On a Bike Trip

It was a warm late spring Saturday, June 10, 1944, in Limoges, France. Six young friends decided to take a bike trip into the country. France in the springtime is glorious, and the hilly vistas in the countryside surrounding Limoges was alive with blooms and greenery. The friends packed a lunch and the obligatory bottles of wine to accompany it. It promised to be a fine day.

The small group felt like celebrating for the first time in years. You see, news had reached the city that the Allies had invaded the beaches of Normandy, some 300 miles north of Limoges. After years of humiliating occupation by the Germans, it seemed that the iron grip of the Nazi invaders was coming to an end. So, a celebratory day in the countryside by bike seemed like a wonderful way to spend a Saturday.

The group decided to leave early that morning and strike out northwest of Limoges. They made their way through the outlying villages of La Vergne and La Lande and on a route that took them slightly south of what is now the runway of the Limoges Airport. By the time they reached Saint-Quinten, they had left the noise and traffic of the city behind and were truly in the countryside.

About one o’clock, the group of friends coasted into a sleepy village. They had decided that they would take a rest break and have their lunch in the grassy area of the square when they reached the small town, and so they slowed down as they entered the village. But something was wrong. The main street of the village was lined with military vehicles, German army vehicles, and armed men were standing next to them. The group of cyclists had no choice but to continue. There was no chance for them to turn around and leave the village the way they came.

Perhaps this was only an identity check. After all, the Germans were on high alert since the invasion. They were keenly aware of French resistance activity that had seen an uptick since the Allies landed only four days before. Maybe all the Germans in the village wanted was to make sure the cyclists were who they said they were–innocent friends out for a bike ride on a warm Saturday.

But no.

The Germans were on a mission of revenge. The resistance had struck damaging blows to the Nazi war effort around Limoges, and the occupiers were out for blood. They rounded up the villagers and separated them–men, women, and children. The women and children they put in the centuries old church building. The men…well, the men they first put into barns. Then they shot and burned them. A large bomb was detonated in the church building where the children and women had been herded. Those who survived the bomb, fire, and smoke were then shot. Fires were set all over. When the massacre ended later that evening, not one of the over 350 buildings in the village was left standing.

And the six cyclists from Limoges, the six friends who only wanted a nice day of biking in the French countryside, they became part of the 643 victims of the destruction of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

On a Risky Director

The guy had zero experience behind the camera. None. Zilch. Nada. It was as if the studio who hired him for this project seemed to want the film–and therefore the studio itself–to fail. In fact, if you wished for a film to fail, you would choose to allow someone like this guy, someone with no ties to Hollywood, to be in complete charge of a film production.

You see, this was 1941, and the Hollywood Studio System was in full swing. That system produced incredible films in the year 1939 alone such as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even 1941 itself saw The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and How Green Was My Valley produced. The Studio System was a complex web of producers, directors, the screenwriters, and the various artistic craftspeople (lighting technicians, wardrobe and makeup artists, musicians, etc.) who combined to provide safeguards from one person breaking a project and causing it to fail.

The choice of this man to head this film went against that system, spectacularly. There was no head of production who would act as a safeguard or pump the brakes if the project started going off the rails. There were no voices who spoke up to warn that this neophyte was in over his head and should be yanked from the director’s chair before the expense of the film doomed the studio (and, by extension, all the jobs associated with it) to bankruptcy. This man had complete autonomy over the film. He even co-wrote the script.

Now, this particular studio was RKO. It was seen by many as having lost a step in recent years compared to the other big boys on the Hollywood block like MGM and Paramount and Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. Moves like giving this man carte blanche spoke of a hint of desperation from the studio that desperately wished to recapture its old glory and stature.

On his first day at the set for the film, the new guy climbed one of the ladders and began adjusting the lighting above the set below. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked one of the long-term lighting techs on the set. The man shrugged and said he wanted to see what a change in the light would achieve on the sound stage below. “Lookit, mac; you tell me what you want, and I’ll adjust the lights.” The man sheepishly climbed back down the ladder.

And, to top it all off, this new man was only 25 years old.

And the film bombed at the box office. The story was confusing to some. There was no real romance to it. The film seemed preachy in its message. The odd angles and lighting that this rookie directed insisted on detracted from the story, some critics said. And, what’s more, the start of the film was criticized as having a wooden performance.

Oh, did I mention that this 25 year old man who co-wrote and directed the film was also its star?


And his projects with RKO ended up costing the studio over $2,000,000 when it was all said and done. The studio head who took a chance on this young guy saw his career almost ended by his poor choice, and he had to resign from RKO the next year. Oh, RKO would make a comeback eventually, but its reputation was damaged for some years.

And what happened to the young director?

Well, today, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is often hailed as the greatest film ever made.

On a Pet Policy

As a former pet owner, I have traveled with my bulldogs on out of town trips before. And, as I would make my plans, those plans would always have to include finding accommodation that would allow me to have my dogs in the rooms with me. That concept of a pet policy isn’t that new in American History, but it has been pretty much the right of the wealthier classes in the United States to not only afford family pets but also to travel with them.

The Hotel Belleclaire in New York City has been declared a historical landmark and a building of cultural and architectural importance. The hotel of over 250 rooms was designed and built in the early 1900s on New York’s Upper West Side between Central Park and the Hudson River. While today it is a mix of long-term, rent controlled apartments and some nightly accommodations, when it was built, it was one of the city’s premier hostelries. People like Mark Twain, the acting Barrymore family, Babe Ruth, and Maxim Gorky all stayed there in the early days the hotel was opened.

And the Belleclaire was one of the first hotels of its kind to allow pets, although discreetly. The original newspaper stories about the establishment boasted that the staff knew how to be discreet regarding the needs of a sophisticated (i.e., wealthier) clientele. That meant learning to put up with pampered pups and cuddled cats for the guests at the hotel.

But that discretion had its limits, it turns out. A hotel staff is only expected to go so far. It seems that the kerfuffle began with a hotel guest who checked in under the name of T.R. Zann in 1920. Zann let it be known that he was a well-respected and widely-praised musician on the continent. He made the unusual request that his piano be shipped to him and brought by the maintenance department to his room on the 7th floor. And that’s what happened. The large, heavy crate was hoisted into the service elevator and brought to Zann’s room by an army of service workers and bellhops.

And then the story took a strange turn.

The manager received a phone call from the kitchen. It seems that Zann had made an incredibly odd request from room service. The kitchen asked the manager to discreetly verify the order with the guest before it filled it and sent it on its way to the 7th floor.

It seems that the musician wanted steak. Lots of steak. Fifteen pounds worth. And all of it rare.

The manager called Zann. The musician confirmed the order. When it was ready, the manager accompanied the waiter and his cart as the raw meat was taken up to the waiting man. When their knock at the door was answered with Zann’s brusque, “Come in,” the pair of hotel employees almost suffered a cardiac arrest because of the pet that stood before them in the center of the room.

The manager beat a hasty retreat to his office where he immediately called the police. They arrived and with them a horde of reporters in tow. Zann was removed from the premises, and the pet was taken into “custody” by the Bronx Zoo.

But, there was another catch. You see, Zann was not actually Zann at all. No, he was actually a Hollywood publicity agent named Harry Reichenbach. He was in New York to drum up buzz for the studio’s next big picture: The otherwise completely forgettable Revenge of Tarzan.

It’s why he registered under the name T.R. Zann, and it’s why he had a lion smuggled into the Hotel Belleclaire.

On a Museum Theft

Ever since we started collecting and displaying valuable art and artifacts, people have been trying to steal these items. One such theft occurred at a museum in Minnesota back in 2005. A Grand Rapids, MN exhibition was drawing good crowds to see the items on display, and local press had drummed up good publicity about the exhibit. The throng had been larger than the small-ish museum could handle that summer, and security was stretched pretty thin. Curator came in one morning to find that two of the most prized items in the collection had been taken. The thief or thieves had smashed the glass on a display and made off with the items. The smashing of the glass had not triggered any alarms, however. Clues were slim to none. The authorities were mystified. The museum failed to have adequate security cameras in place to catch the perpetrator(s). Whoever did the deed made a clean get-away.

Now, let me say that the items taken are today worth upwards of $4,000,000 on the open market, so it makes little sense that so little security surrounded these one-of-a-kind items. And, with no leads, the museum held its breath and hoped that the robber(s) would try to sell the items and get caught or even make an attempt at turning in the expensive stuff at an attempt towards collecting a substantial reward.

And then, finally, in 2018, the authorities caught a break. Someone contacted the insurance money saying that he had information about the theft. That tip on the contact led the museum to be able to recover the stolen goods and restore them to a newly secured (and heavily videoed) place in the museum. The FBI got involved and the person of interest backed off. But no suspect was named, and no one was arrested. The museum didn’t seem to care as long as the priceless artifacts where returned.

That was the end of the story until a recent indictment was made. It seems that a man who lived just down the street from the museum had taken the items almost on a whim. He acted alone, entered the museum after hours, and smashed the display case and took the items to his house. They stayed there, a few blocks away, until the sting operation got them back.

Yes, the grand jury returned an indictment against a Minnesota man named Terry Martin for felony theft of major artwork.

And what priceless things do you think Mr. Martin stole?

Why, nothing less than the red shoes worn by Judy Garland in the film The Wizard of Oz.

On a Disappointed Airman

James desperately wanted to fly. Born in 1910 in Gironde, France, he remembered how exciting the early days of aviation were. The First World War propelled aviation innovation exponentially, and, as a young boy, James loved the developments in the flying technology that came out of the war. He, like many boys, made models of the planes that had won the war for the Allies, planes like the Nieuport and the Spad and other French planes (which the American pilots used in that conflict).

At the age of 20, James enrolled in the French Naval Aviation College to begin to fulfill his childhood dream. He excelled at gunnery school as well as being a pilot, so he pursued that path in the school. He graduated as a gunnery officer.

But then, tragedy struck. Coming home from his post one evening, the car he was driving was struck by another car–and James broke both of his arms. The resulting time missed from service and the weakness the breaks caused in his bones and muscles grounded the would-be pilot. James was crushed. He had committed his life to aviation only to have fate cruelly swipe his passion from him.

Still, he had his enlistment to fulfill, and James promised his nation to be the best naval officer he could be. He made a vow to become as passionate about the sea as he had been about the air. He worked with the navy’s new technology department, helping to create one of the first mini-subs for use by the military. And he lived up to his promise to be a good sailor across a 20 year career in the French Navy despite his intense disappointment in not being able to fly.

His acumen and innate intelligence led him into key assignments during that time. He went on information-gathering trips for the navy to many nations in the 1930s in the build up to World War 2, including one trip to the Soviet Union. During the war, James actively worked with the French underground movement and was awarded several medals after the war for his involvement in that fight against Nazism.

When he retired in 1950, James did not give up his love for the sea. In fact, he continued what became a second career that made him internationally known for his work with the oceans. James, of course, is his English name. You know him better as Jacques.

Jacques Cousteau.

On a Poetry Manuscript

In 1869, the English artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was working on a book of poetry from a manuscript he’d written almost a decade earlier. Much had happened to the famous founder of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement in that time, and he was looking for a re-kindling of his earlier muse to get his creative juices flowing. And that’s why he was re-visiting this old handwritten book of poetry.

Well, that and the fact that he needed the money.

The Pre-Raphaelites combined legend, history, religion, and a bit of romanticism (not romanticized) to create paintings and books and poetry in a sincere (and less stylized, thus, before the time of the Italian painter Raphael) manner. While often religious in tone, the movement was actually anti-church. They felt that a more natural and simplistic religion was more in keeping with their artistic temperament. That has led other artistic and social movements to claiming the Pre-Raphaelites as their spiritual forebears, everyone from Tolkien to Led Zeppelin to the hippies of the 1960s.

Rossetti had poured out his heart and soul into those old poems. His inspiration for them was a woman and fellow artist named Elizabeth Siddal. You’ve probably seen paintings of her (and possibly by her) because she inspired many of the artists of that time period with her look. You see, Rossetti was deeply in love with her as well as using her as a model for many of his works, both painted and written. In fact, he ended up marrying Elizabeth.

However, the poor woman had health issues and had died in 1862 at age 33 of an overdose of the drug laudanum. It was only a couple of years after the pair had wed. That untimely death of such an influential model and inspiration had only served to increase the myth surrounding her beauty and power over the artists of that movement. And Rossetti had not even looked at those poems since her death. Yet, here he was, seven years later, seeking to capitalize on the potential income that a book of poetry inspired by Siddal could bring.

So, he carefully took the handwritten book and began transcribing it and editing it for publication. The years had not been kind to the text. Worms had eaten holes through words in the manuscript. Mold and a foul smell emanated from it. Disinfectant had been used, but that only seemed to make the odor worse. The book had obviously been wet for some time. You could practically see the decay that overlaid every page. But Rossetti plowed through it, making the best of the poor situation, until he had copied out all that he could decipher. Then, when he’d finished, he had the original destroyed.

The resulting poetry book was published to in 1870 and received poor reviews for containing what was seen at the time as being extremely lewd poems.

And it makes sense that the manuscript had deteriorated over the seven years. That was because of where Rossetti had placed it when his wife died.

Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti famously had long, red hair. And, when she was put in her coffin, the artist placed the volume of poetry she’s inspired into her hair next to her face before the coffin lid was placed over his wife’s body.

Seven years later, he dug her up and took it back.

On a Shipwrecked Teenager

John had been forced to go to sea to support his family. His dad had died a few years earlier, and the 14 year old had an older brother, but that brother was sickly. Thus, John became the man of the house and, as was often the case in those days, the one to be the breadwinner. Growing up on the coast, it was natural that John would get a job with a fishing crew, and that’s what happened. The year was 1841, and times were tough. John was hired on by the small boat crew to be the helper and the cook during the days out at sea fishing with large nets held up by buoys.

But, on one of his first times out with the boat and crew, a storm blew up and sent the small vessel far off course. They ended up barely making it to a deserted island off the coast, where they were unable to get their craft seaworthy again. Thus, the five person crew had to endure six months of near starvation on the island, eating what fish they could catch near shore.

Then, miraculously, a whaling ship sailed by and spotted the castaways. The captain of the ship, William Whitfield, was happy to take the 4 men and the teenager aboard, but he told them that they’d have to go with his ship, the John Howland, on the whaling voyage before he could land them anywhere. The men eagerly agreed. Anything was better than dying on that island.

Finally, then the whaling ship reached port, the four adult men were happy to be put ashore, and they tried to make arrangements to somehow find their way back to their homes. But Captain Whitfield had taken a liking to John, and he offered the teen a chance for an education in Whitfield’s hometown of Fairfield, Massachusetts. John jumped at the chance. He was thrilled to go, and it was there that he saw things that amazed him. He rode a train for the first time. He learned navigation. He learned to read and write and a foreign language. He apprenticed as a barrel maker. And then Whitfield got John a place on the crew of another whaling ship.

By September, 1849, John was 22 and had a decent amount of money. He’d frugally saved as much as he could of his pay from the whaler, and he decided to join the thousands who were headed to California for the Gold Rush. There, even though he arrived a bit later than many, John managed to make a decent amount from his prospecting. And it was then that John decided that he wanted to return home, to the mother and small family he’d left almost a decade before.

And so he did. He was warmly received by his family and village on the coast, and he became somewhat of a minor celebrity in the area because of his adventures at so young an age. His family never grew tired of his tales of travel, of the things he’d experienced and seen, and of how educated and “proper” he’d become.

