Saturday, August 23, 2008


I believe the decision by the Post Office to leap into the 20th century of mail delivery was taken with all the alacrity and planning you would expect from the oldest and most entrenched bureaucracy in the U.S. government. On May 6, 1918 (eight years after the start of the century), U.S. Army pilot Major Reuben Fleet was summoned into the office of Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, and informed that together the Postmaster General and Secretary Baker had decided that he, Fleet, was to be responsible for setting up the first Air Mail Service between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, and that the first plane of that service would take off from Washington at 11AM on May 15th, just nine days hence.
Major Fleet was flabbergasted. This is the first he had heard of such an idea. He pointed out to the Secretary that the best plane in the Army’s inventory was the JN-4D, known as the Jenny, which was so underpowered that if you tried to turn the plane without first dipping her nose she would stall. Worse, the Jenny was a two seat trainer, capable of barely 65 miles an hour and with a range of less than 90 miles. In other words, a Jenny couldn’t reach Philadelphia from either New York or Washington. The secretary explained that what ever the difficulties were they had to be overcome, because the Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson, had already issued the press release.Major Fleet (personal motto, "Nothing Short of Right Is Right") immediately called the Curtiss Aeroplane Corporation on Long Island and ordered conversion of twelve Jenny’s - replacing the front seat controls with mail bag storage, changing the 90 hp engine with a 150 hp one, and adding fuel tanks to increase the range. Curtiss promised to deliver the planes to Belmont Park airfield on May 13.
But as Fleet overcame each obstacle it seemed two more popped up. He wanted to start the Washington flights out of College Park, Maryland, nine miles north of the capital. But the Post Office insisted on using Potomac Park, on the Tidal basin, right in the middle of town and ringed by huge trees. Fleet asked for six of the most experienced pilots in America. He got four, and two political "ringers".
The two ringers were Lieutenants James Edgerton and George Leroy Boyle. Both men had just graduated from flight school in Texas (almost)and so far their solo flying experience consisted of one cross country flight of 15 miles. But Edgerton was the son of a Post Office purchasing agent and Boyle was engaged to marry the only daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord. That made both young men poltiically qualified for staring roles in the Air Mail drama. Major Fleet knew enough about the way Washington worked that he did not argue a point he could not win. After leaving instructions for the surreptitious removal of one particularly pernicious tree in Potomac Park, Fleet left Washington by train with what he judged were his best five pilots. They were on their way to Long Island to pick up their planes. Fleet left Lt. Boyle behind to entertain the lovely Miss McChord, and presumably, Comissioner McChord as well.At the aerodrome inside the Belmont Park race track Major Fleet found his modified Jennys had been delivered as promised – but still in their crates. The mechanics and pilots spent the next two days desperately throwing the required six planes together. Two newly assembled Jennys were flown to Philadelphia. Two more planes were ready to go from Belmont. And early on the fifteenth, Fleet, exhausted and bone weary, flew the last plane assembled (Number 38262) from Philadelphia to Washington, landing at Potomac Park at 10:35AM, with barely twenty-five minutes to spare before the 11AM takeoff deadline, as per the press release.The First Lady and President Woodrow Wilson arrived. The previous day Wilson had placed his hand on a cannon barrel still hot from having fired a salute. His right hand was wrapped in a bandage. Franklyn Roosevelt, the under-Secretary of the Navy, arrived: as did the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the War. But where was Lieutenant Boyle?
Fleet was just about decided to take the flight himself when a voice from the crowd boomed out confidently, “Never fear because Boyle is here.” Forward stepped the cocky young Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle, followed by the lovely Margaret McChord, carrying a dozen roses she had gotten from somewhere. Fleet bravely tolerated the distribution of commemorative watches and posed for handshakes, and then ignoring the photographers the Major attempted to coach Boyle on how to follow the railroad tracks north from Union Station. But the photos of the Lieutenant give the impression of a man prone to motion sickness who has just realized that he has volunteered to be abandoned on a life raft in the middle of hurricane. As he struggled to keep Boyles' attention Major Fleet was interrupted by a wail of sirens. A mail truck, carrying 140 pounds of First class (24 cent) Air Mail in four bags had arrived. The photographers were momentarily distracted, getting pictures of the bags being loaded into the Jenny.
The noise and excitement didn’t help Boyles’ concentration, and eventually Major Fleet simply taped the road map to the now almost catatonic Boyle’s leg. Boyle was now starting to resemble a hunter on his way to meet a firing squad of well armed pigeons.
There were more photos taken as Boyle climbed aboard the unfamiliar airplane and set the switches to start the engine. A sergeant windmill-ed the propeller three times to pull fuel into the cylinders. Lt. Boyle yelled, “Contact!”, and the sergeant pushed the propeller through again, hard. The engine coughed and died. Twice more Boyle and the sergeant tried to start the engine, but the motor stubbornly refused to engage.
The President was getting annoyed. The crowd was starting to giggle. Boyle was beginning to look as if he might pass out in the cockpit. Finally the sergeant thought to look in the gas tank. It was bone dry. Fleet had been lucky to arrive that morning before he ran out of gas. And no one admidst all the whoopla, not even the exhausted Fleet, had thought to refuel the plane.
Fuel was borrowed from some planes in the nearby U.S. Naval Yard and, 45 minutes late, Lt. Boyle turned his wings into the wind and roared down the open lawn. The crowd held its breath as he cleared the trees at the end of the makeshift runway by all of three feet. The U.S. Army was in the Air Mail business; sort of.Meanwhile the flight from Belmont Park had gotten off on time, and arrived at Philadelphia two hours later. But after waiting for Boyle for almost another hour, the Jenny bound for New York took off from Philadelphia without any mail and headed north. When it arrived on Long Island everyone was so excited they forgot to ask where was the mail. But beyond that , where was Boyle? The answer to that question arrived an hour later.After finally getting into the air Boyle came to the depressing realization that he could not read a map to save his life. He mistakenly followed a branch line of railroad tracks for 20 miles to the southeast from Washington. By the time Lt. Boyle had realized his error, and tried to figure out just where he had gone wrong, he had almost run out of gas. On crash landing near Waldorf, Maryland, the chastized Lt. Boyle flipped his Jenny onto her top. Boyles’ mailbags were eventually delivered to Philadelphia the next day by another pilot. But thankfully, the wartime press corps chose to bury the lead of the story. And that should have been the end of that.And it would have been the end but the Postmaster General urged Major Fleet to give Boyle another chance. Which is why, on May 17th, Lt. Boyle took off from Washington yet again. This time he was following another pilot who guided him north out of the capital and up the four track main railroad line toward Philadelphia. Boyle followed the guide plane for fifty miles. But eventually the other plane turned back, which was when, finally alone in the air, somehow the dashing but incompetent Lt. Boyle managed to get turned around yet again. Boyle ended up flying for three hours and fifteen minutes to the south, eventually landing on Cape Charles, on the very Southeastern tip of Virginia.Determined not to fail this time, and having missed the Atlantic ocean by a hair's breath, Boyle bought gasoline out of his own pocket, got directions from a farmer, took off again and this time actually made it to Philadelphia; where he crash landed on the Philadelphia Country Club golf course, sheering both wings off his Jenny and bending the landing gear.
When the Postmaster General Burleson asked that Boyle be given a third chance, Major Fleet replied, “The conclusion has been reached that the best interests of the service require that Lieutenant Boyle be relieved from this duty.” And so he was. But oddly enough, the man who replaced Lt. Boyle suffered through five forced landings over the next three months.P.S.; Major Fleet went on to fame and fortune in the air plane industry, leaving his name on the Air and Space Museum in San Diego, California. But so far I have been unable to find out what ever happened to the intrepid Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle, after his dismissal from the mail service. All I know is that Margaret and George did marry, (date ?) and had a daughter named Josephine. In 1928 Margaret and Josephine were living at the Willard Hotel in Washington. D.C., with her parents. The family later (1930+) applied for Josephine to enter the school at the Cours de ifAssumption in France. I have posted the question on a number of billboards. If you hear anything, I would be very grateful in learning the story of George L. Boyle’s, Margaret McChord-Boyle or Josephine’s Boyle's later life.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008


I can hardly think of anything more likely to unify Europe than an ex- KGB thug running Russia as if this were still the good old days of Leonid Brezhnev. The invasion of the Republic of Georgia and the threatening of Poland with nuclear war by a Russian general has stripped the old eastern block nations of their last prepuce of innocence.
