Another Day

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ErnstUdet-coloured-photo.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Flying alone over France in April 1917, German flying ace Ernst Udet engaged another lone pilot in aerial combat. The other pilot, a Frenchman, was exceptionally talented, anticipating all of Udet’s moves and reacting instantly. “Sometimes we pass so closely I can clearly recognize a narrow, pale face under the leather helmet,” Udet wrote later. “On the fuselage, between the wings, there is a word in black letters. As he passes me for the fifth time, so close that his propwash shakes me back and forth, I can make it out: ‘Vieux‘ it says there — vieux — the old one. That’s Guynemer’s sign.”

Guynemer was Georges Guynemer, France’s top fighter ace, who had brought down 30 Germans in fights like this. “Slowly I realize his superiority,” Udet wrote. “His aircraft is better, he can do more than I, but I continue to fight.” For a moment he managed to get Guynemer into his sights, but he found that his gun wouldn’t fire — it was blocked.

Udet tried to clear the stoppage by hand but failed. He considered diving away but knew that Guynemer would instantly shoot him down. They circled one another for another eight minutes as Udet sought to evade the Frenchman’s guns. When Guynemer swooped overhead, Udet hammered the gun with his fists and then realized his mistake:

Guynemer has observed this from above, he must have seen it, and now he knows what gives with me. He knows I’m helpless prey.

Again he skims over me, almost on his back. Then it happens: he sticks out his hand and waves to me, waves lightly, and dives to the west in the direction of his lines.

I fly home. I’m numb.

“There are people who claim Guynemer had a stoppage himself then,” Udet wrote in Ace of the Iron Cross. “Others claim he feared I might ram him in desperation. But I don’t believe any of them. I still believe to this day that a bit of chivalry from the past has continued to survive. For this reason I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer’s unknown grave.”

Misc

  • When written in all caps, the title of John Hiatt’s song “Have a Little Faith in Me” contains no curves.
  • Tycho Brahe kept a tame elk.
  • It isn’t known whether the sum of π and e is irrational.
  • Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and James Garfield died without wills.
  • “Selfishness is one of the qualities apt to inspire love.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

The medieval Latin riddle In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (“We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire”) is a palindrome. The answer is “moths.”

Podcast Episode 94: The Living Unknown Soldier

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pozieres_view_north_28_August_1916.jpg

A quarter million Frenchmen vanished in World War I, leaving their families no clue whether they were still alive. During these anxious years, a lone man appeared on a Lyon railway platform without memory, possessions, or identification. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the strange story of Anthelme Mangin, whose enigmatic case attracted hundreds of desperate families.

We’ll also consider some further oddities of constitutional history and puzzle over an unpopular baseball victory.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Anthelme Mangin:

Jean-Yves Le Naour, The Living Unknown Soldier, 2005.

Martha Hanna, “The Tidal Wave of War,” European History Quarterly 38:1 (January 2008), 93-100.

Stefan Goebel, “Review: Beyond Discourse? Bodies and Memories of Two World Wars,” Journal of Contemporary History 42:2 (April 2007), 377-385.

Carole Blair, V. William Balthrop, and Neil Michel, “The Arguments of the Tombs of the Unknown: Relationality and National Legitimation,” Argumentation 25:4 (November 2011), 449-468.

“Unknown Soldier Claimed as Own by 15 Families,” Reading [Pa.] Eagle, March 19, 1926.

Minott Saunders, “Two Mothers Battle for Memoryless War Veteran,” Ottawa Citizen, June 30, 1928.

“French Derelict Is Unidentified,” Eugene [Ore.] Register-Guard, July 2, 1928.

Adam Nicolson, “A Living Ghost From the Trenches Whose Plight Confused a Nation Riven by Grief,” Telegraph, Jan. 16, 2005.

Listener mail:

Hershey Community Archives, in particular the history of the Hershey bar.

Wikipedia, Titles of Nobility Amendment (accessed Feb. 19, 2016).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Keith Noto.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

A Sad Memory

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincolnassassination.jpg

The last surviving person to witness Lincoln’s assassination died in 1956. Samuel J. Seymour, born in 1860, was 5 years old when his godmother took him to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

They sat opposite the president’s box, which was draped with flags, and she lifted him up when Lincoln entered. “He was a tall, stern-looking man,” Seymour told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1954. “I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd.”

The play began and “all of a sudden a shot rang out — a shot that always will be remembered — and someone in the president’s box screamed. I saw Lincoln slumped forward in his seat.” The crowd began to stir and Seymour saw the assassin John Wilkes Booth tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage. He called, “Hurry, hurry, let’s go help the poor man who fell down.”

Lincoln died the following morning, and the fleeing Booth was killed 12 days later. Seymour carried the memory of the experience with him for 90 years, until his death on April 12, 1956, at age 96. “That night I was shot 50 times, at least, in my dreams — and I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

02/19/2016 UPDATE: In February 1956, two months before his death, Seymour appeared on the American game show I’ve Got a Secret, where contestants had to guess his claim to notability:

(Thanks, Andrew.)

Podcast Episode 93: The Old Flying Days

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27A_Balloon_in_Mid-Air%27_by_Jules_Tavernier,_1875.jpg

In the early days of English aviation, journalist C.C. Turner seemed to be everywhere, witnessing bold new feats and going on some harrowing adventures of his own. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Turner’s record of Edwardian aviation, including his own clumsy first attempt to fly an airplane and a record-setting balloon voyage to Sweden.

We’ll also ponder the nuances of attempted murder and puzzle over a motel guest’s noisemaking.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on early aviation in England:

Charles Cyril Turner, The Old Flying Days, 1927.

Charles Cyril Turner, The Marvels of Aviation, 1917.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listeners J.C. and Brenna Lundberg, who found it in this collection.

Sources for listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Death of Sammy Yatim” (accessed Feb. 2, 2016).

Diana Mehta, “Toronto Cop Found Not Guilty of Murdering Sammy Yatim, But Is Found Guilty of Attempted Murder,” National Post, Jan. 25, 2016.

Jillian Bell, “Forcillo Attempted Murder Verdict Explained,” CBC News, Jan. 25, 2016.

Alyshah Hasham, “Forcillo Guilty of Attempted Murder in Shooting Death of Sammy Yatim,” Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 2016.

Wendy Gillis and Alyshah Hasham, “‘Mystery’ Charge Only One That Sticks in Sammy Yatim Slaying,” Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 2016.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Right of Way

slippers and roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt’s friend Jacob A. Riis remembers an encounter with Slippers, the White House cat, during a state dinner in 1906:

The dinner was over, and the President, with the wife of a distinguished Ambassador on his arm, led the procession from the state dining-room along the wide corridor to the East Room at the other end of the building, the ambassadors and plenipotentiaries and ministers following, according to their rank in the official world, all chatting happily with their ladies, seeing no cloud on the diplomatic horizon; when all of a sudden the glittering procession came to a halt. There, on the rug, in the exact middle of the corridor, lay Slippers, stretched at full length, and blinking lazily at the fine show which no doubt he thought got up especially to do him honor. The President saw him in time to avoid treading on him, and stopped. His first impulse was to pick Slippers up, but a little shiver of his lady and a half-suppressed exclamation, as he bent over the cat, warned him that she did not like cats, or was afraid, and for a moment he was perplexed. Slippers, perceiving the attention bestowed on him, rolled luxuriously on the rug, purring his delight. No thought of moving out of the path was in his mind.

There was but one other thing to do, and the man who found a way to make peace between Russia and Japan, did it quickly. With an amused bow, as if in apology to the Ambassadress, he escorted her around Slippers, and kept on his way toward the East Room. Whereupon the representatives of Great Britain, and of France, of Germany, and Italy, of all the great empires and of the little kingdoms clear down to the last on the long list, followed suit, paying their respects to Slippers quite as effectually as if the war-ships of their nations had thundered out a salute at an expenditure of powder that would have kept a poor man comfortable for a year, and certainly have scared even a White House cat almost to death.

(From St. Nicholas, January 1908.)

Lost in Translation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:North_Korea_Propaganda_Photograph_of_prisoners_of_the_USS_Pueblo,_with_the_Hawaiian_Good_Luck_Sign,_1968.jpg

In January 1968, North Korea captured the American spy vessel Pueblo and held 82 crew members captive for 11 months. During the crisis, the North Korean government released the photo above, claiming that the Americans were apologetic and cooperating with their captors.

The Americans managed to send a different message — three of them are extending their middle fingers. They had told the Koreans this was a “Hawaiian good luck sign.”

Commander Lloyd M. Bucher found a way to accomplish the same thing verbally — he wrote the confession “We paean the DPRK [North Korea]. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung.”

Podcast Episode 92: The Forgotten Amendment

http://traffic.libsyn.com/futilitycloset/Futility_Closet_podcast_-_Episode_92.mp3

In 1982, college sophomore Gregory Watson got a C on a term paper arguing that a long-forgotten constitutional amendment could still be ratified. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow his 10-year mission to prove his professor wrong and get the amendment added to the Constitution.

We’ll also learn an underhanded way to win a poetry contest and puzzle over how someone can murder a corpse.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

This week’s feature on the 27th amendment was suggested by listener Steve Winters. Sources:

Richard B. Bernstein, “The Sleeper Wakes: The History and Legacy of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment,” Fordham Law Review 61:3, 497-557.

John Heltman, “27th Amendment or Bust,” American Prospect, May 30, 2012.

“Historical Highlights: The 27th Amendment,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives (accessed Jan. 17, 2016).

“Amendment XXVII: Congressional Compensation,” National Constitution Center (accessed Jan. 17, 2016).

Richard L. Berke, “1789 Amendment Is Ratified But Now the Debate Begins,” New York Times, May 8, 1992.

Richard L. Berke, “Congress Backs 27th Amendment,” New York Times, May 21, 1992.

“Alumni Notes,” The Alcalde, September-October 1992.

Here’s a video interview with Gregory Watson.

Sources for our feature on underhanded poetry:

“Anecdote Relative to Mr. Dryden,” The Gentleman’s and London Magazine, August 1763.

William Montgomery Clemens, Mark Twain, His Life and Work: A Biographical Sketch, 1892.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David Elliott, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Last Wishes

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Official_Photographs_taken_on_the_Front_in_France_-_View_of_Gommecourt_as_seen_today_(15560800766).jpg

British Army gunner Frank Bracey wrote this letter to his wife in May 1916 and left it to be opened in the event of his death:

Dearest Win

I am writing just a line Win in case of accidents. Just to let you know how I have always loved you Dear. You are the best little girl on God’s earth have I told you before. But I am writing this because I have a feeling that I shall not come back again. I have most of your letters in this box Dear and I wish you to have them and the cards. You may think I am a bit taped writing this dear but I cannot help it. If I do come back dearest you will never see this letter but I have a strong feeling that I shall never see England again. In case I do pop under the earth I want you to be happy and look out for a worthier chap than your Humble, you have been every thing to me Win. I know your love is mine forever dearest but if I do not come back I wish you the best of happiness and a good husband. I know you told me what you would do for yourself if I did not return but Win for the sake of our love I wish you to be brave, it would be hard for you little girl I know, but do nothing of the kind. My last wish is that you marry a good man and to be happy and to think of your Humble now and then. I felt I must write these few lines Win but whatever happens dear just keep a stout heart and think that your Frank did his bit for the women of this little isle. I expect you will think your Humble crazy but I was never saner than I am now.

Frank

He was killed in Pas-de-Calais that August. He is buried at the British military cemetery at Saint-Amand.

A Hidden Economy

During the American Civil War, enemy soldiers would sometimes meet to barter. Tobacco was hard to get in the North, and coffee was scarce in the South, so, where it could be done safely, soldiers would meet between the lines to trade.

In some cases this was done across distances. If a river or lake separated the lines, a tiny boat would be laden with commodities and sent to the other side, where it would be unloaded and filled with exchange cargoes, as agreed on by shouting and signaling across the water. On the Rappahannock early in 1863 a group of New Jersey soldiers received a shipment “by miniature boat six inches long.” It carried this note:

Gents U.S. Army

We send you some tobacco by our Packet. Send us some coffee in return. Also a deck of cards if you have them, and we will send you more tobacco. Send us any late papers if you have them.

Jas. O. Parker
Co. H. 17th Regt. Miss. Vols.

Alfred S. Roe, who served in a New York artillery unit, recalled that near Petersburg in the winter of 1864, “a certain canine of strictly impartial sentiments” was “taught to respond to a whistle from either side. Thus with a can of coffee suspended from his neck he would amble over to the Johnnies, and when they had replaced coffee with tobacco he would return in obedience to Union signals, intent only on the food reward both sides gave him.”

(From Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, 1952.)