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.

On a Tax Lesson

Teachers know that one of the best ways to impart an important lesson to a student is to play a game. In 1903, Elizabeth Magie, a feminist, inventor, and newspaper writer, designed a game for kids that would teach them the basic tenets of the single-tax theory. That idea, expounded by economist Henry George, proposed that taxes on property—not on the value of the improvements on it—should create a fair tax system that would help lower-class landowners.

This was the time before any state or national income taxes had been enacted, but sales taxes and tariffs were common. Land taxes were much of many governments’ income. George’s ideas prompted many of the reforms of the Progressive Era in the United States in the early years of the 20th century. Big businesses—monopolies like Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel—opposed the idea that their considerable land holdings should be taxed, and these Robber Barons exerted their influence on both the state and national levels to ensure that they would pay as little in property taxes as possible.

But Lizzie Magie knew that the way to enact long-lasting change was to teach children from a young age that the land tax idea was the most just, the most equitable. That way, the children would grow up knowing that taxing the wealthy would create a society that was fair and created a level playing field for all.

She was part of that generation that included such Progressives as Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, and even Teddy Roosevelt (to a degree) who saw society’s role as not some social Darwinistic survival of the fittest. Rather, the Progressives sought to fulfill the American Dream by insuring no one small group held all the money or power.

And, so, Lizzie created her game. She tested it on her friends and relatives in her neighborhood of Brentwood, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. They loved it. They helped her tweak the game somewhat, and Lizzie then applied for a patent with the U.S. Patent Office. The patent was granted in 1904. She named it The Landlord Game.

Later on, Lizzie created other games, including Bargain Day, where shoppers competed to get the best deals, and King’s Men, which was a complex strategy game. But we don’t remember those creations. No, today, we remember only The Landlord Game.

No one who plays it today realizes that the game was created to teach us about the dangers of the name by which we know it:

Monopoly.

On an Influential Minister

Greg took his role seriously. His country’s power brokers listened to him, hung on his every word, made major decisions based on his wise advice and sage counsel. Greg’s time in the halls of power saw his nation suffer the agony of political, economic, and even military upheaval. So, his inputs and opinions about the major issues of the day were invaluable to those who ruled his land.

Today, Americans do not think it odd that religious leaders such as Greg would be considered as an important advisor to those who hold political power. We are used to such things as a National Day of Prayer and presidents speaking before religious groups. Often, minsters, rabbis, and pastors are called to the Oval Office to discuss the issues of the day and how morality applies to them.

That’s the type of role Greg filled for his nation. The major difference was that Greg’s voice became the only one the leaders listened to. His influence was seen in some circles of government as being too large, his power over the decisions of government too great. Yet, Greg continued to have the ear of those who held the reins of power.

Those who knew Greg marveled at his rise to such a position. Born to a poor farming family in a rural part of the country, his mother had seven other children, but only Greg lived to adulthood. His youth was misspent and saw him get in trouble with the local constabulary for such misdemeanors as petty thefts and drunkenness. His schooling was spotty at best. He finally settled down somewhat and married a farmer’s daughter and began a family, taking on the farmer life for himself.

Stories about his entry into the ministry vary. For whatever reason, he decided to become a pastor. After some training in a seminary, Greg returned from his training a changed man. He had sworn off alcohol, became strict in a vegetarian diet, and began preaching a message of personal responsibility and strict abstinence from all worldly passions. The message resonated in part because of Greg’s personality.

Those who heard him speak became taken with his passion, his drive. It was said that Greg could cast a spell over his church audience. His local congregation of followers grew and grew. He began to be someone people (and many rich people) came to for advice and counsel. And Greg’s sessions proved to be fruitful to those who came to him. It was only a matter of time before those holding  political power sought him out for not only his advice but also for the reputation he had garnered in his growing ministerial work.

One day, the leader of the government asked Greg for a favor. Would the minister please pray for his youngest child, his son, who had a congenital disease? Absolutely, Greg said. The prayer seemed to provide the young man some relief. The family, especially the young man’s mother, ever so grateful, brought Greg into their inner circle as a healer, a holy person, and someone in whom the powerful family placed their entire—and, it turns out, misplaced—trust.  

You know how this story ends. That powerful family—the family of Russian Czar Nicholas II—relied on the peasant preacher Gregori Rasputin more than any other advisor. And they did so as their empire and eventually their own lives crumbled around them.

On a Mid-Life Crisis

Phinney found himself in the throes of a mid-life crisis of Biblical proportions. He was completely bored with his chosen career and looked around for something else to do, something challenging. Nothing seemed to entice his fancy or his drive for success. So, almost on a whim, he thought that he might give politics a try.

Now, this was the mid-1800s, and the major issue in the United States at the time was slavery. Being a life-long Democrat but also being an abolitionist, Phinney left the Democrats in 1854 and joined the newly-formed anti-slavery Republican Party. Within six years, the party elected Abraham Lincoln and the United States found itself in a terrible Civil War.

He got himself elected to the Connecticut state legislature in the 1860s and there made a name for himself by speaking passionately in support of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution—the amendment which abolished slavery. Phinney so well represented the folks in his district that he was elected four times to serve them in Hartford. He then won a seat in the state senate as well.

In 1875, Phinney became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In that capacity, he brought the first streetlights to the city. He developed a safer public water utility. He fought for anti-liquor and anti-prostitution statutes and saw them passed. He even established the Bridgeport Hospital and proudly served as its first board chairman.

Phinney also worked long hours for many charitable causes. He raised over a million dollars for Tufts University, he chaired boards that oversaw assistance for orphans, the elderly, and veterans. He chartered a steamboat company that ran ferries between Bridgeport and New York and that is still in operation to this day. In short, Phinney was a model citizen in this “second career” of his.

Some mid-life crises, huh? Not bad for someone who had never been in politics before and who had decided to enter it on a whim.

Few mid-life crises end up as well as Phinney’s did.

Oh, and that other career Phinney had? You know it. In fact, you know it so well that you had no idea that Phineas T. Barnum was also a successful politician as well as a master showman.

On a Wealthy Beggar

John’s background and early life could be easily described as lavish. His Italian dad made his money in the silk garment industry; his mother sprang from French royalty. So, yes, one could say that John’s upbringing was luxurious. His dad, knowing that his son was half French, fondly nicknamed him The Frenchman.

And, as one might expect, John felt superior to those around him because of his family’s wealth. He was accustomed to the finest things because that was all he had known since birth. Fine clothing, fine wines, fine women, fine friends—and it did not hurt him that he was incredibly handsome and had a witty mind and a fast tongue. Who wouldn’t feel superior? John had every reason to feel so. His life’s ambition as he grew into young manhood was to become a singer in a band because he liked the musician lifestyle.

One day, as he was with his dad on a sales call, John was approached by a beggar who asked him for some change. John not only gave the man his change, but he also gave him all the money that was on him—a not insignificant amount. The act of kindness caused John to receive a chastisement from his father. The man saw John’s charity as weakness. His friends likewise mocked him for his choice.

But the encounter with the beggar somehow changed John in a profound way. He decided that his superior attitude and devil-may-care lifestyle was somehow a useless way to live, and since his nation was at war, John joined the army. During the war, John was captured and held as a POW for a time. He became deathly ill during his captivity, and this caused even more self-reflection on John’s part.  However, when he was finally freed when the war ended, and he returned home, John once again took up his playboy lifestyle.

Some say that the illness he suffered while in the prison camp caused John to have hallucinations. What he himself later testified to was that he started to see things. These visions told him to once again renounce his wealth and seek happiness among the poor of the land. And, so, that is exactly what John did. He began a life of a beggar. He would only eat what was given to him. He began telling all who would listen that the secret to happiness was to dedicate oneself to God and to an extremely Spartan lifestyle. Because of his earnestness, his innate charm, and the fact that it was known that he had rejected wealth to become penurious, people were drawn to John and his teaching.

By the way, in Italian, John’s name is, of course, Giovanni. But also in Italian, The Frenchman—the name by which everyone knows him—is Francesco. We anglicize that name into Francis.

St. Francis of Assisi.

On a Silent Clown

Arthur and his brothers grew up in a family that sang together, and all of them played self-taught instruments. Because one of their uncles was already in the business, the trio of the siblings tried their hands at the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, their act, The Three Nightingales, never quite made it in the crowded vaudeville business, and the brothers parted ways (they even tried a name change to no avail). Arthur then tried to make money by playing piano accompaniment to silent films in the late teens. His brother, Leonard, got Arthur the job as basically an assistant pianist. The problem for Arthur was that he knew how to play only two songs on the piano—and he merely adjusted the tempo of these two songs when the action either sped up or slowed.

Poor Arthur. Even in school, he had been bullied to the point that he dropped out before even starting high school. He was seen by many who knew him as being the least bright, the least promising of the brothers. He had even flunked second grade. Second grade! How does one fail to pass elementary school? Yet, Arthur managed to do it. He managed to sell newspapers and work in a butcher shop after leaving school and before his experience with the Nightingales.

Finally, and again because of his brothers, Arthur got a break. He found work in a film in 1921, a silent picture named Humor Risk. Being in a silent film suited Arthur just fine; in fact, he had so much trouble memorizing his lines when the boys had the vaudeville act that he eventually remained silent throughout most of the skits and only served to fill out the stage with his siblings. The film was quickly forgotten, but soon, other film jobs came open, and the brothers included Arthur in their work.

Throughout the Silent Era, Arthur continued to work with his brothers. When talkies came in, he came to dread the day that he would have to speak on camera. But that day never came. Arthur’s brothers soon realized that Arthur was more valuable actually not speaking at all. You see, Arthur brought a natural silent comedy sensibility to his roles, and that innate talent was exploited in sight gags, mime work, and props that he used extensively. The joke that was made often was that he was the act’s silent partner.

And Arthur was funny.

The films that he and the brothers produced became huge hits. They were soon international stars. When Arthur married in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent him a congratulatory telegram (That’s Arthur with his wife in the photo above). Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood wanted to work with Arthur and his family. Arthur even appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Additionally, Arthur did continue to fiddle with music throughout his film roles, and even became quite an accomplished musician despite not being able to read music. In fact, today, one of his instruments is a treasured part of a professional orchestra in Israel. The instrument? A harp. And Israel fell heir to the instrument because Arthur and his brothers were Jewish.

You probably realize now that Arthur—better known to the world as Harpo—was one of the Marx Brothers.

On a Short Hollywood Career

Oswald starred in several motion pictures in a career lasting roughly a decade from the late 20s to the late 30s, but you’ve probably never heard of him. His career witnessed the transition from silent movies to talkies. Oswald indeed made that transition. One of his greatest collaborators during his career noted that his primary charm was his personality. Oswald, this person observed, was, “Peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, (always) keeping neat and trim.” And personality certainly sold tickets in the movie industry, then as now.

Oswald was a comedian. He mirrored the work of the great early film clowns, titans like Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, and even Laurel and Hardy. However, his robust personality seemed to be more in line with the sheer bravado of early screen swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. He was seen to be courageous and adventurous as well as downright funny.

27 films were produced that had Oswald listed as top billing. Two producers, Charles Mintz and George Winkler, put up the money to get Oswald on the big screen in 1927, and got they got Oswald sold to Universal Pictures in a short called Trolly Troubles. The film was a success, and Universal ordered more of this rising new star. Indeed, more of Oswald’s films were made in that year than in any other.

The stock market crash in 1929 caused the team that wrote and produced Oswald’s films (the old studio system usually kept the same crew together on projects) to break up. Some went to other studios. Others quit the business altogether. That left Oswald without backing for many other projects. 1938 was pretty much the end of the line for his career. He faded into obscurity for the most part, replaced by new faces and more popular characterizations.

The main writers for Oswald, however, went on to bigger and better things. In fact, when they were writing for Oswald in the late 1920s, the were working and writing for a brand-new star that would become one of the biggest stars the world has ever known.

You see, Oswald was a rabbit. An animated rabbit. His creators were Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. The star they replaced him with you know as Mickey Mouse.

On a Grocery Man

Wilmer ran a grocery business in northern Virginia before the American Civil War. He and his family had a comfortable farm near the small burg of  Manassas Junction. Like almost everyone in his state, Wilmer felt that his loyalties should be with Virginia rather than with the United States . So, when Virginia seceded from the union, he approved.

Both sides thought that it would be a 90 day war. Lincoln dispatched a large army from Washington DC in April of 1861 to meet the rebel force in the field and push them back to the new rebel capital at Richmond, Virginia. The union army did not have to travel far to meet the Confederate force. The two sides clashed at Manassas in what became known as the battle of Bull Run, which was the name of the nearby creek

Wilmer found that the battle destroyed his farm. In fact, the first real skirmish of the conflict started directly in front of his house. He was determined that the war would never again have such an impact on his family. He sold what he could in the aftermath of the battle, and he moved his family south and west, deeper into Virginia, where he felt safer and where his family could live in peace until the war was finished.

For the next few years, and despite the fact that the fortunes of Virginia and the southern nation soured, Wilmer managed to prosper somewhat. He continued his grocery business in his new location by selling produce to the southern armies. In a time when many people struggled, Wilmer managed to build up a nice farm to replace the one he had lost earlier in the war.

By the spring of 1865, Robert E. Lee‘s army was near defeat. General U. S. Grant pursued Lee, attempting to crush the last real threat that the south posed. By April 1865, Lee was finished. Hey sent word to Grant that he wished to discuss surrender terms after one last battle at a place called Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. 

Wilmer received that news when a soldier knocked on his farmhouse door. The soldier, a young officer, asked if Wilmer would allow his house to be used for a conference—a meeting. Wilmer reluctantly agreed.

Soon, the head of the southern army, Robert E. Lee, arrived at Wilmer’s farmhouse. Minutes later, General Grant arrived. The two men discuss the terms of surrender in the parlor of Wilmer‘s house. 

After Lee surrendered, officers from the Union army and souvenir hunters  dismantled Wilmer’s house. Once again, the Civil War had destroyed his farm. Disgusted with both sides of the war, Wilmer moved back to Manassas where he spent the rest of his life.

Yes, Wilmer McLean was the only man who could honestly say that the Civil War began in his front yard and ended in his front parlor.

On an Impending Invasion

You probably know that during the war, England was under threat of immediate invasion for many months. And being an island country, England had a lot of coast line to defend.

Where would the enemy strike? The obvious place would of course be across the English Channel, the shortest spot across from Europe. The enemy landing troops in the south eastern corner would begin marching north and west, attacking the capital, and fighting its way inland.

So the king and his advisers and the government set up a system of early warning systems to let everyone know if any amphibious attack was pending. Meanwhile, the army could not ignore the possibility that an attack might come from any side, really.

There were even rumblings that the enemy might even attack from the west, the Ireland side of the island. That posed an entirely different and other threat. So the army made preparations to strengthen a fairly spread out defensive perimeter as far along the coasts as possible.

Luckily for England, the island is difficult to attack. It had been so many years since any enemy had successfully subdued the place. Even as far back as the Romans, conquering Britain was considered to be an amazing military accomplishment. The English Channel is notorious for rough weather and dangerous seas. It has always been a dictum that the true first line of defense for the land was the sea itself.

Once any potential enemy landed, the equivalent of a loose national guard would swing into action. These locally led and organized units worked closely with the army to prepare for any possible invasion contingency. Yes, and entire network of local fighters would make any invasion that much more difficult. In this way, the actual force of the army was several times its professional strength. The keys would be supplying these local militias and getting everyone turned out as soon as an invasion appeared to be imminent.

Thus, as the war began and potential allies fell one after another under the heel of the enemy, Britain stood alone. She knew that the enemy had more men, better (and more modern) equipment, and momentum–a string of recent impressive victories. Yet, England had an indomitable spirit, and most people felt united under the bravery of their leadership.

What most people don’t know is that an invasion force did try to attack from enemy-occupied Norway in the autumn of the war’s first year. But England won a decisive victory and turned the invaders away.

The king celebrated the victory, but he knew it came at the cost of troops he could not spare. In fact, The pyrrhic victory in the northeast may have been one of the major reasons King Harold of England was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.