February 4, 1945 in Hammered History: The Big Three Meet at Yalta…and go on a week-long bender

The Big Three. If you look closely, you can see Stalin offering Winston a shot.

In February 1945 the European theater of the biggest and most destructive war in the history of humankind was inching towards its inevitable close. There were millions of military and civilian casualties, Europe was in tatters, the world was exhausted. On the bright side, the Soviet army was fifty miles from Berlin, Germany was just about done, and thus so was the war in Europe. Also, Hollywood would have movie fodder for decades; they just needed Steve McQueen to graduate from high school.  

It was time to come up with a plan for post-war Europe. What would post-war Poland look like? What should be done with Germany? Would newly-liberated European countries be democratic and self-determining? Would there be spheres of political influence throughout Europe? And most importantly, when would Kinder eggs be available?

Meeting to discuss and decide these issues (probably not the Kinder eggs) were the Big Three world leaders – Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Premier Josef Stalin. So, for eight days starting on February 4th, the Big Three and their staffs met to decide on the geopolitical face of the world. ‘The Big Three’ is not ‘The Super Four’ because they snubbed French President Charles de Gaulle. None of the Big Three seemed to like or trust him, but at least it didn’t lead to a passive bitterness in French-British and French-American relations for the rest of eternity.

Churchill suggested meeting in Malta or in the Mediterranean, probably hoping to get a tan after five years of bunkers and British weather. Stalin nixed these suggestions claiming his doctor’s orders restricted extensive travel. Plus, he was terrified of flying (and eating food that hadn’t been tasted, and sleeping, and being around other people). So he proposed Yalta, a Crimean resort on the Black Sea. We don’t know if he chose a perfect rhyme to mollify Churchill, but the choice kept Stalin on Soviet soil and forced the others (including a gravely ill President Roosevelt) to travel extensively and uncomfortably. This perhaps gave Stalin the first of many upper-hands. But to be fair, he did formally proclaim Roosevelt the leader of the conference and most of the plenary meetings were held in his building.  

Yalta left a lot to be desired. The mattresses were so thin that people could feel the springs. The bed bugs and lice within the thin mattresses thoroughly enjoyed the British and American steaks trying to sleep on them. And the war-ravaged and bombed-out atmosphere of Yalta led Winston Churchill to mention that they “couldn’t have chosen a worse location if they’d had ten years to plan.” In a more succinct critique, he dubbed the resort “The Riviera of Hades.” The deplorable conditions would not be matched by a civilized society until Britain opened its first Airbnb 64 years later.

Perhaps in part to make up for the poor conditions, Stalin embarked upon a charm offensive. Much of it was bent on impressing his guests with food and hospitality. This included feasts of smoked sturgeon, potatoes, assorted game, and lavish caviar. He also catered to his guests’ every need (besides mattresses). The morning after Roosevelt mentioned that there were no lemons for his afternoon cocktail, a lemon tree appeared outside his door, having been flown in from Georgia.  

Another big part of Stalin’s charm offensive was booze. He wanted to make his guests happy, comfortable, and too numb to notice they were being eaten alive by bugs. Stalin ordered a decanter of vodka to be left in each room. He ordered crates of a strong Armenian brandy (Dvin) to satisfy Sir Winston’s booze-soaked palate. Throughout the eight-day conference, Georgian wine and champagne were plentiful and Stalin made sure they were flowing by making lots of toasts.

How hammered is this history? Well, Stalin was a drinker of sweet Georgian red wines and vodka (you’re not officially allowed to open a gulag in Russia if you don’t like vodka). And Stalin definitely knew his audience. President Roosevelt was well known for his enjoyment of beer, martinis, and high balls. He was also known for his love of entertaining and mixing his (evidently awful) martinis for guests, with gin and a splash of absinthe.   

