JULY 14, 1789, 1973: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

Every écolier and écolière knows that the breakup of France – Révolution française – began in 1789, its defining moment the storming of the Bastille on the morning of July 14. 1789. This storming_the_bastille[1]medieval fortress in the center of Paris represented royal authority. That the Bastille housed only seven inmates – all with good reason to be there – was unimportant. It was a symbol of the abuses of the absolute monarchy, and the French had had it with monarchs, aristocrats, and pretty much anyone in power. Bring on liberté, égalité, fraternité.   King Louis XVI, exit stage right

 

Bye Bye Don

Another momentous breakup took place on the evening of the same day, nearly 200 years later, in 1973, at Knott’s Berry Farm in California (Knott’s Berry Farm was America’s first theme park and probably the only one devoted to grapes and strawberries and such things). Every schoolgirl and schoolboy knows that the Everly Brothers were one of America’s most successful pop duos, lending their sibling harmony to such hits as “Bye Bye Love”, “All I Have To Do is Dream” and “Wake Up Little Susie”, a franchise that would seemingly go on forever. Well, forever is a long time, and brothers Don and Phil had, by the end of the 1960s pretty much had it with liberté, égalité, fraternité and most definitely with each other.

The defining moment of their breakup came in the middle of their set when the stage manager told the audience that the rest of the show had been canceled because brother Don was “too emotional” to play.  In reality, Brother Don was too drunk to play. His skipped guitar notes and bungled lyrics sent brother Phil into a real snit. Phil smashed his guitar and stormed off stage into a solo career, promising he would “never get on stage with that man again.”

 

Phil and Don reached a sort of detente a decade later.  Louis XVI, on the other hand, was beheaded.

(Phil Everly died in January 2014).

I have no intention of sharing my authority. — King Louis XVI

Death Visits Aunt Agatha, Part 2: A Bargain Is Struck

Monty hated the thought of paying Bridget Berman seventy-five dollars a day to do practically nothing and eat his food in the bargain. What if Aunt Agatha held on for three or four days? No matter how bad she looked, she was a tough old bird. She could rack up a couple hundred dollars while he was in the city.

By the time Monty bit the bullet and finally contacted Bridget Berman, he had already devised a scheme to avoid paying the old hag more than what he considered appropriate remuneration for her services. Emphasizing how sick the old lady was, how she probably wouldn’t make it through the next 24 hours, Monty proposed a flat fee for Bridget’s sitting services. “Ninety dollars,” said Monty, “It’ll be like getting paid time and a half most likely.”

Bridget didn’t trust Monty at all; she assumed right off that he was trying to procure her services on the cheap. But if the old woman were really dying . . . Bridget also hated to pass up something extra for next to nothing. She expressed doubt about the arrangement. “But I will consider it. Mind you, just consider it. First I must see your aunt for myself.” Bridget had watched a good many people check out of this world and felt confident that she could reasonably judge the amount of time a person had left.

Later, as they stood at Aunt Agatha’s bedside, Bridget, after carefully studying the dying woman for several minutes, concluded that here lay one very sick woman and that she had better get an agreement quickly, before Aunt Agatha expired. “I don’t know,” said Bridget, “She doesn’t look all that bad to me. But I understand your situation, and I want to be as agreeable as I possibly can. One hundred and fifty dollars.”

Monty stood silently thinking. Aunt Agatha groaned.

“One twenty-five,” said Bridget.

“You’ll stay until she dies,” said Monty.

“Or until you return,” said Bridget.

“Agreed.”

Ten hours passed. Monty was in the city, Bridget sat bedside, and Aunt Agatha lay there still looking as though the next minute would be her last. Bridget sighed and dozed off. She awoke Saturday morning to find Aunt Agatha just as ill and just as alive as she had been the night before. For eight hours, Bridget stared at the bedridden woman just lying there, continuing to breathe without consideration for others, taking money from Bridget as though she were a common pickpocket.

continued

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JULY 13, 1865: GAY GUINEAS PIGS AND MIDDLE-AGED, SCHEMING MONKEYS

GAY GUINEAS PIGS AND MIDDLE-AGED, SCHEMING MONKEYS

Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and some western cities have buildings called museums, opined The New York Times, but they are mere theatrical attractions compared to Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.  Make that Barnum’s former museum, since the occasion for the Time’s ode, was the destruction by fire of the amazing structure at the corner of Broadway and Ann.  Forget that the Times also talked of its “ever patent humbuggery with which (it) coddled and cajoled a credulous people,” it was still an honorable institution.

The always staid Times ran the story of the fire under the following headline:

DISASTROUS FIRE.

Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum.

Nine Other Buildings Burned to the Ground.

LOSS ESTIMATED AT $1,000,000.

A History of the Museum and Brief Sketch of its Curiosities.

Scenes Exciting, Serious, and Comic at the Fire.

The Police Prompt and Vigilant—The Firemen Earnest and Active.

GREAT EXCITEMENT IN THE CITY.

Thirty Thousand People in the Streets

Pickpockets in the Crowd

Accidents and Incidents.

THE AQUARIA.

THIRD FLOOR FAMOUS PETRIFICATION, THREE MEN OF EGYPT,

THE FOURTH FLOOR, THE HAPPY FAMILY, ORIGIN OF THE FIRE.

