March 11, 1958: Nothing Could Be Finer . . .

bombIn 1958, the U.S. Air Force bombed South Carolina. Surprisingly, the bombing of Mars Bluff, a rural area near Florence, was not intentional. The bomb was a nuclear weapon carried by a B-47 Stratojet en route from Savannah, Georgia, to the United Kingdom. (The Air Force was not planning to bomb the Brits; the plane was on its way to military exercises and was required to carry nuclear weapons in the event of a sudden Dr. Strangelovian incident with the Soviet Union.)  A fault light in the cockpit indicated that the bomb harness locking pin for the transatlantic flight did not engage, and the navigator was summoned to the bomb bay to investigate. As he reached around the bomb to pull himself up, he mistakenly grabbed Printthe emergency release pin. The bomb dropped to the floor of the B-47, its weight forcing the bomb bay doors open and sending the bomb 15,000 feet down to unsuspecting Mars Bluff. Oops.

Because the removable core of fissionable uranium and plutonium was stored separately on board the plane, the bomb was not actually atomic, but it did contain 7,600 pounds of explosives. And it created a pretty good mushroom cloud over Mars Bluff, leaving a 75-foot wide and 35-foot deep crater where Walter Gregg’s home and vegetable garden had been. The only real casualties were several chickens who bought the farm so to speak.

The crater is still preserved but grown over, pretty much just a big hole. Steven Smith, who chaired a 50th anniversary event a few years ago, couldn’t understand why it never became a real tourist attraction. “It sure could be,” he said. “This is a national treasure!”

Take This Verb and Parse It

Diagramming sentences – what fond memories that brings back.  Shuffling nouns and verbs and predicate adjectives around until they find their proper position on the diagram.  Those were the days, my friend.  However, it’s with some sorrow that I contemplate our dear parts of speech.  One of their number has fallen upon some hard times.

“Snow White bit into the apple,” said the brothers grimly.

Pity the poor adverb.  Modern writing mavens pretty much eschew the adverb today – plucking it from the garden of good writing (or the garden of bad metaphors, if you prefer) as though it were an insignificant weed.  Okay, maybe it’s sometimes overused, but in moderation, like alcohol, caffeine and fat, it serves a noble purpose.

It wasn’t always considered a sin to associate with an adverb.  Some important folks have — as I will demonstrate.  Going way back to cite an example from a good book (or as many prefer The Good Book)  “Verily, I say unto you . . .”  Okay, all together now, what part of speech is that word verily?  You got it.  And it’s used more than once by you know who.  Okay, who wants to go first? Just step right up and say “Lose that adverb.”  I’d say that’s inviting a smiting.

Thomas Mann:  Hold fast to time!  Use it!  Be conscious of each day, each hour!  They slip away unnoticed all too easily and swiftly.

E. B. White: Be obscure clearly.

Mark Twain:  The intellect is stunned by the shock but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words.

Or you may remember that catchy tune by Francis Scott Key with words that go something like this: Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thru the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?  Call the adverb police.

And finally, moving into the future, I quote just three words from one Captain Kirk: “to boldly go.”  Now there’s a strong, sassy adverb coming to the rescue of a puny little verb and splitting an infinitive just for good measure.




March 9, 1974: Lay Down Your Arms

soldierLt. Hiroo Onoda, a soldier in the Japanese army, was sent to the remote Philippine island of Lubang in 1944 to conduct guerrilla warfare. Onoda was supposed to blow up the pier at the harbor and destroy the Lubang airfield. Unfortunately, his commanders, who were worried about other matters, decided not to help Onoda on his mission and soon the island was overrun by the Allies.  Time passed, the war ended, but nobody officially told Onoda; so for 29 years, Onoda remained a dedicated soldier, living in the jungle, eating coconuts and bananas and deftly evading searching parties. Hiding out in the dense jungles, Onoda ignored the leaflets, newspapers, photographs and letters from relatives dropped by planes during the years; he was convinced they were all part of an Allied plot.

In 1974, a college dropout named Norio Suzuki traveled to the Philippines, telling his friends he was out to find a panda, the Abominable Snowman and Lt. Onoda. Where others had failed, Suzuki succeeded. He found Lt. Onoda and tried to convince him that the war was over. However, Onoda refused to leave the island until his commander ordered him to do so. Suzuki traveled back to Japan and found Onoda’s former commander, who had become a bookseller. On March 9, 1974, Suzuki and the commander/bookseller met Onoda and delivered orders that all combat activity was to be ceased, and Onoda laid down his arms.


