Tag Archives: history

Beachcombing for History in Hallet’s Cove, Astoria

I’ve been spending much more time exploring my neighborhood of Astoria, NY, due to the pandemic, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for a little spit of sand called Hallet’s Cove.  That’s right, Astoria has its very own beach!  And like any city beach, it’s kind of gross, strewn with beer bottles, random animal bones, and the occasional syringe.  But take a closer look, and it becomes an amateur archaeologist’s paradise.  This area has been settled by Europeans since the 17th century, and was populated by Native Americans for thousands of years before that.  Its namesake, Hallet, was one of the European families that settled here.  It’s fortunate that Hallet’s Cove hasn’t been swept up by development (yet), as luxury condos are relentlessly springing up around it.  By some miracle, the beach remains in a more or less natural state.

During low tide, I’ve enjoyed beachcombing at Hallet’s Cove – when the resident geese don’t scare me off, that is – and I’ve found plenty of fascinating objects, both natural and man-made.  Some pieces are modern, but I suspect some of my finds are hundreds of years old, although I can’t say for sure.  The objects may not look like much, but as a history lover, I love the clues they hold about the people who lived, worked, and died here.

By coincidence, the day I’m posting this (Jan. 24) is the anniversary of the grisly murder of William Hallet III, his wife and five children, killed with an ax by a slave in 1707 or 1708. The house where it happened no longer exists, but it must have been close to Hallet’s Cove. RIP.

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Filed under America, ancient, history, morbid, museums, nature, NYC, photography, Uncategorized, underwater

Bataan Death March Commemoration in Orangeburg, NY

I attended the Battle of Bataan / Bataan Death March commemoration in Orangeburg, NY, yesterday, which my uncle, Jerry Kleiman, organized single-handedly.  It’s the 75th anniversary of this historic event in which thousands of Americans and Filipinos died.  The 31st Infantry Regiment came down from Fort Drum to attend and brought their famed Shanghai Punch Bowl, which had been buried in Bataan during WWII.  The singer Joe Bataan, who was named after the battle (and who would have been named Corregidor if he were a girl), gave a stirring performance.  Several politicians and religious, military, and civic leaders made powerful speeches, and 4 WWII veterans (including my grandfather, Irving Kleiman) introduced themselves.


The Shanghai Punch Bowl

Afterwards there was a symposium at Dominican College.  Joseph Laurent Chabot, the son of a Bataan Death March survivor, spoke about his father’s ordeal.  Both he and his father were West Point graduates.  His father was held in a POW camp in the Philippines for most of the war.  He said the only reason his father, Joseph Ludger Chabot, wasn’t put on a Japanese “hell ship” was because he was too sick to walk to the vessel.  One of his father’s friends, who was put on a hell ship, was owed some mung beans and designated Joseph as the person who should receive his share of beans.  This little bit of extra nutrition may have saved his life.

Sherman Fleek, military historian from West Point, spoke about Filipino West Point graduates who served with honor in Bataan, and the importance of memory.

Dr. Scott White, a historian from Dominican College, spoke about the Native American soldiers from the American Southwest who served in Bataan.  He told the story of one Navajo soldier who was in a POW camp in Bataan (not sure of his name).  The Japanese had realized that the U.S. was using Native American code talkers, although at first they thought there was only one Native American language.  I’m not sure how/ if they realized Navajo was being used.  They started looking for Navajo speakers in the POW camps and torturing them to break the code.  They sent this Navajo soldier to Nagasaki for more specialized torture, doing things like making him stand outside until his feet froze to the ground and driving a nail into his head.  He left Nagasaki only a few days before the bomb was dropped.  After the war, he received extensive medical treatment in Hawaii and California before returning home.  He (and other Navajo survivors) went through a lot of ceremonies to purify their spirit, and it was hard to get them to talk about their experiences because of their beliefs about the spirits of the dead.  Dr. White also gave an example of the code, saying the Navajo words for bee, tea, etc., and explaining that the first letters of each word stood for or made the sounds of “Bataan.”  (By the way, I think this story would make a great book and/ or movie.  Unfortunately I don’t have the expertise to write it.)

After the talks, a WWII veteran in the audience stood up and spoke for 10 minutes.  He had served in the Philippines, near Luzon, and was 19 at the time.  He spoke about working to construct a camp for the POWs after they were released, putting up tents and a long row of latrines.  He said that when the POWs arrived in trucks, they were so weak and malnourished that they had to be carried out.  Their arms and legs were like bones, and their stomachs were distended. They seemed happy to be there, although embarrassed they had lost the battle.  He and the other Americans “took care of them,” telling them not to eat too much because they would throw it up.  But they threw up anyway, and had massive diarrhea.

One more interesting point, mentioned by Jerry and others: Bataan Road (in Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, where this commemoration took place) was named in 1942, before the Death March became publicly known in 1944.  Bataan was a rallying cry for the Americans long before people knew about the Death March.  An escapee from the Bataan POW camps wrote about it in 1944, but he died in a military accident before the book came out.

P.S. – Sorry if I got any of this information wrong; I didn’t do much fact-checking, but wanted people to know about this important event.

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A Bit of Astoria’s Past to Be Preserved: Owner of Deals Store Agrees to Preserve Historic Terra Cotta Decorations

Thank you to Morris Dweck, owner of the Deals store in Astoria, Queens.  After many residents (including me) protested the potential destruction of the beautiful and historic terra cotta decorations on his storefront, he is taking steps to preserve them.  I’m very happy about this, as I’ve seen and loved these whimsical decorations all my life and believe they add some much-needed character to the neighborhood.  Here’s an excerpt from his letter, and some drawings of how the building will look.

At long last, attached, please find the rendering for project at 3601 Broadway in Astoria.  These renderings may be published and redistributed as you wish.

As you will see, all the architectural detail is being preserved.  Additionally, I am proud to announce that we will be installing same limestone above the current DII Store at 3611 Broadway so that the façade appears unified.

Our contractors have been given these drawings, and every effort will be made to fulfill this depiction as shown.

I would like to thank our architect Mr Walter Marin and his team for working hard and fast to prepare these drawings. I would also like to acknowledge the building owner for her cooperation and her guidance in satisfying the requests of the neighborhood.

As stated previously, we at DII Stores are committed to the local Community and residents of Astoria and aspire to meet their wishes to preserve its history and culture. We are confident that our investment of time and money will be rewarded with increased patronage and continued loyalty. DII has been part of the Astoria Community for over 35 years, and we look forward to serving Astoria for generations to come.

— Morris Dweck

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Why Are Swedish Museums So Morbid?

I was in Stockholm recently, and one thing that struck me is how morbid the museums are.  They love showing skulls, skeletons, faces reconstructed from skulls, ghostly visuals, etc.  Don’t get me wrong – I think this is great.  It really makes history come alive (ironically) and forces you to think about the lives of those who came before.  It was just a little unnerving to see so many bones; I’ve never seen such an obsession with death in any other country’s museums.  But what else would you expect from the nation of Ingmar Bergman?

Here’s a gallery of some of the scariest exhibits in Sweden.  The exhibit on the 1361 Battle of Gotland in the Historiska museum was particularly graphic.  Happy early Halloween!

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Filed under death, Gotland, Halloween, medieval, morbid, museums, scary, skeletons, skulls, Stockholm, Sweden, Vasa, Vikings

General Slocum Sign in Astoria Park

Hello all!  Just a quick post about my hometown of Astoria, New York.  If you live here, you may know that the General Slocum disaster took place in 1904 a short distance from Astoria Park.  To quote Wikipedia:

An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died. The General Slocum disaster was the New York area’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life until the September 11, 2001 attacks.

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a sign in Astoria Park commemorating this tragic event.  Most of those who died were women and children.  Well, recently I noticed the sign was missing.  It may have been vandalized.  This is a horrible thing.  Can you imagine someone vandalizing a sign commemorating the September 11th attacks?

The view from Astoria Park

The view from Astoria Park

A few weeks ago, I contacted the NYC Parks department about the missing sign.  They said they “have already placed an order for a replacement sign, with an expectation that a replacement should be reinstalled within about four weeks time.”  The sign should be back up soon.  Keep your eye out for it, and never forget the General Slocum!


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The Top 8 Movies Set in Ancient and Medieval Times (with Clips)

By Stefanie Weisman

1. Gladiator. (2000, dir. Ridley Scott)

Russell Crowe gives a searing performance as Maximus, a general-turned-gladiator who single-handedly takes on the Roman Empire. This movie makes you realize (in case you didn’t already) that gladiators weren’t just big fat oafs wearing funny costumes lumbering around an arena. They were human beings who suffered, died terrible deaths, and in some cases, found glory. Joaquin Phoenix is delicious as the twisted but pitiful Emperor Commodus.

2. Braveheart. (1995, dir. Mel Gibson)

Okay, I know this movie is fraught with historical inaccuracies (aren’t they all?), but Mel Gibson’s performance as Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace more than makes up for it. The execution scene at the end is a chilling look at what it meant to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

3. Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (1979, dir. Terry Jones)

One of the funniest movies of all time in my opinion, and surprisingly realistic in parts. Take the scene where an anti-Roman Israelite played by John Cleese asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Well, his cohorts answer, how about the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads (well obviously the roads, I mean the roads go without saying, don’t they?), irrigation, education, public baths, and it is safe to walk in the streets now…

4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (1975, dir. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)

A zany look at England in the Middle Ages, this is one of the movies that sparked my love of history. It also provides a foolproof way to identify a king in medieval Europe: he’s the only one who hasn’t got shit all over him.

5. The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre. 1982, dir. Daniel Vigne)

Perhaps one of the most realistic movies set in medieval times, this French film is based on actual sixteenth-century court records, and is a heartbreaking love story starring the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu, who seems to have been in every French film in the 80s and 90s. It’s unique in that it depicts the life of peasants, not nobility.

Watch the trailer here. (There is a version with English subtitles, in case you were wondering.)

6. The Lion in Winter. (1968, dir. Anthony Harvey)

Starring one of my favorite actors, Peter O’Toole, as English king Henry II (did you know he also played Henry II in the movie Becket?), this movie provides an intimate look at a very dysfunctional family — which just happens to be the nascent British royal family. It also stars Katharine Hepburn as the conniving Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a very young, almost unrecognizable Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart.

7. The Decameron (1971, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini).

This Italian movie is bawdy and somewhat pornographic, just as Boccaccio would have wanted it. You can’t do the Decameron justice without showing a little — okay, a lot — of skin. The medieval festival scenes make you feel like you’re in the middle of a Bruegel painting.

You can watch the whole film here!

8. Alexander Nevsky. (1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev, with a score by Sergei Prokofiev)

I was lucky enough to see this movie at Lincoln Center a few years ago: the New York Philharmonic performed the uplifting score by Prokofiev while the film played on the big screen. This movie, directed by the legendary Sergei Eisenstein, tells the story of Russian hero Alexander Nevsky’s victory over the very scarily dressed Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century. The Battle on the Ice is one of the most gripping battle scenes you’ll ever see in the history of cinema.

Runners-up: Spartacus, Henry V (the Kenneth Branagh version), The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Seventh Seal.

What are some of your favorite ancient or medieval films?


Filed under ancient, film, history, medieval, movies

The Top 10 Literary Quotes About History and the Passage of Time

I’m a collector, and one of the things I collect is quotes from the books I read. These quotes make me think about mortality and the bittersweet passage of time. Do you have any favorite quotes about history or time in general?

1. Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. . . . Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.
— Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

2. We learn from history that we do not learn from history.
— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

3. All things are wearisome, more than one can express . . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
— Ecclesiastes, 1:8-9

4. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it — if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass . . .
— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

5. As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the center of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering, he perceived.
— Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

6. There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn whereso’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
— William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

7. ‘We are going simply to see the old trees, the old ruins; to pass a day in old times, surrounded by olden silence, and above all by quietude.’
— Charlotte Bronte, Shirley

8. Presently he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects – hardly recognizable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles – made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.
‘It seems cruel,’ she said, ‘that after a while nothing matters . . . any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: “Use unknown”.’
— Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

9. It is human life. We are blown upon the world; we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory – and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those solemn times when we wake in the deeps of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and as little worth the making.
— Mark Twain, Autobiography

10. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.
— From Nikos Kazantzakis’ tombstone

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Travel Adventure #1: Playing Dead in Montmajour Abbey

Call me morbid, but I love old cemeteries.  They’re so peaceful, so spiritual, so, well, otherworldly.  I can spend hours looking at  tombstones and reading the inscriptions, thinking about how the people lived. 

My all-time favorite cemetery is the one I came across unexpectedly at Montmajour Abbey, a huge medieval monastery outside of Arles in France.  There aren’t any bodies there now – they were removed long ago.  When I first saw the large holes cut into the rocky outcrop outside the abbey, I didn’t know what they were.  Then I realized the holes were vaguely human-shaped, with angular cuts for the shoulders and head.  My thoughts went something like this:

“Oh my God, those are tombs cut into the rock.”

“Wow, they are hundreds of years old.”

“It’s strange that there’s nothing covering them.”

“Since there’s nothing covering them, I should probably get inside one right now!”

And that’s just what I did.  It’s not every day you get to lie inside someone’s tomb.  It wasn’t too comfy, but it was an otherworldly experience.

Playing dead in Montmajour Abbey necropolis

Playing dead in Montmajour Abbey necropolis

Montmajour Abbey necropolis

Montmajour Abbey necropolis

Water-filled tombs in Montmajour Abbey

More tombs in Montmajour Abbey

Picture 241

A view of all the tombs from the abbey’s tower.


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