Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A G.I.'s Christmas Carol

I've got a decent record collection going in the abode of the Mistress of History. Most from the 30s-50s. One such gem is a pressing that contains two 1/2 hour Bing Crosby radio shows, Christmas themed. I was sitting down listening to this sweetheart of a record when I was reminded of the following poem. Called the G.I.'s Christmas Carol it was written by Lt. Col. Darrell Rathburn during the Korean War. The poem was printed in several newspapers at the time and read on air by Bing. I decided to share it with you all.  It was hard to find a copy online so I simply transcribed it from the record.  Enjoy! 

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the tent
Was the odor of fuel oil (the stovepipe was bent).
The shoepacs were hung by the oil stove with care,
In hopes that they'd issue each man a new pair.
The weary GI's were sacked out in their beds,
And visions of sugar-babes danced through their heads,
When up on the ridgeline there rose such a clatter
(A Chinese machine gun had started to chatter)
I rushed to my rifle and threw back the bolt.
The rest of my tent-mates awoke with a jolt.
Outside, we could hear our platoon Sergeant Kelly,
A hard little man with a little pot belly.
"Come Yancey, come Clancey, come Conners and Watson,
"Up Miller, up Shiller, up Baker and Dodson!"
We tumbled outside in a swirl of confusion,
So cold that each man could have used a transfusion.
"Get up on that hilltop and silence that Red,
"And don't you come back till you're sure that he's dead."
Then putting his thumb up in front of his nose,
Sergeant Kelly took leave of us shivering Joe's
But we heard him say in a voice soft and light:
"Merry Christmas to all-may you live through the night."


Monday, October 7, 2013

The Red Wedding or Black Dinner

By now everyone should have seen The Red Wedding on Game of Thrones, or like me you've read the books and know what I'm talking about. If not, this is a spoiler of a sorts so look away now...Danger, Will Robinson! (Seriously, if you don't know I'm afraid you live under a rock that is under a rock. It was everywhere.) I'm here to tell you fantasy fans that the Red Wedding is based in part on a real event in Scottish History. It is commonly called The Black Dinner of 1440.

So here we go, history puppies. Sir Alexander Livingston and Sir William Crichton had recently come to an agreement on power in Scotland. Sort of. It was a bit shaky as many of these kinds of arrangements usually are. The pair were convinced that a group of young, headstrong men, known as The Black Douglases, lead by -you guessed the 6th Earl of Douglas, were out to get them. Now there is very little historical proof of this nefarious plot but who really knows. Record keeping wasn't at the top of the priority block during this time.

So this is what Crichton did. He lured the young Earl away from his castle and convinced him to present himself to the king of Scotland, James the 2nd. James was a boy at the time. The Earl arrived with his brother, David, and his advisor, Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld. (And we all thought Benedict Cumberbatch was an odd name) The group arrived at Edinburgh Castle on November 24th, 1440.

Now, according the legend, a banquet was held in the Great Hall of the Castle and the young James II was charmed by the Douglases. At the end of the feast a black bull's head was brought covered into the hall on a tray. A single drum beat was set pounding. The tray was placed in front of the Earl. Scottish custom tells us that the head of a black bull is a symbol of death. As soon as the head was revealed, the Douglases knew their fate. James pleaded with Livingston and Crichton for the lives of his new friends but the pleas of the ten old king went unheeded. The Douglases were beheaded in front of him, right in the Great Hall. What's a little bloodshed between friends, right? 

So there you go, my little blog loves, the actual event that the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones is based on.

When asked about the scene author George R.R. Martin remarked "No matter how much I make up, there's stuff in history that's just as bad, or worse."

Oh yes, George, there really is...we kind of like the gory stuff here at History's Mistress.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Black Death of America

I know I've been somewhat M.I.A. as of late but have no fear, my dirty birdies, your Mistress of History hasn't abandoned you. I'm back to talk about the American version of the Black Death. I'm not talking about a plague that ravaged the country killing thousands (that would be smallpox given to the Native Americans by the Calvary... but that's another blog) I'm talking about Henry 'Black Death' Johnson.

Henry Johnson was born in Alexandria, Virgina in 1897. He moved to Albany, New York in his late teens and began working as a RedCap Porter at Union Station. He was a small man, topping in at 5 feet 4 inches and weighing 130 pounds. He had an engaging smile and was known for his winning sense of humor. Henry enlisted in the army on June 5, 1917 joining what was to become the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment out of Harlem.

Henry proved uncommonly skilled in combat which earned him the nickname 'Black Death' by his fellow soldiers. Henry served his country valiantly and suffered multiple bayonet wounds and injuries over the course of his deployment.

When he returned state side he was asked to lecture about the war and army life in various towns across the Midwest. The war department also used his likeness to recruit others and to sell war bonds (Henry Johnson has licked a dozen Germans. How many have you licked? was one slogan pulling on Henry's fame.) However, when he was in St. Louis, Henry decided to talk about the treatment of Black forces in the military, such as white soldiers not willing to share trenches with black soldiers and such. This caused a warrant to be issued for his arrest for 'wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission' and the lectures dried up - and Henry's income. Basically the Army didn't like Henry telling the truth about what was going on over in Europe.

Henry was the first American solider to receive the Croix de Guerre (cross of War) and the Gold Palm from the French Government.

Henry died penniless and all but forgotten at the age of 32. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery - but no one knew exactly where in Arlington. While he lacked the education to fight the war department to correct glaring mistakes in his military record, historians did not forget what Henry 'Black Death' Johnson did in World War I in that forest of Argonne.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Henry the Purple Heart and when they finally located his grave-site in 2001, Henry was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross - the military's second highest award.

It takes all kinds of men ad women to make America great, and people like Henry Johnson are just the tip of the iceberg. History never truly forgot Black Death Johnson, it just took us awhile to remember. So, here's to Henry Johnson and all he did for the war effort.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest Blogger and Warren G. Harding

I know I've been remiss as of late with the history blogging, my dears, and I plan on remedying that post-haste.
For today however, I give you a guest blog by my super cousin, Jason Carney. He's a lot like me and a history lover as well. Jason recently took a trip to Marion, OH to visit the Warren G. Harding Memorial. Here are his thoughts and some fun facts about our 29th president. Take it away, Jason! 

Having recently read a brief article describing why Warren Harding, our 29th President of the United States of America, is typically considered to have had a rather poor, pathetic tenure in that office, I decided to take a very short trip over to the fair city of Marion, Ohio to see the memorial where they keep the original Warren G.’s lackluster bones.

I’d been to the Harding Memorial ages ago, but, the passage of time and my age-addled brain had reduced my memories of the visit to vague impressions and a sense that the place looked a bit like some kind of giant Ancient Greek gazebo. So, I would have the added benefit of seeing if I could kindle the fires of memory with my little jaunt as well. 
 
While the day was humid, grey, and under constant threat of being subjected to a downpour at any moment, I was able to enjoy the drive and take a bit of pleasure in the farm-land vistas, cloud-shrouded skies, and back-road Ohio life on display. 
 
Arriving at the Harding Memorial, I was instantly impressed with elaborate scale of the place. The white marble, ring of columns, and broad park-views made possible by its positioning at the intersection of two busy boulevards lend the site a most becoming grandeur. 
 
As I read several brief snippets about Mr. Harding, his life and times, and some of the incredibly few highlights of his Presidential career on a strange stone “merry-go-round-’O-knowledge” structure in front of the Memorial proper, I was glad I had taken the time to see the final destination of Warren G.’s mortal remains. I sat in silence as stony as the marble monument itself.
 
I was flung from my quiet contemplation by a jarring, startling commotion! To my, and everyone else who was visiting the Harding Memorial’s horror, the Warren-G-Harding-Informational-Android was running amok! Whether through a mechanical failure, programming corruption, or deliberate sabotage, the Robotic-Republican had sprung forth from his dais and begun to attack the civilians and park-lands before him, ranting and raving about how his “front porch was only big enough for one campaign, by Golly!” as he up-rooted trees, tossed errant passersby around like rag-dolls, and went on a robotic rampage!
 
My first instinct was to flee, protecting my precious, precious self. For, as it is so often said (by me at any rate...), “Where would the World be, without Jason P.?!?!”. But, as I retreated to the safe confines of the Carney-Cool-Balt, I was confronted with the site of The Harding-Droid threatening a group of nuns, their sickly orphan charges, and a box of random puppies and kittens they had apparently stumbled upon on their visit to the Memorial. I had to put my completely understandable and manly self-preservation aside and intervene. 
 
Rushing toward the Harding-Simulacrum, I struck a dramatic pose and called to him. “See here my good robotic fellow, only a cad and a bounder, a guttersnipe of the worst sort, would menace a menagerie of adorable pitifulness like that. What would the papers say?”
The artificial Warren G. staggered for a bit. I think, the mention of newspapers, such a facet of his political campaigning life AND are former occupation of his prior to it when he was a newspaper publisher himself, taxed it’s already misfiring memory banks. 
 
Unfortunately, he soon overcame his confusion and began to stride menacingly toward me! “That sounds like the slick talk of one of those fellows who pummeled me over the Teapot Dome misunderstanding! I’ll fix your wagon miscreant!”
 
Thankfully, despite my age, I was able to occupy the Harding-Bot’s attention for several minutes. Not able to match his vast, hydraulically powered strength, I found myself reduced to dodging and weaving beneath and around his attacks. This was no easy feat! With my advanced age, avoiding blows hard enough to shatter marble columns, trees swung like clubs, and the occasional tossed Toyota is not as easy as it used to be! Fortunately, I haven’t declined enough to be completely unable to, and was thus able to weather the Warren-G-Droid’s assaults. 
 
However, my depleted stamina and vitality finally began to get the better of me, as my tireless robotic adversary wore me down and inched his way closer and closer, mere moments from causing my demise. As I finally sunk to my knees, exhausted, I looked up at the towering robotic-representation and spat my last breath at him. “You’re half the man Taft was...literally...” I barked at him defiantly. The Harding-Bot growled and launched himself at me.

Thankfully, at the last possible moment, the First-Lady-Florence-Android, through a happy accident or some kind of fail-safe programming, entered into the fray! Screaming “That’s enough, you philandering, pencil-chewing, lack-wit!!!” as she savagely tore into the Warren-G-Automaton! The original Flo-Bot quickly disemboweled her husband and opponent, sending his technological innards spilling out onto the pavement before her. With one final, lightning fast chop, she decapitated Warren, bringing his rampage to an end. 
 
As I sat there, struggling to catch my breath, the First-Lady-Droid gathered up her obliterated hubby and smiled at me. “Sorry Dear. Warren can be so cranky about these front-porch shin-digs. I hope this hasn’t soured you on Marion. Try to make it back for this year’s popcorn festival.” she offered with a wink.

All and all, it made for an exciting visit to the Harding Memorial. I tried to convince the arriving authorities to give me the Robotic-Warren’s head as a grisly trophy, but they gave me some lame excuse about it being parks department property and the Mrs. Harding-Robot doing all of the real work. Total cop-out. She may have been the matador, but I was the distracting, colorful red sheet! That should count for something!
 
Still, I just wish I could take a normal, relaxing day trip like everyone else. But nooooo...if it isn’t an out of control Harding-Bot at the Harding Memorial it’s the pirate menace of Bass-Island-Brocious and the Cleveland Corsairs on my trip to the Marblehead Lighthouse, or that awful, awful menace, Mad Martin Yoder’s Cheese Golem that I had to face off against in Amish Country. I just can’t catch a break. It’s all daring deeds for Jason P...

Some interesting tidbits about Harding I managed to glean (because face it, he was one of our not so hot presidents – we’ve had a few) are:


1.       He was the first incumbent Senator to be elected to the Presidency
2.       He is one of five presidents who have died in office. Of those five, Harding is the only one who was not assassinated.
3.       He was the first President to visit Alaska
4.       His nickname was W.G. or Winnie (I did not make that up. Stop snickering)
5.       He had the biggest feet of any president – size 14

Friday, February 8, 2013

My very dear Sarah,

At the onset of the Civil War when the men went off to fight letters to home came with frequency. Both sides figured the war would last a few months at most, not the four long years that it did. Men would write their wives and sweethearts about the harrows of battle to the serene beauty of places they had never seen. One letter that resonates through history is that of Sullivan Ballou.

Sullivan was born March 28, 1829. He was 32 when the south fired on Fort Sumter and starting the war. (While skirmishes like the slave uprising led by John Brown happened prior to Ft. Sumter, the attack is considered the season opener war) Sullivan was an educated man who dedicated his life to public service having been elected as clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives as well as passing the Rhode Island bar.

When the war started in 1861, Sullivan immediately enlisted to be part of the Union Cause.
He wrote a letter to his wife Sarah on July 14, 1861. Ballou's letter is filled with love and longing, pathos and fierce pride in his country.

"Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country come over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field"

Ballou seemed to know his death was coming but I doubted he knew it was coming so quickly. Sullivan Ballou died at the first Battle of Bull Run July21, 1861. A mere 7 days after writing his letter to Sarah. He never had a chance to mail it. Sarah would ultimately receive the letter, along with other more upbeat ones, at a later date. This particular letter was among the personal affects Governor William Sprague, The Boy Governor of Rhode Island, traveled to Virginia to retrieve.

 "Oh Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you..."

In fact, Sullivan Ballou will be with us all forever more.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

He's here, the Phantom of the Opera...

When I was writing my short story "Casting Couch" I based one of my characters on the great Lon Chaney - loosely of course. (Be forewarned, it's a dirty like sex romp. You have been cautioned) Chaney was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces and was a pioneer in the field of movie make-up. However this blog isn't about him...per se. It is about Soundstage 28 on the Universal Studios Backlot. I know what you're thinking, why the heck did you mention Chaney if you're going to talk about a soundstage. Well, I'll tell you, my little blog loves. You see Soundstage 28 is where they filmed The Phantom of the Opera. The 1925 Lon Chaney version of the classic LeRoux tale.

The soundstage is still known as 28 but also carries the name The Phantom Stage mainly because the much of the 1925 set still resides inside....and so does the ghost of Lon Chaney.

Prior to the construction of soundstage 28, Hollywood soundstages basically consisted of a raised platform built outside with a muslin covering which could be pulled over the set to defuse glare. (Muslin is a semi-porous fabric that allows some light to shine through. It is used still for flats for theatrical and film productions because paint adheres well to it and it is relatively inexpensive to buy in bulk. I'm a nerdy theatre girl. Give me a break) The Phantom stage was truly one of the first of its kind and the precursor to the modern soundstage. (Not the green screen soundstages but I digress) When Universal announced The Phantom, the biggest problem they had was the building an entire replica of the Paris Opera house. So the construction department built the very first steel and concrete soundstage to house the thing. It has since been renovated for talkies.

The chandelier the Phantom drops on the unsuspecting audience was an exact replica of the one in Paris. It weighed 16,000 pounds and measure 40 feet in diameter. Universal executives were a little weary about something so expensive being brought to a crashing disaster (not to mention the 3000 extras seated below the monstrosity) so the cameraman, Charles Van Enger, had an idea to film the fixture being pulled back up to the ceiling and then reversing it in editing. Viola. The Phantom kills a bunch of people and the 1920s ladies swoon at the carnage...and Chaney's scarey Phantom make-up.

The chandelier stood on the soundstage until 1965 when Alfred Hitchcock had it taken down and placed in storage. (It was in the way of his filming 'Torn Curtain) It has since disappeared. Seriously a 16,000 pound light fixture vanished. It might have been lost in the fire that swept through the studio or perhaps it was cannibalized for parts. We'll never know. It's not like it is something you can slip in your pocket and sell on EBay without anyone knowing.

However, the seating of the Paris Opera house interior still stands as does the staircase that Lon Chaney appears on as the Red Death. Rumors abound that Chaney's ghost can be seen running through the catwalks high about the soundstage or even on the bus stop that used to stand just a few feet outside the doors. If Chaney is there it seems the best place for his spirit to call home as he immortalized the Phantom as no other actor has done.

Next time you take the backlot tour at Universal make sure to ask your guide about Soundstage 28. I've no doubt they'll be happy to share a ghost story or two about the historic building. And who knows...you might just catch a glimpse of the Phantom.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Skull that would be king...

So I know it has been awhile since I last blogged. I’ve been busy and I’m lazy. There. I said it. Sue me. Anyway, I’m back.
I’m going to take the first blog of 2013 to branch out a bit from the usual American History fare I’ve been feeding you all.  In fact for the rest of the year we will be bouncing around the globe with fun topics. Our first is Richard III.
I really want to talk about Richard III since he has playing a big part in the news lately. Or at least the nerd-ville news I read. You see Richard III, the main character in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, was the last English king to die in battle. He was also the only English king to die on English soil since Harold in 1066. (1066 being the Norman Invasion for those who are keeping score. That was the year William the Conqueror – or William the Bastard – claimed the English throne for his own. Side note, never refer to William as conqueror outside the Tower of London. This will cause your tour guide to threaten to get a beefeater and have you jailed. True story.) However, his body was never found. Until now.
In the last year a group of historians and archaeologists conducted a dig in Greyfriars, Leicester discovers a skeleton in a parking garage. No fooling, a parking garage.  At the time they only speculated that if could be Richard. The skull had a large fracture mark on the back of the head which would have been consistent with the battle wound record has having been sustained by Richard in the Battle of Bosworth Field as well as an arrow in the back.  The skeleton also suffered from severe scoliosis which coincides with claims that Richard was hunchbacked. Some historians don’t believe was actually hunchbacked like he is portrayed throughout history. They believe it was a rumor started by his enemies that has since been turned into fact. When Shakespeare writes it into a play then of course everyone will believe it. The original Elizabethan rumor mill.  
DNA testing has confirmed that the skeleton does in fact belong to Richard III. So, my dear blog readers, how will this change how we view the king looked on as evil by history? I’m not sure the find will really make that much different in how we see Richard as a historical figure. (I mean really. How many of you have heard of him outside of Shakespeare or The Goodbye Girl?) Americans equate him with “My horse, my horse, a kingdom for my horse” if we even think of him at all. (In my opinion at least) What I think it will change is how we see Richard portrayed on film and in the theatre. Shakespeare’s play makes him out to a villain on par with Iago or Aaron. He has become more real because now we can see his bones. The University of Leicester may very well take the skull and do that cool facial reconstruction so we can even see what Richard looked like. Then we can finally see  the man whose “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd, old ends stol'n out of holy writ, and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” face and look into the eyes  of a king.
For more cool info go over to the University of Leicester’s website.  They have set up a whole page about the find with pictures of the bones and the skull and other cool stuff.