Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Medicine, Pop Culture

The Red Stripe Iron Lung legend.

Original publish date:  May 7, 2020

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Last month the General Motors Kokomo plant began mass production of the Ventec Life Systems V+Pro critical care ventilator under contract to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The announcement stirred up memories of World War II plant production in paces like Indianapolis, Anderson, Marion, Muncie, Fort Wayne and other Hoosier cities and towns. The news also stirred up memories of a subject I’ve written about before: Polio. Perhaps America’s last great pandemic fight. I traveled down to Warm Springs, Georgia a decade ago to visit the campus of the Polio hospital there and met with several former patients, doctors and nurses along the way.

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General Motors Ventec Life Systems V+Pro critical care ventilators

One of the subjects I meant to cover, but never got around to, was an urban legend from my childhood. Now seems as good a time as any to cover it. In 1927, cigarette manufacturers introduced new cellophane packaging for their over-the-counter individual packs of cigarettes. Along with the cellophane came a red waxed “paper” opener strip around the top of the pack to tear open the wrapper. Those red stripes have all but disappeared from cigarette packs today, but for over 60 years, they were as ubiquitous as the pull tab on a pop top can.

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Rolls of Red Tear Strips for Cigarette Packs.

For many years, the legend was that if you saved the “red tear strip” on your cigarette wrappers you could redeem them later in life to use for time on an iron lung machine should you ever get Polio, lung cancer or any other health problem that might require you to use the machine. The red tear strip may have been the very first of the so-called “redemption rumors” that have been floating around as urban legends since before the Civil War. Redemption rumors usually claim that corporations will exchange product packaging material (bar codes, can tabs, gum wrappers, cigarette packages, etc.) for medical equipment (wheelchairs, iron lungs, dialysis machines, etc.) donated to hospitals or individuals.
z s-l400The big problem with these rumors is that they are not tied to the companies that actually have such programs, so that they motivate people to collect huge numbers of bottle caps, empty packets and the like to no avail. The biggest companies are usually the most frequently targeted, recent years those have been mostly soft drinks, beer, cigarettes, and tea. Sadly, before kidney dialysis came along you typically were told to save cigarette packs to earn time on an iron lung. z imagesKnowing the damage smoking causes to the lungs, these red stripe redemption rumors truly proved to be a “sick bargain”.
Most redemption rumors were false, but not all of them. From 1948 till 1979 the makers of Vets Dog Food made a one to two cent donation to train seeing-eye dogs for every Vets label redeemed. z 2b2a6e631f3a51c1e7d80a92a61ff9e5Today Heinz baby food labels can be redeemed to benefit children’s hospitals and Campbell’s soup labels can be used to buy school equipment. In Indianapolis, funds received from the recycling of pop tabs add up to between $30,000 and $50,000 annually for Riley Children’s Hospital. All this money helps with the operating expenses of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Indiana and traditionally covers the cost of operating 3 rooms in the House for an entire year. With redemption rumors, it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from fiction.
The Red Stripe / Iron Lung legend went nowhere and resulted only in kitchen drawers full of angry little strips of blood red cellophane exploding and filling the air every time a drawer was opened too quickly; static electricity causing them to adhere firmly to every flat surface in sight. The legend took root during the height of the Polio epidemic in the 1930s, 40s and 50s when images of helpless little children confined in menacing looking steel tubes viewing life only through the confines of a tilted rear view mirror placed inches above their chin were routinely found in every newspaper and magazine of the day.
z 166832_originalEven though it was a hoax, it didn’t mean it was a bad idea. In the 1950s, the Betty Crocker franchise started a coupon program run by General Mills. Most folks redeemed the coupons for kitchen utensils, but beginning in 1969 General Mills OK’d several fundraising campaigns in which coupons were used to purchase some 300 kidney dialysis machines. The company soon stopped dialysis drives due partly to complaints that it was “trading in human misery.” The program ceased operation in 2006.
Humans, like most mammals, breathe by negative pressure breathing in which the rib cage expands and the diaphragm contracts, expanding the chest cavity. This causes the pressure in the chest cavity to decrease, and the lungs expand to fill the space. This, in turn, causes the pressure of the air inside the lungs to decrease (it becomes negative, relative to the atmosphere), and air flows into the lungs from the atmosphere: inhalation. When the diaphragm relaxes, the reverse happens and the person exhales. If a person loses part or all of the ability to control the muscles involved, breathing becomes difficult or impossible.
Due to the eradication of Polio in most of the world, the iron lung has become largely obsolete in modern medicine. Not to mention, superior breathing therapies have been developed and modern ventilators, like those General Motors is creating in Kokomo, are more efficient at a fraction of the cost and size. Although a common sight to our grandparents generation, the iron lung is unfamiliar to our modern eyes. An iron lung is a ponderous sight to behold, as is the patient contained within it.
z ironlunglgThe most common iron lung, known as a “Drinker respirator”, was designed to provide temporary breathing support for people suffering paralysis of the diaphragm and intracostal muscles, which are essential for respiration. Developed in 1929, it came to be an important tool for the care of sufferers of paralytic polio. Strictly defined, “the iron lung is a large horizontal cylinder, in which a person is laid, with their head protruding from a hole in the end of the cylinder, so that their nose and mouth are outside the cylinder, exposed to ambient air, and the rest of their body sealed inside the cylinder, where air pressure is continuously cycled up and down, to stimulate breathing. To cause the patient to inhale, air is pumped out of the cylinder, causing a slight vacuum, which causes the patient’s chest and abdomen to expand (drawing air from outside the cylinder, through the patient’s exposed nose or mouth, into their lungs). Then, for the patient to exhale, the air inside the cylinder is compressed slightly (or allowed to equalize to ambient room pressure), causing the patient’s chest and abdomen to partially collapse, forcing air out of the lungs, as the patient exhales the breath through their exposed mouth and nose, outside the cylinder.” (The Iron Lung, Science Museum Group, Kensington, London, England, U.K)

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Room Sized Ventilator.

