Pinball History, or, “You Can Say That Again”
The idea for “the Franklin stove” was born in an act of subterfuge, on a blustery winter day in the pine barrens of New Jersey. The eponymous inventor of the device was making his way from Philadelphia to New York when, rounding a curve, he beheld the welcoming sight of a roadside inn. Leading his horse to the stable, he entered the establishment, only to find that all of the best seats, those closest to the fire, were occupied.
Franklin ordered a glass of sherry and in a booming voice told the landlord, “My good man, please bring my horse a plate of oysters.” The room immediately emptied, for no one had ever seen a horse eat oysters.
Now, with his pick of the chairs situated by the fire, Ben settled with his glass of sherry in a cozy seat near the glowing hearth. A minute later the crowd rushed back in, led by the landlord, who announced, with great concern, “Mr. Franklin, the horse won’t eat the oysters.” Franklin feigned dismay for a moment, then instructed, “very well, give the horse a bucket of oats, and bring the oysters to me.”
It was characteristic of Franklin, as he resumed his journey the next morning, that his thoughts were not of the confused looks on the faces of those who had fallen for his ruse, but of the very real need for a stove that, unlike an open fireplace, would retain its heat and spread its warmth throughout an entire room, not just to those seated close by.
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A week later, back in the office of his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, he was pondering where he might come up with a little extra cash to tinker with his stove idea, when a thin, bearded man entered. He was a sly looking fellow. He said his name was Simon Gull, and that he had in his valise an expose he’d written denouncing one of Philadelphia’s leading citizens, an eminence in the affairs of the colonies and a man known for his rectitude and devotion to church and family. Its publication, he vowed, would reveal numerous scandalous facts about this figure, and, he emphasized, catching Franklin’s eye, likely sell thousands of copies of the Gazette.
Like any publisher, Franklin warmed to the prospect of a potential windfall, but, ever cautious, he asked his visitor to return at noon the next day, after he’d had a chance to peruse the manuscript.
Promptly at noon the following day, Simon Gull reappeared.
“I took the article home and read it thoughtfully and carefully,” Ben told the man, “and it is as disturbing as you promised.”
“Well, then…” began Gull,
“Then I supped on a crust of day-old bread, drank a dipper of well-water, and slept all night on the wooden floor,” Franklin explained. “And when I awoke in the morning I felt rested and in health, convinced I could survive the rest of my life on bread and water, using the floor for a bed, and never have to publish such malicious rubbish as you have brought me.”
“How dare thee!” cried Gull.
“Good day, sir,” said Ben Franklin, closing the affair.
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As Franklin’s worldwide fame grew, he learned to be ever more on-guard against what he called such “vacuous temptations.” He often cited the time when, while serving as the American envoy to France, he was crossing the Pont Neuf in Paris when he was hailed by a man crouching in the wall’s shadow, who appeared to be minding some briquettes on a grill. “Mr. Ambassador,” proposed the coarse fellow, “spare a poor man a few francs, can you, and in gratitude I’ll gladly shove a few of these up your ass.” Franklin, who was armed with his customary walking stick, began to raise it to punish such insolence, but the beggar quickly shifted his tone, pleading, “all right, sir. No need for that. But at least give me something for having kept the coals warm.”
Ben Franklin was enormously popular in France, where with his hunter’s fur cap and his provincial charm he managed to perfection the role of the frontier rustic from Pennsylvania, a bit of play-acting that charmed philosophes, princesses and Parisian hostesses alike. In the meantime, he worked to attain his young country’s diplomatic objective of securing France’s backing for the American Revolution. This support proved incisive in October 1781, when a fleet of French warships blocked the British escape at Yorktown, leading to Lord Cornwallis’s surrender to General Washington.
Instrumental in arranging the blockade was the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman (frequently described as “dashing’) who, smitten by the Colonials’ uprising against the English Crown, crossed the Atlantic to serve at Washington’s side in numerous engagements, even sharing the brutally cold winter at Valley Forge. So greatly loved and venerated in America was this intrepid youth, and so legendary became his exploits, that when in 1917 U.S. troops sailed to the aid of their French brethren mired in the trenches of the Great War, the American General John Pershing proclaimed to a welcoming crowd at Le Havre, “Lafayette, we are here.”
As a result of this stirring utterance, the intersection of Park Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, facing Grand Central Station, was renamed Pershing Square, an honor it retains to this day. But, as so often happens, questions were subsequently raised as to the declaration’s veracity. Sometimes it is rendered as “Lafayette, I am here,” which comes off as slightly arrogant, and Pershing himself, whose nickname was “Black Jack,” denied at one point having uttered the words in the first place, insisting they’d been spoken by a subordinate, or were the handiwork of some poor headline writer under deadline.
Of course, notwithstanding the heroic contribution of Pershing and his “doughboys,” and the decisive influence of the American entry into the war, France’s troubles were far from over. In 1940, Germany reinvaded France. In 1944, with the help of the U.S. and the allies, Hitler’s forces were pushed out and Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French government-in-exile, assumed the nation’s presidency. However, unifying a nation ravaged by war and regional animosities, proved a nearly insurmountable task. The people looked to De Gaulle to inspire them, to give hope, to say something that would lift their spirits. Unfortunately, before he could compose a useful sentiment for the purpose, he was caught off-guard muttering to an aide, “how the hell can they expect me to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”
Soon, with the Nazis out of the picture, and pear trees, flower stalls and macaron shops blooming again on the Champs Elysée, it was the threat of Communism that kept De Gaulle awake at night. His fears intensified after Khrushchev, who was always spoiling for a fight and whose suits fitted him poorly, warned the Western world, “We will bury you!” This remark, which in the uneasy 1950s seemed to unmistakably threaten thermonuclear war, was quickly walked back by Russian diplomats, who insisted a more generous translation of the Russian premier’s comment was “we shall be present at your funeral,” a kindly quip one might employ to reassure an aunt or uncle with a terminal illness.
In 1960, however, Khrushchev was back at it, removing one of his shoes while speaking at the United Nations and pounding it loudly and maniacally on the lectern. Nervous Kremlin flaks again went to work, assuring the West that using a shoe in this manner was a harmless Ukrainian folk custom, although many American schoolchildren, taught from infancy the imperative of always keeping one’s shoes on, were irrevocably traumatized, and remain so to this day.
The West held fire for several years before responding to Nikita, but when it did it was in devastating fashion. Staying with the footwear theme Khruschev had introduced, Nancy Sinatra’s smash hit of 1965, “Boots,” and its warning that “one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you,” seemed aimed with precision at the executive offices of the Kremlin. Fortunately, top Soviet brass, and the Big K himself, were mollified (and a likely exchange of ICBM’s averted), when Nancy’s follow-up offering, an insipid duet with her father Frank, was translated into Russian as “and then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘I Love You.’”
Khrushchev’s antics had so demoralized the French press by this point, however, that it began mocking the nation’s Paris-based leaders, lamenting the absence of strongmen types from the country’s past, such as Napoleon, Robespierre, or Gustave Flaubert, any of whom would by now have surely taken this Khrushchev character by the scruff of the neck and shaken him like a kitten. De Gaulle, however, scoffed at the need to look to the past for greatness, silencing his critics memorably with the bon mot, “the cemeteries of Europe are filled with indispensable men.”
The remark stirred a cultural tempest, as editors and other commentators across the continent debated whether De Gaulle could be right. After all, if everyone — even great personages of war and revolution — was more or less replaceable, why devote so much time and public funding to erecting statues and monuments in their honor?
Certainly, all France was stunned when the controversy deepened and the anti-establishment Left Bank intellectual Simone de Beauvoir announced she agreed with de Gaulle, and offered her own short list of overrated people, which included Camus, Bach, Florence Nightengale, and “Le Croque Monsieur” (who, as thousands of tourists to Paris might have told her, was not a real monsieur but a delicious sandwich).
No sooner had her views been published than the Black American writer Chester Himes, resident in Paris, echoed her disapproving allusion to Johann Sebastian, saying, “I’d give all of Bach for eight bars of Lester,” a reference to the jazz saxophonist Lester Young, known as “Prez,” who was tenderly immortalized in the Charles Mingus musical sendoff “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.”
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Lester Young’s ability to render eloquence from a brass musical instrument links him to one of his lesser-known “neighbors” at Cypress Hill Cemetery in Queens, New York: Sergeant John Martin, a/k/a Giovanni Martini, the Italian-born U.S. army bugler known as the lone survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. On the morning of June 25, 1876, the day on which General Custer would perish along with 173 of his men on a hilltop in eastern Montana, it was Martin who Custer dispatched at the last moment to seek the urgent help of Captain Frederick Benteen. The note Custer wrote and handed to Martin read: “Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs [ammunition].”
The “big village” Custer had stumbled upon might have been more accurately called a city, for it was populated by tens of thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and their families, under the command of Sitting Bull, and is said by some historians to have been the largest single congregation of indigenous Americans ever to gather in one place. That “Yellow Hair” and his soldiers had turned up at all was offensive, as their presence violated a recent treaty, but historians point out it was likely their having arrived just at breakfast that made the braves especially peevish.
In subsequent years, as “Custer’s Last Stand” came to be celebrated in countless barroom murals and dime novels, bugler John Martin tried to distance himself from the notoriety of the massacre. He sought and found oblivion, as many have, in Brooklyn, where he married an Irish woman named Higgins, fathered eight children, and lived by all accounts in contented anonymity for another half-century, until being run over by a truck in 1922.
It is not known whether Sgt. Martin ever met his fellow New Yorker Ely S. Parker, a retired Union officer, but they each had the distinction of having lived a supremely iconic if fleeting moment in U.S. history. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Indian enlisted by General Ulysses S. Grant to serve as his aide and secretary during the Civil War, wrote much of Grant’s correspondence and, at war’s end, on April 9, 1865, drafted the terms of surrender Grant gave Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Legend has it that as Grant introduced his staff to General Lee, the defeated Confederate, scrutinizing Parker’s dark features, remarked, “well, it’s good to see at least one real American here today.” To which Parker replied to Lee, “today, we are all Americans.”
When Parker’s government service ended, he lost his savings in the Panic of 1873 and was lucky to obtain a mid-level patronage job working in the supply room at New York City police headquarters on Mulberry Street. Many a patrolman arriving to request a new hat or baton was surprised to be met across the counter by a dignified Native American in police uniform, wearing a neatly trimmed beard and executing the requisition paperwork through a pair of gold-rimmed bifocals.
Parker, fiercely proud of his native heritage, would no doubt have scoffed at the ridiculous notion that Ben Franklin was the “The First American,” although he may have not known that the bifocals on which he relied were Franklin’s invention, indeed the one of which our “founding grandfather” was most proud. It came about because Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in France required him to be able to fully understand what was being said by those sitting across the dinner table, and as his French was mediocre, he needed to be able to watch the lips of those speaking. As a gourmand, however, he wished also to be able to see what he was eating. Thus, he had no choice but to spend every dinner party continually removing one pair of glasses and replacing it with another.
Returning home from one such affair deeply frustrated, he set to work cutting up and reassembling several pair of his eyeglasses, and wired together one frame that held two lenses, an upper and lower. Now he could carry on an intelligible conversation with whomever sat opposite, while keeping watch on the viands passed his way, as he was particularly fond of the country’s abundant variety of cheeses.
There has been some research in recent years (see Sokol, Edwina and Mullins, A. J., Smithsonian v1 n4, 2012), suggesting that Franklin, seeking a means of pinning a cheese firmly to the plate with one hand while slicing it with a knife held in the other, made yet a further important invention, a small wooden disk with a short metal pin attached. He dubbed his creation “le bouton au fromage, or “cheese button.” Some historians contend, however, that claims about the origin of the device are mistaken, and that the term was simply an endearment Franklin used with certain close female friends. His great discretion ensures we will never know the true answer. And no less an eminence than Samuel Johnson, one of Ben Franklin’s London contemporaries, confided to his friend Boswell that he’d personally made extensive use of the cheese button when offering a “platter of nibbles” to guests, yet was satisfied to leave the question of its provenance unresolved.
“This is the way history works and what makes its study so delightful,” Dr. Johnson is rumored to have told his famous muse. “One thing ricochets off another, as in the urchins’ game of marbles, until we are left utterly clueless, yet decently entertained.”
Come see Philip read on day three of the Welcome to Boog City 17 Arts Festival on Sun. Sept. 10 at 2:50 p.m. at Young Ethel’s in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Details here: