Flames were still burning across four-fifths of the wind-licked city when Sir Henry Keeling, the Lord Chief Justice, entered his chambers and stared down the deformed little simpleton in chains awaiting him.
“Prisoner, you admitted yesterday to having set the fire at Westminster. Considering that Westminster has been untouched by the flames, your recantation is probably wise,” the lord said tiredly.
“Oui, my lord, I was confused in my, uh, my hatred for your peoples. It was on Pudding Lane that I threw the first fireball... through an open window at the bakery, I threw three...”
“But man, the building you described to the jury this morning had no open window where you say it was, not open because there was not even a window...”
“My lord, your own investigators have determined that building is most likely where it all started, how could I be expected to remember all the details of that exciting night? I am guilty and I await your just punishment.”
Sir Henry Keeling sighed. Hopefully with his death, this talk of plots and conspiracies will die with him.
Robert Hubert, a “Confessing Sam,” was hung and his body torn apart by a mob, his confession having overridden all the facts of his innocence. He hadn’t even arrived in England until September 4th, 1666, two days after the Great Fire of London began.
In the twelve years he spent prospecting, the miner had gone through roughly 23 pairs of cotton trousers, 7 canvas dungarees, 16 hemp overalls, one silk bear costume (don’t ask), and 4,273 spools of thread sewing back the seams torn along the crotches and pockets during his daily digging. By the time he’d quit, he’d resorted to simply roaming through the hills au naturel. They left that part out of the song.
On May 20th, 1873, exactly thirteen years after the miner wandered away (a typically unlucky thirteen for him but thirteen Indian-head-up-lucky-penny-type years for the miners who’d kept their patched pants on and stuck around), the cries of Tarnation! and Darned-Blast-It! and even the occasional @#$%^&*!!! gradually began to fade as fewer and fewer button-flies ripped at the seams. For on that day, Levi Loeb, the San Francisco dry-goods dealer and Jacob Davis, a Reno tailor, received word that their joint patent for adding metal rivets to strengthen denim “waist overalls” had been approved. Blue Jeans had arrived for the working man.
Red is a dangerous rival. Blood. Passion and fire, but red tends to be the livid instigator. And red quickly turns to grey once the deed is done. “Twenty-five to life.” Clink. Tom Robbins hit the woodpecker on the head when he gave all his outlaws red hair.
The closest is purple. But even purple is too snobbish, only the king is allowed to wear it, everyone else is stealing from the crown. Besides, purple is Thursday’s color and Thursday hasn’t been the same since Friday ditched it for Saturday (and an occasional affair with Sunday).
There was only one color that a great sculptor could have possibly applied to his masterpiece. A color that symbolized whimsy and gregariousness (and that’s asking a lot, Gregary was a pretty creative guy). A color that put candy in cotton and yum in gum. The color of brave lemonades and startling grapefruits. Of the best panthers, diamonds, and bumbling inspectors. Shrimp, salmon, and waking eyes. Elvis’s Cadillac, healthy newborns, and the baby-sitter’s lipstick. The perfect steak. Floyd would have been second-rate without it.
When Don Featherstone mixed pink with flamingo sometime in 1957 (for romance’s sake, let’s say Valentine’s Day), the suburbanites of south Florida took to it like odalists to a Grecian urn. (Though that still doesn’t explain why Polish shopkeepers from Pottsville to Parma in the snowy north still can’t restock them fast enough).
Edward stayed sickly but stayed alive, his six siblings all dying in infancy. Too frail to attend classes, his father employed tutors to make sure he kept up. And when at nine years old he was well enough to go off to grammar school, his mother died and he was brought back home. Edward shed no tears, she’d always been neglectful, but now it was just he and his father in the seclusion of that damp and drafty South London mansion.
He was sent off to live in a boarding house.
“Your Aunt Kitty will see to your upbringing,” he said as he closed the carriage door, “don’t disappoint me, Edward.”
He didn’t. He studied voraciously and with an appetite for reading that surprised even him. At fifteen, his father deemed him ready for Oxford. But after an unprofitable 14 months, he was back at his father’s house, expelled from college because of a religious conversion.
“I’ve arranged for you to study in Switzerland with a Reformed pastor,” his father fumed, “He’ll see to it that you abandon your disgraceful Romishness.” An additional threatened disinheritance produced in him a sudden reconversion to the faith of his father.
When he fell in love and considered marriage, his father disapproved and he abandoned her.
When his father joined the militia, Edward did too.
He even followed his father into Parliament.
When Edward Gibbon completed his unsurpassed magnum opus, he laid ruinous cause upon the shoulders of a distant and domineering power: organized religion. Perhaps if he had been healthier at the end of his unhappy life, he may have also recognized the long shadow of a distant and domineering power in his own.
Bobby wasn’t at the funeral; he hadn’t even known that his friend was dead, just that he didn’t come home one morning. So when he strolled through the gates of the churchyard and found the newly-dug plot he knew instinctively who lay six feet below. But the knowledge didn’t lessen his confusion and he struggled to understand. He’d noticed the cough shortly after it began but as the wheezing became a normal part of John’s respiration, Bobby grew used to it and soon forgot about it. He lay down on the soft bed of clay and fell asleep, dreaming about his best friend in the world.
How long he’d been asleep he didn’t know, but he bolted at the loud commands of the caretaker and hid himself in the woods. When he thought it was safe, he returned again, circled, and lay back down on the grave.
For three days, the caretaker chased Bobby away. And then it dawned on him. Greyfriars Bobby was John Gray’s dog. Bobby would spend the next fourteen years at his deceased master’s graveside until he too finally expired on January 14, 1872.
On January 6, 1946, he found some temporary work on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. At the lunch-whistle he walked the docks, looking angry, past the familiar whiskered-men smoking cigarettes and conversing in low secretive voices. He rounded a crate and came upon a longshoreman perched on a stack of pallets reading a book. He stood staring at him for a few minutes before the man looked up.
“What are you looking for?”
The question put Carl off balance. It was a simple question but the meaning hadn’t really sunk in before now. “I don’t really have an answer... maybe some action.”
“If you’ve just come back from the war, you’ve seen what men of action do. They make the train run on time but you don’t necessarily want a ride on it. Pascal said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he doesn’t know how to stay quietly in his room. Thirty minutes of introspection will answer almost every question you have, son. It’s what I do with my lunchtime every day. Most people don’t want answers though because answers don’t bring present happiness. People pray for their daily illusions as they do for their daily bread.”
Shortly, Carl moved on again as so many anomie-burdened returning soldiers had before. But the longshoreman-philosopher, Eric Hoffer, stayed on the docks for another twenty years of lunchtimes, completing four books of insightful observations on human nature.
Though the “English College” was technically in France, at Douai, the students there were all English, Irish, and Welsh. Not popular with the neighboring community, Edmund and his companions kept mostly hidden, immersing themselves in their studies as few ever had before. Before long, his courses took him on a virtual tour of Europe: Rome, Brünn, Geneva, Milan, and finally Prague where he finished his schooling. His résumé was filled with honors and degrees and proofs of excellence. It was time for him to go home.
It had been a decade.
A friend met him in London and found him a place to stay. He’d move around a lot after that and it was often hard to track him down. He did a bit of writing and performed some of the small expected functions taken on after his years of study. But as lettered as Edmund was, there was still one more paper he waited for.
He got it on November 20, 1581 at Westminster Hall. That paper read, “Campion, Seditious Jesuit.” The guilty verdict was pronounced, for the treasonous crime of being a priest, and Edmund Campion thanked God. His last graduation ceremony came eleven days later by hanging, drawing, and quartering.
“Is that what I think it is?” Lawrence asked.
“I daresay we’ve enacted a coup, Mr. Langner,” Theresa answered in a mock secretive whisper.
“They’ve signed?” he yelled back, raising his hands into the air and letting the binder fall. “But how? They could command a ransom and the best we offered was a third of what they normally take!”
“Well, first off,” Theresa replied seriously, “they truly believe in the importance of what we’re trying to accomplish in releasing these non-commercial works to the public. Also, there are two additional clauses...”
“The first one says they don’t work summers.”
“Okay. And the other?”
900 miles west of Broadway, in an undeveloped and verdant area of Wisconsin, Lynn waved a crisp white paper in the air as Alfred approached.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked, smiling.
“Telegram for Mr. Lunt! Shall I read it? The Theater Guild... etcetera ...promising scripts, controversial topics... ah, here it is: No appearances during the summer months... aaand... never to appear in separate plays but to always be cast together!”
“Never apart, then?”
They took their contract as binding as they took their marriage, which lasted 55 years. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the most revered acting team of American theater, spent every breathing minute together: on stage, radio, film, television, and at their Ten Chimneys estate; in love with acting and abundantly more so with each other. When Anastasia aired on March 17, 1967, it was the first time in 39 years that Lynn appeared publicly without her retired husband at her side.
The beatings that she took from her parents when they caught her learning to read and write were meant to educate her.
“Read! Write!” they yelled in Polish, as they burned a book they found hidden in her chest, for there were indeed no words in Romani for those foreign concepts.
Still, secretly, she did learn to read and to write and those foreign skills only served to give her a deeper identity with her people. She wrote poems of lament and struggle that spoke for Gypsies like none before. Her husband accompanied her on the harp as she sang songs of nostos, a return to a home that never existed.
Her special talents made her believe that it really was possible to live in both worlds, the Rom and the Gadjo, as she attracted more and more notoriety through her song.
But she was wrong.
As her kumpania had warned her, she was betrayed and her own writings were twisted and used against her people as rationale for forced resettlement during Socialist Poland’s Great Halt to “the Gypsy problem.”
Bronisława Wajs spent eight months in a mental institution recovering from her ensuing erasure from Gypsy society. The mention of her name forbidden, the next generation of gypsy children grew up having never heard of their greatest voice. She lived a hermit life until her death on February 8, 1987.
She didn’t hear her daughter at first, her attention wrapped in a cloak of disappointment at the possibility of another opportunity missed.
“Mama?” the child asked, a little louder, a little sadder.
Gina turned away from the file of sleepy-eyed parents that was still steadily growing. It was to be a long walk home on their fourth failed attempt. But when she looked down at her arm, the child was gone. She wheeled around to see her standing at the end of the line. On her face was a pleading expression.
“Oh, mama,” she whispered tearfully, “We must try! I’m the only one who doesn’t have one yet... and it helps me to learn about other cultures too...”
Her heart sank as she beheld her poor child, how could she say no again? Bending down, she framed the girl’s face and forced a smile.
“Lucky for us, I have a few sardines wrapped up in my bag. Today, we will stand in this line as long as it takes to buy one!”
An elderly man standing nearby slowly turned towards the now happy and hopeful mother and child.
“Pardon me for overhearing, but this line isn’t to buy, they’ve already sold out. It’s for a lottery ticket for a chance to buy when the next delivery arrives.”
As the revelation sunk in, a teenage girl peddled lithely by on a bicycle, a little black golliwog clinging to her handlebars.
“Dakkochan!” the child screamed.
140 miles. That’s how close the nearest outpost was. Rod knew it was far, not how far, but far enough for him to know that he wasn’t getting soda anytime soon. Or anything with sugar. Anything sweet. He leaned back against the base of a skinny gum tree and watched the bees hovering over the small tins of water he’d filled for the dogs.
Eleven bees. That’s how many made up the tiny pile by his bare feet. Each one of them was missing at least one leg. While staring tediously at the insects trying to steal a drink from the tins, Rod had had an epiphany. Pinching another bee against the ground, he picked up a long string he’d carefully extracted from his t-shirt and making a loop, slowly fed it around a splayed leg and pulled it taut. The bee buzzed clumsily off as he let go, dragging the string across the ground.
