Saturday, December 20, 2014

DECEMBER 20 = Death Bookends the Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam (left) has been called "the American Pyramid".  It is a huge colossus of concrete and steel built in the middle of what was once arid desert country, every bit as rough and unforgiving as that which hosted the great Pyramids thousands of years ago. It was built by men who were as rough hewn as the desert in which they worked for a few dollars a day, in a great depression which was changing the face of America, just as they were changing the face of the west.  Anywhere between 96 and 112 men died during the construction of the Hoover Dam, depending on whose figures you go with.  And depending on whose account you go with, two of these deaths provided a pair of strange bookends to this remarkable piece of American Engineering.

Surveyor Fatalities on the Hoover Dam

The mighty Colorado River curled it's way through canyons it had etched in the desert over millions of years.  But as magnificent as these canyons were, they brought little use to the arid desert lands around them.  If only this wild, muddy river could be used to irrigate the lands around it, or if it could be dammed in order to bring power to these areas, real economic development could occur in Nevada and in
California nearby. So with this idea in mind survey teams arrived to find a site that was suitable for such work (right). It was on just such a survey expedition on today's date December 20, 1922, that J.G. Tierney, a Bureau of Reclamation employee engaged in a geological survey fell off of a barge in the Colorado River river and was drowned. Another man, Harold Connely, had also drowned in the same way on May 15 of the same year.  But Connely was surveying an area up river from that in which the Dam  was eventually built, whereas Mr. Tierney did die near the actual site, so strictly speaking, Tierney could indeed be called the first death during the construction of the Dam, although actual construction would not commence until 1931.

Construction of the Mighty Hoover Dam

This was truly a mammoth achievement for the time in which it occurred. Out of a workforce of down and out men, a crew had to be assembled from thousands of applicants, all of whom had risked everything to come to this hot, miserable, sun-baked location just for the steady work in those hard times in the middle of the Great Depression.  First, the muddy, silt filled Colorado River had to be diverted around the construction site at bleak Black Canyon. Under the
commanding presence of 6 ft. 3 inch tall Frank Crowe (left), the master Dam Builder who had left the Bureau of Reclamation to take on this job, that work begun.  There were four such tunnels needed, two on either side of the river, and work crews had to dig and blast three quarters of a mile through the canyon wall to manage this.  The tunnels were 53 ft. in diameter and were lined with three feet of concrete. Crowe's leadership lead the way through this hot, carbon monoxide-choked job, working in three shifts.  When a strike broke out over unsafe working conditions in August of 1931, he took it as a personal betrayal, and authoritarian that he was,  he broke the strike and banished the leaders.  But ultimately the tunnels were finished ahead of schedule, and the Colorado was diverted on November 13, 1932.

The Huge Concrete Face

"High Scalers" worked hanging from ropes hundreds of feet in the air armed with dynamite and jack hammers blasted and cleaned the canyon walls to take the concrete in what was clearly the most dangerous job on the site. And on June 6, 1933, workers poured the first bucket of concrete. With 5,000 men working on the face of the Dam, Crowe designed an elaborate network of arial cable ways that delivered a 20 ton concrete bucket every 78 seconds.  These formed
blocks that were 5 feet deep which were then stacked into inter-locking columns.  If they had tried to pour one continuous concrete wall, it would have required 125 years to cool. By February 6, 1935, when the last bucket of concrete was poured, the face of the damn was over 726 feet high. Then with the steel doors closed on the diversion tunnels, the river began to fill up the reservoir, Lake Meade, 115 miles long, and 500 feet deep.  On September 30, 1935, a crowd of 20,000 people came to watch President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicate this Dam which would eventually, by an act of Congress in 1947 be officially called "The Hoover Dam" , which had been completed two years ahead of schedule.

And on December 20, 1935, a Bureau of Reclamation employee named Patrick Tierney fell from one of the intake towers at the back of the Dam into Lake Meade, and drowned.  Patrick Tierney was the son of J.G. Tierney, who had been "the first" person killed (strictly speaking) in the construction of the Dam on that exact date, December 20, thirteen years earlier, in 1922.  Between them, these two dates provide a pair of very strange bookends to the construction of this magnificent work of engineering.

Sources :

"The Hoover Dam" from "the American Experience" on PBS, dir. by John Heuss, 2005.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

DECEMBER 18 = "The Grinch" Debuts on TV.

"Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just North of Whoville did not!

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.

But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

But, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes,
He stood there on Christmas Eve hating the Whos,"

These are the opening lines of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", which made it's debut on this evening's date, December 18, in 1966.  This truly delightful animated cartoon version of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's 1957 story about the nasty old Grinch trying to put the Kibosh on the Christmas holiday has since become a classic; a true part of every Christmas season.

Dr. Seuss Didn't want to....

Geisel at first didn't want to put "the Grinch' on the screen.  But Chuck Jones (below), the brilliant animator for "Bugs Bunny" with whom he had worked during WWII on "Private Snafu" and on the animated
version of "Horton Hears a Who" said "Oh yes you do!!" But as the project moved along, Geisel began to warm up to the idea. Reading the original story takes about 12 minutes, so the animators had to pad it up a bit in order to get it to the right length for a 30 minute TV film. For example, the sequence with the Grinch's dog "Max" going down the mountain, and getting all tangled up in the reins wad not in the story, but it proved to be good comic source material. In fact, as the project progressed, at one point, Geisel said to his animator:  "They don't look like the Grinch, they look like you!" To which Jones replied "Well it happens you know..."

The Voices..

Of course the voices are a key to making such a cartoon work.  Happily the perfect voice was available to add not only the right touch of menace to the character of "the Grinch", but which could also add the sweetness of spirit to the quirky rhymes of Dr. Seuss.  This was of course the voice of the actor Boris Karloff (below). Karloff was 79 years
old at the time, and nearing the end of a long life in which he had become the "King of Horror" movies, with his menacing work as the "Frankenstein" monster and "the Mummy" just to name two of his credits. "He had the power of the voice." said Dr. Seuss's widow, Audrey. "He could be malignant in what he said, and the way he could say it." There are only two other voices heard in "the Grinch".  One of those is "Little Cindy Lou Who" who was voiced by the actress June Foray whom you all heard as "Rocky the Squirrel" in the cartoon, "Bullwinkle".  And to complete this trio of voice-over royalty, the voice who sung the famous song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" was the actor, Thurl Ravenscroft. better known as "Tony the Tiger" with his famous "They're Grrrrrrrreat" voice for "Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes."

The Music...

And the Music in "the Grinch" makes the cartoon compete. And this was written by Albert Hague (below), a Tony Award winning composer who is most likely best known for portraying the character of
"Professor Shirofsky" in the film and TV series "Fame". Hague recalled that Geisel wanted to explain to him what this story was about, so he drew him pictures of the characters. And then when he told Hague about the song "You're A Mean One" he said that the Dr. Seuss analogies such as "You have termites in your hair.." really jumped out of the page at him in a way that was "irresistible." The similarity between the voice of Karloff and Ravenscroft made some people think that Karloff had sung "You're A Mean One".  And unfortunately Ravenscroft did not receive screen credit for his work, but this was purely an oversight for which Geisel was deeply embarrassed.  In fact once the film came out, Geisel wrote a letter to TV critics pointing out the work of Ravenscroft, and asking them to print his letter giving proper credit to the actor.

"The Grinch" Earns Classic Status

The cartoon was premiered on the evening of this date in 1966 on the CBS TV network, and received mixed reviews at the time, with critic Rick DuBrow saying that it was "probably as good as most of the other 
holiday cartoons." But this story of the mean and lonely old Grinch finding the true meaning of Christmas, and finding his heart in the process has since gone on to be rightly recognized as a Christmas holiday classic.  It was broadcast annually by CBS until 1987.  Since then it has come out in home video release, and has inspired a very popular live action film starring Jim Carrey.  And thus, this wonderful story has continued in its cartoon form to lighten the Christmas season every year with its wonderful characters, it's odd rhymes, its memorable tunes, and it's superb voices...

"Welcome Christmas. Bring your cheer,  

Cheer to all Whos, far and near.

"Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to grasp.

"Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

"Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand."

Sources :

"Behind the Scenes of 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas'", Produced by Kay Zusman, 1997!_(TV_special)/

Saturday, December 13, 2014

SPECIAL = Time Capsule Found in Boston

The following story is taken from the Fox News website at:

BOSTON –  Crews removed a time capsule dating back to 1795 on Thursday from the granite cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse, where historians believe it was originally placed by Revolutionary War luminaries Samuel Adams and Paul Revere (below, 1735-1818) among others.

The time capsule is believed to contain items such as old coins and newspapers, but the condition of the contents is not known and Secretary of State William Galvin speculated that some could have deteriorated over time.

Officials won't open the capsule until after it is X-rayed at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to determine its contents. The X-ray is scheduled for Sunday.

Originally made of cowhide, the time capsule was believed to have been embedded in the cornerstone when construction on the state Capitol began in 1795. Adams (below, 1771-1803) was governor of Massachusetts at the time.

The time capsule was removed in the mid-19th century and its contents transferred to a copper box, Galvin said. Its removal Thursday was due to an ongoing water filtration project at the building.

Pamela Hatchfield, a conservator at the museum, slowly chiseled away at the cornerstone on Thursday to reach the box, a process that took several hours to complete. Galvin said the plan is to return it to the site sometime next year.

The excavation came just months after another time capsule was uncovered from the Old State House, which served as the state's first seat of government. That long-forgotten time capsule, dating to 1901, turned up in a lion statue atop the building and, when opened, was found to contain a potpourri of well-preserved items including newspaper clippings, a book on foreign policy and a letter from journalists of the period.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DECEMBER 10 = H.M.S. Prince of Wales is Sunk

On today's date, December 10, in 1941 the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (above) was sunk in the Gulf of Siam after a severe mauling by Japanese land-based aircraft flying from Indochina to intercept her. The cruiser HMS Repulse, which was with her at the time was also lost that day. The loss of two such important capitol ships, coming as it did just days after the attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, dealt a second consecutive hammer blow to Allied morale right at the beginning of the long and bloody struggle to defeat Imperial Japan. Moreover, it ended the long rule of big-gun line of battle ships over the seas.  That reign which had begun with the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was shattered in just a few short hours. Air power - naval air power - the kind that could project a nation's power into distant places.. such as Osama Bin Laden's Hideout in Pakistan - was the way of the future.

The Big Gun Ships Slug it Out....

For over a century, it had been a pillar of Naval thought that the biggest ships with the biggest guns would rule the waves. And since the days of sail this thought had dominated the defensive plans of sea faring nations such as the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, and also Germany.  The Battle of Tsushima in which Japan smashed a Russian fleet in 1905, and the Battle of Jutland in 1915 in which Britain out-dueled Germany seemed to bear this out.  But the advent of Naval air power with which squadrons of small planes could swarm all over these big ships like a cloud of angry bees and bring them to heel was close at hand in 1941.  The action between this very ship, the new and very powerful HMS Prince of Wales and the mighty German Battleship Bismarck in May of 1941 had made that clear enough: the big ships slugged it out for hours, but in the end it was British torpedo planes launched from an aircraft carrier that finished Bismarck by destroying
her rudder.  And then at Pearl Harbor, American battleships had all been vanquished by carrier-based Japanese aircraft.      

But Aircraft Wins in the End

So it was that the British admiralty ordered a flotilla consisting of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (35,000 tons), the heavy cruiser HMS Repulse (32,000 tons) and four destroyers to intercept and destroy Japanese troop transports ferrying troops into Malaya and towards Singapore.  Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, commanding this group did not appear to realize how vulnerable his big ships were to land-based Japanese aircraft flying out of bases in Japanese-occupied French Indochina.  But on December 10 his mighty big gun, heavily armored ships came under attack by Japanese bombers from the land-based 22nd Air Flotilla (The Map above can be enlarged by clicking on it twice).  The result was the death of both ships from waves of bombs and torpedoes from more modern versions of the very same low flying torpedo planes which had bombed the Bismarck and the American battleships at Pearl Harbor. These attacks were from land-based bombers, but they made it clear that the big battle ships were hopeless sitting ducks unless they were protected by naval air cover, the very type whose absence had doomed the Bismarck, the American fleet at Pearl Harbor just three days earlier, and now the Brits.

And This Affects Even Today...

The ability of aircraft to project a nation's power into far distant places - such as the killing of Osama Bib Laden in Pakistan - had just been demonstrated to the Allies. This is something which affects us down to the present day, with drone attacks upon the leaders of Al Qaeda and raids such as the Osama raid happening so often now. These raids of today had their genesis partly in this attack, but more fully in the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the Japanese would get a bitter taste of their own medicine.

"Gracefully, but tragically..." 

One account of the last moments of this mighty battlewagon was given by a survivor, R.V. Ward:

"Now the ship was sinking lower and the list increasing, so the Commander ordered us to get out on deck — he stayed behind and was lost. We left through the escape ‘tube’, inside which were small footholds, but the tube was too narrow for us to enter it without first removing our life jackets — obviously an unwise, though inevitable thing to do, considering our prospects for the next few minutes. A young sub-lieutenant was ahead of me and part way up the tube he declared he could go no further, at which I gave his bottom a huge shove so that he struggled to the hatch at the top (fortunately it was not clipped shut) and we were out on deck seeing the damage for the first time. HMS Express was alongside; men boarding her along ropes, jumping from P.O.W. Some missing the deck and being caught between the two ships. Some wounded were successfully transferred  to safety. Because the rising keel of the P.O.W. was threatening the 
stability of Express, she withdrew to a safer position. 

"I slid down the starboard side of the ship as far as the armoured layer and then jumped clear into the oily sea and put a fair distance — say 5 yards between me and the fated ship. Non swimmers were going under and I could hear the crashing of heavy items below decks, falling from deck to deck head (floor to ceiling). In the water there were several large baulks of timber, which had been stored on deck, presumably for emergency repair work during the voyage. I swam to one of these and helped about ten men to join me, showing them how to do a clumsy breast stroke to keep afloat. There were some carley floats around but they were all more than full. We swam for a total of one and a half hours and then Express returned, P.O.W. having gone under — gracefully but tragically — so we swam towards her and safety"

Prime Minister Churchill remembered his feelings after being told:

"In all the war, I never received a more direct shock... As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked."


"The American Heritage History of World War II" by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publ. Co., New York, 1966.