October 13, 1917: God to Earth: Shape Up

It was an “aeroplane of light, an immense globe flying westward at moderate speed,” according to one of the many witnesses who were assembled that cloudy October 13. Many were certain they had seen amiracle-of-the-sun_cosmo-code figure within the globe — not some strange looking extraterrestrial creature, but rather a human form, a woman. Had this been the 1950s, this occurrence may have been commonplace; people were seeing flying saucers, flying doughnuts and other strange alien craft everywhere. But this was 1917, and UFOs were the stuff of speculative science fiction. Therefore, witnesses did not attribute this to an invasion from Mars or some far-off galaxy; they said it was a miracle.

The number of witnesses was rather phenomenal for a UFO sighting — some 30,000 or more descended on the little Portuguese village of Fatima. Nor had an alien invasion ever been scheduled in advance. It was three children who announced the visit of the lady. The kids had seen apparitions off and on for several months leading up to this day, apparitions bringing the message that folks upstairs were annoyed at all the war mongering that was going on and that if things didn’t change for the better, annihilation was next on the agenda. (This was not unlike the message Klaatu — as in “Klaatu barada nikto” — delivered to earthlings several decades later. It’s a message that never seems to get through to us, however.)

Although the accounts of the appearance were wildly contradictory, leading some naysayers to suggest people saw what they wanted to see, the consensus was that it was raining when the clouds suddenly parted and the sun appeared. It was duller than usual and resembled a spinning globe as it careened toward the earth. Its lady passenger appeared appeared to some but not all in the assembly and shot an admonishing glance before her chariot zigzagged away.

Many remained skeptical, having not seen anything themselves and suggesting that some of the others may have stared at the sun a bit too long. Nevertheless, some 13 years later the Roman Catholic Church declared that maybe it was a miracle after all. It’s official designation is now the Miracle of the Sun.


October 11, 1983: Don’t Yank the Crank

No, the title doesn’t refer to Steve Bannon or one of his playmates. It refers to a movement that took place in Maine back in 1981. Movement is probably a pretty strong word for laid-back Maine where crankdemonstrators tend not to get worked up into a chanting frenzy over things. And even less so in a sleepy little town like Woodstock whose population squeaked by 1,200 a couple of years ago.

Bryant Pond is Woodstock’s largest settlement and as much of an urban center as you’re likely to find. It captured its fifteen minutes of national fame and media attention during the mid1970s when its family-owned Bryant Pond Telephone Company became the last telephone exchange in the United States to used hand-cranked phones Then in 1981, the two-position magneto switchboard in the living room of the owners was purchased by the Oxford County Telephone & Telegraph Company, a larger company in the Maine neighborhood. The Bryant Pond Telephone Company was swallowed like so many krill off the shores of Maine.

Two Bryant Pond residents started the “Don’t Yank The Crank” movement to save their crank telephones, financed by the sale of tee shirts – a valiant effort but nonetheless futile. At a meeting in the local school gymnasium warmed by a wood stove, townsfolk spoke out. “We have the oldest pay station in the United States,” said one resident, either complaining or bragging. “You put in a nickel and wind it up.” “You are a person instead of a number.” And did they mention no robocalls?

Alas, to no avail. The last “crank calls” took place on October 11, 1983, and the beloved telephones slipped into history like so much Americana.

October 9, 1900: Soda Sipping Ingenuity

Joseph Friedman born on this day in 1900 was one of those inventors who might more correctly be called dabblers, thinking up ideas here and there that usually don’t amount to much (a lighted pencil, for example) although his nephew, a British MP, referred to one particular invention as “arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century.”

It came about one day in 1937 while Friedman was sitting in his younger brother Albert’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop in San Francisco. Friedman watched his young daughter sitting at the counter as she struggled to drink her soda through a straw that seemed to stay just beyond her reach. He took another paper straw and pushed a screw into it. Then, using dental floss, he wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations in the straw. After he removed the screw, the straw would bend easily over the edge of the glass, allowing his daughter to conveniently sip her soda – a  eureka! moment by any standard, the creation of the bendy straw. Friedman hastened to the Patent Office and secured patent #2,094,268 for his invention under the title Drinking Tube. He later filed for two additional U.S. patents and three foreign patents.

