History As Stories

London Millennium Footbridge

The post I was writing for today went sideways on me, making me realize that I wanted to write it from a different angle. I’ll have that for you next week.

For today, here is my favorite photo of the London Millennium Footbridge, taken three years ago this week. Enjoy!

Photo by Cathy Hanson


Replay: Resistance By Music and Carnations

For many people, mention of a resistance movement brings to mind the Polish, French and Danish resistance movements against the occupying German forces during World War II. Those events are fairly recent, often heroic, and get a lot of play in movies, so they are in our public consciousness.

As a descriptor, “resistance movement” is vague enough to encompass a variety of actions, although the idea of a movement requires some organization. Resistance can be armed or unarmed, violent or non-violent, against a government or against an occupying force, and can be aimed at objectives ranging from physical freedom to civil rights.

Mural em Grândola contendo a pauta de Grândola Vila Morena by Paulo Juntas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Mural in Grândola to commemorate the Carnation Revolution. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite examples is the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In 1926 there was a military coup overthrowing an unstable parliamentary government. As often happens with coups, the result was an authoritarian government. This one lasted over forty years, longer than any other authoritarian rule in Western Europe.

By 1974, the rulers controlled the press, persecuted religions other than Roman Catholicism, and had a secret police force to take care of any opposition. Women were not allowed to vote and had low literacy rates because they were denied education. Portugal’s NATO partners tolerated the entrenched right-wing dictatorship because they were anti-communist.

Portuguese citizens were being conscripted into military service and a big part of Portugal’s budget was being spent to fight colonial wars against African independence movements. Some of the military officers fighting these wars, which had dragged on for 13 years, finally had enough, both of their government and their wars. Like any military coup, they were aiming for regime change, but in this case they wanted to replace a dictatorship with a democracy and to negotiate with the African independence movements.

The coup turned out to be quick and almost bloodless. Four people were killed by the authoritarian regime’s police forces.

Monument to the Revolution of 25 April, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Francisco Santos via Wikimedia Commons
Monument to the Revolution of 25 April, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Francisco Santos via Wikimedia Commons

This was a military coup joined by civil resistance once the public realized what was happening. Although the coup leaders announced over the radio that they wanted the citizens to remain in their homes, the people wanted to be a part of this and poured into the streets. Carnations were in season and available in the market square, so once the coup was successful, the people started putting carnations into the soldiers’ rifle muzzles and on their uniforms.

My favorite part of this story? The leaders of the coup had two secret signals. When a certain song was played, the soldiers were to begin the coup. The song they used was Portugal’s 1974 entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus” by Paulo de Carvalho. (ABBA’s “Waterloo” won that year.) The second signal, to take over certain strategic positions, was announced with a song by Zeca Afonso, a musician banned from Portuguese radio as part of the government’s media censorship.

Music to take down a dictatorship. Now that’s some good resistance.

Sea Otters and International Treaties

I returned to work today after the long weekend and flipped my calendar to September. The new month shows a mother and baby sea otter kicking back. Completely adorable, so today you get to read about sea otters and the first international wildlife conservation treaty.

I also saw a sea otter when I was at Morro Bay, but my photo was not this good. Sea Otter with Pup in her arms, Morro Bay, CA, March 23, 2007.
Attribution: “Mike” Michael L. Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, most sea otters live in the coastal waters of Alaska. They weigh about 45-90 pounds. They use rocks as tools to open shells for their seafood dinners. They hold hands or wrap themselves in seaweed so that they won’t float away while napping.

Sea otters at Moss Landing, California.
Attribution: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike other sea mammals, they have no blubber layer because they have fur that keeps them warm. They have the thickest, most dense fur of any animal, up to one million hairs per square inch. Humans have maybe 1/10 that many on their entire head.

The fur on pups is so dense that they can only float and are physically unable to dive underwater until they get their adult fur. That’s one of the reasons they stay with mom for their first six months.

As you can imagine, that dense fur makes coverings or clothing that is incredibly warm. And people were willing to pay a lot of money to have something that soft and beautiful.

Remember I said above that most sea otters live off the coast of Alaska? Before they were almost wiped out, sea otters lived throughout the north Pacific Ocean. But by the middle of the 18th century, people were traveling around the continents pretty well, often in search of new resources that they could either use or sell.

Oceanário Sea Otter. Photo by
Alexander Svensson via Wikimedia Commons.

These travelers traded with natives or hunted on their own to get the furs they needed to sell, mostly in Europe and China. The most profitable fur was the thick fur of the sea otters.  Because of this profit, sea otters were hunted almost to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

(As I wrote that, in my head I heard Kyle Reese from The Terminator saying “We were this close to going out forever”.)

Finally, people started to realize that this income stream wasn’t going to last forever. After all, the prices of the furs were going up due to scarcity, so obviously there weren’t as many as there used to be.

This problem was created internationally by traders and buyers from many countries and needed to be resolved internationally. The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention was signed in 1911. It was an international treaty between the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire, and the Empire of Japan.

Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) preening itself in Morro Bay Feb. 21, 2007.
Attribution: “Mike” Michael L. Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

All countries agreed to stop commercial harvesting of sea otters and fur seals in open waters for five years to allow the recovery of those mammal populations. It turns out that five years ended right in the middle of the first world war, so this wasn’t a priority. This treaty, the first international wildlife conservation treaty stayed in effect until World War II.

It was man and markets that almost brought sea otters to extinction before, but they are still not completely safe. Some of the issues that threaten them today are diminished food sources, commercial fishing nets, disease caused by stuff that gets flushed into the ocean, sharks, and oil spills. An estimated 2,500-3,000 were killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

I try to walk on the side of hope rather than despair. I also almost always believe that enough of us care and ultimately learn from history. Long live the sea otter!

A Nickname Makes a Comeback

I have always been fascinated by historical nicknames. First, because it’s interesting to learn how people define themselves or others. Second, because language evolves and when we look back into history, we can’t always be sure those nicknames mean what we think they mean.

Which brings us to Harald Bluetooth. Because Harald lived and died more than a thousand years ago, we don’t know everything about him. Although it’s possible he was born in 910, we don’t know that for sure.

We do know that Harald’s father was the first King of Denmark in a new line and his name was Gorm. Ok, that’s not really important to this story, but the name kinda makes me giggle, so I wanted to share.

Harald in 987, circa 1685. Source
Bildarchiv Austria via Wikimedia Commons.

Back to Harald. The accepted history about Harald is that he unified Denmark, and then Norway (for a short time), under a single ruler. During his time as ruler, he also promoted conversion from the old Norse gods to Christianity among his people.

Harald died in 986 (or 985, or 987), fighting a rebellion led by his son Svein Forkbeard.

The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font from circa 1100 in
Tamdrup Kirke, Denmark. Photo by Sven Rosborn via Wikimedia Commons.

So why was he called Bluetooth? This seems to be an issue of language. Harald probably had a rotten tooth, in the front where it was highly visible, that had turned black. The word used originally may have just meant that it was dark rather than blue.

One more thing about Harald. More than one thousand years after his death, in the late 1990s, some businessmen were inspired by Harald’s ability to unite people and named their company Bluetooth in his honor. They even used the runes for his initials, HB, and combined them to use as their logo.

If you’re interested in more nicknames, check out this previous post, “A Rose By Any Other Name: 3 Intriguing Historical Nicknames”, about Ivar the Boneless, Edward, the Black Prince, and Henry the Impotent.

The Evolution of Paul Bunyan

I’ve always thought of oral traditions as a long game of telephone. You know, the game where each person whispers to their neighbor and at the end, you all compare the original statement with the final statement. Then you all laugh like crazy.

In the 19th century U.S., logging was a very big deal. Try to imagine how many trees there were growing naturally before people started moving into those newly cleared areas. The lumberjacks who cut down those trees were out in the middle of nowhere with no TV or smartphones. So after their work was done for the day, they told stories.

Paul Bunyan & Babe, Trees of Mystery, Route 101, Klamath, California. Library of Congress photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of those stories were about a legendary lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. It’s unknown if the original stories were based on a real lumberjack and were increasingly exaggerated, or if they were all completely made up from the beginning.

Either way, similar stories were told around lumberjack campfires not just in one area, but spread throughout the northern United States. Again, it is unknown whether the stories were spread due to lumberjacks moving to other areas and carrying the stories with them, or if the same type of exaggerated stories grew organically in all areas.

Smiley Paul Bunyan!

Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine. Author: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons

In all these stories, Bunyan was the biggest, the strongest, the smartest, and the most skilled lumberjack that had ever lived. Some storytellers claimed to have known Paul, or at least to have known someone who knew him. He was like a superhero, but still human.

But that all changed when the folk legend became an advertisement.

In 1914 artist William Laughead (1882-1958) started creating ads for the Red River Lumber Company using Paul Bunyan. That’s when Bunyan became not seven feet tall, but taller than mountains. That’s when he created the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe along the ground and his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota with his hoofprints.

I was not expecting that mustache!

Illustration of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, Babe by William B. Laughead from “Paul Bunyan and His Blue Ox.” via Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, this new mythology of Bunyan has inspired books, poems, statues, the Paul Bunyan Land Amusement Park, cartoons, and even movies.

But if you want the real stories of Paul Bunyan from the lumberjacks, the Paul Bunyan before he was a promotional figure, check out this academic article. “Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack”, written by K. Bernice Stewart and Homer A. Watt was published in the journal Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1916. It’s only 13 pages and easy to read. It was written not long after Laughead started using the Bunyan myth in ads.  

Ok, the mustache is also in Bemidji.

Statues of lumberjack Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Bemidji. Author:Tastocke via Wikimedia Commons.

He’s a Paul Bunyan we no longer recognize, and it is fascinating to “hear” the stories from actual lumberjacks, just like we were all sitting around a campfire.

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.

Read more

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.

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