History As Stories

Berlin Airlift

I’m old enough to have lived during the the last half of the Cold War and remember different ways it impacted my life, especially since I grew up on military bases in the U.S. and other countries. The Berlin Airlift was part of the beginning of the Cold War.

After Germany was defeated in World War II, that country was split between the victors, the Allied Powers. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union would all occupy different areas of Germany, as indicated in the map below.

Photo by Leerlaufprozess via Wikimedia Commons

They also agreed to divide Berlin, the capital of Germany, into four parts even though that city was deep in the Soviet territory. You can see the divided Berlin in the red area above.

Although they had worked together to defeat the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the Soviet Union had different values and aims than the other Allied Powers. Those differences were the cause of the highly armed and globally concerning Cold War.

The Soviet Union wanted all of Berlin and all of Germany, and in 1948 they set up a blockade of all highways, railroads, and canals into Berlin. The Soviets wanted to choke off supplies from the outside because they believed that the people of West Berlin, once they were no longer getting supplies from the other powers, would turn to them for supplies and be so grateful that they would become Soviets.

Even though the people of West Berlin had already shown in their municipal elections that they did not want to join with the Soviets, the Soviets seemed to believe that could still happen and once it happened, the other powers would just…leave?

By the terms of the agreements signed to divide Germany, the Soviet Union was allowed to block access to the highways, railroads, and canals. But the agreement explicitly stated that three air corridors would be available for access.

So began what the United States called Operation Vittles. The U.S. and UK agreed to fly necessary supplies to the people of West Berlin, a procedure they believed would only last a couple of weeks.

Milk being delivered during the Berlin airlift, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Just think of what you would need if you were stuck without any stores. We’re talking about supplying more than two million people with food, clothing, water, medicine, and coal. Even with their supplies being airlifted in by plane, they still lived with rationing and with a thriving black market.

After almost a year, the Soviets realized that they weren’t going to win this one and removed the blockade. We kept flying in supplies for another couple of months, just in case, and the Berlin Airlift officially ended on September 30, 1949.

C-47 aircraft parked in front of the terminal at Tempelhof Central Airport during the Berlin Airlift. Photo from the Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. and British forces (with help from other allies) had delivered more than two millions tons (yes, tons) of supplies on more than 275,000 flights. At the height of airlift efficiency, one plane was landing in West Berlin every 30 seconds.

I have two resources I recommend if you want to learn more about the Berlin airlift. Original documents are available at the Truman Library. You can also check out the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, which has information, photos, and videos.

The reason I remember this story, and think people younger than me should hear about it, is because this was a good thing. People helped and people were helped. I think it’s helpful to be reminded of stories like this.


Due to the fires burning in Australia, I’ve been thinking about animals indigenous to that island. So I did a little research about kangaroos.

Before I give you any of that information, I want you to think about something. We’ve all seen kangaroos in person or on television. And in history, the indigenous peoples of Australia hunted kangaroos for their meat, fur, and skins. But what would the first first Europeans have thought of these odd (to them) animals?

Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Just imagine. Kangaroos have a head like a deer, but they stand upright. They jump and hop more than they walk. They have that huge tail. And that second head that looked to be sticking out of the belly? The stories they told when they returned home probably sounded like mermaid stories. Not really believable.

A portrait of the Kongouro (Kangaroo) from New Holland by George Stubbs, 1772, via Wikimedia Commons.

So here are some interesting things to know about kangaroos.

  • They are herbivores.
  • The are good swimmers and if threatened may head to the water. And if pursued, they may hold their pursuer under water to drown them.
  • Gestation is short, about 30-36 days. Babies are hairless and only about the size of a lima bean at birth.
  • Their lifespan is only about 6 years in the wild and up to 20 years in captivity.
  • They can be over 6 feet tall and weigh up to 200 pounds.
  • Kangaroo meat is a good source of low-fat protein.
  • They have a thing called embryonic diapause, which means (in the simplest possible terms) they can have an embryo which is dormant and not implanted into the uterus until they are ready for another pregnancy. I’ve never heard about this and have to admit that I am a little weirded out by the whole idea.
  • They can run about 40 miles per hour over short distances.

If you are interested in donating to help the human victims, firefighters, or wildlife victims of the fires in Australia, there are plenty of options available. This one, WIRES, was recommended to me for wildlife such as kangaroos.

Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

Re-run: Don’t Hate the Fruitcake

My original plan for today was to write about traditional Christmas foods from various countries. As often happens, a little research showed me that my original idea wasn’t as brilliant as I thought it was, in this case because there are simply too many traditional holiday foods. For any country there is never just one traditional food that everybody eats only at Christmas.

This weekend I spoke with my Aunt Nancy, my dad’s sister, and she mentioned that my grandmother made fruitcake every year, starting the process in late November so that it would be ready in time for Christmas. We didn’t live near my grandparents and I was very young the last time we spent Christmas with them, so I don’t remember her fruitcake. I called my dad, and while he didn’t remember his mom making it, he remembered eating it, and he still loves a good fruitcake.

Although fruitcakes have a long history, they are often ridiculed in the U.S., and I wanted to learn more about fruitcake before it became a punch line. The first place I went was mentioned in my post about Food History Research, a website created by a reference librarian called The Food Timeline. Once I had the basics, I could expand my search.

There is evidence that the Romans made a precursor to the modern energy bar, a sweetened substance made of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins in a mash of barley. This didn’t spoil, required no preparation, was packed with calories and could be carried and eaten by soldiers. From these humble beginnings the fruitcake has evolved.

A slice of American fruitcake. Photo courtesy of Stu Spivack
A slice of American fruitcake. Photo courtesy of Stu Spivack

During the Middle Ages dried and candied fruit became more widely available. These methods preserved the fruit so that it was edible longer and therefore could be shipped farther. Now that people had the fruit, they could add them to breads and cakes. In England during the Victorian era, fruitcake was an important accompaniment at tea.

It continued to evolve as the basic fruitcake made its way to other cultures and as a variety of fruits and nuts and other ingredients were added. It’s a simple history, but it brings up other questions.

Why is fruitcake a Christmas tradition? One theory is that during the Middle Ages ingredients like fruit were expensive and considered special fare, and therefore were made only on special occasions. There is also a theory that in England, slices of fruitcake were given as treats to poor carolers at Christmas.

How does fruitcake last so long without spoiling? Apparently sugar and alcohol are preservatives. Sugar became more widely available in the 16th century and it not only made fruit last longer, but intensified the color and the flavor of the fruit. I don’t know at what point in history alcohol was added to the process by some fruitcake creators, but this is also a preservative and adds to the shelf life. Alcohol also neutralizes the sweetness from all the sugar. These natural preservatives are required because fruitcakes are not meant to be eaten right after they are created. The fruit releases tannin over time and deepens the flavor, so it’s best to let them sit for about a month before eating.

I wonder how much trial and error was involved in reaching these conclusions.

How long does a fruitcake last? Although not scientifically proven, there are stories of an existing fruitcake made in the late 18th century. A family in Michigan has a fruitcake they claim was made in 1878. I also read that fruitcakes last for 26 years, but that seems a rather arbitrary determination. Although it may not spoil or become moldy after hundreds of years, that doesn’t mean I would want to eat it.

And finally, when did the jokes start? Fruitcakes started being mass produced rather than homemade in the early 20th century. It’s possible some of the jokes started then. With most foods, people want them prepared a certain way. It may be that the mass produced fruitcakes just weren’t the same as the family recipe. It was in the 1930s that people started referring to those they deemed crazy as “fruitcakes”. And it was in the 1980s that Johnny Carson joked that there was only one fruitcake in existence, being constantly re-gifted.

Ultimately, the jokes don’t seem to bother those who love fruitcake. Since I started this little bit of research I’ve spoken with several people who love fruitcake of all types, which leads to the most important thing I’ve learned. There seems to be an endless variety of fruitcakes from light to dark, fruity to cakey, with alcohol or without, and including additions never dreamed of in the Middle Ages. With that kind of variety, it makes sense that everyone should be able to find one they like. At the website for The Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcake you can find recipes, FAQs and links. And don’t forget National Fruitcake Day on December 27th.

So what do you think? Are you a fruitcake fan? If so, is it the taste or is it the memories evoked and tradition that keep you coming back for more?

What’s Your Favorite Christmas Song?

My favorite Christmas song is “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, the 1984 charity single created to raise money to alleviate the famine in Ethiopia.

Maybe it’s the familiar voices of some of my favorite singers. Maybe it reminds of me of how I felt about life when I was 21. Maybe it’s that joyful line “throw your arms around the world at Christmastime”.

No need to come at me with the reasons this turned out to be not so helpful or to convince me that it was just a self-serving and self-indulgent project for some rich and famous people. I’ve heard the arguments.

But I still believe that in that moment, 35 years ago, the people who organized, participated, and contributed to this project did so with good intentions and open hearts. And that’s Christmas enough for me.

And if you’re a football fan, check this out.

Now you know mine. What’s your favorite Christmas song?

Highland Reindeer

It’s December and the thoughts of many are turning to the upcoming holidays and all they must do to prepare and celebrate.

So I’ll just do a feel-good story to ease you into the month.

Long, long ago, Scotland had reindeer. Those reindeer disappeared sometime between 800 and 8,000 years ago. But finding the exact time and reason for their disappearance is not our story.

Our story starts in 1947 when a reindeer herder from northern Sweden, Mikel Utsi, saw the Highlands of Scotland and thought about how much it reminded him of home. By the way, he did other things besides being a reindeer herder, but he obviously enjoyed that part of his history because five years after seeing Sweden in Scotland, he brought over some reindeer to check out this new home.

Northern slopes of Cairn Gorm View northwards from near the summit, overlooking the Ptarmigan top station and Loch Morlich. Photo by Trevor Rickard via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1952 he and his wife started reintroducing reindeer to Scotland and they spent the rest of their lives caring for, and teaching others to care for, their herd. Now there is a thriving herd in this sub-arctic ecosystem. Luckily they also have a website so they can share that herd with the world.

I recommend you check out their website, The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. From the content on the website, this project appears to be run with love and humor. And reindeer seem to be friendly and social animals. 

Reindeer, Cairngorm. Photo by Pari Passu via Wikimedia Commons.

From their blog, here is a post about the arrival of the first reindeer, which includes some great historical photos. I also love this page of the website, which shows the family, employees, and volunteers who care for the herd, using photos that include their interactions with the reindeer.

And since we have gift-giving holidays coming up, they have a unique and fun gift. Adopt a reindeer for a year!

Next time you’re in the Highlands, consider adding one of their Hill Trips or Paddock Visits to your itinerary.

Shared War Letters

I am a big fan of collaborative history projects that involve the general public. People are more interested in things when they have played some part in the project, and when they are more interested they tend to spread the word.

One of the podcasts I listen to regularly, 1A from NPR, recently discussed just this type of project. On November 11, 2019 the topic was “’America’s Great Undiscovered Literature’: Letters from U.S. Soldiers”. Host Joshua Johnson’s guest was Andrew Carroll, founder and director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.

The Center collects letters to and from U.S. soldiers, which gives the listener or reader a snapshot into the life of either the soldier or those waiting at home for the soldier’s return. Carroll talks about some of the letters they have in their collection, which includes letters from every major American conflict, and how he shares those letters at schools, veterans’ groups, and historical societies. But please, listen for yourself as there is a lot of good stuff in there and it is only 36 minutes long.

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That’s a Cashew?!?

A photo of a cashew growing on a tree caused a sensation on the internet a couple of months ago. I completely missed it, but someone mentioned it to me the other day. Not the viral photo, but that cashews grow funny.

For anyone else who missed it, let’s talk about cashews. Here’s what they really look like.

Cashew “nuts” ripen in a small capsule hanging beneath a fruit known as the Cashew Apple or Marañon. This yields an astringent but popular drink and also an alchoholic beverage. Beside the nut, the capsule contains as least two poisons, one being the irritant in poison ivy. The nuts must be roasted, or in the case of “raw cashews” steamed, before they are safe to eat. Now a pantropical crop from a South American origin. Photo by
Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada via Wikimedia Commons.
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Wallpaper and History

I read a great article, The Great Wallpaper Rebellion: Defending Flamboyance in a World of White Walls, written by Ben Marks, that I wanted to share with you.

While it includes the history of one wallpaper company,
Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, this article also delves into the history of wall coverings of all kinds. You can also learn about wallpaper being used on movie sets and about using wallpaper in the restoration of old houses.

Just to get you in the mood, here are photos of wallpaper from the 18th and 19th centuries.

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History Podcast: In the Past Lane

Last week I recommended Ben Franklin’s World, one of the history podcasts that I listen to regularly. This week I want to talk about another history podcast, In the Past Lane: The Podcast About History and Why It Matters. This podcast is hosted by Edward T. O’Donnell, Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. If you’re a fan of The Great Courses and lifelong learning, O’Donnell has a couple of courses available you can check out here.

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History Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World

I listen wide variety of podcasts. I listen in the car and on walks, and since I don’t have a TV, I listen when I’m cooking, cleaning, or just hanging around the house. Podcasts are a great way to learn new stuff!

One of the history podcasts that I listen to is Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. The host, Dr. Liz Covart, interviews experts about America in the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic periods. She is also the Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

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