During wargames in Louisiana in September 1941, the U.S. Army found itself drawn into a tense firefight with an unseen enemy across the Cane River. The attacker turned out to be three boys with a toy cannon. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the Battle of Bermuda Bridge and the Prudhomme brothers’ account of their historic engagement.
We’ll also rhapsodize on guinea pigs and puzzle over some praiseworthy incompetence.
On Mother’s Day, May 14, 1939, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller took his mother to Comiskey Park to see him pitch against the Chicago White Sox. Lena Feller, who had traveled 250 miles from Van Meter, Iowa, with her husband and daughter, sat in the grandstand between home and first base and watch her son amass a 6-0 lead in the first three innings.
Then, in the bottom of the third, Chicago third baseman Marvin Owen hit a line drive into her face.
Feller was following through with his pitching motion and saw it happen. “I felt sick,” he wrote later, “but I saw that Mother was conscious. … I saw the police and ushers leading her out and I had to put down the impulse to run to the stands. Instead, I kept on pitching. I felt giddy and I became wild and couldn’t seem to find the plate. I know the Sox scored three runs, but I’m not sure how.”
The injury was painful but not serious. Feller managed to win the game (9-4) and then hurried to the hospital. In his 1947 autobiography, Strikeout Story, he wrote, “Mother looked up from the hospital bed, her face bruised and both eyes blacked, and she was still able to smile reassuringly. ‘My head aches, Robert,’ she said, ‘but I’m all right. Now don’t go blaming yourself … it wasn’t your fault.'”
Bombers in World War I were typically manned by two crew members, a pilot and an observer. The pilot operated the forward machine gun and the observer the rear one, so they depended on one another for their survival. In addition, the two men would share the same hut or tent, eat their meals together, and often spend all their free time together. This closeness produced “some remarkable and amusing results,” writes Hubert Griffith in R.A.F. Occasions (1941):
There were pilots who took the precaution of teaching their observers to fly, with the primitive dual-control fitted to the R.E.8 of those days — and at least one couple who used to take over the controls almost indiscriminately from one another: there was the story that went round the mess, of Creaghan (the pilot) arriving down out of the air one day and accusing his observer of having made a bad landing, and of Vigers, the observer, in turn accusing Creaghan of having made a bad landing. It turned out on investigation that each of them had thought the other to be in control of the aircraft; that because of this neither of them, in fact, had been in control at all; and that, in the absence of any guiding authority, the machine had made a quite fairly creditable landing on her own.
Griffith writes, “It was, I suppose, the most personal relationship that ever existed.”
A British officer in the 44th regiment, who had occasion, when in Paris, to pass one of the bridges across the Seine, had his boots, which had been previously well polished, dirtied by a poodle Dog rubbing against them. He in consequence went to a man who was stationed on the bridge, and had them cleaned. The same circumstance having occurred more than once, his curiosity was excited, and he watched the Dog. He saw him roll himself in the mud of the river, and then watch for a person with well polished boots, against which he contrived to rub himself. Finding that the shoeblack was the owner of the Dog, he taxed him with the artifice; and, after a little hesitation, he confessed that he had taught the Dog the trick in order to procure customers for himself. The officer being much struck with the Dog’s sagacity, purchased him at a high price, and brought him to England. He kept him tied up in London for some time, and then released him. The dog remained with him a day or two, and then made his escape. A fortnight afterwards he was found with his former master, pursuing his old trade on the bridge.
— Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Tales of Animals, 1835
In several years, a young Russian will inherit vast estates. Because he has socialist ideals, he intends, now, to give the land to the peasants. But he knows that in time his ideals may fade. To guard against this possibility, he does two things. He first signs a legal document, which will automatically give away the land, and which can be revoked only with his wife’s consent. He then says to his wife, ‘Promise me that, if I ever change my mind, and ask you to revoke this document, you will not consent.’ He adds, ‘I regard my ideals as essential to me. If I lose these ideals, I want you to think that I cease to exist. I want you to regard your husband then, not as me, the man who asks for this promise, but only as his corrupted later self. Promise me that you will not do what he asks.’
She agrees. In time the Russian’s ideals fade, and when he inherits the land he asks his wife to revoke the document, declaring that he releases her from her earlier commitment. What is her obligation here? She had made her promise to her earlier husband, but is that a different person from the man before her now? In her view, the man to whom she made her promise no longer exists, and so cannot release her from her obligation. Is this right? If a person is a succession of earlier and later selves, does a promise attach to a person or to a self?
Partially paralyzed in the Boer War, British infantry officer Hugh Trenchard traveled to Switzerland to recuperate and took up tobogganing out of boredom. Because he couldn’t brake properly, he traveled dangerously fast, and one day the toboggan leapt over the bank and parted company with him in midair. “His body hit the side of the hill two or three times before coming to rest in a snowdrift nearly thirty feet below”:
When he came to his head was throbbing violently. Solicitious hands raised him. He pushed them aside in a sudden fury of excitement and happiness. He could walk again unaided. Whatever other damage he might have done himself as he bounced down the hill-side like a rubber ball, he had recovered the use of his legs. Apart from a dull pain near the base of his spine he felt no aftereffects. Something must have clicked back into place; he had cured himself by violence.
Before the accident he could walk only with sticks; now he threw them away. For good measure, he won the freshman and novices’ tobogganing cups for 1901. Biographer Andrew Boyle writes, “It was a singular achievement for a man with no previous experience, and for one regarded as a virtual cripple until the week before the event.”
Trenchard went on to play a central role in establishing the Royal Air Force.
Half sleepless night again — an entirely disgusting dream, about men using flesh and bones, hands of children especially, for fuel — being out of wood and coals. I took a piece to put on someones fire, and found it the side of an animals face, with the jaw and teeth in it.
— John Ruskin, Brantwood Diary, Oct. 29, 1877
I had a dream last night. An amputated head had been stuck on to a man’s trunk, making him look like a drunken actor. The head began to talk. I was terrified and knocked over my folding screen in trying to push a Russian in front of me against the furious creature’s onslaught.
— August Strindberg, Inferno, 1897
The nightmares returned — one terrible one in February 1896 about a tramp, seen holding over a well ‘washing, but with a kind of amused tenderness, an object that I thought was a rabbit, but I presently saw that it was a small deformed hairy child, with a curious lower jaw, very shallow: over the face it had a kind of horny carapace … made of some material resembling pottery. I was disgusted at this but went on, and it grew dark: I heard behind me an odd sound, and turning round saw this horrible creature only a foot or two high, walking complacently after me, with its limbs involved in ugly and shapeless clothes, made, it seemed to me, of oakum, or some more distressing material. The horror of it exceeded all belief.’
— A.C. Benson, quoted in David Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise, 1980
In 1863 the residents of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, discovered a legless man on the shore of St. Mary’s Bay. He spoke no English and could not tell them who he was or where he had come from. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of “Jerome” and what is known or guessed of his past.
We’ll also learn about explosive rats in World War II and puzzle over a computer that works better when its users sit.
In 1973 and 1974, the U.S. armed forces gave a food preference survey to about 4,000 members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
The examiners included three fake dishes “to provide an estimate of how much someone will respond to a word which sounds like a food name or will answer without reading.”
The three fake dishes were “funistrada,” “buttered ermal,” and “braised trake.” The Washington Post reported, “Out of the 378 foods listed, braised trake came in 362, buttered ermal was 356 and funistrada finished several foods above the bottom 40, coming in between brussels sprouts and fried okra.”
For the record, here are the nine lowest-ranked foods, from the bottom up — all nine are so bad that service members ranked them beneath foods that don’t exist at all:
Buttermilk, skimmed milk, fried parsnips, low-calorie soda, mashed rutabagas, french fried carrots, prune juice, stewed prunes, french fried cauliflower.
(“The Ranking of the Favorites,” Washington Post, July 1, 1987. The Army survey is here: PDF.)
In 1890, inspired by France’s new Eiffel Tower, railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin proposed building an even larger tower at Wembley as the centerpiece of a new amusement park there. He sponsored an architectural design competition that attracted 68 designs inspired by everything from the Tower of Pisa to the Great Pyramid of Giza. The winning design, number 37 (center), was to measure 366 meters tall, 45.8 meters taller than Eiffel’s tower. Foundations were laid in 1892, but funding troubles forced a redesign and in the end only the first stage was finished (below). The site was closed in 1902 and the aborted tower was dynamited five years later, but the surrounding park remained popular — it’s now the site of Wembley Stadium.