Friday story time: Whiteout

It’s been a summer of stories here on the blog. With so much going on this fall, I think I’ll shelve my non-fiction tidbits until next summer. But before I do, here’s one more tale…

In 1989, six men from six countries set off across Antarctica, determined to cross the continent using only skis and dogsleds. It took them seven months. Then, only two days from the end of their journey, a blizzard descended.

Five of the men retreated to their shelters while the team’s youngest member, Japan’s Keizo Funatsu, braved the weather to feed the dogs. As he walked away from his tent, he marked his path with skis stuck upright into the snow. A ski planted, a few steps, another ski. But the winds were so fierce, and the snow swirling so quickly, Keizo soon found he couldn’t see from one ski to the next.

He was alone, with no idea where his tent lay.

Thanks to his Antarctic experiences, Keizo knew that if he kept wandering, he might get farther and farther from safety. He dug himself a trench in the snow and waited for rescue, remembering stories and singing songs to keep himself alert.

Meanwhile, his team members linked arms and battled the winds to find him. They searched for hours before the cold forced them inside. In the morning, they resumed their hunt.

Finally, after 12 hours in the snow, Keizo was found, miraculously unharmed.

Friday Story Time: Epic Fail

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because, really, does a great story need a reason?

In 1560, Lope de Aguirre joined an expedition down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. A year into the journey, his group faced disease, food shortages, and hostile locals.

Lope grew paranoid. He convinced other expedition members that the leader, Pedro de Ursúa, was corrupt. After the group rebelled and killed Ursúa, Lope murdered the replacement leader. He took control of the expedition, slaughtering anyone who opposed him – including several priests.

Next, Lope rebelled against the Spanish crown and declared himself a prince. He started raiding local towns and villages. When he was about to be captured, Aguirre killed his own daughter so she wouldn’t be forced to live among enemies. He was eventually executed by Spanish soldiers.

There. How’s that for a little gruesomeness to start your summer weekend? See you next week!

Friday Story Time: Preschool Perseversence

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because, really, does a great story need a reason?

I’ve been immersed in survival stories all week, so this tale is more of the same.

In 1913, the Karluk was trapped in the Arctic ice off Alaska and drifted north of Siberia. Then the ship sank, and the crew struggled across the ice to the barren shores of Wrangel Island.

Among the survivors was a two-year-old Alaskan Inuit girl named Makpii. At one point, she almost fell into the ocean in her sleep, saved at the last second when her mother pushed her to the other side of a widening gap in the icepack. When her father despaired, his toddler told him, “we’re living now, and we’re going to keep on living.”

Eleven men died in the ordeal, but Makpii and her family managed to signal a rescue ship in September 1914, more than a year after the Karluk sank. By the time she passed away in 2008, at the age of 97, Makpii’s childhood voyage had become an often-told family tale.

Friday Story Time: Germophobes

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because, really, does a great story need a reason? Here’s this week’s tidbit:

Ignaz Semmelweis was a hungarian obstetrician working in Vienna in the 1840s. At that time, childbirth was a dangerous business. In the supposedly-advanced maternity ward of Vienna General Hospital, almost one in five women died during or after labor.

It was safer to give birth in the other ward of the hospital, where the midwives worked. It was safer to give birth at home. In fact, it was probably safer to give birth in the muddy ditch outside than inside Ward 1. And everyone knew it. They blamed it on poisonous gas that somehow seeped into the rooms and affected some patients more than others.

Soon after he began working there, Ignaz went in search of a better explanation. And he found that the maternity ward was right next door to the autopsy room. Then he noticed that the sores on women who’d died after childbirth were similar to the sores on a doctor who’d died after cutting himself during an autopsy.

Ignaz theorized that a “miasma” from the dead bodies was being transferred to the living. When he made all doctors sterilize their hands before working in the maternity ward, deaths dropped dramatically.

Only one problem… the senior doctors didn’t believe Ignaz. They publicly rejected his findings, goaded him into resigning, and went back to their unwashed criss-crossing between autopsies and births. Death rates skyrocketed again.

Ignaz got a job Budapest, where it soon became much safer to give birth.

But Ignaz was rather angry about other doctors ignoring his findings. He wrote increasingly furious letters, calling them murderers. He fell into depression, and may have shown signs of early dementia. In 1965, Ignaz was tricked into entering a psychiatric ward, where — after possibly being beaten by orderlies — he died two weeks later.

Louis Pasteur took up Ignaz’s fight in the 1860s and 70s, with more success.

Friday Story Time: Rockin’ Stockings

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because, really, does a great story need a reason?

This week’s tale was inspired by my snarking about stockings. Though I have no wish to wear them, they were once highly coveted, and I suppose I shouldn’t take them for granted!

Strong as steel.

Fine as a spider’s web.

More elastic than any of the common natural fibres.

That’s how Charles Stine introduced the invention of nylon in 1938, in a presentation called “We Enter the World of Tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He told 3,000 women’s club members that his team of scientists had invented a completely new material using coal, water, and air.

The women were impressed. In fact, they were ready to tear off their expensive, easily-torn silk stockings at a moment’s notice and try this new invention, even if it did feel a little cold and clammy against the skin.

They weren’t allowed their prizes for long. By the early 1940s, every once of nylon was being used to make materials for World War II – parachutes, cords, and ropes. Women were reduced to wearing rayon hose or painting their legs with specially-marketed leg make-up. They hoarded actual nylon stockings for special evenings out, and followed women’s magazine advice for making them last longer: wash them in vinegar to keep the color fresh, and rub face cream on your heels to prevent snagging the fabric.

When the war finally ended, it took two years for companies to stockpile enough pairs to meet the demand in clothing shops. Women stood in line-ups several blocks long just for the chance to buy a pair. And in Britain, Canadian and American soldiers took to impressing their girlfriends not with chocolate or flowers, but with brand new packages of nylon stockings.

Friday story time: An Iceberg Adrift

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because really, does a great story need a reason? Here’s this week’s tidbit:

March 2004

Yuri Katrayev was finishing work on the diesel generator when the ground beneath him began to shake. He heard his station chief shouting. Dropping his tools, Yuri ran from the building. And there, in the dim half-light of the Arctic winter, he saw what looked like a huge chasm opening. It was as if two giant hands had grasped the ground and ripped it apart like a piece of paper.

But it wasn’t really ground – it was ice. Yuri was part of a 12-person Russian research team stationed on North Pole-32, a floating iceberg. For almost a year, they’d been circumnavigating the north pole. In April 2003, their iceberg had been several kilometers (miles) long and as thick as a three-level parking garage. By January 2004, it was less than half that size, and cracks under the makeshift runway had caused part of it to break away. But the scientists only had a few more months to work, anyway, and glacial ice was usually very stable. They hadn’t foreseen any problems with staying on board the station until April.

Now, Yuri could see a problem. A massive, looming, crushing problem.

Like a slow-motion tidal wave, a frozen wall rose four storeys above the crevice. Massive ice chunks rolled over one another, pulverizing debris in between. It looked like an enormous meat grinder. And it was grinding its way toward the station’s buildings.

* * *

When Russian rescue officials heard of the crisis at North Pole-32, one of the first people they called was deputy parliament speaker Artur Chilingarov. Artur had circled the pole himself, and he understood exactly how difficult it would be to lift the researchers off the ice. The problem was their distance from land. Rescue helicopters had a maximum range of 1600 kilometers (994 miles). The research station was 750 kilometers (470 miles) from land, meaning a 1500-kilometer round trip with no chance to refuel. A trip of this length had never before been attempted.

Artur worked with rescue officials to devise a plan. As a backup, they enlisted the nuclear-powered icebreaker Arkitka, already in the region, to head for the station. It would be a 10-day journey and the researchers only had heating fuel left for half that time, but at least the ship was almost guaranteed to successfully make the trip.

For the main rescue effort, they sent a cargo plane and two helicopters to Spitzbergen, an island half way between the northern edge of Norway and the north pole. From there, the helicopters set off on the search.

* * *

For more than three hours, the pilot of the small Mi-8 helicopter flew through darkness. He and his co-pilot stared with strict attention at the white below. In every direction, bumpy, curled chips of glaciers and flat expanses of sea ice made a crazy puzzle out of the ocean. On one of those puzzle pieces, they would find two buildings and 12 stranded scientists.

This was uncharted territory, a constantly shifting landscape where few people had flown. And there were no landmarks – just vast stretches of water and sea ice, all shrouded by the winter darkness. If the men failed to find the research station, there were few places stable enough for them to land.

“There!”

It was a tiny splash of red amidst the white – one of the two remaining structures of the station. The tension slipped out of the pilot’s body, replaced by the thrill of success. In what seemed like seconds, he was settling the light helicopter onto the ice and emerging into the cheering circle of researchers. He couldn’t lift them off the ice – his vessel was too light and too small for so many people. But he could transmit their exact location.

Now the heavier transport helicopter – the one with larger fuel needs and an even smaller margin for error – could churn its way through the darkness with a precise target in its sights.

A few hours later, tilting slightly in the wind, the giant vessel settled onto the iceberg. And a few minutes after that, all 12 researchers and the station’s two dogs scrambled aboard.

Friday story time

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because really, does a great story need a reason? This week’s tidbit is one I considered for True Stories from the Edge: Rescues!, back in the day. It eventually lost out to a different Italian tale. Personally, though, I like the romance of this one better.

951 A.D.
Adelaide lay awake in her bed, listening to the rhythmic chip, chip against the stone. He was getting close. Would it be tonight that he finally broke through? She prayed that none of the guards outside the walls could hear the sounds of digging.

For months, Adelaide and her maid had lived as prisoners in a remote castle on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy. She wasn’t used to this sort of lonely life. As the daughter of Rudolph II, King of Burgundy, she had spent her days in plush audience chambers or grand dining halls. When she was two years old, she had been betrothed to a prince named Lothar. She married him at 16, and together they ruled Italy.

That life was over now. A jealous duke, Margrave Berengar of Ivrea, had poisoned her husband and seized the throne. Now Berengar was spending her treasury money, even selling her jewels.

Of course, Berengar had made it clear that there was one way for Adelaide to escape. She merely had to agree to marry his son, Adalbert. That would put all of Adelaide’s lands into Berengar’s control and cement his claim to the Italian throne.

With no intention of ever marrying Adelbert, Adelaide was putting her hope in another option. Her priest, one of the few people allowed to visit her in exile, had been building an underground tunnel for the last four months. Every night, she could feel him getting closer. Until finally, with Adelaide and her maid both scrabbling at the inside wall and the priest digging from the outside, the tunnel broke through. There was just enough room for the two women to squeeze out, race down the tight passageway, and escape into a waiting rowboat.

Adelaide found refuge with nobleman Adalbert Azzo of Canossa… until Berengar heard the news.

Furious, Berenger brought his troops bearing down on Canossa’s land, surrounding the castle and demanding Adelaide’s release. He was absolutely determined to hold onto the throne of Italy, and for his claim to be legitimate, he needed Adelaide under his control.

Inside, Adelaide was just as determined as ever to escape Berengar’s grasp. She would never ally herself with the man who had killed her husband. But she was also in a desperate situation, putting Canossa and his people at risk.

Marriage seemed the only way out.

But not marriage to the killer’s son. Instead, Adelaide sent a man to steal away from the castle and slip through Berengar’s troops. The man bore a message to Otto the Great, King of Germany. Adelaide knew that Otto wanted to control all of Germany, Burgundy, and Italy. And she offered him the only valuable thing she had — her hand in marriage. If Otto would bring his army to Italy, conquer the forces of Berengar, and rescue her from imprisonment, she would marry him. And with a single signature on the marriage papers, he would control all the lands of northern Italy.

Otto the Great said “I do” by bearing down on Italy with his powerful army – the largest in Europe at the time. In September 951, he scattered Berengar’s forces and sent the usurper scurrying into the Alps. For the second time in a single year, Adelaide was rescued from a castle and whisked away to safety.

Within a few weeks, Otto and Adelaide were officially married. She continued to rule her traditional lands on their behalf, and together the couple added to their holdings. By 962, eleven years after their marriage, they had five children and controlled all of Germany, Burgundy, and Italy. They traveled to Rome, where the pope crowned them emperor and empress of the reborn Holy Roman Empire.

Friday story time

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because really, does a great story need a reason? Here’s this week’s tidbit:

All day, the prisoners of Auschwitz stacked wood, lumber intended to expand the Nazi death camp in Poland. But the prisoners built the woodpile extra-carefully. In the center, they left just enough space for two men to lie side-by-side.

That afternoon, Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba slid into the opening and their fellow prisoners covered the entrance. The men hid for four days, while soldiers searched the surrounding woods.

Finally, the men slid out and escaped beneath the camp’s outer wires. They walked 80 miles to safety, using a map torn from a child’s atlas. Wetzler and Vrba later created a detailed report and a map of Auschwitz, allowing the Allies an inside view of the camp.

Friday Story Time

My story this week isn’t exactly a story… more of an artifact. I tagged along on my daughter’s school field trip to Burnaby Village Museum, where, in between reprimanding badly behaved boys, I discovered this:

cheeseslicer

It’s a “computerized” cheese slicer from 1901, made by… IBM. It measures, weighs, slices, and prices your purchase.

Of course, I came home and immediately googled IBM to see if they really made cheese slicers. Apparently, they did.

Since I was much more interested in Burnaby Village Museum than most of the kids, I’m heading back as soon as possible — with only my own monkeys in tow, this time.

Friday story time

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because really, does a great story need a reason? Here’s this week’s tidbit:

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was treasurer of a Spanish expedition in 1527. Heavily infected with gold-fever, the crew landed in Florida and declared the area a part of Spain. Then half the group — including Cabeza de Vaca — decided they couldn’t possibly wait to settle and plan. They took off into the rainforest in search of treasure.

The men faced hurricanes, bugs, and disease. Their efforts at diplomacy included capturing the local native leader, so neighbourly relations were somewhat fatal. Finally, after weeks spent lost in the swamp, a couple hundred men arrived back at the coast. Slaughtering and eating their remaining horses to regain their strength, they then patched together a few rafts and attempted to sail to Cuba.

By the time another storm swept them onto the beaches of what is now Texas, there were only 80 left alive. All were enslaved by local natives.

But the story grows stranger…

Cabeza de Vaca eventually escaped captivity, became a trader and faith healer, and travelled with native groups across the southern portion of the continent. After a chance meeting with other Spanish explorers, he returned to Spain in 1537. He served as a (likely corrupt) governor in Mexico and a judge in Seville, Spain.

He was one of only four men to survive the expedition.