In the Pantheon of gods, there are mortals too…..

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Today marks the birthday of Ruby Bridges (b. September 8, 1954), who, at the age of six, endured a trial that would have crushed most adults in its burdensome heft. In the scheme of history, Bridges was the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the American south. But, what what does her attendance to a newly desegregated school mean in the scheme of the life of a six year old? The answer would be a challenge worthy of a true hero.

At the beginning of our heroine’s journey to historical immortality, she is met with a riddle. Her entry into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School (Louisiana) was not an easy task. First, she had to pass a written test, which was purposely designed to be extremely difficult. After passing this test, which was to determine whether or not she was allowed into an all-white school, Bridges and her family had to decide whether or not they wanted to take the treacherous path into the unknown. In a leap of courage, the Bridges family decided to enroll Ruby into William Frantz Elementary, and the family prepared for the army of adversaries who would meet them at the gates.

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On November 14th, of 1960, Ruby Bridges made her way to school. She was accompanied by U.S. Marshals, who protected her from an angry mob of protesters. Insults, threats and objects were hurled at the little six year old girl, but, as former U.S. Deputy Marshal Charles Burks recalled, “She never cried. She never whimpered. She just marched along like a little soldier.”

For the first handful of days, most of the white students had been pulled out of school by their parents, but, over time, most students returned to class. Unfortunately, this did not mean there was “integration,” as intended. Bridges was ostracized by students and teachers alike. Only one teacher would take Bridges on as a student– a teacher named Barbara Henry. For the first year, Bridges and Henry sat side-by-side in desks in the classroom, Bridges being the only student.

Every day that Ruby attended school, she was met with peril. On her morning walk to William Frantz Elementary, a woman repeatedly threatened to poison her. Outside of the school, there was another woman who had the morbid inclination to set up a black baby doll in a wooden coffin, for Bridges’ notice. Despite all of the pressure that was being applied on her and her entire family, Ruby Bridges continued her career at William Frantz. In her quest and her struggle for some sort of equality, in this crazy, mixed up world, Bridges was chipping away at fossilized social orders, conquering stagnant prejudice and paving the way for future minority students– all before she left elementary school.

Her story is one of mythic proportion. Like the Greek god Atlas, who was doomed to hold the mass of the sky upon his shoulders for all eternity, Bridges was tasked with holding the weight of racism, fear and ignorance upon her tiny frame. However, unlike Atlas who carried his burden as a punishment for losing a battle of the Titans, Ruby Bridges had won her battle.

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Charles Lindbergh: Fixed in Firmament

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I confess that I adore bold people. (with the exception of people who get too bold on the Jersey Turnpike) I get a tingling sensation down to the end of my toes anytime I read about people pursuing what they believe in, and that feeling becomes inflamed when the pursuit is “against all odds.” Maybe what I’m feeling is inspiration or love, or perhaps I am just suffering from acute Sciatica. Who can say.

Today I decided to celebrate the birthday of a real adventurer, Charles Lindbergh, who was born on February 4th, 1902. The triumphs and the tragedies of his life were succulent fodder for the media of his day, and despite the fact that he was really rather shy, he had been thrust into the spotlight. Though fame and fortune followed him on his passage through the skies, they were fickle friends and would prove most devastating.

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Ok, so I’m making Lindbergh’s life sound like a Shakespearean Tragedy, but his life doesn’t play out like Hamlet…I promise! Charles Lindbergh was born in Detroit Michigan when the twentieth-century was brand-spankin’ new and the airplane was still just a novelty toy in the hands of the Wright Brothers (They wouldn’t technically “fly” until 1903.) Lindbergh’s talent and timing were perfect for a pioneering aviator. By the time he was 18 years old he was already showing the signs of a brilliant mechanic and he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to study engineering.

However exceptional his mind might have been, Lindy’s heart had been stolen by the fast and seductive airplane, and after two years in college, he dropped out to become a professional barn-stormer. Now, if you know nothing of barn-storming, this was a job that required that one possess lots of skill and harbored a secret death wish. Lindbergh performed devil-may-care feats in the air for pittance pay, and for the enjoyment of the peanut-eating spectators back down on terra-firma.

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Now, that Lindbergh and aviation were “going steady”, it was time for him to make a major commitment to his love of flight. In 1924, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and graduated as the best in his class from the Army’s flight training school. Although he was a “cautious and capable” pilot, and had a steady job ferrying mail between St. Louis and Chicago, soon Lindbergh’s heart for adventure began to pine for more action.

The remedy to his venture-lust was to take a stab at the elusive Orteig Prize. Ever since 1919, aviation enthusiast and NYC hotel owner, Raymond Orteig, had been dangling a $25,000 carrot for anyone who could complete a non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. Many had attempted the flight, but fell short….literally. Countless trans-Atlantic hopefuls had ended up injured or dead or swallowed up by the ocean.

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Lindbergh was no dummy; he wasn’t going to rely on luck to land him Paris. He used the finances of nine local business men (of St. Louis) and his talent for engineering to co-design (along with the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego) a plane which would go the distance. It was appropriately named “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

 On May 20th, 1927, Lindbergh and his trusty plane took off from Roosevelt field, in New York, and landed thirty-three and a half hours later, at le Bourget Field near Paris…alive. Lindbergh became an international sensation. He was young, handsome and courageous. Public opinion of him was so high that even teenagers thought he was the bee’s knees, and danced “The Lindy-Hop” in his honor. Come on, you have to be super cool if grandma Dorothea with her knitting needles and Milly the jazz baby with her powdered knees BOTH find admiration for you.

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So, why the big fuss over a guy who crossed the Atlantic? People these days cross the ocean in a plane with the same gravity that one places on going through the Drive-through window at Wendy’s. With nearly a century sandwiched between “now” and “then”, it can be difficult for a twenty-first century boy or girl to trudge through the sands of time and arrive at an understanding for the Lindbergh craze of yester-year.

To put this in perspective, imagine that only twenty years ago, someone had invented a machine that could achieve time travel (Morlock-free time travel!), and that people were able to travel a few years forward or backward in time. However, no one had ever survived traveling one hundred years in the past or future. Then, some young hot-shot comes out of the middle of farm land and SAYS that he can travel a century into the future and come back from his journey alive….and then he DOES it!!!

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(Or just pretend that it’s the first time that you’re watching Back to the Future circa 1985 and you’ll get the idea )

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Anyhow, what Lindbergh did was phenomenal, and for a time things were going great for our hero. He had achieved the impossible, he had a happy little family made up of a wife and two kids, and people just loved old Lindy. But, as in any heroes’ tale…from Achilles to Nancy Kerrigan….there is always the fall. Tragedy tripped up Lindbergh’s happy stride on March 1st, 1932.

On this date, a carpenter, named Bruno Hauptmann, had rigged up a ladder and had crawled through the second-story window of the Lindbergh’s home. He then kidnapped Lindbergh’s twenty month old son and posted a $50,000 ransom note. After months of investigation, the case (which had been taken up by the FBI and assistance was offered from every corner….even the likes of Al Capone from prison) seemed like it was going nowhere.

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A break came in the investigation, ten weeks after the kidnapping, when the decomposed body of baby Charles Jr. was found on a road side. Eventually, Hauptmann was caught and sentenced to death, but Lindbergh had been devastated by death and broken by fame. For whatever good fame attracts, evil follows after. While the Lindbergh’s attempted to mourn in the wake of such devastation, swarms of photographers, reporters and nosy crowds hounded the family. The Lindbergh’s moved to Europe for a few years to escape the center ring of the circus.

Lindbergh never again welcomed the companionship of fame. He was still well known, but he avoided the bleaching glow of the limelight. Because he opposed the voluntary involvement of the U.S. in WWII, his heroic image slipped in the minds of some people (despite the fact that he flew in over 50 overseas assignments as a civilian).

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Now, don’t exit the screen and eat a bunch of truffles because the story is getting so sad. I did promise you, oh, patient audience, Lindbergh’s tale does not end in tragedy. Perhaps it was the triumph of the human spirit, or the triumph of the St. Louis’ spirit, but Lindbergh went on to live a fulfilling life.

  In 1954, President Ike appointed him a brigadier general in the Air Force, and Lindbergh worked as a consultant with several airlines… helping to design the Boeing 747 jet. In the same year, his book, The Spirit of St. Louis, won a Pulitzer Prize. Then, in the late 1960’s Lindbergh turned his ceaseless energy to natural conservation and even jumped on the “save the Whales” wagon.

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Here is the account of a man who had buoyantly glided over land, sea and air and endured the horrors of homicide, but the story is coming to an end. It is at this point of Lindbergh’s biography which I wonder, what last words can I write to sum it all up? Utterly stumped and crippled by writer’s block, I’ll let the words Lindbergh composed for his gravestone speak for him:

“Charles A. Lindbergh Born: Michigan, 1902. Died: Maui, 1974. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea. – CAL”

PICTURE SHOWS : CHARLES LINDBERGH PICTURED AT LONG ISLAND NEW YORK

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Colette…Fantasy into flesh

On January 28th, 1873 Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born. Who would have imagined that in twenty years time she would start a revolution with her bare breast, provoke the minds of Europe with her pen and wake up the conscience of society with a kiss?

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Colette was a writer, a dancer, a stage-performer and a woman. Defining herself as all of these elements in the transient haze between the Victorian era and the Roaring Twenties could prove a daunting task for any gal. It would have been easy for her to slip into calm waters of social propriety, but Colette chose to raise a storm in the Belle Epoch and sail right through the middle of civil turbulence. Desire was her compass as she plotted her course.

Her Odyssey began when she was just a child. Under the influence of her unconventional mother, Sidonie-Gabrielle shed her identity as an innocent school girl by adopting a custom usually embraced by school boys; she had her school chums refer to her by her last name, Colette. This seems innocent enough, but Colette was already testing the waters of assigned gender roles. The corset and the smelling salts seemed like an ill fit for “Sido”, so she did what any self-respecting malcontent might do…she practiced the art of provocation.

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She sharpened her skills as a provoker while appearing in Parisian drawing rooms, dressed as a salty sailor (an act that was punishable under law….cross dressing was strictly prohibited, apart from the stage) But upsetting the order of things with androgynous outfits was just the start for Colette. She would explore the uncharted limits of sexuality with her writing. Her first book, Claudine at School (1900), was penned under the name of her rakish first husband, Gauthier-Villars. The book chronicled the account of a young school girl’s lust for the alluring assistant mistress, Aimée. The story of lesbian love was a sensation, and Gauthier-Villars would exploit his wife’s desirous imagination for his own financial gain, until they divorced in 1904. Thereafter, Colette published books under her own name; her most famous work being Gigi (which was made into a fantastic feature length film in 1958.)

Writing about the taboo was just a one dimensional approach to provoking consciences… Colette was just warming up! She became a master of titillation while performing on stage in pre-World War Paris, 1906; a time when it was scandalous to flash a bit of ankle in public. Colette, being her sensible self, decided it was too easy to incense the audience with a peek of cheek or a glimpse of gam. She went for the big guns and revealed her breast to the crowd while she was on stage. Later, she immortalized this pose by modeling her bare, left breast for the camera. This rocked the conventions of turn-of-the-century-Europe. Hearing the news, matrons would undoubtedly hold their gloved hands over their satin swathed hearts and gentlemen’s monocles would pop away from their shocked eyes.

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Breasts had existed for ages, but in the twentieth-century they had been tucked away, and they certainly were not up for discussion. Colette inadvertently questioned society’s tendency to hide, augment and contort the female form and she would fight to uphold women’s honor. Instead of throwing down the gauntlet, Colette had cast down her breast. It was a challenge to European society and it need only accept.

There were those traditionalists who attacked Colette’s attempt at loosening the societal shackles which defined womanhood, at the turn of the nineteenth-century, but there were also those who admired her for her scandalous bravery. Colette offered the world, and particularly women of the world, the fantasy of living out ones heart’s desire. In her most shocking embodiment of fantasy, Colette appeared on the stage of the Moulin Rouge with her lover (and financial backer), daughter of the Duc de Morny, Mathilde. Mathilde, who went by the name of Missy, dressed as a male archeologist, and Colette had herself bound in gauze to resemble a mummy. In a fifteen minute scene, which was later censored by authorities, Missy discovers a mummy, unwraps the bandages and reveals the ravishing Colette underneath. In an act which caused a riot, Missy kisses the mummy and brings Colette to life.

If the deeper symbolism of this scene was lost on the audience, they were certainly roused by the forbidden kiss.Colette had worked very hard to get under the skins of any moral champion, and her lesbian lip-lock forced them to look at that kiss for what it was; a token of love. Now, that Colette had tested the limits of love, was it up to theological debate to decide where the boundaries of love might lie, or if there were really any boundaries to love, after all?

One thing is certain. Sidonie-Gabrielle had agitated the hearts and minds of Europe and beyond, and this would be her legacy. She was a writer, dancer and an actress too, but Colette’s true talent lie in dissolving fantasy into flesh.

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Colette…Fantasy dissolves into flesh

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