Day 966: Which Came First And What’s On Second?

originally published August 23, 2014

While the central focus of this project has been devoted to the kind of esoteric trivia that will one day allow me to run the category of ‘Obscure Miscellany’ on Jeopardy, sometimes I like to ask the big questions. The paradoxes. The queries that prompt chortles and didactic witticisms in some company and distant frosted-glass stares with maybe a “woah” among stoned people.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To teach us about existential nothingness, of course. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Only the most fleet-footed of Broadway angels know that one, and they’re keeping their collective yap shut. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s a paradox that has been juggled from philosopher to philosopher, flitting through the fingers of the rhetorically-inclined while attracting the occasional wordy summation from the theological or scientific camps (who are divided by a fuzzier line than even they would admit). This is the stuff of mental meandering, the kind of riddle that the mind loves to lock itself in the bathroom with and do wicked, self-abusing things. It’s an A-or-B multiple choice question with a clear and concise C and D hiding in the margins.

My favorite kind of question.

The most obvious (and therefore buzz-killing) answer is “the egg”, using the justification that other animals – reptiles, dinosaurs and their cool-blooded ilk – also came from eggs. Let’s toss this smirking solution into the semantic garburator  right away by clarifying that ‘egg’ for the purposes of this riddle refers only to ‘chicken eggs’. We’re trying to untangle a paradox here; no one is suggesting that the chicken was the first creature to poach its zygotes inside a calcite shell.

Aristotle and Plato pondered the cycle of poultry life, but never offered a conclusion solid enough to take a bite out of. Plutarch, the Greek historian and celebrated entertainer of Plato-esque musings, pulled this paradox to a higher plateau, tracing it to the creation of the world and extrapolating its possible solutions to any and all life forms. Our modern-day intellectual heavyweights have also weighed in, with both Stephen Hawking and Christopher Langan landing on the ‘egg’ side of the fence. Whether they’re using the logic I applied in my last paragraph to mean ‘all eggs’, I have no idea.

More than 2000 years of philosophical noodling and we still don’t have a clue. Let’s see what science has to say about it.

The red junglefowl is one of the creatures perched upon the rung just below the chicken on the evolutionary ladder. Genetic research has actually suggested the modern chicken is a hybrid between this colorful guy and the more earthy-looking grey junglefowl. If this proves to be true, then the chicken egg which housed the first chicken would make a successful claim to be first. Still – it was just an egg. To those who observed it (probably only its feathered parents), it was a junglefowl egg. It could only be identified as a chicken egg once a chicken squirmed out of the shell. So what is the threshold that determines when a dollop of yolk becomes an actual chicken?

Here’s where I take a hard starboard turn before stumbling into the abortion debate.

Researchers at Sheffield University have identified the chicken protein called ovocleiden-17 as the key player in this question. This protein helps to form the rigid shell, and it appears both before and after the shell’s creation. So by this line of thinking, the chicken comes both before and after the egg. Confused yet? Well, we’re just getting rolling.

Evolution has an answer to this riddle tucked inside its breast pocket. Since an animal cannot evolve throughout its lifetime, the conclusion must be that the egg came first, as no creature could be born and transform into a chicken (at least not without the aid of an exceptional hypnotist). DNA, however, can be tweaked before and after birth. So what we’re looking at is some creature remarkably similar to a chicken (likely one of the aforementioned junglefowls) spurting out an egg that contains the chicken mutation.

But that mystery egg also contained a chicken. So if this is the timeline of events upon which we’re agreeing, then the chicken and egg appeared on the planet simultaneously. Whether you believe the goop inside the egg counts as a chicken (since it would become one) will determine whether you think the chicken or egg came first. As will your take on whether or not the egg in question was a ‘chicken egg’ until the chicken popped out. One likely accurate summation of the event – two distinct perspectives. Three if you allow for “both” to be an answer.

Science has dealt us a sloppy stack of grey. Let’s see what those wacky creationists have to say.

The Judeo-Christian take on the matter is laughably simple. They slapped it down right after the opening credits: “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.” While I think the Bible may be exaggerating somewhat the majestic and graceful soaring capabilities of the modern hen, the point is quite clear: God made chickens. Then he told the little bastards to be fruitful and multiply.

Hindus are taught that birds were created by God through superhuman beings. So once again we have the chicken leading the parade. But again, if we’re taking the word ‘egg’ into the larger context (which I said I wouldn’t do, but whatever), then Hinduism also talks about Brahmanda, the cosmic egg out of which the entire universe was born. So score another one for the eggmen. Goo goo g’joob.

If we look to Buddhism – a religion not so much known for its clear-cut answers, but more for its philosophical deep breaths, which may explain why no one wants goes to war with devout Buddhists – the answer comes in the perpetual wheel of time. Nietzsche would also give his thumbs-up to this chicken-egg solution: if time is cyclical, eternally repeating, then there is no creation. There have always been chickens and there have always been eggs. A number of other cultures buy into this thinking too: the Aztecs, the Mayans, as well as a number of Dharmic faiths.

It’s a total non-answer, but it brings us right back to where we started. We have unearthed a shiny quartet of responses: the chicken, the egg, both and neither. I tend to land on the sciencey turf in most matters of metaphysical turbulence so I suppose that rules out the religious and spiritual justifications. But it still leaves me with no solution.

There you have it – another great question, answered in this collection of kilographs. Except in this case, the only answer I can truly stand behind is, “Ask someone else; I have no friggin’ idea.”

Day 963: The Hounds Of Fealty

originally published August 20, 2014

Yes, I’m writing about dogs again. Last year saw the earthly departure of Rufus and Yoko, my two loyal – albeit halitosis-heavy – bulldog assistants, and I would be remiss (which is Latin for “an asshole”) if I did not honor their memory with a few feel-good tales of puckish pooches to warm the cockles (which is Latin for “the taint”) of the heart. Luckily, as chock-full as the internet may be with cat pictures, it is similarly packed with tales of loyal canines.

I make no apologies for the fact that I am a dog person. Dogs may not be smarter than cats – though they could be; I distinctly recall some Youtube video in which a dog retrieves a beer from the fridge – but they are more emotionally devoted to their human friends. I love that when I come home every day, my remaining bulldog assistants (Bessie & The Bean, so named for her legume-esque stature) are jubilant to the point of ridiculousness. In my limited experience, cats simply don’t offer that kind of overflow of positive energy.

And devotion. That’s a big one. The loyalty of my slobbery little friends has never truly been tested, but I’m sure it exists. The canine companions who grace today’s page have all demonstrated a form of loyalty that every super-villain dreams of extracting from but one of their grunting minions.

Any pile of devoted-dog stories must contain a customary bow to Hachiko, the Akita owned by University of Tokyo professor Hidesaburo Ueno. Every afternoon, Hachiko would show up at Shibuya Station to await Ueno’s train. In May 1925, only about a year into their relationship, Ueno suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never made it home. Hachiko showed up anyway, and proceeded to pop in to the station at the exact same time every day to await his master’s return. For almost ten more years.

Okay, it’s a depressing story; Hachiko’s devotion was never rewarded with success. But one of Ueno’s students observed the dog in action and checked in regularly, publishing the tale in a series of articles. His story became a teaching tool in Japanese culture, of the loyalty and fidelity everyone should express toward their families. Every April 8, a solemn moment of silence is still held for the dog (and maybe his owner… but probably not) at Shibuya Station.

Waghya has been called the ultimate symbol of devotion in India lore, though to my ears the story sounds a little bit suspicious. Waghya belonged to Chhatrapati Shivaji, an Indian warrior-king who ruled over some fragment of India in the 17th century (that’s as specific as I’m going to get – this is a dog article, not a geography article). His beloved Waghya was so distraught over his owner’s death, he leapt upon the funeral pyre in an act of suicidal allegiance.

Whether or not that actually happened, it makes for a good story. I don’t expect I’d receive such a grotesque honor from my bulldogs, but since my wife continues to refuse my demand for a front-lawn pyre when my time is up, I suppose I’ll never know.

One thing my dogs do not possess is a job. They lay about, gorging on my food and silently mocking me when I have to drag my carcass out the door to work every morning, and what do they contribute?

Perhaps I should teach them about Barry, the Alpine Mastiff who was employed as a mountain rescue dog for several years in the early 1800s. It’s said that Barry rescued more than 40 people in his time, poking around the caverns and chasms of the Swiss Alps, and dragging those too week to walk back to safety. After twelve years of service, Barry was even granted a period of retirement in Bern.

The term ‘Alpine Mastiff’ was not an official appellation, and when it came time to slap a definitive moniker on the breed, they went with ‘Barry Hound’ for more than thirty years. In 1865, the breed was named for the hospice out of which Barry operated for his entire professional life: St. Bernard. It should be noted that Barry’s body was preserved and displayed at the Natural History Museum in Bern, however his skull has been re-molded to resemble the way St. Bernards look today. How’s that for a touching, yet creepy tribute?

Speaking of vocationally-engaged dog stories with a slightly creepy tinge, I’d like to offer up a warbly, uncommitted salute to Lucky and Flo, two dogs who rose to prominence working for the MPAA. You know, the same organization that didn’t let you see Goodfellas when you were seventeen because you were three months away from when the violence and mature subject matter wouldn’t corrupt your soul.

The MPAA enlisted these two Labrador retrievers to sniff out counterfeit DVDs as a part of a much-publicized effort to curb movie piracy, back when piracy happened in the physical, non-data-file form. Lucky and Flo can’t actually sniff out counterfeit DVDs, but they can detect a whiff of an optical disc. So when they were deployed for their inaugural mission to root out illegal Shrek bootlegs at the FedEx hub of London Stansted Airport in May 2006, everything they uncovered was in fact a legal piece of someone’s property.

The happy pair were dispatched to Malaysia the following year, and were integral to busting a counterfeit DVD ring in Johor Bahru. The nefarious pirates allegedly put a bounty on the dogs’ heads, though as of this writing both are still alive and barking.

For a demonstration of unwavering devotion, we need look no further than Bobbie, known to Oregonians as Bobbie the Wonder Dog. A resident of Silverton, Oregon, Bobbie was travelling with his family in Indiana when he became separated from his human flock. The family searched desperately for their beloved Collie mix, but in what has to be the crappiest ending to a vacation ever, they couldn’t find him.

Six months later, Bobbie turned up at home, his feet worn down to the bone. He had voyaged over 2550 miles, through desert, mountains and harsh winter terrain to get back to his family.

I’d like to see a cat lay claim to such a demonstration of unflinching loyalty and resilient commitment. For that matter, I’d like to see a bulldog pull that off. I don’t know – I think my dogs would give up and stretch out in the nearest slab of sun-soaked lawn. That’s okay, I don’t need to test their love. I would, however, like to train them to get me beer from the fridge. It could happen. And football season is coming.

Day 942: The Hounds Of Golden Gate City

originally published July 30, 2014

Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.

Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.

Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.

Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival.

Bummer was one such beast. A black and white Newfoundlander (or perhaps a Newfie-cross), he likely cut a dramatically immense silhouette against the sun. Bummer’s home base was beside a saloon belonging to Frederick Martin. He showed up around 1860 and demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude at snagging rats. Bummer became a fixture of the establishment, living off the kind scraps of strangers and feeding upon the affection of those who drunkenly stumbled from Freddie’s saloon into Montgomery Street, looking for a friend.

Here’s where the Disney aesthetic steps in. In 1861, Bummer noticed two dogs scrapping it out. He chased away the larger dog and took pity on the wounded smaller creature. He brought scraps of his begging bounty to the mutt, and lay down beside him at night to keep him warm. After a few days, the wounded animal was healthy enough to travel, and he was joining Bummer on his begging rounds, even superseding him in catching rats. The locals christened the new guy Lazarus.

Freddie’s saloon was a hot spot for the newspaper crowd, so local journalists had a front seat to Bummer and Lazarus’s exploits. The dogs were easy fodder for a feel-good local piece, earning them curious reputations as San Francisco celebrities. While the rest of the country faced the raging fist of a rebellious Confederacy, northern Californians were treated to the exploits of these canine heroes, who allegedly teamed up to snag 85 rats in one 20-minute stretch.

Such was the state of journalism back then that it really doesn’t matter if such an accomplishment ever actually took place; San Franciscans loved these two.

Every local paper ran a Bummer & Lazarus story. The Californian, Daily Morning Call, Daily Evening Bulletin… these were tales that titillated the public’s imagination. Bummer was the crusty, learned gentleman, and Lazarus was the sprightly, precocious bucket of energy. They were depicted in journalistic prose as lifelong companions, treasured friends. When Bummer sustained an injury and Lazarus ditched him to run with another dog, it was a local tragedy. When the two reunited outside Freddy’s saloon, it was a triumph.

In June of 1862, Lazarus was snatched up by the dog-catcher’s net. A mob of angry citizens, hopefully toting pitchforks and torches, arrived at the pound to demand Lazarus’s release. Even the city executives understood the special rank these two held in the hearts of the masses; Lazarus was dismissed from his date with doom, and a formal proclamation was made that both he and his omnipresent companion were to be perpetually exempt from the dog-catcher’s clutches.

The two dogs were allegedly spotted in the company of another San Franciscan oddity, a man named Joshua A. Norton. Norton famously declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859, and while his exploits certainly deserve a smidgen of attention during my final 58 kilographs, it’s enough for now to say that Norton was somewhat of a curious local character. He lived in poverty, yet was treated as an imperial figure by the locals, and though only one news story placed him with Bummer & Lazarus, cartoonist Edward Jump frequently depicted them as a trio. The most famous of these cartoons can be found at the top of this article.

Author and local historian Samuel Dickson played into the schtick, claiming that every theatrical opening in San Francisco between 1855 and 1880 made a point of reserving three front-row balcony seats for Bummer, Lazarus and Emperor Norton. While this is most definitely a hyperbole, it makes for a cute story.

Rumor has it Lazarus took a chomp out of a local boy, and earned a malicious slab of poison-infused meat as punishment. Another story claims he’d been kicked by a horse on the local fire brigade. Either way, Lazarus clocked out in October of 1863. His fate? Taxidermy. Lazarus was stuffed and placed behind the bar in Freddie Martin’s saloon.

Bummer, who had faded from the limelight after his companion’s death, was apparently kicked by a drunk two years later, and succumbed to his injuries. While that drunk was savagely beaten in jail for his crime, Bummer’s death brought together the scads of San Franciscans who had adored him. His eulogy – and it should be noted that stray dog eulogies are quite rare in most major journalistic markets – was penned by none other than Mark Twain, who waxed nostalgic in that uniquely Twainesque fashion, commemorating both dogs’ honor and importance in San Francisco lore.

Bummer was also taxidermied and put on display. Fortunately, San Francisco doesn’t do this for all their local celebrities. A plaque stands in honor of the two canine pals, positioned in Transamerica Redwood Park, at the base of that gloriously pointy Transamerica Pyramid. The two may be gone, but they will not soon be forgotten, leaving a cuddly trail of feel-good news in their paw-prints.

Day 932: Tornadoing It Right

originally published July 20, 2014

As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.

But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.

Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.

Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable.

An overpass becomes a violent wind tunnel when a tornado sidles up to it. You’re squatting on higher terrain than most of the surrounding landscape, and opening yourself up to a shower-spray of debris and gravel. During a 1999 tornado in Oklahoma, a woman actually left her home to drive to an overpass, believing it would do a better job of sheltering her. That tornado wound up hitting three overpasses, killing someone at all three. Just get out of your car and lie flat in a ditch or a culvert – don’t get cocky, and don’t take survival advice from videos you’ve seen on the internet.

Apparently someone came up with the idea that opening your windows during a tornado will somehow keep your house from exploding. I’d never heard this one before. The thinking goes that the lower atmospheric pressure in the armpit of a tornado will cause one’s domicile to pop like a bubble, spewing its innards onto your neighbors’ lawns. The basis for this thinking comes about from buildings that have been struck on one side by a tornado, collapsing one wall inward and the others outward. This creates the illusion of a building that has exploded.

Look, if a tornado wants to flatten your house, it’s going to flatten your house. If you’re along the fringe of the danger zone (as opposed to being on the highway to the danger zone), those windows might hold off some small debris from embedding itself in your living room drywall. Besides, rather than wasting time opening all your windows, you should be seeking shelter. Don’t you remember what happened to Andy Travis on the tornado episode of WKRP In Cincinnati? Unless Loni Anderson is there with you to give you mouth-to-mouth, just stay the hell away from windows completely.

The first guy to really throw some science at studying tornadoes was a 19th century meteorologist named John Park Finley. In 1887 he wrote a book on the subject, providing a heap of tasty tidbits on tornado origins, patterns and safety tips. He also dropped a few lemons into the basket though, one of which was that the safest place to hide out in any building is the northeast corner. After all, tornadoes always travel in a northeastern path, and since debris will always be flung toward a funnel cloud’s past footprint, crouching down near the wall that the tornado will first touch is your safest bet.

John was so full of crap with this advice, his fingers probably left a poopy residue on the keys of his typewriter when he wrote it. Sometimes tornados cruise along wholly different trajectories – the F5 Jarrell Tornado, which killed 27 people in Texas in 1997, was travelling south-southwest. Also, if you’re up against the first wall that a tornado touches, you won’t be protected from the debris. You will be the debris.

Driving away from a tornado will make you look like a cinematic bad-ass (though not as much so as walking slowly away from it). But unless there’s a movie camera on the vehicle in front of you, there is no reason to do this. Yes, your car will probably move faster than the tornado. And as long as there are no obstacles in your way (abandoned cars, overturned light poles, storm-tossed bovines) you might outrun the thing. Hopefully you won’t cruise onto a flash-flooded road. And hopefully you won’t be chased by one of those freakish tornadoes that can outpace 100km/h.

If you’re in your car, get out. Funnel clouds juggle vehicles like a drunken college kid tries to juggle old fruit – badly, and with gravity inevitably claiming victory. If the funnel cloud is far away, drive at a 90-degree angle from its path and hope it doesn’t arbitrarily change course. Maybe you’ll make it home. Though if your home is a mobile home, just give up hope entirely.

It certainly appears as though the Tornado Gods have a deep hate-on for trailer parks. Between 2000 and 2008, tornadoes killed 539 people in the United States, with 282 of those (that’s over half) dying in or around mobile homes. This statistic would fuel the funk of urban legend, unless one considers the obvious: mobile homes are single-story structures that are built for cost and transportability, not for standing up to a meteorological bully. They’re flimsy. And most mobile home parks are clustered around a city’s fringes, making them first in line for incoming weather bastardry.

Not that you’ll necessarily be safe if you plunk yourself into the gullet of an urban metropolis. Several cities’ downtowns have been thwacked by tornadoes registering F4 or higher on the Fujita Scale: Topeka, St. Louis, Lubbock, and even London, England.

If there’s a tornado on the horizon, just scoot yourself to the lowest, most centerish part of your house and ride it out. To pass the time, check out some real estate listings in other cities that aren’t known for drawing funnel clouds like a tourist draws a greedy Elmo’s attention in Times Square. Like Diomede, Alaska, for example: no tornadoes, no mosquitos… not much of anything, really.

Day 928: Step Right Up – Polymelia Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!

originally published July 16, 2014

In choosing to part with a precious dollar in order to venture beyond the chalky flap into the freak-show tent, one must be prepared for what one is about to experience. If you’re the type whose cup gurgleth over with empathy, you’ll likely succumb to the fangs of your own guilt, having paid a pittance to merely gawk at the afflicted (a similar guilt may also strike as one sits and gapes in a strip club, though the desire to see boobies often trumps the hand of conscience).

If you’re a skeptic, you’ll spend your time deducing the construct of the visual trickery before you. In today’s post-Mos-Eisley world of latex costuming and SFX rigging we’re all a little harder to fool than our grandparents were.

Or perhaps you’re a pragmatist, and your concern lies with those who don’t pony up a buck to help get these poor souls a decent meal.

The Spider-Legged Woman is probably a fake. The guy who’s only a head with no body is probably perched above a carefully-placed mirror that conceals his other parts. But step forward if you dare, for these folks I present to you today were anything but a myth. For the most part, they made their living along the outskirts of the big top because that was all they could think to do. Prepare to have your mind blown and your eyes boggled – I’m not making any of this up. Probably.

A prop leg? That’s a pretty simplistic gag, even for the early 20th century. But Frank Lentini was no scam artist; due to a partially absorbed conjoined twin, Frank boasted a completely functional, full-size third leg on the right side of his body. Part of his shtick involved booting a soccer ball across the stage to demonstrate the leg’s impressive capability. All three of his legs were different lengths: 38 and 39 inches for his primary legs and 36 for the extra one.

There was no concealing this abnormality; Frank’s options were either to hack the thing off or to make a little money with it. For whatever reason, he chose the latter, earning tremendous respect among his peers in the Barnum & Bailey Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Perhaps the reason he kept the leg lay between those limbs. You see, Frank also had a second fully-functional penile apparatus in his… auxiliary crotch. He married, settled down, and had four kids. Don’t ask me which of his penises fathered the kids – I only wish I had that information.

How do you top a three-legged man? How about a four-legged woman?

Myrtle Corbin’s body axis split as it developed, giving her two pelvises and four legs. The two inner legs matched one another – both were able to be moved at will, however they lacked the muscle strength to support her. Doctors attempted to classify her condition, however this was the 1870’s so they came up with ridiculous terms like “posterior dichotomy” and “the monocephalic, ileadelphic class of monsters of fusion.”

Like Frank, Myrtle was also a revered denizen of the sideshow circuit. And like Frank, she married and lived a long life. She also possessed a pair of sex-parts, and expressed a noted preference for getting down and funky on her right side. When she became pregnant (in her left uterus, which she found surprising), she became too ill to carry the baby to term. Fortunately, nature (and our resilient hormonal urge to screw) stepped in, and Myrtle would eventually spurt out four healthy, happy children.

Octoman, also known as Rudy Santos, is the oldest person ever to have lived with a parasitic twin attached to his frame. Born in 1953 to an impoverished family in the Philippines, Rudy has a leg, two arms, shoulders and nipples bulging from his pelvis. He also sports an undeveloped head (with hair and a visible ear) latched to his sternum. He joined the freak-show world out of necessity; he was too poor for surgery and too curiously constructed for much else.

Rudy wasn’t one for being a human spectacle, so he spent most of his life since the 1980’s away from the travelling show world and mired in the abyss of poverty. A Filipino expert on separating conjoined twins determined in 2008 that Rudy could be freed from his freeloading passenger, and allowed to live out his days without drawing the gaze of slack-jawed onlookers everywhere. He turned down the surgery, claiming he was too attached to his extra parts to desert them now.

Much like Professor Quirrell in the first Harry Potter book/movie, Edward Mordake was not a fan of that second face on the back of his head. The story goes that Edward was the heir to a noble English line of peerage, but that he refused to claim his title, choosing instead to live out his life in isolation. His is not a tale from the dusty gabble of a circus sideshow – Edward’s tale can only be found in the written words of his 19th-century physicians.

The face was recorded as smiling and sneering as Edward wept. It could make no noise, but its eyes would follow a person walking past it, its lips quietly flapping as though it were trying to speak. Edward begged his doctors to remove this “demon face”, claiming it spoke to him at night, uttering “hateful whispers” that spoke of “such things as they only speak of in Hell.” His suicide note – he was only 23 when he took his life with poison – pleaded for his demon face to be destroyed before his burial, lest it continue to haunt him beyond the grave.

If you’re not even a little creeped out by now, you have a stronger stomach than I.

The truth is, polymelia – the birth defect that results in extra limbs or body parts – happens all over the animal kingdom. Usually it’s a case of a twin that gets only partially reabsorbed by the body. Such was the case for Frank and Rudy – keep in mind, Myrtle’s condition was a result of dipygus, when her body axis forked during development (I don’t even want to speculate on what happened in Edward’s case). This is simply one of those weird wonders of human anatomy that science struggles to explain whilst faith passes the buck to the supreme being.

When tadpoles are attacked by the Ribeiroia bacteria, the ensuing frogs often exhibit symptoms of polymelia. A four-legged chicken was born in Somerset, Pennsylvania in 2005. A four legged duck named Stumpy appeared in England in 2007. Science just has a way of playing a wild-card sometimes.

Look, if you’re willing to sacrifice a smidgen of your paycheck to stare at someone who was dealt a cruddy hand at birth, I make no judgments. Me, I’ll take my dollar and blow it on mini-donuts. Less guilt, less chance of being duped by latex, mirrors and plaster-of-Paris, and more free time to puke on the Tilt-A-Whirl or watch those clowns crawl out of that tiny little car. I love those guys.

Day 886: When Whales Explode

originally published June 4, 2014

Human beings – and I’d specify the male of the species here, though I’m quite certain this amply bridges the gender gap – love to watch things explode. David Letterman helped to build his reputation by throwing stuff off a building and airing the ensuing splatter. TV shows on the Discovery Channel have existed for the sole purpose of blowing things up for our amusement. And deep down, we all know that we could never possess the internal discipline to walk bad-ass-like away from an explosion without looking back and applauding like a giddy tween in the presence of some douchey boy-band star.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to learn that when a beached whale carcass appeared on an Oregon beach one afternoon in 1970, the people in charge of its disposal embraced the dramatic. It became a media event, and it’s still a memorable slice of history today because it also became an absolute debacle.

The fact is, sometimes whales explode on their own, due to a build-up of gasses bloating out its insides. But it’s usually more fun when humans intervene and attempt to assert their dominance over nature via dynamite. We are a truly wondrous species.

The sperm whale (that’s the one on the left) was a 45-foot, 8-ton beast. It drifted ashore in central Oregon, along the coast near the town of Florence. In 1970, beaches were inexplicably classified as state highways in Oregon, meaning the people in charge of the carcass’s removal were the same folks who helped to craft the Pacific Coast Highway – the Oregon Department of Transportation. The district engineer had disappeared on a hunting trip, so the responsibility for the body disposal fell upon the backup guy, George Thornton.

Thornton conferred with the US Navy, then ultimately decided to oust the whale the same way he would a boulder: with a big boom. Only thing is, George had no idea how much dynamite to use on a whale, something he confessed openly to a TV reporter. So he did what anyone would do – he guessed, and he guessed big. As it happened, a military veteran from Springfield who knew something about explosives happened to be in the area.

His name was Walter Umenhofer, and when he heard that 20 cases of dynamite were being hauled in to send this whale off to the great beyond, he made a point of telling George Thornton that he was making a huge mistake. He felt that 20 sticks should be enough to accomplish George’s goal, which was to disperse enough of the whale’s innards to allow the local scavenger birds to swoop in and devour the ensuing mess.

George ignored the advice. Maybe he wanted to give the people a show, or perhaps he simply felt that he knew better than Walter Umenhofer. The locals came in droves, and the media set up their cameras. This was certain to be a good story, and even more so if things went weirdly wrong. And they did. In a delightfully comical way.

Here’s the video of the news report. Skip to 2:45 for the real show – and what a show it is. The spectators had been ordered to scoot about a quarter-mile back from the beach, but within seconds they were running for their lives while the sky pelted them with blubber and organ matter, all of it smelling more foul than my nose’s imagination can conceive. All the birds who had been circling in anticipation of a high-protein meal scattered from the noise. There was no one left to clean up the remains but the Department of Transportation and George Thornton.

On the plus side, there was no monstrous carcass to contend with anymore, at least not in one centralized location. No one was seriously hurt in the explosion, though there was a bit of property damage, including one car that was flattened by a falling piece of whale. That car happened to belong to the one guy who tried to warn George against using a half-ton of dynamite when a tenth of that would have worked: explosives expert Walter Umenhofer.

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be right.

Another great whale-splosion of note occurred in January of 2004 in the massive metropolis of Tainan City, Taiwan. It was another sperm whale – one that was later deduced to have been thwacked by a passing shipping vessel, damaging its spine and sending it on a collision course with the beach. The whale was to be moved to the National Cheung Kung University for a necropsy. They wanted to see what made this mighty beast ooze ashore.

A crowd of more than 600 people showed up to watch as the whale was hoisted onto the back of a massive truck, using three cranes and fifty crew members over a 13-hour ordeal. Professor Wang Chien-ping was ordered (by whomever would order such a thing) not to perform the necropsy, and instead to transport the gigantic marine mammal to the Sutsao Wild Life Reservation Area. Still on the truck, the road crew left the university and started out for their new destination.

Then… boom.

A buildup of rather unpleasant-smelling gases inside a decaying animal is a natural process of tissue degradation, a result of putrefaction and fermentation. Often the gases dissipate gradually out the mouth and anus, but sometimes they get stuck, looking for an escape. In the case of the Tainan whale, no one knew it was a time-bomb. The transport truck was cruising through a crowded urban part of town when the whale blasted apart, covering people, cars and storefronts with its bloody, blubbery shrapnel.

The smell was vicious and the mess was staggering, but once again no one got seriously hurt. But seeing a whale suddenly erupt in a crimson geyser while you’re checking out some new luggage through a store window – that’s the kind of mental scar that sticks with a person.

Speaking of mental scars – and I wish I had the presence of mind to make this up – poor Walter Umenhofer, the guy whose shiny new Oldsmobile 98 Regency was pancaked by the Oregon whale, probably carried some bitterness away from that day also. It seems that he’d just purchased the vehicle from a dealership in Eugene during a promotion that was called – I swear – “Get A Whale Of A Deal.”

He certainly did.

Day 845: The Red Side Of The Moon

originally published April 24, 2014

Stargazers with a curious mind, a tolerance for late night wakefulness and who weren’t locked beneath the astronomical cock-block of an overcast sky got to witness a spectacular lunar eclipse last week. It was a crimson marvel, a humbling reminder of a universe beyond petulant cat videos and the frustrating television antics of Jon Cryer, Ashton Kutcher and the Halfling they keep chained up in their basement (I’ve never actually seen the show). But was it simply a glorious spectacle, or did it *mean* something?

If you’ve spent any time among the amply-zealotted nutjob crowd then you know that someone must have ascribed some catastrophic significance to the eclipse, in particular because it was the first in a tetrad – a quartet of full-on lunar eclipses that will take place between now and September 2015.

Four full eclipses in two years? Surely that must be an occurrence so fantastically rare that even the most jaded and skeptical among us should pull ourselves up from our hearty breakfast of Sugar-Frosted Reason-O’s and smoked logic-sausage and take note, right?

Actually, there will be eight tetrads occurring throughout the 21st century. But once you slap the obsidian tarp of unflinching dogma overtop these eclipses, it’s easy to spot the deeper meaning.

If you’re the type who believes our species should be beyond ascribing prophecies to the fact that shorter light wavelengths get dispersed while longer ones refract through the earth’s atmosphere to cast a red glow on an eclipsed moon, then congratulations! You have a firmer grasp on logic than pastors John Hagee and Mark Biltz.

You see, the significance lies not simply in the quartet of scarlet moons in the sky, but in the fact that all four of them coincide with the important Jewish festivals of Passover and Sukkot. This fact might rattle your brain a little, but it’s important to remember that these festivals are in sync with the lunar calendar, which makes this phenomenon somewhat less rare than one might think. As for a religious tetrad foretelling something big? Well, here’s the evidence:

There have been eight instances over the past 2000 years in which the four eclipses of a tetrad have coincided with the big-honcho Jewish holidays. Hagee and Biltz want us to believe that this astronomical occurrence will herald a significant change in Jewish history. The tetrad of 1493-94 happened right around the time the Jews were exiled from Spain. The 1949-50 tetrad went down just as Israel was declared a country. And the 1967-68 event synched up with the Six Day War. That’s the last three times the eclipses have meshed with the Jewish holidays. That must mean something!

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that stuff is happening (usually bad stuff) to alter Jewish history all the time. Yes, the Six-Day War began roughly two months after the first lunar eclipse in 1967. But the Jews were booted from Spain in 1492 and Israel became a thing in 1948 – both occurred before the eclipse cycle had begun. Sometimes the facts aren’t as flexible as dogmatic prophecy would like them to be.

So what do these two pastors predict will be the outcome of this current four-pack of shadowed moons?

Mark Biltz was the first to develop his theory. In 2008 he began prophesizing that the Second Coming of Jesus would happen in the fall of 2015 when this cycle came to an end. He spread the word over Youtube and as we’ve seen so often with fads of questionable merit, the public grabbed hold of the notion and made it a thing. There’s a passage in the Bible (Joel 2:31 for those who like to pick nits) that states that the moon will turn to blood before Jesus comes back. Biltz also claims that the “sun will be turned into darkness” part from later in that passage probably refers to the partial solar eclipse in September, 2015. I’m not certain how a partial solar eclipse equals darkness though.

Pastor John Hagee takes a more pragmatic approach in his 2013 book on the topic. His concern is not Jesus’s return visit; he believes Iran will acquire full-tilt nuclear capabilities next year, and that the event that changes Jewish history will either be the use of those nuclear weapons on Israel or Israel’s active suppression of the new threat.

Hagee’s book, Four Blood Moons, spent more than 150 days on Amazon.com’s Top 150 list, which proves that we as a society need to be a lot more discriminating about how we spend our money. But really it’s only a tiny contingent of Christians who have bought into this nonsense.

Three out of four of these so-called prophecy eclipses won’t even be visible in the Middle East. One sixth of all lunar eclipses lands on either Passover or Sukkot, and once we factor in the reality that astronomical events have no impact on our piddly little earth-lives, I think we can let this one drift into the dust-heap.

It’s not the first time a lunar eclipse has meant something, history-wise though.

On June 30, 1503, Christopher Columbus found himself stranded in Jamaica, and not in that awesome way where you missed your flight and now you have to spend one more night at the hotel soaking your liver in delicious rum beverages. No, for Chris it was more a matter of running short on food, and while the local indigenous tribes were happy to help him out, a few instances of Chris’s crew cheating and stealing from the natives put an end to that.

Columbus responded by telling the natives that they had angered his god, and his god would display his miffed-ness by making the moon appear “inflamed with wrath”. I should point out that Chris had uncovered his almanac prior to this threat, and he was using his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse to manipulate the locals. But you’d probably guessed that.

The scam worked, the natives came running with supplies, pleading for his god to back off. Chris went to fake-pray by himself, and returned to announce his god’s forgiveness right at the precise moment the eclipsed moon returned to its normal hue.

There’s a good lesson in this. To those few who actually believe the four-peat of eclipses means the end times are nigh, guess what: you are those clueless indigenous natives. And Chris Columbus is that guy selling you the info about his angry god at $49.95 plus shipping and handling.

Enjoy.

Day 779: Full Moon Fever

originally published February 17, 2014

Even for those of us who don’t hang their spiritual hats upon the rack of organized religion, there exists the very real possibility that we are cosmically intertwined with forces and energies mightier (and invisiblier) than our own. Some of these forces – gravity, aging, the uncontestable craving for pizza after a night of drinking – have been proven. Others are clearly ridiculous (if you think you’re more of an aggressive driver because of your astrology sign, you’re wrong; you might just be an asshole). Still others are open to interpretation.

I have had this discussion with my wife so often, it’s almost like watching a rerun whenever the topic comes up. She is a teacher, spending her days surrounded by squalid little junior-high germ-buckets whose behaviors are subject to hormonal whim and hyperactive attention spans that could frustrate a housefly. She is convinced that when the moon is full, her students become more unruly, more emotionally explosive. A walk past our kitchen calendar can send a telegraph of dread up her spine.

Ever the cynic, the skeptic, the buzz-kill (her descriptor, not mine), I disagree. The moon is hovering in the sky, some sixty-five billion miles (give or take a lot) from these children’s fluttery brains. How could a slab of grey rock minding its business in our orbit possibly transform these grub-balls into more manic grub-balls? It’s time to do some really quick and sloppy research and settle this once and for all.

If there’s one concession I’ll grant my wife’s argument it’s that she has buckets of history on her side. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder observed that full moons would spark psychotic episodes among those who were susceptible to such things. Right through the 1700’s, actual doctors believed that the moon phase would have an impact on epileptic seizures, rheumatism and fevers. Hell, even the Latin word for moon, ‘luna’, forms the root of the word ‘lunatic’. This is not a recent superstition.

Are we hornier at a full moon? Do women’s reproductive systems tend to spurt out babies when our sky is lit up by a perfect white circle? Do our veins bleed more on that one day of every month?

As silly as these questions may seem, they have been asked among serious people wearing serious suits while seated at serious tables. British politician David Tredinnick asserted in 2009 that surgeons would not operate during a full moon because blood clotting is simply not effective. Forget school-kid behaviors – are our physical bodies getting thwacked by these surges in lunar visibility?

No. Quick answer – this just ain’t a thing. Day 29 of the lunar cycle (that’s full moon day) may be known for a higher-than-average incidence of gastrointestinal bleeding, but a number of other days in the lunar cycle best that average also. Even the Royal College of Surgeons laughed off David Tredinnick’s suggestion that surgeons abstain from wielding their scalpels on a full moon.

A few studies have looked into childbirths during a full moon and found a 1% bump on that day. Those studies have since been crushed by several others, including a 4-year sweep of records on the part of the UCLA hospital. In Phoenix, Arizona, an analysis of the 167,956 spontaneous (meaning not induced) births between 1995 and 2000 showed zero favoritism toward any particular phase of the moon. The National Center for Health Statistics took this even further in 2001, reading through the data of 70 million birth records. No dice.

Even the link between the lunar cycle and the human menstrual cycle is just a coincidence. And if you want to get into lunar-based hormonal horniness, you’d better be talking about fish.

The California Grunion lays its eggs over four consecutive nights, beginning on the full or new moon. Still, there’s no mystical celestial energy at work here; it’s simply a matter of planting their babies when the tide is highest.

Two studies – from 1978 and 1986 – found a correlation between the full moon and an increase of violence and aggression among people with mental disorders. Ten years later another study found nothing. A 2008 excavation into the frequency of epileptic seizures indicated that yes, there is a link. Aha! That’s something!

Or it might have been something, except that when the researchers shut the curtains and thus removed the influence of additional light, the seizures were regulated. So it had nothing to do with the moon’s profound tug on our gut-vibes, but more with the fact that epileptics, like most of us, need a little darkness at the end of the day.

The one concession science will make in this realm is how the moon can affect our sleep. A study was conducted last year at the University of Basel in Switzerland in which 33 subjects were monitored at length, with mitigating factors such as light and outside influence minimized. The human guinea pigs were told nothing about what was being tracked, and still researchers found that EEG delta activity (an indicator of that yummy level of deep sleep) dropped by 30% during a full moon, and falling asleep took on average about five minutes longer.

So until another study is performed that wipes the University of Basel study off the relevancy table, we have one point in the weird-moon-power column to the many in the science-kills-all-the-fun column. The skeptical curmudgeons remain in the lead.

But there must be more. It’s not just teachers – E.R. doctors, nurses and police officers all claim there’s something to this full moon phooey.

The moon plays yo-yo with our oceans, and given that we are pretty much biped sacks of swooshing water, shouldn’t it jolt us around too? Well, no. The tides are impacted by the time of day as much as by the moon, and the overall gravitational yank we feel from the moon is on par with that of a mosquito.

What about positive ions? They increase significantly during a full moon, so shouldn’t that sway our collective mojo? Actually no, and I’m a little weirded out that you’d ask. Positive ions’ effect on human behavior falls into the clumpy potato salad of pseudo-science. Besides, ionic frequency is blasted harder by an air conditioner or your city’s perpetual state of pollution than by shifts in the moon.

In the end, we’re left with the notion of confirmation bias. Police officers might notice a particularly nasty night of street crime on a full moon, yet they won’t bat an eye if a full moon passes with an average dollop of criminal activity. Teachers might observe their kids in a particularly rowdy state in the buildup to a full moon, but when their kids are wonked to the gills on a day that isn’t a full moon, it doesn’t count as evidence against the phenomenon. Add to the mix a splatter of communal reinforcement, as teachers and nurses chatter amongst themselves about how wildly the moon affects their professions, and you’ve got a big ol’ phenomenon, bolstered by nothing.

And that’s where we land – sorry honey, the science backs me up here. Now of course one can speculate on how a battered sleep pattern might affect junior high students or potential criminals. But no lunar cycle is making our blood boil or our hormones dance.

Day 742: Elephants Vs. The People

originally published January 11, 2014

Consider if you will the mighty elephant. With the possible exceptions of dolphins and William H. Macy, no creature in our great global bestiary is as universally beloved as the elephant. Perhaps we’re taken by the thunderous, loping grace that evokes the style and swagger of a gentle yet powerful former-linebacker grandpa. It could be the sage, Yoda-like perpetual grin. Maybe it’s the fifth limb dangling from its cranium. Whatever the reason, we love these animals.

And so we capture and display them, and sometimes train them to do non-elephant things for our amusement. Since the term ‘animal rights’ entered our lexicon, we have tried a little harder to treat them well, though we don’t always come through because we are humans and innately prone to being complete jerks to nature. There are rancid heaps of tales of human cruelty in elephant history, too many to list here.

It appears to be in our nature to pin unwarranted blame on these exquisite beasts when things go wrong, even when overwhelming evidence of human fault exists. Sure, some elephants are probably assholes, same as any other species. But what horrific dung-spew of soiled logic believes it to be rational to hang an elephant who has ‘misbehaved’? Humankind has created powerful medicines, triumphant satellites, creamy gelatos and the glorious Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, and yet our legacy will forever be stained by crap like this:

On September 11, 1916, a hotel worker named Red Eldridge felt it was time to steer his career down a new set of tracks. He was hired as an assistant elephant trainer with the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. The next day, he was dead. Red had allegedly poked at Mary – an otherwise docile and beloved Asian elephant – behind the ear when she dipped into a watermelon snack. Red couldn’t have known this, but Mary had a severely infected tooth right around that spot, so when she turned on Red it was pure pain-driven instinct.

Mary’s trunk swung into action, tossing Red into a drink stand. She then stepped forward and with the force of ten thousand of Gallagher’s hammers she crushed his skull into chunky soup with her foot. The next day Mary was hauled by train to Erwin, Tennessee, where a railcar-mounted crane hanged her in front of 2500 spectators, including most of the town’s children. I’m sure the kids were overwhelmed with childhood delight, particularly when the chain snapped and a very alive Mary fell to the earth and broke her hip. The second attempt was successful.

Mary was dead. People suck. Let’s move on.

Topsy’s home in 1903 was Coney Island’s Luna Park. She was also responsible for a trainer’s death and was extremely hostile toward two other keepers. Forget that the trainer had burned her with a cigar and the other two assholes kept poking her with pitchforks. The Forepaugh Circus decided to put Topsy down and to do so, they enlisted the help of Thomas Edison.

Edison was thrilled to have an opportunity to embarrass his competition. He wanted to show the world how dangerous Grover Westinghouse’s AC current was, so he had Topsy zapped with 6,600 volts of juice while Edison filmed the event for national exhibition. Edison made some bucks and the circus got its wish. Everyone wins. Except for Topsy. And our collective human soul, I suppose.

I don’t want to delve deep into the fate of Castor and Pollux, two elephants at the Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris when the Prussians moved in and seized the city in 1870. The city was running out of food, and Castor and Pollux – along with horses, cats, dogs, rats, antelopes, yaks, zebras, camels, wolves, deer, kangaroos and donkeys – were served up to keep Parisians chock full of protein. It was an ugly time.

But enough about our moronic tendencies toward our elephant friends. Like I said up top, we love these creatures. Pope Leo X kept one as a pet in the sixteenth century! Columbia, the first circus elephant to be born in captivity, became a matter of contention when P.T. Barnum wanted to buy him from the Bailey Circus, which led to the merger of the two institutions into the biggest big-top show on earth. Elephants had a hand (or a stomping foot) in shaping the very direction of 19th century western culture.

Then there’s Jumbo. Jumbo belonged to Barnum years before the Columbia debacle. He took part in Barnum’s 21-elephant march across the Brooklyn Bridge to prove it was safe. He was beloved by his audiences, living on as the Tufts University mascot, and in our dictionaries. The very existence of the word ‘jumbo’ in the English language is because of this elephant’s name.

Elephants can even be war heroes. Lin Wang was captured by Chinese forces during a 1943 chapter of the Second Sino-Japanese War. He was plunked into Chiang Kai-Shek’s ‘Chinese Expeditionary Force’ and helped to transport supplies, to build monuments and to raise money. He moved to the Taipei Zoo after the war, where he became the most popular beast in town.

Hattie, who took up residence in the Central Park Zoo in New York, was billed as the most intelligent of all elephants. Naturally she came from Barnum & Bailey – I think most zoos back then bought their elephants from circuses. Hattie could understand English. Well, somewhat. She responded to her own name and executed a minimal number of tricks by verbal command. Sure, she was beloved, but it’s not like she could reply.

Not like Kosik. Kosik is a male Indian elephant in Yongin, South Korea who can allegedly imitate eight Korean words. Among his vocabulary are the Korean words for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sit’ and ‘lie down’. I don’t know how accurate he is, but you can see a clip of him online and let me know. It’s pretty spectacular. He thinks he’s people.

Remember when Bart Simpson won an elephant, named him Stampy, and 22 minutes of hilarity ensued? It turns out writer John Swartzwelder wasn’t pulling his ideas completely out of the air. In 1966, a Chiffon Tissue contest was offering a grand prize of either $3000 or a baby elephant. Anchorage grocer Jack Snyder picked the elephant. Unlike the Simpsons episode, there was no evil ivory dealer, no tar pit rescue, no wacky drive-time DJs. Annabelle was moved to the newly-christened Alaska Children’s Zoo. No word on whether or not Mr. Snyder ever regretted not taking the cash.

Lastly there’s Queenie, a shining of example of how human adulation can go too damn far. Queenie’s schtick was playing the harmonica and dancing for crowds. Also, she was plunked on a massive pair of waterskis and pulled across bodies of water. Hey, it was the 50’s, people were into some weird-ass entertainment.

Queenie’s handlers faced some heavy criticism, but they insisted she loved it. Even after a passing tugboat’s wake knocked Queenie off her skis in a 1959 incident in Pittsburgh, her “natural snorkel” was simply held out of the water by her owner until a crane showed up and carted her to safety.

Humans really do love elephants, even if we often display that love through enslavement, forced performances and ugly executions. We’re a wonky species, and maybe we just don’t know how to handle something so grand and majestic as a beautiful elephant.

Or maybe we’re just assholes. Can’t rule that out.

Day 680: The Forgotten Four-Legged Heroes

originally published November 10, 2013

Every few years Remembrance and/or Veterans Day drops itself beside a weekend, giving us an extra day to lie on the couch while watching a TLC marathon of Say Yes To The Dress while eating Ovaltine with a spoon. But this holiday is different – it’s not a throwaway day off like Columbus Day or Victoria Day, nor is it a day custom-built for the followers of any specific religion. We are all supposed to take some time and pay at least a modicum of mental tribute to the brave men and women who died so that we could have the freedom to watch crap TV and fill our yap-holes with chocolate drink powder.

Americans believe in this duty so strongly they have two holidays every year for this purpose. Canada has opted to devote our May day-off to Queen Victoria, though no one has ever told me why. I think we should take a clue from our southern brethren and sistren, and add a second day to honor our war heroes. But with a twist.

Instead of saluting only our fallen men and women, how about a day just for the animals who have given so much to the cause? Okay, it’s not like they signed up for the fight but animals have played a much larger part in past conflicts than acting as vehicles in the cavalry or keeping up morale by using their feline charm on the troops aboard a battleship.

It has been almost 500 days since I wrote about Sgt. Stubby, the most decorated pooch in US Army history. But Stubby wasn’t the only four-legged beast to suit up in khaki fatigues for the good of some nation or another.

In February of 1942, a regiment of the Australian Air Force came across an injured 6-month-old kelpie (that’s an Autralian sheep dog). He was patched up, given the name of Gunner, and placed in the care of Leading Aircraftman Percy Westcott. The troops quickly recognized that Gunner would whimper and whine and jump around like his colon was on fire right before Japanese bombers would show up in the sky to bomb the Northern Territory capital of Darwin, where they were stationed.

Gunner became a reliable signal, recognizing an impending attack squadron twenty minutes before the planes would show up on radar. When allied planes would take off or land, Gunner wouldn’t bat an eye – it was as though he knew the distant hum of the bad guys. He was so reliable they would blare the air raid siren whenever Gunner would start to wig out. He was never wrong. Just another compelling case for a global Animal-morial Day holiday.

No one ever said you had to move fast to be a war hero. Well, maybe somebody said it, but clearly they’d never met Timothy the war-tortoise. Timothy was discovered by Captain John Courtenay Everard of the British Royal Navy in 1854. He was given his name and assigned as a mascot aboard various ships up through 1892, inspiring soldiers aboard the HMS Queen during the Crimean War. After his 35+ years of military service, Timothy retired to Powderham Castle where he lived with the Earl of Devon.

Timothy was discovered to be a female in 1926 – nobody had bothered to perform a dink-check before that. He continued to live as a pampered veteran for a long time, and when he passed away in 2004, it’s believed he was more than 160 years old. Needless to say, he was the last surviving veteran of the Crimean War, probably by about 80 years.

The Polish Army was fighting for the return of its home in World War II, and as such their animal heroes needed a bit more heft. Wojtek the Bear was found by a local boy in Iran, then sold to a young Polish refugee who subsequently donated him to the Army cause. Wojtek was taught to salute, loved to wrestle the troops, and enjoyed a cool beer and a cigarette with his dinner. But Wojtek was no slack-off tortoise-ish mascot showpiece. He was officially drafted into the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.

During the Battle of Monte Cassino he transported crates of ammunition to help his fellow soldiers. Following the war Wojtek was donated to the Edinburgh Zoo where he remained a popular attraction. Tourists would toss him cigarettes, which the bear would eat since zookeepers were reluctant to light them for him. He died in 1963, but a statue of Wojtek stands proudly in Krakow, with another one recently approved for display in Edinburgh.

While I’m not certain how effective a pig would be in a combat situation, King Neptune the pig did a fine job helping out the war effort back home. He was born on Sherman Boner’s pig farm (please… no giggling) in 1942. King Neptune was destined for a fundraising pig roast, but US Navy recruiter Don C. Lingle came up with an idea: he decided to auction the pig to raise money for war bonds.

King Neptune was auctioned off several times on his tour around the state of Illinois, always getting returned to be re-auctioned again. On March 6, 1943, Illinois Governor Dwight H. Green bought him for $1 million on behalf of the state. One of the pig’s bristles went at for $500 that same day. Keep in mind this is 1940’s dollars – in total the pig was responsible for bringing in over $19 million, the equivalent of nearly a quarter-billion dollars in today’s money.

Out of respect for his work, King Neptune was buried with military honors and not converted into bacon.

William Windsor isn’t just the name of that guy with the new baby on the front page of your local supermarket tabloids. It’s also the name of a goat who hooked up with the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh in the British Army. This battalion has held a goat among its ranks since 1775, and apparently “Billy” was descended from that first goat. Billy was not a war hero; his only duties were to march in front of royalty or in parades. Billy did this with honor, except for that one little blunder.

While marching near Limassol, Cyprus, for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday, Billy became a little ornery and head-butt-y. As a result he was demoted from lance corporal to fusilier. There was apparently an actual disciplinary hearing to decide this – I suppose this is what happens in the army when there’s no war to keep them busy. Luckily Billy learned from his stupidity and performed admirably at the next… I don’t know, the next goat-marching event. He was promoted back to lance corporal.

Having never served in the armed forces, I can only imagine the intensely vivid fear of existing in harm’s way during one’s time of service. Having an animal there seems as though it would be inspiring, comforting, and possibly a tiny furry tether to one’s sanity. So let’s give these creatures a day, ideally one that involves a mandatory day off from work with pay for us working schlubs. And our pets. Until that happens, we’ll just have to keep a thought for them on November 11.