Back in the 7th century on an island in northern Britain, the very holy St. Cuthbert gave up the ghost. The exact date of his departure was March 20, 689. Not only was Cuthbert very holy, he was, you might say, holier than thou, or at least holier than all his peers. He devoted his entire life to converting the half-savage heathens (and there were quite a few half-savage heathens at the time) and praying — lots of praying. Such was his devotion that those about him often wondered if he were not a man but an angel.

Cuthbert was duly shrouded and buried, remaining at rest for some 11 years until some curious monks dug him up to have a peek. They found Cuthbert in perfect condition, which they accepted as miraculous proof of his saintly character. They placed him in a new coffin, leaving him above ground so he might perform miraculous cures.

Another 174 years passed and, with Britain facing an invasion by the Danes, the monks (different monks) carried Cuthbert’s still perfect body away and wandered with it from place to place for many years.

Finally in the 11th century, Cuthbert’s body found a permanent home where it was enshrined and enriched with offerings of gold and jewelry from the faithful (there were a lot more of them now). In 1104, the body was inspected again and found still fresh. Another 400 years and another inspection.

Three hundred years. It’s 1827 and Cuthbert is past due for inspection. This time, however, the inspectors were much more rigorous, and it was discovered that Cuthbert was an ordinary skeleton swaddled up to look whole, including plaster balls to plump out the eye holes. It would appear that some monks along the way had been quite naughty. St. Cuthbert himself serves as a fine example of a person who was far more interesting dead than alive.

Deciders Unite

The Whigs didn’t last long as as political party. Formed in the 1830s out of annoyance with Andrew Jackson, they gave us four presidents — William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary republicanTaylor and Millard Fillmore, commonly known by their nickname, Who? (not to be confused with the rock group of the same name). As is the case with many political parties, they had disagreements over tents, finding themselves unable to deal with the concept of big ones, and eventually tore themselves asunder with internal disagreements.

The semi-official date of the party’s actual death was March 20, 1854. On that date, a number of don’t wanna-be Whigs met in Ripon, Wisconsin, and the result of that meeting was the birth of the Republican party, which lasted until 2016.

Yellow Bird, Part II: Lady Meets Bird

“Bon jour,” said Antoine, “you have returned.” He held his arms out in an expansive, embracing gesture that suggested he might step forward andYELLOW throw his arms around her. Instead, he dropped them to his side. “I am very pleased that you have come back and I am flattered as well.”

“You knew I’d be back,” she accused, leaning back against a post that supported the roof of the patio – rather seductive, thought Antoine, noting how her stance favored her figure, and rather reckless, given the condition of the structure against which she leaned. The simple blouse and short skirt were island skimpy but not as dramatic as last night’s outfit.

“I hoped,” said Antoine. “I only hoped. Please sit down.” He was relieved that even though she didn’t follow his suggestion, she did move away from the post. “All of the lunch guests have finished and departed. I’m sure, however, that I can find something in the kitchen to accommodate your desires.”

Her dark eyes flashed with the suggestion that they hid more desires than he or his kitchen could accommodate. “I purposely came late,” she said, and Antoine’s heart raced until she added: “I had a breakfast meeting, so I’m skipping lunch. I came late so I wouldn’t be tempted.” Antoine stifled a sigh. “At least not by food,” she said, and her eyes were once again toying with him.

“Then let us try to tempt you with something else,” said Antoine, and he too paused with playful ambiguity. “Some wine perhaps?”

“You’ve done it,” she said, laughing. “You’ve broken my will. I’d love some wine.”

Antoine departed, then returned a few minutes later carrying two glasses and an open bottle of wine. He found his guest wandering just beyond the patio. “You’re absolutely right. This is like what I’d imagine the Garden of Eden to be.”

“But there are no snakes,” Antoine said, sitting down on the edge of the patio and pouring the wine.

“There are, however, other tempters,” she said, returning to the patio and sitting down so that the two glasses of wine were between them. “That tree is magnificent. What is it?”


She studied the tree, squinting. “I’m not wearing my glasses. Do I see a parrot near the top of the tree?”

