Interesting If True - Episode 44: Fighting Like A Girl!
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that’s proud to fight like a girl!
I’m your host this week, Big Papa, and with me is Shea:
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that bologna is just hotdogs for people who like pancakes.
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that the powerful Amazon warrior is called Amazon Prime.
This week began with International Women’s Day and because I’m a dick-having hoser I forgot to post anything on the socials.
So instead, I’m going to pander a bit—but don’t worry, not nearly as much as that scene in End Game. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about… that was… oof.
Today I’m going to talk about actual Amazons! The warrior women, not the company. As brutal as the Amazons could be, they still let you take a piss-break.
The more I read about the Amazons the more clear it becomes that this will need to be a muli-part show. So I’ll do a little intro and then talk about one specific tribe of female warriors, the Mino, or Minon depending on who you talk to.
These warriors were called the Dahomey Amazons by the European writers from whom most of this information will come. I did find some records of Fon oral histories but they’re scarce. The French didn’t leave much when they were done with the area…
So these won’t be your typical Amazons, at least, not in the Wonder Woman sense. At some point we will talk about Themiscyra, the city-state not the magic island, and the Amazons of Asia’s Steppes, but for now I’ll only go into that stuff far enough to explain how these African warrior women came to be called Amazons… and basically, it’s fake news.
From Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons,
“one thing everyone seems to think they know about Amazons: that the name has something to do with only having one breast so they could easily fire an arrow or hurl a spear.”
Which I think we’ve all heard. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense. Anyone whose seen Hunger Games or done any non-sausage fest archery knows that the ladies can tuck that jazz enough not to boob up the works. For the archeology record, there are thousands of Greek artworks depicting warrior women with both boobs. The translation of “Amazon” as “without breast” was the invention of Greek historian Hellanikos in the fifth century BCE.
Basically, he shoehorned the meaning of Greek words, “a” meaning “lack”, and “mazon” being close to the Greek word for breast, from which we get the modern world mammary. Put them together and you’ve got a terminology that even Hellanikos’s contemporaries called BS, never mind modern archeologists.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, a leader of the amazons
Still, the Greeks were obsessed with the idea of the legendary warrior women. So much so that any Grecian hero worth his salt would need to face them, from Hercules to Achilles. They often gave the location of the Amazons as the eastern Mediterranean on the steppes of Eurasia. And indeed warrior graves have been found there and, once we invented DNA testing and accurate bioarchaeological analysis, we stopped calling them all dudes. In total, about 1/3 of those buried with spears, knives, and visible war-wounds were women. Today we attribute the graves to the Scythian nomads whose women fought alongside their men well into the modern era… well, ok, Andromache did anyway, less so for the rest of them.
So, back to modern-day Benin. Benin, formally Dahomey (/de`hoomi/), was annexed into the french empire in 1904 until its independence in 1975. It’s a small country in West Africa tucked between Togo and Nigeria. Its small coastal area is part of what was then (and by “then” I mean way, way too recently) called the Slave Coast.
A sketch of a warrior and her equipment
Our story begins, like so many in the area at the time, with colonization. One of the first written accounts of the Dahomey Amazons came from a missionary named Francesco Borghero in 1861. Known as “Black Sparta,” Francesco is there to witness the prowess of Dahomey’s warriors. It’s raining but King Glele instructs the warriors to begin their demonstration.
On his command 3000 heavily armored warriors spring into action rushing a wall covered in acacia branches. These are the terrifying thorny bushes you see on the Discovery channel with needle-sharp two-inch thorns. The warriors rush into the thorns, barefoot, quickly scaling the wall behind seemingly impervious to the pain. The attach is meant to represent taking a capital city. The warriors drop back down into the thorns before scaling the wall again this time pantomiming fighting with invisible defenders before dragging groups of crying “prisoners” to where the king and Francesco are standing. The bravest of the warriors receives a belt made of acacia branches to be worn around the waist, advertising their immunity to wounds or pain.
The General gives a speech commending her warriors and suggesting that they, like European warriors, are too fierce to be enemies of each other. Francesco notes he is only half paying attention to her words, the rest of his focus is on her more “captivating” qualities, he wrote that she was “slender but shapely, proud of bearing, but without affectation.” And while super sexist, I can’t help but not that he wrote about his thoughts, not his words, because only a right and proper dumbass says something like to yee-oldie Okoye.
Dahomey Amazon Warriors
Their origin is myth. Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length English study of the Dahomey Amazons dismisses theories that the army was created by Dako, then kind of the Fon tribe, around. There’s just no evidence. Another legend says the Amazons came from a group of women hunters called gheto who having been praised for an elephant hunt replied that the preferred manhunts and where thus conscripted, but again, these seem only to be rumors.
The most likely story is that they came about in the 1720s as palace guards. Dahomean men were not allowed in the palace. The king at the time had many “third-class wives” these were women deemed too ugly to sleep with and who had no other children. Which… damn that’s sexist. This theory has, at least, some supporting evidence in the form of records from slavers like Jean-Pierre Thibault, who in 1725 described seeing third-wives with spears walking around their husbands in body-guard-like formations and royal third-wives acting as police.
Four years later, in 1729, the women made their first written appearance in an account of the battle to retake the port of Ouidah, which had recently fallen to the much larger Yoruba tribe, who outnumbered the Fon by more than 10 to 1. The Amazons took the port handily.
It was around this time that interest in women-warriors grew. The Dahomey Amazons had a number of contemporaries, notably Nzinga of Matamba, one of 17th-century Angola’s most important rules who fought the Portuguese, quaffed the blood of her enemies, and kept some 60 male concubines she made dress as women. King Mongkut of Siam (yep, the one from the King and I) also had an all-female royal guard. Again, these women are all deserving of their own episodes, so for now I’ll leave it at that.
The Dahomey were sent into battle along with men, as if they were men, while the other groups were often sheltered from front line battle. Still, Historian Robin Law of the University of Stirling cautions against the idea that there was gender equality at play saying that when women were fully trained as warriors they were thought “become men” upon disemboweling their first enemy.
Once they had been trained and entered the army the women were considered to be married to the king. Leaving King Gezo, who expanded the army from two to six corps, with a lot of anniversaries to remember.
Recruiting new warrior-wives wasn’t difficult, despite the thorns and almost certain death that awaited the Amazons who fought against advanced French weaponry. Unlike the other women of Dahomey, who lived as you might expect yee-oldie women to love, the warriors lived in the royal compound and were kept flush with tobacco, alcohol, and salves—as many as 50 per warrior according to Sir Richard Burton, who visited in the 1860s. He also noted that “when amazons walked out of the palace they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.” For to touch an amazon meant death. Likewise, the King was also forbidden to sleep with them, effectively making their ceremonial marriage to the King and corps a sentence of celibacy. This, along with a bunch of other Greco-European nonsense we’ll get into next time, prompted the “Amazons are all lesbians” thing, which is super not at all true… I mean, probably there were a few, but it wasn’t like a rule.
European observers were particularly … I’ll say “impressed” with the “insensitivity training” the women got. Which consisted of being made to watch executions as young girls and, as a right of passage, do one of those executions. In December of 1889, Jean Bayol, a French naval officer, watched as a teenage recruit named Nanisca who “had not yet killed anyone” was tested. She was brought to a prisoner (who they kept in baskets apparently) and she:
walked jauntily up to, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.
So, you know, don’t fuck with these ladies.
It seems it was that ferocity that was most admired. While some Europeans looked down on the women’s rifle handling, saying they shot from the hip instead of the shoulder. As an aside, having shot a number of flintlocks, I’m not entirely convinced that aiming was actually all that important. Still, the amazons were quickly becoming globally known as some ladies you didn’t piss off.
King Gezo was, it seemed, forever embroiled in some kind of conflict. But that didn’t seem to matter as Amazons enjoyed considerable success. The only two battles they’re noted as having lost were their attempts to take Abeokuta, the capital of Egba (a group of the Yoruba). They were pushed back in 1851 and again in 1864. Following these losses, it seemed the Dahomean lust for battle had been quelled.
The skirmishes with the Yoruba continued until the 1880’s “scramble for Africa,” which is the cutesy name we give to Europe conquering and dividing up the content like a bunch of assholes. Dahoney fell into the French regions and there was already a French colony at Porto-Novo. It was here, in 1889 when female troops were involved in what would start a full-scale war. The amazons had been sent to attack a village under French protection. The chief tried to calm the villages by promising the French would save them. In response to this the amazons cut off his head, wrapped it in a French flag, and sent it to their King. Like you do. In the following years, there were a number of skirmishes and two major battles. The amazons held their own but eventually fell to superior French firepower. In the trouble peace that followed the Amazons trained with whatever modern weapons they could find.
French Foreign Legionnaire Bren recounted that the “warrioresses… fight with extreme valor, always ahead of other troops. They are outstandingly brave […] well trained for combat and very disciplined.”
Unfortunately, as Zach Snider’s Wonder Woman laments, the age of heroes was long past. The amazon units were disbanded and most warriors lived out their lives or died in battle by the 1960s.
Veterans at the annual meeting in Abomay in 1908
Still, they’re not entirely gone. In 2018 Fleur Macdonald, reporting for the BBC, managed an audience with Queen Hangbe, a direct descendent of the first Queen Hangbe, the legendary founder of the Dahomey Amazons. Her home was decorated richly with historical items such as ceremonial parasols, weapons, and a horsetail that had been seated into the skull of an enemy—they used it as a “fancy fly swatter.”
Dr. Arthur Vido at the University of Abomey-Calavi, in the same city as Queen Hangbe’s home and temple, is meeting the renewed interest in amazons with a new course on female warriors saying “as the status of women is changing in Africa, people want to know more about their role in the past.”
While much of the renewed interest can be attributed to Wonder Woman or Black Panther, Arthur offers a more local take. He grew up to the west of Aboney, a site used by Amazons for training. For many years his aunt looked after an elderly amazon warrior who retired to the village and used her “strong, independent and powerful” nature to change the village hierarchies. He said she “could do that without any repercussion from the local chief because she was an Amazon.” Her example, Arthur things, inspired the other women of the village including his mother to be more ambitious and independent. And certainly the appeal isn’t lost of the larger world as a Dora Milaje spin-off is currently in the works.
And why not? Pop culture is filled with references to the Dahomey Amazons. The new run of Wonder Woman: Future State focuses on the next Wonder Woman, Nubia, who I now recognize has been heavily influenced by Dahomey and so far it’s been a good run. Likewise, Fish Speakers of Frank Herbert’s Dune series are clearly inspired by the Dahomey Amazons. They were of course all women, but were also ceremonially married to god-king Leto II, barred from taking husbands while serving, and began their corps as royal palace guards. And, of course, as I joked earlier, they have clearly inspired the Black Panther’s Dora Milage.
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I won’t lie to you Aaron but our first few stories are about bees, lots and lots of different bees!
But don’t worry I brought you an epi-pen full of beer and I have been wanting to stab someone.
Did you know that spelling bees are only done using English words? Spelling bees promote attention to literacy. There have been national spelling competitions for children in the United States since at least 1925.
A major part of learning to read involves understanding the connection between phonemes, or speech sounds, and graphemes, or the letters that represent sounds. On the other hand, not all alphabetic languages lend themselves to the challenge of a spelling bee, because, well, it just wouldn’t be challenging.
One major reason is that spelling bees are only really challenging in English, a language that has borrowed lots of roots and words from other languages and has all sorts of odd vowel sounds and spelling irregularities. By contrast, a Spanish or German or Russian spelling bee would be boring — as soon as you can sound out a word, you can probably spell it.
Doing a little search online I was able to find some examples of why non-English spelling bees wouldn’t work.
According to Eugene Lazutkin, who according to the Intertubes knows Russian, says;
“The Russian language is more “written as pronounced + some rules + a few exceptions” kind of language, so it doesn’t make much sense.
In an elementary school (grades 1–3), children write “диктант” (dictations): a teacher reads some text aloud, while students have to write it down. The results are graded. It is the most closest thing to a spelling bee contest I know of in Russia.
In middle school (from 4th grade) dictations end, and children start writing essays. As far as I can tell the major problems with essays are not misspellings, but where to put commas correctly, how to avoid run-on sentences, and how better convey your thoughts. Obviously, the biggest problem is to have your own thoughts, to begin with.
So here you go: there is no practical reason to practice Russian spelling if there is no problem with that in the first place. Spelling is easy due to rules of Russian language, almost direct correspondence between written characters and spoken sounds, the pronunciation rules, and a relatively small set of exceptions, which can be regular as well.”
Spanish speaker Enrique Pareja also comments:
“Spanish is mostly written as pronounced, and fully pronounced as written – so it wouldn’t make much sense.
A well-educated Spanish-speaking adult should be able to “know” how any word is written just by hearing it (at least with a 99% certainty), even if he/she has never come across it before. And, with a 100% certainty, to “know” how any correctly written word is exactly pronounced.”
Indonesian speaker Andrean Romanky weighs in:
“There is no such thing in Indonesian.
Indonesian is written phonetically. There is almost no exception to the rules of spelling. One letter corresponds to one sound, no exceptions, even digraphs (except maybe some digraphs like “kh” and “ch” whose pronunciation could change depending on the speaker).
When one hears a word being pronounced, even if it’s as monstrous as mempertanggungjawabkannya (to take responsibility of), one can spell the word without much difficulty (mengeja). In the 1st grade, we learn the alphabet and that’s it; the letter c is always pronounced as [tʃ] (like the English ch) and the letter a is always pronounced as [a] (like English father). No exceptions.”
Researchers who compared reading acquisition across languages found that children in most European countries can learn to read at a basic level within their first year of schooling. In Italy, Hungary, or Finland, among others, there would be little point to a spelling bee.
Italian children can spell almost any word perfectly after only a few months of reading instruction, since Italian spelling is so regular and transparent. How to spell a word becomes obvious as soon as you hear it. The same is true for Finnish.
Other languages such as French, Portuguese, and Danish are represented by writing systems that take longer for children to learn to read, but it’s English that takes the longest of all the European languages. There are many more inconsistencies and complexities in the way English words are spelled.
Now, this doesn’t mean that other countries have a dearth of academic competitions in fact many other countries have their own brand of Bee’s to keep their citizens whip-smart with their language.
Francophone nations aren’t satisfied with mere spelling; they test for correct grammar, too. French speakers around the world enter Quebec’s Dictée des Amériques, an international competition that started in 1994. Contestants take a local multiple-choice test on grammar before moving on to the next rounds. At the finals, they’ll hear a passage—composed for the contest by a famous author—read aloud four times. Each contestant must scribble down the text of the passage (word for word) in about an hour. Each mistake is a point, so zero—the score of Bruno Dewaele, one of the 2006 champions—is the best possible outcome. (Who says Americans are monolingual? The United States sends about 10 finalists to the dictée each year.) The Canadian dictée takes after France’s Dicos d’Or, a contest that was discontinued a couple of years ago after more than two decades. The Dutch also have a similar contest called Het Groot Dictee, which pits 30 regular folks and 30 celebrities against one another.
Non Alphabetic languages have their own competitions. Chinese kids join dictionary contests, where they look up words as fast as they can. Unlike English, you can’t completely decipher a Chinese character’s pronunciation just by looking at it, and characters can have many components. Thus there are several ways to find words in dictionaries. Students can look for the character’s radical, or semantic, root and search by the number of strokes in the character. If they know what the word sounds like, they can choose instead to look up the pinyin, or Romanized version, of the character. A third way involves a sort of Dewey Decimal System of words: By examining the strokes in the four “corners” of the character, expressing each corner as a number (a square is a six, for example), they can then use the resulting four-digit code to find a word in a special dictionary. Students also enter typing contests, where again the complexity of Chinese characters poses challenges. Crazy fact: a respected Chinese dictionary lists more than 85,000 characters. An estimated 7,000 are in daily use.
In Japan, where Chinese characters known as kanji are part of the language, you might see entire families entering the Kanji proficiency exam, known as the Kanken. There are 10 levels, each testing for skills like writing, pronunciation, and stroke order. Level 1 is the hardest and requires knowledge of about 6,000 kanji; in 2000 just 208 people passed this test.
So Spelling Bee’s might sound weird to all other non-English speaking countries so to give our English speakers some weird, here are some other crazy competitions from around the globe.
We’re gonna stick with Chinese Bee’s for this next competition but we are going to take it super literally, sorry Aaron.
Not a statue, there is a dude in there.
For most of us, the presence of even a single bee in our direct vicinity tends to result in helpless flailing, and perhaps an occasional shriek or two in fear. Most of us, could never even conceive of participating in a bee-wearing contest. But, two brave beekeepers in China purposely tried to attract as many bees as possible to their bodies, wearing them as a bee-body suit the likes of which only Lady GaGa could dream.
For 60 minutes, 42-year old Wang Dalin and 20-year-old Lc Kongjiang competed in the bee-wearing contest in Shaoyang City, China. The two men wore only shorts, goggles, and nose plugs to protect themselves. Each man had a queen bee that had been removed from its hive and captured in a small cage tied around his neck. After just a few minutes, the scent of the queen started attracting her followers and the bees started to swarm the competitors. The men were standing on a scale so that the weight added by the bees could be measured.
When the contest was over, Wang Dalin stood victorious, wearing 26 kg (a bit over 57lbs) of bees, while Lc Kongjiang attracted a mere 22.9 (50.5lbs) kg of bees. While the very idea of bee wearing might seem absurd, it’s important to note that the Chinese competitors didn’t even come close to setting the world record for bee wearing, which is still held by American Mark Biancaniello at 39.5kg, or 87lbs
Sticking around in Asia I found the Naki Sumo Baby Crying Contest. Usually getting a baby to stop crying is the hard part of any parents’ day, but during the Nai Sumo Baby Crying Festival, the goal is to get the tiny poopers to start and keep crying to get rid of demons. This Festival has been held throughout Japan for over 400 years. The festival is considered to have origins in the folk belief that the loud cry of an innocent baby has the power to ward off demons or evil spirits. The Japanese proverb “naku ko wa sodatsu,” meaning “crying babies grow fastest”, is an additional source of inspiration for the festival. The traditional festival takes place at the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo every year in April, pairing up tiny little babies with a sumo wrestler who will then try to get the little guy to cry.
During the ceremonies, sumo wrestlers take the stage and hold up the participating babies (their parents actually brought them to this), and try to get them to start bellowing. Among the techniques used to make the babies unhappy include putting on a scary mask to freak them out and the old stand by of just yelling, “CRY! CRY! CRY!” into their little faces. But it’s all worth it because if they are the best cryer, they are ensured a long, healthy life.
For all the seeming cruelty of the event, it actually has a fun, jokey air as the adults seem to realize that intentionally getting kids to cry is a little goofy. The kids don’t seem to be in on the joke.
Looking for a more Aaron-approved contest I stumbled on some perfect ones. So Aaron would you rather stay in bed all day or sweat it up in a sauna?
The first event was born out of the enthusiasm of the newly-formed Knaresborough Round Table in 1966 Yorkshire, England an organisation looking for a major charity fund-raising push. They came up with the idea of a time-trial in which teams would follow a predetermined course pushing beds around the town.
It could have been a chariot race, a tug-o-war, a raft race on the river, a soap box derby or any of a hundred other ideas. But they plumped for a bed race, and somehow that unique combination with Knaresborough’s almost perpendicular climbs and cobbled streets, the swim across the Nidd and the fancy dress pageant have worked together to make this such a huge and successful community event.
The competition starts with 6 team members hoisting a decorated bed as quickly as they can around the course, now we can’t forget Aaron’s role in this, he will be in the bed holding on for dear life. The course winds 2.4 miles around town ending with a swim through the icy waters of the River Nidd, you might have trouble sleeping through that.
Each year Bed Race features 90 teams of six runners and a passenger – that’s 630 people sweating around the course. In addition, scores of local handymen and dress-makers get drafted in to decorate the beds and adorn the runners. Hundreds of people parade with the teams and in marching bands and dance groups. And hundreds more turn out as volunteers to marshal the event on the day.
It is truly a whole-town effort with runners today being the grandchildren of those who turned out in the 1960s.
The teams gather at Knaresborough Castle on the morning of bed race day to be judged for the ‘Best Dressed Team’ accolade. So good have the designs become that in addition to first, second and third positions, others win special commendations for their endeavors. With your art background I think we could have a chance.
The course is challenging and hard. It takes the teams up a steep grassy bank and through parkland, along the scenic Waterside. Then they pass through the dramatic Nidd Gorge, up the steep Castle Ings, around the cobbled stones of the Marketplace, down the High Street and Bond End, and across High Bridge. The last stretch is on the rough ground of McIntosh Park before the notorious 20-yard swim across the fast-flowing Nidd.
There is no doubt that the real hero of Bed Race is the dramatic topography of Knaresborough itself.
If sleeping in a bed isn’t perking your ears up, Aaron then maybe it’s time to relax even further.
The World Sauna Championships were an annual endurance contest held in Heinola, Finland, from 1999 to 2010. The Championships were first held in 1999 and grew to feature contestants from over 20 countries. Sauna bathing in extreme conditions is a severe health risk: all competitors competed at their own risk and had to sign a form agreeing not to take legal action against the organizers. The championships began with preliminary rounds and ended in the finals, where the best six men and women would see who could sit in the sauna the longest. The starting temperature in the men’s competition was 110 °C (230 °F). Half a liter of water was poured on the stove every 30 seconds. The winner was the last person to stay in the sauna and walk out without outside help. The host country usually dominated the event, as only one foreign competitor ever made it into the finals in the men’s competition. The first non-Finnish winner in the women’s competition was Natallia Tryfanava from Belarus in 2003.
The rules for the event were pretty intense;
- The starting temperature is 110 degrees Celsius. Half a liter of water will be poured on the stove every 30 seconds.
- Use of alcohol is prohibited prior to and during the competition.
- Touching the skin and brushing is prohibited.
- Competitors must not disturb each other.
- At the request of the judges, competitors must show that they are in their senses with a thumbs up.
- Competitors must be able to leave the sauna unaided to qualify.
Now this was all good and everyone was happy to sweat until 2010 when the 12th World competition was called off after a Russian man died after spending six minutes enduring a temperature of 110C. Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy was pronounced dead after being dragged from the sauna by judges. Police were investigating the cause of death.
Another competitor, Timo Kaukonen from Finland, was also pulled out and is being treated in a hospital for burns. Officials said the competition will not run again. Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy was pronounced dead after being dragged from the sauna by judges. Police were investigating the cause of death.
Another competitor, Timo Kaukonen from Finland, was also pulled out and is being treated in hospital for burns. Officials said the competition will not run again. Ladyzhenskiy and Kaukonen had made it through to the final ahead of more than 130 other participants, but six minutes into the contest, judges noticed something was wrong with the Russian and dragged both competitors from the sauna.
Both middle-aged men were seen to have severe burns on their bodies and were given first aid after they collapsed.
Ossi Arvela, head of the championships, said the event had been immediately suspended following the incident, and confirmed police were investigating.
“All the rules were followed and enough first aid personnel were in place,” Arvela said in a statement, adding that all the competitors had been required to present a doctor’s certificate before taking part.
Finnish police had decided not to file charges in connection with the tragedy but were continuing to investigate. Kaukonen woke up from a medically induced coma six weeks after the event. His respiratory system was scorched, 70% of his skin was burnt and eventually his kidneys failed as well. In late October, Kaukonen was reported to be recovering quickly. He did not blame the organizers for his injuries.
Ladyzhensky’s autopsy concluded that he had died of third-degree burns. His death was aided by his use of strong painkillers and local anesthetic grease on his skin. Kaukonen was competing according to the rules.
So Aaron, do you want to sleep or sweat?
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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