July 31, 1718: Lust in the Barley

A tragedy occurred on the last day of July in the English countryside, and eighteenth century poets were all over it like paparazzi on today’s celebrities. Gay wrote about it, and even Pope versified the unfortunate event.  John Hewit was a well-set man of 25, the comely Sara Drew about the same age, when they were both struck dead by a single lightning bolt. An anonymous poet (neither Gay nor Pope) told the sad story:

loversmeadowSara and Johnnie were lovers.

Oh, how those two kids could love.

Vowed to be true to each other,

As true as the stars above

He was her man,  And they were doing no wrong.

 

They were out in the meadow,

Picking flowers they say.

They lay down in the barley

Just to pass the time of day.

She was his woman, And they were doing no wrong.

 

The rain began, pitter patter.

It soaked them right through to the skin.

The great storm of 1718,

Yet the lovers didn’t come in.

He was her man, And they were doing no wrong.

 

Then came loud peals of thunder.

Guess what? They stayed there outside.

Lightning struck all around them.

Alas, our lovers were fried.

She was his woman, And they’ll be doing no wrong.

 

When the neighbors went searching, they saw the barley smoking. Then they spied the faithful pair – Sara, lifeless, with just a tiny burn mark on her breast;  John lying upon her in a vain attempt to shield her from the lightning, black all over.  Their tombstone, penned by Pope, read:

Near this place lie the bodies

OF JOHN HEWIT AND SARA DREW

an industrious young man

and virtuous maiden of this parish

who, being at harvest-work

were in one instant killed by lightning

the last day of July 1718

Either Pope didn’t know the sordid truth or he wasn’t telling.

 

And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need. ― P.G. Wodehouse

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July 30, 2003: Take a Spin in My Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen?

Volkswagen Beetle number 21,529,464 rolled off the production line at the VW plant in Puebla, Mexico, on this day in 2003. It was the last of the Beetles, a car that had been built since World War II. kdf-wagenIt was baby blue and destined for a museum near Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, where its oldest ancestors were made.

This was the classic VW Beetle, the real one, not the redesigned retro Beetle that Volkswagen started producing in 1998. It was first visualized back in the 1930s by Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche). Adolf Hitler wanted a small, affordable passenger car to satisfy German transportation needs, something smaller than a Panzer and more family-friendly. Porsche’s auto fit the bill and was introduced in 1939 as the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen (or “Strength-Through-Joy” car), not a moniker that would send anyone other than Nazis running to their nearest automobile dealer.  A much-needed name change would later make it the “people’s car” or Volkswagen.

The Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen was quickly given the nickname “Beetle” for its funny round shape and because — well, would you call it the “Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen?”  The Wolfsburg factory churned out vehicles until production was halted by Allied bombing in 1944.

Production was resumed after the war, and the Beetle was distributed throughout the world during the following years. After a slow start in the United States, the Beetle became the top import by 1960 as the result of a clever advertising campaign. In 1969, a Beetle named Herbie starred in a hit movie The Love Bug and a couple of sequels.

Hard times hit in 1977, however, as the Beetle was banned in America for failing to meet safety and emission standards. Sales throughout the world declined and, by the late 1980s, the classic Beetle was sold only in Mexico. The Beetle was doomed even in Mexico, thanks to increased competition from other compact cars and burros. And in 2003 it was adios.

 

I hope life isn’t a big joke, because I don’t get it. ~ Jack Handey

July 29, 1887: Naughty Nomads and Singing Sots

Born in 1887, Sigmund Romberg moved to the United States in 1909 and, after a short resume builder in a pencil factory (as a sharpener?), found work as a pianist.  An instrument here, an instrument there, and pretty soon he had his own orchestra. He published a few songs that caught the attention of the Shubert brothers, who in 1914 hired him to write music for their Broadway shows. Next day on his dressing room, they hung a star.

Career off and running, he wrote his best-known operettas, The Student Prince in 1924, The Desert Song in 1926, and The New Moon in 1928.

The Student Prince was the most successful of Romberg’s works, the longest-running Broadway show of the 1920s at 608 performances, even longer than the classic Show Boat.  The “Drinking Song,” with its rousing chorus, was especially popular in 1924, with Prohibition is full swing:

Drink! Drink!
  Let the toast start!
  May young hearts never part!
  Drink! Drink! Drink!
  Let every true lover salute his sweetheart!
  Let's drink!

The Mario Lanza version from the 1954 movie remains popular with imbibers everywhere.

The Desert Song (with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) is your typical superhero-adopts-mild-mannered disguise-to-keep-his true-identity-secret saga much like Zorro and Superman but with better music and no phone booths. The Red Shadow loves a beautiful and spirited girl, who loves his hero persona but not his wimpy side.  Will true love win out over hero worship? After much sophisticated music, lust in the dust and naughty humor, we learn the answer, especially in a lavish 1929 film production of the operetta – but only until the 1940s when it became illegal to view or exhibit the 1929 film in the United States because the folks in charge feared the naughty bits would morally harm us.

A second feature version was made in 1943, which had our hero fighting the Nazis, and a third version with Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae in 1953 was about as squeaky clean as you can get.  Thank god for censors.

I drink to make other people more interesting. ― Ernest Hemingway

July 28, 1948: Those Magnificent Men With No Flying Machines

A fog had settled over London on July 28, 1948.  All was quiet and seemingly normal. But of course it wasn’t. Visualize if you will a large shipment of gold bullion awaiting transport at London Airport. A gang of evildoers determined to make off with it.  And an elite throng of intrepid bobbiescrimestoppers known as the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad. You have all the ingredients in place for the adventure known as the “Battle of London Airport.”  Talk about fodder for a summer blockbuster action-adventure movie or at least a page turner to take to the beach.

 

You’d certainly be forgiven for picturing a major confrontation with flying aces swooping in for a pitched battle with the bad guys.  But this is England. 1948. More likely a bevy of bobbies pedaling in on their bicycles or on foot, with nightsticks drawn, like so many Keystone Cops.

In fact, The Metropolitan Police Flying Squad didn’t have a flying machine to its name. Formed back at a time when the Wright Brothers and other dreamers were still tinkering with air travel, the Squad — known at the time the Mobile Patrol Experiment consisted of a dozen members of Scotland Yard. Their original mission was to chase down pickpockets by hiding in a horse-drawn carriage with peep holes cut in the canvas top.

 

During the 1920s, the squad expanded to forty officers, under the command of a Detective Superintendent and was authorized to carry out duties anywhere in London without observing the normal policing divisions, thus earning the name “Flying Squad.” It was also given the nickname “the Sweeney” (as in Sweeney Todd) for reasons that remain obscure.

 

The 1948 Battle of London Airport was the Squad’s crowning achievement, thwarting the attempted theft of £15 million in gold and jewelry.

During the 70s and 80s, however, the Squad came under fire for its close ties with the criminal world (always part of its operating strategy). Bribery and corruption scandals surfaced, and the squad’s commander was jailed for eight years. Twelve other officers were also convicted and many more resigned.

The Flying Squad had lost its wings.

A flying squad without wings is as lost as pirates without a ship.  Speaking of pirates, Terry and the Pirate is available all over the place in both paperback and electronic versions. Check it out at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple.

July 27, 1793: Off With Their Heads

On July 27, 1793, Maximilien Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, whose function was to oversee the government of France and protect it against its enemies, foreign and domestic. Exactly one year later, he was removed from office. One day later, his head was removed.

During his year as committee member and president of the National Convention, he came to exercise virtual dictatorial control over the French government and proved himself a bit of a black hat. Faced with the threat of real or imagined civil war and foreign invasion, he inaugurated what was lovingly referred to as the Reign of Terror. He compiled himself a rather lengthy enemies list – some 300,000 suspected enemies made the list and were arrested. At least 10,000 died in prison. Robespierre proved himself mighty handy with a guillotine, executing 17,000 of them as “enemies of France”.

But just as he was getting the guillotine really smoking, the threat of a foreign invasion just up and disappeared, and those who still had their heads formed a coalition to oppose Robespierre and his followers.

And on July 27, 1794, Robespierre and his allies were placed under arrest by the National Assembly. When he received word that the National Convention had declared him an hors-la-loi, he shot himself in la tete but only succeeded in wounding his jaw. Nevertheless troops of the National Convention helped him finish the job the very next day – as French sages often say, live by the guillotine, die by the guillotine.

Fast forward a couple of centuries: Richard M. Nixon had himself an enemies list, though not nearly as long as Robespierre’s.  And his Saturday Night massacre pales by comparison. But on July 27, 1974, didn’t they vote to impeach him anyway. At least, there was no guillotine.

There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine. − P.G. Wodehouse

July 26, 1921: Excelsior, You Fatheads

To many of those who have even heard of Jean Shepherd, he is the voice of the grown-up Ralphie Parker whose childhood struggle to score an Official Red Ryder 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas is the subject of the holiday classic A Christmas Story. The film is based on Shepherd’s stories about growing up in Indiana.

