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The Righteous Cyclist

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There was once a man in a large department store in America, balancing a canoe on his head as he passed the cashiers at the front of the shop, and the security guards; he smiled sheepishly and pointed to the canoe, saying, “They didn’t have a bag big enough.”  Only after he was long gone did they find out that he’d stolen the canoe – it was in plain sight, but because it was so bold, no one ever thought to ask to see a receipt.

Hiding things in plain sight is a frequently-used form of deception, from animals to thieves, and in this particular story, a cyclist whose racing bike was stuffed with forged documents; but the cause was much more important, and changed the lives of countless thousands through the generations.

Gino Bartali (July 1914 – May 2000) was a champion racing cyclist in Italy, who won races both before and after World War 2.  A devoutly religious man, he used his celebrity status, as well as the cover story of “training” to ensure that hundreds of Jews were rescued from the Nazi occupation in Italy.  Not only did he risk his and his family’s lives by hiding a Jewish family in his cellar, but he also used his fame to slip by undetected as he delivered forged documents and messages hidden within the frame and handlebars of his bike.  In 1943, he led a group of Jewish refugees toward the Swiss Alps; he cycled, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment; when he was stopped by a German patrol, he simply said that it was part of his training.  Working with the Assisi underground, his speed, fame and cover story enabled him to quickly travel 35-40 trips between Florence to Perugia, Assisi, Lucca and Terontola to deliver paperwork that saved the lives of over 800 Jews; if you look at those distances on a map, its mind boggling to think that he often made the trip out and back within the same day.

When he went to train stations, he would use the confusion of the crowds of fans to distract the German guards checking the identifications of passengers entering the train, thus slipping the Jews aboard in the chaos.  Once, when he was taken in for questioning, he asked that they not touch his bicycle, claiming that its parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.  He believed that talking about the good one does is taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for personal gain.  “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”  He refused to wear the label “hero”, wanting instead to be remembered for his sporting achievements; he said, “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”

He kept his actions hidden for over 50 years, and only after his death did the story begin to emerge; he was declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2013.  Please click on the image to watch a short video about a cycling tribute along the routes he traveled.

gino-bartali-righteous-among-the-nations

Historical Tales of Cross-Dressers

Throughout history, men and women have sometimes found it expedient to take on the guise of the opposite sex.  For men, it was often a tool to avoid military duties or to escape punishment of some kind; for women, the reasons were often due to the fact that men’s lives were easier – they had access to higher education, could rule, could lead, could travel more safely than a lone woman, and had far more freedom in society; another frequent reason was to avoid being forced into a loveless marriage.  There are many, many documented histories of cross-dressers; I will therefore focus my selection on a few of those cases where expediency was the factor, and not a question of sexual preference.  Some were androgynous, while others were unattractive or neutral enough in features to pass as either gender.  To read each history, click on the links:

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827):  Served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War as Timothy Thayer.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792): Served as a Royal army foot soldier, and a marine.  She is one of the few cases who became famous within their own lifetime; she revealed her true identity in 1750, and used her tales of adventure to pecuniary advantage.

Catalina de Erauso (late 15oos):  She held many positions, some under the very noses of relatives searching for the missing woman.

Chevalier d’Éon (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810):  French diplomat, spy, freemason and

chevalier-deon

Chevalier d’Eon

soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.

Frances Clayton (1830s):  Female Soldier in the Civil War.

Billy Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989):  Jazz musician.

Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar (1683-1733): A Swedish Corporal under the name of Vilhelm Edstedt.

Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009): A Chinese opera singer and spy.

Margaret Ann Bulkley (ca. 1789-1865): An Irish military surgeon in the British Army, as James Barry.

Marina the Ascetic, Monk (Fifth Century):  She chose exile from her monastery and to raise the illegitimate child of a woman who wrongly accused “him” of raping her, rather than reveal her true gender.  Only after her death was the truth discovered.

Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904): Explorer in the Arabian region, under the assumed name of Si Mahmoud Essadi.  Also, spy during the Algerian revolt against France.  She died in a flash flood at the age of 27.

Anne Bonney and Mary Read (18th century):  Ruthless pirates, they started off as cross-dressers, but once their reputations were established they dropped the male guise.

 

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This Day in History: Apollo 11 Landing

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Found on the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, in their history section, this customs declaration form of Apollo 11’s crew reentry to Earth is entertaining, when you read the details… like they might have disembarked somewhere between the moon and Earth, travelling at roughly 205 miles per second; or they might know what diseases they brought back to Earth from the moon (“to be determined”)…

To check out NASA’s history page, just click on the Apollo 11 crew’s photo below.

General Declaration of Customs, Apollo 11 Crew 24 July 1969

Apollo 11 Crew - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin,  Michael Collins

Furry Therapists

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It’s long been accepted that animals play an integral role in the overall well-being of humans.  One would be tempted to say that the significance of animal-human interaction is a modern discovery, and it may well be in the sense of measurable data, as science can monitor the changes in a heart rate (if you want a really science-y report, click here), though anyone who owns a cat can tell you that stroking a purring cat is calming.  But from the time that man domesticated wild dogs and wolves to become a vital part of their daily lives in hunting, protection and companionship, animals have been prevalent.   However, as hunting and gathering gave way to farming homesteads, which gave way eventually to urban development as the predominant habitation of modern man (particularly in western societies), we began to lose touch with just how important animals are to us.

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1956:  Three little boys reaching into a water bin of baby ducks as one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy with animals. Source:  Time Magazine

Now, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and even prisons have begun to rediscover the rehabilitating effects of furry therapists.  More recently, a VA hospital in Los Angeles, California has recognised the effects of animals on PTSD sufferers; yet they’ve gone a step farther:  They’ve paired PTSD birds with their human counterparts.

Please click on the links to watch videos of amazing work being done with and for animals; that both species benefit from the interaction is more than evident, and will make you smile!

Leader Dogs trained in Prison

Hawaii, ca. 1924

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By clicking on the image below, you can watch a ~9-minute video of a series of short video clips from the 1920’s of Hawaii, interspersed with silent-film era title cards.  Not only is it an interesting time-capsule glimpse of a simpler time on the islands, but it’s also an insight into what the rest of America knew about the islands, the foods and customs.  Back before you could find certain fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores year round, many people didn’t know what some were, such as papaya.  My Swiss mother-in-law remembers when bananas came to Switzerland, and were exotic and expensive; in her house they were only bought for her brother, who was very sick at the time, as a source of energy; that was during World War 2.  Once, she confessed stealing a bit of money from her brother’s piggy bank to buy herself a banana.

Back then the world in general also knew very little about strange customs such as “surf riding” (surfing), and the footage of surfers is utterly tame compared to the monster wave-riding considered “for surfers” today!  Volcanic activity also seems to have been a fascination; such footage may well have been the first time anyone had seen such a thing outside of volcanic regions; it still had to be described in colours, however, such as “cherry red” for the lava, as the footage was, obviously, black and white.

The image below is of King’s Mansion, in Kealakekua, Hawaii, on the Big Island.  I actually lived here in 1986, as a student (my dorm window was the left bay window at the front).  The mansion originally belonged to Kamehameha dynasty; thus the name.  We had avocado trees in the back garden, and our neighbour’s horses, across a stone wall, would come trotting to the wall when they saw us in the garden, hoping for an avocado; we’d feed them, entertained as they carefully chewed away the flesh around the pit (reminding me of an old man chewing tobacco!), and then skillfully spit the seed aside.  In the bottom of our front garden stood a huge banyan tree [if you were standing on the covered lanai (porch) at the front of the house, it would be to your left]; it was a favourite tree to climb.

King's Mansion

Not Just Another Pretty Face

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We tend to think of such modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to be inventions of our generation; but in fact they go back to the 1940s.  Bluetooth was itself named after the 10th century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united Danish tribes into a single kingdom and introduced Christianity to his people (its name was chosen to imply that it would similarly unite communication protocols into a common standard).

So, what do the following three things have in common:  A young Jewish woman by the name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria; the spread-spectrum technology that enables Wi-Fi, CDMA & Bluetooth; and a Hollywood starlet discovered in Paris by Louis B. Mayer in 1937?  Quite a lot, in fact; because the woman born in Austria was otherwise known as Hedy Lamarr, inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for developing technology useful for a radio guidance system for torpedoes, the concept behind Bluetooth, Wi-Fi & CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and now used for entertainment and communication around the globe.

Lamarr, who became known as “the most beautiful woman in Europe”, was the only child of a prominent upper-class Jewish family.  At 18, she married Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third wealthiest man in Austria and an arms dealer who made a killing during the wars (in both senses of the word), in the proverbial bed with both Mussolini and the Nazis.  Lamarr would attend lavish dinner parties and business meetings with her husband as he networked with scientists and those involved in military technology, and her intelligent mind soaked up the information, nurturing her scientific talents.  Lamarr escaped her controlling and jealous husband by disguising herself as a maid and fleeing to Paris, where she obtained a divorce.  There she met Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for European film talent.  In 1938 she made her American film debut in “Algiers”, but because of her beauty, she was often typecast as a seductress; to alleviate the boredom, she set up an engineering room in her home and turned to applied sciences and inventing.  With the outbreak of World War II, she wanted to help in the war against the Germans, particularly in improving torpedo technology.  She met a composer, George Antheil, who had been tinkering with automating musical instruments; together they came upon the concept of “frequency hopping”:  Until then, torpedoes guided by radio signals could be jammed and sent off course just by tuning into their broadcasting frequency and causing interference; hopping frequencies would enable torpedoes to reach their target before their signal could be locked down.

Hedy Lamarr - Austrian-Actress-Invents-Control-DeviceIn classic Hollywood-portrayal style, the US Navy wasn’t interested in a technology developed by a beautiful actress and a musician in some suburban home.  I find the Stars and Stripes article above very telling, as to their views of a pretty face actually being smart too; its tone is quite condescending from beginning to end.  The US military didn’t apply the groundbreaking technology for another 20 years, until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  That same technology serves as the basis for our modern communication technology, enabling many people to use broadband simultaneously without interfering with each other; such situations as portrayed between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” are unthinkable today, and all because of Hedy Lamarr.

So the next time you’re sitting in a café using Wi-Fi next to someone else on their own cell phone, give a wink to the memory of Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr 3

 

Robert Smalls

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Robert Smalls - Wikipedia

Credit:  Wikipedia

Once in a while, an individual rises up who surpasses every social boundary and every limitation to change history.  Robert Smalls was such a man:  Born on the 5th of April, 1839, Robert Smalls went from being a slave in South Carolina to a Civil War hero (he commandeered a Confederate ship, rescued slaves including his family along the way, and gave the Union valuable information along with the ship and its code books), and eventually went on to become a Congressman as well as a Senator, elected no less than five times; he has been given honours such as having met President Lincoln and thereby convincing Lincoln to accept African American soldiers into the US Army; he became the first black captain of a US vessel during the Civil War, and had a US army ship named after him as late as 2004 (the first army ship to be named after an African American).  He eventually bought the house of his former master for his family home, and lived to see the outbreak of World War I; he passed away on the 23rd of February, 1915.

His epitaph reads: “My race needs no special defence, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere.  All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

To read more about this man’s fascinating life and accomplishments, please click on the image.

The Halifax Explosion

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Halifax Explosion, 6 December 1917

Library of Parliament collection, Library and Archives, Canada

6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history.  On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the nuclear age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.

The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller:  The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late.  Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.

Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts,  but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears.  Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks.  To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines.  Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.

Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:

“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.)  Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion.  Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt.  Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen.  Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete.

[“Destruction of the city of Halifax?  New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.)  From Halifax was reported:  Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion.  The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs).  The northern part of the city is in flames.  There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]

On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)

That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.

In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way).  The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of  Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.

To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.

Sources:  Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives

The Ugliest Runner

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Eric LiddellEric Liddell is known today largely because of the film, “Chariots of Fire”, in which he is portrayed.  He was known as a man of conviction and faith, but was also ridiculed for his ugly, ungainly running style, mouth open, head thrown back and arms flailing.  In 1932, the journalist W.W. Marsh remembered Liddell “running with that extraordinary gait of his, like a stricken stag”.  But as Harold Abrahams, Olympic 1924 winner of the gold medal in the 100m race (the one which Liddell famously refused to compete in because its final would be on a Sunday), surmised, “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”

Born in January 1902 to Scottish missionaries in Tientsin, northern China, Liddell was educated in China, and later in a boarding school for missionary children near London.  When his family returned to the UK on furlough from China, he would live with them (mainly) in Edinburgh.  Athletics were merely a way to fill free time for Liddell, whose goal was to return to China as a missionary, following in his parents’ footsteps; his most famous quote sums it up:  “I believe that God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

We know him as a runner, but in fact his entire career in running was  only from 1921 to 1925:  His first meet was for the Edinburgh Athletics Club in 1921; within 2 years he was running races beyond the Scottish borders and became known as “The Flying Scotsman” (named after the eponymous train famous for its record-breaking speed).  Within those four years he also completed a degree in science (he later taught science at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin), became a renowned preacher, and won seven caps for Scotland in Rugby.  While his Olympic fame would seem to be the crowning achievement of his life, he still considered sport a hobby, and even ran in a few meets while living in China; but his true goal was not the “cinder track” but the mission fields of China to which he returned a year after the Olympics were history.

Eric Liddell, The Flying ScotsmanFrom 1925 to 1943, Liddell served as a missionary in China.  In 1941, he sent his pregnant wife and their two daughters to the safety of her parents’ home in Canada, while he went to serve the poor at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, where he relieved his brother Rob, who left to recover from illness.  Though he had been planning to follow his wife within a few months, as the Japanese made inroads into China Liddell had to relocate to Tianjin, from which he was interred in 1943 in the Japanese internment camp (Weihsien) along with members of the China Inland Mission and children of missionaries.  He never saw his family again, and never met his third daughter, Maureen, who was born in Canada.

Even in such dire circumstances, when the POWs began forming cliques to protect and provide for themselves, Liddell was known as a selfless Christian who gave his whole heart to doing what he could for those around him:  He organized games, Bible studies, taught science to the children (who referred to him as Uncle Eric), and shamed the richer inmates into sharing the foods they smuggled into the camp.  Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” ( “50 stunning Olympic moments: No8 Eric Liddell’s 400 metres win, 1924”. The Guardian)

David Mitchell, a child-inmate in the camp with Liddell who went on to become the Director for Canada of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, said this of Liddell:  “Eric stood out among the 1800 people packed into our camp, which measured only 150 by 200 yards. He was in charge of the building where we younger children, who had already been away from our parents for four years because of the war, lived with our teachers. He lived in the very crowded men’s dormitory near us (each man had a space of only three by six feet) and supervised our daily rollcall when the guards came to count us. One day a week ‘Uncle Eric’ would look after us, giving our teachers (all missionaries of the China Inland Mission and all women) a break. His gentle face and warm smile, even as he taught us games with the limited equipment available, showed us how much he loved children and how much he missed his own.”  (Eric Liddell, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“)

Little did Eric know that his death would come only months before the liberation of the camp and the end of World War 2:  Suffering from an undetected brain tumour, the malnutrition and fatigue of prison life took its toll, and Eric passed away suddenly on 21 February 1945.  He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a simple wooden cross.  His last words were reported by a fellow missionary to be, “It’s complete surrender”, referring to how he had given his life to God.

His grave and his writings were in danger of being forgotten; a few men dedicated years of their lives to finding both, and have restored his memory to us.  His only book, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“, is now available in paperback and Kindle formats, allowing his powerful voice to speak down through history to us today.

Famous Last Words: Major General John Sedgwick

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Killed in the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania by a sharpshooter, his ironic last words were:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

General John Sedgwick. Source: Wikipedia

Major General John Sedgwick. Source: Wikipedia

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