SEPTEMBER 20, 1839: IT ISN’T RAINING RAIN, YOU KNOW

IT ISN’T RAINING RAIN, YOU KNOW

An English officer, living in Calcutta recorded an unusual phenomenon on September 20, 1839. As he was walking out of doors, it began to rain but it wasn’t raining just rain; it was raining fish. They were small,  just three inches in length, a size you’d throw back but there was no water anywhere nearby to throw them back into. Some fell on hard ground and were killed; others fell on soft grass and were unharmed (of course, they eventually died anyway). Shortly after this event, in a nearby village some 3,000 to 4,000 fish of a different species were found carpeting the ground.

Turns out such showers aren’t really that unusual, and it doesn’t have to be fish. It can rain all sorts of creatures with or without rain rain. According to the folks at Modern Farmer: “Over the years many different animals have reportedly fallen from the sky. Tadpoles over Japan; spiders over Brazil; frogs over Serbia, ancient Egypt and Kansas City; brown worms over Indiana; scarlet worms over Massachusetts; red worms over Sweden; snails over England; a shower of raw meat (thought to be venison or mutton) over Kentucky; blackbirds over Arkansas; eels over Alabama; snakes over Tennessee,” and bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

Sometimes the animals survive the fall. Witnesses of raining frogs have described the animals as startled (startled indeed!) and exhibiting rainingcats2normal behavior after the downpour (such as croaking, in both senses of the word).

There have been no reliable reports of an actual cat or dog rainfall — at least without the presence of prodigious amounts of alcohol. The origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs” remains a mystery of etymology. In 1651, British poet Henry Vaughan referred to a roof that was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.” But we have no way of knowing whether he had actually witnessed such a shower. It is curious that he, being a poet, didn’t prefer a phrase such as “frogs and fishes rained in shower” with its superior alliteration.

 

The Only Thing We Have  To Fear Is — Oh My God!

Economists disagree on the major causes of the Panic of 1873. Inflation after the Civil War, speculative investments in railroads, a big trade deficit, property losses from major fires in Boston and Chicago, European economic woes. One economist was rumored to have blamed it all on a great storm of cats and dogs. In any event, on September 20 the New York Stock Exchange closed for the first time in its history and stayed closed for ten days. Panic ensued. Dead cats, dogs, frogs, fishes and investors covered Wall Street, triggering a depression that lasted for another six years.

Going Down: Alice in Donaldland Begins

Alice was growing sleepy, sitting next to her sister who was reading a book. “What’s the use of a book if it can’t get you online?” she muttered to herself. Just as she was beginning to drift off, a large White Rabbit ran by. This was rather remarkable in and of itself but even more so as the Rabbit pulled a watch out of its waist-coat pocket and said “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late. The Queen will tweetstorm me for sure.”

Now wide awake with curiosity, Alice jumped up and chased after the Rabbit, just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit hole. Alice went right down the hole herself, never giving it a thought, and found herself falling. Either the well was very deep or she was falling very slowly, for she had plenty of time to look around. The sides of the hole had become walls, and the walls were covered with pictures. Mostly they were grumpy looking old white men, but among them were many pictures of what seemed to be a Queen. She looked a lot like the grumpy old men except for the royal gown and the royal crown nestled in a strange outcropping of very orange hair. The Queen had big hands and, Alice imagined, a big — Alice didn’t finish the thought for she landed with a thud on the floor of an ornate room. It was an odd room with no windows or doors and above her just the blackness through which she had fallen. Then she spotted a single door that she hadn’t noticed before because it was so tiny, certainly too tiny for her to go through it.

The only furniture in the room was a single table. On the top of the table was a small bottle with a note attached that read: Drink me, if you want to become very small. She took a sip from the bottle and, finding it quite pleasant, finished it off. She waited for something to happen — and waited. Nothing. Finally, she picked up the bottle to see if she could get another drop out of it and saw the other side of the note: I lied. The only way to get small is to keep saying over and over that you are small. It’s like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, except there are no boots or straps and it’s down rather than up.

