Saturday, April 18, 2015

If We Had Only Known Him

Damn!  It's been almost 20 years!  While I remember the boys—What's-His-Name and The-Other-One—being smaller, I only have my wife's word as proof of when we made that trip.

Strange—while I'm a historian, my wife, The Doc, is....well, a doc.  This would lead you to believe that I would have some ability to remember dates, yet—for some reason—I have never had any idea when events in my own life have occurred.  Anything before lunch yesterday, is only a faint, dim memory.  In my own fuzzy way, I remember events by presidential terms.

I learned to read while Ike was on the golf course, I first noticed girls during the Kennedy years, I met The Doc (then The Pre-Doc) during Nixon's first term, I married her during Tricky Dick's second term (Don't Change Dicks in the Middle of a Screw—Vote For Nixon in '72!), and the boys were born during Reagan's tenure.

So, while The Doc remembers the exact date of the vacation, to me it is just vaguely Clintonian.  If you want an exact date, you'll have to check with The Doc.

The vacation was a canal boat trip through the Oxford countryside of England.  For a blissful week, my family motored through the beautiful countryside on a rented 53' canal boat—my first command!  If you go back about six years and  read the very first of what was originally intended to be only about a dozen blog posts, you will see that this nautical experience was far more successful than my first attempt at boating.

Truthfully, it wasn't that difficult a job—the canal boat was a large metal floating mobile home that at full throttle could achieve a stately (that's a nautical term meaning dead slow) four knots.  If we had raced a crippled hearse horse, we could have bragged that we came in second, while the poor nag was next-to-last.

At that pace, you could step off the boat, take a leisurely stroll down the tow path adjacent to the canal, admire the magnificent greenery, sit down and read for a while, and still have time to watch your boat slowly catch up with you.  Best of all, the only real physical labor could all be performed by my crew: the boys were assigned as deck hands and steersmen while The Doc was the Cabin Wench.

This is by far the best way to travel: you cook, eat, and sleep on the boat, and at the end of the day, you simply pull over to the bank, cut the engine, and go get another excellent English beer out of the fridge.  Better yet, tie up at one the countless historic pubs that were built along the canals to cater to the working men who earned their living on those canals and get several excellent English beers.

The countryside we traveled through was an endless magnificent park, featuring adjoining cricket fields, rugby fields, and stately homes.   The English people were so kind and friendly, that everywhere we went, we made instant friends.  I remember an enthusiastic—and highly inebriated—group of men who eagerly explained an ongoing cricket match to me.  It appears that several pints of stout are necessary to really understand this game.  I can remember making excited noises about "a wicked googly," and (from the reaction of my new friends) at the appropriate times, too.  The Doc swears I spent the rest of the day discussing drifters, bunsens, and bosies.  Alas, the effect was temporary; as the stout wore off, so did all understanding of the game.

Equally enjoyable, was meeting the people on the other boats on the canals.  Since the canals were usually too narrow and the boats too slow, rarely did you pass a boat traveling in the same direction.  For days at a time, you had the same floating neighbors, who quickly became friends.

It wasn't long before we made the acquaintance of the people in the 70' canal boat ahead of us.  A family of about our age with children roughly the same age as our boys, they were traveling with their elderly grandmother.  Our families quickly became rather close, occasionally sharing meals or an evening in a nearby pub.  You can imagine my surprise on one such night, when my new friend informed me that his grandmother had worked during World War II as one of the secretaries to General Montgomery.

Monty!  General Monty!  The only man in the war that General Patton wanted to fight almost as badly as he did the Germans.  In England, this was the great war hero who had defeated Rommel.  In America, he was seen as damn near as obstructionist as French General Charles de Gaulle.  No, I take that back—even the Germans cooperated with America more than General de Gaulle.

General Bernard Law Montgomery (after the war he was promoted to Field Marshall and made Viscount) was one of the most controversial leaders of the Second World War.  Brilliant, dedicated, and a gifted strategist, he was also tactless, arrogant, and completely devoid of any trace of diplomacy.  The only other man in the war that fit this description was General George Patton.  It is testament to the skill of General Eisenhower that he was able to keep these two eccentric geniuses from disengaging with the Germans and attacking each other.

I had to talk to this woman—she had actually met many of the famous men of the war that I had only encountered in books.  The next morning, I was sitting in the large front cabin of their boat—it was arranged as a cross between an observation room and a parlor—as I discussed the war years with her.  I remember vividly trying to summon up social graces few Texans have ever possessed as we drank tea and talked.  (What is the purpose of those silly little handles on tea cups?  No man can get his finger through the twisted foolish handle, and you end up gripping the damn thing as tight as a vise.  Were these handles actually designed to be as inefficient as possible?)

She had worked as a secretary for Montgomery only while he was stationed in England before D-Day, but this was sufficiently long enough to have gotten to know the man, meet most of the important generals of the war, and observe the way the American and British armies worked together.  I could have easily spent another week in England just talking to her.

This is not the place to talk about all of her memories or all the things I learned from her, but eventually, we did discuss at length the different ways Montgomery was portrayed in both the English and American press.  I can still picture this quite elderly and remarkably tiny woman sitting primly erect in her chair, a china saucer in her lap, and a delicate teacup in her hand.

She spoke at length about her duties, the people she worked with, and the excitement of feeling one's work was making a real contribution to the war.  I wish I had recorded our conversations, not only for the things I learned, but to have captured the way she spoke.  Every word was pronounced so crisply and so clearly, I had no doubts that as she spoke, she was reliving the events in her mind.  Today, in my own memory, I can still hear her final words to me at the end of the interview.

"You Americans did not like General Montgomery," she said as she stopped to sip her tea.  "But if you had only known him, as I did," she continued, stopping once again to sip her tea, "you would have loathed him."

Patton probably wasn't a pleasant cup of tea to be around, either.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Hedging Your Bet

It was dark by the time the gambler rode into El Paso, coming south out of New Mexico, skirting the southern badlands, and following the east bank of the Rio Grande.  By the time he stabled his horse, got a room at the Grand Central Hotel, and walked the three blocks to the Acme Saloon, he arrived later than he had intended tonow, it would be hard to find an open seat at a game.

Sure enough, he ended up having to wait for a seat to open in the only game.  To pass the time, he nursed a short beer, and played “Ship, Captain, Crew” (a dice game) with a stranger.  From where they stood at the end of the bar, he could keep an eye on the card game.

Poker dice was one of those games that the gambler was almost ashamed to be seen playing.  (His pappy had always said he would shoot the first of his sons he caught shooting dice!)  The problem was that, while poker was a game of skill, dice was a game of 'chance.'  Good gamblers don't believe in gambling.

As he took a sip of his beer, he idly asked the stranger what he did for a living—the man looked too well-dressed to be a rancher or a farmer, but he didn't have the manner of  a clerk or a merchant, either.  The question was just a way to be polite—most of his attention was focused on the poker game at the corner table.  He was hoping to learn how the men played before he had a chance to join the game and had to pay for the same knowledge. 

"I'm a lawyer," said the stranger.  "I practice law here in El Paso, but occasionally, I have business across the border in New Mexico.  Your roll.  I’ve got nine in cargo for a total of 24."

As the gambler reached for the dice, the room seemed to explode in sound and motion.  Everything seemed to happen almost at once, as the lawyer suddenly jerked to his left and someone yelled, "Hardin!" From the door, a shot rang out.  Then, the lawyer gasped and fell to the floor.

It took a long second for the gambler to take in what had happened.  The smoke-filled room was still, everyone was either staring at the lawyer lying face down on the sawdust covered floor or looking at the man standing just inside the swinging doors, his right arm extended into the bar, still holding his smoking Colt Single Action.

For a long count, everyone in the bar remained stock still, then it seemed to the gambler as if everyone was moving and yelling at once. 


"He shot Hardin!"

"He killed John Wesley Hardin!"

"Selman shot him!"

The gambler turned to the bartender and asked, "Was that really John Wesley Hardin?  Was I shooting dice with John Wesley Hardin?"

The bartender nodded his head.  "I thought you knew."

"He said he was a lawyer!  John Wesley Hardin is the most famous gunfighter in the west.  He's killed more men that Billy the Kid!"

Once again, the bartender nodded his head.  "Yes, but he ain't wanted for anything in Texas.  In Texas, he's a lawyer.  When he's short of money, then he crosses the border into New Mexico territory and hires his gun out.

By this time, the men of the bar were beginning to argue about whether Selman had shot Hardin in self-defense, or if it was murder.

It turned out that John Selman was an El Paso constable, and had a long standing feud with Hardin over a woman.  Earlier in the day, Hardin had announced that the next time he saw the constable, he was going to kill him.  Wisely, Selman had believed Hardin.  If the famous gunslinger said he was going to kill you, in all likelihood, you could start making plans for your dirt nap.

Selman had decided to act first, and went looking for Hardin.  Walking down the main street, he had checked into every bar, gambling den, and the other assorted playhouses that made up the red light district of the border town.  Finally, at the Acme Saloon, he had found his man.

The problem now, was that there were two opposing camps about how the shootout had occurred.  As more and more men began to push into the barhoping to catch a glimpse of the famous outlaw's bodyit seemed plain that half of the men were friends of Hardin, and demanded that Selman be hanged for murder.  Several of these men claimed that they had seen the constable shoot Hardin in the back as he yelled the outlaw's name.  According to them, Hardin had been shot before he had a chance to turn and face his assassin—a clear case of murder.

"Not so!" said the friends of the constable.  Selman had stood in the doorway, and yelled the outlaw's name.  Then, as Hardin had turned, he had begun to draw his gun, and Selman had beat him to the draw, shooting Hardin in the chestmaking this not only self-defense, but a clear case of public service.

The argument was beginning to get heated.  The men examined the body of Hardin, but found the bullet had passed all the way through the man's torso, leaving no clue as to which side it might have entered or exited.  The slain gunfighter's Smith & Wesson Model 1881 was found on the floor near the man, but had it fallen out of the holster when the outlaw fell or had he drawn the weapon and dropped it when he was shot?

The debate continued, well lubricated by a brisk business at the bar.  Finally, the bartender offered a suggestion:

"Hey!  This man's a stranger here, he didn't know either of these men," he said pointing at the gambler.  "And he was standing right beside Hardin.  He has to know what happened.  He was looking right at the man when the fight started."

The bar's patron's crowded around the gambler.  One large man, reached out and grabbed the gambler's arm.  "That's right, you were shooting dice with Hardin when he died.  What's your name, mister?"

"Bret Maverick," said the gambler.  "But, I'm just passing through El Paso.  I don't want to get involved in your argument."  Maverick tried to pull loose from the man, but the crowd seemed to push in even tightly around them.

"Don't give us any of that guff," said the man still holding the gambler's arm.  "We want to know what happened and you're going to tell us.  We have a right to know!"

When the large angry crowd murmured their agreement, Maverick realized he had a problem: No matter what he told this mob, about half of the men present were going to be angry with him.  (And as liquored up and hostile as they were, they were likely to take their anger out on him.)

Maverick smiled, reached into his pocket, and dropped two-bits on bar as ample payment for his short beer. 

"You're right, boys, I did see the whole fight.  And I'll be happy to tell you exactly what happened."  As Maverick said this, he gently pulled his arm loose from the grip of the larger man, carefully stepped over the lifeless form of the famous gunman, and moved slowly down the bar, away from the far corner. 

"I have to tell you, I had no idea that I was with John Wesley Hardin, but I have certainly heard of his reputation.  And while I had never met the constable here, before tonight, I think we all know what kind of man he is, too."

"Would you stop stalling," urged one of the men in the crowd.  "Was he shot in the chest or the back?"

"That's exactly what I'm about to tell you," said Maverick.  By now, he had made his way across the bar and was standing on the door sill, with his back to the swinging doors of the bar.

The whole bar stood still and waited for the verdict.

"If he was shot in chest," continued Maverick, "it was damn fine shooting.  And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgement."

And with that, the gambler slipped out the door into the night and hurried away from the bar.

NOTE.  You will have to forgive me for playing fast and loose with the facts here.  John Wesley Hardin did meet his end in the Acme Saloon at the hands of Constable Selman.  Hardin was indeed shot while playing dice at the bar, and there is still debate about the fairness of the shooting.

At his trial, Selman claimed that Hardin had spotted Selman's reflection in the mirror over the bar and started to draw immediately, but from where the mirror was located, this seems unlikely.  In addition, Selman shot Hardin a total of four timesan unnecessary detail for our story, since all the number of shots proves was Selman's sincerity. 

While Selman wasn't hung, the jury wasbut only in the sense that they never reached a verdict.  On this technicality, John Selman was a free man.  In the end, perhaps Maverick's conclusion was correct.

I have no idea whether Bret Maverick was actually there or not.  He might have been, the newspaper accounts are a little fuzzy.  But since the famous gambler's birthday was this week, on April 7, I thought I would take the liberty of celebrating by writing a small tribute to him.  If you are going to buy him a cake, you will need 168 candles.  (His birthdate was revealed in Greenbacks Unlimited, which aired 3/13/1960.)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

…and Historians Repeat Each Other

President Obama is currently working on securing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran.  In many ways, the manner in which the negotiations are being conducted is reminiscent of President Wilson’s attempt to secure the Senate's ratification of a treaty at the end of the First World War.

Almost as soon as the war began, Wilson began formulating plans for a permanent peace.  This was, after all, “the war to end all wars.”

Wilson eventually called his peace plan the Fourteen Points.  Most of these points can be summarized by saying that the assorted countries of the world should stop behaving like assholes and simply leave each other alone—sort of a Golden Rule kind of thing.  (Such a simplistic plan would obviously never work.)  While Wilson passionately believed in all of the fourteen points, he believed that the most important was the creation of the League of Nations—a precursor to today’s United Nations.

To negotiate the Versailles Treaty, Wilson went to Paris—which in itself was a huge mistake.  Treaties should always be negotiated in neutral locations.  Since France had lost over 4% of its population and had more than twice that number wounded, Paris hardly qualified as neutral ground.

Wilson—the first sitting president to travel to Europe—took with him several fellow members of the Democratic Party and a host of academics—this was a double mistake.  (Including the  latter was foolish.  I’ve got nothing against academics—occasionally I’ve been accused of that crime myself—but the opinions of academics should be constrained to topics about which they know something: whining and filing bogus grievances.)  This mistake was bad, but even worse: Wilson failed to take with him a single senator from the Republican Party.

Anyone can negotiate a treaty, and even sign it.  I’d like to negotiate a treaty with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico.  The Peña-Milliorn Beer Treaty would swap two cases of Budweiser for a single case of Tecate.  Ignoring the risk of Mexico's reigniting the Mexican-American War, this treaty would not become law until it was ratified by both governments, and here in the US, that means the Senate has to approve the treaty by a 2/3 vote. 

Obtaining bipartisan approval of legislation is why, today, when presidents travel, the official party on Air Force One always includes members of both political parties. 

Poor Wilson—in Paris he was simply outclassed.  European nations brought seasoned and highly cynical diplomats.  As French Premier Georges Clemenceau said, “God gave us ten commandments and we broke them.  Wilson gives us fourteen points.  We shall see.” 

Perhaps a more realistic appraisal was offered by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.  Referring to sitting at the conference between Wilson and Clemenceau, he said, “I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.”

By the time Wilson returned to Washington, about the only thing left intact of the fourteen points was the provision to establish the League of Nations.  Wilson had allowed the rest of the points to be eliminated one by one, but he stubbornly held on to the League, believing that whatever was wrong with the Versailles Treaty could later be repaired by the League of Nations.

This was a deeply flawed treaty, and the Senate was not at all happy with several provisions—including the League.  Many senators believed that by joining, the US would inevitably be drawn into future wars.  Republican Senator Lodge introduced 14 modifications to the treaty—all of which were refused by President Wilson.  The disagreement quickly turned bitter and neither party would modify its position in any way.  

The nation's foreign policy should always be a bipartisan cooperative effort, but both political parties behaved stupidly, turning the pending peace treaty into the major issue of the impending off year election.  When the Republicans won control of the Senate, this made acceptance of the treaty even more unlikely.

President Wilson decided to take the fight directly to the American people by conducting a grueling speaking tour around the nation where the he spoke from the back of a train car at every whistle stop and crossing as he journeyed across the nation.  In September of 1919, while speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson suffered a stroke and was forced to return to Washington and begin a long convalescence.

America never signed the Versailles Treaty, but officially ended the war with Germany in a separate treaty in 1921.  Nor did America ever join the League of Nations, and without our participation, it never became the powerful force for peace that Wilson had envisioned.  Wilson summed it up fairly well: “I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.”

Woodrow Wilson died in 1924.  According to David Lloyd George, he was “as much a victim of the war as any soldier who died in the trenches.”

The current negotiation with Iran is not currently a bipartisan effort.  President Obama, like Wilson, is trying to negotiate an agreement that—sooner or later—will have to be reviewed by Congress.  It has been almost a hundred years since Wilson made his tragic mistake.   Obama can still correct his. (Or will it be a case of "Plus ça change, plus ça même chose."?)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Floating Pride

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a ship that, over time, was a warship in service for six different countries.  Today, I want to discuss a ship that was—for a while—the largest ship in the world.  During her lifetime, she had four names, had almost as many nicknames, was owned by three different countries, and was the most magnificent and luxurious ship afloat...and today, few have ever heard of her.

During the end of the Edwardian Era, the major countries of Europe began an informal contest to develop the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ships afloat.  In the minds of many, there was no better symbol of a country's honor and power than the size of her merchant navy.  Kaiser Wilhelm, jealous of (his uncle) King Edward's naval power, was encouraging his country to construct the largest ships ever built.

Germany knew of the soon-to-be-completed Titanic and her sister ships, and began drawing up blueprints for three ships that would surpass her in every regard.  The Europa, was to be larger, longer, faster, and in every regard more impressive.  Curiously, while England and Germany competed with each other, they both fashioned the interiors of their ships after French style, but if the Titanic and the Olympic were to be French villas, the Europa was to be a chateau.

As the entire world knows, the Titanic was launched first, and almost immediately lost, on April 15, 1912.  About the same time, Kaiser Wilhelm had his ship renamed: she was now the Imperator and when launched, she was the largest ship afloat.  Where the Titanic was 882 feet long, the SS Imperator was 919 feet, and where the Titanic could carry 2600 passengers, the Imperator could accommodate 4600.

Almost immediately, the Cunard Line announced that there new ship, the HMS Aquitania would be slightly longer than the Imperator, so a large bronze figurehead of an eagle was added to Imperator's bow, once again capturing the title—only to lose it again a few months later to her sister ships, the Vaterland and the Bismarck.  (No, not that Bismarck.  That ship was a warship sunk in World War II.)

On her major voyage to New York, a few problems were discovered.  The ship was top heavy and took to listing almost uncontrollably.  Irreverent dock workers began referring to her as the 'Limperator.'  Hamburg America, the owners, took drastic action.  The bathrooms of most of the upper staterooms lost their marble fixtures.  In many places, the heavy Louis XVI furniture was replaced with wicker.  When even this was inadequate to fix the problem, the hollow space between the double bottom hulls was filled with 4 million pounds of cement. 

Now repaired, the ship returned to service, and almost immediately was left tied to a dock in Hamburg for the entirety of World War I.  For four years, she was neglected and abandoned.  When the war was over, she was turned over to the Allied Food Service and Finance Commission. 

The ship was taken from Germany as part of the massive reparations that Germany had to pay in apology for having started World War I.  (If you remember, the war was started by when an Austrian inbred Hapsburg was assassinated in Sarajevo by an angry Serbian, prompting Austria to declare war on Serbia, followed by Russia declaring war on Austria, and so forth and so on.  If you find this confusing because Germany is not mentioned in any of the above....well, just remember that last week I told you the Seven Years War lasted nine years.  If we made this shit easy, then just any moron could be a historian.)

The ship was turned over to the Americans and used as a transport ship to help bring home the one and a half million doughboys we had sent to France.  Now, part of the US Navy, we renamed the ship the USS Imperator.  After bringing home roughly 25,000 Americans, we turned the ship over to England.

The Cunard Line had lost her flagship, the RMS Lusitania to the Germans in 1915, so it was deemed only fair for the German Hamburg Line to lose their flagship to Cunard.  Renamed the RMS Berengaria, she was heavily—and expensively—refitted to assume her new role.  The ship still tended to list to one side or the other, so Cunard added a few million pounds of scrap iron as ballast.  (One can only imagine what the now deposed Kaiser thought of this.  Exiled to Holland, he had to watch his ship, designed to humiliate the British, now renamed after a British queen.)
For decades, the Berengaria was the ship of choice for the rich and famous.  The Berengaria was referred to as the 'Millionaire's Ship.'  First class passengers were especially fond of her two-story indoor swimming pool, patterned after the baths of Pompeii.  Evidently, the irony was lost on them.
By the Thirties, the ship's glamour was beginning to fade.  She was replaced as the flagship by one of her sister ships, the former Bismarck, now renamed the RMS Majestic.  No longer sought after by the rich and famous, in her later years, she did short cruises from New York for passengers seeking a legal way to get around Prohibition.  Now, she was nicknamed 'Bargain Area.'
When Cunard finally retired her, they introduced a new queen, the Queen Mary.  The ship built to humiliate the British was brought back to England and scrapped.  And much of the salvaged metal was used to fight Germany in the next war.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Punctuated Equilibrium and Brown Bess

There is a funny quirk about technological progress and living in the 21st century.  We have a unique vantage point—from our perspective the progress seems to be not only continuous, but charging ahead like a stabbed rat.

For most of human history, technological progress was almost nonexistent.  For thousands of years, there were few, if any, improvements.  Then, suddenly, somewhere, someone made a breakthrough.  The wheel, the club, a clay pot or basket—some technological breakthrough occurred that revolutionized civilization.  This new breakthrough would then be followed by another long period of technological stagnation. 

Anthropologists call this process: punctuated equilibrium.  Viewed as a graph, this process would look something like this.

Interestingly, each advance on this time line seems to occur after less time than the previous interval.  Early man wasn't likely to live long enough to see a single such event.  Today, the intervals occur so rapidly they appear to be continuous.  You aren't aware of it, but while you were wasting your time reading this blog, someone just changed the world by inventing multimurphs.  By the time you learn about it, Apple will probably be selling the iMurph.

But this period of multiple rapid changes is actually a relatively recent development—it hasn't been that long since changes were still rare.  Let's look at an example.

Gunpowder weapons reached Europe about 1300 AD and immediately revolutionized warfare—countries that used such weapons tended to win their battles and those who did not didn’t make the history books.  But after gunpowder was introduced, these weapons did not change much for centuries. 

Ian V. Hogg, the noted historian of artillery and all things that go “BANG,” suggested that if one of Edward II’s gunners were lifted from the battle of Crecy in 1346 and dropped into the middle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he would have soon felt at home, for the level of technology had made only insignificant advances in the interim.

In 1690, Great Britain developed the official Land Pattern Musket.  This was a large, heavy musket kept in the Tower of London where various manufacturers could measure it, examine it, and manufacture exact replicas.  While reliable, this gun could never be described as accurate--it didn't even have sights.  According to British Colonel Hangar, "I do maintain and will prove whenever called upon that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common musket by the person who aimed at him."

Soldiers quickly nicknamed the gun the Brown Bess, either as a corruption of the German phrase "braun buss" or strong gun or (and this is more likely) the British soldier followed a custom as old as warfare itself and named his weapon after a woman.  In common parlance at that time, Brown Bess was a wanton prostitute.

Soldiers loved the gun—it was sturdy, reliable, and long enough to hold a bayonet.  (Despite what you have seen in movies, until the American Civil War, during most battles, more men died of wounds from cutting implements than from gunpowder weapons.)

So Great Britain kept making the guns.  They used them during the War of Austrian Succession, in several wars in India, in the Seven Years Wars (Which lasted nine years and in America was called this the French and Indian War—we do this just to make history difficult.), and at Lexington and Concord.  Since many of the colonists were required to own their own Brown Bess muskets and serve in militias, quite a few of the colonists shot back at the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord with the same weapon. 

England used a metric shit ton of the muskets fighting Napoleon, and after the victory at Waterloo, began selling off a few of the surplus muskets to other countries.  A newly-independent Mexico bought enough of them that Santa Ana used them against Americans at both the Alamo and during the Mexican American War.  When the Marines stormed the "halls of Montezuma,” they were facing troops armed with old Brown Bess muskets.

Eventually (roughly 1840) the venerable Brown Bess was obsolete and was retired—there had been another technological breakthrough.  The last time--as far as I can determine—that a Brown Bess was used in a major battle was the Battle of Shiloh, and I pity the poor infantryman who went off to battle with an antique.

For 150 years, the Brown Bess musket in various forms ruled battlefields everywhere the British Army wandered, and that pretty much means the entire world.  It is probably close to impossible to determine how many men were killed by this weapon.

Remember the concept of punctuated equilibrium?  The length of time from the adoption of Brown Bess to the weapon's retirement is roughly the same period of time from the weapon’s retirement to the development of the Stealth Fighter.

I don’t want to give you nightmares, but the next technological revolution in warfare is probably overdue.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Richardson Papers

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has just announced that he will be donating his papers to the University of Texas at Austin.  While this might seem to be an incredible insult to New Mexico, it turns out that it was just an innocent mistake.

Bill evidently thought that Austin was part of New Mexico.  Remember, this is the same governor who set a record for absenteeism from his official state duties—no mean feat when you consider that a few of our former governors returned back east to fight in the Civil War.  Bill was absent from the state for a different kind of fight—he spent a lot of time running for President in 2008.   You are excused if you dont remember that he was a candidate.  To quote Joe Pesci, a.k.a Vinny Gambini, “Youse were serious about dat?”

For the first six months of 2007, Richardson spent more time in Iowa, New Hampshire, or Wisconsin than he did in the state of New Mexico.  Few in the Land of Enchantment missed him--probably because we saw him on television so often.  Each of five years, he rode a float in the annual Rose Bowl Parade emblazoned with a huge sign:  “BILL RICHARDSON!”  On a Post-it note near the back bumper, the sign continued: “….says visit new mexico.”  In total, the five floats cost the state over a million dollars.

This small confusion with geography was obvious while Bill was governor and would explain why, while governor, Bill had the state buy a jet for him to use while traveling around the state.  Now, New Mexico is not that large geographically, but such a plane might be quite useful for traveling to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, or even New York.

Perhaps Bill used the plane to examine the large billboards the state had put up in places like Times Square, where Bill's smiling face (no less than three-stories tall) urged people to visit the state...Or maybe urged them to consider voting for him?  The taxpayers of New Mexico were sure getting a bargain for their tax money.  (And beautifying New York with New Mexico scenery!)  Come to think of it, didn’t Governor Bill order every Department of Motor Vehicles office in the state to have his portrait on the wall?  I wonder what happened to all those portraits. 

At the University of Texas, the newly-gifted Richardson papers will be part of the Dolph Briscoe Library and Hair Salon, where they will be part of a prestigious collection.  Bill Richardson was proud to announce that his papers will be housed right alongside the papers of Willie Nelson (pictured to the right).

Evidently, none of the universities in New Mexico expressed much interest in his papers after learning that he had already finished coloring them.

Still, no one can argue that BR didn't leave his own distinctive mark on New Mexico.  Who can forget the money he spent putting talking urinal cakes in the restrooms of the state's bars?  When...'activated' these devices not only urged the...'patrons' not to drive drunk but to remember 'their future was in their hands'. 

That last line was Bill's way of saying that he was the only one allowed to screw New Mexico.

Equally unforgettable is Bill's silly and hideously expensive creation, New Mexico's own little cargo cult, the Spaceport.  Governor Richardson promised that this project would propel New Mexico into the future, would bring jobs and wealth, and would revitalize our sagging economy.  He not only promised this, he campaigned on the issue.  So the state raised taxes, created a special sales tax, and has--to date--spent over $200 million on a Buck-Rogers-in-the-desert scheme that has done absolutely nothing.  Hell, we can't even use the silly project as a half-assed airport since it was built far from any community and is located so close to the White Sands Missile Range that it is in a restricted air space.  Oops!

Despite the fact that the Spaceport is an obvious failure, the citizens of New Mexico are still paying taxes for it--and will for some time to come.  All of this wouldn't rankle so much if it weren’t for the irritating fact that today, Bill Richardson is being paid by the state of California to help develop, and sell, yet another Spaceport--this one in the Mojave Desert.  Perhaps Bill thinks that California is part of New Mexico, too!

No--the state of New Mexico will not soon forget Governor Bill!  This state will remember how cash transfers from the Permanent Fund were used to pay for a ballooning budget.  And how monies from the state retirement fund were invested with Bernie Madoff.  And how the federal investigations of numerous 'Pay to Play' allegations were quickly dropped for political reasons shortly after President Obama took office.

The universities of New Mexico will do just fine without Bill's papers.  It is actually a rather small price to pay to finally be done with Bill.  For many here, there was always a niggling fear that Bill just might return to the state and run for the Senate or something.  His last act of disloyalty should finally put that fear to rest.

Perhaps, however, we need to warn the rest of the country to watch Bill carefully!  There are a few early warning signs that can tip you off when Bill is getting ready for a fresh campaign:  First, he shaves off that mustache, and then he suddenly loses weight like a leper on a pogo stick.  Between elections, Bill likes to eat and while he was governor--despite this being a state so poor that one in five of the citizens collects food stamps (New Mexico is second only to Mississippi in family assistance usage)--Bill had two chefs on the state payroll at the governor's mansion.

If a skinny and clean-shaven Bill Richardson suddenly shows up in your neighborhood--put your hand over your wallet and hang on!  You're about to get a Spaceport. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hoist by Your Own Lies

For over thirty years, Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico with such an iron hand that the people of Mexico began referring to him as Don Perpetuo. 

Before Diaz, President Juarez had forsworn business dealings with his rich neighbor to the north, fearing that such dealings would inevitably lead to American economic domination of Mexico.  "Between the weak and the strong, there should always be a desert." said Juarez.

After Juarez died of a heart attack, Diaz had seized the country and changed the country's foreign policy.  He told the people of Mexico to look at a map—Mexico was shaped like a cornucopia spilling its riches towards the United States.

And, for decades, that is exactly what Mexico did.  The United States bought up the resources that Mexico sold it, with Diaz raking in a hefty percentage of everything.  Copper, oil, silver—American industries flourished.  While some grew rich, most of the people of Mexico lived in such poverty, they would have been better living under the rule of the Aztecs, some 400 years earlier.

When the Mexicans began chanting, "Mexico for Mexicans," the remark angered President Theodore Roosevelt.  "Mexico for Mexicans?  I would like to know for who else it would be for, if not the Mexicans." thundered our president.

The sad truth was that foreign industries were simply not playing fair.  They routinely undervalued property in order to avoid paying taxes, they paid Mexican workers less than foreign workers, and rarely promoted Mexican workers regardless of experience.  The foreign corporations could do this because of the bribes and kickbacks that they regularly paid to Diaz.

By 1910, the excesses of Porfirio Diaz at long last touched off a horrendously violent revolution that killed a million Mexicans and drove another million to emigrate.  Remember that Mexico was a small country that shrank from 14 million to 12 million due to this violence.  By the time that the revolution was over, Mexico had a new constitution that gave ownership of all subsoil riches—whether ore, mineral, or petroleum—to the Mexican government.  However, since the only source of hard currency the struggling government received was from foreign corporations, Mexico continued to honor the leases held by the foreign corporations.

This should have been the end of the story, but of course it wasn't.  All the foreign corporations had to do was simply play fair and they might still be operating in Mexico today.  Or even play just close to fair, for the presidents of Mexico after the revolution rather quickly became just as corrupt and easy to bribe as Porfirio Diaz had been—at least, until Lazaro Cardenas became president in 1934.

Lazaro Cardenas was a different kind of president, who took a lot of the ideals of the revolution seriously—including the new constitution.  Cardenas began by preparing for the day when Mexico would control its own resources, by first taking an inventory of Mexico's most valuable asset—the talented workers of the Mexican oil fields. 

This step was brilliant, because Cardenas needed to know who his future leaders in the industry would be.  There is an old story—possibly apocryphal—about J.P. Morgan:  When the famous financier was asked what his most valuable asset was, the reporter probably expected to hear about a bank, a railroad line, or possibly a factory.  Instead, Morgan answered, "My good men. Take away everything else, but leave me my good men and in five years, I will have it all back."

After inventorying his human capital, Cardenas helped organize a union--The Petroleum Workers Union of Mexico.  This union presented a list of demands to the petroleum companies, asking for equal pay with that of foreign workers, safer working conditions, and an 8-hour workday.  Despite the fact that the demands were entirely modest, the companies refused to either negotiate or to even realistically recognize the workers' right to collective bargaining, so the unions promptly went on strike.

Declaring that the petroleum sector was essential to the Mexican economy, Cardenas promptly exercised the right given to him under the new constitution to refer the matter over to binding arbitration.  (This is essentially the same thing as an American Taft-Hartley Injunction.)  The arbitration board was composed of three members, with the union, the oil companies, and the government each appointing one member.  (Naturally, the arbitration board sided with the union.)

The Oil Companies refused to comply and took the matter to the Mexican Supreme Court, which rather quickly ruled to uphold the arbitration board's decision.  The Oil Companies still refused to comply—obviously, they were doubling down on stupid, but evidently believed they were so powerful that Mexico would be powerless to stop them.

On March 18, 1938, President Cardenas promptly cancelled the oil companies’ leases, effectively nationalizing the holdings of all of the foreign oil companies. 

It is impossible to overemphasize the oil companies' absolute fury.  They demanded that President Roosevelt—not Teddy, but the other one—go to war with Mexico.  Unfortunately, FDR had just announced a new foreign policy initiative for Latin America called "The Good Neighbor Program".  It would have been rather awkward to work a war into being a good neighbor.

The oil companies, for their part, had crippling power to refuse to buy, transport, or refine Mexican oil, and they could help organize an economic boycott on all Mexican goods (including the silver that the US government used to mint money).  This threatened to collapse the entire Mexican economy.

Meanwhile, Mexico had to pay for the assets it had nationalized.  According to the constitution, the payment had to be prompt, effective, and adequate.  The problem was how to interpret those words.
The foreign oil companies were eager to help.  By prompt, they demanded an immediate payment.  Effective meant dollars, gold, or pounds sterling.  And adequate?  It took the oil companies a little time to add up all the costs of the equipment, the pumps, the dock facilities, the holding tanks, and the it $450 million.  (Those are meaningless 1938 dollars from back when you could have bought half of Arkansas for $3.50, so just pretend I said "All the money in the world.")

Mexico had a slightly different interpretation.  "Prompt" meant 10 years of payments, with 3% interest.  "Effective" think I'm getting ready to say Pesos, don't you?  No, effective meant some dollars, but mostly Mexico would pay with oil.  And "adequate"?

Here, Mexico did something completely unexpected.  It paid the amount the oil companies had been reporting as the basis of property taxes—$24 million.  If you listen very carefully, you can still hear the oil companies screaming.

As Penn Jillette says, "There is nothing worse than cheating, and still losing."

Naturally, the oil companies refused the settlement.  They were determined to bankrupt Mexico.  With Mexico's lack of adequate refineries and oil tankers, and its total dependence on the United States as a trading partner—the oil companies would eventually win and Mexico would surely lose this contest, unless someone saved it.

And someone did.  Hitler invaded Poland September 1, 1939, touching off World War II.  Suddenly, there was a severe shortage of petroleum.  Sinclair was the first of the oil companies to accept the settlement and within a year, all of the American oil companies had accepted.   Within ten years, Mexico had paid off the entire settlement, with interest.

It has been said that Lazaro Cardenas gambled the entire Mexican revolution and won.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Brazos River Funeral

The two old ranchers were sitting on the bluff overlooking the Brazos River, performing mouth-to-mouth on a six pack of beer positioned between them.  Sadly, despite diligent effort, the patients were dying, one right after another.

Mike turned to his friend and said, “Why are you here today?  I thought you were going to spend the day with your wife.”

“I was and I did,” replied Kent.  “Least, as much as she’d allow.  After a couple of hours, she told me to ‘Go get lost.’  Well, I figured I’d get lost where I could drink your beer.”

“This ain’t exactly lost.  You’ve been here about as often as I have.”

“Yeah,” said Kent.  “But my wife doesn’t know where I am—and that’s lost enough.”

“I heard from Bob over in Stephenville yesterday.  He’s doing poorly.  Said he doesn’t think he will live through the month.  Said he had a real bad spell last week—even the doctor didn’t think he’d live through the night.  Bob said the only reason he was still hangin’ on was pure anger.”

“Hate to see Bob go, he’s about the last of the old bunch around here, ‘cept for you and me.”

“Yeah,” said Mike.  “Did ya’ ever think you’d get to the point where about the only times you get together with friends was at funerals?

"I know what you mean.  Forty years ago, the wife and I were always going to weddings.  Then, about twenty years ago, it was baby showers and christenings.  Now, it's nothing but funerals and wakes."

Kent reached over and took another beer, twisted off the bottle cap and handed it to his friend.  "Here," he said.  "Keep this, it's valuable."

Mike accepted this cap, but gave his friend a quizzical look.

"It's a genuine Texas rain gauge," said Kent.  "I was at a funeral last month—Philip Odd died.  His whole life, Phil got sick and tired of people making fun of his name, so he left instructions in his will that he wanted his tombstone left blank.  Now, everyone that walks by his grave stares at the stone and says: 'That's Odd.'"

Mike looked at his friend with annoyance.  "You know, I got a brother that talks just about that foolish."  

Mike stared at the distant river for a while and said, "I was just thinking that life is kind of like standing on a sandbar in the middle of a fast river.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Kent.

“Well, at the end of the sandbar, new sand is always washing up, and new people arrive to stand there.  But with time, the leading edge of the sandbar keeps washing downstream, and as the edges erode, people vanish into the river.  Some fight and shove for more space, and before long, the front of the sandbar is just a thin thread of land, with a few old codgers like me and you desperately trying to stay dry.  We’ve lost a lot of family and quite a few friends—sooner or later, we’re going fall off, too.”

“No more beer for you,” Kent announced.  “You’re starting to get mopey.  Besides, you never finished telling me about Bob.  What happened?”

“Well,” said Mike as he reached for the last bottle of beer, ignoring his friend.  “Bob thought he was going to die.  His family and friends thought he was going to die.  Even the doctor said one more clean white shirt would do for him.  So there he was, alone in bed, waiting to meet his maker, when suddenly he smelled the aroma of fried chicken.  His wife was making a fresh batch of fried chicken!”

“No doubt about it, Sue makes the best fried chicken in Palo Pinto County,” Ken agreed.

“Now there is nothing in the world that Bob likes better than Sue's fried chicken, so he carefully got out of bed,” Mike said, ignoring the interruption.  “The Doctor had warned him that if he exerted himself, the strain would probably kill him, but Bob just had to get one last piece of chicken.  So Bob carefully climbed out of bed and tottered into the kitchen, and sure enough, there was a large platter of fresh fried chicken right next to the stove.  Even better, Sue was just starting to fry up another batch.”

“And?” urged Kent.

"Well, Bob put out a shaky hand, reaching for what was probably going to be his last drumstick this side of the flowerbed….and Sue whacked the back of his hand with a hot oily wooden spoon!”

“Leave those alone!” scolded Sue.  “Those are for the funeral!”

“Makes sense,” said Kent.  “Knowing that stubborn bastard, he’s probably going to outlive her for spite.”