Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October 31

egypt1Seven years ago today, at 1:52 a.m., EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged from 33,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 217 passengers from Canada, Egypt, Germany, Sudan, Syria, the United States, and Zimbabwe. The planned 10-hour flight, en route from New York to Cairo, lifted off from runway 22R at JFK Airport, where it had arrived less than an hour before from its origin in Los Angeles. Because of the duration of the journey, two crews -- a command crew and a relief crew, each consisting of a captain and first officer -- were required to make the trip. Several minutes after takeoff, the relief first officer, Gamil Al-Batouti, asked the command first officer if they might go ahead and rotate several hours ahead of schedule. The command first officer, who had already slept in preparation for the long first shift, was initially reluctant to switch positions with Al-Batouti, urging the latter to go ahead and get some sleep. After a brief and somewhat argumentative discussion, the command first officer relented and left the cockpit, grumbling audibly that Al-Batouti always "does what he pleases."

Five minutes later, the command captain also left the cockpit to use the bathroom and return a pen to the command first officer. While the captain was gone, Gamil Al-Batouti disconnected the plane's autopilot function, idled the throttle levers, and while repeating the phrase "tawakalt ala Allah" ("I rely on God") sent Flight 990 into a steep descent that was interrupted twice -- once when the captain returned and desperately fought to return the plane to a level position, and a second time when the plane struck the ocean surface south of Nantucket Island, scattering debris across a 400-yard area.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

October 29

Picture3184Around 5:00 p.m. on 29 October 1948, Israeli planes bombed the grain silos and the mill in the northern Galilee village of Safsaf, a prelude to the capture of the town several hours later. As part of Operation Hiram, a 60-hour campaign that occurred just prior to the final cease-fire in Israel's "War of Independence," the IDF concentrated its attention on thirteen Palestinian Arab communities where the Arab Liberation Army was entrenched. Beginning with Safsaf, four IDF brigades deliberately "purged" the Palestinian population and -- in so doing -- committed numerous massacres against unarmed peasants left behind after the ALA withdrew.

Over 40 years later Abu Ismail, a Safsaf refugee who was twelve years old at the time of the war, recalled the scene as villagers crowded into the storehouses, "intending to surrender to the Jews, since we were defenceless."
The Jews came into the building. No one moved. 'Get out, get out, get out' they cried -- they took out all the men. They closed the door on us. And then we heard shooting. After a while, we opened the door and went outside. There was a line maybe fifty metres, of men. Dead. They had lined them up against the wall and shot them with machineguns.

Yosef Nahmani, director of the Jewish National Fund in Eastern Galilee from 1935 to 1965, toured the conquered region in early November with Immanuel Friedman of the Minority Affairs Ministry. As Nahmani recorded in his diary, Friedman described some of the "cruel acts of our soldiers" during Operation Hiram:
In Safsaf . . . after the inhabitants had raised a white flag, the [soldiers] collected and separated the men and women, tied the hands of fifty-six fellahin and shot and killed them and buried them in a pit. Also, they raped several women. . . . At Eilaboun and Ferradiya the soldiers had been greeted with white flags and rich food, and afterwards had ordered the villagers to leave, with their women and children. When the [villagers] had begun to argue . . . [the soldiers] had opened fire, and after some thirty people were killed, had begun to lead the rest [towards Lebanon]. At Saliha, where a white flag had been raised[,] . . . they had killed about sixty-seven men and women.
Nahmani wondered if there were not "some more humane way of expelling the inhabitants." Internal investigations were conducted by the IDF into the Safsaf, Hula, Salifa and other massacres in 1948 and 1949; the results of those investigations remain classified and unpublished.


Eight years later, on 29 October 1956 -- the day the Suez War began -- the IDF ordered all Israel Arab villages near the Jordanian border to be placed under a rigid curfew lasting from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.; the curfew was prompted by terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians by fedayeen infiltrating from Sinai and Jordan. The orders, however, were given to local police units a mere hour and a half before they were to take effect. Delivering the orders to subordinate officers, Major Shmuel Malinki explained (as court transcripts later determined) that curfew-breakers -- including those who were as yet unaware of the curfew order itself -- were to be shot and killed "without discrimination and without mercy." In seven of the villages under the curfew order, local unit commanders disregarded Malinki's orders and allowed Arab workers to return from the fields unmolested. At Kafr Qassem, however, in nearly a dozen separate incidents between 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., nineteen men, six women, ten teenage boys, six girls, and seven young boys were shot by an IDF platoon led by Lt. Gabriel Dahan. Arabs from the nearby town of Jaljuliya were brought to Kafr Qassim to dig a mass grave for the dead.

At their trials in 1958, Dahan and Malinki were sentenced to 15 and 17 years imprisonment, respectively. Those sentences were each commuted in November 1959.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

October 26

imagesOn this date nearly sixty years ago, a poisonous fog descended on the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania. An industrial community located 28 miles south of Pittsburgh, Donora's economy depended on the American Steel and Wire Plant (a two-factory complex owned by US Steel) and the Donora Zinc Works. Although the three plants provided the livelihood for thousands of workers, air pollution had been a problem in the region since prior to World War I, as farmers reported periodic livestock deaths and crop damage. Several lawsuits were settled out of court during these years; a routine air sampling program, however, was halted in 1935.

On 26 October 1948, effluents from the town's factories -- including suphur dioxide, fluoride, carbon monoxide, and dusts from assorted heavy metals -- were trapped by an air temperature inversion that swaddled Donora's 13,000 residents in a deadly haze for five days. During an inversion, the air at ground level suddenly becomes warmer than the air above it, halting the ordinary convection currents that lifted the poisonous industrial gases into the atmosphere. As the temperature inversion took place, observers reported that smoke from Donora's three factories rolled out from the stacks and settled across the town's rooftops like a thick, sweet-smelling blanket.

Russell Davis, driver for the Donora Fire Department, described the scene as he responded to emergency calls as townspeople began to cough up blood and lose consciousness

There never was such a fog. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face, day or night. Hell, even inside the station the air was blue. I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window, steering by scraping the curb. We've had bad fogs here before . . . Well, by God, this fog was so bad you couldn't even get a car to idle. I'd take my foot off the accelerator and - bango! - the engine would stall. There just wasn't any oxygen in the air. I don't know how I kept breathing. I don't know how anybody did. I found people laying in bed and laying on the floor. Some of them were laying there and they didn't give a damn whether they died or not. I found some down in the basement with the furnace draft open and their head stuck inside, trying to get air that way. What I did when I got to a place was throw a sheet or a blanket over the patient and stick a cylinder of oxygen underneath and crack the valves for fifteen minutes or so. By God, that rallied them. I didn't take any myself. What I did every time I came back to the station was have a little shot of whiskey. That seemed to help. It eased my throat. There was one funny thing about the whole thing. Nobody seemed to realize what was going on. Everybody seemed to think he was the only sick man in town.

By mid-day on October 27, eleven people had died and the Board of Health advised residents with chronic respiratory or cardiac problems to evacuate Donora. Within three days, the death count stood at eighteen; when the air inversion lifted and rain dispersed the remnants of the fog, as many as fifty additional townspeople died of lung and heart ailments. The health of hundreds more was permanently undermined by the lingering effects of the Danora fog.

Formal investigations by the United States Public Health Service were inconclusive, blaming the weather rather than the chemical effluents or the companies themselves. The PHS results were not surprising. Oscar Ewing, head of the Federal Safety Administration -- where PHS was housed at the time -- was formerly a top lawyer for Alcoa, which facing multiple lawsuits throughout the United States as a result of wartime air pollution. Although the medical symptoms in Donora were consistent with fluoride poisoning, the final report refused to single out any particular chemical for blame for the first (and deadliest) air disaster in United States history.

Unfortunately for researchers, the PHS records related to the Donora Fog have been permanently misplaced or destroyed; the investigative records of US Steel, which evidently still exist, are closed to public scrutiny.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

October 24

ngo_dinh_diem_mainIn a letter delivered on 24 October 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower wrote to Ngo Dinh Diem on the subject of Vietnam, whose southern half -- recently partitioned at a multi-nation conference in Geneva -- Prime Minister Diem sought to develop into an independent, non-communist state. Meditating ominously on the "enemies without" and "subversive collaborators within" the southern zone, Eisenhower pledged to assist Diem in his efforts to violate the Geneva Accord, which called for a national referrendum on unification by July 1956. The United States, which did not actually sign the Geneva agreements, felt in no way bound by its provisions, which called upon foreign powers not to interfere with the national destiny of the Vietnamese people. Assuming that any genuine national referrendum would bring Ho Chi Minh into power throughout Indochina, Eisenhower wished to avoid the damaged American credibility that might follow the "loss" of another Asian nation to communism.

Fifty-two years ago today, Eisenhower offered financial assistance so that "loyal" Vietnamese -- most of whom, like Diem, were Catholics who had benefited from French colonialism and were persecuted in the north -- might be brought into the south.
Your recent requests for aid to assist in the formidable project of the movement of several hundred thousand loyal Vietnamese citizens away from areas which are passing under a de facto rule and political ideology which they abhor, are being fulfilled. I am glad that the United States is able to assist in this humanitarian effort.

We have been exploring ways and means to permit our aid to VietNam to be more effective and to make a greater contribution to the welfare and stability of the Government of Viet-Nam. . . .

The purpose of this offer is to assist the Government of Viet-Nam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means. The Government of the United States expects that this aid will be met by performance on the part of the Government of Viet-Nam in undertaking needed reforms. It hopes that such aid, combined with your own continuing efforts, will contribute effectively toward an independent VietNam endowed with a strong government. Such a government would, I hope, be so responsive to the nationalist aspirations of its people, so enlightened in purpose and effective in performance, that it will be respected both at home and abroad and discourage any who might wish to impose a foreign ideology on your free people.
The following year, Diem secured nearly total power in the Republic of Vietnam by winning an astonishing 98% of the vote in a referrendum marked by open fraud as Diem's troops and hired goons monitored polling stations. Edward Lansdale, an American CIA official who organized a variety of covert operations in South Vietnam, had advised Diem to aim for no more than 60-70% of the vote to provide at least a veneer on legitimacy. Soon after his "election," Diem commenced a frontal assault against political dissidents, Buddhists, and other "subversives" who threatened the stability of his regime. Relying on torture, terror, and imprisonment, Diem displayed what most American officials euphemistically regarded as "strong leadership" -- a necessary if unfortunate condition, they added, for the politically unsophisticated peoples of southeast Asia.

