Archive for the ‘Twentieth century (1901-1960)’ Category

Well, that’s over.  Of course, I’m referring to the 2012 election.  As you may know, my wife and I live in Iowa, which in recent times has been one of the swing states.  That means our TV, radio, mail, and phones were inundated with reasons to vote for a candidate and reminders to vote.  At 6:30pm on Tuesday night, the last political ad aired on one of the local TV stations.  It was cause for celebration.

Other than the election, the airwaves have been dominated by talk of Hurricane Sandy.  The havoc it caused on the East Coast and the destruction it left in its wake are sobering reminders of weather’s power.  In the Midwest, we are accustomed to tornadoes and the awesome force they possess.  But hurricanes are on a different level, particularly with the rainfall and storm surges they bring in tow.

With these thoughts of foul weather, I am reminded of the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.  On November 9, 1913, a pair of powerful low pressure systems collided over the Great Lakes, creating a monster blizzard-storm with hurricane-style attributes.

Storms on the Great Lakes in November are not all that uncommon.  “November Gales” (as they are often called) happen rather frequently.  We’ve actually talked about it before.  If we quickly fast-forward sixty-two years and one day, we’ll be at November 10, 1975, the day the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost in a very similar (though somewhat less powerful) storm.

The November 1913 storm, however, is considered the grand-daddy of Great Lakes storms.  Most storms blow in, knock things around for a couple of hours, and depart.  This particular storm did its worst damage over the course of sixteen hours.  Snowfall around the Lakes was measured in feet, paralyzing numerous communities.  Ice and wind took down power lines, leaving many of those folks in the dark and cold.

But the greatest disaster was on the Lakes themselves.  Hurricane-force winds of 80 miles per hour created 35-foot waves that battered ships and crews without respite.   Nineteen ships were sunk or destroyed with another nineteen stranded.  More than 250 lives were lost.

Recommended Reading: Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald – The most famous of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

Read Full Post »

I think I’ve been gone long enough.

My surgery (way back on the 2nd) seems to have been successful and, though I’m still a bit stiff and sore, I’m getting better every day.  The surgeon removed a thumb-sized chunk of disk (ok seriously…is it “disk” or “disc”?) that was sitting on the nerves.  As soon as I woke up in the recovery room, I could tell the pain in my left leg was gone.

That’s a great feeling, even though I hurt from being cut open.  And I was home by 2pm the next afternoon…though not very functional.

My wife was extremely helpful and patient throughout the recovery.  It’s somewhat humbling to say that I don’t think I was nearly as good with her when she had surgery.  In my defense, I had no idea what surgery does to a body, and I blame TV for giving me a really distorted view of the whole surgical process, though that excuse is pretty flimsy in its own right.  I will do better with her next time.

Oh, and morphine is lousy…I learned that, too.

I’ve talked about authors once or twice in this forum.  Right off hand, I can remember Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.  Let’s do it again.

I met Michael Crichton’s work in the exact same fashion as I did books by Robert Ludlum.  A lady with whom I worked at my first job out of college knew I liked to read, and loaned me a book.  I recall that it had a white cover and a dinosaur skeleton on the front.  The title, Jurassic Park, meant nothing to me, but I figured I’d give it a go.

When I returned the book to her the next morning, her initial thought was probably that I had read a few pages (maybe even a chapter or two), and then given up on it.  Or maybe she noticed my general state of lethargy, the bags under my eyes, and my dragging feet.  I don’t know, but that tells the true story.  I had found another “glue” book (once it gets in your hands, it’s stuck there until it’s finished).

Of course, the premise of Jurassic Park is completely implausible.  Most of you have probably seen the movie (which does a respectable job of honoring the book), so you know the plot.  A rich guy builds a prehistoric park with real dinosaurs created from DNA taken from ancient mosquitoes.  Then the whole thing collapses in spectacular fashion.

What captured me was the realism with which Crichton wove his tale.  Premise?…like I said, completely implausible.  Delivery?…totally believable.  The book was written with an authenticity that sucked me in.  There was almost a nonchalance with this intricate scientific…stuff…that lent credibility to the story.  I simply couldn’t put it down and had spent the entire night reading.

And while Jurassic Park may be Crichton’s best-known work, it certainly wasn’t the only one.  I was suddenly interested in what else this guy had written.  I purchased a copy of Jurassic Park for my own, then followed it with copies of The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, The Lost World, Timeline, Airframe, and Prey.

