NOVEMBER 2014

NOVEMBER  2014
When Americans Believed They Deserved Respect

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Friday, November 28, 2014

BATTLE OF THE BUNNIES

I believe the legend that the first time Major-General Louis Berthier met Napoleon Bonaparte, in March of 1796, he confided to a fireside comrade, “I don’t know why, but the little bastard scares me.” He was called “Berthier the Ugly” because of his squat build, his hook nose, that arose from between his cheeks like a parrot's beak, and a head that seemed three times larger than it ought to. In addition he was clumsy and given to chewing his fingernails. Add in a dose of social ineptness and you have Berthier, the man. He was also a genius of detail. He spent his entire adult life in the military, rising through the ranks under the “Old Regime”. He had fought with distinction under Rochambeu at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 during the American revolution.
Napoleon, at 26, was already a blazing comet on the French political scene, while “ugly, little” Berthier, who was already 42 years old, had survived the revolution by keeping his huge head so low it could not be conveniently guillotined. But perhaps Berthier sensed impending disaster on that blistery March morning when they first met. Perhaps on some level he understood that the “Little Corsican” who stood before him would use him over the next 20 years to slaughter a million Frenchmen and three million others who would die opposing Napoleon. I wonder if he also sensed the sacrifice of all those bunnies, as well.Napoleon’s amazing string of victories began at Montenotte, in Piedmont on April 12 and continued at the bridge at Lodi on May 10, 1796. Berthier was there, sharing the hardships and basking in the reflected glory as Napoleon’s chief of staff and than a Marshal of France, organizing the now Emperor Napoleon’s complete victory, at "Austerlitz" in 1805.
By the summer of 1807 Napoleon was the master of Europe, referred to by his implacable English foes as "The Beast of Europe". And he would not have been so accomplished if it were not for the efforts of ugly little Berthier.And so it was obvious that when the Emperor sought an afternoon’s diversion, a summer picnic and a hunt in the countryside outside of Paris, it would be Berthier who would organize the entire affair. Surely the man who could plan the conquest of nations could arrange a simple afternoon’s hunt.The humans arrived en mass, like a column of infantrymen swarming a defensive position. The Emperor went nowhere alone anymore. A regiment of cavalry stood guard. Messengers arrived and were dispatched forth all day -  for an Empire run by one man cannot survive long without assurance that the master is always watching.There were ambassadors and royalty and a dozen Marshals covered in glittering gold braid. There were Generals to carry the Marshals' eyeglasses and purses and fans. There were servants to serve the lunch and keep the Champagne glasses bubbling over. There were chiefs to cook the lamb and fish and chicken Marengo. There were dozens of carriages and wagons to carry them all from their palaces and mansions and back home again.And once the open air repast was digested the Emperor and his guests put away their knives and Champagne glasses and took up their weapons. Berthier had prepared this too, down to the smallest detail. Marshal Berthier had attempted to obtain wild rabbits captured locally, but the peasant farmers had been taxed so heavily to pay for all that gold braid,  that they had stripped the local woods and fields of wild game.So the ever resourceful Berthier (That's him in an 'offical' painting above, with the reality edited out of him), had bought every domesticated rabbit in the Paris market, some 30,000 of them in all. The beasts had been fattened in pens and cages all their lives. They were released the afternoon before the hunt, in the chosen field. There were beaters, to drive the bunnies to the guns, for an Emperor does not have all day to spend stalking his prey. So as the Emperor Napoleon advanced into the field with his musket held at the ready, Berthier gave the signal, and the beaters advanced.And such was the sight then seen, the likes of which had never been seen before in all of history. And never would be seen again, either.Thirty-thousand Leporidae Oryctolagus cuniculus (European bunny rabbits) charged desperately toward the first human they had seen in 24 hours - a human being the source of all food and warmth in their entire sheltered lives. The figure must have seemed the answer to a domesticated rabbit’s hopes and prayers after a cold night in the strange, forbidding emptiness of a field. And the mother figure out front was the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.If they could have spoken they would have cried out in unison in their little bunny voices, “Take me home, take me home, get me out of here!” But they could not cry out. They could not speak. And so what Napoleon saw as he entered the field with “rodenticide” in his heart, was thirty thousand bunnies stampeding remorselessly toward him, perhaps with regicide in their hearts.Where they afflicted with a pestilence? Where they part of a devilish English plot to murder him?  Napoleon had no way of knowing, and little time to decide. But even if the Emperor had suspected the actual cause behind the stamped of cottontails, hunting is not much of a sport when the prey rush you and demand to be butchered en mass.The servants thrashed at the rabbits with whips, the ambassadors and royalty snickered behind their lace cuffs and the generals and Marshals of France threw their gold braid between the homesick bunnies and their Emperor. The sacrifice was futile. For the first time in his life (but not the last) the Emperor of Europe, Napoleon I, was forced to retreat to his royal coach, and then to withdraw back within the walls of his palace, his afternoon sport spoiled.It was prescience of the night after Waterloo, of the snowy road home from Moscow, of the voyage to exile on Elba and Helena. At a time when no force could stand up to the 'Beast of Europe', Napoleon had been defeated by an army of bunny rabbits.Vive la Peter Cottontail!
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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

TURKEY WARS

I don’t understand why anyone believes any of the popular myths about Thanksgiving. The truth is our Puritan forefathers were a humorless bunch who showed their devotion to God by going hungry, not by eating. They would have considered our average Thanksgiving dinner an insult to God. Their God was not interested in contentment, just punishment and fasting. And the only feasts they had were in the late  summer, when food was plentiful. By late November they were already deep into their grain stores, and watery stew. They would only say thanks if they were staving to death!
The real mother of Thanksgiving was actually the widow who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and other innocent poems, Sarah Hale. She was the 19th century version of Martha Stewart. For forty years Sarah was the editor of the prestigious “Godey’s Lady’s Book” magazine. And each November Sarah would bombard her 150,000 subscribers with recipes for Roast Turkey, Turkey stuffing, Turkey gravy, and Turkey stew. Now a lot of selling and some kitchen chemistry was required because 19th century turkeys were scrawny and almost exclusively dark meat. Sarah championed turkey because her middle class homemakers were on tight budgets, and per pound the randy, strutting bird-brain turkey cost less than half what a chicken might.
But the real revolution came when, in 1934, the United States Department of Agriculture discovered the key to making turkeys palatable; artificial insemination. In 1932, before the breeding revolution, the average American ate just two pounds of turkey a year. Today, that amount is closer to twenty pounds. Turkey farmers across America, are very thankful for that big government intervention. So are most turkey eaters, although they don't seem to know it.
But the increased popularity of turkey has come at a price - no sex for the turkey. Today’s buxom white breasted Tom Turkey is too obese to climb atop an equally buxom white breasted hen. Without human intervention, the Thanksgiving turkey would have have gone extinct - Ah, ceste se la guerre. But this brings us to my real topic, which is the year when Thanksgiving became a real de la guerre; 1939
It was the third year of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term as president. And Republicans were determined (read terrified) that he might want a third term. However they were not in a good position to prevent it, holding only 177 seats in the House of Representatives (to 252 Democrats) and a paltry 23 seats in the Senate (to 69 Democrats). But then in August, Roosevelt handed Republicans an early Christmas present.
In July Franklin had received a visit from Fred Lazarus (above), head of the Federated Department Stores, the single biggest retail chain by volume in America. He controlled Macy’s and Bloomingdales in New York City, Filenes in Boston, and Strauss in Brooklyn. Fred pointed out to the President that in 1939, November would have five Thursdays; the second, the ninth, the sixteenth, the twenty-third and the thirtieth. And Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving -  first issued after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and re-issued by Presidents every year since - specifically designated Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in November. That final Thursday would be, in the case of 1939,  the 30th . The last time Thanksgiving had fallen on the fifth Thursday in November had been 1933. That year the Christmas shopping season, which traditionally began the day after Thanksgiving, was just 20 shopping days long, and had proven disastrous for retailers. Of course, there had been the Great Depression that year, but retail business folks are like farmers, they always worry about the rain. Did it come too early, or too late? Is it too much, or too little? Anyway, Lazarus wanted Roosevelt to move the Turkey Day forward one week, to give merchants another week to tempt their customers into spending on Christmas. The President had also heard from lobbyists at the National Retail Dry Goods Association, as well as executives from Gimbels and Lord & Taylor.
