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Friday, February 01, 2013

CARPE DIEM

I begin by asking why is this day different than all others. That question in Jewish families, is the beginning of the Passover Seder. But if you have Celtic markers on your genomes, it is the beginning of Imm'ulk, the second quarter of the year. The first quarter is of course Sow'en – November through January – followed by Imm'ulk, then Bell'tan – May through July - and Loo'nassa – August through October. For some reason that is not the way they are currently spelled in English, but it is the way the Irish and Welsh pronounced them - approximately. As you might have noticed these is a pagan calendar, the way the ancient Celts marked time, and Imm'ulk was the season the ewes started to drip milk from their teats. And, no, that is not why one of them is called a 'Yeww”. .
Lactating sheep may seem like a rotten reason to have a holiday, unless you are heavily invested in lamb futures, or, they make up a large part of your children's protein intake. The word Imm'ulk in old Irish means “in the belly”, as in baby lambs. And that brings up the Celtic lady of fertility, Bree-id – again the phonetic spelling. The people of the pre-Christian British Isles, and particularly the center of the Bree-in cult around Kikdare, Ireland, felt the need to invoke a Goddess because the sheep drip seemed to begin about halfway between the Winter Solstice (December 22) and the Spring Equinox (March 21st), and a thousand years ago that seemed a magical and mystical event. Today we know its just a little nut of coincidence, the product of the Earth's 365 and ¼ day elliptical orbit around the sun and its 23 degree tilt. Change either of those numbers and you get a different coincidence.
In her yearbook – if she had one - Bree-id would have listed her interests as biology, poetry and heavy metal. Believe it or not, that made her a pacifist among the otherwise violent and argumentative Celtic gods, thus her association with fertility. When the Romans arrived they recorded her name as Brighid – which seems to be where the word “bride” came from - again fertility. The Christians faced a harder problem converting the Celts of Scotland, in part because they still had snakes. Their fertility spirit was Cailleach, a shape shifter, AKA a hag. An ancient Scottish proverb says, “The serpent will come from the hole, On the brown Day of Bride, Though there should be three feet of snow, On the flat surface of the ground.” The Scots would not scan a good poet until Robert Burns in the 18th century.
The Scots told their children that on the first day of Imm'ulk the hag would go out to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And since she also controlled the weather, if Caileach made the sun shine that day, it meant she was trying to gather lots of wood, which meant winter was going to last another month and a half or so. But if it was cloudy on the first day of Imm'ulk, then Caileach was planning on an early spring and she would not need sunlight for her search. In other words, if the old hag saw her shadow, it would be six more weeks of winter. And if that sounds familiar to you, its because that is the straight line, the set up to a joke retold year after year. Let me explain:
The Christians later co-opted the Irish goddess as Saint Brighid, spinning the story that she was the mother of St. Patrick, who drove the snakes out of Ireland. They just made that up of course, and later dropped her as a saint, but then they made up the part about the snakes and Patrick too. But because the Romans recruited both Irish and Scottish Celt's as soldiers and used them on the Rhine River frontier, the blended legends of Brigid and Caileach became embedded there. And because their German ancestors later became coal miners, and because the miners' ancestors later moved to America, drawn by jobs in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, where, for some reason, the Germans were called “Dutchmen”, that is how ewes dripping milk from their teats, and an ugly old Scottish woman scrounging for firewood, combined to produce a local German immigrant festival celebrating the largest rodent in North America – Ground Hog Day.
See, a ground hog is a rodent, but its not a rat. They are much closer to a squirrel in need of weight watchers. And, without the expressive tails. This 4 to 9 pound animal, is actually a marmot. There are marmots living among the rocks and mountains of South Africa, and the Middle East, and central Europe, and along the foothills of the Himalayas. The ones living in North America are actually some of the smallest marmots anywhere, in part because living on flat ground, they are surrounded by foxes, wolves, coyotes, bears and hawks and eagles – all of whom find groundhogs very tasty. On the treeless great plains, they evolved into prairie dogs. And back east, they became groundhogs – grass eaters all. Look at it this way; if God were a rodent, cows would look more like ground hogs.
