Great War Wednesday: The First Blitz

Standard mention of The Blitz generally conjures up images of He111s and Ju88s dropping loads of bombs night after night out of a searchlight-crossed sky as the hardy residents of London sheltered, but not cowered, in the Tubes of the Underground and other “bombproofs” in the dark, uncertain days of 1940 and the Battle of Britain.

Similarly, question nearly anyone about Zeppelins and, if one gets any answer at all, it will contain a reference to one of two things, either the hard rocking Led Zeppelin led by Plant and Page or, if they are more historically minded, the ill fated Nazi passenger airship Hindenburg which famously erupted into an inferno over a New Jersey airfield in 1937.

However, during the Great War, Germany, in an effort to launch some sort of offensive to break the stalemate of the Western Front, began experimenting with the rudiments of what we call today strategic bombing. Beginning as early as January 1915, the ponderous steel-framed hydrogen filled products of Herr Von Zeppelin’s genius and factories glided silently across the English Channel under cover of darkness to drop some unexpected explosive surprises on the unwitting population of Britain.

After several aborted attempts, a successful raid finally launched on 19 January 1915. Two Zeppelins slipped across the Channel bound towards England and guided mostly by the glow of the city in the distance. Reaching what they deemed to be their targets, they dropped their small payload of bombs and turned back towards home. While four people were killed and 16 injured in this first raid, it highlighted what would plague the bombing campaign throughout the war.  First, several earlier raids had been forced to abort because of weather. High winds at altitude would render the earlier airships almost unmanageable and a strong headwind could lengthen the outbound trip long enough for the Zeppelin to lose cover of darkness and woe betided any poor Zeppelin crew caught out in daylight.

Any storms in the region would also cause a mission to abort. These airships floated on hydrogen gas bladders. As anyone who has ever seen footage of the Hindenburg explosion can attest to, hydrogen is wildly flammable. Even scarier, a pure hydrogen flame is invisible! If an incendiary round punched into a Zeppelin gas bladder, the resulting fire would be unseen until it reached the skin of the ship and cloth with rubberizing began to burn. More than the bullets, however, the crews feared lightning. A direct strike could, and did, ignite the volatile suspendent and send the crew to a flaming, crashing demise.

Another weakness the crews detected early on was the total inaccuracy of their bombing. At night, most brilliantly lit cities looked alike. As a result, it was not at all unusual for bombs to drop miles off target. Whereas in World War 2, any attack on London was likelier than not to actually hit London, some Zeppelins attacked “London” only to discover later their bombs had fallen on the city of Hull a mere 154 MILES away. Furthermore, all the bombing crews aimed at a “target” in the largest possible sense of the word. Bombs either dropped from crudely fashioned racks below the gondola or else were hurled out the windows by the crew. Neither method came near to anything one might consider precision. The deadly iron hail fell where it would and often where it eventually landed had no connection with the military whatsoever. very first bomb dropped on London by Zeppelin landed in a flower garden. The tendency for bombs to go off target led to mostly civilian casualties. Even though these deaths were unintended, the term collateral damage had yet to be invented. British press made propagandizing hay with every non-combatant’s death. Londoners referred to the giant airships as “baby-killers.”

Ironically, the bombings proved so inaccurate Kaiser Wilhelm refused to allow the Army or Navy air arms to target London for months after the raids began. After all, he had several beloved cousins and other family living in London . . . most of them at Buckingham Palace . . . and he didn’t want to risk them being harmed.

While people on the ground obviously feared the Zeppelins, the German crews who flew and maintained the beasts didn’t exactly live the life of Riley either. The airships had around a twenty man crew who, like the later submariners, were all volunteers, and who, again like their brethren under the sea, suffered much greater casualties. Over 40% of the aircrews perished during the course of the war.

Fully half of the crew was devoted to maintaining and repairing — often mid flight — the four or six giant engines of the craft. This job had its perks, first among them being the warmth of the engines. These craft were flying at altitudes where the temperature was a balmy -20F even in the summer so a sustained heat source was a true pleasure. This boon came at a cost, however. The engines were atrociously loud and during each flight, the engine compartment quickly filled with a noxious mixture of fuel fumes and exhaust. The other crew members such as the officers, defensive gunners, and radiomen had a much quieter ride, but the mountain of garments they were obliged to wear made them look for all the world like Randy, Ralphie’s young brother in A Christmas Story. Regardless of where a man was on the craft, however, the fears gripping their hearts were the same — crashing, enemy bullets, getting lost, but most of all burning to death in a tangle of cloth and metal hurtling earthward. Being a Zeppelin crew member was not a job for those faint of heart. Zeppelin raids went on right up until the Armistice in 1918, they must be deemed a colossal strategic failure. In the course of the war, airships made 51 bombing raids on England. These killed 557 and injured another 1,358 people. More than 5,000 bombs fell on towns across Britain, causing £1.5 million in damage. 84 airships took part, of which 30 were lost, either shot down or lost in accidents with an accompanying death of over 600 men.

In the end, and quite ironically, probably the worst damage the Zeppelin raids would do would come during the Second World War. The German High Command greatly overestimated the psychological effect the bombing of civilian centers would have on Great Britain. In their turn, the Allies would adopt the same philosophy as the Germans and as a result, civilian casualties in World War 2 dwarfed those of World War I as each side tried valiantly to “bomb them back to the stone age.” Unfortunately, in an all out war scenario, governments — even the vaunted democracies, much less the totalitarian states — aren’t great at listening to their populations. In a real sense, the feeble and largely unsuccessful Zeppelin raids of World War I sowed the seeds which led directly to the atrocities of the Blitz, Dresden, Tokyo and other failed attempts by the powers to bomb each other out of World War 2.

Hope you liked this week’s Great War Wednesday.

Love y’all, and keep your feet clean.

When the Sandlappers Stood Tall

Standard a native South Carolinian, I know full well my little pie-shaped state by the Atlantic Ocean has precious little to show for its 489 years of European influence. To be sure, we started out well enough and early to boot. Spaniard Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon, founded the first European settlement in what would be the United States back in 1526. Called San Miguel de Gualdape and founded with 600 settlers, including African slaves, the little colony only lasted three months. I suppose football season ended. We were one of the original Thirteen Colonies, the First State under the Articles of Confederation, and the Eighth State to ratify the US Constitution. One could say we made a good beginning. Unfortunately, things began a steep decline from such august beginnings around 1860 and we’ve had trouble getting back on the rails ever since. We have no confirmed Presidential birthplaces within our borders, and no Presidential campaigns ever hinge on our bright red state. None of the Big Four professional sports has a team which calls our state home. No national parks beckon tourists even if the Grand Strand does.

Indeed, few in this country notice us at all and if they do it is for some reason of negativity. We hover around 49th in educational success (thank you, Mississippi). We have staggering poverty in our Appalachian regions AND in our Lowcountry. We started the Civil War after all. Anytime we get press, it usually refers to the little pizza-pie shaped Southern rebel. Every now and then, however, my state grabs the national spotlight by the throat and shines it on some speck of accomplishment worthy of pride even if, in that moment of pride, sorrow usually dwells.

Recently, our nation has endured throes of rioting and rhetoric not seen since the Rodney King Verdict in the 90’s. Places like Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland have erupted in violence towards all following violence towards others — specifically blacks. In that same time period, my state has experienced two of the worst incidents of racial violence the country has produced in many years. Recently, a white police officer in Charleston, SC shot an unarmed black man seven times in the back as the man fled arrest. Just nine days ago, a young white boy walked into a Charleston, SC church of mostly black worshipers and, after spending an hour bathed in their love, rose from his pew and slaughtered nine congregants with a concealed handgun.

Considering the response to similar incidents across the nation, people in other states held their breath wondering how the towns and cities of South Carolina would burn with rioting and looting. Imagine their surprise when our response was justice instead of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric and unconditional love instead of spewed hatred. The dread gods of chaos did not descend upon my state. Al and Jesse didn’t rush here to make speeches. Instead, we held hands and wept together at the tragedy our people had endured, but we did not add wanton destruction to the already terrible loss. Our state stood tall as others looked on, waiting for flames, they found only flowers.

Now some might take my words in praise of my state to mean I feel South Carolina is above the fray other states find themselves in. Some may take me for a polemicist point out the progress this one time bastion of the Confederate States of America has made towards equality. Some may even think I’m daring to say South Carolina has overcome racism. So do I believe my beloved Palmetto State has truly turned the corner and we are beyond the pale in terms of racism? Have we really become the fertile ground to realize Dr. King’s mountaintop dream? In short, can we say with pride South Carolina is not a racist state?

OH HELL NO! Are y’all crazy? South Carolina is one of the most racist places in the USA. Come on, now, people.

Look, Charleston, where all this happened, was one of the largest slave entry points in the colonies and later the country. “The Old Slave Market” is still a huge draw for the city’s multitude of tourists even if today ornamental tchotchkes instead of human chattel are the featured items. We may not have had as many huge plantations as Georgia or Virginia, but we had our share and African slaves bent their backs under King Cotton’s lash for 250 years. Oh, we started the Civil War that killed more Americans than any other conflict we’ve ever entered. Once the war was over, we replaced King Cotton with Jim Crow to “keep ‘them’ in their ‘place.'” Just because we didn’t have the Scotsboro Boys or Emmitt Till doesn’t mean we didn’t have lynchings a-plenty. The white robes Klansmen have always found a haven in the Palmetto State.

Ever hear of the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS? You know, the one that was supposed to strike down segregated schools? It passed in 1954. We didn’t have the Little Rock Nine and our governor didn’t sit in the schoolhouse door to bar “colored” from entering, but anyone want to guess when our little state finally complied and FULLY integrated all public schools? 1971, the year I was born and a full seventeen years after the Brown decision. Our longest serving US Senator from SC — the Honorable (oookayy) Strom Thurmond — ran for President on a platform of continuing and strengthening segregation. When the Civil Rights Movement reached full swing and came to South Carolina, the state legislature responded by requiring the Confederate Battle Flag to fly from the TOP of the Statehouse dome. Oh, and the piece de resistance, we sent a man to the United States House of Representatives who interrupted this country’s first black President during an INTERNATIONALLY TELEVISED SPEECH to call him a liar right in front of God, the international media, and a joint session of Congress. He was later re-elected to his House seat by a 96% margin.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R_SC) of “YOU LIE” infamy.

It’s safe to say we’ve come a ways, but we’ve got miles to go before we sleep equally well.

So what AM I trying to say about my state? First of all, we don’t HIDE our racism here just like we don’t hide our crazy relatives. No, we wrap a shawl around it’s neck, sit it in a rocker on the front porch, and let it wave at the neighbors. We were an original slave state; we started a freaking WAR to keep our states’ rights . . . to OWN PEOPLE. What’s the point in denying it? Drive all over the lower part of the state and you’ll see dozens of posh, well landscaped private schools named after Confederate generals and all with a plaque out front saying “FOUNDED 1971.” If you can’t beat ’em, run from ’em. Interracial couples still get a lot of stares and glares, but we aren’t stringing them up and while that might not seem like much, at least it’s something. What I’m saying is, we are trying. Overcoming 500 years of precedent and prejudice won’t be accomplished overnight, but we are trying. example, if you are a cop and you shoot an unarmed man you were trying to arrest for non-payment of child support seven times IN THE BACK on VIDEO, we will not send the video to a lab and have it analyzed ad nauseum then convene a grand jury to figure out what should be done about you amidst much hand-wringing and moral agonizing. NO. Instead, we will fire you, take your badge and gun, charge you with first degree murder then THROW. YOUR. ASS. IN. JAIL! If some poor fool walks into a church and walks out later with an empty gun leaving behind nine dead worshipers, we aren’t calling “Reverend” Sharpton to come make a speech about how tragic the incident is while neighborhoods all across the state lose their minds and start burning police cars, smashing store windows, and looting everything in sight under the pretense of “being angry at the system.” Instead, we will pack out that church with people black, white, brown, red, pink, orange and green for every funeral. We will do what we always do for death in the South . . . mourn with those who mourn and send casseroles, pound cakes, and dry chicken to comfort the grieving.

That’s just the way we roll here in South Cackalacky. From poor white trash to Hilton Head / Cliffs of Glassy McMansions, we know how to act — black and white. We may not always do right, but we KNOW right from wrong because it’s the way our Mamas and Grandmamas — black and white — raised us to do. Family members get on TV and forgive the ignorant young man because it’s what Jesus said do and around here, Jesus and Mama are still more important than the media. So, no, we aren’t perfect and we’re still racist as Hell, but most of us WANT to do better. Just like every other state, we’re all in the same racist prison looking out the same racist bars. The difference is other states are looking at the mud and we are looking at the stars.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!

Throwback Thursday: To a Young Person Turning 16


I’ve been looking for ways to post more often about a wider variety of stuff. Earlier this week, I hit upon the idea of re-runs! I’ve made over 300 posts in the seven or so years this blog has been extant and while most of them aren’t all that special, one or two have managed to make people smile or think again and again. With that in mind, on Thursdays I’m going to start rerunning a favorite post of mine or one that has garnered a lot of attention. Today’s Throwback Thursday I originally wrote for one of my former student’s sweet sixteen. She’s just over 21 now, married, two beautiful little girls, and working on becoming a nurse like her own amazing mom. I hope new readers will like this and older readers will remember it fondly.

Originally Published on September 16, 2009 of my all time favorite kids is turning sixteen tomorrow. She was one of my best customers back when I had a job as a middle school librarian and I wanted to do something for her special day, but as you can imagine, being out of work has seriously cut into the gift giving budget, so I sent her a card and enclosed a two page note that I wish someone had given me when I was turning sixteen. Maybe things would have turned out differently. Do you think I gave her good advice?

Dear _____,
You are turning sweet 16!

Though you may not believe it, what comes next is probably the most important five year period of your life. From 16 to 21, you will make a ton of decisions that will affect the rest of your life. The problem is, you sometimes won’t know that you are about to make such a life changing decision until you look back on that moment from ten or twenty years down the road. For that reason, you must be careful and thoughtful about everything you do. I’ve got a few things to tell you about what’s coming that I really wish someone had told me when I was 16, but no one was around to tell me. Trust me when I say everything I’m going to tell you are lessons I learned the hard way by making mistakes, some of which I am still paying for to this day.

First, sex. Just say no. I realize that is sometimes easier said than done, especially when “everyone is doing it” and every TV show, movie, and song seems to be screaming that it’s okay and you are weird if you don’t sleep with everyone who comes along. Well, take it from me, they are wrong. Having sex too soon is a really good way to train-wreck your life in a hurry. Aside from the obvious fact that you can contract diseases and get pregnant, you can also be devastated emotionally. I promise you, as someone who knows too well, a lifetime of regret and second guessing is not worth a few minutes of what seems like the ultimate pleasure. Also, your generation seems to have trouble sometimes figuring out “what is sex.” This is a simple question. If you have to wonder if what you are thinking of doing is sexual, then it’s sex and don’t do it. It’s just not worth it.

Second, relationships. In the next five years, you’ll cement some relationships that will last for the rest of your life. Oddly enough, some of the people you think you’ll be friends with forever will drift away while some people you never dreamed of speaking to will turn out to be your dearest friends. You won’t make all the friends you’ll ever have by 21, but you’ll get a good start. You’ll also come across a boy or two that you thought at first would make a good boyfriend but after awhile you’ll see that he’s really a great boy who’s a friend. Hold on to those because friends of the opposite sex can give you insight into some decisions that your very best girlfriends can’t.

While I’m talking about relationships, don’t forget the most important relationships of all and that’s family. You will be sorely tempted many times in the next five years to think that your parents are idiots who know nothing and are completely out of touch with reality. However, if you will watch your tongue and try, just try, to listen to them, you will be shocked when you are 30 at how incredibly intelligent they have become. No relationships are more important than family. They are the ones who have been with you the longest and you didn’t get to pick each other – you just got stuck together by Someone who is a lot smarter than all of us. If you break ties with your family, you will live to regret it. Again, I know from experience what I’m talking about. When those family members are gone, you’ll be shocked at how lonely life can be.

College and jobs. Go to college or don’t go to college. You can make it in life either way. Just don’t go to college or pick what college you go to just because “everyone else is going there”. Following what everyone else does is another really good way to train-wreck your life because you aren’t everyone else. When you decide on a career, remember this – you will spend more waking hours at your job than you will anything else in your life. If you think being in school and hating it sucks, you’ve never laid in bed listening to the clock go off and nearly bursting into tears because you hate the thought of going to a job you despise. Find something you love to do then find a way to make a living out of it. That’s what I did and it’s one of the few things in my life that is still regret free.

Jobs lead to money and if you don’t listen to anything else, PLEASE listen to this. Be careful, careful, careful about money. No, money is not the most important thing in the world – far from it – but good money management can make your life go a lot easier. The worst thing you can do is come out of college thousands of dollars in debt with student loans AND credit cards! Avoid credit cards like the plague. Debt is like crack cocaine, it feels so good to buy what you want, but sooner or later, you have to pay. Now, having said all that, don’t hoard money either. Once you have a good roof over your head and the light bill and such are paid, don’t be afraid to live a little. People who hoard up money are just keeping score and money is a very empty way to keep score. Remember this – use things and love people; don’t use people and love things.

Finally, keep one thing in the back of your mind as you go “This too will pass away.” It’s true of everything, bad or good. If you are insanely happy at the moment, don’t get too caught up in it because it WILL pass away. No one can stay on the mountain top forever. At the same time, though, if you are in a dark period of life and it seems like the sun will never shine again, this too will pass away. No one stays in the valley forever, it just seems like a long time sometimes.

So, Sweetie, I hope you can find a nugget or two in the ramblings of an old man who’s seen a bit too much and avoid some pitfalls along the way. Life is a wonderful thing, enjoy it as much as you can, but always remember – this is the journey, not the destination. Enjoy your Sweet 16, _____, and may you have many, many more!

With fond affection,
Mr. S. Wham

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

Standard I just tucked Budge in after an adventurous first day of Summer Vacation for her and the rest of the county’s teachers. Now I’m sitting here mulling over what would have happened if my plans hadn’t gang agley, as dear Robert Burns says. I know this much; if Plan F had managed to grow from seed to fruit, yesterday would have closed out my second full decade as a teacher. I was an emergency hire at Woodmont High School in October 1994 for the 94-95 academic year. A teacher who moonlighted at a retail store in the mall got a sweet promotion to full time district manager in another state and my resume’ was the one Dr. Susan Hoover-now-Achilles picked, I think at random, from a pile on her desk.

I realize now I’ve started in medias res so to catch everyone up, Plan A was to follow my dream to become a Midshipman at the US Naval Academy, marry my high school sweetheart at the USNA Chapel after graduation, make rank, win medals, and have pretty babies. As to the first part, I had the grades. At that time, I had the fitness ability. I had a sweet 1380 on the SAT (back when that meant something). What I didn’t have was an appointment. Ignorant babe that I was, I didn’t know one does not simply walk apply and get accepted into Mordor The United States Naval Academy; one must be “appointed” by a US Congressman from one’s home state. A few other shortcut ways exist, but I didn’t meet any of them either. Apparently, I didn’t impress either secretary enough to even get an interview with the august men so, NO NAVAL ACADEMY FOR YOU!

So, I did what I always did. I dropped back ten and punted to Plan B which was to enlist in the United States Marine Corps after graduation, marry my high school sweetheart after basic, get deployed, make rank, win medals, come home, and have pretty babies. Unfortunately, I’d wrecked my ’79 Mustang the summer before my junior year and a piece of bumper went through my left quadriceps right down to the bone. The wound got infected and turned into a cantaloupe sized subdermal hematoma which I delayed getting taken care of until it had seriously messed up the muscle surrounding the wound, the end result being a 5″x5″ puckered, sunken spot on my thigh with a direct tunnel of nasty scar tissue running right down to the bone. I went to my Armed Forces physical (MEPS) at Fort Jackson and was doing great until one of the doctors did something no one else had ever done . . . he put his finger right in the center of the scar mass and pushed. I hit the floor like a crack dealer during a Saturday night SWAT raid. He pointed out any enemy who captured me would do the same AND that spot was going to swell up tight whenever I ran, which he was right about — the swelling, not the capture — because my junior year wrestling i had to ice that spot after every practice. So, I spent the longest five hours in history on a bus back to Greenville from Columbia just to tell my very unhappy Gunnery Sgt. recruiter I was a medical washout.

So, dropped back ten more and punted to Plan C which was to go to college, marry my high school sweetheart, get a degree, and have pretty babies. Well, Plan C went down in flames one day in the spring of my senior year when my high school sweetheart announced to me at my locker on a Friday right after final bell, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is, ‘IT ISN’T YOURS'” then turned and walked out of my life forever to become the wife and punching bag of an odious Georgia redneck. On the positive side, once I finally woke up Monday morningish, I understood with perfect clarity what a “Lost Weekend” is.

So, dropped back ten more and punted to Plan D which was to go to college . . . and after that things got a little hazy but, as you can tell, I’ve never been one for planning the details. So I went to college, became an engineering major for a total of two hours, and came out on the other side with a degree in Secondary English Education. I and my country bumpkin accent and grammar were off to become a high school English teacher. That was in 1993 and by the end of the summer, I’d lost any hope of getting a teaching job so with the aforementioned Plan D in tatters, I took the aforementioned job at Kufner Textiles. That year of 93 to October of 94 was a long, strange trip involving lots of adventures I may tell some other time, but not here.

Welcome to Plan E. Here, I worked as many hours per week as I could doing whatever, but mostly dyeing cloth dark blue, jet black, or sometimes whorehouse red. Whenever I changed lots, I had to climb into the dye vats and wash down the rollers and flush out the tanks. It was hot, wet, and absolutely miserable work, but those adventures I was having made it bearable for awhile. Then, on October 10, 1994, while in the middle of a change from blue to red, I got called to the public phone in the breakroom, Dr. Hoover of Woodmont High School wanted to see me for an interview as soon as I got off that afternoon. interview was a hoot.

Dr. Hoover forbade me from going home and changing so I walked into her nice spiffy office looking like the bastard love child of a giant Smurfette and Hellboy. As always happened when I cleaned dye vats, I had blue dye in my hair, on my face, and all over my clothes. I splashed red dye starting up the second lot so I had red mixed in all over as well. I tried to get her to let me stand on the sidewalk outside her office, but she knew nothing about how strong industrial cloth dye is and I knew nothing about what a raging, control freak, diet obsessed hellcat she was so I came in and plopped my happy dye covered ass down on her brand new office couch and crossed my legs. When I stood up again, I had the job, starting the next day. So that led to Plan F where I would teach like some of my favorite high school teachers had taught and stay in the same room teaching two and a half generations of children for thirty years and retire with a luncheon and a cake shaped like a book of Shakespeare Plays to write the great American novel. Somewhere along the line, I’d get married and we’d have pretty babies.

Well, I got my Budge, several ex-students now friends, but only ten good years of memories rather than the thirty I’d planned. I could go into detail and I have in a previous post as to what led to Greenville County Schools and me parting ways in a most unfriendly fashion, but I don’t feel like digging up those bones tonight. It’s in the archive. So ended Plan F. Funnily enough though, the day I left the school ten years later, you could still see the outline in blue of someone sitting, legs crossed and arm extended on the arm rest as clear as a mountain stream on that office couch.

An old proverb, maybe Jewish, says, “Man plans and God laughs.” I’ve fought my way through a few more plans until Plan I finally took over after I was unceremoniously let go from my last chance teaching job six years ago now. Still, IF things had worked out, I’d be two thirds of the way to retirement today along with some of the best friends I’ve never heard from again. Funny thing my daddy used to say about that word “if;” he said, “If a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass every time he took a step either.” Ah the plans of mice and men . . .

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

When the Levee Breaks


Important Disclaimer: I have people of every form, fashion, and faith reading my blog and I’m happy more than you know that each and every one of you stop by and take the time to give GB & GSF a read. This particular post, however, is one of my more personal revelations so I’d like to ask the handful of atheists and agnostics who stop by from time to time if y’all wouldn’t mind just skipping this one. It’s just going to make you laugh at me and right now, I don’t need laughed at and while I’m a firm believer in free speech, it’s my blog and this is my heart I’m bearing here so any snarky comment is going in the circular file drawer. Having said that, let me tell you about breaking levees.

My life has slowly gone to Hell in a cheap Dollar General handbag for the last twelve years. It started with getting fired from Woodmont, but it’s steadily picked up speed until now I feel like I’m riding with a one way ticket on a runaway train, and to make matters worse, I haven’t had the foggiest idea why. I haven’t done anything that differently in my life, but stuff just keeps coming faster and faster and faster down the years. Now, I’m standing on top of my metaphorical levee, it’s leaking like a sieve, it’s going to break, and I know two things I didn’t know before: 1) This levee’s gonna break and 2) I know why. Let me enlighten you with what I’ve figured out.

I was literally prayed into this world, into my mama’s womb, and prayed out nine months later. Laugh if you want. I don’t care anymore. Mama told the story to me a million times how everyone else thought I was destined to be a girl, but Mama said, “No, I prayed for a big, healthy baby boy who would look just like his daddy.” Ask the people who still walk up to me in a store and say, “Hey, Frankie!” if she got her prayer answered.

When I got to this world, I dropped right onto a flood plain and great rivers of evil were rolling all around me and a black rain kept falling and still the deluge comes to this day. I never thought to worry though because even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had one of the most massive spiritual levees this existence has ever seen. I had Big Granny and Aunt Lib. I had Granny Wham. I had Papa John. I had Mama, and by the time I was 25, I had Budge and those were just the main ones.

This was a crowd of praying people. Some people garden, some restore cars, some paint landscapes for hobbies, this bunch prayed . . . a lot . . . and a lot of those prayers were for me. Big Granny had retired by the time I was born so she’d pray hours and hours at a time for her family, but every now and again, she’d call Mama and pray for her special on the phone then she’d tell Mama to put the phone to my infant, then toddling body so she could pray for her “Shanlon” as she called me.

Aunt Lib worked second shift at one of the mills in Laurens. She lived and breathed the power of Pentecost and anyone who knew her knew she had the goods. She’d get off work after midnight and come home dog tired but instead of going to bed she’d pray for her family just to supplement the praying she’d done walking the floorboards of the weaving machines in the mill for the previous eight hours.

Next to my Mama, Granny Wham was the most formidable woman on this earth. She had an iron will that would not break even though it bent precariously a time or two, but she prayed Papa Wham home from Europe during World War II without a scratch on him and she prayed Daddy home from Vietnam without a scratch on him that anyone could see. If Granny Wham said she was going to pray for you, she wasn’t making idle talk. Your name was going on the list she would quietly and calmly review before her Lord every night before she went to bed. Everybody else on this page except for Budge and Granny Wham were all Pentecostal. Granny was a sprinkled Methodist turned dunked Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher and when she got on her knees she wasn’t talking to hear her brains rattle. She had every scrap of faith in the world that whatever she was praying for would come to pass no matter how improbable. Granny Wham was a serious prayer warrior.

I remember one of the last nights I ever spent the night at Granny and Papa Wham’s house. I was a teenager. Papa and I had watched a Braves game into the wee morning hours and instead of driving home I just laid down in Aunt Cathy’s old room and went to sleep. I sat bolt upright and looked at the clock on the headboard read 3:37 AM and I heard soft noise down the hall in the den. When I eased into the room, Granny Wham was on her knees at her favorite chair with her Oxford Blue Schofield Reference Bible laid out on the seat. She was praying and crying. I walked over and laid my hand on her back gently. She looked up towards me through pouring eyes and I asked her whatever was wrong. She said, “I had a dream I was in a wide open field and in the middle of the field was a mound of logs with a white sheet laying on it and as I walked closer to it I saw it was on fire, and when I got closer still I saw a body was under the sheet and it was on fire as well. Then I got right up to it and I was scared to pull back the sheet but I heard a voice telling me to.” Here she broke down for a minute and when she could speak again she said, “It was Frankie (my daddy). He was dead and burning and I don’t know what it means so I got up and came in her and I’ve been praying ever since.” When she reached a level of care need Cathy couldn’t give her at home, Granny moved to Martha Franks Retirement Center and even though a stroke left her barely able to speak intelligible words, God didn’t have trouble understanding her I know. Every time I went to see her, which was so very much less than it should have been, she was either napping in her bed or praying in her bed with her hands laying softly on the last bible I bought her to replace the Schofield that fell apart. Granny prayed.

Papa John (Mama’s daddy) was a Pentecostal preacher and a loom fixer at a cotton mill. People laughed at him and ridiculed him and put him down as tongue tied and uneducated. They didn’t know the pain that seared Papa’s soul and mind. Papa fought his own personal demons all his life and even though they broke his body with multiple strokes and multiple heart attacks and a car wreck or two for good measure, they never broke his spirit. He preached God’s word on Sunday morning and Sunday night with all the fervor and fire of a John Wesley or Charles H. Spurgeon right up until he had a big stroke in the church parking lot that left him unable to speak above a whisper. People gave up on him and people thought he was odd and funny, but Papa never gave up on God. The last several years of his life, Papa couldn’t get out or get up much without help. Instead of watching the old westerns he loved with Roy Rogers and Lash LaRue, he’d sit from late afternoon until dawn with his father-in-law’s ancient family bible on his lap reading and praying, mostly for Mama and me. The last words I heard him speak were a prayer.

Then . . . Mama. All my life Mama drilled into my head I didn’t belong to her I belonged to God and He had just allowed her to raise me. I once asked Mama if she loved me more than anything or anyone (I may have been five) and she replied without pause, “Everything and anyone except Jesus. I don’t love you more than Jesus, little man.” Jesus was the center of Mama’s universe no matter what anyone else may have ever believed about her. In all three trailers we lived in together, Mama wore a low spot in the carpet at the foot of her bed where her knees rested. She literally had callouses on her knees from kneeling before the Lord in prayer. When the COPD put her in a recliner for good, she couldn’t do anything else so she sat all day and long into the night watching the Gaither Gospel Homecoming series on DVD and praying, even though she couldn’t get to her knees anymore. The last three years of her life, she seldom left her chair except to use the bathroom. She couldn’t even get a shower unless the hospice nurse helped her she was so weak, but she still prayed for me. She was praying for me when she lost consciousness that final time.

Now, they’re all gone. Aunt Lib died September 3, 1997; I preached her funeral. Big Granny died February 9, 2001; I preached her funeral. Papa John died October 16, 2006; I preached his funeral, Granny Wham died February 5, 2008; she had wanted me to preach her funeral but Daddy and Cathy wouldn’t allow it so the idiot passing himself off as a pastor at her church who never darkened the door of her nursing home room the entire three years time she was there preached it, and so that left Mama and she went home March 25, 2013 . . . two years and two months from tomorrow.

All my levees broke, but the storm never let up. Looking back, I could feel a change after Big Granny died, but the hits really started pouring in after Papa John died and when Granny Wham died in February, I had my first stay at Charter Behavioral that November. The five years between Granny Wham’s death and Mama’s death saw my life seriously go into decline emotionally and mentally. Mama was strong praying for her little man though. With help from Budge, she almost single-handedly kept the darkness away from me. So that’s how I noticed what was happening . . . Mama knew she was going to die and she spent so much time praying for me that, with Budge adding a wife’s prayers along too, it took the darkness two full years to finally leak past the prayer levee Mama laid down.

But now she’s gone and my precious Budge is trying to hold back alone what the combined effort of the five greatest prayer warriors I’ve ever known could barely keep at bay. It’s a testament to her own strength that I’m still standing instead of cowering under the kitchen table in the fetal position. I feel it though. I hope no one thinks I’m casting aspersions on my precious wife’s praying ability. It’s just harder for one pillar to hold up what six once held.

I don’t know what is going to happen, but I know it’s going to be bad. My head stays in a whirlwind; thoughts will not settle down, some days motivation to MOVE is impossible to scrounge up. I am on the brink of tears every moment of every day. My decision making ability is becoming suspect. I’m having trouble getting out of the house. Pack after pack of black dogs chase me and The Tape plays over in my mind almost constantly. I live afraid of what comes next and I know some of you won’t understand that or will think I’m wallowing in self-pity. Honestly, I don’t care what you think. I know what’s in my head and guts. I know what I’ve faced WITH help and now I’ll face worse WITHOUT help.

So that’s the story and I don’t know why I didn’t realize it sooner but it’s like the old axiom “You don’t miss the water ’til the well runs dry.” I don’t want to carry on, but I don’t have a choice until I’m hammered down so hard I can’t rise anymore.

Until then, I still love y’all and hope y’all still keep your feet clean.

The Tape


Of all the issues I have to deal with, and believe me I have more issues than National Geographic, the most pernicious and debilitating is what I affectionately refer to as “The Tape.” That’s the short name. It’s full name is The Grievous Recitation and Replay of Misery, Misfortune, Doom and Failure Inside My Head. So, see, it’s much easier to just say “The Tape.”

The Tape consists of basically everything bad that I’ve ever said or done AND everything bad that has ever happened to me as far back as I have memory. I realize some of you will read that and think it impossible, but ask people who know me and they can assure you I am quite capable of remembering all that and more. What many people wrongly believe to be a superior intellect on my part is actually just an above average memory. It’s not photographic or eidetic like Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds, but it’s been a true blessing to me in my academic career . . . and a blackened curse on my emotional life.

The Tape functions like so, all my bad memories are stacked like cord wood inside my brain. One really old one is me falling into the man eating rose bush outside Aunt Mary’s back door. One minute I was standing on the top step waiting on her to open the door and the next I was bum over teakettle in a rose bush that could have made an admirable crown of thorns for an Easter Passion Play. Another one — a seriously horrible one — is of me feeding one of our bulldogs when Rusty, a fat little waddling beagle puppy stuck his nose in the food dish and Lady snatched him up and tore his throat out right before my four year old eyes. My fault because I knew better than to let any beagles near the bullys and I should have been paying attention. I never knew what happened to Lady. Daddy told Mama he gave her away, but Mama always believed he took her out and shot her.Image result for tape recorder

Tons of episodes just like those, or worse, all stack up in my memory just as crystal clear as if it were yesterday. I’ve got all the usual biggie baddie things: Daddy leaving, reading the divorce papers, every death of every pet, every friend who moved away, every time I was bullied or embarrassed in elementary school . . . the usual. I’ve got some HUGE ones like breaking up with the first girl I ever loved and ever made love to just because I thought I was getting “cool enough” to “play the field” only to find out just how stupid that move was within only a few weeks. Then I have senior year high school which seemed to be one train-wreck after another from January til graduation, including finding out the aforementioned girl was pregnant and it wasn’t mine.

Every stupid thing I’ve ever done, every time I made Mama cry by hurting her feelings, Every girl’s heart I ever broke along with every girl who ever broke my heart . . . and I had six engagements counting Budge, all of it is sitting on those brain cell reel to reels waiting along with my hearing before the Greenville County School Board that ended my teaching career in Greenville County AND the nice, terse “we don’t have room for you next year” email that effectively ended my teaching career once and for all. The current reigning champion is listening and watching Mama rasp out her last breath and not being able to do anything about it but weep and howl.

It’s all sitting up there waiting for the right time.

The right time is usually a stressful period or a bout of depression, but truly anything can trigger it and when it’s triggered, something in my brain hits “Play” and we’re off on a trip down memory lane only this one is the Poop Colored Road instead of the Yellow Brick one. Once it starts, it’s a doozy of a ride. Bad memory after bad memory followed up with mistake after mistake flash through my head in an unbroken, dizzying swirl of negative emotion complete with voice over narration by people who hate my guts with a passion. Sometimes, I get lucky and it’s just a two minute teaser trailer; usually, it’s a double feature of Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur; however, every so often, and it’s been much more often since Mama died, that tape will settle in for a genuine combination Sundance, Cannes and Telluride jumbo festival of woe. Those bouts are the killers. They damn near shut me down because one can only take so much.

Historically, only two things have been successful at derailing a lengthy Tape run — obscene amounts of very good (or very bad, brain’s not picky) alcoholic beverages OR some nifty and not always legally obtained pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, both those solutions closed to me. Budge will put up with a lot of my wild hairs, but me being drunk is not one of them — she’s heard a few too many stories from people who REALLY needed to keep their mouths shut. So now, all I can do is white knuckle it through with some wimpy anti-anxiety meds and poor attempts at sleeping, which brings it’s own bag ‘o fun in the form of trippin’ nightmares.

That’s how The Tape works and it’s a bitch and a half, let me tell you.

Now, before anyone gets the genius idea to make an asinine comment, think about this: if I had a dime for every time some well meaning person without an obnoxious tape in his or her head has said, “Well when those thoughts come, you just need to push them aside and think of something pleasant,” I could make Warren Buffett look like a beggar. Similarly, if I had just a nickle for every well-meaning, super spiritual fellow Christian who has told me, “If you just pray about it, it’ll all go away and be fine,” I would have a fortune making Bill Gates look like chump change.

Before you quickly judge my inability to conquer this tape once and for all as some form of attention seeking or self pity, try this little experiment. Picture a purple pig riding a unicycle in a pink tutu playing “It’s a Small World After All” on a ukelele. Focus that in your mind. Experience that imaginary pig . . . now, forget about it. I command you to think of ANYTHING but purple pigs, unicycles, ukeleles or pink tutus. If a violet porker slips through your mind just for a second, you lose. Forget the pig! Hurry up! It’s only a memory. Why can’t you forget it and move on?

Harder than it seems it should be, isn’t it? That’s an imaginary thought exercise. Try REAL events that resulted in REAL negative consequences, sometimes physical scars, and always emotional scars and pair them with a mind that doesn’t seem to have a “Delete” function and see what you can do. In short, it’s not like I WANT TO THINK ALL THESE THOUGHTS!! I am not a masochist. I don’t enjoy misery or pain, so if it was as easy as “just thinking of something pleasant” don’t you think I’d have done it already? Do you not realize how many times I’ve tried in over 30 years?

No, you don’t realize it because you’re still thinking about the pig!

Anywho, love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda’


By the spring of 1915, both sides in the conflict were desperate to find a way to break the stalemate on the Western Front because, while it hadn’t occurred to the top brass, others in and out of the military began realizing the carnage of the repeated forays into the meat grinder which was No-Man’s Land was ultimately unsustainable. The impetus for launching another front perforce came from outside the military because the highest generals in charge could not be swayed from their conviction that the sole path to Allied victory lay through the mud of France and Belgium. The idea came from a British politician, Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. He proposed a campaign that nearly cost him the rest of his political career, launched three nations forcibly onto the world stage, and ultimately proved no less bloody than the bloodiest battles along the Western Front. What Churchill proposed was an amphibious assault aimed at bolstering the flagging Russians and knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The place he picked was a small peninsula in modern day Turkey called Gallipoli.

ANZAC Cove today.

In the world before air power, Gallipoli was a small piece of land bearing supreme importance. It guarded two narrow straits called the Bosporus and the Dardanelles which in turn connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Since ancient days when Xerxes marched his Persians to Thermopylae, whoever controlled the straits controlled access to the Black Sea and a huge swath of Russia’s interior. In fact, the only port the Russians had (and still have for that matter) which did not ice over completely in winter was located on the shores of the Black Sea. During the First World War, with the Ottoman Empire firmly in control of the straits, the entire not inconsiderable might of the Russian Black Sea Fleet was essentially unavailable to the Allies because no ship afloat could force the passage of the two straits. Churchill’s plan aimed to change that.

Map of the area of the campaign.

Unfortunately, the Gallipoli Campaign — also called the Dardanelles Campaign — encountered serious problems from the very beginning. The first part of the plan called for a naval bombardment by a combined British and French fleet with the twin aims of knocking out the string of fortifications protecting the straits and guarding the civilian manned trawlers which acted as minesweepers for the larger battleships. This attempt met with disastrous results. Initially, the battleships were able to punish the forts with accurate and overwhelming battery fire and this enabled the trawlers to remove many mines standing in the fleet’s way. What the commanders could not know however, was their magnificent firepower was reducing mostly abandoned and de-armed forts to dust.

In a brilliant move, the Turks had stripped the forts of most of their guns and mounted them on movable carriages. They added these guns to the highly mobile batteries of howitzers well hidden and back from the shore. After the fleet let up its bombardment, it began taking indirect fire from previously unknown gun locations behind a line of screening dunes. To make matters worse, a terribly brave Turkish destroyer captain slipped behind the fleet under the cover of darkness and laid mines in areas previously cleared and therefore thought to be safe. When the flying batteries ashore began dealing serious blows to the attacking ships, the French admiral in charge ordered a strategic retreat . . . and backed his ships right into the newly laid minefield. The naval campaign had failed miserably.

Well, that’s one way to land troops.

Unfortunately, the lack of naval success in no way diminished the planned invasion. In the next war, amphibious assault would be developed to a high art form. That would be the next war though. In this war, what passed for an amphibious assault meant landing men and materiel on shore through the surf zone in small motor launches whilst under murderous fire from the Turkish positions on the high bluffs overlooking the landing site. The Allies would have been hard pressed to find a less hospitable area on the whole of the Gallipoli peninsula to land their forces than what would come to be called Anzac Cove.

Of all the Allied forces involved in the campaign, the most remembered was the combination of the Australian Expeditionary Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force into one unit known as the ANZACS. The ANZACS were supposed to land at Anzac Cove and push inland, overrunning the Ottoman forces as they went. Two fatal flaws became immediately apparent in this plan. First, pushing “inland” was more like pushing up a mountain. The Aussies and Kiwis landed on a nice smooth sand beach, but 100 yards away the Turks held the high bluffs and their machine guns were lethal to the invaders from Down Under. Second, no one informed the Turks they were supposed to be overrun.

Much of the planning for the Gallipoli Campaign predicated on the Ottoman Empire being a spent force, a kind of paper tiger. Sure, it appeared large and imposing, but the Turkish soldiers couldn’t match the British and French Empire troops in courage and fighting ability. Several thousand graves on the land overlooking Gallipoli give the lie to that fatal presumption. The Turks were far from paper tigers. While they may not have had all the modern weaponry available, they had made strides towards modernization with liberal German help. What is more, these were the descendents of the men who fought for and against Genghis Khan. No tougher men lived on the planet. One amazing example is the order given by one commander to his troops in the face of a massive Allied attack. The Turks had expended all their ammo and had nothing left but bayonets. Their commander gave the order to fix bayonets and shouted his last order to his men, “Men, I do not order you to fight! I order you to DIE! In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places.” His regiment fought til the last man was killed.

The main Gallipoli memorial in Turkey. The inscription is a quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and says: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Nothing Churchill envisioned in the Gallipoli Campaign went as planned. By the end of the month, the operation which was supposed to relieve pressure on the Western Front had dissolved into a stagnant version of the Western Front, South. Allied troops would attack from their precariously situated bases on the beachheads they managed to hold and the Ottomans would counterattack downhill and attempt to drive the invaders into the sea. As summer descended, the heat and humidity became nearly unbearable. Sanitation was mostly unknown and the presence of so much human waste added to the massive amounts of putrid, rotting unburied bodies killed in the fighting gave rise to a biblical plague of flies which then spread diseases among both camps.

The ANZACs at Anzac Cove had much of the worst time of it. Where they were situated, no cooling sea breezes managed to penetrate to give even momentary respite from the flies and the stench. What’s more, several of the Turks on the bluffs overlooking the ANZAC beachhead were excellent shots and possessed extremely accurate modern rifles. Sniping casualties piled up each day as staying hunkered down under cover meant suffocation in the stale, rancid air. The ANZACS even lost a major general to sniping as he tried to review his troops to raise morale.

By the end of August, the Allies were done. They’d had enough. Bulgaria had entered the war on the German side opening up a flank and giving the Germans breathing space to rearm the Turks. Also, the French High Command announced their plans for what was becoming an annual fall offensive on the Western Front and demanded the British send the troops they had promised late in the previous year. The Gallipoli Campaign was abandoned and the remnants of the attackers got off the peninsula in the same small boats under the same withering fire that had greeted them almost nine months before. Back in London, Sir Winston Churchill was sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty and by his own account figured his political career had come to an end. Of course we know now his “finest hour” was still to come.

The legacy of Gallipoli probably casts its longest shadows over the ANZACs and what would become the country of Turkey. The First World War in general and the Gallipoli debacle in particular marked the last time Australians and New Zealanders would take the field beneath the Union Jack. From World War Two onward they would fight as separate and fiercely independent countries, still loyal to the mother country, but unwilling to take orders from her to slaughter her sons. Since 1916, April 25 is celebrated in both countries as ANZAC Day, sort of a Memorial Day and Fourth of July all rolled into one.

For the Ottomans, Gallipoli was the end. Commanding the troops on the peninsula was a young ethnic Turkish general named Mustafa Kemal. He would rise to great power during the three year Turkish War of Independence that followed the Great War. His guidance and vision combined with the respect he had among his countrymen earned him the rulership of Turkey and the honorific surname “Ataturk” which means “Father of the Turks.” In many ways, he is the Turkish version of George Washington.

The Gallipoli Campaign is entirely too complex and interesting to hope for one blog entry to do justice. If you find your curiosity about this seminal part of the Great War, I invite you to read probably THE definitive account of the events around Gallipoli. The book is simply titled Gallipoli by Robert Rhodes James.

Until next time, love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Ringo Says It Best


I had long planned for today’s post to be an ANZAC Day post about how today is the 100th anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand part of the invasion of Gallipoli that is such an important watershed in the history of those two former colonies . . . that was the plan.

Then came last Sunday night. Ringo Starr became the last of the Beatles to enter the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame with his own discography finally joining bandmates John, Paul, and George as double inductees. Then, Paul gave the induction speech and talked about how great a drummer was. THEN, the two of them performed a couple of songs together.

One of those songs happened to be “Photograph,” which is an absolutely amazing song Ringo co-wrote with his best friend George Harrison and which, since George’s 2001 death from cancer, Ringo ALWAYS dedicates to George.

Three things . . . Ringo was always Mama’s favorite Beatle because she loved drummers, “Photograph” was Mama’s favorite solo song by her favorite Beatle, and – in addition to being 100 years since Gallipoli – today is also 25 months since Mama left me in this foreign country almost all by myself.

So that shot the plan all to Hell.

If I can, I’ll get out a Great War Wednesday post about ANZAC Day and Gallipoli.

Until then

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: A Fresh Hell at Ypres

Standard colonial soldiers of the French 45th and 87th divisions — mostly Moroccans and Algerians — must have been longing for home as dusk fell around 5:00 PM on April 22, 1915. The damp, muddy French and Belgian fields of the Western Front were a far cry from the hot desert sands of North Africa where most of the soldiers dwelt when not in service to their French colonial masters. At least this day was better than most; a light breeze blew into their faces from across No-Man’s Land. This was a change from the ordinary since the prevailing winds in this part of the world tend to blow west to east.

Then something strange occurred. A faint acrid smell began slowly overpowering the overpowering stench of blood soaked mud and the cloying odor of the decaying corpses of their comrades who lay dead amidst the barbed wire and shell craters between the two lines. The smell grew stronger. Men’s eyes began to water. Suddenly someone in the first line of trenches raised the alarm and all eyes turned to No Man’s Land where a sickly greenish-yellow miasma rolled slowly, inexorably towards them borne upon the breeze. Men watched with fascination turning quickly to horror as the cloud enveloped the first trench and the screams began in earnest.

All along a four mile section of the Ypres Salient, soldiers — those who could — boiled out of their trenches like so many ants whose mound has been kicked over by a roguish schoolboy. With no thought of order or duty but gripped by a primal terror and driven with the instinctual urge to survive the men abandoned the lines and sprinted for the rear as fast as their horrified legs could carry them. A British soldier described the mounting chaos he witnessed

men were still pouring down the road. two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster.

The officers’ first inclination was to invoke the traditional somewhat racist view of the colonial troops as generally unreliable cowards apt to flee at the least provocation . . . until the cloud’s nauseating odor reached them and they too felt compelled to flee.

The entire four mile stretch stood abandoned by all but a few of the hardiest or most fearless soldiers. Had the Germans so desired and so prepared, they could have launched a massive attack and streamed en masse through the gap in the heretofore impermeable line, but such was not to be. The Germans had never foreseen their little experiment could have such amazing success and no reserve troops capable of carrying such an offensive stood ready to exploit the opening both sides had sought so tirelessly and at such cost of life for the past nine months.

The “little experiment” in question was the first use of what was to become the Great War’s signature weapon — poison gas. In this instance, it involved the release of over 150 tons of industrial chlorine gas from hundreds of cylinders carried up to the front line by hand over a period of several days. The Germans then waited for a day when the wind was favorable and when the conditions materialized on April 22, 1915, combat engineers opened the valves on each of the cylinders and released the green devil to do his evil work.

The Battle of Second Ypres wasn’t the first use of any gas in the war. Both sides had deployed tear gas at various times in the previous months and the Germans had even attempted to use the chlorine attack before on the Russian Front, but there, at the indecisive Battle of Bolimov, extreme cold rendered the gas inert. Strangely, by using cylinders, Germany aimed to abide by the “rules of war” laid down by the 1899 Hague Convention which banned the use of “shells or explosives designed to deliver poisonous or asphyxiating gasses.” Since the convention mentioned nothing about regular gas cylinders, German military leaders figured they were in the clear . . . legally anyway.

The first attack used chlorine gas, which had an easily recognizable smell and color. While chlorine was quite deadly if inhaled or if one was submerged in it, this gas was actually much easier to avoid than later agents. Since chlorine is heavier than air, a soldier who could gain higher ground would be relatively safe from its deleterious effects. Those in greatest danger were the invalids and immobile wounded lying in the trenches. For them, trapped as they were at the bottom of the trenches, the green cloud was their death shroud.

While the gas attack was a theoretical success, it provided very little tactical and ultimately no strategic advantage to the Germans. As stated earlier, the high command didn’t attach much importance to the experiment so the line commanders had no reserves to press the attack, but more telling, the German troops were themselves loathe to attack across a field they had just flooded with a deadly fog of chlorine. Having witnessed the panic and chaos effected by their gas attack, the German soldiers realized they were one wind shift away from the same fate and had to be threatened with punishments by their officers to get them to move forward.

The final tally of casualties in the attack numbered around 6000 French and colonial troops killed. Hundreds more were blinded by the chlorine which attacked any moist tissue such as eyes, mouths, and mucous membranes. Others suffered lifelong damage to their lungs as the chlorine mixed with the moisture in the lungs to form hypochlorous acid, literally eating the lungs from the inside out.

In the end, Canadian troops halted the German advance. The Canucks were able to stand against the gas because some bright egg figured out that urinating on a bandanna or other cloth, then tying said cloth around the face would blunt the effect of the chlorine by causing the gas to react with the urea in the pee and become inert. Personally, I’d love to know the thought process this unknown Canadian used to arrive at the conclusion he should piss into a cloth and wrap it around his face and head. What’s more, he must have been one incredibly charismatic and persuasive individual to get the rest of the company to follow his example. Definitely an outside the box . . . or pants . . . thinker.

In coming installments about the Great War, I’ll discuss the origins of ANZAC day which is coming up quickly, as well as the development of gas warfare during the First World War. Until then, love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Sympathy for the Devil

Standard one is born evil. We are all born sinful, thanks to the impromptu fruit snack Adam and Eve had in the Garden, but sinful is far from evil. I’ve known many a vile sinner who was a joy to be around. I’m actually related by blood or marriage to quite a few, but I’ve never actually known or known of someone who was born truly, irredeemably, black-heartedly evil.

I say that because today is the 126th anniversary of a man widely viewed as the most evil person who ever lived — Adolf Hitler. I realize just writing a blog post about him on his birthday and including “Sympathy” in the title puts me in serious danger of losing followers, being branded a Nazi, and generally dismissed as a complete kook. Please give me a hearing.

I am not a Nazi or Hitler apologist. I agree with the prevailing historical interpretation placing Der Fuhrer at or very near the top of a short list of extremely evil people who perpetrated crimes against civilization which will forever coat their names in anathema for as long as mankind’s collective memory exists. I agree with the usual evangelical Christian opinion a special place in an exquisitely real and burning Hell for Hitler to roast and reflect on his misdeeds for all eternity. I believe, without qualification or prevarication, Adolf Hitler was a thoroughly evil man — one of the most evil who has ever existed.

I just don’t believe he was born that way.

That’s his baby portrait up top of this post. Does he LOOK evil in it? Do his little chubby fat rolls on his legs and arms simply EXUDE vile antisemitism and abject megalomania? Does anything in this picture, besides the bowl haircut, belie the human monster this baby will become? This isn’t a portrait of someone with visions of grandeur who plans on plunging the entire world into the flames of the most destructive conflict ever envisioned while executing the most thorough and organized genocide since Pharaoh ordered the slaughter of the Hebrew male children in Moses’ infancy.

That’s a baby; a sweet, chubby, innocent baby. Had he but pitched forward suddenly and fallen from the chair in which he sits, perhaps he would have had the good fortune to snap his neck fatally and in the process save not only his immortal soul but also the world from another War to End all Wars and millions of people from annihilation.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he grew. He became a young boy who grew up on a farm. He watched his beloved brother die of measles. He became a hard-headed youth fighting with an equally hard-headed father over what the future held for him. His father wanted him to become a bureaucrat and settle into a good career with a steady income and a comfortable life carrying on the family name . . . just as many fathers everywhere throughout time have wished. Hitler wanted to be an artist — like many young men before and since. His father died, his mother gave him part of his inheritance and he struck out for the big city (Vienna, in this case) to make his fortune as the next great painter.

Like many young men before and since, he had his dreams crushed by gatekeepers. Turned away twice from art school, he eventually ran out of money and became a wanderer sharing hostels and men’s shelters with other wayward dreamers like himself. He counted several Jewish boys among his friends. He was drifting and drifting objects tend to get sucked into the worst possible places . . . came the Great War. The young man fled his home for a neighboring country and enlisted in a well-known fighting regiment. Finally, he found something he was good at; he found a home and a sense of belonging among his comrades-in-arms. By all accounts, he was brave when called upon but not reckless. He became a corporal, earned the prestigious Iron Cross-First Class for his actions in battle, and then, he was gassed. He lay recuperating in the hospital from his gassing and other wounds when news came of Germany’s surrender. His beloved adopted country fell into ignoble defeat. Another dream crushed and again he began to wander.

Since he had no other skills, he stayed in the military, now as an intelligence gatherer. Then, he met Dietrich Eckart. Like other young drifting souls before him, he fell in with someone he’d have been better off avoiding. Eckart introduced Hitler to the seminal ideas of what would eventually become Nazi ideology. The National Socialist’s ancestor party, the DAP, discovered Hitler’s talent for haranguing huge crowds into revolutionary fervor. They pressed him to go into politics. He delighted in the political sphere — the speeches and intrigue — and he started a series of poor choices ending with the infamous Beer Hall Pustch of 1923. He was arrested, convicted of treason, and sent to prison. One year later he emerged, having written Mein Kampf. Now he wasn’t drifting. He had a plan; he’d made his choice.

The rest, of course, is history.

So, emphatically no, the baby in the picture wasn’t evil. He hadn’t had time to be evil. He wasn’t born evil, but he certainly died evil. He gained his evil the same way all evil men and women do — choice by choice, each worse and more soul-searing than the last. Somewhere along the way, the little boy who sang in the church choir and was an ardent admirer of Martin Luther, the German Reformer, made one wrong choice too many and became Der Fuhrer and the world would burn because of it.

What if? What if the Vienna Academy of Fine Art had accepted the young painter. He wasn’t exactly or Gauguin, but he wasn’t horrible. What if they had eased their criticism of his work and encouraged him just a little instead of saying he was, “unfit to become an artist?” What if he’d met a good Lutheran minister instead of Eckart? What if he’d served his entire prison sentence and the Nazi party had been given time to die out before his release?

So I write this on his birthday, not to praise him, but to call attention to his choices and his influences. How close are any of us to becoming an Adolf Hitler? We’ve all had shattered dreams. We’ve all had family conflicts. What’s more, we interact every day with untold numbers of people who are in the midst of who knows what kind of crisis. Which way do we push them, towards goodness or evil? See that ragged soul walking around homeless? How will you treat him? It may be the difference between a Hitler and a helper.

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean.