A roundup of things lost, including gold scams, castaways, hallucinogenic kids shows, desert citadels, and animal war heroes…
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1. In October 1918, a group of 554 American soldiers ended up entirely surrounded by German soldiers in the Argonne Forest. The “Lost Battalion” was entrenched, but cut off from food, water, ammunition, and other supplies—the ever-crafty Huns had made up their trenches to resemble the Americans, and supply drops kept landing there instead.
Their only method of communication was carrier pigeons. The first two pigeons they sent out were shot down while leaving the trench, leaving just one behind: Cher Ami. Cher Ami had been donated by British pigeon fanciers for training by American military pigeoneers, and when the battalion came under air assault from its own side, the unit’s commander attached the following message to the winged beast and turned her loose: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
The pigeon was immediately assailed and shot multiple times, yet somehow made the 25 mile journey to headquarters in under half an hour. The air assault was redirected, and medics saved Cher Ami’s life, even fashioning a prosthetic wooden leg. The pigeon died from war wounds in June of 1919, after being awarded the Croix de Guerre medal. Later, she was inducted into the racing pigeon hall of fame, received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers (really), and was featured on Time’s list of top ten heroic animals. She was counted among the most well-known heroes of WWI, and is now on display in the Smithsonian, alongside fellow first world war animal hero Sergeant Stubby.
The Lost Battalion, under siege for nearly a week, suffered 2/3 casualties, and fewer than 200 men escaped. Charles Whittlesey, the commander (played by Rick Schroder in the 2001 TV movie), was promoted for his leadership and awarded multiple medals but also suffered from severe post-traumatic stress and killed himself in 1921.
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2. Land of the Lost premiered in 1974 and lasted for 43 episodes across three seasons. In it, the Marshall family slips through a dimensional portal into a land of dinosaurs and lizard-men and must find a way home before they are turned into a bad 2009 Will Ferrell remake. The program was the brainchild of Sid and Marty Krofft, the sibling duo behind an entire library of family series and specials in the 60s and 70s, chief among them HR Pufnstuf. Some of their other work includes:
-A meditation on the existential consequences of bad design and/or mild dyslexia, Far Out Space Nuts (starring Bob Denver), gave us fifteen entire episodes based on this premise: “While loading food into various compartments to prepare a rocket for an upcoming mission, Barney instructs Junior to hit the “lunch” button, but Junior mistakenly hits the “launch” button. The rocket blasts off and takes them on various misadventures on alien planets.” I had a dream the other night where I was in a rocket and pressed “lunch” instead of “launch” and I was taken on a transcendent journey of alien sandwiches, but it wasn’t given a full-season green light by CBS execs.
–The Lost Saucer was sixteen episodes of Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as a pair of time-travelling androids who kidnap a few Earth children. Their time-travel controls break, sending the group off on adventures in time with no way home. The conceit was later stolen whole-cloth for the early 90s sci-fi mega-hit Quantum Leap. Episodes included “My Fair Robot,” “Beautiful Downtown Atlantis,” and “Get a Dorse,” where the group’s companion, a half-dog half-horse, is kidnapped by a mad scientist for use as a power source (???). There was also an episode called “Fat is Beautiful” about a fictional world where thinness was illegal, which is more philosophical depth than one expects for a show featuring Jim Nabors and a dorse.
-Presented without comment, the plot description for Bigfoot and Wildboy: “Bigfoot finds a young boy lost in the vast wilderness of the American northwest. Bigfoot raises the boy and calls him Wildboy. Now, 8 years later, they fight crime and aliens who show up around their forest home.” Finally, a children’s show committed to demonsterizing Bigfoot, but that also has aliens.
-Lidsville featured a teenager—the erstwhile Eddie Munster—transported by accident to a land of anthropomorphic hats being crushed under the autocratic rule of the terrifying Horatio J. HooDoo (Charles Nelson Reilly), an evil magician who demands fealty in the payment of Hat Checks, lest the hat citizens be tossed in the Shampoo River and sudsed to death. The show also featured an androgynous genie named Weenie and a virtually unlimited supply of hat puns in its 17 episodes, available on youtube.
-The quasi-musical Sigmund and the Sea Monsters features Hollywood legend Billy Barty as a sea monster named Sigmund kicked out of his underwater home for refusing to scare people. He’s adopted and hidden by a pair of adolescent brothers.
The Krofft’s fame culminated in their own amusement park, The World of Sid and Marty Krofft, which opened in downtown Atlanta in 1976. Besides live-action versions of rides and skits based on their shows, the primary draw was the world’s longest freestanding escalator. The park closed in just six months, and lay dormant for years before being purchased by Ted Turner; it now houses CNN.
Accusations of drug use or references long dogged the Kroffts, which is really the least unwholesome assumption one could draw from shows larded with talking flutes, affable sea monsters, bigfoot parenting advice, anthropomorphic hat dictators, a simple minded Bob Denver, and Jim Nabors, or just in general that most of their show ideas and costume/set design appear to be based on the journals of a lone castaway subsisting entirely on a diet of mildly neurotoxic harbor crabs and suffering from island mania. Despite this, the brothers have consistently claimed to be total squares. I recommend falling into a wikipedia and youtube rabbit hole, since I’ve here only scratched the surface of their remarkable catalog.
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3. Shipwrecks and castaways were a major problem for New Zealand in the mid-1800s. The standard trade route—sailing one’s frigate manned by 40 stout lads and filled to the gunwales with hotpants and whale meat through the “Roaring Forties” and around Cape Horn, hence to Europe and riches—was wildly treacherous, even by circa-19th century shipping standards. The waters were dangerous, maps were inaccurate, and if you were stranded on the “subantarctic” islands, you could expect “incessant gales, constant hail, snow and pelting rain,” and probably a very long, very miserable wait for rescue, assuming you lasted that long.
The Grafton wrecked in the Auckland Islands in 1864, and the five survivors lived 19 desolate months there. They weren’t rescued so much as they built a new ship to sail out for help. At the same time, some 19 crew members of the Invercauld were on the other side of the island; only three of them survived, purportedly by resorting to cannibalism. Two years later fifteen survivors of the wreck of the General Grant made it ashore, only ten survived the 1.5 years until rescue.
So New Zealand’s government decided to erect “castaway depots” on these remote islands, meant to act as supply caches and shelters until help could arrive. They also released pigs and sheep on many islands, to serve as food sources for the poor unfortunates stranded there. The first people to test out the depots were the 8 survivors of the Derry Castle wreck in 1887. Tragically for them, the depot had been looted, and they were forced to build themselves a boat to get to another island where a non-looted depot existed.
Mostly I bring this story up because the depots were built with this inscription: “The curse of the widow and fatherless light upon the man that breaks open this box, whilst he has a ship at his back.” Just one man’s opinion, but maybe they could have gone with something less dark. This may as well have said “unceasing existential terror is laid out before you, preceding a long and tortuous death, but here are some sardines and hardtack.”
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4. The Lost Dutchman’s Mine is, rather appropriately, said to be located somewhere in the Superstition Mountains. It turns out that lost mines are a common enough trope to have their own Wikipedia list. It also turns out that the actual “lost Dutchman” was not Dutch but German. It also turns out that, ironically, Arizona’s Lost Dutchman’s Mine state park does not allow gold mining.
Here are some other actual lost mines: Lost Lemon Mine, Jolly Jack’s Lost Mine, Johanssen’s Lost Platinum Cache, Lost Pegleg Mine, Lost Cement Mine, Death Valley Scotty’s Secret Mine, Two Frenchmen Mine, Janni’s Chimney, and, I swear: Lost Dutch Oven Mine.
About Scotty’s secret mine: it’s named for Walter Edward Scott (1872-1954), aka Death Valley Scotty, and perhaps the most notorious gold grifting, ore swindling, lode hoaxing flim-flam man in the entire southwest. One story about Scott is almost-too-accurately titled “A Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top”; Scotty’s motto must have been “I cannot not tell a lie,” assuming it wasn’t “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
After a brief career stunt riding in Buffalo Bill’s wild west show, Scott set to his first con: attracting seed money—in parlance, grubstake—for a gold mine that didn’t exist. He collected $5000, which was great until he was called on by investors to produce some, you know, actual gold. So Scotty claimed that, of all the luck, he had been robbed of a sack full of gold dust while on the train to deliver it to his benefactors! The story got him in the newspapers and began a life-long love affair with seeing his name in print.
Scott then: a) pulled the same scheme on Albert Johnson, an Ohio millionaire (remember that name), b) bought a customized train to break the coast-to-coast speed record, c) swindled multiple other people with fraudulent mine claims, d) starred in a play about himself, playing himself, only to be arrested for fraud when the curtain came down on opening night, and e) ended up in jail for fraud in 1912.
Upon his release, Scott settled in Death Valley. His freedom was almost short-lived: almost as soon as he arrived, he began telling locals that he’d sold a gold mine for $1 million—then recanting the story when he realized that popularizing his faux-windfall might attract the dozens of creditors he owed. Around 1915, he was visited by Albert Johnson, victim to one of Scott’s vaporware mine hustles. Johnson, oft-described as eccentric, somehow formed a friendship with the man who’d hornswaggled him; he and his wife also became enchanged with the desert. So they built a vacation estate, in Death Valley: an actual castle, with an actual turret, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Despite not owning it or living in it, the compound became known as Scotty’s Castle. It took a fair amount of pleading and paperwork for Scott to convince his many creditors that, despite the sobriquet, the vacation home was not his. Johnson, meanwhile, was supporting Scott’s estranged wife and child. The castle is now part of a national park, although it was recently damaged in a massive flood—engineers called it a “probable maximum flood event”—and will be closed until at least 2019.