Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Idol

War correspondent Lee Miller taking a bath in Hitler’s own bathtub, inside his abandoned apartment in Munich, Germany. The photo was taken on the same day that Hitler committed suicide, April 30th 1945.  Photo by David E. Scherman.  (via)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Civility In War

(via collectivehistory)
A French civilian pours some tea for a British soldier guarding an intersection, August 1944.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Welcome to Weirdsville: Snowball's Chance In Hell

From the mythological specter of the doughboy who can only breathe mustard gas, to the coincidence of the crossword puzzle containing the code words for the Normandy landing, conflict can bring out both the best, and the downright strangest, in human behavior and belief. So much so, that it would take much more than this little slice of cyberspace for me to outline them all. Just limiting ourselves to inventiveness still packs weirdsville to it's sprawling borders: the American kamikaze bats with their still-classified incendiary explosives, the stone-skipping delivery of the British dam-busting bombs, the around-the-corner Nazi submachine gun, Patton's phantom army, and the War Magicians, which is one of my faves: a group of British dance-hall conjurers who put their slight-of-hand talents to work making tanks into trucks, trucks into tanks, everything else into something else, all to trick the Axis.

One of my all-time favorites, though, was the one that just, almost, nearly happened. But before I reveal this glorious monument to inventive mania, a little about its inventor. 

Like many British eccentrics, Geoffrey Pyke at first appears normal when viewed through Who's Who, but a closer examination always starts the head shaking. Not to say that Pyke didn't give his all and then some to the war effort - not at all. But it also would be incorrect to say that what Pyke did give could be called, at best, quirky - and, at best, bizarre. 

Apprehended trying to sneak into Berlin during the first World War, Pyke was sentenced to a prison camp. By noting that sunlight momentarily blinded his guards every day at one certain location, Pyke managed to escape, becoming something of a celebrity by accounting his daring escapades after the war. 

Assigned to the War Office during the second great conflict, Pyke threw himself into devising all kinds of clever (and even often practical) means of aiding the war effort. Stretcher-carrying sidecars for motorcycles? That was Pyke. Pedal-powered shunt cars for railway yards? Pyke. Marking a special motorized cart British commandos were to use with "Officer's Latrine" in German on them -- so the Nazi's would leave it well alone? You guessed it ... Geoffrey Pyke. Disguising British agents as avid golfers, and then sending them all throughout Germany to secretly gather signatures on a poll to convince Hitler that his people didn't want to go to war? You guessed it. Like I said, quirky at best.
But the concept that propelled Pyke from simple, fascinating, oddity to the military limits of the delightfully absurd was the one he hit on while pondering one of the great problems of the Second World War: that allied shipping was being literally cut to pieces by the merciless, and precise, German submarine fleet. Even Kaiser with his smooth assembly line of cheap shipping couldn't compete with the appetites of the Wolf Packs.

What was needed, Pyke considered, was some kind of strong military presence, a way of providing air cover for the desperately-needed merchant ships.
But there were a lot of Liberty Ships, far too many to cover with even a token fleet. Not only did those transport need protection, but they needed cheap and easy protection, something simple to assemble, able to carry long-range aircraft, and not so expensive as to draw valuable resources from the battle fronts. 

It would be easy to imagine Pyke sipping something cool when inspiration struck. But what really causes the head to shake is to remember that Pyke was a great British eccentric, and Brits (as anyone who has visited the UK can attest) are completely alien to anything tall, cool, and – especially - frosty. 

Maybe it was watching winter slabs majestically move down the Thames, or pale masses of crystals sluice down a gutter, but whatever the inspiration, Pyke had his vision. But before it could be put into anything even close to reality, Pyke had to solve one fundamental problem: ice melts.
Pyke's vision was a marvelous, gloriously absurd one: 300 feet wide, 2,000 long mid-Atlantic runways. Displacing 1,800,000 tons of water (26 times the Queen Elizabeth), they would carry aircraft, munitions, crew, and - naturally - a refrigeration system that would guarantee that their 50 foot walls wouldn't fall to their greatest enemy (even more than Germany): heat.

These iceberg battleship/aircraft carriers would have been the stuff of nightmares: massive white slabs of steaming ice, churning through the sea, a flurry of aircraft and support ships darting around their bulk. The Germans, my guess, would quake in fear more from the audacity and insanity of their concept than any weapons they could carry. 

But these tamed bergs wouldn't just depend on their mass and aircraft to defeat the German hordes. No sir, these were fightin' icebergs! Pyke envisioned a special system mated to the refrigeration equipment so the bergs could spray out supercold water, literally freezing enemy forces in their tracks. Code named Habbakuk after a character in the Bible known for saying: "I am doing a work in your days which you would not believe if told." To know truth, Preachers say, study the Bible. How very true in this case. 

But there was that big stumbling block to Pyke's incredible plans: his terrifying, freezing giants of the sea would turn to mid-Atlantic slush before ever encountering the Germans. The humiliation alone of having to scream for help as your ship literally melted around you was more than any sailor should ever bear. So, how to make nature act ... unnaturally? 

The answer actually came from Max Perutz, who named it after Pyke: take 14% sawdust and 86% water, freeze, and viola: a bizarre material you can saw like wood and won’t melt. Well, okay, it actually will melt, but just a helleva lot slower than regular ice.

Pyke was so excited by this frosty invention that he showed the stuff to Lord Mountbatten, who was so similarly afflicted that he rushed into Winston Churchill's bathroom and in a scene too close to Monty Python to be anything but real, dropped a block of the stuff in the PM's bath water. Maybe it was the audacity, the lunacy, of the idea, or some unknown properties of Pykete, but Churchill caught the bug: Pyke and his iceberg navy got the go-ahead. 

A site was found, a secret boat-house on Patricia Lake in Canada, and a small-size test was organized. Pyke was ecstatic as his materials were assembled into a model of his cold revelation. As a testament to either Pyke's brilliance or the twisted humor of the universe, the ice ship was a complete success: in other words, it didn't melt all through a hot summer. 

Alas, the landings at Normandy made the ice ships unnecessary. It's easy to imagine Pyke, face beaming in joy, standing on the frigid deck of his dream ship, envisioning its monstrous kin rolling through surging seas, throwing cascades of freezing death at the German Navy, just as somewhere else in the world the war was turning away from needing their frightening, protective presence.
As to what Pyke did after the war, it's hard for me to say: his strange dream of a frozen navy lasting longer than anything else he contributed. 

But one thing I can guarantee: Pyke could never see the onset of winter without thinking of his great ships, and the battles they might have won.

Eyvind Earle

Monday, July 15, 2013

Welcome to Weirdsville: Green Jaws

It’s coming. If you close your eyes you can hear it: a soft skittering, hovering at the edge of awareness. The sound of rustling leaves, of gravel, of soil being inexorably pushed aside. The crackling of lumber being crushed; the sharp chimes of metal being deforming by a steady, unstoppable force.

There is no escape. Already entire towns have fallen to the green hell, this floral anaconda. Emerald ghosts of buildings, fences, telephone poles, cars -- at first invisible against the verdant wave, but after a point their forms become obvious, the horror present: nothing has escaped, everything is being slowly buried, methodically consumed by its tendrils, their deadly chlorophyll embrace.

Like something from a 50’s B&W late-night horror-fest, the initial intentions were good, the betterment of mankind and all that: well-intentioned scientist seeking to end world hunger, soil erosion, or something same, develops something that Man Was Not Meant To Know and, before the second act or a commercial for some car dealership or other, the terror reaches from its soil to strangle him with cheap special effects, his over-acting as humorous as it is terrifying.

In the case of this horror, though, it wasn’t one but rather several scientists and some well-meaning agricultural agencies, and it wasn’t something plucked from some atomic pile, but rather the natural environment of Japan.

Billed as a wonderful feed for all sorts of farm animals, and just the thing to keep American topsoil from melting away in the next downpour, pueraria lobata was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Attentive participants listened, enraptured by the plant’s near idyllic benefits: not only was it an excellent all-purpose feed, a powerful soil rejuvenator, but it'd been successfully used by the Chinese and the Japanese for at least 2,000 years as a source for tea, cloth, paper, and starch.

It wasn’t just those first farmers that were amazed by the power of this plant. Alabama Polytechnic Institute spent many years heralding its praises and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture went wild trying get it distributed, paying as much as $8 an acre to locals to cultivate it. So insidious was the plant ... er, so enthusiastic were the experts that at first the South bloomed with festivals and fairs dedicated to this incredible vine from the far East.

Meanwhile, in this mountainous lair, Fu Manchu rubs his hands together, cackling with glee: “Those Western fools, soon their lands will be--”

Suffice it to say that there are few, if any, festivals dedicated to Kudzu now.

The physiology of kudzu sounds so much like a plan for green world domination you have to wonder if it has hyptontic persuasion in addition to its regular biological superpowers: Kudzu’s roots can go twelve feet deep, meaning you just can’t pluck it. To kill the demon weed can take as long as 10 years of persistent cutting, burning, grazing, and the liberal use of herbicides. But even with this blitzkrieg of floral doom, there is still no guarantee that this wily vine won’t just sneer and keep right on growing.

Speaking of growing, this little plant can grow so fast you can actullay watch it, and it doesn’t even take glacial patience. Under perfect conditions, say anywhere in the South, Kudzu can push itself along at a foot a day. Go away for the weekend and your house could be gone when you come back, crushed under a blanket of verdant conquest.

To give you an idea of the extent this simple plant has invaded our noble homeland, kudzu now covers not two thousand acres, not two hundred thousand acres, not a million acres, but as far North as Massachusetts, as far West as Texas and Oklahoma, and even down to Florida where it has started to steadily eat the Everglades. Two million acres, people: two million acres of creeping, marching, strangling green.

Its isn’t just the terrain their kudzu that has been invaded: with the same dark sense of humor they exhibit towards everything else that has threatened their turf, Southerners laugh as their farms, homes, cars and even the occasional lethargic citizen is consumed by the tendrils of this green fiend.
James Dickey said it well in his poem, “Kudzu”:

“In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.
The glass is tinged with green, even so...."

But my favorite maxim is one that’s delightfully close to terror, and one that I think conjures the real impact this creeping horror has had on all those it has touched ... or crushed: “A cow,” they say, “won’t eat kudzu, but kudzu will certainly eat a cow.”

L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas

Monday, July 8, 2013

Doonesbury Special

1977 short film by John and Faith Hubley, based on the comic strip "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau. The piece was written by Garry Trudeau, John Hubley, and Faith Hubley. The film was aired by NBC in 1977, Nominated for an Academy Award in 1978, and released on VHS in 1990.

Edward Hopper

Monday, July 1, 2013

Few college pranks can be said to be more grandly conceived, carefully planned, flawlessly executed, and publicly dramatic

The Great Rose Bowl Hoax was a 1961 prank at the Rose Bowl, an annual American college football game. That year, the Washington Huskies were pitted against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. At halftime, the Huskies led 17 to 0, and their cheerleaders took the field to lead the attendees in the stands in a card stunt, a routine involving flip-cards depicting various images for the audience to raise. However, a number of students from the California Institute of Technology managed to alter the card stunt shown during the halftime break, culminating in the display of the word "CALTECH," a common nickname for the Institute.
The prank received national attention, as the game was broadcast to an estimated 30 million viewers across the United States by NBC. One author wrote, "Few college pranks can be said to be more grandly conceived, carefully planned, flawlessly executed, and publicly dramatic" than the Great Rose Bowl Hoax.
The hoax was planned by a group of Caltech students, subsequently known as the "Fiendish Fourteen," in December 1960. They felt that their college, whose teams often played in Rose Bowl Stadium a few miles from campus, was ignored up to and during the Rose Bowl Game. The students decided to use Washington's flip-card show to garner some attention.
To discover the details behind the Huskies' show, a Caltech student disguised himself as a reporter for a local Los Angeles high school, and asked Washington's head cheerleader. They learned that, by changing the 2,232 instruction sheets, they would be able to trick unsuspecting Washington fans into holding up the incorrect signs.
The students broke into the hotel where the Washington cheerleaders were staying, and removed a single instruction sheet from a bedroom. They printed copies and altered each page by hand. On New Year's Eve, three of the "Fiendish Fourteen" reentered the cheerleaders' hotel, and replaced the stack of old sheets with the new.

At halftime on January 2, the Washington card stunt was executed as the Caltech students had hoped. NBC cameras panned to the section raising the flip-cards as they uneventfully displayed the first eleven designs.
The twelfth design modified the design of a husky into that of a beaver (Caltech's mascot) but was subtle enough that the audience did not notice.
The thirteenth design, which called for the depiction of the word "Washington" in script to gradually appear from left to right (starting with the capital "W"), ran backwards (with the small letter "n" appearing first). Other sources say that the routine intended to spell out, "HUSKIES," but that it had been altered to spell out "SEIKSUH." Regardless, it was dismissed as a simple mistake.
The fourteenth design, however, was an unmistakable prank. "CALTECH" was displayed in big block letters on a white background.
Mel Allen and Chick Hearn covered the game for an NBC national telecast. The announcers and the stadium fell silent for several moments, only to subsequently break into laughter. As the Washington band marched off the field, the cheerleaders did not give the signal for the fifteenth and final image. The Huskies were unaware that the Caltech students had not altered the last design of an American flag.