The U.S. 2nd Marine Division picked up an unlikely member in 1943: Siwash the duck, won in a New Zealand raffle, spent 18 months as the mascot of the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines. He took part in three major engagements: Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, even winning a combat citation for duckly valor:
For courageous action and wounds received on Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, November 1943. With utter disregard for his own personal safety, Siwash, upon reaching the beach, without hesitation engaged the enemy in fierce combat, namely, one rooster of Japanese ancestry, and though wounded on the head by repeated pecks, he soon routed the opposition. He refused medical aid until all wounded members of his section had been care of.
“Siwash holds the rank of sergeant and has a thirst for beer,” reported the Associated Press the following year. “The duck nearly lost its tail feathers on a pier at Tarawa, but since then it learned to jump in a foxhole the minute the marines leaped.”
When his division arrived in Chicago in October 1944, a luncheon party was held in Siwash’s honor, and he gave two radio broadcasts. After the war he helped in recruiting for the Korean War before retiring to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where he died in 1954, 11 years after signing up, modest to the end.
Ulysses, Kansas, moved. Founded in 1885, the town thrived at first, but after four years a drought arrived, and by 1906 the population had dwindled from 1500 to 100. Worse, during the boom years the town had sold thousands of dollars’ worth of bonds to finance improvements that were never made. When East Coast bondholders began to sue, the city fathers were forced to raise the taxes of the remaining residents in order to meet the judgments.
After a year of this, in February 1909, the people of Ulysses decided as a body to give up and start over. They cut their builings into sections, moved them two miles west on horse-drawn sledges, and established “New Ulysses.” The lots on the old site were deeded back to the bondholders, and the new town became the county seat in June.
The Hotel Edwards, above, is the only remaining business building from “Old Ulysses.” It rests today on the grounds of the Grant County Museum.
On July 21, 1904, the London Times published a curious letter from H. Rider Haggard. On the night of Saturday, July 9, he said, he had gone to bed at about 12:30 “and suffered from what I took to be a nightmare”:
I dreamed that a black retriever dog, a most amiable and intelligent beast named Bob, which was the property of my eldest daughter, was lying on its side among brushwood, or rough growth of some sort, by water. In my vision the dog was trying to speak to me in words, and, failing, transmitted to my mind in an undefined fashion the knowledge that it was dying. Then everything vanished, and I woke to hear my wife asking me why on earth I was making those horrible and weird noises. I replied that I had had a nightmare about a fearful struggle, and that I had dreamed that old Bob was in a dreadful way, and was trying to talk to me and to tell me about it.
The following morning Haggard and his wife told the story to their daughters, and it was not until that evening that the family realized that Bob was missing. Haggard began to investigate, and on Thursday morning he and a groom discovered the dog’s body floating in the River Waveney about a mile and a quarter from the author’s home. Haggard was also approached by two railway plate-layers who on Monday had found the dog’s collar atop a bridge that crossed the water between Ditchingham and Bungay. “It would seem that the animal must have been killed by an excursion train that left Ditchingham at 10.25 on Saturday night, returning empty from Harlestone a little after 11.” This was the last train that ran that night, and no trains ran on Sunday.
It appeared that the train had knocked the dog into the reedy margin of the water, where, if it was still alive, “it must have suffocated and sunk, undergoing, I imagine, much the same sensations as I did in my dream, and in very similar surroundings to those that I saw therein — namely, amongst a scrubby growth at the edge of water.”
I am forced to conclude that the dog Bob, between whom and myself there existed a mutual attachment, either at the moment of his death, if his existence can conceivably have been prolonged till after one in the morning, or, as seems more probable, about three hours after that event, did succeed in calling my attention to its actual or recent plight by placing whatever portion of my being is capable of receiving such impulses when enchained by sleep, into its own terrible position.
The full letter is here. Haggard added a certificate by a veterinary surgeon, affirming that Bob must have been in the water three days; from his wife and children, confirming his description of the nightmare on Sunday morning; from the plate-layer who discovered the collar; and from the groom who had found the dog with him. Draw your own conclusions.
You exist because of a fragile string of circumstances: Your parents had to meet and procreate at a particular time, and so did their parents, and so on. If any of these things had not happened, you would not be here.
But the past that produced you also produced a whole series of historical and natural calamities — the Holocaust, World War I, and slavery, for example. Very likely those calamities influenced the delicate causal chain that leads to your existence. Without them, your ancestors would not have met and had children when they did. Properly speaking, then, shouldn’t you regret your own existence, since it required these tragedies to bring it about?
University of Haifa philosopher Saul Smilansky writes: “A ‘package deal’ is involved here: those events, together with oneself; or, the absence of the historical calamity, and the absence of oneself. So, all considered, ought one to prefer never to have existed, and to regret that one exists?”
(Saul Smilansky, “Morally, Should We Prefer Never to Have Existed?”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91:4, 655-666.)
The Viking 1 orbiter brought some surprised attention to the Cydonia region of Mars in 1976 when its cameras discovered what appeared to be an enigmatic face staring up into the heavens.
The “face on Mars” has since been explained as an optical illusion, but it recalls a project conceived 30 years earlier by the American artist Isamu Noguchi. Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars, below, was proposed as a massive earthwork to be constructed in “some unwanted area,” perhaps a desert, at an enormous scale, so that the nose would be 1 mile long. When seen from space, the face would show that a civilized life form had once existed on Earth. Noguchi had been embittered by his experiences as a Japanese-American during World War II and the development of atomic weapons; he had originally called the piece Memorial to Man.
If those two don’t have enough to talk about, there’s a newcomer to join them: In 2013, face recognition software discovered the image below in a photo of the moon’s south pole taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Who’s next?
Captain Augustus G. Hall and the crew of the schooner Annie L. Hall vouch for the following: On March 30, while on the Grand Bank, in latitude 40° 10′, longitude 33°, they discovered an immense live trunk turtle, which was at first thought to be a vessel bottom up. The schooner passed within twenty-five feet of the monster, and those on board had ample opportunity to estimate its dimensions by a comparison with the length of the schooner. The turtle was at least 40 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 30 feet from the apex of the back to the bottom of the under shell. The flippers were 20 feet long. It was not deemed advisable to attempt its capture.
— Scientific American, May 12, 1883
An extraordinary scene took place on Saturday last at a small village within three miles of Middleton. A half-witted fellow named James Driscott had cruelly ill-used his donkey. He was told by several of the villagers that he would be brought up before the magistrates and severely punished; but his informants said that if he consented to do penance for his inhuman conduct, no information should be laid against him. Discott gladly agreed to the proposed terms. The donkey was placed in the cart, and its owner, with the collar round his neck, was constrained to drag his four-footed servant through the village. The scene is described by a local reporter as being the most laughter-moving one he had ever witnessed.
— Illustrated Police News, Jan. 22, 1876
English essayist A.C. Benson had rich, elaborate dreams, a trait common in his family. “Sometimes they would be processions and high ceremonies, diversified by the intervention of old Eton friends, who would whisper dark words more suo during some strange liturgy,” recalled his friend Geoffrey Madan. “Sometimes the distant past would rush upon him and old ecclesiastics, summoned up from the mists of Addington, became involved with him in situations of infinite absurdity; sometimes it would be oneself with whom the drama was played, till its recital at breakfast made one helpless with laughter.”
From one dream he awoke recalling only a strange epigram, “The riddle of life is solved by gliding, and not sliding.” On another morning he found that he had scribbled down these lines in the middle of the night:
A bold and cheerful company of Ogres, Ghosts, and Ghouls
Attacked and smashed to little bits the City of Tomfools:
The Tomfools sailed to Araby, and raised another state;
I can’t say how refined they were, and how considerate.
And now in High Tomfoolery they’re very fond of telling
What an almighty hash the ghosts made of their former dwelling;
They chaunt their great deliverance: they teach and preach and say
How good it was of God to take their former pride away.
His 1894 poem “The Phoenix” was composed entirely while asleep. “I dreamed the whole poem in a dream, in 1894, I think, and wrote it down in the middle of the night on a scrap of paper by my bedside,” he wrote. “It is a lyric of a style which I have never attempted before or since. … I really can offer no explanation either of the idea of the poem or its interpretation. It came to me so (apparently) without any definite volition of my own that I don’t profess to understand or to be able to interpret the symbolism.”
By feathers green, across Casbeen,
The pilgrims track the Phoenix flown,
By gems he strewed in waste and wood
And jewelled plumes at random thrown.
Till wandering far, by moon and star,
They stand beside the fruitful pyre,
Whence breaking bright with sanguine light,
The impulsive bird forgets his sire.
Those ashes shine like ruby wine,
Like bag of Tyrian murex spilt;
The claw, the jowl of the flying fowl
Are with the glorious anguish gilt.
So rare the light, so rich the sight,
Those pilgrim men, on profit bent,
Drop hands and eyes and merchandise,
And are with gazing most content.
Madan added, “I have preserved in one of his letters the concluding stanza which he wrote in waking hours to round it off, but omitted later on the advice of a friend who felt it to be ‘incongruous’; this pleased him very much indeed.”
(From “A Later Friendship,” by Geoffrey Madan, in Arthur Christopher Benson as Seen by Some Friends, 1925.)
adj. devouring knives
John Cummings was a game drunk. In June 1799, having watched a French mountebank pretend to swallow clasped knives, the 23-year-old American sailor boasted that he could do the same, and “after drinking freely” he proceeded to swallow his own pocketknife and three others offered by his friends.
Thus began a memorable career. According to George Budd in the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, Cummings recounted his exploit in Boston six years later and was immediately challenged to repeat it. He swallowed six more knives, and an additional eight the following morning, “so that he had swallowed a knife for every day that the month was old.”
Why stop there? Nine months later, drunk again, he made the same boast in England and swallowed five knives on Dec. 4 and nine clasp knives on Dec. 5 (plus, he was told, another four that he was too drunk to remember).
Through the next four years, in great pain and continually vomiting, Cummings applied to a number of doctors, at least one of whom dismissed his story as incredible. But when he died finally in March 1809, his stomach was opened and “a great many portions of blades, knife-springs, and handles were found in it, and were carefully collected for the museum at Guy’s Hospital, in which they are now preserved,” Budd notes — Cummings’ contribution to medical science.
In 1933, violinist Jelly d’Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he’d written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the discovery of Schumann’s lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers.
We’ll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises.
Sources for our feature on Jelly d’Aranyi and Rosemary Brown:
Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 1969.
Erik Palmstierna and Adila Fachiri, Horizons of Immortality, 1938.
Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies, 1971.
Douglas Martin, “Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2001.
Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, 1998.
Nicolas Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.
Here’s the Schumann violin concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, and here’s a rather blurry interview with Rosemary Brown, in which she transcribes a composition for Beethoven.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.