History As Stories

Want to Be a Street Fighter?

I am going to flat-out admit my ignorance about the various forms of martial arts. I don’t know the differences between various martial arts, their underlying philosophies, or even the rules of the MMA fights that my daughter and her friends love to watch.

So it’s not surprising that I didn’t know anything about Krav Maga.

Krav Maga, which translates from Hebrew as “contact combat”, is a self-defense system of fighting in close contact. Basically, fighting off an attacker. It was developed in such a way that people of different ages, genders, and levels of fitness could learn it quickly.

“Krav maga” lesson in paratroopers school. Israel, 1955. Author TZAHAL via Wikimedia Commons.

Imi Lichtenfeld was born in 1910 to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary and grew up in Bratislava, which is now in Slovakia. His father had been part of a professional circus, where he learned gymnastics and other sports, and then became a police inspector. While working for the police, he also owned a gym and taught self-defense.

Lichtenfeld trained at his father’s gym and became an international competitor in sports such as boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics.

But when he was in his 20s, things in Europe took a dark turn, especially for Jewish families. In 1930s Bratislava, anti-Semitic gangs wandered the streets harassing Jewish people. Lichtenfeld and other young men banded together to protect their neighborhoods from these gangs.

It didn’t take long for Lichtenfeld to realize that the martial arts training he had done for sport was a world away from street fighting. The biggest difference was that there were no rules in street fighting.

Lichtenfeld had enough variety in his previous training that he could identify the problems and develop his new fighting style. And his new fighting skills were working well enough that he became a target and needed to get out of Europe.

He left Europe in 1940 and, after an eventful two years, landed in British-ruled Palestine in 1942. His family did not make it out and were killed there during the war.

In 1944 he started training others in his fighting style, including special forces and police officers. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, he served in the newly form Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), still training others in what was called Krav Maga.

Krav Maga – Grand Master Imi Lichtenfeld (left) and Yaron Lichtenstein. Author Yaron Lichtenstein via Wikimedia Commons.

When Lichtenfeld retired in 1964 he had refined his self-defense and hand-to-hand combat methods and decided to train civilians. He established two training centers in Israel, and eventually his system went global.

He died in 1998 at the age of 87. Here is a tribute video. I found the music distracting and the subtitles difficult to read, but the photos are great.

Krav Maga. A system of self-defense now taught globally was originally developed to help a group of men protect their Jewish families from anti-Semitic gangs.


My Local Surfer Van

I live in a beach town in Southern California that hosts a lot of tourists. I also live close enough to the center of town and the beach that I see a lot of foot traffic, especially people walking from parking spaces to the beach. And the most photographed thing in my area is this:

The backdrop for many vacation photos. Photo by Cathy Hanson.

People take photos from all angles, posing and using props, like skateboards, if they have them. I am amused by the kids who all have the same idea of pretending to be skitching for the photos.

The Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter (the Beetle was Type 1) was introduced in 1950, not long after the end of World War II. But for as long as I can remember, its image, at least in the United States, has been linked to the 1960s and the counter-culture movement. When I was a kid we called them “hippie vans”, imagining people camping in them on their way cross-country to a music festival.

Like the Beetle, the Type 2 had its engine in the back, so it had a flat nose. This allows the driver to feel as if they are on top of the world and can see everything around them. The interior was plain with rubber mats on the floor, which was one of the reasons for its popularity with surfers. No worries about getting saltwater or sand on the carpet. They could also throw some boards on top, leaving plenty of space to sit or sleep if they wanted to stay at the beach when they were done surfing.

Check out all the windows on this one! Photo by
ONordsieck via Wikimedia Commons.

The VW bus has evolved over the years, from the original with the split windshield, known as a Splittie (produced 1950-1967), through various iterations. Most of the changes seem to involve adding or removing windows.

The VW vans were loved by surfers and campers and families for their simplicity and roominess. They were cheap, easy to maintain, and you could pack a whole bunch of people into them. It was also slow and top-heavy, but the positives made up for that.

These days, I still see plenty of them around this beach community, at various levels of disrepair. I’ve heard that restored ones can go for a whole lot of money. But I still see all types from all eras, still hauling surfboards and people. Apparently you can still grab your board and your friends, and sleep in the van after a long day of surfing.

A Gift for the President

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was our third president in the United States of America, serving from 1801 to 1809. In the 1800 election, Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, ran against John Adams, a Federalist. It was an incredibly acrimonious and partisan election. They had partisan press on both sides. In the most simplistic terms, Adams was accused of wanting monarch-like powers and an established religion, while Jefferson was accused of being too friendly with the French and being an atheist.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) via Wikimedia Commons.

Jefferson won.

And in the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, the Baptist pastor (and abolitionist) Elder John Leland was relieved and pleased and wanted to show his pleasure with a gift to the new president. Kind of a thanks-for-the-religious-freedom gift.

Leland was especially thankful because Cheshire was in Berkshire County, which was a bit of a Federalist hotbed. Leland and his friends were a religious and political minority.

Living in such a pastoral area, they decided their gift to the president should be cheese. They modified a large cider press, lacking a cheese press that was large enough. They determined that they would, on one day, combine milk from every cow in town, which was approximately 900 cows. The cheese was produced by freeborn farmers, using no slave labor.

Oh yeah, they also did not use milk from any Federalist’s cows.

This was a really big cheese and I found a variety of dimensions and weights listed. I’m going to go with the description at www.monticello.org which quotes a letter from Jefferson to his son-in-law. He wrote ” the Mammoth cheese is arrived here and is to be presented this day. it is 4 f 4½ I. diameter, 15. I. thick, and weighed in August 1230. ℔.”

The good folks of Cheshire then sent their cheese on its journey of three weeks and 500 miles. It traveled by sleigh, by barge, and by wagon. It was a media sensation, mocked by one side and celebrated by the other. It was presented to Jefferson at the President’s House on January 1, 1802.

Jefferson was appropriately appreciative. Because he was opposed to receiving gifts, he gave a $200 donation (more than 50% of the cheese’s market value) to Leland’s congregation in a gesture of gratitude.

Photograph of the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese monument in Cheshire, MA, USA. Photo by
Makeitalready via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Leland was given some cheese to take back and share with its creators, the bulk of it stayed at the President’s House. There are stories that the cheese was still there a year later, in 1803, and looked to have deteriorated, and even that it was still there in 1805, being served to guests. It is also said that after several years, the spoiled remains were tossed into the Potomac River.

This is an oft-told tale, apparently, for people who are interested in Jefferson. A simple story that actually tells a lot about the era in which it happened. And maybe a little about ours.

Update: My Family in World War II: Floyd Zobel

My great-uncle Floyd (1922-2019) passed away last week at the age of 96. As I noted from the post below in 2016, Floyd was the youngest of the nine siblings in my grandfather’s family. It’s surprisingly strange to me that there are no living members on that branch of my family tree. I’m a historian, so I’m aware this always happens at some point. It shouldn’t seem strange. And yet it does.

Please read the post below and take the time to watch the videos of Floyd telling the story of his experience during World War II.

I will remember Uncle Floyd as a man with a brilliant smile who could talk to anyone about anything. Too all my extended family, my deepest sympathy.


My grandpa Butch (1920-1996), real name Stanley Zobel, was one of nine children born to a family in Fertile, Iowa. Four of the six boys served in World War II, and they all returned home. I’ll tell you about Butch another time, but today I want to talk about my great-uncle Floyd, the youngest and the only one of the nine siblings still living.

Floyd served in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne. I’m going to link to some videos below, but because Floyd’s tone is so humble in those videos, you may want to read this about the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment to fill in some of the blanks and to get an idea of the magnitude of the events recounted.

511th Parachute Infantry Regiment memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, in the United States. Photo: Tim Evanson via Wikimedia Commons
511th Parachute Infantry Regiment memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, in the United States. Photo: Tim Evanson via Wikimedia Commons

Floyd’s granddaughter interviewed him on video about his time in the service, and then Floyd’s son-in-law posted it online in 2009. If this was done as a school project, kudos to all teachers that offer alternative methods of studying history.

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Commando Raid for Fish Oil

As you may remember from a previous post about Norway during World War II, “Kings and Quislings”, Norway was invaded by the German army in April 1940. The Norwegian royal family and government evacuated to England and worked as a government-in-exile while the Germans installed Norwegian collaborators, led by Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945) to run the country under the direction of the Germans.

I guess I wasn’t done with WWII Norway yet.

After some early defeats, the British formed and trained commando units to conduct raids on enemy territories. The purpose of the raids was to gather intelligence and sabotage the enemy. During the war, British and the Norwegian commandos performed 12 raids on German operation in Norway. The first was Operation Claymore.

The Lofoten Islands in Norway are so far north that they are within the Arctic Circle. They are also the largest producer of fish oil. And from fish oil comes glycerin, which is used to manufacture explosives.

The objective of this first raid, Operation Claymore, was to destroy the fish-oil factories and the ships meant to carry that product to Germany. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also hoping that a victory would raise morale for the British troops and the citizenry at home. It’s also possible that the British believed there were Enigma code machines on the islands.

Operation Claymore (4 March 1941) – Raid on the Lofoten Islands. Commandos watching fish oil tanks burning. Photo by Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt – War Office official photographer via Wikimedia Commons.

Early in the morning on March 4, 1941, in a complete surprise to the Germans, about 500 British and 52 Norwegian commandos, with seven ships, raided the island. By early afternoon, they were done, loaded up, and ready to go.

What did the commandos accomplish in those hours? They destroyed 11 processing plants in 4 ports, destroyed 800,000 gallons of oil, set fire to a large oil tanker, partially destroyed a power plant, and destroyed 5-10 ships. And the only British casualty was an officer who accidentally shot himself in the leg with his revolver.

Troops returning from shore in landing craft personnel (ramped) on their return from the Lofoten islands, Norway, where troops were landed to blow up the oil tanks. Smoke can be seen rising from the shore. Photo by Coote, R G G (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the destruction, they didn’t go home empty handed. They captured 225-228 German prisoners of war and some quislings (the best number I could find was 60). They also brought back to England 314 Norwegian volunteers to fight with the Free Norwegian Forces.

They didn’t get an Enigma code machine, because the German commander threw it overboard right before he was killed. However, they did find a set of Enigma rotor wheels and code books, which helped them break codes for several weeks. Pretty sure the British government didn’t mention that to the Norwegian exile government.

In retaliation for this raid, the German leadership in Oslo imprisoned 63 Norwegian civilians. The Germans also increased the number of troops in Norway. Remember I said there were 12 of these commando raids on Norway? By 1944, there were 370,000 German troops in Norway. This pleased the Allies as it kept those troops from fighting on the eastern front.

I’ve included two videos for your viewing pleasure. The first is original footage from the raid. Watch for the telegram that was sent to Germany. The second is a short interview about the raid at a Lofoten museum.

I’ve also read about the next two raids, conducted almost simultaneously, but not all 12. Do any of you know anything about the other raids on Norway? Please feel free to share.

Birthday Music Break!

It’s time again for music that were born on this date, July 9. Click on the links and dance around as necessary to feel your stress fall away.

Bon Scott (1946-1980)

Scott was born in Scotland right after the end of World War II, and moved with his family to Australia when he was a child. In 1974 he joined the band AC/DC, and was their vocalist until his death in 1980.

Check him out here performing “Touch Too Much”.

Marc Almond (born 1957)

You may not know his name, but Almond was half of the duo Soft Cell. When this comes on the car radio, I’m betting that you do the car dance. Unless only people my age do that.

Here’s “Tainted Love”.

Jim Kerr (born 1959)

We’ve got another Scot in this edition of birthday music. Kerr was the vocalist for Simple Minds. Their most famous song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” will immediately plunge you into the 1980s and the movie The Breakfast Club.

While that is a good song, I much prefer “Alive and Kicking”.

Hope you enjoyed these songs and this little birthday tribute.


How Did I Miss This Anniversary?

I don’t know how I missed this, but May 10 was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. It was celebrated in northern Utah, at Promontory Summit, which has been preserved as a national historical park.

This all started in 1862 with the Pacific Railway Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, providing federal support of land and bonds to the creation of a transcontinental railway. Our country was a little busy right then with the Civil War, but some people were thinking ahead. For context, the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Antietam, and the capture of New Orleans by Union forces were also in 1862.

There were already a series of railroads throughout the eastern part of the United States, and the plan was to start building the railroad from Sacramento in California going east, and from Omaha in Nebraska going west. They would meet somewhere in the middle.


The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Promontory Summit in northern Utah is not exactly in the middle, but the workers on the west had to blast their way through the Sierra Nevada mountains, which undoubtedly slowed them down. Like in the 2007 version of the movie 3:10 to Yuma.

It took a little over six years to meet almost in the middle. By the time it was finished in May 1869, the Civil War was over. Life in the United States had changed, and this transcontinental railroad was the structure that would facilitate even more change. This was the piece of infrastructure that would build and support a robust economy.

The major change was a matter of money and time. A trip that used to take months by stagecoach or wagon train would now take about a week and would cost much less. And this applied to goods as well as people. It opened unpopulated regions of the country to exploration and settlement. Towns appeared along the railroad lines to provides services to those travelers and to be close to supplies.

How the railroad affected the bison. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t all good, of course. The new people exploring and settling the newly available regions pushed out the native peoples and animals that had been there for centuries. The Chinese who had such a major role in creating the western tracks had to find different jobs in a country that welcomed them even less than they had before.

Some good, some bad, but ultimately one more example that you can’t go back to the way it used to be.

So how did I finally hear about this anniversary almost two months late? When I was gathering links to peer-reviewed articles for my weekly list at Historical Research Update, I saw the current issue of California History: The Journal of the California Historical Society. The Summer 2019 issue, 96:2, is a special thematic issue about the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad.

What’s Your Favorite Time-Travel Story?

Today I was discussing time travel stories with some friends, and the topic always delights me. It reminds me of the chicken and the egg question: do I like history because I like the time-travel stories I’ve read, or do I like time-travel stories because I like history?

Anyway, between that discussion and a little bit of research, I have some thoughts and questions. I would love to get comments and opinions from anyone reading this.

What’s the attraction?

Writers get to create their own worlds and their own rules, and that is especially the case when you get to create the method of travel as well as the rules governing paradox when your characters get where ever the writer sends them.

Readers (or watchers) get a story about something they will not get to experience. You can also pretty much choose your genre and enjoy your time-travel wrapped up in a romance, thriller, comedy, or mystery.

For both writer and reader, traveling in time can be a commentary on our current moment, illuminating social or political issues. We may not be able to change the past, but we can learn and change our present.

How do they get there?

Surprisingly, this was my favorite part of our discussion. Writers have imagined many different ways that people might travel through time, and most of them have rules and structure.

Personally, I was surprised to find that I like when the method is based in science. Or at least sounds science-y to me. Like in Terminator and the other movies in that series, where there is an actual machine and rules to using it. Only human tissue can go through, and more importantly, you can’t go back.

It definitely raises the stakes of time-travel when you know that you have to stay where ever you end up. No weekend trips, no tourists.

Where and when? Past or future?

This is the question I like, but I’ve discovered that there is actually more to it. The where and when depends on how long the trip would be whether or not they could come back.

If this were truly a tourist kind of thing and I could go visit for a week and come back, and then go somewhere/somewhen else another time, my choice of where and when could vary.

Some people would choose to be involved with important events or important people. Some people want to spend time with members of their family.

If I had to choose one place and one time, and I couldn’t come back? I have no idea what I would choose. And I may even choose to stay right where I am.

One last thing…

Oh yeah, there’s the language thing. Even if you travel to the past and go to an English-speaking country, you still may not understand or be understood. I previously wrote this post about how far back you could travel in time and still understand English.


Museums Are For Everyone

Museums Are For Everyone

I am lucky enough to live near a city that has great museums. I’ve also been able to travel and see museums, large and small, in the United States and other countries.

If you don’t have that opportunity, for yourself or for your children, modern technology is here for you. Some museums have virtual tours available. I’m going to give you links to a couple of those to play with at your leisure, but if you are interested in a particular museum, you can check out their website. If you are interested in a particular subject, say fashion or military, you can use your search engine of choice to search “museum virtual tour” along with your subject of interest.

Claude Lévêque’s installation at the Louvre Pyramid by I.M. Pei. Photo by
Yann Caradec via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most famous museums in the world is The Louvre in Paris, France. It’s so huge that there was too much to see within my three-hour attention span. Using this link, you can look around from the comfort of your home. In your pajamas.

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Plott Hound: The Dog That Trees Bears – Update

Plott Hound: The Dog That Trees Bears – Update

I originally posted this in August of 2015, and received some lovely comments and emails from people who had known Plott Hounds. I was reminded of this post last week when I got to meet a puppy that looked just like Felix, but was only two months old.

Felix is 16 years old now, but as you can see in the photo above, he can still get on the couch.

In 2006 my daughter adopted a 3 year-old dog from the Humane Society in Spokane, Washington. Don’t worry, this isn’t a eulogy. Felix is very much alive and spry enough to jump over the back of the couch when he hears his leash jingle.

IMG_2811 Felix

Felix in action indoors. Photo: Cathy Hanson

The Humane Society listed Felix as a pit bull/labrador retriever mix. We always assumed there were some other things mixed in there, especially because he has brindle coloring. But we never thought much about it because he was just Felix. His pedigree was unimportant.

Felix in action outdoors. No boars or bears in sight. Photo: Cathy Hanson

Felix in action outdoors. No boars or bears in sight. Photo: Cathy Hanson

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