In some cases, especially during the height of the Polio epidemic, larger “room-sized” iron lungs were also developed, allowing for simultaneous ventilation of several patients at once (each with their heads protruding from sealed openings in the outer wall), with sufficient space for a nurse or a respiratory therapist to be inside the sealed room, attending the patients. Rows of iron lungs filled hospital wards during the 1940s and 1950s, helping children and some adults, with bulbar polio and bulbospinal polio. A polio patient with a paralyzed diaphragm would typically spend two weeks inside an iron lung while recovering. The iron lung was used on patients before they were able to recover and either breathe on their own, or with the use of assistive respirators.
z im-73301By 2018, there were only 3 of these 700 pound behemoth iron lung machines operating in the United States. Some machines have a tray that slides out of the tube, others require the patient to climb into the bed of the pod, upon which the patient lays and is then pushed into the machine. The patient’s head is the only part of the body visible once the machine is closed, and the neck collar is adjusted to keep it airtight. Since the head is exposed, patients can eat and drink in the machine but, since both are done while laying down, swallowing can be a challenge and must be done carefully. Since the machine is pushing / pulling the patient, swallowing must occur while the machine is breathing out. Coughing and sneezing can be a challenge since both are involuntary and cannot be properly timed with the rhythm of the machine. The mechanics are under the bed, which produces a vibrating sensation for the patient.
z gettyimages-3331901Today’s ventilators, like those being made in Kokomo right now, are much more portable and are mostly described as “breathing machines” that can be carried as easily as a briefcase. For extreme breathing cases, smaller single-patient iron lungs, known as “Cuirass ventilators” (named for the Cuirass, a torso-covering body armor worn by armored knights), are used. The Cuirass ventilator encloses only the patient’s torso, chest or abdomen, but otherwise operates essentially the same as the original, full-sized iron lung. The lightweight variation of the cuirass is a jacket ventilator or poncho / raincoat ventilator, which uses a flexible, impermeable material (such as plastic or rubber) stretched over a metal or plastic frame placed over the patient’s torso.
Tracy Hamilton Talking on the TelephoneAnd, although the idea of the old fashioned iron lung mostly only survives in the collective public memory of baby boomers, the COVID-19 pandemic has revived some interest in the device. Thanks to the internet, public safety scams and urban legends proliferate our life daily. As silly as the idea of saving red stripes from packs of cigarettes to exchange for time in iron lungs sounded to the enlightened twenty years ago, when viewed through the periscope of new age social media theory today, it fits right in. And Covid-19 has reignited fears of epidemics past including Polio and the Spanish Flu (which allegedly originated in Kansas by the way). So, in short, there is nothing new under the sun and the takeaway from all of this is that, hopefully, this too shall pass.

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Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

McCarthy

Original publish date: February 6, 2011           Reissue Date: April 16, 2020

September 11 is an important date in this country. Its a date as important to our generation as December 11, 1941 (Pearl Harbor) and November 23, 1963 (John F.Kennedy’s assassination) were to the two generations preceding ours. It is the date the date of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City. However, it has another meaning to me. On September 11, 2010, Kevin McCarthy died. Kevin McCarthy was an actor, a character actor to be precise. You’ve seen his face in countless films over the past half century but probably never knew his name.
Midwestern born McCarthy appeared in over two hundred television and film roles and an equal number of stage plays and productions for over a half century. For his role in the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year . However, I remember McCarthy for his starring role in the original 1956 version of the classic Sci-Fi / Horror movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, a film with a strong Cold War Era Anti-Communist theme.
z Invasion_of_the_Body_Snatchers_(1956_poster)I had the opportunity to meet Kevin McCarthy in Chicago back in 1992 and he was gracious enough to sign a photo for me. It remains a cherished possession. Not only was he a great actor, he was a cousin of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and one actor Montgomery Clift’s best friends. I could not help but smile wryly when I learned of McCarthy’s death last year on 9/11. He lived to the ripe old age of 96 (we should all be so lucky) and lived a life that most of us can only dream about. The irony of his dying on 9/11, one of the most controversial politically charged dates in American history, was not lost on me. For “Invasion of the body snatchers” remains one of the most controversial politically charged movies of all-time.
Invasion is based on the novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney and was first featured in several installments in Saturday Evening Post magazines in 1954-55. It stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams of the Addams Family). The screenplay was adapted from Finney’s novel by Daniel Mainwaring, along with an uncredited Richard Collins, and was directed by Don Siegel. The film is the first and most critically acclaimed of the novel’s four film adaptations to date.
z 2070005Invasion of the Body Snatchers was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The American Film Institute ranked “Invasion number nine on its “Ten top Ten” best ten films in the science fiction category. The film ranked number 47 on AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Thrills”, a list of America’s most heart-pounding films.
Set in the fictional town of Santa Mira, California (In the novel, the town is Mill Valley, north of San Francisco), McCarthy plays Dr. Miles Bennell, a local doctor who finds that several of patients are accusing their loved ones of being impostors. Assured at first by the town psychiatrist that the cases are nothing but “epidemic mass hysteria,” Bennell soon discovers that the townspeople are being systematically replaced by perfect physical duplicates, simulacrums grown from giant plant-like pods (found in basements, automobile trunks, a greenhouse, and on a pool table). The Pod People are indistinguishable from normal people, except for their lack of human emotion. The Pod People work together to secretly spread more pods which the film explains grew from “seeds drifting through space for years” in order to replace the entire human race.
The film climaxes with Bennell and a friend attempting to escape the Pod People, intent on warning the rest of humanity. While they hide, the doctor’s friend played by actress Dana Wynter fights an overwhelming urge to sleep and when she briefly doses off, she is instantly transformed into one of the Pod People. With the Pod People close behind, Bennell runs onto the highway frantically screaming about the alien force which has overrun the town to the passing motorists and (in a moment that is considered a breaking of the Fourth Wall) looks into the camera and yells, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”
z 0_1u3JgAt04c6rLwF9Bennell is picked up by the police and questioned in a clinic. The policemen in charge do not believe his account until they receive news of an accident in which a truck carrying strange giant bean pods is opened. The police are quick to alert the authorities; the message has been received, but the actual end of the story is left open. What cannot be denied is the central theme of the heroic struggle of one helpless but determined man of conscience, a small-town doctor (McCarthy), to vainly combat and quell a deadly, indestructible threat. An oft repeated theme of Sci-Fi films of today
The film had a few preliminary titles: Sleep No More, Better Off Dead, and They Came From Another World before the final choice was made. At first, studios considered established Hollywood stars like Gig Young, Dick Powell, Joseph Cotten for the male lead. For the female lead, Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Kim Hunter, and Vera Miles were initially considered. However the lower budget led producers to cast two relative newcomers in the lead roles: McCarthy and Wynter. The film was shot in just 23 days between March 23, 1955 and April 18, 1955 by working a six-day week with only Sundays off. The final budget was $382,190. When released in 1956, the movie made over $1 million in its first month and over $2.5 million in the USA for the entire year. British ticket sales raised that figure by a half million dollars. When the film was released, many theatres displayed several of the pods (made of paper) in theatre lobbies along with lifesize cutouts of McCarthy and Wynter frantically running away from a mob.
The film was originally intended to end with Miles screaming hysterically as truckloads of pods pass him by. The studio insisted on adding an ending that suggested a more optimistic outcome. The studio tried to get Orson Welles to voice the preface and a trailer for the film, but was unsuccessful. The film holds a 97% “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In recent years, critics have hailed the film as a “genuine Sci-Fi classic” and one of the “most resonant” and “one of the simplest” of the genre. Even though the movie has no monsters, minimal special effects, no overt violence, and no deaths. The BBC wrote, “The sense of post-war, anti-communist paranoia is acute, as is the temptation to view the film as a metaphor for the tyranny of the McCarthy era.”
z unnamedThe film is widely viewed as an indictment of McCarthyism and the Red Scare Anti-Communist Era. The unmistakable metaphor: the turning of people into soulless doubles while they sleep represents the dangers faced of America turning a blind eye to McCarthyism. Over the years, others have interpreted the film as a metaphor for the loss of the individual in modern mass civilization, or paranoia about the spread of socialistic Communism, or blacklisting of Hollywood, or as a representation of the loss of personal freedom in the Soviet Union, or the spread of an unknown malignancy or virulent germ (a metaphor within a metaphor about the fear of annihilation by ‘nuclear war’), or of bland conformity in postwar Eisenhower-era America. Still others argue the film is an indictment of the damage to the human personality caused by ideologies of Right versus Left, a theme that resonates today.
One of the things I loved about Kevin McCarthy is that he often said that he felt that the film had no political allegory at all, at least not by the actors or filmmakers. McCarthy backed it up by stating that in his talks with novelist Jack Finney, he too professed that there was no intended specific political allegory in the book.

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Donald Sutherland

The producer of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was Walter Wanger, a man not free from personal controversy himself. Wanger had just been released from prison for attempted murder after serving a 4-month jail term for the 1951 shooting of the lover of his unfaithful movie-star wife, Joan Bennett. Wanger’s attorney successfully offered a “temporary insanity” defense resulting in the light sentence.
The psychological sci-fi film was re-made three times starring Donald Sutherland, (1978), Gabrielle Anwar 1993 and Nicole Kidman (2007), although well-made, the remakes were inferior to the original, as were the lead star. The original 1956 film received no Academy Award nominations but has become more and more revered and distinctive as time passed.

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Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy would go on to make film cameos in other sci-fi films including: The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987), and a memorable appearance as his Dr. Bennell character (now elderly) in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) that appeared clutching a seed pod repeatedly muttering “You’re next.”
I think that the reason this movie spoke to me in particular and resonates in my memory today is the time frame that I associate it with. I saw the film in the late 1960s an era framed in my mind by political mistrust, conspiracy theories and assassination. Everything from who killed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to whether the moon landing was real or staged in a Hollywood studio to whether or not the Beatles Paul McCartney was alive or dead seemed to be surrounded by cover-up and controversy. This movie with its Zombie-like alien invaders bodily brain-washing their naive, unsuspecting victims could be conformed to any theory, right or left. As a child of the ’60s, this movie spoke to me like no other.
Meeting Kevin McCarthy was a lifetime thrill. I think often of McCarthy’s eloquent speech from the movie describing the shocking changes he’s seen in his fellow citizens, “I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind…All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.”
Followed by an unconvincing sales pitch by an antagonist colleague to McCarthy’s character, “Less than a month ago, Santa Mira was like any other town. People with nothing but problems. Then, out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space…Your new bodies are growing in there. They’re taking you over cell for cell, atom for atom…they’ll absorb your minds, your memories and you’re reborn into an untroubled world…Tomorrow you’ll be one of us…There’s no need for love…Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me.”
z bodysnatchershedAnd whenever I wish, I can conjure up an image in my mind of the wide-eyed sweat and grime covered face of McCarthy as a crazed prophet of doom pointing directly into the camera desperately speaking his warning to humanity: “Look, you fools. You’re in danger. Can’t you see? They’re after you. They’re after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone. They’re here already. YOU’RE NEXT!” Rest in Peace Kevin McCarthy.

Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Medicine, Pop Culture

The Tuberculosis War in Indianapolis

TB

Original publish date:  November 12, 2008      Reissue date: March 26, 2020

Sometimes it’s just a photo that starts the discussion. Such was the case with the photo I ran across in the archives of the Indianapolis Commercial Club’s collection. It’s a curious photo of a group of Boy Scouts in Indianapolis in 1907. The serious faced group of young men are holding signs with the official “National Tuberculosis Association” (Now the American Lung Association) Red Cross symbols on the front with ominously humorous slogans that read “Join the Drive against the Spitter…A Spotless Town is a Spitless Town…Don’t Spit-A Clean City is a Safe City…Save the Children-Don’t Spit.” What could possibly have caused these fresh faced kids to parade around Indiana’s Capitol City carrying signs with such frightening messages? The Tuberculosis War in Indianapolis.
Tuberculosis , or T.B. for short, is a respiratory disease that mainly effects the lungs but can also effect the central nervous system, bones, joints, and even the skin. The symptoms of T.B. include a chronic raspy bronchial cough, fever, night sweats, weight loss, and bloody expectorations or spit. T.B. is spread through the air when infected victims cough, sneeze or spit.
z ladies spittingAccording to a 1907 article in the New York Times, “The anti-spitting movement, a thing of comparatively recent growth, has spread all over the union. The purpose of the anti-spitting ordinance is two fold: first, to abate a nuisance; second, to prevent disease. While the nuisance is a very real one, and from that stand point, if from no other, spitting should be prohibited, the danger of the spreading of disease by spitting in public places has been exaggerated…Spitting upon the sidewalks, in street cars and public places is not nearly so dangerous as the spitting in tenement houses, cheap lodging houses, factories and workshops, and other places which the average spitting law does not presume to prohibit.”
z nospittingsigntransitmuseum1916More precisely, the article goes on to note that in 1907, there were 20 arrests in Indianapolis for spitting in public. All of these arrests were made by health officers, not policemen. The article went on to say “If you have to spit, don’t spit in Buffalo, N.Y., for it may cost you $25. The cheapest place to spit is Indianapolis, where people paid an average of 78 cents.” In 1907 tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death behind pneumonia /influenza.
Tuberculosis and childhood poster, 1920sDuring this period, no fewer than four tuberculosis hospitals were built in and around Indianapolis. The Flower Mission Pavilion for Incurables was added to the grounds of the city hospital. The revolutionary design of the building featured open air verandas built at the height of 822 feet containing 2 wards with 10 beds each and 6 private rooms. This hospital was unique in that it charged no fee for services and was available only to patients with advanced, incurable cases of “Consumption.”
The other hospitals were located in Danville, known as the Rockwood Tuberculosis Sanitarium and the State Tuberculosis Hospital in Rockville. The Danville facility was used chiefly for early cases of T.B. with rates ranging from $15 to $25 per week. It had a capacity of 50 patients. An ad for the facility read, “The Rockwood Tuberculosis Sanitarium is located twelve miles west of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis and Danville Interurban Electric line. Cars run hourly in each direction. The institution is located in wooded hill country, and overlooks White Lick Creek. All patients are accommodated in individual cottages, and are kept in touch with physicians and nurses by an electric call-bell system.”  The State T.B. hospital was located on 527 acres near the Sand Creek station of the Vandalia Railroad. Started in 1908, it would not open until 1909.
z 3-1But by far the most interesting of these four T.B. hospitals was the Day Camp of the Women’s Improvement Club, located in the Brightwood area of Indianapolis. It’s capacity was only 7 patients. Literature of the era described the facility as being “For colored women in incipient or convalescent stages of tuberculosis. The camp is located in a grove near Brightwood, a suburb of Indianapolis. The equipment used is largely tents. This is one of the few camps in the United States exclusively for colored women. It is conducted by the Women’s Improvement Club, composed of twenty colored women of Indianapolis.”
I could not be true to the “spirit” of this column if I failed to speak of the folklore that surrounded the dread disease tuberculosis. Before the Industrial Revolution, tuberculosis was regarded as vampirism. When one family member died of T.B., the rest of the family would inevitably contract the disease and their health would slowly begin to fail. People mistakenly believed that the original victim was draining the life out of the remaining family members. Symptoms of T.B. closely mimicked those historically connected to the victims of vampires, including red, swollen eyes (which naturally caused a sensitivity to bright light), pale skin, extremely low body heat, a weak heart and coughing blood, suggesting that the only way for these T.B. victims to replenish themselves was by sucking blood. As with most medical maladies, the pain associated with tuberculosis seemed to multiply in the nighttime hours, causing the victim to stay awake all night and sleep most of the day. All are classic symptoms associated with vampires.
z spittingIt was mistakenly believed that the only way the epidemic could be stopped within a family was to visit the cemetery at night and disinter the deceased subject and remove it’s heart. There was a well documented case of this very thing happening in Rhode Island in 1892. Nineteen-year-old Mercy Brown had died of consumption and as her family began to suffer from the same symptoms, her father went to the family tomb two months after her death and, assisted by the family physician, removed her heart and burnt it to ashes. These fears and old wive’s tales about T.B. surely existed in 1907, undoubtedly contributing to the ferocity of the Tuberculosis War in Indianapolis.
Although this article concentrates on the 1907 TB epidemic, it should be noted that tuberculosis is making a modern day comeback. This new strain of T.B. is resistant to today’s antibiotics. It’s estimated that one third of the world’s current population is infected with tuberculosis, and new infections occur at a rate of one per second. However, only a small percentage of these infections will develop into full blown TB. These hosts with latent T.B. cannot transmit the disease. The disease can only be transmitted by those TB victims with active tuberculosis. Most will remain dormant or latent with little effect to the infected host. Eighty percent of these new T.B. infections occur in Asia and Africa with only 5 to 10 percent occurring here in the United States.
Some interesting trivia from the world of 1907. The average life expectancy was 47. The average wage was 22 cents per hour. Ninety-five percent of all births took place at home. There were 230 murders reported in the entire U.S., marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at local drugstores. Back then pharmacists claimed, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.” That last bit of trivia casts a somewhat dubious level of importance to Indianapolis’ Tuberculosis War. Wouldn’t you agree?z-_Heroin

cars, Creepy history, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Curse of James Dean. PART II

James Dean Part II

Original publish date:  March 19, 2020

“Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” James Dean was the epitome of that 1949 quote penned by pioneering Chicago African American author Willard Motley. Dean died in a car crash nearly 65 years ago (September 30, 1955) but he remains a fixture on the pop culture landscape as the gold standard of cool. If you need proof of that assessment, go and visit his grave in Fairmount, Indiana. There you will see the lipstick spotted grave marker covered by more kisses than the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
z newspaperJames Dean’s aluminium-bodied Porsche was launched into the air, torn and crushed. But that was not the end of the car’s story. The “curse” of James Dean’s car has become a part of America’s cultural mythology. Some claim that the source of that “curse” was none other than iconic Pop Culture car creator known as the “King of the Kustomizers”, George Barris. It was Barris who created the Batmobile, the Beverly Hillbillies truck, the Munster Koach and Grandpa Munster’s “Drag-U-La” casket car used in the 1960s TV series. It was Barris who painted the number 130 on the doors, front hood and rear trunk of Dean’s Posche Spyder. It was Barris who also stenciled the name “Little Bastard” on the back of the car. And it was Barris who eventually came to own the deathcar.
The wrecked Spyder was declared a total loss by the insurance company, which paid Dean’s father, Winton, the fair market value as a settlement. The insurance company, through a salvage yard in Burbank, sold the Spyder to a Dr. William F. Eschrich, a driver who had competed against Dean in his own sports car at three races in 1955. Dr. Eschrich installed Dean’s Porsche 4-cam engine in his Lotus IX race car chassis. Eschrich then raced the Porsche-powered Lotus, which he called a “Potus”, at seven California Sports Car Club events during 1956. At the Pomona Sports Car Races on October 21, 1956, Eschrich, driving this car, was involved in a minor scrape with another driver. In that same race, a Dr. McHenry was killed when his race car went out of control and struck a tree. Dr. Eschrich had loaned Dr. McHenry the transmission and several other parts from James Dean’s deathcar.
z death car photosAfter Dr. Eschrich striped the car of it’s engine and any other salvageable racing components, he evidently sold the Spyder’s mangled chassis to Barris. It is not known exactly how Barris knew Eschrich, but in late-1956, Barris announced that he would rebuild the Porsche. However, as the wrecked chassis had no remaining integral strength, a rebuild proved to be a Herculean task, even for a wizard like Barris. Barris welded aluminum sheet metal over the caved-in left front fender and cockpit. He then beat on the aluminum panels with a 2×4 to try to mimic collision damage. So, likely to protect his investment and reputation, Barris promoted the “curse” by placing the wreck on public display.
zjames-dean-carFirst, Barris loaned the car out to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council for a local custom car show in 1956. The gruesome display was promoted as: “James Dean’s Last Sports Car”. From 1957 to 1959, the exhibit toured the country in various custom car shows, movie theatres, bowling alleys, and highway safety displays throughout California. It even made an appearance at Indianapolis Raceway Park during the NHRA Drag Racing Championship track’s grand opening in 1960. According to Barris, during those years 1956 to 1960, a mysterious series of accidents, not all of them car crashes, occurred involving the car resulting in serious injuries to spectators and even a truck driver’s death.
A few of those stories can be corroborated. A March 12, 1959 wire service story reported that the deathcar, temporarily stored in a garage at 3158 Hamilton Avenue in Fresno, caught fire “awaiting display as a safety exhibit in a coming sports and custom automobile show”. The Fresno Bee followed up with a newspaper story exactly two months later, stating that the “fire occurred on the night of March 11 and only slight damage occurred to the Spyder without any damage to other cars or property in the garage. No one was injured. The cause of the fire is unknown. It burned two tires and scorched the paint on the vehicle.” Barris claimed that the deathcar mysteriously disappeared in 1960 while returning from a traffic safety exhibit in Florida in a sealed railroad boxcar. When the train arrived in Los Angeles, Barris said he signed the manifest and verified that the seal was intact—but the boxcar was empty. Barris offered $1,000,000 to anyone who could produce the remains of the deathcar, but no one ever came forward to claim the prize.

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James Dean display at Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, Illinois.

Although the legendary car has disappeared, Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, Illinois, claims to have an original piece of Dean’s Spyder on display. It is a small chunk of aluminum, a few square inches in size, that was allegedly pried off and stolen from an area near the broken windscreen while the Spyder was being stored in the Cholame Garage after the crash. Also on display in the museum are an assortment of Abraham Lincoln relics (a lock of his hair, the handles from his coffin, various bloodstained cloth and one of the coins purportedly placed on the dead President’s eyes) as well as the Bonnie & Clyde, Flintstones, Back to the Future Movie cars and George Barris’ Batmobile. In 2005, for the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, announced they were displaying what was purported to be the passenger door of the “Little Bastard”.
The 4-Cam Porsche engine (#90059), along with the original California Owner’s Registration (a.k.a. CA Pink Slip) listing the engine number, is still in the possession of the family of the late Dr. Eschrich. The Porsche’s transaxle assembly (#10046), is currently owned by Porsche collector and restorer Jack Styles in Massachusetts. But, to date, neither of Dean’s Porsches have been located. In his 1974 book “Cars of the Stars” George Barris first wrote about the curse and the numerous incidents involving fatal accidents and other serious injuries, but other than the few minor mishaps reported here, researchers have found no evidence to support most of Barris’ claims. Regardless, the story of the curse has certainly failed to diminish the James Dean legend.
z graveLike many a Hoosier youth, I too had my “James Dean phase”. Some twenty years ago, my wife Rhonda and I took a trip up to Fairmount to visit James Dean country. We were toured around the community by a couple of older gentlemen who graciously pointed out spots the young actor frequented including the family farm, Dean’s old high school, a few of the old stores Dean used to frequent, the cemetery and the funeral home where Dean was prepared for burial. One of the men mentioned, “He had a closed-casket funeral to conceal his severe injuries from his hometown friends and family.” These men had been underclassmen at Fairmount high school and relayed stories of encounters with Dean from their school days. They remarked that when the young method actor returned to Fairmount after making a Pepsi commercial and a bit part on TV, Dean attended a high school dance. “We didn’t like him because he had all of the girls in the room fawning all over him and we couldn’t get a dance.” they said. “We didn’t see him as a big shot from Hollywood, we saw him as a guy trying to steal our dates.”

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Google Earth view of the crash site.

During our 10th wedding anniversary trip to California in 1999, Rhonda and I drove from San Francisco to Hollywood. Part of the way on scenic Highway 101 (which I highly recommend should you ever find yourself out that way) and part of the way retracing James Dean’s final drive. The best way you could envision the scene while sitting here in Indiana in the dead of winter would be for you to make a peace sign with the index and middle fingers of your right hand. Hold your arm straight out. The crash happened where your fingers meet, with the Porsche coming toward you on your middle finger and the Ford traveling up your forearm toward your index finger in the opposite direction. Imagine Turnupseed’s car bearing left and swerving onto your index finger precisely at the same time as Dean’s car passes the same spot. Got it?
z dean mapDriving along that long two-lane stretch of Central California highway, it’s easy to imagine what James Dean’s last hour was like even though much of today’s road isn’t the same one James Dean traveled on. The route was upgraded and moved slightly north in the 1960s. However, parts of the original can still be found. As you drive west on the last mile to the crash site and look off to your left and you can still see what’s left of the original two-lane road. If you pull off to the side of the road, it’s still possible to walk on part of the crumbling pavement, with weeds sprouting in the middle, and imagine that little silver Porsche speeding past.

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Donald Turnupseed’s car after the wreck.

From this vantage point, it’s also easy to understand how Donald Turnupseed didn’t see the tiny silver sports car as it approached from the foot of the Polonio Pass. The road shimmers along this route, making it hard to tell where the road ends and the horizon begins. Cars appear and disappear in vaporous waves of prismic light like an optical illusion as light reflects off the road surface. Today, the intersection has been widened and there’s a left-turn lane to access Highway 41 requiring a stop and a 90-degree turn. A road sign rises from the median between the converging lanes ominously proclaiming it as “James Dean Memorial Junction”. The two lanes have remained virtually unchanged since then, while the population of the southern San Joaquin Valley has grown 120% since the crash. Headlight use is mandatory along the 58-mile route, from Lost Hills off Interstate 5 to past Paso Robles to the west. Today, the spot where James Dean died is known as “Blood Alley” due to the number of fatal crashes, mainly head-on collisions, that still occur there among the high volume of commuters, truck drivers, and tourists today. Highway officials report that 42 deaths occurred on the road during the 45 years after James Dean’s passing. Another 38 were killed from 2000 to 2010.

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Offerings left by fans at the James Dean death site.

Parking and walking over to the spot where James Dean died is a dangerous exercise on this remote, but very busy highway. Cars and trucks speed by in both directions and anything short of a cautious drive by is not recommended. Where Highway 41 merges into Highway 46, on a barbed-wire fence off the westbound lane, is a small memorial signifying the spot where Dean’s Porsche skidded to a stop. There is a small barren patch dotted with tufts of grass. It can easily be missed unless you know it’s there. It sort of blends in to the surrounding nothingness except for the shadows of footprints and mementos left by fans from all over the world. In September 2015, The Hollywood Reporter noted that visitors to the crash site leave an assortment of tributes, including pictures, alcohol and women’s underwear. However, contrary to popular belief, this is not the actual intersection where the accident occurred. The accident scene is approximately 100 feet to the south of the current intersection, where the road used to be. Seems that retrospectively, Dean’s death, like his life, can easily get lost in the legend. One thing is certain though, the crash that killed the rising Hoosier movie star succeeded in cementing his status as a legend.

Macabre Images of James Dean clowning in the Fairmount Funeral Home.

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cars, Creepy history, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Curse of James Dean. PART I

James Dean Part I

Original publish date:  March 12, 2020

Hoosier James Dean died in an automobile accident on a desolate stretch of highway in Cholame, California nearly 65 years ago, yet he remains ever present in the collective memory of fans born well after his death. It is ironic that Cholame sits within a mile of the San Andreas Fault-line because on September 30, 1955, the death of James Dean caused a seismic shift in pop culture history that resonates to this day. Dean became a cultural icon immediately after his death. He remains the symbol of teenage angst to millions of young people whose grandparents were more familiar with him than them. Part of his remaining allure involves his small town genesis, the curse of his death car and an unexpected connection to the Star Wars franchise.
Although tiny Cholame (population 116) makes Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana (population @ 2,600 in 1955) look like a metropolis, it would be hard to find a more typical California town. Like James Dean himself, Cholame is frozen in time. One of the town’s founders was Robert Edgar Jack. During the Civil War, Jack enlisted in the 56th New York Volunteer Infantry. He fought at the Battle of Gettysburg and was part of the unit dispatched to New York City to quell the infamous draft riots there. Near the end of the war, he moved to California and soon became the largest wool grower in Central California. He later switched to cattle and agriculture. Jack’s land was eventually sold to the William Randolph Hearst Corporation in 1966 and is still a working cattle ranch today. Can’t get much more California than that now can you?
24-year-old James Dean was killed when his Porsche 550 Spyder collided when 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed’s 1950 Ford Tudor Custom coupe as it made a left turn at the junction of State Highways 41 and 46. Dean was at the wheel of his sleek silver Porsche Spyder was headed to a sports car race (his fourth) at Salinas Municipal Airport. With him in the car was his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. The car’s mirror finish was accented by the number 130 on the front hood, rear trunk and side doors and the name “Little Bastard” (designated as such by Dean himself) on the back. The original plan was to tow the high performance car on a trailer behind Dean’s 1955 Ford “woodie” style station wagon the actor had purchased just three months before.

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Rolf Wütherich & James Dean.

However Dean’s riding mechanic Wütherich, a former Luftwaffe glider pilot, recommended that they “unloose” the car instead by driving it the 300 miles from Hollywood to Salinas so Dean could get “more seat time” behind the wheel before the race. Dean’s first races were run in a Porsche 356 Speedster, which he bought in March 1955. He won a race for novices at Palm Springs, Calif. driving his No. 23F, a 1954 Porsche Speedster. As his star (and income) began to rise, he graduated to the Spyder 550, an ultra-low, rear-engined sports-racer that cost $7000 in the States, the equivalent of two new Cadillacs in 1955. He traded in his Speedster for the Spyder on September 21, and his new buddy Wütherich was part of the deal.

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The Villa Capri Restaurant.

Just after purchase, Dean was driving his new car around Hollywood on September 23, 1955 when he ran into British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant. Guinness, exhausted after a long flight from Copenhagen, was having dinner with Thelma Moss, an actress and screenwriter. Because Moss was wearing trousers, the duo had been turned away from a number of restaurants so they traveled to the less formal Italian restaurant. But there were no available tables at the Villa Capri either. As they left the restaurant, Guinness heard the sound of “running, sneakered feet” behind them. He turned and found himself face to face with James Dean. “I was in that restaurant and you couldn’t get a table. My name is James Dean, would you please come and join me?”
Guinness didn’t know Dean (by this time, of Dean’s three movies, only East of Eden had been released) but Dean sure knew Guinness. Guinness had already received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Lavender Hill Mob in 1951. Sir Alec (1914-2000) won an Oscar portraying Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), but he is best remembered by modern fans for portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. Guinness appeared in nine of the British Film Institute’s 100 greatest British films of the 20th century.
z-alec-guinness-Guinness and Moss followed Dean to the restaurant, but before they reached the door, Dean stopped and said, “I’d like to show you something.” Years later, Guinness recalled “There in the courtyard of this little restaurant was this little silver thing, very smart, all done up in cellophane with a bunch of roses tied to its bonnet.” The young method actor told his new British star, “It’s just been delivered,” said Dean “I haven’t even been in it at all.” Guinness thought the car looked “sinister”. “How fast is it?” he asked. “She’ll do a hundred and fifty,” replied Dean.
In a 1977 interview on BBC television, Guinness recounted a prophetic premonition: “Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it.’ Guinness said. “And some strange thing came over me. Some almost different voice and I said, ‘Look, I won’t join your table unless you want me to, but I must say something: Please do not get into that car, because if you do’ — and I looked at my watch — and I said, ‘if you get into that car at all, it’s now Friday, 10 o’clock at night and by 10 o’clock at night next Friday, you’ll be dead if you get into that car.'” “Dean laughed. ‘Oh, shucks! Don’t be so mean!’” After Dean brushed off the warning, the group proceeded to have a “charming dinner.” Guinness recalled, then closed his story by saying, “It was one of those odd things. It was a very, very odd, spooky experience. I liked him very much, too. I would have loved to have known him more.” Would you expect any less from Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Sir Alec’s prediction came true. A week after that dinner at the Villa Capri, James Dean was dead. Details of James Dean’s last hours on earth have been well documented but are worth revisiting. Dean’s posse that day consisted of Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich, Warner Bros. Studios stuntman and close friend Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford H. Roth who was shooting photos for an upcoming story of Dean at the races for Collier’s magazine. The group gathered for coffee and donuts at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street before leaving around 1:15 p.m. They stopped at a nearby Mobil station on Ventura Blvd. at Beverly Glen Blvd. in Sherman Oaks around 2:00 p.m. to gas up for the 300 mile trip up to Salinas. The group then headed north on the Golden State Freeway and then headed out on Interstate 5 (aka the “Grapevine”) toward Bakersfield.
zz dean 5At 3:30 p.m., Dean was stopped by California Highway Patrolman O.V. Hunter at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just south of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Hickman, following the Spyder in Dean’s Ford “woodie” station wagon pulling the trailer, was also ticketed for driving 20 mph over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph. After receiving the citations, Dean and Hickman turned left onto SR 166 / 33 to bypass Bakersfield’s congested downtown district. This bypass became known as “the racer’s road”, a popular short-cut for sports car drivers going to Salinas. The racer’s road went directly to Blackwells Corner at U.S. Route 466 (later SR 46). Around 5:00 p.m., Dean stopped at Blackwells Corner for “apples and Coca-Cola” and met up briefly with fellow racers Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who were also on their way to Salinas in Reventlow’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe. As Reventlow and Kessler were leaving, they all agreed to meet for dinner that night in Paso Robles.
At approximately 5:15 p.m., Dean’s party hit the road, driving west on Route 466 toward Paso Robles, approximately 60 miles away. Dean unleashed his Porsche 550 and left Hickman and the Ford station wagon far behind. The Porsche crested Polonio Pass and headed west down Route 466’s long Antelope Grade, passing cars along the way while heading straight toward the junction of Route 41. Around 5:45 p.m., a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor Custom coupe traveling at high speed was headed east on Route 466 just west of the town of Shandon. Allegedly, James Dean’s last words, uttered right after Wütherich warned Dean to slow down as the Ford Tudor rolled into their lane just before the impact were, “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us”.

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US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed.

The driver, 23-year-old US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. The skid marks suggested that, as Turnupseed’s Ford crossed over the center line, Dean tried to avoid the impact by steering the Spyder in a “side stepping” racing maneuver, but it was too late and the two cars collided almost head-on. A witness, John Robert White, reportedly saw the Spyder fly into the air and tumble two or three times in cartwheels before landing in a gully beside the shoulder of the road, northwest of the junction. The impact sent the much-heavier Ford sliding 39 feet down Route 466 in the opposite lane. The collision was witnessed by several passersby who stopped to help. A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse in his neck, but according to the woman, “death appeared to have been instantaneous”.

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Rolf Wütherich

California Highway Patrol Capt. Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corp. Ronald Nelson were called to the scene. Before the CHP officers arrived, Dean had been pulled from the Spyder’s mangled cockpit, his left foot having been crushed between the clutch and brake pedal. He suffered a broken neck and massive internal and external injuries. Nelson arrived just in time to see an unconscious and dying Dean being placed into an ambulance. Wütherich, who had been in the passenger seat, was thrown from the Spyder, where he lay barely conscious on the shoulder of the road beside the wrecked vehicle. Dean and Wütherich traveled in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. by the attending emergency room physician, Dr. Robert Bossert. The cause of death listed on James Dean’s death certificate is listed as “a broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, both right and left arms broken, and internal injuries.”

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James Dean Crash Scene.

Despite reports of Dean’s speed being around 85 mph, Corp. Nelson estimated that the actual speed was around 55 mph, based on the wreckage and position of Dean’s body. It was later determined that Turnupseed was speeding at around 85 mph before impact. Hickman and Roth arrived on scene some ten minutes after the crash. Hickman assisted in extricating Dean from the wreckage while Roth took photographs of the crash. Wütherich survived with a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries that required immediate surgery. Turnupseed was only slightly injured with facial bruises and a bloody nose. After being interviewed by the CHP, Turnupseed hitch-hiked in the dark to his home in Tulare. He was not ticketed or ever charged with any wrongdoing and he remained a recluse for the rest of his life. Turnupseed died of cancer in 1995. Wütherich returned to Germany where he became a successful rally co-driver in the 1960s but reportedly never got over the 1955 crash physically or emotionally. In 1981 he too died in a car crash.

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Gig Young and James Dean.

Shortly before the accident, Dean, dressed as his cowboy character from Giant, filmed a road safety television spot with Hollywood star Gig Young. In it, Dean fiddles nervously with a rope lasso and ends the spot by saying, “Take it easy driving – the life you save may be mine”. Four days after the crash, “Rebel Without a Cause” was released. Dean’s performance as Jim Stark, the confused teenager with doting but clueless parents, came to epitomize brooding adolescent behavior. At the time of the crash, Dean had completed one other film, 1956’s “Giant,” which starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Although billed below them, Dean’s Jet Rink character stole the movie by playing a character who over the course of 40 years goes from cowboy to oil tycoon. Ironically, in this film, we see Dean go from a young man to an old man on screen. Something that never materialized in real life.

Next Week-PART II of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Curse of James Dean.