“Aha!” Rod blurted, “Sweet honey at last!”
And then he heard the unmistakable sound of cowbells.
Twice famous. That’s what Rodney Ansell became. The first time as the inspiration for Crocodile Dundee after the story of his rescue in the Australian Outback became international news. The second time on August 3, 1999, when broke, addicted to amphetamines, and on the run, he was shot and killed after murdering a policeman.
Distracted by the sight of the surly pair, Joseph didn’t notice the skirt trailing along the floor behind one of the dancing girls and he slipped on it. He caught himself before he went completely to the ground and on one knee looked up to see the way to his room cleared. The light was low inside, but reflected in the corner of the mirror, he saw a gaunt figure in an overcoat, a thick grey beard overflowing its collar. One of the guards motioned him inside.
Slowly, Joseph crept into his room, his eyes focused intently on the man in the mirror. Electricity rolled down his spine as the draft of the door swinging shut behind him chilled the sweat on the back of his neck. The spectre stepped from the shadows.
“Your majesty!” shouted Joseph.
“SHHH! Don’t reveal me,” King Leopold II pleaded, “It was quite an effort to sneak in here unseen, just to experience firsthand Europe’s most famous celebrity.”
“My show? You’ve seen my act?”
The King grabbed Joseph’s hand and shook it vigorously.
“I did, and I wanted to tell you in person how much I enjoy your fartistry.”
A soft knock at the door signaled the King it was time to sneak away. And as the monarch departed that evening on December 16, 1892, Joseph Pujol, the “Fartomatic,” saluted him by exhaling Belgium’s national anthem through his trousers.
“Time’s up,” he shouted, “Who’s coming?”
“This is our home! These people are... friends. We can’t leave,” replied one spectacled man, a professor at the University.
“No matter how honorable your intentions, sir, the Nips said they’re not going to recognize any International Safety Zone. It’s only safe for you onboard. Once we sail out...”
A second man in the group spoke up in a heavy German accent; a white band was wrapped tightly around his arm, emblazoned with a red swastika.
“I think I speak for us all, and for the two dozen others still at the hospitals and missions here, that we believe once the Japanese have conquered the city, peace and prosperity will quickly be implemented.”
A bomb exploded in the Yangtze just two hundred yards away, sending a plume of brown water that almost reached the ship. The Captain whirled his way across the gangplank and hopped aboard, “Cast off!” He turned to the group again as black smoke gushed from the stack and the ship groaned away, “We’ll be back within a week!”
Three days later, on December 12, 1937, the USS Panay was sunk by Japanese dive-bombers while at anchor miles from the action. Those few foreigners who stayed behind would survive to tell the world of the atrocities of the ensuing seven weeks, now known as the Rape of Nanking.
Pavel Melnikov leaned over the Tsar’s shoulder and looked at the red-penciled loop below his finger.
“That, I believe, is the forest owned by the son of the Duke that, uh... he is a great supporter of you, your majesty... it would benefit his lumber interests to not have to move his mills the several miles toward the, um, more direct lay of the tracks.”
Tsar Nicholas tapped his finger on the circle and shook his head, which had turned a shade redder. He looked disapprovingly at Pavel.
“Right turns, left turns... loops! Pavel, I’ve asked you to build a railroad, not a panoramic tour of Russia. Your plans here add hundreds of miles to the route; this is what you learned from the Americans during your observations there?”
The Tsar pushed his chair back from the desk and agitatedly began opening and closing drawers until he found what he was looking for. Leaning forward again over the plans, he placed one end of a ruler on Moscow, and the other end he slid into place right over St. Petersburg. With a charcoal pencil, he traced a thick and heavy black line from one city to the other. Then he rose and handed the ruler to the ashen-faced Pavel and broke the pencil, dropping the pieces into a wastebasket.
“You will construct it like this,” he said without turning around on his way out of the office on February 1, 1842.
Ten years later, the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway opened and the trains ran on time. The power of autocracy prevailed, even if thousands of serfs gave their lives working from sunrise to sunset seven days a week to do it. To this day, it runs the 404 miles in a line as a straight as a ruler.
Leyte Gulf was one of the world’s busiest harbors in 1945 and on the last day of July, over 1,500 merchant vessels and auxiliary ships had arrived, repaired, resupplied, and departed in the preceding thirty-one days. A complicated chain of responsibility kept the logs filled: One controlling ship lay anchored at the mouth of the 400 square-mile gulf and identified every vessel that passed. Dispatches were sent to the Port Director, Tacloban. Copies were then forwarded to the Commander, Philippine Sea Frontier, an office staffed by seven hundred personnel who saw to the details of every movement. The Philippine Sea Frontier, however, was by practice not responsible for combat ships.
An Ensign leaned over the logbook and shook his head.
“Guam should never have sent us this ETA. Here... read the last sentence on the last page.”
He handed a clipboard to the Yeoman.
“...it says: arrival reports shall not be made for combatant ships... how do we know they’re overdue?” the Yeoman asked.
“Ah,” said the officer, “we don’t. That’s the point... I think. They’ve all got their own commands to report to, and that covers us. When the West Virginia appeared out of the fog yesterday, not even the Rear-Admiral knew it was coming. We’re paper-navy. Besides, you’re not busy enough?”
Meanwhile, 550 miles to the east, the crew of the overdue cruiser was entering its second horrific night fighting off sharks, dehydration, and madness in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Sunk by a Japanese submarine, only 317 of the original 1,196 sailors that had just delivered the enriched uranium to Tinian survived to be accidentally rescued three days later.
Another 600 miles further east in Guam, the Yeoman there erased the USS Indianapolis from his board.