His attempts to interest straw manufacturers in his invention were unsuccessful so he eventually produced the straw himself. The Flexible Straw Corporation was incorporated on April 24, 1939, in California. However, war intervened and he didn’t make his first sale until 1947 – to a hospital rather than kids sipping sodas.


Columbus Was No Viking

October 9 has been designated as the day to celebrate the true discoverer of America Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, son of Thorvald the Blue, son of Knut the Orange, son of Sven the Green and so on.  It is a day to reflect on Scandinavian heritage and, of course, Viking humor.

October 7, 1916: What It Was Was Football

Back in the days when football was still known as that game with the pointy ball, the son of German immigrants became the coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology (known to its friends as Georgia Tech). John Heisman became the first coach in college football to be paid for his services. They got their money’s worth. He led the school to its first national championship and had a career winning percentage of .779 which remains the best in Tech history.

The most memorable — or perhaps infamous — game in Heisman’s Georgia Tech career was played on October 7, 1916, with Tech playing host to Tennessee’s Cumberland University. Talk about a nail biter! The plucky Cumberland Bulldogs got off to a bad start, losing the coin toss.  Georgia Tech returned the Bulldogs’ first punt for a touchdown. Score 7-0 in less than a minute played. Cumberland fumbled on its first play after the following kickoff. 14-0, with just seconds off the clock.   On their next possession, the Bulldogs fumbled once again on their first play.  21-0. It went pretty much the same until the game mercifully ended with a score of 222-0.  A record, of course, that still stands.

In Cumberland’s defense, it should be pointed out that the college, on the verge of bankruptcy, had eliminated its football program at the beginning of the season. The school was forced to field a team (fraternity brothers of the team’ student manager) to avoid a $3,000 forfeit fee.

Heisman, who went on to be elected to the Football Hall of Fame and give his name to the trophy for the outstanding college football player of the year, up by 18 touchdowns at the half, told his players not to relent. “We’re ahead, but you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves.”

October 6, 1961: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

fallout-shelterCold war and nuclear fears had been ramping up for years, when President John F. Kennedy took to the tube on October 6, 1961, to suggest that American families build bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout when those pesky Communists of the Soviet Union attacked the Homeland with their nuclear missiles. Just a year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis raised the stakes even higher.

While folks like Nelson Rockefeller and Edward Teller were outlining grandiose plans for an enormous network of concrete lined underground fallout shelters to shelter millions of people, civil defense authorities were talking up concrete block basement shelters that could be constructed by home handifolk for a couple of hundred bucks. Exactly how much protection they might actually provide was an open question.

Most people calmed down during the mid-1960s,  and fallout shelters pretty much went the way of duck and cover.  They were converted into wine cellars, recreation rooms or mushroom gardens. For others, the fallout shelter notion has been kept alive by internet sites devoted to nuclear hysteria. You can survive a nuclear or dirty bomb attack, shouts one such site.  It will not be the end of the world. But, you must be prepared!

Being prepared naturally involves purchasing a fallout shelter from one of the many firms that still market them — Acme Survival Shelters, Hardened Structures Inc., Safecastle.  Taking it over the top is a company called Zombie Gear whose motto is Be prepared for anything.

This Train Don’t Carry No Robbers

The Ohio & Mississippi train was chugging along through Indiana on October 6, 1866, when it was boarded by a nefarious outlaw gang known as the Reno brothers. The gang wasn’t just hitching a ride, it was robbing the train. This was unheard of. Never before had a moving train been robbed; holdups had always taken place on trains sitting at stations or freight yards. This daring first netted the gang $10,000, and there would be more to follow.

The concept quickly caught on. There were vast isolated areas, plenty of places to hide, and little law enforcement in the U.S. West. Pretty soon everyone was robbing trains. Eventually, railroad owners got wise, using fortified boxcars and deploying armed guards, but the bad guys had a few very good years. The Reno gang which consisted of four Reno brothers and some of their pals had two good years before they were caught and came to an untimely end at the hands of a vigilante mob, another fun part of the Old West.

Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room. — President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Stranglove

October 5, 1983: Burping in Polite Company

Noted American businessman and inventor, Earl Silas Tupper died on October 5, 1983. He was buried in a 100-gallon Tupperware container whose lid was “burped”to get an airtight seal before being lowered into the ground. Thousands paid their respect at a memorial Tupperware Party held earlier.

