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Saturday, February 02, 2019

CARPE DIEM, CARPE THE DAMN RODENT

I begin by asking why is this day different than all other days. 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.  As you might have noticed this is a pagan calendar, the way the ancient Celts marked time, and Imm'ulk was the season the female sheep start to drip milk from their teats. And, no, that is not why a female sheep is called a 'Yew”.
Lactating sheep may seem like a rotten reason to have a holiday, unless you are heavily invested in lamb futures, or, if sheep or goat milk makes 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, or goat kids. And that brings up the Celtic lady of fertility, Bree-id.  The people of the pre-Christian British Isles, and particularly the center of the Bree-id cult around Kikdare, Ireland, felt the need to invoke a Goddess because the sheep milk drip seemed to always begin about halfway between the Winter Solstice (22 December) and the Spring Equinox (21 March) every year with out fail.  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 angle of tilt and a hundred million years of precedent. Change any of those numbers and you get a different coincidence, and different holidays.
On her facebook page - 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 and motherhood. When the Romans arrived they recorded her name as Brighid – which seems to be where the word “bride” comes 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 extra 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. Allow me to 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 also made up the part about the snakes and Saint 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 in Germany. And because their German descendents later became coal miners, and because the German miners' descendents  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 Irish 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 brief respite in winter like, say, around the end of January or early February, might draw some of the hungrier ground hogs out to look for take out.  If it is an early spring, they get a jump on their fellows at early mating. If not, if its a normal or late spring, 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 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania 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, Puixsutawney actually means “Town of mosquitoes”.
Young Clymer evidently did not at first 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. Clymer 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, the parade never caught on and was soon dropped.
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 this 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 can 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. (For the humans. The rodent of unusual size finds humans rather unentertaining.  Human beings travel thousands of miles just  to see a marmot sleep -that is the real joke. And that is funny. Everybody should laugh at themselves for doing it at least once.
Do Ground hogs laugh, I wonder?  I doubt it. Otherwise, they would be getting a much larger share of this largess, than they are.  Just remember. They are cute. But they bite. They always bite. And they have never been noted for their intelligence.
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Friday, February 01, 2019

KIDNAPPING GEORGE WASHINGTON


I am thankful that William Tyron, the Royal Governor of New York, was a little too sure of himself. Although American  “patriots” had chased Tyron out of town, he was still lurking, like a spider, a few hundred yards off shore, spinning his loyalist webs aboard the 74 gun “HMS Dutchess of Gordon”. Each day the sailors and royal marines from the "Dutchess" and the two other Royal Navy ships in the harbor, would row to shore for fresh water, to buy food, to even have their shoes repaired and to exchange communications with the loyalist mayor, David Mathews and his many agents. Perhaps, too many agents.
New York City in 1776 was a crowded town of 25,000 at the very southern tip of Manhattan. Tyron’s web of spies was strung between the city’s many taverns; “The Highlander” at Beaver Street and Broadway, “The Sergeant At Arms” run by conspirator Alexander Sinclair, and most significantly “The Corbie”, near Spring and Wooster Streets, which was just a few yards southwest of General Washington’s isolated headquarters on Richmond Hill. At his own establishment on Broadway - “The Sign of the Sportsman” - gunsmith Gilbert Forbes, “a short thick man”, waited patiently to buy ale for weary Continental soldiers and listen to their complaints. And in exchange for five gold guineas, he swore them in as members of the Governor’s conspiracy. It was Forbes who first swore in eighteen year old Sergeant Thomas Hickey, a member of General Washington’s personal guards.The 180 officers and men of the Life Guards were as formed on March 11, 1776 out of the regiments laying siege to Boston, as a personal guard for General Washington and his baggage. Washington’s orders called for “…good men, such as they can be recommended for their sobriety, honesty and good behavior " They were also handsome and "well made”We know that Sergeant Hickey was a “black Irishman” who must have been very handsome because he was neither sober nor honest. He had deserted from the British Army, and had for some years lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut. And we know he was a man who wanted money. Hickey claimed he got involved with the conspiracy only “…for the sake of cheating the Tories and getting some money from them”. We also know that Forbes put Hickey on an allowance of 15 shillings a week. We know that Hickey brought with him into the conspiracy four other members of the Life Guards, and that he was paid a bounty for bringing them each into the conspiracy. And we know that on June 15th Hickey and Private Lynch were both arrested for passing counterfeit continental dollars.To finance the revolution two million Continental Dollars were printed on thick rag paper by Hall and Sellers of Philadelphia. And immediately counterfeiters began copying the sad little notes. An advertisement in the journal “Rvington’s Gazette” openly promised, “Persons going into other colonies may be supplied with any number of counterfeit Congress notes ….They are so neatly and exactly executed…it being almost impossible to discover that they are not genuine”. Once locked in the crowded three-story city jail, Hickey was warmly greeted by his fellow inmates.One of those inmates was a professional counterfeiter, Isaac Ketcham, and he appealed to the patriot colonial council to release him in the name of his “six poor children”. And in case that did not work he added he had “…something to observe…entirely on another subject.” In private Ketcham told the council that he had heard Hickey’s drunken boasts (liquor seems to have been in ample supply in the jail) that “…there were near seven hundred soldiers and civilians enlisted for the King" . Ketcham insisted Hickey said he "would he never again fight for the American cause.”
Washington could now compare Ketcham’s story with the warning from businessman William Leary, that one of his employees, James Mason, had boasted about the same loyalist plot. And there was also a warning from William Collier, a waiter at The Corbie. Putting all these sources together, Governor Tyron’s plan was clear.
Just before the British Army was to land on Long Island, loyalists would blow up or capture the Kingsbridge over the Harlem River at the far end of Manhattan Island, 13 miles north of the city. This would sever the only land connection into New York and trap the Continental Army. In addition Loyalists militias were to screen the British landings. And most dastardly of all, Mayor Mathews later told a Royal Commission, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard, prisoners…”At one in the morning of Saturday, June 22nd colonial troops surrounded Mayor Mathew’s house in Flatbush near the village of Brooklyn on Long Island. Mathews was arrested, and over the next several hours hundreds of other loyalist conspirators were taken into custody. On the 27th Sergeant Hickey faced a court martial and was quickly found guilty and condemned to death.
At eleven o’clock the following morning, June 28th, a crying Hickey was marched to the scaffold with a clergyman at his side. As the clergyman stepped away Hickey, “With an indignant, scornful air” wiped away his tears and “...assumed a confident look.” He muttered that one of the witnesses against him should be the next to hang. The blindfold was tied over his eyes, and Thomas Hickey then slowly chocked to death at the end of a rope in front of 20,000 spectators.The very next day, July 29th, four new British warships dropped anchor in New York harbor. They were the vanguard of 130 ships carrying 34,000 troops which would arrive over the next week. In the face of that fleet the patriots of New York might have been more willing to listen to the siren song of Governor Tyron. But he had recruited too many agents too quickly. There were too many rumors swamping the city. And General Washington was too competent not to have paid attention to them. And in that the citizens of the young nation (the Declaration of Independence would not be voted on for another week) were very fortunate.
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Thursday, January 31, 2019

ACOLYTE OF TERROR

I begin by introducing you to the second son of a pretentious prater-progenitor of the provenance of pestilence, Jean-Baptiste Hertel. Born in 1678 in the forest outpost of Trois-Rivières on the St. Laurence River, midway between the fortress of Quebec (above)  and the trading station of Montreal, Jean-Baptiste had little choice but to be a warrior. In his distant motherland, the self absorbed Sun King, Louis XIV, was dissipating the treasures of France on European wars . Meanwhile, in the new world, dwarfed by the rapacious and prolific Protestant New England settlers to their south, and surrounded by the more numerous and often hostile Iroquois Confederacy, the Catholic people of “Canady” were left isolated and vulnerable.

Jean-Baptiste's father, Joseph Francis Hertel, raised his seven sons to follow the military and political strategy he had blazed – seemingly random and ruthless joint French and Indian raids descending without warning from the dark forests to burn English settler homes and mills and murder or kidnap the farmers, their wives and children. The French -Canadian objective was convince English settlers the frontier was too dangerous to claim, and to keep the English and the local tribes “irreconcilable enemies”, as the new Governor General of New France, Philippe Vaudreuil, put it.. 
And it worked. By the winter of 1704, when 34 year old Jean-Baptiste (above) set out to lead his first and most infamous raid, he was the best and brightest that New France had to offer the world, “An officer of great courage, but per-eminently cruel and vindictive.” In other words he was an effective and unapologetic terrorist.
Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste launched his first raid from the new wooden stockade at Fort Chambly (above), 15 miles south of Montreal, at the base of the falls on the Iroquois (aka Richelieu) River. 
Early in the new year, Jean-Baptiste's forty-eight experienced local militia (including three of his brothers) along with 200 Abenaki, Iroquois, Wyandot, and Pocumtuc warriors paddled upstream, south, to Lake Champlain, then southward again along the eastern shore to the mouth of the Winooski River. 
From here they marched on snowshoes one hundred miles to the southeast,  up the Winooski Valley which cut through the Green Mountains. Their greatest obstacle would be the 30 mile leg over the final ridge separating them from the White River that ran east before joining the Connecticut River. Here they were joined by 40 Pennacook warriors, before making the 60 mile march, due south, toward the English settlement of Deerfield, 300 miles from Fort Chambly.
The community of Deerfield had been established forty years earlier by farmers seeking both the rich Connecticut Valley soil and the 100 miles distance from the Puritanical leadership of Cotton Mather's Massachusetts Bay Colony. 
But in September of 1665, when the wagons baring the harvest paused just south of Deerfield to cross “Muddy Creek”,  Indians attacked the stalled wagons, killing 90 men, stealing the horses, stealing or destroying the year's crop, and rechristening the stream as “Bloody Creek”.. Without food for the coming winter, the 200 residents were forced to abandon the town.
Back in 1704, 30 miles north of Deerfield, Lt. Hertel established a a cache of supplies for their return, just as his father, Joseph-Francis Hertel had done on that patriarch’s famous 1690 raid on Salmon Falls (above). In that predawn attack,  50 raiders (in old Cotton Mather's words, “Half Indianized Frenchmen, and half Frenchified Indians”) had dragged 35 English men, women and children from their beds and murdered them. And then burned the town to the ground.
 The “raiders” had then marched 54 mostly women and children away as prisoners. Any who could not keep up were killed. 
Once back in Canada the captives were divided up, and their fate depended on the whims of their new native masters. Prisoners that could later be ransomed from the Indians were the only bargaining chip  New France had with New England. The terror attack which cost just two wounded men, made Joseph-Francis   Hertel an official “Hero” in Quebec, and the governor applied to the Louis XIV to raise the family into the nobility. The only dark note for the French was that “Hero” Hertel was one of the wounded, and this would be his last raid.
The New Englanders reoccupied Deerfield in the 1690's. They repaired abandoned homes and built new ones, and strengthened the palisade in the center of town. Individual residents were still occasionally being killed by marauding warriors, so when, during late January of 1704 the 300 residents received word of a large raiding party spotted on Lake Champlain, 30 militiamen from the fishing villages of coastal Massachusetts were brought west to bolster the town's own 70 man militia force. But over the next month, the isolation, the cold, the snow and the long dark nights, bred complacency in the village and its guardians.
From their “cold camp” two miles north, Lieutenant Hertel made his final scout of Deerfield, noting the lax guards and the snow drifts left piled up against the northern wall of the stockade. It appeared the stage was set for Jean-Baptiste to better his father's 1690 triumph. An hour before dawn, Friday, 29 February, 1704, a handful of raiders used the drifts to clamber over the wooden walls and open the front gates, admitting invaders into the village's inner sanctum. At the same time, the Indian intruders burst into the outlying homes of other residents and began killing and destoying.
