August 17, 1978: Give ‘Em Helium

Three Americans from New Mexico completed the first transatlantic balloon flight, landing in a barley field 60 miles from Paris, 138 hours and six minutes after lifting off from Presque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled Double Eagle II covered 3,233 miles in its six-day journey.

Almanac devotees will remember (having most certainly taken notes) that Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel to great fanfare some two hundred years earlier.

Balloonists began attempting the Atlantic crossing in the mid-1800s, with 17 unsuccessful flights, balloonresulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. Two of our three balloonists gave it their first shot in September 1977, aboard the Double Eagle I, but were blown off course, landing off Iceland after 66 hours.  After recovering from bruises, embarrassment and frostbite, they were ready to foolishly rush in again.  A third pilot was brought in to spread the pain.

The Eagle Junior was a big balloon – 11-stories of helium.  It made good progress after blastoff, but during mid-trip, plunged from 20,000 feet to a hair-raising 4,000 feet, forcing them to jettison ballast material and many of their inflight amenities.  Among the items chucked overboard was evidently all of their finer cuisine, for they were forced to finish the trip dining only on hot dogs and sardines. Toward the end of the trip, one balloonist was heard to remark somewhat testily: “Skip the bun; just grease up my hot dog with mustard real good and I’ll shove it in my ear.”

Panic set in when the balloonists couldn’t find the Eiffel Tower.  Blown off course, they touched down just before dusk on August 17, 1978, near the hamlet of Miserey, missing the wine and ticker-tape parade in Paris. Parisians, not wanting to give up a celebratory occasion, amused themselves in honor of the storming of the Bastille.

 

In order to understand mankind, we must look at the word itself, “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean? Maybe we’ll never know. ~ Jack Handey

July 27, 1793: Off With Their Heads

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 14, 1789, 1973: 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.

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
I grew up as a Roy Rogers fan, of course.  — Phil Everly

June 19, 1885: Beware the French Bearing Gifts

In 1885, the French ship Isere sailed into New York Harbor carrying 214 crates filled with 350 libertypieces of a 305-foot high jigsaw that had been crafted in France and would, over the next four months, be re-assembled on an awaiting pedestal on Bedloe Island (now called Liberty Island) – there to stand for the next 132 years (so far).

Once constructed, this would, of course, be the Statue of Liberty or “Liberty Enlightening the World,” to those not on a first-name basis. It was a gift from France to the United States back during the two countries’ honeymoon days.   Actually it was something of a joint enterprise, the French providing the statue and the U.S. the pedestal on which it would stand.

French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began designing the statue in 1876, working with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower. Richard Morris Hunt, designer of New York City’s first apartment building, designed the pedestal. Given his background, one might have expected his pedestal to house several luxury apartments, a missed funding opportunity: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to rent 3BR LUX APT, LWR FLR, UNF, HRBR VIEW.”

As it was, funding of the statue was a bit of an issue. Both countries faced challenges in getting money for the project. The French charged public fees, held fundraising events, and used money from a lottery to finance the statue. One notable fundraising method in the U.S. was a traveling arm. The statue’s torch-bearing arm was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  After the exhibition closed, it was transported to New York, where it remained on display in Madison Square Park for several years before being returned to France to be reunited with its torso. The French, in a bit of Gallic oneupsmanship, exhibited the head at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.

The plan to display Lady Liberty’s breasts in Boston was banned before it got off the drawing board, and a nationwide tour of her feet failed to muster sufficient enthusiasm.

The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying, ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ She’s got a baseball bat and yelling, ‘You want a piece of me?’ Robin Williams

June 4, 1411: The Cheese Stands Alone

Even in 1411, the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon had been making cheese as long as anyone could remember.  And all because a young man was lured away from his lunch by a fair young maiden. Or so the story goes.

The cheese-making folks of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon were probably the only ones making the tangy, crumbly sheep’s milk cheese with its distinctive veins of green mold. Nevertheless on June 4, 1411, French King Charles VI granted them a monopoly for the ripening of the Roquefort cheese.

What makes Roquefort Roquefort is its aging in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Popular legend suggests that the cheese was discovered when a young man eating his lunch of bread and ewe’s milk cheese spied a hot young woman in the distance. Naturally, he ran off to pursue her, leaving his lunch in the cave. Legend leaves the results of his amorous pursuit to our imaginations, but his appetite must have been somehow satisfied since he didn’t return to the cave for several months. When he did, the mold present in the cave – Penicillium roqueforti to be exact – had done an ugly duckling number on his lump of cheese transforming it into a cheese of beauty. The bread, however, was another story.

The French take their wine and their cheese seriously. A ruling in 1961 decreed that although the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon method for the manufacture of the cheese could be followed across the south of France, only those cheeses ripened in the natural caves of Mont Combalou could bear the name Roquefort. Today, its production involves some 4,500 people who herd special ewes on 2,100 farms in a carefully defined grazing area. In 2008, 19,000 tons were produced, with 80% of it consumed in France.  It’s a laborious process — 4,500 folk dropping their 4,500 lumps of ewe’s milk cheese and running off in hot amorous pursuit of 4,500 other folk.

 

To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kinda scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad. ~ Jack Handey

 

May 26, 1755: Read His French Lips

MandrinLouis Mandrin was to France what Robin Hood was to England and Rob Roy to Scotland. Having served in the war of 1740 in a light brigade noted for undertaking dangerous missions to surprise the enemy, he was left idle and without income by peace, which made a remarkable appearance in 1748. He had no way of supporting his life other than continually risking it. Thus he came up with the idea of assembling a corps of men like himself with himself as their leader and waging war against the fermiers, collectors of royal revenues from taxes  levied on salt, tobacco, and farming. The fermiers paid an agreed upon amount to the king, but could exact unspecified sums themselves. They naturally became fat and rich in the process – and hated.

Mandrin became the master of a portion of central France, pillaging public treasuries to pay his troops, whom he also put to work forcing the wealthy to buy his stolen merchandise. He successfully warded off the many detachments of government troops sent against him, instilling fear among their numbers and in the government itself. Eventually the people came to consider him their protector against the oppressions of government revenue officers.

Finally, a regiment did attack and destroy his corps, but Mandrin himself escaped into the Duchy of Savoy. From there, he continued to make forays across the border and a terrible nuisance of himself. The French government was not not happy. The fermiers entered the Duchy illegally, disguising 500 men as peasants. Mandrin was betrayed by two of his men, seized, and whisked across the border. When the King of Savoy, learned of the French intrusion into his territory, he immediately wrote to the French King, demanding that the prisoner be turned over to him. But before the message arrived, Mandrin was hurriedly tried, condemned to be broken at the wheel, and executed on May 26, 1755.

 

I prefer dead writers because you don’t run into them at parties. ― Fran Lebowitz

April 19, 1949: Send In the Clowns

russianWith the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world, cold war adversaries were nonetheless able to find glimmers of humor. At the opening night of the Moscow Circus, noted Russian clown, Konsantin Berman, demonstrated who had the upper hand in the clown cold war, launching barb after barb in the direction of the United States.

Tossing a boomerang, he likened it to the U.S. Marshall Plan that was pumping economic recovery aid into Western Europe. “American aid to Europe,” he said, “Here is the dollar.” as the boomerang returned to his hand, delighting the audience. Producing a radio that bellowed out the sound of barking dogs, he announced: “That’s the Voice of America.”

Meanwhile American clowns were dumping buckets of water on each other and slipping on banana peels.

Speaking of Banana Peels

The Vagabond King a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Frimi was already an American success when it opened in London on April 19, 1927.  It’s success in England was probably assured given its theme of foibles of the French.  Its hero is a braggart, thief and rabble-rouser who attempts to steal an aristocratic lady from the king himself.  Not only that, he openly mocks the king, boasting about what he would do if he were king.  The angry king gives him royal powers for 24 hours — king for a day — during which he must solve all France’s problems or go to the gallows (the guillotine had not yet been invented).  He succeeds, wins the lady’s hand and lives happily ever after in exile — probably in England.  The operetta was the inspiration for a couple of movies and, of course, the popular radio and television program “Queen for a Day.”

 

Food is an important part of a balanced diet. ― Fran Lebowitz

 

April 13, 1360: Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here

It was the 14th century and once again England was out to conquer France. The hostilities had been going on for nearly 20 years, when England’s King Edward III sailed across the Channel with a huge army — a cast of thousands.

The dead of winter set in, and the inconsiderate French refused to face the English invaders in direct combat. Instead they huddled in their warm and cozy castles, drinking cafe au lait while the English plundered the countryside and got frostbite. Come April of 1360, having lasted through the winter, Edward and his men fought and torched their way through the Paris suburbs, and readied themselves to have at Chartres.

Then, on April 13, a sudden violent storm came up. Lightning killed several soldiers, and then the heavens opened up and hailstones the size of pommes de terre began hammering the hapless army, killing a thousand men. Naturally, they took this as a sign that God was annoyed. Edward declared the invasion “my bad” and negotiated a peace with the French. The English renounced all claims to the throne of France, and the French gave them croissants.

But wouldn’t you know it, a few years later, the King of France declared war on England ( this was, after all, the Hundred Years’ War, scheduled to last another 75 years or so.)

Historians assure us that this was not the origin of the phrase “Hail to the Chief.”

 

Bistro

Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.

“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.

Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”

Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.

Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.

“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”

“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”

“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”

“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”

“Vile.”

And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”

“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”

But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.

“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.

In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.

They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”

“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.

Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.

The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.

Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.

 

This is one of ten stories in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.  See more here.

January 7, 1785: Jean-Pierre and the Airgonauts

HotAirBalloonBoy-GraphicsFairyBalloonomania was in full swing in Europe by the year 1785, and our intrepid French airgonaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard was right in the middle of it. Since his initial hot-air balloon flight nearly a year earlier, the frenzy had grown with balloon images plastered everywhere and even people adorned in clothing au ballon, a style that made them look like walking hot-air balloons.

But a sort of holy grail of ballooning was still to take place – the crossing of the English Channel. Blanchard had gone to England after his early successes, where he staged several flights in his strange-looking craft propelled by flapping wings and a windmill. Blanchard’s third flight there with American John Jeffries as co-pilot departed Dover Castle on January 7, 1785, bound for the coast of France, and the two men became the first to cross the Channel by air.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty flight; the two men nearly crashed into the Channel along the way. Their balloon was weighed down by questionable extra supplies such as anchors, a hand-operated propeller that didn’t work, and a set of oars with which they planned to row their way through the air. With France in sight but seemingly just out of reach, the two balloonists threw everything they could pry loose out of the balloon. When all looked bleak, Blanchard even threw his trousers overboard, lightening the craft enough to make a terra firma landing. The 2½ hour trip was a success.

Blanchard was awarded a substantial pension by Louis XVI. He later toured Europe, demonstrating his balloons and staging first flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. He ballooned before monarchs, such as his flight at the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia in Prague, and presidents, Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the United States.

Charles Addams, born January 7, 1912:addams

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