Monday, March 31, 2014

MuseandHobbes Throws the Gauntlet

I have been challenged.

My old digging amiga MooseandHobbes passed along to me a challenge she had previously received from some of her museum associates.  The original version  HERE and her answer and onward challenge to me  HERE.  Basically it is about asking me to answer a few questions about Museums and blogging.  And I will, by and by.  But it got me thinking about Museums, how they got started and so forth.

In Greek mythology the Muses were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.  (Mnemosyne btw was the Goddess of Memory, which given Zeus' incessant dalliances must have made for one interesting relationship!).  The Muses were generally said to be nine in number and to be the inspiration for literature, science and the arts.  Urania (Astronomy) was the only one who seemed oriented towards what we would call science, the rest were associated with poetry, dance, comedy, history and so forth.  Our word for music derives from the Muses.  So does amusement.  And of course, Museum.

At first glance the connection between goddesses and enlightening collections of artifacts would seem slight.  Indeed, in some ways learning by studying something is the polar opposite of just sitting around and waiting for Terpsicore and Erato and Melpemone to send you a batch o' Inspiration.  But historical accident played a role.

The Greeks were always big on shrines and groves and such to honor their deities.  So the Muses had a number of sacred sites. One of these shrines in Alexandria Egypt became associated with the Great Library and the circle of scholars that lived and worked there.  Hence the association of scholasticism with collecting knowlege from the far corners of the world became forever linked to the term Museum.

Now, on to the Challenge Questions and my answers.

1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I am an eccentric, washed up by circumstance into mundane surroundings.  I study things that I find curious.  I blog about them in hopes others will be amused.

2.  What is the most popular post on your blog?

By a large margin this would be Three Guys versus the Asian Carp.  Something about our tale of trying to dispatch ten billion rambunctious invasive fish resonated with, er, somebody.

3. How do you decide what to post about?

See answer #1.

4.  Do you have a post you have hesitated on posting?

Sure.  Anything relating to family.  And posts relating to my work in the ER have to be heavily edited and usually delayed for months to years.  Privacy and all.

5.  What is your favorite local or specialist museum?  The smaller and more random the better.

You asked for it.  The Wilderness Museum associated with the Moccasin Bar in Hayward Wisconsin. Lets have a few pictures now, shall we?

Taxidermy at its finest.  Admire it while quaffing a few beers.  Kind of a rough place late in the evening, plan your visit accordingly.

6.  Would you encourage someone who does not like museums to visit the aforementioned museum?

If you don't like this kind of stuff I have nothing more to say to you.

7.  What is your earliest museum memory?

As a young lad of perhaps 6 or 7 visiting the odd collections in the basement of the Minneapolis Public Library.  They had a mummy that looked pretty old and dried up.  I was more impressed with a gigantic crab that looked as if its pinchers could really put a hurt on ya.

8.  What is the last museum you visited and what did you see?

Saw some good stuff on our trip to Europe last year.  Hercules was looking especially mighty.

9.  Have you seen an exhibit in a museum that you felt, or came close to feeling, should not have been displayed?

Not really.  My inclination is towards history museums and even a casual acquaintance with History shows you that we made a lot of mistakes in the past.  It is part of what we are.  On a global level the general removal of Native American remains and tableaus of "Primitive Peoples" is probably good.  I always stared at the depictions of a Pygmy village and thought "Sure, they don't seem to be doing that well but probably better than the malaria enfevered, dysentery befouled explorer whose perspective we are asked to assume....."

10.  If you could live in a museum, which would you chose?

The greatest collection of historic tanks on earth is at Kubinka outside of Moscow. Make sure the keys are in 'em and I would be a happy camper for a long time.

11.  What is the oddest search term that has led people to your blog?

I'm not going anywhere near that one.

So, there you have it.  My musings on Muses and Museums.  As I was encouraged to post my own variation on the Eleven Questions for others to have a swipe at I shall do so tomorrow.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I visit a Shooting Range

I grew up, sort of, in Minneapolis.  Other than a little fishing in the summertime I was a city kid with little exposure to the Great Outdoors.  My sons were raised in rural Wisconsin.  They all fish AND hunt.

My youngest took me out to the public shooting range yesterday.  To my recollection I had never been to such an establishment.

We are considering conversion to the local religious cult, Fall Deer Hunting.  So we took his 12 gauge shotgun out to the range with a box of rifled slugs.  The target is my own artistic creation, about a 1/3 scale deer.

I am very pleased to report that while my son has proven on all previous occasions to be a much better shot than I, that today at a respectable range I took exactly two shots.  Guess which two?

