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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

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Plumbago vs. Graphite

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Pencil, Carpenter'sMy husband and I had a discussion tonight (as one does) about which came first – Plumbago, or Graphite.  Being the curious types, I had to find out before he went to bed (me, being the night owl).  Here’s the low-down:

The English term Plumbago came into the language via Latin for a type of black lead ore.  In the 1500s, a large deposit of this ore was found in Cumbria, England; this particular vein was so compact and pure that it could be sawn into sticks, and it holds the record to this day of being the only large-scale solid ore deposit.  It wasn’t long before its value was recognized, and subsequently monopolised by the Crown.  Long live the king and all that.  When the Crown had enough to last them awhile, they would flood the mines to prevent theft.  How clever is that?  Right.  The English folk have long been resourceful blokes, and they smuggled lead out for pencil production and a bit of dosh on the side.  I wonder how they drained the flooded mine shafts?

It was used as a strategic secret by the British to make smoother cannon balls:  They would take the native ore, in its powdery form, and smooth it to the insides of their cannon ball moulds, allowing them to slip the molten hot ball out of the form intact.  It gave them a great advantage over conventional (enemy) artillery as it was more aerodynamic, and could inflict more damage more accurately.  During the Battle of Trafalgar, so many French bodies were stacked on their decks that, when seen by the British officers boarding the conquered ships, it shocked even war-hardened military men.  But I digress.

In 1789 a German mineralogist, Abraham Gottlob Werner, coined the term Graphit, from the Greek word graphein, meaning “write”, because it was at length used in pencils.  The first sticks of lead were wrapped in strips of leather to support the soft lead.  England held the monopoly on that until a way was found to reconstitute powdered lead (by the Germans, as early as the mid-1660s).  The German word made it into English around 1796.

So there you have it:  Plumbago wins by a long shot over (the bow of) Graphite.

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