Saturday, November 28, 2015

Victory Victoria

In 1759, the British began construction of a new flagship, the HMS Victory, a 100-gun, three-decker, ship of the line.  In the 18th century, this was the nautical equivalent of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and only the most powerful countries could even contemplate the construction of such a ship.

This ship was the most complicated man-made object in the Eighteenth Century world.  Using 6000 trees, 26 miles of rope, and enough sail to cover a football field, she was also the deadliest war machine in the entire world.  From within the wooden walls crewed by iron men, her cannons could loft a ton and a half of iron shot several miles.

The ship was 45 years old when Lord Horatio Nelson used her as his flagship to destroy the combined navies of both France and Spain.  Such ships and such leaders made England's the largest and most powerful navy in the world.

Not only was that navy large, it was damn good.  In several wars and countless battles, the British Navy had humiliated the navies of France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, and Holland.  During the period from 1792-1812, the ships of His Majesty’s navy had fought in over 200 engagements and had won all but five battles.  (And all of those losses were in single ship-to-ship battles—none of them more recent than seven years earlier.)

The inevitable consequence of this incredible string of victories was that an English victory was expected by not only the English, but by the captains and crews of the ships the British fought.  With this attitude, it will not be a surprise when I tell you that no fewer than 170 of the nearly 900 ships that made up the British Navy in 1812 had been captured from other countries during combat. 

But then Napoleon was defeated and peace turned out to be far more difficult for the island maritime power than war.  Ships rotted, experienced naval personnel were put ashore on half-pay, and the general overall condition of the navy declined as a sense of complacency settled over its officers.  Only occasionally did the Admiralty’s office kick into high gear and actually do something (usually after the London newspapers published an editorial about how recent French naval developments put the Empire at risk).  The HMS Victoria is one such example.

In 1859, England launched a new flagship, the HMS Victoria.  She was almost immediately a floating example of the British admiralty’s knee-jerk reaction to all things French.

The French had just built a 130-gun three-decker, the Bretagne, that was designed to be the biggest, baddest warship afloat.  Halfway through the construction, someone noticed that the age of sail—while not dead—was certainly dying.  Even though the hull was already laid down, the builders managed to shoe-horn a steam engine into the frame, making it into an ungainly ship that was so impractical to sail that, within a decade, the French turned it into floating barracks. 

The Bretagne was horribly impractical, but it was bigger than any ship the British had, so the Brits immediately began construction of an even bigger version, with even more firepower.  And deep within her was the very reason why the ship should not have been built in the first place. 

The largest wooden-hulled warship ever built, the HMS Victoria would have twice the tonnage of the Victory, and her massive guns could fire both red-hot shot and explosive shells that could penetrate wood-hulled vessels and then explode.  As a result, the days of the giant three-deckers were already over even before this dinosaur was launched.

While the Bretagne saw brief action in the Crimean War, neither ship had a very long or distinguished career, and by the middle of the 1860’s, both ships were decommissioned and never sailed again.  By the end of the century, both ships had been scrapped. 

A few decades later, the British launched a new HMS Victoria—a new battleship launched in time to celebrate the aging queen’s Golden Jubilee.  Once again, the Victoria was the most powerful ironclad afloat, with the largest guns and the thickest armor, and—as the first British ship to use a steam turbine—one of the fastest warships afloat.

Posted to the Mediterranean Fleet, the Victorianicknamed The Slipper for the habit of the foredeck to slip under waves due to the weight of the heavy bow guns—was put under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon.  Tryon, was a fanatic about Lord Horatio Nelson, both studying the man and personally purchasing the famous Nelson sword (a copy of which can be seen in Trafalgar Square in London).

While Tryon honored Nelson, he was, unfortunately, nothing like the man.  Nelson was famous for drilling his subordinate ship captains in using their own initiative.  He called these men his ‘Band of Brothers’—a line taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Tryon, in contrast, was a dictatorial tyrant who expected instant obedience from his subordinates.

By the late 19th century, fleets maneuvered in two long parallel lines to facilitate faster communication by flags.  This gave Admiral Tryon an idea for an efficient (and showy) method of bringing the entire fleet to stop at an anchorage at once.  The lead vessels of both lines of ships would begin a simultaneous turn towards the other line.  As the following ships reached the same point in the line, they, too, would execute the turn.  When the entire fleet had reversed direction, all the ships would simultaneously execute a ninety degree turn away from the opposing line, come to a stop, and lower their anchors.  Ten ships dropping anchor at exactly the same time would be an imposing sight. 

Tryon issued his orders very carefully.  When the Victoria raised her orders by flag, each of the other nine battleships in the fleet was to repeat the orders on its flags, helping to communicate with the rest of the fleet and at the same time, indicating that it was standing by to execute the order.

Leading the other line of ships was the HMS Camperdown, under the command of Vice Admiral Markham, Tryon’s second in command.  He had already expressed an opinion that this maneuver should not be attempted unless the two lines of ships were at least 1600 yards apart.  On June 22, 1893, off the coast of Libya, Admiral Tryon decided to attempt his showy maneuver—at the time, however, the two lines were only 1200 yards apart.

Believing the maneuver to be dangerous, Markham did not immediately indicate he was ready to comply, and composed a message to be sent to the Victoria indicating that he thought the two lines were too close to each other, but before the message could be sent, Admiral Tryon sent one to Markham:  "What are you waiting for?"  Markham cancelled his message and complied with Tryon’s order.

The reason for Markham's hesitation was simple:  Each lead ship of the column weighed 10,000 tons, was steaming at nine knots, and had a turning radius of 800 yards.  Ironically, each ship was equipped with a steel ram on the bow; a device that the Admiralty had recently decided was obsolete and no longer useful.

Halfway through the turn, Admiral Tryon could see the disaster that was, by this point, inevitable.  He ordered the engines reversed, but it was too late:  The Camperdown tore deep into the starboard side of the Victoria, then as the two ships continued to swing towards each other, the Camperdown’s ram opened up the side of the Victoria like a can opener, making a hole roughly 100 square feet in area.  (By comparison, the hole that sank the much larger Titanic was only fourteen square feet.)

Almost immediately, the steel ram and the heavy bow guns pulled the bow of the ship down and the Victoria sank in less than ten minutes, killing 358 men (almost exactly half the ship’s compliment).  As the ship sank, Admiral Tryon repeatedly said, “It’s all my fault.”  Of course—as was the custom—the admiral went down with the ship.

After this, the British Navy stopped naming battleships after Queen Victoria.  The HMS Victory is the oldest warship still on the rolls of any nation's navy, although it hasn’t been in a battle since Lord Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Four years ago, the wreck of the Victoria was found off the coast of Lebanon.  After 111 years underwater, she was discovered off the coast of Libya, with her stern some 350 feet underwater.  Miraculously, when the ship sank, her 14,000 hp engines continued to turn the screws, driving the bow of the ship deep into the mud, so that the wreck is standing completely upright—appropriately, like a tombstone.

The diver who discovered the wreck managed to reach Admiral Tryon’s cabin and located Admiral Nelson’s sword, but hid the sword deep inside wreck to prevent future divers from finding it, so it will probably stay there forever. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

GPS: Global Perplexing System

Confession Time:  I love maps.  One of my best friends is a geographer and I am continually amazed at how often we study the same events, but where I properly place these events in a chronological matrix, my friend is overly concerned with location.  He stubbornly resists my efforts to educate him for, as he is wont to say, “Without geography, you’re nowhere.”

We both, however, agree on our love of maps.  My truck is full of maps (I even have maps of places where I have no intention of going).  I’m fairly certain that no one ever got lost because he carried too many maps.  (Except Second Lieutenants--but they are an exception unto themselves.)

My wife, The Doc, however, seems to believe that maps are just a questionable opinion from an unreliable source.   Useful in a sort of an amusing way, but no more reliable than a husband she once saw check a baby’s diaper using the “finger dipstick method”.  Of course, she is wrong about maps.  (And I only did that dipstick thing once!)
In my opinion, most women don’t really understand maps.  While there are probably endless numbers of men who don’t understand maps, either, deep down, I still sort of believe that map reading may be a Y-chromosome-linked ability.  (Sort of like the exclusive male ability to tighten something without the need to mentally recite: “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey").  And while I have no scientific data, I believe that most women believe that Left and West are synonyms.
It is not that my wife can’t read a map, it’s just the way she gives me the information found there.  As I’m approaching a freeway interchange in Dallas known as the “Mixmaster” is not when I want to hear the words, “I don’t think this map is right...”

This is why I have long lusted for one of those GPS devices you could install in your car that would provide instant and reliable navigation.  Every time I mentioned one, my wife would take this as a personal affront to her intelligence.  While traveling, I once managed to rent a car with such a device, and my wife immediately labeled it untrustworthy and unreliable.  This was the moment I knew for sure, we would never have such a device in our car.
Then, came the iPhone, Google Maps, and Siri.  Suddenly, nearly everybody had a GPS unit.  “Siri,” I can now say confidently.  “Directions to Joe’s Crab Shack.” 
Almost immediately, Siri responds.  “In 2.1 miles, turn left onto North Wilmot Road.  Your destination is on the left.”

This is infinitely better than The Doc suddenly announcing, “Get ready to turn.”
“What?  Which way?  I’m in the middle lane!” I cry as I frantically check all the mirrors.
“Never mind,” The Doc says irritably.  “You missed it.”

The Doc refuses to use Siri, believing that SIRI is an anagram for Somewhere In Rhode Island.  There are currently 31 satellites 12,500 miles straight up, each circling around the earth twice a day, and another three dozen are scheduled to be launched.   Using this technology, even my iPhone can locate me with an incredible accuracy of roughly plus or minus 25 feet.  Siri can now tell me exactly how fast, when, and where I took the wrong turn and got almost lost.
And you can use these tools even when you are not in a car.  Siri is accurate enough for me to have located, just yesterday, my wife inside a MegaStore.   (I didn't even know that store had a curtain rod section.)

Now, every morning, when I start my car, the screen on my iPhone says that traffic is running normal and that it will take me thirteen minutes to drive to work.  Of course, the traffic is always normal in Southern New Mexico and it only takes 8 minutes to drive to work, but this is still amazingly accurate.  And polite.
This is not, however, accurate enough for The Doc.  She steadfastly remains convinced that Siri and GPS are working together to try and kill us.  She claims that Siri has more than once told her to turn off a bridge, take a shortcut through a vacant field, or routed her onto a freeway for a destination only two blocks ahead.  Naturally, I was not present in the car during any of these experiences.

Siri once did tell me to execute an endless series of U-turns to reach a restaurant only three blocks ahead, but that was in Tucson (and the food was so bad that Siri was probably trying to save my life).  And once, while trying to find a grocery store in Alamogordo, she directed me to a store 90 miles away--but once again, Siri was probably just trying to get me out of Alamogordo before the sun went down and the police rolled up the sidewalks.

