Historia Calamitatum

The three day walk from Vannes to Nantes brought Peter a renewed energy. His mind was fresh again. As he settled into a friend’s house on the edge of town, he recollected all the things that he had considered during his journey; and the time that he spent as Abbot of St. Gildas de Rhuys had given him much to contemplate. Peter always began things with a question, even when he was merely thinking to himself, a habit he retained from his days as the most sought-after academic in Paris. His first question was: Where did I go wrong this time?

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.


The Great Calamity

As a Christian in Istanbul, Rupen was used to dhimmitude. His ancestors managed to survive, and even thrive as much as they could, for five hundred years – as long as they knew their place. They had always paid the special tax imposed upon them for the privilege of maintaining their second-class citizenship. They had always lived in single-story homes built low to the ground. They had always traveled on foot, not a one of them having ever mounted a horse or carriage. They had never disputed the decisions of the courts, even though they were barred from standing as witnesses. And when war came to the Ottoman Empire, as it often did, they sadly accepted the devsirme system and gave up one of their male children in service to the Sultan.

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.


The Town Clerk

It was the day after his birthday, June 11, 1792. John jumped out of the carriage and hit the ground running. The four hour drive from Newcastle down to the recently-acquired country home in Humshaugh was a pleasant escape for his parents, but for a freshly-anointed four year old boy, it was an eternity. He wasn’t seen again all day until his father, Nathaniel, came to fetch him for dinner. He found him beneath a stone wall near the river.

“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...”

John interrupted.

“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.


The Law of Unintended Consequences

After a short speech, the Capuchin friar stepped down from the podium and took a seat at a desk. In the tiny schoolhouse, an audience of sixty watched his every move as he took a pen in hand and dipped it in a jar of ink. He let the pen hang in mid-air and a few excess drops of ink fell back into the glass as he looked thoughtfully into each of the faces before him. The lines and scars that decorated their faces showed the trials they’d endured to maintain their identity, not just as second-class Irishmen or as persecuted Catholics in a Protestant Kingdom, but simply as human beings worthy of dignity and respect.

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.


Doing Time

The morning crew arrived together on August 16, 1971. Stepping inside the dark corridor, they noticed that the doors to several prison cells had been barricaded with striped mattresses. The inmates leaning behind them were cursing and taunting the tired night shift. The situation was tense. The previous day had been orderly and quiet. Nothing had indicated this sudden turn of events.

“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.


No Good Deed Unpunished

“Dear Mama,” she began to read aloud to the postman. “I’m still working hard here in the land of liberty. I’ve accepted a new position that’s very promising! I’ve signed a contract to be the special-assistant to the warden of a penitentiary so I’ll have no worries about food or lodging for...”

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.


The White Death

The Winter War was in its third month of fighting. Still, the million Soviet soldiers, along with their thousands of airplanes, tanks, and cannons, had yet to advance more than a mile. They were ill-equipped, unprepared for the massive snowfalls, and suffering from a lack of capable officers since Stalin’s latest purge. It was especially slow-going in the southeast corner of the country where the Kollaa River provided a natural barrier to their progress.

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.


Black Bart

“What’s your name, prisoner?”

“Roberts, third mate... but it won’t matter to you.“

“Welsh then, are ye?”

“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.

Roberts accepted.

“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.


A Growing Problem

As morning broke on April 13, 1981, the sun’s crepuscular rays slipped through window blinds bestowing on everything a heavenly yellow. André’s enormous contour gently vibrated in the striped glow as he occupied every inch of the tiny hotel bed. His arms and legs were bent crookedly above him like the handle of a spilled jug. Even so, he slept soundly.

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.

“Uh oh.”

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.


Missing Time

A small armada of five ships hastily set sail from the Guadalquivir River in southern Spain. After a month of waiting, their sudden departure from Sanlúcar de Barrameda was signaled only by a mate’s shout of “All hands!”

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.