Born July 26, 1921, Shepherd was an American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor. After several radio gigs, he settled in at WOR radio New York City in 1956 with an overnight slot on which he delighted fans by telling stories, reading poetry, and organizing listener stunts. The most famous of his stunts was the creation of a book, I, Libertine, by an 18th century author. Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of it, which led to booksellers attempting to purchase the book from their distributors.  Fans of the show also planted references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to its being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list even though it hadn’t been written.

Shepherd’s radio stories found their way into magazines and were later collected in the books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters; The Ferrari in the Bedroom; and A Fistful of Fig Newtons.

 

shep“What the hell time is it?” muttered the old man. He was always an aggressive sleeper. Sleep was one of the things he did best, and he loved it. Some look upon sleep as an unfortunate necessary interruption of life; but there are others who hold that sleep is life, or at least one of the more fulfilling aspects of it, like eating or sex. Any time my old man’s sleep was interrupted, he became truly dangerous.”Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters

 

From A Christmas Story:

I had woven a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.

And of course:  You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

July 26, 1895: Say Goodnight

With husband George Burns, Gracie Allen (born on July 26, 1895) made comedy history – in vaudeville, the movies, on radio and television.

The Burns and Allen comedy act began with Allen as the straight man, feeding  lines to Burns who delivered the punchlines. George explained later that he noticed Gracie’s straight lines were getting more laughs than his punchlines, so he reversed their roles. Audiences immediately fell in love with Gracie’s character, a clever combination of ditziness and total innocence.

George attributed their success to Gracie, even though he was a brilliant straight man: “All I had to  graciedo was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years.  And sometimes I didn’t even have to remember to say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'”

I read a book twice as fast as anybody else. First, I read the beginning, and then I read the ending, and then I start in the middle and read toward whatever end I like best.

 

“Gracie, those are beautiful flowers. Where did they come from?”
“Don’t you remember, George? You said that if I went to visit Clara Bagley in the hospital I should be sure to take her flowers. So, when she wasn’t looking, I did.”

 

Presidents are made, not born. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s silly to think that Presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won’t admit it.

 

A word of warning: The F-dash-dash-dash word appears on page 3 of Terry and the Pirate.  You could cross it out if you wanted, if you owned your own copy.

 

July 25, 1853: And My Other Brother Joaquin

He was an infamous cutthroat bandit. Or he was a 19th century Robin Hood. One thing was certain, Joaquin Murrieta was a notorious figure in California during the California Gold Rush of head1the 1850s, and he was well outside the law. Maybe he was twins, the good twin who was driven by Anglos from a rich mining claim, his wife raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murrieta himself horse-whipped (they knocked him down, stepped on his face, slandered his name all over the place).  Or the evil twin, an occasional horse thief and a bandit who attacked settlers and wagon trains in California, killing over 40 people in the process.

By 1853, California authorities had had enough of him. In a bill passed in May 1853, the legislature authorized hiring 20 California Rangers, veterans of the Mexican-American War, to hunt down the so-called five Joaquins — Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Ocomorenia, Joaquin Valenzuela and Murrieta.

Early on the morning of July 25, 1853, the rangers attacked Murrieta’s outlaw camp. Caught by surprise and badly outnumbered, eight of the bandits were killed, including Murrieta and his right hand man, Three-Fingered Jack (presumably his three fingers were on his left hand). To prove they had indeed killed Murrieta, the rangers cut off his head along with Jack’s three-fingered hand, preserving them in whiskey until they could exhibit them to the authorities.

The rangers received a $6,000 reward, and made some nice residual profits by taking Murrieta’s head on tour throughout California, charging a buck to see it (it’s uncertain if they charged extra for Jack’s three fingers).

Eventually, the head ended up in San Francisco Museum, where it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906. Today all that remains is a plaque near the intersection of State Routes 33 and 198 marking the spot where the outlaw lost his head.

“The executioner’s argument was that you couldn’t cut off something’s head unless there was a trunk to sever it from. He’d never done anything like that in his time of life, and wasn’t going to start now.

The King’s argument was that anything that had a head, could be beheaded, and you weren’t to talk nonsense.

The Queen’s argument was that if something wasn’t done about it in less than no time, she’d have everyone beheaded all round.

It was this last argument that had everyone looking so nervous and uncomfortable.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

July 24, 1934: Seriously, Are You My Mother?

Ornithologists at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, having precious little to do in 1934, hatched – or rather engineered the hatching of, since they didn’t actually sit on the eggs themselves or do much of anything other than whisper words of encouragement to those actually sitting on the eggs – the very first ptarmigans in captivity. Ornithologists and students of game birds throughout the country – and possibly the world – held glasses on high and stood and cheered this bold step in quasi-motherhood. These folks had been increasingly interested in experiments in hand-rearing and introducing game birds to new areas, for reasons that remain unclear.

     Known to their devotees in the bird world as Lagopus leucurus, the hatchlings also went by the name White-tailed Ptarmigan or Eskimo Chicken. They came from two and a half cartons of ptarmigan eggs “collected” by a Doctor (conspiracy theorists take note) Alien, of Cornell’s Department of Ornithology on Canada’s Hudson Bay. They were then smuggled transported to Ithaca where they were put under unsuspecting and very confused bantams.  These foster mothers broke several of the eggs while trying to figure out what they were. Nevertheless several hatched, leaving the mothers wondering if they had truly given birth to these strange little creatures, even though the Mysterious Doctor Alien had read the “Ugly Duckling” to them several times.  One small step for ptarmigans, one giant leap for aviankind.

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. − C. S. Lewis
If you know someone who is patiently sitting on eggs, you could keep her contented by reading her passages from Terry and the Pirate.  You never know what might hatch.  Check it out at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple.

July 23, 1851: Mr. Blackwell Does Not Approve

In 1840s and 50s New England, both the women’s suffrage and temperance movements were heating up. The convention held at Seneca Falls in 1848 to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” was a revolutionary beginning in the struggle by women for complete equality with men. One of the participants, Amelia Bloomer, was the editor of a magazine called the Lily, a publication with a curious mix of recipes, hints by Heloise and women’s rights manifestos. Bloomer became identified with what might be considered a sideshow of the movement.

At a ball in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 23, 1851, a certain type of apparel made its debut. It was a more practical substitute for the cumbersome, stifling, long full Victorian dresses worn at the time, and consisted of baggy pants narrowing to a cuff at the ankles (worn below a skirt), intended to preserve decency while being less of a hindrance to women’s activities.

Although Mr. Blackwell would not have approved, many women found it sensible and becoming, including Amelia Bloomer, who adopted it immediately, not only wearing it but promoting it enthusiastically in her magazine. Articles on the clothing trend were picked up in the mainstream press, and more women began to wear what was now dubbed the “Bloomer Costume” or “Bloomers”.

Bloomers remained subject to ridicule in the press and harassment on the street, and Bloomer herself dropped the fashion in 1859, saying that a new invention, the crinoline, was a sufficient reform that she could return to conventional dress. She remained a suffrage pioneer and writer throughout her life, writing for a wide array of periodicals. Although Bloomer was far less famous than some of her peers, she made many significant contributions to the women’s movement — particularly in dress reform and the temperance movement.

And fashion being what it is, bloomers will no doubt make a comeback. Until then, we’ll just refer to them as late bloomers.

 

I’ll look for him later, I expect I’ll find him upstairs crying his eyes out over my mother’s old bloomers or something . . . Of course, he might have crawled up into the airing cupboard and died. But I mustn’t get my hopes up. — Sirius Black (Harry Potter character)

July 22, 1959: The Moon Is Alive with the Sound of Music

Plan 9 From Outer Space is not the worst picture ever made. It’s probably not even the worst film to premier on July 22, 1959. The film has been featured in countless retrospectives, Turner Classic Movies, and documentaries. It’s been adapted for the stage, in comic books and computer games. It’s music has been featured on a CD. It’s been colorized!Plan_9_Alternative_poster

     And, of course, it was obviously the model for NASA’s grand hoax ten years later, the so-called moon landing and moonwalk.  Rumor has it that NASA even gave its charade the code name Plan 10 from Outer Space. Yet  even with all those scientists working on it, they couldn’t get the string holding up the Apollo spacecraft just right.  Nor did they include a single Bela Lugosi walk-on – his emerging dramatically from a crater would have been the perfect touch.

     And there you have the main argument – can any film featuring Bela Lugosi be the worst film ever made.  No way.   Lugosi has several scenes in Plan 9, even though he was dead and buried with a stake through his heart when the film was produced.  And narration by the Amazing Criswell. Had Criswell narrated the moon landing many more people would have believed in it.

     Some naysayers fault the film’s dialogue. “Can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?” Is that anywhere near as bad as “Doe, a deer, a female deer?”  Plan 9 from Outer Space is not the worst film ever made. The Sound of Music is.

Or the Mound of Susic as the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, born July 22, 1844, might have called it.  The Reverend gave his name to that bit of word play known as a spoonerism. For example:

“Give three cheers for our queer old dean.”

“Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”

“The Lord is a shoving leopard.”