Midnight Riders

Midnight Riders

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five . . .”

With this opening, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began “Paul Revere’s Ride” – the poetic assigned reading for all of us in grade school. On this, the 248th anniversary of the famous patriotic and nocturnal journey, we should celebrate the accomplishments of William Dawes, Samuel Prescott and 16 year old Sybil Ludington. Dawes, Prescott and Ludington? OK, more on those folks later. First, we can figure out how Longfelow may have misled us about Paul Revere.

A few disclaimers. Foremost, a poet of the stature of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is allowed as much literary license as he saw fit to massage facts in order to craft an excellent literary gem. I fault him not. Second, any comment about Paul Revere in no manner diminishes his accomplishments, his dedication to the cause of the Colonists, or his heroic efforts. Third, at least my teachers in grade school and perhaps across the U.S., accepted as gospel Longfellow’s account in Paul Revere’s Ride with no effort to discern the underlying facts. In a sense, why let the facts get in the way of a good tail? Perhaps these instructors were simply too lazy to dig even modestly below the surface. Any negative comment or remark about a grade school teacher is NOT directed to the holy Sisters of Saint Joseph from my grade school (as I still fear retribution!).

We all recall Longfellow’s poem. Upon receiving the signal of two lanterns from the North Church tower on April 18, 1775, Revere dashed away at midnight on horseback on a twenty mile journey to alert villagers and farmers alike that the British military was on the move. Paul Revere galloped to Lexington and Concord with all then standing prepared to send the British scurrying back toward Boston. While not to be found in the poem, Revere supposedly shouted “The British are coming! The British are coming!” throughout this ride.

We can easily tackle “The British are coming!” chant. Not a chance that Revere shouted that phrase during his ride. The British soldiers were known and identified as the “Regulars”. Of course, “The Regulars are coming!” fails to hold the same cache as the popular phrase. Recall also at this time in 1775, many Colonists Revere alerted still considered themselves British even with all the problems with the Crown. More importantly, the British occupied many areas along the roadways and had soldiers positioned in the woods. Shouting was not the way to go to covertly alert others. Revere would approach houses of those known to be friendly to the cause and, at most, knock on the doors or window frames to provide the notice.

I always held the view that Paul Revere bravely rode alone on this dangerous assignment. Longfellow makes no mention of anyone else with Revere. While it did not lessen the danger one bit, the aforementioned William Dawes and Samuel Prescott rode together with Paul Revere to warn others. The three would split up to cover more ground and meet again on the designated path to notify as many as possible of the approaching marching troops. As they rode, the three solicited more volunteers. By dawn, a group numbering as many as 40 Colonists were riding to alert the villagers and farmers on the way.

Notably, Paul Revere never even reached Concord as we all so firmly believed. The British intercepted Revere, Dawes and Prescott. Dawes and Prescott escaped in different directions on horseback with the British temporarily detaining Paul Revere at Lexington. Dawes fell from his horse and lost his way on foot. Only Prescott reached and alerted the residents of Concord of the need for the immediate call to arms.

In addition, while one benefit of the midnight ride was, indeed, to alert the “friendlies”, the primary purpose of Paul Revere’s ride was to reach John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were then housed in the Lexington area preparing for the soon to be fight with the British. Revere did reach Hancock and Adams with the key advice thereby allowing a counter-offensive to be placed in motion.

Paul Revere’s midnight ride will remain the glorified event of his existence courtesy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Yet, surprising at least to me, Paul Revere accomplished so much more than this vital nocturnal notice journey. Raised in Boston’s North End, Paul Revere was the third of twelve children. His father, a silversmith, arrived in Boston at age 13 from France. This lineage alone could explain antagonism toward the British.

Revere left school at age 13 and began his silversmith apprenticeship with his father. Learning the silversmith trade allowed Paul Revere to develop connections throughout different social strata in Boston – relationships he would use for the remainder of his life. Revere’s father died unexpectedly with Paul Revere legally too young to become master of the family silver shop. However, not being too young for military service, Revere signed up for action in the French and Indian War in the 1750s. These few years in the military further expanded Revere’s network. After this service, Revere took over the family business.

During the 1760s, Revere’s business suffered due to excessive taxes levied on the Colonists, including the Stamp Act of 1765. To assist to make ends meet, Paul Revere hung out a shingle as a dentist. Alright. It took years of apprenticeship and years of formal training to become a silversmith. Then current laws or regulations precluded Revere from serving as master of a silver shop until he reached a minimum age. Yet, becoming a dentist required only a sign on the door.

Revere became friendly with one patient, Joseph Warren. Warren served as one of the “Loyal Nine”, a group organized to protest against the Stamp Act. This association then pulled Revere into the Sons of Liberty with Revere responsible for engravings which served as opposition pieces to British rule. Revere’s opposition roles grew during this time with Paul Revere serving as one of the ringleaders in the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

Paul Revere accepted the position of courier for the Boston Committee of Public Safety. This position required travel to New York City and Philadelphia. This new position fit well with Revere’s service as a “mechanic”.

