On a Spy’s Code

Espionage and sending coded messages is as old as man, almost. The old joke that when God made the third human that a plot was hatched by two of them against the other one has some validity. And finding a way to confidentially pass information gleaned by secrecy became an important part of how to successfully carry out any plot. We know about cyphers, about dead drops, about messages in symbols, and even numbers stations. We’ve talked about some spies in this format (Mata Hari, for example), but this is about a particular spy code in World War 2 that came from an unlikely source.

Sometimes, and especially in this day of high tech, the more low tech a message is, the more secure it can be. That is the case here. The spy in question was a British agent named Phyllis. She had been dropped into Nazi occupied northern France in the weeks and months before the Allied forces invaded Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Phyllis’s job was the blend into the countryside, to watch German troop movements, listen to local gossip regarding defenses as she sat knitting with the other women, and sometimes flirting with the occupying soldiers in an effort to glean more vital info that could make the difference between success and failure of the impending invasion.

One harrowing experience came when she and some other women were brought into the local police station for questioning. Their movements and activities had aroused the Nazi’s suspicions, and the women were thoroughly searched for any possible evidence that would implicate them in espionage activities. A female policewoman made the women strip to search their clothes for any potential messages or proof of spying. The policewoman noticed that Phyllis had her hair tied up on the top of her head with one of her crocheted pieces, and she insisted that Phyllis take her hair down in case something had been hidden there. Phyllis quickly complied, and she revealed that nothing was in her hair bun. Telling the story years later, Phyllis recalled how scared she was, how terrifying the situation had been, and how the Nazis actually came to finding the information that she indeed had hidden in her hair.

Except the coded messages wasn’t in her hair. It was in the crocheting. In fact, the kitting the Phyllis and the other women did in Normandy contained codes in the knots and the loops and knits and purls within the kitted piece. She used the knitted items to send coded messages about the German defenses to people who had hidden radios, and that’s how the Allies knew which areas of Normandy would be the best to invade in that late spring of 1944.

Yes, one of the best weapons the Allies had in the invasion of Europe was a pair of kitting needles.

On Love at First Sight

The Greeks referred to it as “madness from the gods” when a couple fell instantly and madly in love from the moment they first saw each other. The effect of this overwhelming sensation was like being pierced through the heart, and that’s where we begin to get the idea of this little cherub (or demon, depending on the outcome of the relationship, perhaps) with the bow and the quiver of love-tipped arrows. The afflicted would thus be stricken with “love sickness” that nothing but the object of the affection could begin to treat.

We are not talking about mere infatuation here. Rather, we are talking about the deep, abiding passion that arises when we first see the person we were meant to spend the rest of our lives with. And, since Valentine’s Day approaches, perhaps it’s a good time to examine this phenomenon.

The medievalists took the Greek and Roman notions of the love god and expanded upon it. By the time the concept got to Shakespeare, he, too, spoke of it, writing in in As You Like It, “Who ever loved that hath not loved at first sight?” His contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, used the same phrase in his writing as well. And modern psychologists continue to study the phenomenon, finding through extensive research that we humans make these type of love-in-an-instant decisions in less than 0.15 of a second. They have concluded that it is within these microseconds that we determine whether or not the relationship will last or not, even if we are not aware that is what we are doing. The strength, the intensity of that love at first sight thing is a greater predictor of relationship success than compatibility or any other single factor, the scientists say.

Romeo and Juliet, Sense and Sensibility, many stories in the Bible (father and son, Isaac and Jacob, feel this for their wives), and even the Hunger Games all feature this strong feeling of love between couples. Many (Most?) rock and popular music write about it. “Would you believe in a love at first sight?” Ringo’s friends seem to ask him in “A Little Help from My Friends,” to which the Beatles drummer answers, “Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time.” Mozart, Wagner, several other classical composers created operas around the theme. And let’s not get into the love at first sight film canon.

