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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Thoughts du Jour

Mummies

Humans have a habit of believing preposterous nonsense — embracing ideas that defy evidence and common sense. I could point to the behavior of today’s conservatives, but instead, consider the ancient Egyptians. They decided that the soul could not live on in the afterlife unless the body of the deceased was preserved. Seriously. Hence, their obsession with mummies.

The Egyptians traditionally buried the dead in the desert sand, which conveniently mummified the bodies. It was fine just to drop common folk in a hole, but it was inappropriate if you were important. So, for the rich and powerful, the Egyptians began building monument-style tombs.

The first such tomb was a mastaba, which in ancient Egyptian means “eternal house.” Mastabas were rectangular structures with inward-sloping sides and flat roofs, constructed of bricks made from mud. They protected the body from animals and grave robbers, but the absence of sand meant no mummification and — drat — no soul living on in the afterlife.

So they developed artificial mummification. For bigshots, of course. In time, the bigshots also concluded that mastabas weren’t elaborate enough, and pyramids became a thing.

In summary, the concept arose that your soul is doomed if your dead body decomposes as nature intended. Egyptian society seized on that idea and focused on it for several thousand years. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Island

For four years in the 1950s, my dad was stationed at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and we Smiths lived in nearby Panama City. In 1956, Dad got a one-year assignment as base commander at Thule AFB, Greenland. No dependents live at Thule, so Mom and us kids remained in Panama City.

Dad called, wrote, and sent photos regularly, which kept us up to date about life at Thule. One fact about the place that got a snicker from my 14-year-old self was the story of a small island within sight of the base named, in the Inuit language, Iganaq.

Due to its appearance in profile, people at Thule called the island the Witch’s Tit. Dad got a snicker, too, from telling us that.

In 1958, Greenland changed the name of the island from Iganaq to Dalrymple Rock. This was to honor Dr. Paul Dalrymple, a geographer and meteorologist who spent a good part of his career in Greenland.

Despite the name change, I’m sure the island remained Iganaq to the Inuit. And to the people stationed at Thule, it’s probably still the Witch’s Tit.

Unexpected Journey

When I stopped for lunch in Commerce recently, I had no way of knowing I was about to drive a mom and two preschoolers to the next county.

As I arrived at the Wendy’s parking lot, a female voice called out, “Sir! Sir! My car broke down, and my boys are with me, and my phone is dead! Can I borrow your phone to call my Nanna?”

The mom was in her late 20s and understandably stressed. I handed her my phone. She called Nanna, who didn’t answer, probably because it was from an unknown caller. So the mom sent a text. Still no reply. Nanna was MIA.

The mom thanked me and told me to proceed with my lunch. She said Nanna probably would respond soon. So I proceeded with lunch.

After lunch, I checked, and still no word from Nanna. I couldn’t just leave them stranded, so I told the mom I would drive them to Nanna’s house, which was about five minutes away. The mom protested feebly while transferring the boys and their car seats to my car.

She spent the drive trying to set me up with Nanna, who was described as healthy, active, attractive, and a widow. I was politely noncommittal.

Nanna was home, working in the garden. The mom wanted me to give Nanna my phone number, but Nanna (indeed a handsome woman) steered the mom away while waving a thank-you over her shoulder. I drove back to Commerce, where I bought some dog treats at Marshall’s.

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The Questions…

1. What flower bulbs once were used as currency?

2. What is a fipple?

3. The best-selling novel of all time was written in Spain in the early 1600s. What is it?

4. In ancient Egypt, what served as pillows?

5. What is the largest known cave system in the world?

The Answers…

1. Tulip bulbs. In the Dutch Republic in 1634, tulips were a new thing, and a wave of “tulip mania” swept the country. Certain varieties of tulip became coveted luxury items that soon were accepted as currency. The speculative bubble burst in 1637, and the fad fizzled.

2. The mouthpiece of a wind instrument.

3. “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes. Over 500 million copies sold.

4. Chunks of wood or stone.

5. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. People have explored 400 miles of it, and national park officials believe another 600 miles is out there. Also, scattered around the region are some 200 smaller caves not connected to the Mammoth system.