The mechanics were a group of 30 spies dedicated to observing and reporting on the movements of the British. The mechanics, the first known spy ring in the Colonies, regularly met at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, exchanging information. Revere’s extensive connections provided opportunities and served as conduits to pass information. Revere’s work-related travels provided cover to transport these secrets. Side note, the North Church, Paul Revere’s house and the Green Dragon Tavern still exist in Boston with each worth the visit on your next trip.

During the Revolutionary War, Revere dutifully served with his most famous contribution remaining the Midnight Ride. After the war, Paul Revere made significant contributions in the business world. Revere modernized certain silver foundry processes which, in hindsight, were among the first steps toward automation. As a silversmith himself, Paul Revere valued artisans. He employed such skilled workers offering flexible hours, higher wages correlated to skill and experience levels, and liquor available on the job.

Learning about Paul Revere through Longfellow’s verse represented a different grade school experience than most lessons. Perhaps that dynamic explains why we all so well remember Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride. Kudos to Longfellow. Would not Revere stand out so much more if we were also taught that he ran a spy ring, he dumped tea in Boston Harbor, and he gave his workers free booze?

Longfellow never mentions William Dawes or Samuel Prescott, but their contributions remain in the history journals. Good luck finding mention of Sybil Ludington. As it turns out, in April 1777, almost two years to the day after Paul Revere’s famous ride, the British planned a surprise attack on Danbury, Connecticut. A strategic April attack should catch the Americans unprepared as most soldiers were dismissed to prepare their fields for the upcoming planting season. American Colonel Henry Ludington received news of the British plans to march on Danbury, but all of Ludington’s men had been relieved to tend to their farms.

Colonel Ludington turned to his 16 year old daughter to carry message of the surprise attack and rally the troops in response. Sybil set off at 9 p.m. on a storm filled night and rode not the mere twenty miles logged by Revere, Dawes and Prescott, but on a forty mile trek to warn of the British plans. Sybil did not have time to stop and knock on doors of the “friendlies” so she used a long branch to bang on window frames and doorways as she dashed by households on horseback. Sybil rode through the rain-filled night with over 400 militia men then headed toward Danbury by dawn.

Colonel Ludington apparently had no hesitation relying on his 16 year old daughter for this life-threatening assignment. The few accounts of the Ludingtons reference many children with Sybil the eldest. There is never mention of a Mrs. Ludington, but notes that Sybil served as the primary care-giver for her numerous, younger siblings. Perhaps for Sybil a night galloping along a forty mile stretch during a strong Spring storm seemed more appealing than once again caring for baby brothers and sisters.

A key element in proper estate planning involves naming those who will serve as your agents in various powers of attorney. Clients must name agents to serve in a general power of attorney to manage business affairs in the event of the client’s incapacity. Perhaps more importantly, an agent needs to be named to make health care decisions, possibly life or death determinations, in a medical power of attorney.

Clients should want a Paul Revere in these agency positions. Revere assisted in opposing the Stamp Act. He organized the Boston Tea Party. He ran a spy ring. When called upon for his Midnight Ride, Revere had over a dozen years of experience with similar issues. No big deal for Paul Revere. Such an agent with vast experience and preparation would serve well. But few Paul Reveres exist.

The clients need a Sybil Ludington. She had no wartime service or involvement. Her credentials included child care. Yet, her father saw in her the ability to tackle this different and demanding task, perils and all. Sybil rose to the challenge and performed beyond expectations when called upon. The agents in your estate plan need not be professional trustees, bankers or physicians. They need to be Sybil Ludington who can rise to meet the circumstances.

You can listen my children, but there is still no tail

Of a sixteen year old girl who refused to fail.

Yet, she rode the storm all o’ the night

To rouse the troops to join the fight.

Sweet, Sticky Death

Sweet, Sticky Death

For residents in and near East Palestine, Ohio, life forever changed after the train derailment earlier this year.  20 of the 150 train cars derailed in the industrial accident resulting in explosions and releases of chemicals into the air and ground.  Five of the derailed train cars carried vinyl chloride, a particularly toxic chemical used in manufacturing plastic products.  Vinyl chloride is a confirmed carcinogen which can also cause dramatic short term adverse health impacts.  To avoid additional explosions, Norfolk Southern undertook a controlled burn of the contents of a number of the derailed train cars which resulted in additional releases of toxic chemicals in the area.  

We now stand about a month after the derailment.  Despite the publicity stunt of government officials drinking the local water to prove its safe nature and promises to incinerate the soil from the derailment area, East Palestine, Ohio simply will not recover from this situation.  Notably, the officials did not drink the water at the nearby river where dead fish began washing up on the shores.  Impacts on health may be quickly recognized and diagnosed.  Longer-term effects may not be so easily tied to the accident.  Many residents now confront a lifetime of medical monitoring and ceaseless worry about the well-being for themselves and their families.  

Not as significant as personal health issues, but certainly dramatic will be the negative property impacts.  East Palestine is now stigmatized as synonymous with a cancer-causing train wreck.  Houses in East Palestine will not sell.  Those with their primary savings tied up in their house values will lose most, if not all.  Businesses in East Palestine will fail due to the accident.  New businesses will not pop up to replace shuttering shops.  The city’s tax base will shrink making it exponentially more difficult for local government to provide relief.  I predict that the site of the derailment will be made into a municipal park in about ten years.

