Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Door

Previously, I have written about the old Jack Tar Hotel in Galveston, which unfortunately isn't there anymore. As far as I know, the largest remaining piece of that hotel is a single weathered brick sitting on a shelf in a bookcase in my office.  Several hurricanes ate the rest of the old hotel, taking a bite or two from me in the process.

This is just about the end of the hurricane season, so I have been thinking about the old hotel lately.  Every hurricane gnawed at the hotel (in some cases the damage was spectacular), but even the smallest tropical depression brought wind damage and flooding--this is the inevitable fate of anything built directly on a beach.  An oceanographer once told me that the ocean eventually either buries or washes away everything it touches, and a little of both eventually destroyed the hotel.

Not all the hotel's destruction was caused by nature, however:  It suffered through a few man-made storms, too.  Some of the "storm damage" was caused by the exuberant application of the law by the off-duty police officers I employed as hotel security.  Someday, I really should record a few stories about "Too Cold" Taylor and "Colonel Klink”.  (I'll have to check on the statute of limitations first).

The worst man-made storm damage, however, was caused by conventioneers.  The only safe way to attend a convention of the Telephone Workers of America is from inside an Abrams battle tank--And keep the hatch firmly dogged!  It still mystifies me how such a group of harmless-looking people could hold such a wild drunken convention and it was simply amazing how many of them ended up in either the county hospital or the county jail! 

One convention that stands out in my memory is a convention that started out fairly mildly, anyway.  The Mattress Tax Tag Collectors of Texas (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) was the kind of mild-mannered group that could be counted on to arrive with a dirty t-shirt and a five dollar bill...and by the time the convention was over and they had left the island, they wouldn't have changed either one.

So it was something of a surprise when the front desk got a call about 3:00 AM, from a guest in one of the of the lanai rooms, complaining about the noise from a room occupied by one of the Mattress Tax Tag Collectors.. 

It was standard policy at the hotel that in the advent of anything really weird, the front desk was to call a manager instead of security, who would then make the decision about whether to call security.

The lanai rooms were strange, two-story bungalows, scattered around the pool; each one was comprised of only two rooms, with the upper room accessed by a flight of stairs.  This shows the age of the hotel:  not only would this kind of room fail to meet current ADA compliance, but cleaning these rooms would be far too labor-intensive for today's wages.

When I got to the room in question, sure enough, there were loud sounds of a man's moaning and sighing.  I couldn't make out all the words, but I could occasionally hear what sounded like someone saying, "Help!  Help me!"

When no one answered my knock on the door, I used my passkey let myself into the room.  The television was on, the room was obviously occupied, no one was in sight, but there was loud moaning coming from the bathroom.

As I moved into the bathroom, I found the source:  A very large--and very naked--man was lying on the floor, covered in splintered pieces of wood, lying half across what had once been a sliding pocket door separating the shower from the rest of the bathroom.  His badly scraped and slightly bleeding body was half in one room, and half in the other, and the remains of the door had a large man-shaped hole right through it.

Note.  When Rene Magritte painted the picture to the right, I doubt that he had this use in mind, but it did sort of look like this.

The man was all but unconscious and incoherent, and it took almost an hour to get the poor man to calm down, to stop crying, to remove most of the tiny splinters of wood, to get him covered with a towel, and to be relaxed enough to tell me what had happened.  For the record, there is an awful lot of naked on a large panicky, semi-conscious, naked, (Did I already mention that he was NAKED?) man!

The story unfolded like this:  Despite being somewhat claustrophobic, and alone, the guest had locked the door while taking a shower, but when he tried to unlock the door, it had become jammed.  Before long, according to him, he had "run out of air", had begun choking, and had passed out.  The next thing he knew, I was helping him up and he had absolutely no memory of crashing through the door.

Now, this had been a standard pocket door that slid in and out of the wall.  There was no way it could actually jam:  the latch could be flipped open with a hard stare, so it was rather obvious that the man had just freaked out and in a blind panic had simply crashed through the door.

Eventually, I got the man reoriented and calmed down, and with the help of a bellboy, moved him to another lanai room.  I wasn't too worried about the destroyed door since maintenance could replace it the next day, then housekeeping could vacuum up the remaining wood splinters, and the room would be ready for occupancy the next night.   I wasn’t even going to try and get the guest to pay for the damages, I figured the poor guy had suffered enough embarrassment.

The next morning, as I was making the rounds of the hotel, I passed the room with the destroyed door and saw a note taped on the front door.  Curious, I walked over and read it:

"Jerry, I've moved to 233.  I had a little trouble with the bathroom door in this room.  I had to get tough and use karate on it.  Steve."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

You Can Hang Your Hat on It

It seems that Enema U is not the only university run by lemmings who regularly manufacture mountains of fear from molehills of facts.  The President of the University of Delaware has declared a campus emergency—someone left rope nooses hanging from trees. 

(What is the proper plural collective noun for a noose?  Nooses sounds absurd.  Say it out loud and you'll see what I mean.  It is absolutely impossible to say 'nooses' ten times as fast as you can.)

"We will not tolerate this hate crime!" thundered President Taggert.  "We must all stand together against intolerance."

