AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

BATTLE OF THE NATIVITY

I am tempted to call it a primeval struggle, drenched in antiquity, shrouded in religious fervor and destined to feed future conflict until come judgment day, whenever the heck that may  be. Except it just ain’t so. It is much simpler than that. The day after Christmas 2007, two rival gangs got into a turf dispute and started a  rumble. Somebody called the cops, who managed to separate the combatants, The Jets (AKA the Greek Orthodox Priests), and the Sharks (AKA the Armenian Apostolic Priests) were battling inside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birth place of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem, Israel, Palestinian Territories. And nothing about this melee made any more sense than your standard gang brawl. And yet I blame the French Emperor Napoleon III for the entire mess.
First, a word about all that antiquity – it does not appear to have happened where or when everybody now thinks it did - assuming it happened at all. Roman census or no census, there was no reason for a pregnant Mary to be making a 90 mile donkey ride from Nazareth, on the Galilee plain of northern Israel, to Bethlehem in the mountains just south of Jerusalem, in the west center of Israel. Being the man, Joseph was expected and qualified to speak for his entire family. He would have been the only one required to travel. But why require anybody to travel? The Romans census takers did what census takers still do today - they counted people where they were. That would be where their property was, and where their money was. Why disrupt business all across a rebellious province, in the name of counting people where they were not? It makes no sense.
And there is another problem, an archaeological problem. There is no archeology in Bethlehem from that period. The ground under today's Bethlehem contains Iron Age artifacts and Byzantine artifacts, but nothing in between, nothing from the age of Jesus. The village outside of Jerusalem did not exist on the night that Jesus was born.. However, there was another Bethlehem, “Bethlehem Ha Galilit”, Bethlehem of Galilee, just about 7 miles to the west of Nazareth. It seems far more likely that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem Ha Galilit, than in Bethlehem Judea. But because Bethlehem Ha Galilit no longer existed in the fourth century of the common era, when the Byzantine Christians came looking for Jesus' birthplace, they jumped to the wrong conclusion and picked the wrong Bethlehem. So did the followers of Islam, when they first captured the region in year 627 B.C.E.- which is when things got really complicated.
Well, after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1187 the Muslim rulers did not trust the Roman Catholics, who had invaded them and now made up a majority of Bethlehem Judea’s population. So they split control of the profitable tourist sites in Bethlehem Judea between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, in particular the church built upon the “traditional” site of the birth of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox were given control of one part of the building, the Armenian Orthodox control of another part. This allowed the Ottomans to play the two Christian sects one against the other, and to play them both off the Roman Catholics, who were now the poor relations in town.
And thus some calm was achieved in a region not famous for calm, at least until 1852, when a “firman” (or edict) was issued by Abdulmecit I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the Muslim World (above). Abdulmecit issued his edict because…well, because first, in 1847 some thug stole the silver star which marked the “traditional” spot of Jesus’ birth, in the floor of the Church of the Nativity, and, more importantly, because the Sultan was weak and because Louis Napoleon III of France was a pompous political hack, who believed that he had been chosen by God to fix, first France, and then rest of the world.
Louis Napoleon III was elected to a ten year term as the first President of the Second Republic of France in December of 1848. He immediately started plotting to follow in his uncle’s imperial boot prints. By early in 1852 Louis had helped to restore the Vatican’s independence in Rome (which pleased French Catholic voters), but he had also insisted that the new Papal government be drawn up along “liberal” lines, to placate the liberal (meaning non-Catholic) French voters. But no Church ever likes to be lectured about liberal policies from secular politicians. Just try it some time and see.
In an attempt to placate the now angry Catholic voters, Louis III suggested that the theft of the star from the Church of the Nativity (five years earlier) proved that the Church of the Nativity was no longer “safe”, and control should be handed over to the Roman Catholic Church for protection - yet another politician declaring a crises which needed his genius to solve. This particular crises pleased Pope Pius IX., who had come to the conclusion that Czar Nicholas I of Russia was intent upon wiping out Catholicism in his country - which Nicholas was, the Czar being the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Louis' demand also pleased Abdulmecit I, because Albdulmecit had the distinct feeling that Czar Nicholas was about to invade Turkey - which he was. So,  under Abdulmecit's edict, the keys to the Church of the Nativity were now handed over the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time the edict also required the Vatican to maintain the church “in statu quo res errant”, or, “as it was before”. This edict is linguistically important because it popularization the English phrase “status quo”.
