On a Photographer

Pictures still amaze me. I’m talking about the process of using actual film, of running the exposed negatives through chemicals, and transferring that reverse image onto photographic paper. In my head, that whole undertaking is far more magical, much more mysterious, than electronic images taken by digital cameras for mobile phones.

There is actually somewhat of a backlash against the concept of instant digital photographs by a small group of professionals and hobbyists today. These are folks who pursue the original methods of preparing glass frames with chemicals and using large-format, vintage cameras to re-create the way pictures used to be created.

Let me introduce to you a man named Joe. Joe grew up in France and learned about these old, practically original methods of making pictures. And he pretty much taught himself how to do all of it, which is difficult to pursue to say the least. Trial and error became Joe’s photography school. Joe was forced to use what he had on hand or what he could afford to create his images. He even used some unorthodox methods that aren’t used by most of these hobbyists today. For example, because he had access to them, Joe used metal (pewter) plates instead of glass to have the light allowed in his large-format camera to etch the image. He was forced to use a type of asphalt to prepare these metal plates to capture the light on them.

The images Joe eventually produced have an antique tint to them because his methods were so primitive. He had to keep his lens open for several hours to allow enough brightness into his home-made camera box so that an image could be produced. That also meant that he had to photograph subjects that were almost completely still, images such as cityscapes and buildings, things that didn’t move too much.

Joe realized that what he was creating with his crude equipment wouldn’t be clear images. Yet, he pursued the hobby because he was excited to see what the simple process of light being allowed to refract into a prepared metal plate would produce. He wasn’t trying for “high art” or creativity from a compositional perspective. And Joe didn’t concern himself with focal planes and lenses, f-stops and filters. All he wanted to do was, in his words, paint images with light–“light writing,” Joe called it.

Well, the result of Joe’s work was unveiled in 1952. One of his light prints, the pewter plate with a faint, unfocused image on it, was found in a storage box. Today, you can see it in the University of Texas at Austin in one of that institution’s museums. What made Joe’s picture so interesting?

Well, Joseph Niepce took the image of some rooftops outside his window in a village in France.

What makes it interesting is that it was the first photograph–ever–and it captured that French light way back in 1827.

On a Marvelous Hoax

Dr. Robert Wilson’s word was impeachable.

My interest in the good doctor goes back almost thirty years now even though he passed away in the late 1960s. Several years ago, I made the acquaintance of a wonderful older woman of Scottish descent named Evina Montgomery. Evina was born before World War 2 and has lived a full and thoroughly adventurous life, finally settling in Brentwood, Essex, near London. When I knew Evina, she was doing volunteer work in Romania when I lived there in the mid-1990s. Today, she’s still active in her local community even though she’s in her 90s.

One night in Romania, Evina told me a wonderful story over several glasses of Romanian plum moonshine known as tzuica. You see, she has spent the summers of her youth in the north, in her family’s home near Inverness. For Evina in the late 1930’s, Scotland was another world, a wonderful world, and she made it sound much like filmmaker John Boorman’s memories that he chronicled in Hope and Glory–trips on the lochs, walks in the woods, adventures around every corner.

Well, Evina told me the story about how Dr. Robert Wilson was chosen to take part in one of the greatest hoaxes in history. Seems that one night in a local pub, several Scots were bemoaning the fact that the economy was still in the doldrums. The effects of the Great Depression that hit the United States had yet to end in the Scottish hinterlands. Farmers found that prices for their goods were still low. Most people lived from month to month. Many farms had been abandoned because young people were leaving rural Scotland to find work in the Scottish cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh and even further south in England.

Some of Evina’s relations thus sat in the pub, drank their ciders and ales, and discussed what course they could take that would reverse their economic fortunes. Relying on the government was right out of the question, they realized early on. What they needed was something that would bring money to the area. But what would draw that money to them?

Some of their group remarked that some London newspapers had sent some reporters their way to investigate rumors about a resident of the Inverness area. Now, according to Evina, everyone in the pub knew the rumors weren’t true, but, they reasoned, what would it hurt to pretend that the rumors were, in fact, real?

That’s when some of the group hit upon the idea of using Dr. Wilson to publicize their stories. People would be less likely to believe them–a bunch of local (possibly drunk) Scots–about the veracity of the rumors, but they would be much more likely to believe a respected surgeon like Dr. Wilson, a man who often came to the area to hunt and fish. And, since Wilson had received his medical education in Edinburgh, he was also familiar with the area somewhat. So, the group decided to approach Wilson and his hunting and fishing guide to see if they would support their story about the “truth” regarding inquiries concerning the local resident.

Wilson thought the idea was novel. He was also a good sport. He agreed to back the locals’ stories. The idea was that Wilson would take the information fed to him by the Scots to the London papers. His reputation would give their stories gravitas. And, according to Evina, that’s exactly what happened. Wilson took his “evidence” to London, and it was published in the Daily Mail and made headlines world-wide.

Soon, people began coming to that part of Scotland to see for themselves what Wilson had reported. Evina told me this story with the same twinkle in her eye that I imagine her relatives had when the tourists began pouring into the area, bringing their money with them. And I’ve been one of those tourists, as well, albeit over 80 years when Wilson’s tale first made the London papers.

Yes, even though I know now that it’s a marvelous hoax, I, too, have gone to Loch Ness to look for the monster.

On Visiting An Old Home

Take it from someone who has rented far more than he has owned: Moving often from place to place stinks. And temporary homes can be difficult places to create family memories. Before us we have the case of a small family of four who lived in a house for three years before having to move out. The husband, wife, and two small kids moved into a place south of Baltimore in the early 1960s because of the husband’s work. While there, the wife had lost an infant son, so there was that trauma the family went through while living there. On the other hand, the family also experienced some joy there, as families do, on holidays and birthdays and the like.

Then, in the third year there, the husband passed away suddenly. The young widow had to move, and she decided that she and the two children under the age of 6 should move in with family up north. The owners of the property were sympathetic to the tragic circumstances; they allowed the woman and her kids to take all the time they needed to pack up. However, knowing that she really couldn’t stay there (and another family waited for them to vacate), the woman managed to organize a move from the house within two weeks after her husband’s funeral.

Years passed.

As the children grew, the woman often thought of that house that had held such mixed memories for her. On the other hand, she also recognized that the place was the only house in which her kids shared any memories of their dad. So, she made arrangements to take her children, by then aged 13 and 10, back to the old house for a visit. She wrote to the then-occupants of the residence and asked if she and and the children could drop by sometime for a quick visit.

She received a warm letter in return welcoming the family back. And so it was, in 1971, that the widow–who had since remarried–and her two children went back to the house where they had lived almost 8 years earlier. Those occupants of the house welcomed them warmly because they understood that, even if the house was a temporary home, it was still home because of the memories made there, memories both good and bad.

The two children were taken in hand by the current occupant’s two older daughters. The four kids played with the family’s dogs while the adults visited. The widow quietly but sincerely thanked the occupants for being so accommodating in allowing them to intrude. The short visit concluded with good wishes, and when the family returned home, both children wrote letters of thanks back to the host family, telling them how wonderful it was to be in the only place where they remembered their dad.

The woman also penned a heart-felt thank you note.

“You can’t imagine the wonderful gift the your family gave me, and my children,” Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote to Pat Nixon.

On a Hidden Affair

Nan knew the wealthy man was married. She didn’t care. He was extremely handsome, she thought. He made her feel pretty. He spoiled her. He even told her he loved her although they had to sneak around to meet. There was even one time that the man hid Nan in a storage closet in his office because his wife came in the room and almost caught them.

The wealthy man’s wife, well, she was the brains behind his wealth. It was her father who had been a successful businessman, and the father provided funds so the son-in-law could finance a newspaper he purchased. The father-in-law seemed to have been a good judge of character; he once threatened to shoot his daughter’s husband. He thought that he could keep better tabs on him if he put the man in his debt. He was wrong. The son-in-law had several affairs while married to the newspaper magnate’s daughter.

In fact, the man was cheating on his wife when he began meeting clandestinely with Nan. Nan first laid eyes on the man who would become her lover when she was only 15. Her father was the one who approached the man and told him of his daughter’s infatuation with him. Nan graduated from high school in 1914, and she moved to New York City to become a secretary solely in order to be closer to the man she loved.

Now, Nan wasn’t so naïve that she thought the wealthy man was with her exclusively. In fact, Nan knew his proclivities and that his appetite for intimacy meant he would have other lovers throughout their relationship. Again, Nan didn’t care. She was entranced by his charisma. And, he was indeed charismatic. People loved him. He wasn’t the smartest man in the room, but his personality definitely dominated it.

Then, in 1919, Nan became pregnant by the man. She had a daughter she named Elizabeth. The wealthy man promised that, no matter what happened to them, he would care for the child and provide for the two of them. Satisfied with this promise, Nan continued the affair.

However, the wealthy man died suddenly in 1923. Of course, the man’s wife refused to honor the promises of fiscal providence her adulterous husband had made to Nan. She even refused to acknowledge that Elizabeth was her husband’s child. As many people do, especially people of money and/or prestige, they set about burnishing the image of the person who died. And that’s what happened here. The wife-now-widow worked for the remainder of her life to keep her deceased husband’s reputation as untarnished as she could; for example, she destroyed love letters between her dead husband the the litany of women he had affairs with over the years.

Nan lived a good, long life. When she died at age 95 in 1991, she was surrounded by her family, Elizabeth’s children and grandchildren, and with a head full of fond memories of what she considered to be a fairly happy life. It wasn’t until 2015, almost 100 years after Elizabeth’s birth that DNA confirmed that Nan’s daughter was, indeed, the wealthy man’s daughter.

But, by then, President Warren G. Harding wasn’t remembered by many people anyway.

On a Great Legacy

Mohammed al-Fahri wasn’t born rich, but he became a wealthy merchant. When he died in the early 800s AD, he bequeathed his fortune to his two children. It was their legacy to do with it as they saw fit. One of his children, a daughter, had married, but her husband had died. So, this child decided to use her share of the inheritance to care for the poor and the sick. The other child, well, the other child had other ideas.

You see, al-Fahri made sure both of his children were well-educated. They were both raised in Islamic law, in philosophy, in logic, and in the sciences. For someone who came from a relatively poor background himself, al-Fahri wanted to give his children an education that he knew would benefit them no matter what they decided to do with their legacy.

It was the other child realized that the legacy left by their father was a double blessing. The money, yes, the money could do great good–in fact, both children even built mosques that specialized in helping the indigent–but it was this other child that realized the other legacy of the education was equally valuable.

So, using the inherited money, this other child expanded the original mosque that had been built by purchasing the land around the facility and building a large Islamic educational center. This major expansion took over a decade and cost most of that half of the inheritance. However, the mosque soon became a leading Islamic educational facility. Across the centuries it continued to provide education for Muslims and today is part of the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. It has become a repository for Islamic texts and learning that is famed not only throughout all of Islam but also throughout the world. Unusually for an old Islamic teaching institution, subjects are taught these days in both traditional and modern methods, so there is room at the university for people of all backgrounds. All in all, a lasting and fitting legacy that continues to this day.

UNESCO calls the site the world’s oldest continuing university. Interestingly, women were first admitted to the university in the early 1940s.

And that’s somewhat strange considering it was a Muslim woman–the other child of al-Fihri–who founded it.

On a Dam Coincidence

The title here is not a typo. The story is about the building of the structure that became known as the Hoover Dam. The name of the dam that was built on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada comes to us because the president at the time the funds were allocated for the construction was the much-maligned Herbert Hoover. Hoover, presiding over the worst economic downturn in American History, knew the construction of such a dam would have drastic and amazing consequences for the entire southwestern United States.

First of all, the influx of government money to the severely depressed region would be warmly welcomed. Jobs were created. The water collected by the dam led to an explosion of agriculture in an area that had largely been desert. Floods were controlled. Lake Mead was created. The electricity that the dam produced completely changed the lives of everyone in that part of the nation. And so on.

It is an amazing engineering feat. Hoover himself is the only professionally trained engineer to hold the presidency, so that tracks. In today’s money, the dam cost almost three-quarters of a billion dollars. Almost 3.5 million cubic yards of concrete was poured to construct it. And the building of the massive structure was so fraught with danger because of the scale of the venture that it eventually cost over 100 lives.

The first person to die at the building site was a man named John Tierney. He died in a flash flood that roared through the canyon where the dam would eventually be built while he and a survey party were scouting a possible suitable places to build. This happened on December 20, 1921, long before the dam’s plans and funding were approved.

Ironically, the last person to die during the dam’s construction happened 14 years later to the day. On December 20, 1935, a worker fell to his death between two of the intake towers in the dam. That coincidence was not lost on many who worked on the massive project.

Rumors abound to this day surrounding the build. Some say that there are workers who were accidently cemented inside the dam and their bodies never removed. Some say that the project was the first one in the world to have required hardhats be worn by all construction workers because of the deaths. Some say that the dam is haunted and therefore jinxed by those who lost their lives there. Of course, none of these is true.

And those rumors are peanuts compared to the coincidence of the first and last deaths that took place at the building site. The fact that both men died on the exact same date 14 years apart is amazing on its face. What makes it even more eerie–almost downright spooky–is the other coincidence about the deaths.

You see, the man who died 14 years later after John Tierney was named Patrick Tierney–a man who was John’s only son.

On The Perfect Pet

Some people say that the best ideas are hatched over the course of an evening spent in a bar or pub. The local watering holes around the world have probably birthed thousands of great ideas, and many of them have been forgotten by the time the cloud of genius produced by the alcohol had worn off by the time the creators awoke the next morning. Such ideas as Southwest Airlines, Buffalo Wings, and dozens of the best selling novels in history have been hatched in pubs.

And then there’s Gary Dahl’s story. Gary, you see, didn’t really invent something in a bar more than he realized that something incredibly common could be marketed well enough to produce a quite handsome profit, thankyouverymuch.

Now, I’m a house and pet sitter and have been for years. For a couple of decades, I owned my own pets, but much of my adult life has been spent taking care of other people’s pets. So, I get it that pets can be a handful, especially for someone who works long hours and has no one at home to walk to the dog or feed the cat. And that’s what Gary and his drinking buddies discussed one long drinking evening in April, 1975.

You see, the care and attention that animals needed often preclude many young urban professionals from having pets. Gary, after listening to his fellow yuppies complain about the care their pets required, offered a not-quite-sober but incredibly lucid and brilliant solution. He told them of a pet that they could have that required practically no care at all, really.

Now, in 1975, Gary was a 39 year old professional copywriter who lived in California. His background was quite uncommon, actually. Born in North Dakota and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Gary had gone to college and worked at that time for an ad firm. Nothing really distinguished him from dozens of other copywriters in the San Francisco metropolitan area. But his moment of absolute clarity over several rounds of drinks with his friends and co-workers made him a success.

He sketched his marketing plan on a bar napkin and showed his less than impressed chums. They thought he was pulling their legs and told Gary so. He insisted that the pet he had in mind would be the answer to their complaints about having the pets own you rather than the other way around. And, what’s more, Gary woke up the next day, sober, and realized that the idea that the drinking gods had conferred upon him in his cups was a sure-fire money maker.

By August, Gary had his marketing plan in place and began selling his pets. And, sure enough, Gary’s pets became the hottest selling pet that year and the must have gift for everyone that Christmas. What’s more, Gary was right. His pet was ingeniously easy to care for. Gary sold them in a box with proper air holes and included a 32-page instruction booklet on how to “care” for the pets. At their peak, over 10,000 pets per day were being boxed and shipped by the makeshift staff of pet wranglers Gary had hastily assembled in an empty warehouse near Los Gatos. At $4 per pet, Gary sold enough of the pets to quickly become a millionaire. His face was everywhere, and he even became a repeat guest on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show.

And to think, it all happened over a few drinks after work. You might have purchased one of them if you’re over 50. You see, Gary’s brainy idea for something insanely easy to care for was so simple that it’s amazing no one had thought of it before.

A pet rock.

On a Cesarean

Men have no idea how difficult pregnancy is on both mother and child. The miracle of gestation and the wonderful but incredibly uncomfortable 9 months of the development of the fetus isn’t usually discussed in polite society, but it should be. And that doesn’t even factor in the emotional issues associated with the flood of hormones produced by the pregnant woman. Then, all of that culminates in the indescribable pain associated with the birth itself. Carol Burnett famously described it as pulling your bottom lip over your head. Modern medicine has made the process somewhat more safe and less painful to a degree, but, again, that is only in the modern era. For births in antiquity, every event was fraught with potential disaster to both mother and child.

Take a birth that occurred in Rome approximately 100 years before the Christian Era. At that time, physicians knew relatively little how the process of birth happened. In this case, the pregnancy had been a difficult one on top of the usual issues that come along with becoming pregnant. The doctor on duty for the birth realized that the birth would be difficult as well, possibly endangering the lives of both mother and child.

Now, at the time, Cesarean sections were employed only in cases where the mother was dead or dying in an attempt to possibly save the child. Sometimes, the doctors would perform the operation on the deceased mother in order to extract the child if it were dead so it, too, could receive a proper burial. It wouldn’t be until within the past 150 years that C-sections were employed to save the life of the mother rather than only to save the child. There were anecdotal evidence of the rare case when the mother would recover after the child was taken by C-section. These stories were so rare that many historians today doubt their veracity. By the way, the verb “to cut” in Latin is caedere, and cutting out of the child–that’s where the idea of the Cesarean section came from.

I say all that to point out that his particular physician was preparing for the worst. In his mind, if the mother was unable to give birth and began to succumb, he was ready to do what was needed to extract the child–even if the child, too, passed away. Such was the primitive methods and mindset of birth 2100 years ago.

Yet, in this case, despite the difficult pregnancy, the birth was relatively uneventful. In fact, a thoroughly healthy boy was born to a wealthy family, to the mother, Aurelia, and her husband, Gaius. Their family name, by the way, is said to have come from the fact that one of the ancestors of Gaius had indeed been taken from his dead mother surgically.

That’s why this healthy boy, a boy who was not born by C-section after all, was named Julius Caesar.

On A War on Terror

When the terrorists attacked the United States and so many people were killed, it was a given that the federal government would spare no effort or expense to seek out those who were responsible for the attacks and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Those who refused to be arrested were, with public approval and loud acclaim, killed by the federal authorities. It’s what our government does to a) get revenge for the attacks and b) show other potential terrorists that they, too, will be met with swift retribution and justice if they try similar atrocities.

Terrorism has fear at its heart, of course. It’s in the name, after all. The purpose is to cause public panic and make the attacked populace take notice of the issue the terrorists want them to see and, it is hoped, pressure the government to change their public policy. Of course, sometimes, terrorists simply wish to cause chaos. And that seems to have been a large part of these attacks.

Raids on terrorist cells netted over 3,000 suspected or known terrorists. They were rounded up and jailed without trial. Judicial processes were eschewed. The government said that they couldn’t take the risk that someone who might be a terrorist but they didn’t know for sure couldn’t be allowed to go free. It was better, the government said, to err on the side of caution and public safety. I can’t say that I disagree because of my fear of such acts. And the government deported several hundred others even loosely affiliated with the terrorists. Again, I get it.

Fears like mine led, as you know, to a strong fear and reaction against “foreigners.” Thus, anyone who was not seen as easily identifiable as, for lack of a better term, “American” was instantly suspect. The government advised Americans that if they even suspected odd behavior or even something that smelled faintly anti-American, they were to report it to the nearest law-enforcement authorities. A spate of paranoid reports followed the terrorist attacks for some years afterward. One story told of arrest made of a person who simply refused to put his hand over his heart at a public playing of The Star-Spangled Banner because such a person, it was reasoned, must be against America and therefore a terrorist. That made him an instant suspect.

And that’s what terrorism does. It makes us crazy. It seeks to drive us to lie sleepless at night and peek out our curtains at the new neighbors. It wishes to divide us and suspect each other of being that difficult to define thing: Un-American. In this case, the President said that the terrorist attacks, “poured the poison of disloyalty” into our national consciousness. The President also said that the terrorist “must be crushed out” of existence because of what they’d done to the United States.

And, so, new federal agencies were set up, as you are aware. Huge budget increases were passed that allocated money to fight this war on terror. A young man in the federal government, only aged 24, was tasked with not only ferreting out people in the United States who might have terrorist ties, but he was also tasked with setting up the department specifically designed to fight those who might make war against our ways of life and create social instability.

The terrorist attacks we’re speaking of were the bombings of the offices and homes of several government officials over 100 years ago, in 1919, by so-called anarchists. And, of course, you know the young man and the newly-formed government agency he headed up.

The agency became known as the FBI, and that young man was J. Edgar Hoover.

On a President’s Companion

Murray “The Outlaw” Falahill isn’t a name that you’ll recognize readily, but people who lived through World War 2 knew of this Scot. Murray was one of those secret presidential companions who always seems to be at the center of power but who also remains largely unknown by the public. Murray entered the orbit of President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1940. He was brought into Roosevelt’s orbit by one of Roosevelt’s cousins, and the two became fast friends. Today, history tells us things about FDR that the public generally did not know at the time; for example, his many extramarital affairs were kept secret for many years. The fact that Roosevelt was effectively paralyzed from the waist down was also not publicly known. And it makes sense that there will be private relationships that people in power have that transcend politics and public scrutiny out of necessity. We all need someone close to us who we can confide in and be ourselves around outside of the public eye. Very quickly, Murray became this relationship for Roosevelt.

Murray soon traveled everywhere with Roosevelt. When Roosevelt went to his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, Murray went along. Murray also accompanied the president to Canada when FDR met with Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, to discuss the progress of the war in Europe. He journeyed with the presidential entourage to the Aleutian Islands one time. That’s when some information about Murray’s close friendship with Roosevelt almost cost the President. Someone in the press heard a rumor that Murray had been accidentally left behind in Alaska when the president’s traveling party returned to Washington. The rumor was that FDR sent a United States warship to Alaska to pick up Murray and bring him back at the cost of several million dollars that the US taxpayers would have to pay for. Now, remember that Murray had no official title in the Roosevelt administration. He was not an elected official. He was just Roosevelt’s companion. So, if this rumor were true, it would be a fairly good-sized scandal that Roosevelt would have to explain. Quickly, Roosevelt addressed the issue before it could turn into a scandal. In one of his radio addresses, he squashed the rumor without going into great detail by saying that no member of the President’s staff or family had been left behind in Alaska and therefore that no expense had been wasted on going back and picking up any member of the traveling party. Besides, FDR said, any Scot worth his or her salt would be appalled at such an expense.

Murray pretty much moved into the White House. One of his proclivities was that he preferred breakfast in bed, so the White House kitchen staff was always ready to make Murray’s favorite morning repast. He was around Roosevelt so much that, invariably, photos were taken that show him near the President. You can see him in those pictures today, and, at the time, nobody questioned his being there. When Roosevelt died in April 1945, Murray was with the President. And he was crushed because the two had become so close over the years. Eleanor, who spent a great deal of time with and became attached to Murray herself in the years after Franklin’s passing, said that Murray never really recovered from the death. He himself lived only 7 years after his friend.

When a statue honoring Franklin Roosevelt was unveiled in Washington, D.C., it depicted the President seated. And, to his right, is seated Murray—known better as Fala—Roosevelt’s trusted and beloved Scottish Terrier.