The Barber's Restless Night

“Just a little off the top,” the barber directed.

His apprentice dipped a sponge into the pot of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine. He dragged it across the surface of the mixture, picking up the floating vital portions.

“Is this enough?” he asked, holding it up to his tutor.

Ambroise looked helplessly over at the empty pot smoking in the coals. “Damn it, how could we have run out of oil?!”

Ambroise grabbed the dripping clump and rubbed it across the open pink flesh of the soldier on the stretcher beside him. He did the same for a dozen more that were brought to him in the mobile hospital, all victims of the new smoothbore rifles.

On March 31st, 1537, the Spanish and French were battling for control of Northern Italy. For months, the barber had been treating the poisonous arquebus wounds with the commonly-accepted medical procedure of the day, by cauterizing them with a boiling solution of elder oil. Ambroise believed wholly in its effectiveness, despite the additional agony that it caused.

When he was relieved for the night, he fell heavily into his bed. But he couldn’t sleep. The thought of those dozen men incorrectly-treated weighed heavily upon him. He could occasionally hear screams of pain issuing from the hospital. He lay awake all night. He expected to find those last patients mad with pain and infection in the morning.

At dawn, his apprentice ushered him to the cot of the first soldier he had treated with the new salve. He was sitting up, smiling. Across from him was another soldier, the last one he treated with the burning oil. He was writhing in pain.

The lack of “proper” supplies led Ambroise Paré, barber-surgeon, on a humane path that revolutionized the previously barbarous practice of battlefield medicine.


Take Five - Images from Three Hundred Words

"What more can I do here below?"

Late in the afternoon on September 17th, 1705, Anne ran a shaky finger across the deep lines that grew below her eyes. “If God had to give a woman wrinkles, he might at least have put them on the soles of her feet, don’t you think Francois?” she said to her accountant.

“Why, you don’t look a day over seventy,” he said to her with a wink.

Anne had been conducting more and more of her day to day business in her bedroom, often still lying beneath the covers. She was tired and had resigned herself to mortality.

“Francois, I don’t have much longer,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Nonsense, madam!” he quickly countered, “Why, you’re still strong as...” But Anne was in no mood to be argued with.

“Stop!” she ordered. “Anyone who can see can tell... Both the Jansenists and the Jesuits are arguing over my soul... and I intend to die at least in the grace of one of them, they can fight over my corpse later... Francois, I’m making a new will... My funeral will be simple; I’m only leaving ten francs for it. That ought to show them there’s a bit of poverty in my soul. But to your son, I want to leave a little too. He’s been such good company, putting up with my locutions.”

“He’ll make a fine lawyer,” Francois said smiling.

“No, Francois!” Anne said with concern. “His mind is full of ideas. I know you’ll be sending him to college soon. Don’t burden him with rigidity. Let him think! The joy of the mind is the measure of its strength!”

When the famed courtesan, Anne "Ninon" de l'Enclos, died at age eighty-three a month later, she bequeathed 2,000 francs to François-Marie Arouet, the nine year old “Voltaire”, for which to buy books.


"I thought I would sail about a little..."

The Acushnet and the Lima spotted each other on the squall-filled evening of July 22nd, 1841, but it wasn’t until after sunrise the next morning that the boats could be lowered.

On a speck of blue ocean nine hundred miles west of the Galapagos, precisely in the middle of nowhere, yet very near to the exact location of a horrific incident that occurred two decades earlier, two whaling men met for a gam. One was hardly a man, only sixteen, and the other was a bit older but hardly a whaler. Nonetheless, the two shared a pipe in the foc’sle of the Lima and eventually the talk turned to their experiences. Neither had much to retell, for both were on their first hunt, yet they swapped stories (and gripes, as sailors are wont to do) for a few hours until the call came that the boats were leaving.

“Well, William, it’s been pleasant, this visit. What’s your family name so that I might tell your parents I met you when I return?”

“Chase, sir,” William replied, “but you needn’t bother. My father still sails these waters, he’s almost never back east.”

“Chase? Not the son of Owen Chase?”

“That’s right,” the boy said in a distant tone. “I suppose you know?”

“... I’ve heard ...”

“Just a minute then, before you go,” he said and opened a small locker beneath his bunk and produced a ragged book. “Here, take this. I heard the mate say we’ll be hunting together for a few days, just return it when we part.”

Herman Melville returned to the Acushnet with an original copy of "The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex" and absorbed half of the inspiration for what would become one of the greatest of American novels.


Uncovering a "Righteous Pagan"

Angelo swatted at the little wasp that kept hovering over his brush-hand. He winged it and it flew off in dizzying arcs until it crash-landed on a stack of parchments atop a bureau by the window.

It had been a long fruitless day for him and his eyes were tired. He rubbed them with his knuckles and rose and walked slowly towards the bureau. He looked down on the buzzing pest. It was on its side, one wing flapping manically; spinning. Angelo cracked the window and bent down to eye-level with the bug. He stared as it spun helplessly, for a minute feeling sorry for it.

“I know how you feel, little wasp… always going in circles …”

And then Angelo pressed his middle finger against his thumb and flicked the creature out the window.

He glanced down at the parchment from which he had launched the fly. It was obviously from a different subset than the group he had been working on. It peaked his interest.

“I suppose I have time for one more this evening,” he said to himself.

He dropped the parchment carelessly on his desk, sat down and dipped his brush into a little vial containing a mixture of sap and vitriol and beer. Sitting at the bottom was a yellowed oak gall. Noce di gallo.

As he lightly dragged his brush between the lines of an unfinished essay by Saint Augustine, some previously unseen letters suddenly rose to life –“DE RE PUBLICA.”

“It can’t be,” he said to himself and brushed a little more of the solution on and broke into a smile.

It was around January 5th, 1822, and the Monsignor in charge of the Secret Vatican Archives, Angelo Mai, had discovered through his relentless study of palimpsest restoration, the long-searched-for Republic by Cicero.


Broke, Alone, and Unpopular

The secretary came in and placed a newspaper upon the lap of the plum-colored man sitting at a small desk covered in wrinkled telegrams. He was hunched slightly forward and draping his shoulders was a mantle of red, black, and green. She turned to leave but was stopped by the man as he reached out and placed his hand on her arm.

The woman looked into his set of bloodshot eyes, barely visible below their drooping lids.


With some effort, he turned his whole body halfway across the chair and mumbled something softly to her. His voice trailed off several times before the secretary felt assured that he had finished his sentence. She didn’t understand a word he had said.

“I’ll check,” she said and walked towards the door. On her way out, she glanced at the two paintings that decorated the room. They faced each other on opposite walls. Both were of Napoleon Bonaparte, one recognizable as the Emperor of France. In the other though, the emperor was heavier, and he was a black man. He looked a lot like the pitiful man at the chair.

With one hand, the man took the newspaper from his lap and opened it. It was a May edition of the Chicago Defender. He slowly followed the right-hand column until he stopped at an obituary: “... died today; broke, alone, and unpopular.”

He crumpled in his chair.

On June 9th, 1940, in a small and dirty rental in West Kensington, London, Marcus Garvey – founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, owner of the Black Star shipping line, and deported “President of Africa” - suffered his second stroke, brought on by the shock of insults accompanying his premature obituaries. By the next morning, the papers would be able to accurately report his passing.


The Eternal Silence of Infinite Spaces

He was a man of pure reason. And when his father died and left him a fortune, he reasoned that a more comfortable life would better suit his pursuits. He took an extravagant home and filled it with servants. He bought a luxurious carriage pulled by a team of four expensive stallions. He took joy in himself and his promising life.

Inevitably, he surrounded himself with intellectuals who fed his pride, who listened to his theories. Libertines. Free in thought and free in morals. With them he chased the “Saphos” of Paris. Together they reveled in the freedoms permitted by a life of skepticism and doubt. He took to reading Montaigne and carried in his coat a copy of his Essays.

On a violently stormy evening in 1654, he was traveling by carriage through Neuilly-sur-Seine. As the horses started across the narrow bridge, a terrific bolt of lightning struck nearby and the team spooked and crashed into each other in fright. As if guided by an unseen master, they uniformly took to the right and the carriage tipped on two wheels. Just as the horses leaped over the low barrier and plunged towards the water, the carriage slammed down onto its side and the reins broke. The car lay precariously teetering halfway over the edge of the bridge. He looked down into the swirling river and fainted, asleep to the world for nearly six hours.

When the scientist, mathematician, inventor – the man of pure reason – died on August 19th, 1662, in his coat was found not a copy of Montaigne’s Essays, but instead a little parchment describing the vision that Blaise Pascal had during his blackout. The vision that led him to abandon his belief in reason and, like Paul sixteen centuries before, to instead wager his soul on faith.

... and rest under the shade of the trees.

Trickles of white light fell from the rising moon and dripped softly through the canopy of pines, illuminating the outlines of thirty mounted men that rode dangerously close to enemy lines. They were traveling in close-quarter and the horse’s hooves landed softly on the bed of needles that blanketed the forest floor. An occasional snap of a twig punctuated the silence. As they reached the Mountain Road, the group dug their heels in and the horses broke into a gallop. The sound of their charge reverberated like an advancing brigade.

“Halt! Who goes there?! Surrender yourselves!” came a cry.

But the whooshing wind across their ears kept the riders from hearing the warning. One rifle-shot crackled through the night, and then another.

“Pour it into them, boys!” a major yelled and a blind volley from the nervous regiment exploded upon the cavalrymen. Most of the balls whizzed harmlessly through the trees but there were enough on mark that a dozen horses fell and their riders skidded to their ends.

In the middle of the frenzy, Thomas whirled on his copper-red steed and made flight for the trees. He hurtled through the low-lying limbs and raised his arms to shield his face. A bullet ripped into his right hand and then two more through his left arm, one splitting the artery just below his shoulder joint. The intense pain blurred his vision and his head thundered as it smashed against the branch of a young oak. Still in his saddle, he crumpled forward and waited for the firing to cease.

Early in the morning on May 3rd, 1863, his left arm was amputated and subsequently buried. A week later, its owner, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, followed it into eternity, killed by his own men while returning from a reconnaissance mission.


The Modernizer

It was bedlam.

Alcohol arrived in endless quantities. The sound of hurdy-gurdies reverberated off the high ceilings. Jesters and clowns filled the hall, singing obscene songs. Goats and stags ran freely among the guests, knocking over servants and stealing food from the tables. Seventy-two dwarves burst forth from enormous meat pies that were strategically placed to throw the biggest mess upon the guests. They jumped from the dishes and rolled around the crowded floors in elaborate boat-costumes, punching and kicking each other as they reenacted the naval victories that brought about the official peace.

At the sound of trumpets the two main doors of the Winter Palace slammed open and the festivities paused. Gasps were quickly followed by thunderous laughter as a team of 24 harnessed bears strolled in, each mounted by a dwarf in a feathered cap. At the end of the train, tied to a wooden cart was a giant, nearly seven feet tall. A precursor to Gulliver captured by the Lilliputians. When he broke free from his restraints, the State Chancellor raised his flagon to toast him.

“All here in this Most Drunken Assembly of Fools and Jesters, join me in praying that Bacchus and Venus ensure a long and wine-filled life to our Tsar, and may he now forever be known as ‘the Great’ and ‘the Emperor of all the Russias!’”

The revelry stretched immoderately into the late hours of October 22nd, 1721, until Tsar Peter I, the man who violently dragged Russia into the modern world, decided to exhibit his knowledge of western dentistry by removing a juggler’s teeth with a set of pliers he kept in his pocket. As usual, only at the whisper of “Come home, little father,” by his beloved Katierinoushka, Empress Catherine, did he meekly consent to call it a night.


The End of the Affair

December 7, 1942 was frigid and the forecasters predicted temperatures below freezing for the foreseeable future. Snow flurries whipped by the wind iced the eastern sides of New York’s imposing skyscrapers. The cascading façade of the Hotel New Yorker was like a waterfall frozen in time. Thirty-three floors up however, the window to room 3327 was wide open and icicles hung from the eaves.

Inside, shivering in slippers and a bathrobe, a gray-haired old man sat eating a bowl of carrots. No lights were lit in the suite; his eyes had become too sensitive to it. All around him though could be made out the shapes and shadows of undecipherable contraptions; globes and boxes, pierced by wires and rods. Boxes were scattered and stacked in precarious little towers, spilling over with papers and books.

At the sound of the flapping of wings, he rose from his chair and drew open the bottom of the ice-stiffened curtains. A white pigeon poked its way inside.

“My love,” the old man said, “It’s so cold... where have you been?”

A cold sweat formed on his brow when he understood the message he heard in his mind.

“No! Please...” he began to argue, but the pigeon opened its wings and craned its neck forward towards him. Two powerful beams of white light blazed out from the bird’s tiny black eyes and dazzled him to the point that he had to turn away.

“Is that it?!” he yelled.

The light disappeared and he turned back to see the pigeon open its charcoal-tipped wings and fly back out the window.

He never saw her alive again. This was how he knew his work was over.

A month later, the inventor of Alternating Current, Nikola Tesla, died, penniless and alone, the work on his Death Ray uncompleted.


