On a Vaudevillian

 

Vaudeville is largely unknown by most people in the world today. 120 years ago, vaudeville was the major form of entertainment in most small towns. Films were in their infancy, and they had yet to make an impact in the American psyche.

Vaudeville acts would tour the country, and, if you lived in a certain town, you might see a different act every week at your local theater. The act would contain everything from musical numbers to small dramatic works, magic acts or even trained animals.

A baby named Joseph was born to a vaudeville family in 1996 in a small town in Kansas. Joe was born there simply because that’s where the family happened to be performing that night. So, it is entirely fair to say that Joe was born to the stage. His dad partnered with a magician who would later go on to great fame, a guy named Harry Houdini. Joe’s dad would perform with his wife and, after Houdini did his magic act, Dad would also sell elixirs and patent medicines to make a few extra bucks.

Joe got in on the act within a few months of being born. As his mom would play the saxophone on the side of the stage, Joe’s dad would toss his young son around the stage, and the baby would giggle. This delighted audiences after they recovered from their initial shock of seeing a child being thrown around so casually. But Joe learned early how to land like a cat; he later said that the secret was to go limp and then catch yourself with an arm or a foot. “Most people don’t last long in this business because they don’t know how to do that,” he explained.

Early on, Joe realized that the laughs from the audience would be greater if he did not giggle so much when his dad tossed him around so cavalierly. So Joe learned to show no emotion during the act. His deadpan face caused the audience to roar even louder. That meant more money for the family.

Years passed , and Houdini left the act to go on to bigger and better things. Joe’s dad began drinking heavily. The family tried to improve their fortunes by going to the UK on tour, but that venture failed miserably and put the family in debt. Joe’s mom eventually took her son and came back to the US. More years passed, and Joe served in France in the army during World War 1.

In New York City, Joe met a guy who worked in the burgeoning new film industry. On a tour of a New York studio, Joe expressed his fascination with the medium, and he asked if he could take one of the cameras home with him. There, he took the contraption apart and looked at it carefully. The next day, he came back and asked for a job and was hired as a bit player and “gag man.“

By 1920, Joe earned his first starring role in a full-length motion picture. Soon, he was one of the biggest stars in the genre, writing, starring in, and even directing his own films.

In an interview, he talked about his early days in vaudeville and how he got the nickname by which he became known around the world. “As a baby, I fell down some stairs and landed at the bottom without being hurt. Harry Houdini laughed at that and said, ‘That boy’s a real buster!’”

Thats why you know him as Buster Keaton.

On A Trip to Mexico

The bullet bedecked gentleman in the photo above is Pancho Villa. During the decade from 1910 to 1920, Mr. Villa participated in the Mexican Revolution. Needing supplies, money, and weapons to fight in this effort, the resourceful Mr. Villa and his band of merry men turned to a handy and plentiful source of these items: The United States.

However, their methods for procuring these items caused no little consternation among the Americans. You see, Mr. Villa and his comrades simply crossed the US/Mexico border and helped themselves to the supplies. By 1916, their repeated  little forays into US territory from the Mexican state of Chihuahua not only resulted in stolen, lost, and destroyed property, but these raids also caused the deaths of dozens of Americans.

If such incidents occurred today, one can imagine the uproar among the Americans in the press, the public, and among the politicians. One hundred years ago, the reaction was much the same. Calls for punitive military action against the Mexican revolutionaries rose from every corner of the land. President Woodrow Wilson, who had a hand in the early days of the revolution by lending support to the anti-government forces, now decried the activities of Villa and his cronies. He ordered General John Pershing to the border with a large contingent of US troops, including air support (one of the first times airplanes were used in American military history), and he gave Pershing a specific directive: Bring Villa to justice.

Pershing failed to do so. However, he and the American troops fought a few skirmishes with Villa’s crew, and their efforts caused Villa to eventually seek elsewhere for supplies for his part of the revolution. Personally, Pershing declared the expedition a success even if his Commander in Chief didn’t.