The new village minister, John Williams, was awakened as the Indian's burst into his home,  “with axes and hatchets... to the number of twenty, with painted faces, and hideous acclamations. I reached...for my pistol...I...put it to the breast of the first Indian who came up, but my pistol missing fire, I was seized by 3 Indians who disarmed me, and bound me naked...(they then) fell to rifling the house...some were so cruel and barbarous as to...carry to the door two of my children (John Jr.,6, and an infant daughter, Jerushah) as also a Negro woman” ( his slave Parthena), and murder them.   Perhaps the “barbarous” enemy were members of the Pocumtuc tribe, an entire innocent village of whom had been butchered, man, woman and child, by the New Englanders a few winters earlier.
The noise of the assault on the William's home had awakened the seven guards sleeping in the house next door. When the raiders attempted to rush that building the militia shot down at least one of the attackers, forcing them into a costly firefight. 
The same confrontations were repeated inside the stockade, with the raiders suffering 2 Frenchmen and 9 Indians killed, and another 22 wounded, including Jean-Baptiste and one of his brothers. They had killed 39 villagers, and captured 112 prisoners. But the village remained, although almost half the  homes had been burned, and reinforcements were rushing to their relief. Fitting the adult captives with snow shoes and carrying the younger children on their shoulders through the 3 foot deep snow, Lt. Hertel's wounded force began to limp back to Canada.  Jean-Baptiste would now be forever known as “The Sacker of Deerfield”.
At least seven prisoners died within 48 hours – a male black slave murdered for sport by drunken Indians on the first night, two separate infants dashed against trees when the mothers could not keep up, two young girls and two adult women, including Reverend William's wife, all clubbed to death because they could not maintain the 12 miles a day demanded by the raiders. The raiders were forced to pause several times to bury their own, who had died from their wounds. In all, out of the 112 captives, 21 died and were murdered on the seven week long march back to Fort Chamby.  French and Indian losses must have at least equaled that number.
Governor General Vaudreuil would try to put the best face on “The Deerfield Masacure”,  but the raid proved to a political embarrassment  for New France. The French could no longer simply blame the Indians for the cruel murder of so many women and children. And because of their high causalities, the native peoples proved difficult to recruit for another raid for a few years. Worse, the Indians were beginning to realize how valuable the English hostages were for their French partners, and their prices began to go up, which meant their profitability to New France went down.
Two years later 60 of the hostages, including Reverend Williams and four of his children, were returned to New England.   William's youngest surviving child, Eunice, converted to Catholicism and was adopted into a Mohawk family. She, like many other of the younger children  chose to stay in Canada. She wrote to her father, but never visited her brothers and sisters until after their father had died, in 1721. Eunice married a Mohawk man and together they raised four children.
The Reverend William's book on his captivity, co-written with Cotton Mather, became one of the best selling books in colonial America. Most of “The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion” was an attack on Catholicism. Bu in post revolutionary America, those stories which dealt with William's Indian captors were borrowed by James Fenimore Cooper, and incorporated into that author's 1826 classic, “The Last of the Mohicans”
Jean-Baptiste Hertel never led another raid by himself, and within a few years was quietly assigned other duties. In 1713 he was finally promoted to Captain, but that was as far as he got. He died in 1721, just a month after his terrorist trainer, 80 year Joseph-Francois Hertel, also died.    The acolyte of terror, his father's son, “The Sacker of Deerfield”, was just 54 years old, and offers a troubling hero for modern day French Canadians.
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