Tremors From the Past

At 9:45 a.m. on November first, 1755, the waters in the Rio Tejo emptied into the Atlantic Ocean, dropping the depth as much as six feet. The first tremor had toppled buildings and sent throngs of people into the streets and down to the docks seeking safety. There, the astonished crowds looked down at the muddy bottom of the river. Interspersed with millions of flopping fish, were shipwrecks, treasures, trash, and bones - all the evidence of 2,500 years of human occupation – revealing themselves in a slimy gore, a view never before afforded to the residents of the ancient city of Lisbon.

Twenty minutes later, a wall of water rushed across the exposed bar and filled the river back up again, taking all the ships and half the city along with it.

In Salamanca, only 240 miles to the northeast of Lisbon, the New Cathedral was badly damaged from the massive quakes that shook all of Europe. The Late Gothic church had only recently been completed after over 200 years of patient work. Now, the beautiful stained-glass windows were shattered, statues had fallen hundreds of feet from their perches, cracks appeared in walls, and the large tower was leaning.

Slowly, bit by bit, over the next 237 years, the cathedral would be restored. Each successive mason, sculptor and stonecutter would add his loving hands to the project in his own unique way. One artist in particular though, signed his work with a mark that sent tremors reverberating around the world all over again.

Tourists stopping at the west entrance of the cathedral, the “Door of Branches,” were the first to spot it. Rumors flew as fast as the internet could carry them. It was only later revealed that the astronaut was a contemporary addition and not evidence of alien contact.


Saint Anthony's Fire?

Samuel rose early on Thursday morning for his class. His head was pounding and even in the pre-dawn darkness, he noticed his vision was blurred.

He had been feeling off-kilter for days. His legs and arms were sore, as if he’d been working in the fields. Beer was the only thing to cure him for the moment. As a matter of fact, it had never tasted better to him.

“I’ve got to start drinking a little less... no, I think getting to bed a little earlier will suffice for now... no need to overreact...”

Many of his neighbors mentioned feeling the same way too, even vomiting. Some were having horrible dreams; dreams of being strangled by velvety-charcoal-black men. The pastor had been preaching about how the devil had taken root in town. The baker was complaining to Samuel about an infestation; only Samuel found no sign of any vermin. Nonetheless, the baker continued to scratch and itch so much, his hair was falling out and the skin was peeling off his fingertips.

Outside, Samuel could hear the sounds of the city of Basel coming to life on August 7th, 1566. The sun was just beginning to poke it’s fiery crown above the horizon. He grabbed a hunk of dark rye bread from the table and opened the door.

He almost fell over when he beheld the supernatural event taking place in the skies outside. Vibrating black orbs were zooming through the air and towards the sun. Some made sharp turns and ignited into red blazes before fizzling out. Others crashed into each other, almost as if in a battle, and ricocheted off into the distance before reforming and rushing back from over the horizon.

Samuel Coccius missed his class that morning, having spent several hours watching the sight in awe.


Big Red

A 1968 quarter flipped heads over tails through the air and was snagged in its descent by the massive hand of a New York stockbroker, Ogden Phipps. He shut his fingers tight around the coin and thrust a clenched fist towards the octogenarian across from him. With eyebrows raised and slightly quivering in anticipation, he looked his partner in the eyes.

“Call it ...”

Christopher Chenery pulled his hands from his pockets and folded them across his chest. It really wasn’t that big of a decision, but with 50 years of breeding horses behind him, he still felt he had some part to play in the deal. He stared at the hairy knuckles on the outstretched hand for a moment and cracked his tongue against his teeth.

“Heads,” he said from out of the side of his mouth.

Ogden smiled and at last let out a long whistling breath. He slowly rotated his closed hand so it was finger-side up. With a suddenness that made Christopher blink, Ogden snapped his fingers open to reveal the coin.

In a moment where the concept of “winner” would be turned on its head, Ogden Phipps of Wheatley Stable was given the first choice of the offspring of the champion thoroughbred Bold Ruler.

The next year, Christopher fell ill. It would be his daughter Penny that would make the “loser’s” choice and welcome into her Meadow Stables a hungry chestnut colt with a star on its forehead and a sock missing from its front leg. The rest is history.


When Secretariat was autopsied on October 4th, 1989, the veterinarian was shocked to find that the horse with the biggest heart in the history of racing literally had the biggest heart in the history of racing, twenty-one pounds, more than twice the average size.


One at a Time

At the door to Toebbens factory, Henia Koppel squeezed and kissed her six-month-old daughter as if for the last time. She had already done it once but ran back to do it again.

As the high warning of the work-whistle sounded, the green-eyed blonde kissed the child on the forehead, handed her off to a friend and staggered inside to her sewing station. It took all the strength and hope in her soul not to crumble to the ground. As she sat down at her post, her hands shook violently. The only way she could calm them was by pulling out the little book that was tucked in her breast pocket, beneath the big yellow star she was now forced to wear.

If she ever escaped from this madness, she would use that little book, a checkbook for a bank account in Switzerland, to start a new life for the two of them. Henia would find no new life though, executed on November 3, 1943, with 15,000 others in the Poniatowa labor camp.

Back outside, Henia’s friend wandered the filthy, crowded streets, eventually stopping in a construction site. There, she produced a little vial from her pocket and poured its contents down the throat of the babbling infant. Within a few minutes, the babe was sound asleep.

At her feet was a wooden tool box. She placed the child inside and headed back out into the streets, waving to a deliveryman on his way in.

The man casually picked up the box, placed it amidst a load of bricks on the back of his truck and drove unsuspected through the checkpoint.

Thanks to Irena Sendler and the Żegota, nearly 3,000 Jewish children like Elżbieta Ficowska would escape the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, one at a time.


Proof Enough for Joe

April 21st, 1895 was an unusually muggy night in the little round house at Talisay. Two lovers tossed and turned in their sleep, the events of the last two nights still fitfully weighing upon their receptive minds.

Josephine woke to the sound of shattering glass and bolted forward in the bed. On the table by the door a lantern was burning brightly.

“Who’s there?” she whispered.

The man lying next to her stirred and reached for her, still in a half-sleep. Finding his hand on an empty pillow, he opened his eyes and saw Josephine silhouetted against the brilliant lamp.

“What is it my darling,” he asked, rising to her side, “is it happening again?”

Josephine nodded and tears flashed in her eyes, “I think it’s my father ... Oh Joe! I think he’s died and it’s all my fault! Father?”

The house was silent and Josephine sat staring at that lamp, thinking about her adoptive father. She thought it was only for effect that he put the razor to his throat. But how he begged her when she left him to come back to Dapitan; a moment filled with what seemed an eternity of tears and recriminations. How he sobbed.

She came back to the present when Joe nudged her, “Keep talking to it! Find out!”

Josephine crossed herself and cleared her throat before speaking.

“In God’s name, I ask you what you want …”

There was a slight pause before the teapot, saucers, and cups flew off the washstand in a high arc and showered down on Josephine.

Two years later, Josephine Bracken mourned again. This time for the loss of her “Joe” - Jose Rizal, the nationalistic spirit behind the Philippine’s revolt against its Spanish masters, who came to recognize with her “the immortality of the soul.”


Story of O

There was a bright full moon on March 10th, 1894, covered by a thin layer of clouds that dispersed its light into an eerie halo. Spring had come early but on this night, the temperature was dropping towards freezing and ice crystals hung in the still air.

Beneath an enormous oak, three figures worked furiously with picks and shovels in a hole already five feet deep. A half-emptied bottle of whiskey and an old yellowed map were propped nearby on a pile of rocky diggings.

“We should have hit upon it by now, Bill,” said one of the Daniels boys, slumping to his haunches and wiping away the cold beads of sweat from his temples.

“Have another swig,” William grunted, “the professor said sixty years of floods would have added at least another foot.”

“Imagine, sixteen thousand doubloons ... how much is that in today’s money again?”

“About a quarter milli ...” William was cut short by an unearthly shriek from the trees across Shoal Creek.

The three men stiffened, raised their heads above the edge of the pit and peered out into the misty landscape.

“What the hell was that?” William whispered.

The others didn’t answer. They just listened, shaking in the cold.

A second screech, louder, echoed beneath the thickening dome of clouds and sent a fresh spike of terror up their spines. The moonlight dimmed and the shadows beneath the old oak grew darker and fatter.

The three men scrambled from the ditch and stared out into the frosty nothingness until a chorus of horrifying screams broke their trances. They ran then, as fast as they could, leaving everything behind them.

