Archive for July, 2010

We’ll keep it brief this evening.

It was a foggy morning in New York City.  Of course, its proximity to water means that fog is not an uncommon occurance.  It’s just part of the deal.  The morning of July 28, 1945 was no exception.  Visibility in some places was near zero.

As the clocks rolled toward 10:00am, Lt. Col. William Smith was flying his B-25 Mitchell into foggy New York.  More at home carrying bombs and bullets, the light bomber was instead carrying a couple of passengers on a routine transport mission from Boston.  Seeking to land at LaGuardia Airport, Smith was advised by the tower that visibility was very poor.

Now soldiers, even those in the Air Force, spend their entire career taking orders.  They’re told what to do, where to do it, and when to do it.  And a soldier’s response is generally, “Yes, sir!”  If a soldier fails to obey orders, they’re usually punished.  In Lt. Col. Smith’s case, the control tower was not a superior officer.  But a recommendation from the tower is, in my opinion, pretty much an order to be followed.  I think it’s particularly true when the weather is bad and/or visibility is also bad.

Lt. Col. William Smith didn’t see it that way.  But then, there were several things he didn’t see in the fog, one of which was the Empire State Building.  Disregarding the tower’s warning, Smith attempted to land anyways, got disoriented, and flew his Mitchell into the upper floors of the Empire State Building’s north side.  He and his two passengers were killed, as were eleven others in the skyscraper.

One of the miraculous survivors was Betty Lou Oliver, a 20-year old elevator operator on the 80th floor.  Injured in the crash, she was put on an elevator to be lowered.  But as the doors closed, the cables (now weakened) snapped, and she dropped 75 floors, where she crashed in the basement…and lived almost 70 years to tell the tale.

If I’m ever a pilot (and none of you have to worry, because I won’t be), I will always heed the control tower’s advice.

NOTE:  Somehow, I got confused on the dates and neglected to publish this piece on time.  My apologies.

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The summer of 1910 was dry.  Well, it was generally dry in the mountain regions of western Montana.  But it was extremely dry even by Bitterroot standards.  The fledgling United States Forest Service was hard-pressed to deal with the danger and prospect of fire when conditions were ideal.  And conditions were far worse than ideal.

It’s pretty well-known that fire (in proper doses) is good in the woods.  It cleans out dead undergrowth and allows new growth to begin, which provides food and shelter for wildlife.  Controlled burns create firebreaks that help reduce the chances an “uncontrolled” burn will turn catastrophic.  And, in the case of pine trees, the pine cones hold their seeds until the heat of fire opens them.  So in some sense, the destructive power of fire is also the precursor to new life.

But the summer of 1910 provided precious little time and certainly no money to control any burn.  The Forest Service was headed by noted conservationist Gifford Pinchot, a close personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt (another strong conservationist).  The goal of preservation of the forests led to the removal of millions of acres from the public domain.  These “national forests” may have been nice for people to walk around and view, but for the logging interests that sought to harvest the trees for building and profit, it meant countless dollars removed from their coffers.

Many of these industrialists had tremendous influence in Congress, and as a result, the Forest Service (seen as Roosevelt’s pet) was grossly underfunded.  It struggled even to police and protect the set-aside lands from “tree-poaching”, much less engage in true forestry and preservation.  During the summer of 1910, small fires broke out here and there in the timbers all throughout the northern Rockies, but in the Bitterroots (of western Montana and eastern Idaho), conditions were unbelievably dry and volatile.

The biggest danger after man’s carelessness was (and is), of course, lightning.  A single million-volt matchstick bursting between ground and sky, instantly turning wood and kindling into flame, is a potentially deadly event.  So when a lightning storm hit the area on July 26, 1910, no good result could come from it.  I read Timothy Egan’s book The Big Burn earlier this year, and his description of the storm is worth plagiarizing.  “On July 26, the night sky over the Bitterroots exploded – not an isolated thunder boomer or two clapping around the valleys, but a rolling, continuous, full-throated electrical storm.  It sounded like breaking glass amplified a hundredfold, and could be heard in the higher reaches of three states.  The fireworks spread across the range, one supercharged bolt after the other.  Entire mountain flanks came to life with the pulsing skeletal arms of the storm, shooting down crooked until they hit a big rock outcrop or grounded in the blunt edge of a summit.”

Daylight brought the smoke from hundreds of little fires started by the myriad of lightning strikes.  But worse was to come.  Fire needs two things to survive and thrive…fuel and air.  Fuel there was in dry, parched abundance.  All that remained to add were the breezes.  They were some time off, but when they arrived…well, we’ll take this up again in a few weeks.

Recommended Reading:  The Big Burn – What David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard did with a blizzard, Egan has done with a forest fire.  It’s highly recommended.

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Twelve consecutive wins.  It wasn’t the first time the Atlanta Braves had done it, but the last time had been 10 long years ago, when the miracle season of 1982 had begun with 13 straight victories.  And in between, there had been a string of terrible seasons which featured some awful pitching, poor defense, and ultimately, 3-digit numbers in the “loss” column.

But 1991 had seen another miracle.  The Braves, picked by every expert to finish last, had not only finished first in the NL West, they had come within a Jack Morris masterpiece of winning the one of the best World Series ever.  And 1992 was shaping up for much the same result.

For twelve straight nights in the heat of July, the Braves had taken the win…but on this Saturday evening (which happened to be July 25, 1992), the win streak was in jeopardy against the visiting Pirates.  Don’t laugh.  Yeah, the Pirates aren’t very good right now, but that was not the case in 1992.  Their lineup featured a young star named Barry Bonds, who was just entering his prime.  The ever-consistent Andy Van Slyke, the defensive wizard Jose Lind, and a very good rotation anchored by Doug Drabek.

