February 24 – Anniversary of WWII's Battle of Los Angeles

Posted on February 24, 2017

Do you know about the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, which occurred on this date in 1942?

I'd never heard about it, and I was born and lived all my life near Los Angeles, California -- so I would certainly have thought I would've heard about a World War II battle here!

Of course, there's a reason that we don't hear much about it...

...It was a false alarm. In other words, it was a mistake!

It was late in the day. Something ominous appeared in the sky....

If you know a fair bit about WWII, you know that the United States didn't enter the war until Japan attacked a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. Since Los Angeles is on the west coast of North America, it's one of the closest continental states to Japan, and Californians were honestly worried about  a possible Japanese attack. 

It turned out that they were right to worry; Japanese submarines bombarded some oil fields near Santa Barbara just a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack. Even though nobody died, and only a little bit of property damage resulted from the explosive shells, everyone was very keyed up and fearful after the 20-minute-long attack.

So, when an ominous something was spotted in the nighttime skies over Los Angeles - THE VERY NEXT DAY! - of course people jumped to the conclusion that it was a Japanese plane.

Air raid sirens sounded!

A total blackout was ordered, so everybody turned off every light in their homes and shops. 

American forces launched an anti-aircraft barrage at the mysterious something. Now that they were studying the sky so hard, they noticed all kinds of other somethings that were, they thought, almost surely Japanese aircraft. The U.S. forces shot at those things, too. 

Pilots rushed to their aircraft but, thank goodness, they didn't start flying around just yet.

After about an hour of shooting, it was determined that there was no further danger, and the "all clear" was sounded. The blackout order was lifted.

It turns out, there were no Japanese planes!

It turns out that the first something spotted in the sky was a meteorological balloon, and that the rest was "war nerves" and shooting at vague moving lights that were actually the result of others' shots!

Sadly, even though it was a false alarm, five people died. Three people were killed in car crashes determined to have happened because of all the fear and chaos. Two people died of hear attacks -- the stress of the hour-long "battle" against nothing was enough to, basically, scare them to death.

Within hours the Secretary of the Navy held a press conference and explained that the entire incident was  a false alarm. 

It's tragic that understandable fear turned
into unreasonable -- no, horrific! --
prejudice and discrimination.
Of course, that didn't stop people from worrying. And unfortunately it didn't stop people from being horribly hateful, in their fear, to Japanese Americans who lived in their communities but who were not guilty of anything! And unfortunately it didn't stop the government from grabbing the lands and businesses of these Japanese Americans, and locking them up in internment camps.

And it didn't stop people from speculating on the incident. Some thought that the government had used commercial (and American!) airplanes to spook the people and to create panic. Some thought that there was something a little "off," and that whatever the government had done wrong was being covered up. Some even thought that whatever was being shot at was really UFOs -- and that they were alien spaceships! Check out this photo (which apparently has been altered to look like a flying saucer!).

February 23 – Defender of the Fatherland Day in Kyrgyzstan

Posted on February 23, 2017

Several former Soviet republics celebrate a holiday about the armed forces or defense of country today, February 23. This includes Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan (see below), several other Soviet republics, and today's focus, Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the former-Soviet nations I hear least about. It's a landlocked nation (which means it has no border on an ocean or a sea connected to an ocean), and it is very mountainous. The relative isolation created from these two factors is complicated by the fact that, from ancient times, this land was at the crossroads of early civilizations and was on the "Silk Road" and other trade routes.

Kyrgyzstan is in the center of Central Asia! You can
see that it is north of India and south of Russia,
and that it borders on China.

(Below) The Silk Road wasn't just one giant path...
But one of the more direct routes from Arabia to
China and back went right through Kyrgyzstan.

Isolation means that Kyrgyzstan's ancient culture has been, to some extent, preserved. But being a crossroads means that it has a long history of being dominated by foreign powers.

And all of that means that visitors to Kyrgyzstan discover a wide variety of foods and languages and cultures - especially heavy with Persian, Mongolian, and Russian influences.

One common language is Russian, but Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, is the national language.

One Kyrgyz dish is laghman, which has thick wheat noodles, peppers and other vegetables, and a spicy vinegar sauce.

Bread is considered sacred in Kyrgyz culture; common types include naan (flat bread common in India and other Central Asian nations), thick Russian breads, and fried bread. Bread is often eaten dipped in jam or butter or honey, or even suspended in tea! Another dip for bread is like Turkish kaymak, a dairy product that is a lot like clotted cream.

Isn't this bread oven surprising? I read that the dough
hangs on the sides as it bakes into loaves of yummy,
puffy bread!

Some Kyrgyz live in yurts.

Most Kyrgyz are Muslim, although earlier religious practices still coexist with Islam. 

Check out this earlier post on Kyrgyzstan. And check out more beautiful photos of this little-known nation here

February 22 – Anniversary of the Miracle on Ice

Posted on February 22, 2017

I remember this historical event so well:

On this date in 1980, during a Winter Olympic Games hosted by the U.S., the U.S. ice hockey team beat the team from the U.S.S.R. Ultimately, the American team won the gold medal, and the Soviet team won the silver medal.

That may not seem so very special to folks now; after all, the United States typically wins a lot of gold medals (and other medals) in the Olympics, and beats Russian athletes often enough that we aren't surprised.

But let me tell you what Olympic sports were like back then:


Well, to be honest, Olympic sports are probably always going to be unfair. Teams from large, rich nations are going to get more medals than teensy nations and poor nations. They are going to have access to better coaching, better training facilities, maybe even better nutrition!

But before 1986, professional athletes were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. And America really did send non-pros -- amateurs, many of them quite young. Lots of American athletes were college athletes.

Of course, the Soviet Olympic team also had to play by the same rules - no professional athletes. But in the Soviet system, which was at least nominally communist, athletes and entire teams of athletes could live and eat and train on the state's dime but still be considered amateurs. 

In other words, the Soviet Olympians were for the most part professional athletes, really, BUT the communistic economies didn't consider them so, and so they could ignore that rule...

So...the U.S. team was a bunch of ice hockey players who had played on rival college teams, rather than playing together. Most had never competed in an international tournament, although one of the American players had competed in the 1976 Olympics. This team was the youngest team in U.S. team history to play in the Olympics, and it was also the youngest ice hockey Olympics team in the world, at the time.

Contrast that with the Soviet team: the Soviet players were active-duty military who had been playing together for years, and they were very used to the pressures of international play and of the Olympics. The Soviet Union had won gold medals in the four previous Olympics, from 1964 to 1976. In that time, the Soviets had won 27 games, one loss and one tie, and they had outscored their opponents massively -- 175 points to just 44 points (cumulative totals).

You can certainly see why the Soviet team was favored to win.

This game, which ended with a score of 4 to 3, in considered one of the most iconic games in the Olympics and in all of U.S. sports. Al Michaels was calling the game for ABC, and he famously asked in the last few seconds, "Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!"

The game was called THE top sports moment of the entire 20th Century by Sports Illustrated. Al Michaels was even called "Sportscaster of the Year."

The game was the subject of a TV movie, HBO and ESPN documentaries, and a Disney movie. Once I visited Lake Placid, New York, the site of the Olympics and the Miracle, and there was a big display about the Miracle on Ice.