A Funny Thing Happened…
…On the Way to Writing Chapter 36
Those of you who have read this blog over the last couple of years may know that I’ve been working on an historical novel loosely based on the life of Happy Smith, a real baseball player who played just one season (1910) in the major leagues for the Brooklyn Superbas, predecessors to the Dodgers. The first six chapters are published in Opinion8ed2 (shameless plug click here).
It’s been a labor of love so far and one aspect that’s especially enjoyable is the research needed to weave the fictional story into the events of the time, and vice-versa. This task is eminently easier, of course thanks to the internet machine. Reading newspapers from back in the day, now available on-line, has been an invaluable resource to get a sense of how people perceived and reacted to the events in real time.
It turns out lots of interesting stuff happened in 1910. For example, Halley’s Comet made its once every 75 year appearance and because scientists had recently detected traces of cyanogen gas from spectroscopic analyses of the comet’s tail, many actually feared its interaction with our atmosphere would wipe out life on earth.
So I’m reading accounts of the event and people’s reactions on the day after the comet’s arrival, i.e., May 19, 1910 in The Brooklyn Eagle, the largest daily newspaper in Brooklyn at the time. I poured through story after story related to the comet: Scientists Disappointed in Initial Evaluations of the Observations and Data; Masses of People Gather in Parks to Get a First-hand Look; Pranksters Capitalize on Peoples’ Fears Launch Fire Balloon over Brooklyn Simulating Comet…
Then, all of a sudden I came upon something that was so surreal and amusing I couldn’t believe it… it startled me, sending chills down my spine in one those “Ooo-wee-ohh” moments and cracked me up at the same time. But there it was in black and white, an account of a human interest incident probably related to the fire balloon story I’d just read. It occurred over a hundred years ago but jumped off the page and immediately personalized my relationship to what I was writing about. Here’s what I saw:
As twilight was fast deepening into night a bay horse attached to a light wagon, driven by Louis Kalb of 16 Henderson St. might have been seen pursuing a northwestward course last night on Ocean Parkway. Kalb was wrapped in deep cogitation over the possible effect of a plunge into the comet’s tail. Likewise, possibly, the horse. Suddenly from out [of] the fringe of trees bordering the boulevard, a bright white light gleamed forth.
“The comet!” gasped Kalb, clutching wildly at the reins.
Whether or not his excitement infected the horse or whether that sagacious beast merely wanted to conduct a scientific investigation on his own account is a matter of speculation but straight toward the light the animal dashed, and Kalb, after a vague sensation of unimpeded flight though the air awoke a few minutes later to find himself lying on the roadway and to observe the horse, still attached to the remnants of what was once a light wagon, trying vainly to scale a nearby electric light pole. Mounted Patrolman McGilvey galloped up just then and helped to straighten out matters. It was found that with the exception of a few bruises, Kalb was all right but the damage to the wagon amounted to about $50.
At this point I need to disclose that my dad’s name was Louis Kalb so you can imagine my surprise on encountering this headline…but since he wasn’t born until 1912, clearly he was not the Louis Kalb in question. However, he did have an Uncle Louie, my grandfather’s younger brother who also lived in Brooklyn. He’s the elder gentleman pictured above in an undated family photo that I’m guessing is from the late 1940s. I don’t have his exact date of birth but he would have been in his early twenties in 1910 and it’s not unreasonable to think he’d be “driving” up Ocean Parkway in a horse and buggy.
While not an obscure surname, Kalb is likewise not ubiquitous. A review of the U.S. Census data revealed a total of four people by the name of Louis Kalb in the country at that time and only one in Brooklyn. So suddenly, instead of an objective journalist/detective just researching the facts and writing about it, part of me may very well be connected to the story!
Unfortunately there aren’t any living relatives of that generation I can turn to for more information. I’ve reached out to my great Uncle Louie’s daughter and her nephew (his grandson) who were intrigued but unaware of the incident. In the words of his daughter,
“I have never heard anything of this event… BUT! That doesn’t mean it wasn’t him. Why do I say this? For starters, my father was one of the most uncommunicative persons I have experienced in my lifetime of 85 years. That is saying a lot because before retirement, I was for many years a psychotherapist. He was a great talker when he was asleep, renegotiating sales with his customers on a nightly basis. So what is the evidence? In 1910 he was about 20 years old, having recently emigrated to the U.S. As far as I know, he was a peddler almost immediately on arrival. Up until I was four years old, my father would rent a horse and wagon from a local stable to deliver or hawk dry goods or clothing to customers, mostly Italian immigrants…When I was four, my father began driving a car. I have a vivid memory of people shouting at him “Get a horse!”
So to summarize, we have confirmed that my Great Uncle was about 20 yrs old at the time of the incident, was a peddler by trade, and in fact used a horse and wagon to conduct his business. There is circumstantial evidence that he may not have been the world’s best driver. And the fact that the story was not passed down and ingrained in family folklore can easily be explained by his lack of communication skills, at least while awake.
While this may all be the result of a mere, albeit amusing coincidence, the amazing pathway that lead me to its discovery is in one sense as predictable as Halley’s Comet’s rotation of our sun. I am convinced therefore, that the man momentarily spooked by the flash of light in the sky that fateful night of May 18, 1910 while riding up Ocean Parkway was in fact, my Great Uncle. And somehow, my decision to tell the unlikely story of Happy Smith’s short-lived career in baseball is bizarrely linked to family ties in turn of the century Brooklyn, NY. I tell you, you just can’t make this stuff up.