A horn sounded. She’d arrived! Frederick nearly fell into the Fonte Gaia as he whirled to take his first glimpse into the future.
It was a large entourage that made its way from a shady alley on the west side of the plaza, much larger than he’d expected, obviously very costly. He snapped his tongue in disapproval.
“They’ll have to go, after the wedding,” he whispered to his aide.
When the princess gingerly stepped from her carriage, Frederick tried hard to conceal his concern.
“She’s very beautiful, indeed... but her hips... she seems rather thin, will she withstand bearing my heirs?”
Despite the differences between them, differences which occupied every nook of their mismatched lives, Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal were married on March 16, 1452, and three days later, crowned Holy Roman Emperor and Empress. Eleanor would prove more than able in producing children and Frederick’s dreams became cemented in history – so that by the end of his life, he saw fit to inscribe on all the buildings in his empire the motto, “Alles Erdreich ist Oesterreich untertan.”
The Habsburg dynasty would endure into the 20th century, though more likely because of its other motto: "Let others wage wars, but you, happy Austria, shall marry."
He rode south from Lexington, Virginia, greeted by family and friends and former brothers-in-arms at each stop, as well as by tens of thousands of well-wishers, admirers, and curious who knew in advance his every move in ways that his opponents had never been able to ascertain.
Early spring found him in Augusta, Georgia. For the entirety of that afternoon, the sixty-three-year-old warmly greeted the throngs of visitors in the lobby of his hotel. Among the crowds, children were especially abundant, pressing personalized cards and bouquets of japonica into hands. One boy in particular though, a thirteen-year-old who’d wormed his way to the old man’s side, caught his attention.
“What’s your name son?”
“Thomas, sir... I’m from Virginia...” He fell silent and stared in wonder at the model of the man he hoped one day to become.
The General winked a sad, tired eye at Thomas and put a hand on the boy’s back, forcing him to straighten his posture.
“Walk tall then,” he said, “you’re doubly blessed.” And the boy was shoved aside by the next group of strangers bearing gifts.
Seven months later, October 12, 1870, the General passed quietly into eternity after waking from sleep and issuing his final order. And forty-three years afterward, Thomas, better known as Woodrow Wilson, was sworn in as the 28th President. He never forgot his brief meeting with Robert E. Lee.
“Very good, Anthony! You are so smart. Now, let’s see what else it tells us about him. He’s from Malaysia and his name means “man of the forest." He’s considered to be the most intelligent of all primates. Not half as smart as my little man I bet, though.”
It had been for Kermit. Growing up in Watts in the 50’s, he’d found on the gridiron a release for his anger. He was allowed to run and hit and tackle at will. And he did it like no one else. But at the age of twelve he let his short-temper surface during a game and his father made sure to end it right there. Coming out of the stands he yanked Kermit off the field. “You’re embarrassing me... Sit down until you can control yourself!”
Kermit behaved after that; well enough to escape South Central through a scholarship to UCLA. Ten successful years in the pros followed.
He often returned to the stage of his youth, going to football games around the city. On September 21, 1974, one particular game jogged his memory clearly. As Kermit watched from the stands, an eight-year-old boy, the most obviously-talented boy on the field, was letting all of his rage go, just as Kermit had done years before. As the boy was dragged kicking off the field, Kermit thought of himself and said “somebody needs to help that boy.” But Kermit wasn’t that “somebody.”
Kermit recognized the defendant at last when the trial began.
“Oh my God...”
It was Tiequon Cox, the eight-year-old footballer from a decade earlier whom Kermit thought someone needed to help. Now it was too late. And it was too late to help Kermit Alexander’s mother, sister, and nephews too; victims of the gangland murder-for-hire gone wrong.
“Oh... it’s you. Is there movement?” The words barely escaped his parched throat.
With this thought on her mind she returned home to start a kettle for a cup of tea. Waiting for the water to boil, she turned on her crystal radio and plugged in the earpiece. A discussion of Gray’s “Elegy” was just concluding, one of her favorite pieces. But after just a moment, a familiar voice broke in.
“We interrupt this program with breaking news... There’s been a demonstration by the unemployed in London... The crowd has now passed along Whitehall and, at the suggestion of Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, is preparing to demolish the Houses of Parliament with trench mortars...”
Eleanor gasped, “Bolshevists! I knew this day would come!”
“...and the clock tower has just fallen to the ground...”
Before tuning out and rushing over to break the news to her neighbors, she heard the announcer mention that since there was no more Big Ben, Greenwich Time would instead now be obtained from Edinburgh on Uncle Leslie’s repeating watch.
If Eleanor, and a million other British listeners, had listened a little more attentively and trusted the new media a little less, the January 16, 1926 national panic caused by Father Ronald Knox’s burlesque broadcast might not have happened.
The Comanche though, had established their own reputation. Fearless in battle, lethal with the bow, they were arguably the finest horsemen to have ever lived. They’d developed flawless tactics that drew wasted fire from their enemies, enabling them to swoop down upon them with overwhelming force as they dismounted to slowly reload. So, when the scouts peered over the flinty ridge along the Pedernales River and saw only fifteen Rangers circling a campfire, they raced back to their camp to tell of the advantage.
Before those scouts even mounted their horses, Captain John Coffee Hays had already begun speaking softly to his men.
“I reckon’ you all saw that... probably have a little war dance tonight and attack when the sun comes up. Now, they’ll be seventy-five... at least. And they’ll try to draw us apart; don’t let ‘em. Wait ‘til they form up. We stay mounted. Now get some sleep.”
The next morning unfolded as predicted, and when the Rangers fired their single-shot rifles, the Indians confidently advanced with a terrifying cry. Facing five to one odds on open ground, not a single lawman should have been left alive. But the Rangers had some five to one odds of their own. For the first time, the new Colt Paterson 5-shot-revolver was used in the field; “one bullet for every finger.” Fifty-three Comanches fell in those violent fifteen minutes while the Rangers suffered only four casualties.
