This is one of those historic photographs that would never make a book – much less an article – but is an on-the-ground important glimpse into the past. What you see here is an Alaska Gold Rush shot of a man digging in the frozen ground. When the hole is deep enough, he is going to put the wood in the background into the hole and set it ablaze. The fire will thaw the ground, melt the ice and loosen the soil. Then he will quickly pan the water and the soil for enough gold to buy food for a week or so. Then he will get back into the hole to do it all again. This man was clearly broke but he was doing the best he could to survive. Did he? With the kind of enthusiasm he is displaying here, I think so. It’s people like this man who made America what it is today.

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 The Aleutian Island chain in Alaska is infamous for its unpredictable weather patterns. This is primarily because the southern shores of the islands are warmed by the Kuroshio, the Japanese current. The northern shores of the islands are on the Bering Sea, notorious for icy weather every month of the year. To illustrate the climatic disparity between the two bodies of water, during the winter the Bering Sea has a solid mantle of ice from Alaska to Siberia that can be up to fifteen feet thick. To the south of the Aleutians, the waters are ice-free.

Considering the distance between the Kuroshio and the Bering Sea is between a dozen miles and zero feet, the mixing of the weather patterns creates the most unpredictable weather in the world. Worse, weather systems do not build; they arrive. Weather patterns change so quickly, flying in the Aleutians is not only hazardous but also time warping. It is possible to land in False Pass in clear weather and then suddenly be socked in immediately for a week with a storm no one saw coming. Having to crab to the port to take off from Cold Bay and then, halfway down the landing strip, being forced to crab to starboard because there are fifty-mile-an-hour winds at 180 degrees dividing the runway is not unusual. As Alaskan humorist Warren Sitka says, “Every time I think about flying in the Aleutians, I don’t.”

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Legend has it the Persian emperor Jamsheed loved grapes so much he stored them in amphora during the winter so he could regrow them the next spring. Because he believed them to be harmful, he labeled the amphoras as containing poison. One winter a woman in his harem who wanted to commit suicide tried to do so by drinking the “poison.’  She didn’t die but her euphoria was so great it generated an industry which is still in force today – with some wines labeled Jamsheed. This is a great story but probably not true as the Sumerians, who preceded the Persians by thousands of years, had a god overlooking the “heavenly grape-vine.” She was Geshtinanna and is also the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and dream interpretation. According to Sumerian legend, her brother, Dumuzid, had been killed by demons of that era, the galla, and been spirited off to the Sumerian equivalent of the underworld, Kur. Geshtinanna agreed to take her brother’s place in Kur for six months out of every year.  That is why those months are devoid of fertility, ergo winter. To this day, wags and historians wonder if the labeling of fermenting grapes was because of the belief they were poisoned or because the emperor wanted to dissuade anyone from drinking his best wine. 

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In February of 1917, Mata Hari, an exotic dancer and self-confessed harlot, was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysées in Paris. The charge?  Spying for the Germans. She was put on trial for – allegedly – passing along critical information on the French army which – allegedly – caused the death of 50,000 soldiers. The proof?  Invisible ink found in her hotel room. The truth?  Mata Hari, who went by the name Zelle and claimed to be a Japanese princess, was actually from the Dutch East Indies. Yes, she had taken money from the Germans but had only passed along worthless information. The ink?  Part of her makeup. Nevertheless, on October 15, 1917, she was executed by firing squad. According to a witness, she declined a blindfold and blew a kiss to her executioners.  To this day it is believed that the execution of Mata Hari as a German agent was a tit-for-tat for the German execution of Edith Cavell on October 12, 1915.

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So little is known about the Alaska Gold Rush that most Americans think the Klondike Strike in the Yukon Territory of Canada is the Alaska Gold Rush.  It is not.  The three ‘centers’ of the Alaska Gold Rush were Juneau with hard rock mines, Fairbanks where the gold was brought up by dredges and Nome where the stampeders could pan for gold on the beach.  You could not stake a claim on the Nome beach because it was Federal property. You could take the gold you found, but when the tide came up, you had to come in.  Or swim.  This is a shot of the ‘slow’ day in Nome.  Keep in mind in 1903, Nome was a dozen blocks ‘deep’ and 20 miles along the beach. If you look carefully at this photo, you will see the DEXTER on the left.  That was Wyatt Earp’s saloon and brothel.

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John Wesley Hardin stands out as the most ruthless killer in not only the Old West, but in American history as well. By his account he killed 42 men – but the law could only account for 27.  There might have been many more but he died at 42 after spending 17 years in prison. It is true he was friends with William “Wild Bill” Hickok though the facts are in dispute.  Reported as fact by Hickok, in Abilene, Hickok told Hardin – then under the alias Wesley Clemmons – to stay out of trouble and turn in his guns. Hardin did though Hardin’s memoir, disputed, said Hardin beat Hickok to the draw.

In that year, 1871, the two owners of the Bulls Head Saloon painted a giant bull on the side of their establishment with a large erect penis. Citizens asked the penis be removed. The saloon owners declined so Hickok altered the drawing. This infuriated the owners and one of them, Phil Coe, tried to get Hardin to kill Hickok – to which Hardin replied, “If Bill needs killing, why don’t you kill him yourself?” Coe allegedly told Hickok he was such a good shot he could “kill a crow on the wing,” to which Hickok replied, “Did the crow have a pistol? Was he shooting back? I will be.”

On October 5, 1871, Hickok did. Coe was on the main street firing his gun when Hickok ordered him arrested.  Coe said he had been firing at a stray dog and suddenly turned his gun on Hickok.  Hickok shot killing Coe in what was the only authentic ‘shootout on Main Street’ in Western history – but has been repeated in thousands of Westerns since.

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Often a genius is someone who just looks at a problem differently.  Between 1905 and 1907, John Frank Stevens was the Chief Engineer on the Panama Canal.  The problem? Sections of the canal were dug into jungle soil where there was no bedrock. When the so-called “Big Ditch” got too deep, the sides of the canal collapsed. Being a creative thinker, Stevens ‘saw a solution in the problem.’  Rather than continuing to dig down, he built up.  Instead of continuing dig a ditch, he built a dam.  He created Lake Gatun, using the waters of the Chagres River, the very river that had been eroding the sides of the Big Ditch.  Stevens created a lake with 164 square miles – and the Panama Canal has been operational since it opened for business on August 15, 1914.  And, for trivia enthusiasts, actually, this is not true.  The actual date the Panama Canal was completed was October 11, 1913.

By a President of the United States 4,000 miles away.

On that date, Woodrow Wilson, touched a button on his desk in the White House and an electric impulse traveled for four seconds to the Gamboa Dike exploding eight tons of dynamite.  And the waters from Lake Gatun flowed into the Culebra Cut and the sea-to-sea “Big Ditch” was complete. 

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Before there was a Wild West, bandanas were the rage in England among the wealthy. Why? Because users of snuff blew their noses and ‘such activity’ left ‘residue’ on white handkerchiefs. A wily entrepreneur found a solution – and a profit – in India Textile makers in that country were manufacturing colored handkerchiefs using a tie-dying technique called  bandhani which, linguistically corrupted, became bandana. Since then, bandanas have been used as advertisements – including printing of the words and music to “We Want Teddy” for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 run for the Presidency – and to cover the nose and lips of stagecoach robbers in the Old West. One bandana became a part of history on November 3, 1883, when notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart tried to hold up a stagecoach on Funk Hill in Calaveras County, California. He was injured in the robbery and dropped a number of personal items – including a handkerchief with the laundry mark: F.X.O.7.  Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume traced the handkerchief through a San Francisco laundry to a C. E. Boles.  Boles spent four years in San Quentin and was released in 1888.  Thereafter he vanished from the pages of history – except for his poetry, left at the scene of his robberies, one stanza reproduced here

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.

— Black Bart, 1877 

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In 47 BCE, Julius Caesar was faced with a mutiny.  The Tenth Legion was demanding unpaid wage for their service and balking at going to the war in Africa. Worse, they were threatening to ravage the city of Rome. It was a tense situation and Caesar’s associates advised him to disband the Tenth Legion.  But Julius Caesar was a creative thinker. And he knew exactly what to do. He met with the rambunctious Tenth Legion and said just one word:  Quirites.  Quirites were civilians. And as civilians no member of the Tenth Legion was entitled to any share of the booty looted from war. They were, in modern parlance, ‘on their own on the street.’  History records the soldiers shouted “No! No! We are soldiers! And they followed Caesar into battle in Africa. 

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When it comes to “the past,” it is so easy to say, “Well, in those days ….”  But there were 365 days a year in every one of “those days,” and in every one of “those days” our grandparents had to live, eat, struggle to make a dime and face every single real world problem we have today. Only technology has changed. What no one thinks about are the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts realities of THEN. Today we don’t give much thought to driving to work. We just get in a car and go. 100 years ago, well, it was a bit different.  If you were a woman and had to look good wherever you went, you had to wear a hoop skirt.  If you lived in a city, you could not ride with a hoopskirt. The hoops had to come off before you got on whatever means of transportation you used.  So, young women, next time you complain about wearing a bra, be thankful you can get to work without undressing on the sidewalk. 

www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi; https://bit.ly/2WwBElt.

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