Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Treasure Hunt

During World War I, England was desperate to buy supplies from the United States, and money ran low. The Laurentic was loaded with a secret consignment: small plain 12x12x6 wooden boxes weighing 140 pounds each. These boxes were stowed in a second-class passenger baggage room with tight security.

The White Star's Laurentic was a miniature Titanic, one third in size. Because of its speed,
it was refitted as an armed merchant cruiser during World War I.

The Laurentic left Liverpool on January 23, 1914. Rounding the northern coast of Ireland, it struck a pair of mines laid by a German submarine. The ship sank within an hour in bitter cold. Of the 479 souls on board, only 121 survived. Many others had gotten into lifeboats but froze to death. Also lost was the secret cargo: 3,211 gold ingots, worth more than £5,000,000.

An artist's impression of the sunken Laurentic.

Britain had to get that gold back. Naval Commander Guybon Damant, an experienced salvage diver, was given the job. His task was dangerous with the possibility of encounters with submarines and mines, the harsh northern weather, and a depth of 40 meters (43.7 yards).
Damant’s success didn’t come easily. Strong currents and storms quickly destroyed the ship. From season to season, the divers had to clear out their work areas that had been filled in with silt and debris. The gold compartment had been quickly located during the first season, but when the team returned after a storm, the upper decks had caved in. When the baggage room was finally reached, they found holes in the floor. The heavy gold had fallen through to the bottom of the ship. Most of the wooden boxes had disintegrated and the ingots were loose.

Luxurious with ornate, high-ceilinged public rooms, the Laurentic was popular on
White Star's Liverpool to Montreal or Quebec City route.

Success came slowly. 542 bars were salvaged in 1917; 31 in 1919; only 7 in 1920, 43 in 1921; 895 in 1922; 1,255 in 1923, a banner year; 129 in 1924.
In seven salvage seasons over eight years (none in 1918), Damant’s team recovered 3,186 bars of the original 3,211. The total cost of the operation was £128,000, or 2.5% of the £5 million. The government was thrilled. No deaths or serious injuries resulted despite the limits of diving technology and the highly hazardous conditions.

Divers prepare to search for the Laurentic's lost gold.


In the intervening years, others searched for the missing gold, and found five bars. Twenty bars remain unaccounted for. Anyone interested in taking up diving?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Formidable Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt is known for her public activism and passion for human rights, championing the poor and oppressed. In Eleanor, A Spiritual Biography, the author traces how she came by her religious faith and how it prompted her actions.


She was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and her understanding reflected the thinking of many who attend mainline churches. She believed in preparing for eternity by building a just world for all God’s children. This she did through her travel, columns, articles, interviews, and lectures, focusing attention on injustice and inhumane conditions.

A young Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt with James and Anna.

Her outspokenness made her a target of hatred and criticism. She believed it did little good to believe something unless she told her friends and associates her beliefs. She was more concerned with how one lived one’s faith than with the particularities of one’s beliefs. Her personal mantra was “The way your personal religion makes you live your life is the only thing that matters.”


What religion one belonged to didn’t matter as long as one practiced that religion. One of her great-grandsons became a Reconstructionist rabbi, and the author believes that would have pleased her. During World War II, she harbored prejudice against Jews, writing to a friend in Germany, “I realized quite well that there may be a need for curtailing the ascendency of the Jewish people.” Many close friends were Jewish.

After FDR's death, Eleanor served as a UN ambassador.

Jesus’ commands to care for “the least of these” spurred her activism. Yet she did not believe in hell or the virgin birth. She believed the story of Adam and Eve to be allegorical. On the basis of science, it couldn’t be true. For her, there was only one fundamental law: love one another. Everything else, including the Ten Commandments, was all interpretation.

There is no denying the good she did in a time of social upheaval. Her personal feelings may have been contradictory, but she pressed on because she took to heart and practiced the command to love one another.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Remembering The Professor

While clearing out a stack running over with old magazines and books, I found a newspaper clipping from January, 2014. The headline reads, “Russell Johnson, “Gilligan’s Island” professor, has died.”

The Professor and Gilligan: they're both gone now.

What’s the first thing you thought of when reading that name?
High school science teacher Roy Hinkley could rig up a four-bicycle-powered generator, create a glow-in-the-dark substance, and program a robot to walk to Hawaii. At times, he seemed the only level-headed castaway among the cast of seven.

The Professor with one of his gadgets.

The comedy ran for three years in the mid-60s, but remains beloved in syndication. Johnson described the show’s enduring appeal because, “No one gets hurt. No murders. No car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun – that’s the charm.”
The primitive island setting makes it ageless. That includes the actors. We always see them at the age they were during filming. Johnson was about 40.
His obituary details his World War II service. Like Vinny Zamperini, he was a B-24 bombardier flying missions in the Pacific theater. His plane was shot down over the Philippines and he broke both ankles.

Before Gilligan's Island, Russell Johnson acted in many westerns, often as the villian.


The GI Bill enabled him to enroll in the Actors Lab in Hollywood after his discharge. If not for that, we may not have had The Professor.