pied trivia roundup

This week, for the 401st time, a bevy of agile, strong, highly-trained, and extremely motivated individuals gathered on Dover Hill for the championship of that great English martial-art, shin-kicking. Yes, shin-kicking. The trivia roundup had been “boning up” for months, taking calcium supplements and racehorse steroids, and expected to emerge victorious—because, you see, the trivia roundup HAS NO SHINS. Unfortunately the roundup was disqualified for selfsame lack of shins. So grab the collar and sweep the leg, Johnny, it’s time for a Thursday trivia roundup.

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1. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a fairy tale in which a flamboyantly dressed man with a musical pipe is hired to rid a local town of rats. Rats, being innately capricious and whimsical, are drawn to the piper’s melodic flights of whimsy and caprice and unwittingly led into a local river, where they drown. After the town refuses to pay him, the piper retaliates by entrancing the town’s children and luring them into a cave, never to be seen again.

It’s believed the tale is based in part on a true story in which the children of the German town of Hamelin disappeared. The earliest surviving town record from Hamelin is from 1384, and states “It is 100 years since our children left.” That is where the written history of the town begins. Town historians might have mitigated some of the readers unease by, you know, mentioning what happened to the kids, but they did not and no one knows for sure. Some think the statement references the town’s decimation by plague, or that the children were drowned in a river, or recruited for a pagan cult, led into a forest, and swallowed up by a sinkhole and/or ritual human sacrifice. One historian has even argued that the pied piper was a murderous pedophile—presumably, history’s most cunning and prolific.

My favorite theory is the children were recruited for the Children’s Crusade and never returned. According to lore, a young boy began preaching in 1212 that he had been told by god to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. The precocious prepubescent demagogue gained a following of some 30,000 children, and led this passel of young’uns to the Mediterranean, where god had told him the sea would part and allow them passage to Jersualem. That didn’t happen (but…just imagine if it did, right?). The adolescent army was offered passage by a fleet of ships, some of which shipwrecked in a storm, the rest of which went to Tunisia and sold the children into slavery. That is not how I expected that story to end.

The lore of the children’s crusade combines a couple of real-life events, one in which a German shepherd (Nicholas of Cologne) collected a gang of several thousand people (mostly children), and planned to walk to Italy to see the Pope before heading to Jerusalem. That trip turned out to be more arduous than expected: most of the people died, and the pope told them to come back when they were adults. Around the same time a French shepherd boy had amassed a following who believed him capable of performing miracles, but as the frequency of his supposed miracles decreased, so did his following, and his movement petered out.

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2. The Chevalier d’Eon, born 1728, was a soldier, diplomat, spy, and perhaps the most prominent openly transgender person to that point. At the age of 28 and living as a man, d’Eon became a spy for King Louis XV as part of the Secrete du Roi—a sort-of 18th-century version of Nixon’s plumbers that worked directly for the king outside of official and/or strictly-legal channels (an analogy which makes d’Eon G. Gordon Liddy?). d’Eon’s first mission was to meet Empress Elizabeth of Russia. d’Eon would do this disguised as a woman, because of a rule that only women and children were allowed into the country (supposedly put in place specifically to prevent the French from meeting with the Empress).

Chevalier d’Eon

d’Eon eventually became the Empress’s maid of honor, spending four years in Russia while living as a woman. After returning, d’Eon (now living as a man) fought briefly in the Seven Years War and then moved to London as the French ambassador following the signing of the peace treaty. When a new ambassador was appointed by unsympathetic forces, d’Eon retaliated by publishing a book containing French state secrets learned whilst spying. The publication of the book and continuing tete-a-tete with the French, earned d’Eon a measure of fame in England. Along with that fame came increasing speculation about his androgynous features, to the extent that the London Stock Exchange had an open wager about d’Eon’s biological gender, which ended when d’Eon refused a physical examination and challenged the gender-speculators to duel.

Having blackmailed the king by threatening to reveal even more damaging state secrets, d’Eon was able to negotiate terms for a return to France. One of these terms was a requirement that she live as a woman (d’Eon was even gifted money to buy a new wardrobe). Historians are unclear the origins of this clause; some believe the king intended it as a shaming strategy, whereas I suspect d’Eon was clever enough to engineer a signed paper from the king supporting what would have otherwise been a socially unacceptable and/or dangerous life (it’s painful and embarrassing to read the historian here speculate on the reasons and never in any way consider the possibility d’Eon may have wanted it that way). d’Eon subsequently made money by staging fencing exhibitions while wearing a full gown.

d’Eon duelling

She also offered to lead a division of women soldiers against the House of Hapsburg in 1792, and to be sent to America to aid in the rebellion against the British, but was turned down in both cases.

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3. Operation Pastorius was a plan for German sabotage on American soil during WWII. It called for a group of German soldiers to be turned loose in the states and, over the course of two years, attack major targets including hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls, aluminum plants in Illinois, and Penn Station. The team of 8 spies, all of whom had spent some part of their lives in the US, was given $175,000, split into two groups, and sent off in a pair of U-boats.

File photo: Operation Pastorius

One of the groups was let off on Long Island (anyone else find it jarring that u-boats were just dropping people off along the US coast?), where they buried a cache of explosives and munitions before almost immediately running into a coast guard patrol. Dressed as American soldiers, they managed to get away. The other group was dropped on the Florida coast without event. The plan might have worked, but two of the New York gang intended to defect. One headed to an FBI office and told his story to the agent there, which was deemed so absurd that no one believed him, and he was passed from agent to agent, probably with each one saying something like “Hey, Simmons, you gotta come down to my office and get a load of this fucking guy.”

In frustration, “this fucking guy” finally overturned his bag on the agent’s desk. $80,000 tumbled out, followed by a long pause, an extended exhale, and the agent saying “huh” while pondering how Hoover would ruin his career. The conspirators were rounded up, sent to trial, and convicted. All were sentenced to death but for the two who had turned themselves in, who received prison sentences that were eventually commuted prior to their deportation to Germany.

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4. A short sampling of the use of animals in warfare:

a) Under the auspices of Project X-Ray, US forces worked on a so-called “Bat Bomb,” in which small incendiary devices would be attached to bats placed inside a bomb casing. When the bomb was released and the case opened, the bats would—supposedly—roost in the targeted town’s eaves and attics until the incendiary device detonated, setting the entire town ablaze. The program was scuttled when errant bats set a US military base on fire during a test run, an outcome not so dissimilar from Operation Acoustic Kitty.

b) Project Pigeon was an attempt by BF Skinner to use operant conditioning to train pigeons to control missile flight.

They’d be placed in the nose of a missile and used as a guidance system; the location of their pecks relative to a target would control the flight path. The idea never took off, though Skinner was convinced it would have worked, given more time for testing. Skinner also suggested a “Pigeon Bomb”—like the “bat bomb”—but that idea didn’t catch on either. Pigeons were, however, extensively used to deliver messages. During WWII, the use of pigeons in British military was controlled by the Pigeon Policy Committee (no joke), and the British have awarded 32 pigeons the Dickin Medal, the highest medal awarded to animals.

c) Hannibal’s use of war elephants during the Punic War is well known. Pliny the Elder writes that one defense against war elephants was trained war pigs. The pig’s squealing would frighten the elephants, who would panic and run away, often trampling their supposed allies. In earlier versions, war pigs were starved then turned loose in enemy encampments.

d) The US Navy “Marine Mammal Program” uses trained sea lions and dolphins for underwater mine detection and recovery of lost/sunken objects or divers.

e) British special forces in WWII would place plastic explosives in rat carcasses inside foundries, in the hopes that the carcass would be tossed in a boiler where it would explode. There’s no evidence that this plan worked.

f) Wojtek was a semi-trained bear that served as mascot and ammunition-hauler for the Polish army in WWII.


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6. “Milkshake” was first used in print in 1885, and referred to a whiskey-and-egg based drink similar to egg nog. The term had a more modern and non-alcoholic meaning by the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1910s that ice cream was added to the mix. The blender wasn’t invented until 1922; before that time milkshakes were hand-mixed emulsions of milk, ice, sugar, and flavorings. Malts didn’t become popular until the 1920s, when the addition of malt powder to a typical milkshake was popularized by Walgreen’s, who may also have been making money by doling out “prescriptions” for alcohol.

Depending on where you were in the US, you might call a milkshake a velvet, frappe, frosted, or cabinet; I don’t know the etymology of that last one. Soda jerks had their own lingo; for a chocolate malted with an egg, a jerk might say “Twist It, Choke It, and Make It Cackle.” After years of decline, milkshake sales began increasing in the 2000s, which I hypothesize owes to three factors: a) Baskin Robbins now-legendary 2600 calorie Oreo shake; 2) recognition of the milkshake’s ability to bring all the boys to the yard; d) Daniel Plainview.


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7. Related, a short list of actual historical Blizzard flavors:

a) Golden Grahams and Cinnamon Toast Crunch (I demand lucky charms marshmallow)

b) Nerds (I have to assume that frozen nerds are the only substance on earth harder than a frozen m&m.  Frozen m&ms are like chocolate gravel. My teeth literally turned to powder when I tried to eat an m&m blizzard.)

c) Banana pudding

d) Peanut butter and jelly

e) Grape Kool-Aid Explosion

f) Berry Banana with vienna fingers…holy hell! Oh, wait, I totally misread that…



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