Alice sat down in front of the little door and recited “I am small. I am small.” She repeated these words for the longest time until she saw that the little door was getting bigger and bigger. Or was she getting smaller? When the door looked like a normal-sized door she said loudly: “I really am small.”

A sign on the door read: Welcome to Donaldland, Home of Alternate Facts. She opened the door, stepped through and realized that everything on this side was as small as she was, so she felt like her normal size. “I think I’m going to like this place,” she said.

Next Monday: A Dodo in Name Only

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SEPTEMBER 13, 1916: A TALE OF TWO CHOCOLATE FACTORIES

A TALE OF TWO CHOCOLATE FACTORIES

When Roald Dahl’s mother offered to pay his tuition to Cambridge University, Dahl said: “No thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China.” And Dahl born on September 13, 1916, did go to wonkafaraway places — Newfoundland, Tanzania, Nairobi, and Alexandria, Egypt, where as a fighter pilot a plane crash left him with serious injuries.

Following a recovery that included a hip replacement and two spinal surgeries, Dahl was transferred to Washington, D.C., where he met author C.S. Forrester, who encouraged him to start writing. His becoming a writer was a “pure fluke,” he said. “Without being asked to, I doubt if I’d ever have thought to do it.”

Dahl wrote his first story for children, The Gremlins, in 1942, for Walt Disney, coining the word. He didn’t return to children’s stories until the 1960s, winning critical and commercial success with James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Other popular books include Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988).

Despite his books’ popularity, some critics and parents have have taken him to task for their portrayal of children’s harsh revenge on adult wrongdoers. In his defense, Dahl claimed that children have a cruder sense of humor than adults, and that he was simply trying to satisfy his readers.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was filmed twice, once under its original title and once as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Dahl died in 1990 and was buried with his snooker cues, an excellent burgundy, chocolates, pencils and a power saw. Today, children continue to leave toys and flowers by his grave

Chocolate for the Masses

hersheyAnother really big name in chocolate was born on September 13, 1857. After a few years dabbling in caramel, Milton Snavely Hershey became excited by the potential of milk chocolate, which at that time was a luxury. Hershey was determined to develop a formula for milk chocolate and that he could sell to the mass market. He produced his first Hershey Bar in 1900, Hershey’s Kisses in 1907, and the Hershey’s Bar with almonds was in 1908. Willie Wonka created a chocolate factory; Milton Hershey created a chocolate empire with its own town, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

 

Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana. The researchers also discovered other similarities between the two but can’t remember what they are. ~ Matt Lauer

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows, Part 3: A Change of Fortunes

One Thursday afternoon, I was playing with my friends Bud and Lou and we were going through our favorite routine.

“What’s the name of the guy on first base?”

“No, Who’s on first.”

twins“I don’t know.”

“Third base.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the very young Mrs. Johnson — at least that’s what Bessie and Cora always called her.  She huddled with Cora for a while and then left, looking a little sad but not crying like some of the others.  But when she was gone Cora began to cry and mumbled something into Bessie’s shoulder.

Bessie said to her sternly:  “She’s got a right to know.”

“I couldn’t, “ said Cora, still sniffling.  “I saw such terrible things and — he’s so young; they’re both so young.”

I had never thought that much about the fact that there was a war going on.  It was far away, didn’t affect my daily life, and self-centered as I was, I pretty much ignored it.   I knew about war, at least war as it was shown in the movies, and I played war games with some of my conjured up friends, but I had a hard time thinking of war as something real.  But now suddenly it felt real and much closer.  I realized from the change in Bessie and Cora and the fortunes they told that we must be losing the war.  I hadn’t worried about my father before.  He was over there, but he wrote all the time, and most of the time the letters were happy and talked of funny things.  Everything always seemed fine, as though he were just on a business trip or vacation.  I missed him but didn’t fear for him.

Now I needed to know more.  I went to Cora and pestered her until she agreed to tell my fortune.  This actually seemed to cheer her up.  She began to rub my head and told me I’d see marvelous things, and do exciting stuff.  “One day you’ll shake hands with the President,” said Cora almost giddily.  “President Patton.”

