On Discovering a Body

Erika and Helmut loved climbing in the mountains. Germans have long been mountain climbers even before the pastime became a middle-class sporting activity. In mid-September, 1991, the couple were on a climbing vacation and hiking near a glacier along the Austrian/Italian border when they came upon the body.

The man was clearly dead, and, being in the Alps, the pair assumed that the man died of injuries sustained in pursing mountain climbing. After all, the hobby is not without its inherent dangers; rock and snowslides, sudden storms, altitude sickness, and more can overtake even the most experienced climbers. So, accidental death seemed to be obvious thing for Erika and Helmut to assume when they contacted the authorities and reported finding the body.

Their assumptions were wrong. First of all, the man had no ID on him. Forensic scientists believed he was around 45 years old, and he was fairly short (about 5’5″ or 1.7 meters tall) and thin. His clothes were simple and the things scattered near his body told of someone who was in the mountains for something other than sport. Moreover, the scientists could tell that this man had been healthy when he died. And then the mystery deepened. They found the wounds. The man had been shot through his shoulder, and the projectile had hit a major artery. They had found the cause of death, at least.

As to who shot him, well, there was no way to tell. The ice from the glacier had preserved him, luckily, but that did not help the doctors with what led him to be in that place at that time and receive the fatal wound he received. They were confident at the time that where he was found by Erika and Helmut was where the man had died; in other words, the body had not been moved there by the killer. However, it was later proven that the man had been killed elsewhere and the body was moved to the place where the German hiking tourists found him.

But who–or what–moved him?

We know that, most likely, the man’s body was moved not by a human but rather by the ice that had preserved his body. In fact, the body may have been moved a considerable distance by the ice. And that wound, that shot, still perplexed the scientists. After some full body scans, they discovered that the projectile was still in the body. But this information brought them no closer to determining who killed this mystery man.

On the other hand, the finding of the projectile did help them date the killing of the man, at least generally. You see, the projectile lodged in the man’s shoulder was an arrowhead. And the man found by Erika and Helmut, so well preserved by the ice that he looked like someone who had died recently and discovered in the Otztal Alps, probably died of his wound some 5,400 years ago.

He’s known today as Otzi, the Iceman.

On a Boat Trip

Charles had always been a sailor and an officer for various companies in Britain. When he retired from the sea in the late 1920s, he and his Australian wife, Sylvia, purchased a decrepit 58 foot motor yacht for about $3000 in today’s money. They named the vessel Sundowner. In Australia, a “sundowner” was a slang term for a bum or hobo. Charles thought the name was perfect, and the couple set about spending a considerable sum getting the old crate up to standards, and they added sails and completely remodeled the insides.

The couple used the vessel mostly to cruise the coasts of southern England and occasionally made the trip across the English Channel to skip along Europe’s northwestern edge. A few years later, when he was in his 60s, Charles received a message that his help was desperately needed, and the message asked if he could aid in rescuing some stranded folks on a beach. Charles contacted his adult son, who brought along a teenaged Sea Scout (like a Boy Scout but for sailing), and the trio quickly set off to do what they could to aid in the rescue.

An odd thing happened enroute to the rescue. Sundowner encountered another ship that was on fire. Charles pulled alongside the stricken vessel, and he and his crew of two took aboard the crew of the ship. They then continued on the original rescue journey. When they arrived at the beach, they realized that the water was too shallow for them to pull near enough to shore to bring those there aboard. So, Charles sent word to have the people go onboard a ship that was tied up there, and from this other ship he took aboard all Sundowner could carry.

You’ve probably already guessed that Charles and his yacht were involved in the rescue of hundreds of thousands of men from the Dunkirk beaches at the beginning of World War 2. His boat and others like it managed to rescue 350,000 Allied soldiers over several days in 1940. Charles himself saved 130 that day. Yet, he never considered himself a hero. To him, it was simply doing his duty.

And he was used to doing his duty, even and especially in difficult situations. During World War 1, Charles had commanded vessels for the Royal Navy and received commendations for bravery. And back when Charles worked as a sailor and officer for private companies, he was assigned aboard some of the most famous luxury liners and ships in history. You know the most famous one.

You see, Charles Lightoller had been the Second Officer and most senior surviving crew member from the RMS Titanic.

On an Incorrigible Kid

The parents had no idea what to do with him. The boy stood before them as the dad read aloud the detention report from the teacher. “He refuses to do what he is told if he feels it is beneath him.” The mom silently shook her head in disapproval as the sentence was read. All the while, the boy stood with his chin thrust out, his head tilted slightly backwards in defiance, the lips pursed in distain.

“Son…” the dad began, but he stopped. He looked over at his wife, back at the boy, and continued. “You’ve had everything a boy could want. The best of everything we could afford. We’ve tried to reason with you, bribe you, punish you. You’ve been impervious to it all.” It was now the dad’s turn to shake his head.

He began the speech that the boy had heard for the past several years: How the dad was tired of receiving the weekly detention reports from the various private schools he’d been sent to an removed from, how a litany of high priced summer camps, counselors, priests, and tutors had tried in vain to change the attitude and thus the behavior of the boy.

And, all through the speech that, by now, the boy could recite verbatim, he maintained the defiant stance. But that demeanor changed because the dad was ending the speech differently this time.

“…and, so, your mother and I have made the decision to send you to a military school upstate.” This made the boy lower his chin and stare at his dad. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You will be leaving tomorrow. This is something you have forced on your mother and me by your behavior,” the dad added.

So, at age 13, this boy was removed from the household and his family and the mansion and the chauffeur and was placed in a military boarding academy that specialized in dealing with incorrigible boys like him. There he was sometimes beaten and punished and hazed as never before. And it was there that he perfected the life-long ability to bully others.

The move to the military school changed him for the worse. Beside the defiance, which never left him, there was added resentment, embarrassment, and a strong feeling of abandonment that never left him. He would spend the rest of his life trying to prove he was beloved, accepted, and that his opinion was the right one above all.

By the way, at his last male prep school before the academy–a school which the boy had liked, actually–he had received so many detentions that the other boys began calling detention by the boy’s initials: DT

You know him as Donald Trump.

On a Hitchhiker

The old man in his truck with the camper on the back slowed down when he saw the hitchhiker on the side of the road. In instances like this, both driver and hitchhiker must make a split-second decision on whether or not to stop and whether or not to accept the ride. Most of that choice is made from, to use a colloquialism that is not easily defined, the gut. In the U.S., we call this feeling a “gut instinct,” which is, oddly, usually right.

The driver and his dog had been traveling around the United States simply because they could. It’s a big country, the old man reasoned, and he had seen some of it but was curious as to the parts he didn’t know. So, this being the early 1960s, he did what many Americans of the post-World War 2 era did–he decided to take a road trip. Much of what he and his dog had seen in the weeks they’d been on the road both pleased and surprised him. He never realized, for instance, how vastly different the rest of the nation felt about many political issues outside of his native California, for instance. Besides speaking to patrons and workers at roadside diners, the old man decided to pick up hitchhikers in order to get a taste of what they felt about societal issues.

Now, you must remember that hitchhiking was much more prevalent 60 years ago. Even in the 1980s, for example, I hitchhiked across several states, but such a thing would be almost impossible today. But, back then, it was an acceptable way to get from one place to another. And, in this instance, the old man pulled over when he saw the young man with his thumb out–the American sign for hitching.

The young man wore dirty clothes, and his longish blonde hair was tangled, his face pock-marked with acne scars. As the young man opened the door and climbed in, he thanked the older man in a deep southern drawl. The old man introduced himself and his dog, and the young man reciprocated. They continued down the road, and the conversation began. It started amicably enough as the pair exchanged pleasantries and brief biographies of themselves.

Then, the conversation changed. The older man told the young person about his journey, how he had been startled to find out that much of America (especially the middle and the south) was ultraconservative. He talked about how disappointed he was that America seemed to have learned nothing from the fight against Nazism in World War 2 when it came to race relations. He pointed out the way Native Americans were looked down on in the mid-west and south-west and how badly African-American minorities were treated in the south. This caused the young man to turn in the truck seat to almost face the older driver.

“Them folk outta be happy we let them even live in the south,” the young man began. “They got no right to try to feel like they’se equal in any way to white people.” He went on to say that groups that fought against desegregation, groups like the White Citizens’ Council and others, were modern-day heroes for working hard to maintain the status quo. At this point, the older driver had heard enough. He stopped the young man. “Are you saying that these minority groups do not deserve equal protection under the law?” he asked. “Nossir!” the young man replied. “They sure don’t. Why, have you seen ’em? They ain’t even people, really!” And he began to loudly harangue the older man.

The old man braked sharply and jerked the truck to the side of the road. The dog began barking sharply as the driver ordered the young man out of the vehicle. Even as he quickly pulled the truck away from the racist younger man, the driver could still hear his curses and racist rhetoric being yelled at him.

The encounter proved to be a breaking point for the older man. He felt saddened that even the younger generation of a large swath of the American population perpetuated the racism he had hoped was dying out in the nation. His journey of discovery of his beloved nation was over, and, in his mind, was a failure.

