AUGUST   2020


Saturday, April 18, 2009


I guess the most convenient starting point to retelling the events of the morning of April 19, 1775, is to begin with Thomas Gage. He had been a soldier since he was 21. He fought at Culloden, and in the Low Countries, and in 1754 his regiment served in what in America is called “The French and Indian War”. It was there, in December of 1758, at the age of 40, that Thomas Gage married the lovely Margaret Kemble, who was then barely 24 years old. And it has been alleged that it was Margaret who helped give birth to American Independence.Did the American born wife of the British commander betray his secrets to Paul Revere? Gage thought so. After his twin disasters at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, Gage complained to a fellow officer that, “I communicated my design to one person only…” Within weeks Margaret was shipped back to England. It is said the couple never spoke again. But, as romantic and tragic as their story might be, I doubt the American Revolution depended on this lady’s betrayal of her husband. Her family did not see themselves as ‘Americans” but as British citizens. Her brother served with the British Army through out the war. And, more importantly, the British were betrayed long before any orders that set Lexington and Concord in motion ever reached General Gage.
Gage didn’t receive his instructions from London until April 14, 1775. But as early as April 8, the colonists at Concord had begun to disperse the supplies of cannon, powder and shot they had collected. This advance knowledge of British intentions was due to John Hancock’s business connections in London.
Hancock had made a fortune smuggling goods through Boston Harbor right under the noses of the English custom officials: and tar and feathering those noses when necessary. That business gave Hancock faster and more reliable connections with England than those of the English crown. So, on April 16, when Gage sent out a 50 man patrol to ask locals the whereabouts of Hancock and John Adams (They were hold up in a house in Lexington) the rebels already knew those two men were not General Gage's real targets.
In retrospect, the road between Boston and Concord was so crowded with spies, rebel and loyalist, in the week before April 19, 1775, as to give the impression of a colonial traffic jam. But it was the powder and shot in Concord that Gage was after. And long before any redcoats marched up what would be called the "Battle Road" and what would become Massachusetts Avenue, those were already out of his reach.
Lt Col. Francis Smith was ordered to take 700 men 17 miles to Concord. “…where you will seize and destroy… all Military stores…” Gage never mentioned going after Hancock or Adams, or even searching Lexington for weapons. But as Smith’s column approached Lexington he sent ahead 10 “light” infantry companies under the command of Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn to secure the road junction, not the village.
As he marched the head of of the column into the village just after dawn on April 19, 1775, Lt. Jesse Adair discovered a motley group of 77 militia, under the command of a tubercular Captain John Parker (below, in bronze), formed up in a rough line on the backside of the village green. Forty or so spectators had also gathered to watch.
These 77 militia-men were not minute men, as Lexington could not afford the expense of keeping even a handful ready to call to arms “at a minutes notice”. These men had gathered during the previous evening at the Buckman Tavern (background, above) because by that morning just about every patriot, hot head, rabble-rouser, drunk and trouble maker in Massachusetts Bay Colony knew General Gage’s intentions.
The men formed up on the green when the English column was spotted approaching, Parker walked down the line and in his horse voice told them to stand fast but make no aggressive moves, and just let the redcoats pass.
But the Redcoats were too good at soldiering to leave an armed force on their column’s rear and flank. So, rather than march past the green and take the left turn on Concord Road, Lt. Adair turned his skirmishers to the right, and charged onto the triangular green with a loud “Huzzah”. The idea was to frighten the colonists, and it would have scared the heck out of me.
Major Pitcairn (above) came ridding up and with sword drawn, called out, “Disperse, you damn rebels! Damn you, throw down your arms and disperse!”
Things were getting very dangerous, and Parker knew it. He croaked that the men should just “go home”. Hesitantly, slowly, some of the men who could hear him turned to leave the green. But nobody put down their muskets.
And then, as often happens when people with loaded guns start playing soldier, somebody fired a shot. Maybe it was accident, maybe it wasn’t even aimed at anybody. Afterwards the British said it was the Americans, the Americans blamed the British. The Americans were undisciplined but the British were exhausted. Everybody’s nerves were on the ragged edge.
Some folks in Lexington would later whisper that the first shot was fired by 18 year old Solomon Brown, who was not in the militia but whose home the British column had just passed. The young man had been up all night, playing spy and then soldier, and he seems as likely a source for the first shot as anybody. Brown did later boast to a friend that he had shot an English officer, and pointed to a blood pool as proof. But whether that was the first shot fired or not is sheer conjecture. Like so much of history, you have your choice of facts.
What we know as fact is this; the first shot produced a flurry of frightened shots, then a ragged volley from the redcoats. In breath there was so much wild shooting going on that Major Pitcairn’s horse was hit twice, while the Major was unharmed. (And maybe it was a pool of horse blood on the ground).
When it stopped one English soldier was wounded, and eight colonists were dead. Robert Munroe and Isacc Muzzy were shot and killed on the Green. Samuel Hadley and John Brown (Solomon’s oldest brother) were shot and killed while leaving the Green. Jonas Parker was wounded and then bayoneted to death on the Green. Jonathan Harrington was shot on the Green but managed to crawl to his own front door before dieing. Caleb Harrington was shot and killed close to the church, and Ashahel Porter was shot while attempting to escape. Nine other colonists were wounded, one of them being Prince Esterbrook, a black man who had no freedom anyone was willing to fight for just yet.
It was a messy start to what would prove to be a very messy day. By its end some 20,000 rebels would be besieging General Gage’s 5,000 men in Boston. Gage’s reputation would be in tatters (as would his marriage) because 100 printed copies of the colonists’ version of events on Lexington Green (and Concord Bridge which followed that afernoon) would arrive in London weeks before Gage’s perfunctory official report. And it was America’s propaganda version of the “Battle of Lexington Green” that became history. Was it true? Did it matter?
If the truth of Lexington Green seems important today that is only because the passage of time has made it safe for us to to be honest about passions that men were willing to kill and to die for when 700 British soldiers marched toward the dawn on the "Battle Road", on April 19, 1775.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I contend that 1900 saw the single most horrific victory in modern Olmpic history, surpassed only by the ancient standard for horror when King Oenomaus was killed in an Olympic chariot crack up , followed by the race winner Pelops throwing another driver, Myrtilus, off a cliff. What could have surpassed such gore and horror, comitted in the name of the purity of athletic endevor? Simply, the Paris games of 1900 when Leon de Lunden from Belgium murdered 21 birds to win the "Live Pigeon Shooting" event.
In order to make the sport even “less sporting” for the birds, the little sacrifices were released one at a time, and each human contestant was allowed to keep blasting away until he missed – twice. Sports historian Andrew Strunk has described the event as “…a rather unpleasant choice. Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping…”. In all 300 unlucky pigeons were sacrificed for the Olympic ideal. Just think of it; Dick Cheney could have been an Olympic athlete!
Those Paris games of 1900 almost didn’t happen, since the French considered Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin, who was pushing the modern Olympic concept, as "too English”, what with his alien ideas about exercise producing a healthy mind and body. In fact it wasn’t until Coubertin resigned from the French Athletic Associations that other French sportsmen agreed to back his idea.
Unfortunately, with Coubertin out of the way, the French Government stepped in and things went down hill very quickly from there. First the government decided not to award medals for first place, but "valuable artwork" instead. It must have been quite a sight to see Msr. Aumoitte, winner of the “one ball” croquet championship, standing on the victory podium with a Monet hanging around his neck.
Then there was the marathon, where two American runners, Arthur Newton and Dick Grant, lead from the start. But when they reached the finish line together they discovered two heretofore unnoticed French runners, Michel Theato and Emile Champion, rested and waiting for them, and already wearing their winner’s artwork. The Americans pointed out that all the other contestants were splattered with mud while Theato and Champion looked like they had not even broken a sweat. But this being France, the American protests were worst than meaningless.
In fact, because they protested the Americans were awarded sixth and seventh place. Well, as Albert Camus noted in one of his lighter moments, "Pauvre de moi, du cognito tricherie, ergo se donner la mort”, or, “Please excuse me but I think you cheated so I am now going to commit suicide". The International Olympic Committee took the American protests under consideration for twelve years, before finally rejecting them; proving once again the Jerry Lewis rule about sports rulings; timing is everything.
