us, even at the tender age of 12. With older sisters who had boyfriends of a certain age…yes, two of them were in-country. One mailed a letter to my oldest sister just after Christmas, saying how this Khe Sanh place was just a maze of sandbags.
Every TV newscast about Vietnam became a contest to see who could spot Jeff
While the war raged and every evening people watched at the Marines fought for the hills and villages around the base, there were times when we thought “oh, there he is!” But we never knew for sure. No one heard from Jeff…not even his family…until after the siege was lifted on 6 April by the 1st Cavalry Division. His parents received a note–brief and hurried–saying he was OK and headed for Japan. The next my sister heard was a year later, after he got back Stateside. Yeah, that kind of thing happened, too.
Letters and Friends and Stella’s Game
Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendshipsis a story of four kids growing up in these turbulent times, when things like video calls, instant messaging with a device in your pocket were the stuff of science fiction. To communicate they wrote letters, and some letters arrived with odd timing, like Jeff’s to my sister. But the kids worry because their families worry, and that worry spills over to their friends sometimes, and friends offer what comfort they can.
Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships takes place in the Detroit area from 1963 to 1974, following four children trying to fit in, to learn, to love, to laugh and for one–to stay alive. Look for it on Amazon and everywhere else. Learn what it was really like growing up without too much concern about money, but a lot about your future, and about your friend’s futures. Money doesn’t, after all, buy security for everyone.
On Tuesday, 30 January 1968, many of us awoke to a world different from the one we had slept in.
There was supposed to be lines, rear areas, clean divisions between combatant and non-combatant…everybody knew that’s what war was supposed to be like. Combat was like, well, Combat and The Gallant Men. Besides, General Westmorland and Vice President Humphrey both said that the US was winning the war in Vietnam. Then…
Nứt trời; Làm rung chuyển trái đất!
Vietnamese for Crack the Sky; Shake the Earth!
But the Tet offensive, like the message above, in ’68 changed all those perceptions. The phrase was the signal sent to North Vietnamese units that the offensive to take over South Vietnam, planned for months, was on. Khe Sanh was suddenly put under siege; the US embassy in Saigon was partially captured; many provincial capitals were attacked, and the old capital of Vietnam’s empire, Hue, was captured by Viet Cong forces, which began a bloody campaign of massacre.
War didn’t have executions like the one in the New York Times for 2 February 1968–the one on top of this blog. Photographer Eddie Adams captured BG Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, executing CPT Nguyen Van Lem of the Viet Cong, whose unit had just slaughtered Lem’s friend’s family. Before that photo appeared, Vietnam was just World War II in color with different weapons and uniforms, and the US Department of Defense had treated it just like that..until that day.
And Vietnam became a very different kind of war…
And there were images of men hurt in the fighting delivered into your very home; in the newspapers, the magazines, on television. I was twelve, living a comfortable white-bread suburb of Detroit…and we saw this war unfold before us in living color. This kind of horror came after the riot of ’67, when the whiffs of smoke and tear gas rising on that wet and angry breeze from downtown, and the imagery of troops marching in formation down Woodward Avenue with bayonets fixed, and the news that our housekeeper was burned out of her home, reached us in the supposedly insulated suburbs that long and hot summer. Sure, I was too young to be drafted, but my older sisters had boyfriends…and one who was drafted in March of ’68; and one was going to West Point in the fall.
That war affected the affluent, too.
Public perceptions of the war changed decidedly after that. Though the battles for the capitals and the countryside ended with the US and South Vietnamese controlling most of the country and the Viet Cong were mostly destroyed, the war for public opinion was lost that winter. By spring, the demands to end the war were becoming overwhelming. Yet, Richard Nixon’s campaign theme was “Law and Order,” while Hubert Humphrey’s was “End the War.” And Nixon won in ’68 mostly, it is thought, because he promised new leadership…and he did get the US out two years before the Saigon government collapsed.
