Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lives of a Bowling Pin

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

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

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

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

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that it was not suitable for the working class:  Not only did he ban commoners from playing, but that law was not repealed for three hundred years.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Lieutenant Napoleon, of the British Royal Artillery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?  Will he be on the test?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs fiction when you have history?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

My Run-In with Muhammad Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Better Living/Dying Through Chemistry

There is a useful phrase in Texas: a rotating son of a bitch.  This is a bastard who no matter how you turn him—he’s still a son of a bitch.  He’s not shy and there is generally no confusion about who you are dealing with.

Every now and then, you run across someone in history who is a just a conundrum and Fritz Haber was just such a man.  His research might have won him a Nobel Peace Prize but he was also a deeply flawed individual whose research should also have won him a swift execution after a trial for international war criminals.

Just a few years ago, archaeologists discovered evidence of an early example of chemical warfare.  When the Persian Empire attacked a Roman garrison in modern-day Syria, the Romans began engineering a surprise attack.  So, they began digging tunnels under their own walls from which they planned to suddenly emerge and slaughter their attackers. 

When the Persians discovered this, they burned a mixture of coal and sulphur to make a toxic gas and pumped it into the tunnel.  The Romans died horribly, choking to death in what was—at least so far—the earliest successful attack with a poison gas.

There was an earlier gas attack on record (and I’m not talking about some caveman urging his son to pull his finger).  About 2400 years ago, the Spartans attacked Athens, whose inhabitants wisely and promptly took refuge behind their substantial city walls.  The Spartans responded by flinging bundles of burning wood infused with sulphur over the walls, confident that the noxious fumes would drive the Athenians out of the city.

Unfortunately, the concentration of gas was insufficient for the large area of the Greek city, so that instead of inventing the first lethal chemical weapon, the Spartans had developed nothing more deadly than the first stink bomb.

Every scientifically-advanced country signed the Hague Convention in 1899—save the US, which saw little use in banning weapons about as powerful as strong pepper.  In the dawning age of machine guns, dreadnoughts, submarines, and long range cannons, concentrating on stink bombs seemed hypocritical, at best.  By 1910, France had developed an effective tear gas.  It was not deadly, but was strong enough that the French police used the gas to force robbers to abandon a bank robbery attempt.  (Note that the Hague Convention only covered military use, not that of domestic law enforcement.)

In the early days of World War I, the French lobbed tear gas shells at the Germans, but on the wide open fields of France, the shells were hardly more effective than the sulphur the Spartans had used on the Athenians.   However, the failed attack touched off widespread hysteria on both sides of the conflict.  When carbon monoxide killed German soldiers in a barracks, secret—and nonexistent—French weapons were blamed.  The Germans vowed to catch up.

Fritz Haber was a bald Jewish chemist who changed all that.  His research saved millions, perhaps billions of lives because he figured out a way to cheaply combine nitrogen and hydrogen together to form NH3 or ammonia—the basic ingredient in chemical fertilizers.  For the first time, farmers could fertilize their fields without compost piles, rotting fish, or manure piles.  Without chemical fertilizers, it would be impossible to feed the world’s growing population.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t Haber’s goal:  Instead of fertilizer, Haber wanted to build bigger and better bombs.  (Remember the massive explosion at Oklahoma City?  Timothy McVeigh used as his basic ingredient the kind of ammonia based fertilizer that Haber had made possible.)

Though Haber would have made a vast fortune from his fertilizers during the war, when Germany offered him the chance to head its gas weapon division, the middle-aged Haber eagerly accepted and the Kaiser himself made the scientist a Captain of the German Army.  His wife, Clara, was less than pleased.  Holding a Ph.D. in chemistry herself, she refused to work on the weaponization of gases.  Haber didn’t listen to his wife's objections, simply replacing her in the lab with less principled chemists.

Haber personally supervised the first test of Germany’s new weapon against British troops.  Just as in ancient Athens, the wind dispersed the gas.  The only difference was that this time, the gas was so ineffective that the British soldiers didn’t even realize they had been attacked.  The German military high command remained undeterred and decided to devote even more resources to this weapon.  The next test, far larger, was staged against the Russians on the eastern front.  This attack, too, failed when the deadly liquid froze before it could vaporize into gas.

Haber personally observed the results and decided to reformulate the gas, switching from bromine as the base to chlorine, thus making the gas far more deadly.  Frankly, the effects of chlorine gas are truly gruesome:  The skin of its victims turns yellow, green, and black while their eyes glass over with cataracts.  The soldiers struggle to breathe as their lungs fill with fluids, so that these unfortunate victims eventually literally drown.

Haber not only perfected the chlorine gas weapons, but he personally supervised the first successful gas attacks in history near Ypres, in Belgium.  On April 22, 1915, Germany released 168 tons of chlorine gas along a 4-mile front.  One British officer later recorded his observations:

Just at dawn they opened a very heavy fire, especially machine-gun fire, and the idea of that was apparently to make you get down. And then the next thing we heard was this sizzling – you know, I mean you could hear this damn stuff coming on – and then saw this awful cloud coming over. A great yellow, greenish-yellow, cloud. It wasn’t very high; about I would say it wasn’t more than 20 feet up.  Nobody knew what to think. But immediately it got there we knew what to think, I mean we knew what it was. Well then of course you immediately began to choke, then word came: whatever you do don’t go down. You see if you got to the bottom of the trench you got the full blast of it because it was heavy stuff, it went down.

Haber was unconcerned about the horrors of what he had created, saying on more than one occasion, “A death is a death.”  By this, he meant that it was relatively unimportant how you died—in other words, that a slow death by asphyxiation was no worse than being shot.  That this—inhumane killing (if there can be any killing in war that can be called "humane")—was the whole point of The Hague Convention was evidently irrelevant to him.  Somehow, in his spare time, he also managed to work out what today is called Haber’s Rule—a mathematical table correlating the concentration of gas with the necessary exposure time to assure a fatality.  Only a true monster could quantify murder like a golf score.

If Haber was unconcerned about his activities, quite the opposite could be said of his wife, Clara, who had become increasingly horrified about the work her husband was conducting.  After the Ypres attack, Fritz returned home to host a dinner party to celebrate the effectiveness of the new weapon.  Worse yet, Clara learned that he was to journey to the eastern front the next day in order to conduct a similar test against the Russians.  After arguing heatedly with her husband, Clara took his military service pistol and shot herself in the heart.  Her body was discovered out in the garden by their thirteen-year-old son, Hermann.
If Dr. Haber was upset, he didn’t show it:  He left for the eastern front the next morning without even making any funeral arrangements for Clara and would remarry before the end of the war.

The postwar years were something of a mixed bag of successes and failures for the scientist.  He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918, and he was almost immediately charged with being an international war criminal.  Although he was able to avoid prosecution, he was deeply criticized by the international scientific community for his wartime actions.

Haber spent years unsuccessfully trying to extract gold from seawater and he was equally unsuccessful in his attempt to become head of the Soviet Union's chemical warfare research.  His only real success was in developing an effective insecticide that could be used on large amounts of grain before shipment.
Clara and Fritz’s son, Hermann escaped from Nazi Europe to the US, but shortly afterward committed suicide, as did Hermann’s daughter shortly after the Second World War.  Fritz’s second wife divorced him, but their son, Ludwig Fritz Haber became a prominent historian of chemical warfare, producing a book, The Poisonous Cloud, about the use of gas in the First World War.

When Hitler came to power, Fritz Haber found he could no longer stay employed at the university because he was a Jew—this despite his being a decorated war hero.  He died in 1934, on his way to refuge in England.  Unfortunately, his insecticide work was continued in Germany after his death:  That insecticide, known as Zyklon gas, would be used by Hitler to kill millions--including many of Dr. Haber’s relatives.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Six Degrees of Separation

My students frequently complain that most of what I talk about happened so long ago that none of it is useful, much less interesting.  The general consensus seems to be that all “real” knowledge can be acquired by watching a Jimmy Kimmel YouTube clip.  Certainly, any event that occurred even 100 years ago is such ancient history as to have no conceivable connection to anyone alive. 

This is when I bring up the game “Six Degrees of Separation”—the theory that any two people on earth can be connected by six or fewer people.  Literally, you know someone who knows someone and so forth until you have connected Charlie Manson with the Pope.  (Today, with the internet, the theory should be updated—perhaps Four Degrees of Facebook.  I friended someone who friended someone who blocked the Pope.)

In an effort to prove that history—and more importantly, my job—is still relevant, I tell my students the following story.