Thirty years and perhaps 3 million bodies later, the unification of North and South Vietnam -- the very result Eisenhower had sought to avoid with mere financial assistance in 1954 -- at last occurred.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

October 22

wt0012.1s-thAccording to the rigorous 17th century calculations of James Ussher, the former Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, the creation of the Universe commenced late in the evening on this date, 4004 years before the birth of Christ; much of the initial work, Ussher figured, was completed by the following day. In his massive Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (1650), Ussher meticulously reconstructed Biblical chronology, matching it to the Julian calendar in an exercise that was not uncommon for Renaissance and early modern theologians -- especially those who, like Ussher, despised Catholics and dedicated his scholarly life to proving that Protestant intellectual practice was superior to that of the heretical and idolatrous "papists." (While Ussher is often cited as the chronologist who pinpointed the universe's creation at 9:00 in the morning, that claim actually appeared six years earlier in a work by Sir John Lightfoot.)

According to The Gallup Poll, nearly half of all Americans continue to believe -- as James Ussher did -- that the universe is less than 10,000 years old.


By more or less sheer coincidence, the followers of the American prophet William Miller awoke on the morning of 22 October 1844 with the joyous expectation that Jesus would return to earth at some point that day. Miller, a Baptist who spent years of his life in the effort to discern the exact moment of the Second Coming; relying on the Book of Daniel and the Karaite Jewish calendar to guide his calculations, Miller published a 64-page series of lectures in 1834 that predicted the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary would begin sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. Asking his audience and readers if they were prepared to believe the "signs of the the times," Miller -- who was especially disgusted by the popularity of Unitarianism in New England -- warned that the unfaithful would not be spared on the day of Christ's return. As it attracted adherents over the next decade, the Millerite movement swelled to include tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans who -- groaning under the weight of a depression that began in 1837 -- looked with hope to a day on which their agony might be swept away.

Jesus Second Coming-05When March 1844 passed with no sign of the Son of Man, Miller's colleague Samuel Snow readjusted the date. In what became known as the "seventh-month message" or the "true midnight cry," Snow insisted that the actual return would take place later that year, on October 22 to be precise. As the "Great Anticipation" of October 22 gave way to the "Great Disappointment," followers of Miller awoke on October 23 to the realization that Jesus had not arrived as expected -- or, worse, to the unthinkable possibility that he had returned without telling the true believers who accurately guessed the date of his return. "Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted," wrote Hiram Edson, "and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before . . . . We wept, and wept, till the day dawn." Disillusioned and heartbroken, most Millerites drifted away from the movement; undeterred, a faithful remnant remained and formed the basis of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which currently boasts nearly 15 million members.

Friday, October 20, 2006

October 20

Kragujevac_oktobar_1941On 21 October 1941, the Wehrmacht command in the Serb town of Kragujevac announced that it had begun executing thousands of civilians the day before in retaliation for Communist and Chetnik attacks on German soldiers over the previous few weeks. After Germany's swift defeat of Yugoslavia in "Operation Punishment" (Fall Strafe), the nation was dismembered; in Serbia, the only segment of the former Yugoslavia to be occupied directly, several resistance movements emerged and began undermining German control with sabotage and guerilla attacks on German army units. On September 25 and October 10, Commanding General Franz Boehme issued orders that such attacks were to be addressed by the shooting of "prisoners or hostages" according to a simple formula of 100 for each German solider killed and fifty for each soldier wounded. "All Jews," he explained, as well as "a certain number of nationalistic and democratically inclined" citizens were to swept up "by means of sudden actions" and executed to meet these quotas.

In the town of Topola, over 2000 Serbs were shot during the first week of October -- collective punishment for the killing of 22 German soldiers in the Second Batallion of the 421st Signal Communication Regiment. After ten German soldiers were killed and 26 wounded by guerilla attacks on October 15, Boehme ordered the nearby town of Kragujevac sealed off. Although no attacks had taken place in Kragujevac, the German Ministry of Foregin Affairs later admitted than not enough hostages could be found elsewhere to statisfy Boehme's strict formula. Over 10,000 men and boys between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested; from this pool of detainees, executions began early on the morning of October 20 and continued throughout the day. Civilians were shot in groups of 400 and trucked off to mass graves, where they were buried by fellow detainees. Although the local German command estimated that 2300 had been killed, later estimates put the figure somewhere between 5000-7000. Other towns -- Rudnik, Meckovac, Grosnica, Milatovac, Draginac and Loznica among them -- suffered similar fates in the weeks that followed. In Kraljevo, 1736 civilians were killed.

Among the dead in Kragujevac were hundreds of schoolchildren whose deaths were intended to further demoralize the resistance while liquidating a pool of potential guerillas. The Serbian poet Desanka Maksimovic remembered the young martyrs in "The Bloody Fairy Tale:"
They were all born
in the same year.
For all of them, the school days were the same:
They were all taken
to the same festivals with cheer,
they were all vaccinated
until the last name,
and they all died on the same day.

After Commander Franz Boehme was captured in Norway in May 1945, he was brought along with numerous other German military officials to Nuremberg, where they were to stand trial for the Kragujevac massacre among many other atrocities. Before he could be formally arraigned, Boehme threw himself from the fourth floor of the prison.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

October 18

screen_4433b4a753f1dRace-baiter, homophobe, culture war cretin and "new world order" paranoiac Jesse Helms was belched from the void on 18 October 1921, a birth that spoiled an otherwise glorious day on which the patent for the first electric bread toaster was issued.

