Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yonder's Your Education

Over eighty years ago, my mother was starting the first grade in school.  This was during the 1930s--and even worse, she lived on a dirt-poor farm in the panhandle of Texas.  An economically blighted area in the middle of the Dust Bowl, this was far from a good place to live during the Great Depression.  (Even today, the panhandle is not exactly a great place to live, but an excellent place to be from.  The "fromer" the better.)

During this time, Texas was in the midst of a drought so severe that every morning, farmers could go outside and watch their topsoil leaving for New England.  On one such day, an estimated 300,000,000 tons of sand blew all the way to Illinois and subjected Chicago to a dust storm so severe that it shut down the city.  A few days later, the city of New York was blanketed with snow dyed red from the iron rich sands of the Southwest.

Needless to say, it is rather doubtful that my mothers education was the most pressing issue for my grandparents.   Within a few years, they would lose their farm and be forced to seek employment in the nearby thriving metropolis of Plainview.

When the big day finally came, my mother was excited to start school.  Her parents were understandably busy, so she was to be enrolled in school by her brother, Joe.  Uncle Joe was twelve, and he carefully guided my mother from the farm to the edge of town.  Standing on a small hill, as he carefully pointed out the distant small schoolhouse to my mother, he gave her the only educational counseling she was ever to receive.

“Yonder's the school,” he said.  Then he turned and walked off in the opposite direction, leaving his little sister to fend for herself. 

I have been reminded of this little tidbit of family lore this last week, here at Enema U: the university has just created a new department in its constant quest to meet the needs of a student body that seems to be increasingly indifferent to damn near anything. 

The Department of Autodidact* Studies will provide individualized instruction to the student who hitherto has not felt the need to actually enroll in classes.   This will be a perfect fit for Enema U, since it has long since lost interest in either building or maintaining classrooms.  Almost as important, the department will do away completely with the need for meddlesome faculty, thus freeing up additional office space and resources for the ever expanding administration. 

Such a complex department will obviously need an experienced department head.  While an extensive national search was considered, thankfully, someone already on campus--with no apparent current duties whatsoever--has volunteered to take on the difficult job.  Principal among the new heads duties will be the annual chore of leading the assorted majors into the middle of the parking lot and carefully advising the students on their future academic careers.

“Yonder's the library,” he will cheerfully announce at the beginning of each year.  Then he will  probably return to his office to commence work on another round of outcomes assessments that will never be read.  (The new forms are much better than the old forms, as they ask you to numerically answer such burning questions as:  Of all the available flavors, what is your favorite color of the alphabet?)

Only the latest pedagogical tools will be used in this new department.  Textbooks will no longer be required, but each student will be issued a list of required T-shirts to be purchased the Starbucks Gift Shop, conveniently located at the site of what used to be laughingly called a bookstore.  Naturally, this will require higher lab fees.

Of course the administration expects great things from the new department, as not actually attending class seems to be one of the fastest growing trends in universities all over the country.  Though no student has actually requested the new department, that is to be expected since they have long since stopped asking for anything.

Students will be expected to maintain a high GPA.  Those failing to meet the mark will be automatically reassigned to the soon-to-be-created Department of Idiodactyl Studies.  While this new totally online department has not yet been opened, the university is working desperately to create racially-blended and gender-neutral avatars, in order to avoid reinforcing negative societal stereotypes. 


*Autodidact.  (n.) a self-taught person.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tool Time on the Brazos

Mike got his purchases out of the back of his pickup and carried them into the barn.  He had only gone to the hardware store for a new gas can for the chainsaw, but he'd never once in his life been able to leave a hardware store with just one item.  He wasn't even sure he trusted a man who could--any man who did real work could always find something he needed.

Barbara, his wife, had never understood the male fascination with hardware stores and had for years staunchly refused to accompany her husband on such trips.  The old rancher had tried to explain this to his wife.

"Honey," he said.  "You know how female Viagra is called 'jewelry'?"

Barbara didn't answer, but her eyes squinted until she was staring at her husband through narrow slits.  Oblivious to the danger, Mike continued.

"Well, a hardware store works the same way for a man."  Warming to his subject, the rancher went on.  "I've never understood why hardware stores don't sell jewelry.  Practical jewelry.  If you think about it, earrings are not that much different from putting a bone in your ear.  If you women have to hang something from your ears, why not make it something useful?"

"Such as?" his wife asked.  If Mike hadn't been so excited about his topic, he might have noticed that his wife's voice was about as cold as yesterday's coffee, perhaps almost as cold as their bedroom was likely to be that night.

"Well, how about a couple of screwdrivers?  One regular, one phillips?  Then if you needed one, you could..."  Mike stopped talking since his wife had turned and walked out of the barn.  The problem, Mike thought, was that women were just not practical.

The old rancher went to work on the new metal gas can.  Rummaging around in the barn, he found a spray paint can and painted both sides of the gallon can a uniform red.  Then, using a brush and a small can of black paint, he carefully labeled one side of the can, "Gasoline and Oil.  For Chainsaw Only."  On the other side, he wrote "Gasolina y Aceite.  Motosierra Solamente."

Mike suspected that there might be an accent mark in there somewhere, but he thought his only remaining ranch hand, Sergio, would probably understand it well enough.  At least he hoped so, since he really didn't want Sergio to burn up another chainsaw.  He thought briefly about sprinkling in a few accent marks--kind of like adding salt to stew--but since he had absolutely no idea where one might be needed, he decided to quit while he was ahead.

The old cowboy found a half-pint bottle of 2-cycle engine oil to pour into the can.  Then all he had to do was fill the can from one of the 5 gallon jerry cans of gas he kept in the metal tractor shed.

The old cowboy unscrewed the metal cap on the small can...and then stopped.  Under the can's lid was another, interior cap, fitted over the can's opening.  Evidently, this cap had been placed to keep the can air-tight during shipping and to prevent the interior of the can from rusting.  Mike tried to pry up the cap with his fingernails, but the cap refused to budge.

Mike produced several small screwdrivers and proceeded to try and pry up the interior cap.  Failing this, he used a ball peen hammer to drive a screwdriver under the rim.  While he was successful in prying up an edge of the cap, he could not free it from the can's spout.

Half an hour later, the rancher was sitting on the barn floor with the can between his knees and surrounded by an assortment of screwdrivers, old chisels, cold chisels, awls, files and even the odd power tool.  A few feet away, safely out of the line of fire, the rancher's dog lay on the floor with his head nestled on his paws as he watched his master struggle with the gas can.

After a can of penetrating oil failed to liberate the lid, the rancher decided to drill a hole through the middle of the metal cap, insert a large screw eye into the hole, then pull out the lid with a pair of water pump pliers.

When Barbara walked back into the barn, she was astonished to find her husband sitting on the floor, the can braced between his feet while he pulled on the pliers so hard his arms were trembling and his face was blue from the physical effort.

"What the hell are you doing?" she asked.

Mike dropped the pliers and looked up at his wife. 

"This damn can was made wrong," he said angrily.  "The morons who made it probably spot welded this inner lid in place.  Probably some idiot trying to get even for the Korean War."

"Let me see that."

Mike handed the can to his wife, who looked at the lid for few seconds.  Then, she grabbed the protruding screw eye and calmly unscrewed the interior lid from the can. 

Barbara handed the gas can back to her astonished husband with a smile that was not quite friendly but not completely mocking. 

"Just think," she said.  "I did it without a screwdriver in my ear."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

One Ship--Six Navies

During the American Civil War, the South was strangled by a seemingly impenetrable Union naval blockade.  Unable to ship cotton and tobacco out, the Confederates had no source of hard currency, but equally important, neither could they receive urgently needed imports.

Desperation is the evil mother-in-law of invention, and the South desperately tried a variety of techniques to break the Northern blockade: submarines, torpedoes, ironclads....the South tried them all.  One of the problems was that the South had few shipyards capable of building modern naval vessels, and the few she possessed were frequently attacked by the Yankee navy--so the Confederacy had to have its ships built in Europe, instead.

Though several European countries hoped the North would either lose the war, or at least suffer enough military losses to stunt the growth of this enfant terrible, it was against international law for neutral nations to sell war materiel to belligerent countries.  So the Confederates approached Napoleon III of France.  The thinking seemed to be that, as emperor, he couldn't break the law because he was the law.

Napoleon III had no problem skirting the law, but he wanted what we call today, "plausible deniability."  France would build two ship--supposedly for the Egyptian navy.  And what ships they were--twin-screw-equipped, steam-powered, iron monsters, with giant sled rams on their bows.  Capable of speeds of up to ten knots, and with heavy iron hulls, large cannons, and deadly bow rams--these ships were monsters that could easily break the American blockade of Southern ports.

Named Cheops and Sphynx, the two ships were all ready for delivery to the Confederates, when the United States discovered the plot and raised an official protest--so the ever-practical French simply sold the two ships elsewhere.  Denmark and Prussia were at war, so the French (being French) sold one of the ships to each country. 

The Cheops was renamed the Prinz Adalbert and was delivered to Prussia, while the Sphynx was renamed the Stærkodder.  By the time the ships were finally delivered, the war was over.  Sadly, the Prussian ship sat tied to a dock until she rotted, but the Stærkrodder, the Danish ship, had hardly begun her journey.

Though Denmark had accepted delivery of the ship, and was even conducting sea trials, the Danes haggled over the price.  This fiscal battle continued until the French finally, secretly, approached the Confederacy to see if they were still interested in the ship.  They were.

The ship quietly acquired a Confederate captain and crew, and while at sea, was rechristened the CSS Stonewall, and set sail for Portugal.  (This is not the CSS Stonewall Jackson:  that ship was a side-wheel riverboat.)

Along the way, two American warships either were scared off by the Stonewall, or were deliberately delayed by the Portuguese government--evidently in order to give the Stonewall a 24-hour  head start across the Atlantic.  There seems to be some confusion about the details, but Portugal and the US both decided to drop the incident after the Civil War, since one of the other "countries" involved no longer existed at that point.  There is little reason to argue over who left the barn door open after the horses have run off.

So, the Stonewall sailed to Cuba, in order to take on coal and water before continuing on to Port Royal, South Carolina, where it was hoped she break the Yankee blockade and cut off the supply line for General Sherman.  However, by the time the ship dropped anchor in Havana, the American Civil War was over.  The Confederate captain, in need of funds for himself and his crew, sold the ship to the Spanish government for $16,000 (presumably not in Confederate dollars).  (And, yes--that was a cheap price for a warship, even back then.)

The US demanded the ship, so the Spanish quickly avoided an international incident by selling the ship to the US Navy for the same price--$16,000.  The ship was sailed up the Potomac River and tied to a dock.  The US Navy eagerly inspected the vessel, but ultimately decided it had no real need for such a ship.  So the Stonewall was again sold--this time, to Japan.

Japan was in the midst of its own Civil War.  The last of the old Tokugawa Shogunate put $30,000 down and promised $10,000 on delivery, in order to obtain a modern warship to fight off the new Meiji Imperial Navy.  However, by the time the ship was actually delivered, the port was now in the hands of the Imperial Navy, which eagerly paid the remaining $10,000 and used the new ship, (now renamed the Kōtetsu) against its enemy, the original Japanese purchasers.  (To the reader: Have you lost count of the number of turnovers and sales, yet?)

The Kōtetsu was easily the most formidable ship of the Imperial Navy and sailed off to do battle with the remaining Shogunate navy at Hokkaido.   Attempting to retake the fortress of a ship, the Shogunate disguised a rebel ship by flying an American flag on it until it was close enough to ram the Kōtetsu.  Unfortunately, this tactic failed, since the deck of the Kōtetsu was nine feet lower than that of the ramming ship.  One by one, samurai dropped from the bow of the attacking ship onto the deck of the ironclad, only to be slaughtered by a modern Gatling gun.  (Never bring a sword to a machine gun fight!)

In the resulting engagement, the Battle of Hokodate, the Shogunate was destroyed.  Firmly in control of Japan, the Meiji Empire built its modern Imperial Navy around the Kōtetsu, now renamed the Azuma.  In later years, she became the flagship of Admiral Togo--who firmly believed that he was the reincarnation of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

But, that is another story. 


(Extra credit: How many times was the ship sold?  How many different names did it have?)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tapping the Admiral (or Sucking the Monkey)

Yesterday in class, while lecturing on the War of 1812, I was cataloging the many and varied sins of General Dearborn.  William Dearborn had been a true hero of the Revolutionary War, but 30-odd years after witnessing the surrender of Cornwallis, he was no longer fit for military duty.  I was describing him as old, decrepit, and obese...when it suddenly occurred to me that I am exactly the same age as General Dearborn had been when he failed to adequately defend Detroit.

Well, the years were harder on a man back then than they are today.  Nowadays, men age like the finest cognac.  Two centuries ago, men aged like milk.

None of my students will remember General Dearborn.  But I am pretty sure that ten years from now, if you ask any of them about General Pakenham--they will absolutely remember him.  They probably won't remember that I said most of the story was apocryphal, but at least they will remember something.  Students, like everyone else, remember only the things that interest them.

It was 1815, and British General Pakenham was leading the attack on New Orleans.  The city was being defended by Andy Jackson and one of the strangest armies in military history: Tennessee backwoodsmen, Choctaw Indians, slaves, assorted men swept up from the floors of bars, and Jean Lafitte's pirates.  Technically, these men were known as "Irregulars", but in truth, they  probably qualified as "Odds".

When the two armies met, the much larger British army fired its new Congreave's rockets at Jackson's men.  General Pakenham expressed surprise that such undisciplined and unprofessional troops didn't panic in the face of the frightening new weapons.  What Pakenham didn't know was that the defenders were a hell of a lot more scared of Andy Jackson than they were of British fireworks.

When the battle was over, the British were defeated, Jackson's men still held their lines, the war was over...and Pakenham was dead.

Pakenham had had a distinguished military career, so his body couldn't be simply left on foreign soil.  His body was disemboweled, and was carefully packed in a barrel of rum.  Actually, to get his body to fit in the barrel, his head had to be temporarily cut off.  (After last week's blog, I'm a little loath to mention this fact for fear that you might think that beheading is going to turn into some kind of a trend in this blog.  Honest, I promise not to lop off any more heads for at least another month.)

Pakenham was shipped home, his head was reattached, and he was buried on the family estate in Ireland.  That is the end of the story...but not the end of the legend.  In one version of the tale, it was a long and difficult voyage back home.  The sailors on the ship soon ran out of their accustomed daily grog ration and drilled a small hole into the cask in order to siphon off a little of the rum through a straw.   

This practice was called "sucking the monkey" and seems to have originated from British sailors drilling a hole in a coconut, draining out the coconut milk and replacing it with rum.  Have you ever noticed that the three dark spots on the top of a coconut look a little like a monkey's face?  The word coconut even comes from a 16th century Portuguese word for head.

Another version of the Pakenham legend has the barrel being lost during the shipment home and ultimately being sold to a plantation in South Carolina.  The barrel was tapped for a large party and enjoyed by all present.  ("I do declare!  This rum has a fine body and a good head.")  When the barrel was empty of rum, the owners wondered why it was still so heavy.  When they opened the barrel, the discovery broke up the party.

Nor is Pakenham the only British military hero attached to such a grotesque tale.  At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British navy destroyed or captured most of the combined navies of France and Spain.  The architect of this monumental victory was Admiral Horatio Nelson, who unfortunately did not survive the battle. 

Preservation of cadavers, was a science that would not exist until the 1860's, when the sheer number of men killed during the American Civil War prompted the development of what came to be known as "embalming science."  Until then...the bodies went into barrels of spirits. 

Nelson was placed in a barrel of brandy.  The barrel was lashed to a mast and guarded by the ship's marines until the ship arrived in Gibraltar.  There, the barrel was drained of the brandy and refilled with wine.  The barrel was opened in England and the admiral's body was placed in a lead casket, which was placed inside a wood casket made from the mast of the French flagship L'Orient, then buried in St. Paul's inside a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey. 

But those are just the facts--here is the legend:  during the voyage home, sailors drained the brandy and consumed it.  When the cask arrived in London, the brandy was found to be considerably less than full.  To this day, brandy is sometimes referred to as "Nelson's blood" and to the men in the British Navy, the phrase "tapping the admiral" means to obtain an alcoholic drink by theft.

Actually, history is full of such legends.  There is an Arab story from the 13th century in which treasure hunters found a sealed jar of honey in a tomb under the Egyptian pyramids.  After enjoying a leisurely meal from bread dipped into the honey, naturally, at the bottom of the jar, they discover the preserved body of a child.

I'm not going to tell my students any of these other stories, I still have hopes they will remember a little of the real lectures.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Felonious Assault on a…Train???

Most stories about the West are completely over dramatized to make them more interesting, but there are a few stories so gruesome and barbaric, that just the opposite happens.  Such is the case with Black Jack Ketchum. 

First off, his real name was Tom Ketchum.  Someone said he looked like a notorious Texas outlaw by the name of Black Jack Christian, and Tom just kept the nickname.  If you have seen the movie, The Princess Bride, then you will understand when I tell you that Tom Ketchum was becoming the "Dread Pirate Roberts".  There is a certain advantage to starting your career in crime with a built-in reputation attached to a different name.  When Doroteo  Arango began his life of crime, he took the name of an established local bandit and became famous around the world as "Pancho Villa".

Black Jack and his brother Sam robbed trains in Texas and New Mexico.  In the movies, train robbers always chase the train on horseback, leap to the moving train, then stop the train miles down the track.  After stealing all the money, somehow, their horses are always waiting alongside the track, showing no evidence of being exhausted after a several mile chase.  If trains had actually been robbed this way, the railroads could have protected themselves by stationing the conductor on the back of the caboose with a bucket of rocks.  Any outlaw on the back of a galloping horse would have been more likely to shoot his own horse than the train.

Black Jack was no fool, so he stationed his horses along the track, then backtracked to the closest watering station.  Those steam locomotives had to stop every 25 miles to take on water.  Ketchum and his men would sneak onto the train while it took on water, then once the train started up again, would climb over the tender and force the engineer to stop the train near their horses. 

On more than one occasion, Black Jack and his crew forced the engineer to uncouple the cars behind the express car, then moved the train far enough forward so that passengers could not interfere while they dynamited the safe. 

The Ketchum brothers always seemed to have a little trouble with dynamite.  On average, it took them about three tries to blow a safe open.  In one case, they probably decided to finally get the job done on the first try, so when the impressive pile of dynamite sticks exploded, it blew the express safe through the roof of the car and scattered the contents.  By the time the posse showed up, the robbers had made off with an estimated $50,000, and $10 bills were blowing in the wind around the wreckage of the train.

Not all the robberies were so successful.  Once, the gang hit a post office and was rewarded with only $9 while a rail station robbery yielded a measly $2 and a Winchester.  And even when the gang was successful—the train robberies would eventually net a career total of over $100,000--they usually spent most of the money quickly by bribing local officials not to reveal their location to federal marshals and railroad detectives.

The two brothers had an active career: they robbed trains, stores, post offices, and rail stations.  They worked together, rode briefly with the Wild Bunch, broke away and formed their own gang, but eventually quarreled and split up.   Sam Ketchum was eventually shot while robbing a train, and left behind by his men.  Captured, he died of gangrene on July 28, 1899.

Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum wandered over to Arizona, where he murdered two men.  Not knowing that his brother was dead, Ketchum decided to return to New Mexico and rejoin the old gang.  When he couldn’t locate his brother and he was running short of funds, he attempted to rob a train single-handed.

Black Jack tied his horse to brush along the track, then hiked six miles back to the nearest watering station outside of Folsom, New Mexico.  He forced the engineer to stop the train at gunpoint, just two miles from the waiting horse.  However, it was here that the robbers plan fell apart.  The conductor, Frank Harrington, had been unarmed when Sam Ketchum had robbed his train in July, 1899, but now he carried a shotgun.

While Black Jack was forcing the engineer to uncouple the passenger cars, Harrington leaned out of the doorway of the passenger car and fired his shotgun.  The blast ripped open Ketchums right arm.  Ketchum ran off into the darkness, eventually reaching his horse, but he was too weak from loss of blood to mount up and escape.  As he began to lose consciousness, he lay down by the tracks and fell asleep.

The posse had no trouble capturing him. Subsequently, he was taken back to town, tried, and sentenced to ten years for assaulting a U.S. mail agent.  While awaiting a second trial, his arm became gangrenous and was amputated. 

At his second trial, Ketchum was found guilty of felonious assault on a train.  At that time in New Mexico territory, this was a capital offense.  Ketchum was the first—and last—outlaw sentence to hang for "assaulting a train". 

Unfortunately, Ketchums execution was not handled well.  It should have been: by the turn of the century, hanging had evolved into a science.  Largely due to the efforts of William Marwood, in London, there was a well-established method for executing a man by hanging. 

First, the man was carefully weighed.  Marwood had established the “Official Table of Drops” that set the distance a man should fall before the rope snapped taut and the mans neck broke.  This table is still in use in those areas of the world where hanging is still the means of execution.  Ketchum weighed about 175 pounds, so he needed to fall 86”.

A new thick rope was procured and carefully stretched with the same weight as the prisoner for 12 hours.  This would remove any ‘givein the rope at the time of the execution.  Then a hangmans knot was tied with 13 coils in the knot.  (According to legend, when black men were lynched in the south, the knot would have only twelve coils.  Even in death, the poor man would be denied equality with a white man.)  Finally, the coils of the rope were soaped to ensure that the knot would slide smoothly.

Unfortunately, New Mexico officials made two mistakes.  First, the only rope available in Clayton, New Mexico was a little thinner than the usual hanging rope.  Second, Ketchum had nothing to do while he sat in jail awaiting his trial and execution, so he ate—a lot.  His weight ballooned to over 200 pounds by his execution date, making the rope 8 to 10 inches too long.

The town tried to do right by Ketchum.  The night before his execution, he was asked if he wanted anything special to eat.  Ketchum turned down that offer, but asked instead for some female companionship for the night.  This request was denied as “the town treasury was insufficient to hire a lady of the town.”

The next morning, he ate a large breakfast, dressed in the new suit the town had given him, listened to some violin music, and finally promised all who had been involved in his prosecution that they were marked for death by his (non-existent) gang. 

At a little after 1:15 p.m. on April 26, 1901, the trap door under Black Jack Ketchums feet opened, dropping the man to his death.  He fell too far, too fast, and the rope was too thin--causing the rope to cut his head completely off his body.

A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court looked into the matter and decided that this act was unconstitutional.  (Not the hanging—that was fine, despite its "complication".  In fact, the last man to be hanged in America was Billy Bailey in 1996.)  No, the crime of "felonious assault on a train" was found to be unconstitutional. 

Black Jack Ketchum was the only man ever "hanged" in the West for a crime other than murder.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dog Days on the Brazos

Mike rode out of the yard and down the dirt road leading to the state highway, accompanied by his dog, Steel.  The dog liked to follow the old rancher on his rounds, usually "following" him by staying about 50 feet in front of Mike.

This always upset Mike--he didn't like to believe that he was so predictable and set in his ways that even the damn ranch mutt knew what he was going to do, so every few minutes he would turn the horse sharply to the left or right and force the to dog race to catch up.  It was a short-lived victory however, since the old rancher was about as impulsive as a stalagmite.  About the time Steel had caught up with the horse and rider, Mike would turn the horse back to the original course and the dog would rocket back to his original position in front.

Mike caught up with the dog at the fence line as he carefully guided his horse over the the wide planks laid over the cattle guard.  Steel wouldn't get anywhere near the cattle guard, but would elect to crawl under the barbed wire fence.  Ten years earlier, while just a puppy, he had attempted to run across the cattle guard and his legs had fallen between the pipes, leaving the poor dog to painfully fall on his stomach and bang his nose.  Even after all these years, you could not have forced that dog to cross over the cattle guard if you had pulled him behind a tow truck.

At his age, the old rancher had few regular chores on the ranch.  He would go out daily and check on the cattle, ride along a section of the fence, check the water level in the stock tanks, and then do whatever odd jobs needed his attention that day.  Some days, he thought the only really useful things he did were count the cattle and exercise the dog.

As the old rancher was riding along the fence line, he had to stop while Steel measured the depth of the stock tank by going for his daily swim.  While Mike was waiting, a car coming down the road slowed and pulled over to the easement.  The door of the sedan opened and a woman stepped over to the fence and called to the rancher. 

"Hello," she said.  "Is that pretty barn down the road yours?"

Mike noticed that the car had Illinois license plates.  Ever since some damn travel magazine had published an article about the "picturesque ranches along the Brazos River" there had been a steady stream of camera-toting tourists.  The rancher could tell from the direction the woman was pointing that the building in question wasn't even a barn, but a galvanized metal building the county road crew used to store heavy equipment.

The old rancher got off his horse, turning his head to hide a smile.  Reins in hand, he walked over to the fence.  If there was a chance to pull the leg of a Yankee tourist, Mike would postpone all other forms of entertainment.

"Yes'm," he said.  "This is my ranch."  So far, Mike thought, that's the truth, even if it is not really an answer.

"Are you a cattle rancher?" she asked.

"Oh, yes mam," he answered truthfully.  "And I have the empty bank account to prove it."

"It is so pretty here.  Does your ranch have one of those cute western names?" the tourist asked.

All at once, Mike remembered a joke so old that his father had told it to him.  The only question in Mike's mind was whether he could keep a straight face while he repeated it.

"Yes mam," he said as he took his hat off with his other hand.  "It took my family a long time to agree on a name.  My wife Barbara wanted to call it the Bar-B, but I thought that was a serious case of the cutes.  I liked the Lazy-M, my son Andy wanted to call it the Rocking A, my son, Matt lobbied for the Double-T, and my daughter Megan demanded we call it the Flying G.  Eventually, we all compromised and just called it the Bar-B-Lazy-M-Rocking-A-Double-T-Flying-G Ranch."

"My goodness," said the woman.  "And where are your cattle? I don't see any."


"No ma'm," said the rancher.  "So far, none have survived the branding."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Table for Two

The maître d’ looked up from his clipboard and called to the crowd gathered along the sidewalk, "Jack?  Party of two?  Your table is ready."

The waitress showed them to their outdoor table, leaving menus and promising to return shortly to take their order.  It was a beautiful day, and well worth the half-hour wait for the table with its view of the park. 

Even after the couple had been seated, they were both visibly tense.  The couple had only been dating for a little over a month and there were still those awkward, uncomfortable breaks in their conversation when they were alone. 

They were still smiling and talking softly, when the young girl walked awkwardly up to the table.  The first thing they noticed was that the girl was very pregnant--she was obviously due in the next week or two.

"Jack?" the girl asked.  "What is this?"  From the anguished look on her face, she was obviously hurt.  Her voice was both angry and pleading.  "Who is she?" she asked, pointing to the seated woman.