For indeed this was the man who invented and gave his name to Tupperware, a line of plastic containers in an almost infinite array of shapes and sizes that changed the way Americans stored their food. Tupper invented the plasticware back in the late 30s, but it didn’t really start worming its way into every household until the 50s when Tupper introduced his ingenious and infamous marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party. This clever gambit gave women the opportunity to earn an income without leaving their homes and to simultaneously annoy their friends and relatives.


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The rock musical Hair has played pretty much continuously since its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in the late 60s, its mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll more or less guaranteeing hairan avid following. It’s been translated into many languages and produced throughout the world. But back on October 5, 1967, it looked a lot like a colossal failure.

After rejections by producer after producer, the musical was accepted by Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, to open the new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village for a six-week engagement.

Hair depicts a group of hippies living the bohemian life in New York City, rebelling against the Vietnam War, conservative parents and other societal ills while diving into the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Its protagonist Claude must decide whether to resist the draft or give in to conservative pressures and risk his principles (and his life) by serving in Vietnam.

Production did not go well. Perhaps the theater staff was too close to conservative America; the material seemed incomprehensible, rehearsals were chaotic, casting confusing. The director quit during the final week of rehearsals and the choreographer took charge. The final dress rehearsal was a disaster.

But the show did go on. Critics were not particularly kind, but it found an audience. During the six-week engagement, a man from Chicago was attracted to the show by its poster with a picture of five American Indians on it. He thought Hair was all about Native Americans, a favorite subject of his. He was surprised to discover it was actually about hippies, but he nevertheless liked it so much that, he bankrolled its move to a discotheque in midtown Manhattan. The show had to start at 7:30 pm instead of the normal curtain time of 8:30 and play without intermission so dancing could begin at 10 pm. But Hair was getting closer to Broadway.

In 1968, the play’s creators reworked it into the musical that everyone knows, adding additional songs, the infamous nude scene, and an upbeat ending — it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.


I found it all about as arousing as a Tupperware party.  — Stephen Fry


October 2, 1872: A Foggy Day in London Town

At exactly 8:45 pm on October 2, 1872, a rich British gentleman started out on a lengthy journey accompanied by his French valet, the purpose of the trip being to win a wager he had made with members of his club. To win, he would have to complete his journey before 8:45 pm on December 21.  The gentleman’s name was of course Phileas Fogg and his amazing journey is recounted in Jules Verne’s most popular novel Around the World in 80 Days.

Jules Verne was a French author known for several extraordinary journeys including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Five Weeks in a Balloon. He is the second most-translated author in the world (following Agatha Christie).

Fogg begins his journey by train from London to Brindisi in southern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Here he boards the steamer Mongolia and crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Suez, Egypt. Fogg has correctly calculated this leg of the journey at 7 days. Today the same journey would take just about as long.

The Almanac will check in on Fogg again after his arrival in Suez.


Open Says Me

It’s the time of year when gardening cooks are busily canning the fruits of their summer-long labors. The idea of canning foods for preservation is certainly not new; the Dutch were preserving fresh salmon in tin cans back in the 1700s. While its not used by home canners, the tin can has been the main method of food preservation for a couple hundred years now.

By the early 1800s, tin cans were in wide use throughout Europe and the United can1States. Trouble was they weren’t that easy to get into. “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” read the instructions on one such can.  Or smash with large boulder, perhaps.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that can openers began to appear, various tools that pierced the can and sawed it open. One interesting device that appeared in 1866 was a tin can with its own opening device attached. Patented by J. Osterhoudt on October 2, it was a can with a slotted key attached. By inserting a tab on the can into the slot and continuously turning the key, the can would peel open. This ingenious and frequently frustrating can and key combo is still in use today, primarily for sardine and Spam-like products.


How He Got in My Pajamas I’ll Never Know

Groucho (Julius Henry) Marx was born on October 2, 1890. During his seven-decade career, he was known as a master of quick wit and rapid-fire, impromptu patter, frequently filled with innuendo.  He made 26 movies, 13 of them with his brothers Chico and Harpo, and many with Margaret Dumont as a stuffy dowager and the butt of Groucho’s jokes. The films included such comedy classics as The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, A Day at the Races, and A Night at the Opera. He also had a successful solo career, most notably as the host of the radio and television game show You Bet Your Life.


October 1, 1989: You Say Bronto and I Say . . .

In 1989, the United States Post Office issued a series of four stamps depicting dinosaurs, little realizing that it was re-igniting the infamous Bone Wars of more than a hundred years earlier.

