A Somewhat Subdued Book Launch

This has been a difficult week in the household of practical history. My sweet mother-in-law passed away after a long health struggle. It’s been an emotional time of grieving and planning and hosting, and it has not been a week for posting or commenting. I am sorry about that, and I am working to catch up.

In general, I would suggest that one might wish to avoid big, emotionally difficult life events when launching a book.  Of course, since big, emotionally difficult life events are rarely planned, here we are. Because the other thing that happened this week is that my third historical novel launched into the world.

I had originally planned to post that announcement accompanied by some interesting history, a little whimsy, and much fanfare. Instead, I’m just going to post the prologue of the book. If you get to the end of the prologue and you would like to keep reading, you can get the book here: mybook.to/PurchaseOnAmazon or here: https://books2read.com/u/31KjGw I would also really appreciate that if you are on Goodreads and feel so compelled, you go ahead and mark it as “Want to Read”: https://bit.ly/3osuNGV. And, of course, reviews are an author’s best friend. Thanks!

Prologue

August 13, 1837

Even the buzz of the insects hushed as the final preacher of the Sabbath day stepped onto the stage to claim the pulpit. It was this man they’d come to see—the farmers and the merchants, the ladies in their finest silks, the young lawyer who, at the request of his friends, had left piles of work in his office six miles away in Springfield only to hear the renowned speaker.

Peter Akers didn’t disappoint. He was a giant of a man. More than six feet tall and broad with long limbs and large hands that animated his speech, he loomed above the crowd. They leaned into his words in the slick heat of the Illinois summer.

He began his sermon with a text from Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee. Akers favored the Old Testament prophets, often preaching from these strange and ancient texts sometimes for hours, diving without hesitation into high-minded allegory and apocalyptic language, inviting his congregation to ascend with him to new intellectual heights.

Also, this happened.
#1 New Release in one fairly obscure category on Amazon. But that’s something. I think.

His were not the emotionally exhilarating sermons of his col­leagues. He neither condemned nor flattered. His words did not in­spire the quaking and contorting otherwise common at camp meeting revivals, yet he held his audience rapt and eager.

Like Jacob of old, Akers wrestled with God, and all who listened came away changed. His sermon danced among the words of God’s prophets, from Zechariah to Isaiah, from Ezekiel’s proclamations of the unrighteous overturned, to the book of Revelation and Baby­lon’s inevitable fall.

And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise anymore: the merchandise of silver and gold and precious stone, of wine and oil and fine flour, of sheep and horses and chariots and slaves and the souls of men.

Akers paused here, his eyes raised to heaven and at the same time locked into the hearts of each silent person awaiting the forth­coming conclusion, breaths held in anticipation.

“If we interpret the prophecies of this Book correctly. . .” Though the preacher’s commanding voice lowered to nearly a whisper, not a word could be missed. “There will soon come a time when the head and front of this offending shall be broken; a time when slave-ships, like beasts of prey, will no longer steal along the coast of de­fenseless Africa. When we shall cease to trade in the flesh and souls of men but will instead expel forever from this land the manacle and the whip.

“I am not a prophet,” Akers explained to a congregation that did not believe him. “But a student of the Prophets. American slavery will come to an end in some near decade.”

At these words, shifting and murmuring rose in the crowd, some perhaps angry but most filled with hope and awe at the sheer audacity of the assertion. Undaunted by the excitement, Akers car­ried on, saying, “Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife might be standing in this presence.”

This was a pronouncement rather than a question. The preacher paused, giving space for the seed of prophetic vision to find fertile soil.

At the edge of the crowd, the young lawyer drew a long breath, rubbed his weary eyes, and reflected on the preacher’s powerful words.

One of his friends clapped him on the back. “What do you think, Mr. Lincoln? Are you glad you came with us?”

“As odd as it seems,” he answered with only slight hesitation, “When the preacher described those changes and revolutions, I was deeply impressed that I should somehow strangely mix up with them.”

He did not wait for a response from his dumbfounded friend, but stood tall and stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and limbs as he thought of the many tasks awaiting him on his desk, and of the much greater work he’d yet to begin.

