Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Heartless Decision

Thirty years ago, my father had a cherished belief in the efficacy of peppermint candy to cure a long list of ailments.  Heartburn, stomach aches, shortness of breath—you name it—a penny candy was the cure.  Of course, my father was just a poor dumb ol' country boy who left West Texas by way of the CCC and World War II.  

Even after he had a triple bypass in his fifties, he still believed in those little peppermints, saying, "while they couldn't hurt they might help."  There were several on his nightstand the night he suffered his fatal heart attack at age 70.

Now, for the last couple of weeks, his overly edjumacated son has had his own problem with heartburn.  For those of you who are familiar my diet, this probably comes as no surprise, and more than a few of my friends will find it hilarious.  Yes, I occasionally indulge in some "spicy" foods.  Yes, I use Tabasco Sauce as a salad dressing and just recently learned that paprika was more than a colorful garnish designed to make deviled eggs look good.

I would feel this weird pressure on the middle of my chest, but as soon as I ate one of those chewable antacids, the heartburn would miraculously lift.  I got better immediately.  I started carrying a few in my pocket and I kept a bag on my nightstand.  If this sounds familiar, I should point out that mine were flavored strawberry, not peppermint.

Which brings us to July 13 of this year.  New Mexico gets a lot of its tax money from the sale of oil and gas from public lands, and the receipts from this are dramatically down.  We also have a small problem with declining numbers of students graduating from high school.  Somehow, this came as a surprise to the university, which kept expanding programs, erecting new buildings and allowing administrators to multiply and consume resources like grain house rats.  Raises stagnated, enrollment dropped, standards fell, but somehow, we managed to pour millions and millions into a bloated athletic program.  The university was safe because the administration could count on the Board of Regents' annually voting in a tuition raise.

Until the Board of Regents didn't,  Suddenly, the university was facing millions in budget cuts, and the powers that be quickly decided that none of the cuts would come from Athletics.  Well, they did cut the Equestrian Team—despite having just built them a new indoor arena.  This will seem odd to most people who probably believe that riding horses is an outdoor event.  (I seem to remember a King of France and his son, who rode horses inside the Louvre:  perhaps this is the role model for our administration,)

During the televised announcement of the budget cuts, while I and most of the faculty and staff on campus were watching with dread, some very large woman wearing stilettos stood on my chest.  I began sweating profusely (and not just because the university had already begun cutting the air conditioning to my windowless office).  I scooped up those antacids and began chomping away.

But, there was no relief.  Somewhere about the seventh antacid, I began to realize I was in real trouble.  For some reason, I was confused, and I could feel my IQ dropping.  I wandered out in the hall, carefully locking my office door behind me and made my way outside into a scorching New Mexico heat.  I knew where I was going:  just across the street was the Health Center, where both students and employees could go for medical treatment and referral to specialists.  These people had been acting as my primary care physicians for years, and I liked and trusted them.

A lot of what happened then is now a little fuzzy, but I remember standing in the middle of a street for a while wondering if I shouldn't just get in my pickup and drive home to my wife, The Doc. Finally, I made it to the door of the clinic and discovered it was closed for an hour, while the clinic held its employee meeting.  The staff inside was learning, to their horror, that the university was closing the employee side of the clinic and might farm the student half of the operation out to some commercial Doc-in-the-Box company who would run the place for profit.

One of the nurses in the clinic saw me standing out in the heat and came over to the door to tell me the clinic was closed for an hour.  I have this sneaky feeling I looked like a homeless schizophrenic wandering around looking for food. 

I remember thinking how it would be so much easier to just sit on the porch and wait rather than trying to recross that street, but before I sat down, I turned to the young woman and spoke through the glass door.

"Chest pain." I said simply.

And that was all it took.  The people in that clinic saved my life.  Lots of people moved quickly, and I have a little trouble remembering everything.  My blood pressure was off the wall, they gave me oxygen, they put me on a gurney, they started an IV, they called an ambulance, and they put a tiny little nitroglycerin tablet under my tongue.

Nitroglycerin is the best drug in the world!  To my ignorant medical mind, I think we should all be carrying it.  It is WAY better than candy for a heart attack!  Within seconds of that nitro tablet dissolving under my tongue, the evil woman wearing a stiletto stepped off my chest.

Yes, I had a heart attack, and within 24 hours, I also had a quintuple coronary bypass.   The prognosis is excellent, and I should eventually recover and return to work.  But, when I do, the employee health clinic will no longer be there.  The people who stopped listening to the news of their being laid off long enough to save my life, might very well be gone. 

Even while I could barely think, I knew I could trust those people:  I knew they were my only hope.  I knew the doctors and nurses to be an invaluable asset the university should be proud of.  Their loss, if the move continues, would be a deep tragedy.

I have been writing this weekly blog for a little over seven years, and in that time, I have pretty much allowed the readership to grow—or not—on its own.  Today, the nonsense I write each week is read worldwide by between 45,000 to 60,000 people, depending on what I write about.  This week, do me a favor:  Mail this to someone...or even a couple of someones.  Complain a little bit, and suggest that the university reconsider shutting down such a valuable resource.  The Employee Health Clinic has already saved my life.  Maybe the next time they help someone, it will be someone useful.  You know...like a coach?

The university can find the money and it can reverse this decision.  After all, while I was in the Cardiac Care Unit of the local hospital, the administration decided to keep the Equestrian Team.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Pure Blooded Spaniard

Just this last week, I ran across one of those anachronistic people from the northern end of New Mexico.  Way too many of these people still believe they are living in the late 1700’s.

“My family is not Mexican.  My family is from Spain.  We are pure-blooded Spanish.” said the moron.

A pure-blooded Spaniard.  What an interesting concept!  Let’s investigate so we can understand that better.

Much of the warfare that makes up the history of Spain is the result of its geography.  Spain is almost an island: where it is not surrounded by water, it is fairly effectively cut off from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains.  Then, it is separated from Africa by the Straits of Gibraltar--a narrow gap of only 10 miles.

The country itself is slightly smaller than New Mexico and Arizona combined, with a landscape dominated by mountains, so that the average altitude is higher than that of any other European country save Switzerland.  Because the country is crisscrossed by mountains and possesses few navigable rivers, communication and cultural integration across its area was almost impossible.
The archaeological and historical records of the Iberian Peninsula indicate that it has been a place of continuous migrations, movements, and displacement of human populations for a very long time.
Somewhere about 1,200,000 years ago, near the beginning of the Paleolithic Age, the first people arrived on the peninsula.  Most anthropologists call these people Homo Erectus or Homo Antecessor.  We know very little about them, except that they used stone tools, cooked with fire, and occasionally ate each other.  (Thus, meeting all the requirements to join the EU.)
About 200,000 years ago, the Neanderthal arrived.  (While it is very tempting to insert a reference here to the administration of Enema U—or at least to our football team—I’m going to pass.)
No one knows for certain what happened to Homo Erectus, but they vanished after the Neanderthal arrived.  Whether this was caused by attrition from competition for food or absorption by intermarriage, no one knows.  After attending faculty meetings for a few decades, I think the Neanderthal ate them.  But, I could be wrong--perhaps they are still alive and serving in Congress.
As Homo Sapiens spread across Europe, it is now generally agreed on  that the Neanderthal were driven into the Iberian Peninsula, with their last refuge being close to Gibraltar; current belief is that Homo Sapiens simply absorbed the Neanderthal through cross-breeding. 
An early group who left an enduring record of its presence there consisted of  ancient artists who decorated the famous cave of Altamira, in what is now Northern Spain. The images there--mostly of vaguely bull-shaped animals that are beautifully represented on a low stone ceiling--were painted at least 13,000 years ago and are still extraordinarily well-preserved.  It seems plausible that these artists, who "invented graffiti", may well have deliberately chosen this place as a gallery in order to pass their artistic legacy on to future generations. If so, their efforts have met with spectacular success, as many modern-day visitors to the site can confirm.
A later group--the Iberians--gave the region its name. It is believed that the Iberians began arriving in Spain some 5000 years ago, from Northern Africa and occupied mainly the southern area up to and including the Ebro valley.  They absorbed the previous, unnamed inhabitants of the area.
The name Ebro itself is from Iber, which is Iberian for "river." In the valley of the Ebro and near the Valencian coast, the Iberians achieved a flourishing culture. They lived in walled cities, and some of the megalithic stones used in their buildings still remain in place. The Iberians were a small, wiry, dark-complexioned race, who were great horseback riders, and were excessively clannish and tribalistic in their social organization. They created beautiful small bronze figures and they had a passion for representing bulls, other animals, and flowers.
The Phoenicians, a Semitic race of merchants who spoke a language related to Hebrew, traded regularly with the Iberians and established their trading posts, such as Cádiz and Málaga as early as 1100 BC.  The Phoenicians brought Jewish traders along with them at about the time of King Solomon.  Spain is actually mentioned in the Old Testament, where it is called Tarshish.  It was a long voyage in slow ships from one end of the Mediterranean to the other in those days, so many of the merchants established homes—at least temporarily—and took local women as wives.
The northern regions of Iberia (North of the Ebro valley) were occupied around 900 B.C. by the Celts, an Indo-European race that had spread across much of Europe. These two races--Phoenicians and Celts laid the foundations of a cultural bias in the south of Spain against the European north—and vice versa—a sociological and psychological dichotomy in Spain (and most other countries) that continues to the present day.  But in the central regions of the peninsula, these two groups intermingled and gave rise to the "Celtiberians," in a complex process of ethnic and cultural admixture. 
(Hell, even I have to admit that while I dislike Yankees, I have quite a few of them as friends.  The fact that it is so easy to hate people you haven’t even met is proof that we still carry some of that Neanderthal DNA.)
The Greeks arrived in Spain around 600 BC and, like the Phoenicians who preceded them, were traders.  They established their posts mainly along the Spanish Levant. Their culture fused with that of the Celtiberians--the finest surviving artistic example of which might be the "Dama de Elche," the magnificent stone bust found on a farm near Valencia in 1897.  The headdress and jewelry represented on the sculpture are Iberian adorning a female figure of somewhat oriental mien.  (Or it could be Princess Leia!).
The first in a series of violent invasions of Spain occurred in the third century B.C. under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca (after whom Barcelona is named), a Carthaginian, whose country had just suffered the loss of the First Punic War to its arch-enemy, Rome. From his newly-conquered Spanish territory Barca planned the invasion of Italy but died before he could launch it.  Barca was not killed by Romans, but by Celtiberians who attacked his army with wood-filled oxcarts.  When drawing close to the Carthagenian army, the wood was set on fire and the oxen ran wildly through the army, scattering it enough that the Celtiberians were able to penetrate the lines and kill Barca.
His son, Hannibal, picked up where his father had left off, and with the (questionable) aid of war elephants, crossed the Alps and invaded present day Italy, remaining there for fourteen years in what ultimately proved to be a fruitless effort, although he did inflict huge casualties on his Roman foes.
Meanwhile the Roman campaign against the Carthaginians in the Spanish Theatre of the Second Punic War met with early success, and in 206 B.C., the last of Hannibal's forces were driven out. Soon after that, the Roman province of Hispania was born.  The Roman general, Cato, effectively ended Celtiberian resistance when he ordered every town to pull down its walls--effectively making all those cities utterly defenseless to Roman attack and occupation. 
However, Spain thrived under Roman domination and soon became the richest province in the Empire, producing grain, mineral wealth, horses, olive oil, and fish products, as well as scholars, writers, and dancers. In addition to amphitheaters, the Romans built highways, bridges, and aqueducts (many of which are still in use today) that connected the growing cities together.  Roman law and religion (Christianity, after 329 AD) took firm root during the Roman Period and Vulgar Latin became the lingua franca of the country--the foundation of modern Spanish.
Rome, of course, had conquered the "known world", and had brought people from everywhere into its culture.  Numidians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians made their way to Spain, and of course, settled down to live.
It should be clear at this point that the Iberian Peninsula was, by the beginning of the first millennium AD, a multiethnic region with a long history of activity and occupation by a variety of disparate races and cultures.
As the Roman Empire fell, most of its former territory was conquered by barbarians.  "Barbarians" is universally translated as “those leaner and meaner assholes the other side of the border”.  In the case of Spain, it was first, the Vandals and then, the Visigoths. 

The last Visigoth monarch, King Roderick, was cruel, temperamental, and stupid—the hat trick of bad government.  There is fairly good evidence that some of his own people invited the Moors in Northern Africa to cross those ten miles of open water separating the two continents to come put an end to his misrule.  To them, the Moors would have been liberators, not conquerors.  The picture at right is Spain as seen from North Africa.

After the Moors conquered Catholic Spain in 711, Jews who were living in Spain were granted religious liberty. Muslims-Jews-Catholics lived side by side for a long time, before the Catholics began a long, long war to win back the peninsula completely.  Actually, the war took almost 800 years, culminating in the victory at Granada in 1492.
During the Moorish occupation, Spanish culture changed dramatically:  art, diet--almost anything of a cultural nature changed.  Even today, nearly 20% of the Spanish language has roots in Arabic.
Let’s stop here a minute and take stock.  Spain (not counting the early hominids who lived on the peninsula) was invaded, ruled, and peopled by:
o   Ancient Iberians
o   Phoenicians
o   Jews
o   Celts
o   Greeks
o   Carthaginians
o   Romans
o   Vandals
o   Visigoths
o   Moors
The point of all this is that if you go to the pound and adopt a scruffy brown mutt with one yellow eye and one green eye, it probably is more "pure-blooded" than the average "Spaniard".  (The same, of course, could be said of most Europeans.)
Note.  Remember the Northern New Mexican who steadfastly believed in his pure European bloodline?  A century ago, most wealthy Mexicans held the same beliefs, taking great pride in their European customs.  Then, during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1918), cultural identity became reversed and most Mexicans began taking pride in their indigenous roots, rejecting European fashions, art, and culture.  This cultural realignment--like the violent revolution--stopped at the border with the U.S.  Talking to my unconsciously racist friend from Northern New Mexico, then, is sort of like using a time machine to visit a long forgotten past--but in México, not España.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Gettin’ Stuff

It is that time of year again:  every 4th of July, television shows countless reruns of Revolutionary War movies.  Mel Gibson has singlehandedly—or single-tomahawkedly—won the Battle of Cowpens a couple of dozen times in the last week.  In addition, I am puzzled as to why anyone  thought that the story of writing  Declaration of Independence would make a good musical; if it had been up to me, 1776 would never have been filmed. 

I don’t believe I have ever seen a movie—or even a good documentary—that actually addresses the real reason how a fledgling tiny nation managed to defeat the giant military power of Great Britain.  Certainly, the assistance of France and Spain was crucial, but there is a single, fundamental factor in that war that is almost never addressed.  Great Britain lost the war because of a giant failure in logistics.

Logistics?  Who the hell cares about logistics?  The answer is that anyone who wants to understand military history should be intensely interested in what Southern General Nathan Bedford Forrest called, “Gettin’ stuff".   Or as General Barrow said far more eloquently, "Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics."

When war erupted in the thirteen colonies, the British Army—despite being the European epitome of perfection—was caught completely off guard.  Compared to the difficulty in fighting a war 3,000 miles away, fighting in Europe was relatively easy.  The supply lines were short, the resupply points were well-known, and the continent was both well-populated and crisscrossed with good roads.

But sending and equipping a European army in the New World was to be the largest logistical effort, requiring more ships and men, than any conflict, anywhere in the world, for the next 150 years.  This was a task so monumental that it was not surpassed until the Allies invaded North Africa in the Second World War!  

England faced huge problems, the first of which was simple corruption.  Many English merchants saw the war not as an existential threat, but as a golden opportunity for profit.  Materials sent to the docks for shipment were officially allowed to be short by as much as 10%—Nor were there any requirements to deliver goods packaged to survive an ocean transit!  Barrels in particular were a problem:  early in the war, five ships left England for Boston, loaded with 7,000 barrels of flour (enough to feed 12,000 men for half a year).  When the ships arrived, 5,000 barrels were condemned, leaving only enough flour for 47 days.

It is sad to think that many of the lessons from our country’s first war went unlearned for far more than decades.  In the early days of World War Two, countless shiploads of canned food were shipped to the Pacific Islands, but lacking warehouses, the cases were simply stacked on the sandy beach just above the high tide mark.  As soon as it rained, both the cardboard cartons and the cans' paper labels disintegrated, leaving mountains of assorted anonymous canned food rusting away.

Even if the food arrived at the docks in perfect condition to be shipped abroad, there was no assurance it would survive the long ocean voyage.  In the fall of 1775, the British Army made a monumental effort to supply the Army with sufficient food to last the winter.    Thirty-six ships were loaded with “some 500 tons of potatoes, sixty of onions, fifty of parsnips, forty of carrots, and twenty of raisins, as well as 4,000 sheep and hogs and 468,750 gallons of porter.”  The food was packaged extremely well.  Several tons of fresh sauerkraut was shipped in barrels equipped with a spring-loaded gas pressure valve to keep the barrels from exploding during the fermentation process. 

Unfortunately, these careful preparations simply didn’t work.  A violent storm hit the convoy, causing most of the ships to either return to England or to be diverted to Antigua.  The few vessels that weathered the storm sailed up and down the American coast waiting for the storm to break so they could enter a harbor.  Most of the cargo of the 13 ships that finally made it to port was condemned.  Only 148 animals survived the trip:  the rest starved to death and their carcasses were thrown overboard.  (The sauerkraut survived, and so did some of the porter, the volume of the latter being somewhat diminished by thirsty sailors.)

Livestock routinely perished on the trip, in part because the British government frequently  loaded supply ships bound for the new world with enough hay and grain to feed the animals for only twenty-one days.  Unfortunately, the average crossing in good weather was forty days.

The trip no picnic for humans, either.  In 1781, 2,400 soldiers left Europe for New York, but by the time the contingent arrived, 410 were sick and 66 had already perished.  As one officer of the Guards testified, "There was continued destruction in the foretops, the pox above-board, the plague between decks, hell in the forecastle, the devil at the helm."

If soldiers couldn’t be supplied from England, they were expected to “live off the land”.  This is military-speak for stealing from the locals.  While this worked in some populated areas, in most locations there simply was not enough available food, particularly after the locals began hiding their resources. 

Foraging parties could be sent out, but those were prime targets for the colonial forces.  In order to protect these men, so many soldiers had to be added that the resulting large foraging parties consumed more food than they could gather.  Eventually, the British lost more men in combat while foraging than during the large pitched conventional battles.  While a few outposts were lucky (Redcoats on the South Carolina coast subsisted for months on alligators and oysters while drinking wine scavenged from a wrecked ship) the British campaign simply could not be sustained by living off the land.

Living off the land had other hazards.  It was damn near impossible to win the “hearts and minds” of the colonists while you requisitioned—more military-speak for theft—their food and livestock.  Even when the British army attempted to purchase provisions, the foraging parties frequently kept the money while simply stealing the food and livestock.  (While the Redcoats may have been bad about thieving for supplies, the Hessians were absolute locusts—turning even Tories into ardent rebels as they laid waste to the countryside, including killing the owners of the food and livestock.)

The lack of effective logistics crippled the effectiveness of the British Army.  English generals believed that armies needed at least six, but preferably twelve months of supply before they could initiate offensive operations.  This meant that during a war that lasted eight years, only twice did the British Army start a campaign season with enough reserves to launch an offensive movement
against the colonials.  Standard doctrine further dictated that if supplies fell below a two month level—something that was close to the norm—all offensive movements must stop while the generals planned for evacuation.  Evacuation meant using transportation for troop movement instead of carrying food, which made the problems worse.

It would not have been impossible for the British Army to win the war:  a very aggressive strategy of holding the important forts, combined with simultaneously seeking out the rebel army and destroying it in prolonged engagements, might have succeeded.  The lack of resources, however, forced the mighty British Army to fight a guerilla war—the only kind of war that the United States could possibly hope to win.

There is an old doggerel about "for want of a nail the battle was lost..."  As it turned out, the newborn  nation of the United States survived to become a new country for the simple reason that the most powerful nation on earth, a country that ruled the seas, simply could not ship enough food across an ocean to feed their army long enough to defeat us. 

Napoleon lost at Waterloo because he could not send a message fifteen miles.  Britain lost the Revolutionary War because—despite having the most powerful navy in the world—it could not ship enough flour across the Atlantic.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Generals' Duel

This is the 4th of July weekend, so it is fitting that this week, we visit a little Revolutionary War History.  So much familiar ground will be re-trampled by the herd of popular press, that I  thought I might use the occasion to journey down a less frequented path.

It was 1777, and not much was going well for the Continental Army.  General Washington had tried several times to dislodge General Howe and the British Army from Philadelphia (then the capitol of the new nation) but was repeatedly rebuffed.  Naturally, the Continental Congress had to abandon both its pride and the city as it beat a hasty retreat.

Meanwhile, the British General, John Burgoyne was moving his army south from Canada to cut off New England.  If you ever go on campaign, you want to go with Gentleman Johnny:  Besides his 7000 men, he brought along his mistress, thirty wagons of personal luggage, and a large supply of champagne.   Naturally, his army was moving slowly through the heavily wooded area.  (British Generals, used to fighting on a continent that had been deforested since the time of the Romans, frequently lamented that the New World was not a "civilized" place to fight a war.)

As Gentleman Johnny, pictured at left, approached Fort Ticonderoga, he was so confident of success he split his forces.  Fairly quickly, the part of the army he was with was surrounded at Saratoga by the American army of General Horatio Gates.  On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne was beautiful in his scarlet, gold, and white uniform when he surrendered his army to the rather plain, blue-coated General Gates.  Most of his 5700 soldiers spent the rest of the war imprisoned in Virginia while Burgoyne was allowed to go home to see the mad (in more than one sense) King George III.

Saratoga was a major turning point in the war.  Shortly afterward, France and Spain entered the war, merchants in England began pushing the government to resolve the conflict, and it triggered a small mutiny in the American Military.  The Inspector General of the army, General Thomas Conway—an Irish Soldier from France with twenty years’ experience in the French Army—began writing a series of letters to the Continental Congress, suggesting that George Washington should be replaced as Commander-In-Chief by General Gates.

This would have been a really bad idea, since General Gates was actually a poor general (he was eventually relieved of command and replaced by General Nathaniel Greene, the fighting Quaker).  The real credit for the Battle of Saratoga belongs to General Benedict Arnold, who was Gate’s subordinate.   The lack of respect and recognition for his contributions were among the motivations for Arnold's becoming a traitor and accepting the rank of general in the British Army.

Historians have never been certain just how seriously what came to be called the Conway Cabal was received by the Continental Congress.  What is certain is that portions of Conway’s letters were sent to George Washington, who shared them with his General Staff.  One of those generals, General John Cadwalader, was intensely loyal to Washington.

When the British finally pulled out of Philadelphia in June, 1778, General Cadwalader returned to discover that his home, which had been occupied by General Howe and his mistress, was need of serious remodeling.  I’m sure that this had a little something to do with the anger Cadwalader felt when he began proclaiming loudly and publicly that he wanted to challenge General Conway to a duel in order to “shut his lying mouth”.

General Conway, to uphold his honor, agreed to the duel.   The Code Duello, whose 25 rules governed such idiotic contests, had been published the previous year in Ireland, and was used by duelists in both Western Europe and America.  The seconds met, and Conway, as the challenged had the right of choosing weapons and the ground, in this case choosing pistols and the Wharton Estate outside Philadelphia.  Cadwalader, as the challenger. picked the distance between the two combatants.

Duels were common in America until the late 1830’s.  Several signatories of the Declaration of Independence fought duels, as did Sam Houston, Henry Clay, and Stephen Decatur.  While everyone knows that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, it is less well known that the pistols used had also killed Hamilton’s son in an earlier duel.  (Today, the pistols are on display in a branch of the Chase Bank.)  Abraham Lincoln almost fought a duel but was spared when the seconds for the duel settled the grievance without violence.  Andrew Jackson participated in 103 duels, and claimed at one point to have kept 37 pairs of dueling pistols ready to use at a moment’s notice. 

July 4, 1778, the two duelists, along with their seconds, the physician, and many spectators—including several members of Congress—gathered before dawn.  The seconds loaded the pistols, the men stood paces apart, and proclaimed themselves ready.  The fight began at a word from Dr. Shippen, the physician.

Conway fired immediately, missing Cadwalader completely.  This was not surprising, as the guns of the period were so wildly inaccurate that they didn’t even have sights.

Cadwalader stood and waited.  Conway, required by the Code to stand his ground and wait, asked, “Why do you not fire, General Cadwalader?”
“Because,” replied the general, who had not yet even raised his pistol, “we came not here to trifle.  Let the gale pass and I shall act my part.”  He was referring to a gust of wind that had arisen just as the physician had given the word to fire.

“You shall have a fair chance of performing it well,” answered Conway.
As the wind died, Cadwalader raised his pistol, aimed carefully but quickly—taking too long to aim was discouraged by the code—and fired.  Conway’s head jerked backward, then the general fell forward, landing on his face—to all appearances dead, as blood pooled around his head.

Dr. Shippen ran to the man, turned him over to discover that the large caliber ball had struck Conway in the mouth, knocking out teeth, piercing the tongue, and exiting through the back of the man’s neck.  The doctor, as required by the code, made no prognosis or comment about the man’s condition.

General Cadwalader said, “I have stopped that damned rascal’s lying anyway.”  Satisfied that he had indeed silenced Conway, he left the field with his second and supporters.

Conway, believing that his wound was mortal, wrote a sincere letter to General Washington apologizing for his letters to the Continental Congress.  Among his heartfelt sentiments, he declared that Washington was “a great and good man”.  This is certainly a dramatic end to the Conway Cabal.

Astounding both Dr. Shippen and General Conway himself, he recovered from his wound.  Conway resigned his commission, left America and returned to France, where he fought with the royalist army in the French Revolution.  Captured, he called for his former enemy, the British army, to intercede in his behalf, and when released, he returned to his homeland, Ireland.  Not much more is known about him, but he appears to have died in poverty, alone and forgotten.

I wish I could say that it is my deep love of American history that reminded me of this story.  Actually, every Fourth of July, as I drive by fireworks stands, I am reminded of a strange duel I fought with a good friend a few decades ago.  I won’t go into details, but yes, alcohol was involved.  And if you ever fight a duel with Roman candles at twenty feet, you should definitely not wear a nylon shirt.  (And we are still good friends.)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lives of a Bowling Pin

For wood destined for use in a very American sport, it is ironic that it started out as a tree in Quebec.  When the maple tree was almost a hundred years old and approximately thirty inches in diameter, it was harvested for wood.  Besides bowling pins, the wood would also be used in baseball bats, pool cues, and the best recurve bows.

Bowling pins have changed dramatically over the course of the last two millennia, but until recently they seem to have always been made solely of wood.  While pins have usually been wooden, bowling balls seem to have been made of everything imaginable—wood, stone—anything available.  The Egyptians used leather-covered bags of grain and fanciful explorers claimed—in almost certainly apocryphal tales—that several violent cultures had warriors who bowled with human skulls.

While bowling dates back at least to the Egyptians, the first written records indicate that Germanic monks bowled in religious ceremonies, knocking down pins as a symbolic gesture of destroying sins.  These 'Holy Rollers' used pins and balls that were all made of wood.

The religious rituals quickly morphed into a game that became popular--perhaps too popular—for Edward III banned the game because it was becoming a distraction for his soldiers.  He far preferred that they practice their archery to their picking up spares.  (I have similar conversations with my wife about bowling's being neither a useful nor a practical skill.  Honestly, this is not exactly a survival sport, since I have never heard of anyone 'Bowling for Meat', nor can I imagine a tropical island castaway saying, "Thank God I have my bowling ball—now we'll never starve!"  No anthropologist has yet asserted that a caveman brought down a mastodon by trying to spare a 7-10 split.)

Henry VIII was evidently addicted to the game, but decided that it was not suitable for the working class:  Not only did he ban commoners from playing, but that law was not repealed for three hundred years.  The only exception was a provision allowing the help at manor houses to play on Christmas Day—in front of their lords. 

Sir Francis Drake was evidently bowling when the Spanish Armada was sighted coming up the English Channel.  When told the invasion fleet had been spotted, he replied, "We have time enough to finish this game and beat the Spanish, too."   (Though I like the game, compared to his fanaticism, I'm on a drinking team with a bowling problem.)

When King James banned bowling on Sunday but allowed archery practice, the Puritans became so enraged that they burned copies of his decree.  Of course, everything angered the Puritans.  Like several religions today, the Puritans lived in constant fear that someone, somewhere was having a good time.  Contrary to popular belief, the Puritans did not leave England to escape religious persecution, they came to the New World to start religious persecution, Puritan style.

Bowling grew in popularity and spread all over the world (despite the efforts of the English monarchy and religious bigots) and today there are about as many different forms of the game as there are countries.  In the United States, bowling became more or less standardized in 1895, when the manager of a New York bar held a meeting with rival bar owners in an attempt to standardize the rules.  This was the beginning of the American Bowling Congress.  Women were not allowed to join the men's organization, so they formed their own group and (eventually) the two groups merged (only 200 years later!) in 2005 to form the US Bowling Congress. 

Pins used to be made of solid, hard rock maple, a suitable block of which was put into a lathe and, following a guide, was shaped into a pin exactly 15 inches tall by 2 1/4 inches wide at its base.  One problem with this arrangement was that (depending on the grain of the wood) there was no consistency in weight.  Worse, every time the ball struck, the pin was stressed all along the grain of the wood until, finally, the painted pin would split.

The first solution tried was sawing the pin in half along the long axis, then gluing a thin strip of maple in between the two halves, reversing the grain of the wood.  At the same time, part of the center of the pin could be drilled out to achieve a uniform weight.  There was actually a little science involved with setting the weight of the pin.  Physicists determined that—to achieve the highest uniform scores—the pin should weigh 24% of a standard heavy ball, which is fifteen pounds. 

After World War II, the price of labor went up and—just as today—as wages rose, mechanization took over.  In the past, bowling pins had been set up by hand, but the new pin-setting machines were fast, efficient, and accurate.  They also chewed the wooden pins to death and the resulting wood splinters fouled up the machinery.  Several different solutions were suggested at pretty much the same time.

First, the basic construction of pins was changed to use multiple small blocks of maple glued together, so that the wood grain alternated in each block of wood.  Once assembled, the blank of the pin could then be turned on a lathe to the proper size.  The resulting pin was much stronger, less prone to splintering, and cheaper to construct.  Most of the wood used today is actually left over scrap from the flooring industry.  People prefer lighter-colored wood for their floors, so the darker pieces are cut off and "recycled" to make bowling pins.

The pins still splintered occasionally, so companies began experimenting with plastic coatings.  A theoretically better solution, of course, would have been to simply make the entire bowling pin out of some form of miracle plastic.  There are two good reasons why this is not done:  First, any sane man would rather have a nickel's worth of wood than a dollar's worth of plastic.  

More important, plastic pins just don't sound right!  There is something deeply satisfying about rolling a good hard strike.  (Or so I have been told—Personally, I bowl a great golf score.  Come to think of it, my handicaps in both games are fairly close to my age.)  I'm sure that somewhere, some moron is trying to fit a plastic pin with speakers so it can imitate the sound that wooden pins make.  Perhaps—even worse—some have predicted that, eventually, wooden pins may be replaced with aluminum pins, much the way that aluminum baseball bats are replacing their wooden counterparts.

Once manufactured, each pin is individually inspected, and if it passes, it is then shipped to a bowling alley.  After six months of grueling punishment, the pin will be chipped, partially cracked, and scuffed.  After reconditioning, the pin will have, perhaps, another six months of useful life, then it will be removed from service.  Most bowling alleys have several sets of pins.  On league nights, they use a new set of pins; on most other occasions, they use an older, reconditioned set.

If you go to most bowling alleys on Friday or Saturday nights, you will find the regular lights turned off, regular pins have been replaced by aging pins that have been painted to glow in the dark, and music (supposedly) is blasting from every corner (some bowling alleys even have laser lights and fog machines!).  This is date night for most of the bowlers, and the flower of American youth (blooming idiots) are far more interested in each other than in actually bowling.  On such nights, the pins used are old enough to drive, vote, and drink (as opposed to most of the bowlers, of whom the exact opposite is true).

Finally, after being hit by heavy balls traveling an average of sixteen mph over a thousand times a week for a year, the no longer new bowling pin will be spray painted red or blue, given away at a child's birthday party, and spend the rest of its last life—forgotten in the back of a closet.  You may even have one yourself.

This closet is the cemetery for bowling pins:  Their wood is probably more than a century old, it has traveled several thousand miles, it has been hit by a bowling ball at least 100,000 times, and now those pins rest among aging, outgrown tennis shoes, forgotten toys, and unwanted Christmas presents—a sad end for noble veterans.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Lieutenant Napoleon, of the British Royal Artillery

Napoleon I died on St. Helena in 1821, from either pneumonia or arsenic poisoning, depending on whose theory you wish to believe.  Bleak, cold, and miserable, the tiny island 1100 miles off the coast of Africa is the equivalent of being downhill from Hell.  (Well, a frozen hell!)

The former emperor was poorly housed in a building so dilapidated and in need of repairs that the insult had to be intentional.  Among other complaints, Napoleon noted that in order to enjoy his favorite pastime, playing cards, it was necessary to first bake the cards in an oven to dry them out.

There was, briefly, a Napoleon II.  The son of Napoleon I, he was technically the emperor for two days following his father’s abdication in 1814, and then again, for roughly a month, following his father’s second abdication in 1815.  Given an impossible name, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, Prince Imperial, King of Rome…he was called Franz.  Despite the hopes of diehard Bonapartists, when Napoleon II died at the age of 22 from pneumonia, there was no sign of the empire being restored.

The family business passed to Napoleon I’s nephew: the son of Napoleon I’s brother Louis.  Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte tried to follow in his uncle’s footsteps by becoming the first President of the Second Republic.  At the end of his four year term, Louis was constitutionally prevented from another term of office.  Naturally (he was a Bonaparte, after all), he staged a coup d’état, becoming the first emperor of the Second French Empire.  In other words, he became Napoleon III.

This empire lasted from 1852 until 1870, when Napoleon III was forced to abdicate.  His reign is chiefly remembered for his failed invasion of Mexico and his venture into Cochinchina.  A century later, France asked the United States for help in maintaining its colony, by then called Viet Nam. 


After abdicating, Napoleon III took his wife and son to live in England, spending the rest of his life as a wealthy country squire in Kent—the kind of life that Napoleon I thought England was offering him when he agreed to abdicate, only to sadly learn he was being sent as close to Antartica as the English could manage.

Which brings us to Napoleon IV.  After an exhaustingly thorough scientific survey, it appears that no one remembers Napoleon IV today.  Actually, I only asked students in my classes and several beer buddies at the bowling alley, but the results fall into two predictable patterns.  

“Who?  Will he be on the test?”

“Who?  Does he bowl in this league?  It's your turn to buy a round."  The latter is the same answer you would get if you asked most bowlers if they remembered their mother's name.


Evidently, the only people who remember these guys are the French, which is kind of strange, since the first Napoleon was Corsican and spoke French with an outrageous Italian accent.  The second one was born in France, but spent most of his life in Austria.  And the third one, well it's kind of hard to figure out, since the longest serving French emperor lived everywhere (including America briefly-he was even a constable in London for a while) and spoke French with a German accent.  

Okay, back to Napoleon IV (and I guess I should confess that you really shouldn't call him Napoleon IV, since he never actually was the titular head of a country, but I can't resist).  At any rate, when his father died, the crazy die-hard Bonapartists in France proclaimed him emperor while hiding in their wine cellars.  The son of Napoleon III, his real name was Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, The Prince Imperial (Evidently, his friends called him LouLou).  

So what does the descendant of the most famous French general do when he grows up?  He serves in the British Army.

Napoleon I would have been turning in his grave if the British hadn't been afraid of his body's becoming a rallying point for those silly French royalists and had him cremated. 

Despite the fact that his great-uncle had lost his empire while fighting the British at Waterloo, LouLou studied at the Royal Military Academy, graduating 7th in a class of 34, and accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery.

Strangely, even though during the reign of Napoleon I, the British monarchy referred to Napoleon as the "Beast", Queen Victoria thought returning a Bonaparte to the throne of France would help stabilize Europe.  She had already married off most of her children to every inbred Prince or Princess in Europe, and was quietly arranging for her youngest daughter, Beatrice, to marry Napoleon IV.  Evidently, the old queen was trying to homestead Europe.

Note:  The Queen had a plan, indeed: If the head of every European nation were a member of the same family, this would prevent war, right?  During the First World War, the Russian Czar, the German Kaiser, and the King of England were all first cousins, and despite sharing a royal grandmother, they still took the world to war.  

Everything was all set, until the Zulu War sprang up in 1879.  (I can just imagine you saying, "Zulus?  Aren't they in Africa?")

England wanted to build a federation of territories in Africa, sort of like another Canada, but with elephants and giraffes instead of moose and caribou.  One of the many problems with this idea was the area known as Zululand.  The refusal of the Zulu King to join the federation led to the Anglo-Zulu War.  And, of course, young Napoleon just had to go to war and prove himself.  Queen Victoria agreed, as long as his commanding officers understood that he was NOT to ever actually be in any real danger.

The Prince, of course had other ideas.  It did not take him long to find a little excitement.  When a small patrol was mapping a position, they were suddenly attacked by forty Zulu warriors.  The prince's horse, spooked by the screaming warriors, began galloping before he could fully mount the saddle.  He was clinging to a holster on the saddle as the horse carried him a hundred yards before a strap broke and the young lieutenant fell under the horse's hooves, suffering an injury to his right arm.


Jumping up, he drew his revolver with his left hand, and attempted to fight the Zulu warriors.  The first assegai spear hit him in the right leg, the second pierced his left shoulder.  Napoleon drew the assegai from his thigh and continued to fight for his life.  When his body was found, he had eighteen spear wounds, including the fatal one that punctured his left eye and pierced his brain.

So, Napoleon IV, whose Corsican great-uncle had damn near ruled all of Europe as the Emperor of France until the British defeated him in Belgium, died as a British Lieutenant in Africa, fighting the Zulus.

Who needs fiction when you have history?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

My Run-In with Muhammad Ali

Since everyone else is recounting personal stories about Muhammad Ali, I guess I should tell about my somewhat abbreviated encounter, but don't expect deep insight into his character.

It was the mid-seventies and I was working for Bantam Books.  Of course, I was completely unqualified for the job I had, but I had landed it by the simple expedient of applying for every job listed in the local want ads that paid what I needed—regardless of the qualifications required.  My wife, The Doc, was still in medical school and we were slowly starving to death.  Eventually, Bantam experienced a clerical error and hired me by mistake. 

The job required a lot of travel, but The Doc and I were childless at the time and she was working so many nights at the hospital that she rarely even noticed I was gone.  It helped, of course, that I was still young and stupid enough to think being away from home four nights a week was fun.  Looking back, it probably was fun—for a while, anyway.  Bantam sent me to New York and to  San Francisco, and had me drive thousands of miles across Texas, to explain new books to the owners of small town bookstores who fervently wished we would clone Louis L’Amour a few dozen times.

Equally important, I had to explain "Texas" to a bunch of editors who worked on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.  (The actual address was, "666 Fifth Avenue".  The ‘666’ part of the address regularly upset a few of the more conservative booksellers, despite my reassurances that we were not a beast.)  I was frequently called on the carpet for not spending enough money on my expense account.  While my counterparts on the east coast were spending $75-$125 a night for lodging, I was spending only a fraction of that amount.  No matter how much I tried, no one in Manhattan would believe me when I said that in the winter, I could get the honeymoon suite in Freeport for $24.95 (and that included breakfast).

Nor did they think that I was entertaining nearly enough.  I once took every employee and every customer in the only bookstore in Beeville, Texas to lunch, AND I bought lunch for everyone in the diner while we were there—and I still got change back from a fifty-dollar bill.  In those days, you could get a chicken-fried steak and a glass of iced tea for less than $3 (less than the cost of a single martini in Manhattan).

I vividly remember the call I got from an editor who was demanding to know why I had only sold six copies of “A Shiksa’s Guide to Married Life” in the entire state of Texas.  Even after I explained that this was 150% of market penetration, he still wasn’t very happy.

In 1978, the convention for the ABA (American Bookseller’s Association—not the American Bar Association) was held in Miami, and I was excited to go.  I’d never been to Florida, but I figured that since I'd read all of John D. MacDonald's "Travis McGee" novels, I was an expert.  I was to be sorely disappointed:  Bantam had me working 16 hours a day, and I don’t think I ever set foot outside of the hotel.  I worked that damn convention floor until I was exhausted.

On the up side, I did get to meet a lot of interesting authors.  I have previously written about meeting Donald Sobol, the author of the "Encyclopedia Brown" stories for children.  I also met Leon Uris, Dr. Cooper, Jim Fixx, Mickey Spillane, and a rather famous New York prostitute who had just written her tell-all memoirs.  (I will be kind and just say that her clients must have over-sampled those expensive New York martinis—which must have been considerably more potent than their southern cousins—which perhaps explains why they cost so much more in New York.)

After a solid week away, I was anxious to fly home.  Bantam had arranged my reservations and had expressed me my tickets.  Shortly after boarding, I noticed a curious bit of customer service.  The flight attendants were hanging leis on all the passengers, most of whom were wearing Hawaiian shirts.  It turned out that the flight was nonstop to Honolulu. 

This presented a difficult moral dilemma:  I had never been to Hawaii (and still haven’t) and all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and I would have been on my way.  On the other hand, Bantam would probably only have let me stay there overnight, and I had been away from my wife for a week…  We were still newlyweds, so I fessed up to a flight attendant and was shoved off the plane at the last possible moment.

After a frantic call to the home office, I was booked onto a connecting flight to New Orleans whose imminent departure only allowed minutes for me to change planes halfway across the airport and make a flight home to San Antonio.  I could forget about my luggage for at least a week—it was irrevocably Honolulu-bound.

So, that is how I ended up running like a madman across the New Orleans airport trying to make a connecting flight I was doomed to miss anyway.  As I scrambled like a stabbed rat around a blind corner, I ran into Muhammad Ali.  Literally.

I am face blind, meaning I rarely recognize people or photographs.  But this was a face that even I could recognize—perhaps because his face was only about six inches away (and another four inches up).  Just a few months before, Ali had regained the heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time.  Now, he looked slightly surprised, and I’m fairly sure that I looked fairly idiotic—standing there with my mouth open and my eyes crossed trying to get a good look at the famous boxer.

Even as his two bodyguards (or so I assume them to be) gently and politely held me against a wall while the boxer walked away, I remember thinking:

1.   “There is not a mark on his face—hasn’t anybody EVER hit him?”
2.   “So that’s what a thousand dollar suit looks like.”

And then, just like that, he was gone.  I missed my flight, Bantam wouldn’t spring for a hotel room, so I spent most of the night in the airport, not getting back to San Antonio until the middle of the next day.  By the time I got there, The Doc was back at the hospital pulling an all-nighter.  I should have gone to Hawaii.

That’s it:  I ran into Muhammad Ali.  If you were expecting this story to have a great redeeming moral at the end, I’m sorry.  As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”  (Of course Freud never actually said that—Carl Jung claimed Freud said it, but Jung was an unconscious liar!)