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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The PWA (Public Works Administration) was formed in 1933. Like all the other programs that comprised President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the PWA was designed to help kick-start an economy devastated by depression. The focus of the PWA was public works projects (bridges, dams, roads, schools, etc.), which would create thousands of jobs. The people hired would be paid, and would in turn spend their money on goods and services, thereby stimulating the economy. And though PWA was only around for six years, it was responsible for the start of thousands of projects all over the country.

Much ink has been used (and probably a little blood shed) arguing over the merits of Roosevelt’s New Deal…it helped spur the economy and bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression…it infused into American culture a massive influx of entitlement programs and government control.  So much ink, in fact, that I don’t need to spend any time on it.  My opinion doesn’t matter anyways.  What we need is a history lesson of some kind…it’s been four days, after all.

On December 22, 1937, a PWA-funded project was completed as the first two lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel were opened for business.  Construction on the Tunnel, which runs under the Hudson River and connects New York’s Manhattan with New Jersey’s Weehawken, began in 1934 and cost $75,000,000.

Its first year in service didn’t see much use, as just 1.8 million cars passed through the 8,200-foot tunnel (which averages out to about 3.5 cars per minute).  But there weren’t nearly as many cars around in the 1930s, and with the arrival of the Second World War, resource rationing cut into the overall traffic even more.

But that’s not the case today.  Two more lanes were opened in 1945, with another two built and pressed into service a dozen years later.  As part of I-495, the Lincoln Tunnel routinely sees more than 120,000 cars pass through each day (83.3 cars per minute).

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In my opinion, there are topics that make good conversation starters at parties.  Asking a person what his or her interests are is good.  Maybe asking someone to describe a favorite vacation spot is also good.  Subjects that are non-controversial and non-goofy are usually preferred.

Talking about “Area 51” and the government coverup of alien visitations to Earth is probably less preferred.  Attempting to discuss Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster with a stranger will probably have him or her doing that thing where the eyebrows are raised a bit and the eyes drift a little up and to the left.  And talking about how the Earth is hollow will have your listener glancing at a watch and saying, “Well, look at the time…”.

Fortunately we’re not at a party, so I’m safe to at least mention one of them.

The Bermuda Triangle is a bunch of hooey.  There…I said it…and I’d say it again if I had to.  It does exist in a geographical sense.  To kind of place it, put a pencil on a map where the southern tip of Florida meets the water.  Then drag it northeast to the island of Bermuda.  Then go south to Puerto Rico and back northwest to your starting point at Florida.  That’s the Triangle and, since you can put it on a map, it’s real.

What isn’t real is all the “paranormal” activity that has supposedly occurred over the years.  People believe that an unusual number of ships and planes have disappeared there, most of them vanishing without a trace.  One of the more famous incidents took place on December 5, 1945.  Flight 19, a group of five Grumman TBM Avengers, took off on a navigational training flight from Fort Lauderdale, flew into the Triangle, and was never seen again.  And then a search plane sent out toward the flight’s last known position also disappeared.

These stories, among many others, have fueled lots of theories about aliens snatching planes from mid-air, residents of Atlantis pulling hapless ships below the surface, Amelia Earhart blinding pilots with her signal mirror, and who knows what else (I don’t know all the stories because I clearly haven’t attended enough parties).

But while I’m not a scientist, others that know more about it say that the numbers of ships and planes lost there, on a percentage basis, isn’t any greater than any other aqueous place.  The reports of the horizon becoming one with the water inside the Bermuda Triangle probably have some merit, but again, that’s probably possible outside the Triangle as well.

Anyways, you read the little bit about Flight 19, so you got what you needed for tonight.  And I’m kind of tied up with football and work as it is, so there you are.  Not very good I suppose, but maybe tomorrow we’ll discuss crop circles and ancient alien runways in South America.

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In his book A Shattered Peace, David Andelman writes that President Woodrow Wilson went to Paris “with the intention of bringing a new era of moral responsibility to the management of international affairs and an end to global conflict…”  But unfortunately, many of the allied partners who met him there came with very different objectives, and it wasn’t long before the President “found himself mired in a swamp of intra-European intrigue and colonial profiteering.”  Wilson himself offered up his own frustrated summary of six months of Parisian negotiations: “The world will say that the Great Powers first parceled out the helpless parts of the world, and then formed the League of Nations.  The crude fact will be that each of these parts of the world had been assigned to one of the Great Powers.”

