August 3, 1946: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Louis J. Koch, an Indiana family man and father of nine children, was disappointed when a family trip took him to Santa Claus, Indiana, and he found no Santa Claus, no elves, no reindeer, no workshop –  Indiananothing. Why they named the place Santa Claus was a bit of a mystery.  And he fixated upon the town named Santa Claus that had no Santa Claus, and upon the many (thousands?) of children who would suffer the same disappointment. Lying in bed at night perhaps (or working on a third martini), he envisioned a park where children could have fun and visit Santa all year round.

And he did something about it.

Santa Claus Land opened on August 3, 1946. At no cost, children could visit Santa, a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, and themed children’s rides, such as The Freedom Train. Though skeptical, Koch’s son Bill took over as head of Santa Claus Land and continued to add to the park, including the first Jeep-Go-Round ever manufactured, a new restaurant, and a deer farm.

And it continued to grow, evolving into a huge theme park divided into sections celebrating Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with rides, live entertainment, games, and attractions, including three wooden roller coasters: The Raven, The Legend, and The Voyage. Just how many times could a kid throw up in one day? Then came the obligatory water park featuring the world’s two longest water coasters: Wildebeest and Mammoth, slides, pools, a river, and water-play attractions. Whew!

Of course, all of this became too much for a place called Santa Claus Land. Today it goes by the name Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.  And good luck finding Santa Claus.

 

Polite conversation is rarely either. ― Fran Lebowitz

July 8, 1898: Squeaky Clean in Skagway

Soapy Smith, “king of the frontier con men” died in a gunfight celebrated as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf on the evening of July 8, 1898. His last words, while not particularly memorable and certainly not effective, were nevertheless appropriate to the situation: “My God, don’t shoot!”

Soapy’s career began soon after the death of his mother in Fort Worth, Texas. He formed a highly disciplined cadre of ne’er-do-wells to work for him, and rose rapidly to criminal super stardom. He built three major evil empires: in Denver, Colorado, from 1886 to 1895); Creede, Colorado in 1892; and Skagway, Alaska, from 1897 to 1898. It was in Skagway that he finally made his dramatic exit.

Starting off with small-time cons such as three-card monte and shell games, he eventually employed the big con that gave him his nickname. On a busy street corner, Smith would go into an ordinary sales pitch extolling the wonders of his soap cakes. But he proceeded to wrap money around the cakes of soap – ones, tens, a hundred dollar bill.   He then wrapped plain paper around them to hide the money.

soapyHe mixed the money-wrapped packages with bars containing no money and began selling the soap for a dollar a cake. Immediately, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear it open, and begin waving around the money he had supposedly won.  People began buying soap, usually several bars. Every few minutes, someone would shout that he had won, always a confederate. Eventually, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill remained unpurchased and began auctioning off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Naturally, the only money was “won” by members of the gang.

Smith used this swindle successfully for twenty years. The proceeds from this scam and others gave him the money to pay graft to police, judges, and politicians, and live as a somewhat shady swell until his comeuppance on the Juneau Wharf at the hand of a man he had cheated.

 

Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both. ~ Dorothy Parker

 

 

June 2, 1855: Give Me a Martini or Give Me Death

In the early 1850s, the city of Portland, Maine, with a population of 21,000 might be called a sleepy little burg. But that was about to change thanks to a Maine law enacted in 1851 outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcohol anywhere in the state, except for medicinal and mechanical purposes.

Portland Mayor Neal S. Dow was an outspoken prohibitionist who fully supported the law, so much so that he was dubbed the “Napoleon of Temperance. ” However, Dow had authorized a large shipment of “medicinal and mechanical alcohol” that was being stored in the city vaults for distribution to pharmacists and doctors (authorized under the law). The good citizens of Portland got wind of this cache of alcohol and suspected the worst, that Dow was a hypocrite and a secret sot.

The Maine law had an interesting little clause allowing any three voters to apply for a search warrant if they suspected someone was selling liquor illegally. Three men did just that, appearing before a judge who issued a search warrant.

On the afternoon of June 2, a crowd of several hundred people, already irate over the law coming between them and their Harvey Wallbangers, gathered outside the building where the alcohol was being held. The crowd grew larger and surlier as it became obvious that the police were not going to seize the booze. As the crowd swelled, jostling became shoving, and the hurling of angry words became the hurling of rocks. The infamous Portland Rum Riot of 1855 was in full swing.

Police were unable to control the mob, and Mayor Dow called out the militia. When the protesters ignored the order to disperse, the militia, on Dow’s orders, fired into the crowd killing one man and wounding several others.

Dow was widely criticized for his strong-arm tactics during the incident and was later prosecuted for improperly acquiring the alcohol but was acquitted. The Maine Law was repealed the following year.

 

Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed.  Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams.  If I didn’t drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered.  Then I say to myself, it is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.  ~ Jack Handey

 

 

May 27, 1915: Don’t Stop the Carnival

Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk was born in 1915. His books include The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, Marjorie Morningstar, and his most recent, which he says will be his last, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, released in 2016.    Don’t Stop the Carnival, a must-read for anyone interested in the Caribbean, was written in 1965. In the following excerpt, Norman and Henny Paperman have embarked on a new Caribbean enterprise and, at a party, they tell their friends about it:

During this evening, nearly every person there told Norman or Henny, usually in a private moment, that they were doing a marvelous, enviable thing. The Russians at the time were firing off new awesome bombs in Siberia, and the mood in New York was jittery, but there was more than that behind the wistfulness of their friends. All these people were at an age when their lives were defined, their hopes circumscribed. Nothing was in prospect but plodding the old tracks until heart disease, cancer, or one of the less predictable trap-doors opened under their feet. To them, the Papermans had broken out of Death Row into green April fields, and in one way or another they all said so.

Wouk turns 102 today.

Having brought up the Caribbean, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean, Terry and the Pirate and Voodoo Love Song, not in the same league as Don’t Stop the Carnival but just as as readily available.

March 27, 2013: I Left My Heart and a Bunch of Quarters . . .

The bane of drivers everywhere, the toll-taker, notably went missing from from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge on March 27, 2013.  Not the tolls themselves,  just those golden gatehuman beings who had previously greeted motorists with smiling faces on and official hands out.  On that morning, officials  threw the switch on a new electronic system of collecting tolls. This is the future; this is progress.

Empty toll booths were joined by a new 27-foot LED sign instructing motorists to keep on moving as the Golden Gate Bridge became the only span in California and one of the few in the world to convert to all-electronic tolls.

Now motorists go online to register license plates and credit card information with the bridge district and pay tolls as they are incurred. Those who don’t have online accounts have about 48 hours after they cross the bridge to pay the toll at one of the payment kiosks located along thoroughfares leading to and from the Golden Gate. Those who don’t pay up receive invoices, because Big Brother knows who they are.

The bridge has been a San Francisco icon since it was opened in 1937. Before that the only practical short route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County was by a half-hour boat trip across San Francisco Bay. During the bridge-opening celebration, before vehicle traffic was allowed, 200,000 people crossed the bridge on foot and roller skate.

In addition to being a major tourist attraction, the bridge is the world’s most popular suicide spot. An official suicide count is kept, sorted according to which of the bridge’s 128 lampposts the jumper was nearest when he or she jumped. (Lamppost #19 is particularly recommended.)  By 2015,  the suicide count had exceeded 1,400, and new suicides were occurring as fast as one could say ‘Goodbye, cruel world.’ But savvy officials came up with a plan to thwart would-be jumpers: a $76 million steel net that will capture them like hapless butterflies.  There they will remain trapped until “help” arrives in the form of jump toll collectors.

 

Ode to Snow

Warning – the following is quite lyrical.

O glorious snow surrounding me with immense drifty mounds!  What do thy mounds conceal?  How many cocker spaniels, small children, miniCoopers have you swallowed, not to be seen again until May.  I am quite conscious of those mounds surrounding me, looming, as I go to fetch the mail, keeping close to the shoveled path lest I too be lost in the mounds ‘til May.  But the path is icy (for that’s what winter is about – snow and ice, ice and snow) and my feet, which have been more accustomed to soft earth, grassy carpeting, fly out from neath me. I fall to the cruel ice.  And here I am in a place from which I never thought I’d be needing to shout:  “Help me.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  But I’m not going to shout, for it seems my mouth is frozen to the icy path.  O glorious ice!  Ice that holds me close to its vast but damn cold bosom.  I wait, hoping that someone will come along – a girl scout  peddling cookies, a hot dog vendor, or the UPS man delivering a package of lip warmers.  Or have they too been swallowed by the shifting, whispering mounds of snow?  I tell myself it could be worse; I could be in Chicago.  It doesn’t help.  Now my life flashes before me, especially the part where I’m on a beach in the Caribbean.   But what’s this?  My face is stuck in the sand.  Children frolic nearby, pointing and laughing.  “Hey, mon, why’s your face in the sand?”  Tanned beauties stroll by at a safe distance whispering about senility and too many pina coladas.    A sand crab sidles up and pinches my nose, and I’m suddenly back in frozen Vermont.  But help seems to be at hand.

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses approach.   They look down at me and ask,  “Are you ready to be saved?”  “Doesn’t it look like I’m ready to be saved?” I shout, but no words come out.   They chip me free from the ice with their Watchtowers.  I thank them, accept an armload of their publications, and they ask me if I’m ready for the end of the world.  You betcha.

February 13, 1862: Thaw Out the Holly

With the giving and getting of gifts growing to a crescendo in late valentines-day3December, it is to many a glass of cold water in the face when the merriment suddenly gives way to a bleak long winter with scarcely a box or a bow in sight. The people of Norwich, a city on England’s east coast, a couple of centuries ago found a way to keep on giving by elevating February 13, St. Valentine’s Eve to a Christmas-like celebration.

According to an 1862 account, this Victorian tradition was evidently peculiar to Norwich: visitors to the city were often puzzled to find the shop windows crammed with gifts in early February and newspapers full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.

As soon as it got dark on St. Valentine’s Eve, the streets were swarming with folks carrying baskets of treasures to be anonymously dropped on doorsteps throughout the city. They’d deposit a gift, bang on the door, and rush away before anyone inside could reach the door. Indoors there were excited shrieks and shouts, flushed faces, sparkling eyes and laughter, a rush to the door, examination of the parcels.

Practical jokers  were everywhere as well, ringing doorbells and running off, leaving mock parcels that were pulled away by string when someone attempted to pick them up. Large parcels that dwindled to nothing as the recipient fought through layer after layer of wrapping, and even larger parcels containing live boys who would jump out, steal a kiss, and run away.

As with most holidays that involve children out after dark and mischief, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Eve fell out of favor, to be replaced by the Hallmark-inspired and saintless Valentine’s Day.

 

February 13, 1971

Golf is thought of as relatively safe sport.  But for the safety of others, there are just some people who should not be allowed on a golf course.  Vice President Spiro Agnew had the dubious distinction of beaning not just one but three spectators on this day during the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  On his very first drive, he sliced into the crowd for a two-bagger, bouncing off a man to nail his wife as well.  On his next shot, he hit a woman, sending her to the hospital.  The previous year, Agnew had managed to hit his partner in the back of the head.

 

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January 31, 1990: Next Day on Your Dressing Room They’ve Hung a Tsar

mcdonalds-russiaContinuing severe economic problems and internal political turmoil took a backseat on January 31, 1990, as Muscovites lined up to try a most unRussian guilty pleasure. The Soviet Union might be crumbling around them, but that icon of Western decadence, purveyors of glasnost on a sesame seed bun, was riding high. McDonald’s had come to town.

Those Big Macs, with fries and shakes might cost a day’s wages, but the people of Moscow were eating them up. The notorious golden arches of capitalism were signs that times they were a’changing in the Soviet Union – in fact, within two years the Soviet Union would dissolve. A Soviet journalist saw no great political earthquake but rather an “expression of America’s rationalism and pragmatism toward food.” Could the Quarter Pounder be the ultimate example of the People’s Food?

Whatever it was, they took to it in Moscow like a Bolshevik takes to a putsch. Located in Pushkin Square, this McDonald’s was the world’s largest, boasting 28 cash registers and a seating capacity of 700. Its opening day broke a McDonald’s record with more than 30,000 customers served. It remains the world’s busiest McDonald’s, serving more than 20,000 customers daily.

Moscow resident Natalya Kolesknikova told Russian State Television that when out-of-town guests came to visit, she showed them two things, McDonald’s and the McKremlin.

 

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Island in the Sun – Conclusion

Read Part One

Several days passed before the bulldozer arrived.  During that time, Santo kept a constant vigil at the olive tree.  During the day, tourists passing by would sometimes stop to talk to Santo.  Most had already heard of the crazy man and his olive tree, but Santo’s disarming smile and his bullfriendliness would make them wonder whether he were crazy or merely a man with a cause, which is hardly so crazy.  Knowing that he remained night and day at the tree, some would bring him food and would sit and talk with him while he ate.

The young couple from the south of England shivered as Santo told them about sleeping on the dock in Trinidad after loading a banana boat and awaking to find a fat tarantula sitting on his chest staring at him.  The three ladies from California gushed over his tales of Spain during the last days of Generalissimo Franco.  And the young Montrealer listened until well after midnight as Santo talked of his time in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.

The bulldozer arrived early the next morning.  Santo had to shake himself awake, and for a moment, he thought he was awaking from a nightmare in which he was about to be eaten by a huge yellow monster.  But even with his eyes open, the yellow monster remained, growling at him.

“Go away, crazy one,” shouted Luis Jordan from atop the chugging beast. Luis was a young man who had come to the island to do construction work; he didn’t belong on the island.  He was an angry, combative young man, frequently picking fights, and Santo didn’t like him much.  “You don’t think I’ll plow you down, do you, crazy man?”

“I am not crazy,” answered Santo.  “Go away.”

“Don’t be smart with me, crazy man.  You won’t stop me.  I don’t care if you live or die.  You’re trespassing.  I can plow you under and nobody will say anything.  I’ll take down that damn tree, and I’ll take you down with it.  Believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“As you should,” boasted Luis.  “Now stand aside.”

“I can’t stand aside.  This is my place.  It was my mama’s and my papa’s, and it was their mama’s and papa’s.  Go away and leave me alone.”

“I warned you,” said Luis, grinning as though he were really happy that Santo would not move, that he would have the pleasure of plowing him under.  “Good riddance to your lunacy.”  The bulldozer’s engine whined, and the beast lurched forward.  Santo stood his ground as the yellow monster bore down on him, it’s driver laughing.  Santo closed his eyes.

The Crystal Coral Beach Club was a magnificent place.  It straddled a mile’s worth of white sand beach and bathed it in grandeur and opulence.  Open for the first time this season, it was an unqualified success, drawing tourists from throughout the world and remaining fully occupied.  Hopes were high that it would bring years of prosperity to the tiny island.

On this day, the first anniversary of groundbreaking for the beach club, a large throng of tourists had gathered together.  The story of the Beach Club’s shaky beginnings had traveled from the swimming pool to the tennis courts to the lounge and to the bright blue water and back.  This was to be a celebration of that day of confrontation.

The olive tree had grown to nearly ten feet and was beautiful to behold; looking at this tree, it was hardly surprising that so many people considered olive trees holy.  Santo emerged from the modest house just beyond the tree, a house flanked by hibiscus, bougainvillea, and the beach club’s 156 luxury rooms.  Santo the celebrity beamed as he joined the others at the tree and shared a toast with the couple from the south of England, the three ladies from California, the Montrealer, and the others who had been here last year, the ones who had ignored the metallic whine of impending doom to suddenly join Santo in front of his tiny tree, linking their arms with his in defiance of the bulldozer.

With a grin, Santo pointed to where, even though it defied all the rules of horticulture and all the laws of botany (but didn’t surprise Santo or his friends one little bit), a single olive clung tenaciously to a branch of his olive tree.

 Listen to Island in the Sun

“Island in the Sun” is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Island in the Sun

“Have sense, Santo,” said Max-Anthony, the engineer.  “You are only delaying the inevitable.”

“It is inevitable that my tree should grow,” answered Santo, refusing to budge from where he stood in front of his tree.  “Grow to maturity and bear fruit.”

Santo was quite proud of his tree.  It was the only such tree on the entire island.   People told him an olive tree would not grow here.  Actually, they told him that it might grow very well, but that without chilly nights, it would never produce olives, just leaves.  Santo didn’t believe them.  His tree had been growing for two years now, and it was a handsome tree.  Such a handsome tree was bound to grow olives.

The tree was as tall as his three-year-old son.  He wondered which of the two would grow faster, but now he would never know because Claudine had taken his son, had left him and returned to Provence.  Now he had only the olive tree.

“You’re a fool, Santo,” said Max-Anthony, a man with little patience.  “This hotel will be good for the island.  It will create many jobs.  Perhaps a job for you.”

“I do not need a job,” said Santo.  “I have retired.”

He had brought the olive tree here from Provence when it was just a tiny sapling.  He had kept it hidden because it was probably an illegal thing to do.   Did that make him a smuggler?  Provence was a very pretty place, a place he had liked very much.  And he had particularly loved the olive groves.  It was under the canopy of an olive tree, that he and Claudine had spent their first time together.  They delighted in the imperfection of its twisted trunk, the way the light played through it’s shivering gray-green leaves, creating impressionistic patterns of light on the ground beside them.  Their son had been conceived under that tree.

Pulled by the strings of young love — Claudine was young, Santo not so young — she had agreed that the three of them could return to the island, to the village of Santo’s parents and grandparents, to that stretch of beach that had for a hundred years been theirs.  But Claudine soon found that she could not tolerate island life; she needed more than it could give.  She yearned for Provence, needed cities like Arles and Avignon, needed to be just a high-speed train ride from Paris.  She begged him to return with her, but he couldn’t. He belonged here, just as Claudine belonged in Provence.

The officials from the hotel company had come from their air-conditioned offices to plead with him as well, but Santo refused to go.  “You are trespassing,” said a Mr. Alexander through pursed lips in a pallid face.  He wore a suit.  “This beach belongs to the Caribe Development Corporation.  We will have you removed.  Forcibly, if necessary.”

It had become important for Santo to be somewhere he belonged.  So much of his life had been spent in places he didn’t belong — first moving from one island to another, each one bigger and more indifferent  — Statia, St. Vincent, then Trinidad — cutting cane and loading banana boats until finding work as a bartender.  He was a good bartender; he knew how to charm the tourists, particularly the ladies, whom he flattered unabashedly.  He moved on to Caracas, then Madrid and Barcelona, Algeria, and finally to southern France —  to Provence, to the olive groves and to Claudine.

He had lost Claudine and his son, and now, in the name of progress, they wanted to take his tree.  But this beach was his; they would not move him or his tree.

“This beach belongs to me; it has always belonged to my family.”

“You’re mistaken.”

“I’m not mistaken,” shouted Santo.  “I have the papers.”  Santo waved the papers at Mr. Alexander.

“Those papers were issued by a government that no longer exists,” said Max-Anthony, joining Mr. Alexander.  “They are worthless, and you know it.”

“Can you have him removed?” asked Mr. Alexander.

“Don’t worry,” said Max-Anthony.  “He will move when the bulldozer comes. No more games, Santo.”

 Listen to Island in the Sun

“Island in the Sun” is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Read conclusion.