Le Pétomane

Joseph bowed one last time and disappeared behind the falling curtains. The ebullient roar of the audience echoed down the narrow halls backstage as he made his way to his dressing-room in the Moulin Rouge. Can-Can girls blew kisses at him as they brushed past in a rush and between them he caught the eyes of two tall, unsmiling gentlemen in brown suits blocking his door.

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.


A Slow Boat in China

The sound of gunfire and exploding bombs all around should have made his point for him. Nevertheless, Captain Hughes still labored to the end. Some reporters and the last of the Embassy staff had straggled aboard that afternoon but there was still room left for more. He removed his hat and looked over the heads of the small group of foreigners at a city silhouetted in the orange glow of ten thousand fires.

“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.


The Ruler's Ruler

“And this circle?”

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.


The Flaw in the System

“What about this one? It was supposed to arrive today.”

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.