Sunday, June 30, 2013


Ghost Army

As children, we're told we can grow up to be anything we want.  We can grow up and change the world.  However, the reality is that when we grew up we hopefully had a positive impact on our family, our jobs, our surrounding and maybe even our community.  But not many of us have actually ended up changing the world in massive ways merely by working hard, thinking quickly or simply doing our jobs properly.  Many of these people are lost to history for a number of reasons—cultural differences, minority status, military secrecy and, in a few cases, just plain modesty.

It's World War II, the Army's 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the Ghost Army, played a major role in putting a halt to Hitler's advances through Europe.  In reality, the Ghost Army consisted of 1,100 soldiers who were artists, illustrators, sound technicians, and other creative types who used their brains and specific creative skills to win battles.  Their mission was to trick the enemy into believing there was a huge military presence where one didn't really exist.  Through the use of fake inflatable tanks, trucks and weapons in conjunction with war noises through huge military speakers, the Ghost Army played a major role in helping America's Ninth Army to cross the Rhine River deep into German territory.  The Ghost Army pulled off more than 20 such missions, all of which remained classified until 1985.

Security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds when he noticed a small piece of duct tape on a door of an office complex.  Wills removed the tape, but found it there again on his next patrol of the night.  He immediately called the police.  The date—June 17, 1972.  The location—an office complex in Washington D.C. named Watergate. Minutes later, 5 middle-aged men were caught ransacking the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee thus launching the scandal that would eventually cause President Richard Nixon to resign and would later be turned into the Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman film All The President's Men.  Sadly, his life took a turn for the worse after that.  He quit his job at the Watergate after being turned down for a raise (wow…if you don't give this guy a raise, who are you going to give one to) and found that many places were too afraid to hire him as a security guard allegedly because they feared retaliation by Republican politicians.  He ended up in prison, then destitute, before dying of a brain tumor in September 2000.

Even though he's generally unknown to all but the most dedicated Revolutionary War aficionados, there are 38 towns and 14 counties named after him.  A Boston doctor who performed the autopsy on Christopher Seider, the first American killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre.  When things between the colonists and the British became even more heated, he put together a military unit and participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill (which was actually fought on Breed Hill) where he died from a British musket ball through his brain.

We all know some facts about DNA such as you can extract it from fossilized remains to bring back dinosaurs and it can be altered to create ninja turtles.  But seriously…Rosalind Franklin, physical chemist and pioneering x-ray crystallographer with a PhD from Cambridge, was born in London, England.  The new technique of using x-ray crystallography on things that weren't actually crystals aided in accurately recording the structure of DNA.  Even though her work provided the linchpin of James Watson and Francis Crick's articles establishing the double helix theory, she was mostly ignored and brushed aside as far as being given credit for her work.  She died in 1958 at age 37 from ovarian cancer.

Highly intelligent, a fossil collector and paleontologist at the beginning of a century marked for tremendous advances in the practice and philosophy of science, she was royally screwed over from the beginning.  She had three strikes against her—she was poor, a religious minority, and (worst of all) a woman.  She was officially shunned by the British scientific establishment even though she had discovered the world's first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton when she was only 12.  Soon, geologists and paleontologists across the Western world knew her by reputation despite receiving almost no formal education and barely having enough money for journal subscriptions.  She died in 1847 of breast cancer.  She received an eulogy from the Geographical Society of London (where women weren't admitted until 1904), a glowing article by Charles Dickens in 1865, and a 2010 mention by the Royal Society as one of the 10 British women having the greatest impact on history.  And there was a tongue-twister about her day-to-day business of selling marine fossils.  We know it better as She sells sea shells by the sea shore.

One of the most significant people in Islamic culture remains nearly anonymous in European history even though he single-handedly set the groundwork for traditional Spanish music.  Ziryab was a highly educated North African slave in the approximate year of 800.  In addition to his strong point of music, he invented numerous dyes and chemicals for clothing, makeup, and hygiene.  He introduced the idea of seasonal fashions, came up with the structure of the traditional three-course meal consisting of soup, entrée, and dessert.  He also popularized shaving and short haircuts as a way of beating the fierce Mediterranean heat.  It's also said he invented the world's first underarm deodorant and an early type of toothpaste that was both effective and also had a pleasant taste.

Dona Marina (as the Spanish called her) was 1 of 20 slave women given to the Spanish as the spoils of battle in 16th century Mexico.  Her skill with languages made her far more valuable than merely being Cortes' mistress.  She was instrumental to the small Spanish army's eventual victory by interpreting intelligence information and cultivating allies among the many tribes fed up with being kicked around by the Aztecs.  She's a controversial figure today.  Some argue that she was working in the best interests of her native people by aiding the Europeans and convincing Cortes to be more humane than he might have been.  Others think she was a traitor and her name is almost a curse.  Either way, without her the Cortes expedition might not have succeeded and history would have been changed forever.

Vasili got his start in the Soviet Navy at the tail end of World War II and worked his way up through the ranks where he became the executive officer on the Soviet Navy's hotel class nuclear submarine K-19.  From there, he was dispatched to the Caribbean to command a group of 4 nuke-armed Foxtrot-class patrol subs.  And it was there that he made a decision that literally had a life and death impact on the future of the world.  He found himself in a sticky situation as his Foxtrot came under what seemed very much like an American attack (The US Navy saying it was only dropping practice depth charges in an ill-considered attempt to force the sub to the surface).  The Soviet sub's captain and political officer both demanded that they retaliate with nuclear torpedoes.  They hadn't had any contact with Moscow in days and didn't know if World War III had actually started or would start as soon as they fired back.  Vasili refused to authorize the launch.  The sub eventually surfaced and scampered away from the American task force with no further interaction.  Vasili advanced to vice-admiral, retired, and died in 1998.  It was 4 years later when former NSA head, Thomas Blanton, called him "the guy who saved the world."

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Game shows—the original reality programs long before Survivor first hit the airwaves.  They used to be called quiz shows prior to the Charles Van Doren—Twenty-One scandal of 1959 where certain competitors were being given the answers and the outcome of the game controlled.  Today they are known as game shows.  They range from needing genuine knowledge about a variety of topics to guessing what the majority of people surveyed on a specific topic would say to determining how well you know your spouse to performing silly stunts or dressing up in silly costumes in the hopes of winning prizes.

From a recent published list of the 60 Greatest Game Shows of All Time, here are the top 10.

1)  Jeopardy
In my humble opinion, the best game show that's ever been on the air.  I've been watching Jeopardy starting with its original host, Art Fleming (hosted from 1964-1975), and continuing to the current batch of new shows with all the Alex Trebek years.  Created by Merv Griffin, it's the ultimate trivia challenge—a show that requires a depth of genuine knowledge on a wide variety of topics and the ability to drag that information from the back of your mind with great speed so you can ring in to give your response before the other contestants do.  Oh, yes…and the twist of needing to phrase your response in the form of a question.

2)  Wheel of Fortune
Also created by Merv Griffin, this long-running puzzle solving show is still on the air.  It didn't really take off in popularity until Pat Sajak took over the hosting chores and Vanna White started turning those letters in the early 1980s.  I'd like to buy a vowel, Pat.

3)  Family Feud
Survey says it's a classic.  Viewers like watching the competing families guessing the answers given by survey groups to various questions.  It's remained popular through a series of hosts starting with Richard Dawson and currently hosted by Steve Harvey (with hosting chores in between by Ray Combs, Louie Anderson, John O'Hurley, and Richard Karn).

4)  Match Game
I have to admit…a current guilty pleasure of mine.  Two back-to-back half hour episodes from the mid 1970s game show air every morning Monday through Friday on cable's Game Show Network.  Two contestants compete for cash prizes by seeing which one can make the most matches with 6 celebrity panelists by filling in the blank in a phrase.  It's one of those shows where the responses can get really off base and the celebrities appear to actually be having a good time.  So, I'm now saying good (blank) to this game show and moving on to the next one with some possible choices to fill in the blank being…bye or luck or riddance.

5)  The Price Is Right
Guess the price of item(s) and win a chance to play for the big dollar showcase prize.  This has been a television staple since 1956 when it first aired with host Bill Cullen (hosted 1956–1965).  Drew Carey is the current host, but the show is most closely identified with long time host Bob Barker.

6)  Who Wants To Be A Millionaire:
Originating in the U.K., the primetime US version hosted by Regis Philbin became an instant success and made "Is that your final answer?" an instant pop culture phrase.  While no longer a prime time series, the show continues on daytime television but without Regis.

7)  The Hollywood Squares:
No need to make any mention of the ill-conceived 1990s revival.  The version that made this list is the original 1960s-70s version hosted by Peter Marshall and featuring regulars Rose Marie, Charley Weaver, with Paul Lynde commanding the center square.  Various guest celebrities occupied the remaining 6 squares.  The celebrities would answer questions and the contestants would decide if their answers were correct.

8)  Password
This word game had 2 teams each consisting of a celebrity and a contestant.  Each partner would give 1 word clues in an attempt to get their team mate to say the password.  Show host Allen Ludden met his future wife when she appeared on the show…celebrity guest Betty White.  After Allen Ludden's untimely death in 1981, the show continued for many years in various forms—Password Plus, Super Password, and Million Dollar Password.

9)  What's My Line?
From the early days of television, this show debuted in 1950 and ran for 25 years.  A celebrity panel would ask questions of a contestant in an effort to guess the contestant's occupation.  The final contestant on each show was a celebrity with a blind-folded panel attempting to guess the celebrity's identity.  When the show first debuted and for the early years, it aired live.

10)  The Newlywed Game
I, personally, found it surprising that this show made the list of the top 60 let alone the top 10.  Newly married couples (I think the criteria was married less than a year) competed for prizes.  With the wives offstage, the husbands would be asked a question about their wives, themselves, or their marriage. They would write their answers on a card.  The wives would come out and be asked the question and had to give the answer they thought their husbands wrote.  The idea, seemed to be to ask embarrassing questions so the answers would be equally embarrassing. Oh, did I mention that this is another creation from Chuck Barris of The Gong Show fame?  There is a new, updated version of this show currently airing on cable on the Game Show Network.

What are some of your favorite game shows, past and/or present?  Mine, as I already mentioned, is Jeopardy.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Right now there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken throughout the world.  Surprisingly, it's predicted that a majority of them will become extinct by the end of this century.

Current population of the world is approximately 7 billion people.  Of those 7,000 languages, half the world's population speaks the top 20 languages with the leaders being Mandarin (China making up an estimated 20% of the world's population), Spanish, and English in that order.  Linguists point to globalization as one of the main reasons for the rapid decline of most languages.

When a language becomes extinct, the world loses more than just the words.  The knowledge and traditions of the people speaking that language are also lost.  Following is a sample list of 8 endangered languages (in no particular order) including information from the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity.

Irish Gaelic:  Even though the government requires Irish students to learn this language and it currently has an estimated 40,000 native speakers, it is still classified as vulnerable.

Rapa Nui:  This is the native tongue of Easter Island (part of Chile even though it's located in the Pacific Ocean approximately 2,000 miles away, similar to Hawaii's proximity to the U.S. mainland).  There are less than 4,000 native speakers.  The language is rapidly being taken over by Spanish.

Seneca:  Approximately 100 people, residents of 3 small native American reservation communities in the U.S., are the only speakers of this language with the youngest speaker being in his 50s.

Yaw:  This language comes from the Gangaw District of Burma (currently known as Myanmar).  Young people living in this area understand but do not speak this critically endangered language.  There are currently less than 10,000 native speakers.

Kariyarra:  While there are many people who have a basic understanding of this aboriginal language, there are only 2 fluent Kariyarra speakers remaining in Western Australia.

Francoprovençal:  Only about 130,000 native speakers of this language exist, primarily in secluded towns in east-central France, western Switzerland, and the Italian Aosta Valley.

Yagan:  This is an indigenous language of Chile.  There is purportedly only 1 remaining native speaker even though others are familiar with the language.

Patuá:  A language derived from Malay, Sinhalese, Cantonese and Portuguese, there are less than 50 native speakers in the Macau, China area.

Hopefully there will be a folkloric history created of these languages and the many other endangered languages before they become extinct and lost to mankind for all time.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Who Almost Played The Role?

As we all know, casting for the lead role in a movie can be a lengthy process with many qualified candidates to sift through before making that final decision.  And also obvious, the choice of actor in a role can sometimes end up making the difference between a box office success and a mediocre film.

Through the decades there have been many starring roles that were almost cast with a different lead, possibly changing the audience response to the character and the movie.  In retrospect, trying to visualize someone else in the role sometimes leaves us scratching our heads and wondering what in the world they were thinking of with their first choice.

Here's a sample list of films and the stars that almost didn't get the role, some of the second choices earning an Oscar for their performances.

Pirates Of The Caribbean:  the role of Capt. Jack Sparrow in that first movie was originally intended for Jim Carrey, but when a scheduling conflict forced him to bow out the role went to Johnny Depp who put his own indelible stamp on the character in a series of Pirates Of The Caribbean films.

Drive:  Hugh Jackman was originally signed for the role that ended up being Ryan Gosling's.

Lord Of The Rings:  When Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf, it went to Sir Ian McKellen.

American Psycho:  It was originally Leonardo DiCaprio who was eventually replaced by Christian Bale.

Men In Black:  Chris O'Donnell was originally cast but due to the director's insistence Will Smith replaced him.

Basic Instinct:  Kelly McGillis was considered before the role went to Sharon Stone.

Dirty Dancing:  Val Kilmer was considered but the role eventually went to Patrick Swayze.

The Shining:  The iconic Jack Nicholson role ("Here's Johnny!") almost went to Robin Williams.

Pretty Woman:  Molly Ringwald turned down the role that was a career maker for Julia Roberts.

Silence Of The Lambs:  Michelle Pfeiffer almost had the role that won Jodie Foster one of her Oscars.

Indiana Jones:  George Lucas was pushing for Tom Selleck but Steven Spielberg held out for Harrison Ford.

The Matrix:  Ewan McGregor was cast first in the Keanu Reeves role, but turned it down in favor of Star Wars Episode 1.

Gladiator:  Mel Gibson turned down the role that won an Oscar for Russell Crowe.

Titanic:  Matthew McConaughey was first choice, but the role ultimately went to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Forrest Gump:  John Travolta turned down the role that earned Tom Hanks one of his Oscars.

Chicago:  John Travolta also turned down the role of Billy Flynn with the role going to Richard Gere.

Iron Man:  Tom Cruise turned down the role due to script issues. It was then offered to Robert Downey, Jr., along with Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3.

And now let's go back several decades to some movies from the 1940ish time frame.

The Wizard Of Oz:  MGM wanted to borrow Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox to play the role of Dorothy.  When that negotiation didn't work out, the role went to Judy Garland.

Robin Hood:  Jack L. Warner wanted James Cagney cast in the title role that went to Errol Flynn who seemed born to play the part.

Gone With The Wind:  Every leading actress in Hollywood was tested for the coveted role of Scarlet O'Hara and all were rejected.  The movie had actually started filming before a British actress named Vivien Leigh (married to Laurence Olivier at the time) was finally cast as Scarlet.

The Maltese Falcon:  George Raft turned down the role of Sam Spade because he felt it was 'not an important film' so to the delight of director John Huston, the role went to Humphrey Bogart.

Casablanca:  Ronald Reagan was first considered for the Humphrey Bogart role in one of the all time classic films.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Mata Hari

My blog last week was about 10 spies you probably never heard of, both men and women, ranging from the American Revolutionary War through World War II.

This week I'm doing a list of female spies (in addition to the women who were on last week's list) from the Civil War, World War I and World War II.  And 4 of them are genuine celebrities, popular and well known for something other than being spies.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, here's this week's list of 11 female spies.

11)  Violette Szabo—World War II
Ever heard of the video game Velvet Assassin?  The game was inspired by her story as a Special Operations agent.  Born in France, she and her family moved to London where she married a French soldier. When he was killed in battle 2 years later, she joined the service.  As a secret agent, she parachuted into France and planned the sabotage of a railroad, disrupted enemy communication, and passed along strategic information.  She was captured by the Nazis, tortured, and sent to a concentration camp where she was executed at the age of only 23.  Her story became a book and movie titled Carve Her Name With Pride.

10)  Stephanie von Hohenlohe—World War II
She managed to insert herself into high society wherever she went.  An affair with a member of the Austrian royal family resulted in her pregnancy.  She was quickly married off to a minor German nobleman.  After the marriage ended, she became a fixture in the London social scene and later was a go-between for the Nazi regime and high-placed sympathizers in England.  She was often called upon to offer advice and services to Hitler in spite of the fact that she was Jewish, a fact Hitler knew.  She followed a lover to the U.S. where she was considered so dangerous that she was detained until the end of World War II.

9)  Noor Inayat Khan—World War II
Known by the code name Madeleine, Russian-born of Indian and American descent, she served as a radio operator in the French resistance.  When the Nazis raided her communication headquarters, she avoided detection but was later betrayed and interrogated.  She was transferred to Dachau where she was killed at age 30.  A book about her life, Spy Princess, is currently being developed into a movie.

8)  Belle Boyd—U.S. Civil War
Known as Cleopatra of the Secession, she ran a hotel in Virginia.  As a girl she began working to defend the South, charming secrets out of Union soldiers stationed near the hotel then delivering them to Confederate officials.  Arrested, then freed, she eventually ended up traveling around the country telling her stories of espionage.

7)  Virginia Hall—World War II
Educated at Harvard and Columbia with a goal of joining the Foreign Service…until a shooting accident on a hunting trip resulted in a partial amputation on her leg and a limp when wearing her prosthesis.  She signed up for the British Special Ops and later for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services.  She discovered and passed along important military information and trained resistance fighters.  On one mission she was forced to escape to Spain in winter through the mountains on foot.  A book about her was released in 2008, The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy.

6)  Krystyna Skarbek—World War II
After the Nazi's invaded her native Poland, she volunteered for British Special Operations.  Under the name of Christine Granville, using her expertise as a skier, she transported information between Poland and Hungary through the mountains.  And she could be considered the original Bond girl—Ian Fleming is said to have based several of his femme fatales on her.  After retiring from Special Ops, she worked on a cruise ship and was killed in 1952 by a coworker whose advances she had rejected.

5)  Marlene Dietrich (movie star)—World War II
German born, she became a U.S. citizen in 1939.  She volunteered for the OSS and, in addition to entertaining troops on the front lines as did many celebrities, she also broadcast nostalgic songs as propaganda to German troops who were battle weary.  She was awarded the Medal of Freedom.

4)  Josephine Baker (singer/dancer)—World War II
From St. Louis, Missouri, she moved to France to escape the racial prejudice she had been subjected to in the U.S.  She became a French citizen.  As a popular and much loved entertainer in France, she used her celebrity working for the French resistance.  The Nazis were so dazzled by her that they allowed her freedom of movement without thinking to check her sheet music where French resistance secrets were written in invisible ink.  She helped to break down countless barriers for African-American women in her adopted country and also in the U.S. (she was an important figure in the U.S. civil rights movement).

3)  Julia McWilliams Child (TV's The French Chef)—World War II
She wanted to join the WACs or the WAVES but was turned down because of her 6'2" height.  So, she went to work for the OSS in research and development at their Washington, DC, headquarters.  She helped develop a workable shark repellent used by downed flight crews and later for the U.S. space missions with water landings.  She also supervised an OSS facility in China.  She handled countless top secret documents prior to becoming famous as televisions gourmet cook.

2)  Hedy Lamarr (movie star)—World War II
Born in Vienna, Austria, she made her film debut in 1933's Ecstasy.  She fled the approaching storm clouds in Europe, landing a contract with MGM studios.  But she was more than just a pretty face and an actress.  She was also a brilliant mathematician with a unique ability in problem solving. In addition to using her celebrity to raise millions of dollars in war bonds, she was an inventor.  She teamed with Hollywood composer George Antheil and invented a frequency hopping method for steering a torpedo. Today, frequency hopping is used for wireless phones in our homes, GPS, and most military communication systems.

And probably the most famous (or infamous) female spy of all time:
1)  Mata Hari—World War I
A spy's legend so evocative that the mere mention of the name says it all.  There's James Bond, certainly, but he's a fictional character.  Mata Hari was real.  Born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle.  She responded to a newspaper ad seeking a wife, married an older man, and moved to Indonesia.  An unhappy marriage and a fascination with the local culture turned her into a performer named Mata Hari.  After her return to Europe, she became a sensation in Paris with her exotic dancing, skimpy costumes and sexy demeanor…wildly popular with some and scandalous with others.  During World War I she traveled freely throughout Europe and was ultimately accused of being a German spy.  She was arrested and executed by a French firing squad in 1917.  She claimed she was spying for the French, not the Germans.  Neither accusation (French spy or German spy) was ever conclusively proven.