Look out Bullwinkle.  (yes I know, moose not deer, but my art skills are less than my marksmanship)

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Colosseum of the Robots

A few weeks back I put up a link to a  Kickstarter project aiming to fund a new arena for our "Machines Behaving Badly" robotics event.  I am happy to say that the goal was met and exceeded, so work will begin shortly on a new arena that should last for many years.  Many thanks to all who donated, some from the audience of this humble blog.

A fond farewell to the old arena, it soldiered on faithfully and gave hundreds of kids a chance to indulge destructive impulses while learning - often the hard way - about robotic design.

A few pictures from our last event:

And an end of the day look at Robot Cemetery:

More robotic shenanigans in the years ahead!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

40 Years with Uncle Hugo

I don't do plugs for businesses or products.  You eat/drink/watch what you like and I shall do the same.  I have been blogging on schedule for three years now and have yet to do a "Top Ten List" of anything.  But today I have to make a rare exception and encourage those geographically able to visit a remarkable establishment.

Welcome to Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Bookstore (and its companion Uncle Edgar's).  This is, or ought to be, a National Treasure.  It is said to be the longest surviving SciFi bookstore in America and in fact celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this month.  It is in Minneapolis so I don't get over as often as I would like, but the selection of new and used books is outstanding.  At least I assume the new books are, I go there for the bargain used paperbacks.  And I could spend an entire afternoon browsing the stacks.  And boxes.  And piles.

Great stuff when you have upcoming travels.  Transatlantic flights and occasional bouts of inclement weather do require appropriate reading material.

The whole place has a sort of "underground comix" vibe to it.  Good people are running this store. And serious SciFi fans.  Did you notice the sign out front?  Lets pick up a little detail shot...

500 Nerd Points if you called it.  Yep, it is Tybo the Carrot!  Huh? say you non point winners, who?

In the cheesy 1960s show "Lost in Space" the special effects budget was just sufficient to have the villain of the week wear a rubber suit and try to not look ridiculous.  In the absolute nadir of the show - and perhaps of Western Civilization - there was a February 1968 episode entitled The Great Vegetable Rebellion.  In it the "Space Family Robinson" was imperiled by sentient plants led by.....Tybo.

The actor subjected to this indignity was a certain Stanley Adams.  Adams was one of those work horse character actors in the day of classic TV.  He appeared in virtually every show produced from the late 50s to the early 70s.  5,000 Nerd Points if you can name his memorable role in the original Star Trek series...

Didn't get it?  Don't feel bad.  Even I am not that far beyond the realm of normal human society.  But I have no doubt that the good folks at Uncle Hugo's would have nailed it.

Cyrano Jones, the guy responsible for infesting the U.S.S. Enterprise with Tribbles!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Ten

Time to say farewell to the Liberty Ships.  A list of their names has been a fun little sea voyage into odd corners of history.  In fact I had a hard time leaving some out.  Here are a few "odds" and ends.

Why, we have the S.S. Katherine Bates name in honor of the woman who wrote "America the Beautiful".  Also the S.S. Sarah Joseph Hale remembering the woman who penned "Mary had a Little Lamb".  Ms. Bates btw has become after the fact a figure revered by modern Gay activists.  Although from this long remove it is hard to tell just how much of her flowery 19th century professions of love for another woman were just overdone prose.  Whalebone corsets and Gay Pride....seems like two different planets.

Lets also remember the S.S. Thomas Bulfinch, a 19th century editor of folklore and mythology. Somehow he managed to distill out all the Grimm and naughty parts and make it respectable reading.

The Old West was commemorated in the S.S. Annie Oakley and the S.S. James B. Hickock.  A ship's insignia for the latter could possibly include the notorious "Dead Man's Hand" that Wild Bill was holding when he was shot, but that might be a bit much for suspicious mariners.

Aces over Eights.  The remaining card is a source of dispute.

There were an entire series of Liberties built for the British.  One would think the Brits would have enough historical figures to name endless numbers of ships.  But for some reason all these were dubbed names that began with "Sam".  Samcrest and Samglory, Samfaithful and Samfreedom. Even the unfortunate - to modern sensibilities - Sambo.

Another entire series were specially built for hauling coal.  They got inspiring names from, of all things, coal deposits.  Imagine a graybeard telling the younger generation about his time on the gallant S.S. Freeport Seam.

The names of the Liberty Ships are delightfully quirky, but were supposed to follow one firm rule: They were not to be named for a living person.  And even that rule was broken exactly once.

Francis J. O'Gara was a sports writer for the Philadelphia Enquirer before joining the Merchant Marine.  He was aboard the ill fated Liberty Ship S.S. Jean Nicolet when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July of 1944.  The horrific tale of how the survivors were treated is recounted here.

The handful of sailors rescued by Allied ships made it quite clear that the Japanese were slaughtering all survivors.  And besides, the sub had made a crash dive to evade an approaching search plane.  It seemed entirely appropriate to name a new Liberty Ship for men who died on the Nicolet, although why her Captain was not so honored is not clear to me.

The keel of the Francis J. O'Gara was laid down in April of 1945, with completion in June.  So she was a rather new ship when her namesake was shipped home from a POW camp in Yokohama at the end of the war.  The vessel returning him to the States was berthed right next to.....the ship posthumously named for him!

The extended story of Francis O'Gara can be found here.  I am borrowing from that site a marvelous photo, here is the only namesake of a Liberty Ship who could pose for a photo with her!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Economic Report - Spring of 2014

On the first day of spring it was actually above freezing in Wisconsin.  I had an errand out by the regional shopping mall, specifically I had some additional stuff to drop off at the accountants.  Perhaps it was the impending "Rendering unto Caesar" that had me musing a bit.

I decided to walk the Mall.  Not the inside of it, I hate such places even on days when the weather does not seductively beckon.  No, I walked around the outside of it, looping wide around the far reaches of the parking lot expanses.

I did not have to maneuver too much, the lots were perhaps 20% occupied.

For what it is worth, on the "front side" of the Mall, where the movie theaters, sporting goods store, food court all face, I picked up a grand total of 2 cents.  On the back side, where yawn the entrances to Sears and J.C. Penny's......nothing.  Not a single bit of misplaced wealth.

Pennies probably still mean something.  Like Roman base coinage of the threadbare Fourth Century they are of such small value that when dropped they are not picked up.  But they do mean that somebody was once there, reaching into the pocket (modern day) or purse (back then).
As a pedestrian in a very automobile oriented environment you see some things others would miss. Walking past the back side of Younkers (for those from elsewhere this is a moderate scale store) I noted that pulled up to their loading dock was a semi trailer from Goodwill.

I had noticed that thrift stores, or charity shoppes to my UK pals, seem to have more new goods than donated stuff these days.  So perhaps the Goodwill trailer is the ignomious exit for piles of merch that had not sold.

I did duck in to one store for ten minutes and did not buy anything.  My Needs are few and easily met. And despite the best efforts of advertisers my Wants are fewer still.

Heading for home I passed one of those odd avatars of the modern retail economy.  At an intersection leading into the Mall there was a fellow who was obviously being paid to stand there all day with a sign. These poor souls have a job that seems to me to be both pointless and without reward beyond the presumptive minimum wage that they are earning.  It must be a requirement that they spin and jiggle the sign frantically.  Thus rendering the whole exercise moot.  I could see that he was touting

70% OFF!!

But honestly you could not make out which struggling retailer he was actually trying to direct you to. Maybe they are all in the same boat.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Nine

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background:  Part One


You had to have done something interesting in life to get a Liberty Ship named after you, but in some instances what happened after people pass away is even more interesting....

It made sense that there would be an S.S. Park Benjamin.  Mr. Benjamin was a Naval Academy grad and retained an interest in naval affairs throughout a long and profitable career as an editor and a patent attorney.  His domestic life had a few quirks....

His daughter Dorothy must have been a wild child.  At age 25 she eloped with a 45 year old Italian opera singer.  OK, it was Enrico Caruso, but Papa Benjamin did not approve.

One year later Benjamin legally adopted Dorothy's long time governess, an Italian woman named Anna Bolchi.

On Benjamin's death in 1922 each of his biological children got one dollar and some scathing words from beyond the grave as published in the local papers.  The word "parasites" was used.  The former governess inherited the family fortune.

There was quite the legal tussle, some quiet settlement, then Bolchi went ahead and married the family lawyer who had written up both the adoption paperwork and the poisonous will!

Yes, yes it has been too long a winter and I have been over indulging in PBS mystery fare.  So I propose this logo for the S.S. Park Benjamin.

The will also specified that Benjamin's ashes be scattered in mid Atlantic.  Bolchi did so, presumably with a good chuckle and a champagne glass in her non scattering hand.


The namesake of the S.S. George M. Pullman has left his name to us as something of a synonym for luxury.  He is remembered for designing the railroad sleeping cars called Pullman cars.  The first was built in 1864.  Abraham Lincoln made his final journey home to be buried in Springfield in one.

