Category Archives: Edwardian/Pre-War

Contains themes or references to the period from 1900-1914

Ray of Resolution

1900. The Games of the II Olympiad are underway as part of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Track and Field events are being conducted in the stadium of the Racing Club de France Football. It is not the fancy stadium or field we would come to expect of Olympic Games decades hence – Racing Club plays in the 5th tier of French national soccer (football). But, it is conveniently located close to the fairgrounds.  Not far away, just under a mile, and across the historic River Seine, the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower – built as an awe-inspiring eye-catching fascination for the 1889 Fair – is in view.(1)

June 16. Ray stands beside the bar as required for this event: the standing high jump. No running approach or adjustment of feet position is permitted.  He takes a moment to gaze at its World Record height; so prodigious a height that, if cleared, it would have sufficed to earn a medal in the regular running high jump in the previous Athens Olympics. He begins his unique routine, breathing slowly and deeply, focusing his attention, gradually folding his lanky legs into a deep squat, stretching his powerful quad, calf, and glute muscles.  As his squat deepens, he begins to swing his arms, farther and farther, back and forth. Then – suddenly! – he explodes almost straight up.

Standing High Jump, Ray Ewry

Would it be Ironic that a man who came to world prominence labeled as “The Human Frog” would have the most life-altering circumstance of his entire life crash upon him during a silly race involving frogs? Because, after Ray Ewry’s performances in the II Olympic Games – winning three Olympic Championships in all three standing jumping events in a single day – that’s what the French media and fans called him: La grenouille humaine. And the name stuck.

I have found that a firm definition of the word Ironic is difficult to pin down, although many English speakers use the word often.  As Merriam-Webster states: “The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental …”  Best fit might be when a word’s, or a phrase’s usage – or a real-life outcome – is far different than what one would expect. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said (of something completely different): “I know it when I see it.”

Ray Ewry was that man of world prominence. 

Standing High Jump, Olympics,  Ray Ewry

He was born in October, 1873, in Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the seat of Tippecanoe County, lying along the Wabash River, and contains its companion waterway: the Wabash Canal.  The river, the canal, and even the county fair and fairgrounds provided entertainment for young Ray.  But his life wasn’t even close to easy.

Much of America and Europe went through a canal building craze in the early 19th century.  These ambitious waterway constructions facilitated the transportation of goods and product.  In America grain went from the breadbaskets of the heartland to oceanic ports and thence to other American cities and to the world. Canals also facilitated the flow of all sorts of necessities to the heartland: forged machinery, stoves, clothing, boots, even sawn lumber and fine European clothing and furniture.  (One tip-off regarding canal building and its significance is the number of inland US cities with the suffix “-port” in their name, such as Logansport, Gasport, Middleport, Brockport, etc.  There are at least 4 Lockports, of course all near canal locks: one each in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York states).

US Major Canals, circa 1853

Thousands of miles of canals were constructed. The Erie Canal is probably the most famous and enduring.  It opened in 1825 and traversed northern New York state for some 360-plus miles, connecting the four Great Lakes above Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean … and thus helped make many cities along those Great Lakes  become commercial and transportation hubs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, etc.), and also helped make New York City into the gigantic hub of commercial trade.  That’s a status it enjoys to this day.

Of the significant but lesser-known canals we consider the longest North American canal at nearly 500 miles: the Wabash & Erie Canal.  This canal network connected Toledo’s Maumee Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana, on the right bank of the mighty Ohio River.  From there transportation to and from the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico was possible.

With construction beginning near Toledo in 1832, and finally reaching Evansville in 1853, the canal’s long-term future (as for many other canals) was doomed before it was completed, even though it had been in use since the first few miles of the big ditch were dug.  The steam powered “Iron Horse” was the next transportation rage.  Fueled with coal and using rapidly developing steel technology for engines, wheels and rails, the railroad would almost immediately surpass and suppress the potential of canals for convenient transportation.

1904 Saint Louis.  The Games of the III Olympiad are underway, again as part of a World’s Fair.  The Track & Field events are occurring on the newly constructed Athletic Field of Washington University (now known as Francis Olympic Field).  Again, the field lacks much of the glamour and size we’d grow to expect in future decades. The University is in the process of moving from downtown Saint Louis to just across the city limits.  Its many buildings and grounds are still works-in-progress.  Just a few yards away from the Athletic Field, the World’s Fair is using the University’s new Admin Building as headquarters for its massive spread of 1,270 acres of exhibitions – the largest Fair until Shanghai over a century later, in 2010.  And just a bit further away the Ferris Observation Wheel, at 264 feet tall with a capacity of 2,160 passengers is clearly visible.

August 29.  Ray stands at one end of the Long Jump pit.  His feet are on the ground; this is a standing jumping event.  He’d need one of his better jumps to secure 1st place and a gold medal (the 1904 Olympics were the first with gold, silver and bronze medals).  He gazes out to a spot well over 3 meters away, to world and Olympic record distance.  Fellow American Charles King has already broken Ray’s Olympic record at 3.21 meters.  Ray quiets his pensive, disciplined mind and begins his now well-known routine.  When he leaps, his explosiveness surprises no one.  When he lands –  properly not falling backward – the crowd roars its appreciation.  Ray has set a new World and Olympic Record at 3.47 meters (11 feet, 4.6 inches) – and won himself another Olympic championship.

Ray Ewry, Standing Long Jump, 1904 Olympics, Saint Louis

Unlike Paris, the Olympic events are spread out over several months; yet like Paris, most of the athletic (track and field) Olympic competitions were crammed into just a few days.  In Paris, all of Ray’s events were held on a single day; in Saint Louis his events spread out a bit.  Yet, Ray won three golds again, sweeping the standing jumping events, between August 29 and September 3.  Although he set a record in the Long Jump, his other numbers were off from his personal best – a trend he had begun to notice in his training.


Not much detail is known of Ray Ewry’s early life in Lafayette, except that it was profoundly difficult.  I found little.  He had one sibling, a sister, Mabel, a few years younger.  His father, George, was prone to drink. His mother, Lizzie, died of “consumption” (now known as tuberculosis) when he was only 5-½ years old, and his sister was still a toddler.  Sodden with alcohol and sorrow, Ray’s father was unable to deal with the duties of sole parent, household management, and employment – so he turned to his friends and neighbors, the Elisha family, to raise his children. Mary Elisha became Ray’s and Mabel’s mother. Mr. George Ewry then vanished forever. Ray was an orphan.

Little was known about diseases – including hygiene and sanitation – even late into the 19th century.  And little could be done for what was known.  Thanks to Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, the prolific lives of bacteria were certainly known, yet Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was decades away, and widespread use of it even further.  Viruses were unknown, although they were proved to exist in the 1890s; yet they were so small they were little understood until well into the 20th century.

In Lafayette Indiana, like many other places, children frequently played in, and splashed about in, fetid waters.  Ray Ewry often did such when he was not off playing at the county fairgrounds.  He’d jump and swim in the Wabash Canal or River. All the kids did.  No one really thought much of it.

2021. It’s still the time of coronavirus, or Covid-19, although – hopefully – the end is nigh. Or at least major relief.  Tokyo will host the Olympics with essentially zero spectators.  Of the countless types of viruses, there are a tiny fraction that can have horrible effects on humans. But a tiny fraction of a very large number is still a large number. Among this vile fraction are a set of three that can cause conditions that terrify anyone: the polio viruses.

These are three similar but distinctly different polio viruses. Call them variations on a gene.  All are highly contagious and are different enough that vaccines must contain three different antigen triggers.  Thankfully two types are considered to be fully eradicated from the earth, and the other is found only in remote places – mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Much as with Covid-19, the vast majority of people who got infected with a polio virus suffered very mild-to-no symptoms; some medical sites say 95-99%.  Of those with symptoms, most might have felt like they had a mild cold, or flu, and feel achy for a few days, or maybe a week. Perhaps a slight fever. And then it was gone.  [Also, like Covid-19, these asymptomatic infections can spread the virus]. What history and imagination conjures up for us is the one-in-two hundred or so who suffered some sort of paralysis. The onset of paralysis was usually some time – several days, or even a week, or more – after the body had seemingly “beaten” the virus. Overwhelmingly such paralysis victims were children: from very young to adolescents.

The odd adult case has a most memorable example.  Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the US, was stricken with polio paralysis at age 39 – the year after he had unsuccessfully stood for Vice-President as the Democratic Party nominee.  About 75% of such polio paralysis victims eventually get most, even all, capability back in their stricken limbs and muscles.  Roosevelt was among the minority who did not.

Sadly, for those who do recover, there is a high incidence of PPS – Post Polio Syndrome.  After many years, even after decades, the previously afflicted muscles begin to slowly weaken, and may eventually fail altogether.  The biological mechanism is not understood, as the virus itself is long gone from the body, and – now that Polio is nearly totally eradicated thanks to diligent vaxxing of all children – the phenomenon may never be understood.  Perhaps the aging body just “remembers” the condition and reverts back to it.

There are other infectious diseases that can have long-lasting effects, long after the infection is beaten.  One is caused by the genus of streptococcus bacteria.  Bacteria are much larger than viruses, but just as devious.  They are frequently “opportunistic”: the body generally fights them off well, but they still strike hard when the body is run down, perhaps fighting another infection (often viral), or there is a large cut or scrape to the skin, as often happens to young boys.

Strep bacteria have distinct proteins on their cell coating which the human body’s immune system identifies as antigens: something to attack and kill.  But sometimes the body is too run-down to fight the bacteria off quickly, or perhaps, after the age of Fleming, the use of antibiotics is delayed.  When strep hangs around the body for a while, the immune system gets over-programmed to attack the marked bacteria’s protein in its cell coating.  Unfortunately, that protein is very similar to other proteins that the body needs, such as in the muscles of the heart. And tissue in the joints.  The result is Rheumatic Fever.  It is usually a life-long struggle.  It’s an auto-immune disorder: the body attacks itself.

It was probably not uncommon to suffer such an infection along with a viral infection … like polio.

1906, Athens. The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold another Olympic Games competition to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the first modern era Olympics, also held in Athens.  Dubbed the “Second International Olympic Games of Athens”, they were the first clear forerunner to the much spot-lighted and hyped-up Olympics we know today.  Well planned, highly promoted, and separate from a World’s Fair. The track and field events are held near the center of ancient Athens, in the Panathenaic Stadium, a magnificent edifice, fully worthy of the Olympics, which remains today the only stadium built entirely of marble. So magnificent, in fact, that it was used as a main venue for the 1896 and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, as well as 1906.

Olympic Stadium, Athens, Olympiakó Stádio Athinon

Ray Ewry successfully defends his Olympic Championship in two events, the standing high jump and standing long jump.  After the 1904 games, the standing triple jump was removed from the Olympic event list, for which Ray and his aging body were grateful.  A tad discouraged by failing, yet again, to reach the height and distances of his previous performances, Ray nonetheless takes the time to scoop up some soil from the Athenian Olympic field and take it back to America.

June, 1881.  School is out.  Ray and his friends spend many muggy days playing in and around the old horse and wagon trails, taking time to splash about to cool off and “rinse off” in the fetid waters of the nearly abandoned Wabash Canal, part of the lengthy Erie & Wabash canal system.  Catching a few frogs was not out of the question.  Such “boy things” were commonly done, and no one thought much about it.

In June Ray caught a bad cold, perhaps a flu, with fever, chills and aches.  His greatest fear was missing the Tippecanoe County Fair.  To him the Fair’s highlight would be the Wheelbarrow Frog Race, to be held on July 4th.

Such “Frog” races were rather new to America, and especially Tippecanoe County.  Apparently the highly entertaining, laugh-a-minute race idea came along with immigrants from Italy.  The general idea is that each contestant gets a wheelbarrow (with low sides, or even no sides) and a frog.  Place a frog on each wheelbarrow and run.  Race distances were from a few hundred yards to a mile.  You must complete the race with both a wheelbarrow and a frog upon the wheelbarrow to win.

Frogs are generally placid and stay put … until the slightest bump or turn occurs.  Whereupon they jump off, and the unfortunate contestant must discard their wheelbarrow, stop running the race, and start running after their frog – hopefully retrieving it quickly.  It was not uncommon, and considered within the rules, that contestants would bump each others wheelbarrows.

Fortunately for Ray, he recovered from his summer “bug” after a few days, and Mary Elisha allowed him to participate in this hilarious half-mile race.  A bunch of young boys with small wheelbarrows and frog aboard (perhaps caught in the canal) took off from the starting line.  Along the dirt race path each participant, of course, had his frog escape from time-to-time: that’s the whole idea and the source of the fun.  Sometimes boys would catch each others’ escaped frogs (rules say one needs “a frog” to win, not “the frog you started with”). It was such fun for all of them and for the spectators!!

While chasing his escaped frog Ray began to feel tingling in his legs, like something he’d never felt before.  Each time the frog escaped and he chased it down, the tingling experience was of short duration; yet, each time it was longer and more intense; and each time he ignored the funny tingling and began running the race again once he had his frog aboard his wheelbarrow.  Coming down the home stretch Ray felt like he had a chance to win. The leader was just a few strides ahead. He ran and pushed as hard as he could.  No sense risking losing his frog now.  At full stride, the tingling returned.  It turned to weakness. The faster he tried to run the weaker his legs became.

With what seemed like the whole county watching, Ray fell face first onto the race path.  Had he stumbled?  Horrified, Mary Elisha and others watched as he tried to get up and complete the race.  But Ray couldn’t get up.  His legs were completely paralyzed.  At 7-½years old.

1908, London.  The Games of the III Olympiad are again, and for the last time, held as part of a World’s Fair.  The IOC had found, from experience in 1900 and 1904, that holding the games concurrent with such a grand Fair was not consistent with their vision for the future of the games…  especially after the success of the 1906 games in Athens, which stood alone, and shone greatly.

The 1908 games were awarded to Italy, to be hosted in Rome. Unfortunately, the catastrophic 1906 eruption of Vesuvius had stressed the Italian government greatly, and they backed out as host of the games.  London, which was to host another grand World’s Fair in 1908 (they had hosted what is arguably the first modern World’s Fair, in 1851) would now host the Olympics for the first time.  [Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960, and the achievements of Wilma Rudolf there are not without remarkable parallels to Ray Ewry.  London hosted again in 1948 and 2012].

At the astonishing age of nearly 35 (for a track and field athlete) Ray Ewry again defends his Olympic title in both the standing Long and High jumps, eking out height and distance just barely ahead of 2nd place.  Quietly both proud of his achievement and also a tad disappointed in his slipping numbers, Ray takes home the last two of his ten Olympic first place awards.  He is 10 for 10, winner of 10 events and undefeated in his Olympic career.  Unheard of even today for a multiple gold medal winner.

1881-1891. Young Ray is distraught and discouraged by his condition: Paralyzed and bed-ridden.  Mary Elilsha refuses to give up, reaching out to doctors and medical centers far and wide.  There is full consensus: this is a life-long condition.  Ray is forever paralyzed.  But one doctor provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps some physical therapy could possibly help.  It might well have just been a simple kind thing to say to a grieving “mom” like Mary.  No sense heaping more grief on her, and Ray.

Mary runs with this advice.  She finds a woman with a therapy background willing to spend time with Ray.  Some research suggests her name was “Kate”, but the source is not firm. Nevertheless, she quickly moves past massage and assisted range-of motion stretches; she improvises with a peach basket, cutting two holes in the bottom and hanging it from a rope suspended over a pulley on the barn.  Ray, wheelchair-bound, was lifted into the basket, its height adjusted with the pulley so that his feet barely touched the ground.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Ray spent endless hours in the basket.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the basket was lowered – first by Kate, then after she had left, by Mary Elisha.  As it was lowered, although unknown to Ray for some time, he could support ever more weight, and this allowed him to flex his legs, exerting his muscles over greater range of motion.

By the time Ray reached his senior year in high school, he was still using crutches. But he could get himself into and out of the basket, raise and lower it himself, and he was growing in several ways.  Ray was growing stronger – much stronger.  He was also growing to be quite tall, now reaching 6 feet. And he was a superior student.

By the end of his senior year he was walking.  After 11 years of paralysis.  He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and started participating in the track club.  He continued his own training and therapy, keeping careful notes, and training with the club.

In 1894 Ray completed a degree in engineering, and moved on to a few years as an Associate Engineering Professor at Purdue.  His intellect and his physical prowess were catching a lot of attention.  Since freshman year, Ray began winning track events, although at a club level and against mostly regional schools.

Ray Ewry and the Athenian Olympic Stadium. At right his Olympic shirt bears the Winged Foot insignia of the New York Athletic Club

Later in the 1890s, Ray got the opportunity to move to the New York area, with a position designing and building ships for the US Navy.  As a coincidental bonus, he was also offered a sponsored membership at the exalted New York Athletic Club, where he could continue training and competing.  It was they who sponsored his participation in the Olympics. And provided a training site for him.


1910-11. Despite his age, Ewry had every intention of competing in the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm. He continued his training and kept meticulous notes.  Outwardly upbeat about his chances of qualifying to be on the US team, inwardly and in his notes his mood was a bit darker.  His joints ached; not just his knees and not just when he trained.  It was everywhere. And he could feel his leg muscles weakening, despite his disciplined workout and training regimen.

It’s hard to tell the difference between the effects of aging and the combined effects of Post-Polio Syndrome and Rheumatic Fever.

In 1911, aged 38, while training for the Olympic tryouts, he suffered a knee injury.  These had occurred before, and he always recovered and worked through them.  Not this time. He just could not get through it this time.  After a few months of further training and therapy Ray decided it was time to retire from competition (although he remained active in the sport for decades, both coaching and judging at events).

After a very distinguished career with the Navy (as a civilian) Ray was recruited by the city of New York City to help further develop their water supply infrastructure.  The large city was still growing, and they would soon need not only more water, but better systems to deliver it.  Ray spent a lot of time over the next decades touring the state, inspecting and directing implementation of his designs, many of which are still providing steady, faithful service today.

