Tag Archives: history

THIS STORY IS (NOT REALLY) QUITE “SINISTER”

I won’t say I’ve had it rough, but I belong to an enigmatic minority group.  Many think we’re absentminded, clumsy, lack certain job skills, are more prone to illness and injury, and won’t live as long as members of the majority will (or can) do.  Some of the more charming words wielded against us include the Greek Skaios, which means “ill-omened”; the French gauche, “awkward”; even the Gaelic Ciotóg, which means “the strange one” (shame on my ancestors for that one, I guess).  When I was just a small fry, I learned that names can’t hurt me – which is good, because I also learned that I am left-handed, and that, I couldn’t change.

I’m exaggerating about the ’embattled’ part, sure; this does not rise to the level of ethnic or gender struggles.  In fact, this seems to be a good time to be a southpaw; I trust my brother Chris, also a lefty, would agree.

The bias against left-handedness isn’t as intense now as it was in, for instance, ancient Roman times, when a southpaw was “sinister” while a right-hander was a “dexter“.  Today, you might say a smooth or skillful act was “dexterous”, but a foiled effort was “maladroit”, i.e. bad-right, and where else would your “bad” right be, if not to the left of your “good” one?

It’s tough to be a southpaw at first, even in a forgiving atmosphere, discovering how much of the world is engineered to make dexters happy.  Keys for doors and car engines are designed for right-hand use, which means a lefty has to get better at right-handed manipulation, which is a good thing.  Writing by hand, of course, can be just ridiculous – on right-handed desks, in particular, it’s a fine way to get ink on oneself and, even worse, get a sore neck from having to turn sideways.  Scissors, saws and many other hand tools, automated teller machines, and loads of other things are not built to appeal to our “niche market”, but we’re nothing if not stubborn, and willing to learn.

The bright side of being a southpaw, of course, is the company one keeps.  Something about being perceived and treated as kooky outsiders seems to bring out the best in left-handed folks.  We may never hear of a brilliant left-handed saxophone player, given the current lack of left-handed saxophones, but I bet you’ve enjoyed the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, Erroll Garner, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and Kurt Cobain. Southpaw artists:

Henry Ford
Henry Ford (Photo credit: Christopher Marks)

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer, and M. C. Escher. Lewis Carroll was left-handed; so was Mark Twain.  Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Charlemagne and Lord Horatio Nelson (who had to switch over from the right hand he lost) were world-shaking lefty warriors; southpaw Mohandas Gandhi shook the world, too, but for peace.

Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity and motion must have sprung from his over-active right-brain, which of course governs left-sided functioning.  Left-handed entrepreneurs include Henry Ford, who mass-produced cars, and Bill Gates, who did likewise for computers.  “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Oscar de la Hoya left their mark in professional boxing; lefties Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson are two of my dad’s golf icons; Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel and Reggie Jackson are famous baseball players.  The movies made lefties Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Harpo Marx, Robert Redford, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Robert De Niro, and Whoopi Goldberg famous.  Left-handed U.S. Presidents include not only Barack Obama, but James A. Garfield, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (if memory serves), George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well.

Being a southpaw would seem to be, to say the least, a surmountable obstacle.  So: even though it’s taken up my entire evening to write this, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy International LeftHanders Day… yes, even if you’re right-handed!

‘TIS A PALE STORY, AND GREEN!

English: engraving of 'Emigrants leaving Ireland'
English: engraving of ‘Emigrants leaving Ireland’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it was early yet in my grade-school days when someone in the family, I suspect one of my parents, divulged to me that we were Irish.  Well, okay, better make that: IrishAmerican.  I “got” that it was supposed to be a good thing to be, and I thought I knew what being American meant from saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but the Irish bit didn’t ring my bells just yet.  I could read a map and spin a globe, though, so… yup, found it: Ireland was a tiny isle west of Great Britain – the “Emerald Isle”, which even I knew meant it was… green.

Seemed to me, at that tender age, like a strange thing to care about, especially since we had never been there, so far as I knew – of course, I could have slept through a visit, but if that happened, then I would have seen piles of photos of the place.  (I thought we were Vikings, because “Eric the Red” was a Viking… well, more on that later.)  I knew my parents had vacationed in Bermuda, but that wasn’t the same, and besides, I hadn’t gone with them.

Comes middle school; I’m, like most teens, trying to work out my part in the bigger play, living in California, where an “indoor complexion” (eventually, I did learn to call it a “moon-burn”) seemed like a character flaw to the sun worshipers in my student community, but some people don’t tan, we burn, because we’re so “fair”, which for me meant pale.  (I once looked like a surfer kid, with vanilla hair and copper skin, but that came from having been out in the  summer heat in Texas, when I was 9, 10 at most.)

High school, and I’m keen on it, at last, to a degree that amuses my friends, even now.  Some of my friends proclaimed themselves Scottish and/or Welsh and/or English, and I was the Irish one, even though we lived beside the Pacific Ocean, not the North Atlantic.  These are sub-sets, because we were considered various flavors of Celts, who – it works out – sprang from Spain, and then intermingled with Normans, whose ancestors in France and elsewhere were… Vikings – I was partly right!

University life in Texas, and I’m reading a pile of library books, from the Irish section, one summer: the mythological stories of Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cool, histories of multiple invasions, poems by William Butler Yeats, short stories by James Joyce.  I had wanted to visit England for a million years (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration), so I figured it out that I should, if presented with the opportunity to do so, fit a side trip to the Auld Sod, too.  A coach (bus) and a ferry boat later, I watched Dublin harbor swallow us whole, and it… floored me, just how moving and emotional the experience was.  It all happened on the twenty-ninth of July, thus my posting this today.

We ran around, ate and drank, gave money to street musicians, the full-on tourist thing, but I think I felt “there” more than my non-Celtic schoolmates did.  (I had also met an Irish girl at my university in London… but ’tis a story for another time.)  In one pub I thanked the bar staff for the “Foreign Visitors Welcome” sign, only to be told by one friendly guy: “Yanks aren’t foreign to us.”  I don’t know if he was speaking for all of Ireland, or just that particular establishment, but given that something like 100 million people have emigrated from Ireland to the United States (and Britain, and Canada, and Australia, and South Africa, and what do you know, Bermuda), I just thanked him again, as a “local” for that night, and ordered another pint.

APOLLO XI: THE “STORY” HAS LANDED

Forty-four years ago today, Neil Armstrong did what so many of us have done: he burned up much of his ride’s fuel, looking for a better place to park.  What makes his experience of this stand out, of course, is that he had a T.V. audience of millions – which makes sense, as he was “parking” a Lunar Excursion Module on the Earth’s Moon, for the first time in history.

Armstrong chanced a “hard landing” – a crash – in order to land someplace without so many boulders; a wise precaution, but I’d expect it made for an adventurous descent.  As Michael Collins circled overhead in the command/service modules (nicknamed “Columbia”, after the moon-ship in the 1865 Jules Verne novel, From the Earth to the Moon), Armstrong and lunar-module pilot Edwin Aldrin touched down on another world in their patriotic-nicknamed LEM, “Eagle”, undertaking the biggest little walk two guys had ever taken. They ascended to rejoin Collins, and, less than twenty-four hours after having landed, they were Earth-bound once again, splashing down on July 24.

The Apollo 11 Prime Crew - GPN-2000-001164
The Apollo 11 Prime Crew – GPN-2000-001164 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Apollo XI “Eagle” had not even landed, before some conspiracy theories dismissed the whole enterprise as… a staged hoax.  One legend I enjoy: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hires Stanley Kubrick, having completed a little film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey, to simulate the first two manned landings on the Moon… never mind how very different his film’s depiction of lunar terrain looked from news footage.

Six more of NASA’s Apollo missions, between 1969 and 1972, attempted to land men on the Moon; all of them reached the Moon (only Apollo XIII, thwarted by its oxygen-tank eruption, failed to visit the lunar surface).  Evidence of these adventures remains up there to this day: the flags, the LEM lower stages, abandoned effects of the pilots, and so on.  What amazes me is how so many people find all of this material unconvincing.

