Category: Biography

Who The Hell Am I?

Let’s play a game called Who The Hell Am I? In this game, you get 10 clues to guess the name of a famous person. These clues are numbered countdown-style, 10 to 1, with the first clue numbered 10. Your score is determined by the highest numbered clue that evokes the correct answer.

At the end of the list you can click a link for the answer. However this link is numbered zero, so if you haven’t figured out the answer by the time you click it, you get no points. For as they say, cheaters never prosper.

And by the way, No Googling!

Note: The final clue provides the real name. But your task is to guess the name for which this person was commonly known.

10: I’m celebrating my 140th birthday next Wednesday, January 29th. Please send your cards and gifts (preferably cash) to Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

9: I was called a great actor by my confreres, yet none of the bastards ever nominated me for an Oscar.

8: My wife’s name was Harriet. We separated after 7 years of bad luck, but never divorced. When I died, we had been married for 46 years.

7: I’ve written screenplays under the pseudonyms Charles Bogle, Otis Criblecoblis, and Mahatma Kane Jeeves.

6: I died of cirrhosis of the liver on Christmas Day, 1946. I always hated Christmas.

5: I spent the last 13 years of my life dallying with a young actress named Carlotta Monti.

4: I was a world class juggler, and could juggle most everything, including as many as six tennis balls at a time. But sadly, I could never juggle my income taxes.

3: I’m reputed to hate dogs and children. But that’s not true. If broiled and seasoned properly, they are delicious.

2: I was once engaged in a running feud with a wooden puppet named Charlie. It gives me slivers every time I remember it.

1: I have a hypocoristic stage name. My birth name is William Claude Dukenfield.

0: For the correct answer, click this link.

Cowboy Caveman

“Dad, I hate school. I don’t ever want to go back. Please! Please! Please! I want to do something else!”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to be a cowboy.”

And so Jim White, Sr. pulled his 10-year-old son, Jim, Jr., out of school. He drove him 400 miles from their ranch in central Texas, to a cattle ranch in southern New Mexico. And that’s where he left him, to fulfill his cowboy dreams.

Damn! Wouldn’t it be great to have a dad like that?

Five years later, Jim White, Jr. was riding his mustang through the Guadalupe Mountains, searching for stray cattle. Suddenly he encountered something that stopped him and his horse dead in their tracks. It looked like a column of black smoke pouring up into the sky.

Was it a volcano? Jim wondered. Nope, not noisy enough. How about a tornado? Couldn’t be. There was no wind, and the nearest thunderhead was miles off.

He ventured closer, finally tying his bronc and pushing and hacking his way on foot through thick chaparral. That’s when he made a discovery that would change his life, and southern New Mexico forever.

It was an enormous black hole. And belching from the mouth of this maw were thousands upon thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats were whirling frenetically in a counter-clockwise direction just above the hole, then rising into the sky and spinning off into space in a spreading dark cloud.

The cave Jim White discovered, although without the paved walkway.

Night was falling fast, but this 15-year-old’s curiosity was piqued. He just had to see more.

Jim rode back to the ranch. He didn’t stay long. He returned a few days later with a hatchet, fence wire, a homemade kerosene lantern, and some matches.

He used the hatchet to cut rungs from the surrounding brush, and wove these rungs through the fence wire to create a wire ladder. He lowered this ladder down into the darkness of the cave. He lit his homemade lantern and descended the rungs of the ladder to a ledge 50 feet below. Then he scrambled down a slope another 20 feet and began spelunking for the very first time in his life.

When Jim White looked up, after climbing down his wire ladder, this is pretty much what he saw. By the way, those aren’t bats flying at the mouth of the cave. Rather, they are swallows. Hundreds of swallows have made their home here, and work the day shift eating insects. The bats take over at night.

What the hell gets into the heads of kids, to do dangerous and foolish things like this? Some kids just think they’re immortal, and that nothing can happen to them. But tragically, some of these same kids find out, all too late, that they are not. Would Jim be one of them?

His were the first human eyes to view the grandiose elegant underground beauty that we now know as Carlsbad Caverns. He began his adventure by using his lantern to explore the bat cave. Then he about-faced and descended a dark, broken declivity into the bowels of the caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns is a petroleum product. The Guadalupe mountains are made of limestone. About 5 million years ago the groundwater level here was much higher, reaching up to near the surface of the earth. Petroleum reserves below this groundwater produced hydrogen sulfide, and this hydrogen sulfide seeped up into the groundwater, causing a chemical reaction that produced sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone, forming the caverns.

He crept like a cat, negotiating treacherous ledges, and avoiding terrible dark, deep precipices. His skin bristled in horripilation at the sound of clattering rocks dislodged by his feet, echoing and echoing as they tumbled down inky black pits. He scrambled and slid over limestone boulders, wet from condensation caused by the constant 56 degree temperature.

Finally he debouched into a huge room, thousands of feet long, and hundreds of feet wide and high. Monstrous stalactites dangled from the ceiling, and similar-sized stalagmites met them halfway up from the floor. And many other weird speleothems dazzled Jim’s eyes from the glow of his lantern.

The groundwater level dropped after the caverns were formed, leaving these massive cavities beneath the surface. Within the last million years, a hole eroded, opening up the caverns to the outside world.

He became so engrossed in this splendid strange scenery that he forgot about something very important. Kerosene. Without warning his lantern burned through the last of this light-giving juice and lost its flame. Jim was instantly enveloped in total darkness and left completely and helplessly blind.

The bravery and foolishness of this immortal explorer were about to kill him, for he needed light to find his way out of the cave.

Who knows, maybe many other caverns were formed within the Guadalupe mountains, that have not yet opened up to the surface.

But Jim had a backup plan. He grabbled about, searching for a canteen filled with kerosene that he’d brought along, just in case. Then he fumbled through his pockets for some matches. After a bit of effort he refilled and relit the lantern. The darkness pulled back.

Jim beat it out of there before the last of this spare kerosene was consumed.

But he wasn’t finished spelunking. A short time later he returned with a young Mexican friend. They exercised surprisingly good foresight by bringing along a large ball of string, which they intended to use to trace their way back to the cave’s exit.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling, whereas stalagmites grow from the floor. They were formed through a process called speleogenesis. Speleogenesis requires water, so most of the speleogenesis at Carlsbad Caverns ceased about four million years ago, as groundwater receded.

They spent about three days exploring the intricate innards of the caverns. No one knows just how much this duo discovered, but in the 1980s some splelunkers discovered the words “Jim White 1898” scratched into the rocks, far deeper and further than anyone had ever suspected they’d reached.

Of course Jim and his Mexican friend freely reported their fantastic findings to anyone they encountered above the surface. But they were just kids. Adults would laugh at them, and chalk up their tales to overactive imaginations. It took years for Jim to convince anyone to come take a look for themselves.

A paved trail currently winds through much of the same areas that Jim White and his Mexican friend explored.

But after a while a few did take Jim up on it, and got their own eyeful of this massive, wondrous cavern. They told their tales, and before long, word began spreading far and wide over the countryside, just like the bats emerging for their evening feast.

Once word got out and people started believing it, Jim White never worked as a cowboy again. The cave took over his life. He became a guano miner, hauling batshit out of the depths and sending it on to fertilize orchards in California. He also worked for a few years as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns, when it was a National Monument.

This formation, and the formation at the middle right, are rated R. No children under the age of 17 are permitted to view them.

A book about his life was ghostwritten for him, which he sold inside the famed Underground Lunchroom of the caverns. And he earned a few bits now and then guiding tourists through the cave system.

He never got rich from this natural wonder, and in fact barely scratched out a living. And then in 1946, this cowboy turned caveman suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 63.

Each of the 400,000 plus visitors per year unwittingly sheds a minute amount of lint from their clothing as they walk the trails. This lint adds up after a while, and can combine with condensation to damage cavern formations. But once a year a lint cleanup is conducted, where workers use special brushes charged with static electricity to pick up the lint.

We can thank Jim White for his discovery, though it’s likely someone else would eventually have found this cave, with it’s tell-tale evening bat “smoke”. But it’s unlikely anyone would have had the derring-do to discover it Jim’s way.

Who else would have dared to venture alone into such unknown depths of darkness? And who else would have been savvy enough to bring along a spare canteen of kerosene?

In my view, Carlsbad Caverns is much more interesting when Jim White’s story is included. Jim White was never rich in money or education. But he had a tale to tell that no one could match. His adventuresome spirit and temerity made him wealthy in ways that cannot be measured. Except with the help of the glow from a homemade kerosene lantern.

You can use an elevator to descend into the caverns, or you can hike in through the natural cave entrance. I recommend the natural cave entrance hike if you can handle it. You’ll see much more. And you can always take the elevator back up and out.

How a Book Killed a Poet

A Picture of Oscar Wilde

Well, it began with a book. The only novel that the poet, Oscar Wilde, ever wrote. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, when Oscar was 36 years old.

Until that time Wilde had been a renowned poet and playwright. But he was also controversial. He liked to party and indulge in vices, and make a show of his iniquities. This led critics to view him as immoral and hedonistic. And they accused him of doing the provocative things he did, all for publicity.

But after The Picture was published, a new “picture” of Oscar Wilde began to emerge. This novel contained many off-handed, subtle references to homosexual behavior. And while it did not overtly portray or promote anything homosexual, it averred to it strongly enough to raise the suspicion of critics and moralists throughout England.

Homosexual acts were very illegal in that Victorian era. They could earn a perpetrator prison time with hard labor.

Wilde remained popular with his reading audience, but even they couldn’t help but suspect he might be a dreaded homosexual, after reading his book. In fact, anyone and everyone in the know began to suspect it.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

In 1891 Wilde began hanging out with Lord Alfred Douglas, the 20-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess was a brute of a man, who had taken credit for creating the modern rules of boxing, known as the Queensberry Rules (although the actual writer of the rules was a man named John Graham Chambers). The Marquess feared that Wilde might be seducing his young son into a homosexual relationship.

He confronted Wilde several times over the next few years, and their relationship grew more and more tense. In 1894, a sort of war was declared between them, when he apprehended Wilde in a restaurant. He declared his suspicions about Wilde’s sexual orientation, and issued an ultimatum with the following words: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you!”

The ever-clever Wilde riposted: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

In a sense, it was Lord Douglas who was seducing Wilde, and not the other way around. Alfred introduced Oscar to the underground world of male prostitution. And Oscar relished in it. It felt exciting and dangerous. Just Wilde’s wild style.

A few months later, in February, 1895, the Marquess left a calling card for the poet that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” It’s actually spelled “sodomite”, but brutes aren’t well known for their writing skills.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been feuding with his father, and he wanted to hurt him bad. So he persuaded Oscar to prosecute his dad for criminal libel. After all, calling someone a sodomite was an insult. And insulting someone was against the law in England. Unless, of course, the insult was true.

Wilde’s friends cautioned against it, because they knew the insult really was true. But how do you convince the love-struck? Wilde enjoyed indulging his young lover, so he granted Douglas’ wish and went ahead and filed charges.

John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and credit usurper of boxing’s Queensberry Rules.

Soon the Queensberry Rules man found himself on the ropes and facing trial. If convicted he faced two years in prison. His only defense was to prove that what he wrote on the calling card was an accurate fact.

The Marquess of Queensberry knew how to fight. Hell, he stole the rules on fighting. And he delivered a sockdolager punch. He hired detectives to look into Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle, and they uncovered his activities in London’s gay brothels.

Two months after the calling card incident the trial began. It was a circus, with Wilde’s prosecution unraveling in the face of a mountain of evidence amassed against him. And the defense attorney cross-examined Wilde about the moral content of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s witty retorts won him laughs but left him looking more and more like the true guilty party.

Then the turn came for the defense to present its case. In his opening statement, the defense attorney announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were going to testify that they had sex with Wilde. Wilde sensed great danger and knew he couldn’t win, so he quickly dropped the libel charges.

But it was too late. The court ruled that the words on the Marquesses’ calling card were “true in substance and fact”. And under the law, Queensberry’s acquittal left Wilde liable for Queensberry’s legal expenses, and the cost of his detectives. It was a lot of money, and it bankrupted the poet.

But Queensberry wasn’t finished punching, even while Oscar lay still on the mat. He immediately gave Scotland Yard the evidence his detectives had uncovered on Wilde.

The next day Wilde was arrested and charged with sodomy and gross indecency. And on May 25,1895, he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

In prison he was forced to walk a treadmill, and separate oakum fibers from old navy ropes. His bed was hard, and the food was of poor nutritional quality. Within six months his health was destroyed. He managed to stagger into the prison chapel one day, where he collapsed from illness and hunger. He hit his head when he fell, and broke his eardrum.

A prison reformer visited him and had him transferred to a new jail, where his treatment might be better. But during the transfer a crowd jeered and spat at him at a train station. This was when Wilde fully realized he had become one of the most reviled men in England, now that everyone knew for sure he was homosexual. He felt devastated.

In May, 1897, after two years of torture, he was released from prison, with his health in tatters, his finances ruined, and his fame reduced to obloquy. He immediately sailed for France and never returned to England.

He was penniless from his bankruptcy. In France he wrote a poem under a nom de plume that was an instant success and earned him a little money. But it was not enough to lift him out of poverty.

For the next three years Oscar Wilde haunted the boulevards of Paris. He continued to write a little, here and there, but finally became so depressed about his fate that he quit writing altogether. He turned to alcohol, which only worsened his health and left him more deeply impoverished.

The eardrum he broke while in prison continued to bother him. A surgeon performed a mastoidectomy, and soon after he developed meningitis. On November 30, 1900, this brilliant poet who had delighted millions, only to become the object of their homophobia and cruelty, passed away in a dingy hotel room in Paris.

He died at age 46. But it was at age 36 that he published the book that eventually killed him, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In this book, Dorian Gray remains constantly young and innocent-looking, while engaged in a pleasurable lifestyle of debauchery. However a portrait of him grows older and uglier from dissipation, with every hedonistic act indulged in by Gray. Literary scholars teach that the picture is symbolic of Dorian’s true inner self, growing increasingly evil and corrupt as he delved deeper into hedonism.

That may be, but I wonder if Wilde also intended another meaning.

Perhaps it had been a fantasy for Wilde that he could get away with coming out and subtly revealing the truth about his sexual orientation. And maybe Dorian Gray’s picture was meant to be symbolic of Wilde’s ever-deteriorating, seedy reputation.

Oscar’s career had already thrived for many years, in spite of what morality critics thought and wrote about him. So he wasn’t afraid of a bad reputation, and maybe he felt tempted to push the envelope further. Perhaps he calculated that his writing career could be like Dorian Gray, continuing to thrive successfully in spite of his reputation (the picture) looking worse and worse every day.

If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation. He could handle a besmirched reputation. But he didn’t count on the people of England destroying him.

After Dorian Gray dies, his portrait returns overnight to its original unsullied image. But such transformation wasn’t so fast for the reputation of Oscar Wilde. For a long time after his death he remained a pariah in the minds of the masses.

It has taken many years for society to accept homosexual people and embrace gay rights. And in fact there is still much more progress to be made.

But the poet’s reputation and popularity did eventually recover. Today Oscar Wilde is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time.

And the book that killed him also recovered. Several films have been made, based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. And it has inspired plots for quite a few other works of didactic fiction. These days, The Picture is regarded as a great literary classic.

In 2017 the British Parliament passed the Alan Turing Law, which pardoned an estimated 50,000 men who had been convicted of criminal homosexual acts.

Oscar Wilde was among those pardoned. Like Dorian Gray’s picture, his reputation was finally restored.

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