Monthly Archives: January 2019

National Handwriting Day was established in 1977, and because of John Hancock’s birthday, January 23rd, and the fact that he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it was decided that his birthday would be the ideal day for this unique holiday. The day was started as a way to re-introduce people to the pen and paper. In a world where most writing is done by computer, and notes are in a smartphone, the idea of writing on paper has almost become strange. I think about my Uncle Bill Spencer, the genealogy patriarch of the Spencer family, and how important handwritten letters always were to him, and I can understand how this lost art was so heartbreaking for him. When I look at treasures we have found that contain the handwriting of our parents or grandparents, it definitely brings us closer to them. At least it makes us feel closer to them.

The Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, looks at National Handwriting Day as a chance for everyone to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting. Of course, their true motive is to promote the consumption of pens, pencils, and writing paper, but that isn’t the worst thing in the world. While this holiday was invented during the 1970s, it is considered to be a holiday that is increasing in importance with the passing of each year, because the art of handwriting is gradually being lost as more and more people use computers, tablets, and phones to email, instant message, and text their thoughts. Some believe that handwriting is as unique to a person as a fingerprint. I agree, because when I look at a handwritten note from someone I know, I can usually tell you who wrote it.

The ancient Romans were the first to develop a written script for correspondence based on aspects they borrowed from the Etruscan alphabet. However, after the Roman Empire fell, the development handwriting would come to rest with various monasteries. The problem with that is that with so many styles, people couldn’t read or understand what other people wrote…until the 8th century, when Charlemagne decided to put an English monk in charge of standardizing a handwriting script. The resulting script, Carolingian minuscule, was one that featured lowercase letters and punctuation and was designed to be easily read by candlelight. And it was a script that was highly used up until the 15th century.

During the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg came up with a denser style of writing script for use on printed parchments and in books. This Gothic script was used extensively on his printing press, but was not really very popular with the people. Finally, Italian humanists decided to go back to a Carolingian script and then invented a cursive form of it that would eventually become known as italic. From that point on, penmanship was seen as a symbol of status. The schools began education young scholars in its use during the 18th century. The mid-19th century in the United States, brought a cursive writing system developed by my 3rd cousin 5 times removed, Platt Rogers Spencer. His penmanship style became known as the Spencerian Method. It was widely taught and many schools quickly adopted its use, but it was eventually replaced by the Palmer Method, invented by Austin Norman Palmer, at the turn of the century. The Palmer Method would eventually be replaced by the D’Nealian script, invented by Donald Thurber. It was introduced into American schools in the late 1970s.

Unfortunately, handwriting began to decline during the 1980s. Typewriters and word processors were used for writing instead of a pen and paper. We all thought it was the wave of the future, and the advance of the technological age, but I wonder if we somehow missed the bigger picture. Schools began to eliminate handwriting courses, replacing them with typewriting and eventually computer classes, and the art of handwriting got lost in the excitement of something new. Now, it is in serious danger of disappearing altogether. As I contemplate the end of such an important part of history, and think of my Uncle Bill, and his understanding of its real importance, I realize just how big that loss really is.

In April of 1943, during a raid on a Czechoslovakian arms factory, a British bomber crashed in Germany, going down with seven crew members on board. At the time of the crash, German soldiers recovered two of the bodies, but somehow they didn’t find or recover the bodies of the other five crewmen. It seems odd to me that they couldn’t find them, or that they somehow just chose not to bury the remaining five crewmen. Because the extensive search, following the war, produced nothing, the British Air Ministry assumed that the plane had ditched in the sea.

The plane, an Avro Lancaster, piloted by Alec Bone, took off from Lincolnshire, England, almost 76 years ago. Their target was a munitions plant in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. A total of 327 bombers took off that day, and 36 would never return. Bone’s plane was one of those unfortunate 36 planes. It is believed that he and his crew battled German antiaircraft fire before plunging into a field outside Laumersheim in southwestern Germany. As it searched in vain for the missing crew in the years following World War II, the British Air Ministry had no idea that German troops had already buried two of the men in Mannheim.

There was, however, one person who knew the location of the plane…Peter Menges, who was a teenager at the time he witnessed the fiery crash of the British bomber. It was a site he would ever forget, but I’m sure he assumed that the Germans had found it too, and gone to remove the bodies or any survivors. This whole situation made me wonder why the other five men were not buried too. Upon researching this crash, I think I have discovered why. Most of us picture a plane crash with a broken plane and the bodies of the dead lying almost peacefully nearby, but most often it isn’t like that at all. When airplanes crash, they hit the ground going very fast, and the human body doesn’t handle that kind of impact very well. In fact it reacts much like an explosion, with pieces scattered all over the place. And when a plane nose dives into the ground, burying itself deep in the ground, like this one did, those body parts are often buried too.

Menges who was 83 in 2012, when he told the tale of the fiery crash of Alec Bone’s plane. He had joined forces with Uwe Benkel, a health insurance clerk, who moonlighted as a military history researcher. Together they have helped to recover more than 100 planes. Upon learning of the exact location of the crash, a team of men used metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar to confirm the crash location near Laumersheim. Their search first unearthed the bomber’s engine and landing gear, along with hundreds of bone fragments thought to be the remains of the missing men. My guess is that because of the planes burial at the site, and the fact that most of the bodies were blown to bits at the time of the impact, the German soldiers who were at the scene to bury the bodies that day, simply could not find the other bodies.

Because no one knew where to look, the families never knew what happened for sure. They could only speculate. Now, the remains of the five British airmen have been found. Their relatives have been notified and plans are being made to bury the men in a shared coffin at Germany’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Benkel told British news sources that area residents wondered why he was searching for former enemies who had bombed German cities. “It doesn’t make a difference if they are German or British,” he told The Telegraph. “They were young men who fought and died for their country for which they deserve a proper burial in a cemetery.” I agree. No matter which side of a battle a soldier fought on, he fought to the best of his or her abilities, and that deserves respect, and a proper burial. “They flew together and died together,” says Mr Benkel. “It is only right that they should stay together.”

This past summer, my sister, Cheryl Masterson; my cousin, Pam Wendling; and I went to visit Pam’s dad, our Uncle Bill Spencer at the nursing home where he lives. Uncle Bill has dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease, and so how the visits go, depends on the kind of day he is having. The day of our visit was a really good day. Uncle Bill may not have known who we all were, and even some details about our lives, but he had some funny stories to tell us…one of which was how his brother, our dad, Allen Spencer had never gotten married!! That one was new to my sister and me, who are the eldest of Dad’s five daughters with his wife, our mom, Collene Byer Spencer. I guess Uncle Bill’s mind went back to the pre-Collene era of Dad’s life.

Uncle Bill also told us about the days on the family farm. I think my sister and I always thought of it as a small little patch of land…maybe 5 acres or so, but Uncle Bill told us that the farm was actually 80 acres. The farm was big enough to grow enough vegetables to sell them exclusively to Stokely Foods Inc. Stokely foods is a large company and it was founded on August 18, 1943, later merged with Van Camp’s, and then sold the Stokely brand to Seneca Foods in 1985, and the Van Camp’s brand to ConAgra in 1995. I guess you could say that the Spencer farm got in on the ground floor of Stokely Foods, Inc. This was really interesting to us, because it was confirmed by Uncle Bill’s cousin, Les Schumacher. I suppose Cheryl and I should have assumed that the farm was bigger than we thought, because they grew hay, and it took days to get it all stacked, but when you didn’t grow up on a farm, I guess you don’t really have a good way to gauge such things. I think we should have had some inkling, however, because the pictures we have seen should have told the tale…to some degree at least.

As our visit with Uncle Bill came to a close, we found ourselves very sad about the speed with which the time had passed. We don’t get to see him very much, and he is such a precious person in our lives. He was really in rare form, laughing and smiling a lot. There were no awkward moments when no one knew what to say, and Uncle Bill carried much of the conversation, which was absolutely wonderful. Our only regret is that we can’t get up there to see him more often. Today is Uncle Bill’s 97th birthday. That’s amazing…97 and going strong. Happy 97th birthday Uncle Bill!! Have a great day!! We love you!!

As kids, most of us hear a ghost story or two, but rarely was the “ghost” a ship. Nevertheless, ghost ships do occasionally find their way into folk lore, whether they are fact or fiction. Fictitious ghost ships would have their draw, because the storyteller can elaborate as much or as little as they want, but the non-fiction version is incredible, because it is true. One such real ghost ship is the Sam Ratulangi. This ship is a modern day version of the ghost ship. Built in 2001, the ship disappeared after only eight years of service.

The disappearance is not totally unusual, but not being able to locate the ship is something else all together…especially in the year 2001. If a ship sinks, someone knows just about where to look, and with satellite coverage, someone will spot a ship that didn’t sink. And this was not small boat. The Sam Ratulangi is a huge cargo ship that is 580 feet long…not something that could be easily missed in the ocean. Nevertheless, for 9 years, there was no sign of the Sam Ratulangi. Most people assumed that the ship sank back in 2001, and gave up hope of ever finding it again.