And that damn war affected the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. Imagine how a 12-year old–like the guy to the right here–might be affected by the knowledge that a family friend was a Marine stuck in Khe Sanh…and how his friends might be affected by that knowledge. Remember that this is Nixon country for the most part; supporters of the conflict in Vietnam.
It was one of those moments in our lives when history was being made right before us. Apollo VIII orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, with William Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman reading from Genesis. The story of “why Genesis?” hails back to when the astronauts knew they were going to be LIVE on TV on Christmas Eve, 1968…the end of a tumultuous year. The three cast around for just what to say until Borman talked to a friend in the US Information Agency, Si Bourgin, who turned to a former war correspondent, Joe Laitin, at the Washington Post, whose wife, Christine–who worked in the French Resistance–simply said “Well, that’s simple. Read from the first ten verses of Genesis. It’s a natural.”
No one had any better ideas…
Anders read the first four verses; Lovell the next four; Borman the last two, and closed with, “[a]nd from the crew of Apollo VIII, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
We heard them read from Genesis while we were watching the first Earth-Rise, marveling at the sheer majesty of that blue marble rising above the multi-faceted surface of another world.
That Christmas was especially poignant for many in the US, because between the Tet Offensive in January, the King assassination in April, the RFK assassination in June, the continual roaring of protests and electioneering and the coming of Nixon…and of course the Tigers winning the World Series…many of us were quite weary at the end of that year.
And so were the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. December, 1968 was sad, and weary, and full of hope for the the teen’s futures. Ask for Stella’s Game at your favorite bookseller.
As March marches along (pun intended) we must now turn to the pressing issue of this time of year: the dog poop that’s been lying latent on/in the snow since January. Oh, boy…
The construction of HMS Dreadnought in 1905 was said to have triggered the naval race which drove WWI. While the nature of the historical record makes such claims unknowable–and a matter of opinion–Dreadnought did mark the beginning of the end of surface warship development. First Lord of the Admiralty John (Jackie) A. Fisher’s “all big gun” innovation drove warships to drop their multiplicity of ordnance in favor of a single primary batter and a host of secondaries. It also made them horribly more expensive.
Warships and the facilities to keep them have always been and will always be an expensive method of national defense, but in many cases a necessity. The ships themselves are only the most visible symbols. The dockyards, storehouses, training centers, munitions factories and everything else needed to maintain the ships cost orders of magnitude more than the ships.
But Dreadnought served in a particularly expensive, volatile and innovative period. Fisher felt that a warship’s first duty was to sink other warships. For this reason, he felt that scrimping on main gun armament in favor of smaller guns was a waste of space. Dreadnought carried ten 12-inch main guns in five turrets compared to the Lord Nelson class’s two 12-inch guns. To serve these guns, she was one of the first vessels in the Royal Navy to be built with electrically-operated centralized fire control. This large number of big guns were incentive enough to drive all other major combatants to follow the big-gun philosophy. While building her wasn’t particularly expensive for the time, designing and building entire navies because of that one vessel was–and that’s what happened.
For all the innovation she drove and all the sensation she caused at the time, Dreadnought’s combat record was quite brief–in fact, she never fired a shot at an enemy vessel. Dreadnought was, however, the only battleship to purposefully sink an enemy submarine. On 18 March 1915, German submarine SM U-29 broke the surface immediately ahead of Dreadnought and Dreadnought cut the submarine in two. She spent much of WWI being refitted and repaired, was paid off in 1920 and scrapped. Very little of the ship that drove a hundred others remains.
Saint Patrick’s Day 1984/2019
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, commemorated with a parade first in Montreal in 1824 and observed in Canada as far back as 1759. The saint himself was said to have been born in Britain in the 4th century, and who returned to Ireland in the 5th to spread Christianity. He didn’t drive the snakes out: there were never any there.
