Europe

The Gilded Age, as we all know, was a time of great wealth. In fact, the rich people of that time literally had more money than they knew what to do with. Their solution was to spend it lavishly…building huge estates that stretched for miles, and home that were not only huge, but were lavishly decorated. The idea was to show the world that they had money and that they could do what they wanted. The thing is, you can only build so many houses, so what’s next. That said, they were always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to spend their money.

One of the “new and interesting things” they came up with were costume balls and theme parties. In fact, these were a special favorite. While this seems like an innocent and fairly inexpensive thing to do, the items these people purchased for their costume were definitely not inexpensive. They were a prime way to not only display wealth, but also to make a show of great spending on items that would be used for just one occasion and then tossed out or closeted away. Some of these items were quite expensive, and their owner couldn’t possibly be seen using it again, nor would these people buy something from someone else, because they didn’t want to use a hand-me-down item.

On March 26, 1883, one of the most famous balls of the age was held. It was an extremely elaborate costume ball to mark the housewarming of Cornelius and Alva Vanderbilt’s New York townhouse, which was built in the design of a French chateau. The thing is that while these people were all about wealth, they were a bit “snobby” about it, meaning that there was “old money” and there was “new money.” At this particular party, there was a bit of a problem, because the Vanderbilts were “new money” and not yet established in New York society. For Alva Vanderbilt, whose name we all know, this was humiliating. She thought her money should be as accepted as anyone else’s. To prove her family’s worth and that her money was as good as anyone else’s, she planned the party of all parties and even invited the media in to tour the new house and view the fancy party decor. Then to add insult to injury, she purposely did not send out an invitation to certain “old money” families. In the end, the Grande Dame of New York society, Mrs. Astor (who had a daughter who desperately wanted an invitation), was compelled to drop off her calling card at the Vanderbilt house. That card had great significance, because it signified that the Vanderbilts had at last “arrived” in society. Alva’s plan worked and she was delighted. So was Mrs. Astor’s daughter. Mrs. Astor, however, felt a little bit used. She was forced to accept the Vanderbilts so her daughter would not be left out…whether she really accepted them in her heart, or not.

“New money” or “old money” aside, the party really was fantastic. Everyone went all out. Custom-made costumes, as well as costumes imported from Europe, featuring characters real and mythological from throughout European history. Alva had the Vanderbilt house decorated in silver and gold finery, with an abundance of colorful flowers on every floor. One floor was transformed into a tropical garden, and rooms throughout were lit by Japanese lanterns. Whether she planned it this way or not, in a smart move…for the sake of history…Alva hired professional photographers for the event. So, many of the photos taken that night have survived to prove that the ball really took place.

During what became known as the Gilded Age in United States history, extending roughly from 1870 to 1900, the economy grew so rapidly that the wages of Americans, especially in the Northern and Western United States actually surpassed the wages in Europe, especially for skilled workers. Still, increased industrialization demanded an increased unskilled labor force too, so the there was an influx of millions of European immigrants looking for a better life, to fill the need for workers. Basically, the Gilded years were years of overwhelming extravagance.

While many of the estates of the Gilded Age were in the Eastern United States, not all the great estates were in places like New York City or Newport, Rhode Island. Some of the very wealthy apparently didn’t really like the Northern winter climates, so they chose to build their estates in areas of the South. One of the greatest of these southern estates was the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, The estate was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1896, and it is enormous!! The estate covers nearly 11 miles. Of course, the real difference between what we would consider a mansion, and the Gilded Era estates is the fact that the grounds are as extravagant as the homes. The main house of the Biltmore Estate has nearly 200,000 square feet!! Most of us consider a nice sized house to be 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, so 200,000 square feet, for me at least, is beyond what I can even imagine in a house. The construction was a huge undertaking, that literally took building an entire working village near the site to house the workers, manufacturers, and supplies. A three-mile railroad spur was even built just to transport building supplies to the construction site. More than 1,000 workers were hired to build the huge house.

The Biltmore remains in the ownership of the Vanderbilt family, with at least one member of the family living there until 1956, at which point it was operated as a historic museum. It is the largest privately owned home in the United States. To help with the high cost of modern maintenance and expenses, the house and grounds are open to the public, for a price, and a number of ticketed events are held on the site throughout the year. At the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped to revitalize the area with tourism, and in an attempt to bolster the estate’s finances during the Great Depression, Cornelia and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville.

