Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boxes of History

In general antique stores are a frustrating place for lovers of history.  So many artifacts to see.  So little context to place them in.  I have been known to sort through an entire box of old photos, grouping together individuals who seem to be related, trying vainly to make out their family stories.

Sometimes you have just a little more luck.  The other day I was in a store that seems to specialize in estate sales.  In theory this means that related items are grouped together, at least until they start to walk out the door with new owners.  And I noticed a pair of interesting boxes...

This one is more or less a foot locker.  Not military issue, it seems to be made of brown leather. Here is the front:

Nicely painted albeit a hand done job presumably by its owner.  It refers of course to the Alcan Highway (the HGY designation is atypical).  This was a 1,680 mile long road through the Yukon Territory of Canada and on into the US Territory of Alaska.  It had been under discussion for decades but the military necessity of it became apparent after the Pearl Harbor attack of 7 June, 1941. Approval for the highway came just two months later.  Despite extreme challenges from weather and terrain the highway was actually completed entirely in 1942.  Ongoing work and improvements continued throughout the war years.

Chester W. Nelson poses the difficulty of having a common last name.  But he at least came from a minuscule town so there are a few crumbs of info out on the internet.  The 1940 census indicates he was 31 years old and married.  There is a Chester W. Nelson buried in Alden.  Assuming a minor birth date discrepancy (born in 1908 vs 09?) this appears to be him.  He passed away in 1994.  I would not be at all surprised if his adventure to the wilderness in 1943 and 44 was his only venture out into the wider world.

The side of this box has a few remnants of shipping labels, they appear to go with both rail and sea travel.  The significance of the Portland Oregon address is unclear.  Maybe that is where he got off the train and on a boat?

In the same store there was a smaller box, this one of plain wood.

Camp Menomonie was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp 3 miles northwest of Menomonie Wisconsin.  2602 refers to the CCC company that was stationed there.  This company was organized in July of 1934 at Fort Sheridan.  This was a "drought relief camp" in Illinois.  After a stint doing quarry work near Elmhurst Illinois the 2602 contingent was sent to the newly opened camp near Menomonie, arriving in  November of 1935.

I find references to Camp Menomonie being in active operation as late as 1939, but as America mobilized for a possible war the CCC organization was downsized significantly, then eliminated entirely in 1942.  By then the pool of young, unemployed men that the Corps was designed to gainfully employ were all enlisting in the military.

Bekken is a more common name than you might imagine.  He does not appear in photos of the 2602 Company from 1937. After their move north the recruits for the 2602 Company appear to have come from the local area.  So most likely Bekken was from nearby Bloomer Wisconsin.  His time in the CCC must have been brief, because by December 7th 1941 this Pete Bekken was aboard the battleship USS California when she was sunk at Pearl Harbor.  Despite wounds incurred that day he continued to serve in the US Navy throughout the war and in fact had a 21 year career in the service.

Pete Bekken has proven to be an elusive figure.  I have a local newspaper article that has him home on leave talking to the local Kiwanis club about his experiences.  He speaks highly of the Red Cross and that the attack on the California left him with literally just the clothes on his back.  But my attempts to find more details and to confirm his probable stint in the CCC have run up against a blank wall.  I know he retired from the Navy in 1960 and suspect he lived in California after that point.  Oh, and here is his picture...

Not sure, but the peculiar difficulty I encountered trying to track him through pubic record such as census data almost makes we wonder if "Pete" was a nick name.  I suppose he may be still alive somewhere, well into his 90s by now.  If so, tip of the hat Mr. Bekken, and thank you for your service.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gamers and Granola

In addition to my robotics class I am also in charge of a Dungeons and Dragons group for our middle school after school program.  Yes, yes, King of the Nerds, I know.

It looks like a very fun group, and compared to robotics it is generally an easy class to do.  A little preparation and a lot of improv.  No inconvenient Laws of Physics or anything of the sort.

There are of course a lot of dice involved.  Happily my archaeology pal Moose and Hobbes has been doing conservation work on ancient Roman dice found in London.  Her stuff is always worth a read..... Romans....Game Over..

I asked her if the Romans had figured out the classic Dungeons and Dragons 20 sided dice and she immediately put me onto some interesting examples.  Most appear to have been made in Egypt, either in the Roman era or the Greek/Hellenistic era that preceded it.

These usually do not have numbers on them but instead have Greek letters or some sort of occult symbols.  They are thought to have been used for religious purposes.  This is always a go-to answer when archaeologists don't have a clue, but does make sense.  Other than being rather rare and expensive there is no reason they could not be used for D & D right now.  Oh, I also found Chinese examples, 18 siders...

In the face of such ancient continuity it saddens me to report that there will be one difference in the class this year.  In the past I had insisted - for true gamer purity - that we have snacks consisting of Mountain Dew and Cheetos.  This year I am given to understand that this is Not Permitted.

I suppose it is all a by product of the current obsession with preventing childhood obesity.  This is a pet project of our First Lady and I concede it is an attempt - albeit misguided - to work on a real problem.  But mandates without nuance are always an arbitrary foot stomp.  What party of adventurers can be expected to endure and survive the rigors of a harsh and stressful campaign without a fluorescent green strengthening draught of raw sugar and caffeine?

In my role as game master I can but shake my head and intone somberly; "We live in Dark Times. Dark Times indeed."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pulp Science Fiction - EMSH and the four armed Santa

Almost all the cover art for Sci Fi pulp fiction was good.  It often was very good even in the lower grade publications.  But a few artists stand out.  You see their work and you know it before you read the signature.  This is the case for a fellow who signed himself simply as EMSH.

Ed Emshwiller had a long career as an illustrator, later he was an accomplished film maker.  Perhaps the quality of his art reflects his training at the Ecole des-Beaux Arts in Paris in the post war years. Here are a few of his works as found in my little trove of garage sale bargains...

Emshwiller would often put science fiction writers and others into his pictures.  I suspect the alien artist - kitted out as he is in a French get up - is a self portrait.  Note the letteres EMSH carved into the marble behind the implausibly garbed Space Babe.

One has to assume that Gene Roddenberry and the writers of Star Trek all read this stuff.  You could not come up with a much better portrait of a "Proto-Kirk".

One of Emshwiller's neighbors in the suburban community of Levittown New York was a kid named Bill Griffith.  This friendship influenced Griffith to go on and create the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.  Griffith's parents were occasional models for the cover art, and in 1957 a 16 year old Bill Griffith himself was depicted, gleefully ignoring an angry Kruschevesque figure (his father as it happens) who is ordering him to return a stolen rocket ship!

Probably the most famous EMSH covers were a recurring series that appeared in Decembers from the early 1950s until the just after 1960.  They all feature a Santa Claus with four arms.  The joke seems never to have been explained, presumably the extra appendiges were useful for delivering the daunting number of toys that good little girls and boys had coming to them on Christmas Eve!

Because the Internet exists to show us this sort of thing, here is a gallery of EMSH four armed Santa covers from 1951 to 1960.  Squid Santa and RoboSanta, no extra charge.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Pulp Science Fiction - Space Commies!

Of course we all know that classic Science Fiction was created in the shadow of the Cold War. Many of the stories had tales of menace that really were metaphors for an all too real kind of Armageddon. Here we see, again, a Guy in a Helmet.  Notice please that Golden Age Sci Fi had entirely different depictions of female space travelers.  Tight fitting space suits.  And for some inexplicable reason hair and decolletage were safe from whatever cosmic rays the guys were swaddling up to hide from.

When reality came along in the person of Valentina Tereshkova, it looked a little different.  This was only nine years after the cover shown above.

The title of this post is a bit satirical, but Tereshkova was actually just that, a Communist in Space. Even years later after the fall of the Berlin Wall she remains by all accounts a dedicated Party Member.
And she's got the medals to prove it!
In fact once you exclude the mechanical cyborgs and amorphous blobs, a lot of the "heavies" from classic Sci Fi appear to be modeled on Communists of various stripes.  With of course a base layer of earlier, archetypal fears.

Here we have the "Russki" variant.  Swarthy, beetle browed.  This type of bad guy tends to be ruthless and fanatical.  Not always that bright, they typically acquire technology and skills by theft, much as the Soviet space program got a leg up by acquiring technology and scientists from the German V2 project.

In terms of lineage the remorseless barbarian at the gates hearkens back to the Goths and Celts who brooded sullenly just beyond the borders of Rome. The image carried on through the lumpish, cruel trolls of Norse mythology and the gargoyles of the middle ages.  And shortly after the artwork above they became:

Although to be fair the Klingons of the original Star Trek soon outgrew their original status as faux Russians and became an interesting group in their own right.

In the 1950s the Communists we were actually in a "hot war" with were not Russian but Chinese and their North Korean surrogates.  Another strain of Sci Fi evil doer has an Oriental strain to it.  Pointy ears, leering grin, odd skin color and sinister slanty eyes.  This genre also has a long history.  We have always found the Mysteries of the East slightly intimidating and evil characters that look like this came early.  Ming the Merciless from the original Flash Gordon serials back in the 1930s comes to mind.  Our friend below is more blue grey, but this kind of alien has overtones of Yellow Peril, of elves and goblins, perhaps even a bit of traditional Christian depictions of Satan.  This category of Evil is usually given credit for having an ancient culture and knowledge of their own.

