On a Generous Gift

It’s difficult in our modern times to grasp the idea of absolute economic desperation. Even in the worst economic times in most of the western world, jobs can be had and money can be made. That has not always been the case–in fact, what we experience now is the anomaly historically.

That said, we cannot relate to being so poor that we would completely debase ourselves in order to simply buy bread. Take the case of three young women who still lived at home with a father. He had not had work in many months. This little human drama played out hundreds of years ago, and, to be fair, it is the stuff of legend. However, the story is a sweet one, I feel, and it fits into the spirit of the holiday season. In any case, the girls spoke among themselves and decided that they must sacrifice themselves–sell themselves–so that the family could have food and firewood.

Now, this type of situation does indeed happen around the world today. And, yes, it does happen in the western world as well. But in the time context of our story here, this type of thing was much more common than we realize. People often lacked the resources to provide food for themselves. Weather, war, natural disasters, and poor implements all contributed to common periods of starvation around the world. Some historians have conjectured that farmers until recently would plant one seed and get two back in produce–one to eat and one to save to plant for the next year. Thus, much of the population lived on a knife’s edge.

The girls gathered their courage and presented their plan to their beleaguered father. His eyes filled with tears. His daughters were his treasure, his pride, and he told them that it had been his wish to have enough money to provide a proper dowry for them to find suitable husbands one day. If they went through with this plan, he warned through his tears, they would never find men who would make good husbands. He begged them to sleep on it. The girls looked one to the other. What difference would one more night make to people who had no food in the first place? To soothe their father, the girls reluctantly agreed.

The next morning, the girls were awakened by shouts from their father. They leapt out of bed and rushed to him. He shakingly held out a bag of gold coins. The girls were incredulous. Where did he get it? How did this happen? Were the coins real? Their questions all met with no answers from their father because he had none. He was as astounded as they. He said all he knew what that the bag was left under an open window in the main room of their house. The family hugged each other and danced in the room. There was not only enough gold there to provide them with enough food and fuel for the immediate future, but there was enough in the bag to provide a proper bride price for oldest girl to find a good man to marry. They hit their knees and thanked God for the miracle.

The next morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep, the father found another bag of gold under the window. Again, there was enough gold for a dowry. Again, the family celebrated and thanked God. The third night, the father stayed awake to see who their godly benefactor was. Sure enough, as soon as another bag of gold was tossed through the window, the grateful father ran outside. There, he found the bishop hurrying away.

“Father?” the man called after the bishop. The priest stopped and turned.

“Yes, my son?” he asked.

“I only wanted to thank you,” the father of the girls said.

“Don’t thank me; thank God,” St. Nicholas answered.

On Two Radiomen

Yes, I’m old enough to be able to use the phrase, “Back in my day…” to describe things that young whipper-snappers of today can’t relate to. In this case, what they can’t relate to is that broadcast radio used to be the domain of a few people. If you were on the radio as an announcer, you had to study for, take, and pass licensing tests. There were different levels or classes of licensing as well–2nd and 1st class licenses, for example. As someone who wanted to get into radio (and did so, for a short time), I managed to get a provisional license and then get a 2nd class license. 1st class eluded me.

All that was said to say my struggles with radio licensing were nothing compared to what it took to operate a radio (also known as a wireless) back a the beginning of the last century. The Marconi Company, founded by the man of the same name who is credited with inventing and perfecting wireless radio transmissions, had the corner on the market of the new industry. Marconi wireless training schools controlled who could operate their technology and who could not. Young men (and a few women) trained at these schools for jobs on land and on sea.

Harold Bride and Harold Cottam were a pair of plucky British young men who took the Marconi school’s 6 month training course at different times, and both excelled at the new system. Despite Harold C. being a few months younger than Harold B., he had started his training in radios earlier and had advanced a bit more in the industry than Harold B. had. Harold C. had managed a job with the British Royal Mail, and it was there that he met other wireless operators (as one does) who came and went over the months and years. Harold B. came in one day and introduced himself, and the two became great friends. By 1909, Harold C.’s skill as a wireless operator caused the Marconi Company to hire him for themselves, and then they dispatched him to work for a shipping company in 1912. Harold B., on the other hand, went straight to sea as an assistant operator after his training.