So, here’s to instant and lasting love. It’s what makes the world go ’round. Or so they say.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

On a Crazy Idea

Mr. Tolman’s chemistry class was one of the school’s more popular ones. Besides the fact that he was one of the older teachers at the high school in Rigby, Idaho, his teaching methods and personality attracted students’ attention and respect. It’s why they came to him with their problems, questions, and even their brainstorms. It’s why one of his younger but also more creative students came to him with a crazy idea.

The young man was named Phil. He was barely 14, tall for his age, and skinny. Phil was quite the wizard at the electro-magnetic sciences despite his youth and the fact that he and his family had not had electricity on their farmstead for very long. Mr. Tolman recognized the boy’s savant-like abilities, and he agreed to tutor the young man outside of school hours when the farm schedule permitted it.

One day, while he was plowing a field for his father, Phil had a wild thought. What if he could send pictures through electrical wires–or even the air? This was the early 1920s, and radio was only then becoming the primary means of electronic media for the United States. Phil wondered if voices could be transmitted by both wire (telephone) and the air (radio), then why couldn’t pictures also be sent those ways? He finished the plowing, unhitched the horses and fed them and put them away, then made his way to the attic of the family house where his bedroom was and where he had set up a crude lab to work on his electricity ideas. There, he quickly sketched an idea of how such a contraption might work.

The next morning at the breakfast table before school, Phil told his father about his idea. The dad, while realizing that his son knew so much more about electricity than he did, still worried how other people–famers, like him, who were largely ignorant on how such things worked–would react to such talk of sending pictures through the air. The boy was using words like “electrons” and “tubes” and other jargon that the man simply didn’t comprehend. He told Phil to stop talking gibberish and get to school. This frustrated the boy, and he angrily grabbed his book-strapped texts and headed out the door.

When Mr. Tolman entered his classroom that morning, he found Phil standing before his wall of chalkboards. Drawings and diagrams covered the surfaces. “What’s all this?” Mr. Tolman asked. Phil spun around. “I have an idea.”

“What does this have to do with chemistry?” Tolman asked, looking at the maze of lines and squiggles. “Mr. Tolman,” Phil began, swallowing his frustration at his father’s response, “you might be the only one who’ll understand what I’m thinking about. Let me explain it to you.” And, over the next several minutes, Phil explained his concept to his teacher.

And, Tolman told the entire story as he testified in court many years later, when powerful companies tried to sue Phil over his claim that he, not they, was the inventor of the greatest mass-media innovation ever created

“Television?” Mr. Tolman had asked 14 year old Philo T. Farnsworth many years before in his Idaho classroom. “What’s that?”

On a Bank Robbery

The bank located at the busy corner in the Lebanese capital city of Beirut had only reopened after the traditional closing for an hour at lunchtime. A young woman, no more than 25, entered the building. She seemed like a typical bank customer, and she approached an available teller with a grim smile. She was dressed in a sleeved thin hoodie and wore dark trousers and tennis shoes. All in all, she looked like a typical Lebanese girl. Suddenly, the young woman–whose name is Sally–reached into the waistband of her dark pants and pulled out a pistol. She waved it in the air and announced, “This is a robbery!”

Now, let me say something about banking in non-western nations. While robberies (and usually armed robberies at that) happen in the United States, Americans probably know that, even if the bank is robbed, their money is protected. First of all, there is banking insurance in the US where deposits are guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (a corporation set up by Congress). Then there’s the fact that your money isn’t actually in the bank per se; the amount of actual cash kept at any US bank is not nearly the amount is has on its books. In other words, if every depositor went to the bank right now and demanded cash, the bank wouldn’t have the $100, $50, $20, $10, $5, and $1 bills it would need to give every depositor his or her cash. But that’s not necessarily true in non-western nations. Many of them have only the cash the depositors have put in the bank–the actual cash. In Lebanon, however, the issues runs deeper. There is a major banking crisis brought on by the financial fallout from Covid-19 and the shuttering of an already shaky financial system. Last year (2022), the Lebanese government mandated that customers could not withdraw more than the equivalent of $400 US from banks in any calendar month. That way, the government reasoned, the financial crisis would stabilize because banks would have more money on the books to invest. Actually, the opposite happened. People began not depositing money in the Lebanese banks. Banks began faltering and closing, leading to the people who had money in those banks losing everything they had. The nation has appealed to the International Monetary Fund for help, but funding is short there as well these days.

And that leads us back to our bank robber, this long haired young woman, this Sally, a person with wide eyes and an engaging smile, who brandished the pistol (a pistol that turned out to be a toy one) and demanded money from the bank teller with such fury in her voice that the bank patrons in the lobby were frightened for their lives. And Sally wasn’t alone last year. Lebanon saw more bank robberies and attempted robberies in the year than it had in the previous ten years. In fact, the day that Sally robbed the bank, three other bank robberies happened.

And the demand that Sally made was made by the other three robbers as well. You see, Sally and the other robbers in Lebanon didn’t simply walk in and demand that the cashiers hand over all the money in their tills. No, all Sally and the others wanted was, simply, what was theirs. Yes, Sally and all the other bank robbers last year in Lebanon only wanted the funds that they had deposited there previously.

Sally thus stole from her own bank only what was her own account.

On a Family Wedding

Weddings are usually joyful occasions for families. Large families especially mark weddings and funerals as major events in family lore. Those major life events are times of reconnecting with cousins and distant relations that you don’t normally get to see. That was definitely the case of a large family wedding that took place in 1913 in Berlin.

The bride, Vicky, was marrying a guy she’s gotten acquainted with the year before at, of all places, a family funeral. He was even a distant cousin, and his name was Ernie. Vicky’s dad, from the wealthy class, wanted everyone to come to the nuptials of his only daughter (and favorite child), so he sent word to all the family to make their way to Berlin in May 1913 for the wedding of the decade. He also wanted to use the event to bring the family closer. It’s difficult to keep so many people in touch, especially when there are as spread out as Vicky’s family was. So, the extended family began making their way to the city to witness what surely would be a grand time.

Since this family was from the land-owning class, many of the men in this large group were attached to the military, so the wedding party was resplendent with fancy dress uniforms and gleaming medals and swords. The women wore their best expensive gowns to not only the ceremony but also to the various balls and dinners held to celebrate the happy couple’s wedding. Tens of thousands of German marks were spent on the catering, the bands, the alcohol, the gifts, the decorations, and the cake (the height of which reached almost one story, according to one report).

And, so, it proved to be exactly what Vicky and Vicky’s dad wanted. It was indeed an affair that brought this large, wealthy family together in celebration. Yes, it proved to be an amazing time that was reported in all the papers, an event that people were destined to talk about for the rest of the decade.

Except they didn’t talk about it.

The wedding was forgotten in a little over a year, lost in the disaster that was to follow over the next five years.

You see, Vicky, the bride, was named after her great-grandmother, a woman named Queen Victoria of Britain. Her dad was Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and the cousins that came to the wedding–the crown heads of Europe, including King George of Britain and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and all those other men who wore their uniforms to the event–they went back to their homes and their armies and navies.

And, within 16 months, they would start World War I against each other, in August of 1914 to be exact.

And Vicky’s wedding would be the last time all those royal cousins saw each other alive.

On an Intuitive Child

The man sat in the dingy, smoky, kitchen room of the simple and uncluttered house. He called the small boy to him. The boy bowed quickly, straightened, looked at the man in the eyes, and said, “Sir, may I have those?” and pointed to a strand of prayer beads the man held in his hand. The man was surprised. “Well,” he began, if you know who I am, then you may have these, yes.” The child answered, “Yes, I know,” and told the man who he was. This received a smile from the man. “Then you know whose prayer beads these were,” the man said. Again, the child told the man the correct answer, and the man gave the child the beads. He received in return a polite thanks from the boy.

Then the man took a package from beneath the table and unwrapped it. Inside were several objects, some personal, some of the small household variety, a few tchotchkes. The man spread the items across the table, taking the time to space each item apart at an equal distance.

“Now,” the man said, motioning for the boy to step closer and examine the items, “which of these things also belonged to him?” The boy bit his lower lip and narrowed his eyes as he looked across the table at the arranged things. The man ran his hands over the table. The man then explained what he wanted the boy to do. He would stop, touch an object, and the boy would tell him “yes” or “no.”

As the exercise began the mother of the child watched from the doorway to the kitchen. She was shocked. She heard her small son speaking in a dialect that she did not understand and one in which she had no idea how he could possibly know.

As the little test came to an end, the man allowed himself a small smile. The boy had chosen correctly in every case. “What is your name, child?” the man asked. “Lhamo,” the boy answered. The man looked up at the mother. “Age?” he asked her. The boy’s mom, still recovering from the shock of hearing her son use words she didn’t understand, crossed her arms across her chest. “He’s only 2 years,” she answered. The man nodded. He had all the information he needed.

“What are those things?” the mother asked. The boy looked from the man to his mother and back to the man. “They belonged to the Dalai Lama,” the man explained, “at least the ones your son identified did.”

“What does that mean?” the mother asked.

The man said, “It means that your son is the next one.”

On an Agriculturalist

The myth of the Small American Farmer has been such for at least the past 70 years or so. Corporate farms–large plant or meat-growing facilities, owned and operated at the lowest cost and highest profit possible–have been the norm since the end of World War 2. But that’s not the case in much of the world in Africa and parts of Asia and the India subcontinent.

There, and, to be fair, in parts of South America as well, subsistence farming or small-profit farming is the norm. We in the west can’t relate to the cycle of plant/pray/harvest that much of the world endures yearly. Add to this fact that the world climate is changing, that African rainfall amounts that were stingy to begin with are now even more capricious and precious, that soils that were sandy are becoming even more so, that what remains of African forests (forests that are key to producing rainfall) are being destroyed at an exponentially astounding rate.

Enter into this bleak picture one Monty Jones. Monty Jones was born in the east African nation of Sierra Leone in 1951, and he received university degrees in agriculture and plant genetics from universities across the continent culminating with a doctorate from a university in the UK. Monty grew up with the realization that African agriculture was inadequate for meeting the needs of the population and would, over time, become more so. He’s one of those visionaries who can see a situation and size it up quickly and then look for possible options that would serve as solutions. And he applied this gift to the food crisis on his native continent.

Monty realized that there were some things that he/we could realistically control and many that we could not. He knew that he would be unable to apply political or economic pressure to those who were destroying the forests and changing the planet’s temperature. So, Monty set himself to deal with those factors he could control as much as national/regional politics, economics, and climate would allow him. To organize this large-scale venture, Monty set up an organization called NERICA–New Rice for Africa. It would be not only the group that would work with governments but also be the fundraising, education, and implementation arm of the work. Monty knew that such a large task as working to transform the agriculture of a goodly chunk of a continent required a good organization, and that’s what NERICA is.

Here was the issue as Monty saw it. How could he get African rice, which is drought resistant, pest resistant, and grows well in sandy soil, to be as productive as Asian rice, which produces much higher yields with a much higher nutrition content? Monty developed the method of creating a hybrid of the two types, and, interestingly, he actually improved both strands of the crop. His hybrid rice achieved all he hoped it would, but it also created a strand that increased yield in a shorter growing cycle. Now, the spread of Monty’s strain of rice is still going on across Africa as he and NERICA face political, cultural, and traditional barriers, but the potential of the hybrid to at least begin to address the African food crisis is astounding and promising. Time magazine recognized Monty as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

And that solution of a hybrid rice strain is the reason much of the world knows who Monty Jones is.

And because you can simply go to the store and get anything you wish without having to consider how or when or why it was produced–that’s the reason you don’t.

On the Elephant in the Room

If you follow this space, you know by now that Edinburgh is one of my favorite places in the world. At the heart of this beautiful and historic city sits Edinburgh Castle, perched atop a large rock stopper on a dormant volcano. That prominence lords over the city, and all life radiates from its epicenter. Over the centuries, the castle has been host to kings, queens, foreign dignitaries, and even captives and prisoners. This tale is about one of those prisoners.

In the early 1800s, Britain was ramping up its systematic colonization of what is now Sri Lanka and was then Ceylon. While the British wrestled control over the territory from the Dutch, the people there were loyal to their local king, a man whom the British eventually replace. Land, economic, and infrastructure reform soon followed. The rich soil of the island provided resources for Britain for decades as a plantation system was imposed.

When the 78th Highlander Regiment returned from their posting in Ceylon, they arrived in Edinburgh with a prisoner in their custody. He was placed in confinement in Edinburgh Castle as it was seen to be the most secure facility to hold him. Now, several mysteries surround this prisoner. To begin with, no history records his name. We don’t know his age. We are not even sure why he was being held; we don’t know why the regiment brought him to Edinburgh in the first place.

Here’s what we do know for sure. This Ceylonese native had a personal jailer. And, because the victors usually write the histories, we even know the jailer’s name: Private McIntosh–can you get more Scottish than that? And we know that the regiment regarded their prisoner as a sort of regimental mascot. When the regiment was on parade in the large courtyard in front of the castle, they put this poor guy at the front of the marching soldiers and made him march with them. And, to further add insult to injury, the soldiers often thought it funny to ply the captive with beer until he could not stand.

We also know that, after a few years in jail, the prisoner died in the castle. He never saw his native land again. Today, you can see wonderful things in Edinburgh Castle. The Stone of Destiny is there. The Scottish Crown Jewels call it home. Wonderful art and architecture can be viewed all around. And, in a small corner sit the feet of this former prisoner. Yes, his feet are on display there.

At this point, you might be wondering what the elephant in the room is that is referred to in the title. Well, the title refers to the fact that the prisoner who lived for a time in Edinburgh Castle was actually an elephant.

On a Big Game Hunter

Holt Collier lived an amazing life. He was born in slavery in the United States in 1848 in Mississippi, and the man who owned the land where Collier was enslaved had been a veteran of the War of 1812 and personally knew Andrew Jackson. Collier showed exemplary skill at shooting even before he reached the age of 10. In the mid-1800s, bears and other dangerous predators still roamed the Mississippi backwoods where he lived. He “killed him a bar” as the song says shortly after he turned 10 years old. From that point on, Collier’s job on the farm was to provide wild game for the landowner’s table.

By the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, the son of the original landowner now owned the farm. His name was Thomas Hinds, and he became an officer in the mounted troops of the Confederate Army. When he left the farm for the war, he took Holt Collier with him as a camp servant. Here’s where Collier’s story gets a bit murky. The legend says that Collier actually fought in the cavalry unit commanded by Hinds, thus becoming a Confederate soldier himself. If that is true–and some records say that Collier received a pension for his service at one point–then it is unusual to say the least.

After the war and upon his return to the farm in Mississippi, Holt Collier continued to work for the Hinds family as many former slaves did across the southern United States. He also began to lead hunts for bears in the Mississippi hinterlands. According to one source, Collier was personally responsible for hunting over 2,000 bears across the years. His prowess as tracking and hunting drew big game hunters to Mississippi so that Holt Collier could lead them on a bear hunt. When he died in Mississippi in 1936, he was a national legend.

In 1902, Mississippi state Governor Andrew Longino brought some dignitaries with him and hired Collier to lead the group on a bear hunt. Collier agreed. It was only another day of hunting to him. The hunt was largely successful, and all of the hunters had killed a bear except one. Collier had tracked and found a bear for the man to kill, and he led the man up to the bear. Some witnesses who were there said that Collier had tied up the bear so the man could get his kill and then go home, but others said that Collier had simply treed the bear with dogs and brought the man there. Either way, it should have been an easy kill.

Now, I’m not a hunter. I’ve shot guns, but they’re really loud and they make bullets go really fast. Some of my friends are serious hunters; one of them tells me that white-tailed deer are so prevalent in Tennessee that they have become a pest. He sees hunting as ridding the area of a nuisance with his yearly kill quota. I will say that he either uses the deer he kills for meat or gives it to someone who does. And, since I eat meat, perhaps there’s really little difference.

But to kill a bear that was tied up or was merely sitting up in a tree within easy range seems a bit, well, unsporting. To his credit the hunter said as much, and Holt Collier told him that he understood and, in fact, agreed with that sentiment as well. The man returned home having not killed a bear on the hunt despite being a fairly well know big game hunter himself.

The newspapers around the country got wind of the story of this famous bear hunter, Holt Collier, and the other famous hunter who showed mercy to the helpless bear. The public’s imagination was taken up with the story, and one Michigan toy maker decided to cash in on the popularity of the story. That toymaker created a toy that is in almost every house in the western world today.

Of course, you know the merciful hunter as President Teddy Roosevelt and the toy as the Teddy Bear.

On a Heresy

The issue with using religion as a base to write and enforce laws is that religion is man-made and subjective. Your religious beliefs, even if they are different from mine, are no more or less right or good. And the same is true for my religious beliefs. Two people can look at the same thing or idea or work of “scripture,” express our individual interpretations about it, and suddenly my orthodoxy becomes your heresy. And so laws based on these opinions–and that’s all that they are–are not only wrong on their faces, but they also go against basic human freedoms of liberty, justice, and equality (none of which are so-called Biblical principles, by the way).

And all of that that takes us to a case of heresy that was brought against a man in the 17th Century. At this time in what is now Italy, the Catholic Church held political as well as religious power. They prosecuted and persecuted people who did not follow the letter of the Catholic ordinances and beliefs to their interpretation of religious perfection. In this particular situation, a man simply did not agree with the church that the earth was the center of the universe, that all objects circled around our globe.

Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer and thinker, had posited a different idea, that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the Catholic model of the opposite. Now, Copernicus wasn’t the first to hold this belief; Greek astronomers and others had made the same claims centuries earlier including the concept that the earth rotated on its axis. Islamic astronomers confirmed these Greek ideas. However, it was the Copernicus proposal that this man had espoused, and it’s what the Catholic church prosecuted him for. One major reason for their prosecution at this time was because Copernicus had published his findings a century before; he drew the known planets in correct order radiating out from the heliocentric system. Many people began listening to the theory, and the Catholic Church saw this as a threat to their ways of belief and their control over what people believed.

So, they put this poor man on trial for agreeing with Copernicus. During his cross examination by the Church’s prosecutor, the man walked back his belief out of a sense that he knew the punishment for his “crime” could be severe. He said that, after careful consideration, that rather than a “belief” in the heliocentric idea, he wanted merely to use that concept as merely a starting point for scientific discussion.

We must remember that this period saw the Catholic Church under attack from the surging Protestant movement. Printing presses published ideas that countered the Church. The Renaissance and the early beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment further challenged the orthodox and monolithic Catholic faith and power. That is why trials such as this one, while seemingly over a trivial matter, were so important to the Catholic hierarchy. While this doesn’t excuse the severe abuses the Catholic Church committed during this period of the rise of heterodoxy in Europe, it does help to explain it. Sadly, similar behavior is occurring across the globe as extremists in all nations are demanding that laws be passed that match their beliefs and not that protect basic freedom of thought and belief.

The argument of the man that he didn’t actually believe Copernicus but only wanted to use his ideas as discussion points did not sway the Catholic court. They found him guilty of crimes against the Church and against God. His sentence was to be under house arrest for the remainder of his life. And that’s what happened to him.

It would take the Catholic Church 300 years before it admitted it was wrong and exonerated Galileo for his “crime.”