And Then Ninety-two Years Later

It was 1928 when pathologist Dr. Harrison Martland first wrote about the condition that came to be known in the boxing world as “Punch Drunk Syndrome.” With his partner Dr. Christopher Beling, Martland autopsied more than three hundred brains from traumatic cerebral hemorrhaging cases and found a connection between unusual brain structures and the sport of boxing.

boxing punch
Image courtesy of Skeeze, via Pixabay.com

Dr. Martland set out to learn as much as he could about the sport and noted carefully the observations of the athletes and trainers who exhibited and described tremors, vertigo, and mental deterioration, many of them having been reassured by physicians that there was no correlation between head injury sustained in the ring and such symptoms.

Martland believed there was enough evidence to suggest a connection and though he didn’t have the exact mechanism of the disease figured out, he poured a great deal of effort into detailing boxing styles and career longevity and their possible relationships to long-term health effects.

football concussion
Image courtesy of tpsdave, via Pixabay.com

But Martland’s work didn’t gain a lot of traction, and barely any outside the sport of boxing. It certainly wasn’t discussed within other contact sports, and was flat-out denied by some. It was another seventy-seven years before the 2005 publication of Dr. Bennett Omalu’s paper on “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (CTE) observed in the brains of deceased professional American football athletes and before the danger of frequent concussion was even on the public’s radar.

The NFL was quick to disparage the study and the reputation of Dr. Omalu, but was eventually pressured enough to admit to some knowledge of brain injury problems. It turned out that many former NFL players were experiencing impulse control, impaired judgment, chronic headache, aggression, paranoia, and early onset progressive dementia.

Thanks to a tenacious media and Hollywood director and producer Ridley Scott who enlisted Will Smith to tell the story of Dr. Omalu’s discovery in the 2015 film Concussion, the public has begun to pay attention and sports are beginning, though still much too slowly, to seriously examine ways to keep athletes safer.

The word was finally out eighty-seven years after Dr. Martland’s description of Punch Drunk Syndrome, and thirty-seven years after my cousin Jake started playing sports as a little kid.

We lost Jake a few months ago, just before Christmas. He ended his own life because at age 47, he could no longer manage the symptoms of this terrible degenerative disease. That’s when most of his family found out for the first time what he had been struggling with. He hadn’t wanted us to know while he did his best to enjoy life with the people he loved.

He was a wonderful, generous man and yes, he was a gifted multi-sport athlete who loved, among many others, the sport of football. He played it for many years, and then in more recent years told his fiancée that if he had known the price for playing, he wouldn’t have done it.

soccer header
Image courtesy of tpsdave via Pixabay.com

And that’s why I decided to use this space, where I typically stick to more lighthearted topics, to write about Punch Drunk Syndrome, CTE, and my cousin who is so very loved and so terribly missed. Because his choices might have been different if he’d had the information. And maybe your choices or the choices of those you love could be different now that you do.

CTE does not correlate strongly with isolated large concussion injuries, though of course those are concerning. Those who suffer from CTE are more likely to have experienced years of repeated small head trauma, much of which may not even fit the diagnostic criteria of concussion. Sports most likely to see CTE development include not only football and boxing, but also hockey, rugby, and soccer. It also affects military personnel and victims of domestic violence.

There’s still a lot to be learned. CTE doesn’t affect everyone who has ever experienced head trauma, or everyone who plays contact sports, but when it does, it is devastating and incurable. In fact, though we understand much more about the causes and symptoms than we ever have before, it still can’t be conclusively diagnosed until death.

What we do know for sure is that it’s entirely preventable. And we should’ve known that for at least ninety-two years.

You can learn more about CTE from the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Bigfoot, Mormons, and Smoking Guns

Earlier this year, on January 22, the Washington State Department of Transportation made an unexpected discovery. While reviewing footage from a camera near Sherman Pass on State Route 20, they spotted…something.

That’s right folks, Bigfoot is alive and well and living in the mountain passes of Washington State. Maybe. It’s a fair bet that people are paying closer attention to the WSDOT twitter feed these days and that’s a good thing. These cameras are supposed to show potentially dangerous environmental conditions along the state’s most treacherous roads. They are not necessarily intended to reveal the presence of cryptozoological creatures, which lends maybe the smallest hint of sort of credibility to the video.

The WSDOT certainly isn’t staking its professional reputation on the discovery. After all, they are only “a little stitious,” but I suppose it’s possible they have found the smoking gun in one of the world’s greatest mysteries.

Not a literal smoking gun, of course, though that does seem to be how the phrase may have originally been used. One of the earliest examples is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” in which a “smoking pistol” in the hands of a criminal demonstrates his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.

smoking gun
photo credit: AppleDave Smoking Gun via photopin (license)

The phrase didn’t gain much traction as a metaphor for another eighty years when the US press pretty universally adopted it in reference to the hunt for evidence in President Nixon’s impeachment case.

Since the more metaphorical resurgence of the phrase in the 1970s, its use has blossomed to incorporate that one missing piece of crucial evidence that supports not only a criminal case, but also a scientific assumption, or even a conspiracy theory.

I do love a good conspiracy theory. And the best ones seem to all be missing just that one smoking gun. If only the public could finally see the alien technology kept at Area 51 or the original unedited film from Stanley Kubricks’s moon landing hoax.

My new novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which came out this week, was inspired by a smoking gun from history. In 1830, a man named Joseph Smith published a new sacred text called The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi.

He claimed to have found these golden plates buried in the Hill Cumorah in New York State and to have translated them from “Reformed Egyptian” by divine interpretation made possible with the use of seer stones thrown into a hat. Once he was finished, the plates were taken up to heaven.BoMSmoke

As you might imagine, not everyone was quick to swallow this unusual story. Though Smith’s book won him followers and started a religious movement that continues today, it also garnered a number of detractors. One of those was newspaper editor Eber D. Howe who in 1834 published Mormonism Unvailed. Howe’s book includes a large collection of affidavits swearing that Smith’s sacred text was really the plagiarized work of an unpublished and by then deceased novelist named Solomon Spalding.

Like most conspiracy theories, the claim is supported by a lot of circumstantial evidence, a few assumptions, and possibly some questionable motives, but also like most, it is plausible. At least it’s plausible enough for fiction.

SmokeFrontCover
Available now!

Because if true, this theory, which has come to be known as the Spalding Enigma, would be well served by the existence of the original manuscript of the Spalding novel, allegedly titled Manuscript Found. This particular smoking gun has thus far been lost to history.

But it’s not lost to historical fiction. My novel is the coming of age story of a woman who comes to possess that manuscript. It begins with the Spalding Enigma, but in the course of the story also seeks to explore the unique cultural environment that allowed several new religious movements to begin. The book is fiction. It’s intended neither to convince nor convert, but rather to look at an interesting moment in history.

I mean it’s certainly no Bigfoot caught on a Department of Transportation camera, but I’m pretty proud of the book and I hope you’ll consider checking it out.

 

Want to help me spread the word? If you’re willing to share about the book on social media, I’d be so grateful. You can share this post, the Amazon link, or the book trailer. Really, any mention at all would be great! I even have some ready-made tweets if you’d like to use them. Thanks!

Tweet this“A fascinating look at a historical mystery that spell-bindingly blends fact with fiction.” Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

A girl abandoned becomes a woman pursued by a dark past, a dangerous secret and those who would kill to keep it hidden. Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

A woman with a unique gift and a tragic past holds the key to unravelling one of history’s greatest deceptions. Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

 

Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg address
Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.

Four Wheels and a Hint of Danger

In the wee hours of the morning on July 4, 1896, Henry Ford smashed the brick side of his shed with an axe. That might sound a little extreme, but after months of work the inventor and future business superstar was finally ready to test drive a new creation he called the Quadricycle. The trouble was it didn’t fit through the door.

Ford_quadricycle_crop
If I saw this coming down the road I’d probably get out of the way. Ford’s Quadricycle. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With the exception of a brief breakdown due to a faulty spring, the rest of the test drive was more or less a success. Ford’s friend and assistant James Bishop rode ahead on his bicycle to warn carriages and pedestrians to get out of the way. Ford fired up his four-horse-powered gasoline engine and tootled along behind in a 500-pound frame with four bicycle tires, no breaks, little steering ability, and a “horn” made from a doorbell.

Thankfully, he improved on the design a little through the years.

Can’t you just picture that first test run? I can imagine the look on Henry Ford’s face as he raced through the streets of Detroit at a whopping twenty miles per hour. It must have been a mix of elation at the beginning of a dream coming true and the terror of barely controlling something powerful enough to kill you and everyone in your way. It’s probably the same expression I wore many years ago the first time I got behind the wheel of a car and it actually started moving.

permit driver
Our version of a crier on a bicycle. Trouble is you don’t see it until he’s already driven past.

My oldest son recently got to have that experience. He turned fifteen at the end of last year and in the state of Missouri that means he became eligible to test for his driving learner’s permit. Because his birthday falls so late in the year, we decided it would be wise to get the permit as soon as possible so he had a better chance of gaining plenty of experience on icy winter roads before the state considers granting him a real license at age sixteen.

But because we didn’t have anyone on a bicycle to warn everyone to get out of the way, we decided to start in a large, empty parking lot on a dry, sunny day.

I’m not sure what expression I wore when I handed him the keys that first time and took my place in the passenger seat. I’d like to think I conveyed calm reassurance. We took a little time for him to get familiar with dashboard controls, mirrors, break, and accelerator. Then he turned the key for that first time, put the car in gear, and took his foot off the brake.

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How I see my teenager when he sits behind the wheel. photo credit: Alex E. Proimos Learning to Drive via photopin (license)

As Henry Ford probably was more than a century ago and as surely every new driver has been since, my son was nervous and a little unsure, but also really excited to discover the sensation of wielding so much power.

That afternoon he drove us around and around the parking lot, practicing turning, breaking, and parking. Then I made him work on backing up, another thing Henry Ford’s original Quadricycle couldn’t do.

When we were both a little more comfortable, we took the lesson to a few quiet back roads. He even drove us home and parked in the garage without incident and with very little cringing or pretend break stomping from me.

My son is still a little uncertain behind the wheel. He’s got more to learn and will need a lot more practice to gain the confidence required to be a really good driver, but he’s attentive and teachable and determined. I’ve no doubt he’ll get there. I just hope he never feels the need to take an axe to the side of the garage.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

And . . .These days, when I’m not teaching my son how to drive, I’m preparing to launch a new book, coming February 4th. Follow this link to get a peek!

What’s in a Name

On January 15, 1929 a baby boy who was destined to do great things came screaming into the world. His name was Michael, after his father, a Baptist minister who served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

A few years later in 1934, Michael’s father traveled to Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. This was about a year after Adolph Hitler had come to power as chancellor, and Germany was becoming an uncomfortable place to be, losing itself to hatred and discrimination with the rise of the Nazi party.

Martin_Luther,_1529
Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain]
The state of affairs in that nation and in the world weighed heavily on the reverend’s mind as he toured sites important in the story of Martin Luther, another man of God who found himself in an environment in which those in power were guilty of oppressing the less powerful for personal gain. According to legend, in 1517 Luther declared the need for change, and his willingness to defend his argument, in the form of a list of ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

In response to the swell of hatred in 1934, the Baptist World Alliance issued a statement of its own. It wasn’t a list of ninety-five theological arguments and questions nailed to a church door that would touch off a reformation movement. It was a strongly worded condemnation of “racial animosity, and every form of unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

Both the conference and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a 16th century German priest who prompted significant change in a world that was desperate for it, the Reverend Michael King, Sr. returned to the United States profoundly affected by all he’d seen.

mlk
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Archives at College Park [Public domain]
So affected, in fact, that as he pondered the experience he came to a fairly unusual decision. He chose to legally change his name to Martin Luther King. His young son and namesake became Martin Luther, too, and on July 23 of 1957, the young man, then twenty-eight years old, made the official change to his birth certificate.

Today this son is remembered for his great leadership in bringing about change to a world in desperate need of it, for casting a vision in which all people condemn unfair discrimination and oppression. It was a challenging mantle to carry, one that cost him his life, but painted an enduring and powerful legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably better remembered in many circles today than is the priest whose name his father once decided to take as his own. But in learning and revisiting the activist’s story as we take time this weekend to honor the anniversary of his birth, I’m struck by the power of a name and the greatness it may inspire.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

Voynich2
Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

Voynich1
I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

My Babylonian Resolution

Four thousand years ago, give or take, the Babylonian people celebrated a twelve-day festival called Akitu. I don’t know if it involved giving their true loves a bunch of gold rings, some milking maids, and an alarming number of birds, but it was a pretty big deal. Akitu was celebrated in mid-March and it marked the beginning of a new planting season, the beginning of a new year.

new-years-day-4707619__340It was the time when Babylonians decided to make some changes. They either reaffirmed their loyalty to their current ruler or got themselves a new one. And on a more personal level, they made vows to their gods to settle their debts, return what had been borrowed, and basically be better people. Though this particular practice doesn’t seem to be included in the histories we have, I think it’s also safe to assume most wanted to shed a few pounds and do a bit less drinking in the new year.

The Babylonians left us the earliest recorded evidence of New Year resolutions, but of course the practice, or some version of it, rose up all over the world. People seem to be hardwired to like a fresh start, a chance to do a little bit better the next time.

sleepy christmas
And I’m done. photo credit: Carol (vanhookc) Dreaming of Dec. 25th via photopin (license)

I’m not a big resolution-maker. Or at least not specifically at the start of the year. January, for me, has instead become a month of recovery. The Christmas season sort of wipes me out, and this one was worse than most.

I think it all started when Thanksgiving was such a late arrival. Everything felt condensed this season, with all the parties and traditions and fun crammed into a drawer that didn’t have quite enough space. Real life took a backburner while gifts were given and merriment was made. In the midst of that, a tragedy in my extended family zapped whatever I might have had left.

And so, a lot didn’t get done. I didn’t read the wonderful words of all my pals in the blogosphere. I didn’t write many either, not in this space nor elsewhere, and yes, that includes a Christmas letter that now will have to become a greeting for the new year instead.

drawer
The sad part is that I didn’t have to stage this picture. I really probably should get more organized in 2020.

If you sent me an email in the last few weeks, I most likely didn’t open it, but it’s still waiting in my inbox and I’ll get there soon. If I agreed to read your book or play or short story, I’ll get to that, too. Fortunately, January is long and bleak in my corner of the world and there’s a little more space in the drawer.

It would be great if in 2020 I could lose a little weight and be a little more organized. I’d also still love to learn to teleport. But I think it might be more of a Babylonian New Year for me this year. I’m going to work on settling my debts by catching up on all the things I’ve let slide. By mid-March, I think I just might make it.

What about you? Got any goals for 2020?