“Charley,” John Steinbeck said wearily to his dog, “let’s go home.”

On a Broken Promise

If you happen to ever travel through London Heathrow Airport, you’ll literally see the world pass by you. People from all corners of the globe go through that international hub, and that traffic of world-wide guests is magnified by the fact that the British Empire used to be the world’s largest. With colonies on every continent of the world at one time (yes, even Europe–check out Gibraltar), it’s no wonder you can see a veritable United Nations pass through Heathrow.

In the 1800s, Britain still had a tight control over a sizeable amount of land in Africa. One of the colonies in Africa was what would become Rhodesia, now the independent nation of Zimbabwe. And in the late 1890s, the local people rose up to fight against the colonial power. Today, that largely forgotten and terribly violent war is known in the UK as the Second Matabele War. The name implies that there was a first Matabele War, and, of course, there was. Wars against colonial oppressors were fairly common across not only Africa but also Asia and other parts of the world where European, American, an other colonizing powers worked to subjugate people for monetary gain.

Into this Second Matabele War came a British officer whose wife would call him Robin, and, therefore, so shall we. Robin had risen from the rank of lieutenant and sometime scout/spy to becoming a major in the British Army by the time he arrived in Africa to help relieve the besieged British garrison in Bulawayo. In his short time there, Robin managed to work out an agreement with one of the leaders of the uprising for him to surrender peacefully. In return, Robin promised, the man would not be punished if he cooperated. So, acting on Robin’s word, the man surrendered–and was promptly arrested.

The man turned out to be not only a miliary leader of the local people, but he also carried the distinction of being somewhat of a holy man as well. His name was Uwini. When Uwini was arrested, he was accused of taking part in the killing of some British settlers in the area. The facts of the situation were disputed, but that didn’t seem to stop a military court from finding Uwini guilty of murder. They sentenced him to be executed by firing squad.

As one of the officers over the court martial board that sentenced Uwini, Robin had the verdict come across his desk. He had the option to commute the sentence, and, given that he had promised no harm would come to the man if he did surrender himself., probably should have commuted it. However, Robin did not do so. He signed off on the execution, and Uwnin was taken to the edge of a nearby jungle and executed for the killing of the settlers.

Well, even the British military knew this stank. They brought Robin before a military court of inquiry into his actions. However, the military court cleared him. After the verdict of innocence was announced, even the civil authorities in Bulawayo demanded an investigation and trial. This never happened, however, and the issue was dropped. Robin would later say at length that he had been completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. But people who knew him said that the incident dogged him inside.

Robin would go on to become a colonel and, finally, a general in the British Army. But that’s not why you know him. This man, who had his integrity (understandably) questioned, would go on to become an example to millions of how to live ones life with character, forthrightness, moral fortitude, and clean living.

Interestingly, Robin would later write that if a young person says, “On my honor it is so,” that means it exactly that, “just as if he had taken a most solemn oath.” In fact, this concept was so important to him, that Robert “Robin” Baden-Powell made this the first law of the Boy Scouts.

On An Exodus Route

The 1930s could be seen as the most pivotable decade of the incredibly violent and paradigm shifting 20th Century. Hitler (and Roosevelt, too) came to power. Japan invaded China. Italy attacked Ethiopia. All of that sets up World War 2 that began in 1939. None of those events begins to look at the absolute disaster that the worldwide Great Depression brought upon everyone.

It’s difficult to fathom 25% unemployment. We can’t imagine not being able to use banks for our economies. A large segment of the population simply not being able to eat is beyond our ken in most of the western world today. Yet, all of that happened in the United States in the 1930s. We have since learned that the Great Depression didn’t begin when the Stock Market crashed in 1929. The grim descent into economic collapse that bottomed out in early 1933 actually started for farmers a few years earlier.

Farmers began to feel extreme economic pressure in the 1920s due to several factors. First, small farmers were finding that they could not keep up with the emerging economy of scale as large, corporation-owned farms began to emerge and started to squeeze prices verses the costs of farming equipment. This forced many small farmers into bankruptcy. Secondly, the middle years of the 1920s saw extreme drought in much of the farm belt mid-west. Finally, outdated farming methods exhausted land and made it useless and unproductive. The result is known as the Dust Bowl, where farmers found that their land literally dried up and blew away.

One of the hardest hit areas was Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. So, desperate for food and for ways to provide for their families, many of the farmers there simply abandoned their farms and moved to California. And the route these desperate people took to get to California was along a highway that was one of the first numbered roads in the United States when it was constructed in the early 1920s. It ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, almost 2,500 miles and through seven states.

