Georg Johannes von Trapp (1880 – 1947): Crossing the Streams

I was taken to (subjected to, if you like) the Sound of Music while in single digits, and the one thing I could not understand was how the Austrian Captain Von Trapp could possibly be a naval officer in a land locked country.

Turns out those every mountains he climbed were far from his birth place in the now Croatian city of Zadar on the Mediterranean coast; his choice of a naval career was keeping things in the family, as his father was in the service.  He was apparantly up to snuff, served on the  armored cruiser Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia   during the Boxer Rebellion in China .  The ship arrived late to the happenings, but soon enough for Lieutenant von Trapp to get decorated for bravery. Continue reading

Commodore Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862): Anchors Aweigh

“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors… I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”

– Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN

It’s reasonably well known that Thomas Jefferson for all his cleverness was a complete duffer with household finance and died in debt, his estate sold off for pennies on the dollar.

A scandal, really, and as the government at that time did not take much interest in history in general or historical artifacts in particular, the lands and buildings of Monticello were more or less allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Continue reading

Sweyn Asleifsson, 1116 – 1171: The Ultimate Viking

He was born in Caithness, son of Olaf, who was murdered in 1135 by Olvir Rosta, who a year previously had lost a minor sea battle and carried a grudge.  Olvir’s method of restoring his self esteem was the burning Olaf’s house down while Olaf was still in it.  This is how cycles of violence start, and neglecting to take out the nineteen year old Sweyn was an oversight that was going to cost Olvir.

That would come later.  In the meantime, the boy (who, curiously, took his surname from his mother Aslief) gets his first mention at the 1135 yuletide revels at the household of the earl of Orkney.  It seem the Earl’s cup-bearer had grabbed some of Sweyn’s holiday grog, an act that Sweyn did not take in the spirit of the season. He  stewed for a day or so, then brained the fellow. Continue reading

Pier Gerlofs Donia, c.1480 – 1520: Dutch Courage

In 1514, George the Bearded, Duke of Saxony,  sent his crew of landsknechts, the so-called  Black Guard, to put down the lowland upstarts under Edzard I, Count of East Frisia.

There was a good amount of excess in the doing, which came to a head when the Guardsmen, unpaid for too long, started demanding their due directly from the local civilians. They came to the village of Kimsweerd where they did the usual number of robbery, and as a by the way, raped and killed the wife of our subject.

Bad idea.

The Dutch, understand, have a long line of tough.  Serious tough.  Don’t let the pot cafes and the tulips and the cheese fool you.    You don’t pull your own country from the oceans without tough.  You also don;t don’t make a global empire without tough.  And when you kick at the family of a guy like Big Piers, a man who could bend coins with his thumb and forefinger, you will get blowback. Continue reading

Geoffrey Willans, 1911-1958: As Any Ful Kno

If you know Lennon, you’re going to know McCartney, and if you don’t know Morecambe,  it’s pretty much a given you won’t know Wise.  There are precious few joint operations where, despite equal status on the playbill, one partner is a household name and the other an obscurity,  especially when the work itself remains vital.

Willans falls into that category.  The name alone draws a blank even from people who know and love his work.  Understandable, if tragic.

For one thing, he died relatively young.  For another, his partner was then young Ronald Searle; Searle who illustrated Willan’s greatest creation, Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St. Custards. Continue reading