The Great American Book Cover

In 1925, the world was introduced to a young graphic artist who, up until that time, had remained somewhat obscure. Initially primarily a portrait painter, Francis Cugat was discovered in Chicago by conductor Cleofonte Camanini who connected the artist to numerous opera stars for whom he designed personalized posters.

From there, exactly how he came to the attention of publisher Maxwell Perkins isn’t really known, but in Cugat’s long career which eventually gravitated to film work, he designed only one book cover, and it is among the most recognizable in history.

In all its original glory.

Perkins asked him to sketch some ideas for a forthcoming novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tentatively titled Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Taking what little bit of information Perkins could give him about the incomplete book, Cugat came back with sketches that included bleak landscapes and various iterations of eyes in a wide expanse of sky.

The publisher then shared the sketches with Fitzgerald who apparently liked them a lot. In fact, after missing a deadline, the writer sent a letter to his publisher in which he wrote, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me, I’ve written it into the book.”

The 1925 book, which ended up with the title The Great Gatsby, though not initially very commercially successful, has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the twentieth century and, some would say, is in the running for the label of the Great American Novel. You probably read it in high school. I did. And my son who is a junior just did.

I can honestly say I don’t remember the book particularly well, but I do recall the voice of my junior year English teacher, Mr. K., as he discussed the imagery of the enormous eyes peering, bespectacled, from a faded billboard advertising the practice of T. J. Eckleburg, keeping God-like watch over the unfolding tragedy of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, and mimicking the way Daisy’s disembodied face haunted the men who loved her.

I also remember that Mr. K.’s voice was particularly deep and soothing and that even though I adored his class, it was sometimes difficult to stay awake in that period, which immediately followed lunch. So, I have to assume that one of the reasons the imagery stuck with me as the rest of the novel and almost everything else I read that year faded in my memory like a long neglected and weathered billboard, is because of the eyes on the front cover. Not to judge the book by them or anything, but it turns out covers really do matter.

A future classic? Or at least a pretty book.

That’s why I am so excited to introduce to you the cover art for my newest book, coming out in just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t designed before the book was finished, but I think it does capture it really well and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Fitzgerald must have felt much the same way. The final cover didn’t have universal appeal. Ernest Hemingway, for one, thought it was garish. The Great Gatsby has been published with a few different covers over the years, including one featuring Leonardo Dicaprio, but the original always seems to make a comeback, and it is certainly the most recognized.

Whether the cover of my newest novel will ever become an iconic image remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether the book, in years to come, will be studied in English classes and will be in contention for becoming the Great American Novel. I don’t know that my aspirations are quite that high. But it does, I think, have a pretty nice cover.

Why Ghosts are so Bad at Telling Jokes

Halloween is nearly upon us, which means it’s that time of year when we all better be prepared for little costumed ghouls and goblins to knock on our doors, throw flour in our faces, and tell us they hate us before scurrying off to dance wildly about the leaping flames of a bonfire in the middle of the street.

Or maybe not. I recently watched the musical movie Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time, which in itself is a shock, given that I live just outside of St. Louis and have been known to join in a singalong of the title song with 40,000 or so of my closest friends at sporting events in the city. But that’s nothing compared to the shock of the film’s depiction of a typical St. Louis Halloween celebration circa 1903, as experienced by Agnes and Tootie, dressed as a “horrible ghost” and a “terrible, drunken ghost.”

Of course, the mother in me had a visceral reaction to the scene, which is rude and scary and feels terribly dangerous. And I was also confused, because that is not how Halloween is done in St. Louis today. In fact, one of the more charming things about the city is that we have a really sweet and innocent and fairly unique tradition on Halloween night.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Now, it’s not uncommon to see neighbors gathering around fire pits, sipping hot chocolate and handing out candy, but in the nearly eight Halloweens I’ve been here, I’ve never once come across a gang of children tossing furniture into a bonfire in the middle of the street. And while I suppose we do get the occasional horrible ghost or terrible, drunken ghost that shows up to ask for a Halloween treat, I usually see a lot more Disney princesses and superheroes than anything else.

