Just make sure I'm around when you've finally got something to say.--Toad the Wet Sprocket

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Black Cyclone

In the 1890s, America is in love with bicycle racing. It has become more popular than baseball.  As many as 20,000 people would go out to watch a cycling event. Indoor cycling is a death-defying spectacle with packs of cyclists whirling around narrow wooden tracks at breakneck speeds.  Crashes were very common and fights often broke out. It was a very dangerous and deadly. Some riders used cocaine, strychnine, or nitroglycerine to enhance their performance.  It wasn't as safe as it is today.  But those who made it became champions and were rewarded with fame and fortune.  In the days before motor cars, it was the most exciting thing to happen since the horse and buggy.

In Indianapolis, Indiana there is one teen who dreams of being a champion bicycle racer.  His name is Marshall Taylor and he spends all his time on his bike.  He earns money delivering papers and in his free time, he tests his speed on back roads.  Taylor excels at short one minute sprints.  He knew he was fast enough to go up against the best, he just needed the opportunity.  There was just tone problem.  Taylor was African-American and the races were only open to whites.  He had to find a way to the races to show them that he could race faster than then they could.

 In August 1896 he learned that the Indianapolis will hold a major racing event for the world's top racers sponsored by the League of American Wheelmen.  He decides to sneak into the venue and compete anyway.  The seventeen-year-old makes plans to wait until the track is empty between races and then dash out on his bike. Then he'll attempt to break the one-minute speed record for the fastest minute. He'll recruit an accomplice to start the timing clock.  He believes that once the crowd sees what he can do he'll be able to race anywhere.

This is a dangerous undertaking as racism is still rampant in America and there could be deadly repercussions.  When he started out, though the crowd was confused because there was no one on the schedule to race.  But when they see that he has broken the world record by eight seconds they are astonished and break out in applause at the amazing feat they had just witnessed.  Taylor's record was not recorded officially, but he the door was opened for him to race.  Over the next decade, he took the racing world by storm. He'd won 29 of the 49 races he'd competed in and held seven world records. In 1899 he won the Track Cycling World Championship one-mile sprint.  He was given the name during his career as the Black Cyclone due to his speed.

Still, it wasn't easy.  He was barred from racing in the South and the races he could race some whites refused to race against him and others would box him in.  The spectators would throw ice and nails at him.  One racer, W.E. Beck put him in a chokehold and strangled him senseless until he was pulled off. Beck was fined $50, but it took a while for Taylor to recover that day.

Taylor refused to go to Europe to race because they raced on Sunday and he was religious. So in 1902, Europe changed the day just so he could come and race and he dominated the European and Australian circuits.  He really did become the greatest cyclist of the world.  He was making $30,000 a year and got married and had a daughter. He retired in 1910 just when his body was giving out and the sport was waning in interest with the advent of the motor car.  Sadly, he made bad investments and lost it all in the crash of '29.  His marriage also fell apart as did his body.  He wrote a book about his life and went door-to-door selling it in Chicago but died at the young age of 53 in 1932. His body lay unclaimed in the morgue so he was buried in a pauper's grave. When the Olde Tymer's Athletic Club of the South Wabash YMCA in Chicago found out they persuaded Frank Swchinn of the bicycle fame to have his remains transferred to the Memorial Garden of the Good Shepherd with a plaque that reads: World championship bicycle racer who came up the hard way--Without hatred in his heart--An honest, Courageous, and God-fearing, clean-living gentlemanly athlete. A credit to his race who always gave out his best--Gone but not forgotten.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

How the French Fry Saved France

In 1785 France there were a series of unusually cold winters that destroyed the crops and caused a terrible famine that left the nation on the brink of starvation.  One man thinks he can solve it.  Forty-eight-year-old pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was dedicated and passionate about using his knowledge to help France in its time of need.

He learned of a plant hardy enough to survive France's cold winters that grow underground and requires very little water. It also contains most of the nutrients that people require to live.  This miracle plant? The humble potato.  He believed the French needed a basic vegetable to rebuild their diet and the potato was it.

The potato was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers returning from South America in the 1500s. Since then lots of other countries have added it to their diets--but not everyone.  Parmentier tries to convince the people to eat the potato but they refuse. They believe it to be cursed and evil.  The leaves of the potato resemble those of the deadly nightshade plant which was thought to be used in witchcraft and sorcery.  The potato scared people who thought if you ate one you might fall under the influence of a witch or a devil.

Parmentier published a paper in a medical journal arguing for the potato and posted it everywhere but to no avail.  Then inspiration strikes.  He asks King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France to hold a banquette where he would serve them many fine potato dishes.  He offers up potato soup, boiled potatoes, potato casserole. But the most popular was thinly cut slices of potato that had been fried, called pomme fries, or what we today call french fries.  The dinner party was a huge success.  Everybody loved the food served. This would be one of many dinner parties he would have. Some would include such exalted guests as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.   Cookbooks were published and fields were set aside to grow them and soon the peasants were following the example of their royal counterparts and began eating the potato and France managed to stave off a famine all due to the brilliance of Parmentier and the wonder of the potato and the magic of french fries.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Infamous Pig War Between the United States and Britain

The late 1850s were a period of unprecedented western expansion.  Under U.S. president James Buchanan pioneers traveled from coast to coast by the thousands settling in newly acquired lands. In the 1818 treaty, it extended the border westward along the forty-ninth parallel from Lake of the Woods at what is now the tip of Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. Everything past that was a little explored and disputed land located above the Spanish California and the Russian Alaska known as the Oregon and Washington Territories.  This was good for the economy but overseeing it was no easy feat.

On Septemeber 3, 1859, Buchanan receives word that the British Navy is about to invade San Juan Island in Puget Sound which is between Washington Territory and Britsh Columbia.  Only twenty-five or thirty Americans citizens live on this island which is contained the Hudson Bay Fishing Company and Bellevue Farm, a 4,500 head sheep ranch.  Two groups, Americans, and Britsh citizens have lived in harmony for years until 1854 when tensions began to heighten when a  U.S. customs agent arrived to collect duties on the farm and the Brish deputy swore out a warrant for his arrest. Nothing came of the incident, however.  Then in 1855, American Sherrif Ellis Barnes of Whatcom County with ten armed men rounded up thirty-five sheep belonging to the Hudson Bay Company intending to use them as payment for back taxes.  Governor Douglas protested to his counterpart Governor Issac I. Stephens of Washington and to the British Colonial Office and the Hudson Bay Company demanded $15,000 in damages.  Washington D.C. was worried enough to have Secretary of State William L. Marcy to write to do their best to not provoke the British and He also stated that neither Americans nor Britians should attempt to claim exclusive sovereign rights until ownership of the island could be determined. He asked that the British Colonial Office send the message to Governor Douglas, which they did.  An attempt to settle this was made in 1857, but nothing came of it.

Five warships have surrounded the island and claimed it along with hundreds of soldiers and sailors and three armed British vessels with dozens of cannons. The American had only sixty-six soldiers and a single six powder gun and two mountain howitzers. Captain George Edward Pickett (yes that one of Civil War fame) was the commanding officer.

 It turns out that on June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutler, an American, was tending to his potato farm when he noticed a pig eating his crop. This wasn't the first time and he was sick and tired of this pig eating his crops so he took his shotgun and killed the pig.  The pig belonged to a member of the Britsh trading company and he demanded to be compensated for the pig.  Cutler agreed until he was told that the amount was $100, a ridiculous sum for a pig.  It escalated and the British wanted to arrest Cutler for trespassing on British soil if he did not pay the amount.  The situation really began to escalate with the arrival of Brigadier General William Selby Harney the recently appointed Military Department of Oregan.  Harney was known for his bravery in battle, his foul temper, his insubordination, his wanton disregard for the military chain of command and the prerogatives of other government departments in order to get what he wanted.  He urged the Americans to draft a petition requesting a military force on the island.  Without consulting the Territorial Authorities or the War Department Harney ordered Captain Pickett and Company D of the Ninth Division to come to San Juan Island and establish a post and stop the British from interfering.  He issued the order on July 11 but did not send it off until July 19. It did not arrive in Washinton D.C. until September.

