The Midnight Ride

Dr. Warren knew that the British were about to march on Concord. There was a store of arms there that was in jeopardy of being seized but what concerned him was that Adams and Hancock were in hiding in nearby Lexington. The redcoats would surely discover them. He had to send warning, before the soldiers prohibited all travel.

The rider barely made it out of Boston before the roads closed. At ten in the evening, under the bright full moon, he headed south across the narrow Boston Neck and slowly passed the guards who had become accustomed to seeing him. He rode through the forbidding wooden gate built into the earthenworks that funneled the road to a little tunnel and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the familiar gallows where so many were being executed in these days.

It was hard for him to not push his horse into a gallop. His adrenaline was pumping and he wanted to get away. Fast. But he kept his composure and stayed at a leisurely cantor until the gate disappeared behind him into the distance. Only then did he dig his heels into his Narragansett Pacer and begin his history-making seventeen mile ride through Roxbury, Brookline, Cambridge, Menotomy, and finally Lexington.

Back in Boston, two lanterns were on display in the tower at the Old North Church.

When the rider dismounted at the Clarke-Hancock house in Lexington shortly after midnight on April 19th, 1776, he found another horse already tied up. He recognized it at once, a little chestnut mare named Brown Betty. It seemed well rested.

William Dawes knocked at the back door of the house and in a moment the door cracked. Two blinking eyes peered out.

“Oh, it’s you,” said Paul Revere, “I’ve been here just thirty minutes.”


Second Class Ecstasy

“Look Father, there goes Noah! No smoking on his ark, either!” a man running by yelled and laughed hysterically.

“I’ll see you at confession, you … just wait for your penance! You won’t be so amused!” Father Finelli screamed back. But the man didn’t hear him, the sound of the rain crashing on the stones drowned out everything.

Rome’s streets were rivers. The rain had lasted through the night and showed no signs of abating. Every sensible person was inside. But across the street from the new church of Sant'Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, beneath the arches of the Mausoleum of Augustus, two soaked priests were pushing themselves flat against the wall, trying to keep their pipes lit in the downpour.

“This is madness!” Father Finelli shouted, “Let’s go to the ambulatory, no one will be there to humiliate us. Besides, we’ll light some incense to cover it up!”

“And risk excommunication?! No, Father … You know, we could always quit …” Father Signetti remarked.

“What?! Really? Would you really quit the Church over this? Well … I don’t know … let me think about it, Father.”

“Father Finelli! No! I mean we could quit this smoking! Father, honestly!”

“Oh … of course,” Father Finelli said in a nasaly voice and let out a horrific sneeze.

“God bless you, Father. Would like to confess to me here?” Father Signetti said with a smirk.

“Very funny, Father.”

The two priests smacked their pipes against the wall, tucked them into their cassocks and ran out again into the rain, late for Matins.

It was December 8th, 1624, and Religious were still adjusting to Pope Urban VIII’s decree prohibiting the consumption of tobacco on Church property, enforced by threat of excommunication. The good pope equated the sneezing it caused with improper sexual ecstasy.


The First

On New Year’s Eve of 1891, the steamship Nevada slowly eased it’s way into New York Harbor as the last spindles of the setting winter sun broke across the faces of the people on it’s crowded decks. A swarm of tugs and barges buzzed around her hull, tossing lines and messages and packages back and forth like a queen bee being tended to by her drones.

“It looks closed,” Anthony said.

“Does that mean we have to go back to Cork?” asked his little brother Phillip, making a face as if about to cry.

“That’s right, pickaninny, we’re going to have to sell you to the dockrats in Queenstown just to survive. Sorry, but you’ll have to change your name to Oliver,” Anthony said to him with a scowl.

“Stop calling me that! And you’re a liar! Isn’t he Annie?”

Annie slapped Anthony on the back of his head, knocking his cap over the rail and into the water. “And you be nice to Phillip or I’ll tell them you have cholera or syphilis and they’ll never let you in.”

Anthony made a sour face at his sister and leaned over the rail to watch his cap float sternward in the grey foamy wake. He walked a few steps away following it.

“Does mummy know we’re here?” Phillip asked Annie.

“Of course, she does. And tomorrow morning she’ll be here with daddy to meet us. It’s the grand opening tomorrow.”

“It’s been a long time, Annie. What if they forgot us?” Phillip asked, beginning to work himself into tears again.

“We’ll be fine, love, we’ve made it this far, haven’t we?” Annie said, ruffling his dirty hair.

“Happy birthday,” Phillip said.

At 8 a.m. the next day, Annie Moore was the first in line at the newly opened Ellis Island.

A Very Heady Magazine

A torn copy of Blackwood’s Magazine sat on a chair at the surgeon’s office. Like most reading material found in a doctor’s waiting room, it was horribly out of date. This particular issue was over a year old and had seen better days. The doctor however, wasn’t keen on getting rid of it just yet. It had come in quite handy for one of his patients.