It’s no small thing to note that when Wilson arrived in Paris in January of 1919, he was in some sense entering enemy territory.  The President came with a very different agenda than the other victorious Allies.  What Wilson wanted was a lasting peace.  What the others wanted was retribution…retribution they believed they deserved.  France had been the main battle-front for much of the war.  Large sections were a moonscape of shattered trees, mud-filled slit trenches, one-walled homes, bomb craters, and shell casings.  An entire generation of Frenchmen, 1.5 million in total, had fallen on the dust of that landscape, never to rise again.  The French economy was in shambles.  The French wanted payback.

But in addition, the Great Powers came to the negotiating table with land holdings scattered all over the world – holdings they steadfastly refused to give up.  And what’s more, with Germany’s defeat, here was a chance to acquire more territory without the shedding of additional blood.

So the Treaty that was signed differed vastly from Wilson’s vision.  And then he had to return home to sell ratification and entrance into the League of Nations.  Again, he stepped onto hostile ground.  Opposition was led by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  An extremely intelligent man with a Harvard PhD on his wall, he viewed the President’s Fourteen Points as somewhat whimsical, mostly idealistic, and all-together out of touch with reality.  And the League of Nations was one of those entangling alliances that would simply eat away at American sovereignty.

In reality, Lodge may have been someone that could have really helped Wilson in Paris.  His strong personality, coupled with his keen knowledge, may have given Wilson more power at the table.  But the long-standing rivalry between the two men meant Lodge didn’t get an invitation.  And with elections but a year away and these two men in opposing parties, here was grist for the upcoming campaigns.

President Wilson did his best to push for ratification, embarking on a wide-ranging speaking tour.  But even that worked against him.  In late September, he collapsed while speaking in Colorado and a week later suffered a massive stroke which left him largely incapacitated and confined to bed.  So there was little he could do or say as the Senate, controlled by Lodge’s Republican party, rejected the Treaty of Versailles on November 19, 1919.

Henry Cabot Lodge may have saved the U.S. from ratifying a bad treaty (maybe the only peace treaty the U.S. has rejected).  He may have also kept the country he loved so dearly from joining a weak League (he would say, “I have loved but one flag and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.”).  But without the power of the United States behind it, the League of Nations was totally doomed to failure.

Recommended Reading: A Shattered Peace – Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today

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Those of you that don’t live in the midwest United States can’t really relate to the phrase, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it’ll change.”  Many people from other parts of the country hear us say that and figure we’re just full of beans.  “The weather couldn’t possibly change in just a minute’s time”, they respond.  “When you say ‘a minute’, you mean it changes quickly, but not in a 60-second timeframe…right?”

No, we mean the weather sometimes changes in a matter of a 60-second minute.

Here in Iowa, we’re particularly vulnerable to this going into, and coming out of, the winter season.  We’ll occasionally see a day or two of moderate weather while off to the north, a strong ridge of high-pressure is setting up, its clockwise rotation pulling super-chilled air out of northern Canada.  Then it comes sweeping down out of the Rockies and overnight, and the temperatures plummet.  But still, that’s not really the whole “60-second” thing.

In recent memory, March 2, 2008 was one a day of drastic temperature change.  At noon, it was 60°F.  Shortly after nightfall, it was below 0.  That’s pretty sharp.  In the middle of December of that year, it did the same thing again.  And when that front came through, the wind direction changed, and the temperatures immediately began falling.  It was noticeably colder in just a minute or two.  Back in early 1888, the Children’s Blizzard struck much of the Midwest in true “60-second” fashion, catching thousands of people off guard and killing more than 500.

On November 11, 1911 (11/11/11 if that matters to you), the Great Blue Norther came ripping through.  Unseasonably warm temperatures were the order of the day as southerly air flows pulled warm, moist air far north.  Many cities set record highs that day, with the mercury above 70°F in numerous places.

And then that ridge of Arctic air came ripping through, bringing winds that blew a gale and dropping temperatures like a stone.  More than one town or city that recorded a record high had, within 8 hours, recorded a record low as temperatures fell more than 60 degrees.  The warm weather that produced severe weather and tornadoes one day was replaced by bitter winter conditions and blizzards the next.  That’s a pretty awful experience.

It’s dramatic to be sure, and it’s never pleasant, but that’s just the way weather on the plains sometimes is.

