On an English Widow

In the English village of Lyndhurst, the 82 year widow of Reginald Hargreaves died in 1934. As per her wishes, her body was cremated, and her ashes buried in the graveyard of the church of St. Michael and All Angels in the village. Her burial plaque reads, “Mrs. Reginald Hargreaves.”

Mrs. Hargreaves lived a fairly typical life for an upper-middle class English woman of her time. During her lifespan, she saw the British Empire reach its zenith and then begin its decline after World War 1. Her husband, Reginald, was a cricket player by profession. The pair married in 1880 when she was 28. Because her future husband had a goodly inheritance, the couple married in Westminster Abby. Reginald eventually became a local magistrate in Lyndhurst. The couple had three sons, two of which died in action during the Great War. The only surviving son produced a granddaughter for the Hargreaves.

As befitting her place in English society, Mrs. Hargreaves became a hostess of various social events in the village. She became the first president of a local women’s organization and even began referring to herself as “Lady Hargreaves” even though there was no reason for her to do so. But no one seemed to mind. She was active in local society up until her death. Reginald had passed away in 1926, and his wife said until the end that he was the true love of her life.

In her dotage, people asked her about her childhood, asked her what it was like to have grown up in the height of the Victorian Age. Mrs. Hargreaves would talk at length of her upbringing in Oxford, how her father, the ecclesiastical dean of Christ Church, had raised his brood of ten children with love and laughter. Family legend says that the youngest son of Queen Victoria, Prince Leopold, was so taken with her when he went to college in Oxford that he made serious attempts to court her, although there is little to substantiate this story. Like most young well to do women of her day, she traveled to Europe and received a good education.

However, what most people who came to her door to speak to her wanted to know from Mrs. Hargreaves were the tales of a young scholar and teacher from Oxford, a Mr. Charles Dodgson. Mr. Dodgson had befriended her father and the family because of his association with Christ Church. The people who queried Mrs. Hargreaves wanted to know what he was like, what he talked about, what stories he shared with her and her siblings. Mrs. Hargreaves would always tell them all they wanted to know. She told them of the tales Mr. Dodgson spun, the fantastic worlds his imagination created for her and her siblings. And she knew all the stories by heart, even into her 80s.

After all, she should know them. After all, she was the main character of most of Mr. Dodgson’s stories. When he finally wrote them in book form, Mr. Dodgson wrote them under the penname Lewis Carroll.

And now you know that Alice Liddell Hargreaves was the heroine of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

On a Busboy

Juan Romero. He is one of those people in history you know, but you don’t really know you know.

You know?

As he rode the bus to school on a warm early-June day in 1968, Juan yawned and looked at his hands. There was something under his fingernails, something dark. He thought about what it might be, and he thought that maybe it was something he had come in contact with at his job the night before.

You see, Juan worked part time as a busboy in an Los Angeles hotel, one of the big ones. He was only 17, and he worked at the hotel when he wasn’t in high school or studying for tests. Juan did not see the work as a career, of course; it was merely a job you have in high school to earn some spending money. Besides, his ultra-strict stepfather insisted that he work in an effort to keep the young man off the mean streets of East Los Angeles. So, Juan worked clearing tables in the banquet halls and taking room service food to guests on the upper floors of the hotel. It being Los Angeles, Juan was able to meet a few celebrities during his time at the job. He liked that part. Until later.

After high school and a marriage to his sweetheart, Juan decided to leave LA and head inland. He settled for a time in Wyoming. Out there, he worked at several manual labor jobs and made decent money in the construction business. In later years, his marriage failed, and he moved back to California. This time, he lived in San Jose. He met a nice lady on Facebook, and Juan was excited about their future. Then, he suffered a heart attack with little warning and died a few days later in 2018.

Isn’t it interesting that, no matter how long someone lives, a particular moment in time forever seems to define you—at least in the imagination of the public? Juan Romero had such a moment when he had been a busboy…on that night…back in 1968. You see, Juan had been forced to stay late at the hotel the night before because of a function and then because of…because of something else that happened after the function.