But St Patrick’s day is noisily celebrated nearly everywhere, from Dublin to Yokohama to the International Space Station, primarily as a pop culture celebration and a reason to get blasted. Having an Irish heritage (my first ancestor in the New World was transported from Ireland to Jamestown in 1611) I can recall doing this more than once after I turned 18, and I can recall more than one St Patrick’s Day Blizzard growing up in Michigan.
On 17 March 1984, however, this scrivener and his bride Evelyne tied the knot in Waukesha, Wisconsin (see above). It was a sort of a compromise date. My step-brother was dying of cancer in Detroit at the time, and my step-father and my mother were shuttling back and forth between Michigan and where they lived in Florida, so I wanted to catch him on an up-cycle, and the date that became convenient was 17 March, a Saturday. It didn’t snow much that day, but it has snowed often enough on St Patrick’s Day since to make each anniversary memorable. And we’ve spent all of them together.
But five years ago today, on 18 March 2013, I had my C-3 through C-7 vertebra fused together. Didn’t snow that day, either, but it snowed a week later. I was in a brace and couldn’t do anything about it…but there it was.
So yesterday was our 35th wedding anniversary. Happy day, honey. I know you won’t read this, but I’d do it again, over and over. Love you!
In the late winter of 1917, a handful of Indo-Chinese laborers crossing the US on their way to France stopped in Haskell County, Kansas for at least three days. They had limited contact with any local Americans, and what contacts there were, were casual at most. On the morning of 11 March 1918, Albert Martin Gitchell reported to sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas (on the site of the modern Fort Reilly). He complained of a high fever, aches and pains, and a cough. Usually, this would have meant isolation in a sick ward (which was done), but Gitchell was a cook, who had been serving food as late as the night before. By noon there were 107 influenza patients; in a week, over 500. By April, over 1,000. Even this would have been unremarkable if 46 hadn’t died–horribly, coughing lung matter out in their final moments, blue-in-the-face.
What no one appreciated just then was that this H1N5 strain of influenza (so-called for the proteins in the outer shell of the virus) might have started as early as 1916 in Britain or France–to this day it is unclear. There were no centralized reporting mechanisms then, no CDC or WHO that anyone could recognize as such. Modern researchers believe that this strain of influenza may have been a close genetic match to the 1898 influenza, a milder form that swept the globe starting in China (as the flu always does) from October 1898 to March of 1899–flu season. It seems likely that the Vietnamese laborers carried the virulent Asian bug into Kansas, where it crossed with another strain, though the truth is unknowable.
What was remarkable about it wasn’t the “knock-me-down fever” that the flu was called, but that so many (proportionately) died, and not the elderly, infirm or very young who were usually flu fatalities. These were young people, healthy and in a prime state. Four deaths would have been odd, but 46 such horrible deaths was downright alarming. But the war came first, and the survivors–many still weak from the experience–shipped out in April and May for France, on slow-moving trains that stopped a dozen times before they reached whatever port they departed from–and spread the flu as they went.
At the time, medicine was in a state of transition. The only widely accepted vaccine was for smallpox; there were no antibiotics; there were still physicians whose medical training took about four months and did not involve looking at a cadaver. This bug spread from town to town, state to state, country to country. By June it had spread to most of the ports of debarkation and exploded worldwide. The Wilson administration was aware of the pandemic but forbade widespread news coverage of it because it would have been bad for morale. The British and French, Italians and everyone else had similar reasons for not covering it as the bodies stacked up in the morgues, ships arrived in port with bloody flux all over the decks and dead in the hundreds. For this reason, the only major European power that covered this plague in their mass media–the newspapers–was Spain, and that’s how it came to be known as the Spanish Flu.