The best part is that almost all of our costumed visitors come prepared with a joke or two to share. I’m talking scary awful, groan-worthy jokes, like the kind you would read in a bubblegum wrapper or like the kind that might encourage you to give someone a piece of candy just so they’ll go away.

Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

Not every kid will tell one. There are always some who are too little or too shy or too nonverbal, and that’s okay. Our candy distribution is not dependent on anyone’s joke-telling prowess, but it is a fun little tradition and no one really knows for sure how it got started.

The best guess comes from local folklorist John Oldani who believed it descended from an influx of Irish immigrants holding onto remnants of the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. A lot of Halloween traditions were likely influenced by Samhain, including costumes, pumpkin carving, bonfires, and the offering of a song or poem or even a joke in exchange for a fun size Snickers.

No one seems to know why this took hold so firmly in the St. Louis area and not really elsewhere, except that perhaps the city started encouraging it as an alternative to pranks and vandalism and bonfires in the middle of Kensington Avenue. It seems to have arisen alongside trick-or-treating itself around 1940 or so. Maybe it was even a reaction to the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis that convinced the mothers of St. Louis that we needed a little more charm to our Halloween.

However it happened, the city has embraced it and come Halloween night, I’m pretty sure I’m going to hear some truly awful jokes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and hear some poems, too. And there’s probably a full-size candy bar in it for any terrible, drunken ghost that sings “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”

If you’ve got a good (or bad) Halloween joke, I’d love to hear it!

Celebrating Family History Month Under a False Bottom Drawer

On June 11, 1837, the ship Charlotte Harper set sail from the United States for the West Coast of Africa where a colony had been established by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of resettling former American slaves. The ship carried supplies for the settlements of Bassa Cove and Monrovia in the colony of Liberia, a handful of ACS agents, a couple of teachers, and one eager twenty-four-year-old Methodist Episcopal missionary physician named Sylvanus Goheen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Sylvanus, but this is his good buddy John Seys, superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal mission in Liberia. Smith sc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back on history, we might have some strong opinions about colonization, most of them probably negative. At that time, opinions were mixed. But this farm kid from Pennsylvania, youngest of a large brood, and fresh from medical school, such as it was in the 1830s, didn’t question the nobility of his intention to help carry the light of Christ to the new colony. He did, however, fear he might not make it there at all.

Watching the waving handkerchief of the one brother who, with tears in his eyes, had come to send him off, the image slowly fading from view along with the coastline of the United States, Sylvanus began to envision looming tragedy that would send him to the bottom of the Atlantic. The newspaper headlines his mother would read began to drift through his mind: Storm Sunk Vessel and All Aboard Lost or She Went Down in the Night, Cause Unknown or She Happened in with a Pirate who Murdered All Aboard. I think it’s safe to say he was freaking out a little.

And this is where, after hours and hours of puzzling my way through the handwriting of my ancestors, I lament the fact that a lot of school children are no longer learning cursive. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I don’t blame him. I’d have probably been freaking out, too. Sylvanus Goheen was imaginative, charming, and pretty funny. He was also sort of arrogant and sometimes kind of petulant, but we all have our faults and, if I’m being honest, he reminds me a little bit of myself.

That makes sense to me, because he was the younger brother of my grandfather’s great grandfather. I first encountered Sylvanus on the pages of a diary he presented to his sister Ann around the time of his departure for Liberia. This diary, though shorter on details than I’d have liked, turned up beneath the false bottom drawer of a lawyer cabinet among my grandmother’s possessions. That’s where my aunt found it shortly after my grandmother’s death.

Since I’m the writer in the family, she presented it to me and I placed it on the backburner where it simmered for quite a few years while, though I dabbled with it a little, I spent most of my time with mummies, lost manuscripts, and scoundrels. But now finally it’s quite a few years later. It’s also October, which means that if you are in the United States, this is officially Family History Month as declared by Congress in 2001 because, evidently, they had nothing better to do.

It’s the month for interviewing your oldest relatives, for checking out the genealogical tools available at your local library, for sending off for that kit that tells you how closely you’re related to Genghis Kahn, and for searching the false bottom drawers in your heirloom furniture. Because I bet you’ll find interesting people, who did interesting things, and if you can manage to learn about them, you might even discover hints of yourself.

Genghis Kahn, allegedly among the most genetically successful men of all time. Clara-Agathe NARGEOT (1829 – ?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And maybe, if you do a little more research, and a little more than that, and a little more than that until you’ve done quite a lot of research about them, you might someday take them off the backburner and write a book. That’s what I finally did.

My newest novel White Man’s Graveyard will be released in just a few weeks. In its pages, you’ll get to meet Sylvanus, his sister Annie, a dog named Hector, an orangutan named Jenny, and a whole lot of other characters, many of whom come from my own family’s past, and a few of whom come from my head. You’ll also get to explore a controversial piece of not always well remembered American and Liberian history.

And you’ll discover whether or not Sylvanus was murdered by a pirate.

A Bridge to Nowhere

Beginning on March first of 1938, the Los Angeles region experienced one of its largest floods in history, caused by the convergence of two Pacific storms that generated a year’s worth of rain in the matter of a few days. The flooding killed more than a hundred people, caused $78 million in damage (in 1938 dollars), and completely washed out an ongoing road project that would have connected the San Gabriel Valley to Wrightwood, about seventy or so miles northeast of LA.

San Gabriel Bridge to Nowhere. Maybe even worth the hike. Victorrocha at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no doubt the East Fork Road would have been a pretty drive, cutting through some of the most gorgeous scenery the gorgeous state of California has to offer and crossing over the East Fork of the San Gabriel River on a picturesque truss arch bridge that is 180 feet long and stands 120-feet over the riverbed below.

After the flood the road project was abandoned and today still lies in ruins, with only the occasional bit of asphalt visible. But the bridge remains as something of an oddity in the California wilderness. Locals call it the “Bridge to Nowhere” and it can be reached by a somewhat treacherous 10-mile roundtrip hike.

Though I probably would, I’ve never visited, so all I can tell you about the hike is what I’ve read online. Apparently, it involves a good bit of river fording, an activity which has been responsible for quite a few deaths of adventurous people over the years. There’s a lot of bouldering required, too, and some steep climbs. One description of the trail I read says that at one point you get to choose between two additional water crossings (some of which are apparently waist-deep) or a hefty climb followed by a rope-assisted descent down a steep rock wall. And if that’s not enough adventure for you, there’s also a company that will let you bungee jump off the bridge once you get there.

I’m probably crazy enough to hike to it. I’m certain I’m not crazy enough to bungee jump off of it. Mitch Barrie, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the difficult nature of the trail, almost every description I read cautioned that the trailhead would probably be busy for this very popular hike. The bridge serves no real purpose, but apparently, people love a bridge to nowhere.

And I think I get it, because I have a recently acquired a bridge to nowhere of my very own in my back yard. Mine didn’t come from an abandoned construction project of course. It was a leftover decoration from a picture backdrop for a prom in a small-town high school in 1969.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, or if you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, then you may recall that my dad is a retired high school math teacher. In that role, he happened to be the class sponsor for the class of 1970, who as juniors were responsible for planning the senior prom of 1969. The students decided they wanted a foot bridge and so they got some help from the art teacher to design one. Then when prom was over, no one knew what to do with it. My dad, who had a pretty big backyard and a couple of little kids at the time, said it could be stored there.

It never really served much of a purpose in the yard, but my brother and sister loved clomping over it, jumping off of it, and playing Billy Goats Gruff. It became a fixture of their childhood and eventually of mine and my other brother’s as well. Over the years, it was borrowed again and again for ceremonies, dances, and community and school plays. Between each use, it was repainted barn red and returned to our backyard where it was kind of an oddity that also became a fixture of childhood for a series of grandchildren.

Family Bridge to Nowhere. Ozzie is a fan.

It’s sustained damage over time and been rebuilt a lot. There’s not likely a single original board in it, but it’s always been the same design and it’s always (unless loaned out) been in my parents’ backyard. That is until now.

Not too long ago, a storm brought a large tree down on the bridge, leaving it in pretty bad shape. My dad, whose grandchildren are now beyond the Billy Goats Gruff stage of life, decided maybe it was time to just let it go, but before he did, he asked us if we wanted it.

It turns out, I’m pretty fond of bridges to nowhere. We loaded it up and delivered it to a new home in our backyard where we rebuilt it and gave it a fresh coat of barn red paint. I’m sure our neighbors are scratching their heads at our new backyard oddity, but if they want to come check it out, it’s a pretty easy hike to get to it. There are no rivers to ford or rope-assisted descents over rock faces. If it makes them happy, they can even jump off of it, no bungee cord required.

And if one of the local high schools needs a bridge for a dance or a play, they’ll know where to find it. It’s in my backyard, going nowhere.

The Misadventures of a Mad Hatter

Local legend says that in the late 18th century in Danbury, Connecticut, a man by the name of Zadoc Benedict discovered a hole in his shoe. There might not have been anything remarkable about that except that, in addition to having an excellent name, Benedict turned out to be a clever problem-solver. He plugged the hole with a bit of fur and found that after a while, sweat and friction had formed the patch into a nice felt.

Benedict figured he could use a similar technique to make a stylish felt hat and soon found a way to do just that, creating hats first in his home and eventually in a small hat shop on Danbury’s Main Street.

A pretty picture of a building filled with toxic steam and mad hatters. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And apparently, he made some really nice hats because others in Danbury also decided to go into the hat-making business, which toward the end of the century had become Danbury’s leading industry, producing five million hats per year and earning it the clever nickname “Hat City.”

By then, the hat manufacturing process had taken a turn toward simpler, large-scale techniques involving the use of mercury nitrate, an incredibly toxic substance that turns the furry skin of a small animal into hat felt and a grown man into a trembling, drooling, irritable, mad hatter of the variety that might engage in an endless tea party with his buddy the March Hare.

It’s one of those stories of industrial danger and exploitation that should make your stomach hurt. The earliest clinical description of mercury poisoning was published in 1860. It wasn’t formally studied by the U. S.  Public Health Service until 1937, and that only after many years of pressure from the Hatter’s Union.

John Tenniel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The symptoms mimicked drunkenness, which made it easy for employers to shovel the blame for illness onto the employees rather than the industrial chemicals. And then there’s the reality that the process itself of making a hat can, in fact, drive one mad.

At least this has been my recent experience. This year for the first time, both of my sons are in high school. Both are soon headed to their schools’ homecoming dances, my freshman son perhaps with a bit of trepidation. He’s going with a friend who is a girl who will be wearing a purple dress.

With a little bit of prodding from people who are way too invested in getting nice pictures (like me), my son will match her pretty well. He’s chosen a lavender dress shirt, dark gray slacks, vest, and tie. In addition to this, he wants to wear a flat cap. But it’s got to be purple. Or at least have a significant amount of purple in it.

My only previous hat making experience.

Let me tell you, I have scoured the internet and shown him lots of pictures. What I have discovered is that outside of ordering a custom-made cap rush delivered to Missouri from Scotland, for which I am unwilling to pay, there are no suitable options. Not one. There are, however, some simple patterns available.

I pride myself on being a relatively creative and crafty mom, but sewing has never really been my best medium. I do own a sewing machine and I can whip up a cloth facemask with the best of them. Over the years I have made a few Halloween costumes, hemmed some skirts, and even made one or two outfits for our travel mascot, Sock Monkey Steve. But give me a simple pattern for a flat cap and I will quickly become a trembling, irritable, mad hatter who is ready to start drinking with the March Hare. I doubt it will be tea in my cup.

It’s not quite what I had in mind, but my son says it will do, mostly because he doesn’t want his mother to go mad.

I tried. I really tried. Several times. It did not go well. Fortunately, like Zadoc Benedict, I am clever enough to find a way to make it work. I ended up dyeing a plaid flat cap with an off-white background. So now my son has a purple flat cap to wear to homecoming. I didn’t have to use any mercury nitrate and I have recovered from my temporary madness. 

Eventually Danbury did, too, though not until after an awful lot of hatters had gone mad. The use of mercury nitrate in the hat industry was banned in the U. S. at the end of 1941. We as a nation, much to the chagrin of my son, don’t wear as many hats as we once did, though I suspect those who make the ones we do wear, are still a little mad.

A Horde of Under-caffeinated Hoarders

On July 24, 1777 Boston merchant Thomas Boylston got what was coming to him. Or at least that’s probably how it was understood by the one hundred or more women who attacked him on King Street. Boston, like most cities around this time in the burgeoning nation, was experiencing a series of food shortages. Both the British and Continental armies frequently requisitioned food and livestock and a lot of women had been left scrambling on their own to manage families, homes, farms, and businesses while their husbands were off fighting a war.

This is a horde.
tangi bertin from Rennes, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like there are in most good crises, there were those who saw advantage in the struggle. Boylston, who was a cousin to John Adams, was generally thought to be a patriot, and who seriously underestimated the wrath of a whole horde of caffeine-deficient women, decided to hoard coffee in order to drive up the price.

Now, I am not a coffee drinker, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers. Some I might even call obsessive, a category that might even include you. I know it includes the people who make it difficult every single day for me to drive down the access road behind the main Starbucks in my town. I say “main” because we do have more than one. They’re both busy. Always.

This is a hoard. It’s just as scary. Image by Nature-Pix from Pixabay

I mean like winding drive-through line that spills ten cars deep out of the Starbucks parking lot and into the road that I innocently attempt to drive down in order to make my way from one place where I don’t buy coffee to another place where I don’t buy coffee kind of busy. This line, I assume, is filled with people who might have joined in with the women of Boston that marched to Boylston’s business, demanded his keys, and when he refused, seized him by the neck, forced him into a cart and, according to some accounts, spanked him until he complied. He eventually did. The mob then carried off all the coffee and left Boylston contemplating the fact that he’d been beaten up by a bunch of girls. One farmer justified the mob actions by saying, “This is the very same oppression that we complain of Great Britain!”

And this is just coffee. I don’t really get it. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

While that may be a slight oversimplification of the causes of the Revolutionary War, short supplies can make people do crazy things, like hoard twelve years-worth of toilet paper next to the Christmas decorations and model train sets in their basements. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a desperate shortage of coffee right now. Or at least there wasn’t before National Coffee Day yesterday.

To celebrate the day, Starbucks offered a free cup of coffee to any customer who came by with their favorite mug. No need even to spank the barista. The offer was limited to one cup per customer per store, but since there are approximately forty-seven Starbucks stores within an hour of my house, and probably yours, too, coffee drinkers could have kept busy picking up free coffee all day long. Judging by the line spilling out of the parking lot, most of you did.

My New Favorite Tee Shirt and the Camaraderie of Misery

On September 25, 1974 fellow members of a local track club Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan hosted an event at Mission Bay in San Diego unlike any they believed the world had ever seen. They assumed that because neither had been present when a similar event took place near Paris in 1902.

There are some triathlon events that include different combinations of sports, like the Running Rivers Flyathlon, which includes running, fly fishing, and beer drinking. True story. Asþont, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In each case the event consisted of three separate sports mashed together into one race. The Paris event was cleverly called Les Trois Sports, which roughly translates as “race event for impressive athletes who are also mildly insane.” Trust me on this. French is a highly efficient language.

In San Diego, the newfangled race was called a triathlon, because Greek is an even more efficient language and Johnstone, unsatisfied with his fitness level after running and running and running, was just insane enough suggest that the San Diego Track Club throw some other challenges into the mix.

Les Trois Sports initially included run, bicycle, and canoe components, all completed consecutively without a break outside of the time it takes to exchange some equipment and chow down some quick sugar, like a power bar or maybe a baguette or something. I don’t really know that much about turn of the century French culture.

My super cool sharpie tattoo also included my age on my calf, so that every time I got passed by a 65-year-old, I would be sure to know, which was helpful.

The Mission Bay Triathlon consisted of running, biking, and swimming. In that order. Fortunately, the distances for this first triathlon were relatively short since it had not yet occurred to the organizers that an exhausted swimmer is more likely to accidentally drown than one who has a lot more exercise still to look forward to.