My years as an environmental litigator addressing toxic spills allows me to put forth this grim blueprint.  If questions remain as to the extent and duration of this stigma, ask the residents of Livingston, Louisiana.  A 1982 train derailment of 36 cars carrying similar toxic chemicals resulted in releases of toxic substances to the environment compounded by a controlled burn of chemicals in other derailed train cars.  The Livingston residents endured decades of medical monitoring and testing.  Groundwater monitoring wells remain in place some 40 years later.  While houses are difficult to sell in Livingston due to this stigma, there is a nice municipal park located at the scene of the industrial accident.

What caught my eye in following the East Palestine derailment situation was EPA’s description of vinyl chloride released to the environment.  EPA advised the residents that vinyl chloride could have a “mild, sweet odor.”  This simple description immediately sent me back to my years spent in Boston, Massachusetts.  Of course, I am referencing one of the  “sweetest” industrial accidents in American history:  The Great Molasses Flood of 1919.  

On January 15, 1919, a 2.3 million gallon tank filled with molasses exploded resulting in a 40 foot high wall of molasses racing down Boston streets at 35 miles per hour.  Nothing but debris remained of the 50 foot high, 90 foot diameter steel tank.  The explosion of the tank, located on the water’s edge in Boston’s North End, killed 21 people, injured another 150, and resulted in the loss of countless horses.  The wave of molasses swept buildings off their foundations and crushed other structures in its path.  As reported in the Boston Post:

“Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. . . . Here and there struggled a form – whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell.  Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was. . . . Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper.  The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.  Human beings – men and women – suffered likewise.”

A surviving child’s experience was subsequently captured in an article in the Smithsonian:

“Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing.  Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished.  He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo.”

A newspaper article quoted an unidentified witness in describing the wall of molasses as “sweet, sticky death.”  The editor blew it in not using that quote as the headline.

Clean up crews used salt water wash from a fireboat to wash away the molasses as well as sand to absorb it.  Clean up of the North End took months.  Portions of Boston Harbor remained brown with molasses well into the summer.  Clean up crews, residents, and sightseers tracked the sticky molasses from the North End across the Boston area.  Platforms and trains on the “T”, Boston’s subway system, were described as “sticky” for months after the accident.

But what caused the tidal wave of molasses?

Purity Distilling, the company which owned the tank, immediately claimed that Italian anarchists blew up the tank as alcohol produced from the molasses would be used to make munitions.  Why wait for an investigation?  In fact, why wait for rescue efforts to be completed or clean up operations to commence?    Why wait for funeral services?  Why bother inspecting the remains of the tank or evaluating the circumstances before going public with conclusions?  Instead, Purity Distilling turned to the well-worn corporate playbook of placing blame anywhere except on itself combined with a public relations push to cast unwelcome North End Italian immigrants in a poor light.

In this instance, a surprising group undercut the Purity Distilling corporate greed machine.  Was it a group of people seeking to assist the powerless and voiceless North End Italian immigrants?  No.  Was it a collection of government officials protecting those they had vowed to serve?  Nope.  Was it a flock of ministers, priests and other religious leaders caring for the injured and serving the families of those who lost their lives?  Not even close.  The group which stood up to Purity Distilling and outmaneuvered the corporate gamesmanship was a gaggle of lawyers.

These lawyers rode the wave of the Great Molasses Flood to the highest court in Massachusetts changing the law applicable to class actions and expanding the court’s power to redress corporate conduct.  The lawyers successfully argued that class action proceedings should extend to the type of mass tort victims such as those killed or injured by the Purity Distilling tank explosion.

Importantly, along the way in the trial court, these lawyers convinced the judge to appoint an independent auditor to determine the root cause of the tank explosion.  OK.  Lawyer greed outweighs corporate greed, or at least stays one step ahead of corporate greed.

As an initial matter, the auditor determined that Purity Distilling knew it had a problem with the molasses tank.  Installed in 1915, the tank leaked so continuously that Purity Distilling painted the tank brown in an effort to disguise the leaks.  Nearby residents regularly collected molasses leaking from the tank for their own use.

The auditor further discovered stress cracks in the steel at the base of the tank.  Any one of these stress cracks could have reached failure causing the explosion.  In 2014, nearly 100 years after the accident, forensic engineers analyzed tank remains determining that the steel should have been twice as thick as the steel used in the tank walls.  Standards for tanks were lacking in 1915, but the science existed and it was known – or at least knowable – that the tank, as designed and constructed, could not hold the weight of a fully loaded tank.

Contributing also to the cause were the winter weather conditions and Purity Distilling practices.  The day before the tank explosion, the temperature in Boston was two degrees F.  The temperature rose rapidly to 40 degrees F on January 15 which would cause the molasses already in the tank to expand.  In addition, the tank was then filled from a ship’s cargo of molasses.  The ship crew heated the molasses in the cargo hold to assist with pumping the viscous fluid thereby further expanding the molasses volume.

Those Italian anarchist immigrants appear rather scientifically adept with tremendous metallurgical knowledge to create those conditions resulting in explosion of the 2.5 million gallon tank.

I conceptually understand that immediate release of more than 2 million gallons of any liquid or semi-liquid material will cause a catastrophic scenario.  Nonetheless, I have difficulty visualizing molasses, in any amount, traveling at 35 mph.  I turned a half filled jar of molasses from our pantry on its side and patiently waited for the molasses to travel the length of the jar.  Admittedly, honey moved even slower in this carefully planned scientific experiment.  Yet, I still do not recall anyone ever exclaiming to be “Fast as Molasses”.  Indeed, molasses’ reputation is just the opposite.

I digress.  The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 left the North End in Boston with its own stigma which lasts to today.  Bostonians claim to be able to smell a sweet molasses odor in the North End, especially during the warmer summer months.

While I was aware of this tale while I lived in Boston decades ago, I never experienced the molasses effect.  I confess that my many trips to the North End were culinary adventures and not seeking molasses cookies.  The North End is the “Little Italy” section of Boston.  Each restaurant is outstantding both in comparison to the next and on its own.  The pastry shops offer incredible delicacies while enjoying an espresso.  The aromas on and around Hanover Street in the North End offer many and varied welcoming smells, but among them is not molasses.

The other visits to the North End included the obligatory trips to the Old North Church (One if by land, two if by sea. . . .) and Paul Revere’s house.  While removed from restaurant row and the culinary smells, these other areas in the North End again did not present any evidence of molasses.  To this day, the molasses stigma continues.

These man-made disasters with long tail stigmas can serve as lessons in the estate planning arena.  If you proceed with no estate planning or rely on a simple will, your estate may be in a sticky situation in trying to address assets which become stigmatized in their own way.  I am fairly confident that homeowners in East Palestine never thought that their homesteads may become a liability rather than their largest single asset.  Those “assets” may become tied up for months or years in probate proceedings or in litigation with lenders or others after the owner passes.  During those periods, the estate will have carrying costs for the properties and the properties may fall into disrepair.  Loved ones may be saddled with a new, large liability rather than an expected inheritance.

Stigmatized assets are not limited to houses near train wrecks or those covered by a gooey mass.  The recent revelations about cryptocurrencies illustrate how an investment darling can quickly become a nightmarish date.  The ability to quickly exit from an asset class may mean the difference between a modest financial hit and total loss.

A proper estate plan cannot undue the stigma or change economic conditions, but it may provide flexibility in how the matters may be addressed.  If within a proper trust structure and if the trustee has been granted proper powers, the asset which becomes a liability may be able to be addressed quickly and without judicial oversight.  Trustees should have the power to address unproductive assets.  That may mean sale at a loss or even abandonment of property.  The trustee can determine the best course of action and act now rather than be stuck in expensive and time consuming process or litigation before acting.

Circumstances beyond our control may force change upon us.  A proper estate plan cannot anticipate a 40 foot wall of molasses upending your life, but it can include flexibility to ensure that your estate does not become stuck in the aftermath of a disaster.

And the former Purity Distilling tank site in the North End?  It is now a municipal park.  You have to look hard, but you can find a small plaque at the site of the tank itself.  Good luck to those in East Palestine.  At least you have a nice municipal park in your future.

Tragedies of a Tragedy

Tragedies of a Tragedy

Two days after this past Christmas, I finished vacuuming dog hair and completed my projects in order to return home after our family Christmas vacation.  The rest of my family left the day prior which allowed me to clean up without the four-legged companions.  With car packed, final walk-through done, and thermostat turned down to lower than 65 degrees despite the deep freeze outside, I felt a little off and decided to sit down for a minute before my seven hour drive.

Six hours later, I crawled off the couch in desperate search of aspirin and a goal to crank up the thermostat.  I was burning up with a fever and chills the likes of which I could not recall in all my years.  Swallowing felt as if shards of glass remained lodged in my throat.  I knew I was in bad shape, but still marveled at how quickly such an illness struck and with such strength.

I found two Tylenol and two Advil. I could make it until the next morning.  I turned up the heat, crawled under all the blankets I could find, and did not move until the next morning.  At some point, I called my wife to advise that I would not be home and asked her to check on the condition of the boys who travelled back to their places after Christmas.  No one else was ill.

The next morning, I recall getting to the pharmacy, purchasing Tylenol and Advil as well as any over the counter medication I could grab.  I drove the seven hours to get home, but honestly recall very little of the trip.  First thing Thursday morning, now 48 hours into an excessively high fever and flaming throat, I sat in my car outside a doctor’s office.  I would not be allowed in until they secured test results from swabbing my throat and nasal cavities.  Good news!  No flu which was rampant at that time.  Not so good news.  Strep throat.  Even less good news.  Covid.

I had been vaccinated.  I had been boosted.  I had been boosted again.  I sanitized.  I socially distanced.  I tried to stay in my bubble as much as reasonably possible.  I stopped handshaking and had only been fist-bumping ever since we came out of quarantine.  I could not escape forever the “next” or “new” iteration of Covid.