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The short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is highly regarded, and deservedly so. It’s also grim and a bit unsettling to read. The author was a Civil War veteran known for his realistic fiction, much of which, like the story below, related to the Civil War.

A few years ago, I featured another Bierce short story on this blog. That post included more about the author and his mysterious fate.

———

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

By Ambrose Bierce
Published in the San Francisco Examiner, July 1890

– I –

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners — two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.

At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest — a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.

Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground — a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge.

Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators — a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right.

Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good — a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat.

He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties.

The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift — all had distracted him.

And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by — it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell.

He awaited each new stroke with impatience and — he knew not why — apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the 4 trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

– II –

Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime.

Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”

“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”

“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”

“Suppose a man — a civilian and student of hanging — should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood 6 against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away.

An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

– III –

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened — ages later, it seemed to him — by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs.

These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness — of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment.

He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.

There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river! — the idea seemed to him ludicrous.

He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface — knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable.

“To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort! — what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo!

The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake.

“Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these 8 words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface.

He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.

He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf — he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat — all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears.

Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly — with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men — with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words: “Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”

Farquhar dived — dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream — nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning: “The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”

An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo*, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game.

As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond. 10 “They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me — the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round — spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color — that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick.

In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream — the southern bank — and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.

The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape — he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation. By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on.

At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective.

Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange 11 constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which — once, twice, and again — he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air.

How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue — he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet! Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene — perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home.

All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is!

He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon — then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

* Decreasing in loudness.

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All in the Family

Among the memorable early Romans was Julia Agrippina (15-59 AD), described by history as smart, ambitious, and calculating. Not to mention lethal, allegedly.

Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus, a Roman general, and the granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

The second Roman emperor was Tiberius (brother of Augustus, uncle of Germanicus). Germanicus hoped to succeed Tiberius, but instead, Caligula (son of Germanicus, brother of Agrippina) was named emperor three.

Caligula was assassinated, and Claudius (brother of Germanicus, uncle of Agrippina) became emperor four. Claudius then married his niece Agrippina and adopted her son Nero, whose father Domitius had died suddenly when Nero was two.

Claudius, incidentally, was Agrippina’s third husband. Her second husband Passienus had died a few years earlier, by some accounts poisoned by Agrippina.

Agrippina wanted her son Nero to succeed Claudius so she could retain her power and influence. Soon — oops — Claudius was poisoned, and Nero became the fifth Roman emperor at age 16.

As Nero matured, Agrippina’s influence waned. Ultimately, a nasty power struggle ensued between mother and son, ending in Agrippina’s death at age 44. Nero almost certainly was responsible, but conflicting historical accounts make the truth elusive.

To sum up, Agrippina was at various times the granddaughter, great niece, niece, sister, wife, and mother of the first five Roman emperors. Plus, all three of her husbands died early and mysteriously. Wow.

Equine Slumber

If you’re a horse, you have a unique sleep problem. Namely, you aren’t built to lie down and get back up easily. You do so with great difficulty and are left vulnerable to predators.

As a result, horses have evolved special sleep behaviors. First, they take naps several times a day while standing. This is made possible by specialized tendons and ligaments that allow the horse to lock the major joints of its legs, so it can snooze without toppling over.

But horses also need deep sleep — REM sleep — just as you do. For that, they lie down and recharge for real, usually in short intervals totaling several hours a day.

Yes, they are vulnerable while lying horizontal and unconscious, but other horses always remain awake and on sentry duty.

Whack

Most of the time, my dog Jake is calm and mellow. He gets excited, of course, on such occasions as our morning walk, or when he lights out after a cat, but otherwise, his world is pleasant, and life is good.

There are, however, exceptions. Occasionally, a local redneck goes hunting in the woods, and we hear gunfire in the distance. In which case, Jake’s happy face disappears, and he retreats to the back of my bedroom closet. He won’t come out until the noise stops.

His reaction is the same with fireworks and other loud noises. At the first boom, he heads for the sanctuary of the closet.

Furthermore, he dislikes/fears my flyswatter. If a fly lands somewhere and I whip out the flyswatter, Jake exits the room as soon as he sees it. Apparently, he is upset by my display of violence and the loud whack as I dispatch the fly.

I usually can conceal the flyswatter from him, but the telltale whack can’t be disguised.

Although I feel bad for Jake, the flyswatter is here to stay. And frankly, I find the whack to be oddly satisfying.

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● According to the US government, the average dollar bill remains in circulation for 6.6 years.

● Despite its name, the Spanish Flu of 1918 had no connection to Spain. During World War I, Spain remained neutral and did not observe a media blackout. Thus, it reported freely on the pandemic, which led most of the world to associate Spain with the flu.

● The heart of an adult blue whale weighs 400 pounds.

● The only species of penguin found north of the equator is the Galápagos penguin of, you guessed it, the Galápagos Islands. In this case, however, “north” is a stretch; the islands literally straddle the equator.

● Cornell University in Ithica, New York, offers a degree in Enology and Viticulture, which is the study of wine and wine-making and the science of grape-growing.

● The flags of 29 countries feature the colors red, white, and blue.

● A desert is an ecosystem that receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually. About 20 percent of the earth’s surface is classified as desert.

● Apple trees are native to Asia, and they were not found in North America until early European colonists brought them here. Soon, apple pie became a symbol of American culture, as opposed to native cultures and later immigrants, who cooked apples in other ways. Hence the expression “as American as apple pie.”

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Mystery Pig

File this story under “stranger than fiction.”

One recent Saturday, Jake and I went walking at Jefferson Middle School, where he could go off-leash and perform zoomies. Before long, we came upon an unoccupied pickup truck parked on the grass. Next to it was a wire pet cage, empty, door open.

And under the truck, cowering next to a wheel, was a piglet. It was a tiny thing, about six inches high and a foot long. A rope around its neck secured it to the truck.

Jake danced around and snuffled the piglet with great excitement, but didn’t hurt it, because, well, Jake loves all living things. The piglet seemed confused about being licked by a large animal.

Did the truck and the pig belong to someone working inside the school? Was the pig left outside because it wasn’t housebroken? A baffling scenario.

I tried to get Jake to continue our walk, but he wasn’t going anywhere. I allowed him a minute more of snuffling, then hooked up his leash and led him away. Poor Jake. So disappointed.

Why a piglet was tied to a truck next to an open pet cage on the lawn of the middle school that Saturday, I’ll never know.

Tuaregs

The Tuareg people of North Africa, nomads of the Sahara Desert since the 4th Century, are unique among Islamic ethnic groups.

Unlike in most Muslim societies, Tuareg women have high status. They control most of the property, and the lineage of families and clans is traced through the women.

Further, Tuareg men, not women, wear veils. When Tuareg men reach adulthood, they wear the tagelmust, a veil that reveals only the eyes, for the rest of their lives.

The Tuaregs believe the veils protect them from being possessed by evil spirits that enter through the nose and mouth. Why women don’t need the protection, I can’t say.

The concept of evil spirits and veils is, of course, preposterous nonsense. I rank it right up there with belief in a God who is omnipotent and benevolent, yet is okay with widespread starvation, disease, war, and suffering. That should strain anyone’s credulity.

Greek to Me

A while back, on a lark, I bought a copy of Georgia Outdoor News (GON), a monthly magazine about guns, hunting, fishing, and guns. I wanted some reading matter that was different, and GON certainly is that.

Frankly, I detest guns, and I strongly object to hunting and fishing. Guns are an abomination, and stalking and killing animals is making a special effort to be cruel. The articles and ads in GON confirm how callous and sadistic people can be toward other living things.

One particular tip that made me wince was a suggestion to fishermen: slice open your live bait so the blood in the water will attract fish.

