Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Why does he want to kill me?" ...

During the Vietnam War, Americans often suffered from enemy ambushes without sighting a single enemy soldier. The enemy was familiar with the terrain and undergrowth and simply faded away after an intense, quick attack. Excitement –sometimes too much excitement – reigned when an enemy soldier was finally sighted.

Philip Caputo, a young Marine officer when he served in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, shared such an experience in his critically acclaimed 1977 book A Rumor of War:  “I saw a (enemy soldier). … Actually, I saw a twitching beige cloud at the end of the trees; it was the dust kicked up by the recoil of his rifle. I might have seen the guerrilla himself, but I could not be sure. He was too far away to hit any of us, except by accident …”

“I figured this presented an opportunity to redeem [an] earlier foul-up, [and] with Hollywood heroics. Standing up in front of a stunted tree – it was the only tree in the paddy and a stupid place to expose myself – I crooked my arm and pumped it up and down,” a signal for his unit to move quickly.

“Something slapped into the branches not six inches above my head … A severed twig fell against my helmet and shredded leaves fluttered past my face. Belatedly, I hit the deck.”

“Well, there was nothing random about that. That one had been addressed to me; and so, for the first time in my life, I had the experience of being shot at by someone who was trying to kill me specifically.”

“It was not horrifying or terrifying or any of the things it is supposed to be. Rather, it was perplexing. My first reaction … was:  Why does he want to kill me? What did I ever do to him?”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt's bear ...

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, president of the U.S. from 1901 to 1909, was known for his abundant enthusiasm and wide range of “manly” interests -- the outdoors and hunting among them.  But on a hunting trip to Mississippi in 1904, the game he sought avoided him and his party for five days, even though a veteran game catcher named Holt Collier tried to lure animals toward the presidential party. To make matters worse, Roosevelt had allowed members of the press to visit his camp once a day, and their stories about the president’s lack of hunting success had become an embarrassment to him.

But on the next morning, as told by Edmund Morris is his 2001 book Theodore Rex, Collier’s hunting dogs scented a bear and gave chase. Roosevelt and others followed quickly, but thick brush forced them to give up. Collier suggested that they wait in a clearing for any further sightings, while he disappeared into the woods to try to drive the bear back toward the presidential party. Hours later, with Roosevelt bored and hungry, he and the men began the trip back to camp. But soon after they left, a young bear, with dogs in chase, burst through the brush and splashed, exhausted, into a pond, where it roped and captured by Collier, who tied it to a tree.
Roosevelt, notified of another bear sighting, rode back quickly, but was so disappointed to seeing the small, injured bear tied to a tree that he refused to shoot it. Instead, he called for someone else to “put it out of its misery.”  The hunting trip continued for another three days without success.

But according to Morris’ book, “[Roosevelt] did not know … that the outside world was already applauding his ‘sportsmanlike’ refusal to kill for killing’s sake.” The bear as drawn by a Washington Post cartoonist was so liked by readers that they asked for more “bear cartoons,” and the cartoonist obliged with many more. “With repetition,” writes Morris, “his original lean bear became smaller, rounder, and cuter,” and was soon part of almost all cartoons involving Roosevelt.
That winter, by some weird circumstance, a toy factory in Germany began producing “stuffed, plush bear cubs with button eyes and movable joints,” and 3,000 were ordered by a New York store. At the same time, a small New York toymaker came out with a similar small bear. The rest is history, as they say.

Notes Morris:  “The competing bears soon fused, along with [the cartoonist’s] cub, into a single cuddly entity that attached to itself the nickname of the President of the United States.” The Teddy Bear was born, although few people today link it to its namesake.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Abigail Adams gets tough with John ...

As the American Revolution waged on, the U.S. Congress in late 1777 appointed John Adams to join Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French. Adams’ wife, Abigail, remained behind in Massachusetts, tending to their children (except for their 10-year-old son John Quincy, who accompanied his father to Europe) and their farm through the hard New England winter.

Between April and September of 1778, Abigail received only two letters from her husband, for whom she had proven over many years previously to be a valued, no-nonsense confidant for his activities as a patriot and political leader. She wasn’t happy about the lack of communication, as noted in David McCullough’s 2001 book John Adams, and she let her husband know about it:  “‘All things look gloomy and melancholy around me,’ she wrote. ‘You could not have suffered more upon your voyage than I have felt cut off from all communication from you.’ … ‘Let me entreat you to write me more letters at a time, surely you cannot want subjects.’” McCullough adds:  “What he wrote, she said, was always too brief, cold, and impersonal. It was as if he had [in Abigail’s words] ‘changed hearts with some frozen Laplander.’”
In Adams’ defense, the passage of mail between Europe and America was not tremendously reliable, and it was common for letters to become lost, stolen, or delayed by many months. He claimed to have written nearly 50 letters during that April-to-September period, although McCullough writes that “was almost certainly an exaggeration.”

Adams’ response to Abigail’s concern was to express a concern of his own about writing tender letters to his wife:  “I have no security that every letter I write will not be broken open and copied and transmitted to Congress and the English newspapers. They would find no treason or deceit in them, it is true, but they would find weakness and indiscretion, which they would make ill use of.”
Abigail’s response, as transmitted in McCullough’s book:  “The affection I feel for my friend is of the tenderest kind, matured by years, sanctified by choice and approved by Heaven. Angels can witness its purity, what care I then for the ridicule of Britain should this testimony of it fall into their hands?”

She has a point ... a good one.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lindbergh's first choice ...

Before Charles Lindbergh in 1927 became the first person to fly an airplane nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, he sought, with funds offered by a group of St. Louis businessmen, an appropriate airplane. He approached several companies, but focused on a new, highly efficient model designed by Giuseppe Bellanca. At first, Lindbergh found that Bellanca’s design was tied up with a company that didn’t seem to think highly of Lindbergh’s endeavor. But that changed when Bellanca went into business with a different company, Columbia Aircraft.

“Willing to make attractive proposition on the Bellanca airplane for Paris flight,” Bellanca telegraphed Lindbergh after the change, writes A. Scott Berg in his 1998 biography Lindbergh. So the soon-to-be-famous pilot met with Columbia officials to close the deal in February 1927.  His enthusiasm was in for a rough welcome, though.

Berg writes of Lindbergh’s reception:  “‘We will sell our plane,’ [Columbia President Chairman Charles Levine] said, ‘but of course we reserve the right to select the crew that flies it.’ For a moment Lindbergh was dumbstruck. When he finally found the words, he suggested there must have been some misunderstanding, that this point was non-negotiable. Levine countered that his company could not possibly release its plane without selecting its crew but that he was willing to let the St. Louis group paint the name of their city on the fuselage. …. Before Lindbergh could leave the office, Levine asked him to call the next day,” however, so Lindbergh reluctantly spent another $3 for a night in a hotel.

Berg continues:  “At the appointed hour [the next day] Lindbergh telephoned. ‘Well,’ Levine said, ‘have you changed your mind?’ Too angered by the question to speak, Lindbergh simply hung up the phone.”
Lindbergh then turned his attention to tiny Ryan Aeronautical Company in California, which over recent months had responded favorably to his questions about the possibility of building a special plan for a non-steop transatlantic flight. And that's the company that build the plane widely known today as Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.