But this history would be mildly tipsy were it not for Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Well before Sir Winston wobbled into his quarters at Yalta, his alcohol intake was the thing of global legend. In fact, while some of it was legend, much of it wasn’t. Churchill was famous for his love of champagne, brandy, whiskey, wine, and port. He was famous for drinking in the morning, day, and night. He was famous for his wit while drinking. He was famous for his drinking stamina. While visiting FDR at the White House, he would keep the President up drinking brandy and smoking cigars into the wee hours in sessions called “Winston Hours” by White House staffers. After Winston had left, it would take Roosevelt three days to recover. Though FDR most probably kept the White House liquor cabinets well-stocked, Winston liked to travel with his own stash. While working as a correspondent for The Morning Post during the Boer War, it’s claimed that he travelled with six cases of wine and spirits meant to fight the boredom (boerdom?) in the down hours. To wit, Winston Churchill could have gone to Yalta alone and spent a week playing Risk by himself and it would still qualify as hammered history.

Stalin may have had ulterior motives for having booze readily available. It’s been argued that Stalin wanted to keep the Americans and the British tipsy to have the sober upper hand in discussions and negotiations. It’s reported that the multitude of toasts he made were with vodka, because vodka looks like water. He would evidently sip the vodka and chug the water. He also bugged the rooms to overhear the British and Americans. But one wonders what useful information might be offered up by those who’ve just drunk twenty shots of vodka and were having a pillow fight with a bedbug.

What exactly happened at Yalta and its results have been debated ever since. Some claim that Roosevelt was grifted by Stalin, who made promises he would later break. It has been called the “sell out at Yalta” in that Churchill and Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe and Poland to secure a commitment of Soviet troops for the invasion of Japan. But most agree that none of the Big Three walked away completely satisfied from Yalta. In any event, Roosevelt did secure Russian involvement for the war in the Pacific (Russia declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945). He also established the basic principles of the United Nations and did what he could to protect the Grand Alliance. Unfortunately, we know what happened to that alliance over the next four decades.  

Given the legendary status these three men have (and had) attained, it’s possible to forget that they were human. Tiny 5’4 Stalin, pock-marked, paranoid, murderous, his countrymen taking the brunt of European war casualties (because he couldn’t get to them first). He would be dead in eight years. Roosevelt was gravely ill and would be dead in two months. Egotistical Churchill, had seen Britain and the British brutalized by two wars. He would live another twenty years, but would be forced to witness Tuna and Jello Pie, Vegetable and Tuna Jello Wreaths, and other Jello-based culinary nightmares conceived in the fifties. No wonder he drank so much.

So, we can look at Yalta in another way. For eight days in February 1945, with all they’d been through and all the responsibility and heaviness that weighed on their shoulders, maybe The Big Three deserved a week of drinking. It seems a small period of refuge for three of the most beleaguered leaders on earth. Perhaps the only world leader more beleaguered than them was in a bunker 2,147 kilometers away casting longing looks between his Walther PP, a bottle of cyanide tablets, and Eva Braun’s breasts.

In any event, I wonder if they drunk dialed de Gaulle.    

So, what to drink?

If you want to drink like Churchill (first of all drink before breakfast, good luck, and update your CV), you could go with the Armenian (Dvin) brandy that Stalin gave to Churchill at Yalta. ArArAt Brandy has nuances of deep mahogany, a subtle aroma of cloves, and layered notes of deep fruits. It finishes with bright tinges of spice from forest nuts. Plus, it’s 100 proof and got Sir Winston fucked up, so after two shots you’ll be well on your way to handing over Eastern Europe to the closest Russian you can find. If you want to drink vodka to commemorate the Yalta Conference, you had better make it Russian vodka. Go for Stolichnaya or Russian Standard, play a game of Risk, and make lots of toasts. Just check your bottle for bugs.   

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On January 25, 41 AD in Hammered History Claudius is named Emperor of Rome

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (note the curtain), courtesy of Wikipedia

If you have read or watched anything about Ancient Rome, you have learned this lesson: don’t get attached to anyone. With all of the assassinations, murders, plots, coups, bloody betrayals, and executions, political, public, or at the paws of a lion, liking a particular character from Ancient Rome will invariably end in blood, tears, and togas.

And such is the case of Caligula, who is assassinated on January 24, 41 AD. Caligula is a bit intense. He’s well-known for his debauchery. Also, he cruelly mocks his senate, makes them chase after his litter, forces them to fight for his amusement, and otherwise revels in their utter humiliation. Also, he thinks he’s an immortal god. After having enough of his humiliation, the Praetorian guard decides to test out Caligula’s immortality theory by stabbing him 30 times with knives and swords.

Spoiler alert: Caligula is not immortal.   

His uncle Claudius is found literally hiding behind a curtain and someone points out the obvious by stating that he should be emperor. And the next day, it is done.

So, why is this history hammered?

Because Claudius almost certainly was.

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January 17, 1912 in Hammered History – R.F Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition reached the South Pole (about 32 days too late)

Scott, Bowers, Wilson, and PO Evans at Polheim, Amundsen’s base at the South Pole. General mood: abject disappointment and probably hunger.

For many of us, adventurous exploration comes when trying to find a shoe store for the first time or when you’re heading to a bar that isn’t next to your house. And since we all carry around a global mapping system and a GPS in our pocket, it’s pretty hard to get lost. Still, if you’re like me and somehow manage this feat of disorientation, you can just google map it back to a main road or use your phone to call your mommy for help. It’s hard to imagine a time when people took trips without the aid of some technology, let alone explored the uninhabited and unexplored reaches of the world.    

Amazingly, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was only 100 years ago. It’s generally agreed that it lasted from 1897 to 1922 and saw 17 expeditions from 10 countries. The explorers undertook expeditions in hideous conditions, with basic equipment, and with virtually no technology. The men of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration sought the poles for national honor, for drama, and for the romance of freezing to death while an emperor penguin pecked at their liver.

One such man was British naval officer R.F. Scott, who led the Discovery expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-1904. Scott, evidently killing time waiting for World War I to start, decided to put together another expedition in 1910 – the Terra Nova Expedition.

Right out of the gate, things did not go well. In the first place, they were beset by storms in New Zealand and lost time, supplies, motorized sledges, and even a man (who drowned off New Zealand). Their ponies began dying off at a rate only matched by red-shirted ensigns in Star Trek 50 years later. One doesn’t want to encounter bad luck, especially in Antarctica where it could be argued you wouldn’t be unless you had already encountered some bad luck in your life. But such was the case for Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. And the bad juju was exacerbated by urgency caused by one man.

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This Day in Hammered History

Hogarth, William; Gin Lane; https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O24059 Credit line: (c) (c) Royal Academy of Arts /

January 11 1788 in Hammered History

William Thomas Brande is born and ruins everyone’s good time

Georgian society (1714 – 1837) is well-noted for its relationship to alcohol. The upper classes spent their days drinking spirits and wine, and probably wondering how they’d ended up in an era so clad in tights. Laborers and artisans drank beer or cider, and even kids and servants drank small (lower alcohol) beer.

Huge alcohol intake was part of daily life. Men boasted of how many bottles of wine and beer they could drink. Dinner parties and social events of the upper crust resembled Led Zeppelin’s hotel parties. The joys of alcohol were reason enough to drink, but the poor water quality in England also played a part. The water was full of contaminants which led to cholera, typhus, and dysentery. So while drinking massive quantities of alcohol led to the gout, drinking water led to shitting yourself to death. Most people chose gout.

Hard alcohol such as brandy, rum, and gin were all staples of English daily drinking. Rum was given as a daily ration to sailors. Brandy was made from any fruit that happen to fall in any garden on the island. But they both took a back seat to gin. “Gin madness” had swept across England in the 1700s. Gin was often part of city workers’ wages and was used as a medication against stomach ailments, gallstones, and being an asshole. By the early 1800s England had been dehydrated and shitfaced for a good two hundred years.    

But Georgian society saw attitudes to alcohol change. Hard daily drinking was judged as bad rather than just how people lived. Constant drunkenness, especially among the lower classes, was looked down upon as something morally inferior and which “debauched their minds.” In particular, the drinking of spirits (read: gin) got a bad rap. Taxes were levied to keep gin and other spirits out of the hands of the poor. William Hogarth’s 1751 painting “Gin Lane” depicted the vile effects of alcohol in much the way Reefer Madness would alarmingly warn (and excite) people about marijuana a couple hundred years later. It depicts a street scene replete with people high on gin, babies falling off buildings, a gruesome hanging suicide, violence, evictions, aggressive mobs, and, for some reason, a bear. Imagine post Superbowl carnage in the losing city, but add a bear.   

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What Kind of Jerk Are You?

These days we live in are magnificent. We have phones that can do everything for us but cook out morning omelets (hint, hint tech guys). We can see what any address in the world looks like from a map view. And we have grand lists of our friends for perusal and harsh judgment. Amazing.

One oft-overlooked benefit of these current times is that we can spring the bounds of jerk-dom to be the exact kind of asshole we want to be. In sad times past, any former school kid will tell you, your limits on jerkiness was pretty well pared down. You could be a dick, a jerk, an asshole, a dork, a prick, a nerd. You could, naturally add modifying adjectives to these to focus them a bit. A fucking dick, a condescending asshole, a pretentious jerk. And they certainly have a ring to them, but as you can surely note, they are not so efficient.

These days, this is not so. Should you have faults in your personality, as we all do, you will find out exactly what kind of jerk you are.

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All I Think I Wanted for Christmas

When I was a kid, I found that the only good aspect of Christmas having happened rather than Christmas going to happen was the presentation, comparison, and discussion about loot with my comrades. This took place as soon as possible after Christmas morning, which, in the kid interpretation meant about 7:13 a.m.

By 7:14 am, I was chomping at the bit to go show Eddie my toys. My parents would usually draw me back to our house with the offer of breakfast foods topped with maple syrup. However, at 10ish all bets were off and I’d be storming across the street with my booty.

Perhaps the best part was that when you have a best friend, your loot becomes his and vice versa. I wasn’t jealous of his toys, because they became my toys by extension. It falls under the Latin legal precedent, de buticus est mea buticus. And so as I ran the thirty yards between our houses with my baseball glove and a platoon of military toys, I knew that they would only be enhanced by what he had.

At some point in our teens, our thirst for toys waned and we looked for things of use, and like most kids in our neighborhood, things to use outside. Running across the street for a booty conference didn’t happen on Christmas morning, but rather later that week. And when we showed off our gifts, it was clothing, bows and arrows, pen-flashlights, pocket warmers, jeans, stereos and tape players, eventually CD players, and enough Drakkar to win the Battle of the Somme. Nevertheless, the question of the week was “So, what’d you get?”

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A Zoom Family Christmas

My brother floated the idea yesterday.

“Hey, I think I’m going to set up a Zoom meeting for the family on Christmas.”

“Great idea!” I said as if I had mentioned in the previous text, which I had.

“Almost everyone is in. Even Danny.”

This was big. My Uncle Danny has long been famous within the family for his iffy views on family get togethers. Sometimes he comes, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he comes and disappears without a trace.

At this time of year, I am usually heartened by the traditions that involve my visit home to my parents’ house. At this point, I would have travelled through the airports with their Christmassy atmospheres and picked up a gift or two on the way if my layovers allowed. My parents would have picked me up at Philadelphia International a couple of days ago. My mom would have taken my cheesesteak order in the car on the way home and my dad and I would have played our countdown my trip game.

“Well, you have two more weeks.” We count down like this until the day I leave. On the day I leave, tinged with mourning we count down the hours, supplanting it with “Oh, listen, we’ll see you in the summer.”    

I’d spend my time relaxing and watching football with my dad. We’d go to Barnes and Noble the day before Christmas Eve, as per tradition, and buy books and sip 12,000-calorie coffee drinks. I’d visit my brother for a night of tipsy debauchery; my liver would sue for separation. When Larry (my liver’s name) had (partially) recovered, we’d visit the Langhorne Hotel – my home away from home away from home. And I’d be gearing up for a night of food and fun with my wild and zany family.

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Tis the Season for Bad TV

Photo Very Courtesy of Hallmark

For some reason, my tolerance for a movie’s quality goes up about 40 points if it features an evergreen conifer or a wreath. Nevertheless, Christmas movies are a good way to have little blasts of Christmas without all the additional weight gain. While we usually save the big guns for just before or on Christmas (looking at you, Clark), here are some we have watched that will bring the ho ho to your ho.

Office Christmas Party

Watch it. Without your kids. This is a surprisingly funny movie with snappy dialogue, a clear goal, and enough nudity to thrill you while not making you feel guilty. TJ Miller tries to jump a bridge in a Prius, Jason Bateman fellates eggnog out of a statue’s willy, and Kate McKinnon farts herself nervous. Just like any great comedy, the story builds into a crescendo and ends crazy into an appropriate Christmassy(ish) finish. For eighteen-year-olds. It had never occurred to me how lacking Christmas movies were in psychopathic hookers and eggnog blowjobs.  

A Bad Moms Christmas

I know, I know. I made the same face you’re making now when A Bad Moms Christmas was suggested last Saturday as our evening entertainment. But this movie is not bad. In fact, it’s pretty funny. Three moms have bad moms and those moms come to visit at Christmas. Hence – bad moms. If nothing else, it’s a great way to enjoy schadenfreude at the expense of someone else’s insane family over the Christmas holidays. Again, a bit off the wall and raunchy (sensing a theme here?) but still delivering a good theme and even a few little tearjerker moments. Also, who can miss with Susan Sarandon and strippers?

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Hector

Hector helping us keep out the coronavirus blues

Well it’s almost Christmas. Normally, I’d be preparing for a holiday visit home. I’d be buying gifts and stressing about a flight. I’d be stressing about the layover times and reading up on airline disasters each morning.

Ho Ho Ho.

Prague is usually quite charming in this season as well. Markets and music in squares, done-up trees, stands with ginger bread and hotdogs, and pools of carp awaiting a serious bludgeoning.    

But of course, the world is not in an ideal state. There’s a pandemic raging and you know that unless you live under a rock in a cave on the dark side of Neptune. Or you’re a Republican. Who also believe that though Donald Trump recently got his ass kicked in an election, he’s claiming he won it. He has no proof. He has lost 48 court cases. He still won’t stop.

It would be kind of funny to imagine little Donny stamping his foot and crying about the election, threatening to take his veto stamp and go home so nobody else can play government. But thousands are dying from that pesky virus each day and instead of helping any of them, little Donny seems far more intent on saving a face that has long since sailed off to a historical level of pathetic while he literally poisons a democracy that had been around for two hundred and forty years before he waddled into the place. Also it’s not funny because lots of people believe little Donny, not because he has zero evidence, but because they’re in his cult. They have hats. A whopping 27 Republican politicians have relocated their balls to admit that Joe Biden won. That means than about 220 congressional Republicans won’t admit that Joe Biden won the presidential election, which he did by 7 million votes. The election was more than a month ago. It doesn’t bode well.

In order to steel ourselves against the negative influences this year, we got a tree. Or, as Burke suggested, a big tree.

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Three Days of the Urethra

It is a truth long known that when a man’s floor is covered in chick peas and he’s cradling a syringe of urine, he is compelled to take stock of where his life has gone.  

Tuesday, 4:20 pm

My day of teaching done, I was ready to celebrate with an early evening of not speaking at all and not looking at my computer. It’s at this time that I noticed that my cat was visiting her litter box more often than I will in about four decades.  

Though unlikely to pay off, I decided on the direct approach: “Hey, why do you keep going to the bathroom?”

She decided against answering just then and I was forced to look into her box and push around her sand. The presence of no clumps made me go “Huh.” But over the next hour, back she went every few minutes and posed herself in the urine-stance. To no avail. Nothing came out and she just stared at the wall with a blank-confused expression that I will probably mimic when I’m 86 years old and my prostate has its own gravitational pull.

We went to google. Cat’s constipated. Cat can’t pee. What is a blocked urethra? The first option I commiserated with. The second was probably a urinary tract infection. The third would kill her in a day. I called the vet.

The vet. When we moved in to this little neck of the Prague woods, I did the “walk around.” You know, when you mosey around your new neighborhood in search of pubs, but pretending you’re excited by other facilities, shops, and services you find there that don’t offer booze.

That is, of course, unless it’s a medical service, a grocery store, or a brothel. Medical services near your house are always welcome. Sometimes I leave my house holding my breath and try to make it to the vet without passing out, just to see if I choke on a chicken bone what my chances are. I figure a chicken bone’s a chicken bone whether it’s in the windpipe of a Doberman or an over-zealous ESL teacher. A local grocery store is wanted for obvious reasons. And brothels, well, there’s nothing more comforting that sitting on your couch with a good book and knowing hookers are delivering joy and gonorrhea somewhere nearby.

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