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Some people are thrill-seekers.  Adrenaline junkies.  Daredevils.  Evel Knievels.  For them, the quality of life is measured by the number of times “daily” is replaced with “danger”…”ordinary” with “extraordinary”…”routine” with “wild”.  We now have TV shows are dedicated to these men and women who seemingly risk their lives on a regular basis.  I have watched them on occasion with my jaw dropped and eyes bugged out.

And that’s because I’m not a thrill-seeker…not in the slightest.

Don’t get me wrong…I’d love to strap on a rally car and go flying through the woods of Finland.  I’ve joked with a few people that I’d pay $1000 just to ride with rally legend Juha Kankkunen for an hour.  But that’s just driving (or riding) quickly.  I’m not going to jump off a bridge or a mountain or a building with a parachute as my only means of survival.

Because we’ve been to Estes Park on a few occasions, Dad and I generally try to challenge ourselves with a hike, as it’s something we both enjoy immensely.  And we’ve talked about hiking Long’s Peak.  But there’s a point in that particular hike where things get a bit treacherous.  The path narrows to just a few feet with a 1,000′ drop to oblivion.  It’s then, the moment when “enjoyment” is replaced with “yikes, that’s a long way down!”, that the hike ceases to be enjoyable.  I don’t need, or want, the risk.

What I’m saying is that, while I might enjoy looking at Niagara Falls, I’m no Annie Edson Taylor.

I guess I don’t know for sure if Ms. Taylor was a daredevil.  Maybe she was.  Or maybe she was just nuts.  What we know for sure was that she was a 63-year-old widowed schoolteacher who didn’t have much money and was looking to cash in on a bit of notoriety.  But Annie dispensed with the idea of a cooking show on TV.  She decided against starting a quilting business.  Cell phone applications for a Droid (there’s money in that, you know)?…leave that to the fraidy-cats.

On October 24, 1901 (which happened to be her birthday), Ms. Taylor strapped herself into a padded barrel and became the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  Now Niagara Falls is pretty big.  In total, something like 750,000 gallons of water per second go over the edge and drop more than 170′ to the rocks below.  But water isn’t people, and it doesn’t care if gets smashed up.  Apparently Ms. Taylor didn’t care, either.  But over she went, and when they fished the barrel out of the water, a somewhat battered and bruised (but very much alive) Annie Taylor emerged.

These days, stunts like that land one in jail.  They might also get you some kind of reality TV show (they have ’em for everything else now).  I know Ms. Taylor didn’t get the latter, and I don’t know if they arrested people for daring the Falls in 1901.  But hopefully, she served herself an extra big piece of cake that night…I think she earned it.

Happy Birthday to you, Annie Edson Taylor…Happy Birthday to you.

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Theodore Roosevelt was many things besides the 26th President of the United States.  Of course, he gained great notoriety as a soldier.  We’ve touched on his passion for nature and the preservation of America’s wilderness.  Along with that was his love of hunting and exploring, which took him to Africa (on safari), Europe, and eventually South America.

Roosevelt was clearly something of an adventurer, which probably explains his willingness to subject himself to one of the newer inventions of the day…the airplane.  The first image that might be conjured up in your mind might be of the former President strapping himself into one of our modern aircraft.  As the photo above verifies, that is not the case.  In fact, the only resemblance between today’s aircraft and the one that carried Roosevelt was its ability to defy gravity.

It was low-flying, slow-flying, built by the Wright brothers, made of wood, and powered by just a few horsepower.  It was probably an airplane I wouldn’t be the least bit nervous riding in…or would I?  It had been just a couple of years before that a very similar craft had crashed during a demonstration to the Army, killing the Army’s observer/passenger and leaving Orville Wright seriously injured.

So there was some consternation when Roosevelt, foregoing a flight suit, helmet, and oxygen, climbed aboard to ride with pilot Arch Hoxsey in his plane on October 11, 1910.  Fortunately, the 4-minute flight was completed without incident, and Theodore Roosevelt had the distinct pleasure of not only escaping the bonds of gravity, but being the first President to do so.

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As a Braves fan, it was more than a little discouraging to see Roy Halladay’s performance this afternoon.  Honesty compels me to tell you that he pitched a masterpiece, no-hitting a pretty solid Cincinnati Reds lineup.  If the Braves are to make it to a World Series this year, they’ve got a tough row to hoe.  First they have to deal with San Francisco’s tough pitching.  Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, and Bumgarner are all very talented.  If somehow we manage to win that series, it appears the Braves will have to figure out a way to do what most teams haven’t been able to do this year:  beat Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt.  It’s a fearsome starting three…a three-headed ace.  It reminds me a little of the days of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz.

Roy Halladay’s result was, if I recall, just the second no-hitter in post-season history.  The other was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the ’56 Series against the Dodgers.  So Phillies fans should feel pretty awesome this evening.  And fans of the other seven playoff clubs have been put on notice.

Well, now I’m in a baseball state of mind, so let’s continue in that vein with something brief.  The 1977 World Series featured one of the more memorable hitting performances ever.  It was during game 6 that Reggie Jackson hit 3 consecutive homeruns (on three pitches from three different pitchers), stirring the Yankees faithful into a frenzy and forcing Jackon to run for cover as the game’s (and the Series) final out was recorded.

But Reggie’s night wasn’t the first of it’s kind.  Babe Ruth, another of the numerous Yankee legends, matched Jackson’s feat more than 50 years before.  It was October 6, 1926, and it was the fourth game of the World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Sultan of Swat was in top form as he launched his 3 bombs in a Yankees victory.  However, while the Yankees won this battle, their potent lineup wasn’t enough to win a war that the Cardinals took in seven games.

Still, the Babe’s game 4 performance was one to remember.  But most people wouldn’t require a ton of brainpower to do so, because baseball’s greatest player give the fans a refresher just 2 years later, again against the Cardinals, when he repeated his three-homer-game, again in the fourth game of the 1928 Series.

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A week ago, we talked about the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Remember what it was…without looking back?  Of course you do.  It’s the Amendment that granted women the right to vote.

On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Amendment, making it law.  And on this day (August 26, 1920), Secretary Bainbridge Colby certified the Amendment’s adoption.  It was now officially legal for U.S. citizens of the fairer sex to vote in elections.

I’m not sure I need to say a lot more…so I won’t.  Class is dismissed early today.

And we are off this afternoon to sunny, sweltering Arizona to visit our son for a couple of days.  I’m taking the laptop, so there might be time for a little bit of writing.  But don’t feel like you have to show up or anything.  Get out, enjoy the weather (it’s going to be beautiful), take a hike, ride your bike.

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Back in January, we took a look at the power of weather and its never-ending pursuit of equlibrium and tranquility.  And it’s a bit ironic that, as weather seeks peace, it often does so in a most violent manner.  Severe thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes, and torrential rains are the usual “peace talks” between competing fronts.  Last week in central Iowa, we saw that first-hand as a frontal boundary stalled over the area, resulting in some of the heaviest rains I’ve ever seen.  In three evenings, we collected more than a foot of rain, and the lightning accompanying the storms was astounding.  But the most common output of weather’s constant ebb and flow is wind.

January’s discussion centered around wind mixed with water.  Those two elements combined to produce a blizzard of epic, and very deadly, proportions.  It ripped across the Midwest with the power of a tornado and the breadth of a hurricane.

On August 20, 1910, the story was wind mixed with fire.  In late July, an electrical storm in the Bitterroots of northern Idaho sparked thousands of little forests fires.  The fledgling U.S. Forest Service was faced with the impossible task of trying to control and eliminate them with neither the equipment, the manpower, nor the funding to do so.  All it would take was some wind…

…which arrived on this day in the form of a cold front.  Accompanying it were hurricane-force winds approaching 80mph.  Fire needs but two things to survive – fuel and air.  The fuel was all around in the form a giant forest starved for rain.  And now the air was there in magnificent abundance and with gail-force power.  It churned the thousands of small blazes into a towering inferno, the likes of which have yet to be repeated in U.S. history.

And surprisingly, it was brought under control just a day later by a third element – water.  Another cold front passed through the region, bringing rain and relief.  But the damage had been done.  In little more than 24 hours, more than 3,000,000 acres of timber, towns, animals, and humans had been reduced to ashes.  It’s hard to comphrehend the size of this fire, but the area consumed is a little larger than two Rhode Islands and a Delaware.  It was a huge fire…and this area was burned in a day.  Numerous towns in Idaho and Montana were left as charred ruins.  Smoke carried as far east as New York, and ships 500 miles out into the Pacific reported difficulties navigating due to the smoke.

