May 15: Man the Tomatoes, Full Speed Ahead

The following account will demonstrate why Wretched Richard’s Almanac finds it necessary to begin Summer Social Distancing, keeping at least six feet away from pen, pencil and keyboard for the next three months.It’s a battlefield out there. Each morning I prepare my weaponry and fortify myself to better face the enemy.  Then it’s out into the morning mist, bellying my way through the trenches, my trusty trowel at my right, my insecticidal soap at my left. Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, into the valley of Death – mine not to reason why, mine but to do or die.  “Huzzah, huzzah,” I shout,  “Be valiant, stout and bold.”

With scant warning, they attack!  Tufts of crabgrass pop up behind every rock, aphids to the right of me, weevils to the left of me. A slug squadron advances relentlessly head on.   Japanese beetles at four o’clock.  The battle is joined.  Almost at once, I’m ambushed by an elite corps of exotic man-eating weeds, snapping at my ankles and calves, while trash-talking thistles peek out from between tomatoes, taunting me with Tea Party slogans.

But I’ll not be intimidated.

“Forward,” I shout and storm into the mouth of Hell. I manage to free a tiny pepper plant being held prisoner by a half dozen stinging nettle goons.  Moments after I make a clearing to let the cucumbers once again see sunlight, the neighbor’s cat claims it for his own and begins his morning toilette.  He glowers at me, unflinching, as I try to encourage him to move on, his eyes saying I may not be big but I can bring down a gazelle and I can bring down you.  Enjoying the moment, knotweeds laugh merrily and loudly insult my gardenerhood.

I jump in with both feet, hacking and pulling and spraying.  When I’m done, a pile of green debris lies all around me shattered and sundered.  The day is mine.  The tomatoes, cucumbers and beans all nod in appreciation as I holster my trowel and spray bottle and ride off into cocktail time.

Later, exhausted, I’ll sleep, perchance to dream – of late potato blight.

 

Until September.

MAY 14, 1796: PANDORA’S BOX IN YOUR BELLY– AND IT SERVES YOU RIGHT

Edward Jenner established the principles of vaccination, proving that it was possible to prevent suffering and death from infectious diseases by artificial inoculation. His findings were made public on May 14, 1796. Rarely has there been a discovery so beneficial and rarely has such a discovery provoked such virulent opposition. It began immediately with a barrage of outrageous charges and continues today, largely on the Internet. (Measles, anyone?)

Although medical and scientific evidence demonstrates that the benefits of immunization far outweigh the rare adverse effects, opponents have claimed that vaccines do not work, that they are dangerous, that individuals should rely on personal hygiene instead, or that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights or religious principles. If God had decreed that someone should die of smallpox, it would be a sin to thwart God’s will by vaccination.

One of the first anti-vaccinists was a Dr. Mosely who produced a pamphlet claiming no less than 500 cases of “beastly new diseases” produced by vaccination.  The pamphlet included engravings of an ox-faced boy and a girl covered by cow’s hair.

Another pamphleteer included a depiction of Dr. Jenner with a tail and hooves feeding a hideous monster with infants out of baskets. With quiet taste and understatement, he described vaccination as “A mighty and horrible monster, with the horns of a bull, the hind hoofs of a horse, the jaws of a kraken, the teeth and claws of a tiger, the tail of a cow – all the evils of Pandora’s box in his belly – plague, pestilence, leprosy, purple blotches, fetid ulcers, and filthy sores covering his body – and an atmosphere of accumulated disease, pain and death around him . . . (that) devours mankind – especially poor, helpless infants; not by scores only, or hundreds, or thousands, but by hundreds of thousands.”

Of course, we’re far more enlightened today.

MAY 13, 1619: WALK A MILE IN HIS WOODEN SHOES

Johan van Olden Barneveldt was a statesman who played an important role in the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain. His name is also associated – at least, according to British accounts – with a nation’s lack of gratitude for those who devote their lives to its service.  (The English have frequently displayed an antipathy toward the Dutch which has manifested itself in the language. A Dutch uncle is the opposite of a kindly relative; Dutch courage is a synonym for drunkenness; a Dutch treat is a demonstration of stinginess.)