The Bone Wars, also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush, was a period of fossil fever during the late 19th century during which a heated rivalry between two paleontologists (yes, it sounds bizarre) led to dirty tricks, bribery, theft, and even the destruction of bones. Each scientist also attacked the other in scientific print, hoping to ruin his credibility and have his funding cut off. During this period, one of the combatants hastily brought to public that big cuddly dinosaur we’ve come to love, the brontosaurus. Turns out he had gone public with that same dinosaur a couple of years earlier under an entirely different name, apatosaurus.

Another paleontologist brought this mistake to light in 1903, pointing out that protocol required the first name used, apatosaurus, to be the official name. Why did the name continued to be used in popular books, articles and even on museum displays? It seems the 1903 discovery was only presented in a very obscure scientific journal. It took another 70 years for the brontosaurus to officially get the boot to synonym status.

And along comes the U.S. Post Office in 1989 identifying the big guy as a brontosaurus. Well, didn’t some dinosaur groupies with not enough to keep themselves busy get all hot and bothered, accusing the Postal Service of promoting scientific illiteracy.   And even after this brouhaha, most of us still insist on having our brontosaurus.

Maybe it’s because brontosaurus means “thunder lizard” and apatosaurus means (ho-hum) “deceptive lizard.”

You Thought These Guys Were Big?

Compared to Bronto or Apato or practically any other dinosaur you’d like to name, we homo sapiens are a rather puny lot these days, even those few who top out at seven feet or so. Back in the day, as they say — way back in the day — folks were somewhat larger. We have a very convenient adamcatalog of how we don’t measure up provided for us back in 1718 by an astute French academician named Henrion. Both his first name and biography have been lost to the ages (he was probably short). What remains, however, is his scholarly demonstration of the height of several important figures.

Starting right at the beginning as Henrion did, Adam was a towering drink of water at 123 feet, 9 inches. Interestingly he had been even taller. When first created, he was so tall his head reached into the heavens where it evidently nonplussed the angels enough that God was forced to shrink him to a more comfortable size. God every wisely kept him taller that Eve’s 118 feet, 9 inches. (Adam would have looked pretty silly with a fig leaf and elevator shoes.)

The kids didn’t measure up to their parents, nor did the next generation. In fact a significant downsizing was underway. Noah was only 27 feet tall, Abraham 20 feet, and Moses a mere 13 feet. (The trend is becoming alarming!) Alexander was hardly the Great at six feet, and Julius Caesar was downright little at five feet. Mankind was on a course that would leave us microscopic little things, not even visible to the naked eye.

But, according to the learned Monsieur Henrion, a deus ex machina in the form of Christianity saved us. We got religion and began to grow again.

The following chart from Browbeat, Slate’s culture blog, June 27, 2016, compares the heights of some well-known giants.

giant chart

This Just In, Brontosaurus Fans

In 2015, a team of European scientists jumped into the bone-wars fray with a pronouncement that, just like climate change you American ostriches, the brontosaurus is for real. It is its very own dinosaur and always has been. Sighs of relief all around.

September 30, 1936: Girl Around the World

Reporters Leo Kieran of the New York Times and Herbert Ekins of the World-Telegram were out to demonstrate that air travel was shrinking the world and that it was pretty much in the reach of most people. They would do this by means of a race around the globe using kilgallen2commercial transportation available to anyone with the price of a ticket. When the race started on the evening of September 30, 1936, they had been joined by a last-minute participant from the Evening Journal — a 23-year-old rookie crime reporter named Dorothy Kilgallen.

A fierce rainstorm kept the three contestants out of the air for the first leg of the race — a short hop to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to catch the airship Hindenburg. Kilgallen almost missed the flight, but the crew delayed departure until she boarded.

Ekins quickly proved to be the savviest traveler as well as the most competitive. Arriving late in Frankfurt, Germany, he quickly boarded a KLM DC-2, a plane that had finished second in an air race from London to Melbourne. Kilgallen and Kieran, on the other hand, headed to Brindisi, Italy, by train to catch a flight from there to Hong Kong on a British carrier, Imperial Airways. The train was excruciatingly slow, and the flight was delayed for seven hours because of wind.

When the two reporters arrived at a stopover in Bangkok, Siam, Kilgallen opted to hire a single-engine plane whose pilot lost his way in Indochina and made a frightening landing in the middle of a field before finding his way to Hong Kong.

Waiting to board a steamship headed from Hong Kong to Manila and the Pan Am China Clipper for the flight back to the States, Kieran and Kilgallen learned that Ekins was long gone. He had talked his way onto a Pan Am trial flight as a crew member. Although taking the no-passenger flight was cheating, Ekins was pronounced the winner, having completed his journey in 18 days.

With just the tiniest bit of grousing, the two defeated reporters acknowledged his victory in a cable from Manila while waiting for a typhoon to pass. They completed the journey in 24 days. In some ways, Kilgallen was the real winner, despite her second-place finish. Her accounts of the journey, cabled back to the Evening Journal each day, filled with descriptions of exotic lands, jungles full of dangerous beasts and shark-infested waters, made her a celebrity. It also launched her successful career which ended abruptly in 1965 with her mysterious death (a story for another day).

Kilgallen gathered her cabled columns into a book titled Girl Around the World, published in 1936. A few excerpts:

I love calling a young man on the telephone and saying, “Sorry I can’t go to the Harvard-Yale game. I’m on my way to Hong Kong.” I’m getting quite blasé about it already.girl-around-world

They tell me that 250 Nazi Storm Troops will wait at the airport until the Hindenburg heaves into sight at 9 o’clock this morning.

Some day I’m coming back and really get to know Athens. Making a mad dash around the world you see just enough of strange and interesting places to want to stay. It’s like ordering a seven-course meal and having the waiter say you can’t have anything but soup.

I spent exactly an hour and a half in the Holy Land, swinging down from Alexandria onto the Asiatic continent at 8:20 a.m. …and was off for Rutbah Wells, which I hope the pilot can find, at 9:50.

Seems Imperial Airways doesn’t go on a time table, but on an eat table, and one can almost hear the announcer bellowing: “The next plane for breakfast leaves at so-and-so…. Due in Rutbah Wells at lunch time!”

Bump! bump! splash! We thumped down jarringly in the middle of a rice field. The plane [a Puss Moth] was not damaged, but in a second I thought all my worst fears about Kwangsi province were realized. Appearing like gnomes from the ground, about 600 chattering natives, nearly naked, surrounded the plane. They spoke no English, of course, and could not understand Siamese. We waved our arms, made signs without fingers, played “handies,” and finally made them understand we were lost.

September 29, 1913: And That Spells Gladiolus

“G-L-A-D-I-O-L-U-S,” said 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser with just a bit of apprehension. After all, eight of the final nine competing super-spellers had crashed and burned before Frank faced his inquisitor. His spellingspelling was right on; he was the winner of the first ever National Spelling Bee, the last kid standing out of some two million competitors. His victory earned Frank $500 and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. Fortunately, the President did not ask him to spell “executive privilege.”

It was a big time for a little boy. Folks in his hometown Louisville held a parade in his honor. Schoolmates gave him a new bicycle.

That was back in 1925. Today, the bee, now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, features 11 million children in local contests throughout the United States and abroad. The field is reduced to some 270 finalists who convene in Washington for two days of competition.

Frank Neuhauser who was born on September 29, 1913, went on to become a successful patent attorney. During his later years, he was frequently a guest of honor at the spelling bees. He died in 2011 at the age of 97.

The National Spelling Bee has certainly become more challenging over the years. One might argue that Frank Neuhauser’s “gladiolus” was a piece of cake — or, for that matter, “cerise” in 1926 or “knack” in 1932. Try “syllepsis” from 1958 or “esquamulose.” There’s “vivisepulture” from 1996 and “appoggiatura” from 2005 — words our spell checker couldn’t handle.

Sing Cowboy, Sing

If you were a cowboy with the name Orton Grover, you’d probably change your name. Orton did, and became a legendary singing cowboy gene-autry-quotes-2with the more melodic name Gene Autry. Born September 29, 1907, Autry became a major presence in the movies and on radio and television, beginning in the 1930s and stretching into the 1950s.

He was the ultimate straight-shooter — brave and honest with impeccable manners and good posture. He distilled his philosophy into the Ten Cowboy Commandments:

  1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

Autry was also influential in the evolution of country music, his movies bringing cowboy music to a national audience with hits such as “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “South of the Border,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” He also owned such Christmas classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

And no, we did not forget his signature song: