Life Before the US EPA, Earth Day, and 1970

In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted with industrial waste it literally CAUGHT FIRE! The Potomac, Chicago, Delaware and Hudson rivers all stunk to high heaven with millions of gallons of waste deposited every single day. Most cities dumped their sewage directly into rivers, with little or no treatment. Boston and Baltimore harbors were noxious dead zones.

Massive floating fish kills were a common sight.

Heavy choking smog was blocking the sun and sickening citizens in Los Angeles and New York City. Lake Erie’s oxygen content was so low it sustained precious little fish. Leaded paints and auto exhausts were at high enough levels they could cause birth defects. Industrial cities like St. Louis and Newark, with scores of belching smoke stacks, stank to the point of causing nausea and skin rashes.

I’m not painting some dystopian future landscape here. I was in grade school at the time and it was all real.  Whether in the air, water or earth, we could not escape the fact we were destroying the very country we lived in. By 1970, there were few pollution deniers about [including in Congress!], as the evidence was widespread and undeniable.

Ecology had become a legitimate science and a topic of daily dinner table discussions.

The burgeoning environmental movement reminded people that our air, water and land resources were finite. In the 1960s, our industrial states were more worried about losing industries than about preventing pollution. It was clear the US needed a federal environmental policy.

President Richard Nixon was at first reluctant to create a federal agency that set and enforced environmental laws. He had bigger fish to fry at the time, like the ongoing War in Vietnam. But by 1970, the Vietnam War no longer dominating headlines. Concerns about pollution became a new priority for the White House. With backlash from all directions, the message of outrage and concern was getting through to even Nixon.

The first Earth Day took place in April 1970 with support of both Republican and Democratic Senators.

In the end, Nixon created the EPA not because he himself shared those concerns, but the public and Congress obviously did. “It is literally now or never,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address.  He signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which began a federal role in environmental protection by creating a new agency – the US EPA. It’s hard to imagine such overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for environmental protection in our current world of climate change denial, but it happened in 1970.  After establishing the EPA, Nixon took little interest in its actual work, but he should have.

There are countless ways our world has changed for the better, thanks in part to the US EPA. Here are just a few:

The CLEAN AIR ACT of 1970 gave EPA the authority to regulate air pollutants like lead. Americans were dying every year from heart disease linked to lead poisoning and children were growing up with lower IQs. The levels of other air toxins like mercury, benzene, and arsenic have also been dramatically reduced.

The CLEAN WATER ACT of 1972 gave EPA the authority to set national regulations over municipal and industrial waste waters AND enforce them.

The  Pesticide Control ACT of 1972 gave EPA authority to regulate pesticides. Before it banned the use of DDT, the insecticide was the most popular agricultural pesticide in the US. People had little notion of its dangers when they let their children in play in the spray, or that is was causing the extinction of the bald eagle.

The Resource Conservation & Recovery Act of 1976 required landfills to be lined and water leaching through them collected. Up through the 1960s, hazardous waste was disposed of like ordinary trash— in unlined landfills where toxins leached into groundwater; or even worse, in open dumps on factory land, where runoff from rusting barrels contaminated city drinking waters.

The Acid Rain Program reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the air, which were raising the acidity levels of our lakes and killing fish populations.

The Asbestos Program provides resources on how to manage asbestos fibers used in fire proofing, which when inhaled causes a brutal form of lung cancer called asbestosis.

The SUPERFUND ACT of 1980 was started to clean up our greatest mistakes and the legacy of hazardous waste sites like Love Canal, NY and Times Beach, MO recovering clean up costs from the original polluters. Whether they know it or not, 1 in 6 Americans lives near a cleaned up Superfund site.

One could think the EPA has done its job, pollution is under control, America is clean and safe again. Time to deregulate the states and industries. It will save corporations billions and create jobs, right? But as a student of history, one of the things I’ve learned is that human beings do not learn from their mistakes. Deregulation of corporations, with profit and not people as their bottom line, is a slippery slope America has already fallen down.

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Galileo Faced Science Deniers in the Catholic Church

In 1633, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the Stephen Hawking of his day – both famous & respected. Nonetheless, he was ordered by the Pope to stand trial before the Italian Inquisition, the most feared and notorious court in all of Europe. His crime – Galileo’s Science, daring to state the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe – was pure heresy!

​The Inquisition had been rooting out what it considered sacrilege and witchcraft since the Dark Ages. Throw into this irrational mess Galileo’s evidence disproving long held Church teachings and you had the recipe for a life-threatening stand.

The Catholic Church had in essence become the first Science Deniers.

This was actually the 2nd time Galileo was called before the Inquisition. In 1616, he’d been forbidden from teaching his “heliocentric” beliefs and Galileo agreed at the time to stop.  It’s worth mentioning that the astronomer was actually a deeply religious man who supported the ideals of Christianity.

Amongst his many discoveries was not only did the planet Jupiter have 4 moons, but those heavenly bodies orbited around the planet! He discovered that Venus, like the Earth’s moon, had phases, meaning it too orbited the sun. He published his findings in The Starry Messenger and it became an instant best seller. Unfortunately, this also supported the church-banned heliocentric theories of the late astronomer Copernicus.

You see, Galileo was free to write about anything he wanted, even heliocentricism, as long as he wrote it as a personal hypothesis and did NOT try to pass it off as scientific fact. As a born scientist and stubborn intellectual however, Galileo simply could not abide by such laws.

He convinced his old friend Pope Urban VIII to let him write a book that showed both sides. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, had a fictional argument between two characters who held either view of where the earth and sun stood in the universe. Galileo however made the dim-witted geocentric character to be the clear loser of the debate.

A furious Pope Urban ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition in Rome on charges of heresy.

Galileo was no fool and knew the danger he was in; men had been tortured and burned at the stake for lesser crimes. The astronomer however still believed that TRUTH and LOGIC would win in the end, even with the single-minded, religious fanatics in the Inquisition. Alas, how wrong he was.

On the opening day of his trial, he stood before his accuser, the Grand Inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola. Church officials interpreted his Dialogue as a clear violation of his 1616 Agreement.  Galileo disagreed vehemently, but his position hardly mattered.  Heliocentricism flew in the face of centuries of Catholic Church teaching. The court used numerous scripture passages from the Bible’s Old Testament to defend their geocentric views. The Grand inquisitor claimed that his revolutionary telescope was nothing more than a magician’s trick.

Found guilty of heresy, Galileo was condemned to imprisonment rather than death.

He was given an opportunity to recant however, and not spend the rest of his life in a cold, dark dungeon cell. At the time, Galileo was already 70 years old and in poor health.  At his daughter’s urging, he agreed to recant. Wearing the robes of a penitent, he told the Inquisition that he “cursed any heresies which he may have espoused in the past.”

Galileo hoped his old friend Pope Urban would help him, and in the end, he did. Galileo was placed under house arrest rather than prison. Having avoided burning at the stake, one could say he got off with a mere slap on the wrist. He was forced to retire to his estate in Florence, a defeated and dejected man. Although in his own house, he could neither write, teach nor travel without the Church’s permission.  There he remained till his death.

The Catholic Church finally lifted the ban on Galileo’s works over a century later in 1758. In 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo Galilei was wrongly charged and regretted the astronomer’s treatment by the church. Perhaps as a posthumous consolation, NASA named a Jupiter probe in his honor and the sturdy satellite thoroughly explored his famous four moons in 1995.

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An Immigrant’s Ellis Island Fate Depended on 29 Questions

For a vast number of Americans, including myself, our great-grand parents arrived in the US as immigrants in the early 1900’s. For steamship passengers, newly arrived in NYC, 1st & 2nd class were left off in lower Manhattan with a precursory check. Immigrants in third class steerage however were ferried by barge, with their meager baggage to Ellis Island, in the shadow of Lady Liberty. There, with a ship’s manifest number pinned to their clothes, they queued up by the thousands.

Immigrants marched through a maze of tall metal railings in the Great Hall, with its high arched ceiling, for registry. First, each underwent a doctor’s physical exam (including their mental state). In particular, doctors looked for pregnancy, rashes, fever, birth defects, feeble mindedness, limps, labored breathing, excessive coughing, lice, and eye disease. Any suspected health issues sent them to the Ellis Island hospital where their ultimate fate would be determined.

If they passed the physical, the next step was waiting in long lines to be questioning by an immigration inspector, with translators standing by as necessary. Any issues might put them in front of a Board of Special Inquiry, who would ultimately decide if they could stay in the US.

During their crossing, they were required to complete the following 29 questions.

Their answers became part of the ship’s manifest and were scrutinized by the immigration inspectors in the Great Hall.

    1. Your manifest number
    2. What is your full name?
    3. How old are you?
    4. Are you male or female?
    5. Are you married, single, widowed or divorced?
    6. What is your occupation?
    7. Are you able to read and write? (yes or no)
    8. What country are you from?
    9. What is your race? (note: no question was asked about religion)
    10. What was your last permanent place of residence? (city and country)
    11. What is the name and address of a relative from your native country?
    12. What is your final destination in America? (city and state)
    13. Your number on the immigration list
    14. Do you have a ticket to your final destination? (yes or no)
    15. Who paid for your passage?
    16. How much money do you have? (at least the equivalent of $50 dollars was preferred)
    17. Have you been to America before? If so when, where and how long?
    18. Are you meeting a relative here in America?  If so, who and their address?
    19. Have you been in a prison, charity almshouse, or insane asylum?
    20. Are you a polygamist?  (Yes or No)
    21. Are you an anarchist? (a real anarchist would have to be a fool to say yes)
    22. Are you coming to America for a job?  What and where will you work?
    23. What is the condition of your health?
    24. Are you deformed or crippled?
    25. How tall are you?
    26. What is your skin color?
    27. What color are your eyes and hair? (much like on today’s driver’s license)
    28. Do you have any identifying marks? (scars, birthmarks, or tattoos)
    29. Where were you born? (city and country)


The key questions the inspectors focused on were purposely scattered throughout – 6, 16 and 22. Basically do you know a trade, do you have money, and where will you work in the US?