SCENE WITHIN THE MUSEUM, COMIC INCIDENTS, A FEARFUL PANIC.

PROGRESS OF THE CONFLAGRATION.

ARRIVAL OF THE METROPOLITAN POLICE.

THE FLAMES EXTENDING. CLOSING OF SHOPS.

THE FIRE CHECKED.

INCIDENTS.

THIEVES ARRESTED. ACCIDENTS.

LOSS OF CURIOSITIES.

THE SUFFERERS AND THE LOSSES.

DISASTROUS FIRE.

Leave the sensationalism to the Daily News and the Post.

From the Times Article:

On the floor above was a collection of “sassy” monkeys, subdued dogs, meek rats, fat cats, plump pigeons, sleepy owls, prickly porcupines, gay guinea pigs, crowing cocks, hungry hounds, big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangy monkeys. Those animals and other creatures may have been happy, but they didn’t smell nicely; they doubtless lived respectable, but their anti(c)s were not pleasant to look at, and, to tell the truth, they frequently fought fiercely, and were badly beaten for it. However, they are gone; all burned to death, roasted whole, with stuffing au naturel, and in view of their lamentable end we may well say, “Peace to their ashes.”

Death Visits Aunt Agatha, Part 1: She’d Plucked Her Last Chicken

Haggard.

Gaunt.

Cadaverous.

Monty turned each adjective over in his mind, looking at it this way and that to see if it fit the woman who lay in the bed in front of him, wheezing rather than breathing, each little gasp seemingly her last. Yes, Monty’s 95-year-old Aunt Agatha looked pretty bad, and the doctor confirmed that she was pretty bad, dying actually. Within the week, he had said on Monday. It was now Friday and she didn’t look as though she’d see the weekend. Of course, one had to bear in mind that Aunt Agatha had looked gaunt, haggard, cadaverous for thirty years now. Farming had taken its toll.

Aunt Agatha was one of those farmers of the old school, toiling from dawn to dusk, sleeping when not toiling. Monty wasn’t. He was one of a new breed of PhD farmers, calculating crops rather than just growing things. He had come to the farm when his father had died. Aunt Agatha, his father’s older sister, couldn’t run the place herself, and Monty, having grown disillusioned with the corporate world, guessed he might give farming a go.

Now Aunt Agatha was ready to buy the farm, so to speak. She’d plucked her last chicken, milked her last cow. Monty wished she’d get on with it. Not that he disliked Aunt Agatha or anything like that. Her lasting into the weekend was an inconvenience, that’s all. He had important business that would take him to the city for several days. And she couldn’t be left alone.

He had thought about just leaving her alone but couldn’t bring himself to be quite that insensitive. He hated the idea, but guessed he would have to call that harpy, Bridget Berman. Bridget had once been, or at least claimed to have been, a nurse. For as far back as practically anyone could remember, however, she had made her living as a sitter for the dying, substituting for family members who were too busy or to squeamish to be with the departing. She stayed at bedside night and day, charging seventy-five dollars for each 24 hours of her deathwatch. She was a bent, used up old bitch, and many suggested that her sitting at your bedside could only hasten death.

continued

JUNE 16, 1917: WHIPPING BOY

whipping boy

Harrison Ford cracked a mean bullwhip as the title character in the Indiana Jones series of films. Ford wasn’t born brandishing a bullwhip; he had to learn it for the films. And he was taught by bullwhip master, Lash LaRue born on June 16, 1917.

Like many actors in the 40s and 50s, LaRue spent most of his career making B-Westerns. Originally hired because he looked enough like Humphrey Bogart that producers thought this would draw in more viewers, he used his real last name as the name for most of his film characters. He was given the name Lash because, although he carried a gun, he was noted for preferring to use an 18-foot-long bullwhip to take on bad guys. Lash not only disarmed bad guys, he performed many stunts such as saving people about to fall to their doom by wrapping his whip around them — often while at full gallop on Black Diamond, his trusty horse — and pulling them to safety. Lash, like a guy named Cash, was also known for always wearing black.

After starting out as a sidekick to singing cowboy Eddie Dean, he earned his own series of Western films and his own sidekick, Fuzzy Q. Jones (Al St. John), inherited from Buster Crabbe. He also got his very own villainan evil, cigar-smoking twin brother, The Frontier Phantom.

His films ran from 1947 to 1951. The comic book series that was named after his screen character lasted even longer, appearing in 1949 and running for 12 years as one of the most popular western comics published.

face down in a cranberry bog, part 5: driving mr. corpse

We needed my car because she had asked me, and I had agreed, to mind the body for a few hours while she got a government car and fussed with the paperwork so that the vehicle would never have been on the island. I had agreed to this cloak-and-dagger enterprise only because I couldn’t come up with a better one and, face it, I was seduced. When I returned I found her standing at the scene of the accident, looking down into the bog. For a moment, I was afraid she’d moved him again. She smiled and took my hand as I reached her, then led me off toward the bushes, our arms swinging between us – a most romantic portrait, except for the corpse. He was still lying face down and I was happy for that. The red boxer shorts had been cloaked by a distinguished dark gray governmental suit.

“You dressed him,” I said.

“It was the least I could do,” she said, with a little laugh. “After all, I undressed him.”

We lugged the body out of the bushes and slipped it into the trunk of my car, keeping a wary watch for prying policemen until the deed was done.

We agreed to meet at my place – foolish, perhaps, but my garage is more private than most places. I slept for two hours – fitfully, even though the morning had exhausted me – and, once up, puttered impatiently, waiting for her arrival. Finally I turned on the TV and watched two senators calling each other names over an appropriations bill. The political repartee immediately brought to mind the politician in my trunk and I felt the need to check up on him – possibly afraid he’d disappear again. I went to the garage and, with just a little foreboding, carefully opened the trunk. Unwarranted foreboding, for he was still there. I never thought I’d be relieved to find a body in the trunk of my car. Unfortunately, he had shifted, and his ghostly face now looked up chidingly, suggesting that I was somehow unAmerican. I tried to push him back over and felt something hard in the jacket pocket. I reached in and pulled the object out – a knife, an ugly knife. Working almost mechanically now in the grip of this new fear, I unbuttoned the crisp white shirt and – to no great surprise – found a wound in his chest. Looking back to the knife, I was certain it was the father of the wound.

I returned to the house. On TV the smiling anchor paused to glare at me as though I had been holding up his news program and only now could he continue . . . “And boarding a private jet at Logan Airport, here is Prince Leopold, chief of state of this tiny but strategically important nation. No one has indicated why the Prince made this secretive trip to the United States, but rumors suggested that he was seeking financial backing to save his crumbling empire. Those rumors, and his own angry statements, suggest also that he is going home empty-handed. His companion, thought by many to actually be his mistress….”

And there she was, my bicyclist, my co-conspirator, my would-be lover, once again gazing at me. Even though she was getting on that plane and even though the smile wasn’t there, I could see it in her eyes – she probably still loved me.

The knife is sitting on the table in front of me. I’m sure mine will be the only prints on it. Did she seduce him for the cause, hoping to blackmail him, or did she kill him because he turned them down? Did she actually make love to him? Probably not. Probably just the promise of it, like the promise to me. I probably should feel sorry for myself. A lot of people bicycle to ‘Sconset, but I’m pushing sixty and had to stop halfway. And now there’s a knife on my table, a dead Secretary of State in the trunk of my car, and the chief of police doesn’t like me much.

The snarl at the other end of the line tells me I’ve reached him. “Hello there. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m the one who found the body this morning – you know, the body that disappeared. Well, you’re not going to believe this. No, let me put that another way. This is quite extraordinary, but I’m sure if you look at it logically and carefully, you will believe it. Anyway . . .”

 

This story is included in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.

JUNE 15, 1937: REEFER MADNESS

REEFER MADNESS

In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act which levied a tax of one dollar on anyone who dealt commercially in marijuana. The bill had been written using the slang term “marihuana” throughout, obscuring the fact that it covered the plant’s legitimate uses in medicine, where it was broadly known as cannabis and in the fiber industry as hemp. The Act did not itself criminalize their possession, but regulations and restrictions on the sale of cannabis as a drug had been around since the previous century. In effect, the bill made it impossible for anyone to deal with call it what you will in any form.

     Conspiracy theorists maintained that business tycoons Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family were behind passage of the Act as a way to reduce the size of the hemp industry. Hemp had became a very cheap substitute for the paper marijuana-propagandapulp that was used in the newspaper industry and as such was a threat to Hearst’s extensive timber holdings. Mellon had invested heavily in the Du Pont family’s new synthetic fiber nylon that was competing with hemp.  The campaign that Hearst’s newspapers had been staging against the dangers of the recreational use of the”powerful narcotic in which lurks MURDER! INSANITY! DEATH!” was therefore disingenuous. (‘Beware the evils of hemp’ didn’t quite cut it.   “Reading newspapers printed on hemp will lead to degradation and reading the New York Post.”)

     The legislation effectively killed the hemp industry and the medical use of cannabis, and the ensuing years of “reefer madness” completed its evolution to the abominable recreational drug it became through the rest of the century.  Today it’s making a major comeback (in spite of Attorney General Jeff Sessions).

face down in a cranberry bog, part 4:  the corpse returns

“Yoo hoo.” I turned and saw her standing in front of a thicket of heath, twenty yards beyond the bogs.

“Where is he?” I demanded when I reached her, even though it sounded as if I were getting a little possessive with this body. She was quite disheveled, as though – as though she’d dragged a body out of a cranberry bog.

“Back there, in the bushes.”

“Why?”

“After you left, I started thinking more clearly and realized that he can’t be found here. That would be terrible. I hope you’re not angry.”

“Angry? The Nantucket police chief thinks I’m a lunatic. And if anyone dies mysteriously on this island in the next ten years, I’m his number one suspect. Angry? Of course not.”

“Oooh, I’m sorry,” she wailed and unleashed her puppy dog eyes.

“Why can’t he be found here?”

“Because he’s supposed to be in Boston. It’s very complicated.”

“You had sex with a man who’s supposed to be in Boston on the edge of a Nantucket cranberry bog and he died and fell in so now he’s back there in the bushes. What’s complicated?”

She looked at me as though she still wasn’t sure I could be trusted even though I had aided and abetted every inch of her little crime other than the actual killing – and the sex, of course. Finally she spoke. “You didn’t recognize him, did you?” I was about to reply that we hadn’t met under ideal conditions. “He’s Alexander Farnsworth.”

“Alexander Farnsworth. The name’s not familiar, nor his face. Why would I recog – ?” I guess my mouth dropped open because she began to shake her head excitedly.

“No,” I said, as if my denial would make it not so, but now the face was familiar, too. “Not Secretary of State Alexander Farnsworth?”

“Yes. Everyone thinks he’s in Boston. But he’s been here for the past week having secret meetings with a Prince Somebody from somewhere important.”

“I thought he was here to fool around with someone in a cranberry bog.”

“That’s not very nice,” she snapped.

“Okay. How did the two of you happen to end up…?”

“I came to Nantucket with him. I work for him. This morning, he wanted to relax for a while so we took a walk and – well, you know the rest. Now you know why he can’t be here. It’s not just me. It’s national security stuff.”

“He’s no better off in those bushes than in the bog.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m going to take him back to Boston.”

“Oh boy.”

“I’ve made up my mind. I’ve got to do it. But I need your help again. Do you have a car?”

“I hope you’re not going to ask me to drive a dead man to Boston.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.” Then she breathlessly explained to me how she herself was going to drive the dead Secretary of State first onto the ferry then to Boston in an official government vehicle which she would leave with him behind the wheel in the underground parking lot of an exclusive Boston hotel. My mind went a little numb as I listened to her plan and gazed into her conspiring eyes. When she stopped talking, I leaned forward and kissed her. She let me, but then pulled away. “Please,” she said. “Not now. Later, before I go to Boston.”

continued

 

 

JUNE 14, 1287: PROSE AND KHANS

PROSE AND KHANS

In 1287, Kublai Khan, on a bit of a tear through Asia, defeated the forces led by princes of Mongolia and Manchuria. Kublai was a grandson of Genghis, another Khan known for being rather hard to get along with. Like his grandfather, Kublai was a holy terror right from infancy when he frequently seized power from fellow toddlers. Eventually, Kublai pushed the Mongol Empire to new heights, creating a unified, militarily powerful China and gaining international attention in the process.

Marco Polo, in the accounts of his travels, made Kublai well-known to western audiences, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge added a romantic aura in the early 19th century with his description of Kublai (Kubla to Coleridge) Khan’s summer cottage at Xanadu:

     In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

     A stately pleasure-dome decree:

     Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

     Through caverns measureless to man

     Down to a sunless sea.

     When the sacred river Alph plunged into that sunless sea it naturally created a great waterfall. In the rush of this waterfall, the voices of Kubla’s ancestors could be heard — that strident, discordant one being Genghis.

Face down in a cranberry bog, part 3: the corpse goes missing

“A person ought to remain at the scene of the crime,” said the chief of police, taking me to task when he should have been commending my citizenship, as we drove back toward the bog.

“What crime?” I complained. “I’m sure it’s just an accident. And even if I had stayed at the scene of the accident, how could I report it? I don’t have a cell phone. It might be weeks before anyone came by. I’d eventually starve. I couldn’t even eat cranberries because the sign said not to. And I’m too law-abiding to disobey a sign let alone do something criminal to a person, if someone did indeed do something criminal, which I don’t think anyone did, but I have no way of knowing.”

“You’re acting mighty guilty.” I thought I was behaving quite calmly. Upon hearing the word guilty, however, any veneer of calm was violently stripped away. And then I remembered with a jolt of nausea that the recently departed wore only red boxer shorts.

“I always act guilty,” I said, squirming to confirm my words. “Even as a kid. If someone put a baseball through a window, the owner of the house would look at me and figure I did it – just because I looked guilty. People who act guilty are almost always innocent; did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t,” said the chief, looking skeptical. “Here we are.” He stopped the car and we got out. “Now exactly where is this body?”

“Over there. On the other side of that bog.”

We approached and began to circle the bog. We circled it once, and we circled it again. We saw nothing but cranberries. “Are you sure you got the right bog?” the chief asked, giving me that look.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. We circled three more bogs, and a deputy who joined us began to circle the rest.

The chief of police leaned back against his car, reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen and a small tablet. “This wouldn’t be a joke, would it? If it was, it wouldn’t be very funny; I can tell you that.”

“Of course not. Do I look like a joker?” I wished I hadn’t said that.

“Had anything to drink today?” He scratched at the tablet as he spoke.

“It’s ten a.m.”

“Had anything to drink this morning?”

“Tomato juice and coffee, that’s it.”

“Do you take medication or any other kinds of drugs?”

“No, I don’t, and I resent that implication.”

“I resent spending my time searching cranberry bogs for bodies that don’t exist.” He looked at me as though he wanted nothing more out of life than to throw me into a jail cell. “You say you’re not joking, you’re not drunk or spaced out. Tell me what you think.”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Somebody stole the corpse. Otherwise, it would be there.”

“Not that obvious to me. What’s obvious to me is that I’m going to be watching you. Now describe this alleged body to me.”

“It looked dead.”

“Nice start. Would you care to elaborate?”

“Male Caucasian.”

“Now you’re getting it. Go on.”

“Hair gray. Face sort of blue. Mustache.”

“You think this whole thing is some kind of big joke, don’t you?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “I take dead bodies quite seriously. I’m doing my best to help.”

“Okay, mustache. Gray like his hair?”

“Hmmm.” I tried to visualize the mustache but couldn’t. “I don’t know. I think it was dark. But maybe it just looked darker because it was wet. I’m just not sure. In real life, people don’t really remember all the little details. Anyone who knows all the details probably memorizes them. And maybe because that person is guilty – even though he doesn’t look it.”

“Or she.”

“What?”

“Never assume the guilty party is a man. Women kill too. Now can we dispense with the criminology and get on with it?” He continued to write in his little tablet. I wished I could have seen what he was writing; I’ll bet it wasn’t flattering.

“Okay,” I said. “The mustache was three shades darker than the hair. His forehead had six, no seven, wrinkles.”

“Okay, I’ve got enough,” he said, flipping the notebook shut and giving me a nasty look. “If we come up with a body, we’ll get back to you.”

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you?”

“Something like that.”

I watched as he and his trusty deputy returned to their respective police vehicles and pulled away, leaving me alone, angry and confused. Someone had stolen my corpse.

continued

JUNE 13, 1231: LISTEN UP, LITTLE FISHES

anthonyLISTEN UP, LITTLE FISHES

St. Anthony of Padua was a medieval saint who gained great fame in Italy for his zealous rooting out of heretics.  As a preaching friar he might be heard to shout: “There are 27 known heretics in the State Department.” But he didn’t just discover heretics; he employed miracles to cure them of their heresy. Most of these miracles involved the use of animals, for he seemed to get along quite well with critters.

 

On one occasion, having discovered a person harboring heretical opinions,  Friar Anthony, to convince the heretic of his errant ways, caused the fishes in a nearby lake to lift up their heads and listen to him.  Now unlike Doctor Doolittle who talked to the animals, Friar Anthony preached to them.  And he preached one fine sermon to those attentive fishes.  And when those fishes all shouted “Amen!” at the conclusion of the sermon, that heretic was converted and stayed converted.

Another day,  another heretic (there was no shortage of heretics – still isn’t), Anthony caused the man’s mule, after three days of no food, to kneel down and pray instead of rushing to eat a bundle of hay that was set before it.  Another conversion.

St. Anthony was also known as a protector of animals (although starving a mule for three days might be considered counter-intuitive) particularly of pigs. A contemporary described him as the universally accepted patron of hogs, frequently having a pig for a companion – possibly because, as a hermit living in a hole in the earth and eating roots, he and the hogs had in common both their diet and their lodging.

 

What with his lifestyle and zealousness, he cut short his days, departing on June 13, 1231, at the age of 35, leaving pigs and heretics alike to their own devices.

Face Down in a Cranberry Bog, PART 2: the killer returns

Not entirely sure I was doing the right thing, I waded a foot or two into the bog, and standing over him, in water up to mid-calf, I lifted his head to look at his face. I wasn’t an expert on bodies in or out of bogs, but I was pretty sure he was dead. I hoped it wasn’t because he had ignored all those signs and waded into the bog.

Dropping his face back into the bog with a mumbled apology, I looked up and panicked momentarily when I saw the silent figure silhouetted against the hazy sunshine. I clambered up the slope and found myself facing my bicyclist She stood there silently – trembling, vulnerable, wanting desperately to be tucked into the reassuring arms of a person pushing sixty.

“Is…is he…?” she stammered.

“Dead? I think so.”

“Oh,” she whimpered and began to cry softly.

“I’m sorry. Is it somebody you know…knew?”

She shook her head in jerking affirmation. “I…I killed him.”

“You killed him?” A stupid reply. Her three well-chosen words did not leave themselves open ­to speculative interpretations.

“Yes,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean to kill him. I really didn’t. Could you help me?”

Here, for all I knew, stood Charlotte Corday or Lucretia Borgia, blood-stained hands stretching out to ensnare me in her fiendish crime. She didn’t just want me to condone the killing of this stranger whose only fault as far as I knew was a lousy taste in boxer shorts. She wanted me to help cover up the crime, as though helping her with her corpse was on a par with afternoon tea or casual sex.

“How did you kill him?” I asked, looking before leaping.

She lowered her eyes. “We were making love and he died.” She probably didn’t see the chill that I felt surge through my face, this bicycling Jezebel who had smiled at me for a week only to betray me in a cranberry bog with a man who wore red boxer shorts. And now, fresh from her tryst, she sought my help.

“How did he die? I don’t think I understand.” I was pretty sure I understood – but I wanted suffering, a little humiliation perhaps.

“You mean in detail?” I didn’t answer. “We were, well you know, over there at the edge of that big pond thing.” She pointed to a spot at the edge of the bog just five feet up from her stone cold paramour.

“Why there?” I persisted, in my role as unrelenting grand inquisitor.

“That’s where we were standing when it started to happen. It just happened; we didn’t plan it or anything.” She was getting a little testy now. “We were… you know, and he was grinning at me but then his eyes got real wide, his face got red, and he just sort of went limp and rolled over and down the hill. And he hasn’t moved since.” She began to cry hard, and I regretted the ferocity of my interrogation. “I don’t know what to do. We shouldn’t have been here together. It would be terribly embarrassing for a lot of people.”

Had I been standing outside myself – outside my big mouth – listening as I spoke, I’d probably think he really isn’t saying that, is he? But he was. I mean I was. “You go,” I said. “I’ll report it to the police. Everything will be all right.”

She looked at me with an expression of mingled astonishment and adoration, as though I were her savior, which I guess I was. “If you think that’s best. I’ll do whatever you think is best.” I wonder what it looks like to watch a person pushing sixty turn to silly putty faster than Lot could say “Don’t look b…”

“Maybe we could meet somewhere later, so I can tell you how it goes,” I said as unemotionally as I was capable of.

“Okay.” Her little smile was tentative, but it was a smile.

“How about the beach at ‘Sconset?”

“Okay.”

“In two hours?”

“Okay.”

continued

JUNE 12, 1349: IF YOU OUTLAW BOWS AND ARROWS . . .

IF YOU OUTLAW BOWS AND ARROWS . . .

In a letter dated June 12, 1349, England’s King Edward III wrote how the people of his realm, archboth rich and poor, had in previous times exercised their skill at shooting arrows and how that practice had brought honor and profit to the kingdom. But, he continued, that skill had been laid aside in favor of other pursuits. Therefore he commanded sheriffs throughout the realm to proclaim that every able citizen in their leisure time use their bows and arrows, and learn and exercise the art of archery.   And furthermore, they should not in “any manner apply themselves to the throwing of stones, wood, or iron, handball, football, bandyball, cambuck, or cockfighting”  or any other such trivial pursuits (that includes golf).

A hundred years later, Edward IV continued the tradition, decreeing that all Englishmen, other than clergymen or judges, should own  bows their own height, keeping them always ready for use and providing practice for  sons age seven or older. Fines were levied for failing to shoot every Sunday.

Sir Wayne of LaPierre complained that the law did not go far enough, that it lacked a provision that citizens should carry concealed bows and arrows and quivers with more than a ten-arrow capacity.  And a ban on background checks for potential archers, of course.

 

Face Down in a Cranberry Bog: part 1: two bicycles passing

A person pushing sixty pretty hard probably has no business on a bicycle in the first place. Like skis, surfboards and roller skates, they are the dominion of those young enough to have more vigor than common sense. And if people pushing sixty are foolish enough to bicycle the six miles to ‘Sconset, they tend to tire about halfway. If they’re at all smart, they’ll stop and rest, rather than continue on until the bicycle just rolls to a stop and plops over sideways. Which is what I did, and why I’m in this mess.

There’s a particularly good resting spot that’s almost exactly halfway. You reach it about two minutes before your heart and lungs give out completely. It’s where, on the side of the road opposite the bike path, a dirt pathway takes off through the tangles of scrub oak and meanders a quarter mile to the bogs. And it’s also where, if you’ve timed it just right, she emerges from that very dirt path. She’s young enough that she probably doesn’t have to stop and catch her breath and pretty enough that she takes mine away. At least she did.

For the past week, she appeared and captured my fantasies. She’d cross the road, stop, her bicycle nuzzling mine, and devour me with big brown eyes and a seductive smile. We’d laugh, touch and – she didn’t really stop, of course; she gave me a quick smile as she passed me and headed off in the direction from which I’d just come.

Until today, that is. I arrived at the same time as usual and waited for her appearance. But it didn’t happen. I waited for five, ten minutes and, yes, I worried. I don’t know why. Obviously, I should have forgotten my disappointment and, with hope she’d be there tomorrow, just continued on to ‘Sconset. Instead I pushed my bicycle across the road, rested it behind a large bush and trudged off down the dirt path. I walked the full quarter mile without seeing anyone, and rounding a patch of heath, reached the first bog, an oasis of dark green foliage pregnant with bright red cranberries girded by a sandy dike. Every twenty yards a sign reminded me that the bogs were private property and the picking of cranberries illegal. Each bog forms the center of a man-made crater and the dikes between craters form a meandering path. At harvest time in October, the crater is flooded and with a little prodding the cranberries just float right up to the surface for easy scooping.

It’s a fascinating process, and I guess in my fascination my mind wandered off somewhere – they do that when you’re pushing sixty. I don’t know how long it was gone, but when it returned I was standing at the edge of the second bog. Looking down, I saw it – him. A man, clad only in red boxer shorts, lying face down in the cranberry bog.

continued

 

MAY 23, 1701: HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KIDD

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KIDD

William “Captain” Kidd was a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy on May 23, 1701. Some modern historians consider his reputation unjust, suggesting that Kidd acted only as a privateer, not a pirate. A pirate plundered ships; a privateer, under government authorization,  plundered ships belonging to another government. (See the difference?) Pirate or privateer, Kidd was among the most famous of his lot and one of the handful that people today can name – unusual because he was not the most successful nor the most bloodthirsty. Perhaps it’s because he did bury treasure, an important undertaking for any pirate worth his sea salt.