One of Pershing’s aides, a young second lieutenant, obtained particular notoriety for an incident involving one of the Villa’s right hand men. It seems that this brash second lieutenant deployed three open Dodge motorcars full of 15 American soldiers and scouts and rode these mechanized “horses“ into a ranch compound in Mexico, guns a-blazing. When the smoke literally cleared, three of Pancho Villa’s men were dead, and no American was as much as scratched.

The lieutenant ordered that the three bodies would be strapped to the bumper and hood of his car and taken back to Pershing‘s headquarters for identification. He then reportedly carved three notches in his expensive pistol handles to mark the three men his part of the operation killed. Pershing, suitably impressed, nicknamed the young man, “Bandito.”

A year later, United States would declare war on Germany and officially enter World War I on the side of the Allies. The Pershing Expedition had served as a small dress rehearsal for the war that America now found itself in. Wilson tapped Pershing to be the leader of the American expeditionary force in France despite the fact the General didn’t capture Villa. “Black Jack” Pershing won international fame and admiration for his part in the Great War.

Wilson, who had  campaigned for reelection  in 1916 on a slogan that reminded voters that he had kept America out of the European entanglement, labeled himself as the savior of western civilization against the evil of war in general and German aggression specifically. His  plan for the peace after the war, called the 14 Points, became the basis for the League of Nations, a weak and ineffective forerunner to the United Nations.  A stroke in 1919 limited Wilson’s effectiveness in rallying America to ratify the Versailles Treaty ending the war; America eventually signed a separate peace treaty with Germany much later and never entered the League.

And that impetuous Second Looey?

He liked the idea of having mechanized infantry strike rapidly at an enemy as he had shown in Mexico. He liked it so much that he entered the tank corps. While he made a decent impression during his service in World War I, we probably remember him best for his accomplishments in the war after the War to End All Wars.

Pershing knew him as Bandito.

You know him as George S. Patton.

 

On A Partnership

Partners in any business can be a tricky situation—law partners especially. Take the case of Will Herndon and his partner.

Will was a more than competent attorney. He understood that law is sometimes a business that requires a quick turnaround on the case so you can get to the next one. Better to be paid five times handling five quick cases than one time handling one long one. At least that was the way Will saw things.

That’s what frustrated him so about his older law partner. The older man seemed to have a deliberate nature when it came to both researching a case and arguing it. Even the simplest case, Will‘s partner would pursue it like a bulldog, researching arcane rulings that may or may not apply to the situation, and then taking his own sweet time in the court room to talk to witnesses. It was all sometimes maddening to Will.

In addition, this partner would often allow opposing counsel‘s points to go unchallenged. He told Will that it was better sometimes to concede six or seven small points as long as you won the last big one.

Perhaps the greatest strain on the relationship between the two partners was Will’s frustration with his partner’s and his partner‘s wife’s inability to discipline their children. The partner didn’t seem to mind that his sons had free run of the offices, often disrupting meetings with clients. It was like having a bunch of wild animals in a place that Will thought should observe at least a modicum of decorum and seriousness.

Yet, despite their differences, the law partnership survived for over 15 years. It dissolved only when the elder partner decided to pursue political office.

In all that time together as partners, Will Herndon was never invited to his partner’s house for dinner or for any social event. Apparently, the animosity between Will and his partner‘s wife proved too great an obstacle to overcome.

Will’s partner went on to great success in public life, and that success was fueled largely by the same dogged practices that made him such an able litigator. The man served well, and he even died in office.

Years later, Will decided he would write a book describing the man he had come to know over those years as his law partner.

The book’s title?

Herndon’s Lincoln.

On An Aviation Incident

Interior designer. Advertiser. Sporting goods salesman. Insurance salesman. Produce salesman. College chemistry teacher/coach.

Those six passengers, plus a pilot and a co-pilot, died in a plane crash near the small town of Bazaar, Kansas, in March, 1931.

Eight other seats on the TWA flight that day sat empty. The passengers and cargo weren’t overweight or unusual. The weather may have played a factor, to be sure, but that’s not what ultimately caused the crash of TWA flight 3.

The final report on the crash determined that one of the wooden wings of the Fokker Tri-motor plane had seen moisture build up in it over time. This caused the glue holding the wing together to separate, causing catastrophic failure.

The investigations that followed the crash caused widespread changes in the aviation industry. Wooden aircraft became quickly obsolete, with metal aircraft replacing them. The first of the DC series of aircraft made its debut within 3 years due to this demand. This call for metal commercial aircraft forced companies like Fokker and Ford, stalwarts of the early successes of passenger air travel after World War 1, to leave the commercial aviation business within a few years.

The crash even changed aircraft crash investigations themselves, here-to-fore having often been closed because of a corporate culture of secrecy. Aviation crash incidents now began a new era of openness and thorough, impartial, rigorous professionalism. The federal government received the power to hold hearings and call witnesses and conduct all necessary inquiry.

Of course, other crashes involving wooden aircraft occurred during that period. In fact, 12 other crashes occurred in the US in that year alone. What caused such interest in this half empty flight that crashed in the middle of the US on that March day? What was it about this one that brought about such sweeping changes to the airline industry?

Look at that passenger list again. Carefully consider each occupation: Interior designer. Advertiser. Sporting goods salesman. Insurance salesman. Produce salesman. College chemistry teacher/ coach.

You probably get now. It’s that last passenger. We don’t think of him as a chemistry teacher, however. Even though he died at the young age of 43, this football coach, in the prime of his career, remains one of the best known people in the United States.

You see, TWA flight 3 that crashed that March day carried none other than Knute Rockne

On The Horrible Houseguest

Surely, most of us know who Hans Christian Andersen is.

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The Danish author of beloved children tales such as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, Anderson was a young writer breaking into success when he visited London in 1847.

 

 

There, he met the famous British author, Charles Dickens. At the time the two men met, Dickens was already a celebrated author, known for his stories such as Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, and A Christmas Carol.

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Dickens thought the angular young Fane to be eccentric but interesting.
After their brief meeting, Anderson wrote in his diary, “I was so happy to see and speak to England’s now greatest living writer, whom I love the most.”
When Anderson returned to his native Denmark at the end of his trip, he wrote a letter to his new acquaintance.
“Dear Mr. Dickens,” the letter began, “the next time I am in London, I would wish to come spend some time with you if you would agree.“
Dickens wrote a short note back, acknowledging receipt of the letter and said that yes, sometime in the future, a visit from the young author would be welcome. It seems that Dickens answered more out of a formality and courtesy rather than truly extending an invitation.
Much to Dickens’ surprise, Anderson showed up at his house… in 1857.
He brought with him enough luggage to stay for an extended visit.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s arrival could not have come at a worse time for Dickens. He was in the middle of working on a play in London, and his marriage was going through a difficult phase.
Nevertheless, Dickens and his family did the best they could to make the odd, thin Dane feel welcome in their home.
Immediately that were problems. It turned out that Anderson did not have a good grasp of English.
Dickens noted that his French was even worse. But the language difficulty was the least of the issues.
Anderson had a habit of sleeping until almost noon every day. When he finally woke up and came downstairs, he seemed flummoxed that breakfast, which had been cleared away hours before, was not made available to him.
He would take long walks in the woods and fields surrounding the Dickens house.
When he was with the family, he would get a pair of scissors and made elaborate and oddly strange cut outs from any paper he could find. These amused Dickens’s children at first, but soon they grew tired of the game.
The most bizarre part of Anderson’s stay was when he requested that Dickens’s oldest son, for whom Anderson had grown inordinately fond, be made to shave him every morning.
This was something that Dickens would absolutely not allow.
Anderson was visibly upset that he was now forced to go into town to be shaved by a barber.
Soon, Anderson would spend most of his time in town, shopping or walking the streets.
The entire household was soon in an uproar. Every one in the family and even the servants devised elaborate plans to avoid having to interact with Anderson.
How do you tell an unwelcome houseguest that he has overstayed his welcome?
Dickens found a way, and, after five long weeks, Anderson left the Dickens household.
When he had finally cleared out, Dickens pinned a note to the door of the bedroom that Henderson had used. The note said, “ Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks, but, to the household, it seemed like an eternity.“
After he returned home, Anderson wrote Dickens again, this time apologizing for his behavior and asking the forgiveness of the older author.

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Even though he never completely understood why he’d been asked to leave, Anderson must’ve realized the tumult he brought to the household, and he tried to repair the damage done to the relationship.
Dickens didn’t reply.
The two legendary authors never saw or spoke to each other again.

On Hell

The subject of Hell is an unusual one for this writer. One main reason the writer usually never publishes such musings on topics like this is because of the practical and potentially negative implications the opinions expressed here about such topics could/probably will have on said writer’s profession. With that caveat, here is Hell.

It strikes this writer as odd that one needs to, at times, make the following statements in the 21st century: Hell is not a place, and it does not exist inside the earth. Yet, because of the shower of ignorance that passes for Christianity today in the United States, such a statement is sometimes needed. No, Virginia, there is no lake burning with fire beyond the tectonic plates of earth, despite the vehement protestations and admonitions of such fire-and-brimstone preachers like Jonathan Edwards (See below).

“Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”-Mark Twain

How can this writer state this for a fact? Because science. While one has the freedom, certainly, to believe differently, that does not change the fact that science can demonstrate that no fiery, sulfuric, brimstoney Hell exists “down there” where your immortal soul will burn in perpetuity. And, no, a red devil with a forked tail and pitchfork does not await you. 

That remains a mystery for some, by the way, or at least an imponderable for which they see no solution. If the “soul” is a spiritual entity (for lack of a better word), then how would it be possible for such an entity to experience the undeniably physical pain of burning? Of course, the opposite must be true; how can Heaven be made of streets of gold with pearly gates and be 140,000 miles long/wide/tall? Both descriptions deny or ignore the definition of “spirit” as that which is not physical.

“You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”-Davy Crockett

We owe a major debt to the Exile of the three remaining tribes of Israel into Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. for much of what most believers today think about Hell. Before the Exile, Israel/Judah rarely spoke of life after death–or death after death, for that matter. Before the Exile, the Israelites had a place-Sheol-where the dead “went,” but the Hebrew Scriptures mention this only here and there. King David is said to have recognized it when he spoke of the infant son that he and his wife, Bathsheba, lost. David remarked something like, “I can go to him, but he cannot come to me.” (II Samuel 12) Sheol housed both good and bad people. It was were their “shades” rested.

Another metaphor for the afterlife in Hebrew Scriptures was Gehenna. That is the name of valley near Jerusalem where some of Judah’s kings sacrificed their own children to other “gods” using fire to do so. In some rabbinic literature, this valley became synonymous with the place where evil people go when they die where they, too, will be consumed by fire.

“The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”-Bertrand Russell

As stated above, the influence of Zoroastrianism finally fixed the Jewish belief about Hell as the Hebrew Scriptures began to be collated and collected and written during and after the Exile. It seems one of the core tenants of that religion is the idea of a good god and an evil god who fought for men’s souls. In death, the good god would take good souls while the evil god would take evil ones. While the word Hell does not seem to actually be in the Sacred Scriptures of Zoroastrianism, the concept is explicit throughout them. 

The evil god, also called the Adversary or Accuser (a noun used several times in the Hebrew Bible for the Evil One, by the way, and almost always as the Satan), will preside over those evil souls in the “House of Falsehoods” because they all are, at heart, liars. This dovetails nicely with Christian Scripture theology that calls the Evil One “The Father of Lies.” While the narrative in the Bible book of Genesis calls the tempter “the Serpent” in the Garden of Eden, it takes the Apostle John, writing in his apocalyptic letter to 7 Christian communities in modern-day Turkey, to make the connection between the Serpent in the Garden and Satan.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider… abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”-Jonathan Edwards

But we digress. The Jews in the inter-testamental period from about 500 B.C.E. to the first century A.D. composed books and compiled rabbinical texts (some of which many Christians call the books of the Apocrypha) that flesh out the concept of Hell as being a lake that burns with fire where evil people will spend an eternity in torment. Thus, by the time of Jesus, a well-formed theology of Hell and Satan had developed, as did the concepts of Angels and Heaven. Add to these notions the Greek (Thanks, Alexander the Great) ideas of a subterranean Hades and other such stories, and one begins to put together a picture of how the concept of Hell developed. Then, in the early 1300s, Dante’s Inferno captured the minds of a Christian Europe and continued our fascination with the underworld.

