Monthly Archives: February 2017

Quintus Quotes: Witty Comebacks

Back when insults had class, words could be sharper than a two-edged sword; in fact, idioms that use the imagery of swords vs. words have been around for thousands of years.  I wonder if our modern society, with its political correctness and instant comments, has somewhat lost the art of refined speech and reflective commentary; perhaps we can rescue witty repartee from extinction by writing, thinking, and speaking with more thought and thoughtfulness.  In the meantime, for all you logophiles out there, here are a few witty comebacks from days gone by:

 

 

witty-comebacks-abraham-lincoln-vs-stephan-douglas-after-douglas-called-him-two-faced-during-a-debate

Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephan Douglas, after Douglas called Lincoln “two-faced” during a debate

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witty-comebacks-author-ilka-chase-vs-actress

Author Ilke Chase vs. unknown actress

witty-comebacks-calvin-cooledge-vs-opera-singerwitty-comebacks-churchill-vs-mp

 

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Filed under History, Humor, Lists, Quotes

History Undusted: WW2 Shipboard Journals

The following post was originally 3 separate posts on my History Undusted blog; it is a lengthier post than I usually offer, but well worth the read for those interested in history, World War Two, and life in the US Navy.  Enjoy!

My grandfather, Raymond Dale Kuhns, was a clerk aboard the cruiser USS Metevier for 6-9 months during World War 2, based out of San Diego, California.  His typewriter was bolted to the desk, the desk to the floor, but his chair was on rollers; so he’d type a few letters before rolling away, and wait to roll back; ever after he typed with the hunt and peck method, as it apparently didn’t do much good to learn touch typing.

The document below is the onboard journal that he kept during that time, beginning in November 1944, through June 1945.  There are a few notes for clarity interspersed, written by myself, or by my mother, Connie, of stories he told her; she was three at the time.  While the journal entries are very matter-of-fact, without many personal “memoir” elements, it is still a fascinating historical insight into life aboard a ship during the Second World War.  My grandfather was the biggest practical joker I will ever care or dare to come into contact with; any practical jokes that happened aboard, such as the monkey and chicken, were most likely instigated by him…

November 1944 – February 1945

3 Nov. 1944 – Underway in heavy fog.

4 Nov 1944 – Loaded ammunition.  Dropped some down hatch!  Whew!

9 Nov. 1944 (mail sent)  Passed through gate to Limon Bay, Canal Zone, Panama.   Moored Coaling Pier, Cristobal.  Left (Nov) 10th, went through Miraflores Lock.

13 Nov. 1944 (mail sent)  Crossed equator at 0756.  Now a “Shellback”.  (Connie’s note- Dad told stories about the hazing men endured first time to cross the equator. – had to run a gauntlet of fire hoses in action,  a “swat-line” between the “old timers” hitting them with paddles,  all kinds of practical jokes, etc.).  Entered Deolian Cave, Baltna Island, Galapagos.  Saw 2 seals, fishing.  Left 14th.

25 Nov. 1944. (mail sent) Entered Bora Bora, Society Island.  Beautiful.  Purchased 2 grass skirts, bracelet, 2 sets beads.  Were they made in U.S.???  Left 26th  (Connie – “We probably still have the grass skirts – and I know there is a picture of AJ and I with them.  Also, the “beads” were small conch shells – probably also a pic somewhere, I’ll try to find it”).

Summary:  Month was uneventful.  Seasick first night out.  Never set my foot on land.  Received no mail.

3 Dec. 1944.    No such date for us.  Crossed the International Date Line.

6 Dec. 1944.  Missed wife on her birthday.  Great gal.  Made landfall on Solomon.  Skirted NW tip of Guadalcanal.  First liberty.  4 Cokes!!  Left 8 Dec.

11 Dec. 1944.  Entered Humbolt Bay, Dutch New Guinea (“Hollandia”)  Left 19th

14 Dec. 1944.  Connie’s birthday.  Miss the rascal.

25 Dec. 1944.  Miss my wife and kiddies especially.  First enemy contact. Dropped bomb.  One plane.  Undamaged or undamaging.

26 Dec. 1944.  Entered Leyte Gulf.  Left 27th.

Summary:  Looks like business is picking up.  I forgot to mention that Dec. 24th, we made our first depth charge attack.  No luck!  Amazed at mass of ships in Leyte.  No attacks while there.

15 Jan. 1945.  Leaving Lingayen Gulf for  Leyte??

16 Jan 1945. Friendly plane came out of clouds. G.Q. called (“general quarters”).  Came near firing.  From angle it approached, we couldn’t hardly of missed.  A real scare.

17 Jan. 1945.  0300 D.Disn. Convoy destroyed Jap barge.  Search light revealed several Japs in it.  Used 5″ and 40 mm.  Did not try to rescue any.

20 Jan. 1945. (mail sent/  mail received)  Entered San Pedro Bay, Leyte, Philippines.  Hope wife receives letter I wrote today.

26 Jan. 1945. Left Leyte for invasion of Luzon, just north of Subic Bay.

29 Jan. 1945.  14 hours minus 1 or 7:30 naval bombardment of beaches to begin.  However, 10 minutes before, Philippine guerillas came out and informed us territory taken.  So this invasion force of 60,000 landed without a shot being fired.  We are sitting 60 miles from Manila.  It is now mid-afternoon, and Japs have not contested invasion at all.  Things look good for us here.  Left 2000 for Leyte without once contacting enemy.

30 Jan 1945.  Ship in convoy was struck by torpedo.  No casualties.  Ship towed in and repaired.

This month really went fast!

1 Feb. 1945.  Arrived back in Leyte.  No action or alerts on return trip from Luzon.  Too late to go after mail!!!  SHUCKS!

2 Feb. 1945.  Liberty in Leyte.  6 Cokes!!  Learned foot soldiers’ view of our enemy.

3 Feb. 1945 (mail received/ mail sent)  Brought 2 monkeys and 2 roosters aboard.  Had to get rid of them.

6 Feb. 1945.  Left Leyte without getting any more mail.

11 Feb. 1945.  Arrived Woendi.  This is a group of coral islands near New Guinea.  Beautiful.  Like a vacation here.

12 Feb. 1945.  Liberty.  Played basketball, then went swimming.

13 Feb. 1945.  Received special liberty to play on baseball (softball) team.  Defeated tug 4 – 3 in 10 innings.  Won 4 cases beer and got 5 cases from ship.  The boys all came back stewed.  I had to drink one for thirst.  No fresh water available.

14 Feb, 1945,  Left this “rest camp” with memories of best time since leaving dear wife and kiddies.  Going back to front in all probability.  Feeling ready now.  Hope to get mail SOON!!

20 Feb. 1945.  (Mail received/ mail sent)  Arrived back on Leyte.  Trip back uneventful.  Received 24 letters. Boy oh Boy!

21 Feb, 1945.  Liberty.  Sold beer for $1,  gave other 3 away.

24 Feb, 1945, (mail sent/mail received).  Received 16 more letters.

25 Feb. 1945.  Attended church USS Wasatch.  Refused liberty. Stayed aboard and wrote letters.

27 Feb. 1945.  Left Leyte for Mindoro.  Glad to get away.  Poor liberty.

Summary:  This month very uneventful.  Enjoyed liberty at Woendi more than anything else.  Got fairly well caught up on mail.

Here are a few extra bits of trivia from my mother:

  • “4 Nov. ’44 –  the “Whew” was probably a prayer of thankfulness that the whole load had not exploded when some got dropped!
  • I only heard your grandpa talk once about the horrors he must have seen. – ships blown out of the water, etc.  He and my uncle Victor talked one Christmas when I was a teen about picking surviving mates off an adjacent ship in the fleet that had been torpedoed – and picking survivors out of the ocean.
  • 13 Feb ’45.  Your grandpa didn’t drink beer – of course, his father (Reverend H.A. Kuhns) wouldn’t have liked it – although before H.A. was saved, he had “owned a dance hall” – your grandpa told me after we were grown women.  So I’m sure beer at least was part of my grandpa’s experience B.C.
  • 25 Feb. ’45 –  Of course “liberty” for most meant finding liquor and women, which were not for your grandpa.  I am so thankful for the Christian heritage we have!!!!!”
  • Note of interest:  Aboard they slept in hammocks; once the guy above him jumped up at the call for general quarters, and knocked himself out on the overhead beam; needless to say he didn’t make it to his station on time…

March – April 1945

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Raymond Kuhns, Age 45, taken in 1965

[NOTE:  Back in the mid-1980s I was in the Philippines for two months, living near the Subic Bay Naval Base just across a bridge from Olongapo.  I saw up close and personal the temptations men in the military face, and for a Christian man such as my grandfather, he had to try and find alternatives to “going out with the boys” on liberty, though often the Red Light District was (and is) where the restaurants were, so it was a Catch 22.  When I was living there I was working with a Christian missions organisation among the prostitutes, drug dealers and pimps, as well as those who worked in street shop/booths (I’m still in touch with one or two!), and our home was a place for the Christian military men to come and hang out when they were off-duty; nearly every day I’d come down to the living room to find strangers there, reading or talking.  I don’t know if he had such a place back then, but fisherman’s missions and military missions are far more common now, because the temptations (the sex industry, drugs, alcohol, etc.) are more rampant than ever.  When I returned to the States he enjoyed talking to me about Subic and the PI as he knew it, and I think it was special for him to talk to his granddaughter who had seen some of the places and things he’d seen so many years before.]

1 March 1945.  This month started off with a bang.  Dropped D.C. (depth charges)- 5 of them in the middle of the night.  I was on helm.  Boys sleeping really thought we got it. Entered Mindoro.

2-5 March 1945.  (mail sent/mail received) A/S duty Mangatin Bay.  Got mail, which means they transferred us here for duty.

6 March 1945. Off Manila Bay A/S duty, then returned to Mangatin Bay.

7 March 1945.  Entered Bay for fueling.

8,9,10 March, 1945. Another A/S* sweep to Luzon. (*anti-mine sweep)

11 March 1945.  Back to A/S Mindoro.

12 March 1945.  (mail sent/mail received).  Got mail via ship that had been in Port.  Proceeded into Bay and got more mail.

14 March 1945. Availability cancelled.  A ship on A/S sweep run aground we had to relieve it.  Just our luck.

15-18 March 1945.  A/S sweep and on 18 entered Mangarin for 2 days availablity.

19 March 1945.  Liberty in Mindoro.  Quite a place.  Rode in a jeep with army captain to San Jose.  Saw sugar mill that was hit by P-47 in morning.  Saw unit of paratroopers who made landings on Corrigedor.  Helped sort mail at P.O.  FINALLY got Christmas presents. Included billfold, leather toilet kit, shower shoes, pictures, and wedding band.  Every gift perfect.  One box of candy had to be thrown away.  Really enjoyed it even though it was late.

20-23 March 1945.  A/S sweep off Mindoro.

24-25 March 1945. (mail sent/mail received)  A/S sweep to Luzon and returned.  Fueled and got underway for Leyte.  These two days were roughest I have seen.  Had to strap myself in sack.  Did not get sick.  36 bags Christmas mail.

26-28 March 1945.  Escorting Army tug with barge at 3-1/2 knots.  No wonder it took us 4 days to get here.  Entered San Pedro Bay.

29-31 March 1945. (sent mail/received mail).  Available for maintenance.  We got 11 bags of mail, but most of it was rest of Christmas packages.

Summary:  Most of this month was spent on ping line of A/S duty.  The first was most amusing.  Christmas packages really helped our moral.  Nothing exciting or dangerous.

1-4 April 1945.  (mail sent/mail received)  In San Pedro Bay.  Received one liberty – had interesting conversation with Philippine guerrila.  Scabby sores on natives pathetic sight.  Still getting good mail service.  Red Light District.

(Note: the “scabby sores” were probably secondary syphillis – sailors often given penicillin IM before they let them off the boat!)

5 April 1945. Underway to Manila.  3 escorts with one troop ship.  15 knots – exceptionally fast convoy.

7 April 1945.  Arrived Manila. Passed very close to Corregidor and got a good look at it.  Liberty in Manila.  What a place.  Harbor full of sunken Jap ships.  Every building in business district damaged.  Most of them blown to bits.  Saw Jap mass-burial place.  Cars that looked like strainers.  Eats very high – 75 cents for one scoop ice cream.  Rode in cart affair (horse-drawn) through town cost us $2.50.  Men came back to ship drunk and not virgins.  People dress very American.  Had to wear whites on this liberty.  Really got my first glimpse of war devastation.  Got stamps and money souvenirs.

8-9 April 1945. Anchored in Manila harbor.  No mail service here at all.

10 April 1945.  Left Manila for Leyte

11 April 1945.  All hell broke loose at 1130.  We rammed native sailboat that was carrying 42 persons.  Called to G.Q.  As I was asleep, I really bounced out of my sack when alarm sounded.   Arrived at G.Q. station and heard hysterical screams of survivors and saw them as we illuminated them.  Picked up 37 survivors.  Continued search.  Picked up 2 small babies floating face down.  Dead when rescued, but boys worked feverishly for 3 hours with artificial respiration, but no luck.

12 April 1945.  (sent mail/received mail)  0330 another G.Q. with fire amidships.  I couldn’t imagine us having another G.Q. and just stood and listened to alarm, but when fire was announced, I tore up to station.  I was not in my sack at the time, as survivors had our compartment.  Two small girls had my bunk.  Fire not serious and confined to drying room.  Had 4-8 watch, so was up till 10:30 next night without sleep.  One small baby died from effects of night before.  Transferred the survivors around noon, as we arrived back in Leyte.  There were 36 alive (one expected to die), 3 dead, and 3 we could not find in the wreckage.  The miracle to me was the number that lived through the ordeal.  Saw anguish in mothers’ faces as they looked at dead children.  Saw and sympathized with those who missed their children.  The native craft was supposed to have been 50 feet in length and cost 10,000 pesos.  A very large native boat.  It was taking natives away from Japs on Mindanao.  We were first Americans they had seen since 1941. Doubt very much if they were happy to see us.  Made Y2C (Yeoman 2nd class).  Received authorization from ComSerfor.  Ship was very nice and did not make me wait for first of month.  That means treats for the boys.

13 April 1945.  (mail received)  Learned of President’s death (FDR).  Also got news of being 50 miles from Berlin.  Liberty at Pambujuan, Samar.  Pulled joke on chief regarding censorship regulations – very effective.

14 April 1945. LOST MY WEDDING BAND!  Don’t know how or where.  Did not eat morning chow, I felt so bad.  Hope my darling wife isn’t too mad at me for it.

15 April 1945.  (Mail sent/mail received)  Church on USS Medusa.  Memorial service for Roosevelt.  Very good.  Got our first fresh provisions in approx 3 months.  Received  letters from Wanda. Put 3 coats of paint on bottom of ship in 48 hours.  Not bad while in dry dock. Got us up at 5:30 for special sea details, then didn’t get away before 1100.  Purchased treats on ratings*. (Note:  *Rations?)

May – June 1945

25 April 1945 (sent mail/received mail)  Received Easter pictures.  Just love the ones of my wife.

26 April 1945 Saw 10 carriers of British Fleet which was a  big encouragement.  Firing practice.

27 April 1945 (mail sent/mail received)  Underway to Okinawa.  More firng practice.  New war cruising watch.  Now at G-2.

30 April 1945.  G.Q. at 0200.  3 planes.  Did not close.  Started dusk and dawn alerts.

Summary:  What a Month!!  Interesting at Manila.  Sailboat incident.  Lost wedding band. Made Rate (grade of official standing of enlisted men). Dry Dock (Whooie).  Headed for Okinawa.  196 days since I have seen my family.  Sure miss them.

1 May 1945 –  Rolled D.C. (damage control?) at good contact. At 1305, called to G-2.  Exploded a mine.  We were headed right for it when lookout sighted it.  Explosion sent water 150 feet in the air.

2 May 1945. Arrived Okinawa.  No suicide raids.  Shelling beaches.

3 May 1945.  1000 left Okinawa in company with BB Tennesee.  Heard of suicide raids 6 hours after we left.  One DD who was stationed 3000 yards from us was hit with 5 suicides.

4 May 1945.  Big suicide raids on Okinawa and Jap reinforcements landed.  Believe God definitely answered prayers of protection on this mission.  It was too rainy all the time we were in Okinawa for raids.  Numerous ones feel we were fortunate and lucky, but as far as I am concerned, God gets the credit.

6 May 1945. (mail sent/mail received)  Arrived back in Leyte after sinking floating nets earlier in the morning. Received 11 letters – more than I deserved for the ones I wrote this trip.

7 May 1945.  Liberty.  tramped through hills of  Samar.  Rest of day uneventful.  May 8 or 9- V.E. Day!!

9 May 1945  Into Dry Dock again.  Sound dome came loose.  Oh Me!!  Manicani Island.

10 May 1945.  Water hours.

11 May 1945.  Left dry dock.  Reported on ping line between Homonhon Island and Dinagat Island in Surigao Straits.  This is point of big Philippine naval battles.

12 May 1945.  Firing practice.  Shore bombard on Dinagat Island.

13 May 1945.  Firing Practice.  Held Vesper service in accordance with President’s request for prayers. Remembered and offered thanks for V.E. Day.  Mothers’ Day.  Sure miss you, Wanda.   Picked up loose sono buoy.

14 May 1945.  AA (anti-aircraft) Practice.  Knocked down sleeves, which indicates we could hit airplanes. Returned to Leyte.  Movies.  I played checkers.

15 May 1945. (mail sent/mail received).   Received 5 letters.  On liberty in Samar.  Boys couldn’t get over seeing WAC Camp – white women.  First group we have seen.  Played checkers again.

16 May 1945.  Starting on mail run.  Best and safest duty we could have gotten.

17 May 1945.  Arrived Zamboanga, Mindanao.  First stop on mail run.  Natives came out to ship in droves.  Bought large seashell.  Left at 1300.

18 May 1945.  Arrived Panay, second stop mail run.  PT boat came out so we didn’t go into port.  Left 0700.  Arrived Mindoro at 1900.  Showed movie.  Left 1000.

19 May 1945.  Arrived Manila 0600, left 1130.  Arrived Subic Bay 1500, left 0630.

21 May 1945.  Arrived Leyte 0600. Trip very uneventful.  No mail.  I was sort of disappointed.  Attended U.S.O. show on beach.  Oklahoma – very good under conditions.

22 May 1945.  Left 0930 for Guivan Roadstead.  Arrived 11:00.  Got stores, had movie in PM (I played checkers).

23 May 1945.  Left 0600.  Arrived Leyte 0800.  Left Leyte at 1000 for San Bernadine Straits.

24 May 1945.  Arrived on patrol station in straits. Boiler trouble, so we head back to Leyte.

25 May 1945.  (mail sent/mail received).  Saw 2 water spouts.  Arrived back home.  Received 3 letters.

26 May 1945 (mail sent/mail received)   Received 2 more letters today.  Got 2 Cokes off Medusa, Oh Boy!  2 for a nickel.

26 May to 9 June 1945.  Tied up alongside Medusa.  Enjoyed being able to get Cokes, Ice Cream, liberty every third day, and movies every night.  One  fellow went nuts and run off in the woods.  Not such a bad idea.  It got him back to the states.  Good church services on Medusa.

10 June 1945. Underway 1800 for Calicoan to get supplies.

11 June 1945.  Helped get stores on beach.  Missed good turkey dinner.  Left for Leyte about 1800.  Just got outside nets when we discovered 3 men left behind, so we turned around.

12 June 1945.  Headed for Leyte with full crew. Then headed out for patrol halfway between Leyte and  Yap. Firing practice.

15 June 1945. Dropped hedge hogs [A type of depth charge employed against U-Boats which were thrown ahead of the ASW ship. These devices were designed to explode on contact.].  Probably scared fish.  Sub reported sighted in our area, but we didn’t get any good contacts.

17 June 1945.  FATHERS’ DAY.  Oh me!  Here I am way out here. Headed for tropical storm area to investigate storm.  This navy is NUTS at times!!

He signed off “This is all I have”  – apparently he had written more, but the rest was lost – either while he was still in the military or in the subsequent years.

My grandfather passed away 8 February 2004.  I saw him for the last time in October of 2003 when I went back to America for a visit; I told him at the time that I knew it would be the last time I’d see him this side of heaven, and that I would not be able to be there for his funeral (I live in Switzerland).  His response was typical:  He said, “Well that’s alright, I won’t be there either!”  I loved him dearly, and I miss him; but I did give him one final warning:  God had strict instructions not to allow him anywhere NEAR my mansion until I get there… no booby trapping allowed!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 28 May 2013

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Imagination vs Knowledge

Some say that imagination is more important than knowledge; to a certain extent, that may be true because imagination leads to new discoveries, inventions, and revelations.  But knowledge is often the basis for such discoveries; that which has been passed down by others who’ve researched, discovered, identified and recorded are the foundational stones upon which things are often built, whether in science, technology, or life in general.

beware-of-the-half-truth-wrong-halfIn this day and age, however, sometimes imagination overtakes knowledge (or simply ignores it).  An informed mind is a powerful tool; an uninformed mind can be a dangerous weapon.  This is true whether writing non-fiction, fiction, or passing on something on social media.  We should beware of the half truths – we may have gotten hold of the wrong half.

It’s now more important than ever to test the veracity of reports and even images; anyone can make an ass out of an angel, so to speak, with photoshop, et al.  How much misinformation is spread by simple carelessness or wilful misdirection (that includes, unfortunately, mainstream news media)?  Or by assuming that since something is from a trusted friend it must be true?  How often have you gotten upset by an article you’ve seen and commented on it, or passed it on, allowing it to form an opinion in your subconscious at the very least, and in your active thoughts at worst, only to find out later that it was a false report, a hoax, or sloppy journalism?

abraham-lincoln-internet-quote

As you probably know, I love to learn; I have a steel trap of a mind for little bits of trivia, like the fact that certain microbes concentrate and disperse (read “poop”) gold, or that all living creatures, including you and I, emit visible light (probably a byproduct of biochemical reactions).  As a writer of fiction that comes in handy; I can extrapolate knowledge and use it as a plot detail or a character quirk; but when I’m writing a blog, e.g. about a historical detail, I want to make sure I get it right.  A case in point was an article I wrote in 2014 about post-mortem photography in the Victorian period; it was by far the most popular post to date on that blog and continues to generate interest.  In particular, two points from the article were addressed, researched, and edited/corrected either in the article itself or in the comments and discussion that ensued.  Mistakes happen, but when I catch them, I will do my best to correct them!

For writers, it is important to cross-reference anything you find online, especially if you’re basing something significant on it such as character development, location, or plot.  Assumptions can also get you into trouble; I know that Geneva is part of Switzerland, but in writing 18th-century fiction, I need to be aware of the fact that it was merely an ally of the Swiss Confederacy from the 16th century, but only became part of Switzerland in 1814.  Any reference I have to it in my trilogy needs to reflect that fact.

I recently read a collection of short stories on Kindle, and on nearly every single Kindle page there were mistakes (that adds up to a lot of mistakes per manuscript page!):  Missing words that the authors assumed were there, typos, commas 2 or 3 words off-position, stray quotation marks, and countless words they assumed were the correct ones but obviously were not (e.g. catwalk instead of rampart for a castle).  This is where imagination overtook the writer, and knowledge gave way to ignorance…  I have understanding for one or two such errors in a manuscript of that length, but none whatsoever for several per page; that simply smacks of laziness and poor-to-no editing, and it boils down to an unintentional slap in the face to any reader who’s taken the time to read their story.

Knowledge without imagination is like a rusted hinge; imagination is the oil that makes the knowledge come to life, and the writer is the door handle that opens the door to new worlds, new ideas, new discoveries, and inventions. It sounds noble, doesn’t it?  But did you realize that many of the electronic gadgets we take for granted today were at one time birthed in the imaginations of men like Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek?  It inspired countless children who went on to become astronauts, scientists, and engineers, who made those science-fiction inventions become reality and discovered distant worlds (now known as exoplanets).  I’m waiting with bated breath for the transporter to replace airline security queues…

Those hinges are necessary, as is the oil, so that the door handle can do its job and get out of the way, allowing the world beyond to unfold.

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Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Research, Science & Technology

Funny Friday no.2

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February 17, 2017 · 7:07 PM

Wordless Wednesday no. 16: Book Nook Inspirations

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February 16, 2017 · 12:19 AM

History Undusted: The History of Valentine’s Day

vintage-valentine-cardWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I thought I’d just say a bit about the actual history of the celebration of love.  Throughout history, there have been variations of celebrations of love, but they didn’t always take on the innocuous form that modern-day marketing departments have dreamed up.  Here in Switzerland, 14 February is still fairly similar to 14 March – in other words, just another day in the calendar.  But celebrating love, in whatever form it takes, from loving your spouse or partner to loving your parents, your friends, pets or kids, is never a bad idea.  So let’s take a look at how bygone ages viewed it:

The innocently playful Valentine card started off more like a lottery ticket:  In ancient Rome, during the celebration of Lupercalia, the names of willing young ladies were put into a box and mixed up; young, available men could draw out a card at random, and that young woman or girl was thus won to remain his companion for the length of the celebration which lasted the modern date equivalent of 13-15 February, and was accompanied by animal sacrifices (a goat and dog).  Nothing said romance to the Romans like blood and guts and the smell of burning fur, apparently.

After a few centuries, the established Church realized that though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink; so instead of forbidding the celebrations, they adapted them to be less offensive:  Their version was also a bit less entertaining; they drew names from the lottery as before but this time instead of young women, the name of a saint was drawn to whom prayers would be offered.  It was at this stage that Saint Valentine came to be associated with the day, as he had a reputation for being warm-hearted.  So the lottery for girls continued, perhaps more or less under the table, while ostensibly under the patronage of a saint.  By 1725 it had evolved into a game of drawing lots from two vessels, one each for men and women; their lot drawn was then their “Valentine”.  Not so sure how that worked – there must have been a prodigious amount of love triangles as the woman drew one name, the man drew another, and so on…

Another evolution in the celebration was as follows:  The first man seen by a woman that morning (outside her own household) became her willy-nilly Valentine, and neither could look for an alternative.  The famous Pepys left his home early on the morning of 14 February 1661 to be assured of getting the “right” Valentine, swapping a friend’s wife for his own for the day in a good-natured jest with the four of them.  It was customary at that time to give a handsome present to the Valentine’s woman, so it was worth getting a good one.  Mrs. Pepys got half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters out of that swap, so I can imagine that her husband did no less for his friend’s wife!

Letters to Valentines began as early as 1479, with references found in the Paston Letters, and continued for over 300 years.  The oldest Valentine’s cards were, naturally, all hand-made; the oldest one in possession, dated 1750, was in the Hull Museum as of the late 1940s.  Many such Valentine’s cards and letters were not kept as they were not worth the keeping to those who received them.  As the custom progressed, however, a clever marketing scheme was bound to spring up.  In the 19th century the commercial Valentine began life in the form of stationery (envelopes were unknown until after the 1840s), the stationery itself folded and serving as the envelope.  Still, such a ready-made Valentine was seen as a proof of failure, as people prided themselves in poems and compositions… they were labours of love, not a quickly-posted printed monstrosity.  So, new strategy:  Some Valentines were produced half-finished to allow the personal touch to be added in, and they were provided with a small parcel of add-ons (lace, hearts, trimmings, etc.) to that end.  In the end, it was hard for the individual to compete with a designer employing skilful artists, and the homemade Valentine vanished.

By 1880 the British post had to employ an additional 300-400 workers on 13 February to deal with the 1.5 million Valentines. (This statistic comes from the Post Office Magazine from February 1937.)  The manufactured cards continued to become more elaborate, embossed, lithographed, laced with studs, birds, baskets, ribbons and Cupids with colourful petals, trellis-work, and even perfume.  But as with all mass-produced items, art decays when it becomes profitable; mass-production caused a huge drop in popularity.  In the mid-1930s a new medium was explored, the Valentine telegram, which continued up until WW2.

My earliest memory of Valentine’s Day was in grade school; we each constructed and decorated a “letter box” and taped it to our school lockers; every day was like Christmas for that week, wondering who we’d gotten anonymous cards from!  Another Valentine memory is from college when I dated someone who was studying Chinese to become a missionary; on that February morning I went to my car to go to work and found a long-stemmed rose on the windshield with a card… in Chinese.  I still have the card somewhere, as a bookmark, and it still makes me smile.  We both went on with our lives in different directions, but I still consider him a friend.

So the next time you choose a Valentine’s card, ponder a moment.  Perhaps the sentiment would be better represented by a good, old-fashioned handmade card instead… that personal touch that will still speak volumes in years to come.

What are some of your own Valentine’s memories?

(For more fascinating histories of holidays and celebrations, check out The English Festivals, by Laurence Whistler.)

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Funny Friday no. 1

I’m still laughing!  Have a great weekend!

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Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

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1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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History Undusted: Naval Slang

In our everyday language, we often use sayings without really knowing how they originated.  Sayings such as “to swing a cat” or “down the hatch” or “break the ice”.  These three have something in common:  They all began life as naval slang.

cat-o_-nine-tails__psf_The first, “to swing a cat,” has a rather gruesome beginning:  It refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made up of nine knotted cords roughly 75 cm long that was designed by the British Royal Navy to inflict severe pain and lacerate the skin.  It was used in flogging for anything from drunkenness to mutinous talk to stealing.  It was known as a “cat,” and obviously they needed room to swing it, to get the full effect.  Today it merely refers to the size of a room or space as being “too small to swing a cat”.  Another nautical idiom with cat was “to cat the anchor”:  The cat referred to here was a large wooden beam on either side of the bow of a sailing ship which was used to support the weight of the anchor as it was raised or lowered; since there was usually the head of a lion or large cat carved at the head of the beam, it was called a cathead.

“Down the hatch” is more straightforward:  The hatch was the covering of the hatchway on a ship, an opening in the deck which allowed vertical access into the hold for loading cargo.  It means the act of drinking in particular, the mouth being the “hatch”.

“To break the ice” means to remove the invisible social barriers between strangers to ease conversation and social contact.  It comes from the specialized ships called “ice breakers,” which were designed to plough through icy waters, making the passage of other vessels possible.  Without such a ship, arctic expeditions could find themselves frozen in, land-locked by shifting ice sheets.

For many more sayings relating to naval history, check out “Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat” – Naval Slang and its Everyday Usage by Martin Robson.

Originally posted 28 on History Undusted.

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A Little Light Reading… Not

I will admit that I have quite odd tastes in reading, especially for a woman; I tend toward history, nautical, and obscure or long-forgotten books.  In writing my current manuscript, which is Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy, I’ve read more than a fair share of military history books, specifically covering the 18th century of the Royal Navy.  Once, on a research trip to London, I searched out a bookstore that specializes in military and transport books, even reputed to have remainders; I don’t think they’d seen a woman in the shop in years (who’d entered intentionally) by the looks I got; one of the men even said, “The beauty shop’s two doors down, love.”  When I asked if they had the out-of-print autobiography by William Spavens, a unique lower deck view of the 18th century navy, they froze as if they hadn’t heard me correctly.  The question must have been laced with catnip, because after that I had the entire shop of men eating out of my hand, and I spent nearly two hours in there being helped to the finest pick of naval history books (including the autobiography I was after!).  Sadly, the last time I was there the shop was gone, but I’ve since found the largest used book shop in London, Skoob, which is highly dangerous for a bibliophile with a private library…!

A few of the books I’ve read in the course of research for Asunder are fairly gory, like Medicine Under Sail (I’d bet my bottom dollar that the screen writers for “Master and Commander“, with Russell Crowe, read that book as they wrote the script) and “Poxed & Scurvied” – the story of sickness and health at sea, while others have been like reading a thriller, such as “The Seven Years War” by Rupert Furneaux  or “A Sailor of King George” by Captain Frederick Hoffman.

I devour history books like other people devour pulp fiction; but especially during the first draft of the book, I had to continually keep in mind that I was writing historical fiction, not a history book; the details that I included had to serve the plot and character development, and not visa versa.  Only a fraction of what I learned has gone into the book; but those rich details give salt to the waves, creaks to the ship, and whip to the rope (I’ve also spent hours aboard the Cutty Sark “filling in the blanks” of a docked ship, so to speak, but that’s another story).  I could have peppered the dialogue with so much naval slang you wouldn’t have been able to swing a cat (naval slang, by the way), but if readers were to get ripped out of the story trying to figure things out, then I would have missed the mark.

So, the next time you sit down for a little light reading, you might want to consider one of the books linked above; then again, if you don’t want gory dreams, rather go with “The Price of Freedom“, or “Redemption“, or “The Cardinal, Part One or Part Two“…  and enjoy!

third-rate-ship-of-the-line-diagram

One of my library posters

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