In 1861, Napoleon III sent troops to invade Mexico—ostensibly to force repayment of outstanding debts, but actually to extend the French Empire.  Napoleon needed a figure-head monarchy, so he turned to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in search of a spare inbred Hapsburg (yeah, that’s redundant) nobleman to prop up in Mexico.

Emperor Franz Josef had the perfect fool for the job:  his younger brother, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph who had spent most of his life up to that point waiting for his older brother to die so he could inherit a job.  Now that Franz Josef had a son, there was little job satisfaction in being the “spare-to-the-heir”, so Max leaped at the chance to be the new emperor of Mexico, even if he was to be a puppet of Napoleon.

Max did have one small caveat.  Mexico was an unhealthy place, famous for diseases and poor Max was a world class hypochondriac, who was capable of catching a disease by reading about it.  (Well, to be fair, the Hapsburg royal line was so inbred, members actually did have every disease known to infect man or livestock.)  Franz eased his younger brother’s fears by sending his own physician, Dr. Miklos Haroney of Hungary to Mexico to take care of Max

As I have written before, Max did not do well in Mexico, and despite the efforts of his personal physician, he eventually died of multiple induced lead poisoning.  At right, you can see Max in his coffin, and while this photo has absolutely nothing to do with this story, is none-the-less so creepy it has to be included.

Dr. Haroney and his family fled Mexico and shortly after crossing the American border, the doctor and his wife both died, leaving their teenage daughter, Mary Katherine Haroney, to fend for herself.  The poor girl wandered the West, finding jobs—and men—in mining camps and border towns.  Before long, she was making her living as a "soiled dove" in Tombstone, Arizona.  (Also called "a lady of the evening" or "a mattress backer"—quite a comedown for the daughter of Emperor Franz Josef's private doctor!)

It is strange how famous this woman became.  Unkindly, by this point in our story, she was frequently called "Big Nose Kate".  Among a long list of names she took at one time or another, she was also called Katie Elder.  If you happened to see the John Wayne movie, The Sons of Katie Elder, the only thing the movie gets right is the spelling of her name.  Kate actually lived until 1940, dying in a retirement home in Arizona.  During her days, she was frequently married, but her most famous common-law husband was the infamous Doc Holliday.

Doc Holliday, of course, was the dentist turned gun-fighting gambler.  Holliday had been a dentist in Atlanta, but moved west after he contracted tuberculosis.  Briefly, he set up a practice in Dallas, locating his office just a couple of blocks from today's Dealey Plaza.  Despite doing well (he won three prizes for best artificial teeth at the North Texas State Fair), he soon developed a passion for gambling.  In most of the West, gambling was an accepted profession, but in Dallas it was against the law and Doc was soon arrested and fined. 

Doc Holliday then drifted from town to town and, while playing cards in the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas, helped a young deputy back down two armed and drunken cowboys.  The deputy, Wyatt Earp, became friends with Holliday, crediting the dentist with saving his life.  (For those of you who grew up with Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke, the photo shows what the famous bar actually looked like.  Sadly, Miss Kitty is nowhere to be seen, so let us just hope the bartender is actually named Ed.)

When Wyatt and his brothers moved to Tombstone, Arizona, Doc Holliday followed him and met Big Nosed Kate.  Wyatt Earp met Kate, and her friend Josephine (Sadie) Marcus.  Sadie was also working as a prostitute and would eventually become the common-law wife of Earp, staying with him until his death in 1929.

Very few people are unfamiliar with the most famous gunfight in Western History, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday attempted to disarm the outlaw cowboys, Tom, Frank McLaury, Billy, Ike Clanton, and Billy Claiborne.  No one is quite certain who drew first, but everyone knows that the Earps and Holliday finished it.  The thirty shots that rang out in about that many seconds have been reenacted in countless movies, not one of which explains why the Gunfight in the O.K. Corral was neither fought in or even near the O.K. Corral.  (I guess the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Next to the C.S. Fly Photographic Studio just doesn’t quite have the same romantic appeal.)

After the famous shootout, Wyatt went everywhere and did just about everything.  He ran a bar in the Klondike, he was a prospector, and was a gambler, and lived long enough to be a technical advisor on movies about his past.  He was friends with John Ford, Harry Carey, and Tom Mix.  And occasionally, he served as a lawman in the kind of towns that still needed taming—the kind of towns that hadn't yet realized there was no more room for the “Wild” in the “West”.

In one of those towns, Wyatt hired a young deputy—a young man whom I will call “Buster” since his family is still prominent in Texas.  Buster worked for Wyatt, and stayed in law enforcement his whole life.  He worked through the crazy years of prohibition, unsuccessfully chased Bonnie and Clyde, and eventually retired as Sheriff of Harris County, the home of Houston, Texas.  Somehow, Buster had grown rich during his years as a lawman and when he retired, he checked into a suite at a Houston hotel that was known for privacy and first-class service.  The old sheriff, all but forgotten, would spend the rest of his life in that hotel.

In 1971, that hotel hired a young college student as the night manager.  Somewhere about three in the morning, that young man would use his passkey and reopen the bar.  Sitting over glasses of Waterfill and Frazier Kentucky Bourbon (which, paradoxically, was distilled in Juarez, Mexico), the old lawman would tell the teenager about the old days, about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and what the West was really like.

Let’s see, then—we need to count it up:  Dr. Haroney knew Maximillian, Emperor Franz Joseph, and Napoleon III.  Big Nosed Kate certainly knew her father.  Wyatt knew (and may have dated) Big Nosed Kate.  Sheriff Buster knew Wyatt, and I was the teenager who used to ply the old lawman with bourbon in exchange for a good story.

And you know me.  So, that makes you six degrees separated from Emperor Franz Josef.

By the way, the man who introduced me to the sheriff and explained who he was and about his past was Louis L’Amour, the famous Western author.  But, that’s a story for another time.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


Just yesterday, I heard one of our presidential candidates make a ridiculous remark that with courage, all things can be accomplished.”  Presidential candidates need to know more history.

Caesar shared control of Rome with Pompey, but being Caesar, he naturally wanted more—the problem was how to get it.   Quickly escalating almost nothing into a national crisis, Caesar invaded Gaul in 58 B.C.  (When I say Gaul, you think France.  This is not even close to being completely historically or geographically accurate, but it is close enough for this government employee.)

Six years later, Caesar had all but vanquished his enemies when suddenly, a young, energetic, and passionate leader, Vercingetorix, rallied the people and launched a new uprising which did what Caesar had feared most—it gave hope and a sense of nationalism to the all-but-defeated people of Gaul. 

Caesar reacted with characteristic swiftness and sought to engage the rebels, but the wily Vercingetorix had adopted a brilliant strategy—'Don't directly fight the nearly invincible Roman Army.'  Instead, as the Gallic army marched northward, it adopted a scorched-earth policy, destroying the crops and food supplies that Caesar’s army depended on.  This forced Caesar’s army to send out numerous scouting parties to forage for food, and those small scavenging parties are what Vercingetorix attacked.

Note.  For most of human history, the hardest part of winning a battle was getting an army to the battleground in good enough condition to fight (Remember the saying, "An army marches on its stomach."?  Well, it fights "on its stomach", too.)  The fighting was generally secondary.  This is why, for example, throughout most of American colonial history, a remote small wooden fort supplied with nothing more than a single small cannon and a barrel of moldy flour could control vast interior areas.  In a pinch, the fort could give up the cannon.

Caesar has to stop this, and since he could not force Vercingetorix to fight in the field, he attacked Avaricum, a Gallic high-walled stronghold that was generally thought to be impregnable.  Caesar laid siege to the city, cutting off supplies from the outside while he began a brutal assault on the town.  He built a huge platform of logs 80 feet high, positioned two towers on it to strafe the battlements, and launched an all-out undermining effort against the city's walls.  The Gauls fought valiantly, but it was all to no avail.  The city fell after a siege of one month’s duration. 

After starving for a month—even while they labored to defeat the city—the Roman Legions were pissed.  Caesar’s account of his campaign in Gaul is understandably self-serving, but even he admitted that only 800 survived out of a population of 40,000. 

This defeat did not stop Vercingetorix; if anything, it spread a sense of nationalism, even carrying the revolution to tribes that formerly had been longstanding allies of Rome—a sure sign of its seriousness. 

Vercingetorix then attempted to ambush Caesar’s army on the march, but was foiled.  So the Gauls retired to the hilltop fortress at a place called Alesia in central France.  As a fortress, Alesia was considered impregnable (kind of like Avaricum...).  It had steep cliffs on all sides and the only approach was a three mile long plain on the west side. 

Caesar recognized immediately that assault was impossible and decided to starve the Gauls out by blockade.  Paradoxically, his best weapon would be the 80,000 troops of the enemy army--surely such a large number of men would exhaust the town’s food supply quickly.

Caesar constructed eight camps around Alesia, and joined them together with ramparts and 12 foot wooden walls that ran for 10 miles.  Technically, such works are called circumvallation since they are fortifications set up, facing the fortifications of the besieged. 

Caesar’s circumvallatlon was a substantial undertaking.  It had two ditches out front, 15 feet deep and 15 feet across.  Since the plain to the west was clearly a draw for enemy sorties, the innermost ditch here was filled with water.  An extra ditch, 20 feet across, had been dug across the plain some 650 yards in front of the palisade, to protect the legionaries as they worked, and to offer a further obstacle to any attempt to break out on the part of the Gauls trapped inside Alesia. 

The wall, itself, was also formidable.  The excavated earth from the trenches was used to make fighting platforms within the wall and 23 forts were incorporated into the wall.

From within Alesia, Vercingetorix could see what Caesar was doing.  Avoiding an open battle that the Romans would surely win, he pulled his infantry inside the walls of Alesia and sent his cavalry out, not only to escape, but to gather reinforcements.  Part of the reason to send the cavalry out, of course, was also not to waste grain on the horses. (The grain it takes to feed a horse for a day will feed ten men.)

Spies told Caesar about the approaching army coming to rescue Alesia.  Prudence (or just plain common sense) dictated a strategic withdrawal (Run Away!).  Now, if you remember, the whole point of Caesar's coming to Gaul was to build power, and to add dignitas and gravitas to his image, so retreating was out of the question.

Caesar’s army constructed a second set of walls--this time facing outward.  This contravallation had to be even bigger, totaling 14 miles in length, with a three-story tower roughly every 80 feet.  In effect, the Roman army was besieging Vercingetorix in Alesia while being besieged by a second army of Gauls on the outside:  the Romans were caught in a fort that was a giant wooden doughnut.

Caesar had 65,000 men inside Fort Krispy Crème, which faced 80,000 hungry soldiers in Alesia, while a force of 250,000 men was gathering to attack him on the outside.  (Caesar said it was 250,000—Plutarch said it was 300,000—but then the first liar never has a chance.  Let’s be a little more realistic and say 100,000.) 

While they waited, the Romans got creative.  In front of the walls, rows of sharpened stakes were placed into the trenches.   With black humor the soldiers nicknamed these obstacles cippi, which means boundary markers” and also tombstones.” In front of these, pits three feet deep were dug and one sharpened stake embedded into each, and then the hole concealed with twigs and grass.  These obstacles the Roman troops nicknamed lilies".

Finally, in front of the lilies, small blocks of wood with barbed points or hooks nailed into them, nicknamed stimuli”, were hammered into the grass so that the points were concealed.  The Gallic infantry, which generally fought in the nude (and therefore, barefooted!), faced a world of hurt before even reaching the wooden walls. 

With his foraging hampered by the threat of the army coming to relieve Vercingetorix , Caesar ordered his men to collect 30 days’ rations and to retire between the two lines, which were about 200 yards apart.  Then he waited for what would come next. 

To preserve rations (and to place a burden on Caesar) Vercingetorix drove the noncombatant population—women, children, and the elderly—out of Alesia.  The poor wretches approached the Roman lines and begged to be either admitted or to be allowed to pass through both walls.  But the Romans were in no better shape to feed them than were the Gauls, so Caesar just left them to wander in the no-man’s land between his lines and the walls of Alesia.  At best, this was a blow to the morale of Vercingetorix’s men as they daily watched those poor souls starve and die of exposure.

It says something about the character of both Caesar and Plutarch that neither recorded the eventual fate of these damned innocents.   And it says something about the naiveté of Vercingetorix if he really thought Caesar would feed them.

The relieving Gallic army began assaulting the outer Roman lines, starting with a surprise nighttime attack.  Despite several attempts, the Roman lines held.  Finally, the Gallic forces attacked at all points along the Roman fortifications, both inside and out of the fortifications.

This was the key moment of the whole engagement and it is a testament to Roman discipline that the legionaries held their ground and defended the palisades stubbornly.  Caesar noted how unnerving it was for them to hear the shouts and sounds of battle coming from behind them, knowing that their lives were in the hands of their comrades who were defending the other siege line—But the Romans held their posts anyway. 

Both Vercingetorix and Caesar participated in this last battle.  Caesar, wearing a scarlet cloak and leading the reserve forces, personally joined in the fighting.  The interior Gallic forces attacking the fortifications eventually broke and fled, leaving Caesar victorious.  The sight of this defeat caused the relieving army to retire in some disorder. 

The next day, Vercingetorix surrendered himself to Caesar.  The survivors from Alesia were given to the Roman soldiers as prizes.  Vercingetorix’s fate was worse:  he was kept alive to walk behind Caesar’s chariot in the triumphal procession in Rome, and was eventually executed by garrote as an enemy of the Roman people.  Two years later, of course, Caesar himself lay dead, killed by his own people as a tyrant. 

Note.  If you watched the HBO series ‘Rome’, the first episode begins with the surrender of Vercingetorix, but there is no mention of the Battle of Alesia.   Caesar, of course, would gain the power he craved, as well as wealth beyond imagination.  He was to bring back so much gold from Gaul that the market temporarily collapsed, with the price of the metal falling by half.  While Rome chose to honor his army for the victory at Alesia, the Roman Senate refused to honor Caesar, so he took his army and crossed the Rubicon, then became dictator perpetuus.

So, in one sense then, the contest at Alesia was between disciplined Roman perseverance and flamboyant Gallic courage.  Unfortunately, for all its admirable passion, the latter proved insufficient. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bad Luck

The front desk called me just after midnight, as I was making my rounds of the back of the hotel.  It had been almost an hour since the shift change at 11:00, so the back entrances should all have been locked, but in a large hotel with literally thousands of doors that should be locked, there are always a few that some fool or other has forgotten to secure.  As soon as I got the call, I stopped what I was doing and made my way back to the front of the hotel, anyway. 

When I arrived at the front desk, I found two policemen I had known for years.  Technically, they were plainclothes detectives who had been to the hotel many times over the years, working a variety of cases.

"What's up, guys?" I asked.  Both of the detectives turned reluctantly from the front desk, where they had been harassing Cindy, the overly-endowed desk clerk.

"We're here to talk to one of your guests, one 'Dan House'," said Jack Wright, the taller of the two policemen.  I had known Jack for years, and we had always gotten along well, which meant that he occasionally would do me favors while I occasionally comped him a room for the night.  I knew better than to ask the man why he needed a hotel room when he had a house—complete with a wife and a dog—in town.

"According to Cindy, he's been in room 1404 for two days, but he's not answering the phone.  Housekeeping says there has been a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door ever since he got here.  The only person who has seen him has been the room maid." Added his partner, Jeff Brown.

Jack took one last look towards Cindy, then turned to me and said, "Cindy says he asked for that room when he checked in.  Can you let us into the room?"

"Sure," I answered.  As we slowly rode up in the elevator, the two policemen explained that House had just been let out of the state prison in Huntsville the week before, and had failed to meet with his parole officer.

"Normally, this wouldn't be a matter that we would get involved with, but this case is a little different," explained Wright.  "We've been watching him for the last eight years.  He was convicted of armed robbery, but the stolen loot was never recovered.  As a matter of fact, House was arrested here in this hotel shortly after the robbery."

"What did he steal?"

"Diamonds:  The Zales Jewelry Company used to keep its distribution center here in Houston; House and a woman held the center up and made off with $4 million in diamonds.  House was offered all sorts of deals, but would never give us the name of his accomplice or the location of the jewels, so he served the whole eight-year sentence."

After what seemed like an interminable delay, the elevator doors opened, and the three of us made our way down the hall to 1404.  "You say he was arrested here, in this hotel?" I asked.

"Yes.  According to our notes, he was arrested in this very room," answered Brown.

"Eight years ago was before my time. I only came here five years ago, after The Shanghai Hotel chain bought it.  They shut the place down for a month and repainted everything, then hired a new staff."  As we neared the end of the hall, I pointed to one of the many Oriental charms hanging over a fire escape to ward off bad luck.

I knocked on the door.  One of the first things you learn in the hotel business is to always knock on the door before you enter.  I've lost track of the times I've walked into "empty" rooms and found people—a few of whom had been both larger and meaner than me.  Using my pass key, I opened the door and stepped back to let the policemen enter first.  That's another thing I had learned in the hotel business:  Never hurry to trouble:  it might still be there when you got there.

As I followed the two men into the room, I knew from the wet smell of copper what we were going to find.  Both of the policemen pulled their sidearms from under their sports coats, and Brown, who had entered after Wright, turned right to check the bathroom while his partner went into the room and checked behind the beds.

I moved forward slowly, surveying the room.  It was going to take a lot more than just housekeeping to fix this room.  The mattresses had been cut open, along with the upholstered chair in the corner.  Pictures had been pulled off the walls and every drawer had been pulled out of the combination dresser and desk.  In over a dozen places, the sheetrock walls had large, gaping holes.  However, all of this just barely registered, as it was hard for me to take my eyes off of the dead man slumped in the chair in the middle of the room.

A slight, frail man was dressed only in his underwear, with his arms securely fastened to the arms of the straight-back wooden chair, and his ankles just as securely fastened to the front legs of the chair.  A pillow lay next to his feet, a small feather protruding from a hole in the center.  It looked like all the air had been let out of an inflatable dummy; the man looked really dead—like two days' dead.  But what really drew my eyes was the neat hole in his forehead that was black-edged, with a trickle of blood down one side of his pale face and neck, staining the tee-shirt and shorts.  The blood was already dried, but the metallic smell filled the room.

Both officers came into the room and stood beside me as they holstered their weapons.  "Is that House?" I asked.

"Probably," answered Wright.  "Unofficially, it looks like him.  It also looks like someone was looking for something in here.  This room has been torn apart."

"Whoever killed him must have wanted the diamonds.  Do you think he hid them in this room eight years ago, and was killed when he came back for them?" asked his partner.

"Probably," answered Wright.  "But we'll probably never know for sure.  We could never figure out who his partner was eight years ago, and we are unlikely to figure it out now."

I stepped forward, carefully looking away from the body of the dead man to look Wright in the face. 

"Actually, I'm pretty sure I know who did it," I said.  Now I had both the cops' full attention.  "If the only person to see him since he checked in is the maid..."

"Right," said Wright.  "She's the only one with opportunity—that we know of.  But why?"

"No one but the maid has reported seeing him since he checked in.  The 'Do Not Disturb' sign has been on the door for two days, so it stands to figure that the only one who could have killed him was the maid.  I'm betting that we'll find out that she is the missing accomplice.  House probably never gave her the share she had earned, and she knew he had been captured before he had a chance to fence the diamonds, so she probably figured out that he had hidden them here.  I think we’ll find she got a job here in the hotel just so she could wait for him to return for them."

Wright looked at Brown for a second, then Wright nodded at his partner and Brown hurriedly left the room, probably looking for a phone to use that wasn't in the middle of a crime scene.

Wright stood in the room for a second, then turned to look at the destroyed walls. 

"If House hid the diamonds before he was captured, why did he trash the room?"

"I don't think he did," I answered.  "That was probably his accomplice.  After waiting for eight years for her share of the gems, she probably grabbed House as soon as he checked into the room.  She wouldn't want to give him a second chance to run away with the diamonds."

"But, why wouldn't he tell her where the diamonds were?  She obviously had a gun, and he must have known it was only a matter of time before she would find them.  This room isn't big enough to have that many hiding places."

"Oh.  I think he probably told her everything.  Not to be unkind to a dead man, but he doesn't look like the type to die with his secret untold."

"If he told, why is the room trashed?  For that matter, why kill House after he told her where the diamonds were located?  She could have left him taped to the chair, walked out, and avoided a murder rap."

I looked into the bathroom and surveyed the damage there.  It looked like most of the destruction had been centered around the wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom.  "Well, I don't think she ever found the gems, and she probably killed House because she thought he was holding out on her.  The pity is that the diamonds never were in this room."

"No?" asked the Wright.

"Close.  I expect we'll find the diamonds within the hour.  I kind of feel sorry for House—he probably thought about those diamonds every single day for eight long years.  Four million dollars is pretty good pay for eight years work.  Kind of a shame."

"Do you think some maintenance guy got them years ago?" asked the policeman.

"No, I think they are still right where he left them," I answered.  "What he didn't know was that the hotel sold to that Chinese corporation a few years ago.  They didn't really remodel, just painted and changed a few things.  They were a very superstitious lot, so besides putting lucky emblems in the elevator and over a few doors, they also renumbered the top five floors for good luck.  We're on what used to be the thirteenth floor."

Suddenly, Wright looked up at the ceiling and asked, "You mean…those diamonds are ten feet over our head?"

"Yep," I said.  "It turns out the thirteenth floor really is bad luck."