Due to the thousands being processed, the interview could take as little as two minutes! Only if all was in order would the nervous immigrant be released. The entire process could take up to 5 nerve-wracking hours. At any time, they might be denied entry and sent back across the ocean. Once cleared, could they retrieve their baggage and were ferried to train stations in New Jersey.

Imagine leaving your former life behind, with the hopes of a better world in free America, the land of opportunity. Perhaps you were fleeing war or tyranny or poverty. A single carpet bag carried all your worldly possessions. You surviving a wave-tossed Atlantic crossing in the belly of a steamship, in filthy, overcrowded 3rd class conditions. Now your fate was determined by a physical exam, two minutes, and 29 questions.

While approximately one in five were detained for the Board of Special Inquiry, only 2% of the 12 million immigrants processed at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 were ever sent back to their countries. The rest were welcomed into the melting pot that is the United States of America.

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The Lindbergh Kidnapping – The REAL Crime of the Century

Most know aviator Charles Lindbergh famously flew his single engine plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, for 33 hours from Long Island to Paris in 1927, becoming the first to cross the Atlantic solo. Blond, handsome, and only 25 years old, he became an international superstar receiving numerous awards and accolades (think today of movie-star crossed with sports-star crossed with war hero type of fame).

What most do not know is that 5 years later ‘Lucky Lindy’ would be at the center of The Crime of the Century. In March 1932, two year old Charles Lindbergh Jr. was suffering from a winter cold.  Charles Sr., his wife Anne and son were at home in Hopewell, NJ. Little Charlie’s nurse put him to bed around 7:30 pm.  At 10, she returned to check on him and made a horrifying discovery – Charlie Jr. was gone! Lindbergh rushed upstairs, flung opened the nursery door, and found the crib empty. He noticed an open window with an envelope on the sill.  A kidnapper had used a homemade ladder to climb to 2nd floor and left muddy footprints in the room. Lindbergh dashed downstairs, grabbed his hunting rifle, and went out searching.

The envelope contained a badly written ransom note that said:

Dear Sir, Have $50,000 ready … After 2-4 days will inform you where to deliver the Money. We warn you for making anything public or for notify the Police, the child is in gut care.

By 10:30, the radio was announcing the news to the world. Every US newspaper gave the story headlines the next day. Soon, false sightings of the Lindbergh baby were coming from all corners of the country.  None were real.

Col. Norman Schwarzkopf of the NJ State Police was in charge, but ceded responsibility for the investigation to the famous Lindbergh. Headquarters for the investigation were established in the family’s home. Lindbergh’s inexperience however produced some major goofs – footprints near the house were trampled and evidence was mishandled by too many people. Then, a new letter showed up, this time demanding $70,000!

Other blunders and oddities would follow …

A week later, John Condon, a retired teacher from the Bronx, called the Lindberghs claiming he’d made contact with the kidnappers! Condon had written a letter to the Bronx News offering to act as intermediary and a man claiming to be the kidnapper contacted him. Condon was allowed by a desperate Lindbergh to make contact with the kidnapper.

In April, the ransom money was delivered by Condon to a graveyard, while Lindbergh himself waited in a nearby car. The kidnapper gave Condon a note, supposedly revealing the baby’s safe location.  It led them to the coast in search of a boat called Nelly. No boat nor baby were ever found. They’d been double-crossed. In May, 72 days after the kidnapping, the decomposed body of a baby boy was found in the woods less than a mile from the Lindbergh house. The child had been dead from a fractured skull, apparently dropped from the ladder the night of the kidnapping.

The kidnapping case was now a murder investigation.

Serial numbers from the ransom money first surfaced in NY. Over the next two years more and more would pop up. Finally, in September 1934, a marked bill turned up at a gas station in NY. The attendant wrote down the license plate of the customer who gave him a $10 bill for 98 cents of gas. It was tracked to a German immigrant carpenter by the name of Bruno Hauptmann. When his Bronx home was searched, detectives found $14,000 of the Lindbergh ransom stuffed in an oil can. Despite his pleas of innocence, Hauptmann was arrested and indicted for murder 2 years after the crime.

The Crime of the Century became the Trial of the Century.

60,000 people besieged the tiny town of Flemington, NJ.  Hauptmann was defended by “Big Ed” Reilly, a flamboyant attorney who’d seen better days. Lindbergh himself testified he recognized Hauptmann’s voice from the night he & Condon delivered the ransom money in the graveyard. Hauptmann took the stand and strongly denied any involvement, claiming a deceased friend, who distrusted banks, had given him the money to hold. He said he’d been beaten by the police and forced to alter his handwriting to match the ransom note.

The prosecution’s case was not airtight. Besides the money, the main evidence was testimony from handwriting experts and the prosecution’s claim of a connection between Hauptmann, a carpenter, and the wood used in the kidnapping ladder.

Following 11 hours deliberation, the jury found Hauptmann guilty of first degree murder.

The evidence and public demand for blood were enough to convict.  Appeals were made all the way to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. The NJ Governor himself voiced doubts about the verdict. Questions were raised ranging from witness tampering, to evidence planting, to who his co-conspirators might be?  Nevertheless, Hauptmann was sentenced to death and executed in 1936 in the electric chair.  Conspiracy theories abound to this day, claiming poor Hauptmann was framed and the kidnapping was in fact ‘an inside job’ within the household.

In the aftermath of the infamous crime, kidnapping was made a federal offense via the ‘Lindbergh Law.’  Lindbergh and his wife moved away from Hopewell and went on to have 5 more children.  He died from lymphatic cancer in 1974 at age 72.

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The Black Hole of Calcutta’s Infamous Night of Horror

In 18th century India, the power of the Mughal Empire lay in the despotic hands of the Nawabs, or provincial princes. At the same time, the British and French East India Companies had built competing commercial empires on the lucrative sub-continent. The British had established a port and trading hub at Kolkata (Calcutta) and built Fort William to guard it from French attack.

This blatant military build-up infuriated Bengals’ new, 23-year-old Nawab, Siraj-ud-daula who took power in 1756. He ordered Calcutta’s British governor to immediately cease all work on the fort. When the predictable Brits ignored him, the hot-headed Nawab marched his massive army of 50,000 on Calcutta, including elephants and artillery. The governor and residents fled to company ships on the River Hooghly, leaving behind a small garrison of only 170 English soldiers to defend the fort.

Siraj’s attack came the morning of Sunday June 20th. John Holwell, in command of the fort, had no military experience, they were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fort was no match against 50,000 attackers. By the afternoon, he was forced to surrender – under the condition they would be treated fairly.

That night occurred the Black Hole horror which would become legend.

Holwell and 145 British prisoners, including two women, plus the wounded, were all squeezed at scimitar-points into the fort’s ‘Black Hole.’ This was the name given a single small cell built for prisoners. It measured only 18 by 15 feet and had but two small barred windows near the ceiling.

The heat of an Indian summer is suffocating, even at night, reaching 40C/104F. Conditions were so tight they could not sit or lie down. The prisoners trampled each other to get near fresh air near the 2 windows, and fought over the small cups of water they were handed. They pleaded for mercy from indifferent guards, who jeered at them while they screamed in agony.

The prisoners were left to suffer in the oppressive heat, sucking the perspiration from their shirts or resorting to drinking their own urine. The next morning, when the door was finally unbarred, steaming corpses were still standing as they were packed too tight to fall.

Only 23 of the 146 prisoners survived the hellish night.

The rest had died from a mixture of suffocation, trampling and dehydration. A large pit was dug for the dead and the bodies were dumped unceremoniously in a mass grave. The Nawab claimed to have had no knowledge of the inhumane incarceration.  Few believed him.

British vengeance was swift. When news of the ‘Black Hole’ reached London, a rescue expedition led by Colonel Robert Clive was immediately dispatched.  It arrived in Bengal by October.  Clive wasted no time, marching on Calcutta. He set siege to the Mughals at Fort William, which he bombarded from a fleet of warships in the river.

The fort fell to the British after a relentless siege, with the Mughals retreating.

But Robert Clive, a war hero from his last Indian campaign, was not finished with his vengeance.  In June 1757, with an army of a mere 3,000 men, Clive marched to the Bengal capital and defeated Siraj’s army  of 50,000 at Plassey with their 500 war-elephants and artillery.  Siraj fled to his capital Murshidabad, where he was killed by his own people for desertion.

John Holwell survived the Black Hole and later describing in great detail the horrors of that night in: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, who were Suffocated in the Black Hole. Holwell’s tale caused uproar in Britain. The story inspired patriotic fervor in Britain and rage at the Indian Mughals.

Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey was the start of British colonial rule in India, that would last uninterrupted for nearly 200 hundred years, until the Gandhi-inspired independence in 1947.

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The Sad Fate of the SS St. Louis Jewish Refugees

st-louisIn May 1939, 937 anxious Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany aboard an ocean liner named the SS St Louis. Most were German citizens, though a few were from other countries like Poland and Austria. The passengers planned to reach Cuba first, then ultimately travel to the US.

Ever since Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) the Nazi’s had begun burning synagogues and confiscating Jewish property.

By 1939, Adolf Hitler had plans to close the German borders and many countries were imposing quotas limiting the number of Jewish refugees they’d take in. Havana was seen as a safe, temporary port to get to the US.

At the Hamburg docks, tearful relatives waved to their loved ones aboard the St. Louis. Given Hitler’s escalating anti-Jewish campaign, they didn’t know when they might see each other again. Those on the ship knew they were the lucky ones, managing to get out in time.

For many passengers, the anxiety they felt soon faded as the St Louis began a quiet 2 week voyage across the Atlantic. On board was a swimming pool, dance band in the evenings and even a movie theater. There were regular meals with rich foods the passengers rarely ate given the rationing in Germany.

Under Captain Gustav Schroder, the crew was ordered to treat the passengers with respect, a sharp contrast to the open hatred Jews received under the Nazis. Children were told by relieved parents that they were finally safe. They were going away and didn’t have to look over their shoulders ever again.

When the ocean liner reached Havana in May, that sense of relief soon evaporated, replaced by fear and a growing dread. Passengers were up on deck, their suitcases packed and ready to disembark, when Cuban officials came aboard … but nothing happened!

It quickly became clear the ship was not going to be allowed to dock and no-one would be allowed off.

They kept hearing the words “manana, manana” from the Cubans. For 7 nerve-wracking days, Captain Schroder tried in vain to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow his passengers to disembark. The Cubans declined their visas out of fear of being seen as a sanctuary and inundated with even more Jewish refugees.

Even before the ship sailed, Cuban newspapers demanded the government stop admitting Jews. The Cuban President had issued a decree a week before the ship left Germany that invalidated all landing certificates. Like the US, Cuba suffered with the Great Depression. Many resented the refugees already admitted, as they competed for scarce jobs. The owners of the St. Louis knew before the ship sailed that its passengers might have trouble disembarking, but told none of them.

The plight of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. After Cuba denied entry to the refugees, the press in Europe and the US broke the story to millions around the globe. Though US newspapers were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, only a few editors suggested the US actually admit them. Hostility toward immigrants had fueled xenophobia and isolationism in the US as well.

Captain Schroder had no choice but to leave Havana and sail to Florida.

Unfortunately, US authorities also refused to allow it to dock. Sailing so close to Florida they could see the night lights of Miami, passengers telegraphed the President, pleading for refuge. Roosevelt never responded directly. The State Dept sent a telegram to the ship stating that passengers must wait their turns and qualify for visas before they could be admitted.

Quotas established in the 1920’s strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted each year. In 1939, the annual German immigration quota was quickly filled with a long waiting list of several years.

US public opinion, though critical of Hitler and sympathetic to the refugees, favored immigration restrictions. Like Cuba, the Great Depression left millions without work and fearful of competition for scarce jobs. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order, but public hostility to immigrants and a forthcoming election were among his considerations.

By June, Captain Schroder had no option but to turn the ocean liner back to Europe.

The joy the Jewish passengers had felt in May was replaced by desperation. No-one dared speak about what the Nazis would do to them once they returned to Germany. People were openly weeping as they wandered the ship – one passenger even committed suicide by slitting his wrists and jumping overboard.

As it turned out, the Jews did not have to return to Nazi Germany. Instead, 4 European countries agreed to split up the refugees. In June, the St. Louis docked at Antwerp, over a month after it left Germany. Four governments agreed to secure visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288; the Netherlands 181, Belgium 214 and France 224.

Of the 288 passengers admitted to the UK, all survived World War II. Of the 620 passengers who returned to the continent, 532 were trapped when the German military stormed through Western Europe taking Belgium, Holland and ultimately France. Nearly all were captured and sent east to Nazi Death Camps. 278 managed to survive the Holocaust … 254 did not.

The journey of the SS St Louis and its ill-fated passengers was the subject of the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned.

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The Secrets of Michelangelo’s David

md1How much do you think you know about Michelangelo’s David? Oh sure, you’ve seen countless pictures of the famous statue on the internet, TV or in books. You recognize the muscular nude male, standing with his feet apart, looking off into the distance. But did you know the statue was originally commissioned to sit atop the roof of an Italian cathedral? That the version standing outside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio is actually just an inferior bronze replica? How about that Michelangelo was only 26 when he sculpted it?

The statue of David was commissioned in 1501 during the reign of the famous Medici ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent.  The cathedral guild hired the young artist to create a statue of King David to stand atop the roof the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore in Firenze. Though quite young, Michelangelo was already famous for sculpting The Pieta in Rome – the famous statue of Mary cradling the body of a crucified Jesus in her lap. He was provided a 6 ton rectangle of white Tuscan marble that two prior sculptures had deemed too flawed to use. Michelangelo however, took on the challenge. David would not be life-sized, but rather 17 feet tall!

It took him two painstaking years to complete the statue.