The Reincarnations of John J. Harvey

On February 11th, 1930, a life was lost.

Riverpilot John J. Harvey had just maneuvered alongside the German liner Muencheon in the lower Hudson when a series of explosions rocked the waterfront. Several of the firemen aboard were knocked into the river by the percussionary force. John was knocked into the river by the force of a flying steel deck-plate. He was dead before he got wet.

A year later, John J. Harvey was fittingly drafted back into service along the Battery Park seawalls – as the most powerful fireboat ever built and the first New York City fireboat to be named after a fallen firefighter.

For six decades the John J. Harvey battled the most infamous fires of maritime New York. She served her city with distinction and became a fixture of Manhattan’s West Side. But as the modern era of ships and seaways gradually sailed in, the city found fewer and fewer reasons to justify the Harvey’s expense. Her five powerful motors and centrifugal pumps were quieted and she was finally put away to rust in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, left for dead and almost forgotten. Almost.

Exactly sixty-nine years after the flesh and blood John J. Harvey died, his namesake was brought back to life once again by a group of locals who by some unseen guiding force, couldn’t bear to say goodbye just yet. By summertime, she was back in her old waters, peacefully cruising along and being lovingly cared for and restored. The spirit of John J. Harvey wasn’t quite ready for retirement yet though.

When the towers of the World Trade Center fell in 2001, every water main was destroyed. The John J. Harvey spent 80 straight hours pumping 20,000 gallons a minute onto the flames before finally being relieved of duty one last time.


Looking for Substance in the Style

Three periodeut huddled together at the base of a stacked-stone pillar, surrounded by cripples and old women. Leaning against it was a wooden ladder that stretched nearly 50 feet to its top. The youngest of the three asked about the tactics he was to use, again.

“So ... if he obeys?”

“If he obeys to come down, then he may stay.”

“And if he won’t come down ...”

“If he doesn’t come down then he must come down.”

A confused look crossed the face of the young priest and he hesitated as his foot stopped on the first rung of the ladder. Angry glares from his instructors propelled him upward.

Reaching the top of the column, he found himself staring into the boney face of a man standing bent in half, his head nearly touching his ankles. His eyes were closed.

“Christian! You have shown fierce pride in your humiliations and spiritual greed in your self-denial. The Bishop hereby orders you to retire from this charade,” the priest said with forced authority.

The man opened his dark eyes and simply said, “Yes, Abouna.” He slowly raised himself and turned to reach his leg over the side of the column.

The priest’s instructions raced through his mind and he quickly glanced down at his companions.

“Wait!” he yelled, “... no ... you may stay ...”

For thirty-six years more, he didn’t leave his pillar; praying, preaching, and performing severe acts of penance. Pilgrims from the farthest reaches of the nation visited him. Emperors consulted him for advice.

On the evening of August 30th, 459, seventy-year-old Simeon the Stylite bowed deeply in prayer as was his usual custom. At the end of three days without anyone having seen him move a muscle, a concerned devotee climbed the ladder and found him deceased.


Monkey Meets Turtle

He was an ugly boy. In feature and in temperament. He did whatever he wanted. “Monkey” they called him.

His poor mother and father, exasperated at his lack of discipline, sent him off to a school run by monks. It didn’t take long before they too, ran out of patience and expelled him.

“These bald fools have nothing to teach me,” he said.

Back home, he was apprenticed to one after another of the local artisans. Thirty-seven times he was dismissed before he decided to leave for good.

“I’m meant for more glorious deeds,” he thought.

He became a roadside bandit and filled his pockets with the coins of travelers. But he soon saw the limits to his illicit gains.

“There’s more gold and silver to be found within the law than outside of it,” he reasoned.

He became the servant of a powerful lord, proved his courage and brilliance, and ascended to leadership when the old man died. He controlled a third of the country but meaned to have it all.

“I’m ready for a long siege,” he said to his followers.

Within nine years, all resistance had ceased and the nation was his. Not satisfied, he turned his attention towards his neighbors.

“It’s time for my last triumph,” he said, “I will leave a great name behind me.”

For six years, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ugly peasant boy who became the great unifier of Japan, sent armadas of warships westward with the goal of conquering China.

When he died on September 18th, 1598, the “Monkey” had finally failed. All of his deployments ended at the bottom of the sea thanks to another man also famous for an animal moniker who never failed, Yi Sun-sin, the great Korean naval commander and inventor of the iron-clad ship he called the “Turtle.”