Monthly Archives: April 2020

More Heroic, Controversial Men

DSC05153Human history is full of men who were successful but flawed.  Among them were Alexander the Great, Spartacus, George Patton, T E Lawrence and L Ron Hubbard.  All of them sparked controversy, and their biographies are full of negatives along with the positives.

DSC00394.jpegAlexander the Great was the King of Macedon who conquered much of the known world and died at the age of 33.  He extended his empire from his home country as far east as what is now Pakistan.  As he marched eastward, he renamed a lot of places after himself like Alexandria, Egypt.  He clearly had an outsized ego.  He also had 3 sons.  He left one of them in charge of his home country while he was away conquering the world even though that son was only 16 years old.   His second son was illegitimate and his 3rd was unborn when Alexander died.  While drunk, he killed a close friend named Cleitus who had accused Alexander of adopting Persian dress and customs.  Alexander later regretted this murder.  That is supposedly a bust of him up above.  Alexander died in Babylon of either malaria or typhoid fever.  DSC00299.jpegSpartacus, who once fought for Rome as a legionnaire, went to gladiator school as a slave.  He deeply angered Romans when he revolted against them and killed many Roman soldiers.  Spartacus was born in Thrace about 100 BCE and died 31 years later, but no one knows if these are accurate dates.  He was considered an inspired revolutionary, but so was Fidel Castro.

George Patton was a complex, highly successful military man known for carrying pistols at all times and being hot-headed.  He was a great commander with several nicknames including The Old Man, Bandito, Georgie, and most commonly Old Blood and Guts.  He was said to be brash and mercurial but also highly disciplined and tough.  He publicly criticized post World-War II denazification and shot his mouth off at the press to the point that he was relieved of command. He physically struck hospitalized soldiers and berated some as cowards.  He was brilliant but flawed.

Thomas Edward Lawrence attacked a troop train, thereby killing 70 Turkish soldiers.  Also known as Lawrence of Arabia, he blew up 79 railroad bridges.  Lawrence was often said to be a man of divided loyalties, and those who write about him now are also divided.  He was a British Intelligence Officer who fought alongside Arabs during World War I.  Some say that he was crucial to the Allies victory over the Ottomans in that war, but this once stable empire collapsed and led to today’s Middle East conflicts.  Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46 while living under an assumed name trying to escape his own celebrity.  His true legacy is much debated.

L. Ron Hubbard, creator of Scientology, was a science fiction writer who founded a new and controversial religion.  He hid so that he might continue research into Scientology and dropped from sight to avoid subpoenas and tax agents who were trying to prove that he was skimming church funds.  Many call Scientology a cult.  Hubbard was super sensitive to criticism and made life miserable for those who left his church.  He made his own truth claiming he was possessor of more than 20 Navy medals when in reality he had 4.   He believed completely in his psychic powers and created something called the E-Meter that supposedly showed an individual’s enlightenment level.  Business Insider called his rise to power a “chilling story”.





The Great Barrier Reef

The New York Times is dropping its travel reporting until after the Coronavirus is defeated and we return to normal.  In its final travel section, it chose to have several travelers tell tales about special trips.   Bonnie Tsui told about her 2 weeks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when she was a 19-year-old college kid.  I was much older by the time I made it there, but Ruth and I had one of our great travel experiences on the Reef and made excellent friends who became travel companions.

Growing up in land-locked Missouri, Ruth and I had never been in a snorkeling/diving environment before.  I didn’t feel secure and craved help, so I asked the boat attendant what to do.  He said to just jump in and bob around.  Ten minutes later I was doing exactly that and having a ball examining the fish and plant life on a living reef.  When our guide asked if anyone would like to study sea cucumbers, only Robert and I were interested and I recall thinking that he might become a friend.  Did he!  The 3 days that followed were magical, but we were all too soon disembarking at Townsville and boarding a bus that would take Ruth & me back to Cairns, our departure point.

Several years after that, we had another ocean experience with the couple we met on this Great Barrier Reef cruise.  On a catamaran with them on the other side of Australia, we were chasing dugongs together.  These medium-sized marine mammals similar to manatees are found in coastal waters on the western side of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  Grey in color, they swim alongside boats and divers.  There are only 5,000 to 7,000 of them left, and the area north of the town of Geraldton off the coat from the Shark Bay Marine Park is where to see many of them.  We had taken the train from Sydney to Perth together across the Nullarbor Plain and then traveled south and then north with Lynette and Robert to this unique part of Australia.

We reconnected with them on our first return to Australia after exploring the Great Barrier Reef with them and becoming friends.  In their home city of Canberra, Australia’s capital, we were there for the first time and I found 3 men with the same name.  I blindly called the 3rd one.  Robert answered and invited Ruth & me to their home.  We subsequently took many trips with them in Australia.  Robert would always patiently answer my many questions about his country so that I learned to love it too.  Since and before Robert’s death a few years ago,  we have visited, corresponded with, and traveled with his older son John and his wife Trish.  We have entertained all 4 of them in our 2 homes in the United States, and I consider myself the luckiest man alive to have made that phone call.  The last time we saw Robert was at a birthday celebration for his wife.  After we dined at a restaurant, Robert grabbed Ruth’s arm and walked several blocks to Robert and Lynette’s Canberra home, chatting away as always.  I can’t think of a finer memory.



Are We Near the End?

DSC07973Coronavirus shutdowns may be ending soon.  Some news about them is finally hopeful.  Over the weekend, The New York Times, which has been generally comprehensive in its coverage of the epidemic, had 2 helpful and possibly heraldic reports yesterday.  One was a map showing how individual states might open up and the other, looking back, told about the states hardest hit and places where good news appears to be ahead.  The virus coverage has been generally scary, unhelpful, and constantly changing.

Coverage morphed, for example, from no nose and mouth covering to complete coverage and advice to wash your mask in hot water after every use.  The New York Times, which reported that it is dropping its weekend travel section until after the pandemic, implied that it stood by a report during the past week that “…occasional trips to the grocery store probably don’t necessitate a shower and change of clothes back at home.  But, you should always wash your hands”.  This seems more balanced and realistic to me.  How many mask wearers were washing their nose and mouth coverings after each use?  I suspect very few.

DSC07331 2.jpegFour states, Oklahoma, Alaska, Georgia, and South Carolina, have partially reopened.  Oklahoma is not known for beaches, but people might be able to return to them and state parks now according to a map that Ruth found and brought to my attention.   She’s especially happy to hear that barbers and hair cutters may return to work, and even some restaurants may be serving customers again as long as the tables are not close together.  Social distancing, I fear, will be with us until it’s proven that the number of new cases is non-existent.  Fifteen states not among those already partially reopened will have some re-openings by the end of April.  Some of these, like Texas, Minnesota, Florida, and Colorado, have big population centers.  In others, Like Montana and Maine, people are more spread out.  The rest of the states either don’t expect to test re-opening until May or later or have not announced a target date.  At least we’re having this conversation.

I found The New York Times charts and graphs accompanying “5 Ways to Monitor the Pandemic in the U.S.” especially interesting.   Lauren Leatherby and Kevin Quealy interpreted reports from health agencies, hospitals, and The Center for Disease Control and covered  what I had not heard reported before, like where new cases are decreasing the most.  These locations include Albany, Georgia, where new cases are down 341 from the previous week.  Also on the list were big cities Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City, 3 places in Louisiana, 2 in Pennsylvania, and 1 in Colorado.  New deaths are decreasing the most in Georgia’s Albany, New York City at last, 2 towns in Massachusetts, and 2 in Washington, my state.

I have appreciated all the virus news that people have sent me in the past month, but I hope these are my final words about this exceptional time in our history.



Heroic Villains


Most cultures around the world have singled out men who are treated as both heroes and as criminals.  Below are examples of 5 of them.

The most controversial man in Australia is Ned Kelly.  Several books and movies have been about him since his death by hanging in 1880.  When you’re in Australia, it’s not possible to remain neutral about Ned and you hear many opinions about him.  Ruth and I have been to Beechworth, where he was almost tried for murder, and the Old Melbourne Gaol (Aussies use this word instead of jail but pronounce it like jail), where he was executed.   Ned was a notorious bushranger who was born in 1854 or 1855, no one knows exactly when.  He was of Irish extraction.  Some Aussies see him as a cold-blooded killer who wore armor to avoid arrest and/or being killed.  Others hail him as a folk hero even though he killed 3 policemen.  When he was in his mid-twenties, his luck ran out.  He was caught and jailed in Beechworth, but the authorities suspected that to try him there would result in a not guilty verdict.  Ned Kelly’s trial was moved to Melbourne where he was found guilty and hanged.  Many disagreed with this outcome.  The Old Melbourne Gaol, where the female guide of our tour treated us like prisoners, is now an inner city museum.  The photos above of Ned and his protective armor and the Robin Hood just below are from Wikipedia.  The armor is usually on display somewhere in this city, perhaps at the National Library.


Robin Hood is England’s Ned Kelly, but did he really exist or is he pure legend?  Experts assume that he really lived, but there are many versions of his story.  The 1st literary reference to him was in 1377 when it was said that he was an outlaw who hated the sheriff and made Sherwood Forest dangerous.  He did exist but movies have turned him into a folk hero of diverse personalities.

DSC05547Butch Cassidy.  Ruth and I visited the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie last summer where he was a prisoner for 18 months, and I took the picture above.  We were told that he was a quiet model prisoner.  One sign there asked, “…Who was Butch Cassidy, a common thief…or a simple ranch kid from southern Utah?”  Our hosts treated him as the latter.  He was one of 13 children who left home as a teenager to better himself.  He fell in with disreputable men like Mike Cassidy and began robbing trains and banks with his sidekick, the Sundance Kid.

Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party, a spy, and an industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.  I have visited his enamelware factory in Krakow, Poland, where he hired Jews because they would work for less than Poles.  After World War II he was in danger of arrest as a war criminal.  He had blown his fortune on bribes and black market purchases by this time.  He was a complex hero.

Mahatma Ghandi, an Indian lawyer, nationalist, and non-violent resister who helped India break from British rule, spoke constantly about sex.  In his 30s he tried to reform and stop thinking about sex, but it didn’t last.  There are many articles available about his fixation, and if he were alive today he might be treated more like Harvey Weinstein than a national hero.




One Last Time in Canada


IMG_6690Ruth and I spent the morning reminiscing about pre-digital photography trips and deciding what pictures and souvenirs to save.  Homebound quarantining is good for clearing out if nothing else.  I found early photos of trips to Canada and decided to write about some strange town names in our northern neighbor.  There aren’t many of them since the Canadian temperament seems to favor rather mundane names.  However, I did find a few unusual ones.

IMG_1960We took an early pre-digital camera trip to Newfoundland that survives only in a few paper photos but many memories, like getting on the wrong ferry that was leaving in seconds for a 17 hour sail to St. John’s.  We barely escaped through a window.  Later, we were in Gander, a city with an interesting name and history.  You would think that it was named for a male, Canadian goose, but it was not.  Gander was a much used aviation refueling stop with military implications in the 1950s, but its 21st century aviation use is decreasing and its airport’s future is grim.  For now, however, the North Atlantic Aviation Museum is still there to tell Gander’s story, and the exceptional musical Far From Away tells a 21st century tale about it.  Gander, a town of almost 12,000 people, was named after a lake and river that probably attracted geese.  In 2001 Gander hosted 6,700 strangers who were temporarily stranded there when the 2 World Trade Center towers fell.  Far From Away brilliantly tells their story.

Canada has many communities like British Columbia’s Bella Bella that began as First Nations settlements.  Another is Saskatchewan’s oddly named city Moose Jaw.  Home to 34,000 Canadians, Moose Jaw derived either from the Cree term for a warm place by the river or the Cree word meaning warm breezes.  Many athletes and musicians began life as Moose Javians.  I was a bit shocked that its Visitor Guide is called Notoriously Moose Jaw until I learned that notorious Al Capone reportedly hid out in this city’s underground tunnel networkOnly a few of these tunnels remain to entertain visitors on 2 guided walking tours.  One features Al and the other focuses on Chinese immigrants.

Okanagan 002.jpegFurther west of Moose Jaw is a town in Alberta called Medicine Hat.  A railroad town initially, Medicine Hat, known as “The Gas City” because of natural gas fields nearby, also has First Nations roots.  Blackfoot medicine men wore headdresses containing an eagle feather.  A river valley town of 63,000, Medicine Hat’s #1 attraction is Medalta, an industrial museum featuring ceramics kilns.  Ruth and I have not been to Medicine Hat.

We have, however, been to Kapuskasing.  This Ontario industrial town of about 8,000 has a Lumberjack Heritage Festival in July that we attended.  It was fun and so was the town.  Many Canadians with German roots ended up in internment camps here during World War I.  I vividly recall having a surprisingly gourmet dinner in a Kapuskasing restaurant while talking to its French owner about his vacations in Cuba.  The next morning I had another conversation that led to a problem.  The woman at the desk of our motel was so engaging that I accidentally left a suitcase behind.  You do not want to do this.  We had to spend 3 additional days in Thunder Bay to retrieve it.  Kapuskasing was known as MacPherson until the World War I era.  It now has an unusual First Nations name.

You might think that the town of Flin Flon in Manitoba has a First Nations derived name too, but you, and I, would be wrong.  I was surprised to discover that this town of 5,000 started by a mining company in 1927 was named for a novel character.  In 1905 a fictional work called The Sunless City featured a main character named Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin.  A statue of him designed by cartoonist Al Capp graces a Flin Flon park.  If you know who Al Capp was, you must be at least middle aged.  Ruth and I have not been to Flin Flon and have little desire to see this statue.


PS  The photos above are Digital Age images.  The mountain one was taken in the Okanagan region.