Miss America on TV and Patriot Day

Well, here it is, another September 11th.  Most of us remember where we were and what we were doing on that particular day in 2001, so I won’t belabor it–yet.  But, there were other events on 11 September in other years, like the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1287 made famous by Mel Gibson’s Braveheart; the beginning of the battle of Brandywine in 1777; the end of the Plattsburgh battle in 1779; the appointment of Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury in 1789; the patenting of the mail chute in 1883; and the beginning of the building of the Pentagon in 1941.  But today, we talk about beautiful women on television and tragedies on beautiful days.

Though it is the best known of many, Miss America wasn’t the first of its kind: the first beauty pageant was held in Scotland in 1839; showman PT Barnum staged another contest in 1859 that was shut down after protests over their degradation of public morals–a common theme against Barnum at the time. There were many in the 19th century, especially in America, but none were recurring.

The Miss America pageant started out as a publicity stunt on 25 September 1920, intended to bring business to the Atlantic City Boardwalk. There was no real competition, just a bunch of beautiful girls pushed around in chairs on wheels.  The next year, after the enthusiastic reception and increased traffic, the pageant became an annual event in Atlantic City.  Other milestones include:

  • 1933,  the youngest Miss America, 15-year-old Marion Bergeron, won the contest.
  • 1944, the compensation switched from furs and movie contracts to a college scholarship.
  • 11 September 1954, Evelyn Ayr (above) was crowned for the first time on live TV.
  • 1971, Cheryl Browne was the first African-American to compete.
  • 1984, Vanessa Williams was the first African-American woman to win.  Williams was also the first asked to resign for posing in Penthouse.
  • 2014, Nina Davuluri was the first Indian-American woman to win the crown.

Some of the winners have gone on to fame and fortune in Hollywood and other entertainment industries, but most finish their rounds of publicity, take their scholarships and sink back into obscurity.  The pageant/scholarship program has been under fire for most of its history for being “out of step” with… something.  It is also criticized for exalting body types that are unachievable without great sacrifice and potential damage to a woman’s health.  While the last may be true, I don’t believe the pageant has ever held itself out as anything other than a way for women to win scholarships, and for businesses to make money on advertising.   Women compete of their own free will, and people watch of their own free will.

There’s a great deal that could be said about 9/11, but what I recall most vividly was not the planes crashing into buildings, but what headlines quickly disappeared.

  • Some overrated interchangeable blonde starlet published an autobiography that stated that she was at one time possessed by space aliens.
  • Some congressman was suspected of killing a female intern with whom he may or may not have had an affair, a crime that was later was pinned on some other poor schmuck.
  • Someone started another petition to recount ballots in Florida from the 2000 election after the last recount indicated that GW Bush’s margin of victory there was larger than initially thought.

Watching the carnage in New York and Arlington on a spectacularly gorgeous Tuesday in southeastern Wisconsin was like watching a bad movie…another one that blew up buildings for no apparent reason.  But Shanksville, Pennsylvania, that was different.  According to everything we know, United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark destined for San Francisco was hijacked by four men and diverted to…this is where it gets fuzzy. Popular wisdom says the hijacker’s target was the White House, but it is just as likely that the target was the Capital, which would have been in the same area, or another, double hit on the Pentagon, which would make military sense.

In 2013 my wife and I were headed to Washington to pick up my MA in history, and happened to stop for the night in Pennsylvania.  On the way to the motel I saw a sign that said “Flight 93 Memorial 16 Miles.” OK, we decide, we’ve got a few hours to spare tomorrow.  We’ll have a look.  So we follow the signs (there are none on the turnpike, and most of the pointers are very small) down very rural hardball roads to the memorial, which is at an old open-pit mine that was closed when Flight 93 crashed.

Shanksville, Pennsylvania is little more than a wide spot in a two-lane road, literally, and its two miles from the crash site.   It may have been more prosperous before the mine closed, but by the time we saw it, but in the spring of 2013 there just wasn’t much there.  As we went through the Flight 93 Memorial, I couldn’t help but think that the army of investigators that descended on Stonycreek Township would have overwhelmed the public facilities there very quickly. And so I walked the concrete walkways of the Classroom Without Walls (as NPS bills it), looked at the pictures of the victims/heroes, looked into the actual crash site (the memorial is next to it; the crash site itself is still treated as a crime scene), then thought about one of the pictures.  Then I looked again.

Maybe, I thought.  Maybe.  One of the passengers on Flight 93 looked more than vaguely familiar.  And the name.  I looked it up later…no, not him.  Resembled a guy I served with in the Army in Florida in the ’70s.  Name was similar, too.  But, no. Still, might have been sad and at the same time good to have known that one of my old comrades did his duty…we’re not relieved of our oaths at discharge, ya know.