There is a feature that perhaps should be added to these devices.  A “Wife Mode” would be instructive to single men (God knows we married men don’t need this feature).  After missing a turn, Siri could refuse to provide directions and loudly announce, “If you’re not going to listen to me, you can just find it yourself.”  Or, perhaps, Siri could, on a random basis, ignore where you want to go and direct you straight to The Pottery Barn or Tuesday Morning.
I’m not sure if The Doc and I will live long enough to own a driverless car, but I’m pretty sure that if we do, she will have to wear a blindfold while traveling in it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Murder Most Fowl

There is a universal military problem:  When the war is over, how do you turn soldiers back into civilians? 

This is a tougher problem than you might think.  Young men, skilled only in violence, do not take kindly to being suddenly unemployed during a post-war recession.  In Latin America, at least historically, this situation usually leads to revolutions.  Julius Caesar solved this problem by creating farms for his former soldiers—as far from Rome as possible—in newly conquered territory.  Perhaps this example is what led Australia inadvertently into a war.
After World War I, Australia had a similar problem with returning servicemen and some bright government official decided that the best solution was to turn former soldiers into farmer soldiers.  Over 5,000 farms were created out of barren land in Western Australia—the sort of land where even lizards normally had to pack a lunch to cross:  lands so harsh that only the ruggedly unusual wildlife of the Australian Outback could survive.  Here, the newly-created farmers were to grow wheat!
The government promised subsidies (which never materialized), a growing market for agricultural products (which promptly crashed with the advent of the Great Depression), and price supports (which the government could not afford to pay).  Things were not working out well even before the drought started….but even that paled in significance to the emu problem.

The Australian Emu, locally known as a yallabiddie, is a large flightless bird that almost defies description.  It looks like the result of a drunken one-night stand between Big Bird and a Velociraptor.  Adults can be six feet tall, weigh 120 pounds, and have powerful legs with amazingly sharp claws.  Migratory packs of them soon moved into newly created farm lands.  Roughly 20,000 birds arrived—a ravenous and implacable enemy army.
Some of the soldier/farmers couldn’t afford fences, not that this really mattered, as the birds pretty quickly destroyed what fences were already there.  And just as quickly, began destroying the wheat fields. 
The farmers tried to handle the problem for themselves, they picked up their rifles and shot a few of the birds, but they managed to kill only a handful of the pesky varmints before they ran out of expensive ammunition.  The farmers could have asked for help from the Minister of Agriculture, but being soldiers at heart, instead asked for help from the Minister of Defense.  Specifically, they wanted enough ammunition to wipe out all 20,000 birds, and they wanted machine guns to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently.

Sir George Pearce, the Minister of Defense, quickly agreed.  Not only would this make the government look like it actually cared about the farmers, but Pearce thought it would be good target practice for his men.  He sent Major G.P.W. Meredith, two soldiers, two Lewis machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammo to Western Australia, so confident of a quick success that he sent a Fox Movietone cameraman along to ensure that the Army received the proper credit.
The war commenced on November 2, 1932.  Meredith and his men found a small flock of 50 birds, set up their machine guns, dropped in 97 round drums and commenced firing.  And immediately, the Emu Army used a tactic that had not been planned on—the birds ran out of range. 

The Australian Army does not give up quickly, so Major Meredith and his men advanced on the enemy and resumed fire.  They enlisted the aid of farmers to try to herd the birds into an area where they could be entrapped and slaughtered.  This is the problem with subversive enemy emus:  they cannot be counted on to do their patriotic duty when required and those birds ran everywhere but toward the guns.  By the end of the day, Major Meredith reported that “a number of birds were killed.”  No doubt, this is true.  One is a number.  (So is zero, for that matter).
Two days later, the army was back.  Major Meredith had reconnoitered the area and found a perfect site for an ambush near a dam.  More than a thousand thirsty emus were moving toward the position.  The gunner waited until he could see the oranges of their eyes, opened fire….and managed to slaughter only a dozen of the enemy before the machine gun jammed and the avian army executed a rapid strategic withdrawal.

The enemy was proving to be more difficult than expected.  As one of the soldiers put it:
 "The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”
At this time, Major Meredith decided that, if infantry tactics would not work, it was time to try the cavalry.  Borrowing a farmer’s truck, he had a machine gun mounted on the bed of the truck so that the Australian Army could pursue and destroy the enemy. 

There proved to be a small flaw in this tactic:  Those birds are tall and, when running, they have a nine foot stride across rough terrain and can sprint seemingly forever at 31 mph.  (Given the sort of motivation that only a pursuing machine gun can provide, the emus can hit 35 mph).  And, while they are flightless, their stubby wings are quite efficient for helping them make surprisingly sharp turns while running at top speeds.  Wild cats can run faster than the emus for short distances, but they cannot turn fast enough to catch the elusive emus.

The truck however, had a top speed of 24 mph over flat land—a terrain found almost nowhere in Western Australia—and frankly, the truck’s turning radius sucked.  The soldiers were so desperate to stay in the bouncing swaying truck that no attempt was made to shoot at the enemy.  Finally, in desperation, the truck managed to run over one of the birds.  While this did indeed kill the emu, its body got so tangled up in the truck’s steering that the truck crashed through a farmer’s fence, severely damaging the vehicle.
Even more surprising was the fact that when the soldiers performed a necropsy on the corpse of the enemy slaughtered by the truck, they were astonished to find that it was carrying around several bullets from their machine gun.  It seems that the birds were so tough that only a shot to a vital organ would kill it.  As Major Meredith later described it:

“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world. They could face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus, whom even dum-dum bullets would not stop.”
It was at this point that the Australian House of Representatives began discussing what the newspapers were calling the "Emu War".  When one politician asked whether “a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war”, a colleague answered that they should rightly go to the emus who “have won every round so far.”
Major Meredith continued the war until December 12, 1932.  While he reported that his force has expended 9,860 rounds, his force had killed only 980 of the enemy (a number that was widely doubted by the farmers).

Over the next twenty years, the farmers repeatedly asked the Australian Army to once again take to the field and help them rid their farms of the enemy emus.  Each time, the Army politely—and very quietly—refused.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

White House Games

Without a doubt, being President is the hardest job in the world.  (With the possible exception of being the dean's secretary.)  With such a hard job, it is no wonder that our Presidents have tried to relax as hard as they work.  Sometimes, their hobbies and pets have bordered on the bizarre.

For relaxation, Calvin Coolidge enjoyed playing with his pet pygmy hippopotamus, John Quincy Adams liked to scare guests with his pet alligator, and Theodore Roosevelt kept a whole damn zoo:  packs of dogs, a clowder of cats, a dozen horses, a macaw, a rat, two kangaroos, an owl, several roosters, five snakes, a hyena, a coyote, a raccoon, a lion, a
zebra, a flying squirrel, five bears, and enough snakes to frighten Indiana Jones several times over.  Oh, yeah!...And a badger.  (When T.R. left office, incoming President Taft said, "Badgers?  Badgers!  We don't need no stinkin' badgers!")

Pets have not been the only presidential diversions.  Thomas Jefferson kept a skeleton of a mammoth in the White House and amused himself by trying to piece it back together.  Zachary Taylor was proud of being able to spit tobacco with deadly accuracy and Chester Arthur had a monster rummage sale of furniture and knickknacks left by his predecessors that netted him an impressive $8,000.  None of the stuff he sold was "his", but everybody has to have a hobby, right?.

Many of our presidents played sports when they were young, and continued to do so once in the Oval Office .  Nixon played baseball in college, and followed the game closely the rest of his life.  After he lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, he was offered the job of Major League Baseball Commissioner.  I wonder how history would have been different if he had accepted the job.

Dwight Eisenhower was a star player in both baseball and football.  His sports career was cut short when West Point played the Carlisle Indians in 1913 and Ike unwisely cut in the way of their star player on his way to a touchdown.  Future Olympian superstar Jim Thorpe broke Ike's leg so badly that the future president had to switch to golf as a sport.

This is just a blog, so we don't have the space to list all the sports that Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed while president.  The White House had a shooting range, a tennis court, and a boxing ring, but the sport that might surprise you is "stilting".  You knowwalking on tall wooden stilts.  Evidently, it was something the whole family enjoyed. 

Today, there are a lot of sport facilities at the White House, including a jogging track, a pool, a tennis court that doubles as a basketball court, a pool table, a putting green, and an exercise room.  Less well known is that the White House also has a bowling alley...or two...or several.

Harry Truman was a part-time bowler, and in 1947, added a two-lane bowling alley on the ground floor of the West Wing.  It there stayed until Eisenhower had the alley moved to the Old Executive Office Building across the street, so space in the West Wing could be used to move in one of those new-fangled mimeograph machines.  Today, that space is used for the Situation Room, where the long lanes have been replaced with long conference tables and the walls are covered with monitors.  This is the room where President Obama watched the strike on the bin Laden compound.

The newer alley is still across the street, and while not exactly open to the public, it has been used by thousands of bowlers over the years.  Named the Harry Truman Bowling Alley, it was used frequently by President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson.  President Nixon, definitely the most avid presidential bowler in history, used it frequently until he built the other White House Bowling Alley. 

Yes, another bowling alley:  This one is a single lane built in the White House basement under the North Portico, where President Nixon could practice his game without leaving the White House.  How good was Nixon?  Supposedly, he once bowled back-to-back 300 games and (depending on who you believe) had an average of either 165 or 232.  But, like many other things about Nixon, it bears a little fact checking.  If you look at the photo to the right, you can clearly see that Nixon has fouled by crossing the line, though I'll bet money that the Secret Service didn't call him on it.

This lane is still there, but reportedly in rather sad shape.  No president wants to spend public money on such a self-serving project, though a few years ago, several bowling organizations volunteered to remodel the lane.  The picture below is an artist's attempt to show what it could look like.

Actually, there is also a third presidential bowling alley.  This is a double set of lanes that President Eisenhower had installed in the Hickory Lodge at Camp David.  Supposedly, this is the set of lanes most used by every president since Nixon.  When Premier Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he asked to see the lanes and seemed fascinated to see the automatic pin setting machines.  Evidently, he was expecting serfs.

This is where President Clinton taught Secretary of State Madelaine Albright how to bowl, where Chelsea Clinton had her Sweet Sixteen birthday party, and  where President Obama celebrated his 48th birthday.  According to the White House press release, he scored a 144.  If true, he had obviously been practicing, since he was observed in April, 2008, bowling a game in Pennsylvania while campaigning for reelection:  That day, he had bowled a 37.

Perhaps this is why he once promised, that if reelected, he would rip out the Presidential bowling alley and replace it with a full-sized indoor basketball court.  So far, this is just another unfulfilled campaign promise.  In politics, as in bowling, split happens.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Wanted: Experienced Cattle Guard

The old cowboy looked down at the cattle guard and swore under his breath. 

"Kent?" he asked.  "Got any other ideas?" 

Mike slowly unhooked the chain from the one of the pipes that made up the cattle guard.  The other end was attached to the bucket of the front-end loader Kent was running.

"I was sure that we could just lift up one side of the cattle guard and dig the dirt out from under it," Kent said.  "But, it looked like the pipe was bending."

"Yep," Mike said.  "And if we can't lift it up, there is only one way we can get all of that dirt out from under it."

Mike looked down at the cattle guard again.  The heavy pipes were set about five inches apart, close enough that a vehicle could cross, but cattle would not even attempt to cross the pipes.  This meant that a cattle guard was a gate that never had to be opened or closed—a real time-saver on a ranch. 

This cattle guard, however, now had dirt filling the usual open space under the pipes.  The recent rains from a a tropical storm that had not come within a thousand miles of the Brazos River ranch had flooded the road and washed in so much dirt and debris that the cattle no longer viewed the cattle guard as an obstacle—something that was made apparent by the cattle the two men had found grazing along the county road that bordered the ranch.  Now safely returned to their pasture, the cattle would be safe as soon as a little maintenance on the cattle guard was finished.

An hour later, the two men were still on their hands and knees, scooping the dirt out from the between the heavy pipes.   It was slow work, but they were making steady progress.

"You know, they've done experiments and all you have to do is paint the pipes on the ground and the cattle won't cross it," said Kent as he lifted another small scoop of dirt out of the space.

Mike stopped for a second and looked at the other man.  "That's nonsense," he said.  "Why wouldn't they just walk across them?"

Before his friend could answer, a county road truck slowly drove around the bend in the county road and the two men could see two workmen laboring behind the truck as it slowly made its way toward the gate.

Staring at the truck, Kent answered, "Cows can't see that well, so they think the stripes painted on the ground are the real thing."

By now, the two ranchers could see that the truck was stopping every 20 feet or so, and one of the two workers was using a posthole digger to make a hole in the ground about two feet deep.

"Those cows could see well enough to realize this hole was full of dirt—and these pipes are real, not just painted on the ground."  As Mike was talking, he stood up so that he could get a better look at the approaching work crew.  As he watched, the man had finished digging the hole, and as the truck slowly moved forward, the man with the posthole digger followed the truck as it drove  another 25 feet up the shoulder of the county road.

Mike leaned back and stretched his back, one hand on his kidney.  "I feel as beat as a rented mule.  Besides, the eyes on a cow are so far apart they have about twice the field of vision as you and I.  What they lack is depth perception:  that's why you see them walk around shadows—they're afraid it might be a hole in the ground."

"But, you see, the cows think...." Kent began, but stopped as he watched the second workman following the truck walk up to the freshly dug hole and begin refilling the hole with dirt.  When it was finished, he followed the workman with the posthole digger as the county truck moved farther up the road.

"Just what in the world are those two fools doing?" asked Mike.  "Why are they digging holes and filling them back up?"

For a long minute, the two men just stood there watching the county workers as they dug another hole and refilled it.  As they watched, the truck finally pulled up roughly in front of where the two old cowboys were working.  Together, they crossed the road and spoke through the open window of the truck to the driver.

"What's going on?" Mike asked.

The driver nodded to the two men and answered, "The county wants to plant trees along the side of the road; they think it will help stop the erosion after heavy rains."

Kent walked over to the back of the truck and looked in.  "Where's the trees?"

"Didn't bother to bring them," the driver answered.  "The guy who plants them, Bob, is on vacation for two weeks."

"Then why are you digging the holes and filling them back in?" asked Mike.

"Well," answered the driver.  "Just because Bob's on vacation doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't get paid."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

This Too Shall Pass

Curiously, I started my career in the hotel business at the top.  My first job was manager of a weird little hotel/bar/restaurant on the Texas/Mexico border.  The certifiably insane owner of the hotel decided—in the midst of a drunken stupor—that I might be able to shake up the place and return it to profitability.

I was superbly unqualified to be the manager of anything.  I knew nothing about hotels, I couldn’t prepare a baloney sandwich, and at eighteen, I wasn’t old enough to set foot in the bar that I was supposed to be running.  I was the kind of incompetent manager that normally one can only find within the ranks university administrators or almost anywhere at the State Department. 

No other business, in my opinion, will provide a young man the kind of diverse education the hospitality industry will provide

Note.  Why in the world do they call it the ‘hospitality’ industry?  Cecil B. De Mille claimed that young actresses were called ‘starlets’ because ‘piglets’ was already taken.  If this rule applied to the hotel business, the true name should be the Mental Health Industry.

My reign as manager of the complex did not start well:  As I drove up and was parking my car at the hotel—a place that I had never before laid eyes on—a young man came barreling out the back door with a case of beer hoisted over one shoulder.  Watching him disappear down the alley, I wondered, “Who the hell was that?”

The next 24 hours were extremely educational.  I learned the head cook thought he should have been promoted to manager, and when he found out that I couldn’t even make coffee, he promptly resigned.  I also learned that in front of the hotel was a neon sign promising, "Fresh Apple Pie Made Daily".  Evidently, a good share of the restaurant's business came from local ranchers and oil field workers who came in before dawn each morning for coffee and pie.  While the morning cook could handle breakfast, the pies had to be prepared the night before.

This taught another great lesson:  When you are the boss, you are either responsible or you are irresponsible—there is no middle ground.  There is simply no substitute for getting the job done, and if all else fails, you have to do it yourself.  Management is exactly like fatherhood:  Everything is your job.

The local drug store (which coincidentally, rented part of the ground floor of the old hotel—making me its landlord) sold me a paperback copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook.  I stayed up all that night--and many more later—learning how to bake an apple pie.  Along the way, I wasted a lot of flour and murdered quite a few harmless apples.  I think my first couple of attempts can still be found behind that hotel; the last time I saw them, they were being used as stepping stones across a wet spot in the alley.  Eventually, I could turn out a pretty fair apple pie. 

Note.  I don’t mind sharing my secrets to making a good apple pie.  Don’t overwork the pastry dough.  The pie looks better if you peel the apples, but tastes better if you leave the skins on.  Slice green apples paper thin.  You can’t use too much cinnamon or sugar.  Add butter.  Add more sugar and butter—no dish was ever sent back to the kitchen because it contained too much butter and sugar.  And the top crust needs three slashes.  One to let out the hot steam and two more because that’s the way your momma did it.

I learned a lot about coffee, so I can tell you there are five grades of coffee; Coffee, Java, Joe, Jamoke, and Carbon Remover. On any given day, I’m happy to have anything in the first three categories.  The last two can only be made by true coffee illiterates (these being tea drinkers, the US Army, and Mormons).  No one will complain if you serve them grade two (Java), but everyone will complain if the coffee isn’t hot enough to injure the drinker.

Another lesson:  People hide crap in hotels rooms and then forget to take it with them.  And usually, it is the same kind of crap:  Tennis rackets, cameras, and drugs are most common.  (Well, except for the expensive bottles of designer shampoo that damn near everyone leaves in the shower.  I worked at one hotel where the head housekeeper collected all those bottles and added it to the detergent used to wash the hotel towels and sheets.  I have no clue whether this actually worked, but the hotel laundry room smelled nicer.)

I have no idea what the street value would be of all the drugs I have thrown out after all those years in the hotel business.  Pills, powders and bales of weed were all tossed because guests couldn’t remember where they had stashed their stashes during bouts of drug-induced paranoia.  While no scientist has yet done research on the matter, every hotel maid can tell you that short term memory leads to marijuana loss.

In short, the hotel taught me that hard work and creativity pay off.  So against all odds, I made that small, little, tiny border hotel profitable and before long, I had made a deal with a seismograph crew working for a major oil company.  These guys went out into the middle of nowhere, set up sensitive instruments, and set off buried dynamite in an effort to map the underground reservoirs of undiscovered oil and gas.  This was dangerous and hard work, and the men who made up the crew were well-paid and overworked.

I rented almost every room in the hotel to the oil company, and signed a contract to provide three meals a day for the entire crew.  (By now, I was buying apples by the pickup load.  Not that those guys were gourmands--they would have eaten cinder blocks with ketchup--but no one could match them for the quantity of pie they put away.) 

We had over fifty of these guys in the hotel, and they were just a little on the rough side.  Five nights out of the week, by the time they got back to the hotel, they were too exhausted to do much more than eat dinner and go to bed.  Saturdays were different:  They worked a half-day, then came back to the hotel to eat dinner, and get cleaned up, after which they promptly went wild every Saturday night.  They drank the bar damn near dry, then went out to party as much as anyone could in a border town that boasted one traffic light, and NO night life.  A lot of the activity involved fist fights, shooting craps, and chasing every woman in town.

By Sunday morning, most of the guys were dead broke and dead drunk, and at least half were in jail.  Sunday night would be as quiet as the grave, and then the whole process would begin again on Monday morning.

Not only were the weekends a little…trying, but by Monday, most of restaurant and bar employees had quit.   Harassing the waitresses was the reason about half the roughnecks got arrested each weekend.  So every Monday, I had to start looking for a new crew to train—which is how I hired the Rios sisters.

Guadalupe and Sylvia Rios were two of the hardest-working employees I have ever had.  (Yes, the Guadalupe River is one of the larger rivers in Texas, but don’t blame me--I didn’t name the girls.)  Deeply religious, smart as a whip, and stunningly beautiful, they were two of the best employees ever.  Guadalupe cleaned that kitchen until even I would eat there, and even more important, she took over the pie making responsibilities.  Sylvia waited tables and was so outgoing and charming to the customers that, for the first time, the restaurant was making more money than the bar. 

And that was my biggest problem:  while both of the sisters refused to set foot in the bar, I knew for certain that as soon as the weekend came, those girls would quit after the way they saw the roughnecks run wild.  I couldn’t just give them the weekend off:  we didn’t have enough other employees to cover, but SOMETHING had to be done!  In hindsight, I can only plead youthful exuberance and galloping stupidity for the plan I hatched to keep my two best employees.  The chief of the seismograph crew had already announced that the next week, they would be relocating to the next county, so my plan only had to work one time…

You will remember that we fed those four dozen guys at the hotel Saturday night before they went out to party.  Every Saturday night, we set up the restaurant tables in long rows, then put out platters of food, banquet-style.  That night, each table had a large pots of kidney beans in barbecue sauce thick with chopped onions and peppers—a favorite of the crew.

The beans were especially popular that night:  the guys liked the new, slightly sweeter taste.  (Remember?  No one ever complains about too much sugar.)  The un-named, but key ingredient was a surprisingly large amount of chocolate-flavored Ex-lax—in the kind of quantity one could only obtain if he was the landlord to a pharmacy for which he had a set of keys.)

This was not a terribly clever plan—Effective, but not clever.  When the meal was over, there wasn’t a single bean left in any of the pots.  The men ate, galloped off to get cleaned up….and vanished.  We hardly saw them for the rest of the weekend.  Several phoned the front desk for more toilet paper, but otherwise, it was a peaceful weekend.

A few rugged individuals showed up the next morning for breakfast.  The buffet featured a mercy dish:  grits with cheese.  The rationale was that this was light...but binding. 

Since I was not murdered (with my corpse shoved down a dynamite-packed drill pipe), the crew obviously never caught on to the deliberate nature of my plan.  Within days, they were gone.  When I left the hotel in the fall to start my days at the University of Houston, the Rios sisters were still working there. 

Last I heard, beans were still on the menu.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Reformatting Formats

This has been one of those weeks at Enema U, I have spent more time working with people with computer problems than with my students.  I should complain, but Enema U actually pays me more to solve piddling little computer problems than to teach history.  Go figure!
By coincidence, most of the problems this week concerned trying to recover old files from long-dead computers.  Even after the dead had been resurrected, it turned out most of the files were in word processing programs only slightly more advanced than using pointed sticks in clay tablets. 

No one ever calls the lab and says, "Hey, I have this old file, so worthless that I haven't read it since disco, and God knows I never bothered to back it up or even print out a copy, but if you have time, it might be fun to look at it.  Can you help me?"


It's always, "Oh my God!  It's an emergency.  My only copy of my manuscript is gonna be lost unless you can help me!  I don't remember what the file was called, and I'm not sure where I saved it on this ancient hard drive, but YOU HAVE TO HELP ME!"
I personally have saved the Great American Novel at least a dozen times.  Not that any of them ever got into print.
Safe copies of one’s work have always been a problem: it is not something new to the digital age.  Even with printed records, how many copies were enough?  Libraries burn, copies can get lost, and paper is fragile.  If paper is your only storage medium, then nothing is permanent.  Most of the books printed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were printed on paper with such a high acid content, that nowadays, libraries routinely find that precious volumes have turned into faded confetti.  Even today, some publishers print their hardbacks on such poor quality paper that the expected lifetime of the volumes is less than 20 years.
For a guy who is still angry at the Romans' burning of the library at Alexandria, this situation is entirely unacceptable.  Some of the greatest mystery stories ever were those of The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle.  But none of us will ever be able to read all of them, since several unpublished manuscripts went down with the author when the Titanic sank.

You would think that computers would provide some form of remedy, but they actually have made the problem far worse.  For years, every word processing program went out of its way to make sure that every document saved would be compatible with every other word processing format.  Eventually, public pressure created a need for some forms of open format:  ASCII, RTF, and PDF files being the most popular.

NOTE.  When I just happened to mention in passing to my wife, The Doc, the universal knowledge of ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) she gave me a blank look.  In the twenty-first century, how can anyone NOT understand ASCII?  Incredulous, I asked her, "C'mon!  What is ASCII 65?" 
She didn't know!  Wives are weird.
The fact that some documents could be saved in an almost universal format did not solve the problems, since every computer used a different storage system to save the file.   Simply put, a disk from one computer was unreadable to a computer from a rival manufacturer (sometimes, it could not even be transferred between two models of computer from the same manufacturer--how's THAT for planned obsolescence?).  And it has always been this way.
In 1976, manufacturers and programmers met in Kansas City to agree on a standard format for storing data on cassette tapes.  (Yes, before the floppy disk drive became affordable, early computers stored data on cassette tapes...Badly.)  Everyone at the meeting quickly agreed on a standard--the Kansas City Standard.  And then almost all of them went home and developed their own proprietary standards incompatible with the new standard, in the desire to lock in their own customer bases.

At the same time, the hardware itself was changing constantly.  Computer cards were replaced by paper tape, which was replaced by cassette tape, which was in turn replaced by floppy disks that came in a bewildering assortment of both sizes and capacities.  Which holds more data, a single-sided, single formatted 10" diskette or a double-sided, hard-sectored 5.25" inch disk?   Unfortunately, none of them can be relied on to be readable after resting in a file cabinet for a decade.

I once had a lawyer promise to pay me any sum of money I wished if I could resurrect data stored on Mag Cards from a IBM typewriter system from the 1970's.  And for the amount of work it took me, I was still underpaid.  Even IBM didn't have one of those antique systems in its museum.

Zip drives, CD drives, DVD (single and dual layer), Thumb drives, and Blue-ray disks...while the storage capacity of the new drives keeps increasing dramatically, there is almost no backward compatibility.  (And almost no one remembers to copy data from old devices to the new devices).  There is no such thing as permanent storage.  Whether we like it or not, every day the world loses the last copy of something.
The temporary nature of our collected knowledge reminds me of the old Roman practice of the the triumphal parade of a victorious general.  As he guided his chariot through the crowds of cheering citizens, a slave stood on the rear of the chariot, holding a laurel wreath over the general's head while gently whisperer a reminder.

"All glory is fleeting."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

I Hanker to Hunker

It has rained enough this week that locals are checking their driver’s licenses to see if they still live in New Mexico.  Normally, around here, it is so dry and dusty the children adopt tumbleweeds as pets and the Spanish Doves build their nests out of barbed wire.  Dry is one of the things we do well in New Mexico. 
All this rain is creating a couple of problems with the rock walls surrounding my house:  some of the formerly bone-dry mortar is leaching out of the walls and one or two of them are starting to look a little lazy.  (Rock walls are something else New Mexico does well.  This is a great place to build with rock and adobe because it never rains—at least, until this week.)
Suddenly, I have to patch my own rock walls and masonry is not in my skill set.  I can fly a hot air balloon, I know which end of a hammer fits the hand, and I can even bake you a fair loaf of cheese bread—but working with concrete is a pain in the ass.  (Come to think of it, most of the men I know are pretty good cooks.  Restaurants, unfortunately, are not one of the things Southern New Mexico does well.  The local notion of a seven course meal is a six-pack of Corona beer and a burrito.)
I miss my rock wall guy.  He would know how to patch the mortar, replace a few missing stones, and while he was doing it, I could get him to build a few new walls.   José built all the sturdy rock walls around my house, and he did it fast and incredibly cheaply.  He was by far the best rock guy I have ever met, and at the bargain prices he charged, I could always find a new wall project. 

Not that there weren’t a few problems working with José.  First off….well, let’s just say he was of questionable citizenship.  Donald Trump would either deport him or have him rebuild Trump Tower in stone. 
It was not even remotely possible that José was from New Mexico.  Quite a few people born locally either learn English as a second language, or not infrequently, never learn it.  In José’s case, he could speak neither English nor Spanish.  José spoke only a dialect of Nahuatl. 
For those of you who have not studied Pre-Columbian Mexican History in my class (and you are welcome—Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:20), Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs, and roughly 1.5 million people still use it—almost all of whom live in Central and Southern Mexico.  New Mexico has 19 pueblos and 3 reservations, but none of them are for the Aztecs.  While a lot of Spanish words have made their way into the Nahuatl vocabulary (and a lot of the really good Spanish profanity has its roots in Nahuatl) it is not the same language.
Luckily, whenever José came to my house to build a new wall, he brought his grandson with him.  His grandson, about 7, had a fair working vocabulary in Spanish, Nahuatl, and English.  His skill in English was about even—poor—with my skill in Spanish (minus the interesting profanity).  So, every time I needed a new rock wall, the three of us would gather in my front yard and enact our own little private version of the UN.  There was a lot of waving of hands and hunkering and drawing in the dirt. 

Since my prodigious hate mail indicates that my readership includes a large number of Yankees, I should explain about hunkering and drawing in the dirt.  In Texas, this is an art form as respected as fiddle playing, bass fishing, or playing dominoes. 

The hunker and draw is a skill honed over eons of time that got its start with primitive man who hunkered down around his fire and drew crude figures in the dirt as he lied about that day’s hunt.  Even today, a good hunker damn near requires a stick in the hand to draw in the dirt.  If two Texans spend more than thirty seconds discussing a deer hunt, they’ll both get down on their haunches and start to draw in the dirt.

After thousands of years of technological improvement, the only real improvement in education is that we have exchanged ‘the hunker and draw’ for PowerPoint.  Socrates described a classroom as a log with a teacher on one end and a student on the other.  If Socrates had been a Texan, he’d have held school without the log.

One of the built-in advantages of hunker and draw is that there is an automatic time limit.  After about half an hour, the newcomer will need a crane to stand up, and as his legs develop a Charley Horse that could run the Kentucky Derby, he may find himself readily consenting to proposals that he might find objectionable standing upright.  If the United Nations building had been erected in Fort Worth, by now we would have achieved world peace.

I would try to get my department head to hold the next faculty meeting outside so we could all gather under a tree for a good hunker, but the damn Yankee, bless his heart, probably can’t tell the difference between a good hunker and a squat.

Even with the best of dirt drawings, communication was difficult.  There is only so much information that you can pass through the vocabulary of a 7 year old.  I learned that the word rock—piedra in Spanish—is teti in Nahuatl.  And flat stone—piedra plana in Spanish—is tepatiachtli in Nahuatl.  Don’t try to pronounce that, it will make your throat hurt worse than speaking German.  (That will probably piss off Professor Grumbles, the German professor.  But, maybe he won’t read this.  He recently retired and opened a Bavarian bistro he calls the Wurst Bar.)

Occasionally, mistakes were discovered in our design.  If you drive by my house, you will notice that the front wall has a definite slant as it runs east.  I have no idea why, but maybe the “blueprints” needed a sharper stick.  I blame it on the 7 year old—it’s hard to teach construction to children.
That front wall was the last job José did for me, since he seems to have vanished.  I haven’t been able to find him for years, and I have really tried.  When he did that last job for me, he laboriously asked—through our translator—if he could deliver the necessary rocks in the cool of the evening, and then start the job the next day.  Naturally, I agreed to the plan.

That night, when I went to bed, the rocks had not been delivered.  I wasn’t particularly worried as doing jobs on schedule is another thing that New Mexico doesn’t do particularly well.  I was certain that in a day or two, José would finish the job. 

The next morning, I was surprised to see a mountain of stone in front of my house.  (So were my neighbors, for José had stacked them in the street, not in my yard!)  How he had managed to put so many large rocks in front of my house without waking me is still a mystery.  By the time I left for work, José had arrived and happily begun assembly of my new wall.

When I arrived at Enema U, there was something of a traffic jam in front of the new Sports Chalet, still under construction, at the end of the football field.  It looked like every policeman on campus was gathered around where they were building a new….rock….wall….around….the parking lot.

Suddenly, I understood how José could build the cheapest rock walls in town.  I have no idea if this had anything to do with his sudden disappearance. 
I think of José every time I drive by the Enema U stadium.  I hope he comes back to town before they finish building the new art building.