Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 31

Nearly 470 years ago today, an Anabaptist minister named Offrus Greizinger was martyred after refusing to cast aside his faith, which both Catholics and most Protestants alike regarded as heretical. Anabaptists -- forbears of the Hutterite, Amish and Mennonite communities among others -- rejected infant baptism and practiced “non-resistance,” as evidenced by the hundreds of believers who were tortured and killed by various authorities over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Greizinger’s tale was among those collected by the Dutch Anabaptist Tieleman Jansz van Braght, who published The Bloody Theater or Martry’s Mirror in 1660. A minister in the Earldom of Tyrol, Greizinger ran afoul of the local Catholic authorities who -- by posing as seekers of the faith -- managed to capture and transport him to the Italian city of Brixen. There, he was “sorely tried in manifold ways, and much threatened with the torture” if he would not squeal on those who shared his beliefs and had aided him while he was a fugitive from the Church.

Greizinger’s response was not heartening:
[H]e said to them, “I have resolved to endure all pain and suffering which man can endure, even unto death, through the power of God, before I shall tell you this, and become a traitor. I well knew beforehand that this would be my fate. You have me in your power, do whatever God will permit you to do; if you want to tyrannize over me, you may do so; God will find you. I have nothing to say or to show.” They then assailed him with threats, and urged him that if he had the truth, they would admonish him in the name of the truth, to show and speak the truth. Then Brother Offrus said, “I know you and your truth; you have heard what I said.”

They also asked him whether it was not true that if our numbers should increase, we would rise up against and kill them, if they would not come over to our side? He told them that if we should do this, we would not be Christians, but only such in name; adding, “If you were true Christians you would not torture or kill any one.” Hence they bound him, and drew him up, but speedily let him down from the torture, and threatened him, asking why he would have his members thus torn asunder. He replied, "I am in your hands; do with me, whatever God will permit you to do; you can take from me no more than my life." They then despaired of accomplishing anything with him.
After eight days, his interrogators returned and tortured him again, to no apparent avail. Disappointed, they left him alone for another week. After a third round of “suffering and tribulation,” Greizinger was tossed into a fire and “burned to ashes” on Halloween 1538. More than a century later, Van Braight reported that while Greizinger “wrestled hard with death, yet when he went forth unto death, he was glad and joyful in his heart.”

It is doubtful that the same could be said of Harry Houdini, who died of gangrene and peritonitis -- brought on by a ruptured appendix -- on this date in 1926.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

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.



Thursday, October 25, 2007

October 25

Sadako Sasaki, one of the most famous victims of the Hiroshima bombing, passed away on this date in 1955, a little more than a decade after her city had been obliterated by the United States. The oldest daughter of a working class family, Sadako was only two years old when the Enola Gay released its payload; though her family survived and eventually returned to Hiroshima, the young girl eventually developed leukemia and was hospitalized in early 1955. After her friends reminded her of an old Japanese legend about a thousand-year-old crane, Sadako began making origami cranes, hoping to accumulate a thousand so that -- as the legend suggested -- she might be granted a special wish.

An exceptionally fast runner, Sadako hoped that by completing the assignment, she might be granted her wish to race again. By some accounts she reached her goal, though other versions of the story claim that she fell short by several hundred cranes. In any event, her body succumbed to leukemia -- known in Japan as "Atomic Bomb Disease" -- on October 25, 1955. Over the years, children around the world learned of Sadako Sasaki in books or in their schools, as the young girl became a symbol for the horrific cost of nuclear war. When the Children’s Peace Park opened in Hiroshima three years after her death, Sadako’s admirers across the globe began sending paper cranes of their own to be placed beside a statue erected in her honor.

Before she died, Sadako took a break from her project and wrote a haikuaddressed to her cranes:
I shall write peace upon your wings,
and you shall fly around the world
so that children will no longer have to die this way.
By the time of Sadako Sasaki’s death, as many as 200,000 Japanese had died as a result of the Hiroshima bombing.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

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-three 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.

This is a reposting of last year's entry



Monday, October 22, 2007

October 22

One of Great Britain’s worst mining catastrophes occurred on this date in 1877, when Pit #2 at the High Blantyre Colliery blew up and took the lives of more than 207 Scottish coal miners. Located in Scotland's Central Belt, the Blantyre complex, from which 900,000 tons of coal were extracted annually, enriched the owners of William Dixon Ltd., which reclaimed most of its employees’ income through exorbitant rents and high prices at the company-owned stores where workers had no choice but to shop.

The “Fiery Mine” -- renowned for the dangerous aura of methane that filled its pits -- was a disaster in waiting. A year before the explosion, miners at Blantyre struck for higher wages, which they believed their risk had earned them. The company fired the striking workers and evicted them from company housing, then hired Irish Catholics -- who comprised a cheaper pool of labor -- to replace them. Dixon’s mine inspectors insisted the facility was completely safe.

In his 1885 history of Blantyre, the Reverend Stewart Wright described the morning of October 22, 1877.
A sudden flash darted up from the most distant shaft, accompanied by debris, and a report not very loud; then forthwith there arose from the shaft nearest to us a dense volume of smoke, "the blackness of darkness," which spread itself, a terrible funeral pall, over the surrounding plain. We were soon at the scene of the disaster, whither hundreds of eager and terrified creatures were hurrying, and there for hours we remained, a stricken shepherd amongst a stricken flock. The one shaft was blocked up with ruins, but the other was partially clear; again and again did gallant men descend to rescue, if possible, their buried comrades, but all in vain; the merely succeeded in bringing up a few dead bodies, when they themselves were overpowered by the choke damp and had to be brought up to the surface. Some of them were more dead than alive, and it was with difficulty we succeeded in restoring them. Still, no matter the danger, there were no lack of volunteers, many of them wildly demanding to be lower down, until at last, when the short winters day was drawing to a close, imperative orders were issued that no more lives were to be risked. Then hope fled; and the agonised crowd were left in the darkness and pitiless rain to face the terribleness of its magnitude that not one of the 200 miners and more, that were entombed beneath us, would ever see the light.
The bodies of many victims, in fact, could not be recovered and were left underground. The widows and orphans created by the explosion were blessed with financial contributions and support from throughout Great Britain; the generosity of their fellow citizens, however, was not enough for more than 30 widows who were evicted from company housing a little more than six months after their husbands were obliterated.

In 1879, another explosion at High Blantyre killed another 28 workers.



Brief Appreciative Interruption

The last seven days have been extremely difficult, but thanks so much to everyone who e-mailed or left kind words in the comments section of last week's post. It really does help to know that so many people have read about my father; I'm sure he would have liked all of you.

Monday, October 15, 2007

October 15

After surviving nearly nine months with pancreatic cancer -- the same disease that killed his own father four years ago -- my dad passed away quietly at home this morning. My three siblings and I were able to spend the last few days with him, which I know gave him enormous comfort as he slowly drifted away. I’d like to say that I’ve been preparing for today since he was diagnosed on February 27, but mostly I’ve been living in various states of denial and haven’t begun to comprehend this loss.

If you had asked him, my father would have insisted that history was never his best subject. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to think about the second half of the 20th century without the stories and commentary I've borrowed from him. He grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he lived down the street from Norman Rockwell. Of all things, he actually worked as a model for some of Rockwell’s Boy Scout tributes; he’s the kid in the middle of the “Ever Onward” painting, commissioned for the Scouts’ 50th anniversary in 1960. Though he shared Rockwell’s liberal values -- particularly his vision of racial equality -- I don’t think he shared Rockwell’s confidence that small-town virtues still defined the United States during the cold war. If nothing else, Dad’s experience during the Vietnam War ruined that illusion.

When Dad first learned of his cancer, he reminded me that he’d already lived four decades longer than he once assumed he would. As an undergraduate English major at St. Bonaventure, a small Franciscan university in upstate New York, he enrolled in two years of ROTC because he wanted to learn how to fly. He graduated a few months after ground forces arrived in South Vietnam. When Johnson got the war he’d been seeking, and when he and William Westmoreland promised that the troops would be “home by Christmas,” Dad believed them and breathed a sigh of relief. He seems to have developed a keen ear for bullshit after that.

By 1967, to his lifelong bewilderment, he found himself running Hueys in the Army’s 129th Assault Helicopter Corps, serving in a war he opposed and for an institution he came to detest. Until about five years ago, I actually believed his two tours of duty were relatively free of danger. If I had ever bothered to ask, I might have learned that he was stationed near Qui Nhon during the Tet Offensive, and that he lived each day with the expectation that he’d never see the age of 25. More than anything, he wanted to have children, and he worried that Johnson’s war would deprive him of that chance.

Remarkably enough, he survived the American war in Vietnam and became a father, first to me, then to three others who came to share his wry sense of humor and his well-placed skepticism toward authority. Over the years I’ve been able to notice this influence more clearly. In 1974, when I asked him who “Tricky Dick” was, he explained the horrors of the Nixon administration in a way that actually made sense to a four-year-old; Watergate was, appropriately enough, the first thing I ever learned about the American presidency, and I can’t say my impression of its officeholders has changed significantly since then. A few years later, I listened to my father describe the Desert One hostage-rescue attempt as “dumb with a capital D,” then promptly repeated the same (completely accurate) assessment to my fourth-grade colleagues. Dad was profoundly unimpressed by the Reagan-Bush years. During my junior year of college he recognized the Gulf War as a disastrous venture long before I did. During Clinton’s two terms, he agonized over the various Balkan wars and was bewildered by his oldest son’s apparent indifference when the US launched what he viewed as a cowardly air war in 1999.

After retirement, Dad spent much of his free time watching C-SPAN and surveying the ills of the Bush administration. When he wasn’t shaking his first at the television, he began reading more about the Vietnam War era, spending his last few months trying to finish Frances FitzGerald’s Fire on the Lake, Jules Witcover’s The Year the Dream Died, and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. The week before he died, when he could no longer walk and struggled to stay awake, he checked out Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco from the public library. The war in Iraq troubled him immensely, and he took some comfort in being able to watch the undoing of Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove, and the 109th Congress. In a rare moment of optimism, I asked him earlier this summer if he might hang on until January 2009. “That would be great,” he chuckled, "but I don't think it's going to happen."

At the bottom of it all, though, my father wasn’t a political creature. He was a quiet, funny man who loved dogs, golf, the Red Sox and -- above all else -- his family with an intensity that far surpassed his hatred for the “jerks” who ran the world. But powerful people at home and abroad pissed him off because he understood that the consequences of their actions trickled down upon the most vulnerable. He knew that idiotic wars and bogus heroism did nothing but sever decent, gentle people from the rest of their lives.

He also knew that he was one of the lucky ones -- that he’d lived an immensely fulfilling life, despite the errors of the “best and the brightest” and despite the sickness that took him before any of us were ready to let him go.

I have many words to explain how very much I loved my father, but none to capture how much I miss him already.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

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.

The committee, which included Szilard as well as representatives from the Army, Navy and Bureau of Standards, issued a brief report to Roosevelt in early November. "If the reaction turns out to be explosive in character," they mused, "it would provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known."

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

October 9

Before death carried him off to that great covert operation in the sky, Everette Howard Hunt, Jr. -- who would have turned 89 today -- sowed discord among his his earthly fellows throughout the worst years of the cold war. Trained in literary studies at Brown, Hunt's literary enthusiasms somehow led him to the Office of Strategic Services after serving in the US Navy during the second World War. Over the next few decades, he prowled the globe on behalf of the CIA, uprooting communists -- and anyone who looked like them -- from governments in Latin America, East Asia and Europe.

In 1954, he helped eviscerate the elected government of Guatemala, unleashing forces that would eventually consume upwards of 200,000 lives during the course of a 40-year civil war. (Asked years later about the deaths to which he contributed, Hunt famously snorted, "Deaths? What deaths?") Having made the world safe for capitalist bananas, Hunt soon turned his attention to Cuba's Fidel Castro, whose "neutralization" did not proceed quite as smoothly as the ouster of Jacobo Arbenz. Charged with assembling a government from the ranks of disgruntled Cuban exiles, Hunt watched his career founder in the sands of the Bay of Pigs.

Rescued a few years later by the burglars and felons who comprised the Nixon White House, Hunt moved his softer side, orchestrating the array of black bag jobs and rat-fucking schemes that would eventually land much of the administration in state custody of some kind or another. During Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, Hunt arranged for McGovernite literature to be placed in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the lunatic who shot George Wallace because he was an easier target than Nixon himself. At other times, he tried to sabotage other Democratic candidates by making them look like jackasses. As one of Hunt's former collaborators explained,
Howard had some fliers printed saying that Mayor [John] Lindsay of New York was having a meeting and there would be free beer. Howard handed these fliers out in the black areas, and of course there was no meeting or beer, so the blacks would come for their beer and leave hating Lindsay.

Howard thought this was the greatest thing since Chinese checkers
Always helpful, Hunt protected his bosses from humiliation -- for the time being, at least -- by supervising the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, blackmailing Watergate co-conspirators and administering the customary financial leverage required to soothe the jangly nerves of those with the ambiguous fortune to be "in the know." Hunt's first wife, Dorothy, worked as an occasional courier for Hunt's bribes until one of her flights went down in Chicago in December 1972. The $10,000 in her handbag survived, more or less, though Dorothy herself did not.

After serving nearly three years in jail -- quite a bargain, actually, as a trade-off for his crimes -- Hunt spent the rest of his life scribbling right-wing spy novels and fending off accusations that he'd been involved in the Kennedy assassination.



Monday, October 08, 2007

October 8

In the fall of 1871, horrific fires choked the midwestern United States, taking thousands of lives and rendering millions of acres to cinders. Like most natural disasters, human error and shortsightedness compounded problems that already existed. In this case, post-Civil War agricultural and industrial growth weakened an already vulnerable ecology in the upper Midwest, where late summer drought had dried out bogs and swamps. As farmers and timber barons splintered the region’s hardwood forests, and as railroad companies left endless piles of brush and slash beside the tracks they were feverishly extending into the continental interior, they unwittingly contributed the ideal circumstances for what would become the deadliest fire in American history.

On October 8, 1871, eastern Wisconsin burst into flames. Within hours, brisk winds stirred up prairie fires along the edge of Green Bay and across the waters on Door Peninsula; massive whirlwinds scorched 2400 square miles along with dozens of small towns and villages. Marsh gases exploded, sowing shards of fire that lit up the forests and accelerated the fire’s spread. With nowhere to run, people lept into rivers where they drowned, wells where they suffocated, and marshes where they were poached by the heat.

One survivor, a Mrs. W. A. Ellis, described the fire in a letter to a friend:
The tornado was upon us -- Mr. Ellis told us to leave the house and go somewhere -- we went in to the house for a moment -- I took two of my dresses and two of sisters -- blew out the lights, and left. I thought we would burn before we got out of the yard, our clothes being linen. The fire came on to us and all around us like snow -- the hot sand and cinders filled out eyes and blinded us we could scarcely keep our feet or keep from fainting. The air was so hot -- before I got to the guideboard the wind had taken all my dresses like chaff.
In the town of Peshtigo, as many as 1500 people perished within a matter of minutes as the heat and fumes literally smothered people where they stood. More than one victim was discovered leaning against a tree or sitting by a stream. Others were so thoroughly consumed that their remains could be gathered into a patty pan. More than a few were trampled by cattle, who ultimately fared no better than the people.

Two days after rains dampened the fire, the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle eulogized Peshtigo, which it described as “one of the busiest, liveliest and one of the most enterprising communities along the Bay shore.”
Standing amid the charred and blackened embers, with the frightfully mutilated corpses of men, women, children, horses, oxen, cows, dogs, swine and fowls; every house, shed, barn, out-house or structure of any kind swept from the earth as with the very besom of destruction, our emotions cannot be described in language. No pen dipped in liquid fire can paint the scene — language “in thoughts that breathe and words that burn” gives but he faintest impression of its horrors.
Such horrors are only faintly recalled today; by unfortunate coincidence, the Peshtigo Fire happened the same night that Chicago burnt to the ground.



Friday, October 05, 2007

October 5

The British airship R101 -- the largest dirigible in the world when it was completed -- crashed on its maiden voyage, 77 years ago today. After lifting off from Cardington, England, on the evening of October 4, 1930, the massive craft ambled its way toward Paris en route to Egypt and its final destination of Karachi, which was at the time part of colonial India. Although the ship had encountered numerous problems during its test flights -- including leaky gas bags and near-catastrophic instability -- the Air Ministry was determined that the R101 take to the air. It was especially concerned that the R101 be airworthy in time for its most notable passenger, Brigadier General Lord Christopher Thompson, to make the Imperial Conference scheduled to open in Karachi on October 20.

When the R101 departed England, the Air Ministry and the ship’s pilots understood that they would likely encounter storm conditions over the English Channel as well as in France. At a altitude of 1500 feet, the 777-foot dirigible enjoyed little room for accident or error. After encountering heavy wind gusts in northern France, the airship dove toward the ground; presumably, the wind had torn off part of the outer covering and damaged of the hydrogen bladders that held it aloft. Although the craft struck the ground at a mere 13 miles per hour, the combination of hydrogen and 25 tons of diesel fuel quickly set the craft alight. Only eight of the 54 passengers and crew managed to escape the wreckage before it was completely overwhelmed in flame. Two of the eight later died of injuries sustained in the accident; one of these described the flight as “rather bumpy, but not exceptionally so.”

The skeleton of the R101 lingered for months as a tourist attraction until scrap workers salvaged several thousand kilograms of material. Much of the recycled steel wound up in the hands of the German company Zeppelin.

Five years later, the R101 was surpassed in size by a German Zeppelin called the Hindenburg; at 804 feet in length, the Hindenburg outdistanced its incinerated British cousin by 27 feet. In May 1937, the Hindenburg -- never to be outdone -- also surpassed another record set by the R101, exceeding its death toll by exactly two dozen lives.

It is not known whether the Hindenburg was constructed in part from remnants of the R101.



Wednesday, October 03, 2007

October 3

rotten islandFour 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.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

October 2

(In the original post, I forgot to credit Timothy Abbott at Walking the Berkshires for directing me to this story.)

In the late 19th century, European powers -- having evacuated millions of African bodies during four centuries of the slave trade -- dismembered the sub-Saharan landscape, claiming nearly every square acre of the continent while wiping out millions more in brutal colonial wars. Unwilling to concede their homelands, African peoples rose up from time to time, struggling in vain to halt the viral spread of European power.

One such uprising took place during the first decade of the 20th century in German South West Africa -- modern Namibia -- where the Herero, Nama and Khoikhoi among others amassed and carried out violent assaults against German farmers, who tilled what used to be their soil. The most ferocious of these campaigns began in May 1904, when Herero fighters killed hundreds German colonists and absconded with 25,000 head of cattle. German reprisals, though costly, succeeded over the next five months in driving the Herero into the Omaheke desert, where they eventually died by the tens of thousands of thirst. Although a great many refugees managed to reach British territory, where they were promised shelter and protection, nearly 80 percent of the Herero -- roughly 65,000 people -- perished as German soldiers surrounded the desert, poisoned its waterholes and hunted survivors for bounty.

On October 2, 1904, General Lothar von Trotha issued an infamous Schrecklichkeit Befehl -- “extermination order” -- that forecast the total elimination of the Herero.
I, the great General of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero people. Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and plundered, have cut off the ears, noses and other body parts from wounded soldiers, and now out of cowardice they refuse to fight . . . . The Herero people must leave this land. If they do not, I will force them to do so by using the great gun. Within the German border every male Herero, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot to death. I will no longer receive women or children but will drive them back to their people or have them shot. These are my words to the Herero people.
The General explained two days later to the German Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen that “the Negro” would only respond to “naked force” and that “the nation as such must be annihilated.” Von Schlieffen, while voicing his approval of von Trotha’s “intention,” worried that the campaign was impractical unless he moderated his policy of shooting everyone.

Although von Trotha’s order was rescinded by the Kaiser in December 1904, German colonial policy was unrelenting toward the Herero; survivors were herded into concentration camps, with women and children auctioned off as laborers to the highest bidder.

It would perhaps have been small comfort to the Herero to know that within a decade, European imperial violence would turn inward, producing in the mud of Western Europe one of the great, prolonged slaughters of human history.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

October 1

William Hubbs Rehnquist was flushed into the world 83 years ago today.

During his ascent toward the Supreme Court, where he would eventually serve nearly 20 years as Chief Justice, Rehnquist established himself as a vigorous defender of 19th century racial custom. While serving as a clerk for Associate Justice Robert Jackson in 1952, a youthful Rehnquist drafted an infamous, spritely memo in which he insisted that Plessy -- the 1896 case validating the constitutionality of segregation laws -- was “right and should be reaffirmed.” As he explained to Jackson,
in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are. One hundred and fifty years of attempts on the part of this Court to protect minority rights of any kind -- whether those of business, slaveholders, or Jehovah's Witnesses -- have been sloughed off, and crept silently to rest. If the present Court is unable to profit by this example it must be prepared to see its work fade in time, too, as embodying only the sentiments of a transient majority of nine men.
Rehnquist elaborated on this point in another memo the next year, when he informed the justice that “white people of the south don’t like the colored people,” and that the Court could only do so much to alleviate the burdens placed upon minority rights. (These observations, it should be recalled, came less than a decade after World War II had seemingly demonstrated the perils of racial majoritarianism. Then again, Rehnquist’s wartime duty was limited to stateside meteorology, and so his sensitivity to the war’s broader ideological meanings may not have been terribly well sharpened.)

Although Jackson and the eight other justices failed to accept his deference toward herrenvolk democracy, Rehnquist continued to fight the good fight as a private attorney in Phoenix. While the national civil rights movement pursued federal legislation with greater urgency, Rehnquist donated his time to “Operation Eagle Eye,” a voter-suppression effort organized by the state’s Republican Party. For several years, he and other GOP lawyers assembled themselves into flying squads that harassed south Phoenix voters -- most of whom were African American and Latino -- and challenged their credentials as they waited in line. Rehnquist’s goonery eventually helped earn him a position in the Nixon Justice Department and, before long, on the highest court in the land. Somewhat perversely, William Rehnquist was confirmed to the seat last occupied by John Harlan II, the grandson of Plessy’s lone dissenter and an important advocate for racial equality in his own tenure on the court.

In his 34 years on the bench, Rehnquist helped drag the court rightward, to such a degree that traditional judicial conservatives like John Paul Stevens eventually appeared liberal by comparison. He continued to take a dim view of individual (and especially minority) rights, interpreting the Equal Protection Clause in the sort of narrow terms that would have made his 19th century forebears proud. And in the Chief Justice’s waning years, the Rehnquist Court bequeathed to the nation the singular error known as the Bush Presidency, which -- among its other constitutional sins -- has presided over (arguably) the worst decline in civil rights since the second Cleveland administration.

All that said, we would be amiss in overlooking Rehnquist’s gift for music. At the annual 4th Circuit Judicial Conference, the Chief Justice used to lead friends and colleagues in rousing choruses of old-time American songs, including an enlightened ditty known as “Dixie.”