This statement was probably the very first clue that something was wrong.  First, when someone says, "We should all stand together," you should immediately sit down firmly on your wallet.  A contrarian by nature, I firmly believe the wisdom of the masses is a pernicious falsehood on a scale that would intimidate organized religion.  If the collective opinions of the great unwashed were valid, then the finest newspaper in the world would be National Enquirer, the finest beer would be Bud Light, and Congress would deserve to be reelected.

Always run in the opposite direction of the crowd:  If nothing else, you will avoid traffic jams.

Second, can we all just back off a little on the "hate speech"/"hate crime" labels?  There is no right to be protected from being offended—even deeply offended.  Inoffensive speech does not need protection.  You can go to the most regulated and controlled areas of the world—even San Francisco—and praise the local governmental leaders and no one will bother you.  If you do not protect offensive speech—even hateful speech—you are not protecting any speech at all.

The campus hate crime was discovered just hours after a university sponsored protest by the Black Lives Matter group had ended on campus.  This led several students to speculate on the school's website that the nooses (nuces?) were an obvious reference to Southern Jim Crow laws and KKK lynchings.

Sure enough, shortly after President Taggert went on television denouncing the hate crime,  and shortly after the campus police announced they were launching an investigation (this probably meant questioning every student from Mississippi), it was determined that the nooses (Neesi?  Noosi?) were actually the remains of paper lanterns that had gotten a little wet in the rain.  To be fair, it was a hate-filled rain that came up from the south.  And the paper lanterns were made in Southern China.

Why had so many people looked at the remains of wet paper lanterns and leaped to the wild conclusion about racial hate crimes?

This kind of reminds me of the Great Satanic Site in New Mexico.  This is not something tourists will find on the map, even though it is still there. 

It was 1990, and a utility worker stumbled across a large geometric pattern of old tires, laid out in the desert scrub.  The design, almost 500 feet on each side, included three hexagrams, each with a seven tire dot in the center.  The three hexagrams were connected by five lines of tires—altogether, the design used over 450 tires!

A local police officer, who lectured to area high schools about the seductive dangers of Satanism, warned that the area was obviously in use by local practitioners of witchcraft.  "I'd stay away from the area if any people are around," he said to reporters.  "They'll hurt you."

The Associated Press interviewed several experts.  An expert on symbolism agreed that the symbol was connected to witchcraft, and added that it was obviously connected to a moon cult.  A promoter of psychic affairs testified that the steel-belted desert pattern was "a powerful and spiritual symbol."

By this point, TireHenge had been on the front pages of the local papers for almost a week and featured such details as aerial photographsand the rather grisly discovery of mounds of chicken bones:  the obvious result of ritualistic sacrifices!

Just as the site was becoming the subject of sermons by local pastors, a large number of rather sheepish men—most of them very prominent in civic and social affairs—stepped forward and admitted responsibility for the design.  The design was the layout for a three-way soccer match.  (This is in NO WAY connected to what I wrote about two weeks ago!)

The first game was—I swear!  I'm not making this up!—the Albuquerque Police Department, the Fire Department, and the Parks Department.  The mayor was one of the players.

When asked why it took them so long to come forward, one of the players said, "From what was being printed, we didn't recognize ourselves."

This is exactly the point:  Any act, speech, or behavior can be labeled as evil, deviant, or hate-filled by someone else—someone who is looking for evil in it.  If we allow those in power to label our actions, then it won't take long for the politically incorrect speech—the uncomfortable speech—to equal a "hate crime".  Label something as hate, racism, or prejudice and even those involved won't recognize themselves.

Oh, yes!—and those chicken bones?  They came from that well-known practitioner of the Dark Arts—Colonel Sanders.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

One in a Thousand

The American Civil War occurred at an unfortunate point in technological development: quite simply, we had just gotten very good at killing each other. 

In the first few battles, generals were shocked by the large number of casualties—and those who were wounded had devastating wounds.  This new lethality was the result of recent improvements in rifled barrels, consistently performing gunpowder, and bullet designs.  Suddenly, the average rifleman could reliably kill at 400 yards, reload quickly and do it again.

This was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and improved technology would make this the deadliest war in American history.  Railroads, steamships, improved metallurgy, better metal casting—all of these contributed to making the war a bloodbath.

Even so, it could have been worse:  the war stimulated innovation and rewarded creativity, particularly in the field of weapons, which improved dramatically. 
Note:  It is a sad commentary on the human race that we show our best creativity while trying to murder each other.  Look, for example, at the Second World War:  at the start, we were flying fabric-covered biplanes, but by the end of the war, sleek metallic darts were creeping close to the speed of sound, powered by jet and rocket motors.  If you were to chart the progress of wartime technology (and had the war lasted another ten years), the Big Red One would have established a beachhead on the moon.

The casualties of the Civil War could have climbed dramatically if overly conservative generals had adopted repeating rifles when they had the chance.  Two rifles in particular—the Spencer and the Henry—could have dramatically changed the course of the war if they had been widely adopted.  (I have already written about the Spencer, Lincoln's favorite rifle.)

The Henry is a 16-shot, lever-action rifle that utilizes the (then) new metallic cartridges that were so popular with the soldiers.  Operating the lever ejects the spent cartridge casing, loads a new round, and cocks the weapon's hammer so quickly and smoothly that in the hands of an experienced marksman, the rifle sounds like a slow-firing machine gun.  Impervious to weather, easy to load, and rapid-firing, the rifles, while more expensive than the commonly used Springfield muskets, were a dramatic improvement in technology and lethality when introduced.

Despite the proven effectiveness of the rifle, the Federal Ordnance Department purchased only 1,731 Henry rifles, but thousands more were sold directly to the men.  Over 200 men in the Illinois 7th, dissatisfied with the single-shot rifles they had been issued, purchased their own Henry rifles, despite the astronomical cost of $50 per rifle. 

It wasn't long before the rifle was known in the south as "that tarnation Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week."

Ironically, the very companies that had profited from the war, went bankrupt because of the peace that followed it.  The federal government no longer had a need for so many weapons, and sold off the surplus arms—including the Spencer and Henry lever action rifles—for as little as $2 each.  Effectively, the arms companies were priced out of the market by their former best customer, who was selling their own products below cost.

Oliver Winchester was a businessman who had become rich manufacturing and selling shirts, and had used some of his earnings to invest in industries manufacturing war goods for the government.  When the firearms companies began failing, Winchester bought up the company manufacturing the Henry and renamed it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  Within a short time, he also bought the rights to the Spencer rifle. 

By 1866, a new improved version of the rifle had been produced, the Winchester 1866, commonly called the "Yellow Boy" because of the brass receiver.  This rifle had two important improvements;  a wooden forearm was added (the previous rifles were painfully hot to hold after a few rounds were fired) and the tubular magazine under the barrel was sealed and a loading gate was added to the receiver, facilitating reloading.

In the years following the Civil War, two events changed the Winchester:  the first was the rise of the metallic cartridge—the day of the paper cartridge was over.  The second, was the advent of the efficient revolver using those metal cartridges.  The Colt Firearm Company introduced the Colt Single Action Army, a six-shot, reliable revolver—the famous Colt Peacemaker—in 1873.  That same year, The Winchester Repeating Arms Company released the Model 1873, changing the world of firearms forever.

The new Winchester rifle was much stronger, manufactured from steel rather than brass, and was chambered in a new more powerful cartridge, the .44 WCF (Winchester Centerfire).  The new rifle/cartridge combination was reliable and powerful, and quickly became the most popular firearm in America—so popular that Colt was forced to offer its revolver using the same cartridge.

This combination made both guns far more popular than the addition of either would have by itself.  Cowboys liked the convenience of having a rifle and a pistol that both used the same powerful cartridge.  The general store in almost any settlement in the West might not have a lot of inventory, but it certainly had a box of .44 ammo on the shelf.

This rifle was, and still is, used by almost everyone.  Outlaws and peace officers, Indians and settlers—everyone used it except the military, that is until Colonel Custer and and his men were wiped out by Lakota armed with rapid-firing Winchesters, causing the military to finally change its mind about using the Winchester.  It did not take long for the rifle to be used all over the world.  Even today, the .44 Winchester has killed more game—and people—than any other rifle.  Within a few years, the Winchester became the rifle known as the "Gun That Won the West."

By 1875, Winchester began making a limited edition of the 1873 Winchester, the "One of One Thousand."  Hand-crafted and fitted, the rifle had special stocks and case-hardened blueing.  The highly sought after rifles originally cost roughly $100, and if you have one of the 136 that were manufactured, it will bring over $500,000 at auction. 

In 1950, James Stewart starred in Winchester '73, a movie about one of the rare One in One Thousand rifles.  If you watch it, you can actually see one of the rare rifles.  The movie, set in the year 1876, also inexplicably features a Winchester Model 1892. 

The 1879 Winchester made Oliver Winchester incredibly rich.  When he died, the company passed to his son, William Wirt Winchester, who died less than a year later.  The wealth and almost half of the company stock passed to his wife, Sarah Winchester.  Sarah, unfortunately, believed that the ghosts of the people killed with the various Winchester rifles were haunting her.

Fleeing the spirits of fallen soldiers from around the world, Indians, outlaws and rustlers, Sarah moved from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, California.  Somehow, the ghosts of the slain still found her, so Sarah began construction of a home that could trap and confuse the spirits that chased her.  Beginning in 1884 and continuing until her death in 1922, the Winchester Mystery House (pictured at right) was under continuous construction.  Almost 5 acres in size, the house had over 160 rooms, three elevators, and two ballrooms.  The house featured stairs to nowhere, false doors, and a labyrinthine floor plan that changed so often that even the number of floors in the house changed over time.

Did Sarah really believe that she would perish if the house was completed?  Was she really trying to trap the lost souls killed by Winchester rifles?  The answer is one in a thousand.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Football Returns to Enema U

Once again, it is that time of year when the administration struggles to ramp up a trickle of school spirit for our football team.  I have never actually understood why this is so important, but ever since the state legislature started a poor football team with a small university attached to it, having a season good enough to warrant an invitation to a bowl game has remained the unobtainable goal for longer than the last half a century. 

We aint very smart, but we are faithful.  Of course, you can say the exact same thing about churchgoers and dogs.

The university is still reeling from last weeks decisive loss to a top-ranked team by only a few score of points.  This was one of those blood games, where good teams get to polish their skills by beating the holy hell out of smaller, and less experienced teams.  This is a win for everyone:  fans at the other school get an easy victory to start the year, Enema U gets a fat paycheck, and the Enema U team gets to learn from experience.

That last point—learning by losing badly to a superior opponent—is universally recognized as the surest path to improvement.  This is, of course, why today's French Army is a superpower feared all over the world.

Several years ago, I had a student in one of my classes who participated in one of those blood games.  This young man was enormous:  every time he walked into my classroom, he filled the doorway.  And while he was an excellent student and very good natured, every time he came into the room, I would start to look around for something to hit him with...just in case. 

After the team had participated in one of those blood games—against the number one ranked college team in America—he returned to my class with a fresh viewpoint about playing the sport. 

“Those guys,” he confided to me, “were as big to me as I am to you.”
Not that the school is not trying...We have built a multi-million dollar scoreboard, and the opposing teams use it regularly.  We have built a multi-story sports chalet at one end of the field, so the large-dollar donors who enjoy going to the game can….not really be at the game.  (That one may need to be rethought.)  Currently, we are spending some big bucks to renovate the press boxes in a desperate attempt to solicit sympathy from the sports reporters.  (Also, in case of bad weather, its possible that both fans could retreat there to get out of the rain.)
Obviously, I have a suggestion...One that has already (sort of) proven successful.
In 1944, major league baseball was in serious trouble:  quite a few of the better players—as well as millions of fans—had either enlisted or had been drafted to fight in World War II.  The sport was so desperate for talent that team roster contained men in their forties and youngsters too young to enlist—one as young as fifteen.  With game attendance suffering, a few of the New York sportswriters came up with a wild—and patriotic—way to boost attendance. 
A three-way baseball game was organized between—or rather—among the three professional teams in New York.  The Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers would play in a single game, using a rather complicated rotation scheme worked out by a slide-rule-equipped Columbia University mathematician.  
Each team would both field and bat for two innings, then would sit out an inning, before coming back to bat.  After nine innings, each team would have been at bat for 6 innings:  three innings each against both of the other two teams.  There was a small problem with three teams sharing two dugouts, but since the Giants and Dodgers were both in the National League and were intensely bitter rivals, the Yankees—from the American League—shared a dugout with the Dodgers and left the home dugout to the Giants.
The game, nicknamed the Tri-Cornered Game, was an incredible success.  No tickets were sold, but anyone who bought a war bond was admitted for free.  With a total attendance of 50,000, the patriotic fans raised a total of over $55 million dollars (or roughly $750 million in today's dollars). 
There were supposed to be three ceremonial first pitches thrown out by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, but the strain of the first pitch was too much exertion for the mayor, so the next two pitches were cancelled.  Milton Berle entertained the crowd as 500 wounded service men were brought into the stadium.  The Coast Guard band played, and there was a rather strange contest to see who could hit the longest fungo.  The winner was an eighteen-year-old rookie with the rather unlikely name of Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish.  (For those of you who dont know, a fungo is when a player tosses a ball into the air and then hits into the outfield, usually for fielding practice.  And Tuskahoma is Choctaw for Red Warrior.  Obviously, McLishs parents had a sense of humor.)
Scoring was a little complicated, but by the end of the game the Dodgers came in first, the Yankees, second, and the Giants, last.  And there is the point to all of this:  there were two "winners" and only one "loser" in this game.
If Enema U could play a three-cornered football game—possibly with one team resting each quarter while the other two teams played—this would improve our odds of not coming in last by 50%.  We would be doubling our chances of beating another team.
Who knows?—If this new way of playing turns out to be profitable, eventually, they could rebuild the stadium—always a popular idea with an administration suffering from an Edifice Complex—so as to accommodate a three sided playing field, thus allowing a dramatic increase in the number of seats in the stadium.  Currently, most of them will remain empty, but theres always hope for next year.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Banana and a Cup of Coffee

Thirty years ago, I was in Honduras researching a revolution that helped establish The United Fruit Company as the 800-pound gorilla in Central America for decades to come.   While I had already found a little information along the coast, at the site of the actual banana plantations, most of the information I was now looking for was located in the government archives. 

Researching in Tegucigalpa, the capital city, had its attractions:  lodging, food, and Port Royal beer were all inexpensive.  On the downside, my hotel room came with a free, mandatory sauna, every meal I ate came with bananas, and it became painfully obvious that if a poor country has a financial crises, the first agency to lose its funding is the archives. 

Just getting to Tegucigalpa is an ordeal.  Toncontin Airport has just one runway—one that is woefully too short—and it is nestled in the mountains in such a way that approaching planes have to make an ‘Sturn between peaks on the approach and plant the wheels firmly on the numbers.  This is a trick that not every plane has successfully executed; the last disaster was the crash of an Airbus 320 from El Salvador that ran off the end of the runway.  (Though to be fair, the pilot had ignored the control tower and attempted to land on the wrong end of the runway, with the wind at his back, and only touched down after he had flown past half the already inadequate runway.  Thats not a landing, thats a murder-suicide.)

After I survived the landing, my first hint that things were, perhaps, not going to go as planned was my passage through customs.  No one actually even glanced at my luggage—evidently Honduras is a place from which you smuggle goods out, not into.  Then, when the clerk examined my passport, he asked me a difficult question.
“Is your trip business or pleasure, Señor?” 
This stumped me:  As a grad student, I didnt believe there was any way I was going to make any money off my thesis.  (Now, thirty years later, I can still attest to that fact.)  I wasn’t employed, but I had come to "work" on my project. 
“Pleasure,” I announced, finally.
The customs official looked up from my passport.  “Really?” he asked.  From the surprised look on his face, I got the distinct impression that I was the first person to ever give that answer.  Nevertheless, he stamped my passport and let me officially enter his country.  It was time to do research.
After depositing my bags in my rather decrepit hotel room, I hurried to the American Embassy.  I had a letter of introduction to the embassys cultural attaché officer—someone who I hoped would be able to direct me toward a treasure trove of historical primary documents.  (Preferably something no one else had ever seen—or published—before).  It would be okay with me if the documents were stored in the Ark of the Covenant.
Its not hard to find the US embassy in Tegucigalpa: its the largest building in town, ensconced safely behind massive walls, guarded by Wackenhut Security Guards.  At the hotel, I had learned that due to a drought, the water in the town was only turned on for two hours each morning.  Evidently, this news had not reached the embassy, since as I approached, I came upon a half dozen Honduran women in matching gray uniforms who were washing the embassy sidewalks with garden hoses.  As I was to later discover, this was just one of the reasons the locals hated the embassy.
I had a long wait in the embassy lobby, which provided me with more than enough time to inspect the historical display on “Violence in America During the 1960s”.  Some of the displays featured the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, while others were about race riots in Harlem and Los Angeles.  I have never figured out why the United States decided to showcase this information in an overseas embassy.  Maybe it was to discourage immigration? 
After several hours, I finally made it past the Marines, up an elevator, and into the office of the Third Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer.  The smile vanished from his face as soon as I mentioned that I was doing research into a Honduran revolution, but the smile instantly returned when he learned that I was referring to the Revolution of 1911, and had no interest in any recent revolutionary activity.  I was to see that same sequence of smile-worried frown-smile every time I explained what, then when I was researching. 
After a few minutes of conversation, and carefully scrutinizing my letter of introduction, the embassy officer gave me his only tidbit of research advice.
“Somewhere in this town, I think there is a university,” he said.  “You might want to try their library.”
Warmly thanking the State Department official, I left the embassy, stopping only long enough on the front steps to admire the view of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras—the large campus easily visible in the distance.  (Probably visible from the cultural attaché’s office window).
Over the next ten days, I spent a lot of time at the university, where I discovered two interesting things:  First, I owned a better collection of history books on the revolution in question than the library did.  Second, the brilliantly wise faculty of the History Department had chipped in together and bought a bar across the street from the university.  Now, that's edjumacation. 
It is highly unlikely that the collective faculty of Enema U—in any department—would voluntarily cooperate long enough to purchase a bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry Hill together.
I prowled newspaper offices, government archives, bookstores, libraries, and museums.  Occasionally, I would find something useful, but truthfully, I didn't find much.  I had been far more successful researching this subject in Washington D.C., at the National Archives, or in the archives at Tulane University.  Now that I was actually at the site of revolution…I found almost nothing.
There was one source I really coveted.  I desperately wanted to read the telegrams sent by the Honduran Ambassador in the United States back to the Honduran State Department in Tegucigalpa.  Since the Revolution of 1911 was funded by American businessmen and fought over the objections of both the American State Department and the U.S. Navy, these telegrams had to be full of information that I needed and were more than half the reason I had come to Honduras.
Every morning, I woke early, had a breakfast of strong Honduran coffee and the inevitable fruit plate (read that as "more bananas") and then I would hurry over to the government offices and seek permission to view their files.  It took almost no time at all to learn that the telegrams I wanted to read had been bound into a large leather book and were stored in an office on the second floor.  Each day, I would go to that office, explain my mission, and then patiently wait while a secretary went to check on whether a decision had been reached by someone in authority as to whether I was to be allowed to read those telegrams.
While I waited, I was always politely served more strong black Honduran coffee.  As I sipped my coffee, I could actually see the volume I wanted to study.  For days, the answer was always the same:  'No decision had yet been reached.  Could I come back mañana?'  Yes, I could.  And did...for many days in a row.
The rest of the days was spent in libraries, usually reading fading, yellowed newspapers.  In the evening, the local movie theater had air-conditioning and cheap tickets.  The snack counter had a brisk business selling sugared popcorn and dried banana chips.  Several days went by exactly like this:  coffee, reading, bananas, and Port Royal beer.
Finally, I was running out of both patience and money, and had exhausted every other  source I could think of in Honduras.  There was literally nothing left to read except that blasted bound file of telegrams at the State Department.  By this point, I had gotten to know several of the secretaries in that office rather well.  After all, we had shared many, many cups of coffee together.   About the only thing that ever happened in that office, as far as I could tell, was drinking coffee and answering the phone.
I begged my new friend:  'Could she please get me an appointment with someone who could make a decision?'  I was at the point where I no longer cared if I actually got to see inside the book or not, but would someone make a decision?  The secretary thought she could help.  This may or may not have been influenced by the $20  I slipped her.  If I could wait an hour, she thought I might speak to the Assistant Secretary of State.
I waited.  Considerably longer than an hour later, I was escorted into a large office where two men in white shirts were working on an aging Mr. Coffee machine with a letter opener and a few other assorted office tools.  I was introduced to the one with the letter opener, the Assistant Secretary of State.
Once again, I began my practiced speech about researching an old and forgotten revolution.  Both men glanced up sharply at the word revolution, but as usual, relaxed when they learned that all the participants were long, long dead.  I explained what I wanted to read, where the book was located, and why I wished to see it.  And as I talked, I noticed that the nichrome heating element on the coffee pot was loose and one end was corroded.   As I ended my spiel about the 1911 revolution, I pointed out the busted heating element.  Immediately, the coffee pot was thrust into my hands.
Refusing the proffered letter opener, I used my Swiss Army knife—remember, this was before 9/11 when no one thought anything about someone flying with a modest pocket knife—I scraped a shiny spot on the end of the wire’s terminal and reattached the heating element.
While I worked, the Assistant Secretary of State said, “I don’t think that should be a problem, let me check with the Secretary of State, but Im sure he will have no objections.  Can you check back with me in a few days?”
As he talked, the coffee pot, now reassembled and turned on, began to reheat.  The little hot plate element was obviously getting hot to the touch and the switch was glowing bright red.
I was crestfallen.  Another few days meant staying at least another week in Honduras.  Trying not to appear ungrateful, I explained to the official that all my research was done, that I was running out of both time and money, and pleaded, 'Was there any way that the Secretary could be asked today?' 
Without missing a beat, the assistant secretary turned to the other man and said in Spanish, “What do you think, Carlos?  Can he see the book?”
It took me a full second to realize that the other man, currently with his hand inside a Mr. Coffee, was none other than the Secretary of State for Honduras.  He looked up at me, smiled, and in clear unaccented English said, “Sure, why not?”
Five minutes later, I was reading the book.  I took a couple of photographs, and meticulously copied two telegrams.  Twenty-four hours later, I was back in New Mexico.  (Taking off from that airport is not much fun, either!)
I would love to tell you what the telegrams said, but it would take longer than a simple blog.  It was important stuff, and personally, I think my fascinating thesis should be made into a movie (Ive always thought that Nick Nolte should star!).  Until the movie is produced, Im sure that Inter-Library Loan can get you a copy to read.
It turns out that one of the critical research skills a historian needs is small appliance repair.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Collared by the Inquisition

As something of a political junkie, I have been enjoying this year’s presidential campaign season.  While I find it hard to believe that any of the frontrunners will still be in the race a year from now, I have enjoyed listening to some of the more absurd campaign promises—all of which are long on emotion and totally absent of details.

Evidently, few of the candidates understand how limited the constitutional power of the presidency actually is.  This reminds me of a story a former president of Enema U was fond of telling after he had retired (He damn sure couldn’t tell the story while still holding the job!).

Shortly after moving into the President’s office in Abattoir Hall, the administration building, he discovered that the men’s bathroom near his office only dispensed those tiny little squares of toilet tissue.  About the only thing in a men’s room that is more annoying—with the exception of the impossibility of two men's having a conversation—would be those air-blowing hand dryers that only the very young enjoy using.

As university president, this was one annoyance he really felt he shouldn't  have to suffer, so he dashed off a memo to the maintenance people ordering them to replace the current dispenser with one that would hold rolls of toilet paper.  According to my friend, when he retired from the university years later, the toilet paper dispenser had still not been replaced.  This tale epitomizes institutional inertia and the limited authority of positions of power.

And, of course, it reminds me of another story—a little more historical one:

When Philip IV inherited the family business from his father, Philip III, he was inheriting the largest empire in history:  Spain, Portugal, a third of Italy, Sicily, Flanders, the Philippines, South America, Central America and most of North America.  (This wasn’t even counting the assorted islands scattered all over the world.).  On paper, Philip IV, the sole owner of the Spanish Empire, was beyond rich.

In actuality, Philip had a real mess on his hands.  Most of this was caused by the "simple" fact that Philip was a Hapsburg, a member of the royal family that, for generations, made sure that all the wealth, power, and property remained within the family by requiring each successive king to marry either his first cousin or his niece.  This hereditary manipulation doesn't continue for very long before it produces kings who are suited only to sit in the corner and lick their own eyebrows.  In just one more generation Philip’s son, Charles II, wasn't even able to manage that task. 

Note.  Come to think of it, the family was so closely related that not only was Charles II the son of Philip IV, he was also his own first cousin. And Charles’ sister is also his cousin.  And Charlie’s grandmother is also his aunt.  Royal inbreeding was done in all the royal families.  This is why even today, if you look closely at Prince Charles, you can tell that somewhere in his family tree is a horse.

King Philip tried to stop the downward spiral of Spain, chiefly by some economic reforms, but it was too little and far too late.  Spain was in such desperate need for cash, that it hadn’t even replaced the naval vessels lost when Philip II lost the Armada to Sir Francis Drake.  A royal navy that was supposed to guard Spanish possessions all over the world, consisted of just seven ships. 

Philip could have cut some of the crippling taxes that were hampering the Spanish economy:  between the alcabala (a high sales tax) and the almojarifazgo (an even higher import-export tax), it was impossible for Spain to compete with the rest of Europe.  However, the already cash-strapped Phillip was incapable of long-term planning and actually raised taxes to try to solve his problems in the short term.

The other reason for the economic crisis was that Spain was involved in endless wars trying to protect the Catholic Church against the growing Protestant world—and these were wars that Spain almost always lost. 

Poor Phil tried—he really did.  He announced an austerity program, condemned extravagance, and mandated that, in the future, Spaniards must live pragmatically.  Carefully, the nineteen-year-old monarch examined the royal household budget, paring away 67,300 ducats a year, mostly through cutting the amount of food his servants ate.  Unfortunately, this modest beginning was still a few million ducats short of solving Spain’s financial problems.  Still, he had introduced the concept of simple, pragmatic living.

And the Spanish Inquisition—which no one expected—marched along in lockstep, forcing Spaniards to live pragmatically.  Well, they tried, too.

Forcing people to live pragmatically was fairly difficult.  Eventually, the inquisition found a concrete way of enforcing austerity.  It banned the ruffed collars from clothing—and since the ruffed lace collars would not stand up by themselves, starch was also banned, as a "tool of the devil". 

The ruff, made popular (and enormous) by Philip the Third (pictured at right), was now "evil".  Alquacils (sort of a master-at-arms to enforce justice) were armed with scissors and prowled the streets of Madrid enforcing the ban.  Shops were raided and offending merchandise was burned in the street.  Eventually, offenders were frequently pilloried and fined.

For the fashionable set, this left only the Walloon collar.  This rather plain, ordinary, and downright ugly collar is sort of a flat cape that extends to the shoulders and partway down the back.  Sort of like a lobster bib worn backwards, it was easily wrinkled, got dirty almost immediately, and most important of all, had become popular in despised Protestant Holland. The people of Spain hated it. Pictured at left is a very young Philip IV with a Walloon collar.

Something had to be done!  A collar must be found that was fashionable, not identified with Protestants, and yet pragmatic.  It had to be stiff, but could not use the forbidden starch.  It had to be becoming, but not use foreign lace.

Early in 1623, a Madrid tailor sent a sample new collar to the king.  It was a wide piece of cardboard, covered with white silk on the top, and dark cloth on the bottom to match the wearer’s clothing.  The collar was then stiffened and slightly curved with heated rollers before being covered with multiple layers of shellac.

The king loved them, and ordered a large number of them for personal use.  The tailor hurried back to his shop and began making the royal collars.  But before the order could be finished, someone informed the Inquisition that immoral collars were being created, collars that were stiffened by alchemy, devilish hot machines and strange incantations.  Obviously, this smelled of the Evil One.

The Inquisition (still unexpected) raided the tailor’s shop and found ample evidence of suspicion and witchcraft.  Mysterious pots of shellac were dumped and the poor tailor’s tools and stock were burned in the street directly in front of the shop’s door. 

This infuriated the king, who sent his Prime Minister to reprimand the president of the Inquisition Council. 
“These collars are dangerous new ideas,” said the priest.  “They are immodest and have silk.  They are not pragmatic!”

“Nonsense,” answered Duke Olivares, the king’s minister.  “They are not only the best and most comfortable collars, they are the most economical.  They need no washing, no starching, and will easily last for a year.  Besides, the king wants them.”

Not able to argue with such impeccable logic—the king really did want them—the Inquisition allowed what came to be known as the Golilla collar.  For the next 75 years, they became all but synonymous with the Spanish Empire, becoming mandatory throughout Spain, Spanish Italy, and South America.  Spain continued the downward economic spiral, suffering wars and political upheavals, but the wealthy of the empire were well-dressed.

Appropriately, it was the Hapsburg inbreeding that eventually eliminated the golilla collar.  Charles II, the inbred son of Philip IV, was incapable of producing an heir.  Spain, tiring of kings not quite as intelligent of the horses they rode, turned the monarchy over to a French royal family.  Philip V, a Bourbon, took one look at the strange collar and banned it as barbaric, replacing it with a cravat, already popular in France. 

Over time, the cravat turned into the modern necktie.  Now, we have some potential leaders, most wearing suitable ties, who certainly behave as if they were inbred.  This time, let's try not to elect another Hapsburg.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stop the Presses!

The nation is gearing up for a presidential election, and the press is as happy as a tornado in a trailer park, reporting on a field of candidates that could have stepped out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  Not content with simply reporting the facts, several journalists still feel the need to exaggerate, to confabulate, or to embroider their stories—in short, to lie.
Selling newspapers—or airtime—with exaggerations or lies is certainly not new in America, nor is there any proof that the stories of today are any more exaggerated that those of the last decades of the 19th century—the age of the birth of yellow journalism.
The term "yellow journalism" actually comes from a battle between two New York newspapers, The Journal American of William Randolph Hearst and The World of Joseph Pulitzer.  Both men would stop at nothing to sell their newspapers, with each competing with the other for the most fantastic story.  Strangely, this name for type of journalism comes from something they shared:  The Yellow Kid.
The Yellow Kid was the main character in a cartoon strip called Hogan's Alley, drawn by Richard Outcault.  The Yellow Kid was a young boy with jug ears, two buck teeth, beady blue eyes, and a yellow nightdress.  Living on the wrong side of the tracks, the Yellow Kid could ridicule and satirize the changing world of a city poised to enter the new century.  This comic strip set the standard style still used today—it was showcased in a Sunday supplement to the paper, its conversations appeared as text in balloons above the characters and most of its humor was based on social commentary.  While you may never have heard of The Yellow Kid, you probably are at least remotely familiar with Outcault's other creation, Buster Brown.
While it is little remembered today, the Yellow Kid was very popular, and the two newspapers that carried the strip were called "The Yellow Kid papers", which over time was shortened to "The Yellow Papers"—something that eventually gave rise to the term, "Yellow Journalism". 
Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer invented this type of journalism, however.  In the last half of the 19th century, journalists all over the country spiced up their stories, inflated the facts, and in many cases, just lied from boredom or to sell their papers.  Working as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain invented a California massacre—most likely just for the fun of it.
In Texas, there was a series of exaggerated stories that may be responsible for the very survival of Fort Worth and eventually gave the city the nickname, Panther City, which is still used today.
Shortly after the Civil War, B. B. Paddock, a Confederate officer, set up a law practice in Fort Worth, despite there being no record of his ever having spent a single day in any school.  (To be fair, neither an education nor intelligence seems to have been a prerequisite for practicing law in those days.)  In any case, Paddock relatively quickly abandoned the law and became the editor of the Fort Worth Democrat.
As the editor, Paddock worked passionately to develop the city and to attract investors.  This passion eventually led him to publish a map of Fort Worth that showed no fewer than nine railroad lines leading into the city.  In fact, no such line came within 30 miles of the town.  Rival newspaper editors ridiculed Paddock by calling his creation the Tarantula Map.
Nevertheless, the map did help attract the interest of T&P Railroad, who planned to build a line to the city.  Rapidly, the population of the town grew to 4,000, there was a general building boom, and... inevitably,  a bust.  The banking firm backing the railroad went bankrupt, local business failed, and a mass exodus brought the population of the town down to 1,000.  The very existence of Fort Worth was in question.
One morning, a local citizen pointed at some scratches in the main thoroughfare and declared that a panther had spent the night asleep there, completely unmolested in the middle of a city more dead than alive.  A lawyer (probably one who met the above requirements), on hearing the story, recounted the tale in a letter to a Dallas newspaper, that referred to the nearby city as Pantherville.  (It is interesting to note that, even then, there was a rivalry between the two cities.)
Undaunted, B. B. Paddock adopted the image of a panther on the masthead of his paper and continued to push for investment.  Eventually, Paddock was successful:  the T&P Railroad did come to Fort Worth and prosperity returned.  Sadly, while Paddock is all but forgotten in the town today, the panther lives on.  Fort Worth is proud of her nickname of "Panther City", as reflected in the names of many local businesses.  Today, even the badges of the city police proudly bear the image of a panther.
Speaking of wild animals in city streets:  an earlier newspaper hoax might be the most outrageous example of the 19th century "creative journalism", the true forerunner of yellow journalism.
On Sunday morning, November 8, 1874, the people of New York were startled to read a story on the front page of the Herald:  "A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death", which detailed a grisly accident at the Central Park zoo.  A rhinoceros escaped from his cage, killing his keeper and panicking the rest of the zookeepers, who quickly took flight from the zoo, allowing several other animals to escape in the wooded park.
Lions, tigers, a polar bear, and a panther were among the animals that roamed the park, killing, trampling, maiming, and even devouring the unsuspecting pedestrians strolling through the gardens.  Local hospitals were kept busy tending to the dead and dying New Yorkers, many of them prominent citizens.
Slowly, the terrorized citizens fought back—a group of Swedish immigrants shot a lion that was saturated in the blood of its victims, the rhino was chased until it fell into an open sewer excavation, and the polar bear was pursued until it found refuge in the Central  Park reservoir.
Mayor Havemeyer ordered the city's citizens to stay off the streets until the crisis was over.  Later editions of the Herald explained how the state's governor, John Adams Dix, a hero of the Civil War, had tracked and killed the escaped Bengal tiger.  The same edition listed other animals that had escaped from the zoo, including snakes, sheep, monkeys, and a white-haired porcupine—and included perhaps the most gruesome story yet:  a graphic account of a grizzly bear's devouring an elderly woman inside the Church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue.
Unfortunately, few people read to the very end of the story, where the closing paragraphs explained that the story was false, but could one day be true if the city did not allocate enough funds to renovate and repair the Central Park Zoo.  The story was the brainchild of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and powerful (and crazier than a bucket of frogs) owner and editor of the Herald—the largest and most influential newspaper of the world.
Bennet had built his newspaper on sensation and good writing.  Though he regularly featured the works of the best writers in America—men like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane—Bennet did not hesitate to create news when necessary.  It was Bennet who sent Stanley to locate Livingston in Africa.  The dispatches from Stanley, prominently published in the Herald, were carefully edited to hide the fact that Livingston was neither lost nor in need of "locating"!
Now, Bennet had fabricated a story that aimed to push the city into improving a zoo, and establishing an organized emergency plan for the city.  He was successful in both—the latter idea proved necessary after thousands of New Yorkers, believing the story to be true, rushed the piers and demanded transportation off the island.  Thousands more, stayed home in terror, while a few hardier souls carried rifles into the wooded park in search of escaped animals.
While Bennet's bogus zoo escape is all but forgotten today, several times in the last two weeks—while watching the latest manufactured political news on television—I have been reminded of the event.  Surely, a few of the politicians currently running for president should be rounded up and put back into their cages.