“Tell me about my father,” I said.  She froze, and a look I’d never seen, a look of intense sadness, crept across her face.  “No more fortunes today, young man,” she said stiffly, abruptly standing and walking out, leaving me alone.

That was my last day with Bessie and Cora.  I didn’t see them again until many years later when I was a teenager and they had retired from the fortune-telling business.  I told my mother about that final day and she laughed it off but I could tell she was upset.  It had been too long since my father’s last letter, and we both knew it.  I was convinced that Cora had seen something horrible that she wouldn’t reveal.  And I remained convinced for the next two weeks until my father came marching through our front door, a full week before his letter telling us he was on his way home.

But what about that last day with Cora; had she not seen something tragic after all?  I think maybe she had, because I also heard more about the very young Mrs. Johnson.  I guess she had every reason to cry, but it wasn’t the reason that Cora had withheld.  Young draftee Johnson had boarded the train for California but disappeared before it got there, never to be heard from again.  And many of Cora’s other fortunes went slightly awry.  You might just say that, for the most part, they were just a bunch of very inaccurate tomorrows, fun at first, but increasingly colored by Cora’s growing sense of the horror of war.  I guess she was really meant to be a fair-weather fortuneteller.

And I never shook hands with President Patton.

 

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows is included in Naughty Marietta and Other Stories

SEPTEMBER 12, 1970: TURN ON, TUNE IN, DROP OUT

TURN ON, TUNE IN, DROP OUT

Richard Nixon called him the most dangerous man in America, an honor usually reserved by Republicans for figures such as Charles Darwin and Barack Obama. Timothy Leary wasn’t always so “dangerous.” He had a distinguished military service and academic psychology career timothy-leary-until he started thinking way outside the box, promoting the therapeutic use of psychedelic substances. It was your basic slippery slope, as he quickly evolved during the wild and woolly 60’s to a self-described performing philosopher and hippie guru. He used LSD himself and developed a philosophy of mind expansion and personal truth through LSD with such heady concepts as space migration and intelligence increase. Eventually, it was all about turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.

As a result, Leary also came to spend more time in jail than out of it, becoming intimate with 36 prisons throughout the world. In January 1970, he received a 20-year prison sentence for a pair of earlier transgressions. Upon his reporting for prison duty, Leary was given a series of psychological tests meant to help determine what work duties he was suited to. Having himself designed such tests, he found it quite easy to manipulate the results so that they would show him to be a model citizen with an interest in forestry and gardening, pursuits that would conveniently keep him out of doors.

Leary was assigned to work as a gardener in a minimum security prison. On September 12, 1970, leaving a farewell note, he climbed over the prison wall along a telephone wire to a waiting pickup truck supplied by the Weather Underground. For $25,000 (paid by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love), the weathermen smuggled Leary and his wife out of the United States and into Algeria. From there, they traveled to Switzerland, Vienna and Beirut. In 1972, they headed for Afghanistan which had no extradition policy with the U.S. Unfortunately, they traveled aboard an American airline, and were arrested before they could deplane.

Leary was returned to prison where he remained until his release in 1976. He died in 1996.

Come Together

“Come Together,” written by John Lennon, became a big hit for the Beatles and an anti-war anthem. It was originally written as a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s aborted run for governor against Ronald Reagan.

Said Lennon: “The thing was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook; “Come Together” was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, “Come Together,” which would’ve been no good to him—you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?

 

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows, Part 2: My New Playmates

One Thursday afternoon Bessie, Cora and I were having tuna fish and mustard sandwiches, the only way they ever served it.  Wilhelm came by with the scarf draped around his shoulders that indicated he was going out for a walk, kissed Bessie on the forehead, and said:  “Cora, I’m going out twinsfor a short walk with Walter and Elliot.”  Bessie’s face tightened right up so it was even harder than Ludwig the Rock; Cora just sighed and shook her head.

“That’s what I want to do,” I said.

“What do you want to do, dear?” asked Cora.

“Go outside and see some friends.”

“But you don’t have any friends around here,” said Bessie.

“That’s what I want,” I said, a little petulantly.  “Some friends around here, someone to play with.”

“Poor dear,” said Cora. “A boy your age does need someone to play with, doesn’t he?”