Being a long time politician, Roosevelt listened to the business community. And at a Press Conference held August 14th, he said, “I have been hearing from a great many people...complaints that Thanksgiving came too close to Christmas”. Roosevelt reminded the press corps that Thanksgiving was still not an official holiday, and that each year the President picked the date for it. And, since "experts" believed that adding another week to the shopping season would increase sales by 10%, Franklin announced that this year of 1939,  he was moving Thanksgiving to Thursday, November 23rd., the fourth Thursday in November.
The first alarm went off  the very next day, when Fred Lazarus ran into his younger brother Simon. Simon Lazarus was ranting over the change because it had disrupted his Ohio State Universities’ Thanksgiving day football game. “What damn fool got the president to do this?” Simon barked at his brother, who, in fact, was the damn fool himself. But that was just the beginning.
The Republican attorney general for Oregon, turned to poetry. “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; All the rest have thirty-one; Until we hear from Washington.”  A shopkeeper in Kokomo, Indiana preferred to protest in prose. He put up a sign in his window which read, “Do your shopping early. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” Republican Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire urged the President to simply abolish winter by fiat. And Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peal got very outraged, charging it was  “…contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with the sacred religious day with the specious excuse that it will help Christmas sales. The next thing we may expect Christmas to be shifted to May 1st to help the New York World’s Fair of 1940.”  Did anybody point out to Norman, that the bible never mentioned which Thursday Thanksgiving should fall on?
Twenty-three governors went with the President’s switch, and twenty-two did not. Texas and Colorado couldn’t make up their minds and recognized both days as the holiday in question, although the Republican Governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr, announced he would eat no turkey on the 23rd. The 30th was labeled as the Republican Thanksgiving, while the 23rd became the Democratic Thanksgiving, or, as "Nucky" Johnson, the recently indicted Republican mayor of Atlantic City called Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday, “Franksgiving”.
There were a few real problems hidden under this haze of invented political outrage. Calendars could not be changed in time for the 1939 switch over. And schools were suddenly uncertain of vacation schedules. Some families found their bosses forced their holiday dinners to be split between the two dates. But it turned out that the real problem had been identified by Simon Lazarus, the angry brother - football.
The headline in the New York Times said it all; “PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES” The coach of Little Ouachita college in Arkansas warned, “We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'” Chairman of the Athletic Board at New York University wrote to Roosevelt, “…it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day…” And then Roosevelt had changed the date!
A Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans wanted the President’s decision reversed. But it was too late for Roosevelt to change his mind in 1939. And FDR was too stubborn to admit defeat in November 1940, which also had five Thursdays, and was a Presidential election year. Despite the addition of even more politics into the mix, nine states switched from the Republican Thanksgiving (the last Thursday) to the Democratic one (the fourth Thursday) in 1940. That left just sixteen celebrating the “old” Thanksgiving. And that seems to have been enough of a victory for Roosevelt, that looking ahead to November 1941 (which surprisingly also had five Thursdays), he asked New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to study the sales figures. Was that extra week of shopping really helping the economy? In fact it had, but not very much; certainly not enough, considering all the angst and confusion the move had cost.
In early May of 1941, LaGuardia’s report informed the White House that “the early Thanksgiving date has not proved worthwhile".  So on May 20th 1941, Roosevelt set Thanksgiving 1941 back to the last Thursday in November. And in a rational world, that would have settled that. But, of course, politicians are not rational beings.
Being lawmakers the politicians in the House of Representatives decided to get involved by writing a law. House joint resolution 41 justified itself by pointing out that there was nothing to designate the day as a holiday except the annual President's Proclamation (which Roosevelt had mentioned at the start of this mess!). Henceforth, said the Representatives, the last Thursday in November would legally be Thanksgiving. But when HR 41 got to the Senate, those gentlemen felt compelled to improve upon it.  They did this by changing one little word. Thanksgiving would now be, not the last Thursday in November as the House had intended, but the fourth Thursday in November. As Connecticut Senator John A. Danaher pointed out, in four out of five years, the last Thursday in November was the fourth Thursday in November, anyway. The House went along and Roosevelt signed the new law into effect on December 26, 1941. And amazingly, since that date, the Republicans had been determined not to notice that Roosevelt and the merchants had won.
No matter what conservative sympathizers may chortle about on their blog posts, Roosevelt got his (meaning the merchant's)  earlier date for Thanksgiving, and that extra week before Christmas.  They got it by calling it something else, so the Republicans would swallow the common sense of it without chocking on their own press releases. And that is something we can all be thankful for, in four years out of every five years, anyway.
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Sunday, November 23, 2014

MOB HIT, THREE

I believe the best evidence is that Joseph Stalin had his own father murdered, and watched it done. The cobbler Besarion Vanovis was a known violent drunk who for years beat both his wife and son, before abandoning them. And when, in March of 1906, he was found dead on a back street in Tifil, Georgia, there were few tears shed for his demise, and police wrote it down to just another drunken brawl. But his wound, a huge hole smashed into his skull, was just the sort of injury Stalin now insisted on inflicting on his other old enemy, Leon Trotsky - a single blow delivered with an ax, wrapped in a heavy coat.  Stalin was very specific about the method.  In fact, contemplating such acts of terror were Stalin's favorite pastime, as the drunken ruler shared with comrades in 1923: “To choose the victim,” he told them, “to prepare the blow with care, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed....there is nothing sweeter in life.”.
After the raid of 24 May, the American Socialist Workers Party tried to raise funds to improve the defenses at 19 Avenida Viena (above), but were only able collect $2,250. Trotsky had previously been approached by Harvard University to donate his papers. And he now had two reasons to close the deal quickly, to protect his own life, and to move his papers to where Stalin could not destroy them. In exchange for his communications and notes between 1917 and 1937, Trotsky was paid $6,000 cash.
The money went to see that all windows facing Morelos Street (above) were bricked up, as were the doors in the portico which opened on Viena Street. The windows that remained were now guarded by iron bars. Wooden interior doors, which had proved easily smashed, were replaced with steel.
On 18 June, 1940, , the Mexican Police arrested two dozen members of the Mexican Communist Party, and charged them with taking part in the raid. The leader, David Alaro Siqueiros (above), escaped at first, releasing editorials insisting he was innocent and being framed.  But as more and more members of the raid confessed and named him as the leader, the tone of his press releases changed. Now he claimed he was not trying to kill Trotsky, but just to get him expelled from Mexico. Four months later Sisqueiros was finally captured in Jalisco. A judge was bribed to release the painter on bail, unheard of in an attempted murder case, and within 24 hours Siqueiros was in first Ecuador, and then Cuba, and then central America. Most of the other members of the raid were not so lucky, and ended up serving years in jail.
It was during the confusion and trauma immediately following the 24 May attack that a old friend appeared at the Viena Streeet villa, a young blond named Slyvia Ageloff.  Her sister, Ruth, had once worked for Trotsky as a typist, and the sisters had met the Old Man and Natalia during his Paris exile.  Trotsky had taken an interest in the young socialists because he was,   in the words of a close family friend,  an “experienced philanderer”,  but Natalia also found the girls a pleasant diversion, and now Slyvia was doubly so .
Slyvia  (above left) explained she had come to Mexico to visit her mysterious Canadian boyfriend, Frank Jackson (above right), who had recently started a new job in Mexico. She was welcomed to tea with the Trotskies, although Frank's schedule prevented him from joining them, which added to his mystery. The only time members of the household saw him at first was when his Buick sedan pulled to the curb to pick her up. Eventually Frank became familiar with the guards, and even agreeing to drive the house-bound Leon and Natalia on an outing to Vera Cruz. That kindness, and a gift of chocolates for Natalia,  made it easier when Sylvia asked if Trotsky could offer some advice on a political article Frank was writing
The article which Jackson wanted Trotsky to read was titled “The Third Camp and the Popular Front”, referring to Trotsky's argument that workers must reject both capitalism and the gangster state Stalin had created.  But as he read it in his study,  Trotsky grew uneasy.  Frank Jackson was sitting too close, right behind him, on the edge of his desk, with his coat folded across his lap.  Since the 24 May attack, Trotsky kept a .25 caliber pistol within reach on the desk top. But an alarm switch was blocked by Jackson. Trotsky found the article obvious and dull, and after he had made comments and sent Jackson on his way, The Old Man told Natalia he did not want to see the Canadian again.
But Sylvia begged, and Trotsky agreed to read the rewrites Jackson had made. So about 5:20, on Tuesday afternoon, 20 August, 1940,  Jackson pulled up again in front of the villa. Getting out of his Buick he called up to the guard shack above the foray (above),  asking if Sylvia had arrived yet.  The guards answered no, but opened the front door without question  Again they noted he carried a raincoat. Trotsky was in the garden, feeding his rabbits, so Jackson stepped back to the kitchen, to tell Natalia that he and Sylvia would be leaving Mexico the next day.  But she had grown suspicious of the Canadian, and asked him why he was wearing a hat and coat on such a hot day. Jackson answered, “It might rain.”  Abruptly, Trotsky appeared and invited Jackson back to his study to read the rewrites.
He waited only a few moments, before drawing a cut-down climbers pick ax hanging off the rear of his belt, hidden beneath his jacket.  Nervously, he wrapped his raincoat around it, and raising it over his head, drove it with all his might into the very top of Leon Trotsky's head. 
The steel point smashed through the top of the Old Man's skull, tore through the living soft layer beneath, and was driven three inches into his brain. 
Jackson said in his confession, “I shut my eyes and struck with all my strength ... As long as I live I can never forget his cry ...he screamed very long, infinitely long,Jackson had expected the man to die instantly. But the sound of his cry terrorized the murderer, and everybody else in the villa.
As Jackson pulled the ax back out, to raise it again, Trotsky stood and turned on his assassin. They struggled over the ax, destroying much of the furniture, and spilling Trotsky's blood (above)   The younger man managed to slice Trotsky's cheek, before the 60 year old Russian pulled the ax out of his hands. 
As Natalia and a bodyguard rushed into the room they discovered Trotsky standing over his attacker, the ax in his hand, blood pouring over his eyes. Trotsky said to his wife, “Look what they've done to me!” He told the guard he'd been shot. Then Natalia guided him out to the garden.
The guards fell upon Jackson (above),  beating him while he cried, “They made me do it. They're holding my mother. They have put my mother in jail”  When he tried to pull a pistol out of his pocket, they beat him again. Again he cried out, “They have imprisoned my mother”  Then he added, “Sylvia Ageloff had nothing to do with this.”   Then he insisted “it” was not the NKVD, he had nothing to do with the Soviet secret police.” No one ever believed him.
Trotsky was driven to two miles to Cruz Verde Hospital in Mexico City. A team of neurosurgeons operated to release pressure on his brain. His last words were, “I think Stalin has finished the job he started.” Suffering from shock and blood loss, and severe brain damage, Leon Trotsky never woke up from the surgery, and died half past seven the next evening.  He was buried on the villa's grounds, which have become a museum, dedicated to his memory.
Later, the police, who had arrested Sylvia,  led the bewildered and terrified woman into a hotel room crowded with reporters, where she was surprised to confront Jackson (above). He began yelling, telling her to go away.  
Jackson (above, right)  later re-enacted his crime, and even admitted to being Jacques Mornard. And under that name he was convicted of murder, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He served every day of it,  if under luxurious conditions, with female companionship, and servants, all paid for by the NKVD.
We know now that Leonid Ettingon told Ramon Mercader just before his final meeting with Trotsky, that if he failed to murder the Old Man, his mother Caridad Mercader (above) , would be sent to a gulag in Siberia.  After Trotsky was dead, Caridad was ordered back to Moscow, where Stalin himself gave her a medal, the Order of Lenin.  The honor was tainted when she realized she would never be free again. Twelve years after the murder, Mexican police finally pierced Ramon's disguises, and his true identity was finally revealed.  Caridad knew that not only  had she turned her own son into a murderer, she would have been arrested and likely executed by Soviet NKVD if he ever talked. She became a drug addict, her heroin supplied by the NKVD.
Joseph Stalin, perhaps the greatest thug of all time,  died in his own bed on 5 March, 1953,  likely poisoned by the head of his NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria.  Beria was arrested and executed on 23 December, 1953,  just another gangster rubbed out.  That left only the flotsam floating behind to record the damage the gangster had done.
Ramon was released from prison in May of 1960, and traveled immediately to the Soviet Union where he was honored and rewarded for his loyalty and silence. He would never reconcile with his mother (above), who said she was “only good for destroying capitalism, but no good for building Communism.”  She hated living in the Soviet Union,  and died in Paris in 1975.   Her son, Ramon, died three years later, in Havana, Cuba.  And Seva, Trotsky's grandson, going by the name Esteban Volkov,  still lives as of 2014, with only an occasional nightmare of the attacks, and his grandfather's brutal murder.
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