 

Several English nobles engaged Kidd to attack pirates or French vessels, sharing his earnings for their investment. He had substantial real estate holdings in New York, a wife and children, a membership in an exclusive club.   In short, he was respectable. But, foolish man, he decided to engage in one more privateering mission. Kidd set sail for Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, then a hotbed of pirate activity, but found very few pirate or French vessels to take. About a third of his crew died of diseases, and the rest were getting out of sorts for the lack of plunder. In 1697, he attacked a convoy of Indian treasure ships, an act of piracy not in his charter. Also, about this time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner named William Moore by hitting him in the head with a heavy wooden bucket, also a no-no.

In 1698, he and his men took an Armenian ship loaded with satins, muslins, gold, and silver. When this news reached England, it confirmed Kidd’s reputation as a pirate, and naval commanders were ordered to “pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices” for acts of piracy.

Pursued, seized, and hanged he was.   After his death, the belief that Kidd had left a large buried treasure contributed considerably to the growth of his legend. This belief made its contributions to literature in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug”, Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It also gave rise to never-ending treasure hunts in Nova Scotia, Long Island in New York, and islands off Connecticut and in the Bay of Fundy.

Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Part 4 — Consummation

“But I am the mayor,” insisted the mayor, to a little man with a big rifle who seemed to be hard of hearing. “If anything is happening I should be there.” He tried to bully his way past the young man only to find the rifles of his two companions pointing at him. The mayor studied the two young men behind the rifles and concluded that they were determined not to let him pass and that they just might have the nerve to shoot their very own mayor.

Most of the other travelers who were turned away from entering the city found spots to curl up and sleep through the night. But not the mayor. He paced back and forth in front of the soldiers as though it were he on guard duty, and he cursed under his breath about the indignity of being barred from entering his very own city, for he did indeed think of it as his personal possession, and he did not like his sovereignty violated.

Of course his sovereignty was further violated within the city, at his very own house, not once but several times, after which Mireille fell into a Sleeping Beauty sleep until wakened with a kiss from her Prince Charming, or at least a strutting, military version of him.

The mayor paced throughout the night, until well after dawn when the soldiers were relieved of their duty, their commander having quelled the crisis that had threatened the city, the crisis that had required such drastic measures. The mayor hurried home, barely looked in upon Sleeping Beauty – not that he would have noticed anyway how much more peaceful, contented and radiant was her sleep – and went to the phone where he began making phone call after phone call to colonels and majors and generals.

By late morning, Mireille was flitting about the house singing, the Mayor continued to make phone calls in an effort to identify the scoundrel who had assaulted his dignity, and Captain Petrullo once again strutted up Ponce de Leon Boulevard across Saltwhistle Street and back down Citadel Road.

Unfortunately, Captain Petrullo’s strutting days were numbered. The Mayor’s phone calls did set some of the captain’s superiors to wondering – and then investigating – the strange siege of Passion Point. And when it was discovered to be imaginary, poor Captain Petrullo was reassigned to lead a squad of six men protecting the gardens of the mayor’s crazy aunt at the very end of Leeward Arm.

Mireille’s detour from the path of marital fidelity had a salubrious effect on her ability to continue her life as the Mayor’s wife. That one night of passion enabled her to once again become the faithful, dutiful wife without the need for further straying. Except for that dashing young sergeant the following year, and the lieutenant, Mireille remained – and yes, the twin corporals and the baby-faced recruit – but, for the most part, Mireille remained a quite proper Mayor’s wife.

 

This story  is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

MAY 22, 1856: SENATORS WILL BE SENATORS

It all started in the Senate chamber in 1856 when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. Three days later on May 22 the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a donnybrook fair.

In his speech entitled “Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner identified two Democratic senators caneas the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. In a little bit of overkill, Sumner called Douglas to his face a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.”  Andrew Butler, who was not present at the time, received an even more elaborate characterization.  Mocking the South Carolina senator’s image as a chivalrous Southerner, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Representative Preston Brooks was a fellow South Carolinian to Butler. He read a certain amount of ridicule into the remarks, and he took great umbrage on Butler’s behalf.  In one of the Senate’s most dramatic moments ever, Brooks stormed into the chamber shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

Brooks claimed that if he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel.  Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head.   As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and staggered helplessly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself.  After a very long minute, it ended with Sumner lying unconscious. As Sumner was carried away, Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers.  Overnight, both men became heroes in their home states.

Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and promptly died at age 37.  Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. But the incident symbolized the breakdown of civility and reason in the capital and serves as a reminder to current legislators to always play nice with one another.

Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Part 3 — Complications

Captain Petrullo spent most of that afternoon grooming himself into the spit-polished image of the perfect commander, the perfect lover, the perfect seducer. How wonderful, he thought – a perfect man making love to the perfect woman and, as a bonus, making the vile Mayor Cervantes the perfect cuckold. Once he had primped and pruned himself to perfection, he strutted up Ponce de Leon Boulevard to Fat Freddy’s Cafe where it had been agreed he would wait, drinking absinthe, until summoned by his amorata.

And Mireille still intended to summon him as the sun made its unhurried journey toward the western horizon, even though she had had the entire day to get cold feet. She somehow knew that this was a monumental, now-or-never moment; were she to not seize this opportunity, she’d never bring herself to take such a bold step, if she even had another chance. She intended to summon Captain Petrullo right up to the point at which she pulled a sheet of paper from the desk and wrote: Come to me now. Yours truly, Mireille – right up to the point the phone rang and she heard the chilling words: “Meeting’s been canceled. I’m on my way home. I’ll be hungry.” These cruelest of words were finalized by a most loathsome burp and the drone of the sudden dial tone.