So, despite being dead tired the next morning, Juan got on the bus and went to school. He thought it would take his mind off what had happened the night before. That’s when he looked at his fingernails and noticed the dark stuff under his nails.

“You’re him, aren’t you?” a woman on the bus said to him, pointing to Juan’s photo on the front page of the newspaper she held. Juan nodded. He looked back at his hands. Then it hit him what the dark stuff was under his nails.

Bobby Kennedy’s blood.

On the Father of His Country

We all are familiar with the story. Every school child should be able to recite it. The patriots, led by one daring and experienced man, win a great victory over the colonial power and create an independent nation from a loose confederation of former colonies.

We even have a title for the type of man who leads such a successful military rebellion against the colonial master: The Father of His Country. Such a man as this should be lauded, shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t he have mandated federal holidays, celebrated for generations for his amazing contribution to the founding of the nation?

Fighting against the much better trained and much better equipped colonial power, this man used his cunning and small-group tactical experience to fight a guerilla war against the slower, larger colonial forces. It was the smaller victories, he always said, that would slowly chip away at the edifice of the entrenched European power until final victory was achieved. The result? Independence. Freedom. Peace. Prosperity. All the things new nations wish for themselves.

And, after the great victory over the European power was achieved, all that was left was for the will of the people to have this man elected as the first President of the new nation. He was the logical choice, obviously, because not only of his military victories but also because of his charisma, his way of commanding a room when he entered it. No one else in the new nation, it was said, could bring the disparate parts of the country together like he could, either. No one else had his stature, his beloved reputation. Yet, despite the acclaim, he characteristically insisted that he not ever become an emperor or a president for life. That was not his style. The people, he insisted, the nation–those were his priorities.

Yet, the new nation had its enemies. The old power base from the European colonial country still lingered in some pockets of the new nation. Internally, over 1/3 of the population did not like the idea of a new country led by this former military leader. Talks of civil war and rebellion filled the land. Yet, he held his loyal countrymen together by and large. They loved him, especially those who had served with him in the great Revolutionary War.

On top of this, he was a learned man. He had received the finest education possible as a young man, and he spoke several languages. He was also a poet, and he wrote extensively about basic human rights. “There is nothing more precious,” he once said, “than independence and liberty.” At his large but simple home, he enjoyed gardening and taking care of such animals as the fish in his pond, which he fed regularly. When, after a long career of public service, he passed away of heart failure at age 79, he was mourned by hundreds of thousands of his countrymen as, again, the Father of His Country.

Busts, statues, plaques, and monuments have been erected to him in the many years since his death. Streets and universities, schools, and even religious sites bear his name today. Even a city in the new nation was christened in his name:

Ho Chi Minh City.

On a Dying Wish

10 dimes.

One of the last wishes of the 82 year old man in the cardiac ward of the hospital was that he be buried with ten dimes in one of his front pockets. That wasn’t the only odd request the old man made. He also wanted to have a roll of cherry Lifesavers and some Tootsie Rolls, two of his favorite candies, buried with him. He had always enjoyed smoking cigarettes and was known to his friends to drink and have a taste for decent whiskey, so he asked also to be buried with a pack of smokes and a fifth as well. 

It was the request about the dimes that puzzled some people at the time. In the old man’s mind, the dimes were a sort of a talisman, a good luck-type sense of security, a touchstone of sorts. 

You see, when the man died in 1998, pay phones were becoming obsolete rapidly. Besides, even a local call cost at least $.25. Yet, to this old geezer, he always told people that he kept the dollar’s worth of dimes to make sure that he would have enough to use a payphone for an extended period if he needed to.

And that’s what was odd. 35 years before he died, this man’s son had been kidnapped. The kidnappers insisted on communicating only through payphones. The man (who had a great deal of money) made the arrangements over payphones to pay the ransom, and he did so. His son was released after only a couple of days being held. 