 

As Land’s Advocate for the States of Holland, an office he held for 32 years, Olden Barneveldt was the chief civil officer with tremendous influence in a republic without any central executive authority. And it was Olden Barneveldt who obtained for his country a footing among the powers of Europe, gaining peace and prosperity, freeing it from debt. He restored Dutch integrity by gaining back towns which had been surrendered to England as collateral for a loan and gained recognition of Dutch independence from Spain.

 

The country owed nearly everything to this capable and upright administrator. Yet he had enemies. One Prince Maurice of Orange, head of the military forces, along with other military and naval leaders and the Calvinist clergy, were opposed to the peace with Spain, contending that the Spanish king was merely seeking time to recuperate his strength for a renewed attack against Dutch independence.

 

This coalition against Olden Barneveldt proved to be overwhelming as well as nefarious. In 1619, he was arraigned before a special court of 24 members, only half of whom were Hollanders, and nearly all of whom were his personal enemies. In a mockery of justice, this kangaroo court ( a phrase showing English antipathy toward Australians?) condemned him to death, a sentence which was promptly carried out the following day, May 13, 1619, when the 72-year-old statesman was executed at the Hague.

Dutch Bad, Americans Good?

Fred Turner believed that people are basically  good.  In May of 1992 he set out from Beaufort, South Carolina, on a walk across America to underscore that belief.  A week into his walk, on May 13, Turner was crossing the Tuckaseking Bridge in Georgia when he met several men.  They asked him if he was the one whose walk they had read about in the paper.  When he told them he was they said: “Good, then give me your wallet.”  And when he complied, they beat him up and shoved him off the bridge.  He floated to a nearby island where he spent the night nursing two black eyes and a lot of bruises.  And perhaps reassessing his opinion of mankind.

MAY 12, 1812: POETRY WITHOUT NAUGHTY WORDS

Edward Lear, born in England in 1812, was a true dabbler — artist, illustrator, musician, author, poet. Starting off his career as an illustrator, he was employed to illustrate birds and animals first for the Zoological Society and then for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who had a private menagerie. He also made drawings during his journeys that later illustrated his travel books. and illustrations for the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson. As a musician, Lear played the accordion, flute, guitar, and piano (not simultaneously). He also composed music for a number of Romantic and Victorian poems, most notably those of Tennyson.

Lear is remembered chiefly for his work as a writer of literary nonsense. He might easily have been given the title Father of the Limerick for bringing the much maligned form into popularity (without the raunchiness that later found its way into the form). In 1846, he published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions. In 1871 he published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, which included his most famous nonsense song, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of the Earl of Derby.

Lear’s nonsense books were successful during his lifetime, but he found himself fighting rumors that he was just a pseudonym and that the books were actually written by the Earl of Derby. Conspiracy theorists cited as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that Lear is an anagram of Earl. A few even suggested he was born in Kenya, not England.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Naughty Words Without Poetry

Stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, actor, writer/author George Carlin was born on May 12, 1937 (died 2008). Noted for his black humor as well as his thoughts on politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects, he won five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. Carlin and his classic “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices affirmed the government’s power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.

In his own words:

george

Swimming is not a sport. Swimming is a way to keep from drowning. That’s just common sense!

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.

george-carlin2

The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man…living in the sky, who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer and burn and scream until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you and he needs money.

MAY 11, 1888: THE LEADER OF THE BAND

Israel Beilin was born on this day in 1888 in a small village in Belarus.  His father, a cantor in a synagogue, with the intimidating name of Moses, uprooted his family in the face of the anti-Jewish pogroms of the late 19th century, emigrating to the United States, where theyalex settled into a cold-water basement flat with no windows in New York City.  At the age of fourteen, Izzy, as he was called, realized that he contributed less to the family than his siblings and decided to leave home. With few survival skills and little education, he found no real employment. His only ability was acquired from his father’s vocation: singing. He joined with a few other youngsters, singing in Bowery saloons popular ballads for whatever customers would give them. Beilin began to recognize the kind of songs that appealed to audiences. In his free time he taught himself to play the piano, picking out tunes when the bar had closed for the night.

 

His first attempt at songwriting was a song called “Marie From Sunny Italy,” written in collaboration with the bar’s pianist. The sheet music to this song is important primarily because of a printer’s error.  The name printed on the cover was misspelled as: ‘I. Berlin.’

 

His meteoric rise as a songwriter came soon after with a song that would become world-famous. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” firmly established Irving Berlin as an instant celebrity and one of America’s foremost musical wonders. He went on to write an estimated 1,500 songs, many becoming major hits, during his 60-year career, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films.  His songs were nominated eight times for Academy Awards. A list of noted songs might begin with “A Couple of Swells” and end with “You’re Just in Love,” with a whole lot in between.  Here’s a more complete list.

 

George Gershwin called him “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived” and composer Jerome Kern concluded that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”

Meanwhile in Romania

On this same date a few years earlier, in 1884, another musical talent was born in Romania.  Like Irving Berlin she emigrated to America at a young age.  Alma Gluck did not have his lasting fame, but she became a successful performer at  the Metropolitan Opera as well as in concerts throughout the country.  She was an early recording pioneer, and her recording of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” sold over a million copies, earning her a gold record, only the seventh to be awarded.

 

 

MAY 10, 1893: THE SUPREME COURT SAYS TOMAHTO

An 1883 tariff act required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. The Nix family, tomato entrepreneurs, went to court to recover back duties paid to the Port of New York under protest, claiming that they owed nothing because, botanically, a tomato is a fruit, a seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant. The case made it to the Supreme Court where, on May 10, 1893, the justices unanimously ruled that, botany be damned, a tomato is a vegetable.

At the hearing, both the plaintiffs’ counsel and the defendant’s counsel made extensive use of dictionaries. The plaintiffs’ counsel read in evidence the definitions of the word tomato, while the defendant’s counsel read the definitions of the words pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash, and pepper. In a clear case of one-upmanship, the plaintiff then read in evidence the definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.

The court decided in favor of the defense and found that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable, based on the ways in which it is used, and the popular perception to this end.  Justice Horace Gray, in a horticultural burst of logic, stated that:

“The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.”

He acknowledged that botanically, tomatoes are classified as a “fruit of the vine”; nevertheless, they are seen as vegetables because they were usually eaten as a main course instead of being eaten as a dessert. In making his decision, Justice Gray brought up another case in which the court found that although a bean is botanically a seed, in common parlance a bean is seen as a vegetable. While on the subject, Gray clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea, and turnip for good measure.

It would take another century to declare ketchup a vegetable.

MAY 9, 1671: STALKING THE CROWN JEWELS

In the movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty is out to steal the crown jewels. His  battle of wits with Holmes over England’s great treasure lasts about an hour.  Earlier, an Irishman, Colonel Thomas Blood, attempted the same feat with a much more elaborate plan.

Colonel Blood set the plan in motion in April with a visit to the Tower of London. Dressed as a parson and accompanied by a woman pretending to be his wife, Blood made the acquaintance of Talbot Edwards, an aged but trustworthy keeper of the jewels. During this time, the jewels could be viewed by the payment of a fee. After viewing the regalia, Blood’s “wife” pretended to be taken ill, upon which they were conducted to Edward’s lodgings where he gave her a cordial and treated her with great kindness. Blood and his accomplice thanked the Edwardses and left.

Blood returned a few days later with a half dozen gloves as a present to Mrs. Edwards as a gesture of thanks. As Blood became ingratiated with the family, he made an offer for a fictitious nephew of his to marry the Edwardses’ daughter, whom he alleged would be eligible upon their marriage to an income of several hundred pounds. It was agreed that Blood would bring his nephew to meet the young lady on May 9, 1671.  At the appointed time, Blood arrived with his supposed nephew, and two of his friends, and while they waited for the young lady’s appearance, they requested to view the jewels. Edwards accommodated the men but as he was doing so, they threw a cloak over him and struck him with a mallet, knocking him to the floor and rendering him senseless.

Blood and his men went to work. Using the mallet, Blood flattened out the crown so that he could hide it beneath his clerical coat. Another filed the sceptre in two to fit in a bag, while the third stuffed the sovereign’s orb down his trousers.

The three ruffians would probably have succeeded in their theft but for the opportune arrival of Edwards’ son and a companion, Captain Beckman. The elder Edwards regained his senses and raised the alarm shouting, “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!” His son and Beckman gave pursuit.

As Blood and his gang fled to their horses waiting at St. Catherine’s Gate, they dropped the sceptre and fired on the guards who attempted to stop them. As they ran along the Tower wharf, they were chased down by Captain Beckman. Although Blood shot at him, he missed and was captured before reaching the Iron Gate.  The crown, having fallen from his cloak, was found while Blood struggled with his captors, declaring, “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful, for it was for a crown!” — a rather eloquent comeuppance speech which today would be something more along the lines of “Oh fuck!”

MAY 8, 1854: A MILE IN WHOSE SHOES?

Celebrated pedestrian Robert Barclay Allardice, 6th Laird of Ury, generally known simply as Captain Barclay, died on May 8, 1854. During his life he accomplished many feats in the world of walking, and is, in fact, considered the father of pedestrianism, a popular sport of the 19th century.

 

His first feat, at the age of fifteen, was to walk six miles in an hour ‘fair heel and toe.’ Heel and toe was a rather vague rule of pedestrianism, that the toe of one foot could not leave the ground before the heel of the other foot touched down. It was randomly enforced. In 1801, at the age of 22, Barclay walked from Ury to Boroughbridge, a distance of 300 miles in five oppressively hot days, and in that same year, he walked 90 miles in 21 and a half hours, winning 5000 guineas for his fancy footwork.

 

His most famous feat came in 1809 when he undertook the task of walking 1000 miles in 1000 successive hours, a mile within each hour, a challenge in which many had failed and none had succeeded. At stake was 100,000 pounds (roughly 8 million dollars today). This feat captured the imagination of the public, and 10,000 people came to watch over the course of the event, cheering him on or wishing him ill fortune depending on the direction of their own wagers. He began his course at midnight on June 1 and finished it at 3 p.m. on July 12.

 

Pedestrian races were popular with both the media and the public throughout the 19th century, drawing throngs of spectators, along with bookies, touts and other unsavory characters who frequent such competitions. With the coming of the automobile, however, pedestrianism became an endangered sport as pedestrians themselves became an endangered species, serving mostly as targets for mechanized sporting types.  It does remain in our popular culture, however, with such paeans to pedestrianism as “The Stroll,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Walk This Way.”

 

Walking the Dogs

On May 8, 1877, 1,201 of the classiest American canines convened at the Hippodrome in New York City to compete for the the title of top dog.  This was the first dog show to be held under the guidance of the Westminster Kennel Club, and it has been held annually ever since.  Among the luminaries at that first event were two Staghounds from the pack of the late General George Custer and two Deerhounds bred by Queen Victoria.

Eighteen years later, on May 8, 1895, felines had their turn in the spotlight at the first cat show held in New York at Madison Square Garden.  This was a more down to earth affair with prizes given in several categories including the best stray alley cat.