All Day, All Night, Marianne, Part IV: The Fat Lady Sings

When he heard movement on the balcony above, Roberto pointed the little flashlight at Toussaint’s script and cleared his throat. Toussaint did not hear the creaking of the balcony, but he saw the appearance of the very large shadowy figure. He tried frantically to signal Roberto, but Roberto was staring at his script and reciting his words of love:

“Oh, petite flower, you make the moon stand still, because you’re such a thrill, you’re my blueberry hill . . .”

At the first words, the woman on the balcony started and began to retreat through the door. But then she stopped, returned to the edge of the balcony and looked down, searching the shadows below for a sign of the intruder.

“I walk the line over you, baby, baby, because you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, even though right now it’s only moonshine . . .”

She still watched, but now she was content to listen a bit longer to the words coming to her from out of the darkness.

“Hold me close, hold me tight, make me scream all the night. I don’t only have eyes for you. I have lips and arms and a nose – but just a little one – for you. With all these things I have, I want to caress you . . .”

The woman on the balcony swayed to the sounds below, and the balcony creaked even more, so Roberto was forced to speak even louder.

“I want to squeeze you like a snake, pinch you like a crab. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you and want to touch you . . .” Roberto heard heavy breathing from above, and although it sounded very heavy indeed for his diminutive Marianne, he guessed that his words were affecting her deeply, so much so that he skipped ahead a few lines to the good stuff.

“I want to touch you all over. Put my lips to your sweet . . .”

Toussaint was to him now, shaking him, whispering urgently, “It’s not Marianne.”

“Lips,” Roberto continued before fully understanding what Toussaint was saying.

Upon understanding the error, Roberto wanted so desperately to sneak away, to try another day, but the little hibiscus that was his concealment had become a prison as well. Now the balcony was quaking in earnest, and a thunderous soprano voiced pierced the tropical night with its melody:

“Take my hand, you little stranger in paradise . . .”

Roberto knew full well the import of that singing – it was too late for him and Marianne. If only he could escape with what little dignity a wretch such as he could have.

Having sung, the fat lady concentrated on coaxing her bashful secret admirer from his sanctuary: “Wherefore art thou, my little cupcake. Come out, come out, whereforever thou art.”

Toussaint was about to smugly point out the mistaken usage by the siren on the balcony when Roberto turned as white as a 400-year-old poet. Marianne had joined her mother on the balcony and together they were scanning the shrubbery for signs of Mama’s plucky paramour.

“Oh, don’t let her see me,” Roberto pleaded. “Make me invisible so she won’t see me.”

“If you don’t come out, I’ll come find you, naughty boy,” said Marianne’s mama as Marianne tried unsuccessfully to contain her laughter. In mortal fear of being identified as Mama’s Romeo, Roberto seized Toussaint and, with the strength of ten Robertos, hurled him into the open courtyard.

“There you are, my speckled bird,” cooed Marianne’s mama. Toussaint stood and grinned. “Wait right there, sweet boy. Your blueberry hill is coming for you.” Roberto watched from the hibiscus, and Marianne from the balcony, as Mama appeared in the courtyard and chased poor Toussaint into the darkness.

Roberto stared up at Marianne, as lovely on the balcony a she was on the beach, and suddenly words of his very own creation poured forth as effortlessly as if he were pantomiming to someone else’s speech: “All day, all night, Marianne . . .” And he stepped out from behind the hibiscus into full view of the balcony. “Down by the seashore sifting sand.”

“Aren’t you the one from the beach?” asked Marianne. “I’ve seen you many times, but you seemed not to see me.”

Let a hundred – no, a thousand – fat ladies sing, thought Roberto, as his words of love for Marianne continued to tumble forth.


This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.



March 4, 1925: Swain Song

On this date in 1925, the United States annexed Swain’s Island. If your history or geography course somehow skipped over this event, here’s practically everything you need to know (and then some).  Swain’s Island is a 461-acre atoll in the Pacific (and not to be confused with Newfoundland’s Swain’s Island). A Portuguese navigator was the first European explorer to southvisit Swain’s Island, arriving in 1606, although it was not called Swain’s island then. It wasn’t called anything then, so he named it Isla de la Gente Hermosa, which in Spanish means “island of the beautiful people” (and some would say, a much nicer name than Swain’s Island).

Years later, Fakaofoan invaders (folks from a nearby island — no need to memorize their name) killed or enslaved all the gente hermosas. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, since the island became infertile thanks to a curse placed on it by the chief of the gente hermosas (who evidently had a mean streak under all that beauty). Everyone died, and the island remained uninhabited until an American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, founded a community with his Samoan wife, Malia, claiming to have received title to the atoll from a British Captain Turnbull for fifteen shillings per acre and a bottle of gin. The curse had expired, and the Jennings developed a thriving copra (coconuts, not snakes) business.