But I digress. It was fascinating to get a peek at the world of hunters and fishermen as they talked to each other. For example, a “Fishing Reports” article gave tips on when and where to fish on various Georgia lakes. This is what one guide reported about West Point Lake near Columbus:

The herring population seems to have exploded this year. Try fishing riprap around bridges with spinnerbaits, small crankbaits and Zoom Super Flukes. Try an unweighted merthiolate Zoom Trick Worm or an unweighted Zlinky.

One other pattern is to look for fresh blowdowns with the leaves still on them. Try a Jerkbait or Zoom Super Fluke worked around the outer limbs. Lots of spotted bass are caught by casting Spot Remover heads loaded with Ultravibe Speed Craws.”

I know what riprap and blowdowns are, but otherwise, that’s just word salad. An experienced fisherman probably would get the message loud and clear.

I hope so. Better to use a Jerkbait or Zoom Super Fluke than to slice open your live bait.

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The Toyota Corporation was founded in 1937 by Japanese inventor Sakichi Toyoda to manufacture automatic looms to weave cloth.

● The smallest bones in the human body are the malleus, incus, and stapes bones located in the middle ear. They carry external sounds to your brain.

● The people of Turkey drink the most tea annually, consuming about seven pounds of tea leaves per person. Ireland is in second place with about five pounds per person.

● A cria (Spanish for baby) is a young llama, alpaca, vicuña, or guanaco, all of which are Latin American relatives of the camel. Llamas and alpacas are domesticated, whereas vicuñas and guanacos are wild, but are protected as endangered species.

● Wayne Allwine, a sound effects specialist for Disney Studios, was the voice of Mickey Mouse for 32 years — from 1977 until his death in 2009. In 1991, he married co-worker Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse.

● Sweden has not been involved in a war since 1814.

● English is the native language of 350 million people. English is the second language of two billion people.

● The first know automobile accident occurred in 1891 in Ohio City, Ohio, when John William Lambert lost control of his vehicle and hit a hitching post. Lambert was driving a Lambert, a gasoline-powered, three-wheeled vehicle of his own design. He went on to hold over 600 automotive patents, but the Lambert brand couldn’t keep up with Ford et al and fizzled.

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The Questions…

1. What is the world’s largest known living organism?

2. What online service has the most users?

3. The term living room surfaced in the late 1800s. What were living rooms called before then?

4. When sea otters sleep, how do they keep from drifting away from each other?

5. Fireflies (Lampyridae), known for emitting light through the chemical process of bioluminescence, are classified as what type of insect?

The Answers…

1. The largest known organism is a massive network of honey mushroom fungus (Armillaria ostoyae) that occupies about 3.4 square miles in eastern Oregon. It is thought to be 2,400 years old. Locals call it the “humongous fungus.”

2. Facebook, which has an astounding 2.9 billion users. That’s more than the populations of China (1.4 billion) and India (1.3 billion) combined.

3. Mostly, they were called parlors, from the French verb parler (to speak) because that’s where people sat and talked. In the 1500s and 1600s, they sometimes were called drawing roomsshort for withdrawing, in the sense of withdrawing there for privacy.

4. They hold hands.

5. Fireflies are a variety of soft-bodied beetle.

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Thoughts du Jour

Business As Usual

My county school board doesn’t have a very good record. Some years ago, it built new schools in East Jackson County, and — oops — West Jackson grew faster. Then the board built a new county high school for $69 million that — oops — required portable classrooms the day it opened.

The old county high school became the “college and career center.” I’m not sure a career center needs a campus the size of a shopping mall, plus multiple acres of abandoned football, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, and practice facilities, but it has them anyway.

Then there’s another matter that smells to high heaven. The old high school was a handsome two-tone brick structure. Brick — the stuff that lasts forever and is wonderfully low-maintenance. This is the old high school:

But before the building opened last fall as the career center, the school board had the entire school — all of those attractive and perfectly serviceable brown bricks — painted. All gazillion of them. This is the career center today:

The old high school — excuse me, the career center — is big and sprawling. Painting it took the contractor all summer.

I would love to know which government official that painting contractor is related to.

Survivor

In Montana in June 1876, General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry was steamrolled in the Battle of the Little Bighorn by warriors of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. Five of the regiment’s 12 companies were wiped out. Custer and 273 soldiers died.

Two days after the battle, Comanche, the horse of a slain 7th Cavalry officer, was found in a ditch badly wounded. Comanche was hailed as the sole survivor of the battle, but probably wasn’t. Some 100 cavalry horses are thought to have survived and were claimed by the victors.

Comanche suffered seven bullet wounds, but recovered and became a hero to the 7th Cavalry. The unit commander declared that the horse would live out his life in comfort and “will not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstances, nor will he be put to any kind of work.”

Comanche lived an easy life at Fort Riley, Kansas, until his death in 1891. For some grotesque reason, his body was stuffed, and, also for some grotesque reason, it remains on display today at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.

Viral Agent

I avoid zombie movies because the idea of zombies is so trite and silly. People get infected, spazz out, cause chaos, and maybe eat brains. Eventually, an antidote is discovered, or they all get killed, or whatever. So tiresome.

A key concept of most zombie stories is that the victims were exposed to some kind of awful new virus. And it made me wonder if maybe, just maybe, something similar might explain the behavior of today’s Republicans.

Imagine an insidious viral agent that infiltrates the brains of conservatives and causes them to ignore facts, deny science, embrace nutty conspiracy theories, hate black and brown people, admire Nazis, praise dictators, and always vote Republican, thus dooming us to an unending succession of wretched scumbags in public office.

The concept of a medical explanation for right-wing behavior makes sense, except for the part where normal people are immune to the virus. I’m still trying to puzzle that out.

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AUSTIN, TEXAS — A marble bust purchased at a Goodwill store for $35 turned out to be a 2,000-year-old Roman carving.

Antique dealer Laura Young purchased the bust and thought it might be a Victorian garden decoration. She kept it on display in her home while friends at a London auction house tried to trace it.

After several years of research, they identified the bust as depicting Nero Drusus Germanicus, a Roman soldier and politician. The bust had been on display in a German museum prior to World War II. They think a soldier brought it to the US after the war, either having stolen it or purchased it from a looter.

The bust currently is on display at the San Antonia Museum of Art and next year will be returned to Germany. “He needs to go home,” Young said. “he wasn’t supposed to be here.”

Young had a replica of the bust made on a 3D printer to keep for herself.

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — The official news outlet of North Korea claims that burritos and hamburgers were invented by Kim Jong-il, the father of current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

A North Korean newspaper said Jong-il came up with the idea of “wheat wraps” in 2011, shortly before his death from a heart attack. Some years before that, the newspaper said, Jong-il invented a type of hot sandwich, described as “double bread with meat,” that was the forerunner of the hamburger.

The newspaper described the “wheat wrap” burrito as sort of like a gyro with grated cabbage and carrots — more of a spring roll than a burrito.

Despite North Korea’s claims, the burrito probably originated with vaqueros in northern Mexico in the 1800s. Both Germany and the US say they invented the hamburger, also in the 1800s.

FYI, three generations of Kims have ruled North Korea since it was created after World War II. The first dictator was Kim Il-sung, who ran the country from 1945 until his death in 1994. His son Kim Jong-il took over, died in 2011, and was succeeded by the current wacko Kim Jong-un.

LUBBOCK, TEXAS — When told their luggage was overweight, a couple at Lubbock Airport opened the bag and found their pet chihuahua hiding in a cowboy boot.

The couple was boarding a Southwest flight to Las Vegas when a gate agent told them the bag was five pounds overweight. They had the option of paying a fee or transferring items to their carry-ons. To avoid the fee, they opened the suitcase and discovered their five-pound chihuahua Icky inside.

The gate agent offered to keep Icky until the couple returned from vacation, but they contacted a relative who rushed to the airport and took Icky where she was supposed to be, with the couple’s children and babysitter.

Five years ago, the couple found Icky on a remote Texas road, weak and malnourished. When they took her home, their children said the dog was dirty and “icky,” and the name stuck.

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