“He sure does,” I said, poking my finger into my tuna to make little tunnels.

“Oh my,” said Cora.  “I wonder if maybe we could just . . .”

“Cora,” Bessie said in a voice that was probably as firm as Edward G. Robinson’s.

“Oh Bessie,” said Cora.  These twin fortunetellers were having a complete conversation just using each other’s names, and I didn’t have a clue to what they were saying.

“Cora,” Bessie reiterated.

Cora sighed.  “All right, Bessie.”  End of conversation. Certainly enlightening.  Bessie smiled a grim smile and picked up the empty plates and the scarred remnants of my tuna sandwich.  She gave Cora one last meaningful look and marched out of the room.  I knew it was time for Mrs. Halloran who came every Thursday at two for news of her husband, Warrant Officer Warren Halloran, who was in the Philippines and probably having an affair with a nurse.

I studied Cora’s face for insight and she did her level best to remain expressionless and enigmatic.  She failed miserably, and I was able to figure out that she had some plan for finding me playmates that Bessie didn’t approve of.

After ten minutes of an intensive, intimidating ten-year-old stare, Cora broke.  “If you could play with anyone you wanted to,” she said with a lot of hesitation, “who do you suppose you’d choose.”

“You mean someone who doesn’t live in this neighborhood?”

“There aren’t many children your age in this neighborhood,” said Cora.

“Someone from my own neighborhood?”

“Perhaps.”

“Someone from very far way?”

“I suppose.”

“Someone I didn’t even know, like someone in the movies?”

“Someone like Shirley Temple?”

I made a face.  “Someone like the Little Rascals, maybe.”

“Little Rascals,” Cora mused.  “I guess I could conjure up a rascal or two.”  And so Cora had me concentrate very hard, with my eyes closed tight, on the ones I wanted to play with.  And after a minute, she’d say:  “I see them now.  I see who you want to play with.”  She’d sometimes tell me I was thinking of so-and-so, usually a name I’d never heard of, but it didn’t matter.  If I thought hard enough, she’d conjure up the person I was thinking of, and we’d pass many Tuesdays and Thursdays playing together.  And my playmates became more and more fanciful.

“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Rick would say to me before he sent me off into the cutthroat-filled streets of Morocco with a highly secret document.  Or I might be called on to kick some wicked witch butt for Dorothy and her inept companions.  Capturing big cats with Clyde Beatty, searching catacombs for Count Dracula’s casket, watching the crazy world from under Harpo’s overcoat — there wasn’t much I didn’t do those Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Sometimes when taking a break from my own frenzied activity, I’d listen in while Bessie and Cora told the young military wives their fortunes, and I sensed a change taking place.  One day, Bessie spoke to a young woman about something called a fraulein and sent her away crying.  But it was Cora’s fortunes that were changing the most.  Her futures had always been so bright, so happy — something to look forward to.  Now they were about making the best of bad times and being strong for the kids.

continued

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows is included in Naughty Marietta and Other Stories 

 

SEPTEMBER 11, 1680: THE UNFORTUNATE ROGER CRAB

THE UNFORTUNATE ROGER CRAB

Seventeenth century England was not without its share of eccentrics, folks who were not the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Roger Crab may certainly be categorized as one of them, although his misfortune at having his skull split open while serving in the Parliamentary Army might provide some excuse for his eccentricity. The unfortunate Crab was sentenced to death after the incident (for having his skull in the wrong place at the wrong time?), but his sentence was later commuted and, upon his release, he became a haberdasher of hats.

His wandering mind somehow happened upon the idea that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food or to drink anything stronger than water. Determined to pursue a biblical way of life, Crab sold all his hats and other belongings, distributing the proceeds among the poor. He then took up residence in a makeshift hut, where he lived on a diet of bran, leaves and grass (the 16th century equivalent of a kale and edamame diet), and began to produce pamphlets on the wonders of diet.