But where could I have picked it up?  Our nuclear family did not really interact with others over the Christmas weekend as we played cards and board games.  No one else entered our family bubble.  No one else in the family became ill with all family members then repeatedly testing negative for Covid.  Two prime candidates emerged: a crowded Christmas church service and Walmart.  We went to Christmas Eve Mass on Friday evening with Covid not knocking me flat until the following Tuesday.  Perhaps too much time between exposure and onset of the illness.  Plus, no one else in close contact became sick.  I went to Walmart on Monday, one day before Covid struck, for cleaning supplies.  The crowd size at Walmart was decent as many were lined up to return gifts.  In addition to shoppers, there were Walmart workers.  To quote Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets, “I seen the help, it’s a judgment call.”  It would be easy to cast blame on an Alabama Walmart as ground zero for my Covid infection, but the truth remains I just do not know the source (it was definitely Walmart!).

The diagnosis within 48 hours allowed me to be placed on certain Covid medication designed to dramatically shorten the length of the illness.  Together with an exceedingly hefty dose of antibiotics for the strep throat, I rebounded amazingly quickly.  Nonetheless, the doctor instructed that I remain entirely isolated from all others for an additional five days.  Exciting New Year’s Eve on the horizon for us as I remained quarantined in one of our son’s childhood bedrooms.

After a few days of medication and rest, I started writing.  Focusing on legal work challenged me at this stage, but I discovered I could write for a while, rest for a while, then write again.  Over the next few days, I knocked out a few Blog articles and some client educational blurbs.  The solitude permitted me to focus on writing.  Wow!  Something positive from my own little Covid isolation.

During the pandemic, I wrote Blog articles, at times, seeking to find the positive in our bubbles and our own quarantine.  I noted how we stoked socially distant friendships among neighbors as we constantly went out for walks.  I observed how we tackled long put off chores such as cleaning out the attic or those spare bedrooms that our now grown kids once occupied.  (Note to self, replace a bed in kid’s former bedroom so I have a place to sleep in future quarantine).  Now I discovered another unanticipated benefit: time to contemplate and write.

It struck me that perhaps some of our most accomplished artists may have created significant works during forced quarantine and quiet periods of a pandemic.  Prior to advances in medicine and science, pandemics, of course, were at least not uncommon.  It took very little research to discover some historic, pandemic-based gems courtesy of the Bard, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s prime writing years covered the 1590s through the first part of the 1600s.  Pandemics, resulting from plagues, struck the entire European continent, and most especially larger cities, such as London.  Quarantines became a regular feature of life during the period from 1603-1613.  To understand how plague-induced quarantines impacted Shakespeare, it assists to appreciate the way young theater businesses evolved at that time.

A mere generation before Shakespeare, in the mid-1500s, theater groups would travel to their audiences.  The groups, or theater troupe, performed at outside venues with locals gathering for performances.  Private, indoor theater productions could be arranged for the elite, but such shows remained the exception.

By 1590, dedicated theaters began appearing in larger populated areas.  These theaters attracted a fairly broad segment of society.  Theater companies became based in and associated with theater buildings.  Shakespeare matured as an actor and young playwright in 1590s England.  His success resulted in his ownership stake in two theaters by the early 1600s: the Blackfriars Theatre and the Globe Theatre.  By 1606, Shakespeare controlled the King’s Men troupe of theater actors.

Theaters constituted the Netflix of the early 1600s.  Theater goers constantly demanded new performances.  In part, Shakespeare’s prolific writing served as the fuel for his theaters.  The Bard needed to pump out new productions to appease demand.  Romeo and Juliet quickly penned just to satisfy the next Summer season.  The Taming of the Shrew shrewdly jotted down just to have another new feature.  Incredible.

However, the pandemics of the time struck the burgeoning theater companies like a Greek tragedy.  While little may have been understood about the medical and scientific side of the plagues, 1600’s society knew that larger crowds resulted in faster spread of the disease.  These new theaters and the crowds they attracted became associated not only with the spread of plague, but the cause of plague itself.  Theaters and their productions dared to portray lewd scenes and cross-dressing actors.  Therefore, theaters must be the source of the disease!  An early 1600’s preacher famously declared: “The cause of plagues is sin, and the cause of sin is plays.”  Good thing that we as an enlightened society moved away from demonizing those with whom we disagree.

As a result, when a pandemic hit, theaters were the first structures ordered to shutter.

The outbreak of plague in 1606 in England caused extraordinarily lengthy closures of all city-based operations.  The actors from Shakespeare’s theater companies left for the countryside which had fewer restrictions in order to continue outdoor performances.  Shakespeare struggled to keep his theater companies afloat and he himself relocated to the country in his own quarantine.

Shakespeare’s work product penned during the 1606 exile:  King Lear; Antony and Cleopatra; and Macbeth.  Absent the 1606 plague, we would not have the tremendous insult: “You are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face.”  We would not know that the prince of darkness is a gentleman!  The darkest of all Shakespearean plays, King Lear, would not have been written.

Think of the many future works using the concept of “something wicked this way comes” from Macbeth which would never have been written.  Would the damned spot ever get out?  Imagine the consequences if Birnam wood never came to Dunsinane hill!  And how could we know that eternity was in our lips and in our eyes if not spoken by Cleopatra?  The tragedy would be never having these Tragedies.

Returning to the theaters for the 1607 season in Shakespeare’s theaters could have included these classic plays.  Not a bad year to have purchased season tickets!

