Category Archives: Interesting Stories

A Brief History of Book Burning, From the Printing Press to Internet Archives – Lorraine Boissoneault. 

As long as there have been books, people have burned them, but over the years, the motivation has changed. 

When Al-Qaida Islamists invaded Mali, and then Timbuktu in 2012, among their targets were priceless manuscripts, books that needed to be burned. But the damage could’ve been much worse if not for men like Abdel Kader Haidara, who risked their lives to protect the medieval works. He and others succeeded in smuggling out 350,000 manuscripts, proving not only how much the books were valued, but also the lengths to which ordinary people were willing to go to save them. It was a remarkable victory in the long history of books threatened by would-be arsonists, and a relatively rare one at that.

Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war. In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (more widely remembered for his terracotta army in Xian) ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire. According to historian Lois Mai Chan “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” Books of poetry, philosophy and history were specifically targeted, so that the new emperor couldn’t be compared to more virtuous or successful rulers of the past. Although the exact amount of information lost is unknown, Chan writes that the history genre suffered the greatest loss.

Qin was only one in a long line of ancient rulers who felt threatened enough by the ideas expressed in written form to advocate arson. In Livy’s History of Rome, finished in the 1st century A.D., he describes past rulers who ordered books containing the predictions of oracles and details about celebrations like the Bacchanalia be outlawed and burned to prevent disorder and the spread of foreign customs; philosophers Giordano Bruno and Jan Hus both took positions counter to the Catholic church, the former for his work on Copernican cosmology, the latter for attacking church practices like indulgences. Scholar Hans J. Hildebrand writes that the executioner charged with killing heretics like Bruno and Hus was often the same person who put flame to their books.

But for Rebecca Knuth, author of Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” Knuth says. Just look at one of the most famous examples of burning, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The famed building had its contents and structure burned during multiple periods of political upheaval, including in 48 B.C. when Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt and when Caliph Omar invaded Alexandria in 640 A.D.

What changed everything was the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Not only were there suddenly far more books—there was also more knowledge. “With the printing press you had the huge rise of literacy and modern science and all these things,” Knuth says. “And some people in authoritarian regimes, in a way they want to turn back the effects of the printing press.”

According to Knuth, the motives behind book burning changed after the printing press helped bring about the Enlightenment era—though burning through the collateral damage of war continued to arise (just consider the destruction of the U.S. Library of Congress during the War of 1812 or all the libraries destroyed across Europe during World War II). People saw knowledge as a way to change themselves, and the world, and so it became a far more dangerous commodity, no longer controlled exclusively by the elite. What better way to reshape the balance of power and send a message at the same time than by burning books?

The unifying factor between all types of purposeful book-burners in the 20th century, Knuth says, is that the perpetrators feel like victims, even if they’re the ones in power. Perhaps the most infamous book burnings were those staged by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who regularly employed language framing themselves as the victims of Jews. Similarly, when Mao Zedong took power in China and implemented the Cultural Revolution, any book that didn’t conform to party propaganda, like those promoting capitalism or other dangerous ideas, were destroyed. More recently, the Jaffna Public Library of Sri Lanka home to nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature, was burned by Sinhalese Buddhists. The Sinhalese felt their Buddhist beliefs were under threat by the Hinduism of Tamils, even though they outnumbered the Tamils.

Even when the knowledge itself isn’t prevented from reaching the public, the symbolic weight of burning books is heavy. “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are,” wrote John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in his 1644 book Areopagitica. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself—” an idea that continues to be espoused in modern culture, like in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” one character warns another in Bradbury’s story, arguing for why they must be burned and their knowledge erased. “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”

Or, as author Barbara Tuchman said in her 1980 address at the Library of Congress, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Today, with new technological advances offered by the Internet, the possibility of digitizing written documents seems to offer books a new immortality. But not so fast, Knuth says. “We have technology to preserve so much knowledge, we just have to be careful. If you don’t keep morphing it to an updated form of technology, it doesn’t matter if you made copies if you can’t access them.”

This is a problem archivists at the Smithsonian Institution regularly tackle, including electronic records archivist Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig.

“There are software companies that have gone away or gone out of business, and some of that software just stops being used,” Schmitz Fuhrig says. “And there’s not only the issue of software, but also hardware and operating systems that may not work with these older files.”

The archivists try to use formats that have been around for a long time and stood the test of time, like PDF for documents, but even keeping up with the changing technology doesn’t guarantee safety. Schmitz Fuhrig says one of the biggest challenges now is storage space. “A few years ago we were talking about gigabytes and then terabytes and now we’re getting into the area of petabytes.”

Even though the technology exists, transferring written documents to digital archives requires time and money—resources that aren’t always available. Sometimes doing so is counter to the beliefs of whoever happens to be in power. Just consider that under President George W. Bush EPA libraries were threatened with closure in 2006, spurring the American Library Association and scientists working at the EPA to put pressure on Congress to ensure the EPA’s budget could cover the cost of maintaining the libraries (although some libraries were closed, they reopened in September 2008). Or look at the scientific research documents that were locked away or destroyed under the Stephen Harper government in Canada in 2014, which had a chilling effect on the topics that could be researched and the studies that were published. As scientist Steven Campana, who spent decades working for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told Smithsonian.com, “Although we still kept our jobs, we basically were prevented from actually doing any science.” Though the methods may be different (and less visible) than in the past, the results are the same: knowledge is purposefully taken from the public.

Technology has undoubtedly changed the way we share and save information, but Knuth argues that the core motivations for book burning, in whatever form the act takes, remain the same: prioritizing one type of information over another.

“That’s why power is so scary,” Knuth says. “Because power allows you to put into effect the logic of your own beliefs.”

***

Lorraine Boissoneault is a staff writer for SmithsonianMag.com covering history and archaeology. She has previously written for The Atlantic, Salon, Nautilus and others. She is also the author of The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America. Website: http://www.lboissoneault.com/

Smithsonian.com

Out of The Depths: An unforgettable WWII story of survival, courage and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis – Edgar Harrell USMC. 

Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II, the Japanese submarine I-58 launched a spread of torpedoes at the USS Indianapolis. Two of the “fish” found their mark. In less than fifteen minutes, the heavy cruiser, a battle-scarred veteran of the bloody campaigns for the Marianas, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, went down without a trace, and without anyone but the survivors knowing the ship had been lost.

Some nine hundred of the ship’s 1,196-man crew, cold, oil soaked, many with injuries, were suddenly alone in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea. For five horrific days after the sinking, their numbers were cruelly depleted by shark attacks, saltwater poisoning, hypothermia, and dehydration. When they were finally spotted and rescued, only 317 remained alive.

This is their story, recounted by one of their own, Edgar Harrell, a young member of the ship’s U.S. Marine detachment. It is an unparalleled account of perseverance, courage, self-sacrifice, and faith.

Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, USMC (Ret.)

***

I remember hearing Dad talk about the war from time to time when I was a little boy. I recall his reluctant stories about the secret mission of the Indianapolis, the atomic bomb components they carried, and especially the gripping tales about the sharks when the crew was lost at sea for five days. I even remember attending some of the Indianapolis reunions and meeting Captain McVay and being awestruck by his white Navy uniform and medals.

David Harrell

***

Out of The Depths: An unforgettable WWII story of survival, courage and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

by Edgar Harrell USMC

Every survivor of war has stories to tell, stories of triumph and tragedy, faith and fear, stories like mine, where fact is often stranger than fiction. Since that fateful night in 1945 when I stepped off a sinking ship into the unknown depths of the Pacific Ocean, there has never been a day when I have not reflected upon the horrors I experienced in the four and a half days of swimming in shark-infested waters.

The escort carrier Hollandia transported all of us from Guam back to San Diego. On September 26, over three hundred survivors of the greatest naval catastrophe at sea arrived on the shores of the country they loved and served, only to be met with a paltry Salvation Army band.

I cannot say that we knew what to expect, but we certainly thought there would be a more enthusiastic and official welcome.

The rather large crowd on the pier had assembled to welcome home the crew of the Hollandia and knew nothing of the Indianapolis survivors. To my knowledge, none of our families or friends greeted us. Most did not even know our whereabouts.

We remained on land as we were at sea, lost and neglected. We all had a mounting sense that we were somehow an embarrassment to the Navy, though at the time we did not understand why. With no official welcome, we all came ashore and invisibly made our way through the crowd, somewhat envious of the jubilant and legitimate welcome for their loved ones on the Hollandia.

My eight Marine companions and I looked in vain for an official Marine reception that would at least transport us to the Marine Corp Base. We finally located an MP who helped us find a bus.

