Top Ten Incidents Plucked from the Scrapheap of History

top-10-incidents10) 1917 –  the Bavarian Waiter Incident

The 20th century is by far the most destructive in human history. Emanating from Europe, two World Wars demonstrated the horrors of war in the age of industry. Now war was not limited to armies in the field but engulfed entire societies. Total War demanded that the whole nation mobilize it’s economic, political, and social fabric towards the war effort. Dissension was not tolerated, even in the United States where civil rights were championed. The following incident is an example of the mass hysteria that swept over nations in the throes of Total War.

During  WWI anti German sentiment ran high in the United States. President Wilson issued the Sedition Act, prohibiting any speech or action detrimental to the war effort. Enter the Bavarian waiter. While waiting on a New York subway platform, Dieter Zimmerman cursed the slow speed of a subway car. He was promptly arrested.

9) 1860-1895 –  Soapy Smith and the Prize Package Soap Sell Racket

Perhaps no event in recent memory is as mythologized as the westward expansion period of American history. Amidst the sometimes wildly distorted narrative there was some compelling historical action. The story of ” Soapy Smith the last frontier bad man ” is one example.

Jefferson Randolph Smith II or ” Soapy” Smith or “the Bunko Man of the Old West” was a con artist, saloon and gambling house proprietor, gangster, and crime boss of the 19th century old west.

Sometime in the late 1870s or early 80s Smith began cheating crowds with what the Denver newspapers dubbed the prize soap racket. Smith would open his ” tripe and keister” ( display case on a tripod) on a busy street corner. Piling ordinary soap cakes on the keister top, he began expounding on their wonders. As he spoke to the growing crowd of curious onlookers, he would pull out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money, ranging from one dollar to one hundred dollars, around a select few of the bars. He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money. He appeared to mix the money-wrapped packages in with wrapped bars containing no money, and then sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar a cake. A shill planted in the crowd would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had won some money, waving it all around for all to see. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of more packages. More often than not, the victims bought several bars before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the $100 bill yet remained in the pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders.

Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, he hid the cakes of soap wrapped with money and replaced them with packages holding no cash. The only money “won” went to shills, members of the gang planted in the crowd pretending to win, in order to increase sales.

On one occasion, Smith was arrested by policeman John Holland for running his soap sell racket. Smith while writing in the police log book Holland had forgotten Smith’s first name and wrote ” Soapy”. The sobriquet stuck, and he became known as ” Soapy Smith” across the western United States. He used this swindle for 20 years with great success. The soap sell along with other scams helped finance Smith’s criminal operations by paying graft to police, judges, and politicians. He was able to build three major criminal empires : the first in Denver ( 1860-1895) : the second in Creede, Colorado (1892), and the third in Skagway, Alaska (1897-1898).

8) 1946 –  Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah

With the advent of radio and film the era of mass entertainment was a reality. Now, entire nations could receive the same news and entertainment. A new industry developed to meet the public’s insatiable demand for film. This phenomenon provided a wealth of historical “documents”  that shed light on the social milieu of the time.

Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah was a song from the Disney classic ” Song of the South”. The song is influenced by the pre Civil War folk song “Zip Coon”, a ” Turkey in the Straw” variation “Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day”. The term “Zip Coon” plays on a derogatory slang term for African Americans.

7) 2011 – Makoto the Wayward Japanese Teen

Industrialization brought wholesale changes to the world. In the field of education, it inaugurated  the era of mass compulsory public schooling to prepare youth to enter the workforce. While this made education accessible to more people than ever before, it also employed a one size fits all model which alienated some. As the pressures of conformity relented and respect for individual rights increased, more disaffected youth emerged. In Japan, the pressures to achieve are perhaps more intense than any industrialized society. This pressure can prove too much for individuals and families as we see here with the story of Makoto.

Makoto came from a broken family. Bacchan was a  grandma type figure who had been helping troubled youth for 40 years from her small apartment in Hiroshima. She believed that kids with nowhere to go developed a hardened heart and that hunger leads to delinquency. Makoto began seeing Bacchan at age 10. He treated Bacchan like a “cafeteria where he could fill up”.

Makoto fell in with the wrong crowd and was in and out of juvenile correction centers. This made Bacchan sad. While detained Makoto had lots of time to think. He began to appreciate Bacchan. He sincerely regretted disappointing Bacchan. Upon his release Makoto was informed that he was no longer welcome at home. He had nowhere to go. A government program relocated him to a strange city where he didn’t know anyone. At the age of 16 Makoto was alone and scared that he ” wouldn’t be able to live a steady life”. He would visit Bacchan and finally appreciate her for being there for him. But the distance was too far. Makoto was last seen working in a restaurant with aspirations of becoming a nursery school teacher.

6)  2017 –  The North Korean Volleyball Incident

With the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the nuclear genie was out of the bottle. Man now possessed the ability to destroy civilization. After surviving the danger of the Cold War, the world was quickly confronted with a new fear, nuclear proliferation. The spectre of a theocratic regime like Iron or the totalitarian ” hermit kingdom” of North Korea threatened to destabilize the international order. The following incident shows the heightened tensions as well as the technological advancement in the form of satellites and nuclear technologies.

Amidst the charged atmosphere created by the two man-baby leaders of the USA and North Korea, a strange incident unfolded. The USA has been using satellite photos to monitor the nuclear test facility at Punggye-ri. On March 17th, the photos turned up something unexpected : what looked like three volleyball games going on. Questions and theories abound. Were the workers finished preparing for the nuclear test and given some leisure time? The North Koreans are well aware they are being watched from space, were they sending a message? If so, what?  The regime of Kim Jong Un has long practiced a strategy of camouflage, concealment and deception so answers are hard to come by. The unpredictability of the two nuclear armed antagonists is surely a cause for concern.

5)  1922 – The Quick Brown Fox Incident

In the sweep of history there is a place for odd minutiae. The small daily events that may not be epoch changing but are significant to those involved.

It was in the county of Essex, just outside the town of Writtle, on an estate called Longsmead House that a semi-remarkable event occurred. The family had gathered in the garden for afternoon tea. It was a pleasant day. The old family dog, Mabel, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lolled on the grass. Suddenly a brown or possibly red fox (Vulpes Vulpes) appeared, strange as they are normally nocturnal animals. And then it happened, the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The dog, slow to react, quickly righted herself and let loose a series of 24 barks. The fox bolted into the forest. It was over. There were several witnesses. The family would long remember what they saw that day. It would seep into their lore. Fun fact : the sentence ” the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”  is a pangram, that is it contains every letter in the alphabet.

4)  2015 –  The Becrux / Meat Boat Incident

One of the foremost developments in the big picture view of history is the rise of globalization. As long as there has been long distance trade there has been globalization. Advances in the past century however have seen the world become a single market. No longer is the production and distribution of goods limited to local, national, or regional markets. Thanks to advances in transport and the laws of comparative advantage the world is inextricably bound into a single economic unit. Coupled with a communications revolution powered by the internet, the world is still grappling with the profound changes wrought by globalization. The events below represent a tiny but compelling example of this new world.

The MV Becrux is the world’s largest livestock carrier, able to carry 20,000 cattle or 60,000 sheep and goats. Dubbed the ” Meat Boat” or ” Boat of Meat”, the ship sails out of Australia and travels to Indonesia, the Middle East, and sometimes Mexico. This route takes it through waters frequented by pirates. There are really 2 incidents here. On its maiden voyage approximately 900 cattle died on the Becrux, embroiling it in controversy. This was called ” The Great Meat Boat Calamity”. On another occasion an alarm sounded indicating the ships ventilation system was compromised. A ventilation failure would lead to the deaths of all of the ship’s cargo. It turns out that one of the Australian cow hands stetsons had become jammed in one of the vents. The cowboy was unhurt. The damaged hat was retrieved. The incident became known as ” The Mangled Hat Incident”.

3)  1942 –  The Grand Coulee Dam

Mankind has always sought mastery over the environment. We now return to the American West where large scale public works projects transformed the landscape and made cities and agriculture possible in a largely arid zone.

Constructed between 1931 and 1942, the Grand Coulee Dam became the number one electricity generator in United States. Originally designed to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation at a time when little power was needed in the Northwest and the region regularly ran agricultural surpluses the massive project quickly drew controversy. Labeled the ” white elephant in the desert” and ” the big bloated miscalculation” the dam was championed by President Roosevelt in the context of the Great Depression. On August 4th 1934 FDR would visit the construction site proclaiming it ” neither a bloated elephant or a desert miscalculation but a stunning display of American engineering prowess “. The 8000 workers assembled erupted in appreciation, showering the president with dirt before carrying him into the river and dunking him repeatedly.

The dam came at a social and environmental cost. 75,000 acres were flooded displacing 3000 people including the ancestral homelands of the Colville Federation and Spokane tribes. The natives traditional salmon based way of life was torn asunder as the the dam did not include fish ladders. Mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and burrowing owls habitats suffered. With the advent of World War II the dam became the bulwark of the Northwest war effort. The Grand Coulee powered Boeing plants in Seattle, aluminum smelters in Longview and Vancouver, and plutonium processing in Hanford. It became part of the great American industrial might underpinning Allied victory. Today, with the addition of a third generating plant, the dam is an essential part of the state’s energy infrastructure.

2)  1975 –  The Moroccan Laundry Incident

One aspect of globalization and the Jet Age was the availability of international travel to the middle class. Tourism became accessible to many and an important part of the economy for many locations. Aside from the global implications, this trend had great benefits for personal growth as people expanded their horizons.

Ana and George were two American tourists alive to the exotic environs of Morocco. In the city of Fez they stayed in a beautiful riad ( traditional Moroccan lodging with an internal courtyard). It was here that Ana would make a request to have her laundry done by hotel staff. Little did she know that she would ignite a firestorm of cross cultural misunderstanding.

Earlier that day Ana had spoken to the owner about a wide range of travel topics, finally she inquired about laundry. ” No problem”  she was told. Later, she was unable to locate the friendly owner so she asked a maid. After some confusion, the maid accepted Ana’s clothes. Upon returning later that evening, four hours had elapsed, Ana asked the front desk about the laundry. The night manager was taken back.  What laundry? He was not informed of this. He seemed offended somehow, as if Ana had violated the Moroccan chain of laundry command. Equally confused Ana struggled to communicate the earlier interaction with the owner and the sequence of events. Frustrated, she would retreat to her room to await her laundry. Approximately one hour later, the night manager arrived none to pleased with folded clothes. Upon inspection Ana noticed her clothes were mixed in with another guest’s. More drama and miscommunication. The manager thought Ana was unsatisfied with the service and grew increasing agitated. Exasperated herself, Ana separated the clothes and asked how much for the laundry service. The amount came out to 35 US dollars. For Morocco this seemed high but Ana had become used to the tourist price gouging in the country. She just wanted the whole thing to be done with. But the ordeal would be prolonged, settling up would have to wait until the next day for reasons which are a mystery.

The next morning, the owner arrives. More dramatic posturing and histrionics over laundry. Ana, desperate to wash her hands of the situation, pressed the payment issue. Now the owner seemed to not want the money or did he? Ana wanted to give fair compensation to the staff. They finally agreed on $10. The fiasco, in all it’s mundane glory, but illustrative of the challenges of culture clash, became known as ” The Moroccan Laundry Incident”.

1)  1984 –  The Pat Benatar Ghost Ship

And then there are the mysteries of history, made all the more interesting because they are real…

Siren-voiced Pat Benatar was a singer popular in the late 20th century. Known for such hits as ” Hit me with your best shot”, ” Love is a Battlefield ” and the Canadian national anthem, Benatar rode the wave of music videos in the early 80s. Her song ” You Better Run” was the second song to be played on MTV after The Buggles ” Video Killed the Radio Star”.

Unbeknownst to many Benatar became an avid maritime historian and enthusiast late in her career. She went so far as to purchase a 19th century merchant brigantine, nearly 100 feet long. Shortly thereafter, the ship ” Invincible” ( named after one of Benatar’s hit songs) became the subject of a PBS documentary in which the ship and crew would attempt to recreate a typical 19th century transatlantic voyage. Packed with a cargo of 1701 Benatar cds, wearables, and various souvenirs Benatar, husband Neil Giraldo, and a crew of 8 set sail from New York onNovember 5th bound for Genoa, Italy.

The Invincible was found deserted and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores Islands on December 7th. A Canadian ship found her in a disheveled but seaworthy condition, under partial sail, with the last entry in her log entered 10 days earlier. The lifeboat was missing. The cargo was intact, and none of Captain Benatar’s or the rest of the crew’s personal belongings were disturbed. None of those who had been on board were ever seen or heard from again. Speculation included natural disturbances such as giant octopus or squid, seaquake, waterspouts, to paranormal activity, to foul play by anti-Benatar maritime factions within the rock industry.

The mystery remains unsolved to this day. In his 2004 book ” Benatar Ghost Ship” author Brian Hicks writes ” There has never been a clear consensus on any one scenario. Its a mystery that has tormented countless people, including the families of the sailors, Benatar fans, and hundreds of others who have tried in vain to solve the riddle. The Benatar Ghost Ship may be the best example of the old proverb that the sea never gives up it’s secrets.

1)  Keeping my head from flopping around.


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