Renaissance Woman – From Skin Flicks to WiFi

 Hedy Lamar in 1938 "The most beautiful woman in the world"

Hedy Lamar in 1938
“The most beautiful woman in the world”

It is possible that no one reading this blog remembers Hedwig Eva Kiesler, but she was one of the most remarkable women in history. If you are reading this via a WiFi connection; if you are using a 4G cell phone; or if you utilize Bluetooth devices in your daily routine, you can thank the brilliant Ms. Kiesler for developing the earliest technological advances that made those inventions possible.  That she was a math and science wizard is without doubt. She was also the “most beautiful woman in the world,” according to MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Born in Austria, she was married six times and entranced dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. As an actress, the young lady caused a stir throughout the world when, in 1933, she starred in a film called Ecstasy. The most popular movie in 1933 was King Kong staring Fay Wray, but the movie everyone was talking about in 1933 was the one in which Hedwig Kiesler appeared completely nude…Ecstasy. The scandalous film was banned practically everywhere, which, of course, made it more valuable and desirable. Benito Mussolini kept a copy of the film in his library, and considered it among his most valued possessions. The fact that Hedwig was a Jew who hated Nazis and Fascism only seemed to add to her allure as far as Il Duce was concerned.

“Who was this amazing woman?” I hope you are screaming by now. Here is a very abbreviated version of her story. As Hitler was beginning what he hoped would be the conquest of Europe, Hedwig was married to one of the Nazi Reich’s leading arms developers. Ms. Kiesler hated the Nazis, a fact that was not lost on her husband, who imprisoned his wife in his castle until she was able to escape in 1937. She traveled to the United States, where she met Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer saw great potential as an actress in the beautiful young woman, and offered to make her a star of his movies on one condition. Hedwig Kiesler was already known throughout the world for her nude role in Ecstasy, and Mayer didn’t want all the negative baggage her name would bring to his studio. Upon signing a contract with MGM, Hedwig Eva Kiesler forever became known as a name more familiar to us today…Hedy Lamarr.

Obviously, this still shot from "Ecstasy" would not make the cut into prime time television today. It was REALLY scandalous in 1933!

Obviously, this still shot from “Ecstasy” would not make the cut into prime time television today. It was REALLY scandalous in 1933!

Hedy Lamarr appeared in more than thirty movies in her career, working with industry giants such as James Stewart, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, and Clark Gable. After being dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world by Louis Mayer, Lamarr was quoted as saying, ““Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

The actress’ more secretive life, however, proved she was anything but stupid. Inspired by three things – her hate of the Nazis, the knowledge of weapons and munitions she had gleaned from her Nazi husband, and the help of composer George Antheil, she developed a new kind of communications system that would prevent guidance systems of torpedoes from being “jammed” by German signals, and ensured they would always reach their intended targets. The musician, Anthiel, had devised a way to synchronize his melodies across twelve player pianos at once, creating a stereophonic sound that had never been heard before. Inventor Lamarr devised a way to constantly change radio frequencies to confound the enemy signals and, adapting Anthiel’s musical synchronization, to synchronize the frequency changes between a weapon’s receiver and transmitter. She and Antheil were awarded a patent for the invention in 1942. They promptly gave the patent (note “gave,” not “sold”) to the U.S. Navy. It was an invention that could have shortened the war and saved countless lives, but the Navy saw no merit to the technology, and buried the patent in a cabinet, not to be seen again for many years.

It was not until the 1960s and the Cuban Missile Crisis that some enterprising Navy researcher dusted off the old patent and discovered it offered great possibilities for keeping wireless transmissions secret from prying Russian ears. The rest, as they say, is history. As I mentioned at the beginning of this missive, if you use WiFi technology, Bluetooth, a 4G cell phone or just about any other type of wireless device, you can thank the lady who starred in a skin flick at age 20, went on to become a world-famous actress who was called “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and all the while was a math and science genius who was instrumental in designing the basis for all of the wireless technology we use today.

Al Gore once said he invented the internet. I think we all know that is untrue; however, there is no doubt that we should thank Hedy Lamarr for the technology that enables us to use our cell phones today!

Al Gore once said he invented the internet. I think we all know that is untrue; however, there is no doubt that we should thank Hedy Lamarr for the technology that enables us to use our cell phones today!

Ms. Lamarr became something of a recluse after her acting career waned. She never made any money from her great technological breakthrough and, even more sadly, received no personal or professional acknowledgement for the great invention for decades. Finally, in 1997, Hedy was granted an Electronic Frontier Foundation Award for her scientific work. Always quick with a sassy reply, her reaction was, “Well, it’s about time!”

A Modern-day Hero From Oklahoma

Fern Holland

So far all of my ‘hero’ stories have been about men from WWII or centuries before. This story will break that mold as I describe to you a young, modern woman whose deeds are as selfless and heroic as any I have heard. Fern Holland was a young attorney from Tulsa, Oklahoma who gave up a lucrative law practice in order to go to Africa and establish free legal clinics for abused women. These clinics provided aid to women who otherwise would have had no recourse from their sad situations.

After serving in Africa, Ms. Holland returned to the United States and was offered a very high paying position with a Washington, D.C. legal firm. At about the same time she became aware of the plight of women in Iraq, and decided to go there on a similar mission as she had done in Africa. She was soon offered a position with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and began offering legal aid in all forms to Iraqi women. Among her many achievements, she was instrumental in writing into the new Iraq Constitution the portion that requires the parliament to be composed of at least 25% women. She also aided in individual cases of abuse, cases of property disputes in which women previously had no legal clout, and many other areas which were often areas in which Iraqi women were the subjects of discrimination.

A story first reported by Elizabeth Rubin in the New York Times Magazine  in September, 2004 describes with great aplomb the character of this great American heroin. The story is about two Iraqi women from a small farming community who came to Ms. Holland seeking her aid in a legal dispute. Ms. Rubin reports of a letter written by Fern Holland to a friend in Tulsa:

Fern Holland

”They are widows. They wear all black, all you can see is their faces — no hair or neck. They don’t wear gloves though and you can see their hands — very rough hands, dry and cracked and evidence of broken fingers from years ago, and huge knuckles from years of manual labor. Their faces wrinkled and dark, no makeup, but 2 small faded blue circles on their chins — tattoos. One of Saddam [Hussein]’s thugs grew crops on their land and they thought they could remove him upon liberation. No such luck. He built a house on their land and refused to leave. They have court orders and everything and nobody will move the guy. Everyone’s afraid of him. So much for the rule of law. I’m going to see him Saturday morning, along with the little ladies, the manager of the new women’s center, the judge, and a couple Iraqi policemen. These little ladies reminded me of my mother. Salt of the Earth.”

Two days later, Fern showed up at the judge’s courthouse in Kifl, a farming village about 12 miles from Hilla. The judge was impressed by her knowledge of Iraqi law. Holland promised, in her slight Oklahoma lilt, that she would bring an Internet cafe to his rice-farming village, which boasts the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. He agreed with her when she said, ”No one should jump over a woman’s rights,” but with all the suffering people in Iraq, he was a little puzzled why this slight, 5-foot-2, fiery American, with golden hair and sky blue eyes, was putting so much energy into this particular case. The judge pointed out how shameful it is to destroy somebody’s house — so much so that no local would dare to carry out his order to do so. Tribal or religious leaders usually mediate such quarrels. Still, he gave his word to implement the ruling that he had himself issued, but on one condition: Holland had to bring the bulldozer.

”A bulldozer?” cried Adly Hassanein back at the Babylon Hotel. An elegant Egyptian-American human rights adviser with the C.P.A., Hassanein worked closely with Holland and shared her commitment. ”Fern,” he said, ”that is an Israeli act.” He begged her to let it go: it’s family business; it’s local culture. She smiled at him. She knew Hassanein’s paternal routine. ”They can’t just harass women this way, Dr. Adly,” she said.

Three days later, on a warm spring Tuesday, Holland collected some petty cash, found a bulldozer and a driver and returned to Kifl. The judge set off with 30 policemen following the bulldozer. The man’s house was demolished. The ”salt of the earth” got back their property. And in Holland’s mind another step had been taken toward getting Iraqis to trust in the rule of law.

Holland, American press officer Robert J. Zangas, and their Iraqi translator Salwa Ourmashi were shot in their car on a road near Karbala on March 9, 2004. Their killers wore Iraqi police uniforms.[3] According to reports, she and Zangas were the first American civilians working for the CPA to be killed in Iraq, [4] The New York Times Magazine reports interviews indicate she was intentionally targeted for murder by those threatened by her empowerment of women; these interviews also reflect that for many CPA staff this was a turning point in the war when Western civilians could no longer travel without guns.

—–

Fern Holland was 33 years old when she was killed. The selfless and apparently fearless young lady gave up a financially lucrative law career, a life of comfort with friends and family nearby, and the freedoms provided by a nation with a Bill of Rights, to go into places where neither she nor her mission were welcome and her life was constantly at risk. She went, not for glory or for fame, but because it was the right thing to do. She was a true American hero.

Martin Luther King once said, “If a man is not willing to die for something, he doesn’t deserve to live.” I don’t know if Fern Holland ever read that quotation, but I have no doubt she would have agreed with the sentiment.

For a much more comprehensive look at the heroic life and sacrifice of Fern Holland go to http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/19/magazine/19WOMENL.html?_r=0. This New York Times Magazine article by Elizabeth Rubin presents a far more comprehensive look at the life and selfless achievement of this great American hero.

“If I die, know that I’m doing precisely what I want to be doing.”   Fern Holland

Fear of Snakes, Zombies and Dentists

220px-The_Mummy_1932_film_posterWhile many will not admit it, we all harbor an atavistic fear of snakes, vampires, zombies, and the millions of loosely wrapped mummies that wander the countryside at night searching for their next unfortunate victim. But what about the dentist?  You have to admit, it is not often we see dentists slinking through the dark forest carrying their whining drill and box of veneers as if they were medieval weapons, but many of us fear dentists nonetheless. For those of you who fear going to the dentist (I know you are out there) I thought I would give you some incentive to make a New Years Resolution to visit the dentist on a more regular basis. The short film provided below will prove to you that no dental visit could possibly be as bad as this! I’ll even go so far as to say that most dental visits will be enjoyable by comparison.

When I am not writing, I still practice dentistry a few hours a week…mostly root canal treatment, something that I know generates real fear in many patients. My lovely wife had to explain to me why people who noticed me in WalMart quickly moved away to the other side of the aisle. I hate it, but that’s the way it is. Maybe I should wear a T-shirt that boldly says AUTHOR when I venture out of my den in search of a bargain on toothpaste or flip-flops. Believe it or not, we dentists do try to make treatment as painless and gentle as possible. Occasionally a patient leaves my office uttering the word ‘pleasant.’ That really makes my head swell.

To keep me in my place, my oldest son wrote and produced the following short film for a Steven Spielberg competition a few years ago. I hope it will assuage any fear you might have of your own dentist.

Dental Case” produced by Sheepthrowingboy Productions

 

Abraham Lincoln’s Christmas Gift

images

If you happen to enjoy life’s ironies, the history of U.S. Presidents, and surprise endings, you may enjoy this Christmas story as much as I do. This tale was taken from the memoirs of Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. It is a piece of Americana that embodies the bravery and selflessness of American citizens, and the unexpected turns life provides us on our journey.

 Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln wanted to join the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War. His mother would not allow it, however, and implored the young man to enroll as a student at Harvard University. The dutiful son complied with his mother’s wishes, and traveled north to Boston instead of south to fight the secessionists.

During the Christmas break of 1863, the son of the president was traveling home to Washington, D.C. to visit his family for the holidays. He took the train from Boston to Trenton, New Jersey, where he was to change to another train going to Washington. The station was crowded with hundreds of travelers jostling for position as they exited trains or waited for connections. As Robert approached the edge of the platform, he was bumped from behind and fell onto the tracks just in front of a train that was starting to move. Scant yards from the large wheels moving his way, he lay stunned and helpless on the tracks, doubtless wide-eyed as he watched his doom approach. At the last second, a pair of strong arms reached down from the platform and jerked the young traveler to safety.

The crowd on the platform applauded and cheered. Robert grabbed the hand of his savior and no doubt bubbled profuse thanks as he shook the hand again and again. While not mentioned in Lincoln’s memoir, I suspect the stranger was shocked to discover the man he had saved was the son of the President of the United States.

Even more shocking to those of us who are aware of later tragic events is the name of the brave man who saved the son of the president.  While it seems inconceivable that one family could bring so much joy and sadness to the Lincolns, the name of the man who saved Robert from certain death and gave his parents the greatest possible Christmas gift was Edwin Booth. He was the brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate President Lincoln in the spring of 1865.

Now that’s a Christmas story worth retelling.

Dancing With The Stars

92602307-dancing-with

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit on the front end that I am not a big fan of reality TV. My oldest son’s first job out of film school was assistant to the producer of one of those early reality shows…one that involved supposedly non-actor men endeavoring to pick up dates at local bars. According to my son, most of the action in the show was staged and even rehearsed to get the sequences just right. About the only reality in the program was the fact that most of the cast was blind, staggering drunk by the end of a full day of filming and sipping Budweiser at the bar in every scene. Thankfully, they did have a designated driver to take them home…my son. His revelations about reality TV more or less soured me on the subject in general, so I seldom tune in.

I picked “Dancing With the Stars” as the title of this missive primarily because the name evokes so much more that just a TV series, at least to me. It brings back memories of my childhood fifty and more years ago, memories of a kinder, gentler time when the evening news (on b/w television) was not completely filled with the tragedy of drug arrests, school shootings, or political unrest. It was a time when Walter Cronkite could unashamedly cry tears of joy in front of a national audience when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step onto the surface of the moon. Most important, it was a time when all of America looked to the stars and dreamed of a future for their children that was truly unlimited. We all looked to the stars and danced a giddy dance of unbridled ecstasy as we saw no limits to what we could achieve. The Vietnam War changed all that, but for several years that perfectly coincided with my childhood, the world was our oyster. We danced with the stars.

1957 was a great year that quite possibly was ground zero for all America achieved in the next few years. I pick 1957 because four seminal events occurred that year which would determine the course of the American way of life for decades to come. First and foremost, the Leave It To Beaver television series premiered that year, and would provide the ideal for American family life to an entire generation. Second, only a couple of months before the Beaver made his appearance in American living rooms, I was enrolled in first grade, and was in a position to observe and learn from the very best in public education and black and white television at the same time, a fact that doubtless colored my actions and observations until this very day. At the same time, those dastardly Russians blasted into the cosmos a basketball-sized satellite named Sputnik. Sputnik scared both the Dickens and the Tolstoy out of everyone from President Eisenhower down to old Mr. Fisk, the janitor at our elementary school, who regularly reminded us kids that “them Ruskies is up there takin’ pictures of you with that spy satellite, so you’d better be good!” The fact that the Soviets had given us such a technological drubbing caused the entire nation to launch into a frenzied program of science and math education in our schools that reached all the way down into public elementary schools, making both the Beaver and me have to study harder and learn our fractions much sooner than we would have preferred. Possibly because of the positive influence of the Beaver, or maybe because of the jitters we all felt as “them Ruskies” looked down on us every night, 1957 was also the year the U.S. Treasury began to print “In God We Trust” on our paper currency. Americans looked to, and danced with, the stars that year as we searched the heavens hoping to find a bright future, a Russian satellite, and the face of God watching over us.

1958 saw a major push from all of America to ratchet up our national goals related to everything from educating children to beating those Russians in the space race. Schools began programs to emphasize math and science at all levels. In 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President, and among other things, listed putting a man on the moon within the decade as one of his presidential goals. Although he did not live to see his vision come to fruition, Kennedy set in motion the might, the drive, and the ingenuity of all of America to achieve this lofty goal. Life was good, and everyone yearned for a chance to contribute to what we knew was an unbounded future.

It is sad to realize many Americans today no longer perceive a bright future for themselves or their children. We seem to have forgotten that we still live in a great country where anything is possible, even though current economic, political, and international circumstances suggest otherwise. Maybe we just need to adjust our thought processes. Maybe we need to look back to 1957. Maybe we all need to go “Dancing With the Stars!”

Author Steven Abernathy’s Bio – Who Is This Guy?

Steven Abernathy is not afraid…of anything! It’s not that he owns the recipe for bravery, or that he is superhuman or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious; it is simply that his real-life experiences have conditioned him to deal with ‘stuff’ as it comes his way. The author quips, “I have survived an airplane crash, a heart attack, a run for U.S. Congress (in which I was defeated, thank goodness), and over 40 years of marriage to a lady who loves cats. What else could possibly be out there to frighten me?”

 

An early training flight in a T-33 aircraft

An early training flight at the U.S. Air Force Academy in a T-33 aircraft. With those big ears, I could probably fly without the jet.

I encountered the same T-33 40 years later

I encountered the same T-33 40 years later. Notice the flat tires, the bumps and bangs, the discolored top. Now that I think about it, the airplane looks pretty bad, too.

First published in 1975, Steven has written four novels, educational booklets, and newspaper columns for several small newspapers. “People ask me what are my qualifications as a writer or columnist. My answer is simply life experience. If I have a single qualification that sets me apart from other writers, it is that I have a wide range of experience and a pretty sound understanding of Americans from just about every walk of life. You hear people say, ‘I knew from the time I was a child that I wanted to be a ______ (fill in the blank).’ Not me. I’ve tried just about everything out there, sometimes by choice, often from necessity. Among other things, I have worked as a farm laborer, carpenter, assembly line worker, apprentice electrician, truck driver, hospital orderly, teacher (both public school and college), military officer, dentist, and author.  Friends and family say I just don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I have run for Congress, crashed an airplane, survived a heart attack, written five books, and been married to the same wonderful lady for more than 40 years. I have shared a bologna sandwich with fellow cotton-pickers while taking a brief break from our $5 per day job, and I have schmoozed with Bill Clinton during more formal meals. I even had lunch one time with Connie Kresky (Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1969). She was infinitely more interesting than Bill Clinton. That’s all I’m saying.”

Steven and wife Michele currently live a nomadic life, splitting time between their home in Destin, Florida, the Tampa Bay area, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, where the author still maintains a dental practice for a few hours each week. When not writing, traveling, or doing root canal treatment (ugh!) he prefers to spend quiet time with family or sail the usually calm waters of Tampa Bay. All of his stories are fiction, but they are also a reflection of real people, real experiences, and real events to which he has been exposed during his life. One of Steven’s great interests is history, and each of his books includes events that are historically factual, but at some point are ‘embellished’ to fit the framework of the story. “If I did my job well, the reader will never know exactly when real history becomes fiction. That is what I like the best!”

Readers can reach Steven at steven@stevenabernathy.net (What an incredibly novel email address…pardon the pun.)

The Senator Who Risked All (And Lost All)

The purpose of this blog is not intended to be political, but sometimes when speaking about heroic Americans, one brushes up against politics of the iniquitous kind. This is one of those times…actually this post talks about two of those times, one current and one from our history.

Edmund_G._Ross_-_Brady-HandyIn our current environment of congressional and national turmoil, when, at the time of this writing, the U.S. Congress can’t seem to agree on anything, the U.S. economy is in the tank, primarily due to government mismanagement, and the American people no longer seem to have a positive outlook about their futures, we are all in dire need of a hero figure. Recently, one such figure briefly emerged above the fray. Whether you are in agreement with or despise his political beliefs, you must admit that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas took a decidedly heroic stance when, beginning September 24, 2013, the senator took the floor and filibustered (although it was not called that) against government controlled health care and the unconstitutional individual mandate for over 21 hours. Many disagreed with him; many said it was a scheme designed only to put his name before the public as a possible presidential candidate in 2016; many said it was a pointless exercise. None of that really matters in the ‘heroic’ sense. What matters is that the Texas senator took the floor knowing that everyone in the opposing party was going to blast him in the press, but also knowing that many…possibly more that half…of the legislators from his own party would denigrate him just as vehemently! You have to admit, regardless of your personal political beliefs, the senator put himself in a very precarious position where he could lose a great deal of his personal and political prestige by taking such an unpopular stance. He put his neck on the chopping block and was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, good or bad. That’s pretty heroic in my book.

But this particular post is not even about Senator Ted Cruz. The photo at the top of the page is of Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, who served immediately after the Civil War and became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) during the impeachment hearings to remove President Andrew Johnson from office. Ross’ story is an interesting one, but requires a little telling.

President Abraham Lincoln favored a very conciliatory tone when deciding on measures to bring the southern states back into the Union at the end of the Civil War. Radical Republicans who controlled the Congress took the opposite view, wanting to punish the South as much as possible for all the pain secession and the war had inflicted on the nation. When Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, he decided to continue Lincoln’s conciliatory goals and bring the southerners back into the foal in as humane a way as possible. His stance angered Republicans, who began to take measures to usurp much of the power of the presidency.

Republicans passed two unconstitutional laws designed to give them much power over the president and to force Johnson’s hand into capitulating to the harsh Reconstruction plans of the Congress. President Johnson chose to defend the Constitution of the United States and his personal stance on Reconstruction by blatantly breaking the unconstitutional laws represented by the recent legislation. Since the laws were not constitutional, he reasoned, it was his responsibility as president to force the issue until they were declared so.

Republicans responded by opening impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, and were able to impeach the president in short order. The case then was referred to the U.S. Senate to vote whether or not President Johnson should be removed from office. (One could make a strong case, at this point, that President Andrew Johnson should be the ‘hero’ of this post for taking a stand to defend the Constitution and putting his presidency in danger to do so.)

Enter Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas. Ross was a Republican who had been appointed by the governor of Kansas to fill a vacant Senate seat only two years before. The fledgling Senator, a man with no former political experience, was still finding his way through the dangerous and confusing maze of Washington politics. Republicans were certain they had enough votes to remove President Johnson from office, leaving them free to pursue their Reconstruction agenda of harsh treatment for the South. A 2/3 majority in the Senate vote is required to remove the president from office. Party leaders were convinced they had the exact number of votes necessary. Those leaders, however, failed to consider the conscience of Senator Edmund Ross.

After considering the situation from all possible angles, the freshman senator decided President Johnson was correct in his actions and did not deserve to be removed from office. In discussing his position with fellow Republicans, all of whom were adamant that the president be removed, Ross was berated and threatened both personally and politically by his fellow senators. He was assured that if he voted against Johnson’s removal from office, his political career would be over and he would be destroyed from every personal and financial venue.

Just before he arose on the Senate floor to cast his vote, Ross was quoted as saying, “I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” He voted not guilty, and the Republicans fell one vote short of removing the president from office.

Ross’ fellow senators made good on their promise to destroy him. He was never elected to office again, and found himself reviled and financially ruined when he returned home to Kansas. Senator Edmund Ross voted his conscience in the face of extreme adversity, and it cost him everything. Almost 100 years later in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote of Senator Edmund Ross “…his vote may well have preserved for ourselves and posterity constitutional government in the United States.”

I mentioned our current political climate at the beginning of this post because it occurs to me we are living through a very similar, although in many ways exactly opposite, situation.  Congress is arguing the merits of an unconstitutional law they passed without taking the time to read the bill. Even though the law is unpopular, all Democrats and many Republicans seem to be in favor of allowing it to stand. Senator Cruz and a few other Republicans have taken what seems to be a very unpopular stance even within their own party, and are enduring the vitriol of many of their fellow legislators because of it. Will they be American heroes once all the dust settles? Will someone else step up and risk everything to vote his or her conscience for the good of the nation? Only time will tell, but I am leaving room for the story, just in case.

The Hero President

Andrew_Jackson_(Engraved_Portrait)

My chosen title, The Hero President, is not really a fair one when applied to only one of our past national leaders. We have had many presidents who proved themselves to be heroes before or during their terms as President of the United States. I have chosen to single out one, primarily because I have asked several people over the last few months what they knew about Andrew Jackson, and have been shocked when they answered, “Well…uhhhh,” or even worse “One of Michael’s brothers?”

Here is a story many of you do not know about the seventh President of the United States:

It is a little known fact  that President Jackson was the target of the first attempted presidential assassination.  Late in his second term he was walking through the Rotunda of the Capital Building after having attended a memorial service for a deceased dignitary.   As he crossed the Rotunda, a man emerged from the crowd in front of him, pulled a pistol from his coat, pointed it at the president at point blank range, and fired.  A loud bang and the acrid stench of gunpowder quickly echoed throughout the building, stunning the crowd and for all practical purposes freezing them in their positions.  To their amazement, Jackson remained standing. The pistol had misfired…the percussion cap had exploded properly, but had failed to ignite the powder in the barrel to fire the bullet.

As the crowd stood stunned, the young man pulled a second pistol from his coat, pointed, and fired once more…with exactly the same result.  Since no one had advanced to subdue the gunman, the old president, who was nearing 70 years old at the time, attacked the gunman himself. Jackson was an old war horse who never shied from a fight, and while the crowd around him stood frozen in their tracks, he beat the would-be assassin to the floor with his cane. Finally, police came to his aid and hauled the young man away.

It was later determined that both pistols were in good working condition and had been properly loaded. The odds of two misfires under such conditions are astronomical! The attacker’s name was Richard Lawrence.  He believed himself to be heir to the throne of England, and believed Jackson was keeping him from taking the throne. Doctors determined him to be mentally unstable.

It is a stretch to include President Jackson in my ‘hero’ series based on this single episode in his career, but it is such a great and relatively unknown part of American history that I thought it deserved inclusion. Maybe an enlightened history teacher will pass the story along to their classes, causing the students to remember a man named Jackson who probably couldn’t sing a note.

As a little aside from the main story, Richard Lawrence was tried for the attempted assassination of a President. The prosecutor demanded the death penalty, but Lawrence’s defense attorney decided to try a novel defense tactic…not guilty by reason of insanity.  It was the first time the insanity defense had been used, and it worked.   By the way, the prosecuting attorney, who was outraged by the verdict, was the same Francis Scott Key who wrote our national anthem.

As long as we are on the subject, I’ll throw in another fascinating tidbit about President Jackson. All of his predecessors, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, were landed gentry, with formal educations and lifestyles more like English aristocrats than the rank and file American citizen. Jackson was the first ‘man of the people’ to be elected president. He was a rough and tumble, self educated (but rather poorly), brawler who was as comfortable rabblelrousing with working class people as he was debating legislation with congressmen. He was not a talented speaker or writer, and the press often derided him about misspellings or grammatical errors in his speeches and papers. On one occasion when newspapers were particularly critical of a misspelling, President Jackson publicly responded, “It’s a damned poor mind that can think of only one way to spell any word!”

What a great answer from a great man!

Don’t forget to order your copy of “Unspoken Valor,” a novel of heroism of the highest order in World War II.

The Booth You Didn’t Know

 

 Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln

To the best of my knowledge, there was no newspaper headline in late 1863 that announced “Booth Saves Lincoln,” but there should have been. Here is the story that never made it into your American History book.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. According to Robert Todd’s memoirs published late in his life, it was his great desire to join the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, but his mother would not allow it. She insisted that he enroll as a student at Harvard University and, being a dutiful son, the young man did just that.

During the Christmas season of 1863 Robert Todd was traveling to Washington, D.C. to spend the holidays with his family. Just as now, holiday travel was busy and the train stations were congested and filled to capacity. As the young Lincoln was changing trains in the crowded Trenton, New Jersey railroad station, he was forced to move slowly through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on the platform to reach his train. He reached the edge of the platform just as a train was beginning to move, and was bumped from behind, causing him to fall onto the tracks. The train was gathering momentum and the large steel wheels were scant feet away as he lay helpless on the rails. At the last moment, a man risked his life by sliding into the narrow space between the train and the wood platform, grabbing Robert, and pulling him to safety. That was quite a Christmas present for Robert Todd Lincoln…a total stranger risking his own life and saving the son of the president from certain death under the wheels of a train.

The completely ironic part of this ‘hero’ story comes with the identity of the stranger who saved the son of the president. After handshakes, pats on the back, and profound thanks to the stranger, introductions were made. The stranger was actor Edwin Booth, brother of the not yet infamous John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate Robert’s father, the President of the United States, less than a year and a half later.

Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth

Robert Todd did not record in his memoirs whether or not he told his parents about the incident in Trenton. His mother, Mary, was an unstable woman who would have taken the story very badly, so I rather suspect Robert kept the story to himself, or possibly told only his father in confidence. President Lincoln would certainly have been extremely grateful to the elder Booth brother. It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in history that the brother of this American hero would take the life of the president only a few months later and become one of the most reviled names in American history.

There is no doubt that Unspoken Valor is my very favorite story of heroism, but the story of Edwin Booth and Robert Todd Lincoln ranks pretty high up my list as well.

 

Benedict Arnold – American Hero?

America’s Unsung Heroes…And Other Interesting Tidbits of American History

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Part I      Benedict Arnold

This is the first post in a series dedicated to American heroes who have been denied the recognition their actions may have merited. Benedict Arnold is one of the most reviled men in American history, a man whose very name has become a synonym for the word ‘traitor.’ As such, he may seem a strange subject to choose for a post on American heroes, but the facts reveal another side to the man who was once a major general in the Continental Army. It is very likely that without the brave actions of this man on the battlefield there may never have been a United States of America.

In June of 1777, British General John Burgoyne began moving his army south from Canada and into the American colonies. His grand plan was to divide New England from the other colonies by invading south to Albany, New York, At Albany he could join forces with General William Howe’s army and move farther south to crush the main body of General George Washington’s Continental Army. Military historians are united in their judgment that if Burgoyne’s plan had succeeded, the British would have annihilated the Continental Army, and the Revolution would have been put to an end. You and I would likely be dining on tea and crumpets rather than coffee and doughnuts at the local 7-11.

But, thankfully for the founding fathers of our nation, General Burgoyne ran into a problem. In mid September, 1777, his army encountered that of General Horatio Gates near Sarasota, New York. Gates was a pompous man, ‘a snob of the first water,’ as characterized by writer Hoffman Nickerson, and was not a particularly talented military leader. He did not believe his American troops could stand up to a fight with the British in an open field, so he fought a defensive campaign behind fortifications, making no attempt to attack or drive back the British even though his army outnumbered that of Burgoyne almost two to one.

One of Gates’ commanders, Major General Benedict Arnold, was cut from a more aggressive cloth, and argued with his superior throughout the first day of fighting to allow him troops to attack the British. Gates refused, and the first day was basically fought to a draw. The argument between Arnold and Gates escalated to the point that Gates removed his subordinate from command, leaving him nothing to do. Arnold fumed at headquarters, and watched as Gates squandered several opportunities to take the field. Finally, able to take inaction no longer, General Arnold mounted his horse and thundered off to the front.

To condense a day of heroic endeavor into a few words, Arnold took command of the Connecticut militia and attacked the British stronghold. During the battle, he was shot in the leg at the same time his horse was killed and fell on the same leg, crushing it. Burgoyne’s army was defeated by Arnold’s heroic attack, and the British general surrendered only a few days later.

The British plan to march south and destroy Washington’s army was defeated along with Burgoyne and his troops, largely if not entirely due to the heroic actions of Benedict Arnold. The brave general was soon embittered by the actions of the Continental Congress, which gave full credit for the Saratoga victory to Gates and showered him with accolades without ever mentioning Arnold’s crucial role in the battle. Within a year and a half, Benedict Arnold had joined the British Army and was instrumental in a plot to turn over West Point to the British.

Arnold’s traitorous actions are inexcusable, and subsequent generations of Americans have been justified in labeling him a traitor to our nation. The reasons behind his betrayal, coupled with his heroic actions at the Battle of Saratoga, however, provide insight into Benedict Arnold the man that may soften our harsh picture of Benedict Arnold the traitor.

There is a monument to General Arnold’s leg, which was crushed during the battle, on the spot where he fell at what is now Saratoga National Historic Park. His name is not present on the monument.Arnold-boot

Benedict Arnold, American hero. Benedict Arnold, reviled traitor. The juxtaposition of those two descriptions gives one pause. It might best be explained by the following story:

Late in the war, when Benedict Arnold was leading British forces against the Continental Army in Virginia, he asked one of the prisoners taken in the battle, “What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?”  The prisoner answered, “They will cut off the leg which was wounded as you fought for the cause of liberty, and bury it with all the honors of a hero.  Then they will hang the rest of your body on a gibbet.”