Along the way, Ray married a local Lafayette girl, a lass named Nelle Johnson, several years younger than he, who had taken kindly to him when he was young, shy and struggling with polio paralysis.  They had only one child, a girl named Mary Elizabeth, who usually went by Betsy or Bets.  Sadly, Betsy got very early Alzheimer’s, and all of her memories of her father were lost.  Her only son (I think, and thus Ray’s only grandson) Thomas Carson,  a music industry professional, compiled much of Ray’s lesser-known history through much personal research. His work was a great resource to me in writing this essay. [2]

Ray passed away in 1937 just before his 64th birthday.  One would normally think that is quite young for an athletically accomplished man who attended faithfully to his health.  I can’t find the circumstances, but it seems it was a quick slide at the end and might well have been negatively affected by the health issues of his youth … which followed him  through most of his adult life.

In 1928 Ray Ewry was invited back to Purdue to be present at the dedication of the new Ross-Ade Football Stadium.  As Purdue’s most accomplished athlete ever (and perhaps most accomplished engineer), he was the guest of honor.  For the ceremony, and unknown to almost everybody, Ray brought with him a small jar of soil from the Olympic Field at Athens, still untouched after more than two decades.  For the surprise highlight of the dedication ceremony, Ray spread the hallowed ancient Olympic soil upon the stadium field of his Alma Mater.

Ewry’s Olympic record of ten championships held up for many decades. In fact, so far, it has only been broken once, by the superhuman Michael Phelps, who has won 23 gold medals.  He broke Ewry’s record of 10 when he won his 7th through 14th Olympic Gold Medals at the Beijing Games, in 2008.  However, Phelps is not undefeated, as he won zero medals in 2000 (at Sydney, age 15) and has 28 overall medals (also the most ever) against “only” 25 golds.

It should be noted that several decades later, in 1949, the IOC decided that the 1906 Games were not “Real Olympic Games” and purged all records of those games from their official list. Most historians of athletics disagree, however, and they do indeed count these games and awards, since they were highly attended, highly promoted as Olympics, and set the trajectory for how the games evolved. So, officially, I suppose, per IOC (and Wikipedia and others) Ray Ewry has only eight Olympic championships. But I am with the consensus of historians: we emphatically say ten!

Thank you, Ray Ewry, “The Human Frog”, for showing us that anything is possible if we keep pushing our boundaries and continually try to better ourselves, even in times of strife, viruses, and disease… and beyond.

Joe Girard © 2021

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing

Footnote (1) Today, the Tower is only visible from this site if one peers carefully between trees growing in the park and new buildings built later in the 20th century. Here is a painting of an aerial view of the 1900 fair, which was likely made from a sketch that was made by an artist aloft in a balloon.  The athletic field is the green space across the river. It is possible that the old Theirs city wall, which was quite close to the park and fields, could have obscured the view, despite being heavily damaged during the siege in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

1900 World’s Fair. Athletic Field is the green space across the river. Arial Painting by Lucien Baylac, based on Balloon observations.  The Observation Wheel (Grande Roue) was about 354 feet tall, higher than the huge wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 Fair in Chicago, and also used at the 1904 Fair in Saint Louis.


Footnote [2] Thomas E Carson V, Ray Ewry’s grandson, wrote a biography about Ray, called “Unsung.”  It was the culmination of decades of work in which he interweaves Ray’s bio with his own nearly epic pursuit of the details of Ray’s life, as well as his medals.  There are many, many sources on Ray.  But, to the benefit of me as a writer and you readers, Mr Carson’s book provided much of the rich contextual detail about Ray that made his story much more “human.”  Thank you sir!

Carson is also a published fiction writer, and I believe you can find his works (including some serials based on a main character named Drum Bailey) on Amazon and elsewhere.

Mr Carson may not be Ray’s only grandson, but some genealogy searches turned up no others.


Various sources, among so very, very many …

Before Leaping To 10 Golds, Athlete Beat Polio : NPR

Ray C. Ewry | American athlete | Britannica

Biography of Ray Ewry <small>(1873-1937)</small> –

The Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – College of Engineering – Purdue University

Ewry begins Olympic career with 3 titles in 1 day in Paris – Washington Times

End of the World?

Halley’s Comet – named for Sir Edmond Halley, the English bloke who used Newton’s new art of calculus to surmise that frequently seen comets in history were, in fact the same comet – returns to the inner solar system once every 76 years or so, on average. [1] When this occurs, it is usually quite visible with the naked eye for weeks at a time.

76 years is quite a short period for a comet that can be so easily seen.  It is the only one that can be seen twice in a single human lifetime.

Alas, the only appearance during my lifetime – in 1986 – was far less than spectacular.  Earth’s and Halley’s orbits were sort of “out of synch” and thus minimized earth’s view of the comet when it was brightest. I was most disappointed, since I had read about it so much and had been very let down by the “flame out” of Kahoutek in 1973-74.

Such has not always been the case.

In 1066 the Comet portended the defeat of English King Harold II to William, the conqueror from Normandy at a battlefield near Hastings[2A] So important was this astronomical sign that its significance and image are captured on the magnificent 70 meter (230 feet) long tapestry that that tells the story of conquest, and still survives in Bayeux, Normandy. [2B]

Over the millennia, many other occasions of Halley’s return and sighting have been recorded in several cultures. As there was no effective difference between astronomy and astrology, a comet’s appearance (exceedingly rare as they are) are usually associated with some momentous decision, or a historical event.

Could that event be the end of the world?

The year was 1910, and the comet’s return was certainly expected. Based on its path through the solar system since its 1835 appearance, astronomers and physicists predicted it would appear in spring. [3]

And yet, in January, a comet brighter than anything anyone had expected appeared!  Was this Halley’s?  Appearing early? Astrophysicists re-worked and labored over their calculations again.  As they did, the comet got so bright it was visible during the day!  It’s brightness rivaled that of famously bright evening and morning “stars” – Venus and Jupiter –  but with a tail painted across the sky. 

Soon enough scientists announced: No! This is not Halley’s.  This is an unrecorded comet, probably with a period of 50,000 to 100,000 years!  People alive then were fortunate to see such a spectacle. That 1910 comet is often referred to as “The Daylight Comet.”

Historians regularly call 1910 “The Year of Two Comets.” Just a few months after the Daylight Comet faded away Halley’s made its scheduled appearance in April. 

Astronomers first sighted it in early April, and it could be seen with the naked eye starting around April 10. They tracked it, and – again – many scientists and astronomers made their calculations and observations.  Those who calculate did their calculations: Each orbit of a comet is different, and everyone wanted to know how bright the comet would get, and how close it would get to earth.

From the Dallas Star, May, 1910

On April 20 the comet reached perihelion – its closest approach to the sun – and became very easily viewable from earth with casual unaided observation.  [On cue, Mark Twain passed away[3]]. After perihelion they predicted an Earth-comet approach so close that on May 18th Earth would pass through the comet’s tail Now that’s astonishing!

What would happen then?  How should this news be treated? Should they let everyone, and anyone, know?  Would panic and hysteria ensue? What about the news that spectroscopic surveys of the tail suggested the tail was comprised of a high percentage of cyanogen, a precursor to cyanide? 

A few scientists suggested that this could make the entire atmosphere fatally toxic! But most scientists thought that there was no danger.  Yet, we couldn’t know until we actually passed through.

What do you do when the world might end?  Many people just stayed home, preferring to spend their final hours with their families. Factories shut down for want of workers. Yet, in many places around the world the answer was: have a party.  A big party.  Get all your friends, family, food and booze together and enjoy yourselves like there might be no tomorrow. Humans around the world wondered what might happen, … while partying. It was a delicious time: while the vast majority had little or no fear of the “calamity”, they took it as an opportunity to have a good time, enjoy this singular event: a few spectacular hours of passage. And by doing so – maybe – mocking those who were in hysteria.

It might have been the last time until now (the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, March 2020) that the world has been more or less united in the same activities.  Mankind united by a single set of events.

Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet. When it was over, of course, nothing happened.  They had simply witnessed and experienced an event that probably no other human had!  And no other human will for a very long time. [5]

Well, perhaps more than that happened.  Quite a few probably had hangovers – and there might have been a mini-baby boom in early 1911. (There was, in fact, a few percent jump in US births in 1911 over 1910; however, (1) that was a time of such massive immigration; and (2) birth numbers jumped consistently from 1900 until 1918 [insert WW1 comment here], so it’s not clear what we should attribute this mini-baby boom to.) [4]

Anyhow, one way or the other, this SARS-CoV-2 thing (and the illness it causes, COVID-19) will pass. Some of us have panicked.  Nearly all of us will survive, although many of us will be changed; maybe with larger waistlines.

Unlike extraordinary 1910 – with two brilliant comets, and with Halley’s extremely close-approach to Earth – an epidemic or pandemic will occur again.  For some of us, perhaps, within our lifetime.  What will happen next time?  Much will depend on what we have learned. And what we remember.

I hope it’s not the end of the world.  But in any case, we can have a party.

By the way: Halley’s is predicted to appear again in the summer of 2061.  I don’t think I’ll hang around for that one.  Gotta join ol’ Mark Twain sometime. But if I do make it to then: we’re having a heck of a party!

Until next time, I wish you peace and health

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing

[1] Halley’s orbital period varies a bit with every orbit; and the variation is random.  Why? A) The comet sheds a fraction of its mass with each inner solar system pass due to solar heating; and B) the comet is tiny and light, and thus subject to (usually) slight gravitational perturbation by planets.  Halley’s once had an orbital period of many tens of thousands of years, falling from the Kuiper Belt – or more likely the Oort Cloud – but after repeated close encounters with planets, it has been captured and now strays only about as far away from the sun as the 8th planet Neptune at aphelion – it’s farthest distance from the sun. 

[2A] My son Aaron and I walked the battlefield in April, 2010. It is actually quite far inland from Hastings. There is a lovely town there now, with a beautiful Abbey. The town is called, appropriately enough: “Battle”

[2B] My wife and I were fortunate enough to have time to walk along and see the entire tapestry during our Normandy tour, in May, 2018.

[3] Mark Twain was born in 1835, with Halley’s Comet visible in the night sky.  As he aged, he grew weary and bitter – he had lost his fortune, three of his four children perished before him, and then his wife went. In such a dark cloud he predicted his own demise in 1910, concurrent with Halley’s reappearance.  He was correct.

[4] US Live Birth Statistics

[5] Deaths from Halley’s.  There were quite a few deaths associated with Halley’s, almost all of them due to the hysteria.  I read a report of a 16-year old Canadian girl falling to her death from the roof of a building where an “end of the world” party was being held.

[6] Author’s note: My disappointment with Halley’s 1986 appearance was greatly relieved by Hale-Bopp in March and April, of 1997.  On a spring break trip to the Arizona desert, with perfect viewing, Hale-Bopp was magnificent.  And it’s brightest night was almost exactly the same as a lunar eclipse and – right next to the moon – Mars in perfect and brilliant opposition


Nat King Cole had perhaps the sweetest and smoothest voice of all the 20th century American male singers. His voice easily evokes feelings of warm, genuine love.  I’d vote him to the top of that class of crooner. After all, I’ve admitted before that I am a hopeless, sentimental romantic.

Nat King Cole, 1952 — as good looking as his voice

Some people attribute his tone and resonance to a rugged life that spared neither alcohol nor heavy smoking (he died of lung cancer, in 1965, shortly before reaching age 46). That is simply not true.  Cole was truly gifted and worked hard at his craft.  For evidence I submit the sweet and professional voice of his daughter, Natalie Cole.

I have a Pandora station that I like to play at low key get-togethers and quiet evenings that include, among other genres, some harmonica-based blues, ‘70s soft rock, ballads, bossa nova, and love songs. Cole’s voice comes up frequently.  I’m never disappointed.


The year 1911 stood at the twilight of the Edwardian Era, ‘twixt the death of King Edward and the outbreak of The Great War. That year an amateur musician named Charles Dawes composed a little instrumental tune for violin and piano that he called, simply, “Melody in A Major.” Dawes was a self-taught pianist and flautist who composed merely as a hobby. The tune become somewhat popular in his lifetime.

That Dawes should have success in far-flung fields would not come as a surprise to anyone who knew him.  Born in Ohio in 1865 just after the close of the Civil War, he was the son of a hero and general of that nationally tragic and transforming war. After college and then law school Dawes went off to Nebraska – a frontier land of opportunity. There, in Lincoln, he established himself as a successful lawyer and made friendships with both John “Black Jack” Pershing (who would go on to command all US forces in WW1) and Williams Jennings Bryan (who would go on to promote Free Silver – i.e. liberal monetary policy— and thrice secure the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States, eventually serving as both Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and, later, as prosecuting attorney in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial”).

Dawes also got interested in business.  An opportunist, he moved to Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago) during the 1893 Panic, and began acquiring interest in various companies at bargain prices, beginning with a slew of gas companies. Success gained him attention, and in 1896 he managed the Illinois presidential campaign of William McKinley (against his Nebraska friend, Bryan). From McKinley’s win, he was rewarded by being named Treasury Department’s Officer of the Currency. In this roll he was able to recover many millions of dollars that banks had lost during the ’93 Panic.

Dawes resigned from the administration in 1901 to set up a run for Senator. He believed the timing was right, since he had McKinley’s support (who had been recently re-elected and was hugely popular). But McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair in Buffalo in September of that year.  The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, would not be supporting Dawes (this was before direct election of Senators). Dawes fell in his attempt to become Illinois’ 16th Senator to fellow Republican Albert Hopkins.

He returned to business, expanding into banking and investment management, forming the Central Trust Company of Illinois.

When Dawes wrote “Melody in A Major” in 1911, he was already a successful lawyer, businessman, banker and government official. 


June 1, 2019 – It’s late evening and my wife and I are relaxing in the Colorado mountains. She’s doing a little work on her computer. I’m reading Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiographical book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (subtitled: A Viet Nam Woman’s Journey from War to Peace). 

We’re listening to the aforementioned Pandora station, when a beautiful and well-arranged father-daughter duet comes on: When I Fall in Love (it will be forever), sung by Nat and Natalie Cole.  That duet, which won a Grammy in 1997, was made possible by the magic of technology, since Nat had passed away some 30 years earlier.

I wondered if it’s true. Does “falling in love” last forever?  It makes a nice tune, but ….

I put the book down.  Le Ly had mostly terrible luck with men.  And more than just a few. Can someone be simultaneously in love with more than one person?  Like Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Berman) in Casablanca?  Or Dr Zhivago (Omar Shariff) in the eponymous movie? What about falling in love multiple times?  Does that count? What does falling in love even mean?  It’s June 1, the birthday of the young lady I fell for in 1978.  I still remember so many details, even her birthday, and I still have many fond memories and a small place for her in my heart.  Does that count?  Probably not.  No matter how far, or hard, you fall, it’s not love if it can’t be returned.

My one forever love is Audrey.

Why do I even ponder these things?  Is it because I’m a hopelessly sentimental romantic?

A half dozen songs later and Nat comes on again, this time with “It’s All in the Game” – with the great lyrics “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game”— as in the “game” of falling in love.  No one said it would be easy.

Cole’s smooth voice and recording is one of many covers – and perhaps the best – of a 1958 hit song by Tommy Edwards; others had recorded it as well, but the Edwards version made it to #1 on the charts in both the United States and England. 

The song (often simply called “Game”) had actually been lying around since 1951. That’s the year that songwriter Carl Sigman put lyrics to a decades old melody with no words.  It was a tune that had been lying around since 1911; a tune called “Melody in A Major.”


Established as a successful banker and businessman with a can-do attitude, Dawes was made chief of Procurement and Supply Management for “Black Jack” Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force during the Great War.  He achieved the rank of Brigadier General by war’s end. 

Charles Dawes

After the war, he returned his attention temporarily to private business, only to be appointed to be the first ever Director of the Budget, in 1921 by President Harding.  This is now called the Office of Budget Management.  Dawes helped grow the bureau into one of the most important serving under the president: producing the president’s budget, tracking expenses against the budget, and monitoring and tracking the efficiency of the many agencies that serve every president’s administration.

By 1923 Germany was in great economic distress:  hyperinflation, vastly diminished industrial capability,  unable to pay reparations. Dawes was assigned to a commission to figure out what to do for Germany.  Excessive war reparations and allied occupation of industrial districts had ruined the economy.  The situation led to social and political – as well as economic – instability; it inspired Hitler to attempt the Beer Hall Putsch.

The commission’s plan, which came to be known as the Dawes Plan, called for complete re-organization of the German national bank (Reichsbank) and a reset on their currency, to be anchored by a loan from the United States. Re-industrialization was begun as was acceleration of France’s de-occupation of the Ruhr district. Concessions from the French also allowed for slower, more gradual, and less painful reparations.

As a result of the Plan’s success, Charles Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. 

Dawes’ star was shining.  At the Republican convention in June, 1924 he was chosen to be the running mate to Calvin Coolidge in that fall’s election.  He then served as Vice President of the United States (and president of the Senate) for the next four years.

Dawes also served in the Hoover administration that followed, first as ambassador to England and, later, as head of the newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation to help fight the depression.

After leaving the Hoover administration he served on many industrial and bank boards and continued running his own banking businesses from his home in Evanston, until his death, in 1951. 

Not coincidentally, Sigman was inspired by Dawes’ lifetime of accomplishment and wrote the lyrics to complete Dawes’ “Melody in A Major” shortly after he learned of Dawes’ passing.

Charles Dawes had a remarkable life. And if you remember him for one thing, well, here’s something that might help you in a trivia contest: Dawes is the only person in history to have co-written a song that made it to #1 on the charts, served as Vice-President of the United States, and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.   

This sentimental romantic wishes you all a lifetime of fulfillment and fully requited love.


Joe Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here

Titanic Redemption

“From Tragedy to Redemption: Where to from Titanic Failure?”


“The Amazing Life of Charles Lightoller”

“Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
ct, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead.

Lives of great men all remind us,
That we can make our lives sublime,
And departing leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time. 

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again!”

–       Several verses borrowed from Longfellow’s “Psalm to Life


From the 100,000 foot level, in general, human lives by and large do not vary much from one to the next.  On the one hand, we are all blessed with talents and gifts and opportunities; on the other, we all have handicaps and obstacles and unfair struggles.  We rise, we fall.  We try things, we experiment, we succeed, and we fail – sometimes titanic failures.

And yet, lives are not so much the same.  It is in the periods of time following failure and doubt that separate lives of the ordinary from lives of the marvelous.  Consider the time after disaster, after failure, after ignominy; these are the milestones where the gift of free will – about our attitude – can so affect our futures, … and the lives of others.

The courses of lives are then steered by answers to the question:  how long are we able to persevere, to believe in ourselves and prepare ourselves, awaiting the opportunity for redemption – even if that opportunity is a truly singular moment?  For some the answer is: as long as it takes.


It is a uniquely beautiful April night in the north Atlantic.  Clear skies gaze down upon two young men, the lookouts in the Crow’s Nest, some 100 feet above the ship’s main deck.  They eagerly await the passing of the next twenty minutes until midnight when their shift will come to a merciful end on this crisp, cold night.  The atmosphere is so clear and calm that the multitudinous stars of God’s glorious and infinite creation are not even twinkling.

Below, on the main deck, most of the senior officers have just retired for the night, ending a long, exciting, exhilarating, yet stressful day.  Command of the breathtakingly huge and beautiful ocean-liner is left to the first officer, third in command overall.

At 41.8 degrees north – farther south than the California/Oregon boundary – and nearly 51 degrees west, the crew has received, via Marconigram, reports of ice in the very area that they now traverse.  Yet so confident are the senior officers, based on 100 years of North Atlantic experience and their crew’s ability to detect and avoid danger, that the magnificent vessel bounds along at 22.5 knots, her greatest possible speed.

A billion-to-one convergence of circumstances will soon prove that the crew’s confidence was wrong – in fact, dead wrong.

  • Experience had shown that icebergs are easily spotted by their effect on the wind; the wind was absolutely dead-calm that night, a situation seldom before encountered.
  • Experience had shown that icebergs are easily spotted by the waves that break against their sides; the ocean was – unprecedentedly – as calm as a monk.
  • Experience had shown that icebergs reflected even the faintest moonlight; there was no moon that night.
  • Experience had shown that experienced lookouts using simple optical aids could spot icebergs at night in clear skies by the faintest reflection of stellar light that originated millions of years distant; yet the ship’s equipment inventory lacked even a single set of binoculars for the Crow’s nest for this voyage.

No other nautical disaster has had so much written about it.   The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 remains undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time.  Excitement, arrogance, glamour, disaster, death, larger-than-life characters: Titanic had it all.  It even remains one of the greatest sources of stories-within-stories of all time.

  • I enjoyed the 1995 movie Titanic, even though it was rife with factual error and fictional license, thanks to the totally fabricated abbreviated love-story portrayed by the absolutely breathtaking Kate Winslet (despite the portrayal of her opposite by Leonardo DiCaprio).
  • Raise the Titanic, by Colorado’s own Clive Cussler was one of my favorite reads around 1980 – just about when I finally started steadily again – and was turned into a rotten move about the same time.

You cannot possibly read all there is to read about the Titanic, fiction OR non-fiction.  But this is not about the Titanic.  This is about redemption.  This is about the infamous ship’s most senior surviving officer:  Charles Herbert Lightoller.

Charles Lightoller, 2nd Officer on Titanic. Copyright to

He was the 2nd officer on ship, the fourth most senior officer.  Just as “Lights” Lightoller was about to slide off to sleep, the lookouts spotted the iceberg.  They immediately notified the bridge.  About 50 seconds later, despite evasive maneuvers, the Titanic struck the iceberg along its starboard side.

Lights was, of course, immediately notified.  In fact, he already had a sense of what had happened.  There was not much for him to do at first, and he remained virtually alone for tens of minutes.  Accounts vary, but it was surely evident within 40 minutes of impact that the “monument to hubris” was doomed to ultimate demise.   In fact, merely two hours and forty minutes after impact, the Titanic was totally submerged.

Lights was given responsibility for loading of the portside lifeboats (the even numbered boats).  By all accounts, he performed splendidly and calmly.  He was persuasive, unnerved and professional: boats were loaded with women and children only.  Some survivors recall that he did this to such an extent that some lifeboats were deployed less than full; but such accounts vary widely.  Lights was provided a gun, which he was not loathe to display, to insure that men did not enter the lifeboats if women or children were available.

After all available women and children were safely away, he permitted the final lifeboats to be substantially loaded with men.  He refused to enter a boat himself.  And the band played on.

Shortly after 2 AM the final rigid lifeboat had put to sea, one last collapsible lifeboat was being filled.  It was then that the Titanic – already listing and pitching heavily – lurched and took water across the deck.  Lightoller was pitched into the ocean.

While trying to find his bearings in the 30F (-1C) degree water, Lightholler was sucked against one of the intake gratings of the Titanic’s boilers, their giant volumes creating a suction as they plunged beneath the water surface.  While struggling mightily and vainly to free himself, one of the massive funnels (smokestack) began to come free, allowing water down into the boilers.  This sudden reverse of pressure propelled Lightoller free of the intake, toward the surface and the final collapsible raft, which was floating upside-down in the water.  While he and other survivors clung to the collapsible, wondering how to get away from the sinking ship, the loosened funnel fell from the Titanic, crashing into the water near the collapsible, and pushing them away from the ship as it eerily slipped into the calm sea, below calm skies.

Until the arrival of the RMS Carpathia, around 4 AM, Lightoller kept his fellow survivors calm.  As night grew to early dawn, the ocean began to swell heavily; Ligholler kept the inverted lift craft stable by instructing the several dozen survivors to move from side to side across the still inverted boat.  During those hours, some of the initial survivors perished.  Near dawn, the Carpathia pulled 708 survivors from the water.  He was the last.  [Ironically, the Carpathia was sunk by U-boats in WWI off the coast of Ireland].


Charles Herbert Lightoller was born the last of seven children to Frederick and Sarah Jane (nee: Widdows) Lightoller, in Chorley, Lancashire, England, on March 30, 1874.  Sadly, his mother died from the complications of his birth, aged only 31.  His father re-married twice, outliving each wife, and fathered six more children with his third wife.   Weary of the younger children and seeking adventure, his father abandoned Charles when he was only thirteen, moving half-way around the world to New Zealand.

Keeping the proverbial English stiff upper lip, determined to make something of himself, and determined to lead a life of excitement, young Charles signed on as a sea-faring apprentice aboard the Primrose when he was not quite 14.  Thus began his life of excitement, indeed.

Heading to India, the Primrose was caught in a storm while rounding Cape Horn.  Pushed to 65 degrees south in late June, Lightoller saw the ship skirt along Antarctic ice floes.

His second sea trip was as crew member of the sister ship Holt Hill.  A terrific storm forced them to put into port in Rio de Janerio in the midst of a smallpox epidemic AND a revolution.  Later the boat ran hopelessly aground on a tiny uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean.

By the time he was 21 he had also survived a case of African malaria and was recognized for fighting an on-board fire.

For some reason, many British were intrigued and drawn to the adventure of the Yukon Gold Rush.  In 1898, Lightoller abandoned a promising sea career to prospect for gold.  As with the vast majority of fortune hunters, and characters of Robert W. Service (Sam McGee, Dan McGrew), he ended up a dismal failure, broke, and thousands of miles from home.  Returning through the plains of Canada, he worked as a cowboy for a while.

By age 24 Lightoller was back in England, penniless, and re-starting his life in a sea-faring career.  In 1900, age 26, he started his employment with the famous White Star Line, which was to contract and own the famed Olympic class of trans-oceanic liners: the Olympic, the Britannic and the Titanic.  These were designed and advertised as the most luxurious of all ocean liners.

Lightoller quickly became a highly regarded officer of the White Star Line, serving as high as first-officer (third most senior behind captain and chief officer) on many assignments.  He was fun loving, well liked, and respected.  He progressed well in his career, serving as first officer on such prestigious ocean liners as the Majestic and the Oceanic.For the honor of serving aboard the prestigious Titanic, Lightoller took a “demotion” to second officer.

Career after the Titanic.

Lightoller arrived in New York on April 18 with the other Titanic survivors.  On and off for 14 days he was questioned and gave testimony before the US Congress.  Shortly thereafter, an inquiry by the Board of Trade in England went on for 18 days.

A reading of the testimony and questions indicates that there was probably polite professional courtesy on all sides.  Yet the content of many questions clearly showed a combination of ignorance about sea navigation and frustration at the lack of caution exhibited by the staff.  And there were slight inconsistencies in his testimony describing some timing and where he was when certain events occurred.  But he always kept his wits:

Senator Smith: “What time did you leave the ship?”

Lights: “I didn’t leave it.”

Smith: “Did the ship leave you?”

CHL: “Yes, sir.”

The hearings led to several useful recommendations regarding the use of wireless (continuous and not to be distracted by commercial traffic) and capacity of lifeboats (to be based on head count, not tonnage), briefing the passengers on lifeboats (like flight attendants today).

Lightoller returned to the White Star Line, although mention of his name usually caught attention.  It is hard to imagine that Lightoller’s presence was anything more than barely tolerated in most company and general discussions.  I’m thinking officer of Lehman Brothers, or AIG here.  He was the walking, talking, living face of the arrogance, the hubris, that led to the Titanic disaster.

The Great War broke out in August, 1914.  Lightoller, now age 40, was assigned as lieutenant on the Oceanic, the same ship he had been serving on, which was pressed into service and converted to an armed merchant cruiser.  He served on several more ships before being given command of a destroyer and later a torpedo boat.  He is credited with successfully driving away an attack of a Zeppelin on civilian sites and sinking a U-boat by ramming it.  By war’s end he had earned two Distinguished Service Crosses and been promoted to commander.

After the armistice ended the Great War (See my essay 11th hour) Lightoller returned to his career with White Star.  As with all surviving crew of the Titanic, Lightoller soon found that the event was an anchor on his career.  As with the other surviving officers, White Star was unable to find worthy assignments for even such a distinguished and experienced seaman.  Lightoller grew disillusioned and retired.

Retirement.  Lights put himself to work in his post-sea career.  He tried his hand at chicken farming, as hotelier, and even as real estate speculator.  Based on his fame (or infamy) he wrote and successfully published his autobiography which was well received.   For this he was successfully sued by the Marconi Company for some of his explanations about the Titanic – explanations that were interpreted as negative comments about the wireless operators, all Marconi employees.  This is a bit odd, since the recommendations from the inquiries, which were implemented, in effect made the same insinuations about the wireless operators.  He was forced to pull the book from publication.  (However, I found it online [2])

He also bought a 50 ft boat that he used in a side business for tourists and sight-seers, and for the fun of getting out to sea whenever he could.  His wife since 1903, an Aussie he had found and courted on one of his early round-the-world trips, named it Sundowner; Aussie-speak for “wanderer.”

Forward to 1940.  Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle cut)

World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland; quickly followed by the Soviet rush to claim her portion of that unfortunate country.  Despite declarations of war by France and England, Europe went uneasily silent until April, 1940.  Then the Third Reich moved quickly to take and occupy Norway and Denmark; while the Soviets expanded by forced annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

By May anything could happen, and on May 10 it did.  The Nazi German army launched Operation Sichelschnitt – a clever facsimile of the Schlieffen Plan, a plan that had nearly won WWI in one fell swoop in 1914.

Early in WWI, the German’s Schlieffen plan called for a rapid surge against and through neutral Belgium, followed by streaking behind French lines to the west and south of Paris – which could be attacked from the rear.  This nearly ended The Great War in the first weeks.  Unfortunately for the Germans, they turned east too soon, and ended up meeting the French outside Paris on its Northern outskirts – a direct frontal battle ensued, rather than an attack against an unprotected flank and city.

Now, in 1940, the first major blows of Sichelschnitt were blitzkrieg attacks against neutral Holland and Belgium, luring the British and French into thinking this was a re-enactment of the Schlieffen Plan – an attempt to swing wide in order to attack Paris away from the Maginot line.   By taking Holland, which they had not done in WWI, the Nazis enhanced the ruse, seemingly intent on firmly securing their right flank to anchor the wide sweep.  (Not swinging wide enough is the main reason, according to many military historians, that Germany turned to soon and narrowly in WWI).

The Allies had studied history and were well prepared – for the last war.  The British Expeditionary Force sent nearly a quarter million men, together with nearly as many French, from the France-Belgium border northward to protect Belgium’s neutrality and thwart the wide sweep before it could begin.

Once these Allied forces were fully committed, and began to engage, the Wehrmacht unexpectedly launched its main attack behind and to the right flank of the Allies – through the difficult terrain of the Ardennes.  German modernized mechanized divisions were able to punch through this terrain in Luxembourg and race westward across the northern French countryside straight to the channel behind the British and French forces; – together with the first army group from Belgium this effectively trapped about 400,000 British, Canadian and French soldiers.  The entrapped allied armies eventually withdrew to the small coastal town of Dunkirk near the France-Belgium border.   A complete and total disaster – one that could force even a Britain led by the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill to withdraw from the war – was imminent. [American participation, of course, was nowhere to be seen; Pearl Harbor was over 18 months away].

There was no way for the British armed forces to rescue all of these men, even at only a few miles away across the channel.  Yet rescuing them was terribly crucial to continuing the war against Fascism, against Nazism.  It was the last week of May, 1940; and it was nearly the last week of the war.  And yet … Hitler left a small opportunity: To preserve his army for the later swing to Paris, he was persuaded by Hermann Göring, Field Marshall of the Luftwaffe, to hold the army back from administering the final, fatal blow.  The Luftwaffe with near total air superiority would bomb and strafe the Brits to annihilation.

Thus the actions of men set up one of those magical moments in history:  the people rise up to rescue their government.

Save an army, save the government.

Save the government, save the world.

In addition to several dozen ships of the Royal Navy, an armada of over 700 water craft – most of them owned by private citizens and private operations – engaged in the largest sea evacuation in history.  Churchill called it “one of the greatest military defeats of the centuries”; he meant that as a good thing.


When the government came to appropriate Lightoller’s personal boat – his precious last connection to the sea, his Sundowner – his response was “no way.”  He intended to pilot that boat himself.  He and his oldest son set off for Dunkirk.  Across the channel they went.

While waiting in the shallow harbor, a Luftwaffe bomb landed so near that seams of the wooden boat’s fittings shifted and began to leak.  No worries; Lightoller loaded 137 men (140 total with his crew and himself) nonetheless onto a boat designed to carry no more than a few dozen.

Lightoller was age 66 and veteran of virtually every sea-adventure one could have; the best was the last.  He set the leaky yet functional Sundowner toward England – the Luftwaffe overhead.

In the days of dumb-bombs and dumb ammunition, planes attacking ground and sea assets would line up their bombing and strafing runs moments ahead of the actual attack to “guide in” their delivery.  Boats’ wakes left easily visible lines to help them do this.

Lightoller and his son kept a lookout for planes looping around on them.  As each plane dove down, accelerating to a vector with such speed that they were fully committed, Lightoller suddenly turned the surprisingly responsive boat; every attack narrowly missied the Sundowner.  Halfway across the channel, the Luftwaffe gave up – returning to Dunkirk.

After Dunkirk, Lightoller returned to a quiet private life.  He ran a small boatyard.  He remained married.  He died in 1952.

Lightholler’s Sundowner, one of the hundreds of “little ships” that saved the day at Dunkirk, is safe at the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, UK

Charles Herbert “Lights” Lightoller (1874-1952): Adventurer; survivor of epidemics and multiple shipwrecks including the Titanic; extinguisher of shipboard fires at sea; gold prospector; cowboy; world traveler; hotel operator; chicken farmer; real estate speculator; author; cruise boat owner and operator; shipyard operator; faithful husband (49 years); father; war hero in uniform and out of uniform;  titanic failure and (most important) 28 years later, a national – if not world – redeemed hero.

May we always have real heroes, even if their stories are forgotten.

Joe Girard © 2009, 2017

  1. Immediate family:
  2. Read Lightoller’s autobiography:
  3. Lookouts:

  1. And the band played on:
  2. Boards of Inquiry Testimony:
  3. Picture of Lightoller’s Sundowner:
  4. Ancestry help:
  5. Excellent on line essay:;col1
  7. The character Mr Dawson in the 2017 hit Movie “Dunkirk” played by Mark Rylance appears to be based largely on Charles Lightoller.


Afterward:  I’ve read so much history, especially WWII stuff, that I am astounded that I have not come across the life of this astounding man until recently.  There are other pretty good pieces on him.  I just felt like I had to write one of my own.

Young Kate Shelley

Young Kate Shelley (the girl with two first names)

Table of Contents
1. Kate falls asleep
2. Transcontinental Railroad?
3. Prelude to The Storm … and Destiny
4. The Shelley Family
5. The Storm, July 6, 1881
6. Kate & the Bridges
7. Aftermath and Later Life
Notes and Author’s comments
More Notes and afterthoughts


Some swear they have seen it.  Many refuse to look. Others, those who deny the romance of heroic history, say it is just plain nonsense.

Two mighty railroad bridges stand side-by-side out in the middle of Iowa. One is well over a century old; its steel trusses betraying its age. The other is gleaming and new … a 21st century engineering marvel.