Now, all of his life Russian Czar Nicholas I had been told that Russia was a military superpower and protector of the true faith, that faith being Russian Orthodoxy. And Nicholas was not about to allow a mere “politician”, least of all a trumped up “Bonaparte”, to usurp his regal and holy authority. Nicholas demanded the keys to the Church of the Nativity be returned to the Armenian and Greek priests, who would, he was certain, be controlled by him. And when the keys were not handed over,  he declared war on Turkey - of course, he had been planning on doing that anyway.  Britain and France then came to Turkey’s defense. And so Louis’ gambit to impress French voters led directly to the Crimean War, and 118,000 dead; of whom 20, 000 were French, and 73,000 were Russian.
In his rise to power Napoleon III (above) had shamelessly played one political faction off another, and eventually abolished democracy in his own state, created a throne for himself, invaded Algeria and Vietnam - both of which actions came back to haunt France a century later - and was finally goaded into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War,  which resulted in his humiliating defeat, the creation of Germany,  Louis’ own overthrow and his death. This guy was the George Bush of 19th century French diplomacy.
The Crimean War also cost Nicholas I his life. While on campaign against Turkey he caught a chill and died of pneumonia on March 2,1855. The Ottoman Sultan, Abdülmecit, lived long enough to see his nation plunged into debt by that same war.  By Abdulmecit's death from tuberculosis in 1861, Turkey was flat broke. His successor was dethroned.
Amazingly, the same war left Pope Pius IX alive but very frustrated. Because France had been distracted by the Crimean War, there was no help from France when Victor Emmanuel took control of Italy in 1860 from the Catholic Church and established the modern semi-secular nation of Italy.  But Pius achieved a measure of revenge when, in 1869 he issued the decree of Papal Infallibility and declared the dogma of Immaculate Conception. Together these meant that Mary, mother of Jesus, was born without sin because the Pope said she was without sin. And the Pope was never wrong, because he said he was never wrong. Neither of these were official Roman Catholic dogma until 1869, but it has been church dogma ever since. The last American President to declare this was Richard Nixon, and he got impeached anyway - so evidently it only works for religious leaders.
But, let us finally return to the Church of the Nativity on December 27, 2007. According to the Associated Press; “....dozens of priests and cleaners came to the fortress-like church to scrub and sweep the floors, walls and rafters ahead of the Armenian and Orthodox Christmas, celebrated in the first week of January...  But the clean-up turned ugly after some of the {Greek) Orthodox faithful stepped inside the Armenian church's section, touching off a scuffle between about 50 Greek Orthodox and 30 Armenians. Palestinian police, armed with batons and shields, quickly formed a human cordon to separate the two sides so the cleaning could continue...Four people, some with blood running from their faces, were slightly injured.”
Traditionally both the Orthodox and Armenian churches have recruited their priests for this sacred post from tiny isolated villages scattered across Greece and the Balkans, where Christians (and Muslims) have been slaughtering each other for a thousand years. These naive young men now suddenly found themselves working in intimate contact and sharing the most precious artifacts of their faith with heretics. Nothing in their lives or their training prepared them for any kind of peaceful coexistence.
And the whole thing was Louis Napoleon III’s ideat.  But try explaining that to a bunch of uneducated foreigners.
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Sunday, December 18, 2011

AIR HEADS Part Seven Downdraft

I am impressed with the level of cupidity amongst the participants in this amazing air race. (It means they were avaricious.) Certainly the pilots, Bob Fowler and Cal Rodgers, were risking their lives day after day and deserved some reward for that risk. And now that the prize which had inspired it all had been withdrawn, they had to work for it. At Dallas, where Cal stopped on the night of the 17th of October, and at Fort Worth, where Cal put in two days of flights before 75,000 at the state fair, he sold photo’s and autographs, as Bob Fowler did at his stops - just as musicians do today at personal appearances. And there were always the “Vin Fiz” coupons Cal was still dropping over unsuspecting soda drinkers in cities where he did not land. The Waco Texas Young Men’s Business League offered Cal an impressive fee, so on October 20th he took a long detour south and did several loops (below) around the cities’ sky single sky scrapper.
Even Mable Rodgers had gotten into the act. Dear, sweet, shy, retiring and innocent Mable Rodgers had tried to convince the United States Post Office that the historical nature of the race warranted creating her a special “Post Mistress”, so that she could stamp “Postmarked Vin Fiz Special” on cards and letters bought from her while en route -  for a small fee, of course. But when that money making idea failed to inspire Congress to act, and after W.R. Hearst had abandoned the race (and her husband) in Missouri, Mable sent Cal’s brother Robert out ahead to Kansas City to order unofficial oversized “Vin Fiz Flyer” and “Rodgers Aerial Post” stamps, to be sold at a quarter apiece once the Flyer had crossed into Texas.
Buyers would still have to affix official U.S. postage stamps to have anything delivered, and the stamps had been ordered with no glue backing, but Mable was at least trying squeeze every penny out of the insanity she was caught up in. It’s difficult to know if enough stamps were actually sold to cover the cost of printing them, but we do know that only thirteen “Vin Fiz” stamps still survive, eight on postcards, one on a letter and four “off cover”, meaning individually. One of the “off cover” stamps sold in 2006, when the world was still drunk, for $70,000. That amount could have financed the entire flight back in 1911. I guess Mable had the right idea, just bad timing. And I’m certain that Cal's mother, Maria (ne Rodgers) Sweitzer, was certain to reminded poor Mable of her financial gaff, at every opportunity.
Tension was also building in the hothouse of the 66 foot long by 8 ½ foot wide pressure cooker of the “Vin Fiz Special” Pullman sleeping car, with wife and mother-in-law cooped up for endless days together on the endless stretches of track between the way stations of civilization across the American West. The air must have been thick with slights (real and imagined), invective (real and imagined), criticism and denunciations (real and perceived). The two ladies endured each other for Cal’s sake from New York to Chicago. Then mother Maria found an excuse to leave the train. But at Kansas City she rejoined the caravan, only to disembark yet again at San Antonio.  The lady was up to something.
Perhaps the expense of printing up the stamps that would not stick came up once too often in the conversations. But whatever the cause, when Maria rejoined the train outside of El Paso, Texas she brought reinforcements – 22 year old Lucy Belvedere, a reputed heiress, and at least in Maria’s mind, an improvement over Mable. I'll bet that dear Lucy could swim. It would appear that Cal was somewhat distracted by the drama building in the Pullman car. In what can only be seen as an sign of that increasing drama , as he approached El Paso, Cal had a near-miss in mid-air with an eagle, or maybe it was a vulture. In any case, on the 24th of October, at Spofford, Texas, Cal’s attention slipped enough to allow his right propeller to strike the ground, sending him into a ground loop that broke the wing and “splintered” both props (above). Through yet another Herculean effort Chief mechanic Charlie Taylor and his first assistant, Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggin, were able to get Cal back into the air the next morning.
Then, just before noon on Friday, October 29th, the object of this maternal verses matrimonial completion, landed at the corner of Duval and 45th street in Austin, Texas (above). Three thousand came out to cheer the hero. And Mable was quoted by a local reporter as saying, “Sometimes I suspect that Calbraith thinks showing affection to a woman would be unfaithful to his machine.” Yes, that was Mable’s concern right then, trapped aboard the sleeping car with her mother-in-law and a woman her mother-in-law clearly saw as her replacement. I wonder if Mable noted ironically to herself that one of the things still holding Cal in the air was her corset, strapped into an upper wing as repair.
In Deming, New Mexico (above), on Halloween, Cal’s ignition system went on the fritz. Can it be any wonder? Still he persevered. He refueled at Wilcox, Arizona on November 1st, and took the short hop from there to Tucson, where he paused just long enough to travel the six blocks by car to the ball park where Bob Fowler’s "Cole Flyer" had landed. They shook hands, but Cal was so rushed the photographers had no time to snap a picture. Being in the air, seated directly in front of a pounding engine hour after hour, must have been the only peace the boy had. But help was at hand. This time Mable would finally showed a nerve equal to her Cal’s. This time she wasn’t waiting to be rescued.
After the refueling stop at Wilcox, Arizona, Lucy Belvedere, mother Rodger's guest,  discovered that her entire trousseau was missing from her compartment. As Mother Maria and Lucy digested this horrifying disaster, and pondered who could have absconded with her frillies and lace, shy little Mable quietly informed them that the luggage was not really missing. It was perfectly safe, she said, aboard the baggage car of the east bound train they had just passed back in Wilcox. The trousseau had been placed there by "Wiggie" on shy little Mables' instructions. It was a display of verve and determination that mother Maria had not expected out of her husband's wife. And while Cal struggled for fame and fortune above the unforgiving desert of Arizona, Lucy gathered her few remaining belongings and retreated from the “Vin Fiz Special” via the next east bound passenger train, chasing her corsets and her frillies back into Texas, and out of the pages of history.  It seems that at some point in this desert crossing, little Mable had taught herself how to swim.
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