When John Steinbeck wrote his epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, he depicted the fate of these Dust Bowl farmers, and he used this same highway as a metaphor for what was happening to the people. He said it represented both despair (the place they were leaving) and hope (their destination), and he likened it to the route the Hebrews took in the Bible from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, a journey known as the Exodus. Steinbeck termed the route The Mother Road of America because it birthed a new way of living for these migrants who were so desperate for a start-over. Because they were united by the journey and, thus, the route, Steinbeck pointed out that the journey itself became a unifying experience, an shared moment in history, for these desperate farm families. Think of it as a poor, poverty-driven “on the road” story.

The highway, as you know, is labeled Route 66. Today, it is used by vacationers and tourists, cyclists and RV-ers, people who travel the route for fun and adventure. Most of these travelers probably do not realize that it was the road used by over 300,000 Americans in the 1930s who left behind a dry and barren land for the vision of a green and prosperous Promised Land during our version of the Exodus.

On a Nursery Rhyme

Scandinavian countries call it Lille Trille, the French Boule Boule. Germans have several names for it. During he Middle Ages, a phrase like it was often used to describe a clumsy person and also an ale and brandy concoction. And, like many children’s tales and rhymes, it has a meaning far deeper than simply the amusement of children in the nursery.

For example, some folklore experts (and, like many children’s stories and oral traditions, this is indeed folklore) say that the story retells the rise and fall of the humpbacked King Richard III of England who died in the Battle of Bosworth Field. His brutal death in that conflict as part of the War of the Roses entered the vernacular, these experts say, in the form of a simple rhyme that explained the terrible fate of what was the last English monarch to die in battle.

Or take the explanation by some military historians (as well as some local historians) regarding the depiction in the rhyme of a large cannon on the fortified wall of the English city of Colchester. When part of the wall beneath the cannon was destroyed in a siege during one of the many wars that came through that area in the 16th and 17th centuries, the large gun collapsed and was destroyed beyond repair.

Some religious historians in the UK argue that the poem describes the sad death and burial of Cardinal Wolsey, a contemporary and Catholic rival of sorts of English King Henry VIII. Wolsey died on the way to being arrested by Henry, and he was not buried in the tomb that had been prepared for him.

And so on.

But you get the idea. The rhyme, no matter the origin story behind it, is about loss and the inability to make something the way it used to be. Thus, it could be said that we are dealing with the simple human emotion of regret, that we cannot change what has happened and must deal with the present reality, no matter how devastating it may be.

But nowhere, and I mean nowhere, in the rhyme does it state that Humpty Dumpty was an egg.

On a Loan Request

Arnold bit his lip and looked at the floor. His brother in law stood before him, literally with his hat in his hand. “Well, Arnold? What do you think?” The question caused Arnold to grimace, and he looked up into the face of his wife’s half-brother.

“Tell me again about the process,” he said. “Tell me like I was an imbecile.” So, for the fourth time, the brother in law told Arnold his grand scheme for a marvelous invention that would revolutionize the world. While the man told Arnold of his plans, he returned to staring at the floor.

“And you want how much again?” Arnold asked. And, again, the man told him. Arnold stroked his beard. “What I don’t understand,” he said, “is why you don’t go back to polishing gems? That was a decent living. Why get into debt with me?”

The man was clearly frustrated that he hadn’t been able to impress upon Arnold the importance of his idea. Arnold began the conversation with a flat “no” when the request for the loan was made. “Some people say you can’t be trusted,” he told the bother in law. “After all, you broke your promise to marry that girl in Strasbourg.” It was the man’s turn to study the floor. He tried to explain to Arnold that his heart told him that the marriage wasn’t right for him.

“Well, in any case, some people still have a hard time trusting you after that mirror thing,” Arnold reminded the man. It seems that, a few years earlier, Arnold’s brother in law had been involved in an investment that produced mirrors that were sold to pilgrims who visited Aachen’s cathedral. The mirrors, supposedly, could capture “holy light” from the sacred relics at the church. The man protested when Arnold brought this up. He explained that floods that year kept pilgrims away and that it was not his fault that the investors in that venture lost all their money.

Again, Arnold hesitated. Finally, he sighed. “I’m going to do this against my better judgement and only to keep peace in my own house, but you can have the funds.” The man sighed deeply, and gratefully shook Arnold’s hand. “You won’t regret this,” he promised.

“See that I don’t,” Arnold said.

So, what do you think Arnold’s brother in law did with the money?

Why, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press did actually revolutionize the world.

On Making a Legend

Fabian Fournier, as his name suggests, was from Canada. After the American Civil War, he moved south of the border to the US to work in the lumberyards and the camps of the woods of the north county there. And Fabian was the stuff of legend. Across the northland, through Michigan, Wisconsin, and into Minnesota, his prowess with his fists, his drinking ability, and his axe became quite well known rather quickly.

It’s not that Fabian was quarrelsome or picked his fights. It’s that people–men, particularly–with chips on their shoulders or axes to grind (pardon the intended pun) saw the tall, muscular Canadian as someone they could take on and prove their manhood or mettle by having fought and beaten him. The problem was, Fabian almost never lost the fights that these low-ego lumbermen picked with him. The other reputation he earned was for how he would often hold back his temper and the hits to the opponents’ faces when he had them beat. A lesser man would continue to fight even when the other person was done, but Fabian wasn’t like that.

In an era when the average man was not quite 5 1/2 feet tall, Fabian was well over 6 feet (2 meters). It was rumored that he could hide an axe head in one fist. He could cut more trees than any two other men in a day’s work, and he worked longer and harder than any of the others in the camp. His work ethic was so good that the lumber camp owner made him the foreman of the wood cutting operation.

And Fabian played as hard as he worked. His appetite for food and women was voracious. Sadly, it was this last predilection that would lead to Fabian’s death. In a lumber camp in Michigan in the late 1870s, he met a woman who stole his heart. What she didn’t tell him was that she was already married. This husband came home early and caught the couple in bed together. The man shot Fabian and killed him. The jury at the ensuing trial found the husband innocent, and nobody really mourned Fabian. However, his legend endured.

Some time in the ensuing years, the stories of Fabian got conflated with another French Canadian wood cutter, a man named Bon Jean, and the stories were complied and published in the early 1900s in newspapers in the Michigan and Wisconsin area. Somehow the name of the other Canadian lumberjack got changed from Bon John, but the stories were purely the legend of Fabian Fournier.

You know him as Paul Bunyan.

On a Utopia

The word utopia literally means “not place” or “nowhere” for a reason. Utopias sound great but are not practical, cannot exist, and usually fail because people are people. The perfect place cannot survive if it is controlled or inhabited by imperfect people. Thus, all utopias fail.

Take the story of a town that was built and promoted as a utopia in the jungle of Brazil in the 1920s. This place was set up to provide jobs, housing, food, healthcare, and education for a population of 10,000 Brazilians. The workers in the factories even had their meals provided in large cafeterias. The homes and workplaces were all prefabricated. Everything was to be provided for the people who lived and worked there. The town eventually boasted a golf course, a swimming pool, a large public library, and a first-rate hospital. It sounded too good to be true to the Brazilians who signed up to move there. And, as we all know, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

For example, the town was designed to provide for everything except what people at that time would call vices. Drinking, smoking, sex outside of marriage, and even the playing of soccer were all forbidden. The town’s police enforced these bans by conducting random raids on people’s homes to insure compliance. So, because these things are part of human nature, a separate place outside of the town was surreptitiously set up to provide a place the residents could safely “debauch” themselves and pursue these distractions. The tension between the town’s managers and the people who engaged in these activities were only part of the issues the utopia faced. For example, all residents were required to wear ID badges, and, as you can imagine, the people hated this concept.

Another issue pertained to the food provided to the inhabitants. You see, the town was set up by Americans, and, sadly, they did not take the traditions and food tastes of the Brazilians into account when they decided what the town’s diet should be. So, the American managers provided American food to the Brazilians with predictable results. At the workers’ cafeterias, American hamburgers were standard fare–a food the Brazilians found distasteful. In the company stores, canned goods lined the shelves, but the managers did not realize that the Brazilians did not know much about canned foods and did not trust food they could not see for themselves.

Interestingly, it was the food that provided the breaking point for this utopia. A revolt broke out among the town’s inhabitants because they hated having to eat these American foods. The people rioted and chased the town’s American managers out of the area. The Brazilian government did not do much to put down the revolt. Soon, it became apparent that the situation was not tenable anymore, that the Americans behind the project should cut their losses and abandon the project.

And so, they did.

Aldous Huxley, in creating his masterpiece, Brave New World, is said to have based his fictional utopia on this specific utopian failure. It’s easy to see the comparison. The town was built to harvest and produce rubber for the burgeoning American automobile industry. However, by the 1930s, synthetic rubber was replacing natural rubber, and the need for the raw rubber produced by the town was going away. So, it made sense to stop financing what was obviously a futile and failed experiment. The main financial backer of the venture was perhaps the most famous of the American automobile manufacturers. He realized the folly of continuing to pour money into this fiasco of a utopia.

He’s why the town was called Fordlandia.