I relate this story not to elicit sympathy, but only to underscore the realities that caused us all to become increasingly suspicious that something was wrong.

Someone has well said, “Truth and time walk hand in hand.” Indeed, over the next few months we began to understand why we experienced such a mysterious cloud of concealment and disregard. The Navy was up to something. And the story of the Indianapolis had to stay out of the headlines until they had all their political ducks in a row. 

***

Out of The Depths: An unforgettable WWII story of survival, courage and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

by Edgar Harrell USMC

get it from Amazon 

USS Indianapolis, sunk at the end of WW2, has finally been found – AAP. 

The wreckage of the US warship Indianapolis, which was sunk by a Japanese torpedo off the Philippines in the final days of WWII, has been found.

The ship is more than 18,000 feet (5.5km) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the Navy said on Saturday.

The cruiser was returning from its mission to deliver components for the atomic bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima when it was fired upon in the North Pacific Ocean by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945.

It sunk in 12 minutes, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington.

No distress signal was sent. About 800 of the 1197 crew members aboard survived the sinking, but only 316 were rescued alive five days later, with the rest lost to exposure, dehydration, drowning and sharks.

After a Navy historian unearthed new information last year about the warship’s last movements that pointed to a new search area, a team of civilian researchers led by Paul Allen, a Microsoft Corp co-founder, spent months searching in a 600-square-mile (1500-sq/km) patch of ocean.

With a vessel rigged with equipment that can reach some of the deepest ocean floors, members of Allen’s team found the wreckage somewhere in the Philippine Sea on Friday, Allen said in a statement on his website.

The Navy asked Allen to keep the precise location confidential.

Allen said that the discovery was a humbling experience and a means of honouring sailors he saw as playing a vital role in ending WWII.

“While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” he said.

The Navy said it had plans to honour the 22 survivors from the Indianapolis still alive, along with the families of the ship’s crew.

NZ Herald 

***

It was shortly after midnight, on the 30th of July, 1945, when disaster struck.

After delivering Hiroshima-bomb components to Tinian Island, the USS Indianapolis and her crew of 1,196 sailors were sailing west, toward Leyte (in the Philippines).

Suddenly, an explosion rocked the ship.  She’d been struck by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-58.

The Indianapolis capsized and sank in twelve minutes. 

Spending days in the water, without life rafts, the men were terrorized by sharks.  With no rescue in sight, two-thirds of the original survivors died from various causes.

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 15 November 1932. The ship served with honor from Pearl Harbor through the last campaign of World War II, sinking in action two weeks before the end of the war.

On 30 July 1945, while sailing from Guam to Leyte, Indianapolis was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-58 [in the Philippine Sea]. The ship capsized and sank in twelve minutes.

Survivors were spotted on 2 August. All air and surface units capable of rescue operations were dispatched to the scene at once, and the surrounding waters were thoroughly searched for survivors.

Upon completion of the day and night search on 8 August, 316 men were rescued out of the crew of 1,199.

Survivors tell us that approximately 900 men survived the ship’s explosion and sinking. Those who died, thereafter, were overcome by exhaustion, exposure, injuries sustained in the explosion, lack of safe drinking water (instead of salt water) and shark attacks.

*** 

NOTE: There is a very significant postcript to this story.

For many decades, the surviving Indianapolis crewmen tried to get the U.S. Navy to exonerate their skipper, Captain Charles Butler McVay, III who was:

  • Not warned about lurking enemy subs;
  • Was misled into thinking his route was safe;
  • Was court martialed on two charges of improper conduct;
  • Heard the favorable testimony of the Japanese commander who sank the Indy;
  • Was found guilty of one charge of negligence (despite all evidence to the contrary); and
  • Committed suicide in 1968.

Despite the crew’s efforts, nothing happened to exonerate the Captain … until … a 12 year old school boy, working on a middle-school history project, decided to do something about it (in 1998).

The US Congress finally cleared McVay’s name in 2000 (as a direct result of Hunter Scott’s efforts). The Japanese commander – who’d testified in McVay’s court martial that he could have sunk the Indy no matter what its skipper tried to do – sent a letter to Congress reiterating his earlier testimony. Among his words were these:

“I do not understand why Captain McVay was court-martialed.  I do not understand why he was convicted on the charge of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag because I would have been able to launch a successful torpedo attack against his ship whether it had been zigzagging or not.”

AwesomeStories.com

How the Postal System and the Printing Press Transformed European Markets – Prateek Raj. 

In the sixteenth century, the Northwest European region of England and the Low Countries underwent transformational change. In this region, a bourgeois culture emerged and cities like Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London became centers of institutional and business innovation, whose accomplishments have influenced the modern world.

For example, one of the first permanent commodity bourses was established in Antwerp in 1531, the first stock exchange emerged in Amsterdam in 1602, and joint stock companies became a promising form of organizing business in London in the late sixteenth century. The sixteenth century transformation was followed by the seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age, and the eighteenth century English Industrial Revolution. What made the Northwest region of Europe so different? The question remains a central concern in social sciences, with scholars from diverse fields researching the subject.

The medieval power of merchant guilds

Markets don’t function well if they are ridden with frictions like lack of information, lack of trust, or high transaction costs. In the presence of frictions, business is often conducted via relationships.

Until the end of the fifteenth century, impartial institutions like courts and police that serve all parties generally—so ubiquitous today in the developed world—weren’t well developed in Europe. In such a world without impartial institutions, trade often was (is) heavily dependent on relationships and conducted through networks like merchant guilds. Such relationship-based trade through dense networks of merchant guilds reduced concerns of information access and reliability. Not surprisingly, because the merchant guild system was an effective system in the absence of strong formal institutions, it sustained in Europe for several centuries. In developing countries like India, lacking in developed formal institutions, networked institutions like castes still play an important role in business.

Before the fourteenth century, merchant guild networks were probably less hierarchical, more voluntary, and more inclusive. But, with time, merchant guilds started to become exclusive monopolies, placing high barriers to entry for outsiders, and they began to resemble cartels with close involvement in local politics. There were two reasons why these guilds erected such tough barriers to entry:

  • Repeated committed interaction was the key to effectiveness of merchant guilds. Uncommitted outsiders could behave opportunistically and undermine the reliability of the system. Therefore, outsiders faced restrictions.
  • Outsiders threatened the position of existing businessmen by increasing competition. So, even genuinely committed outsiders could be restricted to enter as they threatened the domination of existing members.

But, in the sixteenth century, the merchant guild system began to lose its significance as more impersonal markets, where traders could directly trade without the need of an affiliation, began to emerge and rulers stopped granting privileges to merchant guilds. The traders began to rely less on networked and collective institutions like merchant guilds, and directly initiated partnerships with traders who they may not have known well. For example, in Antwerp the domination of intermediaries (called hostellers) who would connect foreign traders declined. Instead, the foreign traders began to conduct such trades directly with each other in facilities like bourses.

Emergence of markets in the 16th century

In a new working paper, I study the emergence of impersonal markets in Europe during the sixteenth century. I survey the 50 largest European cities during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries and codify the nature of sixteenth century economic institutions in each of the cities. In the survey, I find that merchant guilds were declining in the Northwest region of Europe, while elsewhere in Europe they continued to dominate commerce until much later, although there were some reforms underway in the Milanese and Viennese regions of Italy.

What explains the observed pattern of emergence of impersonal markets in sixteenth century Europe? I focus on the interaction between the commercial and communication revolutions of the late fifteenth century Europe. In the paper, I argue that the Northwest European region uniquely benefited from both of these revolutions due to its unique geography.

Commercial revolution at the Atlantic coast

What motivated traders to seek risky opportunities beyond close networks? If traders found partnerships with unfamiliar traders beyond their business networks to be highly beneficial, that would provide good incentives for the rise of impersonal markets. The Northwest Region was close to the sea, notably the Atlantic coast, which was at the time undergoing a commercial revolution with the discovery of new sea routes to Asia and the Americas. So, the region became a hub for long distance trade, attracting unfamiliar traders who came to its coast looking for business opportunity. I find that all cities where merchant guild privileges declined were at the sea, along the Atlantic or North Sea coast. Moreover, all cities where merchant guilds underwent reform (but didn’t decline) were within 150km of a sea port.

The communication revolution of the postal system and the printing press

What made traders feel confident about the reliability of such risky impersonal partnerships? If availability of trade-related information and business practices improved, it could increase confidence traders had in such unfamiliar partnerships. In the sixteenth century, the postal system improved across Europe. The postal system made communication between distant traders easier as traders could correspond regularly with each other and gain more accurate information. This helped expand long distance trade across Europe.

While the Northwest European region didn’t have a particular advantage over other regions in postal communication, it had an advantage in early diffusion of printed books. The Northwest European region was close to Mainz, the city where Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in the mid fifteenth century showed how cities close to Mainz adopted printing sooner than many other regions of Europe in the first few decades of its introduction. So, trade-related books and new (or unknown) business practices like double-entry bookkeeping diffused early and rapidly in the region.

Such a high penetration of printed material reduced information barriers and improved business practices. I find that all cities where guild privileges declined or merchant guilds underwent reform in the sixteenth century enjoyed high penetration of printed material in the fifteenth century. Among cities within a 150km distance from a sea port, cities where merchant guilds declined or reformed had more than twice the number of diffused books per capita than cities where merchant guilds continued to dominate.

As a comparison, there were four major Atlantic port cities where merchant guilds declined: Hamburg, London, Antwerp, and Amsterdam; while there were four guild-based Atlantic cities: Lisbon, Seville, Rouen, and Bordeaux in the sixteenth century. The fifteenth century per capita printing penetration of the cities would stack as: Lisbon < Bordeaux < Hamburg < Seville < Rouen < London < Amsterdam < Antwerp.

The combination of both the commercial revolution along the sea coast, especially the Atlantic coast, and the communication revolution, especially near Mainz, uniquely benefited Northwest Europe, as it began to attract traders who favored impersonal market-based exchange over exchange conducted via guild networks. Rulers began to disfavor privileged monopolies when they realized the feasibility of impersonal exchange and that they could have superior sources of revenue from impersonal markets. In the region, trade democratised, as more people could participate in business.

Regions like Spain and Portugal that benefited only from the commercial revolution of trade through the sea to Asia and Americas had low levels of printing penetration. In contrast, regions like Germany, Italy, and France benefited from the communication and print revolution but didn’t enjoy a bustling Atlantic coast. Thus, no other region enjoyed the unique combination of both benefits of the commercial and communication revolution.

Takeaway for policy makers: democratize the market

If information access is poor (lack of transparency) or businesses don’t adopt reliable business practices (poor financial reporting or opaque quality standards), these deficiencies at the business level can make customers and investors question the reliability of new businesses. Politicians, like medieval rulers, may be more willing to enter into a nexus with dominant businesses, like medieval merchant guilds, if 1) market frictions or 2) lack of incentives make the economy dependent on such businesses.

This was the case with the taxi industry for a long time, where customers were willing to pay a high fee to get reliable taxi services as supply of drivers was low (new drivers in cities like London had to pay a high license fee and fulfill tough training requirements). But, better taxi hailing mobile apps like Lyft and Uber, by giving customers access to real time GPS tracking, have revolutionized the industry, much like the communication revolution did in late fifteenth and sixteenth century. Another area where information access has improved reliability in business is the tourism and travel industry.

While in the past the tourism sector was dominated by travel agents and their recommended offerings, now an influx of providers and travel comparison websites, such as expedia.com and AirBnB, has increased the reliability of small unknown hospitality service providers. Today, many prefer to stay at a stranger’s home over a reputed hotel chain. Such a revolution in the taxi or the travel industry is following the old historical trend where disruption in how information is made available changes how businesses are organized.

Evonomics.com

Are Books Superior to TV? How they affect our brains differently, according to science – Melissa Chu. 

Reading books is good for you. It increases your knowledge and makes you think. Watching television on the other hand kills off brain cells.

In 2013, a study was performed at Tohoku University in Japan. A team led by Hiraku Takeuchi examined the effects of television on the brains of 276 children, along with amount of time spent watching TV and its long-term effects.

Researcher Takeuchi found that the more TV the kids watched, parts of their brain associated with higher arousal and aggression levels became thicker. The frontal lobe also thickened, which is known to lower verbal reasoning ability.

The more hours of television the kids watched, the lower their verbal test results became. These negative effects in the brain happened regardless of the child’s age, gender, and economic background.

In the same year, a study was done on how reading a novel affected the brain. Gregory Burns and his colleagues at Emory University wanted to see the before and after effects of reading based on fMRI readings.

College students were asked to read Pompeii by Robert Harriss, a thriller based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy. The book was chosen due to its strong narration and a dramatic plot based on true events.

After reading the novel, the students had increased connectivity in parts of the brain that were related to language. There was also increased activity in the sensory motor region of the brain, suggesting that readers experienced similar sensations to the characters in the book.

There are also long-term effects from reading books. Reading keeps your mind alert and delays cognitive decline in elders. Research even found that Alzheimer’s is 2.5 times less likely to appear in elderly people who read regularly, while TV was presented as a risk factor.

Six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68 percent, according to researchers at the University of Sussex. Reading beat out other relaxing activities, including listening to music (61 percent), drinking tea or coffee (54 percent), and taking a walk (42 percent).

Reading’s looking pretty good compared to television. We can see that it calms the nerves, increases language and reasoning, and can even keep you mentally alert as you age. TV, on the other hand, has the opposite effect.

But we still haven’t gotten to why that’s the case.

It’s not just an issue of the quality of the TV program or the book. It seems that the nature of the activities themselves is what’s causing the differences.

Television is designed to be passive. After switching to the show you like, you can just sit back and watch everything unfold without effort on your part. You’re less likely to pause to reflect on what’s happening.

TV also presents ideas and characters on a surface level. Shows don’t have the luxury of describing or explaining situations in great detail, since they need to keep viewers visually entertained. TV programs are fast-paced in order to keep people from switching.

Books, on the other hand, are a more proactive form of entertainment and learning. The reader has to concentrate on what’s being said and to think through concepts in the book. When we read, we’re forced to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Books also have the advantage of being able to describe everything in greater depth. While television is mostly composed of dialogue between characters, books can walk readers through scenes, characters’ thoughts, and provide lengthier commentary.

Observer

After 54 Years, We Fell in Love. After Five Months, I Got Leukemia. – Delia Ephron. 

I thought I’d fallen into my own romantic comedy.

I write them for a living. My sister Nora and I wrote “You’ve Got Mail,” among others. How people fall in love is my specialty.

Here is where it begins.

Last August I wrote an essay for this newspaper about trying to disconnect my late husband’s phone and ending up in Verizon hell. In October, I got an email from a man who read the piece. A man Nora had fixed me up with when I was 18 years old, a summer intern she’d met at Newsweek. We’d had three dates, he wrote.

Now we were 72 years old. We are talking 54 years ago. “We went to a Columbia football game. There were snow flurries,” Peter told me when I confessed in my return email to having absolutely no memory of our dates.

He was now a psychiatrist, a Jungian analyst, living in the Bay Area.

There were confluences. He’d had similar problems — with AT&T — trying to disconnect his wife’s line after she died. The last trip they took together had been to Syracuse, Sicily. My most recent novel, “Siracusa,” was set there. Peter loved it, he told me. He knew the way to a writer’s heart.

“Do you want to talk further?” he wrote. “Clearly I do.”

I’d have sworn that I had no interest in meeting a man or, frankly, taking off my clothes in front of one. I was content. I had great friends. I’d had a wonderful marriage.

And yet when Peter opened his arms, I leapt into them.

Of course, first I Googled.

After mistaking several other men for him, I learned that he had written two books on sexual exploitation. He had testified on behalf of abused women in court. An activist on behalf of women? Is this a feminist prank? He’d recently hiked the Grand Canyon. He sent a photo of himself in a canoe. He was great looking.

After consulting my friend Jessie, who has excellent judgment and who approved of his email, I wrote back. Something charming, I hoped. Yet I was careful to mention that I never hike except across Greenwich Village for a pastry. Peter did sound seriously interesting, but there was no way I was going near the Grand Canyon.

Within days we were emailing several times a day. I remember thinking, there is no point in being anything other than who I am, so I was honest about my life, my loss, the complications of survival, and he responded in kind.

There we were, like Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail,” emailing our hearts. Or was it like “Sleepless in Seattle,” since we were on opposite coasts?

After about two weeks, he wrote the inevitable: “Delia, I think we should talk on the phone.”

Soon we were logging hours late at night. Not FaceTime or Skype, simply phone calls — voices connecting the way I did when I was young. He drove to Nevada to canvass for Hillary Clinton, and we talked the four hours there and the four hours it took him to drive back. I couldn’t think or write or sleep. I realized, I’m falling in love. I am 72 years old, how is this possible? All this before Peter said, “Delia, I think we should meet.”

The next weekend he flew to New York.

The day of our date, I had an excellent blow-dry. I spent way too much time considering what to wear. I was tongue-tied at dinner. I believe I asked him his favorite color. My brain was jumbled by his presence, by the ghost of my husband who would only want me to be happy, but still.

When we left the restaurant, Peter kissed me. On the corner of Bowery and Houston, let it be marked forever.

The next morning I freaked out. We were supposed to meet in Washington Square Park. I couldn’t go. I called Jessie. “He has a backpack,” I told her.

“Every man in Northern California has a backpack,” she said, “get over to the park.”

Peter and I sat on a bench and talked for hours. I was scared. At our age death is sitting there, right in front of you. You can reach out and touch it. And I remember saying, the way people say things they mean but don’t: “No one should have to go through twice what we both went through. If I get sick, I give you total permission to leave me.”

And Peter said, “I could never do that.”

This is not a romantic comedy. It’s not a comedy at all.

In the full disclosure necessary at our age, I told Peter that I had abnormal cells in my bone marrow, discovered in a biopsy seven years earlier. But every six months I would visit Dr. Gail Roboz, director of the leukemia program at Weill Cornell Medicine, and she would give me a blood test and tell me I was fine. Peter was not put off.

Within weeks of our first date, we were taking long trips together, including one to the edge of the Grand Canyon. And then I went in for my next blood test, on March 9, and found out that I had leukemia.

It was A.M.L., acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive form. I would start chemotherapy in the hospital the next week, Dr. Roboz said, on CPX-351, a drug in clinical trials, not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Leukemia. A.M.L. My sister had died of this disease.

But it wasn’t the same disease, Dr. Roboz told me. Abnormal chromosomes and mutations make A.M.L. behave very differently in different patients. My version was not like my sister’s, and was, Dr. Roboz believed, a good candidate for CPX-351. This is why I could get the drug, through Weill Cornell’s compassionate-access program.

I felt grateful for that, but I wished so much that this drug or something suited to Nora had existed when she was sick. I was lonely for her, more than ever.

Like my sister, I started lying. I told lots of lies to people I love. To people I work with. About why the screenplay wasn’t in, why I had to miss appointments. I’m a terrible liar. I said whatever came into my head. I even borrowed a friend’s eye disease. All I could think was, if I tell one person and they tell another, my news would be public, published as: “Her sister died, she’s dying, too.”

I had to protect my hope.

Peter flew in the day after I found out. He was sitting at the breakfast table, I was making us French toast, and he said, “We should get married.” He stood up. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes.”

This wasn’t a practical decision. We both understood that the illness had given us an even clearer recognition of our love. On Monday we got a marriage license and bought a ring. On Tuesday I checked into the hospital.

We want to marry, we told Dr. Roboz, who turned out to be able to arrange that, too. We read our vows that Peter wrote all about miracles, and the Rev. Cheryl Fox, the hospital chaplain, pronounced us husband and wife in the dining room on the hospital’s 14th floor. I was one CPX-351 treatment in, two more to go.

Peter took a leave from his practice and slept in my hospital room. There was not one moment when he wasn’t positive. Not one. A long hospital stay is like being in a tunnel, a blur of people taking your vitals, meals arriving that you don’t want to eat, forcing yourself to walk the corridors to keep up your strength. Fear and hope battling for your heart and mind. Every night, when I fell asleep in my hospital bed, I saw Peter across the way on a cot, reading, waiting for me to fall asleep before he did.

Twenty-five days later I was out of the hospital. I had a final bone marrow biopsy and the official news: I was in remission.

Remission. A remarkable word to hear.

Within a week I was writing again. Peter and I went to the opera. But I continued to avoid friends and family. When I saw people dear to me, I presented a version of my life that didn’t exist (even omitting a marriage — how to explain that!).

All this secrecy became too great a burden; it isolated me. It simply didn’t suit.

And I hope very much that the F.D.A. approves this drug. It should be available to everyone who could benefit from it. I have an obligation to tell.

I look at Peter and wonder how this miracle happened to us. My sister, of course. She had the foresight to suspect 54 years ago that we were made for each other (“M.F.E.O.,” as a character says in “Sleepless”). Thank goodness he reads The New York Times. Thank goodness he has the most generous heart. Did I mention that CPX-351 doesn’t make you lose your hair? I suppose I could say that’s not important when it’s life and death, but losing your hair is huge. A heartbreak. It matters. Everything mattered. Especially love.

Delia Ephron

New York Times

History Nearly Forgot Kansas City’s Sarah Rector – Ingrid Keizer

Few Kansas Citians know the story of the 10 year old girl who became the one of the first black, female millionaires in the US. Though her story began in Oklahoma, it was in Kansas City that she spent her entire adulthood.

Before the the African slave trade began in the Americas, European settlers enslaved indigenous people. Later, some native tribes also adopted the use of African slaves and some even fought with the confederacy to retain that right. In 1866 a treaty was signed between the US and the Creek Nation to emancipate those slaves and allow them full citizenship in the Creek Nation. Those freed slaves came to be known as “Creek Freedman”.

The Dawes Act 0f 1887 authorized the US government to divide tribal lands into allotments. In 1907, 10 year old Sarah Rector’s parents who were Creek Freedmen, accepted an allotment of land with the condition that they live separate from the tribe and be granted US citizenship. In most cases the land was not prime farmland or desirable for any use. Each of the three Rector children and both parents were allotted land in eastern Oklahoma.

Sarah’s 160 acre land allotment was leased to an oil company to help pay the $30.00 tax bill. In 1913 the land proved highly valuable, producing 2500 barrels a day and providing Sarah a income of $300.00 a day. The law indicated that a white guardian must be assigned to any full blooded Indian, black adult or child with significant wealth. In many situations people were bilked out of their fortunes and left with nothing, children’s fortunes were taken and abandoned penniless to orphanages. Sarah’s guardianship was given to T.J. Porter a community member known to her family. More oil wells on her land became productive and became part of the Cushing-Drumright Oil Field which provided 20% of the oil in the US between 1915 and 1916.

Sarah’s wealth became well-known and the 13 year old began to receive marriage proposals from around the world. False rumors of neglect and abuse also began to circulate and eventually her guardian T.J Porter was accused of taking more than his share of her fortune and “stepped down” as her guardian. He was later found, “not guilty”. His attorney, however, was found guilty of taking kickbacks and lost his license to practice law.

By the time Sarah was 18 she was a millionaire. The Rector Family moved to Kansas City and bought a home on 2000 East 12th St. which came to be known as the “Rector Mansion”. The large home was priced at $20,000 in 1921. The “Rector Mansion” has experienced several incarnations including a funeral home. It currently stands empty.

In 1922, Sarah met Kenneth Campbell, a Lincoln High School Graduate who was playing football at the University of Kansas. The couple married in Lawrence, Kansas. The marriage produced three sons, Kenneth Jr. , Leonard and Clarence. Sarah and Kenneth socialized in the Jazz district and enjoyed the company of Kansas City musicians. Their wealth also afforded Sarah the ability to rise above some the constraints that a very segregated and often racist Kansas City presented. Sarah, who was frequently detained by law enforcement for speeding, was known to ask, “Do you know who I am?”.  In many cases, she was not ticketed.

In 1929 Kenneth partnered with Homer Roberts, the first black car dealer in the US. Roberts opened his first dealership in the 18th and Vine District in 1921. Black customers were not allowed to test drive cars at white dealerships rendering Roberts’ dealership highly profitable in the community. Sarah Rector loved cars and was likely one of Roberts’ first customers.

Sarah and Kenneth divorced and Kenneth moved to Chicago. The Campbell-Roberts duo opened a successful dealership in Chicago which closed during the depression.

The stock market crash of 1929 nearly depleted Sarah’s fortune. It is said that she sold the house on 2000 12th and downsized to a house on 2440 Brooklyn Avenue. The house on 2440 Brooklyn still stands and is considerable in size. She later moved to 2418 Campbell. The Campbell home no longer stands.

Sarah eventually sold her land in Oklahoma for a meager sum. It is suggested that her real-estate holdings in Kansas City also dwindled. Sarah married William Crawford, a baker and restaurant owner in 1934. In the 40’s Sarah was awarded a settlement of an undisclosed amount on the grounds of misuse and fraud of tribal lands by the government. She later bought a small farm a very short distance south of Kansas City, Missouri. She retained a small stable of cars.

Sarah continued to live in the Kansas City area until her death in 1967. She was buried in Oklahoma.