I say the win was in jeopardy even though the Braves were leading going into the 9th inning.  Braves starter Charlie Liebrandt had spun his magic for eight innings, baffling the Pirates hitters and giving up just four hits.  On the Pirates side, Danny Jackson had been just as effective, giving up but one hit, a second-inning solo homerun to David Justice.

In the ninth, Braves closer Alejandro Pena took the hill and, after getting a quick out, gave up a single to Jay Bell.  Up stepped Andy Van Slyke and the lefty drove a fastball high into the steamy Atlanta night and deep into Altanta Fulton County Stadium’s right-center field.  Back it went, clearing the 10-foot wall by nearly a foot, slicing into Atlanta’s winning streak like a dagger.

But Otis Nixon wasn’t going to let that ball hit the ground without a fight.  The fleet-footed Altanta center-fielder, known more for his prowess on the basepaths than his stellar defense, tracked the ball to the track, then to the wall.  It was then that one of the most magical moments in Braves history occured.  Nixon leaped, dug his left foot into the wall, and launched himself upwards, one foot higher than the wall, where he speared Van Slyke’s homerun as it headed for the ground behind the wall.  He landed, planted himself, and launched a throw toward first, nearly doubling up Jay Bell.

Not that his throw to first really mattered…there was bedlam in the stadium.  Right-fielder David Justice ran to Nixon with his arms over his head in joy and disbelief.  Braves announcer Skip Caray, who never hid his emotions, was ecstatic.  The call was nearly as memorable as what came to be known simply as “The Catch”…“There’s a drive, deep right-center field…Nixon goes as far as he can go…he caught the ball!!…he caught the ball!!!…I can’t believe it!!  What a catch by Otis Nixon!!  He took a homerun away…”.

The electricity in the Stadium was hardly matched by that flowing through my one-bedroom apartment as I watched Nixon’s unforgettable catch on my 13-inch television (on loan from my parents).  But there was plenty of excitement for one that evening.  As a Braves fan, it was a fantastic moment.

Pena was lifted and a young lefty named Kent Mercker would come in and polish off Barry Bonds to preserve the 1-0 win…the thirteenth in a row for the Braves.  The day game played little more than 12 hours later would see the Pirates halt the winning streak at 13, but again, the buzz was all about The Catch.

Up to this point, it was “the play” of the 1992 season.  But there were more memorable nights in store for Braves fans, including one of the most incredible turnabouts ever.  It again involved the Pirates, but it’s for another time.  We’ll chat it up sometime..oh…October or thereabouts.

Recommended Viewing:  The Catch – What else?

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Twenty years ago today, American cyclist Greg LeMond won his third Tour de France.  The Tour is, in my mind, the most difficult and strenuous event in existence.  In three weeks, the world’s premier cyclists cover roughly 2,200 miles, negotiating the most challenging terrain that any cyclist will ever see.  With two rest days, it averages to well over 100 miles of competitive riding per day.  On level ground, that’s a supremely tall order.  But the Tour isn’t run on level ground.  There are numerous “beyond category” climbs up the Alps and/or the Pyrenees.

After a years-long hiatus, I started riding again in March.  It’s been great exercise and a great way to burn a bunch of calories.  At first, I rode over my lunch hour.  Then I stretched it to riding to and from work, an 18-mile round-trip trek.  This week, I altered my course, increasing it to 22.5 miles.  And I feel really good about it…until I go back and read that first paragraph again.  It’s then that I realize just how strong Tour riders are.  They rides stages that are 5 to 7 times longer than my 22 miles.  They ride at double the speeds I achieve.  And they do it nearly every day for three weeks.  It’s pretty remarkable, and what LeMond accomplished on July 22, 1990 is especially noteworthy, as there haven’t been all that many riders to win 3 or more Tours.

I read an article today out on Yahoo! that describes these “supermen” as mutants.  Their bodies are hardened through years of grueling training, strict diet, and extreme dedication.  But even more than that, the article contends that these men are genetic “freaks” of nature.  They are better equipped to turn oxygen and calories into the power and stamina needed just to complete the Tour, much less compete and vie for victory.

It’s what makes men like LeMond (a three-time winner), Lance Armstrong (an incredible seven-time winner), and Miguel Indurain (I believe five times on the top step) such marvels.

Unfortunately, the level of competition, the prestige that comes from winning, and the lucrative prize have all combined to make some of these men “add a little something” to the mix.  The dark cloud of illegal drugs and banned substances has long followed the cyclists, as surely as the chase cars that accompany them on the road.  And I say this as though PED’s are new to the Tour.  They are not.  Almost from the beginning (in the early 1900’s), performance-enhancing drugs have been a problem, with riders seeking to gain that little extra advantage over their competitors.

Today, drug testing has become prolific in cycling (and with the Tour in particular).  But as testing has advanced, so have the methods riders employ to avoid detection.  Greg LeMond has been, at various times, in the center of this controversy.  I don’t think he ever tested positive, but he has never shied away from speaking his mind on the subject.  When Floyd Landis was accused of doping after his win in 2006, LeMond urged him to come completely clean, believing a confession by Landis would change the landscape of the sport.  Landis didn’t and was stripped of his title.

Greg LeMond has on many occasions accused Armstrong of using illegal substances.  Some call it sour grapes…a 3-time winner jealous of a 7-time winner and arguably the greatest in the sport.  But he is not alone in his accusations and, although Armstrong has never, ever failed a drug test, the accusations persist against the sport’s most famous participant.

And in recent days, we see that a federal probe into Lance Armstrong has apparently begun.  Armstrong has hired legal counsel to help him wade through what is surely going to be an ugly affair.  Greg LeMond has been summoned to testify, and he’s more than happy to do so.