My mom credits anti-scientific bias for this; I think she’s got a point.  Forget the massive propaganda victory a “faked” American landing would have handed the Soviet Union; it seems like sour grapes to deny humanity this great achievement. It’s an odd thing to believe this didn’t happen, despite all the much evidence we have amassed to verify it, and what’s worse, some people seem to need for this to be a hoax.  This flight of fancy (perhaps fueled by Watergate-era cynicism) is misplaced. Neil, Mike and “Buzz” flew to the Moon; in doing so, they changed this world.

THE STORY IS OUT THERE

English: The Roswell UFO Museum which is a pop...
English: The Roswell UFO Museum which is a popular tourist destination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Something went bump in the night, we’re told, crashing into the dirt a few miles outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in July, 1947 – but… if true, for crying out loud, what was it?

Local newspaper accounts, of Air Force personnel recovering a flying “disk” from a local ranch, gave way to a less exciting (but more plausible) account: the retrieval of a downed weather balloon . Even many UFO believers find Roswell’s ‘narrative’ unlikely, if not a deliberate hoax. Secrecy, imposed under Cold War-era anxieties, made people speculate – and inquire – more, rather than less.

Eyewitness testimony is unreliable; recorded evidence can be faked. Triangular or other hull shapes do not qualify as saucers. Any visible object that is both mysterious and aloft fits the definition of a U.F.O. – that does not make it a craft of extraterrestrial origin/operation. It’s the science-fiction nerd in me that enjoys this topic, though I don’t know what to make of it.

Ruling out mundane explanations for aerial phenomena whittles down the ‘unexplained’ sightings to a handful… if there was nothing awry going on, it should whittle them down to zero – but it does not. Any universe as vast as ours is should have millions (if not more) of inhabited planets – so where are these galactic tourists? Absent hard evidence of either military/spy craft or alien star ships, all that is left is a mystery, and those are magnetic…

LIKE A ROLLING STORY

English: Trade ad for 1965 Rolling Stones' Nor...
English: Trade ad for 1965 Rolling Stones’ North American tour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Best if you toss the tourist map, look for your own special places, when you travel.  One July day in London, England, an accidental number of years ago, I took a walk in search of the apartment where, decades earlier, the Rolling Stones almost died.

An exaggeration, you say?  Correct, for I refer here to only three members of the band: Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  I had read stories about these skinny young dudes who, crammed together into a tiny apartment, lacking musical (or other) employment, during a punishing winter, had to feed coins into a space heater, time and again, to get through the nights.

The “sensible lads” of the group – Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and “Sixth Stone” Ian Stewart – lived elsewhere, and presumably had regular work.  The frosty air and bare refrigerator must have forced these skinny guys to focus, like industrial-grade lasers, on music.  Imagine these kids – nobody’s future rock stars, back then – trying to stop shivering long enough, while they practiced their songbook, to ignore how hungry they were.

Hard to reconcile that sympathetic image, in the years since, with all the nonsense about how “devilish” they were supposed to be!  (I didn’t find the place, of course, but it’s the voyage that matters; the place could have been knocked down, for all that I knew, or cared.)  Indeed, it wasn’t the place where they had “almost died”; it’s closer to true to deem it to be the spot where the Stones’ unity was born.   It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that they persisted, well past springtime.

THE STORY OF A FRENCH BEACH

THE STORY OF A FRENCH BEACH

Astonishing to realize this was so long ago; the last survivors of this epoch- shattering thing will leave us some day, owing to their great age – surely, that’s the only way any of us wishes to go.  Over 166,000 Allied and Axis men went at it, hammer and tongs, during “Operation Neptune”.  The heartbreak of it: roughly 2,500 Americans (including a distant cousin of mine), two thousand Britons and Canadians, and something like four thousand to nine thousand Germans were “dispatched to Valhalla” from the sand and surf of Normandy.  Rent fiction movies like The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan, for a “dramatic” look at these cataclysmic events; better, look up authentic “newsreel” footage – the WWII precursor to television news – to see how folks back then were kept informed.