The young woman sitting across the table looked first at the young girl, then back at Jack.  With wide eyes, she asked, "Do you know her?"

Jack had not moved since the young girl had walked up to the table, his pale face seemed drained of blood as he began to stammer.  "I...I..I d-don't know..." he began.

"Jack!" the pregnant girl wailed.  "I've been calling you for weeks!  I've left word at work, I've left messages on your machine.  Why won't you answer my emails?  You've been avoiding me ever since you found out we were going to have a baby!  I love you!"

By now, the young girl was crying profusely.  As the tears ran down her face, Jack just sat there slowly shaking his head.

On the other side of the table, the young woman leaned forward, pointing at the man's ashen face.  "She obviously knows you, Jack.  Who is she?"
"But I've never seen her before...," Jack began.

The pregnant woman interrupted, practically screaming, "Jack!  You are the father of our child!"

Conversation had all but stopped in the restaurant.  At every table, people strained to listen to the drama, while trying, unsuccessfully, to appear as if they weren't listening.  No one looked at the three people at the central table, but heads were tilted carefully to catch every word.

By now, both women at the table were crying.  The young woman jumped up and ran from the table, out onto the sidewalk and down the street, only a few feet ahead of Jack as he ran after her. 

The young girl carefully lowered herself into a chair at the table, and buried her face into a cloth napkin.  The waitress came up and placed a comforting hand on the girl's arm.  "Would you like a glass of water?" she asked.

The young pregnant girl just nodded her head as she continued to sob into the napkin. 

By the time the young man arrived, the young girl was more composed and was repairing her makeup as the young man carefully moved through the crowded chairs to her table.

"Been waiting long?" he asked as he leaned over to kiss her cheek.

"No," the young girl smiled as she answered.  "I just got here."

As he sat down, he glanced toward the long line of patrons waiting for a table.  Turning back to his girlfriend he asked, "Then how did you get the table so quick?"

"Silly!  People always give a table to a pregnant woman!"

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Help From the Government

Mike stood directly under the windmill, looking up at the metal tower.  The sun was hot and the old rancher was remembering the tower his father had used more than half a century before.  Constructed of massive wooden beams, it had felt substantial and at the very least had provided a little shade while someone worked on it.  This tower was made of galvanized steel, and while it was probably much stronger than his father's wooden structure, the thin metal angle iron inspired no trust and provided no more cover from the sun than a young girl's bikini.

No real fan of heights, Mike hated climbing the tower, but once a year he forced himself to climb, drain the three quarts of oil out of the mill housing, and replace it with new oil.  It sure as hell wasn't any fun, but few jobs on the ranch were.  Mike took a moment to look to the north, toward the Brazos River, before turning back and reaching for the metal ladder.

His wife, Barbara, kept telling him he was too old to climb the tower, pointing out to him that he was even older than the ancient Aermotor 702.  The old rancher had replied that between the two of them, only the windmill had a bullet hole.  Besides, he had added, it was way too late for him to die young.  Still, (though he wouldn't admit it), he knew Barbara was right.  He was getting a little old to be carrying tools to the top of windmills.

Just as Mike began the climb, a car pulled off the highway onto the dirt road into the ranch.  The car crossed the cattle guard a little faster than the rancher liked, then slowed and stopped next to the windmill.  Stepping back from the ladder, Mike put down the heavy leather tool belt and walked toward the car as the door opened and a man stepped out.

"Government man," Mike thought to himself as he pulled off a work glove to shake the man's hand.  "Howdy.  What can I do for you?" he asked.

The man was short, wearing khaki pants and a clean white shirt.  He held a clipboard in his left hand while he shook the rancher's hand with his right.  "Good morning.  I'm James Stephens, with the Agricultural Division of the Department of Labor.  Are you owner of this ranch?"

"Yes," Mike answered.

"We're doing a survey of agricultural workers: their working conditions, how much they are paid, their benefits, and how they are treated.  I need to meet with your employees."

The old rancher noticed that the man was neither asking nor smiling.  "Well," he said.  "I'm semi-retired and I don't really work the ranch any more.  I lease out the grazing land, so I've only got two employees left."

The government man frowned and made a notation on his clipboard.  "Very well.  Still, this ranch was selected to be part of the survey, so tell me about your two employees."

"Well, some of the work is done by Sergio.  He has been with me for four years.  He does general maintenance, uses the tractor to clear brush, and repairs fences and such.  I pay him $15 an hour, and he gets paid for twice as many hours as he actually works.  I pay his Social Security, and if he has any other benefits, then he's paying for them himself.  He's out of town this week, but when he gets back you can ask him yourself."

Mike wasn't really paying much attention to the government man--he was actually looking at the man's car.  It was a shiny new Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid and on the driver's door, just below the words 'Department of Labor', was printed some kind of motto: "Demonstrating A Strong Commitment to Farm Workers and Their Families."  The rancher wondered when the government had stopped using modestly priced Dodge cars and exactly how the expensive new hybrid car helped farm workers and their families.  And why wasn't the government man concerned with Mike's family?  They had been in the agricultural business on this land for over a century.

"And the other employee?" asked the government man.  "What of him?"

"Well, he's kind of a half-wit," Mike answered.  "There's not much of a chance he can get a real job.   Though he does most of the work around here, I can't really afford to pay him much.  About once a month I buy him a bottle of bourbon and occasionally he gets lucky with my wife."

"That's the man I need to talk to!" exclaimed the government man.  "Where can I find him?"

Mike turned away from the bureaucrat and bent to pick up the heavy leather tool belt as he once again faced climbing up the steep tower.  Not even bothering to look back, the old rancher answered the government man,

"Right now, he's fixing the windmill."


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Didn't That Already Sink?

Part 3 of 3:  The Book Did It First


It was a dark April night as the massive ship cut through the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  The largest ship ever launched, she was considered unsinkable because of her massive size and modern construction.  Over eight hundred feet long, she was attempting to set a speed record by running at well over twenty knots, despite the weather and the presence of icebergs in the area.  The passengers, largely ignorant of the dangers, enjoyed the luxury of the liner and listened to the ship's orchestra as they walked the decks and met in one of the many dining salons of the ship.

When the lookout reported an iceberg ahead, the giant vessel attempted to steer to safety, but nevertheless struck the iceberg on her starboard side and foundered just 200 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

Despite her watertight doors, the ship sank rapidly.  Considered unnecessary on an "unsinkable" ship, Titan had fewer than half the lifeboats necessary to save the maximum capacity of 3000 people the ship could carry.  That freezing April night, as the ship rapidly sank beneath the waves, so few lifeboats could be launched that though there were only over two thousand passengers and crew aboard, over half of them drowned. 

The few that managed to secure safety in the boats remembered silently watching as the triple screws of the massive ship disappeared into the sea, leaving hundreds of bodies and random wreckage floating where the most luxurious passenger ship--a luxury for even the richest people in the world--had once floated.

So sank the ill-fated Titan

No, I don't mean the Titanic (though everything I have written above would be equally accurate if I were writing about the White Star ship).  The Titan is a fictional ship from the novel The Wreck of the Titan, Or Futility , by Morgan Robertson.  His book was published in 1898--a full fourteen years before the tragedy of the Titanic

The chapters dealing with the sinking of the ship sound eerily similar to what we all know about the real tragedy.  Consider this paragraph from the second page of the original edition:

Unsinkable - indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws. These, twenty-four in number, were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold five hundred people. She carried no useless, cumbersome life-rafts; but - because the law required it - each of the three thousand berths in the passengers', officers', and crew's quarters contained a cork jacket, while about twenty circular life-buoys were strewn along the rails.

Morgan Robertson was a writer of short stories and novels that were frequently based on his years at sea.  The son of a sea captain, Robertson started his naval career as a cabin boy and eventually rose to the rank of First Mate.  Though a prolific author, his writing was not financially successful.

Published as a serialized short story, Futility did not enjoy much success when originally published.  Shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, Robertson released the work as part of a book.  Not content with the startling similarities already in the book, the second edition increased the fictional ship's tonnage to more closely match that of the Titanic and, since the original story was rather brief for a novel, Robertson added three more stories to the book, one of which was Beyond the Spectrum.

The existence of Futility is not exactly a secret.  Whether the story is prophesy or a massive coincidence, the story of the Titan has become something of an inside joke among Titanic enthusiasts.  Walter Lord mentioned it in the forward of his great book, A Night to Remember, it was mentioned in an episode of Dr. Who, and it has shown up in countless comic books, video games, and movies.

For some reason, Beyond the Spectrum has been almost completely forgotten.  The 1914 story deals with a future war between the United States and Japan.  Plotting to replace America's economic position in the Pacific, Japan attacks naval ships protecting our military bases in the Philippines and Hawaii.  However, before Japan can land an invasion force at San Francisco, the American hero uses a secret weapon that utilizes bright light and intense heat to both blind and burn the invading army.

Well, no wonder you have never heard of that story!  Nobody would ever believe that crap!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Who Invented That?

Part 2 of 3: Robert A. Heinlein

I can remember the first time I read a novel by Robert A. Heinlein.  It was 1962, the book was Space Cadet, and the entire country was going crazy about space.  John Glenn had just orbited the Earth and anything was possible.  I had no doubt that my children would go to school on the moon.

That was the year that I discovered science fiction and learned a lot of names that are still important to me today: Heinlein, Asimov, Verne, Wells, and countless others.  For me, the books of Robert Heinlein were always the best.  Now, fifty years later, Ive added a lot of names to that list, but I havent moved Heinlein from that top spot.

I could devote a lot of time and space to Heinleins books, but I would be probably be wasting my time.  If you like science fiction, you already know about him.   If somehow youve missed him, start with A Door into Summer, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Stranger in a Strange Land.  I would pay a hefty sum to be able to read any of those again for the first time.

What I would like to talk about, however, is not what Robert Heinlein wrote, but what he invented in some of those writings.  Heinlein wrote about the future, and many of the pieces of technology he described came to actually exist.  Lets start with the waterbed.

The first waterbed was made 3000 years ago.  In ancient Persia, water-filled goat skin bags were allowed to warm in the sun, then used as mattresses.  In the nineteenth century, several physicians substituted rubber for the goat skins, creating a bed that caused fewer pressure points on bed-ridden patients. 

In the 1930s, after an injury that required lengthy bed rest, Heinlein invented the first practical therapeutic mattress.  He first described this bed in his novel Beyond This Horizon (1942).  Almost 40 years later, in Expanded Universe, he wrote:

"I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements - an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds."

In 1942, Heinlein wrote "Waldo", a short story about a mechanical genius suffering from myasthenia gravis.  Physically too weak to cope, Waldo Farthington-Jones creates mechanical hands that he controls with gloves that mechanically magnify his movements.  Today, if you visit a nuclear test facility, you can see such hands being used.  Technically known as remote-manipulators, almost everyone refers to them as “waldoes.

Using his Waldo mechanical hands, the hero builds a smaller set of hands, with which, he builds yet another set of smaller hands.  Farthington-Jones continues this process until he has a set of waldoes that can manipulate material at the cellular level.  In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture that is credited with inventing the field of nanotechnology.  In his lecture, Feynman drew directly on “Waldo” as his primary vision of nanotechnology.

With apologies to Al Gore, Heinlein may have invented the internet.  His first novel, For Us the Living (1938), describes a nationwide information network, where the hero of the novel is able to read a newspaper article dating back to the previous century from his home.  To be fair, this information network is based upon a sophisticated network of pneumatic tubes, but this is just a picky point.  It is an information highway, so why quibble over what material was used to pave it.

Now that Heinlein has invented the internet, we might as well as well give him credit for Amazon.com also.  In 1958, Heinlein wrote Methuselahs Children.  In this story, the hero needs to change his clothing in order to hide from the authorities.  Here is how Heinlein wrote it:

He sat down in a sales booth and dialed the code for kilts.  He let cloth designs flicker past in the screen while he ignored the persuasive voice of the catalogue until a pattern showed up which was distinctly unmilitary and not blue, whereupon he stopped the display and punched an order for his size.  He noted the price, tore an open-credit voucher from his wallet, stuck it into the machine and pushed the switch.  Then he enjoyed a smoke while the tailoring was done.

While you could already get a Diners Card when Heinlein wrote this, Heinleins “credit voucher” was before American Express, Visa and Mastercard.  The name seems to imply that it is used more as a debit card than a credit card; if so, Heinlein was truly prophetic.


To me, this shopping experience sounds pretty much like Amazon--but with delivery faster than even Amazon's proposed use of drones would provide!  If you doubt me, click here and compare the result.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

In the Beginning, There Was the Book

Part 1 of 3: Superman

Stop me if you have heard this story before:  Even as an infant, our hero had already exhibited unusual strength: he could lift heavy furniture and he demolished his crib with a single hand.  Then, as he grew older--in an effort to live a normal life--he kept his incredible abilities secret from the other children, adopting a meek (some might say "boring"), life style.  He grew into a handsome young man, who had a splendid physique and his black hair was so dark that it was almost blue.

As he grew older, his strength increased.  He could leap to dizzying heights, he was faster than a speeding locomotive, he could bend iron bars, and bullets bounced off his chest.  He built himself an isolated fortress where he could learn to use his powers.  So amazing were his abilities that he was referred to as The Man of Iron.

Of course, you know this story--the hero is none other than Hugo Danner from the book, Gladiator, written by Philip Wylie in the 1920s and first published by Book League Monthly in March of 1930.  Were you--perhaps--thinking of someone else?

Obviously, this sounds a lot like Superman, but Gladiator was in print eight years before the first Superman comic book hit the stands.  Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, claimed that the inspiration for the character came from the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Perhaps this is true, but some of the dialogue in the first Superman comics closely (very closely, in fact) matches the Wylie book.  And, six years before the premier of Superman, Siegel published a favorable review of Gladiator.

There are some crucial differences, however.  First of all, Hugo (the picture above was from the book) was not an alien from another planet, but the result of a scientific experiment, in which his scientist father injected a serum into his wife while she was pregnant with Hugo, thus changing the infant's  molecular structure.  Hugos powers were not hereditary, but could be duplicated by treating other expectant mothers in the same way.

Fundamentally, Hugo was a much more complex character than Clark Kent.  Hugo struggled to hide his talent his whole life, he tried to fit in with the rest of humanity, and he tried to find a use for his powers.  Whereas Superman easily found admiration, in Wylies world, Hugo's superhuman abilities elicited envy, jealousy, fear, and ultimately hatred.

Hugo Danner tried over and over to find a useful role in society.  He worked as a circus strongman, a merchant marine, a farmer, a pearl diver, and eventually enlisted as a soldier in the First World War.  While he was successful in every activity, he remained friendless and unhappy.

As a child, I read Superman comics and watched the George Reeves television version of the storyline.  As an adult, I think I have also seen most of the movies--but it was not until I read the Wylie book that it occurred to me how isolated such a person would actually be, had he existed.  His abilities would completely separate him from the rest of mankind.  Wylie is probably correct--such a "gift" would destroy a man.

Toward the end of the book, when poor Hugo began to hate the inferior humans who feared him, he said “I defy you with all my strength, to think of what I can do to justify myself!”  Possessing neither a cape nor a secret identity, Hugo never received an answer and his loneliness turned to rage.

Spoiler Alert.  I must warn you that I am about to reveal the ending of the book.  Revealing the ending to a book is a high crime so heinous that normally I only inflict it on first class passengers on planes I am boarding with the rest of the peons.  But, since I doubt that many of you are interested in reading an 85 year-old obscure science fiction story, I hope I will be forgiven.

Eventually, Hugo was convinced that as there was no way he could live with humanity, he so must create a society of supermen where he could live with his equals.  Brushing briefly on the subject of eugenics, Wylie took his hero to a mountain top, deep in the Mayan jungle, where Hugo knelt and asked Gods blessing to begin duplicating his fathers experiment.  Was it okay to create a race of supermen?

God promptly killed Hugo off with a bolt of lightning.

That should have been the end of the story--but over the last few decades both Marvel and DC Comics have sporadically published comics featuring Hugo Danner.  It turns out that even God couldn't kill a super man.