It’s one thing to see Landis, a one-time Tour winner and one who admitted he cheated (after years of denial), stripped of his title.  It’s another to see Armstrong in that same position.

I’m a fan of both LeMond and Armstrong.  They’re both incredible athletes who brought the world stage of cycling to America.  But it’s a shame to see them as such personal rivals.  I think it’s obvious that LeMond wants the sport of cycling to be cleaned up.  Armstrong wants to protect his assertion that he rode clean.  It’s just a shame that these two are approaching the same goal head-on.  The confrontation has, and will, hurt fans of both men.

At the end of the day, my utopian mind wishes that all cyclists everywhere rode drug-free.  Drop the flag, pedal as hard as you can, and do your best.  If you win, awesome!!!  If you don’t win, you’re still awesome because you’re doing something that only a few people on the planet can even hope to attempt.

But my utopian mind doesn’t control real-world cycling.

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Let’s pick up the Fred McGriff story we started the other day

There was a lot of anticipation about McGriff’s arrival in Atlanta.  The team was desperate to try to find some way, any way, to claw back into contention.  The Crime Dog projected to be a huge upgrade at first base…which is not meant to be any disrepect to the two-headed platoon of Sid Bream and Brian Hunter that was manning the position.  Bream was a veteran, a solid defender with a bit of power from the left side of the plate, and a hero from the previous year’s championship series (which I must highlight at some point).  Hunter was the young righty with more power and more sporadic defense.  But “Scooter” Bream played on bad knees and struggled to run anymore, and Hunter was too inconsistent for an everyday gig.  And McGriff was an established superstar.  For those reasons, he was a fantastic addition.

So on July 20, 1993, I turned on my TV, excited for the prospect of seeing McGriff in our uniform, and glad that the muscle strain issue he had wouldn’t keep him off the field.  But as the TV powered up and the Braves intro music faded out, it was clear that another factor might cancel the game altogether.

Fire…Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, the home of the Braves, was on fire.

During batting practice, a fire has started in the press box and was burning.  Fortunately, the fire was extinguished, but there was still doubt as to whether the game against the Cardinals would be played.  The fire marshals did their thing and I, along with a bunch of other Braves fans, watched and waited.  It’s foggy now, but I think it took about two hours for decision to be made to allow the game.

I seem to remember just three things about the game.  First, Fred McGriff unloading his unusual windmill swing and launching an 8th-inning homerun to right-center field.  Second, as he rounded the bases, announcer Don Sutton hollering, “Welcome to Atlanta Fred McGriff!!”.  And third, the Braves winning the game 8-5.  But of course, there was a season to complete, 70 games to play, and the Giants to catch…an almost impossible task.


McGriff’s arrival lit a fire under the Braves, and game-by-game, they slowly began to reel in the division-leading Giants.  And our acquisition didn’t simply cause the team by the Bay to fold their tents and go home.  They played great baseball, winning an astounding 103 games in 1993.  But the Braves won an incredible 51 of their final 70 games and finished the regular season…with 104 wins.  It was one of the most remarkable, and most exciting, pennant races ever…one for the ages…and it came down to the final game of the season, when the Braves won and the Giants were shut down by Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers to give Atlanta its 3rd straight division title.

Greg Maddux had been signed during the offseason, and would go on to anchor this generation’s greatest starting rotation, which dominated opposing hitting for a decade.  But it was the hitting of Fred McGriff that made the biggest difference in the 1993 season, elevating the Braves from goodness to greatness, and pulling off a comeback that, 17 years later, still borders on miraculous.

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I don’t know how much I really enjoy Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game anymore.  Rather than an actual game that the teams try to win, it’s become more of a juggling act where two managers attempt to balance the desire to win with the egos of highly-paid, highly-visible players.  I watched a bit of this year’s game, then turned the TV off just at Brian McCann stepped to the plate.  As a long-time Braves fan, it was probably sacreligious to do so (McCann is currently the Braves starting catcher), but the All-Star Game isn’t a big deal to me, even though the powers-that-be, having tied home-field advantage in the World Series to its outcome, have tried to make it important to the players.

Anyways, I missed McCann’s game-winning three-run double.  I’m glad the National League finally won again (they hadn’t do so since the last millenium), but it didn’t matter much.

I tell this long-winded bit of personal information because this year’s game got me thinking back to the All-Star Game in 1993…well, actually just after it.  I don’t even remember if I watched the game, but I vividly recall the following weekend.  I drove to Chicago to visit my younger brother, who was attending seminary there.  That Saturday morning, he and I made our regular trip to Walker Bros. Pancake House in Lincolnshire for their chocolate-chip pancakes and hash browns.

It’s a pity that we don’t have a Walker Bros. around here, and it’s a shame they’re not where you are (unless you’re in the Chicago area).  It’s been a while, but as I recall, an order of chocolate-chip pancakes came on a plate about two feet in diameter.  Six (or was it seven?) huge pancakes stuffed with melted chocolate, dusted with powdered sugar, and smothered with whipped cream…I hope the drool doesn’t short out my keyboard here.  Anyways, a second plate of hash-browns and a big glass of orange juice (breakfast is all about nutrition) rounded it out.  If you ever get the chance…what was I talking about?

Oh yeah…so we were eating and David asked me how the Braves were doing.  The night before, the Braves had blown a big lead in the 9th inning to lose a game, and I was kind of bummed (though the pancakes were helping).  But worse, they had fallen to either 9.5 or 10.5 games back in the National League West.  Yeah, this was the year before expansion and realignment, so the Braves (on the East Coast) played in the West with the Dodgers and the Giants.

And it was the boys from San Francisco who were having a phenomenal year.  Barry Bonds, having been signed from the Pirates during the winter, was having a monster year, their pitching was solid…they were very good.  I told David that the Braves simply didn’t have the horses to compete…we were good, but (and I could probably quote this) there was no way we could come back and win the division now, even with half of July and all of August and September left.  A 10-game lead was pretty much insurmountable.

Boy those pancakes were good…

But Braves GM John Schuerholz was going to give it a go.  It turns out the San Diego Padres were having an “everything must go” sale, and very quietly, Schuerholz put together a package of players and offered them up for first baseman Fred McGriff.  The names are fuzzy now…Vince Moore, who I don’t think ever played at the top level.  Melvin Nieves, who had a small career as a bench player.  And Donnie Elliot, a pitcher I don’t know anything about.  So basically some fringe players for one of the premier sluggers in all of baseball…and the Padres accepted.

It hardly seems feasible, but again, the Padres needed to unload payroll in the worst way, and every team knew it, so they were dealing from a position of weakness.  Schuerholz pitched the offer, and on July 18, 1993, the deal was completed.  The Crime Dog (as McGriff was known) was headed to Atlanta, though it would take a couple days for him to arrive and get properly fitted out.  But would his arrival be a spark to the team?  Was there any way the Braves could make up that monumental gap between themselves and the Giants?

Let’s revisit it in a couple days

Recommended Activity:  Visit Walker Bros. Pancake House – By all means, help yourself to an order of delicious chocolate-chip pancakes.  You won’t be sorry.

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As the delegates to the Federal Convention worked through the process of revising the Articles of Confederation, a couple of things had quickly become apparent.  One, the revisions wouldn’t likely be a band-aid, “patch-and-mend” fix of what already existed.  A complete overhaul was being proposed.  Second, included in that overhaul was a two-housed legislature, and the fight to determine its makeup would be long, difficult, and intense.

We look at the modern-day composition of our Senate and House of Representatives and we pretty much take its structure for granted.  To the “upper” house, each state sends a pair of Senators.  Representation in the “lower” house is determined by population.  States with more people have more Representatives, less populous states have fewer, and every state is guaranteed at least one.

In 2010, it’s automatic.  It’s a no-brainer.  In 1787, it was most certainly not automatic.

The men representing the larger states believed both houses should be built based on population.  However, their reasoning was not as self-serving as it may seem at first blush.  Of course, the result was that the larger states enjoyed something of a monopoly (or at least a strong majority) on the proceedings.  But there was more to it.  Larger states contributed proportionally more tax money to the central government’s coffers, so it stood to reason that large states should have a greater say.  Furthermore, wasn’t government based on the “will of the people” rather than the “will of the states”?  Under the Articles of Confederation, any state could veto legislation with which it disagreed, and the large states believed that “one state, one vote” had damaged the will of the people and given the small states way too much power.

The delegates from the smaller states saw things differently.  They believed that equal representation balanced the inequity that existed between small and large states.  It gave smaller states a larger voice and offered them protection.  In their minds, these delegates believed that large states would use their vote power to simply overrun the wishes of the small states.

I suppose that, in a perfect world, representation by population could have worked well, since the government was being designed was to be for the people, and not the states.  But it wasn’t perfect, and the small states were not backing down, and in the world that was Independence Hall during the brutally hot summer of 1787, it was a serious point of contention.

On June 11th, Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman offered up the suggestion that the proposed Senate be populated based on equal representation for the states, while the House be filled proportionately.  The proposal was initially defeated by the group, but it never really died, as the option to revisit it remained alive.  The delegates moved on to deal with less difficult matters, but all knew that this issue would arise again.

One thing that didn’t rise on the weekend of July 14th and 15th was the temperatures.  In the midst of a scorching summer, a reprieve of cooler weather and refreshing northwest breezes maybe helped set the stage for calmer debate and cooler heads.  I’m not sure that history records it, but maybe the windows of the Independence Hall were thrown open on the Monday morning of July 16, 1787, and the cooler air worked its magic.  It was on this day that the debate on representation was finally settled, and Roger Sherman’s “Connecticut Compromise” was adopted…by one vote.

It came to be known as the Great Compromise, and while we might sit here scratching our heads wondering what’s so great about it, there is little doubt as to the likely outcome had Sherman’s proposal not been passed.  I turn once again to Catherine Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia“There are critics today who think the Convention erred, and that the Senate, like the House, should have remained proportional.  Yet without the Great Compromise it is hard to see how the Federal Convention could have proceeded further; since the beginning it had been cause for battle.”

Luther Martin, with whom we are familiar, wrote after-the-fact that the struggle “nearly terminated in a dissolution of the Convention.”  James Madison, from the large state of Virginia and one of the stars of the Convention, didn’t agree with the result, but understood that fighting the smaller states further on the issue was pointless.  If a new government was to have any chance to survive, it had to first be born.  The Great Compromise was the single most important event in the Convention’s timeline.

Is it a perfect solution today?  The critics that Bowen references would say no.  Ron Chernow writes that “the Senate’s composition introduced a lasting political bias in American life in favor of smaller states.”  And honestly, proportional representation seems to me the proper way to do things.  But ours is not a pure democracy, and the Senate actually offers some “counter-protection” against a weakness of a democracy:  the tyranny of the majority.

And 225 years ago, proportional representation in both houses wasn’t going to get a new constitution written.  It wasn’t going to end the complete small-state dominance afforded by the Articles of Confederation (to say nothing of its other weaknesses).  And it wasn’t going to create a government system that, despite glaring flaws, has survived more than two centuries without being thrown to the historical ash-heap.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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When my younger brother was younger, he told me that his idea of a “chick flick” was a movie like Die Hard.  I don’t know if many members of the fairer sex would agree with him, and his statement often left me wondering what his idea of a “Die Hard style” movie looked like.