This flu hit the sufferers suddenly and often violently. Caregivers came to know which sufferers were going to survive and which would not within the first few hours the symptoms presented. Extreme sufferers (about 20%) turned blue, cracked their ribs coughing, spewed black fluids from their mouth and nose, and died in hours..sometimes minutes. There was no treatment save codeine for their cough, and it hit those between the ages of 20 and 40 the hardest. Post-mortems showed the extreme sufferers were drowned in the detritus of their own immune systems that attacked the invading virus so vigorously that it killed their hosts. In milder forms, the affected simply weakened and died (40%) within days. The mildly afflicted–the lucky or strong 40%–suffered from a malaise that often lasted for years, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
By the second week in November 1918–when the War to End All Wars was ending–leading clinicians in the US and Britain, Russia (where the Revolution came to a brief halt) and even Japan were calculating the end of the human race. Most gave humanity perhaps six months to live. Many believed it had to be a new plague…a resurrected, reconstituted Black Death.
The American Army’s fatality roles 1917-18 were doubled by influenza. Large cities like Detroit and Chicago, Paris and London monitored traffic and imposed quarantines; rural communities and isolated islands stopped traffic altogether, frequently at gunpoint. A streetcar in Johannesburg loaded with passengers and departed a stop and five blocks later unloaded all of the 21 passengers and the conductor–dead. Children deprived of their caregivers starved to death, especially in urban areas. Funeral directors ran out of coffins and embalming fluids, which combined with shortages of gravediggers resulted in mass cremations: one in Vienna, Austria was said to have contained over 10,000 dead. Entire North African and Chinese villages were burned. Actuaries in the United States dropped the average life expectancy for 1918 from 55 to 37.
By the end of November, the rate of infection slowed, and by the end of January 1919, it became clear that the crisis had passed. It came again that winter, and once more in the winter of 1920-21, but the virulence seemed decreased, and the number of fatalities far less. Nearly 100 million people worldwide were killed directly or indirectly by the 1918 influenza; one in four (about a billion) were affected one way or another–sickened and survived like my mother’s father, overworked and weakened like my father’s father, or watched whole populations wiped out like my father’s uncle. In closing:
There are no lab samples, despite years of searching in graves: thus, there are no specific vaccines against the 1918 influenza.
Since the 1918 bug struck those in the prime of life–those who make vaccines–it is not clear that one could be made available if it should strike again.
The failure rate of the annual flu vaccine is about 30%; in bad years, like 2017-18, it rises as high as 60%. However, even failed or non-specific vaccines decrease the symptoms and the likelihood of retransmission.
Herd immunity is best sustained when 92% or more of any given population has been vaccinated, even with a non-specific vaccine.
The “reaction” to the flu shot shows that it is not only working but that the sufferer has already been exposed and is likely contagious.
About 20% of adults do not get regular flu shots.
Got your flu shot yet? Why not?
Thursday is Pi Day–3.14. It started out in 1988 as a celebration of mathematics by Larry Shaw of the San Francisco Exploratorium. The US Congress passed a non-binding resolution in 2009 recognizing 14 March as Pi Day. Nominally, this clever holiday has been celebrated or observed by throwing pies, holding mathematical symposiums, eating pizza and other more or less benign activities.
However, like many other things, Pi Day has been hijacked by…other interests. In 2005, an Oregon State physics major named Bobby Henderson sent an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, which was then struggling with creationism and intelligent design requirements alongside more scientifically accepted versions of Earth’s origins. He suggested that it is as likely that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created everything as it was any other deity. The most significant phrase reads:
I don’t have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and he’s intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.
Not exactly 97 Theses nailed to a door, but in the 21st century, it was enough. Soon, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster–the Pastafarians–was born. A book entitled The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was released in 2006. There are websites, and more books, and the odd, odd convention, and somehow piracy and other odd things got tossed in the chaotic mix. Mostly the Pastafarians are polking fun at organized religion, especially when it pretends to circumvent falsifiability.
Oh, and Pi Day is celebrated by some Pastafarian sects as recognition of a related deity. It is observed by reverently eating pizza…at least, according to my late buddy Bill, may Pasta rest his soul.
March…the month that deceives. It’s supposed to be coming up to spring, but here in the Great Lakes we can expect at least one more big snowstorm. We’ll know when it gets here.
4 March was an important day in American history for over a century. The 2nd Congress decided, under the Articles of Confederation, that the Constitution would take effect on 4 March 1789, when Washington was to be sworn in as President. But the electoral votes couldn’t be counted by then, so his inauguration was put off to 5 April. Thereafter, every routine presidential inauguration was held on 4 March except when it was on a Sunday in 1821, 1849, 1877 and 1917. The tradition ended with Amendment XX in 1933, which fixed the inauguration on 20 January.
This was less because of presidents than it was because of Congress. The Constitution states that Congress should meet on the first Monday in December each year, principally so that they would be available to decide who the president may be in the event of an Electoral College tie. 4 March was also the last day of Congressional business. Thus, the “lame duck” Congress was four months long…too long if control of Congress was to change, and those vengeful “other guys” wanted to change things.
Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural in 1801 was the first held in Washington, DC. James Monroe’s 1817 inauguration was at the Old Brick Capitol in Washington because the British had burned the Capitol down in 1813, and restoration was underway. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829 was marked by drunken revelry but was the first of 35 held on the east front of the Capitol. Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural was the first performed under armed guard. A blizzard forced William H. Taft’s 1909 inauguration into the Senate Chamber. Warren G. Harding in 1921 was the first to ride in a car to and from the ceremony. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration in 1945 was entirely without fanfare: the exhausted president had less than four months to live. Jimmy Carter’s inauguration marked the first “march” from the Capitol to the White House–a hike of about a mile. Since Ronald Reagan in 1981, the ceremonies have been held on the Capitol’s west front, a move designed to both cut costs and to provide more space for spectators. There have also been milestones in communications:
Thomas Jefferson, 1801: the first covered by a newspaper extra of an inaugural address
James K. Polk, 1845: the first covered by telegraph; first known newspaper illustration of a presidential inauguration
James Buchanan, 1857: the first to be photographed
William McKinley, 1897: the first to be recorded on film
Theodore Roosevelt, 1905: the first time that telephones were installed on the Capitol Grounds for an inauguration
Calvin Coolidge, 1925: the first to be broadcast nationally by radio
Herbert Hoover, 1929: the first recorded by a talking newsreel
Harry S. Truman, 1949: the first to be televised
John F. Kennedy, 1961: the first to be televised in color
Ronald Reagan, 1981: first closed-captioning of television broadcast for the hearing impaired
Bill Clinton, 1997: the first time the ceremony was broadcast live on the Internet
Donald Trump, 2017: the first inauguration broadcast live on Twitter.
Eh, for what it’s worth.
National I Want You to Be Happy Day
Yesterday was National I Want You to Be Happy Day because the folks at–you guessed it–The National Day Calendar say it is. It should be spent doing things that make others happy. A flower here, a silly knock-knock joke there. Buy the person’s coffee standing in line behind you. Remind your kids how much you love them. Leave a sticky note for a co-worker telling them to have a spectacular day, a happy day. Draw a happy face in the snow for a stranger to come across later. Give someone a hug. Putting a smile on someone’s face tends to put one on ours, too.
There’s a great deal of frustration…sometimes…trying to make someone else happy, as we have all experienced. Smiling and telling a joke to someone who just got bad news of any kind can elicit poor reactions. Flowers delivered to allergy sufferers can be deadly. Donuts for the work gang the day of a mass layoff can make the event flat. But sometimes someone, like the illustration to the right, just can’t do “happy” as others do. Its occasions like that, and circumstances like that, when the most positive-thinking folk just move on, and hope for the best.
Hope yesterday was at least reasonably happy for everyone.
I appreciate that February only has four weeks, but must they be as long as they are? What? They’re the same length as those in June? No, can’t be. You’re making that up. Next week is National Tell Me A Fairy Tale Day, not this week.
Well, given that…Julius Robert Oppenheimer (known either as Robert or Oppie) was born on 22 April 1904 in New York City to an affluent first-generation German Jewish immigrant family in the textile business. Young Robert’s early education was typical of secular Jews in Manhattan, but untypically Robert was introduced to the quasi-Christian/quasi-atheist Ethical Culture movement in the primary grades, which may have informed his life thereafter.