The Games of 1900 were the longest in Olympic History, running between May 14 and October 28, and including such extravigent events as "Cannon Shooting", "Life Saving", "Kite Flying", "Tug of War" and "Fire Fighting". The Croquet Tournament took 21 weeks to play out in front of a paying audience of exactly one, an elderly Englishman living in Nice, France.
Curiously the strongest protest in that the 1900 Olympics was between two Americans. The born-again coaches from Syracuse University felt that competing on a Sunday would be a sin. So they talked their student Myer Prinstein (above), the world record holder in the long jump, into going along with them. Myer was a nice Jewish boy, and he finally agreed to skip the Sunday competion out of “team spirit”. Besides, his qualifying jump on Saturday – his actual Sabbath - had been so impressive he thought it would be good enough for the victory. And it almost was. Almost.
That Sunday afternoon (July 14, 1900), while Myer was soaking in the Parisian culture, his Catholic teammate Alvin Kraenzlein(above) broke his own sabbath and beat Myer’s long jump mark by centimeter. That Monday, when Myer noticed that Alvin was carrying an extra Van Gough around, he started pounding on Alvin. And Alvin pounded right back. But, since they were both track stars with no upper body strength, nobody got seriously injured.
The nineteen hundred games also featured a controversial final in the “Underwater Swimming” competition. This may sound like a fancy name for drowning, but the drowners, er, the swimmers, were actually awarded 2 points for each meter they swam under water and one point for each second they were able to remain submerged. But despite having stayed under for far longer than anyone else, Peder Lykkeberg of Denmark was disqualified because it was alleged that he “swam in circles”. Just read the rules, I say.
Also in the river (during this Olympics all the water sports were held in the river Seine, which was not nearly as clean a sewer then it is today), were the exciting finals of the “Swimming Obstacle Course”, involving swimming, pole climbing, more swimming, boat boarding and de-boarding, more swiming, followed by swiming under a boat, followed by more swimming.
The winner was Freddy Lane from Australia, in 2:38, who climbed over the stern of the boat as opposed to clambering across the boat's wider middle. For his efforts Freddie recieved a 50 pound bronze horse. I presume the equestrian winners received statues of fish. Oddly enough neither of the water events were repeated at any future Olympics.
But the sport I miss having seen the most from the 1900 Paris games was the "Equestrian Long Jump". Now, try to picture this: four spindly legs holding up a big muscular body, and with a human in riding garb and top hat balanced on their back. Horse and rider gallop up to the jump line and then fling themselves into the air.
The winner was a British stallion named “Extra Dry”(above), with a soaring leap of 20 feet and one quarter of an inch. Can you image the excitement that must have gripped the crowds, watching this equrestian suicidal display? A horse leaping twenty feet and one quarter of an inch; that’s just nine feet short of the current human long jump record. And we've only got two legs.
It makes me wonder if the X Games are really all that original.

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Monday, April 13, 2009


I think everybody has a problem with Greenland, one way or another. There are only 57,000 people living in the 299 international calling code; that’s one person for every 690 square miles. Of those precious few Greenlanders, 88% are Inuit and almost all are Lutherans. And yet according to UN data, without an obvious underclass (like blacks or Mexicans or Gypsies) to scapegoat, the average Greenlander is still three times more likely to be murdered than the average European, and eight times more likely to be the victim of violence. And that is just the latest of Greenland’s problems.Every winter a low pressure zone forms off the southeast coast of Greenland. And while this it not Greenland’s fault, it still makes them a very bad neighbor. Because lows rotate counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere, this low draws bursts of warm moist southern air into the arctic and fuels one storm after another, creating a dully predictable pattern of lousy weather for Europe all winter long, a legacy from Greenland.It is not an accident that Alfred Wegener, the scientist who first suggested what he called "Continental Drift", died on an expedition to Greenland in 1930. One of the first pieces of evidence which caused Wegener to suspect the world had not always looked as it does today, came when he compared longitude measurements from the 1820’s with those made in the first decade of the 20th century and found that, in a hundred years, Greenland had somehow moved a mile further away from Europe.More than 80% of Greenland is covered in glacier ice several miles thick, which has compressed the land underneath to 1,000 feet below sea level. If all that ice were to melt quickly (as it appears to be doing) then a map of the largest island in the world (which Greenland is) would have to be redrawn as a string of islands.Greenland represents the first great marketing scam in history. Norseman Erik the Red was such a violent maniac that in the year 983 he was banished from his native Iceland for three years. When he returned he told everyone about a wonderful place he had discovered over the western sea. He called his nirvana Greenland, because if he had called it “Popcicle Land" or “land frozen solid”, nobody would have followed him there.
In fact the southern and west coasts of Greenland are indeed green in their short summer, and supported enough sheep and goats to feed an outpost of Viking fur traders for 300 years. But by the time Christopher Columbus “discovered” North America, the climate had turned and the Norsemen and Norsewomen had been starved out.Looking at a map, Greenland is not as big as you think. On the average map it looms like a center piece on a banquet table, as large as Africa or South America. But in fact it is about the same size as Mexico But at least we know who to blame for this particular misconception, a Belgium cartographer named Gheert Cremer. In Flemish the family name means merchant, and that was why, when, as was the custom in the Middle Ages, Gheert chose a Latin name for his professional career, he chose the Latin word for merchant; Mercator.
In 1544 Gheert Mercator was arrested for heresy. Because he had traveled so much to gather information for his maps the local religious authorities had grown suspicious of him. They searched his home and confiscated his personal belongings. Despite leaving his wife and two children destitute, they kept Gheert locked up for seven months. Not only was he forced to pay for his own imprisonment, but he had to watch while several of those arrested with him were tortured for information implicating him. And when they failed to admit their sins (and his), they were burned at the stake or buried alive. Gheert was finally released in September of 1544, broke and still under suspicion. It took him six years of hard work, but in 1552, now recognized as the greatest cartographer in Europe, with his finances finally repaired, Gheert moved his family to Duisburg, in modern Germany, in a region controled by protestants. Now he had the freedom to not only earn a living, but risk his soul by doubting church dogma, if that was his choice.It was after his moved to Duisburg, in 1569, that Gheert discovered a way to transfer the great circle routes, which are the shortest travel distance between two points on the surface of a globe, to the shortest routes drawn between two points on flat sheet of paper, a straight line. The system he came up with, what is today called a Mercator Projection, compressed the distances between latitudes at the equator and lengthened those nearer the poles, allowing all the lines of longitude and latitude to cross at right angles even as the surface area they are demarking expanded and shrank. The result makes Greenland (836,000 sq. miles) appear to be the same size as the African continent (30 million sq. miles) and twice the size of China, which is actually about the same size as the United States.Using this projection a navigator does not have to account for the curvature of the earth, the map does it for him. That makes a Mercator Projection a true tool, like a ruler or a hammer. And that makes what the local Catholic Church officials did to Gheert in the name of defending the faith an actual betrayal of that faith. Because it denied Gheert the use of God’s greatest tool - his brain.
The draw back to the Mecator Projection is that it was too successful. It has become so pervasive that it has distorted our thinking about the real world, sort of like using a hammer to repair a leaking pipe. If you examine a Mercator map closely you will discover that the equator is actually not along the middle line. It’s lower. This makes the United States and Europe appear bigger than they actually are, which may make us Americans feel good but it makes the residents of India feel belittled, since Mercator maps show Scandinavia as big as India, when India (1,270,000 sq. miles) is three times the size of Norway, Sweden and Denmark combined.Perhaps it is best to remember the words of one map shop owner, who wrote on his blog, “I sell this map. I don't warn people when they buy it that, like any good newspaper, it contains a few lies".By the way, Gheert Cremer (Mercator) did something else for us. He dedicated his first collection of maps to the mythical African King of Mauretania, who, according to legend, built the first celestial globe to show the positions of the stars and thus balanced the whole world on his shoulders. Today we refer to all collections of maps by the name of that king; Atlas.
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