As it turns out, Die Hard is reasonably well-placed in my list of favorite movies.  And as the title probably suggests, it’s not a gentle movie with lots of smooching and soft, smooth dialogue.  It’s not set in a cabin in a dewey forest with a doe prancing around the windows.  And it isn’t a love story.


Die Hard lives up to its R rating with plenty of language you definitely don’t want the children to hear.  It’s chock-full of shooting and explosions that you probably wouldn’t want your kids to see.  And there’s lots of people getting killed, in generally violent ways, that you don’t want your children exposed to, either.  But for adults who can get past these cautions, or if you’re an empty-nester, Die Hard is great escapism.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically “cops and robbers” in the over-the-top style for which the 1980s is so well known.  The cop, John McClane, is played by Bruce Willis, who has a pistol.  The robbers are a bunch of German guys (including one guy that looks remarkably like Huey Lewis), armed with automatic assault rifles, C4, missiles, and a computer nerd played by the guy that was Matlock’s assistant.  The robbers are trying to steal $640 million in bearer bonds – I have no idea what those are, but they’re apparently worth stealing – from a high-rise bank which will earn them 20% as they sit on an island somewhere.

That’s pretty much the first 30 minutes of the movie.

But McClane’s no “ordinary” cop…he’s an “extraordinary” cop.  He’s a bit of a loose cannon, kind of like Dirty Harry, but more impulsive, with more humor in his dialogue and more swear-words in his vocabulary.  And he systematically takes out the robbers.

That’s pretty much the rest of the movie.

With the requisite gunfights, explosions, and blood.  And there’s an “ordinary” cop (played by Reginald Veljohnson) with a penchant for Twinkies who plays Willis’ “partner from a distance” while working through his sad past.  There are some inept police officers (Veljohnson’s bosses) that try to mess up an already bad situation.  There’s the even-more-inept FBI that succeeds in opening the vault for the robbers so they can steal the bonds.  And then there’s the climatic finish when Willis-McClane kills those two baddies, including the leader, and Veljohnson kills the really bad bad guy, and McClane’s wife gets to punch a newspaper guy who’s been a general nuisance throughout the movie.

If you think about the movie (like I am) while it’s not playing in front of you, you laugh at the complete absurdity of Die Hard.  The robbers are a well-oiled machine…hardened criminals with years of experience and an intricate plan.  Yet they purchased guns with their aimers set to “miss”, as they waste thousands of rounds of ammunition trying to hit one guy.  I’m no Wyatt Earp (though I’m pretty good with Operation Flashpoint on the computer), but even I could hit a man-sized target given unlimited access to bullets.

McClane falls down an elevator shaft (yeow!!) but somehow catches a ventilator duct with his fingertips…even Wyatt Earp couldn’t do that.  Our hero head-butts his opponents on numerous occasions, yet still shoots with the precision of…well…Wyatt Earp (when did he pop into my brain?!?).  He gets beat to a bloody pulp in nearly every encounter with a much fresher opponent, yet he still wins every time.  How is this possible?

Oh yeah…it’s Hollywood.

But the movie resonates with many people not because it’s even remotely true-to-life, but because it awakens the “hero-nature” in us.  I don’t really want to be shot at by German guys with big guns, but if I was, I would want to respond like Officer McClane…blow the baddies away with my much smaller gun, then offer up a funny quip to the cameras while resting against the drywall of the unfinished 31st floor.

So many times, we think of the right response after the fact, and we say to ourselves, “I wish I could go back, because I’d say…” or “Next time that happens, I’m going to…“.  John McClane never has to say that, and I, for one, am a bit jealous of it.  He always has the perfect answer at the perfect time.  He always gets the last word, and it’s always just right.

Apparently a bunch of people agreed with me.  Die Hard, which made its debut on July 15, 1988, was a huge success.  Bruce Willis went from Moonlighting funny-man to box-office superstar in no time.  The movie spawned three sequels, all of which were pretty popular.  But the original, like most cases, is the best.

Recommended Viewing:  Die Hard – You owe it to yourself to see the movie.  If bad language gets your goat, watch it with the volume down…and well after the kids are asleep.

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Revolutions always seem to have a “Ground Zero”.  I use that term with some caution because of the obvious connotations that it has here in the States.  But it’s true nonetheless.  The revolution of atomic power might be said to be Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The revolution of flight could be Kitty Hawk.  For delicious Crispy Meat Burritos, it’s Taco Time…ok, that’s pushing it, but you’re catching on.

Other revolutions are no exception to the rule.  The American Revolution?…possibly Lexington and Concord.  The Berlin Wall in 1989.  Tiananmen Square, also in 1989 (though with a much more sobering outcome).  All of these place-names, for many of us, bring images instantly to mind, whether it’s a strange looking heavier-than-air device lifting off the ground for a few feet or that brave young man that keeps side-stepping to keep himself in front of the tanks.

There’s the Bastille as well.  It’s not a city…well, it might be a city somewhere, but that wouldn’t be the focus of Today’s History Lesson.  The Bastille is a prison…a medieval prison.  But here I am talking in the present tense, as though it’s still standing…it’s not.  The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison.

It was a real structure, but in 1789 it was symbolic as well.  For the citizens of Paris (and for many in the rest of France as well), the fortress had some to symbolize everything they hated about the monarchy in general, and King Louis XVI in particular.  Though it only held a handful of prisoners, it was an icon of repression, in which a single ruling class (led by a single ruler) held absolute sway over the entire populace.

As the spring of 1789 warmed to the summer, the situation continued to deteriorate.  Hard economic times and oppressive taxes were pushing the citizenry to the boiling point.  King Louis, sensing trouble, had made a few concessions, such as allowing the French legislature to rename itself the National Assembly.  He even seemed somewhat amenable to a constitutional monarchy.