“Instead of strong drinks and wines,” he wrote, “I give the old man (referring to his body) a cup of water; and instead of roast mutton and rabbit, and other dainty dishes, I give him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran and turnip-leaves chopped together.”

mad-hatterJust as Crab persecuted his own body, others began to persecute him. He was cudgeled and put in the stocks. He was stripped and whipped. Four times he was arrested on suspicion of being a wizard. He bounced from prison to prison until his death on September 11, 1680.  Fortunately, our modern society treats its vegetarian eccentrics much more humanely.

Some scholars believe Crab was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows, Part 1: Bessie and Cora

I really don’t know why my mother took me to see Bessie and Cora.  Perhaps she was worried about the future, my future, and the future was Bessie and Cora’s forte.  These two sixty-something ladies shared a bungalow on the upper end of D Street, a bungalow from which they told fortunes, mostly to the young women whose husbands were off trying their best to wind down World War II.

Bessie and Cora were twins as well as fortunetellers.

Although they looked very much alike, they were not identical, which made life much easier for Wilhelm, Cora’s husband, who also shared the bungalow and whose eyesight and mental prowess had been waning since about 1939, so that it was difficult enough for him to identify his wife as it was.

Bessie and Cora each took a slightly different spin on divining the future:  Bessie was an avowed palmist; Cora dabbled in tarot, tea leaves and the other trendier methods.  Bessie was pragmatic; she gave her clients nuts and bolts information to help them cope with the near-term future.  Cora was a blue-sky seer; her flights of fancy took her clients into a distant romantic future filled with dark strangers and great wealth.

My mother took me to see Bessie and Cora twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays while she went to do her part for the war effort — I was never sure exactly what — I always assumed it was riveting airplanes, but that’s probably just a romantic notion I picked up later in life.  And so, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my future was in the hands of Bessie and Cora.  It didn’t take too many Tuesdays and Thursdays for me to completely read their meager library of children’s books and lose interest in the fortune telling paraphernalia that had outlived its usefulness and had been consigned to a cardboard box in the back hallway.

And how many times can you hear your future foretold?  I would be a good student, and if I studied hard, become very smart and eventually successful  — that’s what Bessie saw in my palm.  She held my palm tightly, looked at it sternly, her features as hard as the marble bust of Beethoven that watched from an upper bookshelf.  (I could never understand Wilhelm’s confusion.  The sisters did look very much alike, but even though their physical features were the same, Bessie’s were hard and Cora’s were soft — an incredible difference that should have been obvious to everyone, even Wilhelm. Bessie looked just as much like Old Marble Beethoven as she did like Cora.  At least I thought so.)  Bessie’s divination of my future never wavered; it was exactly the same on the third Thursday as it was on the first Tuesday, so I quickly gave complete control of my future to Cora.

Soft-featured Cora spread out her tea leaves and told me that someday I would fly in very fast airplanes to faraway places where I’d meet fascinating people — kings, queens, archdukes, emirs.  She consulted her cards to discover that I would, when I reached a proper age, have rendezvous with women as beautiful as Rita Hayworth, as lively as Carmen Miranda, as mysterious as Marlene Dietrich.  The bumps and contours of my ten-year-old head revealed that adventure also lie ahead — hidden treasures, Himalayan treks, maybe even a trip to Mars.  It was a wonderful life that Cora had planned for me, but even her big wide wonderful world of the future grew tiresome in time.

Wilhelm wasn’t particularly impressed by his wife’s or his sister-in-law’s prowess at prognostication.  Whenever the subject came up, he’d just snort and say:  “The future.  It’s just a bunch of tomorrows, pretty much the same as today.”  For a while I enjoyed sneaking up on Wilhelm to see how close I could get before he knew I was there.

continued

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows is included in Naughty Marietta and Other Stories

JULY 16, 1935: I PUT MY NICKEL IN BUT DIDN’T GET NO MUSIC

I PUT MY NICKEL IN BUT DIDN’T GET NO MUSIC

It didn’t take long after the first automobiles were sold at the turn of the century for traffic congestion to become a problem. By the 1930s, America was fender-deep in automobiles – Fords, Packards and Nashes; Hudsons, Bentleys and DoSotos. And folks weren’t happy just driving these vehicles around; they wanted to park them!

Parking was becoming a big problem, particularly in cities. Downtown merchants were up in arms because their businesses suffered when parking spots were hogged by the same cars all day long. Carl Magee, an Oklahoma newspaperman, came up with an idea: allow vehicles to park for a specific time period, using some kind of timer – a great solution but he didn’t have the least idea how to make such a thing work. He shared his idea with two professors at Oklahoma State University who came up with an operating model of a coin-operated parking meter.

Magee founded the Dual Parking Meter Company – “Dual” because the meters served two purposes, controlling parking and generating revenue. Oklahoma City purchased 150 of the mechanical marvels at $23 each, installing them downtown under the cover of darkness on July 16, 1935.

The meters charged a nickel an hour. There were not a great many satisfied customers. In fact, citizens were outraged. Paying for parking was unAmerican. The brouhaha attracted national attention, but the meters stayed in Oklahoma City, and quickly spread throughout the land. By the early 50s, one million were in operation.

Today’s motorists would be tickled pink to pay but a nickel for an hour of parking – particularly in Chicago where downtown meters now collect $6.50 an hour.

 

Death Visits Aunt Agatha, Conclusion:  Enter Death, Stage Left

“My poor dear,” she said. “I hate to say it, but you look a little worse tonight. Not to dampen your spirits but I fear Death may come calling tonight. One thing I’ve learned with all the many deaths I’ve witnessed over the years is that Death comes to personally take each and every person away. Once Death appears, that’s it. There’s no prolonging it. You’ve just got to pass on then and there. Goodbye cruel world.” She paused to let the weight of her words rest on Aunt Agatha’s weary body. “Well, enough of such talk. I’ll just leave you here to think on it. Should Death happen to come while I’m gone, do rest in peace.” Bridget stood, a little shaky on her feet now, and scuffled out of the bedroom.

An hour passed without the sound of Bridget’s voice in the bedroom. Aunt Agatha began to twist uncomfortably, Bridget’s words filling her with dread. Suddenly she heard a low, monstrous groaning and forced open her eyes. As her vision grew clear, she saw, looking down at her from the foot of the bed where it seemed to be hovering in midair, a grotesque figure in a black shroud with only a skull for a face. Human-like eyes glowed malevolently from within two holes in the skull.

“Old woman,” growled the fearsome figure. “It is your time. Are you ready? I am Death, come to take you away from this mortal place. Have no fear. You go to a place much better by far, up there, the world above.” The voice became an unpleasant drone. “You’ll love it. So don’t dillydally. Die and get on with it. Die. Die.”

Aunt Agatha whimpered as she stared at the figure floating there at the foot of her bed. “How do you just die?” she asked in a weak voice. “Don’t you have to take me or something?” Death grew quite agitated at Aunt Agatha’s remarks and began to flail its arms and shriek. Flailing, shrieking Death now began to gyrate wildly as though out of control, then suddenly plummeted backward and crashed to the floor. The chair Death had been standing on bounced against the foot of the bed and rolled back over the still figure on the floor. Aunt Agatha pressed back against the headboard, eyes wide, gasping.

As Monty drove down the long road to the farm Monday morning, he passed the ambulance heading the other way. “Poor old girl,” he said to himself. “I hope she didn’t suffer. I’ll just grab a quick beer then go back and take care of everything. Three days. It looks like I beat old Bridget for a hundred bucks.

Monty entered the house and saw her sitting at the kitchen table, but realized even before she turned to him that the woman at the table wasn’t old Bridget.

“Hello dear,” said Aunt Agatha, placing her spoon back in her bowl of corn flakes. She looked . . . almost healthy.

“I’m afraid I’ve bad news, Monty. Old Bridget Berman — who’s not the nicest person in this world, I should point out — passed away last night. Went crazy. Dressed up in a Halloween costume, screamed and carried on, and dashed herself to the floor.”

“Oh dear,” said Monty, trying not to think about the fact that he now owed Bridget nothing. “But you, you look much better.”

“I feel much better Monty, I really do. But it was a real brush I had with death, I’m telling you. I came that close . . .” She held up her thumb and forefinger, almost touching. ” . . . that close to joining old Bridget.”

x

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

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