Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Weirdest Ships of the US Navy

There have been a number of truly strange ships serving in the US Navy over the years.  Some of these make news on a fairly regular basis.  The Flip Ship, deep water submersibles, the Glomar Explorer, midget subs and even a few midget aircraft carriers are known by most people.  A few ships, however, never make the news.  Here are three ships that I am willing to bet you have never heard about.

The USS Recruit.  The Navy has had more than one ship of this name, but I am referring to the 1917 ship located in...Union Square, in New York.  That’s right--this was a fully commissioned ship in the US Navy that never got near the water, though it was conveniently located next to the Broadway entrance to the subway.

The Recruit was a wooden recreation of a Dreadnought class battleship that served not only as the recruiting center for New York, but was also used as a training center.  Under the command of Captain C. F. Pierce, the ship had a complement of 39 bluejackets (and a pet goat), who lived and worked on the wooden ship in the middle of the town.

With crew quarters, a doctor’s office, and room for the physical examination of the recruits, in many ways the wooden ship was a faithful recreation of real battleships.  She was even armed, with six 14-inch guns and ten 5-inch guns—all wooden.  The wooden ship was 200 feet long with a beam of 40 feet.  Her “engine room” had a single smokestack, and powered the electric lights of the ship.

Hundreds of sailors spent from two to six months training on the ship, and she recruited over 25,000 sailors during the first World War.  In addition, the ship acted as a public relations center for the Navy.  Dances were held on the ship, the public was invited to tour the warship, and various patriotic events centered around the ship were designed to popularize the Navy.  (And truthfully, for as long as the ship patrolled Union Square, there were no reported German attacks on Broadway.)

In all, the ship was in operation for almost three years, before finally being decommissioned in 1920.  Carefully dismantled and crated, she was to be shipped to Coney Island where the Navy planned on her eventual “relaunching” and use once again as a training and recruiting aid.  Somehow, the USS Recruit never arrived there, and her eventual fate is unknown.  Personally, I think the crates are in the same warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant.

The USS Supply had many important roles and during her time in the Navy she fought in two wars, was part of the Perry expedition to Japan, and distinguished herself many times during patrols in the South Atlantic.  However, one of her missions is all but forgotten today:  she was once a “camel car”.

Before the Civil War, Jefferson Davis had a very active role in the US government.  Besides building the new capitol building and serving as the Secretary of War, in his spare time he was very interested in developing the new territory the US had just taken from Mexico.  The newly acquired southwest was largely desert, and Davis knew how hard this territory was on the Army’s horses.

In 1855, Davis was able to persuade Congress to appropriate $30,000 to investigate the use of camels for the US Army.  He sent a relative, Captain David Porter and the USS Supply to Egypt to purchase camels and hire a few natives who knew how to care for them.  Before setting sail, the USS Supply was heavily modified:  special large hatches, stables, and camel hoists were installed.  Unfortunately, upon arrival in Egypt, it was learned that camels were taller than expected, so the stables had to be expanded for more “hump space”, requiring holes to be cut into the main deck.

Correctly believing that there was not a suitable "camel saddle" in all of America, Captain Porter bought a few saddles, too.  It took two trips, but eventually 70 camels were delivered to Texas and the US Army.  According to Captain Porter, the camels not only made the sea voyage better than horses, but were healthier on departing the ship than when they had boarded.

The Army loved the camels.  One officer said the camels were faster, hardier, and better at carrying weight.  In his opinion, one camel was worth four mules.  In addition, since the camels reproduced readily, as the herd expanded to a hundred head, there was even a proposal to start a version of the Pony Express (the Camel Express?) to link New Mexico and California …and then the Civil War started.  The United States Army Camel Corps was quickly disbanded, in large part because no one wanted to be associated with an idea that was in any way connected with the newly elected President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. 

Most of the camels were sold, but a few were turned loose.  The last confirmed sighting of a camel in the Southwest was in 1891.  (Personally, I think they are still out there, being ridden by Bigfoot.)

The William D. Porter.  Okay...in this case, the ship is not that weird;  in fact, it was a fairly standard Fletcher class destroyer, one of 175 built during the second world war.  A destroyer, by definition, is an escort ship meant to protect larger and more important capital ships.  The Wille D, as she was called, may have been the unluckiest ship in the war.

The Navy reuses the names of ships that perform well in battle.  There has been a USS Enterprise on the roster of ships for more than a century (and according to some people, this will continue until we count the years with star dates).  It is unlikely that  there will ever be another ship named after the somewhat obscure Civil War officer, Commodore William David Porter.  (And by a coincidence, he was the brother to Captain Porter of the USS Supply.)

It saddens me to report that the USS William D. Porter DD579 was built in Orange, Texas and launched in September 1942.  After a shakedown cruise to Bermuda, she reported to Norfolk, Virginia as part of  three destroyers accompanying the USS Iowa on her voyage to Tehran.  The Iowa was to be well protected since she was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and a large portion of the highest ranking military officers of the war to a joint meeting with Winston Churchill and Stalin.

For the crew of the Porter, the trip started badly.  As the ship backed away from the dock, her anchor was dragged down the side of a sister destroyer, removing life boats, a ship’s boat, stanchions and anything else in the way.  To be fair, Captain Walker had a green crew, who were not yet used to the new ship, however... 

The next day, however, the Porter accidentally lost a depth charge.  Whether it was launched or washed off the deck of the ship is not known, but when the depth charge detonated, the entire task force—including the Iowa—began to take evasive maneuvers to escape the Nazi submarine each ship’s captain imagined was attacking.  Somehow, during these maneuvers, a large wave washed over the Porter, damaging one of the boilers and washing overboard a sailor who was not recovered.

Once the panic was over, and perhaps to demonstrate to the president that the convoy could protect itself, the Iowa launched balloon targets that were shot down by all four ships.  Somehow, during this action, the crew of Porter, while practicing simulated torpedo launches, actually launched a live torpedo.  The aiming point for the exercise?  The Iowa, of course!

With an armed torpedo running straight and true for the ship carrying the president of the United States, the Porter tried to send a warning to the Iowa, but since they were maintaining radio silence to prevent the enemy form learning their exact location, they used a signal lamp and told the Iowa that they had launched a torpedo, but in the excitement, they told the Iowa that the torpedo was traveling away from the battleship.  Realizing their mistake, they signaled again, this time accidentally telling the Iowa that the Porter was backing up at full speed. 

The captain of the Iowa probably thought this was good news, probably wanting the smaller ship as far away as possible.

Abandoning the idea of radio silence, the Porter finally radioed the battleship the warning that they were about to be hit by a live torpedo.  As the Iowa began a sharp turn, FDR learned of the approaching threat and had his wheelchair moved to the ship’s railing so he could watch the torpedo’s approach.  According to one account, the president’s Secret Service agents actually drew their revolvers in an effort to shoot the torpedo, which luckily missed the battleship.

The Iowa trained her guns on the American destroyer while it was debated whether or not the Willie D was actually fighting for the Axis powers.  Not surprisingly, the ship was ordered to leave the task force and return to Bermuda, where for the first time in US naval history, an entire crew of a ship was arrested.  Only the man who had inadvertently fired the torpedo was found guilty; FDR later intervened in his behalf, saving the poor man from serving fourteen years at hard labor.

The Willie D was sent to the Pacific where, before being sunk by a kamikaze plane, she distinguished herself by firing a live round at a base commander’s house and blowing up his front yard, by shooting down three American planes, and during one battle, by shooting the superstructure of the USS Luce.  No wonder then that wherever she went, she was greeted by radio calls, “Don’t shoot!  We’re Republicans!”

Note.  The August 1917 edition of Popular Science Magazine has a nice article about the USS Recruit and several other ships—real and proposed—that are worth reading about. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Second Battle of Adobe Walls

The most amazing part of this story is that there was more than one battle at such a remote location.  There is not much worth fighting over in the panhandle of Texas.  The place is damn near treeless, it's bone dry, and it's so flat you can stand on a dime and see Fort Worth.

To be fair, there used to be something there:  there used to be buffalo—vast herds of bison that roamed all the plains states and fed the various Indian tribes that lived there.  And that is what the fighting was really about, the buffalo and the Native Americans who depended on them.

The first battle took place in 1864 when Kit Carson led 300 men from New Mexico to punish the Plains Indians who had been attacking wagons traveling on the Santa Fe Trail.  This was the largest battle with Native Americans during the Civil War.  As soon as the war had started, most of the troops in the area had marched either southeast or northeast, leaving the area defenseless.  The Plains Indians promptly began to attack the wagons and homesteaders who were moving westward.  Kit Carson and his men were supposed to punish the various tribes, but the army lost the battle and had to retreat back into New Mexico.

As a settlement, Adobe Walls seemed to have very bad luck.  The first buildings had been put up in 1848 by William Bent to trade with the local Indians, but after repeated attacks by nearby tribes, the locals blew up the buildings with gunpowder and abandoned the area.  The first battle took place among the ruins ("adobe walls") left.  Eventually, buffalo hunters had thinned out the large herds to the north, so increasingly, hunters out of Fort Dodge, Kansas began moving south in search of the remaining large herds.

In 1874, this meant that some 200-300 commercial buffalo hunters were destroying what was left of the buffalo herds in the Texas Panhandle.  This was, of course, destroying what was left of the few remaining tribes of Plains Indians in Texas.  These Indians, aware that their way of life was vanishing with the buffalo, were understandably pissed.  Several tribes banded together after a medicine man, Isa-tai had a vision following a sun dance.  His vision said that if the tribes banded together and attacked the invading Anglos, their war paint would make the warriors both bulletproof and invincible.  (His vision was far more off than it would seem at first glance.  In a manner similar to the way in which Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn heralded the end of the ascendancy of the Sioux tribes, so the battles at Adobe Walls marked the beginning of the end of power for the Comanche.)

Note.  I'm curious, did a medicine man ever tell his tribe that in the ensuing battle, they would be wiped out by angry butterflies?  Or the white men would be bullet-proof?  I've never seen this in a history book, but I can't imagine it would get the medicine man in any more trouble than what must have happened when the surviving warriors returned after a battle where they were supposed to be bullet-proof.  In this particular case, all I report is that Isa-tai’s own horse was shot out from under him.  To be fair, the horse probably wasn't wearing war paint.

The war party was led by Quanah Parker, the last and greatest Chief of the Comanche.  Quanah, whose mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, had been kidnapped as a child and raised in the tribe, was a prominent Indian leader during the Red River War that would finally force the plains tribes onto reservations in Oklahoma.  (I have always believed that one of the reasons Quanah was frequently off fighting was that he was looking for a little peace and quiet.  At home, he had eight wives and 25 children.)

Chief Parker led a combined force of Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho warriors to Adobe Walls, which by this point, consisted of three wooden and adobe stores that were the headquarters and supply center for several hundred buffalo hunters.  The buffalo hides were collected at Adobe Walls and then shipped the 175 miles to Fort Dodge, Kansas.  The target of the raid was three-fold:  kill the hunters, take their horses, and seize the 15,000 rounds of ammunition stockpiled within the stores.  If successful, Chief Parker would use the ammunition—originally designed to kill buffalo—to kill the buffalo hunters.  (And any other whites in the region.)

Note.  At this point, I imagine a few of you are asking, "Why the hell were there 15,000 rounds of ammo stockpiled in the middle of nowhere?"  The answer is, "To kill buffalo."  Before the herds vanished, hunters used to kill an average of about 75-100 animals a day during the three-month season when the hides were usually harvested.  The stockpiled ammunition was only sufficient to supply two hunters for the summer.

There were also 15,000 buffalo hides awaiting shipment to Fort Dodge, but the Indians had no use for them.  Within another year, the bison of the "Southern Plains" would have been almost wiped out.  Congress had passed bills in both 1872 and 1874, limiting hunting to preserve the herds, but President Grant had refused to sign them into law.

About two hours after midnight on June 27, 1874, the men in Hanrahan's store heard a loud crack.  The cottonwood beam supporting the rafters had broken and the weight of the sod roof was threatening to collapse the entire building.  After shoveling dirt off the roof and bracing the rafters, the men decided that it was easier just to stay awake than to try and sleep for only a few hours.  This decision saved their lives.

One of the men standing near the corral was watching a small herd of buffalo drift closer to the encampment, when suddenly the screaming "buffalo" charged the buildings.  Even with the warning, not everyone made it inside one of the stores to safety.  Brothers Ike and Shorty Shadler were asleep under their wagon, but before they could make it to safety, both were killed.  Their scalped bodies were found near their wagon the next day.  (A 1917 interview with one of the survivors of the baffle claims the Indians also killed and scalped their dog.  What is the proper Comanche translation of, "And your little dog, too.")

For hours, a force of roughly 700 Indians attacked the buildings without success.  The twenty-eight men and one woman were behind thick wooden walls designed for protection from just such an onslaught.  With ample supplies, the defending buffalo hunters had only one problem:  many were using the wrong guns.  The favorite buffalo rifle of the time was the Sharps Rifle.  A single shot, heavy long-barreled rifle, it fired a variety of very heavy bullets that were deadly accurate at ranges normally up to 600 yards.  The long barrel made it very difficult to use at short ranges against moving targets.  The Hanrahan store had just received a case of the Sharps rifles, which was quickly opened and passed out to the hunters.

Even considering the weapon problem, the advantage was still on the side of the buffalo hunters.  All day long, they killed the Indians as they attacked the buildings, which had been laid out to set up a pattern of defensive crossfire.  Only one of the buffalo hunters was hit by any of the fairly constant fire from the Indians, as he ventured outside to check on the horses in the stoop picket pole corral.  He made it back to one of the stores where he died in the arms of his friend, Bat Masterson.  (Yes, that Bat Masterson.  Only twenty years-old, Bat was years away from meeting Wyatt Earp or becoming a famous lawman.)

Quanah was wounded during the attack when a bullet bounced off a buffalo horn the chief was wearing on a necklace.  The wound, halfway between his shoulder and his neck, was not serious, but persuaded him to withdraw.  About the same time, Isa-tai was killed by a stray bullet.  (At least that is the official story: personally, and without any evidence, I think Quanah shot him.  If my medicine man had promised me I was bullet-proof and then I got shot…)

The only other casualty was William Olds, who was climbing up a ladder through a trap door leading to the roof of the Langton store, when he accidentally shot himself.  He fell lifeless through the trap door, landing at the feet of his wife, the only white woman in the territory besides Quanah Parker's mother.

Eventually, the Indians withdrew back into the distant scrub brush and rocks, only occasionally shooting at any of the hunters who dared to show themselves.  This tactic was continued for a day and a half—until Billy Dixon ended the battle in a novel (and still controversial) manner.

On the third day, a group of Indians on horseback could be observed almost a mile away, as they surveyed the battle field.  At the urging of his friends, Dixon borrowed one of the new Sharps rifles.  Nicknamed the Big Fifty, the gun could fire a .50-90 cartridge.  This means it fired a .50 caliber ball and used 90 grains of black powder, making it the most powerful cartridge available.

Dixon took careful aim, elevating the rifle about 5 degrees and fired three times.  The Indians said the Sharps rifle was the "gun that shoots today and kills tomorrow."  This is a slight exaggeration, but it took several seconds for that last bullet to travel the distance and knock an Indian off his pony just yards from Quanah Parker.  The Indians, faced with an enemy who could kill at almost a mile, broke off the battle and withdrew.

Billy Dixon always modestly claimed that it was a "scratch shot", or an accident.  The US Army, when they finally arrived, measured the distance at 1,538 yards, or 9/10 of a mile.  In his autobiography, Dixon devotes only a single paragraph to the remarkable shot.

Less than three months later, Dixon was scouting for the US Army and his accurate rifle fire helped keep the Comanche from attacking at the Battle of Buffalo Wallow.  For those actions, he received the Medal of Honor—one of only eight civilians to receive the medal.

But, did the miracle shot of almost a mile actually happen?  Was the rifle even capable of such a shot.  Recent testing using sophisticated technology confirms that the rifle is capable of shooting that far.  In 1917, a writer for Pearson's Magazine interviewed the surviving participants of the battle.  Everyone confirmed that the shot did happen and the Native Americans even attested that, while the stricken warrior did not die, he was severely wounded.

Within a few years after the second battle of Adobe Walls, the buffalo were gone and the stores were abandoned.  Indians burned down the buildings and all you will find today are a few historic markers and the grave of Billy Dixon, whose body was moved there in 1929. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I'm-A Fixin' To Tell Ya

A couple of weeks ago, I read Dan Rather’s autobiography.  Or rather, I read two of them (I think he has three or four volumes out, so far).  I’d make a joke about this, but when I started this blog, I thought I might record a dozen or so stories, and am pretty close to four hundred or so.  Evidently, it’s hard for Texan to stop telling a story. 

In one chapter, Rather talks about one of his first jobs working at a Houston radio station.  Being something of a country boy, Rather said he was lucky to have what he called a “standard Texas accent”.  By this, I can only assume that he means he didn’t sound like he was from the piney woods of East Texas.

There is more than one Texas accent, and almost none of them is ever heard in the movies.  When people from Hollywood try to sound like Texans, they nearly always fail.  Offhand, I can only think of three actors who get it right:  Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew McConaughey, and Renée Zellweger.  (And they’re cheating—all three are actually from Texas.)

This is why, of course, George H.W. Bush, President #41, does NOT sound like a Texan.  George W. Bush, President #43, does.  As a matter of fact, as far as I am concerned, W and LBJ are the only two presidents this country has ever had who spoke clearly.

Hollywood has spent a lot of time trying in vain to teach actors how to sound like a Texan.  It never really works.  While making Second Hand Lions, my favorite movie, a speech coach was hired to help Michael Caine lose his Cockney accent and sound like a Texan.  For some reason, they didn’t bother doing the same thing to Robert Duvall, who even after filming Lonesome Dove  and several other movies in Texas, still sounds like his roots: California.

In time, Michael Caine could pronounce every word in the script like a Texan, but only individually.  Collectively, the words still came out British.  “Your speech cadence is wrong,” the dialog coach said.  “You are pronouncing each word separately.  In Texan, the words kind of lean on each other.”

Another integral part of speaking Texan, of course, is the choice of words.  My brother reported that his wife, Barbara, recently said, “I’m going to go ahead and wait until after lunch to run those errands.”  This is perfectly acceptable grammar in Texas.

Even though Rather was blessed with a “standard Texas accent”, the radio station still had him spend long hours with a speech therapist.  He reported that he spent long hours trying to learn to say the word “posts”.  He could not pronounce the second ’s’ no matters how hard he tried.  (And neither can I.  Nor do I see the need.  If I say I drove my pickup through the ‘bobwire' and took out a dozen fence posts, you don’t need to hear that second damn ’s’ to know the cattle got loose.) 

Similarly, Rather had trouble saying the word ‘variable’—it usually came out ‘varble’, as in “the winds should be light and ‘varble’.  Texans have a problem saying any word that has more than one ‘b’.  This is why ‘probably’ comes out ‘probly’.  (Just saying these words in my head as I write this is making me homesick.)

I have served time with a speech therapist myself.  When I was twelve, I spent afternoons at school with a speech therapist who struggled mightily to get me to pronounce the word ‘four’ in such a way that it had fewer than three syllables.  She was not entirely unsuccessful, but she wasn't completely successful, either.  I now pronounce it with only two syllables and the words, "four", "for", "far", and "fore" are all pronounced in exactly the same way.

In Dan Rather’s case, he lost most of his accent over the years.  He was stationed in New Orleans, Washington, DC, London, Saigon, and New York—somewhere along the way he lost a good deal of that Texas accent.  Most nights, while he was behind the anchor desk at CBS, you could just barely discern the Texas accent of his youth.  But, when he semi-retired, his accent came roaring back, as thick and strong as yesterday’s coffee.

Nights were not dark, they were the “inky black of a crow’s wing”.  Politicians were as crafty as a hungry raccoon.  As soon as he could get away with it, despite having lived most of his life in the world’s largest cities, Dan Rather once again became a hell of a country boy.

Which is perfectly okay.  Every good Texan knows how and when to play the poor dumb ol’ country boy.  I do this myself.  It’s a useful tool to use on naive Yankees and other random pests.  (I can’t pronounce the second ’s’ on ’pests’, either.)

Don’t get me wrong, Dan Rather was not faking that accent like, say, the late Molly Ivins.  If you heard Molly talk, you would have sworn she was raised in a barn.  The truth is that was she born in California, and later moved to the richest section of Houston, where she attended an exclusive prep school for the wealthy, and then went to college in Massachusetts and Paris.  We can assume that she didn’t get into Columbia University on a calf-roping scholarship.

Molly’s patently exaggerated Texas accent always bothered me a lot more than it should have.  For many Texans—and this includes most of my relatives—they spoke as well as they could.  For Molly, it was a quaint joke:  she had as much of an accent as she wanted to.

When Dan Rather returned to Texas, his accent came back strong.  My wife says the same thing happens to me when I talk on the phone to my brother or when I am telling a joke or story.  There doesn’t seem to be much I can do about this, but several people over the years have sure tried.  For six years, my work study student, Natasha (who was majoring in speech pathology), tried in vain to rein in my accent.  Among other words that seemed to have really bothered her, she insisted that the word ‘naked’ should not be pronounced ‘nek-kid’.  I still think my way sounds more interesting, more dirty, more…well, naked.

Natasha took me on as a personal project, determined to ‘fix’ my accent.  She felt especially motivated when a Japanese exchange student came to my office after the first day of class.  “Please, sir,” she asked.  “Will you ever use English in the classroom?”

Nope.  I’m a Texan.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Chicken Entrails, Anyone?

It is that time again.  Time for everyone to consult their favorite aruspex to perform a little haruspicy so we can determine what’s going to happen this coming Tuesday. 

For the non-pagans among you, this means it is time to take the entrails of sacrificial animals to your local holy man so he can predict the results of the next election.  The exact animal depends on where you are located.  The Romans used chickens or sheep, the Azande of Africa used chicken eggs, the Chinese used tortoises, and so forth.  For some strange reason, the specific organ of choice for many cultures was the liver, perhaps—if my children are any judge—because so few liked the taste. 

This sort of black magic is still being done today, but we call it “focus groups” or “voter polling”.   Today’s methods are far more accurate, except, of course, when they aren't.

The myriad ways of interpreting and reinterpreting these polls to produce a desired result are fascinating.  Evidently, politicians spend a small fortune hiring a pollster to produce a poll that no one, certainly not the politicians, believe any more than a pile of raw chicken livers.

The Bradley Effect is brought out every election as a way of “reinterpreting” a poll.  In 1982, Tom Bradley, an African-American, was running for reelection as mayor of Los Angeles and the polls predicted that he would win by a large margin.  But, when Bradley narrowly lost the election, the discrepancy was blamed on voters who had told pollsters they would vote for the minority candidate because of "white guilt". 

The Bradley Effect does exist: in England it is called "The Shy Tory Factor" and in Canada it is known by the name, "Flora MacDonald Effect".  Jesse Helms, the five-term senator from North Carolina (despite his outrageous racist background), used to brag that he had “never won a poll or lost an election.”  But, this voting canard has been over-used by every candidate who came up short in a poll.  

There are other ways to “adjust” a poll.  Were enough cell phones called to cancel the effect of traditional “landlines” being owned disproportionately by older Americans?  Are you polling everyone in the community or only likely voters?  Are your polls a rolling average over several weeks or are they a “snapshot” of just today?  The number of ways to adjust, manipulate, or factor a poll are endless.  Advanced degrees are given in the subject, allowing the recipient to become gainfully employed producing inaccurate polls.

These polling uncertainties are why there are other historically reliable methods of predicting elections that are used in every election.

Psychics are used (and not just by Nancy Reagan).  The most famous presidential election psychic is Sylvia Browne, who has a perfect record.  Yes, absolutely perfect.  By this, I mean she has never been correct one single time, about anything.  Being wrong every single time is as far outside statistical probability, and is just as impressive, at least in scientific terms, as being always correct.  All you had to do was reverse her prediction and you could foretell any election!

Unfortunately, Browne died in 2013, but since she believed in channeling, ghost writing, and communicating with the dead, I see no particular reason why we cannot use her to predict this election, anyway.  Just concentrate hard and let Sylvia communicate with you from beyond this astral plane…  After all, the worst you can do is improve her record.

Football allegedly can predict the next president.  If the Washington Redskins win the last home game before the election, the party in power usually retains the White House.  If they lose, there should be a party change in government leadership.  (Hey, I just write this shit, I didn’t make this up.)  As strange as it seems, they have been an accurate predictor of the presidential election for 16 out of the last 18 elections: an accuracy rate of 89%.  Since the Redskins beat the Eagles a couple of weeks ago, Hillary should win.

Unless you believe in the Height prediction method, which says the taller of the two presidential candidates should win.  In 67% of all presidential elections, the taller candidate won.  You remember when 6’2” Mitt Romney defeated 6’1” Barack Obama, right?  If the height rule works, Trump should win.

A Trump victory is supported by the Halloween Costume rule.  For the last 40 years, the sales of Halloween masks have accurately predicted the next winning candidate.  If this rule is accurate, not only will Trump become the next President of the United States, but the billionaire will also be elected in half of Europe and Mexico. (Maybe that is how he will get Mexico to pay for that wall!)

The Cookie Recipe Rule may not be valid this year. Since 1992, Family Circle magazine has convinced the wives of candidates to submit cookie recipes.  The readers vote for the best recipe, the winner has accurately predicted the future occupant of the White House every year except 2008, when Ann Romney’s M&M cookies edged out Michelle Obama’s politically correct recipe for a White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookie.  

This rule may not work this year, since Bill Clinton cheated by submitting a slightly reworked version of Hillary’s winning 1992 recipe.  While Bill won the contest, the results are being investigated by a House of Representatives Committee with a multi-million dollar budget.  Results are not expected in our lifetime.

Alternately, we could just listen to kids.  The Scholastic News has collected the votes of students since 1940, with an 88% accuracy rate.  The kids missed only twice: when they predicted Dewey would defeat Truman in 1948, and that Nixon would defeat Kennedy in 1960.  (And they might have been correct about last one.)  While the students predict Hillary wins this year, the results are a little unusual, with several states reversing long-held traditional voting patterns.  (The error probably is a result of Scholastic News only counting votes from students who can read.)

The most interesting method has to be the 7-11 Coffee Cup poll.  For the last four elections, the convenience store chain has offered disposable coffee cups for both political parties, with the cup used most being a surprisingly accurate predictor of the eventual winner.  This year, for the first time, 7-11 offered three cups:  Hillary, Trump, and a cup marked “Speak Up”.

I doubt that anyone will find it surprising to learn that the “Speak Up” cup is ahead by double digits.  This confirms my long-held opinion that anyone can win any election if they will just legally change their name to “None of the Above”.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Battle of Mosul, Round One

As I write this, American soldiers are involved in the fighting to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS.  This is the second time American troops have fought in a major engagement here: just a dozen years ago, the Marines maintained a large helicopter base there.

The city, normally home to two million people, is located along the Tigris River in northern Iraq, is situated on the key transportation routes connecting Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, and it is very close to Iraq’s northern oil fields.   Beyond all that, the city has a rich history—a history that includes one of the most important battles in history and one that decided the future of Western Civilization—the Battle of Gaugamela.
Philip II of Macedon trained a magnificent army, but was killed before he could put it to work on its greatest challenge—the planned invasion of Persia.  His son, Alexander, took the army and marched east to confront Persia, a far larger and more powerful nation, that was threatening to invade Greece and expand its territory into what is present-day Europe. 
As Alexander left Greece, he left half of his army behind to secure his base there. There would be no revolts while he was busy conquering the world.
Alexander’s opponent in Asia was Darius III, who had ascended to the throne of Persia in 336 B.C.—the very same year that Alexander himself had become king in Macedon. As with most Persian successions, Darius had faced challenges—mostly from his own family—but by the end of 335 B.C. he was secure on his throne and could devote his full attention to the threat from the west and his dream of expansion.
That threat materialized when Alexander crossed into Asia in the spring of 334 B.C. The reported size of Alexander’s expeditionary force varies among ancient sources, but he probably had a fighting force of about 35,000 men.  Of these, the best were the 1,800 Macedonian cavalry, called The Companions, who were fiercely loyal to the young king.
Alexander’s army was a formidable, flexible, integrated force, and was already well-practiced in the art of slaughtering its opponents. The Persians did not realize it yet, but they were in serious trouble.
When Alexander crossed into Asia in the spring 334 B.C., he jumped from his boat and speared the ground in a symbolic act of claim by conquest. He also visited Troy and honored his legendary ancestor, Achilles.  Now that the  religious matters had been seen to, Alexander took his army inland: the great adventure had begun.
Some of the Persian leaders urged Darius to not confront Alexander immediately, but to retreat eastward to draw Alexander away from the coast, while simultaneously destroying the farmlands and the food warehouses in front of the Macedonian army.  Had Darius employed this strategy, a few history books would have a small footnote about an obscure military leader named, "Alexander the Schmuck".  However...
The two armies met at Granicus, beside the Mediterranean, in what today would be northern Syria.  Despite being outnumbered, Alexander was quickly victorious, slaughtering the Persian force.  The Persians had relied on mercenaries for the battle and had badly underestimated Alexander's abilities.  Darius would not make the same mistake twice.
The exact size of the Persian army is not known, since every writer in the last two millennia has (in the interest of a good story, of course), exaggerated the size of the losing army while minimizing the size of the victors.  One source—probably the distant ancestor of Baghdad Bob—put the size of the Persian Army at 600,000.  A more credible number is about 100,000 (including many tens of thousands of Persian cavalry).
Darius decided to refight the battle of Granicus at Issus, but even with a larger force, this was a foolish mistake.  (In all fairness, Darius had not been present at Granicus, so we cannot judge him quite so harshly.)  He maneuvered his large army onto a narrow strip of land that was bordered by the sea on one side and mountains of the other.  The overly confident Darius waited for Alexander, who once again used his superior cavalry to cut through the Persian Army, sending the Persians into flight. 
So complete was Alexander’s victory that he even captured Darius’ baggage train with its huge sums of money, Darius’ wife and son, and the Royal Mother!  The Battle of Issus handed the entire western half of the Persian Empire to Alexander, but the big battle for the whole of Persia was still ahead.
In the months after Issus, Darius sent a series of letters and embassies to Alexander seeking some sort of a negotiated settlement on increasingly generous terms. The story goes that when he finally offered to cede Persian holdings west of the Euphrates, along with a vast ransom for his still-captive family, Alexander’s closest confident and commander of the remainder of the cavalry, Parmenio, commented, “If I were Alexander, I would accept that offer,” to which Alexander replied, “If I were Parmenio, I would too. But I am Alexander.”  So the king responded to Darius in the most arrogant terms.  He already owned the territories west of the Euphrates and he’d be coming for the rest soon enough.
For two years, Alexander busied himself subduing today's Syria and Egypt, while Darius raised yet another army.  Denied the resources of his western empire, Darius had assembled an army from the eastern sectors of his realm.  Once again, we aren’t certain of the size—one contemporary reported it as an even million infantry with almost half that many cavalry—but  there can be no doubt that it was at least as big as the army at the previous battle, if not larger.  Hazarding a conservative guess, we may imagine it as over 100,000 strong, with perhaps 40,000 of that total being cavalry.
In addition, Darius had 200 scythed chariots, a most mysterious but evidently fearsome-looking contraption—we aren’t sure what they looked like—and probably very effective against peasant armies. However, these vehicles were far less effective against disciplined ranks of infantry.
The real strength of Darius’ army lay in its cavalry. Darius sent scouts ahead to find suitable ground and a site was chosen at Gaugamela, not far from modem Mosul in Northern Iraq. Darius deployed his troops with hills behind him and a plain in front of him, and made sure the plain was perfect for his chariots.  Entrenched, the Great King waited for Alexander to accept his challenge and while he waited, he had his forces smooth out the ground of the plain for those chariots.
Alexander made his way into Northern Mesopotamia and, since it was no secret where Darius and his huge army were located, directed his army to meet the Great King and his troops without too much trouble.  The march from Egypt took the best part of four months. At 9:00 a.m. the twentieth of September 331 B.C., there was an eclipse of the moon, which was noted by the Macedonians the night before they left the banks of the Tigris to meet Darius. Since it is recorded that eleven days elapsed between the eclipse and the battle, we can date Gaugamela precisely to the first of October 331 B.C. On that single and remarkable day, the fate of the largest land empire yet seen on earth was decided.
For an ancient battle, while Gaugamela is exceptionally well documented, we still wish there were more detail of exactly what happened.  Four different writers recorded what happened, but they were limited to reporting what happened in their individual area of the battle.  Partly because of the huge dust cloud generated, and partly because of the natural fog of war, their accounts are limited, but the general course of the battle is known.
Alexander drew up his army in the standard formation with his Greek phalanxes and the infantry in the center, with Parmenio and the allied cavalry on the left, and with Alexander, himself, at the head of his Companions on the right.  However, there were two changes to this standard formation: first, a second phalanx of Greek allies and mercenaries was drawn up behind and parallel to the main phalanx. Second, light-armed and cavalry detachments were stationed on the extreme left and right of the forward formation, but moved back slightly to guard the flanks and cover the gap between the two phalanxes. These troops were positioned for defense, since Alexander expected the larger Persian force to flank his force on both sides—ordinarily a sure sign of an imminent military disaster.
As it advanced, Alexander’s army moved toward the right, where the Persian overlap was most pronounced. Now this may have been an intentional move, intended to generate uncertainty among the Persians and a probe for weaknesses, or it could have been an error. Whatever the case, the rightward shift worked wonders for Alexander. Darius opened by sending his scythed chariots and some of the cavalry units into action, but these had no  real effect. The skirmishers on Alexander's side handled the chariots easily enough, mostly by killing their horses. (You never see this in the movies, but if you really want to stop that stagecoach—shoot the lead horse.  The whole contraption will go ass over teacups—a technical term, of course.)
In the face of the rightward shift of the Macedonian army, a gap opened between the Persian center and its left wing, which was wheeling around in the anticipated flanking movement. Alexander and his Companions were perfectly placed on the right to take advantage of this gap, and wedged the cavalry relentlessly into this gap, assailing the wings of the Persian center and left and pushing to get to the rear to reach Darius himself, who retreated.  The phalanx now engaged the Persian center and began its terrifying work of butchery.  Gaugamela was, in the end, a classic hammer-and-anvil battle, with the Persians pinned by the phalanx while the cavalry drove to the rear.
On the left, Parmenio’s job was merely to hold his command and prevent the Persians from getting in behind the Macedonian line. But he was under immense pressure. Pinned down, a gap appeared in the Macedonian line to the right of Parmenio’s position as the phalanx moved up to engage the Persians—a gap, in fact, almost identical to the one that had appeared in the Persian line. Indeed, some Persian cavalry drove through this gap, but uselessly attacked the Macedonian camp, before the reserve phalanx moved up to neutralize them.
Parmenio sent riders to the king asking for assistance anyway, messages that probably never got through to Alexander. Somehow, Parmenio held out unassisted, and the phalanx, having dispensed with the Persian center, now came to his relief. As word filtered down the Persian line that Darius had fled, the will to fight vanished and the Persians broke and ran.  Since much of the Persian army was cavalry and the ground around them open, casualties probably were only a few thousand. The greatest Macedonian losses were on the hard-pressed left, under Parmenio, but overall they were minimal, only a few hundred.  For so great a reward as the Persian Empire, the cost in lives had been remarkably low.

Darius fled in fear for his life, only to be murdered by one of his own generals the following summer.  Alexander went on, of course, to conquer the rest of the Persian Empire.
Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian throne. The two main sources of that victory were his driving charge into the gap on the Persian right and Parmenio’s superb holding action on the left.  Had either failed, the outcome of the day would have been very different.
This was clearly a turning point in history: had Darius won, he undoubtedly would have expanded his empire into present day Europe, well before the rise of the Roman Empire.  The modern world might have looked very different had he succeeded.
Alexander probably should have stopped and consolidated his gains, but he continued eastward.  A less powerful Persian Empire would eventually rise after his death, but by then the Roman Empire would have replaced the Macedonians as the great power in the West.
Once again, we are at Mosul, and once again, we are fighting an eastern force threatening to overrun Europe.  I leave it to you whether we have anyone even faintly resembling modern-day equivalents of either Darius or Alexander--and who that might be.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

It Started With Carla

Hurricane season is over for the year, but all of us vividly remember the television images of Hurricane Matthew bouncing up the East coast, with the Weather Service making hourly updates on where it might land.  And, as the hours and days passed, the updates constantly proved the earlier predictions incorrect.

The Weather Service gave us hourly predictions of the storm’s probable path, based on the latest computer modeling that accurately predicted that the storm would do something, somewhere, at some time.  Mark Twain once said the most ignorant thing imaginable was a lady’s watch, but I think it safe to add the weather service to that list.

Dan Rather was once asked where he thought a hurricane would make landfall.  He answered that he had no idea, but was pretty sure it would not hit Virginia Beach.  When asked how he could be so sure, he answered, “Well, the Reverend Pat Robertson has his headquarters in Virginia Beach, and he prays the hurricanes away.”  So far, his predictions have been perfect.

I can talk about weather from experience:  after six years of living on Galveston Island, followed by three decades of living in the high plains desert of New Mexico, I’ve seen a lot of weather.  Between the two locations, I’ve seen a thunder snow, a flood caused by a 10% chance of light showers, several sandstorms, and the memorable day it rained mud.  Not only did the weather service get most of this incorrect, but at least one of the possible tracks for Hurricane Matthew had it get fairly close to New Mexico.  (And I’ve seen a couple of hurricanes up close—I have the scars and a slight limp to prove it.)

I can’t be the only one who is tired of watching the news channels  report about storms by having someone (usually a reporter we have never heard of) standing out in the weather, telling us how dangerous—and difficult—it is to be an idiot standing out in the middle of gale force (or higher) winds.  Usually, shortly after saying this, several teenaged morons in bathing suits will be seen running past the reporter as they play in the rain.  I can excuse the teenagers for thisafter all, they are the flower of American youth—blooming idiots.

What I cannot excuse, however, is the stupid reporter who is standing out in the storm, with the wind almost blowing him away, as he reminds us, not to venture out in the storm.  I’d be willing to bet that at least half the viewers are wishing for a piece of errant roofing material to suddenly decapitate the idiot on live television. 

Who started this nonsense?  I blame it on Dan Rather.

In 1961, Dan Rather was the news director of KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas.  A good Texan who had spent most of his life on the Gulf Coast, Dan knew something about hurricanes, and he knew more than a little about good television.  At the time, KHOU was working hard to build ratings, mainly by focusing on violence.  As Rather explained in his autobiography The Camera Never Blinks, “Houston was big on fires and car wrecks and murders.”  The inside joke at KHOU was that the best stories focused on FUZZ (the police) and WUZ (the deceased).

A good hurricane would be even better, and Rather was watching one that had just crossed the Yucatan peninsula.  In addition, he knew a few things the rest of the local news people did not:  if the hurricane got near to Galveston, access to and escape from the island via the causeway would be cut off quickly by the rising water.  More important, he knew that the Galveston office of the Weather Service (then called the Weather Bureau) had the only radar scope on the Gulf coast.  This would show the storm’s approach toward Texas and long before the storm actually hit land (and thus hours before any other news agency had any television footage), Rather could show the storm approaching the coast.

So, Rather moved the station’s mobile unit to the offices of the Galveston Weather Service, that was then located on the fifth floor of the post office building and waited.  Sure enough, the storm made its way toward the island and the storm surge cut off the causewaythe single highway link connecting Galveston to the mainland.  Since the radar screen was hard to interpret, a clear plastic overlay showing the Texas coast was laid on top of the scope.  Viewers were astonished to see the massive storm, estimated at 400 miles wide, approaching the coast.

The WSR-57 radar was primitive by today’s standards, but this was the first time a live radar image was broadcast to show a hurricane.  This event changed television news reporting forever.

KHOU not only won the ratings war but its dramatic reporting of the storm's approach prompted the largest peacetime evacuation of civilians in history up to that date: an estimated 350,000 people fled the coast.  For days, Rather reported from Galveston as the storm landed just a few miles south of the island.  Rather was smart enough not to go stand in the storm, but took live photos out the fifth floor window.  His coverage was picked by the station’s network, CBS, and seen by damn near everyone in the country.  At one point, Walter Cronkiteanother good Texanjoked that because of rising water, “Dan Rather was ass deep in water moccasins.”

The snake story was a little fanciful.  Far be it from me to say that a fellow Texan stretched the truth, but while I have seen a lot of snakes following a storm on that island, I’ve never seen them five stories deep.

It doesn’t matter--Dan Rather’s fortune was made.  CBS had seen him think on his feet, had seen him cover a live event, and they hired him away from KHOU television.  Two years later, he was delivering film to a bureau office in Dallas while President Kennedy was passing through town.  Not directly connected to the news coverage of the day, he decided to walk over and see the presidential motorcade pass by.  He arrived at the grassy knoll overlooking Dealey Plaza just in time to see the panic following the president's assassination.

I’m sure that there are lots of reporters who would say that Dan Rather was just lucky.  Possibly trueafter all, Dan Rather certainly had the luck that frequently comes to people who work hard.  But ever since Carla, every time a storm gets close enough to photograph, every local reporter who owns a rain coat heads to the beach and hopes that lightning will strike twice.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Prisoner #1524

The fever was raging through the federal prison, with as many as thirty men a day falling to the dreaded disease.  As fast as the patients became ill, they were loaded onto a small boat—so small that the sick had to sit up in it—and rowed the two and a half miles to a small hospital located on an isolated key, or island. 

Fort Jefferson was located on Garden Key, located three hundred miles west of Miami.  The actual fort occupied 2/3 of the twenty-five acres that made up the tiny waterless island, and the large brick fort housed 486 soldiers, 527 prisoners, and the lighthouse keeper and his family.  In addition, many of the officers had brought their wives and children to the tiny fortress island.  Altogether, the tiny island was crowded with people who formed a strange community.  Considering the remoteness of the location, the garrison had the most useless extra security imaginable:  it was surrounded by a moat containing a man-eating shark.  (And yes, on at least one occasion, it ate a prisoner who was attempting to escape).

Fort Jefferson had been under continual construction since 1846, and was still not yet finished.  All of the building materials had to be imported.  Millions of bricks were brought in from Maine, lumber from Georgia, and cement from Boston.  Food for both the prisoners and the soldiers was shipped from Florida, and even the soldiers were imported from the North, as in these days just following the close of the Civil War, the US Army consisted solely of Union troops while the South underwent reconstruction.

The small collection of islands were called the Dry Tortugas, though the press frequently referred to the federal prison as the American Devil’s Island.  Duty on the isolated garrison  was so harsh that the Army had learned that military units stationed there had to be rotated regularly to prevent mutiny.  This policy was only partially successful, as soldiers deserted from the island about as often as prisoners escaped.

For the prisoners, the fortress had the reputation for being the worst prison in the country.  The hot weather, the humidity, and the endless sun were relentless.  The prisoners were attacked daily by insects, particularly by the swarms of mosquitoes that never left the island.  Just as harsh was the discipline.  Since the prison housed the very worst of the nation's prisoners, the murderers and traitors who made up the majority of the inmates were dealt with cruelly.  Prisoners were flogged, beaten, hung by their thumbs, or given long stretches in what the soldiers referred to as the “dungeon.”  Above the entrance to this lightless cell hung an ominous sign, “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind.”

Most prisoners were forced to wear heavy chains, and for the slightest infraction of the prison rules, a 32-pound cannon ball would be added to the chains.  But the wearing of chains did not exempt the prisoners from the work details.  To complete the misery, the food on the small island was all but inedible.  With few vegetables other than potatoes, almost no fruit, and the rotting meat, both the soldiers and prisoners were frequently sick.

Epidemics on the island, however, were all but unknown.  Due to the island’s enforced isolation, infectious diseases were rare.  This changed the first week of August 1867, when Captain George Crabbe returned from a furlough in Havana.  Almost immediately after he returned, he began complaining of a fever and was quarantined in the garrison hospital.  Vomiting started two days later; it was clear at first, but then it turned black.  Within five days, Captain Crabbe died from Yellow Fever.

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.

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 explorers with the diseases that the Europeans had brought there.

For a week, every inhabitant of the tiny island lived in fear.  Would the disease spread?  One week later, everyone on the island knew the answer.  Men began staggering to the prison hospital, their throats inflamed, complaining of fever and chills.  At first, the garrison doctor tried to handle the flood, but then he caught the disease.  By now, two-thirds of the soldiers and inmates were suffering from the same disease.

With no other doctor on the island, Major Stone, the garrison commander, was forced to turn to prisoner #1524, a convicted felon serving a life sentence.  He was presently assigned to a building detail, but before his imprisonment, he had been a practicing physician.

The prisoner, a Southerner had been given a sentence far more severe than his crime, and had been sent to the prison in the hopes he would perish there.  Within months of his arrival, he learned that the new troops being sent to the island were a black unit, and it was rumored that they would exact revenge against Southern prisoners, especially former slave owners like prisoner #1524.  Frightened for his life, he had attempted an escape, been caught, and given heavy chains to wear, condemned to the dungeon for a long confinement, and been assigned the harshest work detail.  The former doctor had no reason to help the commanding officer.  Since most people believed that the disease was spread by contact, the prisoner would be safer if he refused.  (And Major Stone expected the prisoner to refuse, in part as a Southern statement against Northern reconstruction).

Prisoner #1524 accepted the job, took command of the prison hospital and immediately began caring for the sick.  Even today, the only treatment available for those suffering from Yellow Fever is to give them plenty of fluids, make them comfortable, and wait for the fever to pass.  In the nineteenth century, physicians expected a 25% mortality rate, a rate that was much higher than the patients suffered under the care of the prisoner physician.

For 47 days, Prisoner #1524 cared for the sick.  He brought back those removed to the island hospital, correctly reasoning that better care could be given if the sick were together in one facility.  He trained nurses, expanded the hospital, and watched as slowly, the sick began improving.  And shortly after a physician from Florida finally arrived to assist him, Prisoner #1524 caught the disease himself.

The prisoner/physician recovered, and Major Stone did not put him back in leg irons.  Instead, he was given work in the prison hospital.  And three hundred soldiers signed a petition to the President of the United States, requesting that he grant an amnesty to the prisoner they credited to saving their lives. 

Even a century and a half ago, Washington moved slowly.  On February 8, 1869, during his last month in office, President Andrew Johnson finally signed an amnesty for Dr. Samuel Mudd, citing his courageous work during the 1867 epidemic.  Dr. Mudd was released from prison one month later, returning to his Maryland farm, where he resumed his medical practice.

There is still no conclusive proof that Dr. Mudd was an active member of the group that assassinated President Lincoln—all that can be proved is that Dr. Mudd met with John Wilkes Booth twice in the months before the president was killed, then just hours after Booth shot Lincoln, Dr. Mudd cared for Booth in his home and set his broken leg.  Dr. Mudd’s military trial was a farce, his harsh sentence was dictated more by hatred than by justice.  Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Dr. Mudd, Prisoner #1524, certainly earned his release.

While the insult “Your name is mud” was used decades before the Lincoln assassination in England, it became a popular phrase in America because of Dr. Mudd’s conviction.  Considering his heroic acts at Fort Jefferson, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the phrase.  Maybe it’s a compliment.