Category Archives: Military History

History Undusted: The Age of Revolutions

This past summer, my husband and I rented a motorhome and travelled around Switzerland; we tend to prefer nature or museums to overly-touristy attractions. One of the places we visited was Spiez Castle. Before I tell you about that, however, a little historical backdrop is necessary, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Everyone’s heard of the French Revolution, which began in May 1789: It was a struggle to become free from the heavy yoke of an elitist monarchical regime, quasi out of the frying pan and into the fire of the Reign of Terror – during which many of the original rebels, in a twist of morbid irony, also had their heads removed by Monsieur Guillotine; it ended in November 1799 with the abolition of the Ancien Régime and the creation of constitutional monarchy (not far from where they started) and the French Consulate (which lasted nearly 5 years until the start of the Napoleonic Empire in May 1804).

But what many people might not know is that the French Revolution was internationally both influenced and influential. Modern “small world” effects are not modern at all; even in ancient times, people had international news: Travelling merchants and traders, messengers, signal towers (such as those the Romans used along the British frontiers), and even smoke signals, all conveyed news. When the French Revolution began, there was already a growing political dissent spreading throughout Western Europe; the English “coffeehouse culture” enabled men to gather in small groups and discuss business and politics; this concept travelled to America, and the discontent culminated in the American Revolution, starting in April of 1775. The French people watched and learned. The British government naturally became wary – they were losing the American colonies to the Revolutionary War, which they finally lost in September 1783. The Americans were supported during that time by France and Spain (the two main long-term enemies of Britain), so the British were hemmed in by threats to their own social order from both the east and the west, and they had well-founded fears of the discontent sparking revolt in the dry tinder of their own oppressed ranks.

And now we come to Switzerland: To understand the Swiss backstory in a nutshell, which does no justice to a history that began in the Palaeolithic Age or further back, let me sum it up: The Old Swiss Confederacy was an alliance between independent small states, starting on 1 August 1291 with the “Rütlischwur”(an oath of allegiance between the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden), which date is considered by the Swiss to be the birth of the nation (though history is more complicated). As the French Revolution was beginning to wind down, Napoleon Bonaparte, then a French general, pressed the French Directory (the then-current French governing committee) to invade Switzerland. The atmosphere within the Old Swiss Confederacy was tense, fearing that the French Revolution would spill over with or without direct French military involvement. At the invitation of a French-speaking faction in Vaud (then part of Canton Berne), 12,000 French troops invaded through Vaud on 28 January 1798, and for the next four months, battles were waged between the French and the Swiss “Loyal Legions”. It ended in May with the swift collapse of the Swiss Old Confederacy.  

The Battle of Neuenegg, 1798 – Graphics Collection, Central Library, Zürich

However, the French Directory needed a solid neighbour, a buffer zone along their eastern borders, not a loosely associated collection of small states; they tried to steer toward a re-establishment of national unity with a Paris-drawn constitution, but on April 1798, Swiss cantonal leaders proclaimed the Helvetic Republic, with new legal structures that abolished feudal rights within individual cantons in favour of a national unity. A few battles later, and coalition armies waging war in and around Switzerland against France, eventually left Switzerland as a sovereign, neutral nation; it has remained so ever since, despite two world wars.

An etymological side note on the Latin name of the Swiss Confederation (Switzerland), Confoederatio Helvetica: Helvetia is the female personification of Switzerland, found on nearly every coin, much like Lady Liberty of America. The name derives from Helvetii, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the Swiss Plateau since before the Roman Era. The earliest reference of the name is dated to ca. 300 BC, written in Etruscan on a vessel from Mantua (located in Lombardy, Italy). By the time the Romans arrived, they were well-established tribes governed by noblemen; the Roman historians tended to refer to anyone not Roman as “barbarian”, which tends to skew modern understanding of the peoples they conquered; it was perhaps their way of justifying invasions against peaceful, intact civilisations. Naming no names, but R—– is repeating that same shameful tactic today; there’s nothing new under the sun.

It’s easy to overlook the complexities of historical events or view them from only one nation’s side; after all, as Mark Twain once wrote, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” History’s angle is in the hands of those who wrote it – if they were Roman, everyone else was barbarian; if they were English, the Scottish / Irish / Indians were backwaters in need of a guiding stick, and so on.

So, now that you know a bit more about the history in and around Switzerland, I’ll highlight Spiez Castle next!

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History Undusted: Rabbit Holes & Licorice Candy

This week, I did a major shopping at a couple Asian food stores; I stocked up on the ingredients I know, and some I didn’t; I like to get things I’ve never heard of, and do a bit of research on how to use it in cooking; things I picked up in that category are Iranian Kashk, which is a tangy fermented, yoghurt used as a condiment; canned palm hearts, which make a nice topping on desserts; and fermented black beans, which can be used in a variety of Asian dishes, including in a black bean sauce. I also bought several fresh vegetables and herbs to dehydrate and turn into a greens powder for adding flavours to dishes (I have a more usual greens powder with standard greens, like cauliflower leaves, spinach, etc. that I use daily).

One of the herbs I used was acacia leaf: When I opened the package, a pungent, sulphur-like smell hit me, and I wasn’t sure I’d use it. But when I began de-leafing it (much like you would thyme, though carefully as it’s got some vicious thorns!), it began to smell like mint! As I added lemongrass, Thai water spinach and other herbs, you can imagine the cacophony of fragrances in my kitchen – which filled the house as they dehydrated.

So what does this have to do with licorice? Well, one of the fresh herbs I also processed was Thai basil; I’d never used it before, and when I opened the packaging, a wave of anise- or licorice aroma hit me. And as usual, that set my mind off, thinking about the history of licorice!

Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Asia and Europe; its scientific name, Glycyrrhiza, comes from Greek and means “sweet root” (the linguistic roots are related to words like glycerine and rhizome); it is the ingredient that gives the signature flavour to black licorice, though today anise oil is often used as a substitute because the Glycyrrhiza can have toxic effects if ingested too much.

In looking into the history of this flavour, I came across a fascinating documentary: Ostensibly, it covers the history of the Switzer Licorice candy company. But in truth, it’s a fascinating historical insight into the history of Irish immigration, social unrest, the Irish famine, Irish revolution and exile, union labour foundations, World War 1 through the eyes of a family, the economic upheavals of war, rations and the company’s creative solutions, the history of sugar, post-war recovery, the Great Depression, the American Dream, candy-making, the rise of a family from Kerry Patch (the Irish ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri) to the suburbs, the history and development of St. Louis, and the demise of a family company resurrected by later generations. All in a 55-minute video!

 To watch this fascinating slice of history, click here. To check out the company’s website, click here.

I hope you enjoy this short history, and while you’re at it, enjoy a piece of licorice!

Image Credit: Switzer website (see link above)

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History Undusted: The History of Money in the American Colonies

Today we’ve got a variety of ways to make financial transactions: Online payment, cheques (checks), cash (coins or bills), debit cards, giros (UK), credit cards, bitcoins, Twint, and probably a dozen other ways. But when did it all get started? Why are there ridges or texts on the edges of coins? What did people use before coins were widely spread enough to be a viable means of transaction? I’ve written about the history of shillings before, and ancient payments using hack silver, but the complications that arose across the Atlantic between the British crown and the colonies of America, before they won their independence, is as fascinating as any thriller. It’s a tale of laws passed to stranglehold the colonies into submission or to stop an artery bleed of silver across the ocean, and loopholes and nooks and crannies found to carry on with business anyway.

For a fascinating video on the topic by Jon Townsend, an 18th-century reenactor and specialist with a great YouTube channel, just click on the image below. Enjoy travelling back in time!

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History Undusted: Forgotten Battles of the Aleutian Islands

I might be odd for a woman, but I love history; in particular the history of World War 2. But as much as I’ve read about it, and as many documentaries and films as I’ve watched on the topic, I had never heard about this episode until I read a comment from a YouTube video which told about how that person’s grandfather had served in the only US territory to be occupied by the Japanese during the war: The Aleutian Islands.

Anyone who knows a bit about World War 2 probably knows about Midway – a pivotal point in the Pacific arena. But at the same time Japan was targeting that US island base in the middle of the Pacific, they also had their sites set on the Bering Strait; specifically, the six island groups of the Aleutian Islands. In June 1942, they attacked and occupied the US territory islands of Kiska and Attu. Anyone would be excused for thinking that these inhospitable, frozen, volcanic mountains rising out of the sea were insignificant, but they were a strategic launching point for keeping the Japanese at bay in the Pacific, and as a gateway for supplies to the Allied troops. If the Japanese managed to maintain their hold on those islands, it would strengthen the defence of their northern territories, and it was also feared that they would use the islands as springboards from which to attack the US West coast or invade through Alaska and into Canada and the northwestern mainland territory of the US. The battles there are considered the “forgotten battles” because, although there was public outrage in the US at the time, they were soon largely overshadowed in the press by Midway and by the Guadalcanal campaigns. But the number of casualties there was comparable to that of Pearl Harbor, and the Attu battle was better known in Japan than in America: It was a major propaganda coup for the Imperial Army.

To watch a 1943 documentary about the Aleutian Islands and their strategic significance, called “Forgotten Battle of the Aleutian Islands“, just click on the link (~45 min.). It not only gives a glimpse into the geography and military aspect, but the human aspect, showing the soldiers in their daily off-duty activities and their duties; it gives you a sense of what they were like, where they came from, and what they did. For a shorter summary (~12 min), click here.

The Aleutian Islands, showing Russia to the west and Alaska to the east.

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History Undusted: Bessie Coleman, Aviation Pioneer

I like to highlight, or “undust” figures or circumstances from history that few may have ever heard about, but that deserve to be remembered. Bessie Coleman is one such figure from history: In her life that was cut short, she made a difference by going against the norms and following her dreams, regardless of the limitations put on her by society because of her race and gender.

Bessie Coleman, 1923 – Photo Credit: George Rinhart, Corbis via Getty Images

Born in January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children in a sharecropper family, she worked in the cotton fields and attended a small, segregated school. She was not only African American but also had Cherokee heritage through her mixed-race father. Despite her humble beginnings, by 18 she’d managed to save enough money to attend one term of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Oklahoma, which was probably the closest university that would take a young black woman in the early 1900s. With no funds left, she moved back home, working and saving her money. At 23, she moved in with her brothers in Chicago, Illinois, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop; there, she heard the tales of World War I pilots, and her dream was born.

Robert Sengstacke Abbot, Photo, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

At the time, American aviation schools had no place for either African Americans or for women, but she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, to study abroad. He publicized her story in his newspaper, and she received the financial support to pursue her dream from a prominent African American banker, Jesse Binga, and from the Defender.

Jesse Binga, Credit: Wikipedia, John Schmidt

She took a French language course in Chicago, and in November 1920, she travelled to Paris to earn her pilot licence. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman as well as the first Native American to earn a pilot license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then spent the next two months learning more from a French veteran pilot near Paris. In September 1921, she sailed back to America and became a media sensation.

With civilian commercial flights still a thing of the future, she would have to earn her money as a “barnstorming” stunt pilot. The skills needed to fly dangerous stunts were beyond her scope, and still out of her reach in America, so she again returned to Europe, where she trained in France. From there she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. At his company in Germany, she received further training from one of the company’s chief pilots. Returning once again to the US, she finally launched her career in exhibition flying.

“Queen Bess” was a popular draw for the next five years. She used public attention to engage audiences in promoting aviation and battling racism; she refused to take part in any aviation exhibitions that barred African Americans from attending. At one point, she was offered a role in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine.” She accepted, hoping that it would help her raise enough money to open her own aviation school. But when she learned that the first scene would portray her in ragged clothes, she walked off the set – her principles would not allow her to spread the disparaging image most whites had of most blacks.

Her goal was not just flying, but to make a difference in history; unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see just what a great influence she would have: On 30 April 1926, a faulty plane went into a dive and spin at 3,000 feet above ground; on the way down, Bess was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Later, it was found that a wrench used to service the plane had been forgotten inside and had jammed the controls.

Posthumously, her name is honoured through the renaming of streets (including three in France), of roads near airports (including one at Frankfurt Germany’s international airport), a public library in Chicago, schools, aviation-related companies and wings of airports, scholarships, a US postage stamp (in 1995), a cartoon character, and she has been inducted into several halls of fame for both women as well as aviation; and last but certainly not least, she has a geological feature on the southern hemisphere of Pluto named in her honour, Coleman Mons.

William J. Powell, Pioneer aviator and civil rights activist

Lieutenant William J. Powell dedicated his book, Black Wings, to her. His sentiment is summed up well in a quote: “We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”  Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space, carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on her first mission.

Mae Jemison, Photo credit: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

What I find most inspiring about her story is not only her unwavering determination to reach her goals, but that throughout her life, she found people willing and able to support her in accomplishing it: Without the idea encouraged by a publisher to look beyond the borders of America and promoted in his newspaper to raise support, without the teachers in Europe investing in her skills (how many inter-war pilots could say they’d been trained by top war ace pilots?), and without the financial support given at a time she needed it, her dreams might have remained unfulfilled, or too long in the making – those parameters needed to make her into a pilot who inspired future generations shifted drastically with the outbreak of the Second World War.

In Esther 4:14, Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In the brief window of time that Bessie reached for the heavens, she may not have lived to see her legacy, but her life and death were not in vain.

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History Undusted: Advent Calendars

This month has flown by! Last weekend was our church’s annual advent market, and I was present with tables full of crafts, as well as marble-iced cookies, Spitzbuben, cheese cookies & apple chips (dehydrated). Before it took off, I was preparing, baking, labelling, and doing all the little bits and bobs to get ready; it went off well, considering the limitations of Covid. I also got our own Advent calendar completed – I talk about that more in a previous post. But the whole topic of the market got me wondering where Advent calendars started, so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve discovered: As you probably know, advent calendars today can take any form you choose; the only common factor is that they usually cover 24 days and begin on 1 December (as opposed to following the 4 Advent Sundays – this year, the first Sunday fell on 28 November). The first calendars weren’t: In the early 1800s, German protestants began marking chalk lines on a wall or lighting a candle each day of the Advent season; they sometimes accompanied the act with a devotional reading or with an image centered around the advent, or coming, of Jesus (traditionally celebrated on 25 December, though that was hardly his birthday – but that’s another topic). The first actual calendars were made of cardboard in Germany, and appeared in the early 1900s; they often had either a poem or a picture behind each door, and were produced until World War 2, when the Nazis banned their use on the excuse that cardboard was scarce – and then, in 1943, they promptly sent out advent booklets to every mother in the land – but they seem to have missed the point: their versions had images of German soldiers blowing up Russian tanks and sinking allied ships!
The Nazi’s idea of Advent celebrations… the less said, the better!
After the war, Richard Sellmer, of Stuttgart, was able to get permission from the allied officials to begin printing cardboard Advent calendars once again, and his company still produces them today – click here to visit their website. After the war was over, the American soldiers took the idea back to the States; their popularity took off in the 1950s after a photo appeared in a newspaper of President Eisenhower’s grandchildren with a Sellmer calendar.
Image from the Sellmer website, showing President Eisenhower’s grandchildren opening a Sellmer calendar
I guess you could say that the rest is history! With Advent beginning, I hope yours is ready for Wednesday! And Christmas is coming soon! If you’re interested in knowing the history behind Santa’s red suit, just click here!

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History Undusted: Limbo

Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.

My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.

As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:

The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!

As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.

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Virtual Tour 6: Hobos

Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.

Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.

The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.

Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.

James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. 1922. Source: Library of Congress

Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.

Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, age 32, Nipomo, California
Source: Library of Congress

Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.

Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:

  • Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
  • When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
  • Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
  • Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
  • When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
  • Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
  • Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  • If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
  • When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
  • Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
  • Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
  • When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
  • Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
  • Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.

I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:

  • Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
  • Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
  • Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
  • Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
  • Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
  • Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
  • Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
  • Bone Polisher = a mean dog
  • Bone Orchard = graveyard
  • C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
  • California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
  • Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
  • Catch the Westbound = to die
  • Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
  • Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
  • Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
  • Easy Mark = place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
  • Elevated = under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Flip = to board a moving train
  • Flop = a place to sleep, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
  • Glad rags = one’s best clothes
  • Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
  • Gump = a chicken
  • Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
  • Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
  • Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
  • Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
  • Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
  • Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
  • Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
  • On the Fly = jumping a moving train
  • Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
  • Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
  • Rum Dum = a drunkard
  • Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
  • Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
  • Stemming = panhandling or begging

Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas

When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.

In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!

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Rabbit Holes

Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?

I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.

The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!

I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).

That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.

Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.

Nis & Maren “Mary” Aaroe, my great-great-grandparents, who immigrated with 2 small children to Kansas from Vonsild, Denmark in the 1880s. Here, in the late 1910’s.

There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:

www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!

The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.

Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉

For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:

Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.

This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.

Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Mistranslations, Research, Snapshots in History

Virtual Tours 3: Vigeland Museum and Park, Oslo, Norway

Our next virtual tour takes us to the capital of Norway, the city of Oslo. There are many amazing places to visit in the city, from the Armed Forces Museum to the Viking Ship Museum. But by far, the largest is the Vigeland Park and museum.

The park is the life work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the result of over 40 years’ work. There are over 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and wrought iron, from the gates, across a bridge, past a large fountain and to the Monolith mound. The museum itself was his studio, and includes many of his sketches, mock-ups, and smaller works.

Vigeland’s motivation for the sculptures was to portray the breadth and depth of universal humanity, from birth to death, in as many stages of emotions and ages as he could capture. He intentionally left the titles of his works vague, allowing viewers to interpret through their own experiences. The reason that most of the statues are naked is for that same reason – he didn’t want a style of clothing to detract from the timelessness of the collective experience of humans, regardless of culture or era, age or gender.

I have been there twice, and it will always be on our list of things to do in Oslo when we are able to go; Oslo is one of my favourite cities, which is saying a lot as my husband and I tend to avoid cities on holidays, preferring nature and out-of-the-way spots instead. But like London, Oslo is packed with history and museums. Below are two of my own pictures, taken in August 2013.

The fountain, as the water was shut off
The Monolith: 45 feet tall, with over 400 individual figures

So, who was Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)? Born as Adolf Gustav Thorsen, he became one of the most famous Norwegian sculptors, and also has the distinction of being the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His father was a cabinetmaker, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Vigeland, became a noted artist. Gustav learned wood carving at school, but the sudden death of his father forced him to leave school to help support his family. The name Vigeland comes from the area where his grandparents lived, and where he lived with them for a time. He came to the attention of Brynjulf Bergslien, a sculptor, who took Gustav under his wing. His first personal exhibitions in Norway were in 1894 and 1896.

The Nobel Peace Prize, as designed by Gustav Vigeland

In 1902, he was involved in the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which influenced his art by the inclusion of dragons as the symbols of sin and as a force of nature fighting against man. Shortly thereafter, the city of Oslo gave him a studio in which to work, and the location of his growing exhibition became Frogner Park, now known to many as simply Vigeland Park.

The exhibition can sometimes evoke strong feelings; I’ve heard one person call it demonic because it portrays nudity; at the end of World War 2, one critic thought it “reeked of Nazi mentality”. But I have been there, and can honestly say that both of those sentiments are unfounded. If people are uncomfortable with the human form in its simplicity, they will have difficulty understanding the thoughtfulness that went into each sculpture. As to the second critique, some of the characters are posed as wrestling with various symbols – as everyone wrestles with things in various stages of their lives. Coming from the mindset of someone still stinging with the Nazi’s rule during World War 2, it is easy to understand how they could have interpreted any struggle in that light.

Below are a few links to take during your virtual tour:

The Vigeland Museum

The Vigeland Park

Vigeland from the perspective of a modern stone sculptor

A quick walkthrough tour

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