And their Star Trek descendants?

Vulcans and Romulans.  Perhaps the duality of similar characters being "good and bad" reflects the realities of the times.  There were after all "good" South Koreans and Taiwanese to counterbalance the "bad" North Koreans and Red Chinese.

As Star Trek characters the Romulans never really took off.  They are just kind of boring.  Face it, you would much rather go to a party with Klingons.  Consider leaving before they all get too drunk.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pulp Science Fiction - Guys in Helmets

At a thrift sale some years back my wife bought a box of 1950s science fiction magazines.  These are from the Golden Age of Sci Fi, an era where short stories, novellas and even full length novels came out monthly in a batch of competing publications.  The overall quality of these was mixed.  They came out on cheap paper that deserves the designation "pulp fiction".  Some of the stories were masterpieces, others the work of now forgotten hacks.  The advertisements seem almost embarrassing, a mix of Rosicrucians, body building devices, and correspondence courses.

But my goodness, the cover art of these is beautiful.

There are a variety of recurring themes, several of which deserve a brief visit.   First, Guys in Helmets.

Space Helmets seem to be of pretty uniform design.  Remember that this was the early 1950s, long before the first Russian and American astronauts.

Even when safely aboard their ship these Red Shirts (look out, dudes) have on their goggles, head sets and what look like oxygen tanks.

Hmmm, the guy in the yellow space suit seems to have been careless.  You would think that Space Age technology would have come up with unbreakable materials by then.  On the other hand, since he seems to be pink and non exploded, perhaps the atmosphere on this strange planet was not all that bad once you got used to it.

Alien duck hunters.  All Space Men carried some sort of weapons, even if only the stereotypical "Ray Gun".  It helps to remember that the readership of these publications came of age during the War Years and that most of the writers themselves seem to have been veterans.  So I strongly suspect that the design of Space Helmets was an amalgam of deep sea diver's gear and the head gear of dashing fighter pilots.

And if Golden Age Sci Fi seems a bit militant overall, it of course had villains.  Tune in next time for
Commies in Space!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Dove and Hammer

I used to keep an archive of every "Tree Shaped Tombstone" I encountered.  That was before I knew just how many there really were.  Now I only photograph the more interesting ones.  And after a while you do start to see patterns.

As I have previously noted, the majority of these monuments are not related to the two "Woodmens" organizations.  But some are.  Here are a couple linked to the MWA, or the Modern Woodmen of America.

First from Eleva Wisconsin.

This has the classic MWA letters on a branch that supports a mallet and a splitting wedge, tools of the woodcutter.

This mallet has lost its handle.

Doves are of course not specific to Modern Woodmen tombstones but they show up quite regularly. This one has the ideal combination of light, lichen cover and artistic flair.

And now another example, this one from Durand, Wisconsin about 40 miles away.

This one is a bit fancier.  Note that it uses two different kinds of stone.  Quite unusual.  There are no names and dates here, those are on smaller subsidiary "stumps" off to the side.

Splitting mallet and axe.  The wedge is just below where the (intact) handles cross.

And a very nicely executed dove.  Sometimes I think tombstones from the same era and fairly close together geographically are the work of the same artisan, but the quality here is so superior that I am sure they were not from the same artist.

And because two might be coincidence, I offer another example from St. Paul Minnesota.  There certainly seems to be a commonality of theme among Modern Woodmen of America tombstones...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Talking to your kids about alcohol. Final installment.

When your youngest kid turns 21 a certain adjustment in attitude is necessary.  Having for years been very outspoken on the matter of alcohol it is weird to have my final bit of paternal wisdom be: "Would you like to have a beer with your dad?".

Kids.  They start as whimsical abstractions.  They make their first mark in the world as a blue X slowly materializing on a pregnancy test strip.  We hear the whispers of their hearts at prenatal visits. Soon we hear their much louder cries, and smell those diapers.

When you see their photos as random finds they are enigmas.  Which one is that?  They all look alike, sun bleached little mop heads.  But the pencil marks still adorning an upstairs door, the school photos, the ever enlarging shoes and sports uniforms tell a different tale.

When you have been a parent of "children" for almost half of your life it is hard to realize that you are now something else.   But what?  A tolerated, mildly bumbling patriarch?  An example, for good or ill, of how to live the Adult Life?

I'll happily settle for the moment with just being a guy having a beer with some other guys.