In all, 87 lives were lost, 78 of which were those fighting the fires.

Today, television carries us to forest fires with regularity.  And unless we are in middle of the conflagration, we struggle to grasp the power of the “fire and wind” concoction.  People in western states (particularly in California with the powerful Santa Ana winds) have a better idea, seeing fire approach (and sometimes overtake) their homes on a more regular basis.

But I’m not sure any of us can imagine the power of what is now simply known as The Big Burn.  Unless we were actually there, no words will be able to adequately describe what was the United States’ most powerful forest fire.

Recommended Reading: The Big Burn – An absolute must-read.

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Today marks the anniversary of one of the most important events in U.S. History.  On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which finally allowed women in America to vote.  As you know, once an Amendment passes the House and Senate (which happened in June of 1919 for the 19th Amendment), it must be approved by three-quarters of the state legislatures.

And it fell to Tenneessee to be the thirty-sixth state, where it was a near-run thing, as the state’s legislative body was deadlocked on the issue.  As one of the state’s youngest legislators, Harry Burn had determined in his mind to vote “no” on the Amendment, which would have defeated the issue in Tennessee.

But the 24-year-old Burn had a note in his pocket…a note written by his mother.  Mrs. Burn reminded her son “to be a good boy” and vote for ratification.  “Hurrah and vote for suffrage!” she wrote.  Harry Burn listened to his mother and changed his vote, because a good boy does what his mother asks (provided she doesn’t ask him to rob a bank or run over the neighbor’s dog that continuously barks at 2am).  The Nineteenth Amendment passed in Tennessee by a 49-48 vote, and ratification was complete.

There is absolutely zero doubt that this Amendment would have eventually passed had it failed in Tennessee.  But if it had fallen to Connecticut (which ratified it less than a month later), a mom in Tennessee would have been pretty disappointed.

And who wants to intentionally disappoint his (or her) mom?

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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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Much has been made of Armando Galarraga’s performance back on June 2nd.  The young Detroit Tigers pitcher was, for 8-and-two-thirds innings, perfect.  No runs allowed, no hits allowed, no walks allowed, and no errors committed.  Galarraga completely overpowered the Cleveland Indians the entire night.  The first out of the ninth inning featured a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch by young centerfielder Austin Jackson to preserve his pitcher’s chance at immortality.

But much more has been made of how the final one-third of an inning played out.  With two out, Jason Donald hit a ground ball between first and second base that was gathered in by Miguel Cabrera, who tossed it to a covering Galarraga.  First base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe, though replays showed him clearly out.

And for 24 hours, the outrage was extreme.  There were calls for the Commissioner to step in and reverse the erroneous call.  There were those who thought Joyce should be fired, and those who thought he should be thrown into the Great Lakes with cement shoes.  That was until the principals involved taught all those people a lesson in humility, grace, and respect for the game.  Joyce, humility in recognizing his mistake and offering a tearful apology.  Galarraga, grace in accepting Joyce’s apology without rancor and with kind words.  Commissioner Bud Selig, respect by letting the game stand as called and rejecting the pressure to award a perfect game where one didn’t (but should) exist.

Were Ernie Shore alive, he could definitely sympathize with the unfortunate Tigers hurler.  Shore was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and on June 23, 1917, he was in rare form.  He dominated the Washington Senators from the time he stepped onto the mound until the game’s final out.  In the 27 outs recorded during his outing (not 26 like Galarraga), there were no hits, no walks, and no errors.  Shore was perfect.

But like Galarraga, Ernie Shore wasn’t awarded with a perfect game.  It wasn’t because of how the game ended, but because of how it began.  Ernie Shore wasn’t the starting pitcher, Babe Ruth was.  And the Babe walked the first batter he faced.  Ruth took exception to how the home plate umpire was calling the game, and began arguing with him.  Ruth was ejected from game, and in his rage he punched the umpire before finally leaving the field.  Shore was called in to pitch, the runner on first was promptly thrown out trying to steal, and Ernie finished the game having faced the minimum number of hitters…no hits, no walks, no errors.

But that initial walk meant that, while Shore was perfect, it was not a “perfect” game according to the rules.

Over the years, pitchers have come close to perfect games on hundreds of occasions.  But it’s hard to think of two that have come closer than Armando Galarraga and Ernie Shore.

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