Podcast Episode 147: The Call of Mount Kenya

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Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy — to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Benuzzi and two companions as they try to climb the second-highest mountain in Africa using homemade equipment.

We’ll also consider whether mirages may have doomed the Titanic and puzzle over an ineffective oath.

See full show notes …

Tommy

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During World War II one of the most surprising advocates of war bonds was Tommy Tucker, an Eastern gray squirrel who toured the nation in a humiliating wardrobe of 30 dainty costumes. (“THOUGH TOMMY IS A MALE SQUIRREL HE HAS TO WEAR FEMININE CLOTHES BECAUSE TAIL INTERFERES WITH HIS WEARING PANTS,” Life reported defensively.)

Tommy had been adopted in 1942 by the Bullis family of Washington D.C., who took him on the road in their Packard automobile, where he performed for schoolchildren, visited hospitals, and gave uninspiring radio interviews. Between appearances Zaidee Bullis would bathe him and place him in a specially made bed. At the height of his fame his fan club numbered 30,000 members.

Tommy retired after the war but gamely endured further travels with the family. When he died in 1949 he was stuffed and mounted “with his arms out so you could pull the clothes over him,” and his nightmarish fate pursued him even into the grave. He stands today in a display case in a Maryland law office — in a pink satin dress and pearls.

The Arlington Ladies

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In 1948, Air Force general Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife Gladys were walking through Arlington National Cemetery when they saw a young airman being buried without any family members present — only the chaplain and military honor guard who attend every burial. Moved by the lonely ceremony, Gladys organized the Officers’ Wives Club so one of its members would attend every Air Force funeral. The other branches of the armed services have followed suit so that today an “Arlington lady” attends every funeral at the cemetery. No soldier is buried alone.

“It doesn’t matter whether we are burying a four-star general or a private,” Margaret Mensch, head of the Army ladies, told NBC. “They all deserve to have someone say thank you at their grave.”

The Jump

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On Aug. 15, 1961, during the third day of construction of the Berlin Wall, 19-year-old Communist German border guard Hans Conrad Schumann was standing on the corner of Ruppiner Straße and Bernauer Straße. A roll of concertina wire 3 feet high was strung before him; behind him cement slabs were being positioned to replace it. Opposite, in West Berlin, a group of protesters had gathered to denounce the building of the wall, which was intended to stop the exodus of young professionals from the East German state.

“The people were swearing at us,” he wrote later. “We felt we were simply doing our duty but we were getting scolded from all sides. The West Berliners yelled at us and the Eastern demonstrators yelled at us. We were standing there in the middle. There was the barbed wire, there was us guards, West Berliners, East Berliners. For a young person, it was terrible.”

West Berliners began to shout, “Come over! Come over!” A West Berlin police car pulled into sight, its engine running and its rear door open, inviting him to desert. For two hours Schumann debated, thinking about his parents and his sister. Then, at 4:00, he jumped over the wire and ran. “Then I was in the West and they received me with a great cheer. I was the first.”

Caught by photographer Peter Leibing, the image appeared in newspapers around the world. Within a month, 68 members of the East German special police had deserted to the West.

Schumann settled in Ingolstadt and worked in an Audi factory for 20 years. When the wall came down in 1989, he returned to his hometown and discovered he was a pariah, the “wall jumper,” a tool of the Western imperialists. Dismayed and depressed, he hanged himself in 1998 at the age of 56.

(From James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron, Dangerous Games, 2010.)

On Foot

On May 20, 2005, to convey its size, Italian artist Gianni Motti walked the length of the nascent Large Hadron Collider, followed by a cameraman.

At an average speed of 5 kph, it took him 5 hours 50 minutes to walk all 27 kilometers of the underground ring. Today a proton covers the same distance 11,000 times in 1 second.

Motti dubbed his effort “Higgs: In Search of Anti-Motti.” I don’t think he found it.

Green Indeed

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Thailand’s Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew has a unique distinction among Buddhist temples: It’s made of beer bottles. When the building was begun in the 1980s, the monks were seeking ways to encourage waste disposal and promote environmentalism. They had been collecting beer bottles since 1984 and decided to use them as a building material.

The main temple, completed in 1986, comprises about 1.5 million bottles. The monks say they provide good lighting, are easy to clean, and retain their color — the green bottles are Heineken and the brown ones are the Thai beer Chang. They even use the bottle caps to make mosaics of the Buddha.

The monks have gone on to build a complex of 20 buildings, everything from a water tower to a crematorium, from the same material. Abbot San Kataboonyo told the Telegraph: “The more bottles we get, the more buildings we make.”

A Looking-Glass Letter

A facsimile of a letter from Lewis Carroll to Miss Edith Ball, Nov. 6, 1893:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11483/11483-h/11483-h.htm#441

My dear Edith,

I was very much pleased to get your nice little letter: and I hope you won’t mind letting Maud have the Nursery Alice, now that you have got the real one. Some day I will send you the other book about Alice, called Through the Looking-Glass, but you had better not have it just yet, for fear you should get them mixed in your mind. Which would you like best, do you think, a horse that draws you in a cab, or a lady that draws your picture, or a dentist, that draws your teeth, or a Mother, that draws you into her arms, to give you a kiss? And what order would you put the others in? Do you find Looking Glass writing easy to read? I remain

Your loving,

Lewis Carroll.

(From Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, 1898.)

“A Remarkable Newspaper”

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In British Columbia there is a little newspaper, the Kamloops Wawa, circulating among several tribes of North American Indians. The unique feature of this journal is that it is printed in shorthand. Its story is a remarkable one. Some years ago the Rev J.M. Le Jeune, a Breton missionary, arrived in British Columbia to take charge of a territory some fifty miles square. He found the great obstacle to his work to be the absence of any means of written communication, as the natives had no written language of their own. His repeated efforts to teach them to read and write by ordinary methods failed entirely. The missionary was acquainted with the simple French Duployan shorthand, and then conceived the novel idea of teaching the Indians to write their own language phonetically by means of the shorthand characters. He adapted the stenographic signs of the Chinook language, and the experiment proved a complete success. There are to-day three thousand Indians able to to write and read their own language by no other means than shorthand. ‘Wawa’ means ‘talk’ in the Chinook, hence the title of the little newspaper which has been the natural outcome of the missionary’s undertaking. The page shown above is part of an article dealing with the Boxer trouble in China.

— J.D. Sloan, in The Strand Magazine, October 1911

In a Word

periergia
n. bombastic or laboured language

galimatias
n. confused language, meaningless talk, nonsense

taigle
v. to impede or hinder; hence, to fatigue; weary

obtrect
v. to disparage or decry

A paragraph from an unnamed “publication from a leading geographical society”:

The examples given suggest that the multiformity of environmental apprehension and the exclusivity of abstract semantic conceptions constitute a crucial distinction. Semantic responses to qualities, environmental or other, tend to abstract each individual quality as though it were to be considered in isolation, with nothing else impinging. But in actual environmental experience, our judgements of attributes are constantly affected by the entire milieu, and the connectivities such observations suggest reveal this multiform complexity. Semantic response is generally a consequence of reductive categorization, environmental response or synthesizing holism.

In The Jargon of the Professions, Kenneth Hudson suggests that the authors “should be locked up without food or water until they can produce an acceptable translation.” In Secret Language, Barry J. Blake adds, “I think the passage simply means that in experiencing the environment we need to look at it as a whole rather than at particular properties, though I am at a loss to decode the first sentence.”

Bad Cats

tiger statue

This has been a trying month for the Indonesian military. On March 11 a Twitter user uploaded this photo with the caption “What the hell is this tiger?” and it took off on social media. The statue, meant to represent the mascot of an army division, had stood for five years at the entrance of the Siliwangi Military Command base in Garut, West Java. But nothing can withstand social media: After two days of general hilarity the statue was taken down.

The army says that plans are being made to replace it. If they can’t find anything better, one good candidate might be the stuffed lion kept at Sweden’s Gripsholm Castle (below). It had been one of the first living lions in Scandinavia when the Bey of Algiers presented it to King Frederick I in 1731, but on its death it presented a strange problem to the taxidermist: No one could remember quite how a living lion looked. They did the best they could.

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