October 9, 1900: Soda Sipping Ingenuity

Joseph Friedman born on this day in 1900 was one of those inventors who might more correctly be called dabblers, thinking up ideas here and there that usually don’t amount to much (a lighted pencil, for example) although his nephew, a British MP, referred to one particular invention as “arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century.”

It came about one day in 1937 while Friedman was sitting in his younger brother Albert’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop in San Francisco. Friedman watched his young daughter sitting at the counter as she struggled to drink her soda through a straw that seemed to stay just beyond her reach. He took another paper straw and pushed a screw into it. Then, using dental floss, he wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations in the straw. After he removed the screw, the straw would bend easily over the edge of the glass, allowing his daughter to conveniently sip her soda – a  eureka! moment by any standard, the creation of the bendy straw. Friedman hastened to the Patent Office and secured patent #2,094,268 for his invention under the title Drinking Tube. He later filed for two additional U.S. patents and three foreign patents.

His attempts to interest straw manufacturers in his invention were unsuccessful so he eventually produced the straw himself. The Flexible Straw Corporation was incorporated on April 24, 1939, in California. However, war intervened and he didn’t make his first sale until 1947 – to a hospital rather than kids sipping sodas.

 

Columbus Was No Viking

October 9 has been designated as the day to celebrate the true discoverer of America Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, son of Thorvald the Blue, son of Knut the Orange, son of Sven the Green and so on.  It is a day to reflect on Scandinavian heritage and, of course, Viking humor.

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October 5, 1983: Burping in Polite Company

Noted American businessman and inventor, Earl Silas Tupper died on October 5, 1983. He was buried in a 100-gallon Tupperware container whose lid was “burped”to get an airtight seal before being lowered into the ground. Thousands paid their respect at a memorial Tupperware Party held earlier.

For indeed this was the man who invented and gave his name to Tupperware, a line of plastic containers in an almost infinite array of shapes and sizes that changed the way Americans stored their food. Tupper invented the plasticware back in the late 30s, but it didn’t really start worming its way into every household until the 50s when Tupper introduced his ingenious and infamous marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party. This clever gambit gave women the opportunity to earn an income without leaving their homes and to simultaneously annoy their friends and relatives.

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The rock musical Hair has played pretty much continuously since its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in the late 60s, its mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll more or less guaranteeing hairan avid following. It’s been translated into many languages and produced throughout the world. But back on October 5, 1967, it looked a lot like a colossal failure.

After rejections by producer after producer, the musical was accepted by Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, to open the new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village for a six-week engagement.

Hair depicts a group of hippies living the bohemian life in New York City, rebelling against the Vietnam War, conservative parents and other societal ills while diving into the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Its protagonist Claude must decide whether to resist the draft or give in to conservative pressures and risk his principles (and his life) by serving in Vietnam.

Production did not go well. Perhaps the theater staff was too close to conservative America; the material seemed incomprehensible, rehearsals were chaotic, casting confusing. The director quit during the final week of rehearsals and the choreographer took charge. The final dress rehearsal was a disaster.

But the show did go on. Critics were not particularly kind, but it found an audience. During the six-week engagement, a man from Chicago was attracted to the show by its poster with a picture of five American Indians on it. He thought Hair was all about Native Americans, a favorite subject of his. He was surprised to discover it was actually about hippies, but he nevertheless liked it so much that, he bankrolled its move to a discotheque in midtown Manhattan. The show had to start at 7:30 pm instead of the normal curtain time of 8:30 and play without intermission so dancing could begin at 10 pm. But Hair was getting closer to Broadway.

In 1968, the play’s creators reworked it into the musical that everyone knows, adding additional songs, the infamous nude scene, and an upbeat ending — it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

 

I found it all about as arousing as a Tupperware party.  — Stephen Fry

 

August 28, 1963: the “Negro is still not free”

In Washington DC, on  August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back King_Jr_Martin_Luther_093.jpgto Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

 

Part of that is when they try and demean me unfairly, because we had a massive crowd of people. We had a crowd… I looked over that sea of people, and I said to myself, ‘wow’, and I’ve seen crowds before. Big, big crowds. That was some crowd. — Donald Trump

August 23, 1618: This Little Pig Had Roast Beef

There is no dearth of stories in the realm of pig-faced lady literature; a 17th century Dutch account typifies the genre. This particular pig-faced lady was born at Wirkham on the Rhine in 1618. Her name was Tanakin Skinker. Miss Skinker was a near perfectly formed little girl – one might say beautifully constructed – except that her face (some say her entire head) was that of a swine. She was a dead ringer for a pig.

     The child grew to be a woman and a source of great discomfort to her parents, for although her disposition and carriage were in general unoffending, her table manners fell a bit short of those desirous in a lady. Her voracious and indelicate appetite was appeased by placing large amounts of food in a silver trough to which she would vigorously apply her entire face, accompanied by grunts, snorts and squeals. The maid who served her had to be paid handsomely for enduring this and risking her limbs to the wildly snapping jaws.

     A fortune awaited the man who would consent to marry Miss Skinker, and many suitors came calling, gallants from Italy, France, Scotland, and England – fortune hunters all, naturally – but ultimately they all refused to marry her. Were there no pig-faced men in the world?  Or even a dog-faced boy?  Apparently not, at least not one who saw himself as such.

In this particular account, our pig-faced lady was sadly left to die an old maid (or sow, if you prefer). Other accounts have happier, if less likely, conclusions. The woman’s pig-like appearance was the result of witchcraft.  A husband was found, and he was granted the choice of having her appear beautiful to him but pig-like to others, or pig-like to him and beautiful to others. When the husband told her that the choice was hers, the enchantment was broken and her pig-like appearance vanished. And in some modern accounts, the pig-faced lady is abducted by aliens.

 

To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there’s no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other. ~ Jack Handey

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.