The Slavic states and the ancient Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now feeling chillingly exposed to the Russian bear. These people fight their cultural wars with real guns and real bombs. But in their rush to cover themselves in a NATO blanket, all the recent cultural shocks suffered by the unblocked Soviet block are revealed to be nothing more than social pinpricks; such as the beach wars currently raging along the Baltic Coast where pious, Catholic (and ex Communist) Poland abuts the hedonistic, Lutheran (and ex-communist) ex-East Germany, bisecting the picturesque Isle of Userdom.
The long cervix of Userdom bridges the Baltic Sea and the Lagoon of Stettin, the aneurism formed as the river Oder meets the coast near the Polish port. During the 20th Century the most exciting thing to happen here was the launching of the Nazi “Vengeance Rockets” from Peenemunde, on the western tip of the isle. But since the Iron Curtain was dropped for the last time (we hope) the poetic resort towns have sparkled along the coast.
Their names float off the tongue with Germanic romance: Ahlbeck, Herinsdorf, Bansin, Ueckeritz, Koelpinsee, Zempin, and Karlshagen. Like a string of pearls they stretch along 250 miles of rolling forests and meadows bordered by bluffs and wide sandy beaches. Of course the Baltic Sea temperature in August is a mere 62 degrees Fahrenheit, which to a resident of Florida seems rather frigid.
But to the hardy German tourists who have been drawn to Userdom since before Adolf Hitler was German, these are balmy climes indeed. And to the Poles, who are now free to enjoy these beaches without even the fig leaf of a passport (since January of 2008, when they joined the Schengen Treaty) the beaches of Userdom represent a frightening peek-a-boo of previously hidden worlds, some of which no self respecting Pole still feels comfortable gazing upon.If you read the advertising for Userdom you will eventually uncover the stark details of the brave new conflicts arising on the Isle; electrical charging beach parking (1.80 Euro a day), boat hires, restaurants, bars, hotels, umbrella and sun lounger rentals, volleyball, windsurfing and sailing schools, playgrounds, sandy beaches, public sanitary facilities and nude areas – plenty and plenty of nude areas.
It has long been a brave nude world on the German shore. Nudism was a popular hobby under the ancient Communist regime, in part I suspect because of the meager implements required to become a practicing nudist. There is no competency test and no qualifying heats, and no real accruements required except perhaps a straw hat and a pair of flip flops. And political disadents were easy to spot; they had their mouths open. But to the tightly bundled Polish Catholics just across the border the sudden visage of naked krauts amongst the dunes has proven unnerving. As they say, old nudes, is not good nudes.As 63 year old Stanislawa Borecka, bemoaned loudly, “What a cheek, sunbathing naked! Directly on the coast …where normal people walk! What am I supposed to tell my grandson now?” Poor Stanislawa had just crossed from Swinoujscie (the Polish side) to Swinemunde (the German shore) and was so unhinged that she swore not to return until the swinehunds cover their sausages.
Edward Zajac, a local Polish politician adept at the American style of moral politics, is properly outraged. “It’s abnormal!”, he ranted. Zajac is now demanding that the Germans move their naked behinds (and fronts) further inland, where wandering Poles will no longer be subjected to Hun heinies.
And oddly enough, the sour Krauts’ nerves have also been laid bare. According to Ines Muller, his joy of nudity has been spoiled because the Pollocks from up the beach insist upon noticing that the Germans are unadorned. He complained, “The Poles come over dressed and stare. You feel like an ape in a zoo. The Poles come with their binoculars, stare and swear." It sounds like a cultural war that would make Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Kazinski giggle with glee, at least until autumn when the nudist beaches will be clothed for the winter.And before Pooty-poot turned out to be more like Staly-Stalin (and George Bush more like Georgie-porgie), the uproar over bare naked frau and fruenden might have been enough wedge politics for a weasel like Zajac to mine for a generation or two. After all, every brave nude world provides politicians with brave new her-eyes-ons.
But with the shinning example of Russian repression fresh in everyone’s minds, I suspect that some social genius on pig land will simply tack up a sign at the border with two arrows:one will point toward the German side, warning the easily offended Catholics to look out for the nudists. And the second arrow will point the way inland, warning the unwary to look out for phallus headed Russians. One is an annoyance, while the other is a real threat to life. And the whole trick in life is knowing the difference between the two. After all, nudists usually need fear no pickpockets. But when they get one, he’s a real doozy.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008


I guess someone had to be first. And what is amazing to me is that it took ten years for someone to be nominated for prominence. Rumor says that John Bllington was desperate to escape creditors when he left England in 1620. That would not have been unusual in a time when debt was a crime. Still only desperation or a hunger for religious freedom could drive a man to abandon the world he knew for the dangers of a distant, unknown shore. But of the voyagers who left England in the fall of 1620 onboard the Mayflower, only forty were so called Puritans, seeking religious freedom. The majority, sixty-one men, women and children, were Anglicans and a few Catholics, and merely looking for a fresh start in life. John Billington was rumored to be a Catholic but he was unusual only in that he was already middle aged, about 40 years, rather old for an adventurer. He brought with him a wife, Eleanor and their two young sons, John Jr. and Francis. And together their family began a great adventure they were not welcomed upon.The voyage had been organized by a group who called (and saw) themselves as “The Saints”. And they were not pleased to find the financial investors in their dream had betrayed them, leaving "The Saints" in a minority to “The Strangers”, as they immediatly began calling their shipmates. "The Saints" found themselves stuffed aboard a leaky ship, just 90 feet long by barely 24 feet wide, giving them 2,160 square feet of living space (a moderate sized two bedroom house) for 102 passengers and a twenty man crew. Instead of escaping the horrors of a multi-faith nation, "The Saints" found themselves imprisoned with one, dragging it along with them. And they found the burden oppressive. After two and a half months of living hell on storm tossed seas they anchored at the edge of a sandy spit of land and faced with what they called a “mutiny”. "The Strangers" were not being landed where they had expected, on the established colony of Virginia, but far to the North in unprepared ground. "The Strangers" were suspicious that this had been the intention of "The Saints" all along. Just to get "The Strangers" to agree to work together in this new land "The Saints" were forced to compromise their faith, right on the edge of paradise, and sign a compact with "The Strangers", pledging to “…combine ourselves into a civil Body Politic…” "The Saints" had thus been forced to create a civil government in this new land, and not the religious domain they had intended to establish. And one of the signatures bought by that accursed compromise had been that of John Billington.As if in punishment for that compromise of their religious purity, only fifty-three souls survived that first winter. Amazingly, in spite of their apparent Godlessness, John Billington’s family of "Strangers" survived intact – including Eleanor, who became one of only five adult women in the entire colony to live to see the spring. The Billington clan had become a daily reminder that God’s Chosen were not always chosen. More evidence was to follow. In 1623, the second full year the colonists had been ashore, internal pressures forced the Governor, William Bradford (a Saint, of course) to divide all property amongst the survivors, one acre per family member, and thus the Billington clan received four acres of the best land, “…which come first over in the May flowers (spring)…on the South side of the brook to the Bay wards”. It was yet another reminder of the success of "The Strangers", while so many of "The Saints" had died, and the instult was not to be forgotten."The Saints" back in England had begun to drive down the value of the colonies' stock shares, the easier to buy them cheaply. And with each year they sent more "Saints" to cross the Atlantic, meaning to overwhelm "The Strangers" amongst them. Then in 1624, with the colony population now grown to over 180 people, two new arrivals in Plymouth Colony fed the growing tensions; the Reverend John Lyford and the followers of John Oldham were both nominally "Saints". In fact Lyford had been sent out as an official priest for the colony. But his willingness to conduct an Anglican baptism for the child of "Stranger" William Hilton offended the "Saints". These chosen of God would not tolerate religious tolerance for anyone but themselves. And Governor Bradford became convinced that Lyford and Oldham were both secretly corresponding with the stockholders back in England, contradicting some of what the colony of Saints had been telling them. Bradford was able to intercept some of the letters, and catch the dissenters off guard by challenging them without warning in a public hearing. Both Lyford and Oldman were banished from the colony. There was also an attempt to charge John Billington with being a member of the "conspiracy", but Billington could claim he was being made a scapegoat, and since Billington was popular, (although it seems umclear how he could have been so, given the descritions of him that survive) and since Bradford had no hard evidence against him, "The Saints" were forced to bide their time, yet again.Time was on their side, however. The following year, 1626, James I of England died, and Charles I, a militantly devout Catholic, took the throne. England had taken the first steps that would lead to civil war, the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the beheading of the King. But in the short run the flow of "Saints" escaping from real oppression in England to Plymouth Colony, increased. John Billington still had allies in Plymouth, such as John Cannon and William Tench, but the pressures brought on by the constant arrival of "Saints" drove both men to leave the colony by 1627. And in 1629 young John Billington Jr. died of illness, and the fifty year old John grew weary of the constant fighting for his families' rightful place in the colony society. By January of 1630 there were almost 300 citizens in Plymouth colony, the vast majority of whom were now, finally, "Saints". John Billington had become isolated.In the late summer of 1630 a man’s body was found in the woods near John Billington’s property. The body was identified in Governor Bradford’s correspondence only as "John New-come-er”. No rational for Billington having murderd the mysterious man was ever offered on the record. Instead surviving documents hint that the motive was the result of “an old argument between the two men”. But this would seem to have been unlikely, given that he was, by every account, a literal “New-come-er”". Dispite this glaring omission, a Grand Jury was quickly convened and Billington was charged with shooting the man in the shoulder with a blunderbuss, thus causing his death. But since a blunderbuss was generally loaded with whatever material was handy, rocks or metal, and was used as a short range (and still highly inaccurate) shotgun, using it as a weapon for an assignation would have seemed doubtful in the extreme. But by this time there was little patience left in the colony for reason where John Billington was concerned. A trial jury wasted little time in finding him guilty of murder. And yet despite the singularity of this crime and punishment - Billington was the first Englishman in the colony charged with murder, and the first sentenced to be hanged for that crime - there is no record of any defense arguments offered on his behalf. "The Saints" had won their war against John Billington, and they would write his history. And yet dispite this apparent lack of any mitigation for the crime, Governor Bradford still sought the approval for the execution of this "Stranger" from his own fellow "Saints" in the younger, larger and more purely Saintly Massachusetts Bay Colony. Such approval was instantly supplied without any apparent consideration of the evidence given at trial.On September 30, 1630, fifty year old John Billington was hanged according to the methods of the day: he was slowly dragged aloft and strangled by a rope noose. The drop that quickly broke the neck would not become standard in hanging for another two hundred years. Plymouth Colony was thus finally rid of its most troublesome "Stranger" in a conregation of "Saints". The only even mildly generous epitaph written for John Billington came from the poison pen of Thomas Morton, another man had irritated "The Saints" in Plymouth Colony. “John Billington that was chocked at Plymouth after he had played the unhappy marksman...he was loved by many.” And that is a piece of information not even hinted at in the history written by "The Saints". But if true it would explain why they waited so long to move against John Billington. "...he was loved by many."
Sixty years later the Saints would have to clean house again in God's name, this time in the village of Salem. At that time what "The Saints" had done to John Billington was shown to have been but a dress rehershal for their religious fantaticism and intolerance. (And in a piece of historical irony, the patriarch of one of the most famous families of English hangmen, from the mid 19th through the early 20th Centuries, would also be named John Billington.)

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