Although the writing was, as usual, sharp and biting, there was nothing especially notable in this magazine. Coleridge, Shelley, Conrad and Eliot, and many, many famous others had been or would be published in Blackwood’s. Not in this issue. There was no great literary work waiting to be found behind it’s stern cover.

It was thick, though. Plenty of material to keep a lonely man far from home occupied for days at a time. Now, as William, assistant surgeon for the Army of the British East India Company, lay on the operating table receiving stitches for the gash on his head, he was certain he’d gotten his full use out of it.

Just over a week before, William was among a contingent of British soldiers retreating from Kabul under what they thought to be safe passage. William stuffed his copy of Blackwood’s Magazine under his hat to help against the biting wind, and he and fifteen thousand other men, women and children departed in the winter cold for Jalalabad, 90 miles away. Over the next week, nearly every single one of them died at the hands of raiding Afghani tribesmen.

When the reaper came wielding a sword and hacked down upon the crown of William’s head, the secreted copy of Blackwood’s absorbed the blow.

On January 13th, 1842, William Brydon arrived, alone, alive, at the gates of Jalalabad. His horse fell dead beneath him.


The Last One

It was six o’clock and the barber shop was closing. Tuone Udaina put the broom away, wiped his hands on a crisp white towel, and stepped out into the warm Adriatic air of Veglia, his island home.

Deaf and toothless, the old man was usually grumpy. His friends, the few that remained, called him a goat. He wasn’t grumpy on this night though. He was thinking about another friend.

Maybe not a friend in the common usage of the word but a new companion nonetheless. His name was Matteo, and he and Tuone spent many hours at his barbershop talking about times gone by. About his life. About Dalmatia. Tuone liked him because he was genuinely interested. He felt important around Matteo.

As Tuone took his usual route home, up the hill and across the winding road, he thought about what he could tell Matteo at their next meeting. He laughed to himself remembering a little fight that his parents had when he was a child. They didn’t know that he was hiding in the closet, listening to every word. He would tell Matteo about that one. About the funny little word that his mother called his father that day.

Tuone crested the top of the hill and saw his path blocked. He forgot they were building a new road. He would either have to go back down the hill and take the long way through town or else wind his way around the heaps of broken stones and timbers until he reached the path. He chose the latter.

Unbeknownst to Tuone, a nameless anarchist had come across a discarded Ottoman land mine that day and decided to plant it amidst the rubble. Tuone stepped on it.

On June 10th, 1898, Tuone died and the Dalmatian language went with him.


God Given

On January 21st, 1941, Greek and British soldiers were involved in a desperate counteroffensive to keep Mussolini from occupying Greece. The struggle was taking place near Thessaloniki but in Athens, life still went on. There was an opera to be heard – Boccaccio.

Waiting in the wings to make her professional debut was a nineteen year old girl named Sophia. Her role as Beatrice was only a minor one but she was thrilled to be part of it all. She hoped she wouldn’t get stage-fright again. There were so many people. Slightly overweight and wearing extremely large glasses, she was quite a contrast to the glamorous sopranos giggling behind her.

Nafsika Galanou and Zozo Remoundou were the stars. And they weren’t very nice. Shortly before it was time for Sophia to take the stage, the two began to whisper. Not quite loud enough for Sophia to understand what was being said, but she knew they were talking about her. When she spun around to look, they stopped and pursed their lips. When she turned away, they laughed.

Sophia tried to ignore them and poked her head around the curtain to look at the audience. A mistake. She felt dizzy. Her fear was coming back. She’d never be able to sing with all those people staring down on her. The two pairs of jealous eyes to stage-right would only harass her.

And then the advice of her friend Galatea came back to her. “Just blur it out,” she would say, “pretend you’re the only one out there. Make it your own world.”

And that’s what she did. She blurred it out. Sophia, better known to the world as Maria Callas, removed her glasses and stepped out onto the stage, her severe myopia preventing her from seeing anything but shapes beyond her nose.


The Caulbearer

“It’s a boy!” the midwife shouted.

King Gustav celebrated. At last, he would have a son to replace him on the throne. But the celebration on this 18th of December, 1626, didn’t last long. One by one, the cheers of the royal court died down until Gustav was the last one singing.

A chill shot up his spine and he turned towards the door to see the midwife standing silently crying.

“My God ... Does the boy not breathe?” the King cautiously asked the old woman.

“No, your majesty, it’s not that ...” she replied, quivering.

Gustav erupted, “I can see it in your eyes! Don’t lie to me! I see your shaking hands, damn you!”

“Your majesty, the child came out in a caul ... and covered from head to toe with so much hair that we thought for sure ... we didn’t know ... we assumed ... even your astronomers said that ...”

From behind her could be heard a deep bellow which turned into a masculine cry.

Gustav’s eyebrows rose. “Out with it, damn you!”

“Your majesty ... I’m sorry ... It’s a girl,” the midwife finally revealed and she braced herself for a blow.

Gustav’s jaw slackened. “A girl! Is that it?”

The midwife peeked at the king. Seeing his anger subside, she said, “Yes, sire. But if you please, let us clean her before you see her.”

King Gustav roared with delight.

“Already, she’s made fools of us! A daughter! And clever! Perhaps it’s fitting if we continued her game and raised her as a boy then, eh?!” he mischievously remarked to his relieved group.

Christina of Sweden, the hairy little child born in a "victory jacket,” would continue to surprise the world, all the way up until her eventual burial in Saint Peter’s Basilica.


Looking for Work

On the morning of January 29th, 1920, Walter sat at his kitchen table flipping through the Kansas City Star looking for work. He had been laid off by Pesmen-Ruben almost two months ago and he was getting very nervous. Although he and his friend Ubbe had started their own “Laugh-o-Gram” business it wasn’t making money. And the temporary job at the post office hardly kept him in stale bread.

He didn’t want to have to move back to Chicago. His father would never let him live it down. He could already hear the “I told you so” speech.

“Jelly ... really. Jelly. What am I going to do? Go back and run the bottle-washer?” he said to himself, growing more frustrated at the thought of failing.

He lit his pipe and sat back in the chair with his hands behind his head. He had picked up the smoking habit from his father but really developed it while he was in France, driving for the Red Cross. If there was one thing an injured soldier wants, besides morphine, it’s a smoke. And Walter was always obliging with his tobacco. Somehow, he never seemed to run out. And somehow, he always seemed to have a few coins in his pocket too. He never had to worry about things like money, which is what made his predicament now all the more disconcerting.

He leaned back over the table and slid the newspaper towards him. And then there it was. Right there in black and white, under his nose. He didn’t notice it before.

“Hmmm ...”

WANTED: First Class Man for the Kansas City Slide Company, manufacturing and illustrating advertisement slides for motion picture houses. Serious enquiries should be directed to Mr. A. V. Cauger.

With that, Walt Disney began his career drawing cartoons.


Burdensome to the World

On December 26th, 210, Tertullian looked from his window out onto the crowded streets of Carthage. All that he saw was poverty, disease and vice. A servant knocked at his door and offered him a bowl of grapes. The rebel priest, recently excommunicated, dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

“Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance,” he said. “I will continue my fast and so shall you. Give the fruit to the wretched knocking at the church’s doors.”

The servant nodded and departed to a side room where he promptly proceeded to stuff as many of the grapes into his tiny mouth as he could.

A small earthquake had just struck the North African city, not a catastrophic one, but combined with the famine, there was a panic. It had killed maybe thirty or forty. Numerous buildings collapsed, destroying the scant possessions of the throngs of poor. They had nowhere to go and were wandering around aimlessly calling for their missing loved ones.

“I’ve done as you asked, Father,” the servant said when he returned a few minutes later, his teeth and chin stained purple.

Tertullian stared mournfully at him for a few seconds and turned back to the window.

“When I look out onto the slum that was once Carthage, all my eyes see is our teeming population. Our numbers are burdensome to the world. In fact, pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy, as the means of pruning the abundance of the human race.”

A few days later, life was back to normal. The world’s population was 190 million.

When the tsunami struck Southeast Asia on December 26th, 2004, it killed over 225, 000 people.

The surviving six and a half billion in the world continued on with their lives.


A Fish and Onion Lunch

On September 11th, 1636, a short fat sailor bobbed his way along the quay at the port of Amsterdam. He had just come from delivering news of the arrival of a valuable cargo to a very wealthy merchant and was rewarded with a nice herring to take for his lunch. The onion that he discovered sitting on the table with the silks and velvets was a bonus that would add nicely to his meal. He loved onions.

He found a thick coil of old mooring lines not far from the receiving house and reclined right in the middle. The sun was shining brightly and a light salty breeze made the afternoon supremely pleasant. He smiled as he unwrapped the fish and laid it across his lap. He loved herring.

He dug his finger into the side of the fish and pulled out a thick bony chunk and popped it into his mouth. It was delicious. It felt good to be home. He had been away at sea for almost three years. As he ripped another hunk of herring, he wondered if Maartje was still as beautiful as when he last saw her. He loved Maartje.

“Whoops! Can’t forget this!” he said aloud and reached into his pocket and produced the onion. It was fairly small but he bit it in half anyway. It had a unique taste that went well with the herring.

When the irate merchant arrived a few minutes later with a group of soldiers, the last of the priceless Semper Augustus tulip bulb was making it’s way down the sailor’s gullet.

Usually, truth is stranger than fiction. The ridiculous, sublime. Whether this tale is true or not, you can always count on human nature. And in this case, the nature of man was to fill his belly.


The Crunchy Kind

The blaze was a picture of hell. It was April 14th, 1975. Just after midnight. The gluttonous fire stretched it’s fingers high into the dark sky, reaching for more to consume, to devour. It’s hunger was unquenchable. But soon there was nothing more. By the time the catastrophe at the Medford campus was over, the cost was incalculable. Irreplaceable specimens, books, antiques, artwork, Americana – gone. Those reporting for work in the morning could still smell the smoky aroma of history in the air. And although no one had died, there was unfortunately still one body to count.

Phyllis Byrne was an administrative assistant at the University’s athletic department and that body was the first thing on her mind when she tearfully witnessed the scene at what was only the day before Barnum Hall. Frantic, she ran to her office and told everyone the news. George Wilson, a maintenance man at the university, was passing through and stopped in a corner to listen to what Phyllis was describing. She noticed him there and rushed over to him.

“You’ve got to save those ashes!” she pleaded.

“What?” a startled George responded.

“Yes ... This is important ... You’ve got to get those ashes!” Phyllis said again and began rushing around the office, looking on desks and opening cabinets. Finally she found what she was looking for and shoved it into George’s hands.

At first George just stood there, but as he looked into Phyllis’s eyes, he knew she was serious. He turned and hurried out, carrying a large empty jar of crunchy-style peanut butter under his arm.

Today, whenever Tufts University sports teams take the field, they still stop to rub the jar for luck. Inside, along with who-knows-what-else, are the powdery remains of P. T. Barnum’s wonderful donation – Jumbo the elephant.


Bridging the Gap

When Johann Pachelbel died in 1706, his contributions to the music world were thought to be complete. The organ tradition, the choral prelude, the fugue – all were triumphantly advanced by the baroque genius, heavily influencing future greats such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. However, neither Pachelbel, nor any musician, composer, or student of music history could have guessed that he would help to make one final contribution to our culture – almost 300 years later.

On December 20th, 2005, someone by the nom de plume of “guitar90” found an interesting musical video and uploaded it to a new internet database. In the video, a black screen opens with the words “Canon, composed by Johann Pachelbel. Arranged by JerryC. Played by funtwo.” The familiar cello and violin opening of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major begins. The blackness then opens to reveal a mysterious figure with a ball cap pulled down over his eyes. He is sitting on a bed, holding a guitar.

And then he begins.

For the next five minutes, “funtwo” engages in a spectacular display of guitar mastery, adapting Pachelbel’s opus to a modern standard. During the entire performance, the unknown musician never raises his head, never gives a hint of his identity. The only clue to unmasking the virtuoso is his pinky finger. While most guitarists can’t help but use it to support the guitar during frenetic riffs, “funtwo” lets his pinky float, undulating, conducting, almost dancing. This little clue was to help sift through the many imposters.

Tens of millions of fans soon marveled at the ability of Jeong-Hyun Lim, a 23-year-old from South Korea, as he and Pachelbel bridged the gap between past and present and ushered in a new era of communication. They both helped launch the popularity of a new start-up video-sharing website called Youtube.


A Joyful Ending

On May 7th, 1824, the Imperial and Royal Court Theater of Vienna was a tinderbox ready to explode. The air was both stifling and deafening but those fortunate enough to be in the audience were on the edge of their seats holding their breath. Their hearts were racing, pounding in their throats. White hankies and black hats danced and spouted into the air like foam from waves breaking hard on a rocky shore.

On stage amidst the frenzy were two of the most promising and well-known operatic voices of their time, contralto Caroline Unger and soprano Henriette Sontag. But they were not the reason for all the excitement in the air. Directing the orchestra was the Kapellmeister, Michael Umlauf, also celebrated in Vienna as a genius composer. But he wasn’t the focus of the mania either. As a matter of fact, even the orchestra was ignoring him.

The object drawing the attention of the audience, not to mention the orchestra, was an aging white-haired man standing in the front row. He was completely deaf and dying the slow death of lead. But he certainly was not dead yet. His eyes were closed tight and sweat shot from his hair as he flung his head to and fro in accompaniment to the music. His arms were like snakes, coiling and stretching this way and that as if he himself was playing every instrument in his mind. He was in another world.

When the orchestra reached their final note, the anxious crowd sprang to it’s feet in a stupendous roar. But Ludwig van Beethoven was still in the throes of conducting his Ninth Symphony, several measures behind the exhausted musicians. Caroline Unger gently took Beethoven in her arms and turned him around to see the adoring mass. He cried tears of joy.