“I’m inclined to think it is some scoundrel from the Middle Ages changed to a bird by a sorcerer,” said Antoine.

She laughed. “I feel foolish having to ask. After all, I am an ornithologist, albeit a nearsighted one. I study North American species primarily.”

Nearsighted, thought Antoine. So those deep dark eyes are not perfect in every way. “You’re more than welcome to study that bird,” he said. As if summoned by Antoine’s words, the parrot descended from its lofty perch, glided toward them and came to rest, with much ado and fluttering, on the ornithologist’s bare knee. “Perhaps,” Antoine added, “you would like to dissect it.”

The ornithologist was startled for only a moment by the parrot’s arrival. She grinned at it and said, “Pretty bird.” Somehow Antoine would have expected an ornithologist to say something more meaningful to a bird.

Beaux nichons,” the bird answered.

“Hush,” said Antoine, reddening. “He just babbles sometimes.”

“I understand some French,” she said, flashing those dark eyes at the bird. “You are a brazen bird.”

Beaux nichons,” said the parrot. “Beaux nichons.”

“I apologize for the bird’s complete lack of civility and taste.”

“It’s all right,” she said with a giggle. “After all, he’s French.”

“I assure you there is not a single French feather on that vile bird. He speaks French only to embarrass me. Probably taught to him by an Englishman. His pronunciation is appalling. Apologize to Mademoiselle . . . Goodness me, I’m afraid I have inadvertently failed to inquire for your name.”

“Rachel,” she said, smiling back at him while she stroked the bird’s head.

“Rachel,” said Antoine. “A lovely name, but one would expect that.”

“Rachel,” said the bird.

“See,” said Rachel. “The old bird’s not hopelessly bad.”

Beaux nichons,” said the bird, and with another dramatic fluttering of wings, it lifted off toward the tamarind tree.

They sipped at their wine without speaking, emptying their glasses, and Antoine quickly refilled them. “The parrot’s coloring is quite remarkable,” said Rachel, and Antoine suspected that ornithology had erased any thoughts of romance. “I think it might be quite rare.”

“I would hope so.”

“I mean it might be endangered. I have a colleague that would know for sure. I’d like to bring him by. He knows tropical birds. He’s been working in the islands for years – most recently in Martinique.”

“Ah, he’s French,” said Antoine.

“No, he’s not.”

Antoine shrugged. “He can be forgiven for that.”

“I’m afraid he’s English.”

“He can’t be forgiven for that. Only pitied.”

Rachel laughed. “You’re such a chauvinist. He’s a very intelligent man. He has some great ideas about how to repopulate endangered species.”

“I once knew an Englishman who had an idea,” Antoine mused. “His head exploded.”

“Stop,” she said and leaned into him, but before he could respond, she was on her feet.

“Bring him by,” said Antoine. “If it means your returning, I’ll gladly suffer anything.”

She laughed and kissed him on the cheek, lingering just slightly, before quickly turning and departing.

“You were absolutely reprehensible,” said Antoine, staring at the strutting bird. “Pretty bird, my ass.”

The parrot cocked his head to one side, looked at Antoine as though seeking forgiveness but said: “God save the Queen.”

“The lady is an ornithologist. Do you know what ornithologists do? They eat birds – especially parrots.”

“Polly want a fucking cracker.”

“A rather attractive ornithologist,” Antoine continued. “I thought all scientists were dowdy. Like the English – all tweed and no substance. Tweed. One shudders at the thought. Yes, an attractive ornithologist. I think I would like to have a liaison with the ornithologist with the deep dark eyes and beaux nichons.”

Beaux nichons.”

“Ah bird, you are no stranger to such liaisons, are you? Yes, I remember that yellow bird and how shamelessly you behaved with her.”



This story is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.



February 15, 1798: My Congressman Can Lick Your Congressman

Astute readers will remember that back on January 30, 1798, in the U.S. lyonduelHouse of Representatives, the gentleman from Vermont, Matthew Lyon, and the gentleman from Connecticut, Roger Griswold, had a bit of an altercation which involved the latter insulting the former and the former spitting on the latter. Far from letting bygones be, the two men evidently nursed their respective angers until they were bound to boil over again, which they did on the morning of February 15, 1798.

Pandemonium, it is fair to say, broke out when, without a word of warning, Representative Griswold stormed across the chambers to where Lyon sat preoccupied with correspondence of some sort. Cursing him as a “scoundrel,” Griswold pounded the Vermont Republican’s head and shoulders with a thick, hickory walking stick. A witness described the attack:

“I was suddenly, and unsuspectedly interrupted by the sound of a violent blow. I raised my head, and directly before me stood Mr. Griswold laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon, who seemed to be in the act of rising out of his seat. Lyon made an attempt to catch his cane, but failed — he pressed towards Griswold and endeavored to close with him, but Griswold fell back and continued his blows on the head, shoulder, and arms of Lyon who, protecting his head and face as well as he could, then turned and made for the fireplace and took up the fire tongs. Griswold dropped his stick and seized the tongs with one hand, and the collar of Lyon by the other, in which position they struggled for an instant when Griswold tripped Lyon and threw him on the floor and gave him one or two blows in the face.”

The combatants were separated, and Lyon retreated to the House water table; but Griswold approached him again, and Lyon lunged forward with the fire tongs and initiated a second brawl. As Representative Jonathan Mason commented, the central legislative body of the United States of America had been reduced to “an assembly of Gladiators.” A lesson, perhaps, for today’s legislators, although the House of Representatives has become a place of cooperation and reasoned debate where no harsh words, let alone blows, are ever exchanged.


How come the dove gets to be the peace symbol? How about the pillow? It has more feathers than the dove, and it doesn’t have that dangerous beak. ~ Jack Handey



February 9, 1909: Den of Iniquity

Thanks to descriptions by authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conanopium_den Doyle and Oscar Wilde, the opium den became a sinister staple of 19th century literature — an evil place where degenerates, mostly foreigners, mostly Chinese, lounged around on pillows, smoking their pipes, vacant eyes benumbed by clouds of opium fumes. The stories were far more fanciful than reality, but opium dens did exist and they soon drew the wrath of temperance advocates, missionaries and moral reformers.

In the United States, San Francisco, inspired by a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, outlawed public opium dens in 1875, as did many other communities with Chinese populations. Smoking opium did, however, remain legal. Then in 1909, the U.S. Congress stepped in.

Never mind that only one in a thousand Americans smoked opium. The State Department determined that an initiative against opium smoking would be useful in opening the door to China, which resented British demands to allow opium trade following the two Opium Wars. An international commission instigated by the U.S. signed a treaty banning the opium trade. As a result, the State Department called on Congress to ban the import of opium for smoking favored by Chinese immigrants. And on February 9, 1909, Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act, creating the first illegal drug in America and unleashing an army of government agents to chase down smugglers, bust dealers and raid dens. The 100-year War on Drugs had begun.

Smoking Leeches

In 1841, doctors tried opium (it was still legal) as well as leeches to save President William Henry Harrison, born on this day in 1773.  To no avail.  Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler Too) became the first president to die in office, turning up his presidential toes just a month after taking office, the shortest tenure of any U.S. president.  He also holds the record for the longest inaugural speech at 31 days which may have been a factor in his death.  Actually it was two hours; it just seemed that long.  And it didn’t contribute to his death, although it might have to members of the audience.

Smoking Bananas

carmenOn the same day, over in Portugal, nowhere near an opium den, Carmen Miranda was born, immigrating to Brazil as an infant.  Larger than life, but tiny in stature, she stood only 5’1” without her tower of bananas.  Nevertheless, she filled a stage with her Latin energy and machine gun delivery, melodic Brazilian bullets ricocheting everywhere.  She and her samba stormed the United States in 1939 – nightclubs, radio, movies – and by 1945 she was a superstar. In 1955, after filming an appearance on the Jimmy Durante television show, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.


People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do. – Isaac Asimov

January 30, 1798: Was That a Yea or a Nay?

The US House of Representatives, known for its deliberative diligence, lyonduelgood comradeship, and decorous behavior, was not always thus. Take for instance the morning of January 30, 1798. Members had just concluded a vote on the impeachment of Tennessee Senator William Blount, and the House had recessed to tally the ballots. Members stood about chatting informally, waiting for the results. One member, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont was waxing passionate about another bill before the House. His discussion grew into a bit of a rant about the “malign influence of Connecticut politicians, whom he accused – rather loudly – of hypocrisy and corruption, claiming they “acted in opposition to the interests and opinions of nine-tenths of their constituents.” Nor did the gentleman from Vermont stop there. He charged them with seeking office out of greed for their own power and title, and stifling the opposition through a monopoly of the press. On a roll, he accused the Connecticut Federalists of brainwashing their constituents with opiates, finally punctuating his speech with the boast that were he to go into Connecticut and manage a newspaper there for six months, he could bring about a revolution, and turn the lot of them out of office.

Not surprisingly, given the volume of his oratory, he was heard by one of the very men he disparaged, one Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Griswold fumed, then shouted back, asking Lyon if he would march into Connecticut wearing his wooden sword, a reference to Lyon’s temporary dishonorable discharge from the Continental Army. Lyon either did not hear Griswold’s comment or chose to ignore it. Griswold naturally felt duty-bound to repeat the question at closer range; he approached Lyon, placed his hand on his arm, and repeated the question. Lyon, insulted and embarrassed before his peers, responded as any gentleman would – he spit in Griswold’s face. Without a word, Griswold wiped away the spit and exited the chambers. The Committee of Privileges immediately drew up a formal resolution calling for the expulsion of Matthew Lyon for “a violent attack and gross indecency.”

Will Lyon be expelled? Will Griswold be avenged? Stay tuned.



January 16, 1777: We’re Outta Here

It would appear that the state of Vermont got kicked around a lot back in Revolutionary times. After it had been governed as a part of New Hampshire for 15 years, King George III decided in 1764 that the territory should belong to New York. It didn’t take long for Vermonters (they weren’t really called that yet) to realize they didn’t want to be a part of the Empire State (it wasn’t called that yet), so in 1777 they got together and declared their independence from everybody — New York, Britain and New Hampshire.

They called their independent state New Connecticut (they had some identity problems). After a few months, they renamed the state Vermont, a bastardized translation of the French for Green Mountain. A month later, they wrote themselves a constitution, the first written in North America and the first to prohibit slavery.

Throughout the 1780s the U.S. Congress refused to recognize their independence (kind of snarky for someone having just fought a war for independence). In 1784, the governor of New York asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Vermont, but Congress (probably sick of war) did not oblige.  Vermonters turned to the British, requesting readmittance to the empire as part of Canada. Finally, in 1791, Vermont was admitted to the new American nation as the 14th state.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman was the Queen of Broadway for three decades, belting out song after song in a voice described as trumpet-clean, penny whistle-piercing, Wurlitzer-wonderful.”  When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career.

Merman was also known for her salty language, never delivered in a whisper. Once while rehearsing for an appearance on the Loretta Young television show, she was told it would cost her a dollar each time she swore since Young disapproved of foul language. As she was fighting to get into an ill fitting gown, Merman shouted: “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young held out her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman is said to have replied: “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”

January 6, 1993: Swinger in Chief

Legendary jazz trumpeter John Birks Gillespie, who was born in 1917 and died on January 6, 1993, was instantly recognizable by his beret and horn-rimmed glasses, his bent horn and puffed cheeks. “Dizzy” was known for his bebop improvisation and scat singing. What he wasn’t known for was being President of the United States, although he might have had things gone a little differently back in 1964.

“Dizzy for President” badges began to appear in 1963 although Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater didn’t feel all that threatened by a Dizzy candidacy. What started as a joke and a bit of fundraising for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) gathered a pretty good head of steam before the money ran out. But what a presidency he offered.

He wrote and performed his own campaign song: “Your politics ought to be a groovier thing, so get a good president who’s willing to swing. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!” He promised, if elected, to work for civil rights and equal opportunity in the workplace. To make certain employers were blind to race, he would have job applicants where sheets over their heads to hide their skin color.

He planned to change the name of the White House to the Blues House.

He even went so far as to name his dream cabinet. Miles Davis would be director the the CIA, Louis Armstrong Minister of Agriculture. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, and Count Basie would all have positions in his administration. Drummer Max Roach wanted to be Secretary of War, but Dizzy said no, because there wouldn’t be one.

If Only He’d Carried a Trumpet Up San Juan Hill

Although he was not a swinging prez, Teddy Roosevelt who died on rooseveltJanuary 6, 1919, was a president of many firsts – and mosts and onlys. Taking office in 1901 at the age of 42, he was our youngest president. (In 1904, he became the first president elected to a term in his own right after having ascended to the presidency from the Vice-Presidency upon the death of his predecessor.) In 1902, he became the first president to ride in an automobile, and in 1905, the first to submerge in a submarine. He was also the first to fly in an airplane. He was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize (1906) and one of only three Presidents to ever win it.

Roosevelt was probably the only president to carry a big stick, which may have given him the confidence to be the only president never to use the word “I” in an inaugural address. He was the only one-eyed president, after losing the sight in one eye in a 1904 boxing match with a professional fighter. Though not the only military hero who became president, he was the only one to lead a charge up San Juan Hill.

And he was the only president named after an animal – the teddy bear – although two later presidents were named after plants.



December 11, 1969: The Naked Cold War

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were generally confrontational through most of the second half of the last century.  In the United States, Communist plots were everywhere, and the Soviet Union blamed American capitalists for most of the ills of the world. calcuttaOn December 11, 1969, a noted Russian author lashed out against western decadence in one of the more unusual cold war recriminations.

On December 11, 1969, Sergei Mikhailkov, secretary of the Moscow writer’s union, known for his books for children, weighed in against the production of “Oh! Calcutta!” that was currently an off-Broadway hit. Performers in their “birthday suits,” he fumed, were proof of the decadence and “bourgeois” thinking in Western culture.  American nudity was an assault on Soviet innocence.

Oddly enough, those Americans throughout the Midwest who didn’t think the play was about India were convinced it was a Communist plot.

More disturbing, Mikhailkov raged on, was the fact that this American abomination was affecting Russian youth. These vulgar exhibitions were “a general striptease that is one of the slogans of modern bourgeois art.” Soviet teens were more familiar with “the theater of the absurd and the novel without a hero and all kinds of modern bourgeois reactionary tendencies in the literature and art of the West” than with “the past and present of the literature of their fatherland.”

Mikhailkov’s outburst came at the end of a conference of Russian intellectuals, who applauded his remarks without visible enthusiasm before returning to their clandestine copies of Fanny Hill.



December 9, 1958: Taking Down the Names of Everybody Turning Left

Initially founded with only 11 lonely crackpots, the organization had by the early 1960s grown to nearly 100,000, each and every one of them searching nearby haystacks for concealed Communists.  Joseph McCarthy had gone away, but that didn’t mean his nemesis was gone. No fluorideindeed; the Red Menace was everywhere – Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Red Ryder – and Commie wanna-bes such as Rosie Clooney and Pinky Lee.   Only the witch-hunters of the John Birch Society stood between Evil and Armageddon.

The John Birch Society had its coming out party on December 9, 1958, under the tutelage of Robert H. W. Welch, Jr., a candy man who made caramel lollipops, marketed under the name Sugar Daddies. He also gave the world Sugar Babies, Junior Mints and Pom Poms before turning his attention to weightier matters.

The John Birch Society’s mission was the revival of the flagging spirit of McCarthyism; its tools, unsubstantiated accusations and innuendo; its cause celebré, the vast communist conspiracy existing within the U.S. government, particularly that nest of vipers at the State Department. According to its credo, the American people consisted of four groups: “Communists, communist dupes or sympathizers (fellow travelers), the uninformed who have yet to be awakened to the communist danger, and the (hopelessly) ignorant.”

Fortunately, by this time, Americans had tired somewhat of McCarthyism and had moved on to the menace of rock and roll under its Pied Piper of Prurience, Elvis Presley. As a result, few of the society’s sensational charges were taken seriously by mainstream American society. Oh, a few people got worked up by the Communist plot to poison us with fluoride in our drinking water, but for the most part, it was ho-hum as usual.


November 2, 1886: Brother, Can You Spare a Vote

Robert Love Taylor, “Bob,” the Democratic candidate for governor of Tennessee, defeated his Republican opponent, Alfred Alexander Taylor, “Alf,” on November 2, 1886. One might guess that two candidates with the same last name would confuse voters at the polls, especially since they looked a lot alike, they both played the fiddle and they called the same two people mom and pop. Bob bested Alf, his older brother, 125,151 to 109, 837, in what would be called the “War of the Roses” because Bob’s fans all carried white roses and Alf’s carried red.  (Or was it the other way around?”) Their pappy, when asked to run as the Prohibition Party candidate, chose not to, evidently deciding that he would be one Taylor too many.

The brothers were born in Happy Valley, Tennessee, Alf in 1848, Bob in 1850. Their father, a Methodist minister, was a Whig; their mother, a gifted pianist was a Democrat. Bob and Alf both found their way into politics, lecturing and writing. They fiddled together, and collaborated on  a fairly successful play. Their gubernatorial campaign was nothing like the typical rough and tumble political contest. They campaigned together, lacing their political banter with humorous stories, then fiddling while their audiences danced.  It is rumored that a good portion of the electorate tossed coins to choose a candidate.

Bob served as governor from 1887 to 1991 and again from 1897 to 1899. He also served as U.S. senator from 1907 until his death in 1916. Alf was elected governor in the 1920’s. He died in 1931.


September 3, 1993: Infinite Monkeys

In Stockholm, Sweden, the newspaper Expressen gave five stock analysts and a chimpanzee the equivalent of $1,250 each to make as much money as they could on the stock market in one month.

Mats Jonnerhag, publisher of the newsletter Bourse Insight, turned in a nice performance. His stock portfolio gained $130. Not good enough. The stock-picking chimp (who went by the name Ola) saw the value of his portfolio climb by $190 for an easy victory.

While the stock experts carefully assembled their portfolios using a variety of analytical tools, Ola put aside such things as price/earnings ratios, volatility measures and technical factors in favor of darts, which he tossed at the Stockholm Stock Exchange listings.

Naysayers will no doubt bring up the infinite monkey theorem: that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time could eventually write the works of Shakespeare. Or the lesser quoted corollary that seven monkeys with seven typewriters in seven weeks could write the Republican Party Platform.

In a reported real-life attempt to prove either of these theories, two chimpanzees and an orangutan were put in a room with three typewriters. By the end of just 24 hours, they had written “jid;lwer fivcjfdoske flfjwlsjfpos p3mzds[sk,43l;cv kdid,ewodkdjss;djelldsd kdjhdps ddodlsps psvvspap39djk3^jh& jfioermcjd,ud3$m kidelqqwerty” Even more amazing: They had used exactly 140 characters which they tweeted (using the orangutan’s twitter account). It went viral.

Getting a Buzz On

Parade-goers lined the streets of Flint, Michigan, on September 3, 1900, the first Labor Day of the new century to witness tbuzzhe debut of a new automobile, the first ever made in that city. It was not created by General Motors as practically every car to follow was. This car was designed and built by Charles Wisner, a county judge by day and an automotive visionary by weekends.

Wisner’s Buzz-Wagon, as his unusual vehicle was lovingly called, was the first of three he designed and built. None ever went into mass production. That was left for the Chevrolets and Buicks that would arrive later. The Chevrolets and Buicks would offer a smoother ride with a lot less noise, and in an unusual departure from the Buzz-Wagon, they would have brakes. The Buzz-Wagon, it seemed, required a sturdy immovable object such as a lamppost or a large building for it to bump into in order to stop.

Fortunately at the Flint Labor Day parade, the immovable object was unnecessary. Much to the amusement of several thousand spectators, the Buzz-Wagon stalled and had to be pushed out of the parade.