Captain Petrullo had taken the rather arrogant step of assigning one of his 500 men to a post near the Mayor’s house, specifically to carry Mireille’s letter of liaison to him at once. And by the time the young man arrived at Fat Freddy’s, just as the stubborn sun dipped at last into the sea, Captain Petrullo, whose absinthe had certainly made his heart grow fonder, whose imagination had aroused him in every other conceivable way, sat in a state of intense anticipatory excitement. Thus it was with great agitation that he read words he had never expected, words that implored him not to come to Mireille’s house, that her husband was at this moment on his way home.

A commander of a 500-man army unit must by virtue of his position, be bold and decisive, even when under the influence of absinthe and a now almost uncontrollable passion. Bold and decisive Captain Petrullo was. He stood and said in a very loud voice so that everyone in Fat Freddy’s could hear: “This is very serious news indeed, Private Vincent. Go to the men and prepare them. I will assemble the unit at once. This is a night that will test our readiness, to be sure.”

These dramatic words had their intended effect on the audience. Everyone sat in silence, staring at the captain, showing alarm. He surveyed them and remained silent for the longest time. Then the crafty captain said quite solemnly: “We have a serious situation which I am not at liberty to discuss. I deeply apologize but I must establish a curfew. Please go to your homes and remain there. No one can be allowed to leave – or enter the city tonight.” He turned dramatically and marched out.

He marched straight to his 500-man unit and quickly placed them on duty at posts around the city with the most emphatic orders that no one was to leave or enter. No one, he repeated several times just to be certain they understood, instilling in them the notion that were someone to exit or enter the city, someone else would surely be shot. Then Captain Petrullo marched, no strutted, to Mayor Cervantes’ house and to a very surprised, but very happy Mireille.

continued

This story  is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

MAY 21, 1819: DON’T TAKE ANY WOODEN BICYCLES

DON’T TAKE ANY WOODEN BICYCLES

In 1819, the first bicycle in the U.S. appeared in New York City.  And it started a craze that was to overtake the city for the rest of the summer. Actually it was a sort of a bicycle. It didn’t have any pedals. And you didn’t sit on it. It did have two wheels, but no one called it a bicycle. People variably called it a “velocipede” (Latin for fast foot), “swift walker,” “hobby horse” or its most popular name “dandy horse,” referring to the dandy who usually rode it.

The dandy horse and the craze that it caused had been imported from London, although the contraption was actually invented in Germany. It was propelled by the rider pushing along the ground with the feet as in regular walking or running. The front wheel and handlebar assembly were hinged to allow steering. One major drawback of the dandy horse was that it had to be made to measure, manufactured to conform with the height and the stride of its rider. And it had wooden wheels which were okay for the smooth pavement of the city but any other surface made for an extremely uncomfortable ride.

The dandy horse fad was short-lived. Perhaps it was the constant ridicule or the rocks thrown by ruffians. And with riders preferring the smooth sidewalks to the rough roads, many pedestrians began to feel threatened by the machines. As a result, laws were quickly enacted prohibiting their use on sidewalks.

It was another 40 years before velocipedes came back into fashion – equipped this time around with pedals – when a French company began to mass-produce them. The French design was sometimes called the boneshaker, since it was also made entirely of wood and was still a very uncomfortable ride.

Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Part 2 — Opportunity, Knock

The flirtations continued to grow like the frangipani nurtured by the tropical sun until their passions broke the bonds of silence and spilled into the open. Neither Mireille nor Captain Petrullo was surprised that the other shared the same feelings, but each had a different reaction to them. The captain being a forceful military commander wanted to take action, to leap into the fray, to engage those passions as though they were advancing enemy forces that must be physically subdued. Mireille, on the other hand, being the dutiful if not particularly happy wife of another man to whom, no matter how vile he was, she had pledged herself, was determined to hold passion in check, to never speak of it again, let alone take any action.

And so, as the months passed, their affair remained innocent, for even though Captain Petrullo frequently begged leave to sully it a bit, Mireille stood fast in prohibition. But passion contained is not passion extinguished, and theirs continued to smolder,  just short of the flash point, the danger of combustion ever present. To some degree, their innocence was aided by the lack of real opportunity to act without fear of being caught, but fate was not about to let the two lovers go untested. Opportunity, knock.

“Meeting in Port Charles tonight,” grunted Mayor Cervantes one morning. “It’ll go late. I’ll stay the night.” Perhaps if he had just said his piece, had not punctuated it with a loud burp, Mireille would not have decided right then and there duty be damned – passion, I am your prisoner.

Having made this momentous decision and later that morning encountering Captain Petrullo during his strut up Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Mireille informed her lover-to-be. Captain Petrullo was at once as squiggly and squeaky as he had been the day he first saw her. With his head bobbing up and down so fast it might lift him off the ground, he agreed to an encounter that evening – after the Mayor had departed, after it had been dark and quiet for a while.

continued

This story  is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.