The older structure is slowly being retired. At first it no longer carried passengers.  Now the engines of trains that cross her are required to crawl slowly as they haul their freight over the Des Moines River. Someday even that will cease; the clack of steel on steel will be relegated solely to the new bridge.

The New Kate Shelley High Bridge, under construction, 2008, next to the Old Kate Shelley Bridge.

And yet, as a National Historic Site, the older sibling may never be torn down – preserved forever as an American icon.

Until then the tiny, lonely, swaying light on the older bridge will still shine for those who believe. For them, late at night, when swollen rain clouds roll across Iowa’s fertile center, a faintly visible figure will move along the rusting old bridge, gently and deliberately swinging a light from side-to-side.

Some say it is the ghost of famous civil engineer George Morison, who passed away shortly after the older bridge was built. But most believers – trainmen, history buffs and lovers of local lore alike – well they know that it is something and someone else.


1. Meet Kate as she Falls Asleep

Out in the plains of Iowa, on a small family farm, there once lived a 15-year old girl named Kate Shelley.

Most nights she lay in bed keenly awake until very late. Until long after the sun went down. After the chores were done. After her mother and siblings were fast asleep.

What was Kate doing? She was patiently waiting, carefully listening. She heard the sounds of sleep – snorts and sniffles, tossing and turning – coming from her three younger siblings. She not only shared a room with them, she had become their principal care taker.

That’s not what she was listening for. Wait for it Kate. Be still. Be quiet. Be patient.

She heard the creaks of the boards and nails in the farmhouse her father had built. She remembered him building it; she could recall many evenings he had continued to work on that modest farmhouse, keeping it in fine repair through all sorts of weather until just a few years ago.

House creaks were not what she was listening for. Wait Kate. It will come.

She heard the gentle sweep of prairie breezes, as they bounced over Honey Creek – with its swales and cottonwoods. She heard the shimmer of leaves, the waving of grasses, and sway of weeds up against the barn walls and farm fences.

That’s not what she was listening for. Be still Kate. You can do it … It won’t be long now.

She paced her breath. She wanted to be able to hear it as soon as possible – at the earliest possible moment. It was her trigger. Her window to an escape. An escape of fantasy from this life on the farm, to places far away from her endless duties.

A bullfrog croaks, then jumps into Honey Creek. Kind of late for mating season. Maybe that sly vixen fox had scared him; she does have a litter of kits to feed. Or maybe that Great Horned Owl had tried for the frog; she thought she’d seen one way up in a cottonwood along the creek last summer.

She was not listening for frogs, or foxes, or owls.

A horse from the barn whinnies – that would be Sady, Kate’s frequent companion in sleeplessness. Maybe she was waiting in anticipation, too. Or maybe arthritis; or maybe too many apples from that Thomson girl up the road.

No, not listening for Sady either.

There! Could that be it? She heard the distant clack-clack-clack of steel on steel.

Kate’s bed trembles ever-so-gently. Was that her quivering? Or the ground?

She can surely feel it coming now. The Midnight Express is coming! It is crossing the river now.

[1] The Midnight Express was formally known as the “Chicago Limited”, which ran from Omaha (with the new Union Pacific bridge across the Missouri since 1872) to Chicago. It was also sometimes called “The Fast Atlantic Express”, depending the locality. Of course it was known as the “Express” or “Limited” since it made only a few stops along the way – to pick up passengers from connector lines, or to get coal and water. Lighter loads and tender cars had allowed the Express trains to speed past most of the tiny railroad towns.

The Express is heading to Chicago. From there many passengers will go on to any exotic distant land. To whatever places they go, all are far from this farm. Soon people on the Express will be visiting with important people – Kings and Queens; beautiful princesses and handsome princes. They will be doing important things – selling lumber, buying steel, building factories, trading grain contracts, building the country.

The Express draws nearer quickly. It rumbles across the largest river she knows, by far: the Des Moines River. She knows well the hum and buzz of the trestle bridge under a heavy load.

She imagines herself as one of the well-dressed passengers, well fed, with finely coiffed hair. She imagines her own head full of worldly thoughts. A Pullman Porter checks on her to make sure that last jostle hasn’t disturbed her – or her precious cargo. Is it a briefcase of bonds, important coal contracts, or simply valuable jewels?

In less than a minute the coal-fired steam engine will cross another bridge, at Honey Creek, right behind the Shelley Farm. There’s the coming crescendo: one last loud set of rumbles and trembles. The boiler chugs some steam to push the mighty pistons; the engine belches smoke. Steam, having done its work to move the pistons, hisses out the steam ports. She can hear the rattle as the tire flanges clatter on the steel rails. [2]

[2] Train wheels have a very hard layer of steel around their perimeter, called tires. Much like car wheels have special tires around them. Tires have flanges made integral with them to help keep the train “on the rails.”

Kate holds tight to her fantasy most nights; she cherishes each night the Midnight Express rolls by; she is only a few hundred yards from a journey to the world.  Outside of Iowa.

Then the sounds of the Express begin to slowly fade. As long as she can hear it, Kate stays awake. After the rattle of the bridges, after the chug of the steam engine. After the last cry of the steam trumpet [3] as the Iron Horse passes a distant depot, and when the jangling blast-furnace strengthened wheels screeching around turns laid out by steel rails have faded completely away … after all that, Kate allows herself to drift away.

[3] Steam Trumpet: name for the train’s whistle on a 19th century steam engine train. To use it was “to blow off some steam.”


Some nights, when the air and breeze are just right, she can catch a whiff of something more: The air grows perceptibly denser, as if perfumed by some unseen censer [4]; it’s that Iowa bituminous and sulfur-infused coal. With the fading sound of the Midnight Express, the faint hypnotic smell of locomotive smoke, and carried by her fantasies, Kate Shelley hopes for a night of sweet dreams.

[4] This text is inspired by Poe’s The Raven, wherein the 14th verse begins: “Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer // Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.”


Soon enough a new day will dawn and, with it, hard reality.

And so the days passed. And the weeks. And the summer months…. One after another.

Although Kate loved her family and liked her life on the farm … well, maybe one night it would be different. Maybe one night, one special night, Kate’s life and the Midnight Express would come together in much more than fantasy.

Table of Contents
Back to top of Kate falls Asleep

2. Transcontinental Railroad?

Most people know as certain fact that “The Golden Spike” driven at Promontory Point, in Utah, on May 10, 1869, joined the Union Pacific line with the Central Pacific line, thus completing America’s first transcontinental railway.

Fewer know that this is actually false. There was, technically, not then a true “transcontinental railroad.” At the time of “The Golden Spike” the eastern end of the Union Pacific line terminated in Omaha.  There was yet no bridge across the Missouri River to connect Omaha to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and to America’s much more populous east.

The construction of the “transcontinental railroad” to connect Omaha with California’s Great Bay had begun in the summer of 1865, shortly after the Civil War ended.

Yet the Mississippi had been crossed with a railroad bridge way back in 1857, at Rock Island, Illinois – near what is known today as the Quad Cities. This was a magnificent transportation achievement for its day, and was accomplished largely thanks to an engineering survey conducted some years earlier by a young Army officer named Robert E. Lee.  That the Rock Island bridge maintained this vital rail connection after a severe accident shortly after it opened was thanks largely to a railroad lawyer, named Abraham Lincoln.

Linking Chicago to America’s heartland, the Rock Island bridge had the effect of almost guaranteeing Chicago’s ascendancy (over front-runner St Louis) as the King City of America’s western empire.  Through Chicago would flow the great bounty of grain and coal from America’s Breadbasket.  And through Chicago to the Breadbasket would flow the great pine timbers to build towns and cities; the endless manufactured goods, such as stoves, furniture, tractors, cutlery …

By 1867, the railroad had made it all the way across Iowa, to Council Bluffs – directly across the Mighty Missouri River from Omaha. A bridge across the Missouri was finally completed in 1872; until then trains were ferried across the Missouri.  Along the 300 miles across Iowa – as the railroad linked up cities, railroad towns, distribution centers, and coal mines –  the rail line had to cross many rivers and streams.  The largest of these was the Des Moines River, in Boone County, near Moingona, Iowa.

Built rather quickly, the bridge was quite narrow – only a single track with a slender maintenance walkway beside the line.

The walkway was not intended for pedestrian traffic.  To discourage foot-travel, the nails on the boards were not pounded down flush.  The boards were unevenly spaced. They were roughhewn, with open spaces between them; Looking down between gaps in the walkway’s board, one could quite intimately see and feel the river flowing below. There was no safety of a hand rail.  Nonetheless, it was a remarkable bridge: its four spans over the river traversed about 675 yards.

Table of Contents
Back to top of Transcontinental Railroad

3. Prelude to The Storm & Destiny

As she had hoped – but surely not as she had dreamed or imagined – the destinies of Kate Shelley and The Midnight Express were forever joined one night: July, 6, 1881.

The rain came down all afternoon like Kate and her mom had never seen before.   It was hard to tell when the sun went down, the sky was so dark.  The barn, and windows and doors were all shuttered; but they all rattled in a way that made relaxing impossible.  Lightning flashed across the sky every few seconds; then down to the ground.  Heaven was letting loose some sort of evil rage.

After an anxious dinner none even tried to sleep.  Sleepy little Honey Creek roared almost as loud as when the Midnight Express came by.  Kate, by virtue of listening so intently almost every night, grew very worried.  She wasn’t worried about the fox den getting washed out. Or the branches coming off trees; or trees falling into the creek.  She wasn’t worried about the livestock. She wasn’t worried that the rain flattened their crops.  She wasn’t even worried about the house or some small leaks that began moistening the kitchen.

She was worried about the Midnight Express.  It was “her” life; it was “her” fantasy that was in jeopardy. In her own way, Kate considered the 100 or more souls on that train to be her friends. Would the Express come?  And if it did: Would it be safe?

Table of Contents
Back to top of Prelude to The Storm … and Destiny


4. Shelley Family History

The Shelley family had emigrated from Ireland in 1866, before Kate, her parents’ first-born, was even one year old.  They ended up in central Iowa, near the tiny town of Moingona, where her father could get some land, run a farm, and work for the railroad.

Like most of the country, the economy there was beginning to really boom. Countless repeated ebbs and flows of glaciers from multiple ice ages had deposited rich soil across the great American Midwest.  Thus blessed, farms produced grain and livestock to feed the county’s rapidly growing population.

Many ages before that, ancient seas had left vast deposits of aquatic biomass: these became the Iowa coal fields that helped feed the region’s rapidly growing industrialization and railroad tender cars.

It was a place rich with opportunity for those who were ready to work.

Michael Shelley built a small but sturdy farmhouse overlooking Honey Creek.  Four siblings followed. Kate was a big sister.

Michael Shelley was especially fond of Kate, his oldest daughter.  From her youngest memories they were very close. She especially loved when he came home in the evening. He would place his trusty railroad lantern on the mantle, then give her a hug, tousle her raven hair, and tell her how beautiful she was.  Kate’s usual expression – and the look in her eyes – gave the impression of a deep sense of seriousness and resolve; a seriousness and resolve that could not easily be dismissed with a smile or a laugh.

Yet her father could make her seriousness melt and her spirit soar. He’d glide easily from hugs and tousles into a round of stories about his work in the railroad yard.  The excitement of so many cars – so much cargo, so many people – moving from place to place. And it all depended on him.

At the end of every night’s telling of stories – some tall, some true – Michael would tell his daughter: “Kate, you can do anything. When the time comes, you will know what to do.”

Then, calamity.  When Kate was only 13 her father fell gravely ill, and quickly passed away.  Only a month later her 10-year old brother James, the next child after Kate, drowned in the nearby Des Moines river.  Kate’s mother fell into despondency, perhaps depression.  Now young Kate was more than just the big sister: over the next few years she took on more and more of the family’s responsibilities … raising her siblings, managing the house and farm. Her solemn nature of serious resolve became a great asset.

Soon enough, her resolve would grow stronger.

Table of Contents
Back to top of The Shelley Family


5. The Storm – 2: July 6, 1881

There’s no telling what Kate was doing when her attentive ears first heard the noise on that fateful Wednesday, July 6, 1881.  Perhaps she was finishing a turn at churning the butter. She could’ve been making lye, being careful not to give herself a chemical burn.  Possibly feeding livestock, hoeing or weeding.  Fixing a fence.  Putting up hay. Plucking a chicken. Darning some socks, or repairing a shoe sole. If she wasn’t doing these herself, she was seeing to it that one of her siblings were on the tasks.

But she heard it.  A deep long, ominous rumble.  Most definitely: a thunderstorm was coming.

No doubt she found a way to quickly finish what she was doing. She put her things away … and had her siblings do the same … maybe in the shed, or in the barn, or in the cupboard.

Then she ran to the clothesline.  Those skirts and shirts, pants and knickers would never dry if the storm came before she could get them inside.

Once inside, Kate and her family watched the storm clouds build, grow dark, and move over them – from horizon to horizon.   They probably began preparing some stew or soup, heated over the wood or coal-fired stove. The rains came hard and fast, like they’d never seen before.  This was no ordinary summer thunderstorm, what they sometimes called a “gully washer.”  The clouds poured buckets down on central Iowa for hours.  The lightning flashed; the thunder roared.

To fortify their nerves, Kate led her siblings in faux bravado through retorts to the thunder and wind.

“Is that all you’ve got??” They shouted. And: “Oh! That was nothing! Show us more!”; or: “Fart like you mean it!!”

It was whistling past the cemetery.

On and on it went.  The rivers rose.  The creeks rose. The streams and rivulets that fed the rivers washed out over the gently sloped Iowa fields.

Around dusk – with clouds so dark it was difficult to tell when dusk was – young Kate feared for the livestock sheltering in their humble barn, down close to Honey Creek.

Kate realized the animals in the barn might drown should the creek swell much further.  She donned a shawl and straw hat, then ran down toward the creek, sloshing through the mud and puddles, skittering along like a water beetle.  Just as she opened the barn door, a mighty gust of wind swept her hat away … and vigorously tousled her wild mop of dark hair. The mussing of her hair gave her a momentary sense that her father was near.  She re-focused and, undistracted by the wind and storm, she opened each stall and led their few livestock – two horses, two cows and a sow –  up a gentle rise to some woods behind the farm. Then she returned to the barn to fetch two piglets, which she carried up to the farmhouse.

Safely inside the farmhouse, her clothes and hair drenched, and sticking to her slender frame, Kate’s senses grew even more alert. Now she could not just keenly hear and see the storm; now she could feel and smell the evil in this storm. She sensed the potently electrified atmosphere, and the way the rain and low pressure sucked the primordial scents of the earth right out of the soil.

As her siblings and mother nervously poked at their dinner after watching Kate’s heroics, Kate sat by the stove to warm up. She had changed out of her work clothes and into her pajamas, and was wrapped in a woolen blanket. They all looked nervously at each other, taking bites between gusts of howling wind and peeling cracks of thunder.

Right after the Midnight Express of the Chicago & Northwest railroad crossed the wide Des Moines there was a much smaller bridge, across Honey Creek, at the edge of the Shelley farm. It really was just a tiny bridge, as far as railroad bridges go.  Perhaps 25 yards across.

Rebuilt bridge over Honey Creek.

But the growing intensity of the creek’s roar gave Kate reason for great concern.  The Midnight Express was due to cross in just a few hours. Would the bridge hold up?

Kate adjusted her ears to listen even more closely. Beyond the rain, beyond the thunder, beyond the wind she listened to the whoosh of Honey Creek. It was normally just a trickle.

Suddenly. Around 11 PM … she heard a booming colossal “CRACK!” through the cacophony of the storm.

About a mile and half to the west of the Shelley farm, across the Des Moines River, at the railroad station in Moingona, the night station manager grew anxious too. He’d never seen a storm like this either, and the Chicago & North Western crossed numerous creeks on its way east to tiny Harmon Switch, on the Jordan River, and then to Ames, home of the still rather new Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm. [5][6].

[5] – The town of Harmon Switch was first called Midway, for its central Iowa proximity. In the 1850s it was renamed Harmon Switch after a local farmer and large landowner (William Harmon), and its small railroad junction. Later it was changed to Jordan, and remains so named today, the same as the river, which runs there. [History of Boone County, Iowa, Volume 1.(1914) Edited by Nathaniel Edward Goldwait. Pg 222.]
[6] – Iowa Agricultural College and Model farm is now, of course, Iowa State University.


Layout of Locations for events of July 6, 1881. Photo of sign outside the museum. (At the you are here pin). North is up. [credit to Kate Shelley Railroad Museum and Park]

At about 10:30PM, he sent out a pusher locomotive to check on the line … at least as far as the next station, near the Jordan, some 10 miles away. As soon as the boiler was fired, it took off east, across the river.

Leaving the station with four men the locomotive almost immediately crossed the long bridge across the Des Moines River. As lightning flashed they could see the water had risen nearly to the bridge.

A few minutes later they came to Honey Creek, with its tiny trestle bridge.  They could not have known – they did not see – that some support timbers beneath the bridge had cracked and others washed away.  As the locomotive crossed the bridge it failed completely, collapsing into swirling Honey Creek.


Table of Contents
Back to top of The Storm, July 6, 1881

6. Kate and the Bridges

Kate knew immediately what had happened.  She re-wrapped herself in a shawl, took her father’s railroad lantern off the mantle and lit it. Then she fetched her father’s oversized railroad mackintosh – a rare extravagance in Iowa in those days – and briskly strode to the door as she slid her arms into the Mac.

“Mother.  There’s a train in the creek!  There are people down there.”

“Kate”, her mother yelled. “Please don’t go outside again.  It’s too dangerous.”

Kate paused pensively. Then: “Mother, if father were still alive, that could well be him in the water. And if it weren’t him down there, then he’d be going down to help. I have to go.”

Her mother’s eyes softened and she tacitly nodded her consent.