After stints as a journalist, political campaign adviser and banker in Raleigh, North Carolina, Helms -- like so many other racially conservative whites -- switched his affiliation to the Republican Party, arriving somewhat late to a nationwide political realignment that had begun in opposition to the civil rights gains of the early 1960s. After the reactionary populist George Wallace deprived his own Democratic Party of victory by running as an independent and winning four Southern states in 1968, Richard Nixon was determined to disintegrate the Democratic "Solid South" by appealing to white hostility toward school desegregation and Lyndon Johnson’s social welfare programs. Jesse Helms was a perfect candidate for the new Republican Party. As a television commentator, he had complained regularly about "Negro hoodlums" and the communist "agitators" who led the civil rights movement. Aided in 1972 by Nixon’s "Southern Strategy," Helms won the US Senate seat vacated by the retiring Senator B. Everett Jordan, who had served since 1958. Running against Rep. Nick Galifianakis, Helms described his Democratic opponent as an atheist and a communist while claiming -- in what many perceived to be a xenophobic slur -- that Galifianakis was not, like Helms, "One of Us."

From 1972 until his retirement 30 years later on the eve of the latest war in Iraq, Helms proved to be one of the most divisive figures in Congressional history. On matters of race he was particularly intractable. Defenders of Helms often point out that the senator hired two black staffers, Claude Allen and James Meredith, before it was "fashionable" to do so. However "unfashionable" Helms' hiring decisions may have been in these two instances, he was exceedingly "fashionable" to white North Carolinians who appreciated his numerous votes against civil rights legislation and his stout opposition to honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., with a federal holiday. He occasionally referred to the University of North Carolina as the "University of Negroes and Communists," and he claimed on more than one occasion that civil rights marches did nothing but "clog the streets and interfere with other men’s rights."

Eternal friend of the disaffected white voter, Helms won re-election in 1990 and 1996 against Harvey Gantt, an African American who had previously served as mayor of Charlotte. Fearing a loss to the popular Gantt, Helms' 1990 campaign openly appealed to white hostility toward affirmative action "quotas," producing a notorious television spot depicting a pair of morose white hands holding a job rejection notice. More insidiously, supporters of Helms distributed letters across the state to black voters warning them (falsely) of potential criminal penalties if they had not reported changes of address on their voter registration forms. Voter suppression tactics such as these undoubtedly helped Helms win the last two elections of his career by narrow majorities.

Helms' effect on foreign policy was baleful. Warming a chair on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the cartoonishly anti-Communist Helms offered full-throated support during his career for South Africa’s apartheid system, the notorious UNITA guerilla movement in Angola, death squads in El Salvador, and dictatorships across the Americas. Discerning the vanguard of the dreaded One World Government, Helms spitefully blocked the payment of back dues owed by the United States to the United Nations.

On 24 September 2001, Helms told CNN that an attack on Iraq was "right close" to happening in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks less than two weeks before. Helms, who had spent a good bit of time with administration officials in a secure underground room at the Capitol, observed that strikes against Saddam Hussein would not take place "until we are ready for it to happen because if we go in there with the wrong kind of preparation, that would be another disaster."

A few months later, Helms announced his intent to retire from the Senate. Earlier this year, Helms' wife announced that he has been suffering from vascular dementia for several years; he spends his time now in a semi-lucid haze, incapable of reflecting on the merits and demerits of his own life.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

October 17

350px-Ludlow_Death_CarThe United Mine Workers of America were an important force in the labor movement during the years prior to WWI. By 1910, a third of all mine workers were organized (compared with a tenth of the US workforce as a whole); mining, unlike most industries with strong union representation, employed many African American and immigrant workers, and the UMWA (like the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World) sought to organize across racial and ethnic lines.

John D. Rockefeller and other Colorado mine owners spearheaded an "open shop campaign" in 1913, hoping to ensure that workers could enter the mines without being members of the union. In late September 1913, 10-12,000 mostly foreign-born miners struck against Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) among others. Workers' complaints were simple and predictable to anyone who had ever choked out a living in America's mines. Miners were not being properly compensated for all the coal they were extracting and were being cheated out of pay on at least 400 pounds per ton; state laws allowing miners to elect their own checkweighmen were flagrantly ignored by the companies, who refused to concede any democratic terrain to their employees; workers were paid in company scrip worth 90 cents on the dollar, which they could only spend at company stores; they found themselves being forced by superintendents to cast votes for approved local and national candidates; they were beaten or fired for complaining and were overseen by private dectectives from the notorious Baldwin-Felts Agency. And so on and so forth, world without end.

Intended to keep the miners compliant and helpless, these and other indignities enraged them further, leading to one of the most protracted labor disputes of the early 20th century. When 90 percent of Southern Colorado's coal miners struck in September 1913, Baldwin-Felts detectives roamed the strikers' tent camps in an armor-plated sedan built in Pueblo by CF&I. The car, which was equipped with a machine gun, was nicknamed the "Death Special" by miners, who dug pits to shield their families and themselves from the spray of bullets that became routine in Ludlow, Forbes, Trinidad, and other tent colonies.

On 17 October 1913, Baldwin-Felts agents unleashed the "Death Special" on the encamptent at Forbes, killing one miner and hitting a young girl in the face. A young boy fleeing the attack was shot nine times in one leg; one of the tents was discovered to have between 85 and 150 holes (depending on the account) -- the riddled tent was shipped east to publicize the conditions under which the miners were living.

The assault at Forbes was merely one opening skirmish in the Colorado Coalfield War, which lasted until early May 1914 and ultimately took the lives of scores of miners and their family members.

Monday, October 16, 2006

October 16

hennardGeorge Hennard of Belton, Texas, was angry at women in the months leading up to 16 October 1991. "It is very ironic about Belton," he explained in a letter he wrote earlier that fall to a young woman with whom he was evidently infatuated. "I found the best and worst in women there. You and sister are the one side. Then the abundance of evil women that make up the worst on the other side.... I will no matter what prevail over the female vipers in those two rinky-dink towns in Texas. I will prevail in the bitter end."

Hennard's bitter end came at Luby's cafeteria in nearby Killeen, fifteen years ago today. During lunch hour that afternoon, Hennard drove his pickup truck through one of the cafeteria windows and opened fire on the crowded diners. Within fifteen minutes, he and his GLOCK 17 and Ruger P89 had "prevailed" over 23 men and women whose ages ranged from 30 (Sylvia King) to 75 (James and Lula Belle Welsh). An additional 20 customers were wounded before Hennard -- shot several times by police -- took his own life in the rear seating area of the restaurant. In the years after the massacre gun advocates urged Texas lawmakers to pass a "concealed carry" law, which they claimed would have enabled Luby's patrons to defend themselves against George Hennard. Although Governor Ann Richards had vetoed just such a bill during her term in office, George W. Bush promised in his gubernatorial campaign of 1994 to support the passage of concealed carry. True to his word, on 26 May 1995, Governor Bush signed into law a provision that enabled licensed residents of Texas to bring concealed handguns virtually anywhere.

According to data maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), license-holders were arrested for 946 crimes between 1 January 1996 and 9 October 1997. Over a quarter of these arrests were on felony charges, including 6 charges of murder or attempted murder; eighteen charges of sexual assault; 48 charges of aggravated assault; two charges of kidnapping; and 66 charges of simple assault. Among weapons-license holders in Texas, the arrest rate during the first half of 1997 was double the rate of ordinary Texans over the age of 21. By the five-year anniversary of the bill's passage, over 200,000 Texans held the so-called "shall-issue" permits; hundreds of thousands of other Americans enjoyed similar liberties in over 20 other states.

By the testimony of several people who knew him, Hennard believed the 1976 Steely Dan song "Don't Take Me Alive" had special relevance to his life:
Can you hear the evil crowd
The lies and the laughter
I hear my inside
The mechanized hum of another world
Where no sun is shining
No red light flashing
Here in this darkness
I know what I've done
I know all at once who I am
The Luby's restaurant in Killeen, Texas, closed in 2000. Over 125 other Luby's restaurants, where no reported shootings have occurred, remain open to all who seek -- according to the Luby's website -- "delicious home-style food, value pricing, and outstanding customer service." For reasons that are perhaps understandable, the company prefers not to mention or discuss George Hennard.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

October 14

quakers_being_led_to_execution_massachusetts_origThree hundred and fifty years ago today, the English colony of Massachusetts Bay passed a law intended to regulate the "cursed sect of heretics lately risen up in the world, which are commonly called Quakers." The Society of Friends, which had formed little more than a decade previous, insisted that believers did not need the Bible to receive the word of God, nor were ministers or priests required as intermediaries; instead, Quakers believed each soul possessed an "inner light" that enabled the revelation of Christ to be experienced directly.

The July 1656 arrival of two Quakers in Massachusetts Bay posed a challenge to the colony, which had rooted out similar heresies 20 years earlier during the "Antinomian controversy." Governor John Endicott, a religious zealot without peer, ordered that the two Quakers -- Ann Austin and Mary Fisher -- be detained on board the Swallow, the ship that had brought them to the colony. After their possessions were confiscated (including nearly 100 books) and their bodies were searched for marks of witchcraft, Austin and Fisher were imprisoned for three weeks before being returned to England. Shortly after the Quker women had been evicted, the Speedwell arrived with eight more Quakers who were themselves promptly detained without legal cause. Seeking retroactive legal authority for these unlawful detentions, Endicott urged the Massachusetts General Court to provide him with the tools he would need to fight the Quaker scourge.

The General Court obliged their governor, and on 14 October 1656 passed a law mandating that any "master or commander of any ship, barke, pinnace, catch, or any other vessel" who transported Quakers "or any other blasphemous heretics" would be ordered to pay a fine of 100 pounds before returning the offending believers from whence they had come. Colonists discovered with Quaker books would receive a fine of 54 pounds; those who defended Quaker beliefs could be fined 40 pounds. Quakers themselves who entered the Massachusetts colony could have their ears cropped or their tongues bored through with holes. Just over two years later, on 19 October 1658, Massachusetts decreed that Quakers who entered the colony were to be put to death. By 1661, four Quakers had been dismissed to the gallows for their crimes.

Friday, October 13, 2006

October 13

s_BeatEmEatEm_1On this date in 1982, two of the worst (and most stupidly offensive) video games ever were released simultaneously by the company Mystique, whose shoddy products eventually contributed to the great video game crash of 1983. Beat 'Em and Eat 'Em, a variation on the Activision classic Kaboom!, is described in Wikipedia as follows:
In this game the player controls a pair of nude women who scuttle back and forth underneath a building as a ridiculously well-endowed man constantly ejaculates from the roof top. The player's objective is to maneuver these women so that they consume the man's semen before it hits the ground. . . . The game's objective is supported by an non sequitur explanation that "every [uncaught] sperm is sacred" and "could have been a famous doctor or lawyer."

A gender-reversed version of the game was later released as Philly Flasher, in which the player is tasked with controlling two men as they attempt to catch drops of breast milk lactated by a woman.
S_CustersRevenge_1The second and even more egregious Mystique release on 13 October 1982 was a game called Custer's Revenge, in which a naked, engorged cowboy -- presumably stirred to action by the martyrdom of General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876 -- dodges flying arrows and cacti as he makes his way toward an American Indian woman who happens to be tied to a post. For his dexterity, the player is rewarded -- and Custer avenged -- with the opportunity to rape the captive.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

October 12

ncd02187b"Soon they saw naked people" -- these words, taken from Bartolomeo de las Casas' account of Christopher Columbus' initial voyage to the Western Hemisphere, describe the first moment of contact between two worlds, neither of which was new. On 12 October 1492, the Genoan-born "Cristoforo Colombo" -- whose given name meant "Christ-bearer" -- disembarked from the Santa Maria and traveled to the shore of Guanahani in an armed boat. Along with Martin Piunzon, Vincente Yañez, Rodrigo de Escobedo, and Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia among an otherwise nameless crew, Columbus encountered these "naked people" and promptly announced "in the presence of everyone, [that he] was taking, and in fact had taken, possession of that island for his lords the king and queen." To clarify the transfer of possession, Columbus renamed the island San Salvador. Soon enough, las Casas reported, "many people of the island gathered at that place," where they were most certainly puzzled to see a strange unfurled banner bearing a green cross and the letters "F" and "Y," which declared the land as the property of Fernando and Ysabel, the reigning monarchs of Spain. In the first of many misconceptions, "the Christ-bearer" supposed he was not far from "Cipangu," the Chinese name for Japan that Marco Polo had used in his own travel narrative. He also supposed there was an island packed with gold, a short journey south from San Salvador.

After the Santa Maria sank along the coast of La Española on Christmas Day, Columbus ordered the construction of a large moat and fortress on the island. He explained that fortifications were not necessary to protect his men from the islanders, whom he described as "naked and without weapons and cowardly, beyond remedy." Rather, he explained, a tower would be needed "so that the natives may recognize the ingeniousness of your highness' people and what they can do, so that out of love and fear they may obey them." On his trip home to Spain, Columbus penned a brief letter to the King and Queen, predicting among other things than the "Indians" could be conquered with little expense and effort. Within a few short years, a wave of disease eradicated 90% of the native Caribbean population, giving some measure of truth to Columbus prediction.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

October 11


On 11 October 1939, Franklin Roosevelt received a letter from Albert Einstein. The letter, written on August 2, was prompted by fears that uranium ore in the Belgian Congo might fall into the hands of Nazi Germany. Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who first conceived of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, suggested his friend Einstein to write a letter to the Roosevelt urging him -- less than a month before war broke out in Europe -- to consider starting a program of federal research into atomic energy. The letter read, in part:
Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations:

In the course of the last four months it has been made probable -- through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America -- that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.

This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable --though much less certain -- that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.
Roosevelt was noncommital. He established a small body known as the "Uranium Committee," but set aside only $6000 to purchase uranium and graphite.

Monday, October 09, 2006

October 9

On 9 October 2002, Hazel squirmed forth into the world, possessing few natural advantages beyond her astounding appetite. Markedly less intelligent than most other Newfoundlands, this 115-pound mound of jollity has made up for her brainlessness by reinventing herself as the life of the party -- grabbing her crooked tail and spinning around the room for no clear reason, beating her absurd pink baby blanket against the furniture, offering sloppy and unwelcome kisses to anyone she meets, and so on. With the dimmest of bulbs illuminating her mind, however, Hazel is an easy mark for the con games of her step-sister Greta, who by hook and crook always manages to steal her toys and rawhide bones. For complicated reasons, she is afraid of the stove and hides in the bathroom whenever it appears that her caretakers are concocting a meal.

In addition to her vacant intellect, Hazel is also an anatomical monstrosity. With an extra-wide ribcage and back legs that stretch two inches or so longer than her front, Hazel's stride is noticeably awkward; when she "runs," she appears merely to be shifting her girth from her back legs to her front. She manages to get where she intends to go, though at somewhere between one-quarter and half the speed of her more athletic and graceful step-sister. To make matters more ridiculous, she appears to somewhat cross-eyed and therefore fails to catch nearly everything tossed in her direction (with the exception of cerealized and compacted meat by-products, otherwise known as "cookies.") Her hips, according to our veterinarian, are "not good," meaning that she will likely cost us thousands of dollars in medical bills during her lifetime. She may someday have wheels for back legs.

Her manners and overall deportment are erratic and undignified. Hazel spends an unusual amount of time cleaning her privities, a habit about which the less said the better. She barks at our neighbors no matter how many times she's met them, and she frightens all our visitors, whom she greets by thundering down the front stairs -- the very flight of stairs she once somehow tumbled down, heels over head, during a particularly active nap. Incapable of listening to the simplest of commands, Hazel has never met a moldering fish carcass or heap of bear scat she didn’t like; lowering her massive shoulders and flipping her skinny legs into the air, she has wallowed in some of the worst smells known to humankind. On at least one occasion, the Wife and I have driven home from a hike with our heads hanging (canine-like) from the windows of the car.

Hazel -- a.k.a. “Beanie Weenie,” “Jabberjaw,” “Hazelpotamus,” “Hazelnut,” “Dumbass” -- shares a birthday with the French King Charles X, the famous mobster Johnny Stompanato, and the communist intellectual and revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin. She is currently living with her third and last family, who would not -- in spite of her many, many flaws -- trade her for anything in the world.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

October 7

cumberland college, 1916Today is the 90th anniversary of the worst defeat in college football history, as the George Tech Yellow Jackets eviscerated the Bulldogs of Cumberland College by the score of 222-0. By the end of the game, curiously, neither team had scored a first down -- Cumberland failed to advance the ball more than a few yards in any series, and Georgia Tech never failed to score within two or three plays.

Cumberland College, a tiny school in Lebanon, Tennessee, had actually discontinued its football program in 1906, then resumed it after several years before suspending the program again in 1916. Before the start of the 1916 season, the new Cumberland student manager George Allen wrote letters to the teams his predecessor had contracted to play that fall; in the letters, he passed along regrets that Cumberland would be unable to field a squad and requested that his school be released from its contract. He neglected, however, to send such a letter to Georgia Tech, who insisted that Cumberland either play the game or pay the $3000 no-show fee outlined in the contract. After trying unsuccessfully to entice ringers from Vanderbilt to join the Cumberland team, Allen assembled a makeshift squad of fraternity brothers and other hangers-on and brought them to Grant Field in Atlanta, where they were pounded unmercifully from the opening kickoff. In the play-by-play account published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the final minutes of the game were described in all their clinical horror:
Fincher kicked off to Edwards who returned 10 yards to the Cumberland 10. Murphy lost 3 and Edwards lost 5. McDonald's pass was complete to Murphy for 10 yards to the 12 (Cumberland's longest gain of the game). McDonald punted 28 yards to Fellers who returned 40 yards for a Tech touchdown. Fincher converted and it was 208-0.

Fincher kicked off to Murphy who returned it 3 yards to the Cumberland 18. Edwards rushed for no gain. Murphy fumbled on the line of scrimmage, Senter recovering and returning it 3 yards for Tech.

Fellers got 15 yards at left end for the Tech touchdown. Fincher converted. Georgia Tech 215-0.

Fincher kicked off for Tech to Warwick who returned 5 yards to the Cumberland 15. Edwards and McDonald were each stopped for no gain. McDonald's pass was intercepted by Senter who returned it 30 yards for the game’s final touchdown. Fincher's conversion made it 222-0.


Ten years ago today, Rupert Murdoch commenced a bold new initiative to rescue conservative commentators like Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity from the penury to which they had been reduced by the totalitarian exclusions of the mainstream media. Were it not for the vigilance of the Fox News Channel since 7 October 1996, the United States would quite possibly be enduring the fourth term of a horizonless Clinton presidency; the Islamofascist caliphate would have crept to the Canadian and Mexican borders; and the untimely disappearances of literally several young, white women would have gone sadly unremarked by the rest of the world. Lest anyone doubt that freedom is “on the march,” the following summary of Fox News’ geographic reach should set those worries to rest.

Friday, October 06, 2006

October 6

On this date in 1536, the self-exiled English priest and Biblical translator William Tyndale was executed at Vilvorde Castle, just outside Brussels. A progenitor of Puritan theology, Tyndale had managed to fall afoul of both the Catholic Church and King Henry VIII of England, and in this unusual instance the papacy and the crown set aside their recent differences and toasted to the undoing of a common foe. In Practyse of the Prelates, his 1530 page-turner, Tyndale had excoriated the Roman Catholic Church, whose officials no doubt objected to being described as a “generation of serpents,” as “blind leaders of the blind,” and as murders and liars all. Tyndale warned further that unless these modern-day scribes and Pharisees ceased their distortion of God’s word, He would
awake as a fierce lion, against those cruel wolves which devour his lambs, and will play with the hypocrites, and compass them in their own wiles; and send them a dancing in the head, and a swimming in their brains, and destroy them with their own counsel.
Tyndale’s text was, to put it mildly, unsparing in its rejection of Catholic venality.

For his part, Henry VIII was incensed that Tyndale’s treatise likewise condemned his scheme to divorce the hapless Catharine of Aragon, whom he sought to discard for his lover Anne Boleyn. Boleyn, who would eventually lose her head less than five months before Tyndale’s own execution, had actually urged Henry to pursue a divorce based on an apparent misreading of Tyndale’s earlier anti-Catholic writings. Eager to clarify his views on the subject, Tyndale explained in Practyse of the Prelates that God would punish any marital disunion by invalidating the Tudor king’s rule and loosing England’s enemies upon the land. Although Henry initially failed to persuade Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire to arrest Tyndale, the sharp-tongued priest was eventually betrayed in 1535 by his dissolute friend Henry Phillips, who actually borrowed 40 shillings from Tyndale before leading the imperial authorities to his home in Antwerp.

After sixteen months in prison, Tyndale was garroted for heresy and his body roasted at the stake. Gruesome death notwithstanding, Tyndale is best remembered for his clear and compelling (and heretical) translation of the Bible into the English vernacular -- the first such translation made from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Among other notable attributes, Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch introduced several new words into the English language, including “Jehovah,” “atonement,” and “scapegoat.”


archive_3_lg Exactly 409 years after Tyndale’s execution, Vasili Sianis, a Greek immigrant and owner of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, purchased two seats at the fourth game of the 1945 World Series between his hometown Cubs and Hank Greenberg’s Detroit Tigers. Sianis’ intended companion that day was his beloved, beer-guzzling friend Murphy, the goat who had inspired the tavern’s name when fell off a truck and wandered through the front door. Although Sianis and his goat were initially permitted into Wrigley Field that afternoon, Murphy was eventually asked to leave -- allegedly (and quite plausibly) due to his accumulating mound of fecal matter and the horrendous odor that lingered around it. Legend tells us that Sianis responded to his goat’s ejection by placing a curse on the Cubs, whom he declared would never play another World Series at Wrigley Field. The Cubs, who had been leading the series two games to one, lost on October 6 and were eventually dispatched in seven games. Since 1945 the Cubs have posted a mere fifteen winning seasons, and the World Series has yet to return to Wrigley Field.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

October 4

On 4 October 1974, the poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton shared a lunch of tuna sandwiches and vodka. After lunch, Sexton -- who had attempted suicide numerous times over the previous decade -- returned to her Boston home, closed the garage door, and quietly asphyxiated herself on the fumes of her red Mercury Cougar.

Sexton’s second collection of poems, All My Pretty Ones (1962), included a short piece titled “Woman With Girdle”:Anne Sexton
Your midriff sags toward your knees;
your breast lie down in air,
their nipples as uninvolved
as warm starfish.
You stand in your elastic case,
still not giving up the new-born
and the old-born cycle.
Moving, you roll down the garment,
down that pink snapper and hoarder,
as your belly, soft as pudding,
slops into the empty space;
down, over the surgeon's careful mark,
down over hips, those head cushions
and mouth cushions,
slow motion like a rolling pin,
over crisp hairs, that amazing field
that hides your genius from your patron;
over thighs, thick as young pigs,
over knees like saucers,
over calves, polished as leather,
down toward the feet.
You pause for a moment,
tying your ankles into knots.
Now you rise,
a city from the sea,
born long before Alexandria was,
straightway from God you have come
into your redeeming skin.


Nine years after Sexton’s suicide, the first Hooters Restaurant opened in Clearwater, Florida. Since then, the Hooters phenomenon has metastastized to include over 425 restaurants in 46 American states and nearly two dozen other countries. The employee handbook, which among other things delineates the aesthetic contours of the Hooters environment, supplies the following instructions to its servers:
Hair is to be styled at all times. No ponytails or pigtails are to be worn. The image to be projected is one of glamour. No bizarre hair cuts, styles, or colors are acceptable. No hats or headbands are to be worn. . . .

Make-up is to be worn always to best accentuate your features. Hooters Girls are to be camera-ready at all times. This is show business, just like the modeling industry. Make-up is not to be too extreme, nor too minimal

The Hooters employee handbook also requires the restaurant’s “girls” to sign a statement declaring that “I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements, or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome.”

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

October 3

rotten islandThree years ago today, New Yorker cartoonist William Steig -- one of the greatest American illustrators and children’s book authors -- passed away at the age of 95. Most famous today as the creator of Shrek, Steig published dozens of children’s books during his lifetime, including Amos and Boris, (1971), Brave Irene (1986), and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969). His first Caldecott Award winner, Sylvester was banned from numerous school districts throughout the American South for depicting police officers as uniformed pigs. Inveterately sentimental about childhood, Steig was equally capable of astonishing misanthropic expositions, as the first two pages of the magnificent Rotten Island (1969) suggest:
There once was a very unbeautiful, very rocky, rotten island. It had acres of sharp gravel and volcanoes that belched fire and smoke, spewed hot lava, and spat poison arrows and double-headed toads.

The spiny, thorny, twisted plants that grew there had never a flower of any kind.

There was an earthquake an hour, black tornadoes, lightning sprees with racking thunder, sqalls, cyclones, and dust storms.
The vile creatures who inhabit Rotten Island descend over the course of the story into a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, provoked by the mysterious, infuriating appearance of a single flower whose beauty drives the creatures to lunacy. It all ends quite well, though I suppose that depends on whether one empathizes with the creatures or not.


hurricaneJust past midnight on October 3, 1952, Great Britain became the third nation to possess nuclear weapons when a successful 25-kiloton test -- codenamed “Hurricane” -- took place off the Australian island of Trimouille. The weapon was tucked into the hull of a British frigate, H.M.S. Plym, which understandably did not survive the explosion.

Eleven years later, on 3 October 1963, an actual hurricane prepared to strike the southwestern coast of Haiti. Flora, one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes ever, would kill 7193 Haitians and Cubans over the next four days.