A new era in American/Indian relations was dawning.
Ten minutes later, a handsome young couple came strolling across the bridge. The man was pointing as they walked, the woman nervously nodding her head. George greeted them with a warm smile. “Ah, I see you’ve brought the little miss!”
He bowed deeply and took the lady’s hand and pressed it to his lips. He addressed her in a tone of deep respect, “Madam, it’s an honor to have met you. You should not only be proud of your husband for the hard bargain he commanded of me, but proud of the future he’s ensured you and the wee one you’ll soon be bringing into this wonderful land of opportunity by the purchase he’s made. Your folks back in County Cork... well, just imagine what they’ll say when they hear that just three days off the boat, you’ve become real property owners! I congratulate you and sincerely welcome you to America!”
With an unquestionably confused look upon her face, the woman put a finger to her chin and she made movement to reply but George had already turned away, his broad arm coiling around her husband’s back. She stood there with her mouth agape as she watched her husband hand over nearly all of the money they’d brought with them.
The young immigrants would find out from the beat-cops later that day that they could not set up their toll-booth as planned. And George C. Parker would later that year begin a life sentence at Sing Sing prison after three decades of selling the Brooklyn Bridge, in addition to Madison Square Garden and the Statue of Liberty.
“Daddy,” his son Dixie asked, “you think more settlers will be coming?”
Michael slid his hand across the Colt in his belt. “I reckon," he mused, "once we push out the last redskin, like in Texas. I might imagine a little town growing here. The grocery and post office would fit in nicely by those oaks... maybe a schoolhouse down by the creek.
Dixie liked the idea of founding a new town. “We’ll need a proper bank, too,” he said, “to manage all the money we’ll be bringing in... won’t have to ride all the way to Tombstone anymore.”
Michael Gray wouldn’t be around to see his daydreams come to life. On August 23, 1881, nineteen-year-old Dixie was murdered by bandits on his way to Tombstone and soon after, Michael sold the ranch.
The reign of the western cattle barons would then begin at the Gray Ranch. The schools, post offices and grocery stores would come and go. After eighty years, with both the land and the cattle-companies bankrupt, Dixie Gray’s dream of a bank would come true too, though not quite in the way he envisioned.
Today’s Gray Ranch is itself a bank, a grass bank, the first of its kind. Through unique environmental agreements, it leases out its 500 square miles of pristine pastureland to independent ranchers, preserving a way of life by preventing grazing land from ever becoming exhausted again.
Alexander was irate at his siege-engineers. He stood in the shallows off the coast and looked out upon the fortress a thousand yards out into the Mediterranean Sea.
On January 27, 332 BC, the thirty-thousand men on the island city of Tyre sat securely, confident that the latest invader-king would eventually have to sue for peace. Tyre was impenetrable. Because of the rocks surrounding the island, no ships could get close enough to use their rams against the fortifications. Even if they could somehow land, the walls were one-hundred and fifty feet high, and any attackers would immediately be annihilated from above.
Alcippus, who’d joined the army during the Phrygian campaign, was surprised that a solution had not yet presented itself. “My king,” he began, “I joined you after witnessing the favor with which the gods regard you. I’m certain that with just a little more time, it will become obvious...”
Alexander snapped, “Must I do everything myself?!”
He grabbed the surprised Alcippus by the hair and began to drag him out into the water, intending to drown him in front of the others as an example. After pulling him along in the water for almost fifty yards, he stopped and released him. He was still only knee-deep in the sea.
“How far do these shallows extend?”
“All the way to Tyre, my king, six feet at the deepest,” Alcippus stammered.
In the same fashion with which he solved the Gordian Knot, by cutting straight to the heart of the matter, Alexander recognized the obvious and he smiled.
By July, two enormous catapults had smashed Tyre’s walls to bits, brought within range along a causeway patiently built rock by rock from the coast. Alexander the Great’s Macedonian army literally walked onto the island.
Anatole noticed the numbness in his fingers on the day he was arrested on suspicion of anti-government activities. A secret informant tipped off the Securitate that he had been seen loitering around the vacant home of a dissident pamphleteer. He was released after a few days with the warning that he would be watched. Anatole assumed that the deadening in his fingers was from the handcuffs they’d kept him in. But the bald patch of steadily-blackening skin began to concern him and he kept his sleeves rolled down.
Anatole noticed the smell on the day he was ordered to undergo a mental evaluation for not having registered with the Party. The doctor noticed it too, as well as his blackened arm and clumsy curled fist. After that day, no one ever saw Anatole again. It was the beginning of a time of disappearing and nobody asked questions.
On Christmas day, 1989, eight years after a cure for leprosy, and after nine days of revolution, a transistor radio in the hidden leper colony of Tichilesti crackled that Nicolae Ceauşescu had been executed by firing squad.
Anatole, blind and without a nose, raised himself up and smiled a toothless smile.
It had been a trying seven months in Soviet captivity. No matter. Janina kept her spirits for her strength was her stubbornness. Nobody but her God, and sometimes her father, was allowed to set limits upon her. That’s how she had become a pilot and even a parachutist, unheard of for a woman. It’s how she’d earned the rank of Lieutenant in the Polish Army. She never let her situation define her and wasn’t about to acquiesce now. So when the NKVD officer appeared that morning to transfer more of her fellow officers to yet another unknown prison, she demanded not to be separated from them.
At first, the young soldier assigned to transport her revealed a hint of decency and was somewhat gentler on Janina as he secured her wrists behind her back. But when she slipped her hand through the knot and waved it in his face, he grew red and became extra-rough in his second attempt. The rope now tore into her skin and he threw a sack over her head before shoving her into the back of a Black Maria.
The car rumbled away from Smolensk for a short time and then it took a sharp right into the forest. It stopped at a place called Goat Hill and Janina was dragged by three waiting soldiers for about 50 yards before halting. They yanked off her hood.
The first and last thing Janina Lewandowska saw in the next three seconds was a pit. Twelve feet deep and a hundred feet wide. It was full of bodies.
The Katyn massacre signaled the extermination of nearly 25,000 of Poland’s best and brightest, including almost half of its officer corps.
As he finished his Marlboro and tossed it into the slow-moving bow-wake some eighty feet below, he noticed that the lanyard securing the ensign had slipped loose. Sailing at five knots against a thirteen knot wind, the flag had worked itself free and was flying loose. Quickly, he reached out and grabbed the flailing line and rewrapped it around the empty cleat. Feeling a sense of pride, he descended the ladder and headed to his rack.
Jackson raised the colors again some twelve hours later beneath the bright Mediterranean sun. It was the holiday flag, twice the size of the shredded one that lay smoldering at his feet. He looked down from the signal bridge at the chaos that now consumed his ship. Napalm and white phosphorous fires covered the decks and the charred bodies of sailors lay strewn about. Bombers flew overhead and torpedo boats strafed the empty lifeboats hanging over the side.
Somehow, this weakly-armed listening ship survived three hellish hours of this attack without assistance from the nearby Sixth Fleet. It limped to port filled with thousands of holes, including a 40’ opening in her starboard beam.
The 200 casualties of the USS Liberty and their survivors have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation of why Israel conducted this attack and why the Secretary of Defense disregarded their SOS.
By torchlight, they saw him standing atop his mattress, desperately trying to climb the wall at its headboard. His fingertipss were bloodied; the nails had broken off against the stone. When they called out to him, his mad scrambling stopped and slowly he turned his anguished face toward them. He stared past them with dilated eyes and whispered in an exhausted faraway voice.
“They won’t leave me alone...”
The servants said nothing, as this scene had become familiar in recent months, but only gave their hands to help him back down under his blankets.
When he was settled back into bed, one of the servants pulled up a chair next to the old man’s sweaty gray head.
“Who was it this time, master?”
Count Fulk had spent his lifetime consolidating the House of Anjou in Western France. He was extremely successful. His territory had grown incredibly and was marked with new towns, abbies, fortresses and castles. His neighbors at least feared his hard-gained power if they didn’t respect him, for Fulk’s success lay in the fact that he knew no boundaries. He was called a plunderer, a murderer, a robber, and a swearer of false oaths. He was truly a terrifying character of fiendish cruelty.
“It was all of them... even my wife...” he said shakily, “Make arrangements to travel immediately. I only pray I have time...”
On April 6, 1040, Easter Sunday, the trio approached the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Fulk was naked and being dragged along by one of his servants while the other followed behind, whipping his bare back with a stick. Severe in his lust for power, Fulk Nerra was just as severe in his penance.
He died on his return from the pilgrimage.
The answer came to him immediately and like a slap in the face.
“Oh, Peter,” he answered himself aloud, “even after all that’s happened, you still let your pride take the reins... it’s no wonder those obstreperous brothers tried to poison you! What did you always tell your students? Gradual change leads to turning points... suddenness leads to conflict. It was my own obstinance, not theirs, that led to my failure!”
The next day, around the first of June, 1130, he began a letter. It was to his old friend Philintus in Troyes. Philintus had come to visit him in Vannes once and spent the entire time unburdening himself upon poor Peter, indicting God and man for all the unpleasantness that had been his lot in life.
“My dear, Philintus, you think you’ve had it rough?” he laughed. “Let me tell you the story of my misfortunes...”
This letter would be reproduced and distributed countless times. And along with additional letters discovered centuries later, it would become the source for one of the most incredible love stories of all time, a romance between two brilliant minds that began physical and ended divine – that of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil.
But as an Armenian living in Istanbul, Rupen was in a precariously unfamiliar situation. The authorities no longer saw Armenians as docile citizens. They were too different. Their closeness to the Russians was unacceptable. Since the Greeks had managed with Russian assistance to secure their independence from the Empire, Rupen’s people had been under increasing persecution and they began to agitate. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Still, they survived. So when the Ottomans entered WWI, it was no surprise that they used it as an excuse to finally rid themselves of their thorns.
On April 24, 1915, along with 250 other leading Armenians, Rupen Zartarian was arrested. Most of them were writers, teachers, or politicians: agitators. But they were only the beginning of an orchestrated plan. There were 1.25 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire on that day; two years later, less than 285,000.
A new term, genocide, had to be invented later to accurately describe what happened.
“Well, what do you think, son?”
“Oh, I love it, father,” the boy replied with a contented smile.
“I’m glad you approve,” Nathaniel said and tossled the boy’s hair. “Come on now; let’s get you washed up for dinner.”
The pair walked together up the long hill that spread before the house. Several times they had to catch their balance, tripping over scattered rocks and bits of old refuse. Nathaniel stopped and looked back down towards the Tyne.
“The sooner we get this filled in, the better, too. Especially those old stone works you’ve been playing about. One lush big park with...”
“Filled in? But this is what I love about it, father, not the house!”
Over the next several years, John’s father moved hundreds of tons of earth to fill in and smooth out the hill. It became unrecognizable from the first images that John kept wondrously stored in his mind.
Years later, when John Clayton’s father passed away, he inherited his position as Town Clerk, and he inherited the Chesters. He immediately began digging up the front lawn. And when he was done with that, he followed the old stone wall and bought up the properties it ran through.
When he was finally finished, he had reclaimed for England a priceless gift – the quickly-disappearing Hadrian’s Wall.
Dignity and respect. The words echoed in his mind.
“Here goes, in the name of God...” he said aloud and signed his name in the large book opened before him: Very Reverend Theobald Mathew, April 10, 1838. The sixty in the room then followed, one by one, signing their names to the new temperance movement – the Total Abstinence Society of Cork. Before Father Mathew died, more than seven million made the pledge worldwide.
Unfortunately, good works are often accompanied by unforeseen side-effects.
Amidst the Great Famine that struck Ireland a decade later, many looked for an escape from their misery. Unwilling to break their pledge of abstinence, they found an alternative, just as effectively mind-altering: liquid ether.
Swallowed with a cold glass of water, the liquid turned back to gas when it reached body-temperature in their stomachs, resulting in violent burping and flatulence. The volatile ether, heavier than air, crawled through their homes at knee-level until it found ignition in a lit candle. So many deaths resulted from the fires brought on by etheromaniacs that the government was forced to ban its private sale.
“What the hell is this?” one of the guards asked, taking off his mirrored sunglasses.
“What’s it look like?” came a voice from the office behind him. It was the superintendent. “It’s insubordination... what are you going to do about it?”
“Damn night-shift is too soft,” the guard said and gave a condescending stare at each of the men in the hall. “Now we show them who’s who.”
When reinforcements arrived, the guards forced their way into the first cell by blasting the occupants with the icy cold spray of CO2 fire extinguishers. The mattresses were pushed aside and they came down on the rebels in overwhelming force. There was little resistance and it took only a few minutes before every cell was cleared and the prisoners were led off to separate interrogation rooms, shackled and hooded.
From that day onward, life in the prison became a nightmare. Middle-of-the-night head counts lasted for hours. Beds, clothing, and even toilets became privileges. The inmates lived naked in their filth and under relentless threat of assault. Some called for a priest. Several suffered nervous breakdowns. The guards became inhuman and the inmates dehumanized.
Then on the sixth day, not even halfway through the experiment, the prison suddenly shut down.
The “prison” was actually a basement in a psychology lab, the guards and inmates undergrad volunteers. The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, bolstering earlier studies, are still being argued today.
Her voice trailed off.
“Ah, you must be very proud of your boy, Signora, leaving Italy for the great big world,” the postman said.
But she knew her son too well. “Oh, Carlo,” she sighed.
When Carlo finished his three years in prison for forgery and smuggling, he tried to make an honest go of it. He really did. He found work at a tiny mining camp in Alabama and began to formulate plans to bring electricity and running water to the ramshackle homes there. He gained the financial and moral support of all of its poverty-stricken residents.
But, Carlo would later say, “as usual, something happened.”
On October 13, 1912, a stove exploded as the camp nurse was preparing a meal for a bed-ridden miner. Her burns were so severe that she wasn’t expected to survive without an immediate skin-graft. When the doctor mentioned to Carlo that he couldn’t find a single donor for her, he volunteered on the spot.
Carlo let the doctor take 122 square inches of olive skin from his thighs and back. The nurse survived, but Carlo’s recovery took three months of painful confinement. By the time he was released, someone else had already laid claim to his utility project. His heroism was quickly forgotten and he quietly disappeared.
When he reemerged in the public eye, Carlo, Charles Ponzi, would become known as the greatest financial swindler in the history of America; brought on, quite possibly, because of his one noble act.
Added to their predicament was what the Russians called Belaya Smert. For ninety days, every movement was made through the hellishness of a nightmare. They knew he was out there; a faceless killer. A phantom. But they could do nothing except hide themselves as best they could and move quickly when they had to.
On March 6, 1940, Belaya Smert peered down from a ridge 30 feet above and a thousand feet distant from a Soviet supply line. His real name was Simo Häyhä. He was a farmer by trade and until this new calling, his only previous military experience consisted of the bicycle brigade.
Perfectly camouflaged in a suit of white, he packed his mouth with snow and scanned for a target through the iron sights of his M/28. His eyes rested upon a figure at the base of a burned-out tank. As he focused in, he suddenly realized that he was looking right into the sights of another rifle. Simo was slow to move; the sniper squeezed the trigger and the left side of Simo’s face landed on the ledge behind him. But before he lost consciousness, Simo managed to take aim and turn the lucky shooter into victim number five-hundred and forty-two.
Like Simo, his beloved Finland would survive the war, disfigured, but free of communism and fascism and still a sovereign nation.
“Roberts, third mate... but it won’t matter to you.“
“Born in Casnewydd-Bach.”
“Ar, me too, from Milfordhaven... I hear say you can navigate a bit. True?”
Roberts didn’t answer.
Captain Davis eyed his captive menacingly for a few moments before easing into a knowing smile.
“The three pounds you make every month for your hard labor sets you at ease, does it? You don’t think I’ll drop you back on the Gold Coast without getting my worth, do ye? Lend me your services and you’ll see first-hand the plenty and satiety, the liberty and power that’s within your grasp. What say you think it over a bit, aye?”
Roberts spat on the deck.
For six weeks, Roberts and Captain Davis threatened, clashed, and cursed each other. Never before had the crew seen their Captain withstand such a challenge from one of his men, pressed or free. He’d had several opportunities to escape, but each time he’d find an excuse to stay. And during this time, Roberts did indeed lend his navigational skills, expertly. It wasn’t an easy thing to do among such a rough and lawless lot, but the crew was impressed. Impressed so much that when Davis was killed by soldiers on the Isle of Princes, they demanded he take his place as their captain.
“Since I’ve dipped my hands in muddy water already, and must be a pirate, ‘tis better being a commander than a mere commoner. I promise my life will be short but merry!”
And it was.
Three years later on February 10, 1722, the prolific career of the Great Pirate John “Bartholomew” Roberts came to a bloody but predictable end. In that short time, he’d captured over 470 ships between the Americas and Africa.
Scattered across the floor were six empty cases of beer, three fifths of vodka, five bottles of Dom Pérignon, and one of Courvoisier. Half of it had been consumed by André after his guests left. Yet when he awoke, he wasn’t feeling any adverse effects. Apart from what the guests had drunk, the 7,000 calories of alcohol was his usual daily intake.
He was, however, very hungry.
He reached for the phone but to his frustration it was across the room. With a sigh, André rolled his aching legs underneath him and pushed himself off the bed and onto his feet. Unfortunately, the side of his foot came to rest on a dropped bottle. His ankle rolled sharply and there was a poignant snap.
Picking up a pencil, he dialed room service.
“Hello boss, this is Mr. Roussimoff... can you send my breakfast right away? But I don’t have time for much, I’ve got to go to the hospital, just send up the first ten items on the menu...”
André missed seven months of work recovering from his broken ankle but his triumphant return propelled him to the upper echelons of his profession.
This incident was just a precursor to what the 7’5”, 520 lb, professional wrestler, André the Giant, would suffer for the remainder of his short life. His inherited acromegaly caused his body to grow unsustainably until his heart finally gave out in his sleep.
Captain Mendoza of the Victoria aimed his sights toward the western horizon. “Keep a sharp eye toward the Ocean Sea for sails, boatswain!” he ordered. Despite rumors that the Portuguese Navy had been dispatched to intercept them, none were seen and they navigated southwest towards the Canaries. “Helmsman, keep our nose pointed at the Trinidad, she carries our flag. We know we’re bound for the Spice Islands, but the rest remains a secret even to me,” he confided in a tone of irritation.
An adventure story like none ever told was now unfolding. When the fleet turned westward at Cape Verde, the mariners began to suspect that something new was afoot; something that had never been attempted, the success of which would send shockwaves through the halls of every court in Europe.
It almost ended abruptly as the crews reached despair in their second month of constant squalls and opposing currents. Only the providential appearance of Saint Elmo’s fire aboard the Trinidad stayed a mutiny.
On September 6, 1522, almost three years later, the Victoria returned to Sanlúcar de Barrameda; quietly, without Captain Mendoza, and without her sister-ships. She returned with just eighteen men, about two-hundred and sixteen short of the original complement.
But Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet was missing more than ships and men. It was missing a day.
This westward circumnavigation of the earth brought to light a new detail that needed to be clarified before man could properly call himself master of the oceans.
The debate pertaining to a definable International Dateline would continue on, even into the 20th century.
One-hundred and eighty-six years later, a small party of men quietly worked at prying a marble lid from its foundation in the palace of Aix-La-Chapelle. As the corner seal broke free, a long swoosh of air sucked into the hollow space beneath their feet and quickly rushed back out. The workmen turned their heads and held their breath. After a few seconds they slowly exhaled and glanced furtively at each other’s faces. One of them sniffed.
The air was a little musty, but overall it was fresh.
The Holy Roman Emperor stood watching off to the side. In his hand was a scroll with a broken wax seal bearing the crossed keys of Peter. Otto III slowly moved forward as the laborers groaned and slid the top across the floor. With an intense expression marring his young face, he bent over the opening and peered down into the darkness.
“Give me light here!”
When candelabrum were lowered into the crypt, the sparkle of gold caught Otto’s eye.
Charlemagne sat in his throne the same as the day he was buried. Except for a twist of his neck which caused his head to tilt unnaturally to the side, the body was remarkably incorrupt. Atop his head was the crown.
For a moment, Otto’s youthful impetuosity almost took over.
That’s rightfully mine.
An open bible lay across Charlemagne’s lap and his finger was resting on a specific verse, Mathew 16:26. “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?”
Otto caught his breath.
“If the Pope wants István to have it, so be it,” he said and walked out.
Since then, fifty Hungarian rulers have been found to wear this “living” crown.
“My stamp,” Tsutomu said, “my jitsu-in... the one with the Mitsubishi seal on it.”
“Ah,“ his manager replied softly.
Tsutomu cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
“I was walking back to the docks to get it, passing by the potato fields... it was 8:15... I saw the plane before I even heard it. Two little parachutes were falling behind it. I thought it was more of those American pamphlets but then... there was a light...”
He tugged at the cotton bandage wrapping his left arm. It had been on for three days and it was itching him badly. A change was in order after the work day was over. He looked out the window at the bright early-afternoon sun and shook his head for a few moments before he turned back and continued.
“When I awoke... when I awoke... there was a giant mushroom of fire rising up high into the sky... It was like a tornado, but it wasn’t moving... it just rose and spread out horizontally at the top. And there was a prismatic light. It was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope...”
There was a long silence before Tsutomu began to cry.
“We are very sorry...” the manager said and placed his hand on Tsutomu’s neck. “But we are glad you’ve decided to return to –“
A popping sound from outside stopped the tearful meeting short and the office shook, just slightly. The two men spun towards the window. A bright light, a thousand times brighter the noon sun, seared their shadows onto the wall behind them before it collapsed.
It was August 9th, 1945, and Tsutomu Yamaguchi was about to survive the atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki – three days after surviving the one at Hiroshima.
But as the invaders drew near, it seemed as though the doors to a fiery furnace were opened. The Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers found their range and let loose with antique muskets and boyhood squirrel-guns. These hillbillies and thrill-seekers stood four deep; as each one took his turn atop the muddy barricade, he slid down to reload and was immediately replaced by another. The fire was never-ending. And accurate.
1,500 canons backed them up from the rear.
The British mindlessly continued forward for twenty-five minutes amidst a fury of lead but even the few that actually made it to the canal soon realized that they had forgotten to bring in the cane bundles which were to have been used to breach the ramparts. Most died with their backs exposed. Many simply preferred to lie down rather than retreat and face that hell again.
Within two hours, the battlefield was cleared. Just seven Americans were dead. The British Navy abandoned its plans for New Orleans.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The battle was unnecessary.
The Treaty of Ghent had been signed two weeks earlier. Word just hadn’t reached the participants yet that the two countries were to return to conditions that existed before the war began almost three years earlier.
Little consolation to the 2,000 British casualties...