Forty-six athletes participated in this first triathlon event in the US, which is a lot more mildly insane people than Johnstone and Shanahan expected. Two of those participants were Judy and John Collins, who only four years later, proved they were not so much on the mild side of insane when they began the Ironman event in Hawaii, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26 mile run. At least it was in that order because by then, triathletes had figured out that collapsing from exhaustion on the road, while dangerous, is usually not as immediately deadly as collapsing in the ocean.

As insane as I believe the Ironman to be, I do admire and appreciate the extreme dedication of the athletes who train for and participate in it. In concept, and on a much smaller scale, I am even drawn to the idea of a triathlon.

As long as you’re doing it for the right reasons (a tee shirt and a medal), it’s not that insane.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before, but it always bears repeating, that I believe with my whole heart that running is stupid. I do, however, love to swim and I’m also a big fan of biking and of participating in race events in general. There’s just something about the camaraderie of misery that really sizzles my bacon.

So, when a friend recently asked if anyone would like to join her for the sprint course of the TriathLou in Litchfield, Illinois, I readily volunteered. I participated in a similar event ten or twelve years ago with my sister and I remember it being tough but fun. Then, to my surprise and delight, my slightly insane fourteen-year-old son said he wanted to give it a try this time, so I was definitely stuck.

It wasn’t a terribly long event. We swam 0.3 miles, biked 12 miles, and ran 3.1 miles, done consecutively with only enough break between to exchange some equipment and chow some quick sugar, like an energy bar or a Snickers because I am pretty familiar with early twenty-first century American culture.

Yes, I did finish, and I did run every step. As I easily predicted, the swim and bike went just fine and I was slow and miserable-ish on the stupid run, but I did it. For my efforts I got improved satisfaction with my fitness level, a tee shirt, and a finishers medal so I can prove to anyone who questions me that I am mildly insane.

The Naked Truth About Pirates

In April of 1716, the crew of the French vessel Ste. Marie got a strange and probably pretty scary surprise. Off the coast of Cuba, the ship, carrying at least 30,000 pieces of eight, was flanked by two small vessels full of pirates who were armed to the teeth and were otherwise as naked as the day they were born.

There were many versions of the menacing flag associated with pirates. Among the simplest of them, this one was most likely flown by Black Sam. RootOfAllLight, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It had been eight months or so since eleven of twelve Spanish ships transporting a large haul of treasure from the New World to the old had fallen victim to a hurricane and wrecked off the coast of Florida. The tragedy claimed as many as 1,500 lives and quickly attracted the attention of treasure hunters, including partners Paulsgrave Williams and Samuel Bellamy who sailed from Cape Cod, arriving in the fall after much of the treasure had already been plundered.

Of the two, Bellamy was the experienced sailor and the historical rumor mill suggests that he had a pretty good reason for needing that treasure. He had met the girl of his dreams but her father refused the poor young man’s plea to marry his daughter. Frustrated at the lack of treasure, Bellamy, who would later come to be known as Black Sam, turned to piracy because, obviously, it’s every father’s dream for his daughter to marry a pirate.

And he was a really good pirate, actually one of the most successful of the Golden Age of Piracy despite a relatively short run. He often shared his ill-gotten wealth with those who needed it most, earning a reputation as the Robinhood of pirates. A brilliant strategist, he went out of his way to minimize violence, even stripping to the buff in order to shock the crew and take the Ste. Marie without a single shot fired.

If you do wish to dress like a black-hearted bilge rat, I suggest something more along these lines. It will probably still surprise most of the landlubbers you encounter and it is much less likely to get you arrested.

And despite his nakedness, he allegedly treated his captives with respect, preferring “Please and thank you, sirs” to “Arrr. Walk the plank, ye black-hearted bilge rats!” That may be something to bear in mind as we celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day coming up this Sunday, September 19th.

You will be celebrating Talk Like a Pirate Day, yes? Among all the thousands of ridiculous made-up holidays and “official” recognition days that have been crowded onto our calendars over the years, this one is definitely on my short list of favorites (Pi Day on March 14 claims the top spot).