Oh, of course, the kidnappers were caught and prosecuted. But the man never forgot the fear, the dread, of what might have happen if he had  needed to use a payphone and did not have enough change. So that’s why he kept one dollar’s worth of dimes with him at all times, and it’s why he insisted that he be buried with them in one of his front pockets.

And so when you visit the grave of Frank Sinatra, you can be certain that those 10 dimes are still with him.

On a Teen Pitching Phenom

Here’s a bit of baseball trivia that you may not have known. The reason Babe Ruth was given number three for the New York Yankees, and the reason Lou Gehrig was given number four for that team was because that was their order in the lineup. That gives you an idea of what a great hitter Gehrig was that he would bat clean up! 

Back in the late 20s and early 30s, major league baseball teams would often play exhibition games against minor-league teams as sort of a de facto spring training. It also was a way to give fans in cities that did not have major league ball teams a chance to see their favorite major league stars in action.

Three years after their World Series championship of 1928, the New York Yankees faced the minor-league Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game on April 2, 1931. The Lookouts’ starting pitcher, a man named Clyde Barfoot, who had once been a major league player, took the mound to face the mighty Yankees lineup.

Barfoot gave up a double and a single to the first two batters. Lookouts manager, Bert Niehoff, yelled for time to the home plate umpire as he came out of the dugout. When he reached the pitchers mound, he took the ball from Barfoot and said, “Hey, it ain’t gonna get any easier, Clyde. Why don’t you sit this one out.“ Barfoot headed to the dugout, and Niehoff barked, “Mitchell! Warm up!”

Jackie Mitchell was a thin 17-year-old pitcher who was actually born in Chattanooga. The Lookouts had only recently signed the youngster to their roster. It would fall to this kid to face Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with two men on base and no outs. Such a daunting task would make the most seasoned professional pitcher weak at the knees, but Jackie showed no fear in taking the mound.

Ruth first. The Bambino watched the teenager’s first pitch come in to the catchers mitt for ball one. You could tell that he was judging the delivery and the speed with his well-seasoned eye. Mitchell’s second pitch surprised The Babe with its speed, and he swung at it and missed for strike one. Quickly, the teen came back with a breaking ball, which had Ruth off balance, and he clumsily swung at it for strike two. Ruth was now furious. Mitchell took the sign from the catcher and floated another offspeed pitch in towards home plate. Ruth held back, thinking the ball was out of the strike zone. “Strike three!“ yelled the ump. 

Even though the game was an exhibition, Babe Ruth began verbally haranguing the umpire and had to be pulled away by teammates. Meanwhile, the hometown crowd cheered lustily for the native pitcher. 

Gehrig next. The Iron Horse had, for his career, one of the highest batting averages in the history of major league baseball. There was no way that the kid would be able to do to him what had been done to Ruth. Yet, Lou Gehrig struck out on three consecutive pitches. He shook his head in wonderment as he slowly made his way back to the bench.

When he sat down, the normally taciturn Gehrig turned to the other Yankees in the dugout and said, “That’s a great pitcher. I don’t care if she’s a girl.“

On a Generous Wealthy Woman

Liz enjoyed her wealth, and she was not stingy. No, sir. Her charitable works, her wide reputation for paying her servants some of the best wages in town (even her daily feeding of the squirrels and birds in her spacious back yard) proved that she was not a cheapskate. This was a generous older woman. In he 60s, she minded her own business and lived a quiet life in the large house in the best neighborhood of her New England community. She gave the place the idyllic name of Maplecroft Mansion.

As a younger woman, Liz had also been quite generous with her time. Stories were told about her teaching Sunday school at the local Congregational Church, her young pupils smiling as they, now adults, told about her eagerness to spin the Biblical stories into reality for them. It was said that she had quite the gift for teaching, and some wondered why she never entered that career professionally. Perhaps it was that her family was wealthy. Oh, well.

Her dad had made his fortune in real estate after beginning his working life as a mortician. Known as a frugal man, Liz’s dad seemed to have not passed on his frugality with his daughter. No, she gave freely and liberally to many charitable causes while not skimping on fine things for herself, either.

