It’s Christmas, 1183. Let the Games Begin

Peter O’Toole is Henry 2, King of England; Katherine Hepburn is his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. What a pair. You don’t need to know a lot of history to know that “Lion in Winter” is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in a castle, only the George and Martha of this story have three sons. And all of them have knives. As Eleanor says, “Of course, he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.”

The movie, “Lion in Winter”, is set in a castle in the Middle Ages. The only way to heat the joint up is with a family fight. It may be Christmas but Eleanor hits that proverbial nail on the head when she lets out with, “It might as well be Lent.”

And what’s Christmas without a family get-together? The Plantagenets gather at Daddy’s place in Anjou for a jolly good time. Henry is the Lion and Eleanor the Winter, two great forces baring their teeth at one another and using their sons to do it. Henry wants John, the youngest, to be the next king, Eleanor wants Richard to take over the family biz from Dad. Neither parent seems to care much for Geoffrey. So he gets Burgundy. Isn’t that the way it is with middle children? Don’t they always end up with Burgundy?

Along the way, they’ll use Philip, the King of France, to get what they want. As Eleanor tells Richard, “Promise him anything.” It’s the Plantagenet way. But Phil has some tricks up his sleeve too. However, he is never a match for Henry–and Eleanor. The question is: Is Henry a match for his three sons? And his wife of thirty years?

For Hepburn, it is a new career. She had only completed three movies between 1957 and 1968. Much of that time she tended to an ailing Spencer Tracy. He had passed on in 1967 shortly after doing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. It seemed that now she was liberated, and she gave this magnificent performance, one of the best in a career of great performances. Here she is a match for Lawrence of Arabia, and he too delivers a stunning performance, portraying one of history’s great kings. In addition to these two, there’s a future James Bond as the King of France and Anthony Hopkins, years before he became Sir Anthony, playing Richard.

If you don’t think writers matter, think again. James Goldman’s script, adapted from his play, has some amazing dialogue. It only goes to show how good a director and actors can be with a good, and in this case, a great, script.

Here’s just a sample of a conversation:

Eleanor: You look fit. War agrees with you. I keep informed; I follow all your slaughters from a distance. Do sit down.

Prince Richard: Is this an audience… a good night hug with kisses… or an ambush?

Eleanor: Let’s hope it’s a reunion.

Give yourself a treat and see “Lion in Winter”. I think you’ll love it.

How much fun were the Middle Ages?

Depends on who you ask. The lords and knights had to walk around in all that metal. One wonders what happened when the knight had to go toilet. Couldn’t toilet on the armor. That would cause rust. Think of all the blisters on their assets, and the metal poisoning too. Then there’s the draft. In those days it wasn’t the serfs who went off to war. It was the knights. And there’s the castle upkeep. It was hard to get a decent moat. What is a castle without a decent moat?

Of course, these knights would fight over anything. My castle is bigger than your castle.You have a moat and I don’t.  I killed more infidels in the Crusade than you did.. You name it and they would fight over it. They spent thirty years fighting over whose rose was prettier in England.

If there had been an SPCA in those days, the knights would have been fined for mistreatment of the horses they rode. The horses had to carry around the weight. No wonder they had bent backs.

If you were a lady, you were required to wear el chastity belt. Man, that thing is heavy. Besides what do you do if you have to go take a pee and your hubby is off at the crusades. Who is going to have the key? Lady Godiva really wasn’t in her all-togethers. She still had on her c.b. But she’d always wanted to go into showbiz. Riding through the town in her purt-nears was as close to Vegas as a girl got in merry old England.

The serfs were a little better off. They only worked two seasons of the year, Spring and The Rest of the Year. They didn’t get drafted because they had to stay home and keep the old homestead going. The crops went to the lord and lady of the manor, who were living high off the hog. All the serfs ate was gruel, except at Harvest Time. Harvest Time was a regular party after they brought in the crops. There was real food and booze too. The nice thing about serfing was they didn’t have to wear underwear, so during the summers they’d go skinny-dipping.

Often the castle was downwind of the serf. From time to time on a particularly windy day in winter time, the lord and lady of the manor complained about the smell. The serfs only took baths in the summer. The rest of the year it was the old pee yew.

In fact, nobody worried about taking a bath. That’s why they had pilgrimages and why England had a town named Bath. Once a year everybody took off and went on a pilgrimage to a town that had baths.

Then there was the Plague, or should I say Plagues. The Black Death. The Blue Death. The Red Death. Here a death, there a death, everywhere a death death death. That’s what they get for living with all those rats. A few cats could have gotten rid of all that disease. Why my Buster Buzztail can take down as many rats as he sees in one day. You think we have rats here at our house. No way, José.

Now, if you were Pope, you could really party hardy. All the booze and women you wanted. You could come up with an indulgence to keep you out of hell. If you were bored you could start a Crusade. As you can see, being Pope was the bees knees and more.

The people who had the most fun were the Bards. They got the best booze and the women loved them. You see, in those days, there was no such thing as You Tube or CNN or Fox. So the Bards were the news anchors of their times. If you wanted to know what Uncle Waldo did at the Battle of Agincourt, just ask the Bard. If you wanted to know why the king down the road turned chickenshit and ran away from Saluddin, ask your Bard. If you wanted to know what great granddaddy Groucho was during the First Crusade, ask the Bard. He’d tell you and he’d make it rhyme too.

To paraphrase one of the great bards of our age, Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the bard.” Bards didn’t have to wear armor or a chastity belt. Bards didn’t need a moat. Bards got to take baths. And the clothes, man. If you wanted to know what the latest men’s fashions were, check in with a bard. He’d be wearing them, and he’d have photos of the latest fashion show in Paris. As you can see, it was a pretty good life. For a Bard.

Dear Mr. President

Tuesday being Election Day, I thought I’d publish a little American history humor. A letter written to our first President and his response. Enjoy.

Dear President Washington,

You went and did it. You made Tom Jefferson the Secretary of State. Can you believe it? He thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. Reading all them books. Show off. Me, I didn’t get past kindergarten and it ain’t hurt me nary a bit. Next think you know he’ll be wanting everybody to speak French.

You know what the Bible says about Graven Images. What did you do? You went and hired that Alex Hamilton for Treasury. Now we got ten dollar bills with his face on it.

That John Adams for Vice President. Can you believe it? There ain’t a bit of vice in that old coot. He wouldn’t know a party if it up and bit him.

And what’s this about a whiskey tax. I gotta tell you my moonshine tastes fine without no tax tacked on.

Then you allowed those toothpaste ads on the copies you sent out of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I know you have to pay for the guvmint somehow. But those toothpaste ads are just atrocious. “You’ll wonder where the yellow went When you brush your teeth with Termitadent.” Why didn’t somebody tell me them were real termites? You need to get the FDA involved. Tell them my mouth is still so yellow that my neighbors are calling it Ol’ Yeller. And now my teeth are gone.

You know how much it costs to have a set of choppers made out of good solid oak? Well, it’s a lot. Almost as much as my wooden leg.

That’s about it. You were such a great general. Our beloved “Great Stone Face”. At Valley Forge, my buddies and I were recommending you to be the first face they put on Mount Rushmore. Now you went and done all this. I am so disappointed I am thinking about voting for that scoundrel, Aaron Burr, in ’92.

Well, you give Mrs. Washington a big howdy for me. I know you been wanting a kid. Just want you to know there’s this new-fangled technique called in vitro fertilization. Maybe it can help y’all have that little one.

Here’s hoping we’ll be seeing you at the Mount Vernon Fireworks for the Fourth next year. You always do a good do.

Your s truly,
John Q. Public

******
Dear John,

I received your letter. It’s always good to hear from the folks back home.

I heard the news and I just wanted to say how sorry I am that you lost that girl friend of yours. I can’t believe she couldn’t tell you face-to-face. She had to tell you in a letter. And she had to light out with that no-good Daniel Boone. I would send the FBI after them. But the CIA has told me they are now out of United States jurisdiction. They went to some place called Kentucky.

Them were some darn good recommendations you made. I have convinced Tom Jefferson not to read in public. I also am recommending to Congress that no French be spoken in the United States at all, except when that French fella de Tocqueville comes for a little sit-down.

We’ve heard your complaint about Alex’s image on the sawbuck. Secretary Hamilton said that he talked to the Almighty Himself. God told him to put those images on the paper money. You know how it is. There is no arguing with the Almighty. ‘Course I am not much for paper currency. I only take gold for payment in kind.

I do apologize for John Adams’ frown. I’ve tried everything and nothing will turn that frown upside down. Not even a night of sex with Abby. And you know how close he and Abby are? They’re like two peas in a pod.

Now the whiskey tax, we can do something about. We are repealing it. Instead we’re going to institute a gasoline tax. Since automobiles haven’t been invented yet, that tax won’t cost folks an arm and a leg. Oh, sorry about the wooden leg. I told you to get out of the way of that cannon ball at Yorktown. But you just wouldn’t listen.

I agree with you about Termitadent. I tried it myself and lost my wisdom teeth. We are having the FDA look into the matter.

To compensate for the damage, I have asked Congress to pass a G. I. Bill. All veterans of the war with the Redcoats will receive one set of choppers free. You’ll just have to pay the postage. I asked my Postmaster General Ben Franklin to belay the cost. Then he started quoting me from Poor Richard’s Almanak. I just couldn’t shut him up.

I did send your recommendation about Mount Rushmore over to the Interior Department. They told me that Abe Lincoln was going to be first. They are still mad about that cherry tree that used to be on the White House lawn. I keep telling them that I didn’t chop it down. It was Aaron Burr. But no, they won’t believe me. They are still mad about that intern. I can’t tell you how many times I have said that I did not have sex with that woman. Won’t nobody believe me?

Thanks for the recommendation about the in vitro. Martha is looking into it. Unfortunately she does not like needles. I can’t even convince her to get that tattoo of King George 3 off her butt. She doesn’t understand that it was part of the treaty we signed with the Brits in ’83. But I am working on her.

Looking forward to the Big Do come next Fourth. As always, we will have some surprises. And Willie Nelson has finally agreed to come and host the thing.

Always smiling,
George Washington
Father of your Country

The Thing They Carried

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This reflection was inspired by The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

It could have been the Germans. It could have been the Japanese. It could have been the Russians. But it was the Americans. The United States was the only nation with the resources to be able to create such a Thing. It was a Thing made for one job. For one purpose.

Since the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg on Poland in 1939, since the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, war raged around the world. Millions were refugees, dead or held in concentration camps. It was time for it to be over. It would take a Thing to bring it to an end.

The question was: Would it work? The scientists said it would work. The tests had given them the assurance that it would work. But no one was absolutely sure. They would not know until those final moments over Japan. Until it was dropped.

By August, 1945, the Nazis had surrendered. But not the Empire of Japan though it was defeated. It had no air force to speak of. It was under allied blockade. Many of its greatest cities, including Tokyo, were devastated by the firebombing American B29s. Yet the military fanatics who led Japan had decided that the Empire would go down in a blaze of glory rather than submit.

The Japanese military used fifteen and sixteen-year-olds as pilots of planes that were designed to be nothing more than bombs to crash into ships. They fired human torpedoes from their submarines. This was a foreshadowing of things to come if the United States invaded the Japanese homeland. Every man, woman and child was to be a kamikaze. Even Japanese school girls were taught to attack the enemy with spears. Suicide was preferable to surrender.

Few events were as controversial as the decision to drop the Thing. It was debated among the scientists who created It. It was debated by both the civilian and the military leadership in Washington, D.C. President Truman decided the Japanese leaders had left him no choice. After discussions with his advisers, he came to believe that the Thing would shorten the war and save not just thousands of American lives but millions of Japanese as well.

The Thing’s name was Little Boy, also known as the Gadget, the Device, the Gimmick, the S-1, and the most technical of all names, It. It was created at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Then It was assembled 5500 miles from there on Tinian Island, a part of the Marianas in the Pacific. On the night of August 5, 1945, the technicians wheeled It out to a special loading pit to be lifted up into the the bay of the B29 that was to deliver It.

Hours before the mission, the crews of the 509th Composite Group waited. They did what crews do the night before an important mission. A few ate. Some lay in their bunks and thought about loved ones. Some drowned their homesickness with a few shots of whiskey. Some played poker. One, a Catholic went to confession. Another spent his time briefing the New York Times reporter assigned to the mission. The navigator checked his flight bag to make sure his navigational tools were all in order. Each found a way to while away the hours that dragged.

Practice. Practice. Practice. For months, the team had practiced dropping The Thing, then make a 155 degree turn to get the hell out of there. Now there was a different kind of practice. Just in case of a crash upon take-off, the weaponeer decided to load and arm the Thing once the plane was in the air. In the hours before the takeoff, he practiced inserting the explosive charge and the detonator into the Thing. Difficult work to do considering how tight, how hot, how poorly lit the bay of the B29 that was to carry It. When offered a pair of gloves, the weaponeer said no. “I’ve got to feel the touch.”

At midnight, the commander of the mission gave a final briefing. He was the pilot of the B29 that would deliver the Thing to its destination. He finished with a word of advice for the twenty-six airmen in the room. “Do your jobs, obey orders, don’t cut corners.” Then the crew had breakfast while the flight engineer went out to the plane for his preflight check.

Early in the morning of Monday, August 6, 1945, the rest of the crew—the pilot, the co-pilot, the navigator, the electronic countermeasure man, the two radar operators, the bombardier, the tail gunner, and the ordinance expert—climbed aboard the plane, joining the weaponeer and the flight engineer. Painted on the nose of the B29 was the name of the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay.

2:27 a.m. Front engine No. 3, then No. 4, then No. 1, then No. 2.

“Okay to taxi,” the tower said.

2:35 a.m. In position to taxi.

Clear to take off.

A final check.

Take-off weight: 150,000 lbs., 7000 gal. of fuel, 12 men on board, and a five-ton Thing in the plane’s belly. The Enola Gay was eight tons over its normal weight.

“Let’s go.”

All throttles were pushed forward. Down the 8500 foot runway, the plane went past the ambulances and the fire trucks every fifty feet on each side. At the last minute, the B29 lifted into the air and was off the island and heading north by northwest toward Iwo Jima. It would be over the Japanese homeland 1500 miles away in a little less than six hours.

The tail gunner tested his gun, using 50 of the 1000 rounds he had.

The radar operators studied the radar pictures of Hiroshima.

“Judge going to work.” The weaponeer began to load The Thing. He inserted the gun powder and the detonator. He tightened the breach plate. It took him thirty minutes to complete his task.

The pilot did a check with the two planes following and got a “conditions normal”. So far nothing out of the ordinary. He turned the plane over to his co-pilot and went off to chat with the rest of the crew.

The pilot palavered with his crew for a few minutes, answering any questions they might have, trying to ease any tension there might be. The crew gave him a thumbs up that everything was a-okay. The pilot returned to the cockpit. He took the plane up to 9000 feet for a rendezvous in the pale, pink sky above Iwo Jima. A camera plane and an instrument plane joined up with the Enola Gay.

“Proceeding as planned,” the pilot radioed Iwo Jima downstairs.

“Good luck.”

The three planes formed into a V, the Enola Gay leading the way. Now it was on to what was left of the Japanese Empire.

The ordinance expert armed the charge. He was the last person to touch The Thing. Then he checked the circuits of The Thing on his monitor.

The pilot announced to the crew, “You are carrying the world’s first atomic bomb.”

The Enola Gay climbed to an altitude of 30,800 feet.

“Bomb primary,” came the message from the weather plane ahead. The pilot announced, “It’s Hiroshima.”

All lights on The Thing remained green. It was ready to do its job.

Course change to a heading of 264 degrees.

“Initial Point.”

Hiroshima’s morning sky was bright and clear. Perfect weather.

Below soldiers did their calisthenics.

Below a doctor was administering a shot.

Below a sixteen year old girl drove a tram.

Below two women arrived at the bank where they worked.

The pilot knew the city like the back of his hand from studying maps, photographs and radar pictures. He headed straight to the Aiming Point.

From below: “Top alert.”

“On goggles,” the pilot directed his crew to put on their goggles to shelter their eyes from the blast of The Thing they were about to drop. Only the pilot, the bombardier and the electronic countermeasures man did not slip their eyewear over their eyes. They needed their naked eyes to do their jobs.

Hiroshima in the bombardier’s viewfinder.

The plane began its three-and-a-half minute run.

The pilot: “Stand by.”

Below a nurse sterilized hospital tools.

Below a group of boys played hide-and-go-seek.

Below a woman had breakfast with her two children and her husband. He read the “Chugoku Shimbun” daily newspaper.

One of the women in the bank wiped a desk top. A soldier removed his shirt.

The Aiming Point of the T-shaped Aioi Bridge came into the bombardier’s cross hairs. “I’ve got it.”

Fifteen seconds.

The doctor looked up and saw the Enola Gay. Just one plane. Nothing to worry about.

8:15:17 a.m. Enola Gay’s bay doors opened. The Thing dropped from its restraining hook. Freed of the five tons, the B29 lurched upward. The pilot swung the plane into a 155 degree right turn and a steep power dive. The bay doors shut.

The Thing wobbled, then picked up speed.

Below Field Marshall Hata dressed for a meeting.

Korean Prince RiGu cantered his horse on the Aioi Bridge

Radio Hiroshima broadcast an air raid warning. Thousands of workers stopped what they were doing and hurried toward the “safe areas”.

The Enola Gay now five miles from the Aiming Point and heading out of the city.

Five seconds to go.

At 1890 feet above the city of Hiroshima, the Thing detonated, untold quantities of energy released in a blast. A white light, a flash, a fireball fifty million degrees centigrade at its center. The fireball expanded to 300 meters wide.

There was a new sun in the sky. A sudden and throbbing roar, then total darkness, then red, yellow, orange, green burbled up from the city below, then grayish, brownish, black smoke. Looking down at it all, the tail gunner said that it was “a peep into hell.”

That morning in 1945, the people below in the city were no longer Japanese. They were human beings.

Sources
Books

Hersey, J. (1989). Hiroshima. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Smith, J. M. (2010). Fire in the sky: The story of the atomic bomb. Place of publication not identified: Textstream.

Thomas, G., & Witts, M. M. (1995). Enola Gay – Mission to Hiroshima. Loughborough, England.: White Owl Press.

Films

Hiroshima (BBC History of World War II) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2009). BBC Home Entertainment.

Joffé, R. (Director). (1989). Fat man and little boy [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Modern Marvels – The Manhattan Project (History Channel) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2005). A&E Home Video.

The Poker Game of 1776

July 3, 1776. A tavern across the street from Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

John Adams couldn’t bluff at poker if his life depended on it. Thomas Jefferson knew it. Benjamin Franklin knew it. Old Stone Face, George Washington, sitting across from Adams, knew it.

Ben and Tom folded. Neither of them had any kind of hand to play. But Adams was staying. He didn’t believe Stone Face had a winning hand.

“I call you,” Stone Face said to Adams across the table.

John Adams, a big smile on his face, threw down three aces.  Stone Face threw down his full house, then reached over and pulled the wad of English pound notes toward him.

Adams’ face dropped into a frown. Lost again. Here he was doing the very thing Abby warned him against. Playing poker with Stone Face. Washington always won. Over the course of the last two months, he had just about wiped out all the delegates of the Continental Congress of their cash. But he had done it for a good cause. He needed a new set of false teeth.

Adams said, “I give up. I’m broke. So what are we going to do about John Hancock?”

“We should shoot the son of a bitch,” Stone Face offered. Washington seldom lost his cool but John Hancock had gotten under his skin in a way that British General Howe never did.

Jefferson followed up with, “That’s what we’d do in Virginia.”

“Now, boys,” Ben interjected, “let’s be serious. But not that serious.”

Washington said, “I can’t believe I came back to have to deal with this. My guys at Valley Forge are going to mutiny if we don’t get this settled once and for all.”

“Why don’t we just get him drunk?” Franklin suggested.

Jefferson said,” That is your answer for everything.”

“Just about,” Franklin answered. “How you think I survived that thing with the kite? Remember the old saying, ‘Three strikes you’re out.’ When that lightning bolt hit the kite, I was as drunk as Gulliver must’ve been the day he saw those Lilliputians. The lightning struck me three times, and yet, here I am.”

John Adams knew Hancock too well for that. “He’ll just fall asleep.”

Jefferson was miffed. “All I know is that I am not letting him put those words into the Declaration of Independence.”

Stone Face put in his two pences. “I agree with Tom. I mean, Hancock and his ‘when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to kick King George’s butt because he is, and ever shall be, a pantywaist’ is a little too much. Even for this Congress. We all don’t like the king but that is a little too much. The British will never take us seriously.”

“Totally destroys the mood,” Jefferson added, “don’t you think?”

The Virginia delegation was unanimous about its approbation against John Hancock. Either the Continental Congress gave Hancock his walking papers or they would be walking. But everybody knew what would happen if Hancock went home. The whole New England bunch would leave with him.

From the beginning, Hancock had been cause for alarm. First he wore that pink outfit. Oh, my gosh. And the chicken costume. It looked like he was trying to out-Elton-John Lady Gaga. Then his proposal that the country use “We are the champions of the world” for its national anthem. It had taken months for John Adams to get his friend to calm down and be reasonable. Now this.

Ben had an idea. “Bet Betsy Ross could get him to go along with the program. After all, she’s his tailor.”

“You know what she’s going to charge?” John Adams inquired.

Stone Face, always a pragmatic man, said, “Yes, but can she get results. When she threatens him, he’ll cry uncle. After all, she’s the one who turned him into a fashionista. Says she has a flair with the silk pajamas”

“Ben,” Adams asked, “have you been able to get her price down? Last I heard she was charging an arm and a leg.”

Jefferson said, “Yeah, just look at Long John Silver.”

“On this one,” Ben said, “she knows she has us over a barrel. She wants the flag concession.”

“Can she get the job done?” Tom asked.

“I believe so,” Franklin said. “She has a long history with Hancock. Something about babysitting with his kids when they were just knee-high-to-a-grasshopper.”

Stone Face was satisfied. “I say we give it to her.”

Jefferson and Adams nodded their heads in agreement. But Franklin was not finished. “In perpetuity.”

“What?” the other three said as a chorus.

“No way are we going to go along with that,” Stone Face said. “John, can’t Abby help in this department?”

“When Hancock puts his mind to a thing,” Adams said, “he puts his mind to a thing. I’m afraid Betsy is our only option. If we want Hancock, we are going to have to give in to her demands.”

“Then,” Stone Face finalized the discussion, “Betsy gets the flag concession in perpetuity. But you tell her that I want a free ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ for each of my Regiments, and according to my specifications.”

John Adams breathed a sigh of relief. He was going to get his revolution, after all. The other three had given him a big thumbs up with their agreement on the Hancock Matter. “So, Tom, looks like you’ll be able to do a press release.”

Jefferson took out his pen and pad and began to write. Then he looked up at the others. “I just realized we have another problem.”

“”What now?” Stone Face was just about fed up with all the back-and-forth going on at the Congress. Why didn’t folks just do what they were told? It would be so much easier.

Jefferson thought so too but he didn’t say anything out loud. “It’s Tom Paine. He’s going to insist on editing my text and publishing it the way he wants.”

Adams was now in the fray. He didn’t like Paine. “Please. No more ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’ crap. God, that man has an ego.”

“Yeah,” Ben agreed. “He gets a fifth down him, and there is no telling what he will write.”

Stone Face had an answer. “We could just draft him. I need a good secretary and he does take shorthand.”

The others smiled. Stone Face once again came to the rescue. Guess that was why folks were calling him “The Father of the Country”.

“Glad we’ve got all that settled,” Stone Face said. “Now I have to go and kick some British hineys.”

“Don’t forget,” Adams requested, “to take a piece out of Cornwallis for me.”

The four men gathered up their things and made for the door, then John Adams said, “I just remembered. Just one more thing.”

“No,” the other three said.

“’Fraid so. It’s Paul Revere. Every time we get ready to attack the British from behind some trees, guerilla style, Paul shows up on his horse. He lets the Brits know where we are by yelling, ‘The Americans are coming. The Americans are coming.’”