unrememebred history

Pvt. John Steele and the Parachute on the Steeple

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Private John Steele

By Ken Zurski

On the night of June 5, 1944, Private John Steele along with several other American soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into an area near Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a small town in the Lower Normandy region of France close to Utah Beach.

The troopers were ordered to land, secure the perimeter, and cut off the road that led to the German-occupied village. But two of the battalions, including Steele’s, were dropped in the wrong location. They were headed directly over the town square and directly into the path of German bullets. Even from a safe distance they could hear the sound of guns blazing and church bells ringing.

That night in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, church bells were indeed ringing.  A stray incendiary from anti-aircraft tracers had set a hay barn on fire. The townspeople were worried more businesses and homes would be threatened. So they rang the bells in alarm and formed a bucket brigade to extinguish the blaze and prevent any more flare-ups.

Meanwhile, the thirty or so German soldiers in town kept firing at the sound of unseen aircraft overhead. Then in the darkness, white chutes appeared. The unfortunate American paratroopers drifting into the city were easy targets. Many were riddled with bullets before they even touched the ground.

John Steele however made it. He was hit by flak, burnt his foot, and landed on a church roof. His chute caught the steeple and his suspension lines stretched to full capacity. Another paratrooper named Kenneth Russell also fell on the church. He later recalled the ordeal:  “While I was trying to reach my knife to get rid of the straps, another paratrooper hit the steeple and also remained suspended, not far from me. His canopy was hanging from a gargoyle of the steeple, it was my friend John Steele.”

Russell was able to cut his lines and run for cover.

Steele wasn’t so lucky. He was left dangling on the side of the church, wounded, but conscious. He watched as his buddies were picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Steele’s only recourse was to wait. He hung his head and remained completely still. The Germans eventually found him and thought he was dead. They were going to leave him, but figured he might be carrying important papers. When they cut him down they found Steele alive and immediately took him prisoner. But Steele somehow manged to escape. He soon rejoined his division and helped capture the village, which became the first French town liberated by the Allied Forces after June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day.

Steele was from Metropolis, Illinois, the oldest of his troop at age 32, and the company barber too. He continued to serve in the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine River into Germany. He returned home to Illinois in September of 1945.  For his efforts, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.

A battle with throat cancer would end his life in 1969, at the age of 56.

To this day, in his honor, on the very same church where he fell, there is a snagged parachute and below it a life-sized effigy of Steele hanging forever from its straps.

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UNREMEMBERED: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten

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“This is a history book about people and events that were famous once now mostly forgotten. It’s also about how lives connect and intertwine. Using a flowing narrative of multiple themes, I chronicle these fascinating figures in ways that made them instantly popular and reveal good or bad why today they are the stories of the Unremembered” – Ken Zurski, author

Unremembered

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    Coming August 2018 from Amika Press

You Won’t Believe What Else ‘March King’ John Philip Sousa Did on the Fourth of July

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By Ken Zurski

On July 4, 1900, at the newly opened World’s Fair in Paris, France, after another rousing rendition of “The Stars and Striped Forever,”conductor John Philip Sousa and several of his band members donned a baggy pair of trousers, hat and glove and went out to play an exhibition game of baseball.

Sousa. known as the “March King” for his inspiring and mostly patriotic musical marches, was in Europe for an extended concert tour, the first ever for a band its size.

But like music, Sousa also had a passion for baseball.

So he gathered up the band and formed a team.

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Sousa was said to be an excellent pitcher and started most games on the mound. He threw competitively until his skills waned with age.  “If baseball has a drawback,” he once wrote, “it is the early time of life at which the player is forced to retire and give way to younger blood.”

Back home in America, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis took advantage of Sousa’s love for baseball and asked him to compose a march for the 50th  anniversary of the National League. In 1925, Sousa delivered with the composition called “The National Game.”  He appropriately dedicated the piece to the sport.

However, despite the connection to Sousa, even today the song is not well known or as widely played as other tunes associated with baseball, like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

In fact, sadly Sousa’s baseball march is mostly forgotten.

But it was not a song, but a day, July 4, 1900, that Sousa remembers the most.

That day in Paris, Sousa and the band’s team played “a group of nines” against the American Guards.

“What could have been more appropriate for two American organizations in a foreign land to do on the glorious Fourth?” Sousa proudly proclaimed.

UNREMEMBERED INNOVATOR: Eadweard Muybridge, the Zoopraxiscope, and the Suspended Horse

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By Ken Zurski

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Eadweard Muybridge

In 1860, while traveling by stagecoach across the Texas plains, capitalist Eadweard Muybridge fell and suffered a serious head injury. Some say he never fully recovered. His doctor however suggested more fresh air. So Muybridge took up photography and began shooting landscapes.

Then in 1872, railroad magnate Leland Stanford hired Muybridge to shoot a horse. Not literally, of course, but with a camera. Stanford wanted to know if a horse lifts all four feet off the ground simultaneously during a gait. Muybridge managed to show a horse seemingly suspended in midair. But the shot, published as a line drawing at first, drew jeers from a skeptical public.

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Muybridge’s Moving Horse 

Muybridge found a way to convince them. He invented a machine called the Zoopraxiscope, where a silhouette image of a picture is painted on a revolving glass plate. When the light is shown through the cylinder the drawings seem to move.

“A magic lantern gone mad,” raved the Illustrated London News.

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Zoopraxiscope

Vindicated, Muybridge sought to improve his design. He went to see a man he thought might be able to put actual photographs on the cylinder.

After all, he had done the same thing with sound.

That man was Thomas Edison.

Meet Jim: The ‘Wonder Dog’ Who Correctly Picked Kentucky Derby Winners

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By Ken Zurski

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Jim the Wonder Dog

 

In the 1930’s, the Llewellyn setter known as “Jim the Wonder Dog” correctly picked the winner of seven Kentucky Derby’s in a row.  An improbable feat even for the most adapt handicapper,  but Jim’s owner Sam Van Arsdale insisted there was nothing deceitful about his dog’s apparent ability to predict the outcome of the prestigious race year after year.

Here’s how it worked: Van Arsdale would set down sealed envelopes each containing the name of a horse in the race. Jim would walk up to one and put his paw on it. The envelope was then stored in a locked safe. After the race, the envelope was reopened revealing the winning horse each time. The soft spoken Van Arsdale never wanted to profit off his prized pooch so he turned down all offers to reveal the contents of the envelopes before the race. 

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Van Arsdale and Jim on a hunting trip

 

Jim is also credited with accurately guessing the gender of unborn children and in 1936 correctly picked the New York Yankees to win the World Series.

Skeptics and doubters were aplenty, but Van Arsdale insisted it was no trick

Jim died in 1937 at the age of 12.

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UNREMEMBERED Preview: New Book Explores History’s Connections and Coincidences

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Author Ken Zurski (Peoria Stories & The Wreck of the Columbia) answers questions about his new book “UNREMEMBERED: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten:”

Unremembered is an interesting word. Why did you choose it?

I really liked it for one. It’s not used very often, but I saw it once and immediately knew it fit what I was trying to do.

And that would be a blog of forgotten history stories?

Well, yea, sort of. I was thinking a book first and thought it would make a terrific title. I had stories but wasn’t sure of the direction. I had a list of people and events I’d read about and wanted to write so I started the blog first and now here we are two years later and finally a book.

The book is different from the blog in that it tells multiple stories but within the context of a flowing or entwined narrative. Was that planned?

Mostly, yes. I didn’t want to do a bathroom book with just a bunch of articles. The stories on the blog are short so there would have to be a hundred or more in the book. I began thinking of stories intertwining and that sparked my interest in telling stories of people and events and their connections to each other, something I did in an abbreviated way with my book Peoria Stories. Some of the connections are more obvious than others and there are four parts to Unremembered so there are different themes, but with a thread that connects them all.

Some people seem to pop up and leave and others reemerge. Is this because of their connections?

Oh, Yes. There are probably 70 people featured in the book all under the same guise of being nearly famous or not quite forgotten. Some appear briefly others more prominently.

George Francis Train is one character that seems to have his hand in everything. Did you know that going in?

Oh, of course. Train was probably the person that best exemplifies what I was trying to convey in Unremembered. He was a resourceful figure and had some pretty amazing accomplishments in his lifetime, but he tried too hard to be important. Eventually his antics led many to believe he was insane. Others greatly admired him. In the end though, hardly anyone remembers him.

So he fits under the category of “nearly famous”?

Yes, I suppose, in how time treated his story. Today, he’s certainly not famous when compared to others, but in the later half of the 19th century he was a very famous figure, prominently in the news and influential and controversial too.

And Nellie Bly, the journalist, where does she fit in?

She is sort of like Train but never seemed to push herself into the spotlight like Train did. Certainly traveling around the world is a heady stuff for a woman at the time, but she did it to further her status as a journalist, not become a celebrity. That she became famous was a bonus.

So she is not quite forgotten?

Exactly her name comes up in books about the early history of journalism. But most people don’t know all of her amazing story.

Train and Bly seems to be main characters but don’t enter the book until the third part, especially Bly. Was this by design?

Sort of. Train has a connection to a man we meet in the first part Cornelius Vanderbilt, who has a connection to a steamboat disaster in New York whose tragic events has a connection to a young printer, it just follows along. Train is actually in every part in some way.

Niagara Falls is an interesting subject? How did you choose that to continue the narrative in Part Two?

Beyond the nature part of the beast, there’s a human story to the Falls which really interested me. Why did people risk their life to challenge it? So many stories emerged I had to tell it.

And yet, somehow it ties into balloon travel which ties into the birth of transportation

Yes, Part Three is about reaching new limits and new heights in transportation both by water and air. Some interesting and forgotten stories can be found here beyond the more familiar names like the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and even the Titanic.

So there is an “unremembered” ship?

There is. Again famous for it’s time, but mostly forgotten now.

And then we’re back to a tragedy in Part Four?

Yes, the Great Chicago Fire.

And a familiar face emerges?

Yes, Train has a history there as well.

It’s all very fascinating stuff and the book covers a lot of ground.  Were you ever surprised by the connections?

Most everything in the book is included because of the connections, but there were a few that were unexpected and came about while during research.

They call that writer’s luck, right?

Exactly

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Ken Zurski

3/2/18

“Unremembered: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten” is scheduled for release in August 2018 by Amika Press, Chicago.

UNREMEMBERED AUTHOR – Breece D’J Pancake: A Legacy in One Book

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By Ken Zurski

Breece D’J Pancake never had a book published in his lifetime. He died at the official age of 26, just shy of his 27th birthday. But four years after his death, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was released to critical acclaim. In fact, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

“A young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway,” praised author Joyce Carol Oates.

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Breece D’J Pancake

Born in 1952, the name Pancake is a surname of German origin. The odd apostrophe in D’J was a printer’s error, which stuck.

Pancake wrote about hardships of rural life in the Appalachian Territories where he grew up and rarely strayed. Most of his stories fly by in time, examining just hours of a character’s life, but packed with personal and social struggles both past and present. His stories for the Atlantic were submitted only after he composed four long-hand drafts and ten on the typewriter.

Ultimately, he struggled with alcoholism, but his untimely death by self-inflicted gunshot in 1979 may have been a tragic accident, some believe due to sleepwalking.

It all adds to his lore.

One book, however, remains.

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