One little boy who lived across the street from Liz told the story about how she would always come by his sidewalk lemonade stand and practically buy him out, only to give the lemonade away to the kids in the neighborhood.

Liz indulged in trips to cities like Boston and New York, often going by chauffeured car, to attend the theater and to see museums. She would stay in fine hotels by herself and then return home. Occasionally, if she saw a play or production she liked, Liz would host parties for the cast in a time when “theater folk” often meant the undesirables of high society.

And that part perhaps was not so odd for Liz. For she, too, was largely an undesirable, especially in her hometown. The town she grew up in, and the town she lived in until she died. You see, she was an outcast herself.

Why would such a generous, charitable, kind, and self-less person be so hated by her own people?

Because “Lizzie Borden took an axe…”

On an Ill Inmate

The prisoner was obviously sick when he was brought to the prison infirmary. Guards had reported that he sat in his heated prison cell wrapped in a heavy coat. He would hear orders from them but could not seem to process what he had been told. The prison doctor only had to look at the man and speak a few sentences with him to know what the condition was: Syphilis.

The prisoner was a thug, a professional criminal, a person who had been in trouble since his youth. The doctor, who had seen it all in his work at the prison, still felt some sympathy for the man despite his past. The man’s face was festering, and his mind had already started to turn to mush.

Treatment for syphilis in the days before penicillin could only treat the symptoms but not really the disease and that only if the situation was caught in time. Unfortunately for this inmate, he had gone for years without seeking help for his condition.

In fact, syphilis had remained one of the main causes of death in the United States in the years before World War II. The first symptoms of sores on the mouth or genitalia would then soon turn into a rash that could cover the body. Then, apparently, the disease could seem to go dormant for years only to re-manifest itself and enter the final stage—when it began to not show in lesions not only on the skin but also attack the person’s brain. It often left sufferers severely mentally incapacitated. In addition, the illness struck the heart and the liver and other internal organs.

By this stage, the syphilis patient was doomed to death.

The poor man’s wife appealed to the courts and even directly to the warden to have the man who now only looked somewhat like her husband back in her house where she could look after him in what was left of his life. Out of a sense of sympathy, the request was granted.

In an effort to save the family and even the man himself further embarrassment, his release papers said that his sentence had been reduced because of his “good behavior” and did not list the syphilis. When he died at age 48 of a weakened heart due to the syphilis, the man was hardly recognizable to friends and family and was said to have the mental capacity of a child.

It was not the end one would expect for a man like Al Capone.

On a Stroke Victim

The retired professor lay in his bed, propped up by many pillows at his back. His wife busied herself with bringing his things to drink, tidying his bedclothes, and making sure he had newspapers and the daily mail. The stroke had left him paralyzed on his left side and partially blind. But today, some people were coming for a visit, and she wanted to make sure they saw the proud man at his best.

This stroke wasn’t his first. Back when he worked at the college, he had suffered several mini-strokes that had temporarily impaired his mobility and his vision. Like his father before him, it was said, he suffered from premature hardening of the arteries. Yet, he continued to work and to teach.

The professor had done much traveling in the years after he retired from the classroom. He had been across the nation many times by train. He had even been to Europe. His wife and doctor suspected that the travel had tired him and had contributed to the severity of the stroke.

The professor’s wife had taken direct charge of his recovery after this latest and most severe event. She limited his visitors to herself and the family doctor. The professor’s friends and extended family were forbidden entry. And the wife kept the severity of the professor’s health a secret–even to him.

The illness wore on, and the professor’s situation grew no better. In fact, in some ways, it grew worse.  It seems that the stroke had not only affected his body, but it had also changed his personality in many respects. Known as a man who had complete control over his emotions, since the stroke had occurred, he had been extremely emotional, he made impulsive and out of character exclamations, and his rational decision-making suffered dramatically. Soon, it was hard to see this man as the one who had been so respected when he worked in the classroom.

