It happened today – February 14, 2016

Nothing says Valentine’s Day like flowers and chocolate. Except perhaps a burst of automatic weapons fire.

Anyway, that was the view of Al Capone and his associates, who on February 14 1929 had seven members and associates of a rival Chicago gang murdered in a garage on the north side of the city. The “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” has been famous ever since.

It’s curious, looking back, to reflect that the 1920s must have been an innocent time, by our standards, because the scale of the killing shocked people so profoundly even though they knew what gangsters were like. And in important ways they have not changed; one of the victims did not die immediately but was transported to hospital where, as the contemporary phrase has it, he refused to cooperate with police.

Riddled with no fewer than 14 bullet wounds, and clearly dying, Frank Gusenberg defiantly told police questioners “No one shot me.”

No one was ever convicted of doing the killing. Mind you, some pretty strong suspects were identified and one was sent to jail for murdering a police officer in a separate incident while two others were apparently beaten to death by Capone himself. Crime does not pay.

Capone himself, riding as high as high can be in 1929, was indicted for tax evasion in 1931, jailed, and succumbed to syphilis, which led to his death from cardiac arrest after securing early release on the grounds of debility.

A certain perverse glamour attaches to high-rolling criminals including Capone despite their deeds and their fates. And somehow it has given the sordid slaughter in that garage some kind of weird mystique. Perhaps in those more innocent times it seemed especially cold to commit the murder on a day devoted to romantic love, even given the general lack of sentimentality of gangsters. Today it wouldn’t surprise us if they did it on Christmas. But it seems to have ended nearly as badly for those who did the killing as those who were lined up against the wall.

My advice is to go with the flowers and chocolate and forget the Tommy guns.

Wish I’d said that – February 14, 2016

“We – or at least I – shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have ‘tasted and seen.’ Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are ‘patches of Godlight’ in the woods of our experience.”

C.S. Lewis Letters to Malcolm

It happened today – February 13, 2016

What was she thinking? Other than “I am an idiot”? I refer to Catherine Howard, 5th wife of Henry VIII overall and the second to be beheaded, on Feb. 13 1542.

Now I have no use for Henry VIII. Not his statecraft and certainly not his domestic affairs. One of my rules of history is do not marry Henry VIII. And I’m very glad his efforts to impose absolutism in England were resisted in Parliament and elsewhere. But Catherine Howard, who to be fair was at least partly a pawn for her ambitious relatives and their schemes to restore Roman Catholicism in England, should have realized that if you do marry the king, even if you are in your late teens and he is nearly fifty, you really truly should not take lovers.

I mean it. Not even one, never mind several. Especially if you are less than discreet, as she was, bad things will happen. People will find out. You will get caught. And then you will get beheaded.

Again, I do not for one moment excuse Henry, a monster personally and a would-be tyrant. Once he started pursuing a woman her choices were limited especially if her family was dangling her like bait. But reading the story of Howard and her lovers, also executed, I just cannot answer one key question.

What was she thinking?

The ghost of deficits yet to come

In my latest National Post commentary I urge the federal Liberals to recognize that deficits are bad for the economy and for government finances and to reject the Harper legacy of running them to “stimulate” the economy. (NB “While deficit spending may have a beneficial short-term impact” was an editorial insertion and I do not agree that it is a possibility.)

It happened today – February 12, 2016

The Macon over New York City, 1933

On this date, Feb. 12 of 1935, the “flying aircraft carrier” U.S.S. Macon catastrophically failed to live up to its name by crashing, and sinking, off Monterey Bay. Now perhaps you didn’t know it ever existed. To which I can only say… neither did I. Maybe there’s a lesson there.

Macon (a.k.a. ZRS-5) and its sister U.S.S. Akron (ZRS-4) were, it turns out, the largest helium-filled blimps ever built. Is that the plural of blimp? I feel it should be blump or something, on the loose analogy of words like goose geese. Two blump appeared. But I digress.

Macon and Akron, less than twenty feet shorter than Hindenburg (and Hindenburg’s very slightly shorter sister Graf Zeppelin II), were considerably less flammable but otherwise no more airworthy. Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the New Jersey coast on April 4 1933 killing 73 of 76 on board, the largest known loss of life in an airship crash. Macon lasted a bit longer and thanks partly to the coolness of its captain Herbert V. Wiley (a survivor of the Akron disaster who later commanded the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia in the last two years of World War II) in the final crisis only two lives were lost as it rose too high then sank slowly into the sea.

If you’re wondering why I called it an aircraft carrier, well, Macon could carry five single-seater Sparrowhawk scout planes. And if it and Akron hadn’t perished as they did, perhaps some day larger versions would have carried bombers, fighters etc. and… well, frankly, my guess is, have been shot down ignominiously.

Look, airships continue to have enthusiasts. And yes, the “Goodyear blimp” flies high. Non-rigid blump seem safer than the rigid kind. And I know early airplanes often crashed too, with even worse consequences, and sometimes still do. But the more I learn about the history of blimps the more convinced I am that if God had meant man to fly he would nevertheless have discouraged him from getting into this particular type of aircraft.

So yes, by all means build an aircraft. Just make sure it’s the kind that floats not the kind that flies… briefly.

Wish I’d said that – February 12, 2016

“I once gave a speech I called ‘Gazing at Stars and Patting Cats.’ Its theme was that in order to live with equanimity and hope, to experience awe, wonder and joy, and to deal with our tragedies, despairs, and sorrows, we humans need to have one hand patting an animal or in the earth, and the other reaching out to the stars, to the universe.”

Margaret Somerville The Ethical Imagination