In 1907, Britain claimed ownership of Swain’s Island, demanding payment of a tax of $85. Jennings paid the tax, but he complained to the U.S. State Department, and his money was ultimately refunded. The British government also conceded that Swain’s Islands was an American possession, and it officially became part of American Samoa on March 4, 1925.

Because it is in the middle of nowhere, Swain’s Island is considered an amateur radio “entity” and has become a mecca for ham operators, straining the hospitality of the island’s 17 permanent residents, none of whom would be called gente hermosas.


When I was a kid my favorite relative was Uncle Caveman. After school we’d all go play in his cave, and every once in a while he would eat one of us. It wasn’t until later that I found out that Uncle Caveman was a bear. ~ Jack Handey







March 3, 1605: And a Decaf Peppermint Almond Latte

Ippolito Aldobrandini was born into a prominent Florentine family in 1536. As a child he was told that any little boy could grow up to be Pope. And didn’t he just do it, becoming a noted canon lawyer, a Cardinal Priest, and in 1592, Pope Clement VIII. He led the church until his death on March 3, 1605. VIII’s enduring papal legacy for most of the world is not his bringing France back into the Catholic fold or leading the opposition to the Ottoman Empire, but rather his blessing of a certain beverage.

“The grain or berry called coffee groweth upon little trees only in the deserts of Arabia,” an English handbill of the mid-17th century proclaimed. “It is a simple, innocent thing, composed into a drink, by being dried in an oven, and ground to powder, and boiled up with spring water . . . and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured.”

sheepCoffee had been around for centuries from the time when shepherds noticed that the beans when eaten by their sheep caused those sheep to become rather frisky. Naturally, the shepherds were anxious to try it themselves. Eventually, after a lot of broken teeth, they learned to roast it, grind it and brew it.

It didn’t take long for coffee to become wildly popular throughout the Muslim world. Not so in Europe however, no civilized Christian could share the drink of those infidels they had been battling practically forever.  The beverage came to be known as “Satan’s drink.” and Christians pleaded with Pope Clement to ban the evil liquid and declare that anyone who drank it would be destined to burn in Hell or some other nasty spot.

Clement considered this request, but being reasonable as well as infallible, would not condemn the drink without a fair trail. Thus a steaming cup of coffee was placed before him. He took a sip, and immediately became as frisky as those Muslim sheep.. “This devil’s drink is delicious.” he declared. “We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”

And then came Starbucks.

Note: The popular folk song that came much later was not named for Clement VIII. It was “Oh My Darling Clement IX.”




March 1, 1504: Making Things Disappear

Christopher Columbus was not particularly known for his genius. After all, he thought a manatee was a mermaid (January 9) and the Bahamas were India. But in the wee hours of March 1, 1504, he showed himself to be a bit of a clever fellow and quite the showman to boot. Having stopped in Jamaica to make ship repairs during his fourth voyage (chances are, he had finally figured out that this was not India) he befriended the local natives (whom he referred to as the Pakistanis). However, Columbus’ crew was a surly lot and they soon wore out their welcome.

“When are you guys leaving?” the natives asked subtly. Then, when the Europeans refused to leave, the Jamaicans cut off their food and ganja.

The Europeans wanted to slaughter their rude hosts, but Columbus had a plan. He invited the Jamaican leaders to a late night pow wow. After a few rums and tokes, Columbus told his guests that his god was quite annoyed at their behavior and he was going to do something really nasty like smite them all dead. The Jamaicans were quite amused. Columbus then relented on the smiting part, but as punishment he said he would take away their moon. They were still quite amused, but when the moon began to disappear they changed their tune in a hurry, begging Columbus to please return their moon. Columbus said he would return their moon in exchange for all their papayas and all their pot.

It is lost to history how or if Columbus knew the moon would disappear that night. Perhaps it was just a lucky guess. Nevertheless, smug after his performance, Columbus warned the Jamaicans that they’d best behave or he’d send them packing back to India.


Some 400 years later Jamaican/American singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist, Harry Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927. Known as the King of Calypso, he brought Caribbean music to an international audience in the 1950s. His 1956 album Calypso , featuring such signature songs as “Day-O” and “Jamaica Farewell.” was the first album by a single artist to sell a million copies.


February 27, 1557: The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

Having decided that the time had come for his country to forge a commercial relationship with England, Russian Tsar Ivan IV (known to his friends as ‘ the Terrible’) sent an embassy forth, bearing glad tidings and many goodies for his royal English counterparts, Mary (known to her friends as ‘Bloody’) and Philip. The Russians arrived in London on February 27, 1557, after what could be described as a journey from Hell.

The entourage sailed from the port of St. Nicolas in several English vessels. Only two vessels reached the east coast of Scotland, one carrying the ambassador. The others had been lost or grounded on the coast of Norway. They were met by a violent storm. Making for land in the dark, they were overwhelmed and slammed against the rocks. Several were drowned; only the ambassador and three others were saved. The ship was wrecked and whatever goods came ashore, including the gifts for the English monarchs, were quickly scooped up by the Scottish rabble. However, the ambassador and his aides were taken under the care of the local gentry and treated with great kindness.

After the restitution of many of their goods, entertainment by the Scottish royalty and a goodly amount of Scotch, the ambassador and his men, accompanied by 500 Scots, continued their journey to England, where they were welcomed with great pomp and circumstance. And in May, the ambassador departed from the Thames for the return trip to Russia with four ships full of English merchandise.

But all the while, clandestine Russian operatives were sowing discord among the British, using fake news and rumors of royal collusion.


John Steinbeck was born and grew up in Salinas, California, a part of the fertile region he would later call the Pastures of Heaven in a collection of short stories and the setting for many of his works. The Nobel-winning novelist was born on February 27, 1902.

steinbeckjohnHis first critical and commercial success was Tortilla Flat set in and around Monterey, California, and featuring a small band of ne’er-do-well paisanos living for wine and good times after World War I. The novel was a sort of rogue’s tale, full of rough and earthy humor. From here Steinbeck moved on to more serious portrayals of the economic problems facing the rural working class in the social novels for which he became known — In Dubious Battle in 1936, Of Mice and Men in 1937, and his most important work The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the saga of hardscrabble Oklahoma tenant farmers who became America’s migrant workers.


February 25, 1751: Monkey Business

In what would prove to be an endless parade, the first performance by a trained monkey in the United States was said to have been in New York City on February 25. 1751. Folks paid a shilling to watch the little creature dance, cavort, walk a tightrope and generally make a human of himself. Through the years such acts have gotten steadily bigger and better — think Clyde Beatty’s trained lions, dancing elephants, King Kong.

Monkeys have always been a favorite of course. As Haney’s Art of Training Animals pointed out back in 1869, monkeys have an ingrained passion for mimicking human beings (monkey see, monkey do) and they cut a fine figure in fine clothes. “Dressed in male or female apparel, the monkey’s naturally comical appearance is greatly heightened. Thus, one might be dressed to represent a lady of fashion, while another personates her footman, who, dressed in gorgeous livery supports her train. This is elaborated into quite a little scene at some exhibitions. A little barouche, drawn by a team of dogs, is driven on the stage, a monkey driving while a monkey footman sits solemn and erect on his perch behind. A monkey lady and gentleman are seated inside, she with a fan and parasol, he with a stovepipe hat. . . . Each performer is taught what he is to do, the most intelligent monkey being generally assigned the footman’s character.”

Now that’s entertainment.

Don’t Give a Damn About a Greenback Dollar

The Hoyt Axton song recorded back in the 1960s by the Kingston Trio expresses a bit of disdain for the paper currency of the United States. The disdain has been there right from the greenback’s debut a hundred years earlier.

greenback1862bThe greenback came about because of the need to finance the Civil War. The government had earlier issued demand notes to meet war expenses but they were insufficient. Other options such as borrowing from foreign governments at interest rates only loan sharks and credit card companies dare charge were unpalatable.

An Illinois businessman serving as a volunteer officer, Colonel Dick Taylor met with Lincoln and proposed issuing unbacked paper money: “Just get Congress to pass a bill authorizing the printing of full legal tender treasury notes . . . and pay your soldiers with them and go ahead and win your war with them also. If you make them full legal tender . . . they will have the full sanction of the government and be just as good as any money; as Congress is given the express right by the Constitution.”

Lincoln didn’t really like the idea but it beat going into deep debt to foreign creditors. He endorsed Taylor’s proposal, and on February 25, 1862, Congress passed the first Legal Tender Act, authorizing $150 million in United States Notes. The notes were printed with green ink on one side, thus their name.


