Wednesday, November 28

Panic at The Cocoanut Grove


By Art Cashin

On this day in 1942 (as you may have heard), America was at war.  Already absences, apprehension of the future and the aura of aisles grown thin by rationing added to anxiety and signaled sacrifice today and more to come tomorrow. Even in purportedly Puritanical Boston, the worries of war were wearing on women and warriors (even would-be warriors).

Now this particular November 28th was a Saturday in Boston (as it was in most of America) and Saturday is a day (and even more of a night) when Americans (even in Boston), lean toward pleasure rather than privation and sacrifice.  Maybe that's why a lot of folks who were in town for the annual "Holy Cross vs. Boston College game" decided to break their thirst and their sacrifice at a popular local night-club.  It was called the Cocoanut Grove. 

The Cocoanut Grove was already crowded with sailors, soldiers, secretaries and sundry citizens seeking surcease from said sense of sacrifice.  The club's management (surely out of a sense of charity) decided to let everybody in. 8:00 p.m. there were about 1100 people in a place that the Boston Fire Dept. said could hold 500 safely.

About 9:40, a prankster stole a light bulb in the hallway near the restrooms of the basement cabaret.  We presume he (or she) may have hoped to have fun frightening or fondling friends in the darkened hallway.  But someone complained and a busboy was sent to replace the bulb.  Since he had no flashlight, he lit a match to find the socket.

As you might imagine, a place called "The Cocoanut Grove" fancied itself a jungle lodge (even in Boston).  So it was decorated like the nightclub in "Mighty Joe Young."  There was even a false ceiling of draped burlap everywhere.

The busboy's match caught the burlap and soon smoke was everywhere.  People began to scream "fire!" and, in panic, crowds surged toward doorways (remember, the lights were still on).  As was the custom at the time, however, most doors opened the more people who surged toward a door the less likely was it to open.

Image =
Hearing the noise downstairs (and smelling the smoke), the folks up at ground level began to panic too.  But here the doorways also opened inward and the halls were also narrow… the results were equally tragic.  When the fire department finally put the fire out, they found nearly 500 dead and another 200 severely injured.

There were heroes of course.  One patron smashed a basement window and forced others to climb over the glass to safety.  A kid with a bit part in the "floor show" led a group up some back stairs, across the roof and to safety.  Less appreciated was the nightclub manager who saved himself and a few friends by sealing his group in the meat locker.

The aftermath was typically American…..investigations, indictments and new legislation.  But what was omitted in most reports was the fact that the bulk of the fatalities were not the result of the fire…..most were the result of panic.

To mark the day, stop by the Taki Tiki Lounge and point out to some big gorilla that Wall Streeters have long known that panic can be a bigger killer than any calamity.  But check where the windows are before you sit down.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

Monday, November 19

Saving Gilbert

Vice Admiral Davies
By Grant Davies

On this day in 1915, the first combat "search and rescue" mission using an aircraft was successfully carried out. It occurred during a misunderstanding that later came to be known as WWI. (For further research on that affair, just Google up "most pointless war ever.")

The story starts with a bombing mission by two British pilots that went south when "his machine was received by very heavy fire and brought down." Apparently that's how the Brits in charge of giving out medals back then described getting your freakin' plane blown out from underneath your ass by enemy fire.

The poor bloke, a certain "Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Formby Smylie, R.N." (the RN apparently means Royal Navy, not registered nurse) didn't even have time to drop his bombs before they riddled his plane with enough lead to force him to land. So he dumped all his bombs (except the one that wouldn't release -1915 technology ya know) and brought the crippled machine to earth behind enemy lines.

That's when his fellow pilot, a guy named Richard Bell Davies, a relative of the author of this piece, (okay, I made that up in an effort to connect myself to heroism) looped back to see what happened to his buddy Gilbert. What he saw was Gilbert on the ground below lighting fire to what remained of his plane so that it wouldn't fall into enemy hands.

Nieuport 10
So Davies did what any hero would do, he landed his Nieuport 10, and proceeded to rescue his wing man and take off again, all while under enemy fire. As if that wasn't hard enough, the plane in question was one that had been converted from a two seater to a single. The front seat had been roofed over and Smylie had to wiggle past the controls and get wedged into what remained of the front seat. It was the first airplane wedgie. (It took two hours to extricate him when they landed safely back in their own territory.)

Prior to all this, while Davies was coming down to get him, Smylie figured out that the bomb he was depending upon to blow up his plane after he set fire to it, was likely to go off just as Davies got there and blow him up, too. So he ran back to the burning wreckage and used his pistol to set off the explosion before that could happen.

It seems to me that these two guys had big enough stones to build a henge.

In the end, Davies got a well deserved "Victoria Cross" and Smylie got a "Distinguished Service Cross" and I got to write this swell account of their heroic feats.

Editors note... I actually am related to another heroic pilot named Davies. His name was Albert Davies. He was my uncle and he was a B-17 pilot who was shot down and killed while helping to defeat an ass-hat named Adolf about thirty years later. So next time you are making toasts to war heroes in your local pub, lift one to pilots named Davies. Somewhere, two unrelated guys will be tipping their glasses back at ya.

Wednesday, November 14

The Pigs Last Stand

Kirby's Pig Stand 1921
Image = tendingturnipsinda863.blogspot
By Grant Davies

On this day in 2006, an American institution became a historical reference. That is to say, a drive-in restaurant chain where you could get BBQ "on the fly" (I guess pigs really do fly) went the way of all pig flesh. The company that owned the last two went bankrupt and the state closed them down for non-payment of sales taxes.

But this wasn't just any fast food joint. It was the iconic Pig Stand, and it was the first drive-in restaurant in America. Or anywhere else in all likelihood. It was also the first to do a lot of other things as well.

When Jessie Kirby and Reuben Jackson opened the place on the road between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas in 1921, they invented another "first." They had young men in white shirts and black bow ties running towards the customers' cars as soon as they pulled into the lot. They often hopped onto the running boards of those cars to take their food orders before they even stopped moving.

Yep, you guessed it, they were the first "car hops." They were later replaced by cute girls on roller skates and they may have been the first to do that as well. (A&W drive-ins claim that they were the first, but this story isn't about them, so they can cry in their root beer if they don't like it.)

The food was good and the concept was even better, so success followed like rings followed fries. And speaking about french fries and rings, many say the cooks at one of the drive-ins invented deep-fried onion rings. Not to mention chicken-fried steak sandwiches and a regional specialty known as "Texas Toast."

One of the places, Pig Stand #21 in California became the first "drive-through" in 1931.

After they had expanded from one into a chain of restaurants, they were among the first to create franchises so others could join the fun. By 1939 there were more than 130 of the spots operating in nine different states. A few other companies followed that business model. You might have heard of a place some folks call Micky D's.

The war and the attending shortages of gas and money changed everything however, and by 1959 all of the sites outside of Texas had disappeared for one reason or the other. Those that remained shrunk away slowly until they were all gone by 2006 with the exception the two referenced above.

But don't worry, in 2007 the bankruptcy trustees allowed one in San Antonio to reopen. So if you happen to be there and have a taste for the "pig" and some rings, stop in and say hello to history. Nowadays you have to walk in instead of drive in, but I'm sure you will be able to wash down your BBQ with a glass of nostalgia.

Tuesday, November 13

He Invented the Car Because They Said He Did

Geo takes a joy ride
Image = Wikipedia
By Grant Davies

On this day, (-8),  in 1895, a man named George Selden  invented the automobile. Well, at least that's what the US government, in its infinite wisdom, decided on this day.

He didn't invent it on this day. In fact he didn't invent it on any day. But the government, through its patent office, decided he did, on this day. It's kind of confusing, but then, patent law can be as confusing as the writing on this site.

Anyway, George was a lawyer so he knew the ins and outs of patent law better than most. He took advantage of that knowledge and gained the legal right to scam a bunch of other people who actually did invent stuff related to automobiles.

According to he won "U.S. Patent No. 549,160 for an "improved road engine" powered by a "liquid-hydrocarbon engine of the compression type." In other words, a car.