Marconi had convinced the British admiralty that they were the only ones who could adequately train shipboard wireless operators, and the company had the exclusive contract to provide radiomen for British sailing vessels. Not only did Marconi train people to operate their instruments, but their training also included repair and maintenance of the equipment. Thus, both Harolds, while each working for Marconi, found themselves aboard different ships operated by other companies.

Being a radio operator on a ship like a passenger liner was less of a glamourous job than it sounds. You were little more than a glorified page boy. Most of the time, your job consisted of people onboard radioing other people on land to tell them, “Hey, I’m on a ship!” or something as inane. Sure, occasionally, ships would radio each other things like storm warnings or positioning, but most of the job was catering to the whims of wealthier patrons.

Then, in April of 1912, fate would bring the two Harolds together. Harold B. and Harold C. found themselves on the same ship due to a quirk in history. The pair were ecstatic to see each other; the friends embraced warmly. Then, immediately the pair took turns at the radio sending the usual messages for passengers, with most of the passengers’ messages stating, again, that they were simply fine and dandy. Except this time, those usually inane messages had a more serious tone. This trip, the passenger messages were telling friends and loved ones that they were alive.

What I didn’t tell you is that Harold B. had been brought aboard Harold C.’s ship, the Carpathia, after his own ship had sunk.

You see, Harold B had been the assistant radio operator onboard the Titanic.

On a Trip to the Store

The two pretty girls in nurses uniforms casually strolled the aisles of the busy high street department store. A clerk was folding sweaters on one counter, and he didn’t notice them at first. After all, so many people came and went there, especially in the middle of the day. But soon, the pair began to attract the salesperson’s notice.

The two were acting like girls who were much younger than their faces showed. Clearly, the clerk would say later, it was obvious that they were related. That much was obvious. It was also obvious that the two were also beautiful. But he saw that the girls were picking up items–clothing, household items, tchotchkes–and laughing at them hysterically, putting them back in the wrong places, and they were whispering things to each other as they made their way around the store.

He approached the pair. “May I assist you?” the clerk offered. The girls blushed and giggled and whispered to each other. They ignored the clerk’s offer. He had the opportunity to examine them closer as they whispered back and forth. Their nurses uniforms were neat and tidy and clean–too much so, it seemed to the clerk, for them to have come from work to the store. Perhaps they were on their way to work and were only killing some time before their shifts. It was wartime, after all, and he had some empathy with young people who had to grow up in such an unsettled period of Russian history.

Finally, one of the girls, the taller one, shook her head and, in a perfect upper class accent, asked the clerk, “Sir, how does one acquire these items?”

“What do you mean?” the clerk asked incredulously. “Why, you pay for them, of course!” he said. This caused the girls to giggle again. “Thank you, sir,” the taller girl said. After another whispered exchange, the girls turned from the man and ran out of the store hand in hand.

The clerk shook his head and sighed as he returned to his sweaters. He didn’t understand this younger generation.

After they returned to the palace, the Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga, the eldest daughters of Czar Nicholas II, asked their lady-in-waiting, “How do you use money for things?”

On a Test Animal

The scientists named her Barker.

She was found wandering the streets of the city and was quite obviously a stray. She was also quite obviously a mutt. Oh, she had some physical characteristics of a Samoyed, and some of a Husky, and there was definitely a bit of Terrier in there as well. Ah, but she was a tiny thing. She weighed only about 12 pounds.

And that’s why it was somewhat comical that such loud barking yelps came from a girl this small. Of course, they had to name her Barker. The best that the scientists could determine, Barker was about three years old. Her ears stood straight up, except at the top tips which folded down. Ah, she was a real cutie.

The scientists liked using stray dogs from the city streets because they felt that those dogs had been conditioned to extremes of temperature and of hunger. Their experiments needed dogs that could withstand both. Now, as an animal lover, I will go on record as being against the use of animals in scientific experiments on principle. However, this was the mid-1950s, and the use of animals in scientific experimentation was commonplace. Sadly, the experiments that were being performed on the street dogs would end up killing them.

One of the scientists who was conducting the experiments developed a soft spot for Barker. He would scratch her ears and whisper to her so that the other scientists could not hear his sweet nothings. He would put his head on hers and quietly say that, in another life, he would love to have her at his house to play with his children, and to watch her grow up with them. In fact, on the evening before the experiment that would lead to her death, he did, indeed, take Barker home. She and the kids had a wonderful time, running and playing throughout the house. Of course, the kids were giggling, and Barker was, well, barking. “She was so charming,“ he would say later. Knowing her fate, the scientist wanted to do something nice for her.

I wish this story had a happier ending. It is true that all stories involving dogs end sadly. When you bring a puppy into your life, the result is going to be heartache because nothing is forever.

The next day, Barker began the experiment that would take her life. And because of that experiment, she would go down in history. Or, in this case, perhaps, up.

You see, Barker is what her name is in English.

You know her better by her Russian name, Laika, and as the first animal from earth to go into space.

On a Dementia Patient

“I have lost myself,” Auguste Deter said. She had been institutionalized in the early 1900s with onset dementia and, like many patients in her situation, suffered from the fear of not being able to recognize her loving husband and her beloved daughter–or herself–any more. So, in every way possible, Auguste had indeed lost herself.

Auguste had been born in what is now Germany in 1850. Her family was poor but still managed to send Auguste to school where she excelled. However, social norms of the time provided her limited opportunities in furthering her education, and she became a seamstress at the age of 14. A few years later, she married Carl Deter, a worker in the relatively new railroad industry. They had their daughter, Thekla, and Carl would tell her doctor later that their relationship was happy and that the couple got along incredibly well with few disagreements in the marriage.

At the age of 50, Auguste began manifesting signs of her dementia. She began forgetting small things, then she began to seem to not be able to recognize Carl or Thekla. She experienced a fugue state at times. She forgot how to cook things she had cooked hundreds of times. The familiar became the foreign; the usual became the strange. Carl found that he could not care for his increasingly mentally unstable wife, and he had to find an institution that would care for her.

As you can imagine, in the early 1900s, care for dementia patients was not the best. The facility Carl found for Auguste proved to be too expensive, but the doctor in charge of Auguste’s case pulled some strings and managed to allow Auguste to stay in the facility. The doctor made an offer. He told Carl that Auguste could stay there without charge if he could have access to all her medical records and be able to examine her brain when she passed away. Carl agreed.

Often in dementia cases, the patient begins to degenerate exponentially. Auguste grew mistrustful of everyone. She had conversations with people who weren’t present. She usually ignored people who were. One of the many things that fascinated her doctor was that Auguste exhibited these signs much earlier than most dementia patients. It had been his experience that such symptoms came from people much older than Auguste’s 50 years. This was only one reason why he wished to know more about his patient’s brain and wanted to keep her close. To compound the situation, Auguste usually did not recognize that she had the symptoms she had.

In 1906, Auguste died of sepsis caused by bedsores.

The doctor that had cared for her and studied her called her illness “The Disease of Forgetfulness.”

His name?

Dr. Alois Alzheimer.

On an Unfortunate Trip

Tsutomu Yamaguchi isn’t a name you’ll know, but his life was certainly an interesting one to say the least. When he died of stomach cancer in January of 2010, he was something of a celebrity in his home nation of Japan and in the United States. You see, Tsutomu had been in Japan during World War II and worked for the Mitsubishi Corporation. In the summer of 1945, the 39 year old businessman had been sent on a trip to visit a subsidiary factory in a manufacturing town. The Japanese military had suffered defeat after defeat by that point, and many in Japan thought that the war could not go on much longer. Sadly, the Japanese military had convinced the Emperor to continue the fight, and the result was suffering and destruction brought by the American dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

And, as fate would have it, Hiroshima was the city that Tsutomu was sent to by his employer. The bomb exploded above the city shortly after 8:00am Hiroshima time on August 8, and it caused either the immediate or eventual death of nearly 150,000 people. Tsutomu indeed suffered injuries in the blast; luckily, he was not closer to the bomb’s epicenter. He and two associates were to leave the city that morning and return home. The trio left their accommodations early and were on the way to the train station. However, Tsutomu realized that he had left some identification papers needed for travel behind him, and, telling his co-workers to go on ahead, he returned to get the papers. He had only stepped back outside when a blinding light exploded above him. He was thrown backwards immediately, and he was temporarily blinded. Radiation burns covered the top part of his body. He managed to crawl to a shelter and received treatment for his injuries there. Eventually, he managed to regain his eyesight and began searching through the destroyed city for his colleagues. He found them, and they stayed in a bomb shelter a night before leaving the catastrophic landscape of Hiroshima and heading out for their hometown the next day.

Despite the fact that he was still suffering from his radiation burns, Tsutomu reached his hometown and reported for work early on August 9, 1945. His co-workers were stunned when they saw him. They had heard about this new American superweapon and were eager to hear Tsutomu’s account of what happened on his trip. He was in the middle of the story that morning when he and his co-workers heard an air-raid siren. Suddenly, another blinding light came from outside, and another cacophonous noise followed.

Oh, by the way, Tsutomu’s hometown?

Nagasaki.

On a Show Biz Career

Bert was born July 26, 1969, and he has enjoyed success in show business from a very young age. His first prime time appearance on TV came at the age of 3 when he sang on the Flip Wilson variety show. He’s had several successful records. A look at his IMDB page will show you several films he has either starred or appeared in. He’s done a star turn on many TV shows, and he remains a general fixture on TV to this day.

He’s generally known for his comic work with his longtime collaborator and life partner. But we’ll talk more about that in a moment. New York City has been his home since birth, and it’s the city that has nurtured his successful career. He’s been on Broadway as well, and he sees theater as part of the city’s vibrant culture. Since an early age, Bert has been fascinated by the city. He even became somewhat of an expert on pigeons, a pastime that many New Yorkers enjoy. Bert also has an extensive bottlecap collection.

I mentioned Bert’s long-time collaborator and partner earlier. Bert has not discussed much about his personal life, but he and his partner have been roommates for several years. As you can imagine, there have been articles and talk show discussions on his sexuality, but no official statement has been made by either Bert or his management team. That shouldn’t matter, of course. His audience remains large and loyal. They appreciate his ability to perform in various genres.

Bert can sing, obviously. Somewhere along the way, he learned how to tap dance, and he’s quite proficient at it. And even though he’s been in the public eye for over 50 years, Bert shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have aged much.

Sadly, he has also been the object of some satire in poor taste. Because of his clean cut, wholesome image, websites have sprung up that link Bert to nefarious individuals and heinous crimes from history. You can see those easily online. But his adoring public knows the truth.

Oh, that comedic collaborator and roommate/life partner? You know him well, also. 

In fact, you’ve probably been watching Bert and Ernie your whole life.

On a War-Time Ban

Our modern generation has “suffered” the inconvenience of supply-chain issues due to the Covid pandemic. We have only tasted the edge of what it is like to live in an extended time of rationing and shortages. During World War II (and also World War I, to some extent), rationing in the United States was mandated for several years. Several items during the war saw shortages, but it was only those commodities that were directly needed by the war effort that required rationing and the accompanying ration stamps.

Among the rationed items in the United States were gas, rubber (for tires), sugar, meat, and coffee. While most people hated rationing, most people also accepted it because, after all, it was the least they could do to support our fighting men and women in the “crusade” against Nazism and fascism. In fact, the rationing and shortages served to unify the nation in an odd way.

The federal government had been granted absolute authority to decide what items were to be rationed and what products could be manufactured and which ones were to be prohibited for the war’s duration. One such banned product caused an unusually loud outcry among the population when it was enacted in 1943. It was a product that had been ordered banned by the Secretary of Agriculture, a man named Claude Wickard.

Now, Wickard knew his stuff. He was from Indiana, farm country, and he had a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Purdue University. The state had decreed Wickard as a Master Farmer in the 1920s for his agricultural innovations and improvements for small farmers. He had served as an Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Hoover Administration and then was appointed Secretary of Agriculture in 1940. He would hold that post all during World War II. He is remembered for promoting the growing of Victory Gardens as a way for Americans to extend their food supplies during the years of shortages and rationing.

However, it was the incredibly unpopular ban in 1943 that Wickard is best remembered for. In an article, Time magazine described the terrible deprivation the ban created. It said that American housewives felt the ban, “was almost as bad as gas rationing and a whale of a lot more trouble.” The article went on to point out that, for American women, they had to “saw…grimly on. This war was getting pretty awful.”

Sounds terrible. What product would you think could cause such consternation among American women? In a letter to the editor of the the New York Times, an irate American pointed out how important this item was to the morale and “saneness” of the average American household. She lamented the days gone by when this product made her life worth living. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (yes, that LaGuardia) even got involved in the controversy, offering alternatives to the ban and saying that he would do all he could to intervene with Secretary Wickard to end the ban as soon as possible.

Wickard, for his part, pretended to ignore the uproar his ban had caused. He seemed to not notice the outcry. He pointed out the savings his ban would make and said that it was all necessary for the war effort. But the cries of housewives across America proved too incessant and the political pressure put on elected officials forced Wickard to retreat. He soon announced not that the ban was lifted because of the protests but, rather, that the supposed savings the ban was to provide did not in fact come to pass. Thus, he said, the ban was lifted.

Jubilation ensued. We don’t know if or what pressure Claud Wickard might have felt from Mrs. Wickard, but we know how happy she was, too, when her husband ended the ban.

And what was this product that every American housewife demanded to have during World War II?

Sliced bread.

On an Air Raid

Everyone knows about the German bombing of London during the war. We see something similar on the news in 2022 with the Russian air attacks on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. However destructive and terrorizing the Kyiv attacks are–and they are–the bombings of London were a shock for a world not used to attacks on the civilian population during the war.

You see, it was the German mentality that war was not only waged by the military, but that it was also fought and supported materially by the civilian population. The chances of German success on the battlefield, the theory went, would be greatly increased if the population that supplied the opposing army would be itself harmed and its ability to supply that army stopped.

Thus, on September 8th, in the war’s second year, the British capital city was first attacked by the air. Massive damage resulted. Twenty-two civilians were killed, and six of them were children. The Germans were promptly labeled “baby killers” by the British public. Besides the blackout orders and bomb shelters that were put in place, anti-aircraft batteries were moved from other places to London to provide improved protection against future attacks by the German air force. Searchlights crisscrossed the night skies above the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) also fought bravely to combat the attackers. As the bombings of London increased, the pilots of the RFC took to the air to defend the population. Lt. William Robinson became an instant minor celebrity in Britain for being the first RFC pilot to shoot down a German aircraft during the raids. It seems he was the first to discover the tactic of flying much higher than the German raiders and then attacking them from above. The Germans, much more interested in the placement and release of their deadly cargoes as well as the deadly anti-aircraft fire from below, didn’t expect attacks from above. The tactic changed the course of the air war above London.

By the war’s end, almost 3,000 Londoners had either been killed or seriously wounded by the bombings. What the Germans didn’t kill was the fighting spirit of the British people. In fact, the bombings may have galvanized English public opinion to fight the war to a successful conclusion at any cost. Some of the citizenry felt a sense of pride that they, too, had been under fire during the war. But London would suffer much worse two decades later. In fact, almost ten times worse.

Yes, the German bombings of London in World War I–first by zeppelin, then by large bombers–as terrible as they were, paled in comparison to the London Blitz that would take the lives of 20,000 Londoners in World War II.

On an Immigrant Group

Moving to another nation can one of the most traumatic events in life even if one is leaving a bad situation and seeking a better life. A group of religious dissidents made the choice to leave their families and the way of life they knew and seek another place. These people, who had been persecuted for their beliefs in their home country, came to Holland to seek the freedom to live and work and worship the way their consciences dictated. In their home country, they had been marginalized and their livelihoods had been taken away, and they were so grateful for the opportunity to start life over again in Holland.

The small group settled in Leiden, near the university, and many of them quickly found work in the textile industry of that city. Others took up the trades and jobs they had previously had in their home country. The university made a strong effort to incorporate the new immigrants into the community; they offered free classes and training, they gave the group a place to meet to hold their religious services, and they provided language training as well to help the newcomers better fit into Dutch society.

For roughly a decade, the group flourished. But, then, they began to worry about the influence the open Dutch society was starting to have on their families. Their kids were growing up not knowing their native language. They were adopting Dutch mentalities and attitudes towards, well, everything, including inclusivity–the very inclusivity that had welcomed the immigrants in the first place. So, because of their own prejudices and intransigence, the religious refugees decided to move again as difficult as the move would be on their families and the group as a whole.

The United States would do well to emulate the Dutch with regards to how we treat those seeking the freedom to live the way they wish to live, whether they are from the US or immigrants seeking a better life. As we look at those things we are thankful for, we might do well to re-examine the basic freedoms of mankind upon which the nation was founded–the freedoms of life, liberty, and to pursue those things that make one happy.

Oh, that religious group? They looked for a place where they could raise their families free of any so-called negative influences, to create a society of their own choosing without any real oversight or control. And a place where their kids wouldn’t grow up wearing wooden shoes.

They chose Massachusetts.

You know them as the Pilgrims.

Happy Thanksgiving.