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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Just a couple of days ago was the 75th anniversary of VE Day in Europe, the day the Nazis surrendered about a week after Hitler killed himself. What most people do not realize is how short the tenure of power of the Nazis actually was. Hitler didn’t come to power until March 1933 and his Third Reich (which he called the 1000-year-empire) lasted only 12 years.

Today, May 11, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of a milestone speech Hitler gave at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich at 7:30pm, titled “Was wir wollen?” (what we want?). Below is a poster proclaiming the event. This was the time when the fledging Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (the Nazi party) recognized Hitler’s oratory and propaganda skills and he started to rise within the party. He proclaimed he fought for the worker class, he called the people Genossen (comrade) and his mantra was to Make Germany Great Again after its humiliation by the allied powers after “the World War” which we now know as World War I.

Germany didn’t know it at the time, but the dark period started that day. The name of Hitler on the poster was still in very small font.

[May 11th, 1920] First NSDAP advertising posters in Munich. Call for the public party rally on May 11, 1920. Speaker: Adolf Hitler from 100yearsago

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Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

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At the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is expelled from the Clan, and she walks away into the unknown wilderness in search of “The Others,” her own people.

Eventually, she finds The Valley of Horses, with a suitable empty cave on a cliff in a protected canyon, a stream with a waterfall above it, and the steppe not far beyond the valley. The glacier, which shapes the local climate an the flora and fauna, is not far away toward the north.

Ayla makes her home there. The rescues a colt and raises it, and later she rescues a baby cave lion, and raises it too. She ends up spending three years alone in the valley with her animals.

Jondalar and Thonolan are two young brothers on a journey down the Danube to the “sea,” which of course is what we know as the Black Sea today. On their odyssey they get to know many different tribes. Eventually, they end up in Ayla’s valley under catastrophic conditions, with Jondalar severely injured.

Ayla nurses Jondalar to heath and eventually the two become a couple.

I read The Clan of the Cave Bear decades ago for the first time, and I remember reading The Valley of Horses, its sequel, also, but I remembered nothing about it. When I recently re-read Clan, I decided to also re-read Valley. They are the first two books of the Earth’s Children series of six books written by Auel. I enjoyed The Valley of Horses to a degree. It does a nice job portraying life in the stone age by the Cro Magnon man, our direct ancestors, and it contrasts that to the lives of the Neanderthals, of “the Clan” as they are called in this series. I have always been interested in pre-history, taking place in southern and eastern Europe during the current Ice Age but before the last glacial period – or about 30,000 years ago.

Jondalar’s home is where France is today, and Ayla’s home is originally in today’s Crimea. The Valley of Horses is about where today’s Kiev is in Ukraine. The Cro Magnon people were on the rise with their advances in hunting techniques, weapons and general social structure. The Neanderthals, who had reigned over Europe and Eastern Europe for more than 100,000 years, virtually with no changes in their lives, were on the decline. There was occasional interbreeding during that period, between the two sub-species of humans, and this overall backdrop sets the stage for The Valley of Horses.

The story is a bit boring at times, particularly when the author repetitively describes things that she has described before. There is also a surprising amount of explicit sex, with detailed, graphic sex scenes going on for pages. I can understand that it’s necessary to include sex to describe the lives of the people, but there is too much of it in this book. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a romance novel, and it should have had a Fabio-like dude with a fur loin cloth holding a blond vixen in a passionate kiss. I don’t know why the author found it necessary to include as much sex as she did. It got repetitive to me, and I found it unnecessary.

I got my fix of pre-history with these two books.

I now marvel about time-scales. This played 30,000 years ago. That’s 10 times as long as our modern timescale, if you think of the time of the ancient Greeks as the start of modern times. No innovations occurred in their lives for tens of thousands of years, thousands of generations. When I compare that to the pace of innovation we are experiencing now, I am awestruck at the length of human history, and how long we endured under very challenging conditions so I could be here today.

I will not read the next four books in the series, but it peeked my interest in anthropology. So today, at the bookstore, I picked up “Who we are and how we got here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past” by David Reich. It’s a science book. It won’t have sex scenes, but it’ll give me that feeling of awe when I face the unlikely history of humanity.

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Nicholas Hook was a common 19-year-old man in England in 1413. He had one gift: He was a superb archer and as a result he ended up in the army of King Henry V invading France. Henry V thought he was the rightful heir to the French throne, in addition to the English, and he thought God was on this side in his quest to claim what was rightfully his.

This story is about the legendary battle of Agincourt, about which many scholars of history have written numerous books. It tells the story of that invasion in vivid detail from the point of view of the common man. We get drawn into the lives of the people, the thinking of the nobility and the clergy at the end of  medieval Europe during the Hundred Years’ War.

Life was rough. Lords had the power of gods and could do anything they wanted. Clergy was revered and utterly corrupt. All evil deeds were somehow done on behest of God and great suffering was inflicted on the people, through taxation, backbreaking labor, and relentless abuse. During war, the boys and men of the losers were killed, and the women raped and enslaved. This was just how life was.

Agincourt is full of terrible, endless violence. Here is an example of a battle scene:

“Stay tight, stay tight!” Sir John bellowed, making sure there was a man to his left and Sir William to his right. You fought shoulder to shoulder to give the enemy no room to pierce the line, and Sir John’s men-at-arms were fighting as he had trained them to fight. They had stepped over the first fallen Frenchmen and the second line of English were lifting enemy visors and sliding knives into the eyes or mouths of the wounded to stop them from striking up from the ground. Frenchmen screamed when they saw the blade coming, they twisted in the mud to escape the quick stabs, they died in spasms, and still more came to be hammered or chopped or crushed. Some Frenchmen, reckoning themselves safe from arrows, had lifted their visors and Sir John slammed the poleax’s spike into a man’s face, twisting it as it pierced the eye socket, dragging it back jellied and bloodied, watching as the man, in frantic dying pain, flailed and impeded more Frenchmen. Sir William Porter was stabbing his lance at men’s faces. One blow was usually enough to unbalance an enemy and Sir William’s other neighbor would finish the job with a hammer blow. Sir William, usually a quiet and studious man, was growling and snarling as he picked his victims. “God’s blood, William,” Sir John shouted, “but this is joy!”

— Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt (p. 402). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

A good third of the book describes such atrocities. Skulls crushed by hammers and axes, a thousand eyes poked out by knives, swords rammed into bowels and twisted up to the lungs and hearts.

It is graphic and realistic, but it was too much for me. At times I’d start skimming over the battle scenes, as I simply didn’t need to know about every stabbed eye socket anymore, and I wanted to move on.

This was my first Cornwell book. It was recommended to me by colleagues as great historical fiction, and I found that it is. There are countless other Cornwell books, probably just as vivid and graphic. It was well written and very educational, but unlike other fans of Cornwell that end up binge-reading all his books, I think I am done and ready for other subjects.

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I read The Clan of the Cave Bear many decades ago and I remembered liking it, being impressed by it, and that the main character’s name was Ayla. But that was all.

When I recently read Pushed Back it reminded me of this book, so I read it again now.

The story plays about 30,000 years ago, the end of the age of the Neanderthals, on the peninsula of Crimea, the same Crimea that was taken over by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The glaciation of the northern hemisphere was at its maximum, reaching down all the way to southern England, covering Scandinavia, and getting to within a few hundred miles of Crimea in what is now Russia.

Ayla is a 5-year-old girl born to Cro-Magnon humans who had just started arriving in Europe at that time. Ayla was away from her tribe playing when a strong earthquake demolished their encampment and everyone perished. The little girl was left alone, naked, in the wilderness. After days of wandering about, just before her imminent death, a migrating troupe of Neanderthals comes along and their medicine woman, Iza, convinces the leader to take the little girl in so she could save her life. And so it comes about that a little girl “born to the Others” is raised in a Neanderthal clan.

The Others look like modern humans, and the Clan people find her ugly. Eventually she is accepted into the Clan and those around come to love and respect her. But it does not come without a price. The Clan’s rules are highly patriarchic and restrictive. The successor to the current leader, Broud, is an ambitious youth, very insecure, and sees Ayla with all her differences as a threat. He develops a deep hatred for her that festers and escalates until the day he takes over.

The book is 468 pages long and delves deeply into the Clan’s society, culture and individual thinking. As a reader, I found myself thinking like many of the main characters, like Brun, the Neanderthal leader, Broud, his eventual successor, Creb, the clan’s magician and spiritual leader, and the many women and children. The author goes into great detail into the lifestyle of the clan, how they live, hunt, eat, celebrate and socialize. Reading this book is an immersion into stone-age life.

Much of the detail, of course, is the author’s conjecture. For instance, she describes the Clan people as speaking mostly using sign language and not voices. She also makes many assumptions about the social structure, and while we are not sure what is fact and fiction, I was fine with it. I didn’t come to read the book to get a historically accurate and factual representation of Neanderthal life, I came to experience what it might have been like, and how it would have felt. In that, the author was very successful.

For a while, as I was reading the book, I became a Neanderthal.

It struck me how much of their life and their culture was guided by “spirits.” Most important decisions, most laws or rules, were based on what the spirits wanted or dictated. Many decisions were made not based on the visible reality of the world, but what they thought the spirits wanted. This caused misery, sometimes death, unspeakable pain and sorrow, and much overall suffering.

One of the conjectures I found hardest to believe was that the Clan people thought that pregnancies were started by totem spirits fighting over the woman’s body. If the outside male spirit won, the woman became pregnant. Sexuality was a casual activity. Any male could beckon any woman or young girl, any time he wanted, and she would simply have to assume the position, so he could “relieve his need.” This was done in open sight all the time. You would think that Neanderthal society, which was active for over 100,000 years without any real progress or change, but was very smart with herbs, medicinal uses of plants, tool making, and the like, would have figured out that it was the relieving of a man’s need into a woman’s womb that might be the cause of the baby getting started in there? Surely they knew!

While I wondered how it was possible that societies could be that much influenced by imaginary powers, imaginary threats, and imaginary disasters, I realized that we have many parallels today.

Millions of people today are still guided by religions and their laws, ceremonies, customs and limitations. In addition, we allow ourselves to suffer from imaginary foes, like mortgages coming due, debts having to be repaid, bad grades in college, titles attained or not attained. All those things are imaginary powers, not unlike the spirits of the Neanderthals, and I found suddenly that my life was not that different and in its own way was driven by the Spirit of the Cave Bear.

 

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The Missouri State Capitol building has been under renovation for more than a year. The dome has been wrapped up for construction that long.

Yesterday, during a visit to one of the state office buildings, I was lucky to be there during exactly the time when the statue was installed again after being gone since November 2018.

This is the historic bronze statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, perched 238 feet above  the entry of the building. It took a 550-ton crane to raise the 10′ 4″ statue, weighing 1,407 pounds, on this bitter-cold day in Missouri. 

I was there for a historic moment.

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Number 86 on the Random House Board’s list of 100 Greatest Novels is Ragtime. A business associate had given me the book as a present. I finally got finished reading it.

Ragtime tells the story of life in New York City in the years before World War I. It brings together a number of famous contemporaries of the time, including Henry Ford, Houdini, the famous anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and many others, and weaves them into the fictional characters of Doctorow that tell a compelling story of racism in America.

The main storyline is about Coalhouse Walker, a black American Ragtime musician who, through talent, hard work and discipline creates a successful life for himself in New York. He can even afford a car, and the drives around in a new shiny black Model T. Most whites cannot afford cars, and when he runs into a roadblock in front of a firehouse, the firemen thugs are harassing him. But Coalhouse Walker does not bend to injustice. He starts a one-man war, and it does not end well for the firemen and the city of New York.

More poignant than the story itself are the graphic description of life of the common man, the black man, and immigrants, at that time in our history. Here is an excerpt on immigration:

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers, and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of the immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn’t pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes. Irish kids pulled the beards of old Jews and knocked them down. The upended the pushcarts of Italian peddlers.

— page 16

I have been to Ellis Island. This description does not match the glorious pictures we have in our minds of immigration into the United States over the years. It matches more the descriptions of Trump today, does it not? Ragtime is a novel, of course, and not reality, but it paints a very dark picture of our history that does not match what we like to tell ourselves today about “this great country.”

Life in New York was very different a hundred years ago. I have always loved the city. When I walk through its streets today, as I did 45 years ago when I first came to this country, I always think about its rich history and all the stories that its walls and streets and parks and sidewalks could tell – if they could speak. Here is a particularly graphic paragraph depicting city life not as we think about it:

That evening White went to the opening night of Mamzelle Champagne at the roof garden at Madison Square. This was early in the month of June and by the end of the month a serious heat wave had begun to kill infants all over the slums. The tenements glowed like furnaces and the tenants had no water to drink. The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice. Tammany Hall had been destroyed by reformers and the hustlers on the ward still cornered the ice supply and sold little chips of it at exorbitant prices. Pillows were placed on the sidewalks. Families slept on stoops and in doorways. Horses collapsed and died in the streets. The Department of Sanitation sent drays around the city to drag away horses that had died. But it was not an efficient service. Horses exploded in the heat. Their exposed intestines heaved with rats. And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish.

— page 19

Racism in America needs more coverage. Reading Ragtime today, thinking of our current policies as they relate to immigrants and racial minorities, opens our eyes about our sketchy history and terribly flawed past. Our politicians always talk about:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Oh no, those are illustrious words, but we haven’t really lived up to them, and we’re not living up to them today.

Ragtime is a powerful book, with 320 pages a fairly quick read, that I highly recommend.

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There are a lot of headlines about gerrymandering by the Republicans these days. I was curious about where the word came from.

In Massachusetts in the year 1812, the governor was Gerry Elbridge. His party redistricted the state to preserve the Antifederalist majority. After they were done, one district in Essex County resembled a salamander.

Here is a picture of an article in the Boston Gazette of March 26, 1812. You can click to enlarge.

“The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster” Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812, page 2, Library of Congress Newspaper, Serials and Government Publications Division.

And that’s how Gerry and (sala)mander created the word gerrymander that we still use today.

Do you have anything that can trump that?

 

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A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.

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Adolf Eichmann was Hitler’s “architect of the final solution” and one of the most notorious henchmen of the Nazi regime. He was one of the few senior Nazis who did not commit suicide but managed to escape to Argentina after the war. He lived a quiet life with his wife and two children, and worked as a manager at an automotive factory.

In 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad got a tip from agent Peter Malkin. He convinced them to try to find and abduct Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial.

The movie deals with the soul of a Nazi, and how he justified his deeds at the time, and how he lives with himself afterwards. “I just followed orders, like everyone else,” is the simple answer most of the monsters of history have used to justify their bloody deeds. It also addresses the role the Argentinian government played in protecting the Germans.

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The Original Starbucks

Yesterday I was at a conference in downtown Seattle. In the afternoon I had some free time so I walked down to the pier to the famous Pike Place Market. Seattle has more Starbucks stores than any other city. You can literally step out of any building and look around in all direction and you will likely see a Starbucks. Here is a fun little article that illustrates my point. 

When I got down to Pike Place Market, I was in for a treat. Because that’s where the original Starbucks store is.

The first Starbucks store was established in 1971 at 2000 Western Avenue where it operated until 1976, when it moved to 1912 Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. So this address, while still hosting the original Starbucks, is actually the second location for the chain.

There are now 27,339 Starbucks stores worldwide.

As you can see in the picture above, there is a line going into the store. While it is not visible in the image, the line continues along the sidewalk to the left and goes all the way down the block.  There were probably a hundred or more people lined up – to get a cup of Starbucks in this store. I was not in the mood.

But I enjoyed a bit of coffee history and took this photograph.

My plan was to visit the Seattle Art Museum, just a few blocks down the road, but unfortunately, it was closed Monday as Tuesday, as museums are wont to be. Perhaps another time, after a good cup of coffee.

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Set in the last ice age in Europe, a tribe of Cro-Magnon men goes on a hunting trip. Keda, the chief’s son, comes along for the first time. His proud father is teaching him how to hunt, and how to be a man. But during the hunt things go horribly wrong, a buffalo charges Keda and throws him off a steep cliff. The hunting party can only assume he is dead and eventually they leave, the distraught father almost being dragged away by his friends.

Miraculously, the boy survives and must now fend for himself, fight off predators, and somehow find his way home, before winter comes and makes travel impossible. When a pack of wolves attack him,  he barely escapes into a tree, but he injures one of them. The wolf and the boy reluctantly form a bond and protect each other as they try to journey home. He calls the wolf Alpha.

Alpha is a survival movie. We see and feel how prehistoric people lived and survived. The landscape didn’t look like Europe 20,000 years ago to me, but rather more like South Dakota, but that is a minor point. I liked the fact that the tribe didn’t speak English. That would have been too easy and too distracting. They spoke their own language, accompanied by easy to read subtitles. This helped make the film more realistic.

I marvel about prehistory, and how unlikely it was that men survived at all, and how amazing it is that we’re all here today, descendants of these very Cro-Magnon men. If you have ever speculated how humans first started domesticating dogs, this is the movie to watch.

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Visiting Dana Point

Yesterday we visited Dana Point, a little city on the shores of the Pacific not an hour’s drive away from my home. In my more than thirty years of living in Southern California I have never been to Dana Point before.

After reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana recently, I have had plans to go and see the location. Richard Henry Dana, with this book, gave Dana Point its name, basically on the grounds of the following passage from the book which I read out loud on the beach to celebrate the occasion:

Coasting along on the quiet shore of the Pacific, we came to anchor in twenty fathoms’ water, almost out at sea, as it were, and directly abreast of a steep hill which overhung the water, and was twice as high as our royal-mast-head. We had heard much of this place from the Lagoda’s crew, who said it was the worst place in California. The shore is rocky, and directly exposed to the southeast, so that vessels are obliged to slip and run for their lives on the first sign of a gale; and late as it was in the season, we got up our slip-rope and gear, though we meant to stay only twenty-four hours.

We pulled the agent ashore, and were ordered to wait for him, while he took a circuitous way round the hill to the Mission, which was hidden behind it. We were glad of the opportunity to examine this singular place, and hauling the boat up, and making her well fast, took different directions up and down the beach, to explore it.

San Juan is the only romantic spot on the coast. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep cliff, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or bight, which gave us, at high tide, a few square feet of sand-beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. This was the only landing-place.

Directly before us rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet. How we were to get hides down, or goods up, upon the table-land on which the Mission was situated, was more than we could tell. The agent had taken a long circuit, and yet had frequently to jump over breaks, and climb steep places, in the ascent. No animal but a man or a monkey could get up it. However, that was not our lookout; and, knowing that the agent would be gone an hour or more, we strolled about, picking up shells, and following the sea where it tumbled in, roaring and spouting, among the crevices of the great rocks. What a sight, thought I, must this be in a southeaster! The rocks were as large as those of Nahant or Newport, but, to my eye, more grand and broken.

Beside, there was a grandeur in everything around, which gave a solemnity to the scene, a silence and solitariness which affected every part! Not a human being but ourselves for miles, and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific! and the great steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world, but the “world of waters”! I separated myself from the rest, and sat down on a rock, just where the sea ran in and formed a fine spouting horn. Compared with the plain, dull sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land. It was almost the first time that I had been positively alone — free from the sense that human beings were at my elbow, if not talking with me — since I had left home. My better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance with my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me had not been entirely deadened by the laborious life, with its paltry, vulgar associations, which I had been leading. Nearly an hour did I sit, almost lost in the luxury of this entire new scene of the play in which I had been so long acting, when I was aroused by the distant shouts of my companions, and saw that they were collecting together, as the agent had made his appearance, on his way back to our boat.

We pulled aboard, and found the long-boat hoisted out, and nearly laden with goods; and, after dinner, we all went on shore in the quarter-boat, with the long-boat in tow. As we drew in, we descried an ox-cart and a couple of men standing directly on the brow of the hill; and having landed, the captain took his way round the hill, ordering me and one other to follow him. We followed, picking our way out, and jumping and scrambling up, walking over briers and prickly pears, until we came to the top.

Here the country stretched out for miles, as far as the eye could reach, on a level, table surface, and the only habitation in sight was the small white mission of San Juan Capistrano, with a few Indian huts about it, standing in a small hollow, about a mile from where we were. Reaching the brow of the hill, where the cart stood, we found several piles of hides, and Indians sitting round them. One or two other carts were coming slowly on from the Mission, and the captain told us to begin and throw the hides down. This, then, was the way they were to be got down — thrown down, one at a time, a distance of four hundred feet! This was doing the business on a great scale.

Standing on the edge of the hill, and looking down the perpendicular height, the sailors “That walked upon the beach appeared like mice; and our tall anchoring bark diminished to her cock; her cock a buoy almost too small for sight.” Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far out into the air as we could; and as they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book, the wind took them, and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water; and, as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and, taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height, the scaling of the hides, and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach. This was the romance of hide dropping! Some of the hides lodged in cavities under the bank and out of our sight, being directly under us; but by pitching other hides in the same direction, we succeeded in dislodging them. Had they remained there, the captain said he should have sent on board for a couple of pairs of long halyards, and got some one to go down for them. It was said that one of the crew of an English brig went down in the same way, a few years before. We looked over, and thought it would not be a welcome task, especially for a few paltry hides; but no one knows what he will do until he is called upon; for, six months afterwards, I descended the same place by a pair of top-gallant studding-sail halyards, to save half a dozen hides which had lodged there. Having thrown them all over, we took our way back again, and found the boat loaded and ready to start. We pulled off, took the hides all aboard, hoisted in the boats, hove up our anchor, made sail, and before sundown were on our way to San Diego.

— Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast; A Personal Narrative (1911): WITH A SUPPLEMENT BY THE AUTHOR AND INTRODUCTION AND ADDITIONAL CHAPTER BY HIS SON (Kindle Locations 2302-2351). Houghton Mifflin. Kindle Edition.

I took a picture of the cliffs Dana is describing. It was still morning, and the marine layer over the coast had not yet cleared, hence the grey sky.

Later, after spending some time walking along the board walk and getting some lunch in one of the seafood places, we drove up the hill, where there are now housing developments with ocean view as far as the eye can see. However, we found the spot where Dana was likely standing when he took the hides off the ox cart and threw them down the cliff like huge Frisbees.

Here is the view from the top:

Moored down in the harbor is the Pilgrim, a full-sized replica of the ship Dana sailed on from Boston in 1835 on the trip he described in Two Years Before the Mast.

This is that the Pilgrim looks like under full sail, which I found on the Ocean Institute’s website. Click on the image to jump to that site for more information.

[picture credit: Ocean Institute]

The Pilgrim moored at Dana Point is a replica of the original ship that was built in 1825 in Boston for $50,000 and designed for shipping back and forth between the American East Coast and California. To do this, they had to sail all the way around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. This replica was built in Denmark in 1945. 

I truly enjoyed our visit to Dana Point, tracing some California history, and I strongly recommend reading Two Years Before the Mast, a book for which I gave a four-star review.

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Browsing Facebook this morning I found that there was a Fahenweihe this weekend in Illkofen, my childhood village in Bavaria. The word Fahenweihe means the “ordination of the flag” or “blessing of the flag.” This usually takes place at significant anniversaries of clubs, mostly of the volunteer fire department.

Here is their brochure and program for the weekend. Illkofen, when I grew up, was a little village in the heart of Bavaria with perhaps 250 souls. Today it may be 400 or 500. For a Fahnenweihe they have a serious program of religious services, dances, a parade, and lots of beer and Bratwurst. The celebrations go on all weekend, and as I am writing this post, the beer tent is probably teeming with serious music and drinking.

The beer tent is a tent put up for the weekend, similar to those we’ll find at county fairs in the U.S. They have a band stand at the end, a dance floor in the middle, and rows of picnic tables on both sides.

In the picture above you can see the ceremonial tapping of the first keg. The people in uniform in the back are not soldiers. These are firemen in their dress uniforms. It’s all about the 150th anniversary of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr Illkofen (volunteer fire department of Illkofen).

One of the highlights of the event is the parade, which takes place on Sunday afternoon. The local village invites the fire departments from many surrounding villages for the parade. A small village may send a handful of people. Large villages can send dozens of them. They come with all their pomp and glory, in full uniform. The parade, of course has a marching band, and then, one by one, the clubs march by. Each club brings their flags which are carried in front of the group by one of the members. Then, in front of each club, a boy is assigned to carry the “sign” identifying the club, usually the village name.

And now comes the part about reminiscing about my childhood.

I came about this Facebook post of the 150th anniversary by accident, but in the summer of 1968, when I was just going on 12 years old, the Freiwillige Feuerwehr Illkofen had its 100th anniversary, and I was there.

The interesting and exciting part for the local boys at a Fahnenweihe is this: the boys get assigned villages for which to carry the signs. They are called Taferlbuam, which is a Bavarian slang term for sign boys. You won’t find that in any dictionary. It is tradition that the visiting club tips the Taferlbuam for their services of carrying the sign, and invite them to eat and drink with them after the parade in the festival tent. The larger the club you are assigned to, the larger the likey tip, since they just pass one of their hats around the membership and collect. So if each person of a large club just puts a few bills into the collection, it can make for a massive tip for a 12 year old boy. There was quite some competition amongst us boys for the assignment. Everyone wanted to be assigned to a large club. I don’t know who does the assignment, probably the fire captain, and I don’t remember the name of the club I was assigned to. It was medium sized and I remember having a pocket full of money and being happy.

The sign boy gets to sit with the club in the festival tent and celebrate. Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and a roll are consumed, all paid for by the club. And the beer flows freely.

And now, my American reader, you have to set aside your customary puritan views about alcohol and youth drinking, as it is tradition in Bavaria that the poor sign boy not only walks away with a pocket full of cash, but that he is also completely and thoroughly drunk. In fact, I may venture to say that a Fahnenweihe could well be the first introduction to serious alcoholic consumption to young Bavarian boys.

It was certainly so for me. I don’t remember much about the festival tent. It does not take too much beer to make a 12 year old drunk. I remember somehow making it home, which was only a few hundred yards away. I remember throwing up violently. I remember wallowing and writhing in pain in the grass in the yard of my house in the sunny afternoon, with my sisters and mother looking over me. I remember being so sick, so wasted, that I was sure I was going to die. I remember begging my sisters not to leave me alone, because dying alone would be too frightening.

Eventually, somehow, I got over it and I am sure I slept a long time. I could not even smell beer without gagging for years afterwards. I may have made it to age 15 or so before I took another sip.

Interestingly, an American reader might be shocked and worried about the abuse of alcohol by youth, but I can assure you after inductions like these, there is no mystery about alcohol.  Alcoholic binging that occurs with American young people when they finally reach legal drinking age does no happen there. It’s all too common and by then many have lost interest. As a result, by young people getting acclimated to alcohol as they grow up, the lure is less intense. I am not saying one system is better than the other, but I can say that my experience contributed to very modest alcohol use over the course my own life.

And this was my childhood reminiscence that was prompted by an innoccuous Facebook post about the Fahenweihe in Illkofen 2018 that took me back into my childhood to the summer of 1968.

 

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[click to enlarge] Photo Credit: Credit James Cruz (jamesjcruz on Instagram)

I have never been to Egypt and have not seen this view with my own eyes. But it must be one of the most spectacular views in the world, truly awe-inspiring.

What gets me is what I see in the lower left corner of the picture. It looks like a shed, or a chicken coop in a slummy back yard. If I owned a property in that spot I’d have a palatial veranda overlooking the most awesome view in the world. I would not put a shed in that corner.

But then again, this pyramid was completed more than 4,500 years ago. When Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C., those pyramids were already 2,500 years old. In other words, Cleopatra is closer to us in the time line than she is to the time the pyramids were built.

The chicken coop will long be gone, and Cairo will likely be dust 2,000 years hence, and the pyramid will still be there, and the sun will still set behind it.

That thought gives me comfort.

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