Sunday, January 24, 2021

Groundhog Day…And I Don't Mean The Movie

NEWS FLASH—TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2021, PUNXSUTAWNEY, PENNSYLVANIA:  PHIL WILL EMERGE FROM HIS BURROW TO PREDICT WHEN WINTER WILL END.  NO SHADOW…NO MORE WINTER.  SEES HIS SHADOW…SIX MORE WEEKS OF WINTER!

By a strange coincidence those six more weeks of winter takes us almost to the Vernal Equinox which signals the official end of winter and the first day of spring.

Every year on February 2, a furry rodent of the groundhog variety named Punxsutawney Phil sticks his head out of his burrow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to do his annual weather forecast.  In the United States and Canada, this is celebrated as Groundhog Day.  If Phil sees his shadow, it will frighten him and he'll return to his burrow.  If he doesn't see his shadow, he'll emerge and winter will soon be over.

At least, that's what the tradition claims.

The earliest American written reference to a groundhog day was 1841 in Pennsylvania's Berks County (Pennsylvania Dutch) referring to it as the German celebration called Candlemas day where a groundhog seeing its shadow was a weather indication.  Superstition says that fair weather at that time was seen as a prediction of a stormy and cold second half to winter, as noted in this Old English saying:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Winter will not come again.

Since the first official celebration of Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania in 1886, crowds as large as 40,000 people have gathered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for the annual celebration.  And in recent years it's been covered live on television.  Quite an accolade for the little ol' groundhog.  Since 1887, the groundhog has seen his shadow over 100 times [hmm…I wonder how many of those recent times were due to the television lights] predicting a longer winter and has not seen it only a few times to predict an early spring.  There is no record of his prediction for 9 years in the late 1800s.

The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, is a member of the squirrel family.  The current Punxsutawney Phil weighs fifteen pounds and lives in a climate controlled home in the Punxsutawney library.  On Gobbler's Knob, Phil is placed in a heated burrow underneath a simulated tree stump on a stage before being pulled out at 7:25AM to make his annual prediction. Quite removed from the concept of the groundhog waking from hibernation and emerging from his burrow in the wild.  :)

Over the decades, the groundhog has only about a 30% accuracy record. The television weatherman is far more accurate than that. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

6 INFAMOUS GHOST SHIPS

From the day man first figured out how to travel on the water, it's been an accepted fact that some ships would leave port and never return.  On occasion these lost ships are seen again and again, often minus their crew, seemingly traveling the seas randomly.  These wandering vessels are often referred to as ghost ships.

MARY CELESTE

One of the most famous of the ghost ships, the Mary Celeste (pictured above) was a brigantine with a history of minor accidents, crew illnesses, and embarrassing mishaps.  Superstitious sailors considered it an unlucky ship.  Those sailors were proven right when the ship was found on December 4, 1872, drifting unmanned in the middle of the Atlantic approximately 600 miles from the nearest port.

A popular enhancement to the story, but not true, says the boarding party found still warm and untouched meals when they entered the galley.  In reality, they found nothing amiss except some slight damage to the sails and pumps and the loss or destruction of much of the ship's navigational equipment and documentation.  And the ship's only lifeboat was gone.  The captain's intact log book gave no hint of what happened.  When the vessel was finally steered into Gibraltar, its entire cargo was intact except for 9 mysteriously empty barrels that had contained alcohol.

Modern explanations have fixated on those 9 barrels.  It's theorized that the porous wood allowed the alcohol to evaporate, filling the hold with noxious and explosive vapors.  Fearing an explosion and fire, everyone evacuated the ship in panic.

SS BAYCHIMO

There isn't any mystery concerning the initial loss of the Baychimo, but its continual reappearance is a mystery of its own.  In 1931, the Baychimo became irretrievably mired in pack ice off the coast of Alaska where the crew was able to walk to safety after determining the ship was a write off.  But that didn't stop it from being seen again and again over the next 38 years.  Every attempt by salvage crews to board her were thwarted by freak storms and encroaching ice floes.  The last confirmed sighting was from the air in 1969 showing the wandering ship again mired in heavy pack ice.  To this day the location of the Baychimo is unknown.

SCHOONER JENNY

The Antarctic Circle is known as a dangerous place to sail, spawning many tales of death and tragedy.  One of the most disturbing is the story of the schooner Jenny.  On September 22, 1860, the crew of the whaler Hope sighted a battered ship sailing out from a gap between 2 icebergs with 7 men appearing to be standing at attention on the main deck.  As the Hope drew closer, its crew saw that the men were actually frozen solid.  When they boarded the schooner, the Hope's captain found the Jenny's captain apparently in the middle of writing a log entry.  He, too, was frozen solid.  The last entry in the log book was dated May 4, 1823—almost 40 years earlier.

BOUVET ISLAND ROWBOAT

Bouvet Island is one of the most isolated places on the face of the planet.  The closest land of any kind is the uninhabited coast of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, 1100 miles away.  It's not on any shipping routes, has no interesting or precious resources, and its sole purpose today is the location of a weather station on one of the few stretches of ground where boats can land.  In 1964 the British and South African government went to Bouvet Island to establish a weather station.  They found a 20 foot boat of a lifeboat or whaler type, a single set of oars, a 40 gallon drum, and a "copper flotation or buoyancy tank" that had been cut open for some unknown reason.  No human remains or traces of habitation were found.  The life threatening weather and aggressive wildlife allowed them only 45 minutes to determine if the area was suitable for the weather station.  The worsening weather forced the crew to return to Cape Town.  Two years later, a follow up expedition found no trace of the rowboat or the damaged equipment.

LADY LOVIBOND

On February 13, 1748, Simon Reed took his new bride, Annette, aboard his ship, Lady Lovibond.  They were going on a cruise to Portugal.  At the time, it was considered bad luck to bring a woman on a ship.  Unfortunately for all on board, the first mate was in love with the captain's wife.  In a fit of jealous rage, he took control of the wheel and steered the Lovibond towards the notorious Goodwin Sands resulting in the death of everyone onboard.  Fifty years later to the day, in 1798, 2 separate ships saw a phantom ship sailing the Goodwin Sands. Then on February 13, 1848, another 50 years later, local fisherman saw a vessel wreck in the area and lifeboats were sent to investigate, but no sign could be found of a ship on the sands.  In 1948, another 50 year increment, the Lovibond was seen again and was described as having an eerie green glow.

And finally, probably the most famous ghost ship of all…

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

What most people probably didn't know (and I'm in that group) was that The Flying Dutchman refers to the captain of the vessel and not to the ship itself.  Several ghost ships have been referred to as The Flying Dutchman, but there was one original candidate.

As the story goes:  Captain Hendrick Van Der Decken was sailing around the Cape of Good Hope headed for Amsterdam.  Even though a terrible storm raged around them, the captain refused to turn back despite the pleadings of the frightened crew.  As monstrous waves attacked the ship, the captain passed the time by singing obscene songs, drinking beer, and smoking his pipe.  Finally, out of desperation, some of the crew mutinied.  The captain, in a drunken stupor, shot the leader and threw his body overboard.  At that time, the clouds overhead parted and a booming voice came down from the heavens. "You're a very stubborn man."

The captain replied, "I never asked for a peaceful voyage.  I never asked for anything, so clear off before I shoot you, too."  Van Der Decken aimed his pistol toward the sky but before he could fire, the pistol exploded in his hand.

"You are condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, with a ghostly crew of dead men, bringing death to all who sight your spectral ship and to never make port or know a moment's peace.  Furthermore, gall shall be your drink, and red hot iron your meat."

 Since that time there have been numerous sightings of The Flying Dutchman, quite often by reputable and experienced seamen including Prince George of Wales and his brother, Prince Albert Victor of Wales. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

8 SURPRISING HISTORICAL FACTS—Time Line

These will forever change your concept of time.  This list puts historical moments into a time-line context that will surprise you when you discover which one of two happenings is older.  Most of them surprised me. :)  I did verify the founding date for Harvard and the date the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series, but I didn't verify anything on this list beyond that.

1)  Betty White Is Older Than Sliced Bread

1928 is the date when bread was first sold commercially as sliced rather than the traditional whole loaves.  Prior to that, bakers didn't believe that sliced bread could stay fresh.  Betty White was born in 1922, six years before the invention that became the benchmark for greatness with future inventions being heralded as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

2)  Harvard University was founded before calculus was invented

Originally called the New College, 1636 is the date for the founding of Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in the new world—in an area that is now the United States of America.  It should also be noted that physicist, mathematician and astronomer Galileo was still alive during Harvard's early years.  He died in 1642.  The invention of calculus didn't come about until 1684 with Gottfried Leibniz's publication of Nova Methodus.

3)  The Ottoman Empire still existed when the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series

1908 is the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.  The Ottoman Empire, founded in the 13th century, came to an end in 1922 with Mehmed VI being the last sultan of the empire before the Turkish government abolished the sultanate and took governing control of the new republic. UPDATE: The Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016 after a 108 year dry spell of not winning.

4)  The Pyramids of Giza were built before wooly mammoths became extinct

It's believed that the last wooly mammoths died out approximately 1700B.C. on Russia's Wrangel Island.  The Pyramids of Giza, in Egypt, were built approximately 300 years earlier (about 4,000 years ago).  There are some claims that the pyramids might be even older than that.

5)  The fax machine is the same age as the Oregon Trail

1843 is the year Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic, invented the first fax machine.  The same year the Great Migration on the Oregon Trail began when a wagon train of approximately 1000 migrants attempted to travel west but probably died of dysentery along the way.

6)  Jewelry store Tiffany & Co. was founded before Italy was a country

1837 is the year Charles Tiffany and John Young founded Tiffany & Young which became Tiffany & Co. in 1853.  1861 is when General Giuseppe Garibaldi led a successful campaign to bring the various city-states together as one nation, although Rome held out for a number of years after that.  Macy's was founded in 1858, also prior to Italy becoming the nation we know today.

 7)  France was still using the guillotine when the first Star Wars movie was released

1977 is the release date of the first of the Star Wars movies.  A few months later is when France conducted its last execution by guillotine.  The guillotine had been used in France for approximately 200 years.  And another French time line fact to boggle the mind: 1889 is the year of the Eiffel Tower, the same year Nintendo was founded (the company originally made playing cards) and Van Gogh painted The Starry Night.

8)  Two of President John Tyler's grandsons are still alive

1841 to 1845, John Tyler was America's tenth president.  And, surprisingly, two of his grandsons—Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr., and Harrison Tyler—were both born in the 1920s and are still alive today.

 And there you have it…a few surprising facts from history. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Those We Lost In 2020

For my first blog of the year 2021, I'm taking a look back over 2020 at some of the people we lost. This list is chronological by date of death. I've tried to pick a cross section from different walks of life. This is definitely not a complete list of all those who died. The loss of life from the COVID-19 pandemic exceeded a third of a million people just in the United States with the world wide loss being much higher. Just the number of those infected in the United States exceeded 20 million.

Buck Henry

Date: Jan. 8

Cause of death: Heart attack

Age: 89

Co-wrote the iconic film The Graduate which launched Dustin Hoffman to stardom and also co-created the television sitcom Get Smart with Mel Brooks. Regularly hosted Saturday Night Live in its infancy.

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Kobe Bryant

Date: Jan. 26

Cause of death: Blunt trauma

Age: 41

The NBA legend and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, died when his private helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif.

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Mary Higgins Clark

Date: Jan 31

Age: 92

The bestselling "Queen of Suspense" who wrote dozens of suspense novels sold worldwide. Clark's writing career spanned decades.

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Kirk Douglas

Date: Feb. 5

Cause of death: Natural causes

Age: 103

The matinee idol of Hollywood’s Golden Age died at his Beverly Hills home, announced his son Michael Douglas. The star of Spartacus, Ace in the Hole, Champion and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was a three-time Academy Award nominee and was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 1996. He also played an instrumental role in helping end the Hollywood blacklist against suspected communist sympathizers.

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Max von Sydow

Date: March 8

Age: 90

Born Carl Adolf von Sydow, the Swedish actor and director enjoyed a 70-year career that spanned everything from The Exorcist (1973), to Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), to numerous international films including Ingmar Bergman’s critically acclaimed The Seventh Seal (1957). In more recent years, he reached a new audience with his Emmy-nominated performance as the Three-eyed Raven in Game of Thrones.

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Kenny Rogers

Date: March 20

Cause of death: Natural causes

Age: 81

One of the most successful recording artists of all time, the country star recorded 65 albums, sold more than 165 million records, and racked up more than 120 Billboard hit singles across various genres — including his 1978 story song “The Gambler,” which was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress and inspired five television movies. A Country Music Hall of Fame inductee in 2013, Rogers also won three Grammys, 13 American Music Awards, six Country Music Association Awards, the CMA Lifetime Achievement Award and the CMT Artist of a Lifetime Award.

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Roy Horn

Date: May 8

Cause of death: Coronavirus-related complications

Age: 75

Horn was half of the successful Las Vegas duo Siegfried and Roy, who entertained crowds with magic tricks and interaction with lions and tigers, for 35 years. He had miraculously survived after being mauled and dragged offstage by a 400-pound white tiger during a performance on Oct. 3, 2003, although he had a stroke and partial paralysis afterward. While the duo made an appearance for charity in 2009, they officially retired their act the following year. His death came one week after his diagnosis with the coronavirus.

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Little Richard

Date: May 9

Cause of death: Bone cancer

Age: 87

Considered the founding father of rock ‘n’ roll whose combination of boogie, gospel and blues paved the way for every rocker that followed, the flamboyant “Tutti Frutti” showman’s death prompted a flood of tributes to his incredible legacy.

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Jerry Stiller

Date: May 11

Cause of death: Natural causes

Age: 92

The comedian and his wife of 60 years, Anne Meara, were a very successful stand-up comedy duo. Their son, Ben Stiller, is a successful actor. Jerry had a late-career boost first on Seinfeld, playing George Costanza's father Frank (Festivus!). He followed that success by playing Leah Remini's dad on The King of Queens. He also appeared with Ben in numerous films.

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Phyllis George

Date: May 14

Cause of death: Complications from a blood disorder

Age: 70

After winning the title of Miss America 1971, she became one of the first female sports broadcasters when she joined the NFL Today team four years later.

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Carl Reiner

Date: June 29

Cause of death: Natural causes

Age: 98

Because he was a writer, producer, director and an actor, it’s easy to see why he was an important influence on comedy. He was the winner of multiple Emmys and the father of director Rob Reiner. Carl continued to act into his later years.

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Kelly Preston

Date: July 12

Cause of death: Breast cancer

Age: 57

The Jerry Maguire and For Love of the Game actress privately battled breast cancer for two years before succumbing to the disease at her Florida home. She had been married to John Travolta since 1991.

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John Lewis

Date: July 17

Cause of death: Pancreatic cancer

Age: 80

An icon of the civil rights movement, he was one of the activists who was by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s side during the March on Washington in 1963 and during the Bloody Sunday March in 1965. He spent more than three decades as a congressman representing Atlanta. His death came six months after he revealed that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

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Diana Rigg

Date: Sept. 10

Cause of death: Lung cancer

Age: 82

Long before her popular role as the wickedly witty Lady Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones, she was a ‘60s sex symbol playing crimefighting assistant Emma Peel to Patrick Macnee's John Steed on the British TV series The Avengers. A star on stage and screen, the British actress was made a “Dame” for her services to drama in 1994, the year she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play after starring in the London and New York productions of Medea.

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Regis Philbin

Date: July 24

Cause of death: Heart attack

Age: 88

The iconic TV personality set the Guinness World Record for "Most Hours on US Television" during his 60-year showbiz career. He was best known for the morning show Live!, which he co-hosted for 24 seasons, and the hit primetime game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

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Olivia de Havilland

Date: July 26

Cause of death: Natural causes

Age: 104

The two-time Oscar winner and last surviving star of Gone With the Wind died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Paris. The fiery actress made a splash off-screen, too, as she helped buck the old Hollywood studio system with what’s known in the industry as the de Havilland Law.

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Chadwick Boseman

Date: Aug. 28

Cause of death: Cancer

Age: 43

The Black Panther star’s death sent a shockwave around the world when Boseman’s family announced he privately battled colon cancer for four years. The actor brought King T’Challa to life in the Marvel Universe between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Date: Sept. 18

Cause of death: Metastatic pancreatic cancer

Age: 87

The Supreme Court justice, nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, was beloved for the many advancements she made for women. Even before she became only the second woman (and the first Jewish woman) to sit on the nation’s highest court, Ginsburg had fought for women’s rights on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and had persevered against sexism in her own life as one of the few women studying law. In her later years, Ginsburg became so famous for her dissents, that she was given the nickname of “the notorious RBG.” Her story inspired books and movies, a meme and even a regular sketch on Saturday Night Live.

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Eddie Van Halen

Date: Oct 6

Cause of death: Cancer

Age: 65

The renowned lead guitarist of iconic rock group Van Halen died after a "long and arduous battle with cancer," his son wrote on social media.

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Sean Connery

Date: Oct. 31

Cause of death: Respiratory failure due to pneumonia, old age and atrial fibrillation

Age: 90

He won an Oscar playing a tough-talking cop in The Untouchables and found success with a series of thrillers and action hits in the 1990s, but the suave Scotsman will forever be synonymous with three words: “Bond, James Bond.” Connery’s original 007 set the benchmark for debonair-but-deadly action heroes.

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Alex Trebek

Date: Nov. 8

Cause of death: Cancer

Age: 80

Less than two years after announcing his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis, the beloved Jeopardy! host passed away at home surrounded by loved ones. Trebek filmed his final episodes just 10 days before his death. The pop culture icon hosted the game show since its revival in 1984. In 2014, he was awarded the Guinness World Record for most gameshow episodes hosted by the same presenter.

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Chuck Yeager

Date: Dec. 7

Age: 97

The test pilot who broke the sound barrier in 1947, thus paving the way for future space travel.

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Charley Pride

Date: Dec. 12

Cause of death: COVID-19-related complications

Age: 86

Pride was a legendary baritone singer who broke barriers as the first Black country superstar and first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. During his peak recording years, he was RCA Records’ best-selling artist since Elvis Presley, earning 52 top 10 country hits (36 of which went to No. 1) and 12 gold albums. Pride was the winner of four Grammys and three Country Music Association Awards.