The stone sat in a small courtyard behind the cathedral, so he worked year round, outside in rain, heat and cold. Rarely stopping to eat, Michelangelo often slept on the spot, where he dropped from sheer exhaustion. Rather than a robed & bearded King David, he chose instead a young man on the day that made him famous, the day in the Book of Samuel that David was the only one to step forward and accept King Saul’s challenge for anyone to face down the Philistine giant Goliath. A simple shepherd boy, naked yet toned, armed only with a rock, sling and fierce determination.

David stands with his legs apart in a fencing (or pitcher) like pose, left heel slightly raised, looking over his left shoulder at Goliath, the sling is draped over the same shoulder, across his back to his right hand where he conceals the deadly stone. Michelangelo dissected corpses to learn the intricacies of human muscles and put that knowledge to use. Though David at first appears relaxed, on closer examination one sees the tension in his legs, the glare in his eyes, the bulging veins in his hands. His head is slightly larger and out of proportion, so that when viewed from below it would appear a normal size. The sling and stump were originally gilded in gold, but has long since wore off.

When completed, the reviews were beyond positive, they were ecstatic!

His benefactors indeed proclaimed in ‘Perfect!” Too perfect in fact to sit so far away atop the Duomo roof. So a commission was formed, which included an aging Leonardo da Vinci, to choose a ground level location somewhere in Florence. Oh to be a fly on the wall, overhearing the conversations between Michelangelo and Leonardo. The chosen site was atop a pedestal outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria. It took 40 men, four nerve wracking days to transport “the Giant” through the narrow streets. Even the orientation was taken into account, with David facing Rome, as if the Medici were staring down the Pope himself.

Michelangelo’s fame grew beyond David and the Pieta when was he was next commissioned by the Pope to paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.  He never married or had any children, leading to theories he may have been secretly gay. He lived to a ripe old age of 88, the aged and bearded figure depicted in many of his portraits.

David’s exposed manhood caused quite a bit of consternation when Queen Victoria was presented a replica in the 19th century. So much so that a plaster fig leaf was made and hung on his curly public hair so that the queen might not faint from the vapors. It was an amusing bit of history mimicked in a Simpson’s TV show episode. It’s also curious to note Michelangelo chose to not make him circumcised, which was of course the Jewish custom.

The perfect statue stood outdoors for over 350 years, exposed to the Italian elements. Only in 1873, over concerns that the weather was eroding the statue, was it finally transferred indoors to the Galleria dell Accademia. A bronze replica was put in the plaza for the pidgeons to mark the spot it once stood.

The years have taken their toll of the great masterpiece, as microfractures have appeared in his ankles from centuries of vibrations. One of his toes was once hammered off by a spectator. Unfortunately, David is actually oriented the wrong way for the best public viewing. As visitors approach, they see the often photographed angle facing his hips and chest. But the view Michelangelo intended was facing him from the right.  There you see the brave David as Goliath would have – eyes glaring, muscles tense, ready to load his sling for that fateful throw.

Such a perfect masterpiece is not just a piece of art for Florence, but an eternal gift to the world and all its descendants.

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The American Legacy of the Trail of Tears

trail-of-tears“Old Hickory” General Andrew Jackson won the nasty, negative election of 1828 and was elected to the White House.  At this time, over 125,000 Native Americans still occupied millions of acres in western North Carolina, Tennessee, north Georgia, Alabama, and Florida – land they’d lived on for generations. By 1840, there’d be few left anywhere east of the Mississippi.  Frontier Americans both feared and resented the many southeastern tribes. To them, Indians were an alien race who occupied land white settlers believed they deserved.  They desperately wanted to grow cotton and other crops in the fertile soil of the south.


George Washington had believed the solution to “The Indian Problem” was to civilize the savage and make them as American as possible. This included conversion to Christianity, learning English, and adopting the principles of property ownership. In the southeastern US, some Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes took up white customs and became known as “The Five Civilized Tribes.”  But their land was still valuable, ever more so as thousands of white settlers continued to flood the southeast. Many white settlers did not care how “civilized” the tribes were.  They wanted that land and would do anything to get it. They burned and looted villages and squatted on property that belonged to those tribes.

The new populist President Jackson was staunch advocate for “Indian Removal.”

As a General, he’d led brutal campaigns against the Creeks & Seminoles that transferred thousands of acres from Indians to white farmers. As President, he continued this crusade as his solution to The Indian Problem. In 1830, he signed the INDIAN REMOVAL ACT, giving government the authority to exchange Native land in the southeast for land west of the Mississippi in the Oklahoma territory.  The new law did required fair, voluntary and peaceful removal treaties and did not permit forced removal of tribes from their land. Nevertheless, Jackson ignored the wording of the law and proceeded to force Native tribes to vacate their ancestral lands.

The forced displacement of native American had some eloquent opposition in Congress. Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay both spoke out frequently against the removal.  President Jackson ignored them.  In the winter of 1831, the Choctaws became the first tribe to be expelled from their land by the US Army. They made the journey to Oklahoma on foot, some bound, marching double file at gunpoint, without any food, shelter or other help from the military. Thousands died along the way. It was just the beginning of what one newspaper called the Trail of Tears and Death.  While Jackson put a very positive and populist spin on ‘Indian Removal’ in his speeches, the actual removal was anything but. There was little the native tribes could do to defend themselves.

The Cherokees however chose to take legal action. They were by no means frontier savages. They’d developed their own written language, printed newspapers and elected representatives to their government.   When the state governments threatened to seize their land, the Cherokees took their case to the Supreme Court AND WON! a favorable decision. In 1832, the opinion of Court was that states had no jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation or claim to their lands.

However state officials simply ignored the Supreme Court’s decision, and President Jackson refused to enforce it. He was furious and personally insulted by the Court’s ruling shouting:

“The Court has made their decision, now let them enforce it!”

So the encroachment continued unabated.  Jackson proclaimed that if no one enforced the Court’s rulings (and he certainly did not), then the decisions was in essence still born.  Jackson himself defied the court’s decision  and ordered further removal of Native Americans. Under orders from President Jackson, the U.S. Army began strict enforcement of the Indian Removal Act. This defiant action set a precedent the government would use for decades to come when the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral land was deemed ‘necessary.’

In 1835, representatives of the Cherokee Nation negotiated a Treaty which traded all Cherokee land in Georgia east of the Mississippi for $5 million dollars and relocation assistance. While the treaty was a done deal, many Cherokee felt betrayed by their representatives and refused to leave.  The removal process continued nonetheless. In 1836, the government forced the Creek Nation from their land. Over 3,500 of 15,000 Creeks would not survive the long, harsh journey west.

By 1838, only 2,000 Cherokees had left.  The President was fed up with the delay and sent 7,000 troops to “expedite the removal process.”  The soldiers forced the remaining Cherokee refugees into stockades at bayonet point while white settlers looted their villages. About 20,000 Cherokees marched westward at gunpoint more than 1,200 miles. Diseases, dysentery, and starvation were rampant along the way.  More than 5,000 Cherokee, nearly a quarter, would die, with the remainder left to seek survival in a territory totally foreign to them.

By 1840 the deed was done.

Tens of thousands of Native Americans had been forced off of their lands. The government promised their new territory would remain untouched forever, but of course history tells us how that went.  As white settlers pushed westward across the Mississippi, “Indian Country” would shrink yet again.  According to legend, the white Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia, grew everywhere a tear fell on the sad Trail of Tears. The flowers continue to grow wildly along many of the trails the Native American tribes took on their long journey westward.

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Agatha Christie

agatha-christieOn a cold winter’s night in 1926, 36-year-old mystery novelist Agatha Christie vanished from her English estate in Berkshire without a trace! Around 9.30 p.m. on December 3rd, Christie kissed her 7 year-old daughter Rosalind goodnight and went back downstairs. Instead of retiring herself, she climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile and drove off into the dark countryside. She would not be seen again for 11 days.

Agatha Christie was already one of the most famous mystery writers in all the world. So her disappearance sparked one of the largest manhunts in English history. Her car was found empty on a steep slope at the edge of a quarry, not far from her home.  Its hood was up and lights still on. Inside was Christie’s fur coat and driver’s license. But there was no sign of Agatha herself, and no evidence of an accident.

Authorities suspected foul play, maybe even murder!

News of the famous novelist’s disappearance spread quickly, and a massive manhunt was organized.  A thousand police officers and 15,000 volunteers combed the English countryside. Dredge teams scoured the surrounding lakes, ponds and rivers. Biplanes searched from the air – the first ever in England’s history for a missing person.

Even fellow mystery writers contributed to the hunt. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries was an avid occultist. He gave one of Christie’s hand gloves to a London medium in hopes that the “Spirit World” might provide a clue. Alas, it did not.

By the end of the week, Christie’s disappearance was making headlines around the world. Newspapers had a field day, inventing lurid theories as to what might have happened. After all, it was the perfect story, with all the elements of one of her own mysteries. Suicide seemed unlikely for her career was as lucrative as ever. Doubters proclaimed the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborate publicity stunt, a clever ploy to sell more of her novels. Others hinted at a far more sinister plot …

Who could have abducted the Queen of Mystery?

Suspicions fell upon Christie’s older husband, Colonel Archie Christie, a former World War I pilot. It seemed the retired Colonel had struck up an affair with a much younger woman by the name of Nancy Neele. The philanderer made no attempt to hide his affair from his wife, or anyone else for that matter. On the day of Agatha’s disappearance, the Christie’s had quarreled after Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend with his mistress rather than his wife! Did that argument lead to murder?

Agatha Christie remained missing for 11 days. Then suddenly, on December 14th, she was finally found – not in a roadside ditch but safe and well, hiding away at the elegant Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, England.  She was eventually recognized by one of the hotel’s musicians, who alerted the local police. They quickly informed her husband. Colonel Christie came to collect Agatha, but she was in no hurry to leave. She kept her husband waiting at the bar while she changed into a travelling dress.

It seemed Agatha had registered under the name Theresa Neele from Cape Town, South Africa, using the last name of her husband’s mistress no less.  The circumstances raised more questions than answers. Christie herself was unable or unwilling to provide any clues. She claimed she remembered nothing of the night she disappeared. It was left to the police to piece together what might have happened. They concluded that Agatha Christie had abandoned her malfunctioning car and boarded a train to Harrogate. Upon arrival, she checked into the Swan under an assumed name with almost no luggage.

This particular plot twist shocked the public.

Some suggested darker motives – suicidal depression or a clever scheme to frame Archie and his mistress for murder. Others surmised an upset Christie merely sought to shame her cheating husband.  Agatha Christie never spoke publicly about those missing days. Her husband said she’d suffered total memory loss as a result of a car crash.  Psychiatrists suggested she been in  a ‘fugue’ state or trance, brought on by the trauma or depression of her husband’s affair.  She never discussed the matter in interviews and the incident does not appear in her own autobiography.

In the days after her return, the author blamed her vanishing on a mysterious state, in which she took on an entirely new identity: “For 24 hours I wandered in a dream, and then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come in from South Africa.”

Christie made a full recovery and soon took to her typewriter once again. But she would no longer tolerate her husband’s philandering. Agatha divorced the Colonel in 1928 and later remarried.  Today the only person who truly knows what happened in those lost eleven days is long gone. Alas, Agatha Christie left us a mystery even Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple would find unsolvable.

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What Caused Siberia’s Mysterious Tunguska Blast?

tunguskaOn 30 June 1908, around 7 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped through the quiet air above a remote Siberian forest at the Tunguska River. A fireball erupted 100 meters wide, destroying 2,000 sq km of the taiga forest, flattening about 80 million trees as if they were twigs!  The earth trembled and windows shattered in villages over 60 km distant. Locals were blown off their feet, the intense heat felt like their clothes were on fire. The ear piercing sound that followed was described as a thousand guns firing.

The Tunguska area was sparsely populated so no eye witnesses were near ground zero. No reports of human casualties were ever recorded, though hundreds of charred reindeer carcasses were discovered by shocked locals.  Whatever the so called “Tunguska Event” was, it produced about 200 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Seismic rumbles were detected as far away as England.  The Tunguska region is a remote area with long harsh winters and short summers, when the ground thaws into a deep muddy swamp. So even after the event, nobody ventured to the site to investigate. There was some mention in local papers, but nothing in St Petersburg or Moscow.

Over a century later, researchers are still asking the question:

What in the hell happened at Tunguska?

Many are convinced it was an asteroid or comet. But very few traces of such a large object have ever been found, fueling many more crazier theories.   It was only in 1927, that a Russian team finally ventured to remote Siberia. When they arrived, the damage was still apparent, almost 20 years later. They found a 50 km area of flattened trees in a strange Butterfly shape. The leader proposed a meteor had exploded in the atmosphere above the forest. It puzzled them however, that there was no impact crater like in Arizona, or any meteor fragments. They theorized the swampy ground was too soft to preserve whatever had hit it.

Russian researchers later declared it was a comet not a meteor. As comets are largely made of ice, the absence of fragments or a crater would make more sense. But that was not the end of the debate. Bizarre alternative theories soon began to pop up like alien mushrooms. One suggested the cause was matter and antimatter somehow colliding. Another that a Russian nuclear explosion caused the blast. Still another felt it was somehow linked to Nikola Tesla’s Death Ray experiments a half a world away in the US. A 1973 a paper suggesting that a Black Hole collided into Earth! Locals thought it was a thunderous visitation of their god Ogdy.  And of course where would we be without a conspiracy theory of an alien spaceship crash like Roswell. We may never know if the Tunguska Event was meteor, comet or something more exotic.

A 1958 expedition discovered tiny remnants high in nickel, a known element in meteors.  In 2013, researchers analyzed rocks collected from a layer of peat dating back to 1908. They determined the  rocks did indeed have a meteoric origin.  So today the consensus is that the Tunguska Event was likely caused by an asteroid or comet, colliding with Earth’s atmosphere.  Our atmosphere is highly efficient at protecting our planet. It breaks apart the vast majority of meteors. The process is similar to a chemical explosion where the energy is transformed into heat,  In other words, any remnants were instantly turned into cosmic dust . This would explain the lack of large chunks or impact crater. To create a blast with the energy of Tunguska, the object would have needed to be 10 times the size of the Titanic!.

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