Adam and Even never mention Hell. Nor do Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob and all his sons, Saul, David, Solomon, or most of the kings of both Israel and Judah. And neither do the prophets, really. Thus, pre-Exile, Hebrew theology had little idea of Hell, if any at all, and certainly not like we know it today.

Ask a theologian where Hell is. Note well his or her answer.

Carry on.


The picture above is from The Condemned in Hell, fresco by Luca Signorelli, 1500–02; in the Chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral at Orvieto, Italy.

 

On Biphasic Sleep

Sleep. It’s a third of all human lifespans, and, yet, we know relatively little about it compared to, say, our workaday lives. Besides, the practice itself evolves as our societies change. We try to “make up sleep” on weekends (something that scientists say we can’t do) and complain that we need more sleep than we’re getting. However, this lack of sleep may be our own doing in the modern world.

About half-past twelve o’clock, when Mr. Winkle had been revelling some twenty minutes in the full luxury of his first sleep, he was suddenly awakened by a loud knocking at his chamber-door. Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1836

Most of the western world attempts to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night these days. Many people would argue that they could “get by” on 6 hours and still function well. Those numbers (6,7, and 8) are fairly recent targets in human history for sleep duration. Understand that our pre-Industrial Revolution forebears slept in a vastly different manner.

Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning, indicating a sound body and a mind free from care; but his master, being unable to sleep himself awakened him, saying, “I am amazed, Sancho, at the torpor of thy soul; it seems as if thou wert made of marble or brass, insensible of emotion or sentiment!” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), Don Quixote de la Mancha

Before the invention of electric lights, or even before the creation of a factory/mechanized society in the late 1700s/early 1800s in many parts of the western world, people slept in a 4-2-4 pattern. That is, many slept for four hours or so (from 7 or 8 until 11 or 12), then, they rose for an hour or two where they would write letters, journals, visit friends, prayed, or even simply sit and read or perform housework, etc. After this interlude (1 or 2 in the morning), they would then sleep another four hours–give or take–until sun up, thus sleeping in two phases. This made sense in a northern climate where the residents saw an absent sun for up to 14 hours per day. One will find references to “second sleep” in several books, letters, diaries, and even court cases of the pre-industrial age.

“He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.” Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1840

The factory/industrial work day seems to have stopped this practice.  These changes included street and house lights that could burn all night at low cost and–interestingly–the increase in coffee consumption as a late-evening social ritual. Also, as leisure time became available to the middle class, the evening became a time for people to go out. Sleep times suffered as a result. Arriving home around 10:00 pm, the average person attempted to achieve the same amount of sleep (8 hours) in less time.

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright…
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), “The Indian Serenade’

Along with the attempts to get a solid block of 8 hours of sleep came the 3-meal day (not common before) and the concept of eating meat more than on holidays or special occasions. These things became de rigueur for the urban middle class by the middle 1800s. Given that some scientists have demonstrated that we need neither 3 meals nor meat daily and that breaking up our sleep into segments is actually better for us, one could argue that the Industrial Age changed society for the worse rather than for the better.

In recent years, Wehr, et al, conducted experiments that showed, when subjected to 14 hours of darkness, subjects settled into a rhythm of four hours of sleep followed by two hours of wakefulness and then followed by four more hours of sleep. The subjects in the test awoke from the second sleep more refreshed, more productive, and happier throughout the day than did those who tried to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

It was only in the morning, after awaking and happily falling off into a second sleep, that he enjoyed the peace and repose of both body and soul, which usually characterized his rest. When he again opened his eyes after this delightful morning’s nap, a joyous ray, cast by the rising sun through the bed curtains, danced on the counterpane like a streak of gold, and gave a marvellous brilliancy to its variegated embroideries. Alexandre Dumas, The Watchmaker, 1859

Consider, then, that humans in the northern hemisphere slept in two phases for millennia until the past two hundred years. Paris first lit its streets in the mid-17th century, then Amsterdam, and London followed two decades later. Having lights on the streets invited people to sleep less. And, so, they did.

We do.

Carry on.