Old San Francisco

"HI, I'm Chad."

“HI, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy.”

Old San Francisco is rapidly dying.  Sure there are cable cars and Queen Anne houses, but the shops around Union Square have none of that feel you get when you watch a noir-ish film like The Maltese Falcon.  Sadly, there is not much left of that San Francisco.  “Modern” is the zeitgeist of San Francisco now, I-Phones rather than phone booths and Starbucks and a Caramel Macchiato instead of a coffee shop and a mug of joe.  And with that comes the over-casual dress and attitude that is the current age.  White linen table cloths and dignified waiters in ties have fallen to disposal paper coverings and a guy in a Major Lazor T-shirt saying, “Hi, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy.  What can I get you?”  But not everywhere.  There are a few hold-outs who refuse to give in to the current trends.

John's Grill on Ellis Street

John’s Grill on Ellis Street

A couple of blocks south of Union Square is a haven of Old San Francisco named John’s Grill.   Not being a regular visitor of San Francisco, I’d never heard of it.  By chance, I was checking out restaurants on my smartphone (yes, I do have one) while my wife, Kelly, was shopping, I found it was close and sounded good.  Established in 1908, it was a favorite haunt of Dashiell Hammett.  In fact, you trivia nuts, it is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon. To be honest, I did not remember it at the time, only realizing it when I saw their website on my phone.  I loved the book, The Book, so much that I dedicated my latest Morg Mahoney mystery to it.  Obviously, I found that interesting and I called.  I had no problem getting a reservation, but then six is way too early to dine for most San Franciscans.  I asked if there were a dress code, since I was in Levi’s, and was a little disappointed that there was not.  We showed up on time, but opted to go upstairs to “the Maltese Falcon” Room, which didn’t open until six-thirty.  We took a seat at the small, but well-stocked bar while we waited.

Johnny Walker and Soda?

Johnny Walker and Soda?

I should have ordered Johnny Walker and soda, or two, or more, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but had one Johnny Walker Black on the rocks instead.  Personally, I think soda ruins scotch.  The bartender, Louis, pronounced Louie like in Casablanca,  had been there for thirty years.  The bar was pretty empty, so we had a chance to chat.  He mentioned a few of the famous and infamous who had dined there.  He told us of how things had changed since he started.  Then, you would wear a tux when dining there on Friday and Saturday nights.  You wouldn’t have got through the door in jeans.  While he did not criticize the current policy, I got the feeling that he missed the old days.  The clock struck six-thirty (figuratively) and we went upstairs.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

Downstairs was nice, with cloth table cloths and mahogany paneling, but was rather noisy.  More the hangout for locals coming in for a Grey Goose vodka martini or white wine at the end of the work day than quite dining.  As we hit the top of the stairs and walked past the display case with a black falcon that looked like a dead ringer for the one in the movie, the mood changed.  There was a guitarist playing mellow jazz.  Tables had more space between them.  We had a window table overlooking Ellis Street.  The waiter was polite, helpful and a study in black, with shirt, trousers and tie all in that basic color.  And he wasn’t named Justin and didn’t try to be our good buddy.

The menu looked liked something out of the 50’s or 60’s (click here to see it). There was no seared ahi or cranberry quinoa salad.  I probably should have ordered the Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops in honor of their mention in The Book, but I’m not in love with lamb.  Just because you like a character in a book doesn’t mean you have to eat and drink what he did.  So I opted for the sea bass.  My wife took a walk down memory lane and ordered the filet with Bernaise sauce, her favorite when we both ate steak in the 60’s and 70’s.  Nothing was listed for a starch but a baked potato (imported all the way from Idaho, no less), although I now understand fries are available.  We both had the baked potato, again my wife’s favorite.

The food was great and servings were generous.  Although my sea bass had a beurre blanc sauce and I’m not really into that, the fish itself and the veggies were perfectly cooked.  My wife said the same about her steak.  She was so impressed that she ordered the chocolate mouse torte and said that it was worth the calories, which is saying a lot.  All the way through, our waiter was attentive while never hovering.  It was just like fine dining in the 60’s.  It wasn’t cheap, but we’ve spent far more for far less quality.  If you’re ever visiting San Francisco, I would recommend  breaking your diet and splurging at John’s Grill.

I should mention that Zagat rated John’s Grill as the “#1 Steakhouse in San Francisco.”   Also,The Maltese Falcon Room is a National Literary Landmark and the meeting place of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco (click here for more info).  We chose wisely, both for food and for literary history.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett in coat, tie and fedora

Why write about John’s Grill?  Because it’s a dying breed.  This is Old San Francisco, with all the class of a Hammett novel.  If we lived in San Francisco, would we be regulars?  Maybe not.  I could almost hear my arteries hardening as I ate.  I do try to eat more healthily than I did in the 60’s.  However, the feeling of quiet quality, of dining rather than eating is becoming rare.  We were not rushed.  It would be a place I would go on special occasions.  And our dinner there was a special occasion.  I felt like I should have been wearing a coat and tie, even though it wasn’t required, and have hung my snap-brim fedora (yes, I have more than one and do wear them) on a coat hook by the door.  I was sure that I  felt the ghost of Dashiell Hammett sitting there with us, having lamb chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes.   But maybe that was just the air conditioning.

Old San Francisco is fading away.  When you shop in stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus, you see people in frayed jeans and T-shirts (men and women) instead of suits and dresses.  Am I the only one who thinks we’ve lost something when we no longer make things a special occasion in our lives and dress accordingly?  Maybe I belong back when Hammett was writing about San Francisco.  When no one would have dared go to John’s Grill in Levi’s.


Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was signed by the wicked King John on June 15th, 1215, and it is having its 800th birthday this year.  Why is that important?  Because the Magna Carta is kind of the same as our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, establishing the rights of the people in England, right?  Aside from using the word “right” too often, that sentence has a serious problem.  The Magna Carta Libertatum, or Great Charter of  the Liberties, said little regarding the rights of all of the people.  Only in sections 15, 20, 27 and 39 are “freemen” directly named (more here).  Serfs, of course, are not. Then again, neither are black slaves in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, except for how many representatives slave states may send to Congress.  Neither serfs nor slaves had rights in any of these documents.  What was addressed in the Magna Carta?  A group of powerful barons (the 1% of their day) had a number of beefs with King John and were in revolt.  This was, in effect, a peace treaty offered to John with a threat dangling overhead like the sword of Damocles.  A number of the sections in the Magna Carta had to do with inheritance, keeping the king from plundering estates of dead nobles.  Others dealt with legal rights and the church’s standing.  However, some of the more interesting sections deal with removing relatives of Gerard de Athyes from positions of authority and freeing the son of Llewellyn and all the Welsh hostages.  Ever heard of Gerard de Athyes?  Obviously, it was meant to address immediate complaints as well as general principles.  Yet it is considered a milestone of contractual government.  Why?

Robin Hood.  Original artwork for Look and Learn (issue yet to be identified).

Robin Hood, real or not.

At the time the barons met with King John (yes, the bad guy who didn’t get along well with Robin Hood) on the Runnymede meadow, the concept of “divine right” was strongly ingrained in kings and, they hoped, the people.  After Charlemagne was crowned by  Pope Leo II, the king was seen as anointed by God.  At least by the kings.  As such, to revolt against him was to revolt against God.  Not a good idea.  Yet revolts happened.  Either there were those who did not recognize a king’s divine right or they were willing to risk the wrath of God for gain on Earth.  If the papacy also had an issue with a king, divine right became a non-issue.  Such was the case with poor King John.  In fact, the highest ecclesiastical authority in England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, is said to have written the original Magna Carta.  However, things soon went south for the barons.  After a dispute with Pope Innocent III a couple of years before, John had surrendered England to the papacy as a feudal holding.  In other words, the Pope was John’s liege lord.  Wily John contacted Pope Innocent III about this charter and the Pope, seeing it as an infringement on his authority, declared it “null and void of all validity for ever.”

Magna Carta Libertatum

Magna Carta Libertatum

Yet, we have the Magna Carta around to this day.  During a war with King John against his barons in which they offered the throne to French Prince Louis, John died of dysentery, or severe diarrhea.  You might say he had the crap kicked out of him.  His son, Henry III, agreed to the basic terms of the Magna Carta.  Although it went through a few other revisions in the next few years, it survived to this day. Three sections still ring true: the ban on cruel and unusual punishments, trial by a jury of one’s peers and the idea that justice should not be sold or unnecessarily delayed.  Why is that so important?

The key issue here is the authority of a government.  Does God (or Allah) appoint a ruler who can do what he wants with impunity?  Or does a governing person or body rule with the consent of those governed?  The Magna Carta, in effect, says, “There is a contract between the ruler and those who are ruled.  Unless the conditions agreed upon by those being ruled are followed, that contract is null and void.”  It was an agreement between those ruled and those who rule.  It was, in a very real sense, the precursor of John Locke’s Social Contract, a theory that was a key part of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States of America.

On the 800th anniversary of the first signing of the Magna Carta, let us remember the main points: the ultimate authority is with those governed, we allow others to run the government and can rescind that power at any time, and no man is above the will of the people or has authority to act with impunity.

Memorial Day- Remembering Andrew Bryant, an Unsung Hero

A young and dapper Andrew Bryant

A young and dapper Andrew Bryant

While Memorial Day, which was started after the Civil War to honor the fallen soldiers and is not meant for remembering those who survive, I think we should also remember those who survived, but died inside protecting this nation.  Too many lived thorough a war, but at great cost.  One was Andrew Bryant.  Few people have heard of Andrew Thomas Bryant.  If you Google the name, you won’t find anything about the Andrew Bryant who was my great-uncle in at least the first few hundred listings.  I know because I’ve checked.  I only met Andrew once, when I was about 10 years old, and have little personal memory of him.  I never heard him talk of his wartime experiences.  Until a short time ago, all I had was hearsay evidence of his service.

Americans and Filipinos surrender at the fall of Corrigidor

Americans and Filipinos surrender at the fall of Corrigidor

According to my late mother, her uncle Andrew was in the Philippines when WWII broke out.  Having enlisted in the Army during WWI, he was due to retire about that time and had a Filipino wife who owned a shop in Manila.  They had stockpiled bolts of silk to bring back to the States as an early form of an IRA.  But things didn’t work out as planned when the Japanese cut off the islands and invaded.  He was taken prisoner at the fall of Corrigidor in 1942, but survived in the Bataan Death March.   He saw men fall on that march, killed and dragged to the side of the road by Samari swords.  Once in the POW camp, he traded gold rings off his fingers for salt.  He had been wounded and a fellow soldier dug out the bullet with a rusty bayonet, leaving a permanent hole in his side.  After being freed from the POW camp, he tried to find his wife, but her shop had been destroyed by a bomb and he never could find her.  Although he made it through the war physically, he drank heavily and would often descend into tears at the memory of what had happened in the war, talking about people long dead.  It was a classic case of PTSD.  He never forgave General Douglas MacArthur for secretly leaving Corrigidor in a submarine in the middle of the night after promising his men he would stay with them, no matter what.  But, like I said, all this came from my mother.

Andrew in 1946.  If he had survived a Japanese POW camp, why was he so fat?  Was it because when food was readily available, he went out of control?

Andrew in 1946. If he had survived a Japanese POW camp, why was he so fat? Was it because when food was readily available, he went out of control?

In history, every event should be verified by more than one reliable source to have credence.  Often that is not the case in family history.  A tour guide I met used to say, “There are lots of tales and some of them are true.”  Although I wanted to believe that what my mother had told me about Andrew was true, I wanted impartial proof.  All of my mother’s brothers and her sister have passed away and Andrew’s children by his second wife (if the story I was told was correct) have proved impossible to find.  So I tried to find any information I could about him.  I spent hours checking every website that had info on Bataan Death March survivors, Army personnel stationed in the Philippines at the outbreak of WWII, POW’s in Japanese camps and any other relevant source of such information.  Nada.  I was beginning to wonder if it were all a fake, if instead of being a hero, my great-uncle was a fraud.   Was this story from my mother one that wasn’t true?

Not long ago I had worked with my cousin’s son (first cousin, once removed for you genealogists) in researching my uncle, Earl Owen Thresher, a Marine who died on Guadalcanal.   We took on Andrew as a project and he sent a copy of a short item in the Louisville Courier-Journal from 1942 that said,”Second Lieu. Andrew Bryant, 43, former Louisvillian previously reported as missing, is a prisoner of war of the Japanese Government in the Philippines, the War Department has notified his sister, Mrs. Betty Thresher. A World War veteran, Lieutenant Bryant has been in the Army ever since except for a two-year period.  He was at Corregidor when it fell, Mrs. Thresher said.  He served six years in Hawaii and about twelve in the Philippines where he was stationed when war broke out.”  It was the only confirmation of anything I had been told, but I was inspired to continue my search.

The big break came when the deacon at our church, a chaplain for Marine survivors of Corrigidor,  gave me a website of Bataan survivors to check out.  Scrolling down, I hit “Bryant, Andrew T., 2nd Lt.”  A cold chill ran down my spine.  This was actual confirmation that Andrew was there.  More importantly, it gave me his Army serial number.  I was in.  From there on, the information about him was easily accessible.  He’d been in the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines and been shipped to Japan on 7/17/1944.  He’d been on the Hell Ship (so termed because of the horrendous conditions aboard these transport vessels that too often were sunk by unknowing American submarines) Nissyo Maru.   The ship took him to Takao/ Moji, Japan, arriving on 8/3/44.  He was interned in the notorious Moji POW camp.  If you want to know what it was like for men like Andrew, read the book Unbroken.  While the movie was not up to the quality of the book, it will give you an idea of what “hell on Earth” means.  Andrew was there.

Andrew the survivor

Andrew, a survivor in body.

After the war, Andrew returned to the U.S. on the S.S. Simon Bolivar, landing in San Francisco on 10/21/1945.  I know this from the official records.  But there is so much I don’t know for sure.  Did he have a Filipino wife who likely perished in the fall of Manila to the Japanese?  Did he somehow keep his rings after being taken captive and trade them for salt to keep alive?  Did a fellow soldier dig out a bullet or shrapnel with a dirty bayonet?  I doubt that there is any chance of actually knowing if these are facts or fiction.  However, in light of so many of the stories my mother told me being true, these might be as well.  One thing I do know is that Andrew really was a hero, a soldier who suffered and survived what might have killed lesser men.  So, while he did not physically die in the war, I think a part of his being died for his country.  For that reason, while I remember those who have given their lives for our country on this Memorial Day, I also remember all those men and women who physically lived through a war to protect this country, but suffered a certain type of death inside, known as PTSD.  Like Lt.Andrew Bryant.  I sing their praises.

The Real Mother’s Day

Cybele, Rome's Magna Mater ("Great Mother")

Cybele, Rome’s Magna Mater (“Great Mother”)

Through time, there have been certain days when many cultures have honored mothers, but they aren’t tied directly to the American Mother’s Day. To claim that a day organized by different individuals on a different day of the month for a different purpose is the same as Mother’s Day is as fallacious as claiming it has close ties to the Hilaria, the Roman festivals to honor Cybele, their Magna Mater or Great Mother of the gods.  She was all about the power of the Roman state, not a nurturing mother.  Not the same animal.  Today, there are celebrations of women or mothers, with a day set aside for them, in most every country of the world.  However, America was the first country to make an official day honoring mothers per se.  Such events as Mothering Sunday in Great Britain originally had more to do with returning to one’s mother church before copying the the American version and Russia’s communist International Women’s Day only became Mother’s Day in 1998.

Suffragette and peace activist, Julia Ward Howe

Abolitionist, suffragette and peace activist, Julia Ward Howe

There those who claim that Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day for Peace was the first Mother’s Day.  She is most famous for having penned “The battle Hymn of the Republic,” written to the music of the abolitionist’s theme song, “John Brown;s Body.”  It became the marching tune of the Union Army in the Civil War.  However, she later became a pacifist and proposed a day of “marching in the streets, not eating brunch” that started in 1872, to be observed every 2nd of June, known as the Mother’s Day for Peace. However, that Mother’s Day was never observed on a national level and Ms Howe’s version was almost defunct by 1893. Anna Jarvis started her efforts in 1907, inspired by honoring her own mother. Ms. Jarvis had no connection to Ms. Howe’s peace movement and only wanted a day to recognize mothers (beginning with her own), not of marches and protests.

Anna Marie Jarvis, beloved mother of the originator Mother's Day

Ann Marie Jarvis, beloved mother of the originator Mother’s Day

Some sources claim that Ms. Jarvis’ mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, is a tie to Ms. Howe’s movement because of Ann’s efforts to help her community. While Ann Jarvis started Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to improve health and sanitation in 1858, which later treated wounded soldiers from both sides during the Civil War, and started Mothers Friendship Day to bind up families’ emotional wounds from that war in 1865 (or 1868, depending on your source), she had no connection with Ms. Howe. According to those sources, Ann Jarvis inspired Ms. Howe to start her day of marches, but no one claims either Ms. Jarvis were ever a part of them.

Miss Anna Jarvis

Miss Anna Jarvis, who almost single-handedly created Mother’s Day, was never a mother herself.

Miss Anna Jarvis dearly loved her mother, Ann Marie, and, after her death in 1905, strove to honor her. Notice “Mother’s Day” is not “Mothers’ Day,” because you are to honor your own mother on that day as Anna honored hers. In 1913 the House passed a resolution encouraging the wearing of a white carnation in honor of mothers on May 11th, but not creating the holiday Mother’s Day at that time.  Anna was not satisfied.  It was almost entirely due to her efforts that, on May 8, 1914, Congress passed the enactment of Mother’s Day (not Mother’s Day for Peace) as a national holiday to be celebrated on the second Sunday of May (not June 2).

Over-the-top Red Roses

Over-the-top Red Roses

It is true that Mother’s Day was soon commercialized, with businesses reaping great profits from the sale of flowers and cards, which greatly upset Anna Jarvis. She even became an opponent of her own holiday. However, if we wish to harken back to her original intent for Mother’s Day, we should write a letter to our wives and mothers, telling them how much they mean to us and go to church with them (Ms. Jarvis was a devout Christian). She even trademarked “Mother’s Day” in a vain effort to prevent anyone from misusing the name. Those were her soon-dashed hopes for Mother’s Day.

A simple White Carnation speaks volumes

A simple White Carnation speaks volumes

if you want to really observe Mother’s Day as its founder would have done, write a letter to your mother and, if you are also a father, to the mother of your children to say how much they mean to you.  Go to church or your own place of religious observance with her.  It is more in keeping with Anna’s vision than sending roses.  However, if you’re sending flowers, remember that a single white carnation is much more appropriate than a whole room full of red roses.

Happy Birthday, Bach

ill_be_bachWhile you may have heard that the famous Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, he wasn’t.  Well, that’s what the date was when he was born according to Old Style dating, but the calendar changed before he died, so he was born March 31, 1685 according to New Style dating.  Is that as clear as mud?  Let me muddy the waters more.

Julius Caesar established a reformed calendar in 46 BC.  However, it lagged the astronomical calendar by 11 minutes a year.  Hey, what’s a few minutes a year?  By 1582, it amounted to 10 days, so Pope Gregory XIII did a quick-step and bumped the calendar up 10 days to correct that.  However, only Catholic countries, i.e., Venice, the Papal States the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Portugal, and France made the change at that time.  Although Protestant countries later fell in line, Bach’s Saxe-Eisenach only did so in 1700, making him born March 21, O.S. (Old Style), but March 31, N.S. (New Style).  Since I was also born on March 31, I opt to use the N.S. dating, making him a birthday brother, so to speak.

The Three B's Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

The Three B’s
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

The “Three B’s” are considered the premier composers, all beginning with the letter B.  Although Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are now considered to be the three great B’s, it was not originally so.  In 1854, composer and writer Peter Cornelius described the Three B’s at Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz in an article meant to elevate Hector Berlioz to the stature of the already-recognized greatness of Bach and Beethoven.  If you’re not that familiar with Hector’s works, don’t feel like the Lone Stranger.  Although considered influential in the Romantic period, he and his works are not well known to the general music listener.  However, later that century the conductor Hans van Bulow replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (Mr. Lullaby) in his assessment of the great Three B’s and the rest is history.

The Rabbit of Seville

The Rabbit of Seville

Getting back to J.S. Bach, let me give a more personal note of why I am so proud to have been born on his birthday.  I was not brought up in a household that listened to classical music.  In fact, the only classical music I remember experiencing was in Warner Brothers cartoons.  Who can forget Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Rabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in (click here) “What’s Opera Doc?”  Or Bugs Bunny singing “Let Me Shave Your Mop” in the revised version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” (click here) “The Rabbit of Seville?”  Yet I had no idea these were but parodies of the great musical masterpieces lying in wait for me.

When I went to college, there were private listening rooms in the library where I could play records (I’m dating myself here) while listening to them on headphones while I studied calculus or fluid dynamics. One of the platters I played was (click here) “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by J.S. Bach.  I was hooked.  Perhaps it was because his intricate precision appealed to my engineering mind.  Musicologist Hebert Anton Kellner considered Bach a mathematician because of this aspect of his music (click here).  Whatever the case, this superstar of the Baroque era of classical music became a favorite of mine and remains so to this day.  I can honestly say that Bach was a guiding light on my path of musical appreciation.

For those of you who remember the TV show M.A.S.H., when Hawkeye is giving Radar a crash course in classical music for a nurse he is dating, Hawkeye tells Radar to just say “Ah, Bach,” if the nurse brings up J.S.  The reason is that Bach is the penultimate composer, about whom nothing needs to be said.  Unfortunately, Radar doesn’t quite understand.  (click here)  Yet, the point is well made: the very name of Bach says it all.

Birthday Boy, Johann Sebastian Bach

Birthday Boy,
Johann Sebastian Bach

Only a fool would deny the fact that J.S. Bach was a great composer.  There are far better sites from far better musical historians who write on that, so I will not make any feeble effort to compete.  I will only say that he is the greatest to me.  I will also note that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church has a (click here) feast day in his remembrance on July 28th every year (he died on July 28, 1750).  As an Anglican myself, I find this most appropriate for a man who wrote some of the greatest musical works of all times, primarily for the Christian church.  For an example, click here for a performance of “St. Matthew’s Passion.”

Happy 330th birthday, Bach.

Friday the 13th

13 friday2015 will have three of the ultimate of unlucky days, Friday the 13th.  February, March and November will all host one.  While not common to have so many, it will happen eleven times this century.  For friggatriskaidekaphobics, they will be very bad years.  In case you didn’t guess, friggatriskaidekaphobia is an irrational fear of Friday the 13th, deriving from the Norse goddess Frigga, the wife of Odin who donated her name to Friday, combined with Greek tris (‘three’), kai (‘and’), deka (‘ten’), and good ol’ -phobia.  Don’t like that word?  How about paraskevidekatriaphobia, which combines paraskevi (‘Friday’) and dekatria (‘thirteen’) with our beloved -phobia.  But enough esoteric etymology, why is Friday the 13th the penultimate unlucky day?  Herein lies the rub.  No one really knows.  So let’s explore some of the conjectures posited.

13 for dinner

13 for dinner with a Judas in the mix

Friday was the day Jesus was crucified after dining with 12 of his followers, one of whom betrayed him, although we do not know if it were the 13th day of the month.  That would seem to be very bad luck and should have credence, especially in so-called “Christian countries.”  Obviously, such a tradition of fear would have started a couple of millennia ago, right?  Wrong.  There is no ancient Christian tradition of Friday the 13th being unlucky.  While 13 has been considered an unlucky number to seat at a table for many years, even that cannot be definitely linked to Christianity.  Loki, the Norse god of mischief, was the 13th god at an unlucky Valhalla banquet and well may be the source of that superstition.  But, as far as the legend goes, we don’t know that the banquet was on a Friday.

Things got hot for Jacques DeMolay

Things got hot for Jacques DeMolay

Another theory is that it started when the fabled Knights Templar came under persecution by King Philip IV of France, known as “The Fair” because of his hair color rather than his equability, arrested Templar Grand Master Jaqcues DeMolay and other members of the order on Friday, October 13, 1307.  Now that really sounds like the source, right?  Unfortunately, (if you’ll pardon the pun) there is no reference to it being an unlucky day from that time hence.  In fact, as late as 1882 there is no record of Friday the 13th being considered particularly unlucky.

No way is that my room!

No way is that my room!

Friday itself had long been considered unlucky, again for reasons lost in time.  Perhaps it was because Jesus was crucified on a Friday, but pagan Germanic tribes considered it an unlucky day as well.  The number 13 has had a bad rap in most Western cultures so that up to 80% of high-rises are built with the floors numbered without a 13, but not in Asian ones, which consider 4 the unlucky number.  Why?  Oft times trying to attach logic to superstition is a wasted effort.  But when did 13 get attached to Friday as a double whammy?  It seems that a group of anti-superstitionists got together and officially formed the Thirteen Club in New York City on Friday, January 13, 1882.

The Thirteen Club was started by men who wanted to flaunt their disbelief in superstitions, including those about Fridays, when many hangings were done (we’re not talking pictures here), and of the number 13.  They also purposely broke many mirrors, which undoubtedly was good luck for the glass industry.  Ironically, the club may well have been the originator of the whole Friday-the-13th obsession, for they would hold a gala event when Friday and the 13th of the month intersected.  Branches of the club sprang up all over the States and Britain.   And with them, Friday the 13th observations of anti-superstition by their members.

However, the Thirteen Club may well have been the founders of what they despised: a new superstition.  In 1907, stock promoter Thomas Lawson published a  book entitled Friday, the Thirteenth.  In it, the protagonist manipulated the stock market to destroy his enemies by playing on their fears of Friday the 13th.  Obviously, since 1882 and 1907, something had altered in the Western view of Friday the 13th and the Thirteen Club may well have been the agent of change.  The club whose motto was “that superstition should be assailed and combated and driven off the earth” might have started one of the biggest superstitions of all time.

Jason Returns in Monday the 13th, Part XXX

Jason Returns in “Monday the 13th, Part XXX”

The consequences of creating Friday the 13th fears are pervasive.  A whole series of slasher movies might otherwise have been called “Monday the 13th.”  Or, if made by an Italian, “Friday the 17th,” since 17 is an unlucky number in Italy.  A British study found that since fewer people drove on Friday the 13th than the Friday before.  Since that resulted in fewer fatal accidents, it was actually a lucky day for those who might not have otherwise survived it.  Perhaps that’s a bit of “making your own luck.”  Then again, a study claims that $800,000,000 is lost annually by businesses that day because people won’t marry, travel and, for the most fearful, even work on Friday the 13th.  No doubt, there are those who will cite bad things that happened to them on some Friday the 13th.  But then, other people could do that for any day and date.  As for me, I opt to go with the spirit of the now-defunct Thirteen Club and thumb my nose at the superstition.  I won’t, however, purposely break any mirrors.  It’s not that I fear seven years of bad luck, but it’s a waste of money.

“New” Sherlock Holmes Movie

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

Recently, a copy of William Gillette’s long-lost 1916 silent film, Sherlock Holmes, has been found in Paris.  It is currently being restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinémathèque Française, so we can hope to see it somewhere online in the foreseeable future.  Currently, the only clip I found was on a BBC news release (click here to see).  Why is it so important, especially to Sherlockians?

Was it the first film portrayal?  No.  The 1900 short, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” holds that honor.  (Click here to view)  However, the meager plot only seems to have been made to demonstrate the “special effects” of the era, with a burglar and his bag of loot disappearing and reappearing several times.  Sherlock, wearing a dressing gown with a revolver in his pocket and smoking a cigar, walks in on the thief.  Holmes solves nothing and, as the title says, is baffled.  Not an auspicious beginning to his film career.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Was Gillette the actor to portray the Great Detective on film the most number of times?  Again, no.  He only played him one time on film.  Basil Rathbone appeared on the silver screen 15 times as Sherlock Holmes (counting a cameo in “Crazy House”) and is, to many, the epitome of the man.  No doubt, numerous repeat showings of those movies on television helped that standing.  And, for many years, no actor came close to bringing that character to life to viewers and fans.  Yet one of the worst travesties was when the producers and writers decided to make Holmes a modern character rather than a Victorian one.  It started with “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” and kept going.  It was not even based on a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, but click here to watch.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and David Burke as Dr. John Watson

The honor of being Sherlock the most number of times on screen goes to Jeremy Brett.  From 1984 to 1994, Granada Television produced 41 episodes with him (one of which, “The Mazarin Stone,” combined two stories).  His eccentric, anti-social, brilliant Holmes was right off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages.  And that’s what Jeremy wanted.  He once said, “So, all these things you can get from Doyle, and when other actors who play Holmes and just pop on the deerstalker, and his cape and the pipe and walk straight through it, puff…puff…puff–and get on with the next thing–that’s probably the safer way to train — but it’s not exactly being true to Doyle. It’s just an image, like a cliché, which is not real.”  Jeremy did not just read scripts given him, but read the original stories, looking for the real Sherlock Holmes.  “Holmes could be rude, impatient, abrupt, and his intolerance of fools was legendary. I tried to show all this, all of the man’s incredible brilliance. But there are some cracks in Holmes’ marble, as in an almost-perfect Rodin statue. And I tried to show that, too.”  But he also wanted Holmes to be more that words on a page, but a real person, not only to the audience, but to himself.  He immersed himself in the character he portrayed.

Sherlock Holmes in a three-pipe case

Sherlock Holmes on a three-pipe case

Jeremy said, “I was talking about becoming. What I mean by that is an inner life. Watson describes you-know-who as a mind without a heart; that’s hard to play, hard to become. So what I did was to invent an inner life. I mean, I know what his nanny looked like, for example; she was covered in starch. She probably scrubbed him, but never kissed him. I don’t think he probably saw his mother until he was about eight. Maybe caught a touch of the fragrance of her scent and the rustle of her dress. I guess collage days were fairly complicated because he was quite isolated. He probably saw a girl across the quadrangle and fell in love, but she never looked at him….so he closed that door. And he became a brilliant fencer, of course, as we know, and a master at boxing…brilliant athlete…and many more little, tiny details which I have to kind of make up to fill this kind of well…that Doyle so brilliantly left out.”  In fact, he became obsessed with the role.  Some years ago, after Jeremy’s death, I spoke with a woman who had produced some of the Holmes series.  Alas, I cannot contact her, so she will remain my “anonymous source.”  She said he became so consumed with being Sherlock Holmes on screen that he became him.  I do not know if that meant the cocaine injections, but he died tragically young.  Sadly, he did not finish all the Sherlock Holmes stories.  But he will be a hard act to follow.  (click here to watch)  Sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch, you’re not Jeremy.

Holmes with a bent pipe and dressing gown

Holmes with a bent pipe and dressing gown

Now that we’ve established that Gillette was neither the first nor the most prolific film portrayer of Holmes, why is this newly-discovered one so interesting?  William Gillette was a stage actor who portrayed Holmes in the footlights intermittently from 1899 to 1915 in a play written by Doyle, whom he met and hit it off with.  His stage presentation may well have inspired Doyle to bring Holmes back from his fatal tumble with Moriarty down the Reichenbach Falls.  Since Gillette was an American and his accent was not English, it is interesting that Doyle liked his performance.  Roger Johnson, editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, said, “You can hear the same sort of thing when Katharine Hepburn tries to speak in an English way in The African Queen.”  (click here to hear Gillette as Holmes).  Since his film wasn’t a talkie, it didn’t matter.  Gillette’s was the first film that actually had Holmes solving a case.  The earlier one only had Holmes as an observer of a phantom thief and nothing more.  Gillette’s was the first one that developed the character that became the norm on film.  As BBC noted, this one had him smoking the full-bent pipe that became synonymous with Holmes, even though it does not appear either in the text of the stories or the original illustrations.  According to the BBC article, Gillette introduced that lower-bowled pipe so the audience could see his lips when he spoke.  He wore the deerstalker cap that was in none of the stories, but did appear in one of the original Strand‘s illustrations.  He wore the dressing gown that Doyle did write of.  These are in the film (or so I understand).  Since this was a silent film, he never says, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  Neither did he in the stories.  However, he did say, “Elementary, my dear fellow,” in the play and P. G. Wodehouse’s 1915 novel, Psmith, Journalist, is believed by most to be the first usage of that exact phrase.  However, so much of how the general public sees Sherlock Homes is based on that silent rendition of the man.  For that reason, many of us eagerly wait for it to appear on Youtube.  I know Morg Mahoney is one.  She used Sherlockian methods in her investigations in Christmas Cracker and It’s Bad Business.  However, be warned: this film is a French version and all title cards are in French.  Parlez-vous français?


Battle of New Orleans

John Cherry?

Did Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry look like this?

In 1959, Johnny Horton sang a song entitled “The Battle of New Orleans.”  (click here to listen) In it, he told of going with Colonel Jackson down the “Mighty Mississip” in 1814.  While this might have been true as far as the date of the trip, the battle did not take place until January 8, 1815, and this year is its bicentennial anniversary.  It should be noted that Andrew Jackson was actually a major general both in the Tennessee Militia and the U.S. Army by then.  There are two things I find very interesting about this battle, the most famous American victory in the War of 1812: first is that my direct ancestor, John Cherry, served in the battle with the 2nd Regiment of the West Tennessee Mounted Gunmen under “Old Hickory” and the other is that the battle had no affect on the outcome of the war.

Let’s address the first interesting point, well, first.  Although I have had ancestors serve in the Revolutionary War (yes, I could be a Son of the American Revolution, if I wanted to take the time and effort), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (on both sides, no less), the only one who bore the Cherry name was John.  The Tennessee Mounted Gunmen were militiamen, not regular army, and knew Jackson very well.  In 1812, he had led them in an aborted attempt to shore up the defenses of New Orleans (a major port and the defender of the Mississippi River artery), but had to turn back when Congress refused to fund the operation (Congress has always shown such great wisdom).  After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Jackson defeated the “Red Stick” Creeks, he was made a major general in the U.S. Army, as well as the commander of the Seventh Military District, which included New Orleans.  And so, in 1814, he took a little trip with the militias from Kentucky and Tennessee.  That included Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry.

Major General Andrew Jackson

Major General Andrew Jackson

The British Navy sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 1814, and easily swept aside a makeshift American fleet.  They landed troops and made camp.  After a night attack by Jackson on the 23rd, the British realized that taking New Orleans might be more of a challenge than the sacking of Washington earlier that year.  The British commander, General Pakenham, decided to slow his advance and to do a reconnaissance-in-force to assess the American position.  This gave much needed time for Jackson to prepare his defenses.  He set up eight batteries with twelve cannons and had his men prepare their earthwork defenses.  Records state that Jackson had 4,732 men comprised of 968 US Army regulars, 58 US Marines, 106 US Navy seamen, 1,060 Louisiana Militia and volunteers (of those, 400 to 600 were free Blacks), 1,352 Tennessee Militia (one of whom was John Cherry), 986 Kentucky Militia, and 150 Mississippi Militia.  There were also 52 Choctows (traditional enemies of the British Creek allies), along with an unknown number of men supplied by Jean Lafitte.

Jean Lafitte Pirate, Patriot or Both?

Jean Lafitte
Pirate, Patriot or Both?

An interesting side note on the the pirate and smuggler, Jean Lafitte, is that the British had tried to woo him to support them.  The Americans had even attacked him to prevent him from helping the British, seizing property, ships and men.  Lafitte had not put up a fight.  He was charged with abetting piracy, but he then offered Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne his assistance in fighting the British and the governor sent word to Jackson.  Jackson replied, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?”  Nonetheless, Lafitte and his men manned American batteries and served on U.S. ships during the battle.  In fact, they fought so well that Jackson commended them and they received pardons.  Unfortunately, this leopard could not change his spots and spent his life oft overstepping the piracy and smuggling laws.  He normally tried to get letters of mark so that he was a legitimate privateer, but did fudge on that.  He died in 1823 attacking what he believed to be Spanish merchant vessels off the coast of Honduras.  They were actually either well-armed privateers or warships.  It is worth noting that he never attacked American vessels and even escorted them safely through dangerous waters at times.  Whether he fought for the Americans out of loyalty to America, hatred of the British or just out of pragmatism we will never know, but I like to think it was for the first reason.

Battle of New Orleans

Battle of New Orleans, with artistic license

The battle has been covered in detail by many sources, including Wikipedia (click here).  In summary, Pakenham’s 8000 men, although outnumbering the Americans, were delayed almost twelve hours in their “dawn” attack.  They suffered under the American artillery barrages (although there is no record of an alligator being used in place of a cannon, as related in Johnny Horton’s song), then hit withering fire from the muskets and rifles.  Since American forces were mainly militiamen, they did not have the inaccurate smoothbores, but rifles (called squirrel guns in the song).  Known as Kentucky long rifles (although not made there), they were accurate for up to over 200 yards, twice that of a musket.  Although they were slower to load and could not mount a bayonet, they were great for men sitting “behind cotton bales” and picking off British soldiers.  Although the British did push back the Americans in the west, their main attacks were thrown back with heavy losses.   When the battle was over, three British generals (including Pakenham) and eight colonels were among the 251 British killed. 1,259 were wounded and 484 were missing in the battle. The Americans lost a total of 11 men and 23 wounded, with no major officers in that number.  It was the greatest American victory of the war.  Or was it?

Here comes the second interesting point: the war was already over.  On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Belgium.  However, there was no telephone to send the word to the armies.  In fact, the Senate did not ratify it until February 18, 1815, for the simple reason that they did not have a copy to do so.  So the battle had no effect on the outcome of the war.  Save one.  It restored national pride, giving Americans a land battle in which they could celebrate.  The outnumbered American militiamen had righteously “whupped” some of the best professional soldiers in the world.  The battle also created an American hero that came only second to George Washington in the eyes of the people: Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johnny Horton April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

Johnny Horton                       April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

An amusing side note is that Johnny Horton found that “The Battle of New Orleans” was not selling very well in the British Isles.  Wonder why?  So he was convinced to make a different version with a different take on the battle, one more British biased.  (click here)  While Johnny was not anti-British (his song “Sink the Bismark” proves that), he should have left well enough alone.  This  revisionist version of the battle just doesn’t work.  Sadly, Johnny died in an auto accident after four short years of hits.  His rockabilly songs and historical ballads are still played and enjoyed by people like me.  Thanks to Youtube, they live on.


Christmas Truce

French Soldiers Marching to War

French Soldiers Marching to War

When the “War to End All Wars” began in August, a hundred years ago, governments on both sides were so sure of a quick victory that they assured their soldiers that they would be home by Christmas.  As a line of opposing trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Alps and men settled into living ankle-deep in mud and futile, suicidal attacks against entrenched riflemen, machine guns and cannons, the men soon realized it to be a vain hope.  Both sides were too strong and too determined for the war to have a quick conclusion.  Christmas would be spent in the trenches, with rats and trench foot instead of reindeer and stockings for Santa.

Washington Crossing the Delaware- He Well Might Have Been Standing in the Flat-Bottomed Boat

Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas night – He well might have been standing in the flat-bottomed boat.

The First World War was different from previous wars in so many ways.  Killing was much more efficient, with machine guns and monstrous cannons.  It was truly the birth of mechanized warfare, with trucks for transportation, airplanes for bombing and tanks for driving over the top of infantrymen.  And it spelled the end of armies going into winter quarters.  Up until the end of the nineteenth century, armies would have an unspoken truce during the harsh months of winter.  It was due to the impassable roads and difficulty of moving and provisioning of the troops in those conditions rather than compassion for the troops.  The men would usually be housed in rude cabins, where they would spend Christmas in time of war.  That is why George Washington’s attack on Trenton on the 26th of December in 1776 was such a surprise to the Hessians; he attacked in weather not considered suitable for military maneuvers.  While the mechanization of the armies did not eliminate those problems, it reduced them enough that there was no pause in the fighting for winter.  Christmas in 1914, the first of the war, would be spent in the muddy, cold trenches.

German Postcard from World War I

German Postcard from World War I

In an effort to to alleviate the misery of Christmas in the trenches, both the British and German governments sent packages and cards to their troops.  The Germans also received small Christmas trees with candle-lit lanterns.  In Germany, the main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.  So the German troops lighted their lanterns and set the trees in front of their trenches, then started singing Christmas carols.  Since there had been a sudden frost, the landscape had a cover of white, like snow-frosted Christmases back home for both sides.  Understand that in many places the opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers had often yelled taunts at each other in the months before.  Now the lights and music of Christmas wafted across the war-torn terrain.  Since these were predominately men who were Christians and might even have visited each others’ countries before the war, no doubt the soldiers began to think that it was not right to kill each other on such a holy day.  They started singing the carols together.  They started calling to each other, with well-wishing rather than taunts.  Then, on Christmas morning, something most unusual happened.  In a number of places, the shooting did not resume with the daybreak.  An ad-hoc truce had started.

Private H. Scrutton of the Essex Regiment described it this way: “As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them.  We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“All right.”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“No fear.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
“All right.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”

Rifleman C. H. Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford, described what happened to him in this way: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

This was not planned.  There was no coordination to the truce.  It was not universal.  In some places, the firing continued and men died.  Germany had been a united country less than 50 years and not all German troops reacted the same way.  In one location, the British who came out of their trenches were fired upon by Prussian troops (much more regimented and militaristic than other Germans) and a couple were killed.  However, some Saxon troops near them threatened to shoot them and they stopped.  The Saxons even ventured out to put up a table to host their British enemies.  During Christmas Day, many locations down the line had an unofficial truce.  Hymns, carols and other songs were sung by the soldiers from both sides.  Souvenirs, food, tobacco and stories were shared.  Footballs (soccer balls) appeared and were kicked around.  There was even time to bury the dead who had fallen in no-man’s land, where trying to reach them would have meant almost certain death.

All too soon, the day of celebration was over and the killing began again.  On the same land where the day before soldiers had shared food, stories and bon humour, men were again mowed down by machine guns.  Although the top brass tried to stifle news of the 1914 Christmas Truce, censorship had not yet been formalized and stories leaked out to the general public from soldiers’ letters home.   However, as the war and killing ground on, the Truce was all but forgotten and never happened again.

Sainsbury TV Ad

Sainsbury TV Ad

Although briefly depicted in a couple of movies, the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noël” was devoted to the Christmas Truce and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  Now, on the centennial of that truce, Sainsbury supermarkets has made a TV ad depicting it, including the British Tommy handing a Sainsbury chocolate bar to his German counterpart (click here).  While some have claimed that this is blatant commercialism, at least it brings to light this most unusual event.  In doing so, it gives food for thought.  As a Highland Regiment officer wrote in The Times in 1915:  “It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”