MAY 7, 1885: COMIN’ THROUGH THE TV, SHOOTIN’ UP THE LAND

An essential player in Hollywood westerns was the leadinggabby man’s sidekick, and many sidekicks became just as famous as their starring partners: Andy Devine was Jingles to Wild Bill Hickock, Pat Buttram and Smiley Burnette were both sidekicks to Gene Autry, Jay Silverheels was Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Leo Carillo was Pancho to the Cisco Kid. The top sidekick was, of course, Gabby Hayes, born May 7, 1885. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy in 18 films and to Roy Rogers in 41.

The third of seven children, George Francis Hayes was born in an upstate New York hotel owned by his father. As a young man, he worked in a circus and played semi-pro baseball while a teenager. He ran away from home at 17, and joined a touring stock company. He married Olive Ireland in 1914 and the duo enjoyed a successful vaudeville career. Although he had retired in his 40s, he lost money in the 1929 stock market crash, and he felt the need to work again.  He and his wife moved to California, and he began his movie career, taking various roles until finally settling into a Western career.

Hayes first gained fame as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Windy Halliday in many films between 1936-39. He left the Cassidy films in a salary dispute and was legally prevented from using the name “Windy.”   So “Gabby” Hayes was born.  He gained fame as a sidekick to stars such as John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and, of course, Roy Rogers – beginning with Southward Ho in 1939 and ending with Heldorado in 1946.

Offstage Hayes was the complete opposite of his screen persona – an elegant bon vivant, man-about-town and connoisseur.  He died in 1969.  On the subject of his movies: “I hate ’em. Really can’t stand ’em. They always are the same. You have so few plots – the stagecoach holdup, the rustlers, the mortgage gag, the mine setting and the retired gunslinger.”

“You’re a good-looking boy: you’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” — High Noon

“There are only two things that are better than a gun: a Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?” — Red River

“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an ax, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” –Shane

“You don’t look like the noble defender of poor defenseless widows. But then again, I don’t look like a poor defenseless widow.” –Once Upon a Time in the West

MAY 6, 1782: YOU’VE GOT THAT MIDAS TOUCH

On this day, one James Price, a distinguished amateur chemist and a Fellow of England’s Royal Society began a series of remarkable experiments. The seven experiments were witnessed by peers, baronets, clergymen. lawyers and chemists – men of unimpeachable public character. In these experiments, mercury was apparently transmuted into various quantities of gold and silver. Some of the gold was presented to His Majesty George III.

Price became a celebrated figure, and many saw in his work the dawning of an era of unparalleled prosperity for England. Naysayers claimed that Price was merely a clever juggler or that he had deceived himself. In his favor were the facts that he was already a wealthy man and no needy adventurer and that he had already distinguished himself in chemistry.

A fierce paper battle ensued over the veracity of the experiments, and eventually the Royal Society stepped in, calling upon Price as a Fellow of the society to prove to the satisfaction of his fellow Fellows the truth of his transmutations by repeating his experiments in their presence.

Price dithered, making various excuses for not repeating the experiments (one of which was that it cost more to produce gold than the gold was worth).  Finally, however, he yielded to their exhortations and announced that he would leave London for his laboratory in the country to prepare for the experiment. He pledged to return in a month, but the month passed, and a second and a third. Six months passed, and even his friends had given up on him.  Just when everyone was convinced he had fled to France or some other criminal haven, he  reappeared, inviting members of the Royal Society to meet him at his laboratory for the experiment.

Although only a year earlier they were contending for the honor of witnessing the experiments, only three society Fellows accepted his invitation. Stepping before them, Price hastily produced a flask and swallowed its contents. Noting a sudden change in his appearance, the visitors called for medical assistance, but in a few moments Price was dead.

One thing was sure.  Price had not transmuted himself to gold.  It is speculated that in the beginning he had probably deceived himself, then in the usual slippery slope of skullduggery  attempted to deceive others, and finally,  lacking the moral courage to confess his mistake, checked himself out. In any event, the last belief in the possibility of alchemy among England’s scientific community came to an end in 1782 with Price’s death.