Kate made her way down to the bridge.  As it turned out, two men had perished in the collapse; but Kate couldn’t know that. But, there were two survivors. When they saw the light of the railroad lantern they yelled with all the energy their lungs could muster.  One man clung to the upper branches of a collapsed tree; the other to bridge timbers.

You can do it Kate.  You know what to do.

Indeed, Kate knew what had to be done.  She had to cross the Des Moines River bridge, in the dark, in the storm, go to Moingona station, and stop the Midnight Express … otherwise it would surely plunge into Honey Creek atop these men.

The time was too short, and the slopes too muddy and steep, for Kate to try and save them herself.  She violently swung the lantern from side to side to let the men know they’d been seen. Then she set off to the Des Moines River bridge.

Guided by her father’s lantern, Kate nimbly danced along the line, over the ties and between the rails – through the wind and rain –  about a quarter-mile to the Des Moines River bridge. At the bridge’s beginning she paused a moment – to gather her courage and resolve – before stepping onto the perilously narrow walkway.

Suddenly, the mightiest gust of wind yet staggered her.  Rain beat upon her face and her hands like sand … and stung as if they were a thousand tiny salt pellets.  And worse: the lantern’s light went out.

Without the lantern’s light Kate could not possibly walk across the bridge without a dangerous, deathly stumble.

For a moment Kate lost her resolve, her focus.  Dark was all around.  The wind eased, whispering into her ears — it seemed to carry her father’s voice: “Kate. You can do this.  You know what to do.”

Then she began to crawl across the bridge, plank by plank.

By her calculations, she had about 45 minutes to get across and make it to the Moingona station.

As Kate crawled on and on – board after board – splinters and nails tore at her coat, her pajamas, at her knees and at her hands.  When she looked down she could see that the river had risen nearly up to the bridge.  Halfway across, in a flash of lightning, she could see an enormous tree coming right for her. At the last moment a swirl in the river –  or was it Providence? –  diverted the tree … its mighty trunk and groping branches slipped safely past her.

At some point, perhaps halfway across the bridge – reaching almost blindly for each successive plank of the walkway – hypothermia began to set in. Now soaked and chilled from the rain, Kate fought back the delirium with determination. She must save the Express.

You can do it Kate.  You know what to do.

On and on she went, feeling her way for each plank.  One after another.  And then … Finally! … Kate had reached solid ground!

She had a half-mile remaining to get to the station.  Stiff, sore and cold, Kate managed to get up off her scratched and bloody knees, onto her feet, and begin running to the station along a footpath she had walked before in better weather; it paralleled the line’s north side.

The men at the station were astonished to see a dripping wet, exhausted 15-year old girl collapse in front of them.

Through her chattering shivering jaw she managed to squeak out: “S-s-s-top the ex-s-spress.  S-s-stop express.  Honey Creek Bridge ….”

As the men rushed to help Kate, one recognized her.  “That’s Michael Shelley’s girl. That’s Kate. From Honey Creek.  The bridge is out.”

The express did not stop in tiny Moingona. But it was scheduled to stop at the next station up the line, Ogden.  Immediately the station’s telegrapher started tapping a message for Ogden station.  The Morse read: STOP XPRESS. BRDG OUT.

The telegrapher did not receive a reply.  It turned out that at that moment all the telegraph lines along the Chicago & North Western went down from the storm’s ferocity.  A backup plan: The night’s head switchman ran out with a lantern to stop the Express.

Well, it turned out that the telegraph message got through.  The Express stopped in Ogden.

Kate Shelley had saved the Midnight Express.

As Kate sat shivering by the stove, sipping some hot tea, she suddenly stood bolt upright.  “There are two men in the water at Honey Creek! We’ve got to save them.”

Another engine was fired up, pulled up from the yard’s sidetrack, and three men and Kate climbed into the cab, behind the firebox. In a minute they were safely crossing back over the very same bridge Kate had just risked death to crawl over.

When the train’s headlight revealed the calamity at Honey Creek bridge, the engine stopped. In the dark, by the light of two faithful flickering railroad lanterns – one Kate’s father’s, the other the switchman’s – they found that the two men were still alive, clinging desperately to stay above the water.  But they were on the far side of the creek; there was no way to get to them from the west side.

The wind, ebbed momentarily, and sounded like a ghostly whisper: “You can do it Kate.  You know what to do.”

“Follow me!” Kate yelled above the roar of rushing waters.  Carrying her father’s lantern, she led the rescuers upstream, nearly a quarter-mile, above the farm, to the next bridge across Honey Creek, which they found intact. Her sure feet showed them the way along the slippery soil of the creek bank. They crossed over the bridge, went back past the farm and then down to the collapsed bridge.

By the light of  the lanterns they located one man close to shore clinging to a trestle timber. The rescuers, with Kate holding “her” lantern, risked their own drowning, linked their arms, and pulled him from the water.

The other was too far out in the flow to rescue that night. The three railroad men returned to the engine, dropping Kate off at the farmhouse, making sure her mother knew of Kate’s heroism.  They spent the night in the engine’s cab, keeping an eye on their co-worker and friend, thanks to the light of a lantern.  He was rescued the next morning, after the creek flow had abated, when sunlight had returned and evil had left.


Table of Contents
Back to top of Kate & the Bridges

7. Aftermath and Later Life

As it turned out, there were 200 people on the Midnight Express that night. They took up a donation for Kate; it came to about $200 – no small sum. The Chicago and North Western Railroad gave her a cash award too; the state gave her a gold medal.

Soon enough, Kate was a national hero.  Songs and poems were written to praise her.

The Railroad raised money for the Shelley children’s education.  Kate was given a lifetime pass on the railroad; whenever she came home, she was able to get off right next to her family’s farm. For a few years the train frequently stopped at the Shelley farm so that admiring and well-wishing passengers could get out and greet Kate.

Even with her lifetime pass, Kate left Iowa only once. Of course she went to Chicago. That was to visit the Columbian Exposition, also called The 1893 World’s Fair.  Despite her dreams and fantasies, as it turned out, Kate’s heart really was in Iowa. There she remained the rest of her life.

Kate got an education at nearby Simpson College, and tried teaching for a while. She bounced between various jobs, always in central Iowa, including working for the state and even running the Moingona station for a while.  A woman running a train station; her dad would have been proud.

Many men were interested in courting Kate, especially a switchman at the station. Always her own woman – fierce, serious, determined, resolved – she never married, although she was engaged once.

In 1901 a new bridge was built across the Des Moines by George Morison a few miles to the north. It was called the Kate Shelley Bridge. When it was re-built, just a few years ago, the new bridge was dubbed The New Kate Shelley High Bridge. In the 1950s the Chicago and North Western began running a very modern streamlined train from Chicago through Iowa: It was called The Kate Shelley 400.

During the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century, the Shelley farm fell into mortgage arrears.  The railroad helped the farm stay afloat.  Kate’s mom remained always in poor health – perhaps that’s the reason Kate never married or left Iowa – and Kate spent much of her time and energy on her mother.  Mrs Shelley passed away in 1909.

Shortly after her mother’s passing, Kate began to fall into poor health herself. She struggled through a variety of illnesses. In 1911 she had her appendix removed.  Very sadly, she never recovered, and passed away in January, 1912—age 46 – from Bright’s Disease, an acute failure of the kidneys – probably due to infection.

Kate Shelley is a true American Heroine.

The railroad line no longer crosses the Des Moines River at Moingona.  Amtrak passenger trains pass far to the south, freight to the north, over the New Kate Shelley High Bridge. But you can go to what remains of the railroad station there. It now houses a museum, most of which is dedicated to honor the life and heroism of Boone County’s most famous resident: Kate Shelley.

In one of the museum’s most special and cherished displays stands an aged railroad lantern.  That’s Kate’s father’s lantern, the one that led her to the barn, led her to the creek and led her to the brink of the Des Moines River bridge that fateful night, July 6, 1881.

The Kate Shelley Railroad Museum, Moingona, Iowa

If you go there, and you are all alone, and the museum is very quiet, and you are very patient, and you stand motionless before the lantern, and you listen very, very closely, history calls to you. “You know what to do.  You can do it.”

The museum is closed at night. Even on summer nights when thunderstorms roll across Iowa. On such dark and stormy nights, when the “believers” have seen a swaying ghostly light appear to crawl slowly along the old High Bridge, no one has ever, ever gone to the museum to see if the lantern is resting in its display.

Joe Girard © 2017

Table of Contents
Back to top of Aftermath and Later Life

Notes and Author’s comments – 1

Other Notes:

Kate and locals were not unfamiliar with train disasters. Evidently there had been a significant derailing near Stanwood, Iowa, the previous year.

Author’s Comments.

I initially came across this story in a small display at the “Steamtown National Historic Site”, a sort of museum to steam locomotion, in Scranton, PA, several years ago.

Since then I’ve been poking around libraries, book stores and the internet to find more information. I was astonished to find that no significant magnificent single body of work exists to relate this remarkable story of a heroic young woman.

I came across many, many sources … most very brief … that often conflict with each other in details. For this story, I chose to interpret everything in the most exciting and extravagant way possible. For example, some sources say Kate was 15-years old; others say 17. Which is more exciting? I say 15.

Some sources say the train had already stopped in Ogden; some say Kate’s message saved the train. Which is more extravagant? Kate saved the train.

Some say the telegraph went down before Kate arrived at the Moingona station; others say well after she arrived. I dramatically split the difference and chose to say it happened just as the message was received.

Where there were no details I did historical research; it was important for me to place Kate and her story appropriately within US, Iowa and railroad history.

Where other details were missing, well, I simply made them up – or skipped over them. For example, I have no idea what life was like for the Shelleys – life on the farm and schooling for the children. I do not know if or how Kate got the lantern across the long bridge. I have no idea what Michael Shelley might’ve done for the railroad — except that he DID have a lantern — whether he had a Mackintosh, and what Kate’s relationship with her father was like. I made all that up. Still, it’s all very plausible. I make no apologies.

Many Boone County locals do insist that the ghost of Kate Shelley roams the region and is partial to railroad lines and bridges. Of course this is silly. Or is it? I chose to include it as a possibility. For me, after this much study, Kate Shelley lives.

Finally, I had to finish this story and publish it for two reasons. First, it had rolled around in my addled head for so long that it was more or less “now or never.” I nearly deleted my work: the drafts and notes. Thankfully my wife not only talked me out of it, but she lovingly helped craft the structure of final drafts. Second, there appears to be a fairly substantial book to address Kate’s life and heroics coming out soon, called Boone County, by Misty McNally. I wanted to get this out so that I could not be accused of plagiarism.

I also must acknowledge the final draft editing help I received from my good friend Marcy.

As many of you know, I’ve been fighting headaches on-and-off for quite some time. My periods of intense focus are often quite short – and longer “free” periods are often devoted to the many details of life; so this was a bit of a labor of love. I worked on it a few minutes at a time, sometimes an hour or two, over the past many months. Why? It’s important to tell stories and personalize history. And I feel called to do so. Despite the desire to personalize the story, I chose not to include a picture of Miss Shelley. None I found did her any justice. Yes, I love history, I love writing, and … now … I even love Kate Shelley.

“I do believe in ghosts. I do. I do. I do.” – Cowardly Lion, Wizard of Oz


Table of Contents

Even more Notes and Author’s comments
More notes:

Another reason I was fascinated by this story, and how it evolved, is that it reminded me of a rather obscure song I like, by an obscure singer/writer I like. I call the song “Old John Joseph, the man with two first Names”, although the song’s singer/writer, Harry Chapin, named it “Corey’s Coming.”

Old John has worked for decades in a slowly dying railroad yard. He has stories and visions to share. You can listen here: Corey’s Coming.

I’ve written about Harry Chapin (Another Love Story) here: Another Love Story

The first Kate Shelley High Bridge was completed in 1901, essentially replacing the bridge Kate crawled across 20 years earlier. It’s one of the last projects of noted bridge engineer George Morison. He was trained as a lawyer. A famous civil engineer in his day, he was influential in getting the location of the great Central American canal changed from Nicaragua to Panama.

He does not appear to have aged well, was likely in poor health even during the Boone Viaduct (first official name) construction, and died two years after the structure was completed, aged only 60. The bridge was the longest and heaviest viaduct of its time, and also may well be the longest extant double-track railroad viaduct in the world. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. So, it will stay up as long as nature permits. Some say his ghost haunts the bridge as well.

Joe Girard

Table of Contents
Back to top of Notes and Author comments

Maximum Factor

He was deathly afraid as he lay in the safety and comfort of his own bed. 

An unusual circumstance for such a successful and honored celebrity.

Sometimes it is best to tell a story pretty much just the way it unfolds to you, as an observer and researcher of life.

Doggie with the circle around his eye

Doggie with the circle around his eye

So … I went to the dog-friendly neighborhood jewelers with my wife the day after Thanksgiving. While waiting for service, I spied an adorably cute bulldoggish looking pup, well-behaved on a short leash. Yes, we have soft spots for dogs, but this one was special. Not just the way it furtively followed us with its eyes; but we were drawn to practically staring at its face: It sported a nearly perfectly round patch of dark fur around one eye on a head otherwise bright white.

Where had I seen something like that before?  Of course: the series of movie shorts called “Our Gang” from the 1920s and ‘30s. All the main characters were children, decades before almost anyone thought of such a thing.  Our Gang wasn’t just the first movie to show blacks and whites, males and females, side-by-side as complete equals – they made a whole series of movies for over twenty years. Countless movies.

Alfalfa -- Our Gang/Little Rascals

Alfalfa — Our Gang/Little Rascals

Starting in the early ‘20s and spanning the Great Depression and early World War II years, Our Gang (also known as “Little Rascals”) taught us – through the eyes of children – one of life’s most significant truths: we are all equal.

[Ok, I’m old, but not THAT old.  I’ve seen these movies in syndication.]

Who can forget Alfalfa and his crazy spiked hair, or the way he’d pronounce Buckwheat? Or Buckwheat’s hair and wonderfully expressive face.  Or how he’d said “Otay” for “Okay”?  Portraying Buckwheat, Billy Thomas was probably the most famous, popular and successful Black actor or actress for most of that entire era.

Buckwheat -- OTAY!

Buckwheat — OTAY!

Those kids could act … naturally.

Of course there was a dog to help them achieve at being mischievous.  That dog was “Pete the Pup”, or often, just Pete.

Turns out the first Pete really did have a nearly perfect circle around one eye. But not quite perfect.  Maybe some makeup would do the job. Hollywood had just the man for the job.

He was born in 1874 to a Jewish family in Zduńska Wola (modern day Poland), then part of czarist Poland. Maksymilian Faktorowicz was the fourth and last child born to Abraham and Cecylia (nee: Tandowska). [Some sources have him born as late as 1877.  Records were sketchy in those times and in those regions].

Two siblings died young, and soon thereafter, so did Maksymilian’s young mother.  Abraham soon remarried, to another simple, local farm girl, Leah Dobretzky.

Abraham sired nine more children by Leah over about as many years.  Although three of these half-siblings died young, that still left a lot of mouths to feed. As noted above, official records were dodgy at best, but by Max’s and his brother Daniel’s recollection, that left eight total children.

Abraham’s profession or means of income is not known for sure, but it seems most likely he was a part-time grocer and infrequent rabbi.  Certainly not a great income there, and as a Jew in Russia-ruled Poland Congress*, these were hard economic times for the Faktorowicz (fact-TOR-uh-vitch) family.                      [* Poland Congress]

The message for young Max was simple and clear: life is short, hard and often cruel.

Maksymilian’s formal education ceased at age eight, and he was sent out to work as an apprentice to a dentist, who doubled as a pharmacist. Apparently, that didn’t work out.  At age nine he was moved to Łódź, 50km away, to fulfill an assignment as apprentice to the local wig maker, who doubled as a cosmetician.

The next decade was a whir, as Faktorowicz gained experience, expertise and then … fame as a renowned hair stylist and cosmetician. He had stints from Berlin to Moscow, even serving as a cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.

After compulsory service in the Imperial Russian army, Faktorowicz opened his own stores in Russia, selling his own line of wigs, lotions and cremes.  Soon he was appointed the official head cosmetician to the Royal Family, and the highest ranked cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.

With success came marriage and soon four children.  But life grew burdensome.  As a Jew in an ever more anti-Semitic empire, and with frequent close encounters with the Romanoff Royal Family that were watched very closely, Faktorwicz felt oppressed.

In 1904, during the violent and bloody Russian pogroms of 1903-6, Faktorowicz and his family emigrated to the United States.

He had his eye on the 1904 World’s Fair, in Saint Louis, officially known as The Louisiana Purchase Exposition.  One of the largest extravaganzas in human history presented opportunity to sell his products and show his skill to the world.  There he could make a small fortune from his experience and wares, selling cosmetics, creams and lotions.

Upon passing through Ellis Island, with thousands of other Ashkenazi Jews, the officials found his name – Maksymillian Faktorowicz – too difficult to write and pronounce.  So he officially became, simply, Max Factor.

Factor’s business enterprise flourished.  His father, step-mother and half-siblings soon followed him to Saint Louis.

Alas, his business partner found more fortune in stealing their joint venture’s stock and capital than in contributing much effort himself.

Broke and forced to start over, Max did just that.  With help from his brother and uncle he started a barber shop that also did hair, beard and mustache styling.

Unfortunately, his wife died soon thereafter, in 1906. Factor rebounded, again — perhaps too soon — into a new marriage, which soon failed.

Adjusting to the hardship, Factor rallied. He assessed his assets and opportunities. He married his neighbor and set off for the setting sun.  Off he went to California, where an embryonic movie industry could surely use his talents and skills.

It was there that Max Factor made cosmetics chic.  He made nice-looking actors and actresses even better looking. Until he arrived, and made his impact, make-up was non-existent to appalling. It’s hard to imagine the moving picture industry evolving without Max Factor.

In 1916 he started selling eye shadow and eyebrow pencils. This was the first time such products were available outside the movie industry. By the late ‘20s he had invented his own complete cosmetic line and started marketing his water-proof mascara. In 1930 he invented lip gloss.

Petey, AKA Pete the Pup, Pete the Dog, and Pete the dog with a circle around his eye

Petey: AKA Pete the Pup, Pete the Dog, and Pete the dog with a circle around his eye

Besides making actresses better looking, Factor made Petey, or Pete the Pup, better looking, too.  Max Factor is credited with the perfect make-up job on Petey, and the several reincarnations of Pete that followed over the years.

And now, the rest of the story.

Yes, Max Factor grew indescribably rich from his ascent to the king of make-up in Hollywood, and from building upon that to develop a huge business making and marketing  a line of cosmetics and skin treatments that still bear his famous name today.

In 1938 Factor was in Paris, on a business trip.  While there he received a death threat by note – they’d spare his life in return for money.  Police employed a Factor-decoy in an attempt to fool and capture the extortionist.  But he wasn’t fooled, and didn’t present himself for the money.  Or maybe it was all just a very, very bad joke.

In any case, Factor was so shaken up he was unable to function.  The rest of the trip was canceled.  Factor returned home for bed rest.

Factor died soon thereafter, age 64, or thereabouts.  He was still in bed, scared – literally frightened to death.

The Factor is here

The Factor is here

Factor’s remains are now at the Hillside Memorial Park, in a mausoleum behind the plaque shown here.

{read on}



The Factor Empire. Growth and acquisition.

After his death, Factor’s sons grew the business.  His grandchildren grew it further.  Yet, by the 1970s only a few of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were still involved in running the enormously successful Max Factor Company.  Family interest declined, and It was merged with Norton Simon.  This company was then acquired by Esmark, in 1983, which continued to market products under the prestigious Max Factor label.

Just a year later, the conglomerate Beatrice Food bought Esmark and merged the Factor line with its Playtex beauty line (brassieres and make-up – now those go together!). Soon thereafter beauty empire Revlon bought the Factor-Playtex line of products and rights to the Factor name.

All this time the Factor line of products continued to sell well, increasing the brand’s value.

In 2001 Proctor & Gamble bought the Max Factor product line from Revlon, and retains rights to it today.

As of now, it looks like “The Empire that Max Built” is dying a slow controlled death.  Factor products are difficult to find in the US, except on the internet, and are only actively marketed in a few retail outlets in Europe.

But at least it’s not dying of fright.

And we still have Petey, or Pete the Dog, to look back on. And the archived films of beauties like Jean Harlowe, Bette Davis, Bette Grable, Rita Hayworth and Claudette Colbert – even German beauty Marlene Dietrich and everyone’s darling, Judy Garland –  all wearing Factor’s make-up and wigs, often applied by the master himself.


Joe Girard © 2016


Max Factor's star, on Hollywood Blvd

Max Factor’s star, on Hollywood Blvd

  •   Max Factor won an Oscar (Academy Award) for his contributions to the big screen and has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
  •   Random biographies of Maksymilian Faktorwicz, who came to be known as Max Factor

{read on}

PS. Dark Footnotes, for anyone who read this far. This is evidently a famous case that I just learned about through extended research for this essay.

Factor’s Great-grandson, Andrew Luster, was arrested for three incidents of sexual assault using the date-rape drug GHB in 2000.  The rest of the Factor family, heavily involved in civic service and philanthropy, quickly disowned the million-dollar-trust-fund baby.

Luster failed to show in court, jumping his $1 Million bond, and fled to Mexico.  He was convicted anyhow, in abstentia, of some 86 criminal counts, and sentenced to 124 years in prison.

After conviction and sentencing, Luster was still on the lam, living under an assumed name. A bounty hunter named Duane “Dog” Chapman found him in Puerta Vallerta.  Upon kidnapping Luster for return to the US, both men were arrested by the Mexican police.

Luster was extradited to the US and is now “serving his time.”  Well, not all of it. Upon petition, his case was reviewed and the sentence was reduced to 50 years. He will be eligible for parole in 2028, at the age of 86.

In civil court his victims were awarded $40million in damages.  Luster paid that and is now financially bankrupt … as well as morally bankrupt.

And now, back to the dog, this time “Dog” Chapman.

Dog Chapman, bounty hunter

Dog Chapman, bounty hunter [Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Dominique V. Brown (RELEASED) – as PUBLIC DOMAIN — cropped]

Chapman jumped bail in Mexico and fled to the US soon after his arrest, in 2003.  Wanted by Mexico, Chapman was arrested in Hawaii, in late 2006, and held for judicial hearings that would lead to his extradition to Mexico to face kidnapping and bail-jumping charges. There, in Hawaii, he was released on $300,000 bond.

After numerous court proceedings in the US, and appeals to the US Senate and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, somehow, eventually, the Mexican government dropped charges against the Dog.

Dog Chapman remains a bounty hunter and something of a celebrity.

And now you know much more than you wanted. Thanks for reading.


Good night!

On Paternal Ancestry

On Progeny and patrimonial lineage

A Girl named Poppy

CNN has been sporting quite a few interesting documentaries recently: Steve Jobs, Life Itself (Roger Ebert), the Sixties, the Seventies, The Black Panthers. Last month they aired a different kind of documentary; it was comprised of a dozen or so “shorts.” Each segment was a story by one of their news anchors on the topic “The Person who Changed my Life.”

Unfortunately, I did not see most of the segments. I did see the one by Poppy Harlow. I was moved by whom she identified as “the person who most changed my life”, and the story she told about him and their relationship. That person was her father, who died when she was still a young teen. It’s a very good production video of a touching story; a success story that is both likely and unlikely.

Poppy Harlow: CNN Anchor

Poppy Harlow: CNN Anchor

Likely: we all “like” to think that success can, in most cases and in some way, be traced from a parental influence. Unlikely: Poppy’s career turned out to be nothing like her father’s. You can watch the video here. Poppy Harlow: The Person who Changed my Life.

It reminded me of several other stories that I’ve been holding onto for no particular reason, except to maybe share them here. I won’t say these are similar to Poppy’s story, but they are not all that different either. I will limit them to a total of a mere three segments. (And a very brief fourth follow-up).

  1. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”
    – Howard Beale (Network) –> watch the
    Mad as Hell Scene.

If you haven’t watched the iconic 1976 movie “Network”, then watching the scene via the link above is probably all you need in order to get an excellent cultural reference. It applies as much today as ever. It will probably always be “timely.”

Peter Finch as Howard Beale: "I'm as Mad as Hell! And I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

Peter Finch as Howard Beale: “I’m as Mad as Hell! And I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

Peter Finch’s (1916 – 1977) portrayal of crazed news anchor Howard Beale in “Network” earned him an Oscar: the Academy Award for Best Actor. The award was posthumous; he died suddenly – age only 60 – of a heart attack January, 14, 1977, two and a half months before that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. He was the first person to be awarded an Oscar posthumously for an acting performance.[1]  

Finch’s award for “Network” was no fluke. Before that he had earned five BAFTA awards for Best Actor (that’s British Academy of Film and Arts). He was also nominated by both the British and American Academies for several other prominent awards.

The effect of Finch’s patrimony is difficult to ascertain, but it is very interesting to investigate.

Australian George Ingle Finch had a very successful career as a chemist. Among his achievements: developed an improved catalyst for synthesis of ammonia; conducted groundbreaking research into solid state physics, surfaces and thin films, electron diffraction, electron microscopy; and the electrical ignition of gases. In 1944 he was recognized with the Hughes Medal of the (British) Royal Society. He was president of the esteemed Physical Society of London 1947-49. And yet, this is not what he is most known for, nor (probably) his greatest effect on young Peter Finch.

In 1914 Finch the elder was in London, where he was doing research at the Imperial College of Science and Industry. That’s where and when he met Alicia Fisher, daughter of a Kent barrister. Soon after World War I broke out he was assigned to the Royal Field Artillery. Sometime shortly after the start of his military service, in 1915, George and Alice were wed. [As an Australian he was still a subject of the crown, and duty-bound to serve].

While George was away, Peter was conceived. He arrived September 28, 1916 – with George obviously still away. Officially named Frederick George Peter Ingle Finch – perhaps in a way to honor Alicia’s absent husband – he went through most of his life as Peter.

When George returned there were some accounts to settle. He soon divorced Alicia and, with his sister, took full legal custody of Peter. Shortly thereafter young Peter was sent off to France to live with relatives, where he was mostly reared by George’s mother – Peter’s putative grandmother. In the meanwhile George had some dreams to fulfill. He wanted to be a mountain climber.

Those were still the days of the great British adventure; adventure as experienced by, and performed by, the privileged gentry. Yes, the British gentry, of which Finch was certainly not a part. Sailing the world, going to the Yukon gold rush, safaris in Africa, climbing mountains – these were things done with as much creature comfort as possible. Often smoking cigars, dining on quail and herring, sipping brandy, while attired in tweed – that was how to adventure. At least the British gentry’s mode.

That was not how to attack a beast like Everest. Finch joined the Alpine club and set out to join three attempts to make the ascent of Everest in the 1920s with the much more famous climber, the legendary George Mallory.

Finch was an outsider, a colonial farm boy. He had done some climbing in the Alps while studying in Zurich before getting his post at Imperial College. For the Himalayas he brought oxygen canisters, which came in at a hefty 16kg for eight hours supply. On the second British Everest attempt in 1924, Finch was allowed on the ascent team; he made the highest effort on Everest to that date, over 27,000 feet. (Everest tops out at 29,028 ft; that’s 8,848 m). He might well have summited, had he not felt compelled to assist an enfeebled novice companion back to safety.

Finch was, in the eyes of many experts, the best technical climber of his time, despite it being merely a hobby, and he not being a gentlemen. He was sneered upon as a country boy, a colonialist, and an outsider who would “cheat” by using oxygen. He was left off the other two ascent attempts.

In the end, Finch was right. [2]

And in the end, it’s hard to know his influence on his “son”. When Peter was 10, George fetched him up and took him back to Australia. Peter always knew that George openly denied that Peter was his biological son.[3] He also knew of his “father’s” attempt at Everest, and his contributions to science – although George was never much recognized for either until later in his life, when Peter was already well on in his acting career.

The younger Finch’s career started out as bumming across Australia during the Great Depression with a traveling troupe, picking up odd acting roles. During World War II he served in the Army, manning an anti-aircraft gun to fend off Japanese during the bombing of Darwin, and serving in the Middle East.

He didn’t let the war slow him down much: he produced, directed and acted in plays for the troops. When the war was over, his career only delayed a bit, he hit the ground running, took every opportunity, worked hard, and became one of the most famous actors of all time: British, Australian, or, of the world.

  • 2. “Tell yer uncle why there ain’t no snow in California”
    — “Don’t look at me! I didn’t take it!” – Cousin Peal and Jethro (Beverly Hillbillies)


1960s sitcoms. They were corny. Some were corny and popular. Among them, “The Beverly Hillbillies” was regularly the top rated TV show in America. During its eleven year run it was only occasionally bumped from #1, usually by The Ed Sullivan Show.

The adorable Donna Douglas, who played Ellie Mae Clampett on the show, passed on about a year ago (January, 2015) at age 82, leaving Max Baer, Jr (Jethro Bodine) as the last living member of the cast.

Both skilled and successful actors, Douglas and Baer would end up with constricted acting careers, as they were so very type-casted by their successful roles on Beverly Hillbillies. [Although Douglas made a 1959 pre-Hillbillies recording in The Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder”, wherein she played a woman undergoing a surgery to have her appearance fixed so that she would look more normal. The surgery was a failure: she was just as beautiful after the bandages were removed. The episode was not shown until 1960. — Yes, Donna Douglas, even as Ellie Mae, was inherently beautiful.]

As a Beverly Hillbillies side note and question: can anyone provide an accurate description of the familial relationships between Granny, Uncle Jed, Ellie Mae, Jethro, and Aunt Pearl? (Whom did I forget? Was some sort of incest implied?)

Hopelessly typecast, Douglas more or less gave up acting when the series ended in 1971 and moved on to a successful career as a Gospel singer and inspirational speaker.

Baer, however, did not give up the camera.

Sports enthusiasts might recognize the name Max Baer as a former World Heavyweight Boxing champion. A big brute of a man, with a literally deadly right hand, Max Baer, Sr was indeed the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. That would be “Jethro’s” real life father.

Max Baer, Sr was one-quarter Jewish – acquired from his half-Jewish father. Although he rarely practiced Judaism, he eventually decided to embrace it as a public gesture, nonetheless.

Baer broke into worldwide recognition as a champion contender just as Adolf Hitler assumed the German chancellorship, and ultimately the dictatorship, of Nazi Germany. He became a bona fide contender when he beat the great German boxer, Max Schmeling, in June 1933. Schmeling was a recent (although not current) heavy-weight champion. He was the reigning German Heavyweight champion.

Max Baer, Sr, in his Star of David embroidered boxing trunks. I think this is the fight with Max Schmeling

Max Baer, Sr, in his Star of David embroidered boxing trunks. I think this is the fight with Max Schmeling

Baer was disgusted by the warmth and favoritism shown by the Jew-hating Hitler and the Nazi party apparatus toward Schmeling. Baer was willing to make a public statement, and so he began wearing a very prominent Star of David on his boxing trunks for matches. He started wearing the Star for the match against Hitler’s favorite, Schmeling. And he continued to do so. He was wearing the Star of David embroidered trunks when he won the World Heavyweight Title a year later, June, 1934, when he defeated the then current title holder, Prima Carnera.

And he was wearing the Star, 364 days later, when he lost the title in The Cinderella Match against Irish-American New York longshoreman, James (Jimmy) “Cinderella Man” Braddock.

Unfortunately the otherwise terrific movie about that fight (The Cinderella Man) casts Baer in an extremely negative light. However, it was based partly on fact: Baer considered part of the job of boxing champ to be an entertainer, and he could be pretty darned silly when in that role. The movie played up the goofy and obnoxious role-playing of Baer (in an obvious shallow attempt to get viewers to appreciate underdog Braddock all the more). The movie also failed to prominently show Baer’s trunks, and their plainly visible Star of David. (Blame that on the producer, Ron Howard — Opie).

Shortly after Baer Sr’s boxing retirement, World War II broke out for the United States. Baer served as a physical conditioning trainer for the US Army Air Force. He continued to sporadically act in films (he had started in 1933) and served as celebrity referee for boxing matches.

In November 1959 Baer was in Hollywood for several television commercials (they were done “live” in those does – very few 2nd takes). While shaving at the Roosevelt Hotel, Baer felt a chest pain. He called the front desk, asking for a doctor. They told him they’d send a “house doctor” right up. Ever playful, Baer replied: “No dummy, I need a people doctor.” In hospital later that morning he was joking with doctors when … a second attack hit him. “Oh God, here I go …”

He was only 50 years old. (I am often humbled by how people achieved so very much … and then died … far younger than I am now). His son Max Jr would be making his first appearance on TV in just a few weeks, under contract with Warner Brothers, with whom he would eventually star in The Beverly Hillbillies. Baer, Sr is rated #22 in Ring’s list of all-time boxers. He is among a very few boxers who’ve won by knock-out over 50 times. Two deaths are attributed to his mighty right arm. He was devastated by each.

Max Baer, Jr -- as Jethro Bodine on Beverly Hillbillies

Max Baer, Jr — as Jethro Bodine on Beverly Hillbillies

Max Jr’s career after the Beverly Hillbillies remained in the entertainment industry. Hopelessly typecast by his role as Hillbilly Jethro Bodine until 1971, his acting career was largely over. After that he wrote, produced and directed movies, including “Macon County Line”, in which he also played a rare serious role. That movie made $25 million for an investment of just over $100,000 – a record ratio that lasted until the Blair Witch Project (1999).

He also had the idea of turning popular songs into movies. It was Baer, Jr who came up with turning Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, a hit ’60s song, into a cinematic feature. [The lyrics are below… if you’d like to follow along while listening).

In retirement, Baer continues to make a few TV appearances and has long been attempting to develop a casino in Carson City on the Beverly Hillbillies theme. It has been fraught with legal issues and odd competition.


  1. Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
    – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

William Greenleaf Eliot died January 23, 1887 in St Louis, Missouri. He founded the first Unitarian Church west of the Mississippi in 1837, at the corner of 4th and Pine – perhaps 1000 ft from where the famous Gateway Arch has stood since 1964. Outgrowing that location, in 1852, Eliot led the congregation in building and moving to a larger worship space at 9th and Olive. This is only a few blocks from where the stately Post Office and Customs House, and the Library, would be built decades later; those still stand. In 1880, Eliot again led the building of a new Church, at Locust and Garrison. This site was on the Register of National Historic Places. It unfortunately suffered a devastating fire in 1982, and was completely razed in 1987.

St Louis Unitarian Church -- on National Register of Historic Places, until its demise

St Louis Unitarian Church — on National Register of Historic Places, until its demise

That’s just the beginning of William Eliot’s curriculum vitae and significance to St Louis. He’s most notable for founding Washington University in St. Louis (initially called Eliot Seminary). He was influential and critical to founding many civic institutions, including: the St. Louis Public School System; the St. Louis Art Museum; the Mission Free School; the South Side Day Nursery; and the Western Sanitary Commission that provided medical care and supplies during the Civil War. He also contributed to the development of the Colored Orphans’ Home, Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, Memorial Home, Blind Girls Home, Women’s Christian Home, and many other charitable institutions.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited St. Louis, he had the opportunity to meet Eliot and subsequently called him “the Saint of the West.” Besides founding Washington University in 1853, Eliot donated generously to its construction and served as chancellor from 1870 to 1887.

In 1859 William Eliot founded Mary Institute, a school for girls which he named after his daughter, who had died very young. It is now part of the co-educational Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MISLCDS).

Same Church, after the tragic fire.

Same Church, after the tragic fire.

It’s hard to know the further effect he had on American culture and literature. In fact, his effect on world culture and literature. Why? William Eliot was also the grandfather of Thomas Stearns Eliot, who was born the year after William’s passing. Going by his initials, T.S., Eliot is renowned in his own right as one of America’s and the world’s most acclaimed poets, essayists, playwrights and literary critics.

It’s hard to imagine young Thomas, spending his youth going between St Louis and New England (due to family ties in the Boston area) and not being very aware of his grandfather’s contributions to society. Frail as a child, “Tom” turned to literature, embraced it, and found inspiration in fellow Missourian, Samuel Clemens.

I’ve read, recited and committed to memory quite a bit of verse over my many decades. Poe, Frost, Longfellow … even Lewis Carrol. And yet, somehow, I’ve not connected much with Mr Eliot the younger. As an aerospace engineer and amateur historian, perhaps I can be forgiven.

As a sop to fellow enthusiasts of the 1904 World’s Fair: As a teen, young Tom attended the Fair – it was in his hometown, after all. The 47-acre Philippines Igorot “village” living exhibit inspired him to write some short stories and poems. This experience also probably influenced his decision to pursue anthropological studies at Harvard – where his grandfather’s name still stood large. [4]

Yes, perhaps I can be forgiven for not taking to Eliot’s writings. T.S. eventually turned away from much of what his grandfather was proud of. In 1910 he moved to Paris; then, in 1914, to England. And there he stayed. He eventually gave up both his Unitarian faith and US citizenship, becoming both Anglican and a subject of the crown.

T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as a British subject, in 1948.

  1. Depression Youth; Military Service

My wife and I think of, and talk about, our fathers quite often. They had a lot in common. Both grew up in humble households during the Great Depression. It’s easy to see that this helped make them thrifty, resilient and loyal. They both served in the US military in the ‘40s, Audrey’s dad in the US Navy – in fact a Pearl Harbor Survivor; my dad in the occupation of Japan. It’s easy to see how this helped mold them into the prototypical “Greatest Generation” male: the strong quiet type; able to lead and command; yet equally capable of following and taking orders: organization men. They each loved their family and country dearly, loyally, sincerely … yet often from a reticent and in-charge position and point-of-view.

For the rest of their lives, they felt it was a duty to stay very informed on current events, and they loved to encourage discussion that swirled around world events – including past and current.

I have no idea how our three children’s lives will play out … hopefully very long after we are gone. I’d like to think that there is something of the following in them, and that – in some way – part of it comes from their parents. Just as we received something in this regard from our parents:

  • Inner Strength and Self-Discipline
  • Loyalty and Love
  • Kindness and Compassion
  • Service and Simplicity
  • Living in the Moment
  • Honesty and Humility
  • Graciousness and Generosity
  • Patience and Perseverance
  • Forgiveness and Fortitude


Obviously no one is perfect. I certainly am not; neither is my wife. Neither were our fathers. Still – we cling to the positive influences and traits … and gently release the rest. Life is too short to be concerned with anything else.

And I wish the same strengths and virtues for you and yours.


Joe Girard © 2016

email joe: Email Joe (for addition to email list, or discussion not related to this post.  Comments can be added below)




[1] Heath Ledger duplicated this sad/happy circumstance, passing on before he could be receive the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as The Joker in 2008’s Batman sequel “The Black Knight.” Ledger died from a prescription drug overdose (likely due to abuse from ongoing viral infections and insomnia issues). Ironically, both Ledger and Finch were Australian. Ledger was only 28.


[2] The air pressure at 28,000 ft elevation is only one-third that at sea level. That means 67% less oxygen for the lungs while working severely hard at steep ascent grades. Famed Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, were the first humans to summit Everest, in 1951. They used supplemental oxygen, as have the vast majority of those who’ve successfully achieved the full ascent.
The first summit without oxygen was not until 1978. In 2013, a total of 658 climbers attained the summit; only 9 did so without oxygen. There were also 8 deaths.


[3] Finch’s biological father was Wentworth Edward Dallas “Jock” Campbell, an Indian Army officer. Alicia Fisher Finch later married Campbell in 1922. (what’s with the Brits and all those middle names?)

[4] The St Louis 1904 Exposition was huge. Hyuge. Just the Igorot Village living exhibit was larger than many famous World’s Fairs … e.g. The complete 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (which gave us the Space Needle and the Monorail) was only 32 acres … vs the Igorot village at 47 acres … the whole 1904 Fair covered nearly 1280 acres (two square miles)!

Final notes: You can watch The Twilight Zone episode online (The Eye of the Beholder). It’s easier to listen to Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billie Joe … one of my favorite Ballads (right up there with “West Texas Town of El Paso.” If you do, here are the lyrics so you can follow along.



And just for grins….

Ode to Billy Joe

(written, sung and performed by Bobbie Gentry)

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered out the back door: “y’all, remember to wipe your feet!”
And then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge.
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas:
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please.
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow;
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece o’ apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And mama said to me, “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way …
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
‘n’ Brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring,
And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.



Dam Good Flow Control

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities; that is the basis of the American art …” – Mark Twain (How to Tell a Story).

Like most who’ve dwelt for any length of time along the Colorado Rocky Mountains I have a habit of regularly quaffing water through most days. Sometimes copiously. Given our semi-arid climate, mile high altitude and generally active life styles – all circumstances that lead to high rates of water expiration – keeping hydrated is never far from our minds. In fact, in many ways for us just east of Colorado’s mountain divide, water is very important – whether we know it or not.

Typical Weekend Jam on I-70, west of Denver, CO

Typical Weekend Jam on I-70, west of Denver, CO

The westward drive along I-70 from Denver, winding up into Colorado’s scenic Rocky Mountains, can provide both eye-popping and ear-popping exhilaration. The type of high elevation experience you get depends largely on the wild mountain weather, road conditions, time of day, your attitude, and – sometimes – flow control. Traffic flow control. Sometimes it moves swiftly; yet often it slows to a crawl (or slower) … so popular and loved are these mountains. And subject to the whims of weather.

A very few miles after you exit the Eisenhower Tunnel [1] (completing your passage under the continental divide), after twisting down and around a few bends, you are treated to the view of the Dillon Reservoir [2]. At about 9,000 feet elevation, and covering over 30,000 acres, the man-made lake lies, more or less, between the mountains of the Great Divide on the east, and the Gore Range and Tenmile Range on the west.

Approaching Dillon Reservoir descending along I-70

Approaching Dillon Reservoir descending along I-70

Most winters find it frozen-over solid for at least part of the season. On summer days its surface is bedecked with sail boats and usually a few kayaks and canoes. Most evenings are clear and you’re likely to catch a lunar reflection, or even a stellar reflection. Buffalo Mountain, magnificently dome-shaped and looming visibly from nearly every point in the Dillon basin, is likely to have a bit of snow on it even in summer. Within all that is a glimpse back into history.

Long before there was a Dillon Reservoir, way back in the first decade of the 20th century, during the Edwardian Era, Denver’s long, lustful and thirsty gaze finally began crystalizing into a vision of conquest: it yearned to own the water of the Blue river basin.

As Denver’s population surged past 150,000 – part of its 50% growth in that decade – and no end in sight to its growth – city planners knew there would always be demand for water. Denver has virtually no physical boundaries to expansion, and it enjoys a dry, semi-arid climate.

The 19th century Colorado gold rushes led Tom Dillon to set up the first settlement near the confluence of three mountain rivers in 1859. These were the Snake River, the Blue River, and Tenmile Creek. The settlement became incorporated into the Town of Dillon in 1883. Much of the population of a few hundred was connected, directly or indirectly, to the extraction of gold, particularly farther south up the Blue River, near Breckenridge.

The town was moved twice, just a mile or two, in order to accommodate better service from rail lines. But, when the gold rush slowed down, the Town of Dillon and the Blue River region stopped growing and slowly began shrinking. Still they hung on … and on. Many people left for Denver or other cities and towns with better prospects, and ranching became the main commerce of the area. A third move for the Town of Dillon – much more significant and decades hence – was yet to come.

The Great Depression gave Denver the opportunity they sought. Dillon’s population crashed: from over 800 to fewer than 100. Denver’s Water Board began buying up the land in and around Dillon at bargain basement prices, primarily via tax liens. When they had 75% it was enough to get serious and file plans with the Federal Government: plans for a great dam across the Blue River. After several rounds of planning and proposals, eventually an achievable and acceptable plan was approved. It included a long, wide earthen dam to be built across a narrow spot in the Blue River valley, just downstream from the three-river confluence.

By the late 1950s the small Town of Dillon’s fate was sealed: its current site would be flooded, deep under a new reservoir, and it would have to endure yet one final move, this time to a hill on a site near the northeast end of a dam yet to be built – far above the river. Many chose not to make the move, instead leaving the area.  At the time of this final move Dillon’s population had dwindled to a mere 57 souls.

The dam itself, which was completed in 1963 and just over a mile in length, is a marvel of engineering and dam good flow control. The flow control consists of four principal flow features.

The first flow control feature is the primary reason for which the dam was constructed. It’s the Harold Roberts Tunnel measuring just over 23 miles long. The tunnel draws water through a 10 foot diameter tube that passes underneath the continental divide, and – with one slight jog – into the North Branch of the South Platte River. As an engineering and geological marvel, the tunnel took about 19 years to complete, beginning in 1942 – although there was some down time for World War II. Once the water enters the South Platte watershed, it is eventually used in the Denver area for washing dishes, bathing, and flushing toilets. About 5% is estimated to be used for landscapes.

Dam flow control feature number two is its hydroelectric plant, operating at nearly 200ft of head. I’m pretty sure it only operates in the late spring and early summer when the mountain runoff is sufficient to keep the reservoir’s level high. At peak it can generate 1.8 Megawatts. If my math is correct, this is enough to provide average electrical power flow to an estimated 1,500 households. [3]

Flow control feature three is actually the primary and most regularly operating feature: gates that permit a fairly steady flow of water downstream to the Blue River of 500 to 1,300 cubic feet per second. The low end keeps both anglers and trout happy; the upper end is achieved during spring run-off and keeps rafters happy. Anything above 1,800 cfs puts the Blue’s channels and rafters at risk. Just very recently flow control feature #3’s six gates were replaced; after 50-years of service they required some updating. [4]

From here the Blue flows generally north, between the Gore Range and the Continental Divide to one more dam, the Green Mountain Dam. This provides more water to the eastern slope via the Colorado-Thompson water project. After another 13 miles, the Blue joins the mighty Colorado River – so mighty it was once called the Grand River – at Kremmling.

Morning Glory Spillway

Morning Glory Spillway

The final form of flow control, feature #4, is sort of a “flow control of last resort” to protect the dam itself. If the water gets much above 9,025 ft elevation the structure of the dam could be at risk. This feature of last resort is the dam’s Morning Glory Spillway, which is set at an elevation of 9,017 feet. The water that “spills” into it, bypasses the gateway and the power plant and goes downstream to the Blue River (This is a few miles from the Thompson Tunnel inlet). [5]

{!!!Warning! This dam feature used to be called “The Glory Hole” – in fact, sometimes local publications still refer to it as such. This term has been used for dams in general for a long, long time. Unfortunately parts of modern culture have appropriated that term for darker usage. If you’d like to find out, go ahead and use an internet search engine – but PLEASE don’t have children in the room. I won’t discuss further and … you have been warned.!!!}

Four main features. That’s a lot of flow control.

The Dillon Dam and Reservoir do a lot more than provide the city of Denver (and its customers and partners) plenty of water… in fact about 40% of their annual water usage, on average. [6] There are ample recreation opportunities too. I’ve mentioned downstream fishing and rafting, as well as sailing, kayaking and canoeing on the reservoir itself.

But there’s more. Around the lake are bicycling, hiking and walking paths. There are parks. There are on- and off-road bike paths with opportunities for wildlife viewing. And there are some campgrounds too.

Near the north bank of the reservoir, just west of the dam itself, is a favorite campground of ours called Heaton Bay. For several years we used to go there at least once a summer. The campground is popular: We’d secure a few adjoining choice sites well in advance for ourselves and some close friends of ours, the Weprins and the Cronks.

Our families and couples (Girards, Weprins and Cronks) are all about the same age, as are our eight combined children. When the kids were all teens we’d love to hangout at the campground for a weekend. The days would be filled with some combination of biking, canoeing, hiking, and grilling. The evenings for BBQ, chatter, singing and beverage sipping. Later at night we’d exchange stories (often scary), drink a bit, and lie on our backs and spot satellites passing overhead, and sometimes the occasional shooting star.

Truth be told, the later hours included burping, farting, and – eventually – snoring.

It was probably about 10 years ago that we three families (read: wives and moms) had just such a relaxing weekend organized. The original plan was to arrive early Friday afternoon, and stay until Sunday afternoon.

Plans always have at least one hiccup. I provided that hiccup. I had some task at work that seemed important at the time … and so I could not leave until mid-afternoon. Long ago I forgot what that task was; but I cannot forget what it caused.

So I stayed at work a few extra hours while the family motored up to Dillon Reservoir. No worries. I could just drive up the mountain later, on my own, through the tunnel, and arrive at Heaton Bay … about 90 minutes after departing … and still avoid rush hour and arrive in plenty of time for dinner.

By 1:30 I’d finished work, gone home, and loaded my car with my clothes and gear pre-staged the evening before. As I left the house I satisfied my usual habit of grabbing a water bottle for the road. It’s important to stay hydrated in Colorado (see above). I was feeling a bit dried out already due to busy day, so I grabbed a bottle that was bit larger than normal for me, at a generous 24-oz (~0.75 liter).

And off I went. I made great time down to Golden, the last town with easy access to gas stations, provisions and facilities, before getting onto I-70. Gosh I was making great time, especially for a Friday. As I passed the last easily-accessed gas station I glanced at my gas gage to ensure there’d be enough fuel to comfortably get up to the mountains.

Even though I had plenty of gas I had that feeling like “maybe everything was not okay.” I checked the dashboard: engine running ok, not too hot. I knew the tires were filled right. All my clothes were packed; at home I’d verified all doors were locked, appliances turned off. I felt I had enough water, even though my bottle was already less than half full.

Had I forgotten something Audrey wanted me to bring? No. What a great day! I guess maybe everything is okay after all.

About 15 minutes later I was dropping down into the last valley outside Genesee Hill on I-70 before heading up to the divide. Traffic was growing a bit thicker, but still moving briskly, when I received a biological tickle that suggested perhaps something was indeed missed back at Golden: the last good chance to take a pee.

No worries. Snappy traffic with sane Colorado drivers and a beautiful clear-sky day. I’ll be in Heaton Bay in well  under an hour.

15 minutes later, I finished the water bottle while rounding a curve and approaching the eastern outskirts of Idaho Springs in the left lane at about 70mph. That’s when I saw it – a tremendous parking lot along the westbound lanes. Everything had come to a complete stop for a far as the eye could see.

Complete. Stand. Still. Now aware of my filling bladder, I wondered if I could force my way off the freeway. No dice: bumper-to-bumper. I’m feeling a little tense.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. There really is no way to get out and pee…privately. Traffic news says that recent rains have caused a large mudslide just west of Idaho Springs.

The slide is all the way across both lanes of westbound traffic.

For distraction I call Audrey. I might be late.

Perhaps at this point I wasn’t thinking logically. The adult bladder can comfortably hold up to about 1/3 liter. Uncomfortably perhaps ½ liter, or a bit more. I’d just consumed ¾ liter. Plus I’d had some coffee and tea before that. My rear molars were preparing to do the backstroke.

Once the bladders are quite full, the ureters can no longer disgorge urine; backpressure builds up into the kidneys.

The kidneys’ reaction is to slow, and eventually cease removing fluids and toxins from the blood stream.

When toxins are no longer removed, the muscles grow weak, the eyes grow bleary and the brain’s processes are less than optimal.

How much fluid in my bladder now? Well, I recalled that once after a surgery, under narcotics for pain control, my urinary system stopped. Completely. Finally, after what seemed forever, I suddenly spewed forth nearly one full liter. [Nurses are compelled to measure such things.]

I got the (obvious) idea to use the now empty water bottle as a receptacle. Could I manage?

I began studying the woman in the large Chevy Yukon beside me. Would she notice if I did my own great “Southern Exposure”? Perhaps not, if I timed it correctly.

This would be my own exercise in damn good flow control… I had no interest in spillage. A further challenge to flow control: once the dam’s gateway was open, how would it stop at the bottle’s ¾ liter capacity when as much as a liter could be required?

At this level of desperation there is only one method of flow control: damn good will-power.

I have a bit of a sensitive nose, and so I’ve been known to sneeze … suddenly and violently. As the barn door opened and the plumbing interfaces successfully engaged for a tight connection … I got the tickle. The nose tickle.

Focus Joe. Focus. If you feel a sneeze coming on, sometimes you can avoid or postpone it by breathing slowly through the mouth, with no air flow over the sensitive nasal hairs.

During this important meditation … focus, focus, stay engaged, breath gently, through the mouth … two things suddenly happened that startled me. One: the lady to my right got curious and glanced into my car. Oh my! The shame! Did she see Little Joe? Two: the car in front of me began to inch forward. Through all of my focus and will power I had failed to notice that far ahead the cars had begun to crawl. The inch-worm wiggle had made its way to me.

Engaged in will-power and mind control – engaged in a tight plumbing connection – I allowed my car to move perhaps one car length. Whereupon the line stopped. Five seconds later it started again … for one more car length. This repeated itself again, and again.

This was going to be “difficult.” I’d say “hard”, but “difficult” is more appropriate. Inching along, with Mrs Kravits (of I Dream of Jeanie, oops, Bewitched [7]) sneaking peaks, the morning glory spillway began to flow.

First a trickle, and then a full throttled torrent cascaded into the previously empty Dysani bottle. The good old ’99 Acura inching along, Gladys Kravits almost hitting the car in front of her … the fluidic seal miraculously held tight and there was no spillage.

Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor. [8]

Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor. [8]

I became aware of the rate the bottle filled by its new warmth. Urine emerges at the full 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit of the body.

One final challenge remained. Enjoying this full and sensational release,… I wondered how my will power – my flow control – how Little Joe would perform in the task of stopping at ¾ liter when there would be so much pleasure to be had in going the distance? So much pleasure in unloading the last full measure of … bodily fluid.

Somehow I managed everything. Keeping a steady distance between cars in stop-and-go traffic. A tight fluid seal. Stopping at 100% bottle volume, with a little something left in my tank … so to speak. Getting the cap neatly back on the bottle. Little Joe back home where he belongs. Good material for nosey Mrs Kravits to have future gossip sessions … or sweet dreams.

Just as mission was accomplished traffic started moving steady. First 1 mph. Then 10mph. Then 15. Then 30. In a few minutes I was passing the mudslide on a single inside lane that had been cleared.

What a mess the road was. But my car, bottle, pants and car seat were not a mess. Whew.

As soon as traffic opened up a bit, and access to the right shoulder opened up too, I spied about 20 cars pulled over with gentlemen who were facing away from the highway.

I couldn’t hold it quite as long as they did. But my flow control was still damn good.


Wishing you safe travels and clean flow.

Joe Girard © 2015



[1] The westbound tunnel is the Eisenhower. Officially the eastbound tunnel is the Johnson Tunnel, although usually both are referred to as “Eisenhower.”

[2] Dillon Reservoir is often referred to as Lake Dillon, or Dillon Lake.


Average household consumes 911 kWh/month divided by 24hrs/day and divided by 30.4 days/month = average burn rate of 1.2kW.

1.8×106W divided by 1.2×103 W = 1,500

I also estimate this takes only ~260ft3/sec, or 15,600 cfm.

[4] Recent work at the dam:

[5] The Morning Glory Spillway was also upgraded during the recent work at the dam

[6] Roberts tunnel and Denver water supply.

[7] oops, I got confused between two magical women shows from the ’60s, and the nosy neighbor lady.  Thanks to Gil G for catching this boo-boo.

[8] The role of Gladys Kravitz was played by Alice Pearce, from 1964-66, when she passed away, aged only 48.  She was awarded an Emmy for her portrayal posthumously. She was known as “the chinless wonder.” Sandra Gould took over the role until filming ended, in 1971. Pearce and Gould were good friends. Resource==>  Gould gets role of Mrs Kravitz

I might have this confused a bit with the role of Amanda Bellows (married to NASA doctor, Dr. Bellows) from I Dream of Jeannie, played by Emmaline Henry.  Ms. Henry also died rather young, on 50 years old.


Beautiful Miss Audrey

Beautiful Miss Audrey

Guest Essay.  By John Sarkis 2015 ©

Few today are familiar with the name Audrey Munson, but depending on your age and location, it’s likely you’ve seen her image hundreds, if not thousands of times.

Audrey Munson, the "American Venus"

Audrey Munson, the “American Venus”

In today’s terminology, Audrey would be considered a supermodel, and quite possibly, the first in America. Born in upstate New York, her divorced mother moved the two of them to New York City when Audrey was fifteen. After a chance encounter with a local photographer, she soon found herself modeling for the top civic artists in the country. And as a result, her likeness can be found in museums and municipal buildings around the country, on canvas and in sculpture. But it was Adolph Weinman who immortalized her. A sculptor by trade, Weinman produced two of the most iconic coin designs in U.S. history, using Audrey Munson as his model.

1916-S Walking Liberty Half Dollar, obverse (w/ Audrey Munson as Liberty)

1916-S Walking Liberty Half Dollar, obverse (w/ Audrey Munson as Liberty)

The Walking Liberty half dollar, minted from 1916-1947, shows Lady Liberty, draped in the American flag, striding toward the rising sun and a bright future. His other coin, which many mistakenly called the Mercury Dime because of its wings, was actually a Winged Liberty, with Lady Liberty wearing a hat with wings, symbolizing one of our basic rights, freedom of thought.

Utilizing her fame, Audrey went to Hollywood, where she starred in four silent films [1]. This was before the industry adopted the Motion Picture Code, and many films of the day, including Audrey’s, featured nudity. Which finally leads us to the local [St Louis] connection of this story.


1916 Mercury Head (Winged Liberty) Dime, Obverse

1916 Mercury Head (Winged Liberty) Dime, Obverse

October 1, 1921 — 94 years-ago this month, Audrey Munson was appearing at the Royal Theater, 210 N. Sixth Street, St Louis, Missouri, where her movie, “Innocence” was being shown. The movie began by showing many of the statues for which she had posed nude, including some which had been exhibited at our 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. [2] Following each statue, were scenes of Miss Munson dancing, fully clothed. But in her personal appearance, she wore a gauzy drapery, posed on a platform under spotlight, in front of the screen. She remained fully covered until the last pose.

Seated, with her back to the audience, she lowered her drapery, exposing her back. She and the theater owner were arrested; the film confiscated. They were charged with conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals. Unbelievably fast by today’s standards, the trial was held later that week. After viewing the film, and hearing testimony, the Jury was only out five minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty. Afterward, Munson said, “Clothes we began to wear only when guile and evil thoughts entered our heads. They do harm to our bodies and worse to our souls.”

Sadly, Audrey’s life unraveled when she could no longer find modeling work, and the following year she attempted suicide. Spiraling into depression, she was committed to a psychiatric facility at the age of 39, where she remained for the last 65 years of her life. She passed away in 1996, at the age of 104.


John Sarkis posts regularly at the Facebook page for “St. Louis Missouri. History, Landmarks & Vintage photos”
John is a native Saint Louisan, is retired, and now lives in Kirkwook, Missouri, a suburb of Saint Louis.

Editor notes:

[1] IMDB lists only three movies for Miss Munson, failing to include Heedless Moths, a sort of autobiography of Miss Munson herself (although she doesn’t play herself) and in which she appears in several scenes in various stages of undress.

Audrey Munson in "Innocence"

Audrey Munson in “Innocence”

The movie cited here (Innocence) does not show up on IMDB or her biography. But surely it was filmed and presented, for here is an advertisement I found from a 1922 Duluth, Minnesota newspaper, the Duluth Herald.

So, perhaps she was in at least five movies.

[2] Also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
Audrey Munson could not have posed for the actual statues seen at the 1904 Fair; she was only 12 or so as the sculptures were being made, and hadn’t yet been “discovered.”  As most statues were made of temporary materials, including staff, she had likely posed for re-sculpturing of many of them.
Munson did model for statues at the 1915 San Francisco world’s Fair, the Pan Pacific Exposition.

Olympic Lyon and Abbott

Olympic Reigns

Next August 6 through 21 the 2016 Summer Olympics (Officially: “Games of the XXXI Olympiad”) will be contested in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — which is a bit weird, since it will technically be winter in Rio. This is consistent with other summer games held south of the equator. The 1956 games in Melbourne – the southernmost city to host the games – were held in November and December, Australia’s spring.  The 2000 Sydney games were played in the 2nd half of September, bridging winter and spring.

Toward the end of the Rio games the world is guaranteed a new Olympic champion in an old sport.  When the gold medal is awarded the moment should be extraordinary in a most unusual way:  It will likely represent the longest running Olympic championship reign to ever come to an end. And it might well remain that way forever.

I’d forgive you if you’re thinking of Usain Bolt (100-m, 200-m) or Michael Phelps (any number of swimming events) – but they might well win again, and their reigns would not end.

Think farther back.

You get points if you thought of Rugby, which has not been an event since the Paris games of 1924 (the “Chariots of Fire” Olympics).  That year the United States won the gold medal and Olympic championship, successfully defending the crown they had won in the 1920 Antwerp games. Rugby comes back to life for the 2016 Rio Olympics for both men and, for the first time ever, for women.  Even if the US men’s team manages to qualify for the tournament, it is highly unlikely they will successfully defend their 92-year running Olympic title. So, there will be a new champion, and that reign will come to an end.

Still, quite a few other Olympic events have been dormant even longer.  Some will almost surely never return, so those reigns will last for as long as there are records.  The Tug-of-War, a 5-time Olympic event from 1900 to 1920 (there were no games in 1916, due to the Great War), was won twice by teams from Great Britain, including the final championship, in 1920.

Two sports even more unlikely to make an Olympic re-appearance were last contested in Paris, in 1900: (1) Live pigeon shooting (won by Belgian Leon de Lunden), a ghastly, messy, bloody affair; and (2) Obstacle Course Swimming, won by Australian Frederick Lane.  We can safely assign the Olympics’ longest reigns to these men, … forever.


Back during the Edwardian Era, in 1904, Saint Louis hosted the Olympics, prying the games away from Chicago well after the Windy City had been deemed the host city by the IOC and USOC (International and US Olympic Committees).  The short story of this Olympic host-city purloin starts with the award to Saint Louis the honor of hosting the 1903 World’s Fair, which they dubbed “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition” — to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

But wait: 1903? The extent of the fair was enormous — it covered 1,270 acres and had over 1,500 buildings, including more than a dozen Palaces (just the Palace of Agriculture enclosed over 23 acres, equivalent to more than 17 football fields).  Yes, so enormous that the year of the Exposition was pushed back a year, to 1904.

At this point, the aggressive and ambitious leaders of the Exposition, led by accomplished and beloved President of the Fair, David Rowland Francis, lobbied hard (again) to host the 1904 Olympic Games, now to be concurrent with their World’s Fair. At this point Chicago had long since defeated St Louis for the honor of hosting the Games.

Francis was well-connected financially and politically: he had previously served as St Louis’ mayor, Missouri’s governor and as Secretary of the Interior during Grover Cleveland’s second term. Not just bluff and bluster, the Fair’s leaders credibly threatened to dilute the Chicago Olympics by simultaneously hosting World’s Fair Exhibition Games if their request was denied.  Eventually the IOC and USOC acquiesced.  Saint Louis got the games. Most events were contested just west of the fairgrounds, on the campus of Washington University, which was (and is) just outside the St Louis city limits.

The 1904 Saint Louis games of the III Olympiad were nothing like the extravaganzas we’ve come to expect over the past 50 years, or more. Now the games are over-hyped, over-marketed, and absurdly over-nationalistic. The Olympics then were still in their infancy.  They were innocent, simple, often poorly organized, and decidedly non-nationalistic.  Due to this simplicity, innocence and under-hype — and partly due to St Louis’ location deep in the American heartland — there was discouragingly low participation in the games.

Besides the Olympics, there were many athletic events held during and in conjunction with the Fair, and historians have had some difficulty ascertaining just how many events were actually Olympic events, and how many athletes, too. Adding to the confusion, there were Olympic Games that were more like demonstration events: the handicap games (where time or distances were added and subtracted based on athletes’ abilities, as in golf or bowling handicaps) and the very non-politically correct Anthropology games.

According to “1904 Olympic Games, Official Medals & Badges” (Greensfelder, Lally, Christianson, Storm) only twelve nations participated in what we’d call official Olympic “medal” events, and only 673 contestants.  For comparison, in the 2012 London Olympics, there were 204 nations and nearly 11,000 athletes represented.

A huge majority of the athletes were from the United States: 539 of the 673. A further 52 athletes were from Canada. In any event, the athletes did not represent their own nations anything like today; they represented themselves and their local sports or swim clubs. No national anthems; no flag waving.

George Seymour Lyon was one of those 52 Canadians – a businessman from Toronto, born and raised near Ottawa.  Although already 46-years old, he arrived with the confidence of an accomplished and natural athlete.  As a young man, he had held Canadian national records in the pole vault and as a cricket batsman. And he had demonstrated prowess in baseball, lawn bowling, and rugby. There is a lot of river ice in Canada in the winter: Lyon was accomplished at hockey and curling as well.

With great physical conditioning, concentration, and demonstration of eye-hand coordination in baseball, hockey and cricket – Lyon had begun playing golf relatively late in life, at age 38. By the time he showed up in Saint Louis, in August, 1904, he had already won an astounding three Canadian National Amateur championships (’98, ‘00, ’03 – he would go on to win a total of eight such national championships, the last at an astonishing 56-years of age).

Seventy-Five contestants were entered for that Olympic Golf tournament.  All but three of those seventy-five were from the US; the other three – including – Lyon, were from Canada.

The site for the golf matches was the nearly brand new course at Glen Echo Country Club, completed in 1901, just outside St Louis, in Normandy, Missouri. Well, actually, almost all courses in the New World were nearly brand new: Shinnecock Hills on Long Island was the first course in the US, built in 1891.  Chicago Golf Club, in 1894, was the first course west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Glen Echo Clubhouse, 1904. Converted from the Hunt Mansion. Normandy, Missouri

Glen Echo Clubhouse, 1904. Converted from the Hunt Mansion. Normandy, Missouri

The 1904 Olympic golf competition was an absolutely grueling competition, by any standard.

Day #1 was a 36-hole qualifier.  Players with the low 32 scores qualified for an elimination match play tournament: 36-holes each day. The finalists would have to play five more consecutive days.

Needless to say, Lyon qualified for the tournament, and over the period of 6 days he played 12 rounds of golf (two to qualify, and five 36-hole elimination matches), defeating men much younger than himself along the way, to win the championship and the gold medal.  Ever the athlete, he celebrated by walking on his hands through the clubhouse after the award.

Lyon’s is the only gold medal ever to be awarded in golf, since golf has not been an Olympic event since then, and the St Louis Olympics were the first games to award gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third places. [The winner of the 1900 Olympic golf tournament, American pro George Sands, one of only 12 contestants, was awarded a silver medallion, after a stroke play tournament of only 36 holes).

George S. Lyon, the only Olympic Golf Gold Medalist (until 2016, in Rio).

George S. Lyon, the only Olympic Golf Gold Medalist (until 2016, in Rio). Defending Champion for 112 years.

Olympic historians may well disagree that George Lyon is the longest reigning Olympic Golf champion.  It turns out that the 1900 Paris Games (also simultaneous with a World Exposition) held an obscure 9-hole golf tournament for women.  Conducted 30-miles outside Paris in Compiègne on a course laid out within a horse racing track – and so poorly organized that the ten contestants had no idea they were competing in the Olympics – the tournament was won by a 24-year old American, Margaret Abbott, with a score of 47 strokes. To underscore their ignorance of the significance of the event, many women showed up to play in high heels and rather tight skirts. I wonder what those heels did to the greens?

Since there was no women’s golf competition at the 1904 games (perhaps they decided that 12 rounds of golf in 6 days was too much), Abbott stands as the longest reigning Olympic golf champion.

Abbott, born in India, had learned golf after moving to America at the Chicago Golf Club.  She was in Paris with her mother at the time of the 1900 Paris Olympics and Fair to study art. She heard of the tournament and entered matter-of-factly.  In fact, her mother also competed in the event, finishing 7th – the only time in Olympic history that a mother and daughter have competed in the same event.

Fifty-five years later, at the time of her death, Abbott still had no idea she was an Olympic Champion.  At the end of the tournament she was awarded only a porcelain bowl.  As the games’ significance grew through the decades, Florida University professor Paula Welch spent 10 years tracking down her family and let them know they were descended from an Olympic champion. 1900 was the first Olympics with women’s participation; so Abbott is the first American woman, and 2nd woman overall, to win an Olympic championship. (England’s Charlotte Cooper had won the women’s tennis tournament just hours earlier).

In 1902 Abbott met and married humorist Peter Dunne while in Paris.  She also won the Femina Cup, precursor to the French Women’s Golf Championship.  Quite a year.  They then moved to New York, when, it seems, her competitive golf career came to a quiet end, partly due to a nagging knee injury she suffered in a bicycle fall as a child.

Margaret Abbott on golf course, circa 1904

Margaret Abbott on golf course, circa 1904

I can’t find what happened to Abbott’s porcelain bowl, but we do know that somewhere through the years Lyon’s gold medal somehow got lost.  His family and the Canadian Olympic Committee have pleaded for a new official medal to be issued, but it has been denied.  A duplicate medal hangs on display at the Rosedale Golf Club, in Toronto, only about 35-minutes from Canada’s Golf Hall of Fame, in Oakville, Ontario, where Lyon was inducted in 1971.

Lyon was also named to Canada’s Olympic Hall of Fame (in 1971) and to Canada’s Sports Hall of fame in 1955, coincidentally, the same year that Abbott passed away. (Lyon had died in 1938). If you wish to visit and achieve a two-for-one: Canada’s Olympic and Sports Halls of Fame are located in Olympic Park, in Calgary, Alberta (site of the 1988 Winter Games).

George Seymour Lyon's 1904 Olympic Golf Gold Medal

George Seymour Lyon’s 1904 Olympic Golf Gold Medal

Well, either way, the longest Olympic champion reign to come to an end will be in Rio de Janeiro in the golf competitions.  There will be both a women’s and a men’s Olympic competition for the first time in more than a century — and a gold medal for each. It would be nice if there will be tributes to Abbott and Lyon when it happens.

Peace, and … Fore!

Joe Girard © 2015



  1. a biographical book (and possible movie) is coming out on George Lyon soon.  You can find out more here:
  2. Lyon also entered 15 Canadian Senior Golf Championships (Presumably for seniors, from age 50 to 64).  In those 15 years he compiled a most amazing record: He won 10 times and finished runner-up 4 times.
  3. The Normandy, MO school district includes Ferguson, MO.

Acknowledgments: Thanks go to my wife Audrey and to Max Storm (Founder of the 1904 World’s Fair Society and co-author of the 1904 Olympic book cited) for reading and re-reading this and for making editorial and structural suggestions.


Miscellaneous resources:

the search for Margaret Abbott, by Paula Welch:


  • Chicago loses the 1904 Olympics: