Just Another Day On The Range.
Late March in the High Lonely: Light, blowing snow turned to high-velocity sharply slanting sleet, hammering the butts and corrugated overhead like a million rivet guns, and the temperature dropped like a stone. Time to hit the buzzer and bark, “Cease fire, clear and secure weapons! Transport is en route. Into the range house!”
“Range house” is a generous term. The shack is the size of a boxcar though not as weathertight, but it’s shelter, and the ancient little oil-burner within was hissin’ like a serpent and doin’ it’s best. I had once wondered how many people could be crammed inside. The answer was, “This group minus me.” Squeezing another body in might constitute indecent assault, so I stepped around to the lee and found capacity was actually minus 3. Two young guys, maybe mid-20s, were already huddled there in parkas.
Between the din of the trip-hammer sleet and the fabric over their faces, it sounded like they were arguing about ski masks and a Turkish pastry.
“The word is balaclava,” I told them. They both wore ’em; thick, soft head coverings with oblong holes for their eyes. “Baklava is a Turkish dessert, boys. Do you know the origin of the balaclava?” They didn’t. I figured them listening and me talking would at least take our minds off the cold a bit.
The Crimean Peninsula is a gobbet of the Ukraine stickin’ out into the Black Sea, kinda like a frozen fried egg floating in dark icy water. For much of the year it’s a bleak, largely barren biscuit, but always strategic. In the early 1850s, as the Ottoman Empire trembled and cracked at its edges, an odd coalition of British, French, Turkish and Sardinian interests scrambled for choice crumbs. This pitted them against the Russian Empire and its greatest military asset, “General Winter.”
The Brits foresaw a swift, simply splendid summery campaign resulting in quick victory, medals all around and tales of gallantry told over drinks in London clubs. They didn’t even bring winter clothing. Bad move, boys. Crimea can be a meat locker, but Balaclava, at the southern tip of the peninsula, fully exposed to the Black Sea winds, can be bloody brutal.
The incredibly foolish and fatal charge of the Light Brigade was only one of the blunders of the Battle of Balaclava. Unbelievably, as winter deepened and without winter clothing, British troops were ordered to adhere to strict uniform regulations, and were not allowed to add or layer garments, as their French, Turkish and Sardinian allies did. Hundreds froze to death, and losses of fingers, toes, noses and ears to frostbite were legion.
Finally, the troops simply ignored their orders, opting for possible survival over certain death. Slashing up the uniforms of the fallen, they wrapped their hands and feet. Cutting the legs off long underwear and tearing an oblong opening for their eyes, they pulled these over their heads and fought on.
When news reached Britain of the troops’ hardships and their need for warm headgear, countless thousands of English, Irish and Scots ladies formed knitting squadrons, their needles clicking and clacking and turning out tons of toasty woolen “head helmets” with that distinctive oblong eye slit. When asked how to send them to the troops, the British bureaucracy stammered and fumed; they had neither formal process nor pukka procedure for civilian supply of military members.
Undaunted, the ladies boldly and simply labeled their boxes BALACLAVA — and packed the Royal Post stations with mountains of parcels, angrily daring postmasters not to send them straightaway! Wisely, the bureaucrats bowed—and complied.
“Hence,” I told ’em, “The balaclava, just like those you’re wearing. Tried and tested for you over 150 years ago in the Crimea. Now ain’t that more historic and interesting than ski mask?” They nodded.
Interestingly, these eye-holed noggin-socks were not commonly called “balaclavas” until the early 1880s, when a new generation of Royal Marines and British Army troops used them extensively ’round the world from the Himalayas to the Haraz, and paid homage to the headgear of their brothers of Balaclava.
The Crimean War also saw the birth of modern military nursing, through the works of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, Frances Margaret Taylor and other brave women who tended wounded troops under miserable conditions. I was just tellin’ the lads about Florence’s pet pygmy owl Athena, which she carried in the pocket of her apron during rounds, when the door to the range shack screeched open and three overheated inmates stumbled out. We scrambled for a shot at some warmth.
Fast-opening gas mask bags saved many lives—even before the fasteners
were called “zippers.” (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Jammin’ through that hatch was like stepping from the Arctic into the Tropics, and within seconds we were flipping back hoods, pulling off balaclavas and unzipping parkas.
“And you know, boys, you owe thanks for these handy little devices,” tapping their zippers, “To an arthritic lady, a railroad engineer, and the doughboys of World War I, right?” You know, there’s something really cool about turning 20-something-know-it-alls into smiling, expectant, wide-eyed attentive 10 year olds. “Geez,” I thought, “Was I ever that young?” Oh, well….
In the 1890s, Whitcomb Judson of Chicago was making his living designing brakes and coupling systems for the railroad industry. His wife suffered from severe arthritis, and manipulating a buttonhook to fasten her boots was an exercise in agony. He decided to put his engineering know-how on a miniaturized scale and solve her problem with a fastening device, which would take just a single pull to operate. His device was essentially a linear combination of hook-and-eye locks, which looked pretty fantastical, more like an implement of torture than a boon to mankind—but it worked!
Judson put his “clasp-locker” on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but precious few people—and no big-money buyers—showed any interest. The 21 million fair attendees were far more fascinated with the world’s first electric Ferris wheel and the world-renowned belly dancer “Little Egypt.”
Twenty years later, with design improvements by Gideon Sundback, the zipper was finally used on gas mask bags and haversacks, and our Yanks of the AEF in France saw their promise. After the Armistice, they unstitched those zippers, brought ’em home and had them sewn into jacket fronts, tobacco pouches and money belts. The device didn’t get the name “zipper” until 1923, when Dr. B.F. Goodrich ordered 150,000 of them for use on his rubber “zipper boots.” He coined the term “zipper” for the sound it made opening and closing. Use of the zipper then spread like wildfire.
Sadly, Whitcomb Judson died in 1909, having never made a dime from his invention.
I was launching into the story of the French 75—both the field cannon and the popular World War I cocktail—when the shuttles snorted up and our sardines began slipping out of the shack, donning balaclavas and zippin’ zippers—and at least three of us now knew the stories behind ’em. That’s worth something, ain’t it?
By John Connor