Originally created by some guy in Oregon as a way to pillage some fun on the date of his ex-wife’s birthday, the probably-not-so-celebration-worthy event attracted notice when humor columnist Dave Barry wrote about it in 2002. So now, people in the know, spend the day calling one another scurvy dogs and saying Yo ho ho a lot.

And why not? Historians may argue that outside of Disney movies pirates probably didn’t actually talk all that differently than the rest of us, but it’s kind of a fun challenge to try to work shiver me timbers into a conversation. Go ahead and give it a try; talk like a pirate. Just maybe think twice before dressing like one.

Dreaming of the Island Nation of Angletonia

On September 2, 1967 Englishman Roy Bates set the bar remarkably high when he gave a pretty extravagant birthday gift to his wife. That was the day he bestowed upon her the title of Princess Joan and made her the sovereign of a new nation called Sealand, which today celebrates the fifty-fourth anniversary of its establishment.

Don’t tell the Sealanders, but technically, it is what’s known as a micronation, basically meaning that as far as the international community is concerned, it’s not a real thing at all. But Sealand was created from a defensive platform fortress built during World War II in what was then international waters by Great Britain, and over the years it has achieved a modicum of legal recognition.

Looks like a nice place, I guess? See en:Talk:Sealand/emails, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bates occupied what was known as Fort Roughs Tower with the intention of running a pirate radio station from about seven or so miles off the coast of Suffolk and beyond the interference of the BBC. He never did establish the radio station, though. Instead, he consulted with a lawyer, and declared The Principality of Sealand.

The primary question, it seems to me, is why? Sealand doesn’t seem to me like an especially pleasant place to live, and at any given time, according to its current head of state Michael Bates, its in-country population is “normally like two people.”

It’s also taken the Bates family a significant effort to maintain through the years. When England began destroying several similar platforms off its coast in the late 1960s, Sealanders fired warning shots toward approaching vessels. Bates faced legal ramifications, but the British courts decided they had no jurisdiction in the case, which its prince took as legal justification for his “nation’s” existence.

Sealand has a flag, national anthem, currency, and stamps. You can even become a member of the nobility if you want. Zscout370, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later, in 1978, Sealand faced an invasion by German and Dutch mercenaries, resulting in Prince Michael being held hostage. The prince eventually managed to use some of the resources at his disposal on Fort Roughs to overwhelm his captors, one of whom was in possession of a Sealand passport and so was tried and imprisoned for treason. Because a German diplomat entered into eventually successful negotiations on the man’s behalf, Sealand could then claim German recognition as a nation. Kind of.

The whole thing sounds exhausting to me, but then I think I also might kind of get it. At least a little bit. Because even though the Bates family are British citizens who primarily reside on land in Great Britain, they have a place to retreat to when their government leaders go and do really, really stupid things. As government leaders so often seem to do.

The rest of us are left uselessly yelling at our television screens, computer monitors, phones, messenger pigeons, or however we get our news, and trying to invent more creative swear words to post self-righteously on social media because the old ones no longer seem adequate. Meanwhile, the royal family of Sealand, and “normally like two” of its citizen caretakers, can escape to their weird North Sea micronation haven where they can make their own decisions and Grandma Joan’s head is on the coins.

For now, Angletonia exists only in the unclaimed territory in my brain, where it looks something like this. Image by Todd Kay from Pixabay

It sounds kind of nice, actually. At least once in a while. And apparently other people think so, too, because micronations have been popping up all over the world for at least a century. Some exist on little (or quite large) bits of unclaimed land within the borders of recognized nations, some on islands, some in cyberspace, and even one in outer space. It boasts more than 160,000 citizens.

Most don’t tend to last too long, and few receive even as much sort-of recognition as Sealand has managed. As the spunky North Sea micronation celebrates fifty-four years of well-imagined existence, it’s not entirely clear how long it will continue.

The Bates family seems determined to fight for their little chunk of the world, but since England’s borders expanded in 1987 to include twelve miles out into the sea, Sealand does now technically exist within the country whose citizenship its royal family still holds. If there’s ever reason for a legal battle again, I’m not convinced, in all my vast (totally made-up) understanding of law, that it will survive. I think I’m rooting for them, though, and dreaming of my own island nation of Angletonia.