Patriot Day was first observed in 2002. Now, to add to the confusion of 9/11, there’s a Patriot’s Day observed in the Boston area on the third Monday in April. But that one’s been around for decades. 9/11 isn’t a federal holiday; no offices are closed except the Flight 93 Memorial from 9 to noon.  But if you ever get the chance, you should go.  There’s something noble about citizens taking their implicit duty to protect and defend seriously enough to sacrifice themselves like that.  That deserves a look, and some contemplation.


“Diving Boats”, Foote, Laconia and “What We Knew”

On 12 September 2001, it seems, we “knew” a lot more than we did just a few days before.  One of these was the extreme depths of courage, and of fear.  But even before we “knew” all of that, there were important events in the Thames, Connecticut and the South Atlantic.

Of many submarine boat experiments in history, the first multi-source documented public exposition of a submersible craft was in the River Thames on 12 September 1620.  Cornelius Drebbel, described as a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England, had designed and constructed the vessel, the nature of which is unclear, but is depicted as having oars.  Regrettably, oars would ill suit a submersible, so we really don’t know what Drebbel’s invention looked like.  But, it is accepted as the first public exposition of a submarine craft.

Cornelius Drebbel, described as a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England, had designed and constructed the vessel, the nature of which is unclear…

On 12 September 1808, Andrew Hull Foote was born in New Haven, Connecticut.  Knowing nothing of submarines except rumors and legends, Foote began his career at West Point, resigning in 1822 when he was appointed a midshipman (officer cadet) in the US Navy (the Naval Academy was established in 1845).  Foote rose steadily in the ranks until the Civil War, when he was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron, when it was less a squadron than an idea for a squadron.  By 1863, after Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, and Island Number Ten on the Mississippi had all fallen under the guns of the gunboats he helped to organize, Foote was appointed the US Navy’s second Rear Admiral, and sent to command the Southern Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  En route, however, he suddenly and unexpectedly died in New York on 23 June 1863.

Foote rose steadily in the ranks until the Civil War, when he was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron when it was less a squadron than an idea for a squadron.

On 12 September 1942,  HMS Laconia, a 19,000 ton former Cunard liner that had been launched in 1922, taken into the Royal Navy and converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) in 1939, then converted to a troopship in 1941, was torpedoed in the South Atlantic by U-156.  These are the bare facts of the matter but, like many such incidents, they tend to get buried under details.  Realizing that of the two thousand plus passengers and crew of the fast liner, sailing alone, stood little chance of surviving in the open Atlantic north of Ascension Island, the commander and crew of U-156 surfaced.  While broadcasting his humanitarian intent, the U-boat skipper began to rescue the survivors, along with other U-boats that were sent to the area.  The British thought it was a ruse, and after four days, in company with at least three (Vichy) French ships, an American B-24 bomber attacked the German submarines, which were then compelled to dive and abandon the rescue effort.  About half the passengers and crew were eventually lost.  The incident spurred Karl Doenitz to issue the “Laconia Order,” which forbade German U-boats from offering any humanitarian assistance to their victims.  Before this, many U-boat captains, especially after surface attacks, provided food and water, medical aid and navigational assistance, but rarely afterwards.  U-156 was lost with all hands off Barbados on 8 March 1943 by an American PBY. At Nuremberg in 1946, the Laconia Order became part of Doenitz’ indictment,  but was later withdrawn.

While broadcasting his humanitarian intent, the U-boat skipper began to rescue the survivors, along with other U-boats that were sent to the area.

For many of us who remember that fateful Wednesday in 2001, when we woke to find that the body count in New York, Arlington and Shanksville was considerably less than had been originally feared, what we all “knew” on Tuesday night was a great deal less than we thought.  What we were becoming certain of was that some outfit called Al Qaida had sent people–mostly middle class young men who had never seen a refugee camp–to crash airplanes kamikaze-like into buildings.  What the fourth target was is, to this day, still uncertain, though most evidence points at the White House.  And that next morning many of us who were military members in the Guard and Reserve took off with bag and baggage, while others who had been military members were called to service again, and many more who were hoping to separate were told “not today.”  Though this correspondent had retired earlier that year, they just didn’t need a beat-up old infantryman/interrogator/ analyst badly enough to call him up.  But, they did call many of this correspondents squad mates, classmates and former associates, twenty of whom were either killed or injured badly enough to be out of the military for good.  But, that’s all in the service of the Republic, and that’s what matters, right?