People who love the beach, know that you often find things that have washed up on shore, but no one expected a 580 foot ship to suddenly show up within sight of the beach…bottles, driftwood, even parts of a ship wreck or plane crash, but not the whole ship, and definitely not after 9 years. Nevertheless, there it was just a couple of miles off the coast of a village in Myanmar. The ship was empty, both of cargo and of crew. It is unknown exactly what happened to the crew. The ship is enormous, and it’s pretty hard to imagine someone not seeing this drifting out on the ocean, so why had it reappeared? It was visible from the shore, but someone had to be brave enough to go onboard to check it out. The ship was seized by the Myanmar navy, until more information could be found.

The appearance of the Sam Ratulangi was a mystery, but soon there was a clue that could lead to solving it. Radar had shown there were two ships suspiciously sailing in their waters in the preceding days. They presumed the huge ghost ship was one, but where was the other? The Navy tracked down a small tugboat called Independence, and found out that it had been transporting the huge cargo ship. After questioning the 13 crew members of the Independence, it was confirmed they had been hauling the Sam Ratulangi, but had it had been cut loose following some severe weather on the sea. They claimed they were planning on dragging the ship to Bangladesh where they would sell it to ship breakers where the vessel would be stripped down, dismantled, and anything valuable would have been salvaged. Ship breaking is pretty big business these days. Modern ships are only expected to last around 25 to 30 years before they are decommissioned due to corrosion. That leaves lots of working valuable equipment onboard these ships even if the body of the ship isn’t. Shipyards allow the owners of these ships to make some money from what is otherwise an expensive hunk of metal that will soon sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Even though the Sam Ratulangi disappeared over nine years ago, this tugboat had done what no one else apparently had, and found it in the middle of the ocean. Not willing to let this colossal ship drift around aimlessly any longer, the crew of the Independence hooked their tugboat to the Sam Ratulangi and began hauling it toward Bangladesh. So, while the mystery of how the Sam Ratulangi had disappeared, and how it avoided detection for nine years, as well as what happened to it cargo and crew, will likely never be known, the mystery of how it ended up of the Myanmar shore was solved.

While islands don’t float and can’t flip over, they are subject to one hazard that can sometimes end with their disappearance…erosion. This isn’t a situation that many of us would ever notice in our lifetime, but on one island…Holland Island, located in the Chesapeake Bay, erosion quickly became a problem. In 1910, Holland Island, considered the most populated island in the Chesapeake Bay, was thriving with 360 residents. Besides historic Victorian homes, there were many other homes, shops, a school, and a church.

Despite its historic value, erosion gradually ate away at the island which greatly concerned its residents. Erosion just doesn’t care about historic value, sentimental value, or even about people’s lives. It is just a part of nature, and if a piece of ground doesn’t have a solid base, and plenty of vegetation to keep the ground in place, wind, rain, snow, and in this case, water from the bay will eventually erode the ground to a dangerous level. That was the situation that Holland Island found itself in 1910.

In 1914, in an attempt to try to slow the erosive loss of their precious island, the residents had stones shipped in to build walls and tried to even sink ships in an attempt to slow it down, but nothing worked. Finally, giving up, most of the residents tore down their homes and moved inland. Many of the buildings still remained, but the town was largely a ghost town. When a tropical storm hit in 1918, it damaged the church. By 1922, the few people who had stayed finally left after the church closed down. One man, in 1995, tried for 15 years to preserve the island, spending a fortune, all to no avail. Finally, the last house crumbled and fell, ending the fight to save Holland Island.

Louis Mantin, was a French aesthete, which is a person who has a special appreciation of art and beauty. He was also, “obsessed with death and the passage of time.” He wrote in his will that he wanted to turn his home into a museum after his death. He wanted to share his love of art, and his vast collection with others. However, his Will was very explicit in the details of how this would be carried out, and some might even say it was eccentric. In his will, he made a very specific and seemingly odd request, the museum would open 100 years after his passing.

Mantin died in 1905, and though he made it very clear in his will what he wanted the house to be in 100 years, he didn’t make any provisions for the upkeep of the house in the meantime. Because nothing was specifically laid out, the house eventually fell into disrepair, because it was locked up and ignored. Eventually, worms and mold settled in among his statues and in the elaborate wallpaper. After a distant relative discovered Mantin’s will and initiated an extensive renovation project, the house was finally re-opened as a museum in 2010. It was five years late, but the will was finally carried out. I suppose that it took a little time to get the house back into a condition that would allow the house to become a museum.

Townspeople and tourists can now marvel at this once hidden world, that went completely untouched for a century, admiring Mantin’s eclectic collections, as well as his flushing toilet and heated floors, true luxuries for any home back in 1905. Mantin inherited a large fortune from his father, and since he was a bachelor, with no children, he used the money to start collecting the things that he loved. He was almost obsessive about it. Egyptian relics, medieval locks and keys, monkey skulls, and stuffed blowfish. Mantin had strange taste, and since he inherited the money later in life, he knew that his time with his newly acquired collection would be short. He decided that the logical solution was to turn his home into a museum. He thought people might like to know how an artistic gentleman had lived at the turn of the century. The museum might be filled with odd relics, but when you consider how rare they are, their value in the world of art would probably make them priceless.

When a train derails, you know that there is going to be a big mess, and loss of life, or at the very least, injuries. And you would probably be right, but it would be a whole different situation, if multiple trains collided with each other. That is the exact scenario on January 17, 1929, in Aberdeen, Maryland, when two Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains and a freight train all collided. While the collision was horrific, the loss of life was amazingly less that expected.

On that day, passenger train Number 412, bound from Washington to Philadelphia, struck the freight train, who was also northbound, just after it pulled from a siding, by Short Lane station, near Aberdeen. The freight cars toppled onto the southbound track, directly in front of express train Number 121, from New York to Washington. There was simply not time to avoid the disaster. The wreck killed four trainmen and seriously injured another. Conductors of the two passenger trains declared none of their passengers were seriously hurt. Brakeman, K. A. Klein, on the freight train, and flagman, V. W. Stewart, were both killed in the first crash; and engineer of the southbound express train, A. C. Terhune, and M. Goldstein, his fireman, were killed when their train ploughed into the wreckage.

Bodies of the two from the freight crew and of the passenger firemen were removed and taken to a morgue in Aberdeen, but the body of the express engineer was still under the engine five hours after the wreck. The workmen were prevented from recovering it by outpouring steam. Leon Sweeting, engineer of the northbound passenger train, was badly scalded and was taken to the Havre de Grace Hospital, where his condition was reported to be serious. John H. Lee, fireman on the same train, was in the hospital, suffering from shock.

It is thought that heavy fog in the area, prevented the engineer of northbound number 412 from seeing the tail-light of the freight train right in front of him. Some passengers on the northbound and southbound trains were said to have been slightly injured, but none was reported in serious condition. The triple crash tore up about 150 yards of track and uprooted signal and telegraph poles. Trains had to be re-routed over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, while relief trains were sent from Baltimore to Aberdeen. While this was not the worst wreck, in fatalities and injuries, I don’t recall too many, if any others involving three trains, and the experience must have been terrifying.

On January 15, 2009, the whole world was captivated by the story of a miracle on the Hudson River. A pilot named Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III, affectionately known as Sully, averted disaster after an unusual bird strike…meaning a flock of geese hit his plane, disabling both engines. Hitting a bird isn’t so uncommon, but to hit a flock can bring down a plane, and that was the situation Sully found himself in as he piloted US Airways Flight 1549 out of La Guardia Airport that morning. Just 60 seconds after takeoff, the horrific strike occurred.

Sully, a former fighter pilot with decades of flying experience, knew he was in a lot of trouble. After trying to restart the engines…a plan that failed, he made the mayday call. When air traffic controllers instructed the seasoned pilot to head for nearby Teterboro Airport, he calmly informed them that he was “unable” to reach a runway. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” he said simply, and then told the 150 terrified passengers and five crew members on board to brace for impact. I’m sure there were those who thought he should have tried for the airport, but if he had, he would have flown his plane into the buildings that were in the way. They had no chance of making it to Teterboro or back to La Guardia.

I’m sure the air traffic controllers and the passengers all thought that they had no chance of survival in the Hudson River either, but they were wrong. Ninety seconds later, Captain Sully quietly glided his Airbus 320 over the George Washington Bridge and onto the Hudson River midway between Manhattan and New Jersey. The flight attendants quickly instructed the passengers to put on life jackets and head for the exits over the wings. In minutes, 150 passengers and 5 crew members found themselves standing in ankle to knee deep river water on the wings of the plane that had, only moments before, been flying gracefully over the Hudson.

Of course, a commercial airliner can’t land on the busy Hudson River unnoticed. Immediately, the commuter ferries, sightseeing boats, and rescue vessels raced to the scene to pluck the frightened passengers fro a potential watery grave. The landing was so smooth that there were only two broken ribs, and minor injuries or hypothermia. One survivor suffered two broken legs and others were treated for minor injuries or hypothermia, but no fatalities occurred. After walking up and down the aisle twice to ensure a complete evacuation, Sullenberger was the last to leave the sinking plane. There were no fatalities, a concern that Sully took very seriously. He simply could not take a deep breath until he was told that all 155 souls had survived. For his actions, Sully received a slew of honors for his actions, including an invitation to Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration and resolutions of praise from the U.S. Congress.

Sully was now famous, with all that went with it, but he felt the need to retire, and find what really mattered to him. Yes, he would always be thankful that all 155 souls on US Airways Flight 1549 had survived, and they would always be grateful to him for having the skill to land safely in the Hudson, but he needed to focus on his family and his future. I don’t think he was afraid to fly anymore, but he just needed to get his priorities straight. Sully published a book about his childhood, military background and career entitled “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.” He retired from US Airways after 30 years in the airline industry on March 3, 2010, and has since devoted his time to consulting, public speaking and advocating for aviation safety.

My uncle, Wayne Byer was for many years the head of the bus garage of the Natrona County School District. It was a job he liked, and he was very well known and liked by everyone within the district. We, his nieces and nephews, were also very proud of the fact that our uncle was in charge of the bus garage…whether we rode a bus or not. I think most of us felt like he ran the school, which of course, he didn’t, but we were kids…what did we know?

While he wasn’t in charge of the school, some of us still found that it pays to know people in high places, or not so high places. As long as they were liked, it paid to know them. Knowing Uncle Wayne was not something that I ever recall bringing me any special treatment, but my sisters, Caryl Reed, Alena Stevens, and Allyn Hadlock had a different take on that story. While attending East Junior High School, the subject of Uncle Wayne, and our relationship to him, somehow came up. That was advantageous for my sisters, in that the ladies who worked in the cafeteria, knew and very much liked Uncle Wayne. That said, they also took a liking to my sisters, and therefore, saved them some of the best food…freshest, best cuts, biggest pieces, best desserts, and such, were among the perks. I’m sure that Uncle Wayne never knew this was happening, not that it would have bothered him. I can see him grinning over such an event right now.

Of course, it was a great compliment to Uncle Wayne, and well earned. He was always an easy going, fun loving, slightly mischievous man, and that endeared him to a lot of people. He didn’t have to do much…just smile at them with that infectious smile of his, and people immediately loved him. And anyone who could honestly say they were related to him should have special treatment too. I guess it was just not something I ever thought of telling everyone, although I can see now that I should have. I can totally see how the ladies in the cafeteria could grow to like Uncle Wayne, because he was a very likeable man, and every one of his nieces and nephews would tell you the same. Today is Uncle Wayne’s 81st birthday. Happy birthday Uncle Wayne. Have a great day!! We love you!!

Strange laws seem to be a part of our legal system. I suppose they might have had a purpose at some point, but somehow most of us just can’t see what it might have been. Section 18-54 of the Little Rock Arkansas city ordinances says, “No person shall sound the horn on a vehicle at any place where cold drinks or sandwiches are served after 9:00 p.m.” Immediately my mind begins to question this law, known as the Little Rock Sandwich Shop Law.

It is mind boggling to think that this could have been such a constant problem in Little Rock that it could require immediate legal intervention. And it wasn’t that honking in front of the sandwich shop was a problem all the time, just after 9 p.m. In reality, that isn’t even late. So, honking after 9 p.m. would get the culprit a citation and a fine, but what if you were trying to prevent an accident? Think about it. What a choice, have an accident, or get a ticket for trying to prevent one. So, with our accident, does the person who honked to prevent the accident get the ticket, or is it the guy who caused the accident, but obeyed the law, and didn’t honk.

Now, be aware that “drive-by honkings” that are performed prior to 9 p.m. are completely acceptable, so any sandwich shop heckling that you may have planned just had to be completed with this time frame in mind. I leave questions like these to be answered by those with more formidable legal minds than myself. My guess is that it had something to do with teenaged drivers, who were really just out for a good time, and wanted to say “Hello” to their friends. I suppose the adults didn’t like all the honking, but seriously, how early do these adults go to bed, or need their quiet time, anyway. Whatever the case may be…this was one law that could only be classified as ridiculous.

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