In fact, he had first made his reputation as a professor of history and political science. His book on politics and political science, The State, had even become the standard university textbook on the subject for several years. He was part of the generation known as the Progressives, and like many of his generation, his teachings promoted child labor laws, taxation of corporations, limiting the hours a worker could work per week, insisting on sanitary and safe factory conditions, and so on. One reviewer called his work the prototype of the modern welfare state. Such was his influence as a professor.

But that was long ago by the time he lay stricken in his bed. Many other important events had happened to him. And people who knew him–colleagues and family among them–were wanting to see if he was recovering or not.

Finally, after almost a year, the professor’s wife gave in. Some of his peers wanted to see the ill man. His wife agreed. So, on a good day, a day in which the professor could speak well and could sit up for a bit, she shaved her invalided husband, put his glasses on his nose, spread some newspapers around on the bed, and invited people over to see the man. Included in the group was one man with whom the professor had been at odds. They disagreed in years past on many of the Progressive principles the professor held dear. The disagreeable man seemed touched by the illness that had been brought to the professor’s life, even if they had been on different sides of many issues.

“I’m praying for you,” the man said, with sincerity.

“Oh? Which way?” answered President Woodrow Wilson.

On a Famous Landmark

In the most populous city in the United States, a mere 25 people live in this location according to the 2010 census. Yet, is one of the most visited landmarks in New York City—over 40 million folks go there in a normal year.  

The ones who designed it called it the “Greensward Plan.” It has a budget of $65 million a year. 

And a massive 5,000,000 ft.³ of earth was moved during its construction. And, speaking of construction, 20,000 laborers worked to build it. Five of them lost their lives during the build. More gun powder was used in its construction that was fired across all three days at the battle of Gettysburg. 

More movies have used it as a set than any other place in New York City. And a new genus—not species but genus—of insect was discovered there.  It is open 24/7/365. 

Can you guess this New York icon? Give up? 

You know it as Central Park. 

On a Weapons Project

Nuclear fusion was first accomplished by German physicists in Berlin in 1938. The potential power released in this experiment caused nations to sit up and take notice. War was looming again in Europe, and a race started among various countries to be the first to develop a weapon based on this discovery.

As World War 2 began, the nuclear arms race intensified. The fear was that the enemy would create a nuclear weapon first and bring the war to an end either by the use of the weapon or the threat thereof. The government sponsored conferences to begin to tackle the problem. The administration called the top scientists and physicists in the nation together and gave them top security clearances. Plans were made to have a weapon produced by the mid-1940s. An overall strategy was devised, a step-by-step plan set up. The government set the goal of first creating a nuclear reactor in which the fission could be created and controlled.

The program was so top-secret that research and development was spread out over several locations across the nation, and work was managed by many different departments for security reasons. Workers on the bomb only knew their relatively small area of expertise and had no idea that others were working on other elements of the bomb’s production. Many of those involved did not even realize what the project that they were working on actually was. Only a few top military and political personnel knew the overall project goals and its progress.

University physics departments were coopted by the government to provide research labs and technicians. While uranium nuclei were the primary fuel for the experiments, some of the universities and research facilities sought other methods for creating a nuclear superweapon that would end the war.

And, as the war progressed, the pressure on the program increased. The other side often seemed to have the advantage in the war, and the fear that they would win the nuclear race motivated the scientists and workers to work long hours. Fears of espionage and sabotage exacerbated the progress. Setbacks and funding also often hampered the work.

Finally, in 1942, a major turning point in the research and development of the bomb was reached. The science was clear, and it was time to make a decision. The findings were gathered by the leading physicists and announced to the government on June 4, 1942. The findings showed that…the nation was not that much closer to developing a bomb than they had been three years before. Oh, the capabilities were there, but the costs in terms of manpower, production, and materiel were prohibitive.

The decision was made to scrap the entire project. The scientists, laboratories, and workers all turned their attentions to developing conventional weapons rather than nuclear ones.

And that is why Nazi Germany never developed a nuclear weapon.