I can't tell if Pullman personally had a strong sense of class consciousness or if he was just in a business where this was a reality of life.  He started the tradition of hiring African Americans as porters for his trains, and was in fact once the largest employer of same in the country.  He also built an entire town for his factory workers.

Pullman Illinois was like most company towns.  It had a captive population dependent on Pullman as their employer and land lord.  Outside charities were banned as were independent newspapers.  It was a beautiful place with parks and schools up to the standards of the day.  But it was an oppressively paternalistic community that bred discontent. A Pullman employee is supposed to have said:

"We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell."

The Pullman strike of 1894 was triggered by wage cuts in a down economy, but fed by unhappiness with George Pullman as a modern day feudal lord.  The backlash was harsh, and in 1898 the company was required to divest itself of all assets in the town.

George Pullman had died the year before.  Feeling that the sentiments against him were so negative that anything might happen, he was worried that aggrieved former strikers would disturb his grave.

So he was interred over a two day long process that involved a lead lined mahogany coffin encased in multiple layers of reinforced cement and bolted together steel bars.  Ambrose Bierce, who we met recently, was said to have quipped:

"It is clear that the family in their bereavement was making sure the sonofabitch wasn't going to get up and come back"

It looks as if he is still securely planted.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Eight

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background: Part One.


For the S.S. Stephen Hopkins II there is only one possible inspiration for a ship's insignia:

The Hopkins II was of course named for its predecessor the S.S. Stephen Hopkins.  And it, as one of the earliest Liberties, got one of the primo names, that of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The first batches of Liberty Ships took longer to make, so the lag time from laying of keel on 2 January, 1942 to commissioning on 14 April was not surprising.

As it turned out the Hopkins never returned from her maiden voyage.

On September 27th she was homeward bound from Capetown to Surinam when out of the fog came a suspicious ship.  The weather conditions were such that they were only two miles apart, leaving little time for deliberation.

The Hopkins had in fact encountered the Stier.  This was the last of the ten "Hilfkruezer" ships that Germany had sent out as commerce raiders concealed as tramp steamers.  It was a very effective effort especially in the early war years when merchant ships were armed ineffectually or not at all.

The captain of the Hopkins alertly called his crew to battle stations, and when a demand to surrender was sent and ignored the fight was on.

It should have been a short, one sided affair.  The Stier had six 5.9 inch guns, each able to fire a 100 pound shell.  Three of these plus secondary weapons could be brought to bear as a broadside.  The Hopkins had a single 4 inch gun on its stern, firing a relatively puny 33 pound shell.  But Captain Paul Buck had turned the Hopkins away from the Stier giving his gun crew the best possible shot.  And as at this time the range was only 1000 yards, neither ship's gun crews had any excuse for missing.

It was over quickly.  The Hopkins drifted away on fire, 42 of her crew dead, three dying.  The 15 survivors brought their life boat ashore in Brazil 31 days later.  But captain Buck and his ship had their revenge.  The Stier was after all just a converted merchantman herself, lacking in armor and advanced damage control systems.  The Hopkins' gun crew kept firing and mostly died at their stations.  They scored 35 hits on the Stier, the last five at the hands of an Engine Room Cadet named O'Hara who came up from the heavily damaged lower decks and finding the gun unmanned was able to operate it entirely on the basis of what he had seen watching the Armed Guard contingent at their drills.

It was enough.  The Stier had lost steering and power and her captain scuttled her, transferring his men to a supply ship that he had in the area.

So ended what was essentially the only surface engagement between German and American ships in either World War*.

It was a gallant fight and one that was at the time quite celebrated.

In commemoration there were Liberty Ships named S.S. Stephen Hopkins II, S.S. Edwin Joseph O'Hara**, S.S. Paul Buck, and in honor of the chief mate, the S.S. Richard Moczkowski.  The commander of the Armed Guard contingent aboard the Hopkins was a newly minted Lt (jg).  His actions were honored in the christening of a destroyer escort, U.S.S. Kenneth M. Willet.
*There were a few brief skirmishes between US ships and German E-boats in the English channel, most notoriously the bungled Operation Tiger.

** The S.S. Edwin Joseph O'Hara is listed in some sources as having been torpedoed and sunk in 1943. This appears to be in error, the ship involved being the Liberty ship Sambridges .  A series of Liberties built for the British all started with SAM in their names.  If there was a re-flagging of this ship I find no mention of it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Seven

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background: Part One


A sad bit of art to serve as the emblem of the S.S. Virginia Dare.  

In 1587 Virginia Dare became the first child born to English parents in the New World.  Her grandfather was Governor of the Roanoake Colony in present day North Carolina.  Her name seems so apt, her parents being among that hardy bunch of souls who abandoned the civilized world of London for the New Wilderness.  Of course it is just coincidence that their surname was Dare.

This was the so called "Lost Colony".  When a re-supply mission arrived it found the colonists gone, the buildings carefully dismantled and the enigmatic word CROATOAN carved into a tree trunk.

Virginia's fate will never be known.  The colonists may simply have been dispersed peacefully among the Native American tribes, or they have met a violent end.  It was natural to hope for the former, and in the generations that followed any fair skinned or light eyed Indian was felt to be a possible descendant of Virginia Dare.  

The very words "lost child" give us all a brief squirm of fear, so lets hope she had a life that was simple, but still long and decent.


The namesake of the S.S. Peregrine White sure did.

Peregrine was the first child born to the Pilgrims in New England.  Offshore in fact, as they anchored off Cape Cod in November 1620.  The fact that William White was able to persuade his very pregnant wife Susanna to take ship for America tells me that both husbands and wives were made of much sterner stuff back then.

And they needed to be.  Peregrine - delightfully named for that far wandering bird - lived to the ripe old age of 83 but his father died in that first hard winter.

I rather enjoyed reading Peregrine's obituary:

Capt. Peregrine White of this town, Aged Eighty three years, and Eight Months; died the 20th Instant. He was vigorous and of a comly Aspect to the last; Was the Son of Mr. William White and Susanna his Wife;’ born on board the Mayflower, Capt. Jones Commander, in Cape Cod Harbour. Altho’ he was in the former part of his Life extravagant; yet was much Reform’d in his last years; and died hopefully.”

Regardless of prior extravagances, may we all be Reform'd in our last years - but not too soon - and die hopefully.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Six

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background:  Part One


Now here is a fine starting point for a ship's insignia:

Not for any of the guys shown above.  No, this would be for the S.S. Gutzon Borglum which honored the sculptor who created Mount Rushmore.

Anyway, both Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt had Liberty ships named after them already.  Jefferson and Washington did not, but only because the Navy already had transports named for them before the Liberty ship program began.  (Oddly the S.S. George Washington got its name from the Germans.  It was built in 1908 for the North Atlantic routes.  When the U.S. got the ship after World War I they of course kept the name!)

Borglum was an interesting figure.  In some ways he was the quintessential American. A child of the frontier, a son of immigrants. He absorbed the arts and culture of Europe and brought them back to enhance American life.  He was confident and extroverted. But with the benefit of hindsight there are some aspects to him that concern later viewers, while not diminishing the greatness of his work.

He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a relationship that was formed during his time working on a Memorial to the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia.  And the whole concept of semi-deifying our leaders has a whiff of totalitarianism to it.  Stare for a moment at Teddy Roosevelt as shown above.... see a faint trace of Lenin there?

Speaking of Roosevelt, there was a second Liberty ship of that name: the S.S. Kermit Roosevelt. And that story is a sad one.

Theodore Roosevelt must have been the ultimate fatherly role model.  He swaggered, he charged up hills into enemy fire, he shot fierce beasts and defeated savage political foes.  He may have been our most Manly president, a man for whom obstacles existed only to be laughed at and then gleefully overcome.

It would be hard for any son to live up to that.  But they tried.  Three of the four died trying.

Quentin went first.  Only 20 years old he was a Harvard student and promising writer.  But when the U.S. entered World War I he did not hesitate.  He became that most romantic of Great War combatants, a fighter pilot.  He was shot down and killed on July 14, Bastille Day, 1918.

The oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. probably came the closest to living up to his father's greatness. His story should wait for another day, but suffice it to say that he was the only General to come ashore by sea on D-Day.  He died of a heart attack not long after.

But it is Kermit who cuts the most tragic figure.  He had done some amazing things in life.  He explored the Amazon jungles with his father, on an expedition that came close to killing the both of them.  He also fought in World War I, on the often forgotten Mesopotamian campaigns.  While there he learned Arabic.  He went on a hunting expedition with his brother Ted, seeking trophy sheep in mysterious Kashmir valleys.

But Kermit struggled with depression and with alcohol.  In the early days of World War II he used his friendship with Winston Churchill to wangle himself a British commission.  After nearly taking off on an ill advised mission to fight with the Finns against the soon-to-be-Ally Russia he apparently went on at least one commando raid into Nazi occupied Norway.

But his health was failing.  He resumed drinking and was discharged from the British Army in 1941 with a rank of captain. Returning to the States he vanished for a while, supposedly his cousin Franklin Delano had to send the FBI to find him and bring him home.

Probably to keep him out of trouble, or at least out of public trouble, he was commissioned a Major in the US Army and sent to Fort Richardson, Alaska.  His job sounds unimportant, he was an intelligence officer who helped organize local Eskimo militia units.

Alaska is a hard land.  In the winter night has no end.  Even in the summer the days stretch on and on without division one from the next.  It is not a good place to send a drinking man and a terrible one to send a depressed one.  On June 4th, 1943 Kermit Roosevelt died of a self inflicted gun shot wound. Authorities lied to his mother and called it a heart attack.

History has peculiar side channels, places where influences run from one point to another in unexpected ways.  From Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill in 1898 we get Kermit fighting in the Middle East a generation later.  And his son, Kermit Jr. took his father's interest in the area and his grandfathers expansive world view....and organized the coup that put the Shah of Iran into power in 1953.  Sometimes you start out with "a splendid little war" and end up being The Great Satan.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Five

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background:  Part One


Most Liberty ships were named after Americans.  But even in our Melting Pot society it would be difficult to run across a name as exotic as Bernardo O'Higgens!

O'Higgens was a Chilean of Spanish/Irish descent.  He played a prominent role in the struggle for independence that was precipitated by the Napoleonic conquest of Spain.  He seems to have been inclined towards wearing extravagant uniforms and to mounting military attacks more notable for their enthusiasm than for their prudence.

But in the swirling mess that was South American politics back then, some things broke the right way for Bernardo and he ended up being Supreme Director of Chile from 1817 to 1823.  Perhaps by the time the S.S. Bernardo O'Higgins was launched in September of 1943 it was just glossed over that it was commemorating a military dictator of just the sort the Allies were trying to overthrow!  As a dictator he seems to have been fairly benign by Latin standards.  His long time friend, rival and fellow revolutionary Jose Miguel Carrera was executed during his regime but O'Higgins is mostly criticized for not intervening to pardon him.  (Sending a thank you note to the Governor who had Carrera drawn and quartered was a little harsh).

You do have to be very careful treading in politics south of the border.  So discovered Ambrose Bierce, noted American journalist, writer and satirist.  Now remembered chiefly for his highly sarcastic "Devil's Dictonary" he was during World War Two more noted for his Civil War service and writings on same. In honor of which the S.S. Ambrose Bierce took to the seas in 1943.

In 1913 Bierce seems to have gone to Mexico to get a look at what Pancho Villa was up to in his attempted Revolution.

Bierce was never heard from again; one of history's great unsolved vanishing acts.  But there were those persisting rumors....


But not everyone had a horrid time in Mexico.  The namesake of the S.S. Joel Roberts Poinsett for instance had a very distinguished career as an American diplomat in the first half of the 19th Century. But he is remembered almost exclusively for a swell flower he saw growing south of Mexico City. Being as well an amateur botanist he sent a few home....

Monday, March 10, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Four

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background:  Part One


Today's first ship is a 1943 example, the S.S. George Gipp.  You may think it a bit unfair to propose the above image as a starting point for a ship's emblem.  After all, it is just some actor portraying Gipp. But to be fair, the movie Knute Rockne, All American came out in 1940, so this is exactly how most people would picture Gipp.  It is funny how a B movie can catch on sometimes.  Perhaps the phrase "Win just one for the Gipper" resonated with the national war effort.  Perhaps the B movie actor involved had some hard to explain charismatic qualities.

Oh, of course there was also a Liberty ship called the S.S. Knute Rockne.  Befitting his lead billing, the Rockne was laid down 12 days earlier, even though most folks not within sight of the upraised arms of "Touchdown Jesus" at Notre Dame would consider Gipp the more memorable figure.

Both men had dramatic deaths.  Rockne followed after a couple of our previous subjects, dying in an airplane crash in 1931. George Gipp of course died of pneumonia in 1920.  This was hardly unusual, it was the pre-antibiotic era and not long after the great influenza pandemic of 1919.  He is said to have encouraged Rockne to use his deathbed words to cheer on the team some day when all the breaks were going against them.  Evidently that did not happen very often to Notre Dame, as it was not until 1928 that Coach Rockne made his famous halftime speech that spurred the Fighting Irish on to victory over Army.

A couple of after notes.

Long, long after George Gipp had died there was a story that he had fathered a child shortly before his demise.  In 2007 Gipp's remains were exhumed and DNA testing was done.  Since at this late date the only thing really on the line was reputation I think we can regard the negative test results as a second posthumous "Win" for the Gipper.

Oh, and the chap who played Gipp in the movies.  Well, he did ok by himself eventually.  He even had a ship named after him.

I have mentioned earlier that rules regarding the naming of American aircraft carriers are a bit screwy. What with the longer survival times post office and the relative dearth of heroic Presidents the requirement that a man be dead before a ship bears his name has been relaxed.  So the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan was launched in 2001, when "Dutch" was still alive.  The christening was done by a former B movie actress named Nancy.  It was their 49th wedding anniversary.

On another historical side note, the naming of the Reagan caused a minor dust up.  The President at that time, Bill Clinton, was a Democrat.  It being uncommon for a President to name a major ship after a member of the opposite political party a compromise was needed.  So another carrier already under construction was renamed and became the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Three

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background: Part One


An odd starting point for this group of Liberty Ships.  The U.S.S. Avery Island was laid down October 31, 1944 and was completed on December 13th.  Originally a merchant ship she had the designation S.S. until she was taken over by the U.S. Navy in July of 1945.  Although her wartime service was uneventful the Avery Island did see a bit of "heat" post war when she was outfitted with instruments to help monitor the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll (whence the name for the "hot" style of swim wear of course originates!).

There appear to be a number of Liberty Ships named after islands for no discernible reasons....these include uninhabited rocks and places in the far east, neither of which would be at all likely to sponsor successful War Bond drives.  But in this case it would have been a bit more plausible for that to have happened.

Avery Island is a salt dome in coastal Louisiana.  It has been settled since the 1830s and has always had at least a small population.  It became a place of some importance during the Civil War, as salt was a necessary military supply for the Confederacy.  Considerable amounts were shipped out even after a Union naval expedition captured New Orleans.  Eventually Federal troops raided the place and shut down the clandestine trade.  Tabasco sauce was launched in 1870.


The S.S. Gideon Welles was laid down July 19, 1942 and launched 77 days later.  The earlier Liberty ships tended to have longer build times.  The average build time eventually dropped to 42 days, and once one was built in under five days as a publicity stunt.

Gideon Welles was Secretary of the Navy in the Lincoln administration.  So indirectly he was responsible for raiding Avery Island I suppose.  He had the usual credentials and whiskers for a politician of that era, but I include him and the above photo because of a charming poem I recall from my childhood.  It was written by a harsh critic of Welles and published in a partisan newspaper:

"Retire oh Gideon to an Onion Farm, 
or some other place you can do no harm.
Ply any trade that's innocent and slow
Go wherever you fancy, only Go."

Political invective was a bit more genteel back then, but certainly still got the point across.

And to be even handed the considerably less successful Confederate Secretary of Navy was remembered by the S.S. Stephen Mallory.


While onn the subject of pungent smells, consider the following:

George Gershwin got his own Liberty ship.  Oh, and the reference to pungent smells did not allude to his cigar, although that looks pretty nasty.

George Gershwin's contributions to American music are too numerous to address in passing.  But by 1937 his productivity had begun to decline as he was stricken by the odd combination of severe headaches and olfactory hallucinations.  He kept smelling burning rubber.  Alas, this is a sneaky but not unheard of presentation for a brain tumor, and the state of the neurosurgical art being primitive back then he died following an attempted resection on July 11, 1937.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Two

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background: Part One


Today's Liberty Ships have an unexpected connection.  As the only real requirement for a proposed name be that it was not that of a living person, you might well imagine that a prominent individual whose death was widely noted during the time frame of Liberty Ship construction would have a high probability of being nominated.

The S.S. Carole Lombard was laid down in December of 1943, but one assumes Miss Lombard's fans put her name forward long before that.  She was the highest paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s, acting in a string of successful movies generally in the "screwball comedy" genre.  She was also married to Clark Gable after an earlier marriage to William Powell.

Ironically although naming rights to a Liberty Ship were often linked to conducting a successful War Bond Drive it was just such an event that contributed to Lombard's death.  On January 16, 1942 she was on her way back from appearing at a Bond appeal when the DC 3 on which she was a passenger slammed into the side of a mountain near Las Vegas.

Gable was said to be devastated by the loss, and subsequently joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as his wife had previously urged him.  He attended the christening of the S.S. Carole Lombard where Irene Dunne swung the ceremonial bottle of champagne.


Our next ship would appear to be entirely unrelated:

Frederick Banting was a Canadian medical scientist, and one of the co-discoverers of insulin as a treatment for diabetes.  He deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology for this accomplishment in 1923.  He was only 32 years old at the time, the youngest individual to date to win the Nobel for Medicine.

Banting was quite the Renaissance man.  A wounded and decorated World War I medic he resumed his medical training post war, actually specializing in orthopedics.  This did not stop him from also lecturing in anthropology and pharmacology.  He was also an accomplished painter.

By the time of the Second World War he was interested in the physiological challenges of high altitude flight and in developing suits to help pilots cope with them.

On February 21st, 1941 he was on his way to England to conduct operational tests on one such suit when his his aircraft crashed at Musgrave Harbor, Newfoundland.

The S.S. Fredrick Banting was laid down on  29 November of 1943 and was launched a mere 22 days later.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part One

There is no logical reason for my fascination with things Nautical.  I live inland.  In fact I am about as far from salt water as you can get unless you are in a yurt hut somewhere in Central Asia.  But ships have always been special to mankind.  They are among the few inanimate objects that we name, often with words that express our hopes and aspirations.  Ulysses had his Argo, that could speak prophetically. And down through the centuries this ancient tradition has held steady.  Santa Maria. Dreadnought. Enterprise.

But there are some times when lists of ship names tell us more.  Not just the great ambitions and heroes of society, but the lesser lights.  This tends to happen during periods of conflict, when large numbers of ships are built quickly.....and all the swell names go early.  Naming a craft "HMS Victory XVII" just does not feel right, and one supposes would cause no end of problems for humble signals officers.

No, when ships are plentiful societies have to dig into obscure places to find names for them.  And there is no better example of this - and a fine archive of odd history to boot - in the naming of World War Two Liberty Ships.

It takes a lot of shipping to fight a global war, even without having to make up for ongoing losses. American shipyards rose mightily to the challenge and turned out no fewer than 2,710 "Liberty Ships". These were cargo ships of standardized design.  They were simplified wherever possible, as many of the men and women building them were more "Rosie the Riveter" than experienced ship builders.  Their engines were of an older, somewhat obsolete design that freed up the better power plants for combat ships.  In the movie Titanic the engine room scenes were filmed in a surviving Liberty Ship.

They were not great ships but they were certainly very good ones, and the Allied formula for success generally was that 10 good to very good ships or tanks or aircraft would almost always prevail over one or two superb ones.

So how does one come up with nearly 3,000 ship names?

In United States naval tradition most ship types have a set naming scheme.  Battleships are named after states.  Cruisers after cities. Destroyers after valiant sailors.  Only aircraft carriers for some reason do not have strict rules.

For Liberty Ships, in general, anyone could propose a name.  It should be of a person no longer living. Usually an American. Preferably someone who had made a significant contribution to American history or culture. You were supposed to sponsor a successful War Bond drive to get your name used, but I believe there were numerous exceptions.

When considering how best to assemble a gallery of oddly named Liberty ships I decided that there was little point trying to show pictures of each.  After all, they came off the assembly line all looking more or less alike.

Naval ships, although probably less often Merchant Marine vessels, often had formal or informal insignia such as this from the destroyer USS Black:

So I thought it would be fun to take a tour of the Liberty ships by proposing a bit of artwork for each....something that could perhaps be crafted into a ship's insignia.

Lets start out with the ship that clued me into this trove of odd history.

USS Don Marquis

Named after the newspaper columnist and satirist whose most enduring and endearing creations were Archie and Mehitabel.  Being respectively a cockroach and a cat they observed the foibles of society around them.  Archie then wrote Marquis' columns by throwing himself headfirst at the typewriter keys, one painful letter at a time.

The Don Marquis was built in Los Angeles, a city that the writer despised from a brief and unhappy attempt to "go Hollywood".  One at least hopes the ship was christened with a bottle of something suitably spirited, Don liked his drink.  I take intense personal comfort in his vision of a happy old age that he did not actually attain:

"Between the years of ninety-two and a hundred and two, however, we shall be the ribald, useless, drunken, outcast person we have always wished to be. We shall have a long white beard and long white hair; we shall not walk at all, but recline in a wheel chair and bellow for alcoholic beverages; in the winter we shall sit before the fire with our feet in a bucket of hot water, a decanter of corn whiskey near at hand, and write ribald songs against organized society; strapped to one arm of our chair will be a forty-five calibre revolver, and we shall shoot out the lights when we want to go to sleep, instead of turning them off; when we want air we shall throw a silver candlestick through the front window and be damned to it; we shall address public meetings (to which we have been invited because of our wisdom) in a vein of jocund malice. We shall … but we don’t wish to make any one envious of the good time that is coming to us … We look forward to a disreputable, vigorous, unhonoured, and disorderly old age"