After this incident, William Sydney Porter, better known as O Henry, gave up his treasure hunting and settled down to doing what he did best – writing.


A Secret Mission

Just before four in the morning on October 17th, 1859, six horsemen approached the Bellair Mansion of Lewis Washington. They had ridden the 4 miles from Harper’s Ferry at a brisk pace to complete their final orders before sun-up.

When they arrived at the path leading to the house, they dismounted and walked on quiet feet around to the rear. Two men broke off and headed for the carriage house while the others stopped on the porch. One of them pried loose a fence rail and with a helper, smashed it into the flimsy back door. It swung open and off its hinges and it slammed to the parquet floor. Another man lit a flambeau and led the way as the group scurried in, calling for “Colonel Washington …” in ghostlike baritone voices.

The flickered brilliance of the torch-light cast deep shadows below Washington’s raised eyebrows and downturned eyelids as he opened the door from within the master bedroom.

“What is it? Who’s there?” he probed the intruders before noticing the raised handguns pointing at his heart.

“You’ll find out soon enough, but for now, consider yourself our prisoner,” one of them said, “and I’m sure you recognize me by now, so you should know what I’m here for, retrieve it please … and dress yourself …”

By sunrise, Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grand-nephew of the first President of the United States, was being held hostage inside the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Across from him, looking out the corner of the window, was a tall old man. In his eyes was the vengeful fury of an Old-Testament prophet and in his hands was George Washington’s sword that was fabled to have come from Frederick the Great.

“With this blade will be won the freedom of a race,” John Brown said.


A National Bath

The representative-in-mission was growing more and more infuriated by the day. He had already done away with the pretense of trials but the number of “écume Nantais” being found kept climbing. All the jails were overflowing. He couldn’t hold or feed them all.

Jean-Baptiste Carrier had already been through this in Normandy and had had enough of it. There was no getting through to these backward country people who were no smarter than the bottom of his foot. So his Legion of Marat labored from sunset to sunrise each night guillotining or shooting groups of rebels from the Loire delta. They were growing as fatigued and impatient as he was.

He spoke out loud as he paced the sentry walk of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, “They need some reward for their hard work ... some entertainment.” He looked out over the early morning mists of where the Erdre and Sèvre tributaries converged upon the Loire and came up with an idea.

“And what these filthy Nantes scum need are baths ...”

On the evening of 24 Frimaire, year II, which was still whispered in parts of Nantes as December 14th, 1793, drunken guards at the Bouffay prison began carrying out their orders. They boisterously strolled through the cells, plucking prisoners at random. Men and women. Children.


“Time for your bath! You’re going to be re-baptized tonight!”

They were herded through the city and down to the port where they were loaded into skinny wooden barges. A priest and a nun were stripped naked and bound together before being tossed inside, “and it’ll be a Republican Marriage for the two of you!”

The barges were then towed into the middle of the river and sunk.

In four months, the Noyades de Nantes claimed over four thousand victims.


Fred's Big Role

It was Fred’s big day.

He was always known as a joker. Always ready with a gag. Today, his antics would make him a star.

In the restroom of the small Black Maria movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey, he prepared himself. Standing before a full length mirror, he practiced his role - a very simple routine, a basic plot, starring just himself, but he had to get it just right.

He rubbed his eyes and twitched his nose from side to side several times and then all of a sudden, he reared back and let out a terrific sneeze.

“Oh, that won’t do,” he said to himself silently. Straightening his tie, he began again.

During his next attempt, he sneezed again.

He repeated his performance over and over until at last, he thought he had nailed it.

The director stuck his head into the lavatory, “Ready Freddy?”

“I’d say so. I’m starting to get dizzy. We’d better do this before I fall over! Just let me clean up.”

“Yeah, you got a little thing on your lip there ...” the director said and ducked back out.

Fred wiped his reddening eyes with a handkerchief and smoothed his thick brown moustache with water from the sink. He considered for a moment, twirling it into a handlebar but there wasn’t the time. So he buttoned his vest, his lucky vest that he chose especially for today’s performance, and straightened his tie that was pulled into a fat knot high on his neck, and he walked out of the bathroom and into history.

Fred Ott’s five second documentary performance was captured by Kinetograph on Eastman Kodak film for the Edison Manufacturing Company. On January 9th, 1894, it was filed at the Library of Congress and became the first copyrighted motion picture.