Saturday, July 28, 2012

your cliffnotes in European History (WWI)

July 28, 1914 -
It was a sweltering July in most of Europe and the world as most people knew it was about to end. That was the day on which, still reeling from the recent assassination of their Archduck Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Because Russia was a Slavic nation, like Serbia, Czar Nicholas II sent a few troops toward Vienna the very next day, hoping either that Austria-Hungary would become nervous and back off or that the Russian troops would loot someone else for a change.

But it was hot, people were angry, and Austria wasn't in any mood to back off. If anything, they were feeling a little pissy: a day later, they sent some troops of their own toward Russia.

The Russian Czar was unaccustomed to this kind of confrontational behavior. His self-esteem in tatters, he mobilized the entire Imperial Army against Austria and began calling himself Tsar.

Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany observed the Russian mobilization with unease. The Slavs of Russia considered the Slavs of Serbia their blood cousins, but the Germans and Austrians were closer still. Like brothers. Like twin brothers. (Fraternal, not identical). The Emperor dashed off a note to his friend (and cousin) the Tsar (formerly the Czar), asking if maybe Russia wouldn't mind calling her troops back within, say, the next twenty-four hours or else. He sent another little note to France, asking if they wouldn't mind promising to keep their noses out of certain other peoples' business, if certain other people should happen to go to war within the next, say, eighteen hours.

Neither Russia nor France offered any reply to the Emperor's little notes (possibly because he wrote it in German - not his first language - now if he wrote it in French, that might have been different - they all spoke French at home), and his feelings were understandably hurt. He mobilized his own army, declared war against Russia on August 1, against France on August 3, and started calling himself Kaiser.

To reach France, the Germans had to cross through Belgium. Belgium expressed its sincere desire not to be crossed. This was unreasonable and forced the Germans to start killing Belgians on the night of August 3.

Britain, meanwhile, didn't care about Serbia. Britain didn't care about Russia. And Britain certainly didn't care who attacked France — it had been their own national sport for centuries. But they had foolishly pledged their support to unreasonable little Belgium, and had no choice but to declare war on Germany on August 4. This was extremely vexing to the British monarchy, as they themselves were mostly German and Kaiser Willie was King Georgie cousin (and remember, as well as the Czar, Tzar/ Tsar.)

On the same day, the United States declared its reluctance to become involved in the European conflict until it had a better idea who'd win.

Austria, meanwhile, had been touched by the fervor with which Germany had come to her defense—and by the rapidity with which Russian troops were advancing toward both of them. Emperor Franz Josef (somehow not related to any of the other people involved in this war) declared war against Russia on August 5.

Serbia, already being pounded by Austria, declared war against Germany on August 6. Montenegro considered this bold and dashing, and wanted a piece of the action: she declared war against Austria on August 7, and, ebullient at finding herself intact a whole five days later, went so far as to declare war against Germany on August 12.

Already at war with Germany, an irritated France declared war against Austria on August 10. Caught up in the excitement, Britain declared war against Austria on August 12. By now it seemed like everyone was getting involved. There was a mad rush to war. Japan declared war against Germany on August 23.

Japan's hostilities toward Germany offended Austria, who declared war against Japan on August 25. Fastidiously egalitarian in their foreign policy, they declared war against Belgium three days later. Things were now spinning wildly out of control. On August 29, France declared war against Mongolia, Ireland declared war against Lichtenstein, and dogs declared war against cats.

World War One was underway. In just four years, it would claim 8.5 million lives and leave 21.2 million wounded, and lay the groundwork for an eventual rematch.

Sometimes family feuds just get out of hand.

Monday, July 23, 2012

I'd like a re-count on all that screaming

July 23, 1904 -
 At the turn of the last century, ice-cream men were a breed apart. It was hard work making ice-cream and the rewards were few. "You don't choose ice cream," they said, "ice cream chooses you."

Well, Charles E. Menches was an ice-cream man. They say it ran in his veins. (They say forget the autopsy: they say you don't need actual ice-cream in your blood to have it in your veins.)

Charles E. Menches had always known he'd be an ice-cream man. Everyone had known. While other boys in St. Louis played stickball or jacks, little Chuckie experimented with different creams and salts. While other boys dreamed of being doctors or lawyers, little Chuckie dreamed of exotic flavor combinations like cinnamon-onion swirl and artichoke-pistachio.

Charles E. Menches's passion for ice cream was infectious. He made his brother Frank an ice-cream man. They began traveling to fairs and special events across the Midwest to sell ice cream from a tent. (Apparently, they also had a thing for hamburgers - the brothers also lay claim to having introduced the hamburger to the American public. But that's another story...)

They did what all ice-cream men did: they scooped their ice cream into bowls and sold it to their customers. People loved ice cream back then, just as they love it today. And why not? It was ice cream.

One sweltering day at the St. Louis World's Fair--July 23, 1904, to be precise--Charles E. Menches and his brother Frank sold so much ice cream that they ran out of dishes.

An ordinary ice-cream man might have folded up his tent and taken the rest of the day off. But not Charles E. Menches. Charles E. Menches knew the code of the ice-cream man. More than that, he lived it.

The people of St. Louis would not be denied their ice cream. Not if Charles E. Menches had anything to say about it.

The tent beside Charles and Frank's ice cream tent belonged to Ernest A. Hamwi, a Syrian pastry-maker who sold sweet wafer pastries called Zalabia. (Ernest A. Hamwi was what Syrians would call a Zalabia man, but they wouldn't say he had Zalabia in his veins. Syrians would never talk such tripe.)

In a moment of brilliant epiphany, Charles E. Menches bought all of Ernest A. Hamwi's Zalabia and rolled them into cones. He then began selling his ice cream in sweet wafer cones instead of dishes.

The ice cream cone was born.

(Sure, Italo Marchiony had received U.S. patent #746971 for the ice-cream cone seven months earlier in New York., but Italo Marchiony had never been an ice-cream man.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My second Desert Island Disc List

There is nothing profound or deep in my Desert Island Disc choices this year - they're just songs that I like (in no particular order)

September Song - Django Reinhardt

I get very emotional listening to this song.  My Dad was not a very sophisticated  man but he had very sophisticated  taste.  He enjoyed jazz and liked Django Reinhardt. He introduced me to this very of the Kurt Weill song. He passed away during the month of September. And listening to it brings back a flood of memories of him.

I'm a Fool to Want You - Billie Holiday

I'm thinking of this one as a cheat - a two-fer.  This is classic Billie Holiday; this is the very dry martini to have while you're on the island.  And I can instantly bring to mind Sinatra's version while listening to this.

Shipbuilding - Elvis Costello

It is impossible to pick one Elvis Costello song (how can you choose one sone from his over 30 studio albums?) I wanted to pick Watching the Detectives but I couldn't find the specific video I think of when I think of the song.  The emotional muscle you hear in his voice is tremendous and Chet Baker's trumple playing is heartbreaking

Nessum Dorma - Giacomo Puccini

I've decided not to apologize for my middlebrow taste in classical music;more people don't listen to classic music anymore. I'm always deeply moved when I hear it.

Pulling Mussels from a Shell - Squeeze

Difford and Tilbrook are the Cole Porters of Rock lyrics (if I didn't consider Elvis Costello.) When I hear Squeeze, I think of my 20's.  This is the perfect summer road trip song.  I've never gotten tired of hearing it

Jennifer - Annie Lennox

Annie Lennox has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard.  There are some many songs I've could have chosen but this one has a lot of meat on it.  It gets me a lot to think about.

Elderly woman behind the counter in a small town - Pearl Jam

If for some reason Mary isn't with me on the desert island, I'd take this song with me to think of her (I don't need to explain, it's my list.)

Black Cow - Steely Dan

Much like Prospero books, I wouldn't be banished without at least one Steely Dan song.  I was going to pick Gaucho (which I guess, is my favorite Steely Dan song) but I'll pick Black Cow.  I can remember singing this song in the car for long road trips. I can remember just sitting on the curb singing this song with friends (I'm so old, I can remember friends, siting on the curb, just singing songs.)

The book I'd take with me would be The Way To Cook by Julia Child (I could just think about all the meals in the book) and the luxury item would still be a Freezer full of Bombay Sapphire (I won't need the vermouth.)

That eight songs (and that's all you're allowed.) I didn't get a chance to pick any Radiohead, any Simon and Garfunkel, not a single Warron Zevon etc.

I'll have to get marooned again next year for my birthday, to have another go at it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

... All those stony faces left stranded on this warm July ...

Happy Sedition against Our Former Sovereign nation

If only for one day a year, it's important to remember that the British weren't always the friendly sort of people who gave us the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Monty Python. They're also responsible for warm beer, vinegar-flavored potato chips, and irritating Anglophiliacs on our own shores pronouncing schedule as shed-yule and issue as iss-yew. On July 4 of every year, therefore, we celebrate our forefathers having told them to screw.

We not only celebrate the purging of the British blight from our land: we celebrate the manner in which it was done, which was at once brilliant, daring, and easily adapted to the screen. The events that led to our independence are all the more worthy of remembrance, even inaccurately, at this crucial juncture in our history, and I therefore offer the following summary of American independence for the edification of my readers:

In 1774, representatives from each of the thirteen colonies convened in Philadelphia to complain. This was The First Continental Congress. Upon registering their various complaints, they returned home.

One of the colonists' primary complaints was that British cabbies working in the colonies refused to unionize. This was called "Taxis without Representation," and became the issue that ultimately pushed the simmering discontent of the colonies into outright hostility. Sensing the volatility of the situation, British troops advanced toward Concord in April of 1775, forcing Paul Revere to ride his horse (and not to ring bells and warn the British not to take our guns but we won't bring up Mrs. Palin on this holiday.)

The first shot that rang out at the battle of Concord was so loud that its sound reverberated all the way around the world. As a result, the British heard it behind them instead of in front of them. This caused the fog of war. Neither the British nor the Colonists were prepared for fog, so the War was postponed.

In May, representatives once again convened in Philadelphia to complain about the taxis, the fog, and other grievances. This was the Second Continental Congress. Unlike the previous Congress, however, this one tried to work out a deal with Britain's King George. This was difficult, as King George was insane and regularly confused the colonies for colostomies, causing considerable embarrassment to everyone involved but accruing great profit to Britain's flourishing proctology trade.

In June the Colonists developed a Continental Army and a Continental Currency, operating on the assumption that an insane king would be easier to deal with if they had a lot of money and guns. This assumption proved partly correct, as the Brits appeared to ease hostilities for nearly a year. It also proved partly wrong when, in May 1776, the Americans discovered that the King had been hiring German mercenaries to come kill them.

In June of 1776 the Colonists finally decided that instead of working something out with the British it would be easier and more satisfactory to shoot them.

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read a resolution to the Continental Congress. The essence of his resolution was that King George and Great Britain could kiss his hairy American ass. The Congress appreciated Lee's sentiments, and subsequently formed a committee to write a note to King George in which it would be made plain why it had become necessary to start shooting the British.

The committee was chaired by Thomas Jefferson. Its four other members were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (each of whom was counted twice for the sake of Stature).

The Declaration of Independence wasn't a very long document, but little Tommy Jefferson was trying so hard to impress all the older guys that he overwrote it, using an archaic style of English that is best understood in translation.

Here is a translation of the Declaration in its entirety:

"It's a good idea to let people know why you're having a revolution. We think it's pretty obvious that any government that screws its people over is cruising for a bruising. We're not saying anyone with a hair up their butt ought to have their own revolution, but we've put up with an awful lot of crap from King George. He won't let us do anything on our own, and whenever we try, he sends people to kill us. We've asked him over and over to back off. We've told him over and over that we'd only put up with so much. But did he listen? No. So to hell with him and to hell with Britain and all their phony goddam accents. We'll kick their ass or die trying."

These were what political scientists refer to as "fightin' words."

(thanks Aaron Sorkins)

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration was presented to the Congress. Nine of the thirteen colonies voted to adopt it. Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against it (we know where you live). Delaware couldn't make up its mind, and New York abstained. Copies of the Declaration were distributed the next day (photocopiers were much slower back then). On July 8 it was read aloud in Philadelphia's Independence Square.

The document wasn't fully signed until August, but as soon as it was, Americans began shooting the British in earnest. By February of 1783 they had shot enough of them that Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Russia officially acknowledged the United States of America as an independent nation.

In honor of our Independence, we celebrate the anniversary of its declaration by blowing things up, roasting dead animals over hot coals or gaseous flames, and drinking cold, sudsy beverages that inhibit our ability to think. Such festivities may not honor the philosophical nuances of our revolution, but they do keep the rest of the world at a comfortable distance.

Happy Fourth of July folks!!!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Never a dull moment in some lives.

To point out any one casualty in the Battle of Gettysburg to illustrate the carnage would be difficult: there were more than 46,000 either wounded or killed on both sides. But I can point to one of the strangest and most controversial victims - Maj. General Daniel Edgar Sickles.

I could spend pages relating the exploits of the General (but I don't have the time.)  In a nutshell, Pre Civil War, Sickles was a notorious whoremonger and New York State Senator (no, those two things don't naturally go together.)  Sickles is credited as being the first person to successfully use the temporary insanity defense in the United States in his defense of the murder of Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key, who Sickles had discovered was having an affair with his wife (this did not end his public career.)

To repair his image, Sickles 'volunteered' for the Union Army.  Through his political connections, Sickles rose throught the ranks to become a general and yet he always seemed to have something else to do and avoided many of the major early battles of the Civil War. One of his closest allies was Major General Joseph Hooker (yes, the term, sometimes, is associated with the "Handsome Captain" as he was known to the ladies of the evening in Washington DC.)

Back to Gettysburg - somehow, Brigadier General Sickles got himself promoted to major general, commanding the III Corps, making him the only Union Corp Commander who did not go to West Point.  Through no fault but his own, during the second day of the Battle, Sickles disobeyed orders and advanced his troops. Sickles was wounded in the leg by cannonball fire and had his right leg amputated in a field hospital on this date in 1863.

After a cannonball mangled his leg at Gettysburg, he retired from the army and donated the bones from his amputated leg to the Army Medical Museum, reportedly visiting each year on the anniversary of the amputation. (The National Museum of Health and Medicine still has the bones on display today.)

We don't have time to touch on some of the other scandals that awaited the monoped General, including his affair with the deposed Queen of Spain, the questionable awarding of The Medal of Honor and his involvement with the embezzlement of $27,000 from New York State.