And while I thought some of them were less good than others (I really had to work to get through Congo), each was really interesting.  Prey was a sort of nano-technology/artificial intelligence story that I found fascinating.  The Andromeda Strain (one of Crichton’s earlier books) was completely engrossing until the final ten pages.  At that point (in my opinion), it simply fell apart.

But Michael Crichton, who was born October 23, 1942, did more than write books.  If I recall, he was actually a Harvard-educated medical doctor, though I don’t know that he ever practiced medicine (the books and the movie rights probably made him a healthy living)…maybe he did.  This fact alone makes his success even more remarkable because, as you know (if you’ve visited the doctor’s office), most doctors can’t even write their names in a legible format.  Anyways, he came up with the screenplay for the movie Twister (which is familiar to many of you), and of course, was the executive producer of the very popular TV series ER.

Crichton passed away in 2008, a victim of cancer.  But like Ludlum, his writings survive, and continue to entertain readers the world over.  If you’ve never read anything by Michael Crichton, you should.

Happy Birthday, Michael Crichton!!

Recommended Reading:  Jurassic Park – If you haven’t seen the movie, this is a great place to start.  Otherwise, I really liked Airframe and Prey.

Read Full Post »

I can’t believe it’s already October!  This year has rocketed by.  The fall colors, which we suspected would be pretty dismal due to our super-dry summer, have exploded in an array of colors I never would have imagined.  The reds and yellows and oranges are spectacular, offset by skies as blue as azure and temperatures that have been perfect.  We still aren’t getting any precipitation, but this weather has been awesome.

So it’s a bit of a shame that I’m still laid up.  The herniated disk (disc?) continues to frustrate me some, but at this time tomorrow morning (~7:30am), I’ll be heading into surgery.  The surgeon predicts a “LensCrafters” performance (success…in about an hour).  It’s my first time under the knife (not counting wisdom teeth), so I’m a bit nervous, but if they can get things squared away, that would be great.

October 1, 1947.

It was on this day that test pilot George Welch took to the skies in a revolutionary new aircraft.  Well, it was revolutionary for the United States.  The XP-86 was North American Aviation’s first serious jet fighter, and it was the first American jet to be produced with swept wings.  But we got a little help on this one.

North American’s P-51 Mustang was, quite probably, the pinnacle of piston-engine aircraft.  Range, speed, climb, maneuverability, the Mustang had it all.  As the Second World War wound down, it dominated the skies, regardless of theater.  But by 1944, even it’s most ardent fans knew the proverbial writing was on the wall.  Jet power was the wave of the future, as it promised far better performance.  And what’s more, Germany’s Luftwaffe was already putting jet power to use.  The Me-262 and the even faster (though much less practical and less safe) Me-163 entered production before the end of the War, putting the world’s air forces on notice as to what was possible.

So it’s somewhat understandable that the Allied race to Berlin (Russia from the east, the U.S. and Britain from the west) was about more than securing territory and ending the fighting.  Each side, while warring against Germany, was in a battle to capture these German scientists before the other in order to gain a competitive advantage in what was shaping up to be a post-war “falling out of the Allies.”

Back to our story.

North American’s first attempts at jet aircraft involved basically hooking jets up to Mustang wings and airframes.  But even with piston engines, the P-51 had reached the limits of its potential.  The straight wings simply created too much resistance as it was.  There was no way jets could be used.  But the German scientists had figured out several years prior that swept wings allowed for higher performance by greatly reducing drag, and any loss of low-speed stability could be countered by the simple addition of leading-edge slats.

The engineers took these ideas, headed back to the drawing boards, and revamped their design.  The aircraft that took to the skies on this day was the beginning of yet another remarkable product from North American.  Though initially under-powered, the XP-86 would evolve into one of the finest fighters of its generation.  It flew with great distinction in the Korean War as well as dozens of conflicts around the world in the service of other air forces.  There were numerous variants produced, both here and in other countries under license, and they served for years, with the last Sabres being retired from the Bolivian air force in 1994.

The United States Air Force dropped the “P” (for “Pursuit”) designation, replacing it with “F” (for “Fighter”).  So our XP-86 became, in production, the North American F-86 Sabre, and more Sabres were produced (upwards of 10,000) than any other jet-powered U.S. fighter.

And one other thing…

There are unsubstantiated claims that Welch’s first flight also included the first trip beyond the sound barrier…achieved in a shallow dive.

Read Full Post »

The San Francisco earthquake needs no real introduction.  And that’s true despite the fact that the city surrounding San Francisco Bay is bumped and jostled by a good many quakes each year.  Most of them are rather mild and I suppose some that can be detected by seismic equipment aren’t even felt by the public.

But many can be felt, even if only a little.  Living in the Midwest, I’ve never experienced an earthquake, so I have no idea what one feels like.  I imagine there’s a low rumble and then some wiggling around for a few seconds.  Maybe one feels a bit woozy and disoriented, sort of like air- or sea-sickness, but again, I’m just guessing.  Californians have a far greater depth of experience than I.

Like I said, most quakes are fairly small, but there have been some biggies.  There was a powerful quake that struck in 1989 as the World Series was getting underway…we’ve talked about that one.  But when someone mentions The San Francisco Earthquake, just one is being referenced.

The earthquake that struck on April 18, 1906.

Residents of the city were jolted awake shortly after 5:00am by a powerful shock that measured 7.9 on the Richter Scale, as the San Andreas Fault (which runs just west of the city and bay) ruptured along 300 of its 800 miles.  I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve read, the San Andreas Fault is where two of the earth’s plates meet.  The western plate tends to edge north while the eastern place moves south.  Over time, stresses build up as the plates grind against each other.  Then the pressure releases in a quake.  Most are small, but this particular one was not.

It toppled buildings and homes on a grand scale, causing tremendous damage.  But just as devastating was the resultant fire which, combined with the quake, destroyed upwards of 80% of the city.  Most of the pictures of the quake’s aftermath show destruction on par with cities that were heavily bombed during the Second World War.  More than 3,000 lives were lost and more than half the city’s population was left homeles, making it California’s worst natural disaster, and one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.

Today, structures on the West Coast are built with the various fault lines in mind.  Much like Japan, everything is done with “an eye toward the ground.”  In every sense, San Francisco is far more prepared to deal with earthquakes than, say, St. Louis, which also sits in relative proximity to a fault.  But as I said before, the San Andreas still lurks…

Read Full Post »

Well, the calendar calls, even though no one will be paying attention to Today’s History Lesson…except maybe me.  The Super Bowl tends to drown out all other distractions.  My favorite commercial was probably that first Doritos commercial with the dog, followed by the VW/Star Wars commercial.  The game was fantastic to watch, and I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did, even if your Patriots lost.  I was neutral tonight, and that makes the game way more entertaining.

Anyways, I won’t take a lot of your time.

On February 5, 1958, the U.S. Air Force got its B-47 Stratojet in its F-86 Sabre.  Or maybe the U.S. Air Force got its F-86 Sabre in its B-47 Stratojet.  And while the idea has worked incredibly well for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, it doesn’t have the same happy result when high-speed aircraft are the two ingredients.  And it’s particularly bad when the center of the result is not delicious – no, scrumptious – creamy peanut butter, but a thermonuclear bomb.

The B-47 had taken off from Florida on a simulated combat mission and in the wee morning hours, collided with the Sabre.  The fighter pilot was able to safely eject from his stricken plane, but the bomber guys had a bit of a problem.  Their aircraft was also badly damaged and barely flyable, and the plane needed to be lightened to keep her in the air.  But the plane’s lone occupant (besides the crew) was a Mk-15 thermonuclear device.

The Mk-15 was a tactical weapon, which meant it was fairly small as nuclear bombs went, weighing 7,500 pounds.  And like other instances we’ve discussed, just dropping a nuclear bomb doesn’t guarantee a nuclear detonation, because of all the safety devices that are in place.  And nearly all of these weapons were “two-stage”, with a small warhead that triggered the nuclear cataclysm.  So the bomb reaches it “trigger height”, the small warhead explodes, and (if all the safeties are turned off) the “big one” goes off.  As it turns out, this particular bomb didn’t have the “small exploder” in it (it was a training mission after all).  But still, hitting the surface (whether land or water) might be enough to break the bomb apart, causing radiation from the uranium core to leach into the surroundings.

Got all that?

All that stuff ran through the minds of the pilots way faster than I could type it, and after contacting their superiors, the decision was made to ditch the bomb.  So they dropped it off the coast of Georgia, presumably off Tybee Island, which sits just a handful of miles from Savannah.

There was no visible explosion, so that was good news.  The bad news?  When search crews tried to find the bomb, they couldn’t.  And now we’re what?…54 years later?  That bomb still hasn’t been found.

Anyway, I’m not an expert, but if I’m going to go on an off-shore fishing trip, it’ll be down in Florida, or maybe Alaska, or anywhere not named Tybee Island.

Recommended Reading:  SAC Chart of Nuclear Bombs – A nice comparison of the various nukes.

Read Full Post »

I spent an afternoon at the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1986 and it was pretty awesome.  Of course, that’s akin to saying that I spent an afternoon in the Smithsonian.  Or maybe it’s like saying that I read the first five pages of The Lord of the Rings.  Or I flew over the Himalayas.

Not that I’ve done all those things…I’ve only done two of them.  It’s just that a half day was only a fleeting glance at one of the most incredible natural wonders, and that can’t possibly have allowed me to absorb all that is the Grand Canyon.  Even the name “grand” comes off as woefully inadequate.  “Stupendous” might be better, or maybe “phenomenal”, or maybe “awe-inspiring”.  But mentioning the Awe-Inspiring Canyon still wouldn’t give it the justice it deserves.

Then again, maybe just calling it “grand” is purposely meant to be an understatement.  You know, the whole “under-promise and over-deliver” thing.  It’s named “grand” so when you get there, you’re blown away by the unbelievable, indescribable, awesome incredibleness of the place.

President Theodore Roosevelt, a naturalist at heart who ventured all over the world and saw hundreds of examples of nature’s magnificent beauty, visited the Grand Canyon and was quoted as saying, “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world…”

That’s pretty much my sentiment, too.  It is beyond description.  There is no way to, in human language, tell someone what the place is like.  There are millions of photos you could look at (I posted a reasonably nice example above), but no photograph, no matter how big or how many megapixels, could possibly capture the spectacle.  You simply have to go visit and be thankful for the two eyes that God gave you, so you can take it in visually.

It’s been a quarter century for me, and that’s a long time.  We’re planning on visiting our son again sometime in the spring (he lives in a Phoenix suburb), and we’ve talked about driving down.  If we do, a stop at the Grand Canyon will not only be suggested, it’s probably required.  It’s just a remarkable place.

Oh, by the way, the Grand Canyon National Monument came into being on January 11, 1908.  I, for one, am grateful for that.  I think there are millions of people who, every year, discover they agree with me.

Read Full Post »

Sometime I get things backwards.  Instead of starting at that beginning, I begin at the end.  When it comes to studying historical figures, it’s certainly not the best way to approach things.  I did just that more than two years ago when I wrote about Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr.  It was the first piece on Hamilton, it was the only thing I knew about the man, and it was done largely from memory without good references to back me up.  The following year, I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (if you haven’t read it, it’s worth every sleepless night), and I learned that, while I had the essentials right, there was so much more I could have said.  So much, in fact, that I’ve often considered going back and completely re-writing that article.

That’s the danger of beginning at the end.

I now I repeat that mistake…but I hope to proceed more carefully this time.

I’ve written about President Theodore Roosevelt before.  Last year, I read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn and came away with a budding interest in a man that, to this point, was a complete mystery to me.  I knew that he was the President and I knew that he led a charge up San Juan Hill.

And that’s it.

But Egan gave me glimpses of much more than the two facts I possessed.  From a distance, I saw a man that had dealt with grievous loss.  I saw a lover of adventure and travel and exploration.  Roosevelt seemed to be something of a risk-taker.  He looked to be a man of great passion.  The 21st-century concepts of wildlife preservation and environmental responsibility were his during the industrial explosion of the late 19th-century.

My look at Theodore Roosevelt “through a glass darkly” gave me the impression of a man ahead of his time.  A progressive, maybe.  But I didn’t know for sure.

Last week, I purchased one of Edmund Morris’ three biographies of Roosevelt.  Well, actually, it’s one biography written in the three volumes.  And true to form, I got Colonel Roosevelt, the last in the series.  But I got it for a super price at Costco, and it gives me a great excuse to (eventually) grab the first two.

So, as I sometimes do, I start at the end.  On January 6, 1919, (former) President Roosevelt died in his home, succumbing in the early morning hours to an embolism of the lung.  Roosevelt was “larger than life” to many, and Morris captured this sentiment when he wrote, “A common reaction among the millions of Americans who had imagined him to be indestructible, and headed again for the presidency, was a sense shock so violent they took refuge in metaphor.”

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Roosevelt to feel that way…yet.  I’m hoping that a little bit of study will work to change that.  So now we know the end…we can only backwards from here.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »