Speaking Approximately, This Is Historical Titillating

This is an old blog that has mostly outlived its relevance, if any, though I know in the back of my mind it’s out there and every once in a while I’ll read back on something and think, “Not bad” or, “How the heck did I miss that typo?” I still write the occasional post, though only a handful ever get any readership to speak of.

The site still gets lots of comments, though — spam comments, by the dozen every week, most promoting some sort of fly-by-night Viagra site or athletic shoe site or transparently dumb money-making scheme. I’m sure all of them are the product of bots of some kind that spit out nearly random words and hit enter, then move on their relentlessly mindless way to the next rarely visited site. Because there’s a spam filter on the comments, they don’t get published. It’s a small pain to go through and delete them all from the filter queue; that’s not something I need to do, really, it’s just sort of a rote, mechanical chore, and I only read enough to make sure there’s not an actual comment hidden amid the garbage.

Taking a look at the spam queue last night, I realized that perhaps I’m being too harsh in my judgment of comment quality. After all, it’s usually quite complimentary of the high and very helpful nature of everything I’ve ever published. So, as I delete the latest mini-volley of spam comments, here are some of the choicer ones:

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A Moment Amid the Turmoil

I came across the photograph below in the excellent slideshow the Los Angeles Times posted summarizing two days of protests and associated unrest in the city. (The slideshow is part of the Times’ running story on the George Floyd protests. The large version of the image is here.)

To my eye — and I’ve got one good one — this is a thrillingly beautiful image. The combination of the deserted freeway (with the completely jammed adjacent lanes visible), the skateboarder in perfect focus, the police vehicles out of focus down the slope, the spectators on the overpass in the background recording the scene: such subtly balanced elements.

And it’s just a moment. It passed in the smallest fraction of a second. The skateboarder was in motion, no doubt, and everything else, including the photographer (the Times’ Wally Skalij), likely shifted slightly, too, before the next frame fired.

The skateboarder’s relaxed body language belies the urgency and strangeness of his situation. There’s more assessment than defiance in his stance. I have no idea what he was headed for, what he was thinking, whether he was looking for an escape route, or whether there was any way off the freeway without getting arrested. The whole scene kind of reminds me of Steve McQueen trying to outrun the Germans in the motorcycle sequence in “The Great Escape.”

Last, reality has been suspended here. A man engages a photographer in a space that neither would ever inhabit together except in the midst of a catastrophe. The tragedy that brought both of them to this spot is dimly visible here in the flashing emergency lights in the distance. But the pain and rage sweeping over the city and hanging over the world beyond, the police officer throttling the life out of a man on the pavement, the terrible indifference to the dying man’s pleas, have been pushed nearly out of sight. For just this moment.

Memorial Days

‘Group of soldiers sitting on truck with boy,’ African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection.

There is something I love about this picture. Something about pride and camaraderie and self-awareness, maybe, in what must have been a hell of a difficult situation. And then there’s the kid posing with this group of GIs.

But before I get into that, where did this picture come from? Someone posted it on Facebook, in the Oakland history group, as a Memorial Day tribute, I think. The picture was captioned there “A 1945 picture of Soldiers in Oakland, CA.” As commenters quickly pointed out, the background in the shot suggests someplace in Europe — France, or Italy maybe — but not Oakland. And then there’s the kid posing with the group. Maybe these troops were among those who had just liberated his town from the Germans.

Is there some way of nailing down who and where these men are? I’d love to see whether anything is written on the back of the photo. It’s a holiday, though, and I have no idea whether the library that holds this photograph has been open at all during our lockdown the last couple of months. Maybe I’ll find that out tomorrow.

There is one potentially helpful detail in the picture: The numbers on the right side (left side in the picture) of the truck’s bumper: 3A-444Q.

My guess was that “3A” stands for “3rd Army,” the force that Gen. George Patton commanded and which is renowned for, among other things, its rapid push across France in the summer and early fall of 1944, after D-Day. Then maybe the 444Q stood for — what? A regimental unit?

I found a post — because you can find a post about just about anything when you go looking — that helped sort out the truck number. It includes a picture of vehicles attached to the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, originally part of the 3rd Army. The markings on those vehicles read “3A-442-I.” From there, I just looked for names of units numbered “444.” I came across a mention of a 444th Quartermaster Truck Company, described as a segregated, all-black unit.

Where were they deployed during the war? It appears they were attached to the 3rd Army’s 4th Armored Division in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. They’re cited as having played a role in several major actions: Arracourt, the Battle of the Bulge and the final Allied offensive into Germany in March and April 1945. They were likely part of the legendary “Red Ball Express,” responsible for supplying the 3rd Army during its race toward Germany.

The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Inc., mentioned the 444th in its May 2005 edition:

“… Many an unsung deed of heroism, endurance and devotion to duty were quietly chalked up by the Third’s QM truckers. They rolled on unceasingly through German strafing, bullets, artillery fire, ice and snow, fatigue, hunger, blackouts and every other imaginable obstacle.

Trucks of the 444th QM Truck Company moved the 4th Armored Division from the Saar to Belgium in 17 hours. In their usual fashion the 4th Armored Division fought their way through to relieve the heroic bastion of Bastogne and the tide began to turn in our favor. …”

I can’t find a lot more on the 444th. A couple of records concern company members who died during their service and are buried in cemeteries in France and England. One document concerns a soldier who was convicted of murdering a German civilian during the last month of the war. Somewhere out there, there’s an Army publication called “How the 444 Rolled,” but I can’t find any evidence of it online or in libraries.

Looking at that picture, though, makes me want to know about the men there: what they had come through to get to that street, wherever it was; what they went on to; what was waiting for them in the United States when they got back from a brutal tour of duty. On the off chance anyone who knows more about the 444th comes across this, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can track down the original of the picture to see if there’s anything on the back.

Mariposas

A monarch butterfly, emerged May 2020.

This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.

One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.

We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.

But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.

Asclepias curassavica, meet Danaus plexippus.

Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.

Chrysalis on bike cable; pupated April 19.

A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)

Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.

The bike-cable chrysalis; eclosed on May 7.

What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.

***

A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.

“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.

It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.

An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.

September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.

This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.

Road Blog: Lone Star

Destination Dallas.

I landed at Love Field.

I drove by Parkland Hospital.

I scanned the skyline for the book depository building. Didn’t see it, though.

I drove (quickly) through Waco. I wondered if smoke had been visible in the city.

I saw the turnoff for Killeen and thought about Luby’s.

I got to Austin, and the first building I recognized was Charles Whitman’s tower.

Nothing's Permanent

The Leader building on Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.

On Fairfax Avenue just north of Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles. The Leader sign is attention-getting — it got mine, anyway, when Kate and I were strolling past last March —but what is/was it about?

Answer: From 1946 through 1989, the building housed a well-known and very busy beauty shop. The L.A. Times ran a very good story on its closing: Nothing’s Permanent: Fairfax Beauty Shop Closing After 43 Years. If you’re too busy for the link, the driving factor was rising real estate prices, and the family that ran the business cashed in on their property.

The July 1989 story notes that two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood were going for about $950 a month.

News From Our Semi-Intentional Menagerie

Monarch chrysalis, fastened to Ikea Strandmon armchair.

Briefly: We planted a bunch of milkweed this year in hopes of encouraging monarch butterflies to feed and reproduce. Among the lessons learned: There are lots of things out there in the world that will kill a monarch long before they have a chance to become butterflies. And when they get a chance to get to butterfly stage, the process is actually much more beautiful and absorbing than I had imagined.

Late in the season here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we noticed that the few adult monarchs around were accomplishing their reproductive mission more efficiently than they had been a few months ago. Maybe it was because most of the predators had gone underground for the year, but we were seeing more monarch larvae (aka caterpillars) than we had during the summer.

We brought a couple of well advanced caterpillars indoors and installed them in a butterfly house we’ve used several times this year. Kate, the chief wrangler of our semi-intentional menageries, named the larger of the new inmates Latelyton — that’s Lately and -ton — because of its appearance so late in the year.

It wasn’t long before Latelyton found his or her way out of the butterfly house. Where he/she had gone we had no idea. Monarchs that are ready to go into their chrysalids have a way of seeking an out of the way spot where they can attach themselves, so their odd, intense twisting dance to enclose themselves, and hang there in piece until they are ready to eclose (emerge, in insect talk).

We figured we’d see Latelyton after s/he emerged. I imagined a new butterfly flapping desperately to get outside to go about its natural calling. But it typically takes 12 to 14 days for a monarch to eclose, and as of yesterday, it had been three weeks with no sign of the wayward larva/pupa.

That was until Kate was vacuuming around an upholstered Ikea armchair. As she described it, she saw something dangling from one of the chair’s arms. It was, we are sure, Latelyton, in a perfect chrysalis. S/he does not look close to emerging, but what do we know? Maybe we’ll have on overwintering visitor. In any case, we’re letting him/her be. I’m hoping this monarch will at least wait until we get past our current predicted run of rainy, cold weather before it makes its next move.

The World of Dog Poop: Requests, Entreaties, Demands

Directions for cleaning up after your stylized dog, outside the city of Nagoya, Japan.

In our Berkeley dog-walking days (2006-18), I often considered the ethical and practical dimensions of dealing with canine excrement. It turns out lots of other people do, too, as evidenced by the advice posted – for free! – I see during my urban strolls.

Above is one I saw in Japan earlier this week. It made me wonder how many of these I’ve recorded over the years. The answer isn’t astronomical – 20 or so, after a quick look through my Flickr camera roll. Most are from Berkeley, but a handful come from elsewhere in the U.S. – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City – with a few entries from Japan and Italy.

The Flickr album is below. If you’ve got a shot for me to add, send it my way.

Canine Advisories

Chicago Cemetery Visits: The O.A. Thorp Story

O.A. Thorp monument, Mount Olive Cemetery, Chicago.

One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.

My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.

As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.

My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries, I think, after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.

The inscription: ‘Christ my hope.’ Sjur was a Lutheran minister who died of the effects of Parkinson’s disease in 1932. Otilia was a devout young Lutheran woman who met him at her church when he was finishing his ministerial training.

Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.

On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.

The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:

Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.

The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.

A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.

The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.

The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.

Part of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean’s report on the arrival of the Wergeland, published May 27, 1892.

So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”

He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:

“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “

Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.

How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.

In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.

One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

Special Airline Edition: Reply Stop to Cancel

Jet fuel leaks from the starboard wing of Alaska Airlines Flight 1213 at O’Hare International Airport, Sept. 23, 2019.

We were in Chicago for a wedding last week and flew back to San Francisco on Monday. We got to the airport in plenty of time and discovered our flight was a little late. No worries.

We found a place to sit that had a view of the plane’s parking space and of the jetway at our gate. The incoming flight was later than advertised, finally pulling up and shutting down maybe 25 minutes late. I watched as the jetway was extended toward the plane to allow the arriving passengers to escape their confinement. But the apparatus stopped about 10 feet short of its target. The ground crew tried to retract it and re-extend it. They couldn’t get it to close the gap.

As the minutes went by, I was imagining the slow burn the passengers stuck on the plane were doing. I was wondering whether someone would appear with a couple of planks for people to walk across from jet to jetway.

What actually happened , after 20 minutes or so, was that two guys from American Airlines showed up. One of them got a step ladder and set it up adjacent to what looked like an electrical box on the jetway. Then he climbed up, took a “hundreds of Americans die every year doing stunts like this” stance, with one foot on the ladder and the other on the electrical box, and fiddled for about 10 seconds with a switch. He climbed down and signaled to someone to give the jetway a try. This time it worked. So at about 5:50, roughly 35 minutes after the plane parked, and about the exact time Flight 1213 was scheduled to pull away from the gate for the trip to San Francisco, the arriving passengers could get off.

An American Airlines technician climbs up a ladder to fiddle with a switch on a non-functioning jetway at O’Hare Gate G6.

It took about 30 minutes for everyone to make their way off the airliner and for a cleaning crew to race through the aircraft and straighten it up. Then it was our turn to get on, and I’m guessing another 20 minutes or so to hustle everyone on board. We pulled back from the gate at about 6:40, 50 minutes late, but not a disaster.

Once we were pointed toward the taxiway, but still just 50 yards or so from the gate, we had to sit for awhile to get in the takeoff queue. I was sitting pretty far back, looking out the window on the plane’s right side. Suddenly, liquid began spouting out of the wing. A lot of fluid. It kept going. What was it? Water? That didn’t make sense. Jet fuel? that wouldn’t be good. While I was pondering this mystery, which I thought someone ought to point out to the crew, someone else a few rows ahead of me said, “Hey! Look at this! Something’s coming out of the wing!”

That got a flight attendant’s attention. She looked out a window. Another crew member said, “Call them and tell them.” One of the flight attendants reassured us that there was nothing to worry about.

The liquid kept cascading to the ground. The flow gradually slowed, then stopped. Hard to say how much spilled onto the tarmac. One hundred gallons? Five hundred? Eventually, the flight’s captain got on the PA and confirmed that we had been seeing jet fuel spilling. More than once, he suggested that it had been a normal occurrence and tried to explain what happened. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded like an issue with having failed to properly balance the fuel load between the aircraft’s tanks and that a valve had opened — to relieve fuel line pressure? — and released fuel onto the ground. (As I say, I’m not sure I understood the details. I’d love to have an Airbus mechanic explain it again.)

In any case, we had to go back to the gate so maintenance technicians could check out the issue. Then the plane took on additional fuel. Then paperwork had to be done. The plane was opened up so people could wander around the terminal if they liked — but not too far! — and maybe grab a snack. The woman setting next to Kate and me came back with pizza slices.

All of that consumed another two hours. Kate and I did not leave the plane, though we got up a couple times to stretch. Finally, all the checking and rechecking was done, the wandering passengers were called back, and at 8:40 — now nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, we again pulled back from the gate.

All that stood between us and actual flight now was the long line of airliners waiting to take off ahead of us. The wait for our turn turned out to be another 40 minutes, making our departure nearly three hours and 20 minutes late. I was hoping Alaska would spring for free beer, or at least beer nuts, as compensation for the delay. No such luck.

Long story short: We made good time to SFO, and were off our plane by 11:35 p.m. (1:35 a.m. Chicago time). I had visions of making the last cheapskate BART train back to the East Bay. But by the time we had collected our bags and made it up to the AirTrain for the ride to the BART stop, it was too late. We wound up taking a Lyft ride instead — kind of a treat, actually, and we didn’t have to schlep our bags the last couple blocks home from the station.

I was thinking about complaining to Alaska as all this was unfolding. But then I got a personal message from the airline that came in just as our plane landed. It made me feel kind of … well, see for yourself.