When James Douglas heard of Harvey's actions he had the man of war ship the Tribune, commanded by Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby sent from Hong Kong and had to be talked out of sending marines onto land.  Instead, Hornby called upon Pickett to parlay with him on August 3. They met at Pickett's camp.  Hornby produced the letter that Secretary of State Marcy had written four years earlier and Pickett countered back the age of the letter. When Hornby asked on what terms Pickett occupied the island he told him he was under orders from General Harney to protect the American citizens and that these orders came from Washington D.C. This, however, was not true as Harney's letter informing Washington D.C. of what he had done had not reached them yet.  Hornby then showed him a letter of protest from Governor Douglas, but Pickett, of course, said that as a U.S. officer he would follow the dictates of his general over those of a foreign governor.  Exacerbated, Hornby stated that since the U.S. military occupied a disputed island that they should too, Pickett reminded them that he was under orders from his government to be there and that he could do nothing until he heard again from General Harney.  He also told Hornby that if he did otherwise that he would be the one to bring about a disastrous result.

Governor Douglas was livid. He wanted Hornby to send soldiers onto the island and get something done.  But Hornby refused to act unless instructed to by his superiors back in London.  He was not eager to go to war with the United States.  Harney trying to piss everyone off decided to send for more reinforcements and now there were 461 soldiers on the island. On September 3 President Buchanan was shocked to learn through the newspapers and Harney's report what was going on in San Juan.  He immediately directed the acting Secretary of War W.R. Drinkard to send a message to General Harney informing him that he was not happy steps had been taken to take over San Juan without his express permission.  Secretary of State Lewis Cass assured the British Ambassador that General Harney had acted alone and without their backing and President Buchananon sent Chief of the Army Winfield Scott to get Harney to cut it out.

During negotiations with Governor Douglas, Scott agreed to joint occupation of the island to reduce the American soldiers to one company under the command of Lewis C. Hunt.  Hurney was told to relinquish his position as head of the Military Department of Oregan and take a position in Missouri.  He blatantly refused.   When Hurney heard about the joint agreement and his man Pickett being sent away he became furious and in the last bit of insubordination, he ordered Pickett to return to San Juan.  This time Hurney was sent back to Washington D.C. and barely escaped a court Marshall.  He was then sent to St. Louis but encountered difficulties there and was kicked out of there too in 1861. He was never given another command and retired in 1863.  Hurney's departure mollified the British enough that Pickett was able to return to San Juan until he left to join the Confederacy in 1861.  The United States and Great Britain sent the border matter to Germany's Kaiser Wilem I to figure out and on October 21, 1872, he determined that San Juan belonged to the United States.          

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

One of the Most Daring Coups of All Time

In 1812 in Paris, Colonel Jean Doucet, the senior officer in the French army who controls an elite group of soldiers charged with protecting the city and stationed at strongholds throughout the city, holds Paris while Napoleon is off trying to bring down Russia.  For months Doucet fulfills his duties without incident until October 23 when a strange man bursts into his office wearing a uniform and introduces himself as General Lamotte and presents a letter saying that Napolean is dead and that he has been named commandant of Paris by a provisional government.  He claims to already have the support of several army garrisons and now demands that Doucet turns over command of his troops and surrender the capital.

During the summer, retired General Claude-Francoise de Malet (a former Musketeer and now a strict republican) believes that Napoleon is no better than a king and a first rate dictator.  He hopes to restore democracy back to France.  So he comes up with a plan to trick the government into thinking that Napoleon is dead. He forges a letter, puts on an old uniform and with his fake documents convinces senior military commanders to give him control of thousands of soldiers.  But to take control of the government he needs the supports of the capitol's elite soldiers. When he arrives in Paris He has Colonel Gabriel Soulier arrest officers and releases some generals who were being held in prison who were cohorts of Malet.  They then went on a spree of arresting others and putting their own men in office.  He also shot the governor of Paris. 

So he appears before Doucet with his letter saying that Napoleon had died on October 7. But Doucet had received a letter from Napoleon after that date and knew they were forged.  Malet goes for his pistol, but Doucet is faster and Malet is arrested and put in jail. Malet is put before a firing squad. The coup very nearly worked and Napoleon rushes back from the front to secure his Empire only to be defeated ultimately by the English. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

America's Secret Weapon in World War II

It's 1942 and the U.S. has just entered the World War II. Their subs patrol the Pacific and protect a vast fleet and listen for Japanese ships and subs.  The U.S. relies on the newest technology at the time, SONAR which can pick up propeller sounds of vessels miles away and display them on a screen. It means the difference between being blindfolded and having Nightvision goggles.

One day the crew of a sub off of the East Dutch Indies detects something peculiar. It's a constant crackling hum that drowns out all other SONAR sounds making it impossible to detect enemy vessels.  Soon others report the same noise of crackling which sounds like bacon frying in a pan. It's not a technological glitch. So what could it be?

Dr. Martin W. Johnson a marine biologist and top oceanographer is called in to help.  At first, he is as baffled as the rest of them.  He examines the survey reports of where the incidences occur.  The spots match locations of massive colonies of pistol shrimp which are only two inches in size. Thousands can live together in colonies.  Each shrimp as an oversized claw it uses to catch food. When it clacks together it creates a popping sound.

But if SONAR can't silence the shrimp and they couldn't kill them could they possibly use them to their advantage?  Japanese SONAR was a weaker SONAR. If U.S. ships hide near shrimp colonies the Japanese wouldn't be able to detect them. The noise would be used as camouflage.  The military distributed maps of pistol shrimp colonies to ships. It became America's secret weapon and one more tool used to help win the war.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

One of the Most Haunted Houses In England

In 1953 in York England at the Treasure's House, it began to get a reputation for being haunted. A seventeen-year-old laborer named Henry Martindale was working on the plumbing in the cellar when he heard a noise. The sound was a trumpet. Then he saw armed legionnaires of Roman soldiers, at least twenty men, marching through the basement. One carried a trumpet. One was on a horse. But more importantly, he could only see them from the knees up.  When the soldiers descended to the level where the Roman Road that ran through the House Martindale was able to see their legs and the open leather sandals they wore that were laced up their legs.  They walked in pairs and were covered in mud and whispered to each other. They then disappeared into the wall.  He left the building vowing never to return there again.

The ghosts would be seen again on at least three separate occations and the legend of this house grew as being one of the most haunted houses in England. In the 1970s a group of researchers decides to investigate this ghost story and get to the bottom of it.  They interview everyone who said they saw the soldier ghosts.  When they talked to Henry Martindale he described in vivid detail Roman soldiers who had plumed helmets and wore green tunics, carried their swords on their right side, and held round shields.  The researchers believed that he had hallucinated what he saw or that he was a liar because archeologists had discovered at digs in England remains of Roman soldiers wearing red and white tunics and holding their swords in their left hand and having rectangular shields.

Henry Martindale never wavered from what he said he saw. Then twenty years later archeologists digging in northern England discovered Roman soldiers remains with green tunics and belts with daggers on the right side and round shields. There was no way Martindale or the others could have known what these soldiers would look like as no one had ever made this discovery of these soldiers before.  Also, it turns out that the old Roman road into the garrison ran right into where the house is.  Did they really see the ghosts of Roman soldiers in the Treasure's House?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Real Tom Sawyer

On February 16, 1853, the steamship Independence was heading north along the coast of California to San Francisco.  On board were more than four hundred passengers and crew--including a twenty-one-year-old firefighter named Tom Sawyer. Sawyer was taking a break above deck when he felt a tremendous jolt. The vessel had struck a reef and he had to act fast to try to save the boat.  He goes below deck to check the damage.  He was in two feet of water. There was a slice in the boat that was filling up overheated boilers below the waterline causing them to cool off rapidly.  When the coal bunkers flooded the Chief Engineer and his men began to toss wood from the staterooms into the furnace.  The blowers were useless which ended up causing the flames to shoot out of the furnace doors and ignite the woodwork in the room and around the smokestacks.  The boilers have exploded turning the engine room into an inferno. Within minutes the flames spread to the main deck and it is out of control. The ship is going down. Chaos ensues.

People are beginning to go overboard and drown. Sawyer, a strong swimmer, immediately goes in and begins to swim out and take people to shore.  Someone goes above deck to get to the lifeboats but finds nearly all broken and that only two are able to be fixed enough to be seaworthy.  Sawyer puts one into the water and crams as many people as he can into it. Then he passes out lifejackets out to others and has them jump into the water. He tells those in the water to form a human chain and grab a hold of the boat and he rows them over a hundred yards to the shore.

But the story doesn't end there. Because he goes back and does it again. And again. And again. He continues until the ship has sunk and there is no one else to save.  He ends up saving ninety people total and twenty-six individually  He is lauded as a hero and rightly so.

In 1863 a young man named Samuel Clemens had an idea for a book about a mischievous little boy. However, he had yet to find a name for his main character.  That's when his path crossed with Tom Sawyer who told him his tale.  Clemens was so impressed with his story and his bravery that he decides to name his little boy Tom Sawyer. In 1876 the novel will be released to wide acclaim and become the classic it is today.