But on July 11th, the same day Lafayette stood up in the Assembly and proclaimed the Declaration of Rights, the King banished Jacques Necker, his finance minister.  Not a big deal, you might say…kings did this type of thing all the time.  But Necker was a sympathizer of the reformers, and this move gave a strong indication that the King wasn’t nearly as interested in compromise as he may have let on.  It didn’t help that Louis XVI had also dispersed troops throughout the cities before firing Necker.

On July 14, 1789, the pent-up fury spilled over, and hundreds of Parisians (along with some soldiers that decided to side with the people) attacked the symbol of their hatred.  It’s known as the Storming of the Bastille, and it was more bloody for the attackers (who suffered nearly 100 killed) than it was for the defenders (who lost but a man).

But with the prospects of a bloodbath looming, the governor of the Bastille ordered a cease-fire.  Had the governor possessed foreknowledge, he may have acted differently.  First, the governor was the first casualty of the cease-fire, as the angry mob pounced on him and killed him.  And second, the bloodbath he wanted to avoid was exactly what he didn’t live to witness, as an era of terror, reprisal, and thousands of executions (including the King himself) would be the order of the day.

The French Revolution had begun.

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Over the last couple of months, we’ve spent some time discussing the Constitutional Convention.  We’ll continue to do so, but let’s jump ahead a couple of years.  The U.S. Constitution had been ratified and, one-by-one, the remaining state legislatures were voting to join the Union.  In fact, of the original 13 Colonies, only New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island remained independent of the newly-formed government.

And despite the fact that many people were greatly concerned about this new government (a representative republic was a pretty novel idea), a great many more countered that with their immense optimism.  In fact, there was hope that this concept of “rule by the people” would spread beyond the borders, to places like…France.

It kind of made sense.  Numerous French aristocrats had spent time in America in the years spanning the Revolution and had seen the push for liberty.  And let’s face it, French assistance (particularly as the navy was concerned) had been critical, probably indispensable, to the American cause.  Furthermore, French financial aid had allowed America (which really had no money to speak of) to continue in a war it couldn’t afford.

So it stood to reason (at least to many prominent Americans) that love of freedom would begin to affect change in a country where the monarchy had, for so long, ruled the day.  Late in 1788, Thomas Jefferson, a great lover of France, believed it strongly, and told all his colleagues so.  To George Washington he wrote “The nation has been awakened by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading, and they will not retrograde.”  He wrote to James Monroe that, within a couple of years, France would have a tolerably free constitution and have shed no blood to attain it.  To James Madison he would write (in March of 1789), “France will be quiet this year, because this year at least is necessary for settling her future constitution.”

And there were signs of change.  The French legislature was renamed the National Assembly on July 9th, providing evidence of a potential shift of some power to the people.  Louis XVI seemed to (grudgingly) accept the idea of a constitutional monarchy which, while still not a republic like the U.S., was a step.

But underneath it all, there were far more sobering rumblings.  The French, unlike their American counterparts in the 1760’s and 1770’s, were not trying to throw off the shackles of a foreign government control.  They were beginning to revolt against the control of their own government…against hundreds of years of monarchy.  The animosity…no, that’s too soft a word,  “years of pent-up rage” is likely more accurate – was reaching the boiling point.  The problem here was victory didn’t involved expelling a foreign power back to its homeland.  Those currently in power were part of France and, much like American Tories and Loyalists who sided with the British in the Revolution, would face recrimination should they lose.  And (as we know from the historical record) it would be bloody.

I’m certainly no expert, but this might be an undercurrent that Jefferson, in his hope for France, overlooked.  And on July 11, 1789, the future U.S. President might have been thinking of other things anyways.  It was on this day that Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, famous in America and Revolutionary history as the Marquis de Lafayette, got up and presented to the recently-renamed National Assembly the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”  It was a great moment for Lafayette, who vowed with other members of the assembly to remain together until a Constitution was formed.  It was a great moment for Jefferson as well, who had reviewed the document for the Marquis.

But events later in the day and in subsequent days would conspire to shatter any prospects for a peaceful French Revolution.  The streets throughout France, and particularly those in Paris, would run red with French blood.

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From beginning to end, the Federal Convention in Philadelphia had its share of detractors.  Some of them, like Rhode Island, were against even the formation of a convention.  The small state would send no delegates and, of the 13 Colonies, would be the very last to ratify the document that came from the three-month gathering.

Others became disenchanted after spending a little time in Independence Hall and getting a feel for how the “political winds” were blowing.  For numerous delegates, the Articles of Confederation were adequate, or maybe just needed some tweaking.  Furthermore, the Congress had allowed the meeting with the proviso that its sole purpose was to revise the Articles.

So when Edmund Randolph took the dais on May 29th and proposed what was essentially a clean break from the Articles, not a few delegates became clear opponents.  We’ve talked about Luther Martin and his ponderous diatribes against all aspects of the Convention.  He and fellow Marylander John Mercer would end up leaving the Convention as a show of protest to the proceedings.

There was Gunning Bedford, whose paranoia over large-state dominance led to his thinly-veiled threat that small states might resort to foreign governments to assist them.  This kind of talk was a direct assault on the very purpose of the Convention.  In fact, it was an attack on the Articles of Confederation already in place.  It was close to talking treason.  But such were the strong feelings.  As we have said before, change in the 18th century (often referred to as “innovation”) was charged with negative connotations.

New York’s delegation was deeply split on the Convention.  On the one side was Alexander Hamilton.  For years he had been saying that the Articles of Confederation were weak.  They were adequate for an American Revolution, but for the future, they simply didn’t cut it.  Numerous editorials and newspaper articles, authored by his pen, sought to build support for revision.  And while he might not have been preeminent at the Convention, no delegate present could say he had done more to push for the Convention than Hamilton.  On the other side were Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.  These two men, related by marriage, were close associates with George Clinton, New York’s governor.  Clinton’s strong opposition to changing the status-quo was passed on to his subordinates.

And by July, the divide in the New York delegation had reached the breaking point.  Hamilton, much chagrined for his proposals in June (which we’ve mentioned but will cover in greater detail down the line), had left the Convention to return to his law practice (but don’t worry, he would come back to Philadelphia and ultimately sign the Constitution).  But Yates and Lansing simply could not come to ideological terms with the road the Convention was taking, and both walked out in protest, the first delegates to do so.

The problem comes with establishing a firm date for their departures.  Catherine Bowen lists the date as July 10, 1787.  Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton lists July 6th.  Ralph Ketchum, in his biography of James Madison, doesn’t actually list a date, but the text lends itself to a “second week of July” timeframe.  Various sources on the Internet list July 5th, 6th, and 10th.  I don’t find a solid consensus.  But because I saw as many references to the 10th as any other date, I’m going with that.

And truthfully, in this particular case, I’m willing to let the date remain in limbo a bit, simply because 1) the 10th is as likely to be correct as any other date, and 2) the main idea is to convey that opposition was strong enough to cause delegates to leave.  Yates and Lansing were the first…they would not be the last.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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Well, that was a 3-day “timeout” from writing that I didn’t intend to have.  There were topics about which I wanted to write, but one little thing after another conspired to keep away from the keyboard.  But as I was riding my bike home from work this afternoon, I saw my first Audi R8.  That event alone is worthy of press.  Bright black with chrome wheels…a sight to behold.  Now unless you own one of these masterpieces, you don’t just see one everyday.  And in a town of 5,000 people, having an R8 drive down the street elicits a response similar to the one I heard on Memorial Day, when our 4-year-old grandson first saw a Kool-Aid Fizzy tablet dropped in water…“Oooo…it’s a miracle!!”

The CBI is, in some sense, the forgotten World War II theater.  “CBI” is an acronym for China-Burma-India and, right away, even students of the war have to think hard to piece together any coherent facts.  I’m no different.  But at its simplest, the CBI is the story of Allied forces, supplied from India, fighting the Japanese in Burma, trying to open supply routes to China.  That’s pretty much it.

And while most of the fighting and dying took place in the awful jungles of Burma, it would stand to reason that the Japanese, at some point, would launch attacks into India to cut off Allied supply lines.  And that’s what they did in March of 1944 with the initiation of Operation U-Go (I think the Japanese military had at least a dozen Operation U-Go’s in the war…it’s like they were building cars or something).

The goal of Operation U-Go was the capture of the border towns of Imphal and Kohima, which would cut off Allied supply lines into Burma.  Begun on March 6th, General Renya Mutaguchi’s five infantry divisions (with some supporting armor) crossed the Indian border with good effect, cutting the road between the two towns and effectively isolating the defenders there.

But the story here was reinforcements, as fresh British and Indian forces were able to be flown in to augment the beleagured forces holding up the Japanese invaders.  For the Japanese, their lines of supply were just as bizarre and complex as the forces on the other side.  However, with the war turning against them elsewhere, it was much more difficult to actually keep their troops supplied.

By June, General Mutaguchi’s men were low on ammunition, starving, and battling disease.  He knew further offensive action was pointless because, frankly, very few men still alive could effectively fight.  And when the Fifth Indian Division reopened the road between Imphal and Kohima, Mutaguchi knew it was over.

In The Burma Road, Donovan Webster writes, “On July 7, in despair for his men and the slaughter that awaited them, Mutaguchi took his leave to a hilltop overlooking Imphal and chanted a Shinto prayer for help.  And, remarkably, the next day, July 8, full five months after Mutaguchi’s diversionary troops on the Arakan Peninsula had fired the initial shots in the ‘March on Delhi’, the Japanese were given orders to begin their withdrawal from India back into Burma.”

The Japanese would leave a trail of guns, broken tanks, artillery, and dead soldiers as the survivors limped away from the fight.  The orders to retreat, received on July 8, 1944 and a rarity for the Japanese, meant that Mutaguchi would leave the battle having suffered more than 55,000 killed and wounded.  What started with such promise was, up to this point, the largest defeat in Japanese history.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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I hope you all have had a wonderful 4th of July.  This is two years in a row that ours has been atypical (at least for July).  Last year, it was really cool.  This year was a bit warmer, but it basically rained all day.  Most of the fireworks displays around the area have been postponed until tomorrow, but the forecast calls for a bunch of rain tomorrow evening as well.  I guess we’ll see what happens.

Speaking of fireworks, the fight for Sevastopol in 1942 provided plenty of fireworks of its own.  The final assault, begun in June, was actually the culmination of a larger siege begun by German forces late in the preceding year.  In those heady early days of Barbarossa (heady at least for the Germans), the Wehrmacht had stormed into the Crimean Peninsula and (excepting the part that was bordered by the Black Sea) surrounded Sevastopol.  Then the super-cold winter of 1941 gave way to spring and the fight was on again.

As we discussed a month ago, this final battle also featured the largest guns ever used in conflict.  Massive 600mm and 800mm siege cannon may not have fired a bundle of shells, but the ones that were fired made huge explosions, like on June 6th when a series of projectiles from the 800mm Schwerer Gustav blew up an ammunition magazine.  But this was no ordinary ammo dump…it was the White Cliff and it was submerged in nearly 100 feet of water and protected by 30 feet of concrete.

Despite being heavily outnumbered (by better than 3-to-1), the Soviet forces resisted this final assault for nearly a month before finally collapsing.  On July 4, 1942, organized fighting in Sevastopol ended.  Isolated resistance and skirmishes would continue for a week, but General (soon-to-be Field Marshal) Erich von Manstein’s forces had seized the port.

Recommended Reading:  Barbarossa

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I very nearly published this piece a week early…I had the wrong date attached to it in the master spreadsheet.  Good thing I double-checked first.  I occasionally get facts messed up, but completely missing the date would have been really embarrassing.  Anyways…

With the fall of France to German forces in June of 1940, it didn’t take a whole lot of brain matter to see that the British were in a bad way.  Their only remaining “ally” in Europe was Vichy France, but this was only in the loosest sense, as its government, run by Philippe Pétain, was nothing more than an Axis puppet.

Of greatest concern to the British was the powerful French Navy.  When Germany had invaded back in May, the French fleet had scattered, some to British ports, but most to the French Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir.  When the armistice was signed, Vichy was allowed to keep its navy and the Germans promised to make no demands for it.  But of course, Adolf Hitler had made – and broken – numerous promises before, so this one gave little comfort to the British.

So rather than risk a German takeover of the French Navy, the British decided on a bold move to protect themselves.  Known as Operation Catapult, it called for the British Navy to settle the “French fleet question” once and for all.  On July 2, 1940, the British sent an ultimatum to French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul.  In it were four options.  The French could join the British and fight againt Germany, they could hand over their ships to the British, they could disarm their ships, or they could scuttle them.

Admiral Gensoul chose to do none of them.

So new Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his own fleet to attack the French.  It was not a decision made lightly, as the French and British had been “brothers in arms” just two weeks before.  But business was business, and war was war.  Churchill gave the orders and said that history would determine the rightness of his actions.

For French ships in British ports, the “attacks” amounted to boarding and seizing the ships.  But at Mers-el-Kebir, things would be different.  Planes from the HMS Ark Royal mined the entrance to the harbor in an effort to prevent ships from escaping.  Once negotiations failed, the legendary battlecruiser HMS Hood opened fire on July 3, 1940.  Her first salvo to hit plastered the battleship Bretagne, sending her down with 977 men.  The battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution added their gunfire to the fray, and it little more than 15 minutes, the damage was done.

In addition to Bretagne, the Dunkerque had been heavily damaged, a destroyer had been grounded and three others badly damaged.  The French battleship Strasborg was able to pick its way through the mines and falling shot and escape, but that was the only good news for the French.  Nearly 1,300 French sailors had been killed, while the British suffered the loss of a half-dozen aircraft and six men.

As intrepid readers of Today’s History Lesson know, this was not the last time the Allies would try to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands.  Nor was it the last time the French would refuse to comply.  But this refusal and the subsequent British attacks cost the French most dearly in terms of lives lost.

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I took today off from work, simply because as we move into a holiday weekend, about 75% of our company’s workforce will be doing the same.  And while there’s plenty to do, the prospect of a 4-day weekend was too tantalizing to pass up.  But still I ended up riding my bike to work and back home (as I’ve been doing often since April) just for the exercise.  I got a haircut, then walked out of the Great Clips to a flat tire on the car.  The valve stem had failed (it failed on one of the other tires last year).  I started changing it, but the bolts were rusted in place and I had no WD-40 (or any penetrating liquid) in the car.  And I’d left my cell phone at home…it was just a haircut after all.

So my wife’s boss very generously drove some spray to my car and (because he’s stronger than me) helped me break the bolts free.  After he left I still had to wrestle them off…any idea how hot bolts get just from the friction of removal?  I got the spare on (one of those hideous little donut tires), then made my way to Costco (where I’d bought the tires)…only to find out there was a 3-hour wait in the tire department.  I’ll go back on Monday.  I got back home at 3:30 in the afternoon (my haircut was at 11:30), thinking that a day in the office may not have been so bad.

Such are the vicissitudes of days off…anyways, I better say something historical on the anniversary of our Founding Fathers’ vote for independence.

Sometimes, in our weaker moments, we’ll think things that we shouldn’t.  When I’m driving and someone in another car acts foolishly (which I never do), I wish I was a passenger in his (or her) car so it would be easier to hang up their cell phone and hit them with my shoe.  Or maybe a co-worker oversteps his (or her) bounds of authority at your expense, and you begin plotting retribution.

Thoughts are powerful things, particularly when they don’t just stay thoughts.  I can’t name all of the famed “Seven Deadly Sins”, but at least some (lust, greed, pride, envy) definitely start out as merely thoughts.  And as long as we kill them while they remain in our brains, we’re alright.  It’s when the “translation to action” happens that the real trouble begins.  Years ago, comedian Jake Johannson had the idea of “safety rhymes”.  When talking about drive-by shootings, he joked that maybe a rhyme would prevent people from pulling the trigger.  He humorously suggested, “I’m going to shoot that guy…let’s have some pie!”

Clearly a safety rhyme may have done some good for Charles Guiteau, who had nasty thoughts running around in his head.  He had repeatedly been denied a job working in the U.S. consul in Paris, and it made him angry.  The new U.S. President, James Garfield, had been in office less than 4 months, and was putting the final touches on his Administration…and it didn’t include Guiteau.  But rather than seek gainful employment elsewhere, Guiteau let his thoughts get away from him.

On July 2, 1881, an angry Guiteau took a gun and used it to shoot President Garfield as he walked through the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  The Commander-in-Chief was hit twice, in the arm and the back.  But it was the bullet in the back that did the most damage, and ultimately took the President’s life nearly three months later.

We’ll never know what Guiteau’s life would have been like had he disposed of his evil thoughts properly.  But we know for sure that his actions cost the life of the President, and ended his own the following year on the hangman’s noose.

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