My favorite part of war history, if a person should have a favorite part, would be World War II. It was the war my dad, Allen Spencer fought in, and maybe that is why I am so interested in it and in the B-17 Flying Fortress, from which he fought and returned home. The men and women who fought in World War II are called the Greatest Generation, and maybe because my dad was a part of that, I am partial to that part of history. I find it a bit strange that while the Vietnam Memorial Fund, Inc (VVMF) was incorporated as a non-profit organization to establish a memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War, on April 27, 1979, four years after the Fall of Saigon, but the World War II Memorial didn’t open until April 29, 2004, in Washington DC. Of course, I think it was cool that it opened on my birthday, but it really was a long overdue recognition for the 16 million US men and women who served in the war. The memorial is located on 7.4 acres on the former site of the Rainbow Pool at the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The Capitol dome can be seen to the east, and Arlington Cemetery is just across the Potomac River to the west. It really is a beautiful setting and shows the proper honor to these men and women of the Greatest Generation.

The 16 million men and women who served in the armed forces of the US are honored at the World War II Memorial, as well as the more than 400,000 who died, and all who supported the war effort from home. The memorial was built using granite and bronze. It features fountains between arches to symbolize hostilities in Europe and the Far East. The arches are bordered by semicircles of pillars, one each for the states, territories, and the District of Columbia. Beyond the pool is a curved wall of 4,000 gold stars, one for every 100 Americans killed in the war. It also features an Announcement Stone that states that the memorial is to honor those “Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: A nation conceived in liberty and justice.”

The project was funded with more than $164 million dollars in private donations, and an additional $16 million donated by the federal government. Former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who was severely wounded in the war, and actor Tom Hanks were among its most vocal supporters. The really sad part is that only a fraction of the 16 million Americans who actually served in the would ever see it…my dad included. While he was alive in 2004, that was not a trip he got to take before his passing in 2007. Four million World War II veterans were still living at the time the memorial was finally opened, but more than 1,100 dying every day, according to government records. I find that to be so sad.

Roger Durbin of Berkey, Ohio, who served under General George S Patton, inspired the memorial. Durbin was at a fish fry near Toledo in February 1987, when he asked US Representative Marcy Kaptur why there was no memorial on the Mall to honor World War II veterans. It was a question that should have been asked and answered long ago. Nevertheless, Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, introduced legislation to build one, starting a process that would stumble along through 17 years of legislative, legal, and artistic entanglements. Durbin died of pancreatic cancer in 2000, without ever actually seeing his hard work come to fruition. While he didn’t live to see his project come to life, I and so many other children of World War II veterans and lost loved ones, will be forever thankful to him for finally making sure our loved ones were properly honored. The monument was formally dedicated May 29, 2004, by US President George W Bush, but I am pleased that it actually opened on my birthday in 2004. My birthday, because it was just two days after my dad’s birthday, has always been a special time that we shared. Of course, I was due and supposed to arrive on Dad’s birthday, but I’ve always said I was a little stubborn, so I held out. Nevertheless, we usually celebrated our days together, so I feel like his memorial opening on my birthday was really very cool.

There are all kinds of records, but some are just stranger than others. Switzerland actually holds a strange record…for attacking its neighbor, Liechtenstein. This is particularly odd in that Switzerland is a neutral nation…very opposed to war!! In fact, Switzerland is the longest standing neutral nation in the world and has not taken part in a “war” since 1505. Its official stance of non-involvement had been decided during The Congress of Vienna in 1815, in which major European leaders met to discuss the nature of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. Nevertheless, they do have an army.

Diplomatic and economic relations between Switzerland and Liechtenstein have been good. In fact, you could say relations were very good, with Switzerland accepting the role of safeguarding the interests of its tiny next-door neighbor. Liechtenstein has an embassy in Bern, Switzerland, and Switzerland is accredited to Liechtenstein from its Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern and maintains an honorary consulate in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. The two countries also share an open border, mostly along the Rhine, but also in the Rätikon range of the Alps, between the Fläscherberg and the Naafkopf.

With all that “good will” between the nations, you would never expect conflict, but apparently, Switzerland has attacked Liechtenstein three times in 30 years. Of course, it was by mistake each time! How does that happen? Nevertheless, it did. The first time was probably the only “aggressive” accident of the bunch. On December 5, 1985, during an artillery exercise, the Swiss Army had launched munitions in the middle a winter storm. The wind took the munitions way off course, into the Bannwald Forest of Liechtenstein, and started a forest fire. No one was injured and the Liechtenstein government was very angry. Switzerland had to pay a heavy penalty for the environmental damage caused. The second attack took place on October 13, 1992. The Swiss Army received orders to set up an observation post in Treisenberg. They followed the orders and marched to Treisenberg. What they didn’t realize was that Treisenberg lies within the territory of Liechtenstein. They marched into Treisenberg with rifles and only later realized that they were in Liechtenstein. The last attack was on March 1, 2007. A group of Swiss Army infantry soldiers was in training when the weather took a bad turn. There was heavy rainfall, and the soldiers were not carrying any GPS or compass. Eventually, they ended up in Liechtenstein! Switzerland apologized to the Liechtenstein government for the intrusion, yet again.

Thankfully these “accidental” attacks were not of a deadly nature. They were really more a “comedy of errors” than an attack. Thankfully, the people of Liechtenstein saw the “attacks” for what they were, and tended to care for their “intruders,” rather than fight back. Of course, that would have been difficult too, since Liechtenstein does not have an army of their own, and so depended on the “protection” of their neighbors…when they didn’t accidentally attack them.

During World War II, there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of bombs dropped across Europe. There is no way to know where they were dropped, or if they actually exploded, or worse yet, if they are still lurking beneath the surface waiting to detonate. Princess Diana was a champion of a similar cause, but she was concerned about landmines…just as deadly, but a different deployment. Both concerns are real, and both situations are deadly. One German bomb specialist said that the problem will haunt Europe for centuries, saying, “There will still be bombs 200 years from now.”

One such example is that of the German town of Limberg, whose residents woke up to a startling sight on the morning of June 23, 2019. A crater in a field as large as a house. The explosion was caused by a leftover bomb from World War II. Unexploded bombs really are a huge problem in Germany and other European countries, because these long-buried weapons periodically surface or spontaneously explode. No one knows when it might happen and the aftermath can be devastating. The explosion occurred in the central German town of Ahlbach, just north of Frankfurt. Residents reported hearing and feeling a large explosion in the early morning hours of Sunday the 23rd, but no one actually saw the explosion occur. During a follow-up the next day, they found a crater 33 feet wide and 14 feet deep in the middle of a barley field. It was determined that a decomposing bomb detonator for the explosion.

According to the BBC, “explosive ordnance demolition teams concluded that the explosive device was a 551 pound aerial bomb dropped by the Allies during World War II. The bomb was likely a M43, AN-M43, or AN-M64 500 pound general purpose bomb. General purpose bombs at terminal velocity will penetrate 3-4 building stories before detonating, so it’s not surprising this bomb buried itself so well.”

“The M65 was five feet long and 14 inches wide, and carried a payload of 280 pounds of TNT. The bomb casing, designed to produce fragment into lethal shrapnel, was .3 inches thick. An explosive ordnance disposal guidebook describes their purpose as to destroy ‘steel railway bridges, underground railways, sea craft such as light cruisers, concrete docks, medium sized buildings, etc.’”

During World War II, Germany operated several facilities in areas important to the war effort, including Limburg Field and an important railroad junction and marshaling yard. Allied bombs were dropped during the war, but often missed by miles. Falling at a high rate of speed, that morning’s bomb buried itself in the soft soil and remained undetected for decades. Whoever cultivated the barley field obviously had no idea 280 pounds of highly unstable explosives lurked underneath, and thankfully no one was hurt

Seventy five years after the end of World War II, unexploded bombs are still a huge problem not only in Germany, but across all of Europe. The explosions don’t happen often, but when one explodes the results can be devastating. Governments are trying to find these bombs. Experts drill holes and look for bombs using magnetometers, searching for the signature of a bomb’s steel casing. Then they defuse or explode them harmlessly.

World War II was finally winding down. Germany had surrendered. Japan was still a problem, but they were losing their strength too. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and now it was over for Germany. I fact, it was time for celebration. So on May 8, 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrated Victory in Europe Day. The day would come to be known as V-E Day, and cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the oppressive Nazi war machine.

That was 75 years ago today that the first V-E Day was celebrated. It is hard to believe that it was 75 years ago. I wasn’t born then, of course, but over the years of researching World War II, I almost feel like those events were just yesterday. Researching World War II bought the events…good, bad, and horrific to life for me. Our men and women, as well as those of the Allies were brave and noble people. They were fighting against two oppressive regimes, both of whom had murdered their own people and the people of the nations around them. The Nazi war machine had marched through Europe, terrorizing the people around them. The Luftwaffe planes bombed many cities, taking no concern for the civilians lost. Life meant nothing to them…except for their own. Hitler was greedy for power, and wanted to bring Nazism to the whole world. Thankfully they were stopped before they could complete their reign of terror.

German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms on May 8, 1945 in Prague. The Soviets had lost 8,000 soldiers by the time of the surrender, but the Germans had lost considerably more. They laid down their arms too, in Copenhagen and Oslo, at Karlshorst, near Berlin, in northern Latvia, and on the Channel Island of Sark. The German surrender was almost complete in that final cease-fire. More surrender documents were signed in Berlin and in eastern Germany.

The main concern of many German soldiers was to elude the grasp of Soviet forces, to keep from being taken prisoner. About 1 million Germans attempted a mass exodus to the West when the fighting in Czechoslovakia ended, but were stopped by the Russians and taken captive. The Russians captured approximately 2 million prisoners just before and after the German surrender. At the same time. 13,000 British soldiers were released and sent back to Great Britain. Of course, there were still pockets of confrontations into May 9th, and the Soviets lost an additional 600 soldiers in Silesia before the Germans finally surrendered. Those skirmishes pushed back the V-E Day celebration until the ninth in Moscow, with a radio broadcast salute from Stalin himself, “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.” It was a great day for all the people of the Allied nations, and the people of the world, with the exception of the Germans, Japanese, and the Axis nations. Good over evil.

­Mildred Fish was an American-German literary historian, translator, and later, a German Resistance fighter in Nazi Germany. They fell in love and married, moving to Germany right after. She met her future husband, Arvid Harnack in 1926. Arvid was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany. In Germany, Mildred worked in education and Arvid secured a position with the Reich Economic Ministry. Throughout the 1930s, Mildred and Arvid, became increasingly alarmed by Hitler’s rise to power. They could see that he had ulterior motives. They communicated with a close circle of associates who believed communism and the Soviet Union might be the only possible stumbling block to complete Nazi tyranny in Europe.

When Mildred came to the United States for a lecture tour in 1937, her family begged her to relocate permanently, but she refused and resumed her life in Germany. I suppose she thought she could be of better assistance there than in the United States. When war was declared in 1941, she did not leave with other Americans. They couldn’t leave, because by then, Mildred and Arvid were involved with a communist espionage network known by the Gestapo as “The Red Orchestra”. The ring, which provided important intelligence to the USSR, was compromised and the members were arrested. I’m sure they knew this was a death sentence for them.

After they were tried as traitors, Arvid was sentenced to death and executed on December 22, 1942. Mildred was given a six year sentence, but Hitler refused to endorse her punishment. As only a dictator can, he insisted on a retrial, after which she was condemned on January 16, 1943. She was beheaded by guillotine at Plotzensee Prison on February 16, 1943. She was the only American female executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Because of her connection to possible communist sympathies and post-war McCarthyism, her story is virtually unknown in the United States.

Whether it was World War I or World War II, every flyer knew what a dogfight was. Dogfights were the undisputed, most intense type of aerial combat there was. Basically it was an intense game of chicken…one that no one really wanted to play. The fight for supremacy in the skies over Europe was vital to the war effort. The Axis of Evil nations had to be stopped, and the air war was going to be the way to win the war.

After watching some of the cockpit footage of the dogfights, I don’t know how those pilots did it. In the non-war world, two planes going head to head is not an ideal situation, but that was what the fighter planes of war have to do. As one plane starts to gain dominance over another, the plane being chased often goes into a steep climb, followed by the pursuing plane. The first plane to stall is going to end up being chased, because as he loses power, he drops and then must run first to gain power and then to get away from his attacker. If you thought going head to head with another plane was scary, imagine a deliberate stall…for supremacy!! That just seems insane to me, but that is the nature of the dogfight. These pilots had to be very brave. There is no way to fly like that, or especially fight like that unless you area very brave pilot…not to mention a skilled pilot. Without that skill, the pilots would not survive long enough to even become an ace.

For a fighter pilot to become an ace, he had to shoot down five enemy planes. A gunner could become an ace too, but the majority of aces are fighter pilots. The key to becoming an ace, besides shooting down the enemy, is obviously to stay alive long enough to become an ace. In these dogfights, that was difficult for sure.

It seems like these days, the more unique a motorcycle is, the more attention it gets. I don’t think anyone who as seen an unusual motorcycle, can say that they weren’t impressed, amused, or just shocked. You can’t really believe what you are seeing, but it’s hard to look away too. I sometimes wonder how these people came up with such an idea. I guess it takes a great deal of imagination. Some of these designs, are hilarious, and there is seriously no other word for it. People just think of something that is important in their lives, and turn their motorcycle into so version of that thing.

While strange bicycles, and even motorcycles, seem like a hilariously funny idea, that might land you on the ground sometimes, some strange looking motorcycles would seem to me like something a little riskier…especially if you get some speed behind it. Such is the case with the monocycle. I’m not a big fan of motorcycles anyway, so to modify one just to make it a novelty seems an odd idea, indeed. Still, as long as the safety of the motorcycle doesn’t enter into the picture, I guess it’s ok, but some people really got carried away. There were a few monocycles that people rode, and for me, that seems like a dangerous thing to ride. Motorcycles are hard enough upright with two wheels, but to remove one wheel and ride that contraption on the remaining wheel…just crazy!!

Nevertheless, that is what Messrs Cislaghi and Goventosa of Italy did, when they built the Motoruota in the 1920s. While it looked so unusual that is was sure to attract attention, it really was a dangerous motorcycle. Apparently the design was popular in Europe, especially France and Italy. They were interesting, to say the least, and I’m sure everyone would want to see it, but you would never get me on one of these contraptions. I value my life much more than that.

After World War II, most of Europe was in a big mess, whether it was the land,the cities and towns, or the government. There were scores of dead people around, countries and borders were torn apart, most of Europe had been “ground into a very civilized kind of pudding…and the USSR was knocking on the door to come and raid the fridge…so to speak.” Russia would have loved to sneak in and take over when they were at their most vulnerable. The people looked to the United States to figure out away to keep them safe, but not to occupy their countries, per se. That is a rather tall order, but one that the United States took seriously.

So the United States came up with Operation Gladio. Basically, they installed a secret military that would unofficially operate all across Europe. The secret military would have one and only one goal…combating communism. Little is known about this secret military, even today, because it wouldn’t be a very good secret army if we knew all about them. So, facts are pretty limited, but it’s not some crazy theory either. Their existence has been confirmed, and the network has been associated with such high-stakes super-evil events, as an attempted pope assassination, large scale bombings, and kidnappings of several high-level government officials. They were willing to do anything to fight communism…murder, extortion, even seemingly becoming communists, if that’s what it took. It turns out that the Italian branch was a particularly active group. An entirely different president of Italy, Francesco Cossiga, was involved in this ominous anti-communism secret society. The reason we don’t know more about them, even years after the end of the Cold War, is simple: crazy, crazy murders. Their secrets will follow them to the grave.

Then a new Italian president was elected. President Aldo Moro, wanted to allow communists to run for office.The still operating Gladio could not let this happen. He was suddenly kidnapped and eventually executed. His body was found in the trunk of a car parked next to an ancient gladiatorial site. A warning to others…more than probably!! A “gladio” is an ancient Roman short sword, used in arena combat. A former colonel of Gladio operations in Switzerland decided to write a letter to the government stating that he was ready to “reveal the whole truth.” Again, Operation Gladio took action. The Gladio colonel was found dead in his home a month later. He was stabbed to death with his own bayonet. There were a series of mysterious characters written on his chest that couldn’t be deciphered. Of course, that’s not concrete evidence of Gladio’s direct involvement in these events, but these are just two brutal, worrying events that spin a web of mystery and fear that keeps further investigations from being opened. Sometimes, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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