This plump, furry, generally irritated little beast is known by a number of nom-de-rodents. They sequel when injured and whistle to warn their mates (Ground hogs and Whistle-pigs), and the native Americans called them “wuchak” (woodchucks). They hibernate over winter below the frost line, emerging from their extensive Chateau marmots only in the spring. And since they don't have calendars, they respond to changing temperatures. When their dens, warm up, they wake up and go looking for something green to eat. Any respite in winter like, say, around the end of January or early February, might draw some of the hungrier ground hogs out.  If it is an early spring, they get a jump on their fellows at early mating. If not, they become fuel, keeping hungry predators alive until real spring finally shows up - thus proving that individuality is an adaptation for the survival of the species, just not necessarily the species your in.
As far back as 1841 a local storekeeper named James Morris had noted in his diary, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd... The day on which , according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as weather is to be moderate.” Again, that's the set up. The guy who delivered the punch line we are seeking was a local funny boy, a bachelor with a quick wit and the good German name of Clymer H. Freas. Clymer had been raised by his older brother, and after graduating from a local collage, he got a job working at the Punxsutawney Spirit, the only newspaper the town of Punxsutawney has ever had.
For decades, Punxsutawney, halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers, had been a local center of the first great American pastime – guns, beer and shooting things. In this case the “things” were ground hogs, and the beer was referred to as “ground hog punch”. And after shooting the whistle pigs, the celebrants then barbecued and ate them. Surprisingly, spending a cold morning killing a large rodent did not catch on with the Pennsylvania womenfolk, but then I suspect they were not invited. But after the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad began regular service into town in 1883, lots of men from Pittsburgh began to journey the ninety miles to tramp through the woods around Punxsutawney, blasting away at the large non-aquatic beavers, while getting blasted themselves. The town, evidently, needed the attraction, since in the language of the Delaware Indians, its name means “Town of mosquitoes”.
Young Clymer evidently did not participate in these festivities, because in February of 1886, he first mentioned Ground hog Day in the “Spirit” by merely noting, “up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen his shadow." However, next year the 22 year old Clymer was invited to his first ground hog soiree at the “hunting lodge” up on Gobbler's Knob, about a mile southeast of town. He had so much fun that two years later he was one of the founding fathers of the Groundhog Club, elected Secretary and poet laureate.
As poet he waxed lyrical about the 1907 GHD; “Promptly at 12:22 O'Clock...a rift was riven in the overhanging clouds and B're Groundhog sallied forth, casting a shadow which shot through a shimmering sheen and sent a shaft of effervescent and effulgent rays...”. Clymer went into more depth describing the speeches given later at the barbecue as “eulogizing the flesh of the only Simon-pure vegetarian on this planet, and each, under the subtle influence of partaken woodchuck and assimilated punch, grew eloquent and combed the earth sea and sky with metaphor and simile, couched in the most beautiful phraseology.” That particular celebration continued past one in the morning. Not a bad punchline.
However the ladies and children must have complained, because in 1909, they held what Clymer described as a “Circumgyratory Pageant of the Astrologers, Horocopists, Magicians, Soothsayers and meteorological Attaches”, also known as a parade. It had floats representing the four seasons and because you would have be drunk to stand outside in the dead of winter, they held it in August, and called it “Old Home Week”. But because there was a lot less drinking, and no groundhogs to justify the thing, it did not catch on.
By now Clymer was editor of the paper, and the groundhog day celebrations and his joke had begun filling hotel rooms and restaurants. It was now a serious matter, and as editor Clymer was expected to be a civic booster. It was around now that the groundhog became the town's official symbol, and Clymer named him “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire.” They stopped shooting the rodents (officially), and concentrated on the ridicules legend. But they would have to continue without their poet. In the teens, Bachelor Clymer married Miss Moss Rose Wall. And after that, as a man with responsibilities, he decided to put his skills for hyperbole to a job with more financial remuneration than that offered to a newspaperman and poet laureate. He abandoned Puxsutawney and its mid-winter freezing rodent festival, and moved to balmy Florida where he switched to selling swampland around Tampa. He died there in 1942.
But his work was done. The punch line for the joke had been written down, the dirty words removed, the telling civilized so as to render the joke acceptable to women and children. It didn't happen overnight, of course. In 1920, the first year of prohibition, Phil supposedly threatened not to offer another prediction for 60 weeks, unless he was given a drink. He was not, but he went right on predicting. A mere 37% accuracy rate (not much better than sheer chance) has so far failed to kill the joke, but it  now barely elicits a chuckle, but that will not kill it either. Besides, how much chuckle would a woodchuck chuckle, if a woodchuck could chuckle a chuck? That doesn't seem to matter, either.
The little town never had more than 10,000 residents, and after the mines closed, today it has barely 6,000. Still it is held together by a rodent. In the gift shop down at 102 West Mahoning Street, they sell “Gobbler's Knob Hot Chocolate Mix”, which you can drink from your “Amazink Shadow Mug”, featuring a “Punxsy Phil” and his shadow, which disappears when hot water fills the mug You can also buy Punxsy Phil Mardi Gras beads, and "Punxsutawney Phil in a Can." (above). Pull the pop top and a little plush Phil pops out, holding one of two signs predicting 6 more weeks of winter or not. You even buy a bag of Ground Hog Poop - actually its malted milk balls, but the kids love it.
You can head south on Highway 36, turn right on Woodlawn Avenue for about a mile to the crest of the hill, to Gobblers Knob. If you go there any day of the year other than Groundhog day you will likely find it abandoned, a empty stage set. The star resides year round downtown, in Barlay Square, at the memorial library, in his newly labeled Phil's Den, complete with below ground level window viewing. Human beings traveling hundreds, perhaps thousands,  of miles just  to see a marmot sleep is the real joke. And that is funny. Everybody should do it at least once.
Do Ground hogs laugh, I wonder?
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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT


I want to tell you something about fame and fortune. They beat the heck out of obscurity and poverty. As proof I give you the life of the “fearless frogman”, Paul Boyton, the Victorian era’s Esther Williams and a newspaper editor’s dream. He lived on adrenaline and publicity. One commentator described him as having a  “…gift for gab, lust for life, and the pluck to take great calculated risks.” And his life reads like a comic book adventure hero.
During the American Civil War Paul joined the U.S. Navy. He was just 15. Then he formed a life saving service on the New Jersey coast, and pulled 71 swimmers back from the brink of death. Fifty years before the first swimmer made it, Paul paddled across the English Channel while floating in an inflatable rubber survival suit. He met Queen Victoria and floated down most of the rivers of Europe. The Italians labeled him “L’uomo pesce” – the fish man. The government of Chile charged him with espionage. He wrote two autobiographies. He was a star in P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus. His image was used to sell cigars, calendars, music and playing cards – so many items that a new word had to be invented to describe his popularity; “Boyton-mania”. For some thirty years the “Captain”, as his friends called him, was the most famous man in the world. And ultimately, like all the other great forces of nature, Paul Boyton came to Coney Island.
In 1895, when Paul Boyton stepped off the train from Chicago, his sly but unapologetic mustache was still brown. But at 48, he was getting too old to risk his life four times a day for ten cents a ticket. But Paul had arrived in Coney Island with a new idea, something he had developed at the Chicago Colombian Exposition, in 1893. It was to be called an “Amusement Park”.
It is human nature to be attracted to novelty. And after the Civil War, as the population of New York City approached 3 ½ million, the occupants began to look for a way to escape, at least for a few hours.
Steam powered rail lines spread out from the city, carrying the wealthy to summer mansions and genteel racing tracks on the Long Island sea shore.
Luxury hotels sprang up in Brighton and Manhattan Beaches to house their middle class pretenders. The imitative working masses followed, and were transported at 35 cents a head by excursion boats from the Manhattan docks or the newly electrified rail lines from Brooklyn, (or “Breukelen” in the original Dutch).
In the spring of 1884, James Lafferty spent $65,000 to build a hotel on the empty stretch of sand known as Coney Island, just across Surf Avenue from the boat pier and the railroad terminals. When finished, four months later, the wooden and tin inn stood seven stories tall and was constructed in the shape of an elephant.
To enter you climbed a stairwell in a rear leg to reach the reception desk in the abdomen. Visitors could get an elevated elephant’s eye-view of the ocean for a penny. For the price of a full night's stay, a guest could sleep in the Shoulder Room, the Throat Room, the Stomach Room, or any of the other 27 bedrooms. The unusual structure quickly became an icon on Coney Island, a landmark, and people traveled all the way from Manhattan to be able to say they had “gone to see the elephant”.
But financially the hotel was a disaster. Within a few years Lafferty was forced to sell his poisonous white pachyderm of a public house to a Philadelphia syndicate. And the new owners were willing to switch to a more iconic business model.
The Elephant Hotel was converted into a bordello. And “going to see the elephant” acquired an entirely new iconic meaning. Still, it was a long train ride when you could “see the beast” a lot closer to home and save the 35 cents. So by the time the Captain arrived, although the Elephant hotel was still open, it was on its last legs.
Paul Boyton was attracted by the 16 cheap acres directly behind the failing hotel (the above photo was taken from the Elephant's hinie). There Paul  erected the greatest innovation so far in entertainment history; a fence - with a ticket booth at one end. By selling general admission tickets to his “Sea Lion Park”, which opened on Thursday, July fourth, 1895, Boyton kept his customers captive so he could sell them food and drink all day long, pulling in around $1,000 a day during the 90 day long season. And curiosity about the elephant behind the fence kept the customers lined up at the ticket booth.
Several times a day Boyton himself would appear to demonstrate his rubber suit, and to feed four dozen hungry sea lions in the park’s central lagoon. The performance was described by the Lubin film studios, who were selling a 30 second Kinetoscope of the show to nickelodeon operators, as “a decided novelty”. Once the pinnipeds were sated, the “Shoot-the-Chutes” took over the lagoon.
Designed originally by Thomas Polk, for Boyton’s Chicago exhibition, it was a short but exciting ride. A flat bottomed boat was released at the top of a long ramp. Near the bottom, the ramp curved upward. This sent the boat and its passengers skipping across the lagoon. When the boat slowed, the on board operator would then pole the boat to the landing. The passengers would be unloaded, before a cable pulled the boat back to the top of the ramp for the next joy ride.
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXqeLGnP6wY
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In addition, inside the fence Boyton had the “Flip Flap Railroad”. This was a two seat two car roller coaster, and the first in the world to feature a complete 360 degree 25 foot tall loop. It was also the first to explore the physics of inverted amusements. Unfortunately the loop contained a minor design flaw. It was perfectly circular. And it turns out that this perfection delivered 12 g’s to the passenger’s necks, equal to the maximum endured by the astronauts during a space launch. The unprepared customers, sitting upright, suffered whiplash, blackouts, headaches, nausea, tunnel vision, and loss of balance for hours afterward, not the mention the joy of losing your lunch at thirty-five miles an hour while upside down. People paid just to watch the more adventuresome ride through the loop of the “Flip Flap”, but because of injuries the amusement did not last into the Park’s second season.
That year, to replace the nausea loop, Boyton added a mill ride and cages of live wolves. But at the end of that second season the park lost its landmark. On the Sunday night of September 27, 1896, the abandoned Elephant Hotel burned to the sand. Three years later, Boyton bought the property and replaced the elephant with a large ballroom. But he simply could not afford to add new rides year after year. And that was required to keep the curiosity level high enough to bring repeat customers behind the fence.
The breaking point for Paul arrived in 1902. That summer saw 70 days of cold rain out of a season just 92 days long. Business at Sea Lion Park that horrible summer has been described as "macabre". Over the winter Boyton was easily convinced to lease the park for 25 years to competitors, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy.
They renamed the 16 acres “Luna Park”, built palaces and lit the place with electric lights (still a novelty to most people, even in New York City). And then Paul Boyton had retired from the limelight.
But his idea was developed by others, and soon Coney Island became crowded with amusement parks, fence touching fence, each competing with its neighbors for the customer’s nickels and dimes. Albert Bigalow Paine described Coney Island as where “the cup of gaiety and diversion overflows.” Thousands still went to the beach to frolic in the surf for free. But the high roller coasters, the parachute rides, the Ferris wheels and the joyful screams of patrons were a constant temptation for those masses to spend the quarter and go to “see the elephant” behind the fence.
Having spent half his life on such a quest, Paul Boyton was no longer curious enough to look. He bought a small home in Brooklyn and died in relative obscurity in 1924. He was 77 years of age. By then his invention had been passed on to future generations, who continued to build fences around elephants. You, see in the entertainment industry, the profit is all in the fence.
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Sunday, January 27, 2013

PEACE - Two Porcupines Making Love


I believe the long argument about just what would have been the human cost of  an invasion of Japan in 1945 can be settled by knowing that the United States has not had to order a single new Purple Heart decoration to be manufactured for a wounded United States soldier, sailor or airman since 1945; the tolls from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have not emptied the stockpiles intended for presentation to causalities suffered during an invasion of Japan in 1945-46.
General Douglas MacArthur, eager for glory after having been chosen to lead the invasion of Japan, tried to convince President Truman that it would cost "only" 500,000 causalities. But Truman had his own estimate, produced by former President Herbert Hoover. Hoover, using his old skills as an economist, and backed up by an independent study group, estimated the real cost would be closer to a million American dead and wounded. The U.S. Navy, doing their own independent estimate came up with the same numbers. With the examples of the death toll from Okinawa and Iwo Jima as supporting evidence, Truman became a believer in Hoover’s numbers. (In my opinion, that deceptive reduction in causality estimates justified Dugout Dug’s immediate recall. Only his political clout with Republicans in Washington saved his command until after another bloodbath.)
So the horrific casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan, plus the threat posed by the Soviet Union, which had promised to enter the Pacific War against Japan by early August, were both factors encouraging Truman’s decision to get out of this war as quickly as possible. This was what was driving America's half hidden compromise to Japan over the emperor. And these were the same factors driving the Japanese decision to finally offer negotiations. It had taken four years of horrible bloodshed (and the loss of influence of some monumental egos, i.e. Tojo and MacArthur)  for Japanese and American politicians to come to the realization that they had some rather basic things in common.
Once the terms had been accepted the U.S. issued prompt instructions to the Japanese Government via through the Swiss.  “Send emissaries at once…fully empowered to make any arrangements directed by the Supreme Commander….” And, as a sop for MacArthur’s deflated ego over the glorious Armageddon he would not get to oversee on the beaches of Kyushu, “…General of the Army Douglas MacArthur has been designated as the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers…” The universe had finally recognized Doug as a supreme being, and that was all that he really wanted – public genuflection. His mother must have been very pleased.
Contact was quickly made with the Japanese government via radio. First, General MacArthur ordered the immediate cessation of hostilities against the allies. MacArthur's staff designated the radio frequencies to be used in all future communications by the Japanese (13705 and 15965 kilocycles).  Emissaries to negotiate the mechanics of the surrender should leave Sata Misaki, on the southern tip of Kyushu, “between the hours of 0800 and 1100 Tokyo time” on the morning of August 17th, in two Douglas DC-3 type transport planes, painted white with large green crosses on the wings and fuselage. In communications regarding this flight, the code designation "Bataan" will be employed.” (It was anticipated the Japanese would get the irony. They did not. But American voters certainly would.)  The Japanese replied that the Emperor had ordered the ceasefire for all Japanese forces to begin at 1600 hours on August 16, so the Americans did the same.
There were, of course, sparks of flame that refused to die. Sixteen suicide bombers attacked U.S. warships off Japan hours after the ceasefire had been ordered. All were shot down. I wonder if their commander even told the pilots of the ceasefire order? In fact, Tokyo shamefacedly informed MacArthur that members of the royal family were being dispatched to deliver the cease fire order in person to military units. That admission told the Americans volumes about the volatility of the situation in Japan.
In fact, this post cease fire incident also highlights how important it was that the two sides were now talking, even by radio, and could thus explain events that previously could only have been interpreted in the most antagonistic way. If they had simply started talking earlier, even while the fighting continued, thousands of lives might have been saved.
Finally, on August 19th, the Japanese were able to notify the Americans, “The planes carrying the party of representatives have left Kisarazu Airdrome (in Tokyo) on 0718”. Again, there was fear on the Japanese side that a die hard might attempt to disrupt this mission for peace, so the planes took off secretly, with sealed orders. Only after becoming airborne was the flight plan revealed to the crews. Following the American instructions as closely as possible, the two aircraft, one a Mitsubishi G4M1-L2 (Betty) transport aircraft, and the other a Mitsubishi G4M1 (Betty) bomber (complete with a few bullet holes). Both had been hastily modified for seating the 8 emissaries that flew in each plane. Each aircraft had been painted white with large green crosses on the wings and fuselage. They were known hereafter in Japanese history as the Green Cross Flights.
They reached Sata Misaki on the southern tip of Kyushu at about 11 A.M, local time. They then flew, as instructed, south on a course of 180 degrees to a point 36 miles North of le Shima Island, off the western coast of Okinawa, and began to circle at about 6,000 feet.
Almost immediately the two Green Cross aircraft were intercepted by twelve Lockheed P-38 twin tailed fighters, from the 49th fighter group, led by Majors Jack McClure and Wendal Decker. The two Bettys called out to the Americans in English on the prearranged frequency of 6970 kilohertz, repeating the password “Bataan”. Jack McClure responded, “We are Bataan’s watchdog. Follow us.” As the 14 aircraft continued on toward le Shima, the P-38’s began doing acrobatics to thumb their noses at the defeated enemy.
 On the way they were joined by two 2 B-25’s from the 345th bombardment group. The Americans were not going to let any die hard kamikazes or hot headed Americans, interfere with this operation. Jack McClure landed first at Birch Airstrip on la Shima, followed by the two Betty’s.
The first Betty landed safely, but the second made a rough landing on the crushed corral strip and ran off the end of the runway by several feet, damaging the plane's landing gear. Still the strange white machines with large green crosses were down safe, and immediately surrounded by armed guards.
On this tiny island, not much bigger than the airstrip that occupied it, men from both sides of the Pacific, who had spent three long years bathed in violence and fear, trained to despise and fear each other, would for the first time since Pearl Harbor physically touch each other in peace. One witness remembered how odd it was that the first Japanese out of the Bettys wore shorts.
Formalities were quickly performed, and 20 minutes later the 8 commissioners were guided up a ladder into a big four engine C-54 transport plane, a luxurious accommodation compared to the war worn Japanese Betty’s.
 The C-54 climbed off the coral and headed for Manila while the Betty’s crew members were guided to a holding area.
On the flight to Manila the Japanese delegation was served box lunches with pineapple juice and coffee with sugar. It was a lunch America front line soldiers never saw, but it was common travel meal for senior American officers, and it had the intended effect upon the emissaries. They were impressed with the American determination to transfer their lifestyles even into a war zone. And like the Japanese visitors to my fourth grade class some fifteen years later, the emissaries offered to tip the American crew. They were politely refused.
After arriving in Manila, the delegation was driven through the streets of a still devastated city, to the Rosario Manor hotel, where General MacArthur waited. The Japanese were provided with a Turkey dinner; again an unexpected treat. Meat had been unavailable in Japan for over a year. And, wonder of wonders, the Japanese were each given a can of hard candies.What followed was a further surprise.
Taken next to the Manila city hall, the Japanese found that all the Americans were interested in was solving problems. Where were minefields in Tokyo Bay? Could they be quickly cleared? Could the American Navy help? Where were the American POW camps in Japan? Could we drop supplies to them? And where and when could the occupation troops arrive? There were problems, but most were quickly rectified by practical compromises. Nineteen hours later the emissaries left Manila, each with another can of hard candies. It had all be easier than they had worried. The Americans were firm but not gloating. And the emissaries returned with the message that, by and large, a defeated Japan was going to be treated fairly by the Americans. And the war was going to end as quickly as possible, because of it.
But it was after they returned to le Shima, that their mission of peace was almost derailed, right at the very edge of success.
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