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Friday, May 28, 2010

GRACE UNDER FIRE

I draw your attention to one rather peaceful morning.  A lone sailing vessel tacks gracefully across an empty silver grey horizen. It could be anytime in history after 1430, and it could be a vision on any sea. Violence must have seemed a million miles away from that sleek wooden hull. But it was Saturday, November 4, 1944, and war was about to intrude upon grace.
The vessel was a now anominous member of the "Coarsair Fleet" – private sailing yahts which partoled the outer approaches to American ports on both coasts. This particular ship was criss-crossing the Pacific, 66 miles outside of San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles. The owner, too old for military service, was her acting captain. But she was crewed by uniformed members of the United States Coast Guard. Being wooden and small, these vessels were often missed by the radar of the day. While under sail, they were invsible to submarrines listening for the grinding of porpellers from patrol craft. And then a crewman’s shout pierced the morning serentity.
Rolling with the swell was a large section of white cloth. The captain reefed his sails and hove to. As the sailors pulled the cloth onboard they became aware that suspended beneath the fabric was a large metel ring resembaling a bicycle wheel, upon which was mounted electronic equipment, all marked in Japanese.
Three months before members of the Yamaguchi Girl’s High School received a visit from a Major from the Kokura military arsenal. He informed the girls they were now members of the Student Special Attack Force, and would be working on a secret weapon which would fly directly to America and would have a great impact upon the war. The girls were thrilled at being asked to participate directly in the war effort, especially considering the traditional subservient and hidden role of Japanese women.
One of the girls, 15 year old Tanaka Tetsuko, explained later. “Stands were placed all over the schoolyard and drying boards were erected on them.... We covered the board with a thin layer of paste...and then laid down two sheets of Japanese paper and brushed out any bubbles. When dry, a thicker layer of paste, with a slightly bluish hue…. was evenly applied to it. That process was repeated five times".
 "We really believed we were doing secret work, so I didn’t talk about this even at home. But my clothes were covered with paste, so my family must have been able to figure out something. We didn't have any newspapers, no radio. We didn't even hear the news announcements made by Imperial General Headquarters. We just pasted paper”
Over the next few months some 300 balloons fell to earth off Hawaii and in Alaska, Oregon, Washington State, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas, as well as British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
 The balloons were all 33 feet in diamater and made of mulberry paper, glued together with potato flour and then inflated with hydrogen. Each balloon was programed during its three to five day flight across the north Pacific to control its height by dropping 2 lb. bags of sand ballast each evening.
Once they had flown long enough to be over North America they would then drop their cargo of 33-lb fragmentation and incindiary bombs The production markings made in grease pen by the Japanese workers revealed the balloons had been made only a few weeks before being launched, and even recorded the hours required to make them.
There was inital panic amongst officals because of the real fear was that these balloons might carry a biological attack. American intelligence sources had already heard rumors of the Japanese Unit Number 731, which was experimenting with plagues on prisoners of War in Machuria. Some 200,000 of these unwilling test subjects, mostly Chinese, would die. American authorities clamped a total press blackout on any information concerning the balloons, to prevent the Japanese from learning of their effectiveness. Meanwhile, a search was begun to find their launching point. The Military Geology Unit within the U.S. Geological Survey, provided the answer.
Geologists examined the sand in the ballast bags under a microscope. They found several species of extinct single-celled plants, described by prewar Japanese marine biologists. In addition the sand contained enough trace minerals to narrow their source to one of  two beaches, one of which was at Ichinomiya, Japan. In February of 1945, surveillance flights identified two plants near Ichinomiya which manufactured hydrogen. In April, American B-29 bombers burned over half of Ichinomiya to the ground, and destroyed both of those plants. There was a third plant, left undamaged because it was undiscovered, But without any information on the effectiveness of the 9,000 balloons released so far, the Japanese military decided to cut off funding for any future balloons.
On the morning of Saturday, May 5, 1945, 27 year old Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie, who was five months pregnant, were accompaning children from their church on a fishing outing to Leanord Creek, at the foot of Gearhart Mountin, five miles outside of Bly, Oreagon. The  children's parents were all working overtime to produce lumber and food for the war effort, and the couple was trying fill in for the parents and restore a small piece of a normal childhood lost to the war. Archie dropped his wife and the children off at a bend in the road and drove a mile ahead, to the river bank. He unloaded the fishing gear, and had just returned to the car to unlaod the picnic supplies, when he heard Elsie and the children approaching. He heard Elsie call out that one of the children had found a weather balloon.
Archie just had time to shout a warning when an explosion ripped through the forest. By the time Archie had reached the scene, his wife and unborn child and all five of the other children were dead.
Sherman Shoemaker, age 11, Jay Gifford, age 13, Edward Engen, age 13, Joan Patzke, age 13, and Dick Patzke, age 14; these were the only American civilian casualties during the Second World War, giving the Japanese balloon bombs a kill rate of just 0.067%.
The last of the Japanese balloon bombs was discovered in Alaska in 1955. It’s bombs were still lethal. The remains of another balloon bomb was discovered in 1978 near Agness, Oregon. It can be seen in the Coos County Historical Museum.
But it was not until the 1986 that now 55 year old Tanaka Tetsuko learned what one of the bombs she had helped to construct, had achieved. She and two of her classmates carefully folded 1,000 paper storks, and in 1987 arrainged for them to be delivered to the community of Bly, with her heartfelt apology.
It must be assumed that of the 9,000 “Fu-Go” ballon bombs launched from Japan, roughly 10% reached North America. Even 65 years later, less than 300 have been found. In all probability the bombs from some of the missing 200 of so balloons are still out there, hidden in the underbrush, tangled in tree branches and still capable of killing people, even those who think the Second World War is over and ancient history.
Wars are not fought merely by armies. And their violence does not cease merely because a peace treaty is signed.
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A FOOL AND HIS MONEY

I will now relate the tale of a genius and a fool, a man who inspired a hatred of curious dementions. Two days after he died, on October 22, 1806, the Newburyport Herald carried his lengthy obituary, under the headline, “Departed this life, on Wednesday evening last, Mr. Timothy Dexter, in the 60th year of his age — self-styled "Lord Dexter, first in the East."
Continued the obituary; "Born and bred in a low condition in life, and his intellectual endowments not being of the most exalted stamp, it is no wonder that a splendid fortune, which he acquired by dint of speculation….(though perhaps honestly), should have rendered him, in many respects, truly ridiculous….His ruling passion appeared to be popularity, and one would suppose he rather chose to render his name "infamously famous (rather) than not famous at all." His writings stand as a monument of the truth of this remark; for those who have read (him)…find it difficult to determine whether most to laugh at the consummate folly, or despise the vulgarity and profanity of the writer. His manner of life was equally extravagant and singular.”
Timothy Dexter never attended school. He had been set to farm work at the age of eight, and at 16 he became an apprentice leatherworker. In 1769, at the age of 29, Timothy Dexter opened his own glove making shop in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A year later Timothy married the widow Elizabeth Frothingham; “…an industrious and frugal woman” who was nine years his senior.
Besides having already given birth to four children, Elizabeth ran a “Hucksters shop”, where she sold second hand items and local produce. After the wedding Timothy moved into her house at the corner of Merrimack and Green streets and opened his own shop in the basement; “…at the sign of the Glove, opposite Somerby's Landing.” There were some in Newburyport who disapproved of the uneducated Timothy Dexter, who were offended by his ambition and ignorance. They noted he drank too much, and spoke clumsily. They scoffed at his luck and were impatient for his fall. They had a long wait.
During the Revolution, Timothy supported the patriot cause. But wartime inflation threatened the life Timothy had built. In July of 1777 a bushel of wheat cost eight Continental dollars. Just a year later it cost almost thirteen. Over the same year a pound of coffee rose from 48 Continentals to 120. It was no wonder then that many holding the shrinking Continentals sold them to speculators at a fraction of their face value, for quick gold, silver Francs or Spanish dollars, or even British pounds. But urged on by the savvy Elizabeth, Timothy gambled on the Continentals. He bought thousands of dollars worth of them, for hundreds. And to the surprise of many, in the “dinner table compromise” of 1790, Congress decided to buy all the outstanding Continentals at face value. It secured the credit of the new nation, and overnight Timothy was made a wealthy man. In fact, at the age of 49, Timothy Dexter was rich enough to retire.
With his new fortune Timothy invested in civic minded projects, like the 1792 Essex Bridge across the Merrimack River. Timothy bought ten shares toward its construction, and was given a prominent place in the opening ceremonies on July 4th. Afterward, he dared to make a public toast; “Ladies and Gentlemen, this day, the 18th year of our glorious independence commences...Permit me, then, my wife and jolly souls, to congratulate you on this joyful occasion. Let our deportment be suitable for the joyful purpose for which we are assembled --- Let good nature, breeding, concord, benevolence, piety, understanding, wit, humor, Punch and wine grace, bless, adorn and crown us henceforth and forever. Amen” Of course, Timothy’s remarks were delivered in fluent French!
It was a harmless speech, made, he supposed, amongst friends, and Timothy sent a copy of it (translated into English) to the local newspaper. He explained the readers should not be surprised he could speak French because “…Frenchmen express themselves very much by gestures…”. But there were those present who were not Timothy’s friends, who insisted he had made a drunken, rambling and barley coherent speech (in English), and that more educated supporters had improved the English before committing it to ink. Wrote one critic; “He has been regarded as the most marked example of a man of feeble intellect gaining wealth purely by luck.”  It almost feels as if certain members of good standing in the local community were determined that Timothy would be a fool - and were offended whenever he proved not to be.
Then in 1795, when Timothy offered to construct (at his own expense) a public market house for Newburyport. But envious men, and lessor sorts who admired them, voted to reject his offer - with thanks, of course. Stung by the insult Timothy decided to leave town.
He sold the new house on State Street (now part of the public library) and moved to Chester, New Hampshire. His home in Chester (above) still stands and is now "The Dalton Club". But Timothy lived in Chester for only two years. And when he returned to Newburyport in 1798 he was a changed man. Any hesitation for what others thought of him had evaporated. In fact Timothy seemed determined he must remind those who despised him, just why they hated him.
Timothy built himself a most unusual new house on High Street, in Newburyport. “He put minarets on the roof…(and) in front placed rows of columns fifteen feet high…each having on its top a statue of some distinguished man….and occupying the most prominent position were the statues of Washington, Adams and Jefferson, and to the other statues he gave the names of Bonaparte, Nelson, Franklin…often changing (their names) according to his fancy.
In a conspicuous place was a statue of him self, with the inscription, "I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world." All the statues were gaudily painted, and…attracted crowds, whose curiosity deeply gratified the owner, and he freely opened his grounds to them.”
According to John James Currier, in his “History of Newburyport”, Timothy “…would transact no business when intoxicated, and made his appointments for the forenoon, saying he was always drunk in the afternoon.” Timothy took to calling himself “Lord Timothy Dexter”, and had a coat of arms painted on the door of his carriage as if he were nobility. Of course, there were some who missed the joke, and were unaware that  Elizabeth’s maiden name had been “Lord”.  Timothy claimed to have given Elizabeth $2,000 to leave him, and “hired” her back at the same sum two weeks later. He told other visitors that Elizabeth had died and that the "drunken, nagging woman" wandering about the property was her ghost. And then Timothy decided to write a book. He called it “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress”.
The first edition had 8,847 words, no punctuation and was filled with misspellings, but whether that was Timothy's intent or his failure or the printers, is not clear. In any case, that first edition quickly sold out. When the second edition was printed, Timothy added a page of random punctuation marks, explaining, “…I put in a nuf here and (the reader) may pepper and salt it as they please”. 
In his book Timothy claimed to have sold coals to Newcastle (at a profit), warming pans and mittens in the West Indies (at a profit), bibles to the East Indies and stray cats to Caribbean (both also at a profit). None of it was true of course, but anyone with a sense of humor got the joke. Many of his neighbors did not. That year, when a visitor finished a prayer at a meal, Timothy turned to his son and exclaimed, “That was a d----d good prayer, wasn’t it, Sam.”
In 1805 Mr, James Akin did an engraving of Timothy as he was often seen about Newburyport, with tricorner hat and walking cane, and followed by his little dog. It is the only image we have of the man, in his old age.
Timothy Dexter died on October 26, 1806 at the age of sixty. He left an estate valued at about $36,000. (worth about half a million today.) Elizabeth followed him in 1809, aged 72. Said Timothy’s biographer, Samuel Knapp, " Many who attempted to take advantage of him got sadly deceived. He had no small share of cunning, when all else seemed to have departed from him…In buying he gave the most foolish reasons to blind the seller, who thought that he was deceived, when deceiving.”
The website devoted to honoring Timothy points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice on living; “Be silly. Be honest. Be kind. For indeed, these were three simple dictates which guided Lord Timothy Dexter.”
And I hasten to note that while the name of Lord Timothy Dexter remains a joke in some corners of the globe, nobody remembers the names of any of the prudish, humorless, ambitious frauds who were offeneded by him. 
 
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