In the 1860s, his country called on John. Because of his travel and language experience, he was asked to serve as a sort of ambassador for some visitors to his country. It seems that no one else spoke the language he had picked up back in school in Massachusetts. The country needed John to interpret for them as they welcomed strangers to their shores.

You see, John wasn’t really his name, it was only the name that Captain Whitfield called him. His birth name was Manjiro, and he was one of the first Japanese men to have ever visited the United States. And, when Japan opened its doors to foreign trade, it was Manjiro who represented the Japanese emperor and who translated Japanese into that strange language he’d picked up in Massachusetts.


On a History Theory

During a video work meeting recently, one of the moderators shared a video of a person using a pay phone. We were all struck with the fact that those things have pretty much gone from the landscape in much of the western world, an entire segment of the communication industry replaced by more modern methods of human interaction. Ask the harness makers from 120 years ago or the carriage companies from the same period about becoming obsolete. People are now being replaced in many areas of the manufacturing sector by robotics (and even in the logistics sector as well). Certainly, air travel, cell phones, and automated factories mark the modern world.

And that’s the way of the world, I suppose. Except maybe not. Let’s go backk (insert echo sound effect here in your head), backkk, bakkkk. We are really talking about innovations in three major areas of life throughout time: Communication, transportation, and manufacturing. It’s interesting to note that the ground-shaking changes in these three areas happened in an incredibly short time historically.

For most of recorded history, man traveled at the speed of, well, man. Ok, horses did speed up travel considerably (or camels or whatever beast a person rode in that culture). But, for the most part, people moved at the speed of people moving at speed. That means a person who walks at a normal pace could move about 3 miles per hour or 5 kilometers per hour. That was the pace of life. And, unlike what the western film genre tells you, horses couldn’t run for hours at a time. Most of the time, they walked not much faster than men did. Rivers were great ways to get around (and oceans, too), but when the current couldn’t pull a boat upstream, horses (or again whatever animal) did that work, too.

And people throughout history did indeed learn to communicate more rapidly than by foot. Birds where trained to carry messages. Signals (by fire or flag) also sped this up. But both were iffy and dependent on weather/visibility and limited to a small area compared to sending communications intercontinentally.

What about manufacturing. For much of history, mills that ground corn or even cut wood had to be built along rivers that powered the wheels that moved the machinery. True, some mills (think Holland and France, for example) were wind powered, but, again, humans were at the mercy of the breezes. So, if you needed consistent power, you’d have to have a water source.

So, what changed?

Well, according to historian Douglas T. Miller, the modern world wasn’t born anytime this century. Or the last one, either. No, Miller said that the modern world, especially modern America, was born in the relatively short window of 1820 to 1850. That seems crazy to have been so long ago (for us, 200 years), but that is incredibly recent in the long view of the history of mankind.

Miller argues that while steam engines had been used in factories and in manufacturing before 1820, it wasn’t until that year that the number steam powered plants equaled the number of water driven plants. By 1830, steam was well in the lead and never looked back. While water was still needed, factories didn’t need a constant supply of water running all the time and therefore they didn’t need to be along streams any more. 1826 saw the first practical use of steam applied to a train and the beginning of the wide use of steam powered boats on American waters. Suddenly, man, who, all of his existence, had been limited to travel at 3-5 miles per hour, now could go 40, 50, or more. That was mind-blowing to people at the time. And, it was 1844 that Samuel Morse sent the message, “What hath God wrought?” by telegraph, a message that was received miles away almost instantly.

And, what’s more, the airplane, the cell phone, and the automated factory are all extensions of those original creations and applications. In fact, Miller says that the revolution in those 30 years to society is greater than any modern revolution we’ve experienced.

That means a person who lived in those 30 years saw more fundamental change in transportation, communication, and manufacturing than any of us ever will.

On Three Dream Careers

Most kids play “What do I wanna be when I grow up” games. These usually take the form of some glamorous profession (I was going to star in the NBA then fall back on an Indiana Jones-like career making amazing archaeological discoveries in my retirement from the league). Here are three examples of these types of what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up dream careers coming true.

  1. Soldier-Jonathan wanted to be a soldier beginning in his early teens. He dreamed of being a US Navy Seal, the toughest of the tough. Towards that end, he began training at age 16 for the difficult indoctrination required for that role. He enlisted in 2002, completed his Seal training, and was sent to the Middle East on over 100 covert missions during the Iraq War. There, he became a hero, rescuing wounded comrades and winning the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. Over the past 20+ years, Jonathan completed Officer Candidate School and had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Navy.
  2. Doctor-Young had exemplary grades in high school. Advanced Placement classes were easy for him. In addition, he was on the swimming water polo teams. After an undergraduate degree from the University of San Diego in 2012, Young was admitted to the prestigious Harvard Medical School where he also excelled. From anything in the medical profession to choose, Young decided to specialize in Emergency Medical Care, and, after his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital (I wonder if he met Dr. Charles E. Winchester, III?), Young finished his medical education. His supervisor during his time as an intern and the head of the hospital ER, Dr. David Brown, said about Young, “He is absolutely fearless–which a good ER doctor needs to be–a remarkable young man, fiercely committed.”
  3. Astronaut-Kim remembers being the shy kid growing up who lacked the confidence he saw in others. However, he dreamed big. He majored in mathematics in college and received his degree. After his college career, Kim took a chance and applied to NASA’s astronaut program. But he knew that he would have to also learn to fly, so he took flying lessons and completed his solo flight in the late 2010s. Out of 18,000 applicants, he was chosen for astronaut training. He entered NASA’s program in August 2017. Kim completed two years of training (training in technical and operational instruction in International Space Station systems, Extravehicular Activities (EVA) Operations, T-38 flight training, robotics, physiological training, expeditionary training, field geology, water and wilderness survival training, and Russian language proficiency training) in 2019. He will be one of the astronauts going to the moon later this decade. 

Dream jobs and career paths, right?

Most people never follow their dreams, much less follow such amazing career paths such as these three descriptions.

Would it surprise you if I told you that the three people described to you came from the same Korean immigrant family in the United States?

And would you believe me if I said that all three of these descriptions are of the same person–39 year old Jonathan “Jonny” Young Kim?

On a University

Graduation time reminds me of one particular university that I always wanted to visit if not actually attend. Chicago, Illinois is home to 29 universities, including one of the major research universities in the world, the University of Chicago (it also happens to be the most expensive university in the United States, but that’s another issue). Several more colleges and universities rest in the surrounding suburbs. One of those universities that calls Chicago home touches many lives around the world every day, and that’s the rest of this story.

Almost 300,000 people have graduated from this fine institution since it started in 1961. And how it started is a fairly interesting tale. A man named Fred Turner began the university in the basement room below a restaurant. Fourteen students were in the first class who matriculated there.

Now, Fred Turner didn’t possess any higher education degree but did graduate from Drake University and served a stint in the US Army in the 1950s. After his military service, Fred got a job as a line cook at a local eatery. That was the level of his background and qualifications to open a university. From that lowly (literally) location beneath the restaurant, Fred’s university quickly grew, and enrollment skyrocketed.

The institution of higher learning moved to a suburban location in Oak Brook, Illinois on an 80-acre, beautifully manicured campus that could accommodate the burgeoning student population. In 2018, the university moved to a brand-new, especially designed campus in West Loop because the Oak Brook campus simply couldn’t keep up with the demand for the number of applicants and admitted students.

Today, that university that began in the basement in Chicago with Fred the fry cook now boasts campuses in such varied international locations as Tokyo, London, Sydney, Munich, São Paulo, Shanghai, and even Moscow. The Shanghai branch of the institution is so selective, only 1% of all applicants are admitted.

In fact, all of the campuses are selective in their admissions. You actually have to be invited to attend this university–there is no open enrollment. “Learning today, leading tomorrow” is the acknowledged motto of this school, and–this will probably surprise you–tuition, room, and board are all absolutely free. Of course, there is a catch.

Yes, it costs absolutely nothing for qualified employees to attend McDonald’s Hamburger University.