Hole in the Clouds

November 2013

Ugly Ducklings

Nov 1, 2013

Between 1941 and 1945, more ships were built here at Baltimore's Bethlehem-Fairfield yard than anywhere else on earth. Early in the war, building a Liberty Ship–a clunky freighter using a simple design left over from World War I–took eight months; by 1944, after they'd knocked out a few hundred Liberty Ships and gotten a knack for the work, Baltimoreans could build one in 19 days.

Liberty Ships were slow, awkward cargo vessels intended to last only five years–just long enough, it was hoped, for them to supply our forces overseas with everything needed to win the war: jeeps, tanks, food, ammunition, mail from home, medical supplies. More than 2700 were eventually constructed, all from standardized designs and prefabricated components, at shipyards around the country; 350 were built here in Baltimore, more than in any other single yard.

They weren't pretty–the newspapers called them "Ugly Ducklings"–but they could float.

Next door to the Bethlehem-Fairfield works was another shipyard, Maryland Drydock, where round the clock war work was also under way. At Maryland Drydock, old freighters and passenger liners were refitted to carry troops to war. Racks of bunks were installed in former cargo holds and staterooms, stacked eight deep, with just 18 vertical inches between them. Thousands of soldiers would be crammed into each ship.

Meanwhile, thousands of workmen, including my father, were making fabulous wages of a whole dollar an hour at Maryland Drydock. My father worked as a sheet metal helper there until he got drafted into the army in 1943. His job was to install ductwork in hopes of providing ventilation deep into the holds of cargo ships, where once piles of sugar or bolts of cloth or cases of rum had traveled in relatively airless comfort. The idea was that soldiers on their way to war might want to be able to breathe while jammed together into the new bunks. 

By the summer of 1944, my father couldn't have been very surprised when he became a passenger on a troop ship just like the ones he'd worked on at Maryland Drydock. Fifty years later, he wrote about his experience aboard the USS West Point: 

As we boarded the ship, each of us was given a paper tag–mine was pink–and that meant I got into the chow line at 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. The cooks started serving Spam and beans as we pulled out of Boston harbor, and they didn't stop, around the clock, until our ship tied up at Liverpool four and a half days later.

On the ship, which was carrying more than 11,000 soldiers and a 1500-man crew, my company was assigned to bunks in the lowest hold. I was given a wooden club, and in the event of an emergency I was supposed to stand at the head of a specified gangway and maintain order.

We all ignored those assignments and simply slept on deck. We didn't want to be below the waterline when the torpedo struck. We lucked out.

Baltimore   World War II   Robert Horowitz   Liberty Ships   troop transport   Maryland Drydock   Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard   (Image credit: Arthur Siegel for Office of War Information, via Shorpy)  

Whatever Happened to . . .

Nov 4, 2013

. . . that Bart Simpson doll? We have no idea. But the baby in the middle? He turns 21 today.

That would be our youngest baby, Hankystein, shown here with his biggest brother John. All grown up now, a serious, stand-up guy, already taking his hard turn at fixing the world. He says he'll celebrate his 21st tonight by watching a documentary about climate change. Maybe that's really what he'll do. The kids today.

Hank's a serious guy, and you can count on him, but he takes a way goofy tack when things are looking a little too sincere. For example, below, he's nearing the finish line of a 50-km trail run–that's 50 kilometers, as in more than 30 miles, up and over a mountain, a Rocky Mountain. He was running amongst the rocks for eight hours. And there near the end, he sees a photographer, and it appears that he digs deep and summons the energy to . . . well, to jump in the air and mug for the camera.

On this occasion, Hank, we offer advice from a couple of your great-grandmothers, who never quite got to know you but who still pull a lot of strings across generational and other divides. From your great-grandmother Harriet, after whom you are named, we share a warning not to run too much, lest you come down with toe cancer. And from your great-grandma Buddy, we share an all-purpose birthday wish: Wear it in good health.

John   Hank  

Lily Lemon

Nov 6, 2013

Lily wraps one of her custom-created alliterative labels around a naked crayon at Crayola's play park in Easton, PA. Among her names for crayon colors: Lily Lemon, Lily Lollipop, Marvelous Mom, and Naughty Norman.

In the huge Crayola factory just outside of Easton, where all 64 colors are melted and molded and labeled and boxed and shipped out to the world, the wrapping of labels is of course done by machine. But until the wrapping machines came on line in the late 1930s, that part of the process was farmed out to families in the Easton area, who would work at their kitchen tables wrapping labels around each crayon individually for a piecework wage. Each family worked on a single color, and the delivery routes were organized by color: e.g., turn left at the Green house and go up the hill to the Blue place.

Modern crayons first showed up at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, where Crayola exhibited them as "dustless chalk," a healthful innovation for the classroom. The company that made them, Binney & Smith, was getting a little out of its comfort zone, since its main facility in Easton was a slate quarry, which provided slates for schoolrooms utilizing the non-dustless kind of chalk.

Today, Crayola's theme park and factory undergird the economy of Easton, which was once home as well to the headquarters of another corporation manufacturing the stuff American childhood used to be made of: Dixie Cups.

Pennsylvania   children   work   Lily   Easton   theme park   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  


Nov 8, 2013

Your head and mine are three-dimensional objects, vaguely globular. This chart shows what we might look like if we tried to project our heads onto a flat piece of paper the way cartographers project the planet earth to make a world map.

The guy in the lower-right corner is Mercator Man, the visage we grew up with on schoolroom wallmaps. It's common knowledge that the earth on Mercator world maps was really, really distorted, but we might not have realized quite how ugly the distortion was. And the other three guys are also a mess, even though they are projected onto rounded shapes.

We know what you're thinking: if artists can draw a face on paper and have it look attractive and "realistic," why can't mapmakers give us a simple round world in its natural proportions?

We suspect this was one of the questions Picasso mulled over as he worked out his Cubist projection, a much more elegant solution to the problem of showing all the sides of things at once. A GPS optimized for driving all over Picasso Man, however, might be a hard sell.

maps   globes   projections   distortions   faces   (h/t: Frank Jacobs via Strange Maps)  

Frozen Summer

Nov 10, 2013

We shot this picture at night because well-mannered hibiscus flowers fold up and die at night, after just a single day of wide-open gorgeousness. This bloom's behavior is out of line; it has glowed like this for four or five days and nights now, and it shows no sign of giving up.

We should note that it's cold outside, downright frosty at night. And well-mannered hibiscus plants don't bloom at all in November in Pennsylvania. They give up and die.

There are no more buds on this plant, and many of the leaves have dropped now, or curled up, or turned brown and crunchy. So when this flower goes, that's it; the show's over. But what a show.

In richness and boldness of color as well as in longevity, this last swan song of a flower really outdid the pale, delicate blooms of summer. But oddly, perhaps, if we carefully compare the hibiscus flower of November with a flower from the same plant back in July, it becomes apparent that this new all-night, all-weather blossom is missing its male parts. And that's all there is to say about that.

garden   night   flowers   hibiscus   cold   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

VJ Day

Nov 11, 2013

Veterans' Day is Armistice Day, except that it's not. Calendar-wise, they're the same, but pausing or parading to show gratitude for our veterans is not really the same as pausing to commemorate the moment 95 years ago when soldiers lay down their weapons and those among them who still had the vitality and the nerve climbed out of their trenches and tried to put World War I behind them.

We know more than a few military men and women who squirm at hearing "Thank you for your service," which servicepeople hear all the time these days. All too often, what the people who say it really mean by it is: "Hey, I'm not one of those dirty hippies who burned their draft cards and stuff during Vietnam–I'm a real American, and here's my business card." Or something like that.

Still. We are grateful for our veterans and for all the people through the years who put their lives on the line for us. People sacrificed so much in so many wars, and way too many of those who benefited from their sacrifice are obnoxious Americans like me.

Anyways, VJ Day, much like Armistice Day, was a very good day for hundreds of millions of people around the world. We young folk know it mostly from Eistanstadt's iconic photo of a kiss in Times Square, recreated here in Lego by photographer Mike Stimpson.

New York   World War II   World War I   Vietnam   Alfred Eisenstadt   military   Lego   Times Square   Veterans Day   (Image credit: Mike Stimpson via mikestimpson.com)  

Spring Fling

Nov 12, 2013

The highlight of this year's Australian Spring Racing Carnival, if it wasn't these hats, was last week's 153rd running of the Melbourne Cup, "the race that stops a nation."

Winning horse was Fiorente, trained by actress Gai Waterhouse. The BBC points out that even though Waterhouse spent several years in Britain, she is definitely Australian and thus continues the unbroken streak of 153 consecutive Melbourne Cup winners trained by non-British trainers.

streetscape   Australia   hats   Melbourne   horserace  

Rabin Lights

Nov 17, 2013

Smokestacks of Israel's largest power plant, Orot Rabin, loom over the beach at Hadera, north of Tel Aviv. The plant's coal-fired turbines produce almost one-quarter of Israel's electricity.

The low structures leading from the chimneys to the left edge of the picture are part of the power station's coal port offshore in the Mediterranean, where ships offload 18,000 tons of coal every day.

The plant is called Orot Rabin–Rabin Lights–in remembrance of Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. Electricity generated here lights much of the country, producing something like the memorial lights of Jewish tradition, helping to keep alive the memory of those who are gone.

landscape   beach   clouds   Mediterranean   industry   reflection   electricity   coal-powered   Hadera   Israel   power plant   (Image credit: Gilad Benari)  

Everything Old Becomes New Again

Nov 18, 2013

Artists Jordan Lloyd, Dana Keller, and Sanna Dullaway try their hands at colorizing photographs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They've got a new book out titled, appropriately enough, Colorized Photographs.

Above is Walt Whitman, who posed for the camera in 1887. Below are Japanese archers photographed circa 1860, and below that is a sunset viewed from the Tennessee state capitol building in Nashville in 1864.

These three images suggest some of the difficulties and limitations of colorization, even in the hands of talented artists. Walt Whitman in color looks a bit like a painted portrait we may have seen in a museum. The Japanese archers in color look like they're from a movie we're pretty sure we saw but can't quite remember. And while color probably adds visual interest to the Nashville scene, it doesn't really add to our comprehension of the historical situation documented in that photo–and the blaze of color in the sky arguably distracts the viewer from the drama and rhythm of the composition, which was originally rendered with an eye toward black and white simplicity.

Still and all, there's something about photographic revisionism that gets us interested all over again in how the world used to look.

sunset   Japan   Nashville   Walt Whitman   1860   colorization   nineteenth century photographs   1887   1864   samurai   (h/t: Hank Stein)  

Speak to Mrs. Bousfield

Nov 19, 2013

Horses are washed in the Eden River before being paraded through town for the Appleby Horse Fair last June.

The annual fair is Europe's largest gathering of gypsies and travellers. It is also one of the oldest fairs in England, occurring every June since 1685, when King James II granted a royal charter permitting a horse fair "near to the River Eden" in Cumbria; an estimated 10,000 English and Welsh gypsies, Irish travellers, and Scottish gypsy/travellers assemble for the fair to buy and sell horses and catch up with friends and relatives.

In recent years, the gypsies are joined by about 30,000 non-travellers (muggles?)  who travel to Appleby to see the gypsies and their horses.

"Appleby Horse Fair is not an organised event," warns a local government publication aimed at potential tourists. "There is no set programme for anything happening. The horses are washed and trotted up and down the flashing lane.

"There is a market on Jimmy Winter's field selling a variety of goods–some traditional to the gypsy/travelling community–and other. To arrange to sell on that field, please contact Jimmy Winter....

"There is no horse auction. Sale arrangements are made buyer to seller for cash. The price will usually include extra for Luck Money."

Tourists are also warned that accommodations in the vicinity during fair week will be "rarer than hen's teeth. If you have a tent, however, you may be able to camp at Holme Farm Field. Speak to Mrs. Bousfield."

landscape   animals   England   horses   festival   Eden River   Cumbria   Appleby   (Image credit: Kristian Helgesen)  

Pier 82

Nov 21, 2013

Down at the far edge of South Philly, in the land of the Big Box Stores, floats the biggest box of them all, the old SS United States.

She was the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner ever built, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic. There is more aluminum in her hull than in anything else on the planet. When she traversed the locks in the Panama Canal, there was just two feet of clearance on either side.

On her maiden voyage in 1952, she shattered the trans-Atlantic speed records in both directions. But 1952 was near the wrong end of the era of gilded passenger liners, and the SS United States has now spent more than half her life quietly rusting away at pierside in Philadelphia, across the street from an Ikea store that could probably fit comfortably in her ballroom.

That's an exaggeration. Most likely, her ballroom could only hold Best Buy.

ship   South Philly   waterfront   Delaware River   rust   SS United States   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

One in a Million

Nov 24, 2013

Thanks to the work of this volunteer and many hundreds of others, Philadelphia got 850 new street trees on Saturday, bringing the overall regional total of trees planted to–according to the calculations of somebody or other, as of Saturday night–exactly 262,236.

The goal is a million new trees, in hopes of restoring the forest canopy area heareabouts to 30%, which would provide enough shade to significantly mitigate the urban heat-island effect and would improve air and water quality, reduce erosion and water pollution, and lessen the frequency and severity of flooding.

The tree roots at bottom right in this photo belong to a variety of maple tree that is particularly hardy in urban settings and has a growth habit suitable for its new home in the urban jungle on South 21st Street, in front of a dentist's office and across the street from a dry cleaner's.

streetscape   work   neighborhood   trees   Philly   volunteer   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

Flying High

Nov 26, 2013

In 1952, shortly after starrin' and dancin' in Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris, Gene Kelly posed for a Look magazine photoshoot by jumping over film cans labeled with the titles of all the movies he'd made.

Although he remained active in show business for four more decades, this moment in 1952 may have been something close to the peak of Kelly's career. The screen genre that made him a star–the movie musical with lots of big dance numbers–was already in decline, losing out to television. Kelly had signed a long-term contract with MGM, a studio that was cutting way back on its investment in musicals and wasn't keeping him particularly busy, even though it was also refusing to lend him out for opportunities such as Guys and Dolls.

For what it's worth, the whole "Good Morning" shtick of this blog comes from Singin' in the Rain, in particular from the song and dance that happens when we've talked the whole night through and it's just too late to say good night.

dance   Gene Kelly   celebrity   movies   1952   jump   (Image credit: Maurice Terrell for Look magazine)