January 28, 1807: He Made the Night a Little Brighter

lamplightFrederick Albert Winzer was a German entrepreneur living in London on Pall Mall, that city’s version of Boardwalk or Park Place. He was one of those guys who, you could say, lit up his neighborhood. Winzer had developed and patented in 1804 a method of gas lighting fueled by the burning of coal , a technology he lectured on and demonstrated that same year at London’s Lyceum Theater. Earlier fuels included olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, and whale oil.

On January 28, 1807, thanks to Winzer, Pall Mall became the first street anywhere to be illuminated by gaslight. Street lighting itself was nothing new. For centuries, citizens were required to hang out lanterns or keep lights burning in windows that faced the streets. But the new gaslights were an exciting novelty and a boon for those old lamplighters.

Linzer followed the lighting of Pall Mall with a special exhibition later that year in honor of the birthday of King George III, using gaslight to superimpose images against the walls of the buildings along his street.The use of gaslight quickly took off. By 1823, the first public gas company, the Gas Light and Coke Co., had covered 215 miles of London’s streets with 40,000 lamps and soft drinks.

The gaslight remained the primary means of street illumination in Europe and North America throughout the 19th century. Although they’ve been pretty much replaced by electric lighting, some gaslights remain, usually in the historic districts of older cities. (In the United States, gaslit neighborhoods can still be found in Boston, Cincinnati and New Orleans).


I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well. ~ P. G. Wodehouse


January 26, 1784: Soar Like a Turkey

If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the bald eagle would never haveturkey1 become a national symbol. He would have preferred the rattlesnake which he suggested was an appropriate symbol of “the temper and conduct of America.” He also suggested a scene of confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

In a January 26, 1784, letter to his daughter, Franklin outlines his case against the eagle: “He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem . . .”

If we must have a bird as our symbol, why not the turkey? “For the Truth (says Franklin) the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”

Soar like a turkey.

Yesterdays robots: 

R2D2 (Star Wars), C-3PO (Star Wars), Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Wall-E, Rosie the Maid (The Jetsons), Number 5 (Short Circuit), Robocop


January 24, 1848: All That Glitters

James Marshall was a carpenter hired to oversee construction of a sawmill for John Sutter in Coloma, California. His agreement with Sutter provided that he would receive a portion of the lumber for his services. After selecting a site, construction began in the summer of 1847 using as laborers native Americans and veterans of the Mormon Battalion working their way back to Salt Lake City.

sawmillConstruction continued into the new year when Marshall discovered that the ditch that drained water away from the waterwheel was too narrow and shallow for the amount of water necessary to operate the saw. Marshall devised a plan to use the natural force of the river to enlarge the ditch. Because it would endanger the lives of the men working on the mill during the day, this work had to be done at night. Each morning Marshall examined the results of the previous night’s excavation.

Marshall was performing this ritual on the morning of January 24, 1848, when he noticed some shiny stuff in the channel. He picked up a couple of pieces and examined them more closely, determining that they were either sulphuret of iron, which was very bright and brittle, or gold, also bright, yet malleable. He pounded it between rocks and found that it could be beaten into a different shape but not broken.

“Eureka (or something like that),” Marshall said to a companion. His crew performed additional tests on the metal—boiling it, hammering it, checking how it paired with frankincense and myrrh. They all agreed that it was gold, but Marshall, slavishly devoted to the completion of the sawmill, only allowed his crew to look for more gold during their coffee breaks.

Marshall shared his discovery with Sutter, who performed further tests on the gold and told Marshall that it was of the finest quality, 96% pure.

Evidently someone had overheard Marshall utter that fateful word “eureka” for news of the discovery spread rapidly. By the following Tuesday, it was the number one topic on the streets of Peoria, Paris and Istanbul. Marshall saw only failure; his sawmill was abandoned when all the able-bodied men in the area joined the search for gold, and lumber was a distant memory as his sawmill became a cheap hostel for every Tom, Pierre and Habib. The California Gold Rush was in full swing.

The arriving hordes of prospectors eventually forced Marshall off his land and out of the gold business. He later tried his luck as a vintner, until eventually forced out of the wine business by every Ernest, Julio, and Mogen David.

The California State Legislature awarded him a two-year pension in 1872 in recognition of his role in California history. It was renewed a couple of times but eventually forgotten. Marshall spent his remaining years tucked away in a small cabin, bending his few remaining pieces of gold into tiny objets d’art.


beerkOn January 24, 1935, the first can of beer went on sale in Richmond, Virginia.  It came from the Kreuger Brewing Company in New Jersey.  Of course, beer had been around for a lot longer, like say 10,000 years or so, but back then they couldn’t do all those fun things you can do with empty beer cans when you’re drunk.