Our own pandemic with Covid represented the first real event I could use with clients in discussing estate planning issues and the need to prepare for the unknown events and uncertainties.  We really have not had events with global impacts involving loss of life since WWII.  I do not dwell on the fragile nature of life in those discussions as the message is plain.  I do seek to find uplifting or positive messages of what may arise from those dire circumstances.  I now can include my favorite Shakespearean play, Macbeth, as the cornerstone example of positives coming out of challenging situations.

Shakespeare during quarantine: “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”  Me during quarantine: “Oh boy!  I wrote two Blog articles!”  Somehow my effort feels much less of an accomplishment now.  Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for your real work during a pandemic, serving once more as an inspiration, and penning classics as if crafting simple thank you letters.  I am going to re-read Macbeth again and marvel at my pedantic existence.  If you become stuck in your own forced time out from all others whether due to Covid or any other circumstance, look to Shakespeare as reminder that we can all try a little harder.

Slide Rules, A Big Bang, and the Moon

Slide Rules, A Big Bang, and the Moon

Dateline:  1958 – Cold War America.  The United States failed twice to launch a man-made satellite into orbit.  In late 1957, the Soviets successfully launched a beach ball sized satellite under its Sputnik space program.  Americans feared that the Soviets remained perched on the cusp of winning the Space Race, and with it, nuclear supremacy.  This “Sputnik Crisis” sent the already overheated space exploration community into hyper-drive.  No costs would be sparred to achieve space supremacy.

The U.S. needed something grand to recapture the faith of the American people, justify the flow of endless dollars to the space program, and show up the Soviets.  Top Secret Air Force Project A119 was just the ticket.  In 1958, the U.S. created Project A119 – A Study of Lunar Research Flights.

Detonating a nuclear bomb on the surface of the Moon remained the stated goal of Project A119.  Blowing up the Moon with a nuke would assist in studying mysteries in planetary astronomy and astrogeology.  In addition, the flash from a nuclear explosion on the Moon should be visible from earth, including being visible to the Soviets.  Ahh.  There it is.  The true mandate for Project A119:  a show of military force and boost to domestic morale to respond to the Sputnik Crisis.

Officially, Project A119 remains a Top Secret, classified project.  The U.S. Government will not acknowledge its existence or respond to formal requests for information.  Enter a youthful Carl Sagan.  In 1958, Carl Sagan continued his doctoral studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, including the development of mathematical projections of the expansion of a dust cloud resulting from detonating a nuclear bomb on the lunar surface as part of Project A119.

In 1959, Sagan applied for an academic scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley.  In the application, Sagan provided extensive details of his involvement with Project A119, including identifying two papers to which Sagan contributed:  Possible Contribution of Lunar Nuclear Weapons Detonations to the Solution of Some Problems in Planetary Astronomy, and Radiological Contamination of the Moon by Nuclear Weapons Detonations.  Apparently, Carl Sagan missed all the memoranda and instructions about the Top Secret nature of Project A119.  These disclosures were still maintained under wrap until a 1999 biography of Sagan disclosed them to the public at large.

After publication of this 1999 biography, the leader of Project A119, Leonard Reiffel, acknowledged that a ten-member team evaluated blowing up the Moon.  The team studied utilizing different types of atomic bombs; effects of an atomic explosion in oxygen-free space; Earthly visual impacts of a nuclear detonation on the dark side of the Moon; and magnitude of resultant dust clouds.  In offering these revelations in 2000, Reiffel, a retired NASA top executive, denunciated all the work for Project A119, noting that as a scientist, he was “horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was even considered.”  Better late than never with remorse.

Yet, in 1958, apparently neither Reiffel nor Sagan (or any of the ten-member scientific team) were sufficiently “horrified” with Project A119.  Indeed, they proceeded studying the atomic, scientific, engineering and mathematical angles of blowing up a nuclear device on the Moon.  In 1958 America, we were not far removed from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.  The father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, became person non-grata after publicly opposing development of a thermonuclear bomb.  The Project A119 scientists lived through the atrocities of WWII, with some of them fleeing to the United States.  The Cold War represented part of the fabric of everyday life.  Failure to embrace and support a patriotic cause of the U.S. would get you labeled a Communist, or at least a sympathizer.  These real-life dynamics do not justify Project A119, but they do help to explain how the scientific community actively participated in such an exercise.

Today, the mere idea of blowing up the Moon does not merely sound incredibly stupid, but also insane.  In 1958, perhaps the full effects of nuclear explosions were not truly appreciated or understood.  Nonetheless, the Government, scientists, and general public certainly knew that atomic weapons presented significant, and lasting, impacts.  To illustrate both the known dangers and limits of our knowledge at that time, simply look to the nuclear bomb drills in schools with students taking cover under their desks for protection from nuclear bombs.  Radiation could not possibly permeate those protective Math and Spelling books in the desks above the students’ heads!  In fairness, if nuclear fallout had to stop to diagram a sentence, it may have been stunted in its progress.

Even with consideration of societal pressures and dynamics in the late 1950s, the U.S. charged some of the very top scientists to devise a plan to blow up the Moon.  Just who made the decision and how did it unfold?  With Top Secret status still invoked by the U.S. 65 years later and generally limited available information, we can only speculate as to the origins of the plan to nuke the Moon.  Two groups appear as prime candidates to start us along this nuclear path:  the Military/Political faction and the Scientific community.  I envision that each group approached the decision in different fashions.

The Scientific Committee brought together by the Air Force would have consisted of top scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  The foundation meeting might have progressed as follows:

“Okay, Gentlemen [Side Note: All Committee members are male as the professional deck was entirely stacked against women in 1958 and beyond], the Soviets successfully launched a satellite and our two efforts failed.  America relies on us to come up with an amazing and better plan.  Any ideas?”

“Well, Boss, hear me out on this one.  I have out of the box thinking here.  We have trouble with satellites, but we are pretty good with nuclear bombs.  We can by-pass the entire circling the Earth phase and proceed directly to delivering a nuclear bomb to the Moon.  We can detonate it on the Moon’s surface so that the Soviets can see the mushroom cloud.  Now, that will be impressive.”

“That is big thinking, indeed.  But what about environmental impacts, radiation, or safety issues in transporting a nuclear bomb by rocket?”

“We’ll call the Project The Study of Lunar Research Flights so it sounds like we are actually studying those kind of issues.  The rest are details, details, details.  We have the brightest minds from all scientific fields in this room.  What could possibly go wrong?  To the Moon, I say, and let’s blow it up!”

All Committee members cheer: “To the Moon!  To the Moon!  Give that guy another pocket protector and slide rule!”

Perhaps a little out of character for scientists, but we do know that some group came up with the idea for Project A119.  Let’s check in with the hypothetical initial meeting of the Military and Political leaders.

“Okay, Boys [Side Note: Not even consideration of women in this group in 1958], the Soviets successfully launched a satellite and our two efforts failed.  America relies on us to come up with an amazing and better plan.  Any ideas?”

“Well, General, hear me out on this one.  I have an idea to knock the red socks off the Ruskies.  Well strap a nuclear bomb to a rocket, send it to the Moon, and blow out a new crater so the Man in the Moon has a dimple in his chin.  The Soviets will pee their pants in fear and every American will love us.”

“Brilliant!  Promote that guy two ranks!

“Excuse me, General, but what about environmental impacts, radiation, or safety issues in transporting a nuclear bomb by rocket?”

“Who invited the Commie sympathizer?  Those are details, details, details.  Those eggheads in the other room will love the challenge to make this happen within twelve months.  For political cover, we will call the Project The Study of Lunar Research Flights.  What could possibly go wrong?”

All Military and Political Committee members chant: “Blow up the Moon!  Blow up the Moon!”  Meeting adjourned.

These imaginary initial meetings are fantastic, and yet, the U.S. Government became determined to proceed with Project A119 with a goal to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the Moon just to show up the Soviets.  Some group actually analyzed these issues in some detailed fashion and decided to proceed with a full Top Secret Project.  Our leaders at work.

Not to be outdone, years later we learned that at the same time, the Soviets embarked on their own Top Secret Project E-4.  Project E-4 included a plan to deliver and detonate an atomic bomb on the Moon’s surface.  This revelation does not make Air Force Project A119 less insane.  Instead, the existence of a parallel Soviet plan to blow up the Moon simply confirms that many passengers can fit in the Crazy Boat at the same time.

The Soviets successfully launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the Cold War turned into a Space Race on steroids.  Both the U.S. and Soviets set their sights on the Moon.  Exploration of the nearest orbiting body?  Nope.  Scientific examination of the makeup of the Moon and what it might teach us?  Nah.  Study the effects of no gravity?  Not even close.  Rather, Mankind’s first interaction with a planetary object beyond the Earth would be a nuclear kiss of death.  “One small nuclear device detonated on the Moon’s surface.  One enormous mushroom cloud to scare our enemies.”  Not quite as catchy as Neil Armstrong.

Fortunately for the human race, the U.S. eventually abandoned Project A119 determining that the risks of an explosion during the launch cycle outweighed potential benefits.  Please note, the potential impacts on the Moon were not among the reasons to abandon the project.  Independently, the Soviets also scrapped Project E-4 for unstated “safety concerns.”  In reality, both the U.S. and Soviets recognized that any dust cloud or mushroom cloud associated with a lunar nuclear explosion would fail to produce the desired, dramatic, visible with the naked eye, impact so coveted.  As the explosion would be a dud from the perspective of the Earth, why bother?  The Moon was saved as it was simply too far away for target practice.

In the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet Union entered two treaties in which the Superpowers pledged to keep the Moon out of consideration for any nuclear testing or targeting.  By that time, both countries knew that a lunar nuclear strike would have little showmanship effect.  Whatever the reasons, these treaties rendered moot the need for another Project A119.  Let’s hope that there is not a different Project A120 under consideration (or actually in play).

In estate planning meetings with clients, we inevitably reach the “what if” phase in discussing alternate trustees or agents to serve in plan documents and address contingent circumstances.  At times, clients may roll their eyes and I know they are thinking that the exercise is silly as certainly those events I describe could never come to fruition.  Even with the most far fetching hypotheticals I present, I have never invoked an example of detonating an inter-planetary nuclear device as a concern.

Nonetheless, when clients question the likelihood of crazy hypothetical events I conjure, I may now remind them that our Government spent years funding a project to blow up the Moon.  Unlikely and unexpected events abound in our lives.  We need to plan — perhaps not using our Living Trusts and Wills to address interplanetary nuclear excursions — but instead to account for the unlikely challenges which may arise in our families and business affairs.  In the meantime, enjoy the Moon while we still have it.

Resolutions, But Why Now?

Resolutions, But Why Now?

Welcome to 2023.  New Year.  New Beginnings.  New Promises.  For many, the New Year represents a time and place to wipe the slate clean, begin anew, and try to do better.  The vast majority of us seek to assist ourselves in these endeavors with New Year’s Resolutions.  We can make resolutions at any time.  Yet, our custom and practice remains to reflect on our own self, candidly acknowledge our successes and limitations, and then resolve to change or improve on behaviors with the New Year.

But why January 1?  Of course, as with so many of our traditions and customs, the origins rest with religion.  At the beginning of each year, the Romans would make promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named.  The Roman god Janus is depicted with two faces always placed in opposite direction of each other.  Janus could simultaneously see the past and provide vision for the future.  As such, he was the gateway god associated with doorways, passageways and opportunities.  “Janus” literally translates to “arched passage, doorway”.  With insight to what has been and what may come, Janus symbolizes the beginning and end, as well as war and peace.  More importantly, Janus represents transitions from youth to adulthood, life to death, and light to darkness.    

Stressed in worshipping Janus for transitions would be the beginnings.  The Romans sought the blessing or approval of Janus for a new cause or circumstance.  Temples built to honor Janus are not found, but gates and entranceways abound with his image.  Opportunity awaits on the other side of the gate.  Changes lie ahead on the other side of the passageway.  Janus is the god of change and possibility.  For divine approval and support for a Roman’s resolutions for new beginnings, Janus was THE guy.

Fast forward to Medieval times, at the conclusion of the Christmas Season corresponding with the New Year, knights’ resolutions included renewal of their vows and commitment to chivalry.  At about the same time, Christian churches began using New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day liturgical services for the Covenant Renewal Service.  Congregants would prepare for the upcoming year through prayer and making resolutions.  Watchnight Services at Christmas and New Years would incorporate religious resolutions by the congregants.

Use of New Year’s resolutions became a staple among organized religions through the centuries.  Indeed, in the early 1900’s, a postcard with the following resolution message could be sent as a reminder to your closest friends and loved ones:

Wow!  I would need to spend the vast majority of each day just attempting to remember what I resolved to do and refrain from doing with that resolution.

New Year’s Resolutions crossed over to secular society along the way.  By 1813, the term “New Year’s Resolution” first appeared in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper.  In fact, the concept of New Year’s Resolutions was so well entrenched by this time that the Boston paper described the resolution process skeptically as follows: “There are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive injunction of the new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

At about the same time in the early 1800s, Walker’s Hibernian Magazine recognized that most failed to follow through on resolutions and published a list of resolutions some have solemnly pledged to keep.  Those satiric resolutions included Statesmen resolving to have no other object in view than the good of the country; and Physicians resolving to be very moderate in their fees.  Apparently, some things just do not change, even with a few centuries of resolutions.

Resolution Statistics

At the end of the Great Depression, approximately one quarter of Americans made some type of New Year’s Resolution.  That percentage slowly, but steadily, increased to almost 50% of Americans making such annual resolutions by the year 2000.  52% of us firmly believe that our resolutions will succeed when we make them.  However, the actual success rate is closer to 12%.  

With success so unlikely, we should ask why we keep making resolutions.  I am no psychologist, but I do think that resolutions in some measure represent hope and faith in ourselves.  In making a resolution, we have already noted a trait or condition in our own self which we want to change.  In and of itself, that process is growth.  We know we may not succeed in carrying out the resolution, but we achieve a heightened awareness regarding the actions and conduct we strive to alter.  We have the opportunity to avoid such circumstances in the future.  You may not have lost all the weight in your resolution, but perhaps you started on an improved exercise routine.

The one statistic which stood out for me is that 46% of people are more likely to succeed in achieving a goal when tied to a resolution than those with no resolution.  Groups have been studied with weight loss and quitting smoking on this issue.  For those who combined a stated goal (e.g., lose ten pounds) with a resolution to succeed, there existed an almost 50% increase in the success rate when compared with others who merely put forth a stated goal without a resolution.  A resolution is a promise to ourselves and even third parties.  There exists motivation with a resolution which otherwise is absent from the equation.  Maybe guilt in not achieving the resolution plays a part.  Whatever the reasons, resolutions undeniably assist us.

We have a New Year with 2023.  Join the 50% of Americans and make resolutions if not already undertaken.  The simple step of reducing a promise to yourself to a resolution already places you on the path for a greater chance of success.  Who knows, even your own Janus is out there working on new beginnings for you.  

In Estate Planning, some clients have difficulty discussing or entertaining the concept of their own demise.  Even the word “death” casts a chill on the process as the finality associated with death is their very own.  Perhaps Janus can assist with more than resolutions and serve as a reminder that with change (I.e., death), a new beginning can dawn for those for whom the client wants to provide.  We can look forward to possibilities and not back to our own Earthly demise.

Good luck with your New Year’s Resolutions and Happy New Year!