He never built one. In fact, for the filing, he just copied the design of one he had seen some years earlier at the 1872 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Anything worth admiring is worth stealing I guess.

So a few years later, in 1899, he sold the rights to his "invention" to a group of investors (or criminal co-conspirators, as you wish) who called themselves the "Electric Vehicle Company." They in turn sued a company, the "Winton Motor Carriage Company", the largest car maker at that time, for manufacturing gasoline powered automobiles. It didn't take long for the Winton company to see the value in paying the ransom and they struck a deal with the legal thugs. The courts agreed to the deal and upheld Selden's patent in 1903.

Soon a whole bunch of car companies who wanted to be part of a monopoly CARtel (pun intended) joined in with the parties to that lawsuit and formed the "Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers." They then sued anyone who dared to make a car without paying them protection money. (See? I told you it was confusing.)

Later a guy named Henry Ford had a different idea. A few lawsuits and appeals later he put an end to the whole scam.

To celebrate legal extortion and monopolies, find a bar and have a few beers. But don't forget to make a toast to the overpriced brew you are sipping because it's illegal for the bar owner to buy his beer from anyone other than a "legal" distributor. Cheers!

Friday, November 9

Something New at Cheeky History

We apologize for the lack of new stories here for the last week. A few are in the process of being written and lots of new sources for fresh stories are being researched. But the main reason is that we have been working on a new feature for the site.

It's the new Cheeky Gift Shop! We wanted to roll it out before the holiday season slipped away and you readers lost a chance to get that cool little gift for someone on your list without spending a bunch of your hard earned dough.

We are offering some coffee mugs and other drinking vessels with our fun little Cheeky History picture on them. They are great for stocking stuffers and grab bag gifts. They are easy to order and easy on the gift budget. 

So check them out on the tab above so you or someone on your list can sip some coffee or one of your other favorite beverages while reading our cool little stories every day. 

There's even a beer stein if you do your reading in the evening. That way you can be as dizzy while reading our stuff as we are while writing it.

Friday, November 2

If Only This Thing Wood Fly

The H-4 Hercules and a DC-3 for size comparison.
By Grant Davies

On this day in 1947, a boat took off and flew through the air. It only flew for about a mile and it was only seventy feet above the water at its highest. But it was pretty impressive since it was, after all, a boat. The takeoff was its first.. and its last.

Actually  it was more of a ship than a boat. It was ginormous. (Ginormous is a scientific term used by lazy people like me to describe size.)  And the damn thing only stayed aloft for a few moments. (A moment is a scientific measurement of time used by lazy people like me who don't want to do the math required to calculate time.)

We could give you the exact measurements, but that's boring, except to history nerds. (Oops, that's you.) Suffice it to say that the contraption was huge. It was bigger than any boat that ever flew, before or since.

Okay, the ship was actually a plane. But the concept for its use and design was a "flying cargo ship" to move large amounts of material from the US to Europe while avoiding those pesky Nazi U-Boats that were sinking every cargo ship in sight in 1942. (For you younger readers, there was a small war going on that year.) The ship flew, but the concept didn't. That sank as surely as the transport ships had.

The plane had a few different names. It's official name was the "H-4 Hercules", but the name most remember it by today referred to the wood it was made out of. Well, maybe not, since the name was "The Spruce Goose", even though the thing was made almost entirely out of Birch. Go figure. Critics of the project called it "The Flying Lumberyard."

The whole thing was the brainchild of a guy named Henry J. Kaiser who was building a lot of the "Liberty Ships" that were currently resting at the bottom of the ocean. He collaborated with a guy named Howard Hughes, who in the end, turned out to be as nutty as the concept Kaiser thought up.

Even though the plane itself got off the ground, or the water as the case may be, the project never took off because the war was over a year before the plane was finished.

This whole historical episode could never have happened today since political correctness and eco-activists  would never allow enough trees to be cut down to construct the damn thing.

To celebrate the day, go out in your yard and hug a Spruce, or a Birch if you have one, and whisper into their branches about how happy you are that they didn't end up as a flight of fancy.
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