Friday, April 01, 2011

More scary things you want to know about the presidents

Time for some weird stories about our presidents which will shake your faith in their dignity.

Angry Harry

When America finally went to war, a young corporal from Missouri found himself in trench warfare at the borders of the two warring parties. It wasn’t like in the movies. It was filled with water, bugs and human waste. But, young Harry Truman didn’t seem to mind so much. He was a volunteer and he was glad to be there.

He was no kid, 25 when he signed up. Millions died, but Harry didn’t. His first engagement was near the town of Ypres, and five out of every six men in his regiment were killed. He was completely unscathed. Later, he would write eloquently of the battle:

“And then came a damp, cold night in Flanders, through which we marched in silence, and when the day began to emerge from the mists, suddenly an iron greeting came whizzing at us over our heads, and with a sharp report sent the little pellets flying between our ranks, ripping up the wet ground; but even before the little cloud had passed, from two hundred throats the first hurrah rose to meet the first messenger of death. Then a crackling and a roaring, a singing and howling began, and with feverish eyes each one of us was drawn forward, faster and faster, until suddenly past turnip fields and hedges the fight began, the fight of man against man.”

Surprisingly, though he was later fairly obsessive about his appearance, he was rather ordinary and a little disheveled. One officer wrote of him that he was a “quiet, rather unmilitary looking man”.

He did not stand out to look at him, but was considered reliable and rather a loner. His company called him “pipe-dreamer.” He wanted to discuss history and art with them. He would read Homer, the Bible and even Schopenauer. He was not concerned about home, never asked for time off, and sent and received few letters. Sometimes when he was done for the day, he’d actually spend time standing alone painting the scenery in watercolors.

The other men thought he was too eager to please, but they must also have known he was braver than many of them and damned lucky to boot.

Time and time again he seemed to have an uncanny skill in avoiding death and was sometimes heroic. At least once, but possibly more, he came across a group of the enemy in a field, got the drop on them and brought them back as prisoners. Another time when they suddenly came under machine gun fire he knocked his commander aside and took position in front of him, begging him to protect himself.

Finally, he got hit, a shell fragment catching him in the leg. Shipped home to recover, he did a little sightseeing and then was assigned menial tasks. He did not have what it took to become an officer, having no leadership skills and seemingly no interest in improving his station.

He had one strange obsession that will not sit well with you. He was rather anti-Semitic and actually blamed the Jews for the war. It was an idea that would stick with him and fester. But, he wasn’t very happy near all the civilians either, and asked to be sent back to the front. He got his wish. Oddly, at least some the five medals he received, one a rarity for someone of his station, were recommended for him by an officer who was Jewish, something that later embarrassed him.

To get away from the apathetic civilians, Harry asked to go back to the front and was sent back. As the war raged on his mood started to turn dark and he began spending a lot of time by himself, seemingly depressed, but subject to sudden bursts of anger, often against Jews, but Communists too, which would play a role much later in life.

Near the end he was blinded for a little while by chlorine gas and he was still hospitalized when the war ended. His depression deepened and he became irrational. He later wrote about his feelings with an almost megalomaniac passion – “There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that all was these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed” and “If this hour of trial had not come, hardly anyone would have ever guessed that a hero was hidden in this beardless boy.”

Wow – not the Harry Truman we are used to.

Kennedy and Nixon in love

Slowly, historians have been pulling together a story about JFK and Richard Nixon which makes whatever shenanigans happened in the 1960 election look like nothing. Unfortunately, so much time has passed and so close mouthed were now long dead associates, that we must guess at what was real and what just legend.

In 1940, before the war, Nixon was a young lawyer and JFK his father’s emissary in the business world. They were both sent to Ilios, Oregon, to work on a project which would involve the takeover of the company town and its business. Despite Nixon being a lawyer, it was made clear that he had to take his marching orders from JFK, which rankled him to no end.

They were there nine days with no end in sight when they and the other young men present decided to have some fun. So, they threw a stag party for themselves. When the boys went out that night they each had a mission to bring back women for the party. When they were gathered, instead of matching up naturally, the arrogant boys actually voted which woman would get matched up with which guy. Not surprisingly, JFK was voted a local beauty named Chrissie. A little later Nixon was awarded Breezy, quite beautiful herself, and she was quite taken with him too.

They were getting into the night’s celebration when the doors of the bar opened and in walked Chrissie’s father. He demanded JFK take his hands off his daughter and things got ugly. JFK got nasty and threatening, and sent the old man packing.

A few phone calls though changed things. Chrissie’s father was a minister and made a call to a connection in Massachusetts, and finally hooked up with the Archbishop there, who made a call to the Cardinal on the west coast, and next thing you know the police were sent down to raid the party. JFK knew when to quit. He sent Chrissie back to her father and they were left alone.

Except now JFK had no girl. He was the big man there, being Joe Kennedy’s kid, and he found it humiliating to be the only one without one. One thing led to another and he threatened Nixon that he wanted Breezy. Nixon refused and he and Breezy retired to a booth. JFK sent down two young emissaries and they politely asked Nixon to see reason. And, he caved, but not happily. He left the stag party and went back to his hotel, where he sat sulking with his best friend, Pat Rocles. Finally Pat got Nixon’s permission to put on Nixon’s fancy suit and tie, and went to the party in his place.

Pat merrily joined in the festivities and he made quite a hit for a while. But, eventually, he picked on the wrong guy there, a local of whom we only now know by his first name, Hector, who beat Pat to a bloody pulp.

Nixon was furious for his friend and vowed revenge. He actually made life miserable for the local tough, costing him his job.

There’s more, but that’s another story for another day.

Hayes’ folly

Rutherford Hayes is a president almost without any history. Think about it – what do you know about him? You might know he was appointed president by the House of Representatives in a backroom deal in 1876, after he had lost the popular vote, but no candidate had a majority of electoral votes. If you remember that he was a general in the Civil War, you know more than most. That’s it, right? But, he actually has a fascinating history. This one is going to shock you.

He was born in 1807 in Boston. He was one of his father's 17 children, which he had with two successive wives. Dad manufactured small household items, like candles and soap, which Rutherford took a shot at, but he just wasn’t interested. He was a good student, but bored easily, so he left school early and began working at his brother’s small newspaper. He was a good writer too, if only his older brother could see it. So, Rutherford started writing articles and slipping them under the door for his brother to find. They became huge hits, but when his brother found out who was writing them, he was furious. So, little Rutherford ran away at age 15, making his way to Philly where he continued to study on his own and started to make a name for himself as a philosopher.

In his mid-thirties, he wangled a job as a tutor for a wealthy French man, who were raising an extraordinary young woman, his niece Eloise, already famous for her beauty and scholarship as a teenager. She was over 20 years Rutherford’s junior, which didn't matter so much back then. It didn’t take long for the two of them to fall in love with each other and Rutherford found a way to get her uncle to invite him to live there. He was uncommonly vain. "So distinguished was my name, and possessed such advantages of youth and comeliness, that no matter what woman I might favor with my love, I dreaded rejection of none."

Well, yada yada yada, and Eloise is pregnant. Rutherford snuck away and sent her to his sister. But afterwards, her uncle reluctantly gave permission for the two of them to marry. She initially declined, thinking it would damage his career, but finally assented and they did. At some point, however, she went off to stay with her friends, the nuns, who had educated her.

We have in Rutherford’s own words what happened next when her cousins mistakenly thought he had sent her packing, and this is the part that’s going to shock you.

"Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.”

Yikes! The two lovers never got together again. For the rest of their lives, they communicated only through letters.

And, then --- hooooooold everything!!

I have to stop. It's April Fool's Day and I couldn’t resist. I somewhat made this all up. Or, I should say, it's also kind of true in its own way, because I’m too history obsessed to just fabricate it completely.

The first story is all true. Except it wasn’t Harry Truman I was really writing about – it was Adolf Hitler. He was at least a minor hero for Germany in WWI, heavily medaled, although already more than a little strange. Harry also fought in WWI, but he was an artillery battery commander, a good leader, and later rose to colonel in the reserves. One of them started WWII and the other ended it.

You might, though, read that our Harry was a bit anti-Semitic and that is certainly true, at least to a degree. He wrote and spoke so as to make it unmistakeable. On the other hand, he recognized Israel’s independence against the State Department’s wishes, and he was compassionate about Jewish refugees.

The second story is not really about JFK and Nixon and I have no idea how much is true. As far as I know they met in Washington, D.C., long after 1940. But, I have really never studied either of them very much, being too obsessed with ancient, European and American history up through WWII, more than from my own lifetime. The story I tell here is actually a very loose and modern interpretation of The Iliad. Ilios, the name of the town I had them meet in here, was another name for Troy, where Homer related that the Greeks and Trojans battled. If it is at all true, and nobody really knows, it likely happened about 3200 years ago. Agamemnon (my JFK) and Achilles (my Nixon) argued over a woman, Briseis (my “Breezy”), who Agamemnon took from him after his own prize, Chryseis (my “Chrissy”), was sent back to her priest father after he had Apollo bring a plague on the Greeks (my police raid). Achilles sits out the war in his ships while the Greeks are getting their helmets handed to them. That’s all in the first book. Later, Achilles' friend, Patrocles (my “Pat Rocles”), borrowed Achilles' armor and goes out slaying Trojans until he is killed by their hero, Hector. And, then, as I hope is well known, Achilles polished off Hector.

The third story is not really about Rutherford Hayes, who did not have a boring life, but lacks a great biographer. He had an exciting Civil War and ended up a major general. But, the first paragraph of my version is really from Ben Franklin’s childhood, except he wasn't a philosopher and he was born at the beginning of the 18th, not 19th century. The rest of that story comes from the tragic tale of Abelard and Héloïse, which took place in 12th century France. It is one of the world’s most fascinating, if most horrible, love stories.

I’m already feeling guilty that some people might read only a part of this, and believe my tall tales. God knows what they are going to tell other people they learned on the internet. One day I’ll probably see a version of one of these on with a big FALSE on it.

Still, I think I will try this again next April 1st.


  1. Anonymous10:16 AM

    thanks to the author for taking his time on this one.

  2. You know, I swear I don't know if that is a compliment or an insult.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .