Saturday, April 12, 2014

General Yellow Jack

The most effective general in the history of Russia is probably General January.  The horrible cold, the snow and the ice have defeated invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler when the peasant armies could not.  No matter the size of your army, the quality of its guns, or even the size of its artillery, General January has always been the ultimate victor.

Less well-known, however, is that there is an equally formidable military protagonist in North America:  General Yellow Jack.

Ships coming into harbor carrying yellow fever would anchor off-shore and would hoist a yellow flag or "jack" to warn off other ships.  This self-imposed quarantine had devastating consequences for the isolated crews--sometimes the entire crew would perish.

Yellow Fever is a viral disease that killed one out of five people stricken with the mysterious illness.  Victims complained of intense headaches, fevers, chills, and frequent vomiting.  The patient’s skin turned yellow as the liver slowly ceased to function.  Dark bruises appeared on the victim’s skin and the more severely afflicted began to cough up what looked like coffee grounds—in reality coagulated blood as the victim began to drown in his own blood.

Every year, successive yellow fever epidemics would sweep across the US and some cities suffered almost annually, devastating the population.  Between 1693 and 1901, ninety-five epidemics swept the country.   Poor Philadelphia was hit eleven times, with one epidemic killing one out of ten people in the city. 

Unfortunately, how the disease spread, what caused it, and even any means to effectively treat it were completely unknown.  The most popular theory was that the disease was caused by an "imbalance of humors" and the result of "bad air".  A common prevention was to open more windows and let in more good air (and a few more mosquitoes).  It is the blackest ironic humor to consider that this disease (like malaria and several others) probably came to the new world in the water barrels of slave ships.  The Amazon rainforest was not a mystery well into the twentieth century because travel to it was difficult--it was because travel in the mosquito-infested wetlands would kill you with the diseases that the Europeans had brought there.

The disease has, indeed, been a powerful force in military history.  In 1793, a slave revolt broke out against the Grand Blancs who were quite literally working their slaves to death in their sugar camps.  The riot was brutally violent, with horrible atrocities committed on both sides.  Napoleon, then the emperor of France, sent a large army to put down the rebellion. 

Napoleon's army arrived in Haiti just in time to meet General Yellow Jack in a full-blown epidemic.  Of the 25,000 troops sent there, only 3,000 survived.  Among the dead was Napoleon's son-in-law, General LeClerc.  Shortly after this, diplomats from the United States showed up, wanting to buy the port city of New Orleans.  Napoleon, still reeling with the loss of his army in Haiti, had just heard that a fresh yellow fever epidemic had broken out in New Orleans.  Disgusted with the entirety of the pestilent New World, he decided to sell to the American ambassadors all of Louisiana for roughly the price the diplomats were willing to pay for just New Orleans.  General Yellow Jack had just doubled the size of the United States.

Back in Haiti, the French abandoned the island.  Because of General Yellow Jack, Haiti had the only successful slave revolt in history to result in an independent state.

Almost 50 years later, the United States was at war with Mexico.  General Winfield Scott was to lead an Army to Mexico City, capture the capital, thus ending the war.  To do this, he had to capture the port city of Veracruz.  The city was almost impregnable due to heavy fortifications on an island in the harbor.  The fort's guns pointed toward the city, while the city's guns faced the harbor.  Enemy ships sailing between the guns would be destroyed long before they could reach the docks in order to unload.

General Scott landed his troops south of the city, marched them north and inland, and then used his artillery to shell Veracruz from the inland.  After a full day of barrage, the town was ablaze, the hospital destroyed, and more civilians than soldiers had been killed.  European diplomats left the town under a flag of truce, to plead with General Scott to stop the bombardment, but Scott refused.

The next day, the shelling continued for hours, until the town finally surrendered.  By this time, over 6,700 rounds had been fired into the city.  These artillery rounds were far, far from being smart bombs: they had killed over 1500 people, over a third of whom were civilians. 

General Scott had a reason to commit what was, at best, an act of total warfare, and, at worst, a war crime.  No one knew why, but the city experienced annual yellow fever epidemics starting in spring--roughly in the middle of April.  Scott had landed in late March, and  knew that if he could get off the beach and move his army farther inland fast enough, he could save the army by moving across the "fever line" on a map.  What Scott did not know, was that that line on the map indicated where the terrain became too high and dry for mosquitoes.

Within months, Scott's army took Mexico City, Mexico surrendered, and it sold half its territory to the US for a pittance.  While Mexico shrunk by half, the United States--with the aid of General Yellow Jack--grew by a third.  The cost of this conquest was high:  1,192 men were killed in action, but 11,155 more soldiers died of disease.

General Yellow Jack--in cooperation with his colleague, General Malaria--easily defeated the French attempt to dig the first Panama Canal.  After successfully completing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to build a 75 mile-long canal across the swamps and mountains of Central America.  In 1884, 500 young French engineers began supervising what was thought to be a project of three years.  None of the engineers lived long enough to collect their first month's paycheck.

When the Panama project was inspected by the crew of a British warship, the entire crew died of yellow fever.

The European work force, which eventually numbered over 20,000, battled insects as much as they did the mud and dirt.  The legs of tables, chairs, and beds were placed into pots of water to prevent the insects from crawling up the furniture.  The disease-carrying mosquitoes didn’t really need these improvised breeding grounds as the Europeans also left the windows open wide for the ventilation they believed would prevent disease. 

After the mosquitoes had killed a third of the work force, the French (predictably) surrendered and sold the construction rights to the United States.  Armed with the knowledge we had acquired from fighting in Cuba, the US finally knew what caused the disease.  After a tremendous effort where the U.S. Army declared war on General Yellow Jack, the canal was completed in 1914.

Some of the battles were still close.  A yellow fever epidemic in 1904 killed so many of the workers that their coffins stacked up faster in the railroad depots along the canal than the trains could haul them away.

Many people believe that General Yellow Jack has been retired, no: he and his fellow veterans--General Malaria and Field Marshall Plague--are just waiting in the reserves for an opportunity to do fresh battle.  While they wait, they have welcomed new recruits:  Lieutenant Ebola and Captain Lassa have joined the ranks.  We win battles, eventually they win the wars.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Tequila: A Health Drink?

On a regular basis, students interrupt me during class in my History of Mexico course.  Right in the middle of my fascinating lecture on how the French invasion resulted in a humiliating defeat at the hands of a Mexican army...

"Can you explain the different types of tequila?" asks some student.

For this I went to grad school?  I am eminently qualified to teach a course about Mexico:  I have traveled extensively in the country, I have degrees in History, Anthropology, and Latin American Studies, and most important of all, I meet the standards for the Sarah Palin International Diplomacy Test:  I can see Mexico from my house.

"Yes, I can." I calmly answer.  And shortly, you will be able to, as well.

First off, real tequila comes from Mexico and is made from the Blue Agave plant.  Some scoundrels have smuggled plants out of Mexico to start farms in Australia and South Africa.  I don't know what they will call their beverage (Aborigine Piss?  Cactus Crud?) but real tequila comes only from the area surrounding the Mexican city of Tequila. 

Supposedly, the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their prized brandy relatively soon after theyconquered the Aztecs in 1521.  Without sufficient wine to distill to make brandy, they turned to the local Aztec alcoholic beverage, pulque.  Today, pulque is considered a drink for the lower classes, and is decidedly unhygienic.  It is not exactly pasteurized:  I have held glasses of it up to the light and actually seen things swimming in there!  No sane person would drink it.  I love it.

The Spanish distilled the pulque and produced tequila.  By 1600, it was being mass-produced.  And--predictably--within a few years, it was being taxed by the state. 

Today, they still gather the root ball of the blue agave, roast it, mash it, and place the agave juice in a vat to allow natural fermentation.  This lightly-fermented juice is then distilled and the end product is tequila.  If you age this for less than two months (if at all), and then bottle it, you have Plata (silver) or Blanco (white) tequila.  This is the cheapest brand or quality, and is suitable for mixed drinks, where the kind of tequila you use absolutely doesn't matter.

Well...actually some companies color and flavor Plata with caramel and the resulting concoction is called Oro (gold) or Joven (young) tequila.  This is the perfect tequila to never  buy or drink under any circumstances.  It is also the most popular.  With Morons.

If you bottle the tequila in oaken barrels, for anywhere from two months to a year, you have reposado (rested) tequila.  This is a fine "sipping" liquor, with flavors that vary from very sweet (indicating the agave plant is from the highlands), to a complex, herbaceous flavor.  This is my favorite tequila. 

A good reposado is a great tequila to enjoy while talking with friends.  I recommend trying it in Zacatecas at my favorite bar; Quince Letras (pictured).  Go late at night and contemplate the history of this old silver mining town nestled in the high sierras.  Men were sitting in that bar when Pancho Villa attacked the town a hundred years ago, and they will probably be doing the same thing in another hundred years.  Somewhere around midnight, you may hear a shrill whistle outside the bar.  A street vendor with a an old steam-powered calliope on a cart makes the rounds of the bars and restaurants.  For practically nothing, he will sell you a steam-cooked sweet potato covered in cinnamon to enjoy with your tequila.  I miss Zacatecas...

Back to the distillery.  If you let your tequila age in a fine oaken barrel (the best ones are second-hand barrels purchased from the Jack Daniels distillery) for anywhere from one to three years, the result is añejo (aged) tequila.  Age it longer than three years and you get Extra Añejo--and the price goes up exponentially.

The longer a liquor is aged in wood, the less harsh the alcohol flavor and the milder and smoother the taste.  In my own humble opinion, the añejo tequila loses some of the distinctive flavors I like--perhaps it has been aged too much.  I like good strong-flavored liquor and spicy food--after all, if the taste is too mild, how can I be sure it's bad for me?

While I personally buy reposado, I will be happy to drink your añejo.

There are two popular misconceptions about tequila that need to die.  First, there is no worm in the bottom of a bottle of tequila--unless you have stumbled onto some tourist crap especially produced for pendejo gringos (Spanish for rich tourist).  You can find worms in the bottom of Mezcal  (Spanish for "turpentine").  If you see a bottle of Herradura for sale with a red worm in the bottom of the bottle, you will not be the first person to have pulled that cork.

The other misconception is that whole "lick-shoot-suck" nonsense.  You might need salt and lime to cut the alcohol taste of mezcal, but you do not need it for a shot of reposado.  Have you ever seen someone suck a lime after drinking expensive cognac?  No!  And for exactly the same reason.  People who use salt and lime while drinking fine tequila are no better than those people who use ketchup in a fine French restaurant.  (But, if you do use ketchup, the French waiters will surrender.)

This discussion is much more important than you might think.  Researchers in Mexico have just discovered that the natural sugars found in agave juice, called agavins, are natural inhibitors of diabetes and obesity.  Yes, this research actually shows that drinking tequila can help prevent weight gain.  Who knows, doctors just might start prescribing a nice reposado for your health.  It would certainly help sell Obamacare.

And, as an expert on Mexico, I know it works. After all, none of us has ever seen a fat Mexican.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

SS Typhoid

Cruise ship companies are taking it on the chin these days.  Either the ship runs aground, it catches fire, or the entire vessel turns into some form of weird science experiment where half the passengers are stuck in the head while the other half are hanging over the railing.  I don't remember a single episode of the The Love Boat where the ship turned into the SS Barfetorium, so this must be a recent improvement in tourist accommodations.

Frankly, I don't understand the desire to go on cruises.  By the second day, you are so bored that you either spend all your time at the all-you-swill buffet, or go shopping in a miniature version of Wal-Mart.   Sure, there is entertainment, but do you really want to trust a week of your life to the same kind of people who thought up daytime television shows?

Ted, a cousin of mine (Actually, he's my brother's brother-in-law, but I'm from the south and any relation--no matter how distant--rates at least the status of cousin.), just booked one of those nightmare cruises.  They were supposed to leave from Texas City for a week-long cruise along the Mexican Coast.  Instead, after they boarded, a barge collision in the ship channel recreated a scale model of the Exxon Valdez disaster:  it dumped enough oil in the bay that ships were neither allowed into nor out of port until the mess was cleaned up.

Ted and his wife spent the next four days stuck on a ship-to-quite-literally-nowhere.  No destination ports, no outdoor activities due to the cold weather, and no beautiful scenery.  As a matter of fact, Ted could go out onto his luxurious private balcony and have a majestic view of his parked pickup (a pickup that the ship would not let him visit, since the captain wouldn't let anyone depart the ship).  Ted had been shanghaied.  

Taking a ship out of Texas City is not exactly what I would call a lucky omen.   In 1947, the SS Grandcamp loaded with 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded.  When the Grandcamp exploded, it took out the nearby SS High Flyer, similarly loaded.  When these two ships detonated, it was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history at that time.  The Grandcamp's anchor was blown over a mile and a half away.  Taking a cruise ship from this location is the karmic equivalent of taking sail on a ship named after the Titanic.

On the fourth day, fearing a giant mutiny, the captain relented and ordered the press gang to allow the prisoners to escape.  Given a full refund, Ted and his wife fled to their truck.  They also got a coupon good for 25% off their next cruise on the SS No Damn Way.  I get the general impression that Ted is a little less than impressed with the Royal Norwegian Princess Line.

Cruise ship lines have had nothing but bad luck lately.  The Russian liner Lyubov Orlova broke free as it was being towed across the Atlantic to be scrapped.  For roughly a year, it wandered aimlessly, crewed by a horde of diseased cannibalistic rats.  I say roughly because no one knows what has happened to the ghost ship.  Popular theories are that it either sank in February or that it is being blown ever closer to Ireland.  Personally, I think it is on its way to Texas City.  It should be ready in time for Ted's next cruise.

All of this bad press has given me an idea.  Since it is getting harder and harder for the cruise lines to fill their ships, it shouldn't be too expensive to acquire one for use as a great floating location for a reality television show.  Sort of a Survivor meets Love Boat meets Gilligan's Island.  This will definitely be a winner-takes-all show.  And since times are so tough, each season can easily start with a new ship.

This is not a stupid idea when you compare it with all the other reality shows.  I would much rather watch the passengers of a doomed ship fight to survive a germ-infested salad bar than an episode of Amish Mafia.  (Originally, the show was going to be about Baptist Scientists, but focus groups didn't find that believable enough.)

There is almost an endless supply of challenges for the cast.  Can you still fit into your life preserver after two weeks at the buffet?  Will you succumb to the mysterious stomach flu that seems to be coming from the ship's water?  How many newlywed husbands will throw their spouses overboard for the insurance?  Can you escape the man-eating rats before the hepatitis you picked up on the last excursion sets in?

Then, at the season finale, we let Captain Schettino (of Costa Concordia fame) run the ship up onto the rocks while the cast scrambles for an inadequate number of lifeboats.  Survivors who can't find room in the lifeboats are forced to swim for shore past specially imported Australian tiger sharks.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Die Fledermaus-Fiasko

New Mexico has always been the home of the unconventional--that's a nice way of saying weird.  Think of Billy the Kid, the atomic bomb, or ex-Governor Bill Richardson.  Perhaps the truth is that this is the state where you can stage outrageous experiments and no one will notice.

On December 7, 1941, while the Japanese were busy bombing Pearl Harbor, Dr. Lyle Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist was on vacation in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  While he came for the caves, he was fascinated by the bats.  There are, in fact, four large caves in New Mexico, each with over a million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats.  

The combination of the Japanese bombing and the incredible number of bats gave the good dentist a great idea:  Could the bats be used to deliver tiny little incendiary devices?  Could thousands of these little guided missiles be dropped over the cities of Japan in such a way that the bats would disperse and seek refuge under the eaves and rooftops of a city known to be filled with homes constructed from paper and bamboo?

For most people, the idea would have died before the inventor had had his next beer, but Dr. Adams was a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady.  When the idea was presented to the president, it was approved, and within a year was being tested on one of the hastily constructed airfields that sprang up like tumbleweeds across the sparse New Mexican deserts.  This particular air base was close to Carlsbad, where there was an abundance of bats.

Louis Fieser, the man who had just developed napalm for the military, designed tiny one-ounce incendiary bombs with timers, that could be carried by the bats.  To make the bats easier to transport, it was decided to chill the bats (forcing them into hibernation), place them in containers, and then drop them over targets at night.  Bats are nocturnal, so they would fly around seeking shelter before morning.  Shortly after dawn, the timers would set off the bombs, allowing the tiny bats to die for their country, while igniting fires all over the targeted Japanese city.

Well, that was the plan.  There were a few problems in the development, however.  Getting the bats to exit the cage was a problem.  If the bat exits too soon, it could be exhausted before it found a proper spot to roost.  Very little is accomplished if it simply rains bats over enemy cities.  And if the bat leaves too late....well, you probably understand that problem.

Eventually, all the problems were actually ironed out.  A little over two dozen trays, each containing 40 bats, could be packed inside a container shaped like a traditional bomb.  The bat bomb would be dropped at 5,000 feet, where the trays would separate and fall freely.  A parachute would deploy at 1,000 feet which would eject the individual bats out of the tray.  If ten B-24 bombers were armed with such devices, over a million "bat bombs" would descend on an enemy city.

Of course, before this new super weapon could be deployed, it had to be tested.  On May 15, 1943 a partially filled bat bomb was dropped over a test facility in the New Mexico desert.  To be fair, it was an accidental testing--they didn't mean to actually drop the armed bomb.  But, the bat bombs did work!  Among other things, the bats destroyed a hangar, a fuel truck, a general's car, and a couple of barracks!  (This raging success was accomplished with only six bats!)

Immediately, the project was transferred to the U.S. Navy, who gave it the code name Project X-Ray and turned it over to the Marine Corps for further testing.  When the Marines tested the device over a mock-up of a Japanese city in Utah, the weapon proved devastatingly effective.  It was calculated that using conventional incendiary devices, a fully loaded B-24 might produce as many as 400 fires.  The same plane loaded with patriotic pyromaniac bats could produce 4000 fires.

The bats never made it into actual combat.   After several years of testing and an investment of several million dollars, Admiral King cancelled the project when he learned that the device wouldn't be ready for use until the middle of 1945.  Simply put, the batty project was abandoned in favor of the atomic bomb.

So, in the end, America's first "smart-bomb" was never used in combat.  Neither was our anti-tank dog--but that is a story for another time.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Politicians Out of Control

Politicians have been in the news again for acting like drug-crazed fools.  No, actually, they weren't acting.

In recent months we have had the arrest of another congressman who, while eager to control your life, has no idea how to control his own.  If you are a conservative congressman from Florida, some might think it foolish of you to risk your career by messing with cocaine.  Being arrested in possession might even sound like risky behavior to some.  If your district is conservative enough to elect you, they probably won't understand when you are accused of using cocaine in the capitol building.

On the other hand, some might say that the worst criminal penalty you can get is only 180 days in jail.  That's not too bad considering you've already been sentenced to two years in Congress. ex-cons have more social respect than congressmen.  As it turned out, this particular hypocrite only got probation.

And we have a Canadian mayor who seems to have either snorted or eaten a drug mule.  All things considered, I sort of like this mayor.  It is enjoyable to watch the antics of a drug-sotted plutocrat while remaining smugly confident it is not your country going to Hell.  This is probably the same feeling that Canadians have enjoyed ever since Watergate. 

God knows, in my youth, I may have inhaled once or twice and at times, I may have consumed more alcoholic beverages than were prudent.  But, I have never run for political office on a family values plank or called for stiffer penalties for drug use, all the while having my local dealer's cell number on my speed dial. 

One of the nice things about alcohol is that--unless you are the pope--you can stand on your front porch with a martini in your left hand while using your right hand to shoot the finger at photographers and not much will happen.  (Hell, you can probably do it bare beam and buck naked and get away with it.)

However, if you are the mayor of Toronto, or the conservative congressman from Florida, you will not get away with cocaine.  There was a bargain you made when you decided to run for an elected position:  For as long as you hold public office, you have to show the self-restraint we expect from anyone over the age of nine.  Honestly, we can't put the expectations any lower. 

If you cannot refrain from using a drug that will absolutely ruin your career, end your marriage, and may possibly have you sharing a cell with several large, angry men who, most assuredly, did not vote for you, then it is time for you to voluntarily check in to one of  those happy homes for the criminally stupid, where you can beg for treatment.  If all else fails, ask for treatment that employs a cattle prod and a flaming bull whip--whatever the Hell it takes for you to kick the habit.  Scream at the staff daily, "For God sakes, stop me before I dumb ass again!"

Sure it will be expensive--even the drive-up window at such posh places like the Betty Ford Self-Abuse Resort and Gift Shop will cost a fortune--but compare this cost with your eventual legal bills and then throw in the cost Gift Shop and of the divorce, including the inevitability that your ex-wife will get the house, your savings, and half your pension.   (To say nothing of the embarrassment you will suffer when your former spouse gets a seven figure book contract for a bestseller that will leave you sounding like the pervert who was arrested while sniffing bicycle seats at the local elementary school!)

Barring that, would you please go live in Canada?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Invasion By Streetcar

This has been an interesting week to teach military history.  By a cruel ironic twist, this was the week when I lectured about the events leading up to the Second World War.  If you had replaced all the references to Austria and Hitler with Crimea and Putin, the lecture would have still made sense. 

There were two lines in the lecture that were prophetically eerie.  Which one of the following sentences from my lecture notes bother you the most?  "For a decade, there were countries willing to use force to upset the status quo, but there were no countries willing to use force to preserve it."   Or, "The definition of peace is not the absence of fighting, it is the presence of justice."

All of this got me to thinking about the times throughout history when one country has invaded a neighbor.  My favorite is not exactly a significant chapter in the annals of military history.

Back in 1912, the Mexican Revolution was roaring along the Texas/Mexico border.  President Porfirio Diaz had just fled the country and was taking up residence in Paris.  The new President, Francisco Madero, had forced Diaz out by, in part, seizing the border town of Juárez.  Bandits and rustlers--or the victorious army (depending on who was temporarily in power)--were crawling back and forth across the border.  A few herds of cattle were stolen, sold, and resold so many times, it would have been easier to put the livestock on wheels.

Needless to say, both sides of the border had stationed their armies on the border in a futile attempt to keep the peace.  In El Paso, one young lieutenant brought both countries to the brink of war.

Lt. Ben W. Fields had only been at Fort Bliss for three days when he was ordered to take a detachment of 19 soldiers down to one of the two bridges across the Rio Grande that linked Mexico and the US.  After studying a map for a while, he found that he could take his detail to the bridge by using the local street car.

There are two things that need to be explained here.  First, there is nothing in the world more dangerous than a Lieutenant with a map.  Second, El Paso and Juárez shared a streetcar line.  The train went from El Paso across the south bridge into Juárez, looped around the Mexican town, then crossed back into the US by the north bridge.  If you look in the bottom right corner of the photo, you can see the streetcar crossing into Mexico on the south bridge and the north bridge off in the distance.

There was only one flaw in Lt. Fields' plan--he was ordered to guard the northern bridge.  The only transport  there, required that 20 well-armed US soldiers would be riding through Mexico in an open electric streetcar.  This is the kind of thing that people notice

That streetcar made it about 100 yards into Mexican territory before some startled Mexican customs agents managed to stop the car.  Almost immediately, Juárez Mayor Mestas arrived waving a large pistol and leading an angry armed mob willing and eager to defend their country from the pendejo gringos.  (That's Spanish for "nice guys".)

Lt. Fields did not speak Spanish, yet somehow was able to convince the authorities that it was a case of stupidity rather than conquest.  He and his men were released.  Unfortunately, authorities in the US had already panicked. 

Mayor Kelley of El Paso had already wired the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, demanding that more troops be sent to guard the border.  Texas Governor Colquitt sent a message to President Taft demanding a preemptive invasion of Mexico to accomplish a "friendly occupation."  Adjutant General Hutchings, who happened to be visiting Fort Bliss, activated the local unit of the Texas National Guard and ordered them to the border.

Naturally, all of this provoked a reaction from the Mexican side of the border.  While the Mexican authorities only sent a few more guards to the border, American tourists fled the gambling halls, restaurants, and assorted bars and ran for the border.  To give you an idea of the seriousness, Juárez shut down the horse race track--for a whole day--something they hadn't even bothered to do when President Madero's army had attacked the town the previous year. 

As quickly as the trouble had started, the whole business was quickly put to rest.  Taft ignored Governor Colquitt, who had a room temperature I.Q. on a cold day with the windows opened wide.  Secretary of War Stimson sent a few more troops to Fort Bliss, but otherwise ignored the El Paso mayor.

Lt. Fields was arrested, court-martialed and eventually returned to duty.  In his defense, he explained that he had heard the border was a river, and where he was from, that meant it had water in it.

The Lieutenant further explained that he "had heard that the Rio Grande was a large river and not the small one that it was."

The next day, the tourists were back at the bars, gambling dens, and other assorted playgrounds of Juárez.  The racetrack reopened and the two towns continued to share that streetcar for over sixty years.   The US went on to really invade Mexico several more times over the next few years, but that is a story for another time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Are About To Be Lousy With Babies

This is the last weekend I can say this:  There are three grandchildren on the way.  Both of my sons--What's-His-Name and The-Other-One--have pregnant wives.  AND the former's wife is having twins.  By this time next weekend, the first of the three will be here, and by the end of the year, I will have 5 grandchildren.  I can start my own basketball team.

While all of this is hilarious--at least to me--the rest of my family seems to be in something of a state of frenzied shock.  If I had known how much fun grandchildren were, I would have had them first, and then probably stopped. 

Of course, I already have two granddaughters and I love them dearly.  And I'm not in any way prejudiced, but as I calculate it, I have an 87.5% chance of having one or more grandsons by the end of the year.  Not that I'm counting.  (50% chance of two boys and 12.5% chance of three.)

What's-His-Name is in deep shock--twins!!!  Suddenly, a household of three will grow to one of five almost overnight.  If I could stop laughing, I would empathize.  One child is like living with an entropy generator.  Two children is like having your entire world in a blender with no lid.  Three children under the age of three all at the same time....  Words fail me, but I may buy stock in the company that makes Pampers.

Of course, as a sensitive and caring grandfather, I am being very supportive.  That is why about twice a day, I send a text message to my son:  MINI-VAN. 

I have no idea what it is like to have an instant large family dropped on you, but I am positive the best way to find out is to watch it happen to someone else from a safe distance.  And that is my plan.

Other than the two granddaughters I currently have, I don't know too much about raising girls.  From what I have seen so far, little girls are cute, incredibly sensitive, and very emotional.  This wasn't exactly my experience with raising boys.  That was more like riding a roller coaster without a track through the middle of a scrap metal yard.  If for no other reason than revenge, I hope my sons each raise at least one boy.

I remember well the time when What's-His-Name was supposed to be digging a hole in the back yard to plant a Christmas tree.  (The Doc, my wife, always insisted on a live Christmas tree since nothing will get you in the holiday spirit more than killing a tree in your living room.).  After Christmas, we would go ahead and plant the corpse in the forlorn hope that it would somehow take root and survive.  After two dozen attempts, only three trees survived.

That particular year, What's-His-Name had done something wrong and it was his punishment to dig a hole in the back yard deep enough for the tree.  From the way the boy whined and moaned, you would have thought we had asked him to dig his own grave.  And the progress was slow, despite fairly constant reminders from me to keep moving.  After about two hours, I went to check the progress.  The good news was that there was a hole (although it was about half the size necessary).  The bad news was that the boy was curled up in the hole sound asleep.

He's a good boy, and to this day, he always does what I tell him.  As long as I'm standing near him.

The number of grandkids is more than doubling in one year!   A whole bunch of new names are going to have to be thought up.  This is, obviously, not something my family excels at.  (My mother's name was Bob and I have an aunt Pete, but that is another story.)  I don't suppose What's-His-Name-2 will work.

I suppose my sons could be like this farmer I knew back in Texas who had so many children that he just ran out of names. Eventually, he just started calling his kids after the first thing he saw around his farm.

A few years later, it was the first day of school and the new teacher walked down the row of students and asked each child their name. When he got to one of the farmer's sons, the boy replied, "Wagon Wheel."

The teacher said, "I need your real name boy.", to which the lad replied, "It's Wagon Wheel, sir....really."

The teacher, rather annoyed rejoined, "All right young man, take yourself right down to the Principal's office this minute."

The youngster pushed himself out of his chair, turned to his sister and said, "C'mon, 'Chicken Shit, he ain't gonna believe you, neither."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Pig War

It seems there is fighting and discontent all over the world: Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, and the Sociology Department.  While the fighting seems far away and among people we may not care about (this certainly applies to the Sociology Department) we need to be careful: it is amazing how often small incidents threaten to boil over into actual wars.  Take for example, the Pig War.

The United States and Great Britain committed thousands of men and great warships to an almost-but-not-quite war that had international repercussions.  Luckily, the conflict ended with only one casualty.

The story begins in the northwest territory of the United States.  England and the US had squabbled for decades on exactly where to draw the boundary between Washington Territory and Canada.  After intense negotiations, a treaty was signed in 1846 that said the boundary should run down the middle of the channel separating Vancouver Island from the mainland.  Unfortunately, there were two channels, Haro Strait and Rosario Strait.

Depending on which strait was believed to be the main channel, San Juan Island could go to either one country or the other.  San Juan is about 8 miles wide and 24 miles long.  Though it was a beautiful island, its real value lay in its strategic location: whoever owned the island, would control the important waterway.

The United States claimed that since only the Haro Strait was navigable, it was the true boundary.  The British however, could claim prior possession--the Hudson Bay Company had maintained a farm on the island since the 1840s.  The isolated farm had several thousand sheep and a dozen or so people.

This was probably a peaceful island—frequent rains meant lots of grass, and with no predators on the island, the inhabitants probably didnt have to spend too much time herding the sheep.  It was a peaceful, idyllic world.

Until, that is, the Americans arrived in 1859.  Eighteen Americans had come up empty-handed in the gold fields and had decided to homestead on the “free” land of San Juan Island. The upshot was that within weeks, they had transformed the peaceful island into a battlefield.

On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar (an American), discovered a large black pig destroying his garden and eating his potatoes.  Cutlar, of course, shot the pig. He tried to do the right thing, offering to pay the owner, Charles Griffin (a Canadian), $10 for the porker.  However, the owner was a hot-headed Irishman who demanded the outrageous price of $100.

“It was eating my potatoes!” cried Cutlar.

“It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.” replied Griffin.

Cutlar refused to pay, and Griffin asked the British authorities to arrest Cutlar, who immediately screamed for protection from the US Army.

This happened to coincide with the arrival in Oregon of General William Selby Harney.  Harney was known to be profane, brave, and independent—not at all the qualities of a diplomat.  Harney quickly ordered Captain George Pickett (Yes--the same man who would lead the disastrous Confederate charge at the battle of Gettysburg!) to set up a defensive position on the island.  Pickett took 66 soldiers and three small artillery pieces to the island.

The sudden militarization of what had been an island principally occupied by sheep and pigs, upset the British who sent three warships to the island.  Outnumbered, Pickett asked for reinforcements, and General Harney increased the garrison to 461 men and 14 cannon.  The British responded with two more warships, bringing their force up to 167 cannon and slightly more than 2000 troops.

Meanwhile, President James Buchannan was relaxing in the White House, reading an English newspaper, when he suddenly learned that the two Anglo countries were about to have a war over a sheep-laden island that he had never heard of.   The president ordered the highest ranking general in the army, 73-year-old Winfield Scott, to go to San Juan Island and defuse the situation.

Poor Scott was in ill-health, and the trip was hard on him.  After a month at sea, he arrived in San Juan to find that both Pickett and Harney were quite proud of how they had handled the situation.  Scott--evidently the only adult on the island--managed to convince both local military commanders to jointly (and hopefully, peacefully) occupy the island until a diplomatic solution could be reached.  The British built a small fort on the north end of the island, while the Americans occupied the south end.

For the next 12 years, the two almost-enemies lived in harmony, visiting each others camps frequently to celebrate holidays or hold athletic contests.  According to one visitor, the only threat to the peace was the unusually large amount of alcohol on the island.

Eventually, the two countries submitted their claims to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for binding arbitration.  After a year of contemplation, the Kaiser sided with the American claim.  The British departed in November, 1872, followed 18 months later by the US Army.  Today, the island is maintained by the US Park Service, who respectfully still raise and lower the British flag on “their” end of the island every day.

The only casualty?  The pig, of course.

There is one small part of the story still left untold: One of the young officers stationed on the island during the hostilities was Henry Martyn Robert.  This young engineer designed the fortifications on the island, and was undoubtedly disturbed at the inability of the two angry groups to politely discuss this problem and reach an amicable settlement.  In 1876, he published a book titled Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies.  Today, it is more commonly called Roberts Rules of Order.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Springtime At Enema U

Ahh!  It is early springtime here in Southern New Mexico.  Actually, today is Valentines Day.  You can tell because here at Enema U, large corporations have set up tables in the Studentless Center in order to hand out condoms and sample packages of personal lubricants.  There is actually a sign that reads, “If You Are Gonna Love, Wear A Glove!”

Forty-something years ago, and at a university far, far away, I believe I bought The Doc, my wife, a hideous chrysanthemum liberally sprinkled with glitter.  That gift was probably more romantic, but certainly less practical.

It is hard to believe that the semester is already nearing the halfway point.  You can slowly see the rising levels of panic in the eyes of students as they suddenly realize that they no longer remember why they choose “Waste Disposal Systems in Nigeria” as the topic of their research projects.  The panic deepens when they discover that our library possesses only two books that even mention Nigeria (neither mentions waste disposal) and that both have already been colored by the football team.

And then there are the pale, wide-eyed faces of the seniors who realize they are just a few short weeks away from the prospect of semi-permanent unemployment.  You can almost see these students thinking, "Why did I major in the History of Reality Television?"  (The answer of course is because the math requirement was a single course: "Hooray For Numbers".).

And this is the time of the year when even the administration begins making changes.  Since only half the classrooms are currently under construction, even more are targeted for remodeling.  Since the first half are not finished....this means that there is a severe shortage of new space for administrative offices.

Someone good at math--evidently someone who got a degree that actually resulted in employment--figured out that if the current rate of growth in the number of people employed as administrators continues, in just another 100 years Enema U will qualify as a new Third World Country.  

Many of the new offices will come from slowly moving the emeritus faculty out of offices they have been occupying for the last several decades into their new offices over in Oubliette Hall.    You might be surprised to learn that retired faculty still have offices at the University, but it is true.  In some cases it is because the faculty are still very productive in their research.  However, in most cases it is because the offices these faculty members occupy are no longer considered suitable for any other use.  (And in at least a few cases, the only thing protecting the occupants of the building from asbestos-laden tile floors is the thick layer of slowly composting term papers dating back to the Korean War.).

There will be little opposition to such moves from the current faculty (at least not until next month when the administration decides it needs their office space).  The problem with most faculty--our little hot-house flowers--is that they demand to be treated like orchids, while in reality, the blooming idiots behave like weeds.  At most, there will be a brief argument over who gets their filing cabinet or a now empty bookcase, but sadly, no sense of loss for a colleague of decades.

This, of course, reminds me of an old story that hasn't happened, yet.  One day, the Vice President Of Student Inarticulation was walking down the the corridor of Prokynesis Hall, the Administration Building.  As he passed the open door of one of the Associate Deans, he couldn't help but notice that the man was sitting at his desk, just crying his eyes out.

"Bob, what's the matter?'

Bob lifted his face from his hands and looked up at his friend.  Still sobbing, he could just barely find the voice to whisper.

"My student died."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Epiphany

When I first started studying history, I had an amazing and sudden insight: people throughout time--no matter when or where they had lived--were just like me.  I'm sure for most people this was an obvious conclusion, easily reached by everyone except someone who had spent the first half of his life studying machines.

For me, however, the idea that, if I really studied people from a certain time or place, I could eventually understand them and realize that our commonalities were far greater than our differences was quite an epiphany.  (For those of you who don't know, an epiphany is that sudden moment when you are studying late at night, all alone, and have a mental breakthrough. Like Archimedes, you jump up, yelling "Eureka, I understand it.")

An epiphany is the second best feeling in life.  If you don't know what the best is, you probably shouldn't be reading my blog.

And through the years, I think I have been fairly successful at climbing into the heads of people who lived during the times I have studied.  I haven't been very successful with slave owners or the French in general, but overall, I think I have done okay.  People in the past are easy, the people I have the hardest time understanding are the people in the world today.

Thirty years ago, my wife and I made a trip to Zhongshan, China.  This was so long ago that most people still called it Red China.  China had just started opening up its free economic trade zones and we were among the first to visit.  This was a great time to visit China--the whole country was on the verge of a dynamic tidal wave of expansion, but the most common vehicles on the road were bicycles and weird reproductions of a 1949 Ford stake bed truck.  This was a country with one foot in the future while the other was firmly planted in a time before I had been born.  The China we visited was closer to the 1940's than the present.

My wife and I had lunch at the Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club, which boasted a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.  Strangely, the golf course--the first in China--also boasted a Ferris wheel.  While we ate our meal, we had a perfect view of the Ferris wheel, and about a hundred yards past the carnival ride, we could watch a farmer plow his rice paddy with the help of a water buffalo.  I asked, and my guide assured me, that the expense of riding the Ferris wheel was well beyond the means of the farmer.

I still wonder what the farmer thought about as he labored behind the water buffalo.  Did he feel anger at a world that could afford the incredible extravagance of wasting so much money on a Ferris wheel while he labored in his fields using technology that was thousands of years old?

I have to admit, the farmer is not the only person in today's world that I have trouble understanding.  I have visited sweat shops in Honduras and watched while children made soccer balls.  Do those kids ever get to play with one of those balls?  I have had my share of mindless jobs where the fingers do the work while the imagination soars to an imaginary  escape.  What do those children think about as their nimble fingers sew those seams?  Are they grateful for a job that feeds them even as they make toys for children far luckier than they are?  Do they hate those children?

What do those people think about as they labor to make the endless stream of crap we buy: that cheap and useless garbage that our country squanders its fortune on?  (You know--the the x-ray glasses, the bobble-head dogs, and the chia pet dolls, etc.).   What does a man think about while he works desperately to make items that possess no conceivable practical value?  Does he hate the people who degrade him with pointless labor or thank them for the employment that feeds his family?

A Roman farmer two millennia ago probably worried about his children, the fight he had with his wife, and what the weird aches and pains he was experiencing meant about his future health.  He worried about the price of his crops, the weather, and his livestock.  I can understand that man, but how do I ever understand the man who plows his field in the shadow of that Ferris wheel?

I'm still waiting for that epiphany.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Thomas Jefferson Was Right

Once again our nation has been subjected to the political kabuki theater that we call the State of the Union.  And once again, I wonder why the nation allows itself to be subjected to such a pointless pep rally without even the promise of a sock hop in the gym afterwards.

This nonsense is not really necessary.  Article II, Section 3 of our constitution says that "He [the president] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

George Washington interpreted this as a speech, following a custom that had long been in practice in England, the annual "Speech From the Throne" to the assembled houses of Parliament.  Our founding fathers were well aware of the annual custom where a bloated, inbred monarch would read a prepared speech (traditionally with a German accent) to a Parliament who were just whiling away the time until the pubs opened.  (If you are interested in such trivia, I recommend reading the missive from George III in 1775.  He was outraged at the cheeky Americans who were in desperate need of chastising.   He predicted the revolt would fold as soon as the rebels felt "a smart blow.")

This presidential version of performance art upset Jefferson, who believed the Federalist Party of Washington and Adams was taking on too much of the trappings of a monarchy.  A deep believer in a democracy steered by the wisdom of an independent populace, Jefferson went out of his way as president to strip the office of all such grandeur.  President Jefferson frequently met guests personally at the White House front door dressed in his robe and slippers.  This deliberate act was to emphasize his belief that politicians--in particular the president--should always be seen as a man of the people.

Jefferson wanted to distance his messages to Congress from the royal recommendations (read that as "demands") of a monarch, so he sent written messages to Congress that were read aloud by a clerk.  You get the general impression that if Jefferson could have mailed the letter to Congress with postage due, he would have.

Every president from Jefferson through Taft followed his lead and sent only written messages to Congress.  It was Woodrow Wilson who broke tradition and delivered a speech to Congress.  Wilson probably wanted Congress to pay attention to his message, since it had been the practice in Congress for years for the assembled legislators to bolt for the cloakroom as soon as the clerk began reading the president's letter.

After Wilson, for the next sixty-odd years, presidents frequently--but not always--delivered speeches before a joint session of Congress.  The last president to send a written message was Jimmy Carter (evidently in the belief that the country had suffered enough).  Since then, no president has been merciful enough to spare the country the burden of yet another political speech.  And the speeches have been generally recognized by political pundits as fairly useless.  And boring.

The entire spectacle has gotten silly.  Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee camps out in the capitol with a pup tent two days early so she can get a seat on the aisle and fawn over the President like a $10 hooker in a bar at closing time.  And that was how she acted when Bush was president.  Now that Obama is president, the Secret Service is thinking about using a taser on her.

And are we really supposed to feel secure in the knowledge that a single member of the cabinet is selected to stay away from the capitol during the speech, so that, if some kind of catastrophe wipes out all of the administration, our government will continue?  Do we really want the Secretary of Urban Bed Wetting--a member of the cabinet so unpopular that he couldn't even get invited to the State of the Union speech--to singlehandedly rebuild the entire national government?

And lastly, do we have to continue the practice of the president's inviting guests that he can introduce during his speech?  To Washington insiders, these guests are referred to as "Lenny Skutniks."  President Reagan began the practice in 1982, when he invited Mr. Skutnik to the speech after his heroic actions following a plane crash.  I have no objections to inviting civilians, but the practice of inviting members of our military has become somewhat cloying.  These men and women deserve our thanks and respect--something that does not seem consistent with treating them as props in a presidential version of "show-and-tell."

Jefferson was right: we should return to the days when the President's letter is read by a clerk while all of Congress hides in the cloak room.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Voodoo Computer Repair

I have been contemplating the nature of cats this week.  It would be hard not to in this house, for our home is overrun by a multitude of feline philosophers.  Both of them.

How can two cats continually occupy so much raw acreage in a single tract house?  On every horizontal surface there seems to be stretched out a sleeping cat, belly up, seeking warmth from a fluorescent bulb, one delicate paw placed across his eyes to protect him from the harsh reality of a covered 40 watt bulb.

I suppose there are many reasons to think about cats.  I like the way they are beholden to no one.  Any fool can earn the love of a dog (Hell!--even Hitler owned a dog that evidently worshipped him, even as Adolf fed him a cyanide capsule to test its efficacy.  If Adolf had owned a cat, the feline would have had a fighting chance at outliving the dictator.).  The love and trust of a cat must be earned.

What I have spent the better part of the last hour contemplating, however, is their capacity to learn something through experience.  As Mark Twain once put it:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid.  She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

To call this behavior human would insult the cat.  However, it illustrates how people work with technology they dont understand.  For the last forty years, I have seen the principle applied to the functioning  of computers. 

Sooner or later, everyone's computer will not do what they want it do.  Trust me, it is nearly always not the computer malfunctioning, but some form of operator head-space error.  After punching every button on the keyboard followed by tapping on the monitor screen—suddenly, the computer produces the desired effect.  What the operator should have learned was that a little patience was required.  What the operator will "learn" is that tapping on the screen works. 

This is exactly as much, and no more, than the cat would have learned.  From now on, whenever frustrated—which is every time this person uses the computer—the first thing that will be tried is tapping on the screen.  It doesnt matter that this procedure did not work the first time (or any time thereafter)--the cat will not sit on the stove-lid.  The monitor gets tapped.  Now that I think about it, the cat might be ahead on points: the cat wouldn't get aggravated at the new technology, it would just search it for the warmest spot on which to nap.

Strangely, this behavior may possibly be hereditary.  I have observed pilots tapping on the glass cover on an aircraft fuel gauge to make sure that they are getting a true reading--something that was briefly appropriate during World War I.  If a pilot is young enough to have passed a flight physical in the last thirty years, he is far too young to have ever flown a plane in which this procedure would have worked.  This has to be the result of young pilots learning from older pilots.

My father learned to drive in the 1920's on a Model T-Ford, the automotive equivalent of that cat's hot stove-lid.  Henry Ford made 15 million of those Tin Lizzies and he put the world on wheels--but by today's standards, those cars were difficult to drive.  The car boasted a 22 horsepower motor and an automatic transmission.  The jalopy had three pedals: the left pedal was low gear, the middle pedal was reverse and right pedal was the footbrake. The hand brake worked on the back wheels and also operated the clutch. The throttle was a hand- operated lever on the steering column below the steering wheel. 

Years later, mentally at least, my father was still driving that old Model T.  Modern cars didn't have a gas pedal--they had a "foot throttle".  "Pump the foot throttle!" he would exhort every time I went to start the car.  "Give it a little gas before you start it."

The fact that the car was fuel-injected and you could have pushed that pedal through the floor boards didn't matter.  This method had worked once in 1929 and every car since had gotten it's pedals exercised prior to starting.

This is called "Voodoo Repair".  People dont try to learn how their technology works: they just want to know the proper ritual that will make the magic work.  Arthur C. Clark once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This is why today, anyone who is even remotely competent with computers (or any other technology) is routinely called a "wizard."

Evidently, for most of the human race, we passed this point several thousand years ago when the wizards of the tribe produced fire.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Elizabeth at School

A Modern Ancient Fairy Tale


In a land a very long way from the Department of Education, there was once a tiny, little school in the middle of Dumb Fuck, East Dakota.  This was a small and old school, very far from just about anywhere.  I would give you directions, but you can't get there unless you get lost.  Twice.

While the school was very small, and everything in it was very old, the school was very modern in its teaching philosophy.  The teacher, though very young, held a prestigious graduate degree in education from the very best university.  She was determined to bring the very best in edumacation to this backward land, and she had brought an armload of standardized tests to prove it.

The desks were very old, the school library was actually smaller than it had been ten years earlier, and chalkboards were the old heavy and impossible-to-erase slate boards, but the school had recently hired its very first social worker and now had two assistant principals.  These professionals stood in the hall and said the word "pedagogy" to each other, while nodding their heads wisely.

The very best student was a little girl named Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was the best little girl in the entire school--all the mothers of the other children thought she was the best little girl in the whole world.  Every day, these mothers told their children, "Why can't you be more like Elizabeth?  She always looks so neat and clean!  And she has the very best manners!"

And it was true.  No matter when you saw Elizabeth, she was immaculate.  Her shoes were polished and her hair was brushed and she always had clean hands and her fingernails were as perfect as her manners.  Elizabeth always said, "Yes, Ma'am." and "No, Sir." and no one ever had to remind her to say "Thank you."  All the parents loved her.

Naturally, the rest of the kids at school hated her like a toothache.  

And the new teacher really loved Elizabeth.  Whenever the school had visitors, the teacher always had Elizabeth stand at the blackboard and demonstrate how to work a math problem or diagram a sentence.  Visitors were always impressed with Elizabeth and never noticed that every other kid in the class was glaring at Elizabeth through eyes that were so narrowly slitted that you couldn't tell their color.   

Sometimes, the teacher told the other parents that Elizabeth had a "Type A" personality.  Most of the other kids understood that the teacher was just too polite to finish the sentence, but everyone knew she meant "A-hole."

Naturally, Elizabeth always did her homework on time, always came to school prepared for class, always had her lunch money, and had a perfect attendance record.  No wonder the teacher loved her--and no wonder that every other kid in class hoped she had a violent accident with the pencil sharpener.  Or maybe have that mysterious ailment that the teacher always hinted at when someone ate paste.

Whenever the teacher asked a question, Elizabeth's hand shot into the air for the teacher to call on her.  About a year previously,  a young boy named Billy had also raised his hand a lot--but not any more.  For some reason the teacher and the principal had been overheard whispering about the boy who was good in math.  They had even spelled it so the kids wouldn't understand it--A-D-D, but all the kids knew how to add--and subtract, too.  Since then, Billy had started to take medicine even though he wasn't sick--he was just tired a lot now and spent a lot of time with his head down on his arms that were folded across the desk.  No one paid much attention because Billy was very quiet now.

And so it was one day, that the teacher was trying to explain a new math problem--none  of the kids in the room paid much attention, since they knew in advance that, eventually, Elizabeth would be called on to stand at the front of the room.

Sure enough, Elizabeth was called to the ancient, old chalkboard and started neatly writing the math problem on the board.  As she worked the problem, she explained what she was doing in a loud clear voice. Step by step, she worked the problem while the teacher beamed at her.  And as she finished the problem, she drew back her hand and struck the board with her chalk saying, "Forty-two!"

The chalkboard had been hanging on the wall of that little old school house for years.  The sharp whack of the chalk vibrated the board and the sheetrock screws that been holding the board all came loose at the same time.  Slowly at first, the top of the blackboard separated from the wall and begin to swing out and down, slowly at first, then gathering speed as the massive antique slate board fell on Elizabeth, crushing her to the floor.

All the kids who hadn't done their homework that day watched with wide eyes and open mouths.  All the kids with bad manners were transfixed as the board slowly descended.

Even little Billy thought--slowly--that it was his best day in school since he couldn't remember when.

It is at this point that every fairy tale is supposed to have a moral.  I could beg off, claiming that the narrator is notoriously immoral, but it turns out that this story does indeed have a moral:  There just isn't much demand for good girls, but the best ones know it pays to be bad occasionally.


NOTE.  Have you ever noticed that Elizabeth and its various diminutive forms is the very best name for a female?  Long before you actually meet the woman, you will know almost everything about her just from her name.  Elizabeth is the over-achiever who will catch fire and burn out somewhere in her mid-forties.  Betty is married with two kids and has a part-time job while she finishes raising the kids.  Beth is also married but stays home to take care of the four kids and dreams of someday perfecting her Toll House cookie recipe.  Eliza hasn't been seen since the ice flow broke up.  Betsy sews and plays the piano in church.  Liz is hot and has a charge account with Prada.  LiliBet raises Corgis.  And every single woman named Elizabeth who reads this  will think that all of the nicknames are correct--but hers.

LATER NOTE.  For Pete's sake, people!  I know three different people named Elizabeth and each of them is convinced I am talking about them.  The story is about education... not someone I know.  I guess I could make up names for these stories, but few people want to read about Bzyllrewyn.  Unless they are Welsh.