December 15, 2001: Lean On Me

Back in the 12th century, construction began on a bell tower for a cathedral on the Arno River in western Italy, 50 miles from pisaFlorence, in a town called Pisa. With construction barely underway, the foundation of the tower began to sink into the soft, marshy ground, giving it a rakish tilt to the left (or the right, if you stood on the wrong side). The construction firm tried to compensate for the lean by making the top stories lean in the opposite direction, but that was an exercise in Italian futility. When this architectural wonder was completed in 1360, critics expected it to remain standing for a few days at most.

Six hundred years later, it was one of Italy’s most famous tourist attractions, a dramatic 190-foot high marble masterpiece that listed an amazing 15 feet off the perpendicular, predicted to fall at any second. In 1990, a million people visited the tower, climbing 293 leaning steps to the top for the somewhat unbalanced view before Italian authorities closed shop and brought in a team of archaeologists, architects and soil experts to figure out how to make the thing stand upright.

On December 15, 2001, the Leaning Tower of Pisa reopened to the public after 11 years and $27 million of fortification, and still leaning after all these years.


Whenever you read a good book, it’s like the author is right there in the room talking to you, which is why I don’t like to read good books. ~ Jack Handey


December 5, 1933: Let the Good Times Roll

At 3:32 p.m., Mountain Standard Time, on December 5, 1933, Utah ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, the 36th state to do so (close on the heels of Pennsylvania and Ohio). It was the magic number required to repeal the 18th Amendment. Booze was back. The so-called noble experiment, 13 years worth of national prohibition of alcohol in America, had ended, having been pretty much a dismal failure.

Prohibition was supposed to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health, hygiene and good manners throughout the country. Instead it ushered in the likes of Al Capone and made a lot of ordinarily law-abiding citizens petty criminals. We got bootlegging and speakeasies, moonshine and bathtub gin.

By the early 1930s the electorate had pretty much demonstrated a profound distaste for abstinence. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for President in 1932 pledging repeal, it was bye-bye tee-totaling Herbert Hoover. The new President celebrated with his own dirty martini.

Alas, it wasn’t freedom from sobriety for everyone. Several states continued Prohibition with state temperance laws. Mississippi didn’t join Tipplers Unanimous until 1966.

A few observations overheard on the occasion:

“I think the warning labels on alcoholic beverages are too bland. They should be more vivid. Here is one I would suggest: “Alcohol will turn you into the same asshole your father was.” ― George Carlin

“We were not a hugging people. In terms of emotional comfort it was our belief that no amount of physical contact could match the healing powers of a well made cocktail.”― David Sedaris

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
― Dorothy Parker

“When a man who is drinking neat gin starts talking about his mother he is past all argument.” ― C.S. Forester

“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.” ― Benjamin Franklin

“It’s 4:58 on Friday afternoon. Do you know where your margarita is?” ― Amy Neftzger

December 4, 1872: Took a Trip on a Sailing Ship

Was the Mary Celeste a cursed ship? Three owners of the brigantine built in Nova Scotia in 1861 didn’t fare so well; they all died during voyages. The ship also suffered a damaging fire and a collision in the English Channel. But it was the voyage from New York harbor headed for Genoa, Italy in November 1872 that is the stuff of legends.

On December 4, 1872, the Dei Gratia, a small British brig spotted the Mary Celeste, sailing marycerratically but at full sail near the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain and crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the ship. The ship was seaworthy although its sails were slightly damaged and there was some water in the hold. Its cargo of 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol was mostly untouched.  Six months’ worth of food and water remained on board, and the crew’s personal belongings were still in place, including valuables. But the ten persons who had been aboard the Mary Celeste had vanished.

The Mary Celeste had sailed into nautical history as one of its most tantalizing mysteries, a classic ghost ship.

Through the years, a dearth of hard facts has created endless speculation and a host of theories as to what might have taken place. Mutiny? Piracy? Killer waterspouts? Just a few of the least bizarre explanations. In an 1884 short story, Arthur Conan Doyle suggested a capture by a vengeful ex-slave. A 1935 movie featured the irrepressible Bela Lugosi as a homicidal sailor killing off the other passengers.


The more logical speculators agree that for unknown reasons, the ten passengers (the captain, his wife and daughter, and seven crew members) abandoned the ship in the ship’s lifeboat (which was missing) and disappeared at sea. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are having none of that; they’re sticking with the Bermuda Triangle, sea monsters, and the ever-popular alien abductions.

The Mary Celeste, lived to sail another day, but presumably the curse remained. Her last owner intentionally wrecked her off the coast of Haiti in 1885 in an unsuccessful attempt at insurance fraud.


I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage, and similar chlorophyll. Any dietitian will tell you that a running foot of apple strudel contains four times the vitamins of a bushel of beans. ~ S. J. Perelman




December 3, 1926: Lords of the Rings

German -born Heinrich Friedrich August Ringling and Marie Salome Juliar of France tied the knot back in the mid-19th century. Theirs was a rather productive union in the offspring department, bringing the world seven sons and a daughter.

Five of the brothers – August, Otto, Alfred, John, and Charles, who died on December 3, 1926 – were all entertainers of sorts, performing skits and juggling routines in town halls and other local venues around the state of Wisconsin. They called themselves the “Ringling Brothers’ Classic and Comic Concert Company.” In 1884, they teamed up with a well-known showman, Yankee Robinson to create a one-ring circus that toured the Midwest. It was a good season for the Ringling Brothers; not so much for Yankee Robinson who died halfway through it.

The Ringlings did another circus in 1887, bigger and better, if you accepted its name: “Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

In 1889, they purchased railroad cars and parade equipment, allowing them to move around farther and faster, playing larger towns every day, substantially increasing their profits. On a real roll, they purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus, running both circuses until they merged them into the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus – skipping right over two rings to become a three-ringer, modestly known as the Greatest Show on Earth.





November 27, 1703: What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor?

The Eddystone Lighthouse sits atop the treacherous Eddystone Rocks off the coast of the United Kingdom. The current lighthouse is actually the fourth to hold sway there.

eddystoneThe original Eddystone Lighthouse was an octagonal wooden structure whose light first shone in November of 1698. It was destroyed just five years later on November 27 during the Great Storm of 1703. The unfortunate builder Henry Winstanley was on the lighthouse, completing additions to the structure at the time. No trace was found of him, or of the other five men in the lighthouse.

The fame of the lighthouse spread well beyond those using it for guidance in the English Channel. It became the subject of a sea shanty sung by drunken sailors around the world. Shanties are those songs sung on board ship to relieve the boredom of shipboard tasks, but during the 20th century and particularly during the mid-century folk craze, sea shanties were adopted by landlubbers everywhere. The Eddystone Light became a particular favorite of many a drunken sailor, armed with a guitar or banjo and a good supply of beer, no matter how far away the nearest navigable waters.

Oh, me father was the keeper of the eddystone light
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
From this union there came three
A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

One day as I was a-trimmin’ the glim
Humming a tune from the evening hymn
A voice from the starboard shouted, “Ahoy”
And there was me mother a-sittin’ on the buoy

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

Oh what has become of me children three?
Me mother then she asked of me
One was exhibited as a talking fish
The other was served in a chafing dish

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

Then the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair
I looked again, but me mother wasn’t there
But I heard her voice echoing back through the night
The devil take the keeper of the eddystone light

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea



November 24, 1859: Insulting Monkeys

Charles Darwin was not expecting a seismic event when on November 24, 1859, he introduced a little volume with the catchy title On the Origin of Species. Although it didn’t go viral at the time, the printing run of 1,250 copies did sell out.  A few more have sold since then.

In his book, Darwin suggested that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors.  That sounds a lot like a plug for family values, but weren’t people upset anyway.  Although Darwin’s only allusion to human evolution was a cryptic “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history,” the title of his book might just as well have been Men from Monkeys because that’s what detractors brought away from it.  And any attempt on the part of scientists to explain that it’s not about that pretty much put people to sleep.  Even though enlightenment eventually crept into the scientific community, to many others Darwin became forever the symbol of runaway science.  Were he alive today, he’d probably be conspiring with the 99 percent of scientists involved in the vast climate change hoax.

What is Man? Man is a noisome bacillus whom Our Heavenly Father created because he was disappointed in the monkey. ― Mark Twain


New Rule: Stop asking Miss USA contestants if they believe in evolution. It’s not their field. It’s like asking Stephen Hawking if he believes in hair scrunchies. Here’s what they know about: spray tans, fake boobs and baton twirling. Here’s what they don’t know about: everything else. If I cared about the uninformed opinions of some ditsy beauty queen, I’d join the Tea Party. ― Bill Maher


It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man. ― H.L. Mencken


Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoan to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately it is the philosopher, not the protozoan, who gives us this assurance. ― Bertrand Russell


November 18, 1307: Fun with Apples

It is the dawn of the 14th century and the hundredth anniversary of Austrian rule over Switzerland. Every little Heidi up in Heidiville and william tellevery one of her goats are under the cruel dominion of the Habsburgs. It is November 18, 1307, and a legend is about to be born.

It’s a day of grand celebration for the Austrians (the Swiss, not so much). Soldiers sing of the glories of the Emperor and his appointed local despot Gesler. The evil Gesler has had his hat placed on top of a pole, forcing the Swiss to bow and scrape and generally pay homage to the hat – one of those silly felt things with a feather in it. Gesler also commands that there should be dancing and singing to mark the century during which the Austrian empire has dominated the 98-pound weaklings of Switzerland. Gioachino Rossini and his Italian Racals are on hand to provide appropriate music.

Among the Swiss that day is one William Tell, known among his compatriots as a strong man, a mountain climber, and a whiz with the crossbow. Well, doesn’t Tell pass right by that hat, refusing to bow to it. And doesn’t his son (like father. . .) do just the same. Gesler is really put out and has the pair arrested.  Aware of Tell’s amazing marksmanship, Gesler devises an ingenious punishment: Tell must shoot an apple off the head of his son. If he refuses, they both will be immediately executed. At this point, you can cut the tension with a Swiss Army knife. Rossini strikes up the band.  As every schoolboy knows (if you don’t know, go find a schoolboy), Tell splits the apple with a single bolt (that’s an arrow) from his crossbow. Rossini’s Rascals break into a rollicking version of the William Tell Overture. (In the Lone Ranger, this same music was used to introduce the scene where Tonto shoots an apple from kemo sabe’s head.)

Ah, but sharp-eyed Gesler notices that Tell has taken not one but two crossbow bolts from his quiver. Gesler quizzes Tell, who answers that if he had killed his son, he would have used the second bolt on Gesler himself. Well, Gesler is now pretty pissed and has Tell carted off to prison.

Crossing Lake Lucerne, prison-bound, the soldiers, afraid their boat will founder, release strongman Tell to steer. Tell escapes, tracks down Gesler, places an apple on his head, and misses it by just that much. He shouts out, “Hi yo Switzerland,” Heidis and goats frolic on hillsides, Swiss watches begin keeping perfect time, and the Swiss Confederation is born.


November 16, 1620: Kansas in August

After having lived for months on board ship in cramped, dirty, smelly Corn vintage woodcut illustrationquarters, the Pilgrims finally sailed into Provincetown Harbor in November of 1620. On November 16, a group of 16, led by Myles Standish (also known as Captain Shrimp behind his back, being a tad short of stature) set off to explore the nearby environs.

They found fresh water at a place called Pilgrim Springs. (It wasn’t called that at the time they arrived.) Then at the top of a hill, hidden in a teepee, they found a cache of a funny sort of food — long ears with tidy little rows of yellow kernels. They called it corn and promptly stole it. The hill itself they called Hill Where We Stole the Corn from the Natives. That being quite a mouthful, it quickly got shortened to Corn Hill.

From this point the long historical march began to “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” and high fructose corn syrup.

What, you’re shouting — they just up and called it corn?

Yes kids, they did, but it’s really not that a-maize-ing (sorry). The word corn to Europeans at the time simply referred to grain, any grain. In England, wheat was “corn,” in Ireland oats were “corn” and in Indonesia rice was “corn.”

Today, Americans, Canadians and Australians are the only ones that call the yellow ears corn, To most people, it’s maize as in “I’m as maizy as Kansas in August.”



November 7, 1811: Tippecanoe and So Do You

Long before the confederacy of southern states, United States forces faced the uprising of a confederacy under the Shawnee leader and Native American folk hero Tecumseh who had visions of a Midwestern Indian nation allied with the British. Confederacy forces led by Tecumseh’s brother Tenskawatawa (One with Open Mouth) met government forces under the direction of William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indian Territory, on November 7, 1811, in the Battle of Tippecanoe (and Tyler too).

The battle took place in Indiana, at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash too Rivers. The day gave government forces an important political and symbolic victory and dealt a devastating blow to Tecumseh’s confederacy. Public opinion in the United States blamed the entire brouhaha on buttinsky Brits. The War of 1812 broke out six months later.

The Battle of Tippecanoe (and Tyler too) also served as an important springboard for Harrison’s political ambitions which culminated in his becoming president in 1841. At the age of 68 years and 23 days when inaugurated, Harrison was the oldest president to take office until Ronald Reagan in 1981. During the campaign, Democrats characterized Harrison as an out-of-touch old fart (One Who Sits in Log Cabin Drinking Hard Cider). Harrison and running mate John Tyler (and Tippecanoe too) turned the tables on the Dems, adopting the log cabin and hard cider as campaign symbols along with one of the most famous campaign slogans ever (Tippecanoe and you know who).

Harrison caught cold shortly after his inauguration and went quickly from bad to worse. Harrison’s doctors tried applications of opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snakeweed too. But to show his disdain for modern medicine, Harrison became delirious and died. He served only 32 days in office – some would say the perfect tenure for some presidents (who shall go unnamed).


There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’ ~ P. G. Wodehouse



November 5, 1605: And Brer Fawkes, He Lay Low

Please to remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot
I see of no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow…

Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido, was a protester some four hundred years ago, a member of a group of English Catholics who were dismayed at having a Protestant as King of England.  Their protests eventually moved beyond the verbal assaults (“Hi de hay, hi de ho, King James the First has got to go”) down the slippery slope to gunpowder, treason and plot.

Guy Fawkes was born in England in 1570 but as a young man went off to Europe to fight in the Eighty Years’ War (not the entire war, of course) on the side of Catholic Spain.  He hoped that in return Spain would back his Occupy the Throne movement in England.  Spain wasn’t interested.

Guy  returned to England and fell in with some fellow travelers.  Realizing that the Occupy the Throne movement required removing the person who was currently sitting on it, the group plotted to assassinate him.  They rented a spacious undercroft beneath Westminster Palace  where they amassed a good supply of gunpowder.  Guy Fawkes was left in charge of the gunpowder.

Unfortunately, someone snitched on them and Fawkes was captured on November 5.  Subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation methods, Fawkes told all and was condemned to death. (Evidently, James I was not amused.)  Just before his scheduled execution, Fawkes jumped from the scaffold, breaking his neck and cheating the English out of a good hanging.

Since then the English have celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 with the November 5 celebration, an integral part of which is burning Guy Fawkes (and sometimes others) in effigy.  Seems like a long time to hold a grudge.


It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man. ~ Jack Handey