autumnal trivia roundup

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 (i.e., “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 that the Justice Department look into these “conditions of vice and depravity.” The Justice Department passed (I’d like to give them credit for that, but surely there was some detestable moral or political calculation involved). Confounded local brass in Newport decided to make their own investigation, which led to the most bizarre and twisted sting operation in history. If there is a German word for “uncomfortable laughter while feeling distressed,” it applies here.

Officers recruited more than a dozen sailors to act as undercover agents. Their task was to “infiltrate” the group, seduce the “criminal” sailors, engage in those selfsame illegal acts of sex and drug use, then write daily reports of their “activities” (that’s a euphemism). No one seemed to find this approach odd, morally reprehensible, or legally questionable. Certainly no one mentioned the olympic-level Freudian projection. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, yes, and sometimes an ostensibly heterosexual guy ordering another ostensibly heterosexual guy to have sex with other men for the express purpose of reporting back the specifics is just an ostensibly…


Seventeen sailors were arrested on morals charges. The undercover operators? They received commendations, “in recognition of their interest and zeal.” Indeed, I’m quite certain they were zealous. Drunk on this “success” the Navy next violated Posse Comitatus (note: I am not a constitutional scholar) and set up a sting to entrap local civilians, the first of whom was a priest. He was eventually acquitted.

The Navy’s investigative techniques were made public by John Rathom, a Hearst-ish, muckraking, sensationalizing, publicity-loving newspaper editor. Rathom took to task FDR—now a candidate for vice-president—over his knowledge of the sting, decrying the Navy’s “bestial and degrading scheme” in editorial after editorial. Fed up with the bad press, FDR filed a libel suit and publicly released embarrassing information on Rathom—a false confession he’d given for making up stories about German spies during WWI. The libel suit never went to trial. By 1921, the election was over and a House committee had concluded the sting operation was, to paraphrase, all kinds of fucked up, for which FDR was reprimanded. I cannot get over this story.

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2. Were you to visit a swim meet in the late 19th or early 20th century, or the 1904 summer olympics, you might have been privileged to witness an unrivalled display of skill and athleticism. A test of skill more intense than the high dive, more demanding than the individual medley, requiring more grace 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:

plunger in action

Plunging for distance enjoyed an inexplicable degree of popularity for about 40 years, before fading in the 1920s. One problem was the optics: reporters described the plungers as “sytlish-stout chaps” who “floated like icebergs in shipping lanes,” “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.” It’s true: a paucity of pluck has doomed many nascent sports. But, on the other hand, this is champion American plunger Fred Schwedt:

the plunger 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.

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3. Messalina, a Roman empress and third wife of Claudius—of I, Claudius—had a reputation for being both ruthless and sexually insatiable. had a reputation for being both ruthless and sexually insatiable. The combination spelled doom for those who rebuffed her advances or otherwise angered her, including Claudius himself, who had her executed after discovering her plot against him. He also enacted the Roman punishment of damnatio memoriae, removing all references to her from public works.

Accusations of sexual impropriety or promiscuity were standard-fare propaganda in ancient Rome. Was Messalina the victim of a posthumous smear campaign, or, as some scholars argue, a savvy political power-player adept at using sex for political gain? Both? Neither? She’s described as a “pouting adolescent nymphomaniac” who cuckolded her husband and capriciously destroyed those who annoyed her. Pliny’s Natural History relays a story of Messalina’s 24-hour competition against a sex worker, which Messalina “won” with a score of 25 partners (semi-humorously portrayed work-safely in I, Claudius). Juvenal suggests she worked in a brothel under the name She-Wolf. I think that’s supposed to be an insult, but mostly it sounds cool. For some artists and historians her progressive and/or transgressive sexual liberation is laudable; a 1524 book of sexual positions includes one called “Messalina in the Booth of Lisisca.” Not-work-safe etching here.

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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 depending on yoru point of view, he’s either really unlucky or a monster responsible the death and injury of millions of people. His major contributions to chemical science: CFCs and leaded gas.

Working for GM in the early 1920s, Midgley found that adding tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline prevented engine knocking, which made most cars of the time sound 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 marketing copy.

assiduously avoiding the word “lead”

Midgley, also keenly aware of lead’s reputation, held a press conference to laud TEL’s safety. He coated his hands in the mixture and inhaled the fumes for a full minute. He then spent a year recovering from a case of lead poisoning, which might have been a warning sign. Another warning sign could have been the multiple deaths and dozens of cases of severe lead poisoning among workers at TEL plants; many suffered severe memory loss, personality changes, and hallucinations, among the “lucky” who did not die outright.

The societal consequences of decades of leaded gas are staggering. In the first 15 years after the initial phaseout of leaded gas, blood lead levels dropped nearly 80%. This was not a drop from “negligible” to “barely detectable,” but from “1.5x the unsafe level” to “possibly not causing lasting damage.” By some hypotheses, the elimination of leaded gas has raised mean IQ by as much as 7 points in the last few decades and significantly reduced violent crime. Here’s a semi-controversial opinion: we do not talk nearly enough about the world-historical disaster that was leaded gas nearly enough.

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.

Midgely-induced ozone-hole

They were subsequently regulated and banned. In the early 1940s Midgley contracted polio and devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to assist him in and out of bed. He died in 1944 after becoming entangled in the lifting system and strangling to death. It’s tragic…my uncle went the same way.

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5. Major Bludd is an upper-echelon member of the mercenary Cobra army that opposes GI Joe. Born in Australia, Sebastian Bludd served in the French Foreign Legion before becoming a mercenary. He’s wanted on at least three continents for war crimes and “even a few crimes against humanity.”

Sebastian Bludd

Major Bludd is 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. Even for the most prolific of mercenaries, the opportunities to off someone with a poisoned ice pick have to be few and far between. He’s also a bad poet and, like all evil men, 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 crocodile-human hybrid, killed by Baroness in a xenotransplantation 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 (former oil refinery executive who fell into a vat of chemical sludge, 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)

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