Young Robert, like the physicist Oppie would become, had a wide-ranging mind and interests that ranged from English and French literature to horseback riding and mineralogy. At Harvard he majored in chemistry but gravitated to physics, graduating summa cum laude in just three years. He moved on to Cambridge and to the University of Göttingen, where he earned his PhD in physics at the age of 23 while he developed his most cited work, the Born–Oppenheimer approximation in quantum physics.
After university, Oppie (from a Dutch-derived nickname) was much sought after, dividing his time between the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and Harvard for a year. Known to work himself to exhaustion while still in school, he was also subject to fits of depression. He had no spare time, dividing himself between hard science and Eastern philosophy, learning Sanskrit on his own so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. He supported communist ideals in the ’30s while supporting refugee scientists from Europe–including many who he would work with on the atomic bomb. At the same time he practically ignored the world around him, and was unaware of the Wall Street crash of 1929 until he was told about it two years later.
Morally Oppenheimer could be described as a mess. He had an affair with divorcee Jean Tatlock, a fellow communist sympathizer who really was a communist, that supposedly ended in 1938. Then he married another communist, divorcee Katherine Puening, who had two children with him while he was still sleeping with Tatlock from time to time. All of this made for interesting reading and constant surveillance while he worked on the most secret project of WWII.
Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project in 1942 as the head scientist, in part because he was a good referee. Oppie was the one world-class physicist among all those in the Western world who all the others would work for. The military head of the project, Army brat Leslie R. Groves, had been the overseer for the building of the Pentagon and was regarded as one of the best civil engineers in the Army. The unlikely pair–unruly and eccentric Oppenheimer and straight-laced career soldier Groves–got along famously and became lifelong friends, though Groves was always concerned about Oppenheimer’s serial indiscretions.
In July 1945 Oppie and thousands of other workers watched the Trinity device–a plutonium core nuclear bomb–ignite the very air in the New Mexico desert. His reaction over the years has been described and reinterpreted, but the one that makes the most sense was relief. After all, the Manhattan Engineer District had cost the United States $3,000,000 for every man, woman, and child in North America. There were scientists who thought that the thing wouldn’t work and others who thought that it would cause a continuing chain reaction and consume the Earth. If he thought of the Bhagavad Gita at that instant we can’t know now, even as much as he said he did later.
His early flirtations with communist organizations, direct or not, caught up with him in the coming Cold War. He lost his security clearance in 1954, and his situation was made worse by his pronouncements that science knew no politics. As the head of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton from 1947 until 1966 when he began chemotherapy for throat cancer, he encouraged research of all kinds and consistently spoke for harnessing science for the public good. J. Robert Oppenheimer died 18 February 1967, eulogized by many and remembered as a cautionary yet unapologetic voice for the harnessing of science for the public good.
President’s Day 2019
The appellation “President’s Day” originated in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which took effect in 1971. The Act established Washington’s birthday as the third Monday in February, in the week of 15-21 February; it didn’t officially merge Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, nor did it establish a “President’s Day” by law…pop culture seems to have done that all on its own.
The photo up top is of a unique club: five men who get to be called “Mister President” at the opening of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. There’s another to the right: a hurricane relief concert in 2017 when there were five living former presidents. WIth the incumbent in the White House, this was a period during which there were six living members of the President’s Club, which has happened four times. There have been six periods when there were no living former presidents:
When George Washington died in 1799;
When Andrew Johnson died in 1875;
When Grover Cleveland died in 1908;
When Calvin Coolidge died in 1933;
When Lyndon Johnston died in 1973.
Richard Nixon is the only person to have been both the only living US president (January 1973, after Johnson died, to August 1974, when he resigned) and one of six living presidents (January 1993, after Clinton’s inauguration, to his death in April 1994). Everyone should be known for something odd.