With the onset of fall and the autumnal equinox, have you dedicated a celebration in traditional Roman fashion to Pomona, goddess of fruits and growing things? Perhaps as a pagan you’ve celebrated the festival of the fertility goddess Ostara? Have the harvest celebrations and shortening days left you feeling a paucity of perspicacity, or perhaps a shortage of savvy? If so, put on some driving goggles and hop into the sidecar for a trip around the motordrome with the trivia roundup.
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1. In 1919, some higher-ups at the Navy were made aware of a deviant (read: “homosexual”) subculture of sex and drug use among its sailors and local civilians in Newport, Rhode Island. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy—a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt—requested the Justice Department look into these “conditions of vice and depravity.” Justice (rightly?) passed, leaving local Newport brass to make their own investigation. That investigation turned into perhaps most bizarre and twisted sting operation in history, the kind of thing where you’re laughing, but it’s a laugh about how horrified you are.
Officers recruited more than a dozen sailors to act as undercover agents, “infiltrate” the group, seduce the “criminal” sailors, engage in selfsame illicit acts of sex and drug use, and write daily reports of their “activities” (that’s a euphemism). Yes, that was the plan. And no, no one seemed to find this approach odd, or you know, morally reprehensible, or legally questionable. Also, was Freud still alive at this time? “…sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an ostensibly heterosexual guy ordering another ostensibly heterosexual guy to go seduce gay men for the express purpose of reporting back the specifics is just an ostensibly…” well, you get it.
Seventeen sailors were arrested on assorted morals charges, and the undercover operators received commendations “in recognition of their interest and zeal.” In recognition of their interest and zeal. I’m sure they were zealous, what with free license to get shitfaced and fool around, ostensibly in service of their country. Drunk on this “success,” the Navy next violated Posse Comitatus (note: I am not a constitutional scholar) and worked to entrap local civilians, the first of whom was a local priest.
Though the priest was ultimately acquitted, the Navy’s investigative techniques were made public, mostly by a Hearst-like, muckraking, sensationalizing, publicity-loving newspaper editor named John Rathom. Right about here is where FDR re-enters the picture—by 1920 he was a vice-presidential candidate. Rathom took FDR to task over his knowledge of the sting operation, decrying the Navy’s “bestial and degrading scheme” in editorial after editorial (it remains unclear if Roosevelt knew the specifics of the operation). Finally fed up with the abuse, FDR filed a libel suit and publicly released information embarrassing to Rathom—a false confession for making up stories about German spies during WWI. By 1921, the election was over and a House committee concluded that the sting operation was “all kinds of fucked up” (paraphrased), rebuking Roosevelt for his role. The libel suit never went to trial, and a vindicated Rathom got in his last potshots at Roosevelt. I am so amazed by this entire story. Everything about it.
2. If you visited a swim meet in the late 19th or early 20th century—or the summer olympics in 1904—you might have seen perhaps the most scintillating swimming skills test yet devised. More intense than the high dive, demanding greater athleticism than even the individual medley, and a greater display of grace and agility than the Triple Lindy…
Brace yourself for the plunge for distance. Here’s how it works: you dive into a pool, do not propel yourself in any way with your arms or legs, and see how far you get in 60 seconds. All-time record? 86 feet, 8 inches, set by famed plunger F.W. Parrington in 1933. Animated gif of this world-record plunge seen here:
Plunging for distance enjoyed an inexplicable degree of popularity for about 40 years, up through the first few decades of the 20th century. By the early 1920s plunging was being dropped from most competitions. Publicity was, how you say, not good. Reporters described the plungers as “sytlish-stout chaps” who “floated like icebergs in shipping lanes.” A slightly more negative take suggested that competitions consisted of “mere mountains of fat who fall in the water more or less successfully and depend upon inertia to get their points for them … placing the premium … upon blubber rather than upon speed, strength, endurance, and pluck.” These plungers are pluckless! To wit, see the oddly un-aerodynamic physique of champion American plunger Fred Schwedt:
Other famous plungers include Horace Davenport, an early plunger known for plunging feet-first; Edgar Adams, 1904 silver medal-winning plunger; and Charlotte Boyle, US women’s champion plunger of the early 20th century.
3. Messalina was a Roman empress, the third wife of Claudius (of I, Claudius fame). A woman of outsized power for the time (she appeared on Roman coins), Messalina had a reputation for being both ruthless and sexually insatiable. This combination often spelled doom for those who rebuffed her sexual advances or otherwise angered her, including Claudius himself—who had her executed upon discovering her plot against him (he also enacted the Roman punishment of damnatio memoriae, which removed all references to her from public works).
Accusations of sexual impropriety or promiscuity were standard-fare propaganda techniques in ancient Rome, so she’s described as a “pouting adolescent nymphomaniac” who cuckolded her husband and capriciously destroyed anyone who annoyed her. Pliny’s Natural History, for example, relays a story of Messalina’s 24-hour competition with a sex worker, which Messalina “won” with a score of 25 partners—as semi-humorously portrayed work-safely in I, Claudius—and Juvenal suggests she worked in a brothel under the name “She-Wolf”, which is actually pretty cool. Then again, others argue she was actually a savvy political power-player adept at using sex for political gain. Both? Neither? Though her acts of scoundrelry are rightly maligned, her sexual liberation is viewed as progressive (or transgressive, if you prefer) by most artists and historians; a 1524 book of sexual positions includes one called “Messalina in the Booth of Lisisca.” Not-work-safe etching here.
4. Thomas Midgley, Jr. was a multiple-award winning chemist of the early 20th century who was granted over 100 patents in his lifetime while working for one of the biggest corporations in the world. He’s in the inventor’s hall of fame, and he’s also, depending on your point of view, either a monster responsible for the death and damage of millions of people, or simply unlucky. His major contributions to chemical science: CFCs and leaded gas. Oops.
Working for GM in the early 1920s, Midgley found that adding tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline prevented knocking, which at the time made most cars sound perpetually moments from explosive failure. Even then, the deleterious effects of lead were so well-known that GM assiduously avoided promoting TEL as lead-based, calling it “Ethyl” in all their marketing.
Midgley even held a press conference lauding its safety, coating his hands in it and inhaling the fumes for a full minute. He then spent a full year recovering from a mild case of lead poisoning, which might have been a warning sign. Another warning sign would have been the ten deaths and multiple horrific cases of lead poisoning among workers at the TEL plants; many suffered severe memory loss, personality distortions, and hallucinations, at least among the “lucky” who didn’t die outright.
The societal consequences of leaded gas are completely mind-blowing in retrospect. In the first 15 years after the initial phaseout of leaded gas, blood lead levels dropped nearly 80%, and not from like “negligible” to “barely detectable;” more like from “1.5x the unsafe level” to “probably not causing lasting damage.” By some views, the elimination of leaded gas has raised mean IQ levels by as many as 7 points in the last few decades and significantly reduced violent crime, since the entire population is no longer suffering from low-grade lead poisoning at all times. Jesus christ, leaded gas.
Midgley’s next big thing was creating Freon (the first CFC) for use as a refrigerant. CFCs, of course, would decades later be recognized as primary culprits in hole-ing the ozone layer.
They were subsequently regulated and banned. In the early 1940s Midgley contracted polio, and, bedridden, devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to assist him in and out of bed. He died in 1944 after becoming entangled in his lifting system and strangling to death. It’s tragic…my uncle went the same way.
5. Major Bludd is an upper-echelon member of the mercenary Cobra army that opposes GI Joe. Born Sebastian Bludd in Australia, he served in the French Foreign Legion before becoming a mercenary; he’s now wanted on at least three continents for war crimes and “even a few crimes against humanity.” He likes to dabble, I guess.
More importantly, he’s a renaissance man of the tools of warfare, “adept with plastic explosives, long-range sniper rifles, garrotes, blunt instruments, poisoned ice picks, Saturday night specials, and anything with spikes,” though he scored “unsatisfactory” with the Norse war hammer at mercenary school. But really, how many opportunities does even a mercenary like Bludd have to employ a poisoned ice pick? He’s also a horrible poet and, like all true men of evil, sports an eyepatch and mustache.
A short sampling of GI Joe characters: Voltar (Destro’s General, buried alive by Cobra Commander. Buried alive!), Croc Master (also buried alive by Cobra Commander), Croc Master II (a man combined with a crocodile, killed by Baroness, presumably in a hybrid/zoophilia episode gone wrong), General Mayhem, Keel-Haul, Gallows, Guillotine, Grim Skull, Neurotoxin, Iguanus (a “Manimal Stellar Stalker”, and no, I don’t know what that means), Rip It (KIA after being shot and thrown out of a helicopter), Carcass, Gristle, Cesspool (a former oil refinery executive who fell into a vat of chemical sludge and became a mercenary, later executed in a raid on the GI Joe prison facility), Action Man (international super agent/man of mystery), Skidmark, Ice Cream Soldier (wields a flamethrower, but should be a member of the elite Belgian waffle brigade), and LOBOTOMAXX.