Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Replacement Venus

Yorgos Kentrotas, a poor Greek peasant, was just digging at the ruins of the old city wall in hopes of finding a few bricks to use to wall off his garden.  That the bricks might be two millennia old was immaterial, as there have been few technological improvements in the brick industry.


Kentrotas dug along the base of the wall and discovered a niche about four feet wide and five feet deep.  Though the niche was filled with debris, he could see part of a covered marble statue.  His fascination with the buried object caught the eye of a nearby French naval officer, who, along with a pair of sailors, were digging among the ruins in search of artifacts.


What Kentrotas had discovered was the top half of a nude statue of a woman that was destined to become one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, the Venus de Milo.

At the urging of the French naval officer, Kentrotas kept digging, eventually discovering the bottom half of the statue, along with pieces of the left arm, a hand and a plinth.  After reporting the find, a higher-ranking French naval officer convinced the French ambassador at the Ottoman Court to purchase the statue. (Milos was in Turkish territory at the time.)


Finally, a French naval vessel carefully conveyed the statue to France.  After being officially presented to King Louis XVIII, the statue made its way to the Louvre.  (The statue arrived in France in 1821, but the King was having a small problem with obesity—it actually took him over a year to make the trip to the museum to see it.)


With the exceptions of a few wars, a minor revolution, and a tour to Japan—where over 100,000 people turned out just to watch the boat carrying the statue dock, the big lady (she is 6’ 8” and 1,500 pounds) has remained in the museum for almost two hundred years.


The Statue was restored without the plinth and pieces of the left arm, and immediately caused a sensation as the only surviving female statue created by Praxiteles, the master classical 6th century BCE Greek sculptor.  As the premiere example of beauty as defined by Classical Greek culture, The Venus de Milo as the objective measure of beauty was the embodiment of all the French Empire was and hoped to be.


Of course, in reality, the story is almost all bullshit.


France faked almost all of this.  Exactly who found the statue and where will probably never be completely settled, but it probably was a member of the Kentrotas family who first discovered the statue at Milos, and this was probably while he was looking for marble to sell, either as an artifact, or to be burnt to make limestone.


France desperately needed a new classical female statue, so it created the myth of the Venus de Milo to satisfy that need.  At the time, western countries considered the classical world to be the embodiment of sophistication and enlightenment.  A nation’s accumulation of great art was a measure of the country’s wealth and the embodiment of an empire’s reach.  In a very real sense, Europeans believed that if a nation possessed works of beauty, the country itself was beautiful.


Until very recently, the Louvre had displayed not only the great art of the Western World, but the most famous example of female beauty in existence—the Venus de Medici (left).  (Which, if you haven’t heard of it, shows you the power of French propaganda.)

The Venus de Medici was a 1st century BCE Greek statue believed to be a copy of an earlier statue by Praxiteles.  Formerly a possession of the Medici family, it had been “forcibly acquired” by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.  (And yes, I managed to work Napoleon into another blog post.)


The Venus was only part of the art work Napoleon had looted from across Europe, but she was one of the most important pieces in the Louvre.  However, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, most of the works the Emperor had stolen were returned to their original countries.  The Venus de Medici was returned to Italy and is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 


Not only was France forced to return the looted art, but in the contest among nations to see which could acquire the most riches from the world, France was losing to Great Britain.  Spain, grateful for England’s assistance in her war with Napoleon had gifted that nation with many works, such as the Rokeby Nude by Velasquez.  England had also acquired the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, as well as the Rosetta Stone.  (The last had been briefly the property of Napoleon, but the priceless artifact was specifically listed as part of the surrender terms of The Capitulation of Alexandria).


Since France had spent years touting their possession of the Venus de Medici, the yardstick by which all beauty was to be judged…. France needed a replacement Venus.  Preferably one what was better, older, more prestigious, and one that could—with the proper publicity—be recognized as even more beautiful.


So, in 1821, when the Louvre displayed the statue, the French fudged a little.  First off, she probably should not be called the “Venus de Milo”, since the statue probably is a depiction of Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon, and the town of Milos is now called Trypiti.  (I guess the Amphitrite of Trypiti doesn’t have the same marketing appeal.)


Regretfully, the statue wasn’t created by Praxiteles, either.  The Louvre knew full well that the plinth—which was not put on display—indicated that the statue was created 500 years after the death of Praxiteles by Alexandros of Antioch.  To this day, the Louvre claims that the fate of that portion of the plinth (as well as the fate of the hand) is unknown.

Alas, the credibility of the museum sunk further because an art student had created detailed drawings of the statue, including the plinth.  Slowly, his drawings and other details about the statue leaked out to the art world. 


The ruse lasted until 1893, when a German publication, which included the student’s drawings, accurately dated the statue.  The truth did little to diminish the “stature” of the Venus—at least in the minds of the public (and not just her French fans).  To her public, she is the most famous statue in the world.  To the crowds that flock to the Louvre annually, she is only slightly less popular than the Mona Lisa.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Bridge Too Far... North

In a way, the whole bridge affair was a watered-down precursor of the Civil War—it had some of the same players, it was fought for some of the same reasons, and ultimately, the North won. 


Instead of opposing armies, this was a fight between the railroad and the riverboats, and since you know which one is still doing business, you already know who is going to win.  That’s one of the problems with telling stories about the Civil War—everyone already knows how the story ends.  (I wonder if the North had somehow managed to lose that lopsided war, I wonder whose statues we’d be tearing down today.)


There were two main issues at stake:  First, where the first transcontinental railroad would be constructed, tying the two halves of the country together.  Naturally, the North wanted a northern route through Chicago, while the South favored a southern route through St. Louis.  Both cities were competing to be the transportation hub of the Midwest and the gateway to the West.  St. Louis had the twin advantages of already being a great center for steamboats and there was the advantage that a southern route would be easier to construct. 


The second issue was a fight for the very existence of steamboats against the growing power of railroads.  Today, this may seem a mismatched fight, but steamboats did have some advantages as they could carry greater loads at a cheaper cost, and historically, most of the migration of settlers in the Midwest followed a North/South axis.  Railroads were faster, but cost far more to construct.  In the end, of course, railroads were going to win because they could go places the steamboats couldn’t.  It’s a lot easier to lay track than to dig a river.  (This is a damn shame, since at heart, I suspect I’m a born steamboat man.  Maybe I’ve read too much Mark Twain?  Nah! There’s no such thing as “too much Mark Twain”.)


The Government Bridge, the nation’s first bridge across the Mississippi had been built with the express purpose of linking the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad in Illinois with the Mississippi and Missouri railroad in Iowa.
  Though the two railroads largely shared common ownership, each was chartered in a different state. 

The site for the bridge was carefully selected linking Rock Island, Illinois (the westernmost point of the C&RI) and Davenport, Iowa (the eastern most point of the M&M line) by way of Rock Island, the largest island on the Mississippi River.  From the very start, the steamboats fought the construction of the bridge on the grounds that it was a hazard to navigation and thus an impediment for an established industry necessary for the economic interests of the country.


Note.  One of the few constants in history has been the resistance of established industries to new technology that will swiftly put them out of business.  Today, I suspect that almost no one even remembers the once vital—but now completely defunct—flange industry.


Rock Island was the natural location for such a bridge and had been surveyed for just such a construction project in 1837 by Colonel Robert E. Lee.  Ironically, the biggest impediment to building the bridge was Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War.  Davis, who supported the southern route for the Transcontinental Railroad, could stop the construction since Rock Island had previously been the site of Army outpost.  Though the military fort had been long abandoned, Davis still believed that he controlled the island.


Originally, Davis allowed the bridge construction to proceed, secure in the belief that the Southern route would still be constructed, first, because of the better building conditions that route offered.  However, when political tensions worsened in the Kansas/Nebraska territories, Davis realized that the Northern route might be constructed first.  

Although Davis had ordered the construction on Rock Island halted, for reasons unknown, it was allowed to continue by the Federal marshal who’d been sent to shut it down.  Was the marshal bribed?  Was he a passionate supporter of the North?  No one knows for sure, but the managing director of the M&M Railroad and the co-owner of the bridge construction company was Dr. Thomas Durant, a man infamous for bribes and far less than ethical business dealings.  Later, Durant would become infamous as one of the men responsible for the Crédit Mobilier scandal.  (If you watched the AMC television series, Hell on Wheels, Durant was played by Colm Meaney.)


There was little Davis could do about a bridge that was already operational, so the matter was dropped (at least temporarily).  The finished bridge was 1,581 feet long, crossing six spans. The single-track bridge included a swing draw span placed directly over the channel normally used by steamboats.  The bridge had two fixed spans on the Illinois side and three, on the Iowa side, with the draw span rotating on a massive center pier 32 feet wide resting on a turntable bearing arrangement with twenty wheels on a twenty-eight-foot diameter track. 

On April 22, 1856, people on shore cheered as three locomotives pulled eight passenger cars across the bridge.  The ‘Father of Rivers’, the Mississippi had been successfully spanned, opening up the way west by rail.  But...only for a short time.


Just fifteen days after completion, the steamboat Effie Afton passed through the channel heading upriver, when she suddenly lost power in her starboard engine.  Drifting backwards, the vessel swung sideways and struck a bridge piling, causing great damage to both the ship and the piling.  A cabin stove aboard the vessel tumbled, setting the ship afire, burning the ship to the waterline and destroying the bridge spans between the pilings.  All of the ship’s passengers were rescued and there were no injuries.


Almost immediately, there were claims of deliberate sabotage.  Witnesses said that the ship burned too quickly, and that the ship wouldn’t have swung sideways if the captain had not increased power to the port engine.  No record of the ship’s cargo survives, but the records that do exist prove that this was the first time the ship had operated above St. Louis.


Captain John Hurd, owner of the Effie Afton, filed suit in the U.S. District Court at Chicago, claiming that the bridge was constructed in such a way that eddies and currents around the pilings endangered shipping.  Hurd wanted to be reimbursed for the ship and cargo, further demanding that the railroad be prohibited from rebuilding the bridge.


The railroads countered, claiming that the “accident” was an intentional and deliberate attack on the bridge, by an industry trying to delay their inevitable demise.  The case, Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company, was to be the “trial of the century”.  (Yes, even back then they used the phrase, and even back then, they used it far too often.) Of course, it didn’t help the steamboats’ protestations of innocence that all the boats on the Mississippi, from one end to the other, blew their whistles rejoicing at news of the bridge’s destruction.


This was an important case, since the results could potentially dictate whether any bridge could ever be constructed across the upper Mississippi.  (And since a district court ruling would only be valid in that district, it would allow another district—one further south, for example—to successfully complete the Transcontinental Railroad, perhaps extending slavery westward). 


The railroad lawyer defending the case traveled to the site of the bridge, which was already being repaired.  He hired a small boat in which he rowed out onto the river, personally investigating the currents, the eddies, and noting exactly where the shifting flows took floating objects.  In particular, he studied the topography report created by Colonel Robert E. Lee.


The trial lasted fourteen days—two of which were used just for the railroad lawyer’s lengthy summation.  Finally, though a victory for the steamboats had been predicted, the jury announced it was split and could not reach a unanimous decision. 


The case wasn’t actually over, as it was argued in various courts for years, and became the topic of an investigation for the House of Representatives which, predictably, was split along North/South lines.  Eventually, a federal court ruled that the bridge was a threat to navigation and had to be destroyed—a decision that was immediately appealed to the Supreme Court.  However, by then, the railroads had friends in high places. 


Because of the Civil War, Rock Island was once again an active military post that was being used to house Confederate prisoners of war.  The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was in favor of the bridge, as was the majority of the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the railroads in January 1863. 


The riverboat companies screamed, “Foul!” because they believed that the President of the United States had influenced the decision.  And they just might have been right, for the lawyer who had represented the railroads in that first trial had been none other than Abraham Lincoln. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Nazis Got Ashley Wilkes?

It started when the Nazis invaded the low countries in May of 1940.  Several KLM commercial flights were suddenly stranded in foreign airports, unable to return home without flying into an active war zone.  When possible, those planes made their way to England where they were promptly interned by the British government.


Prior to the invasion, though England, Germany, and France were at war, regular commercial flights between neutral nations had continued, but after Italy joined the war and the Netherlands were invaded, the only neutral countries in Western Europe were Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland, and Sweden.


Eventually, the interned aircraft, along with their crews, were given permission by the Dutch government-in-exile to join BOAC, the British civilian airline service.  (Keeping track of airline names is tough.  British Airways and Imperial Airways combined in 1939 to form British Overseas Airways Corporation, which thirty-five years later combined with three other airlines to create the present-day British Airways.)


BOAC was desperate for the aircraft as the Luftwaffe had destroyed much of its fleet during attacks on British airfields.  Flying a motley collection of DC-3, DC-2, and de Havilland Albatross planes, the airline continued to fly regularly scheduled flights to neutral countries, in particular Portugal.  The planes were repainted to indicate they were civilian non-combat planes and restricted to flying during the day and at altitudes less than 3000 feet.


Although Portugal was neutral during the war, spies of every country openly operated there, watching each other and filing reports.  One American OSS agent reported “Lisbon was like the movie Casablanca, only twenty-fold more so.”  Portugal was where anyone escaping occupied Europe, be they Jewish refuges or downed Allied pilots, could make their way to safety.

On June 1, 1943, BOAC flight 777 was a DC-3 nicknamed “Ibis” by the KLM crew that still flew her.  She was to take off from Lisbon, fly out to sea to avoid the West coast of France, and then  make her way to Whitchurch, 150 miles north of London.  Even though the flights were usually without incident, on two previous occasions, the DC-3 had been attacked by the Luftwaffe, though on each occasion, the pilot of the DC-3 had taken evasive actions and escaped.  At the beginning of the war, both sides had ignored flights to and from neutral countries in accordance with international law, but by late 1942, the air war over the Bay of Biscay had intensified and the Germans were beginning to ignore the international laws governing neutrality.

On that morning, the plane was carrying Leslie Howard—“Ashley Wilkes” of Gone With the Wind.  Howard was returning to London with his friend and accountant, Alfred T. Chenhalls after a speaking tour through Portugal and Spain.  Also on the plane was Tyrrell Mildmay Shervington, the head of Shell-Mex BP Oil in Lisbon, and ten other passengers, including two small children. 


Howard and Chenhalls, who had priority travel orders that had allowed them to bump two passengers from the flight—nanny Dora Rove and her charge, a seven-year-old boy, the son of a British diplomat—were last-minute changes to the flight manifest. 

The plane left at 7:35 AM, established radio contact with Whitchurch, then proceeded northwest while maintaining regular radio contact during the flight.  At 10:54, when the plane was 200 miles off the coast of Spain, the radio operator reported that they were under attack.  Within minutes, the plane crashed into the Bay of Biscay and sank.  It was eventually learned that the slow-moving DC-3 had been attacked by a flight of eight German Ju-88 twin engine fighters.


Immediately, several theories emerged to explain the attack on an unarmed civilian aircraft leaving a neutral country and in international airspace.  The most widely publicized was that the Nazis believed that the flight was carrying Winston Churchill, returning from his meeting in Casablanca.  German spies in Lisbon had certainly been ordered to try and locate the British Prime Minister, and had spotted a portly middle-aged man smoking a cigar—a fair description of Chenhalls—boarding the plane.  Churchill stated on several occasions that he believed he was the true target of the attack.


A second theory was that Leslie Howard was the target—either because he was a prominent and patriotic Jewish actor who had been drumming up support for the war or the slightly more fantastic claim that Howard was actually a British agent who had been sent to Spain to convince Franco to not enter the war on the side of Germany.  The latter idea, though certainly romantic, has a couple of flaws:  If Franco were going to enter the war, he would have done it in 1940, not wait until the Russians were beginning to make substantial progress against Germany.  In any case, it would not have been necessary to send Howard:  British envoys were already in contact with Franco.


Years after the war, it was learned there actually had been a bonafide British agent on board the doomed flight.  Tyrrell Mildmay Shervington, was not only an oil executive, but he was also agent H.100 of the Special Operations Executive's Iberian operations.  Even so, while he might have made an attractive target, there is no evidence that Germany ever broke his cover.


The most likely explanation for the attack came from four of the pilots of the squadron of Ju-88 fighters that shot down the plane.  Years after the war, the pilots claimed that they had been sent to escort two U-boats returning to port.  Failing to find the subs, they started a general search and located the gray outline of the DC-3 flying low over the sea, barely discernible in morning haze.  Since the distinctive plane was definitely Allied, they attacked.  Only after the port engine and wing were ablaze did the pilots realize the plane was a civilian passenger flight and broke off the attack.  According to the pilots, three parachutes were seen, but since the chutes were on fire, they failed to open properly. 


No one will ever know for sure why the plane was shot down, but there is a little more to the story...a bizarre twist.  Pictured at right is the passenger list.  If you examine it, you will note that it does not include the name of Scottish actress Annette Sutherland and child, the wife and son of actor Raymond Burr (the actor famous for portraying “Perry Mason” in the fifties and sixties). 

Burr on several occasions related the story of his grief-stricken travel to Portugal during the war, hoping in vain to find some trace of his lost family.  It was part of the publicity CBS released while Burr acted in 271 episodes of the legal drama.


Annette Sutherland never actually existed, nor did her five-year old son:  both were part of an elaborate cover story invented by Raymond Burr (or possibly by his studio) to help disguise the fact that Burr was a homosexual.  This was, of course, long before the internet, making verification of his claim an almost impossible task for most people.  Burr’s cover story was evidently successful, for the deception was never exposed during his life.


One more little tidbit.  You probably don’t remember it, but you have likely seen the British actor Derek Partridge.  He was the guest star in ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, an episode of the original Star Trek television show.  If you are having trouble remembering it, this was the episode in which Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura—the first interracial kiss on American television (and something of a scandal at the time).  If you get a chance to rewatch the show, pay special attention to one of the aliens, Dionyd, played by Partridge.  Though he had a long acting career in England, you will probably remember him from now on as the seven-year-old boy Leslie Howard bumped from the flight that fateful morning in Lisbon.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Soapy Not Sudsy

Cable television has a newish movie out, Sudsy Smith and Something or Other—I can’t remember, I stopped watching after about ten minutes, the last five of which I spent wondering exactly what kind of head damage the director has suffered.  Surely, there was some point during the making of this turkey that someone sober watched a couple of minutes of daily rushes.


All of this was unnecessary, since creating some weak, fictionalized account of a make-believe Sudsy Smith, they should have just made a movie about the real-life Soapy Smith, one of the most creative and elusive con artists of the Wild West.


The son of a wealthy landowner who lost his fortune in the Civil War, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II became a specialist of the short con in Hell’s Half Acre, the wild red-light district of Fort Worth.  It is a matter of record that just about everyone of note in the West spent some time in the “Paris of the Prairies”.  Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short—everybody spent a little time in Panther City.  (Come to think of it, that includes the author.)


Slowly, Smith built up a gang of fellow bunco artists, card sharks, and grifters who didn’t specialize in just one con game like most grifters, and he gravitated to wherever the money was, creating new cons as he went.  Take, for example, the gold rush in Skagway.  Miners from everywhere rushed to the remote outpost and as they worked their claims, they were eager to send word to their families.  Smith opened up a telegraph office so the miners could send messages home.  If a response came, it was usually an emotional plea to “send money”, a service the telegraph office offered its clientele.


The sole problem (for the miners, anyway) was that those telegraph wires only went as far as the office walls—Skagway wasn’t actually connected to anywhere by telegraph for years.


Additionally, Smith and his gang were all con artists who specialized in short cons like the shell game, three card monte, and poker games where two or more players worked in tandem to snare an unsuspecting legitimate player.  Smith also collected expert pickpockets, muggers, and the occasional burglar.

The con that earned Soapy his nickname was his soap racket.  Soap would set up a table on a busy street corner, and begin wrapping bars of soap with blue tissue paper.  Inside with a few of the bars of soap, would be placed various bills of differing denominations, including a one hundred-dollar bill.  While wrapping the soap, the con man would give off a loud and entertaining spiel, gathering a crowd.  

Once the soap was all wrapped and shuffled around, Soapy would begin selling the bars for a dollar apiece.  Almost immediately, one of Soapy’s gang would purchase a bar and then loudly proclaim that he was a winner, prompting more sales.  When most of the pile of bars was gone, Soapy would suddenly announce that the big prize—the hundred-dollar bill—was still among the remaining bars.  Soapy would then divide the remaining bars into lots and auction them off to the highest bidder.  Naturally, if anyone other than one of Soapy’s gang actually won anything, it was a small prize.  The marks were left with just ordinary bars of soap that normally sold for a nickel. 


Smith and his gang made their way to Denver, where they set up a empire of crime, eventually bribing most of the city officials, including the fledgling police department.  Smith opened a combination gambling parlor and saloon called The Tivoli Club.  Smith only pretended to run honest games of chance, as a sign over the entrance proclaimed, “Caveat Emptor”. 


When a malcontent took Smith to court, claiming that he had been robbed in a dishonest game, Smith defended himself by claiming that his saloon was an institution of higher education, perfectly crafted to cure compulsive gamblers:


 “A gambler is one who teaches and illustrates the folly of avarice; he is a non-ordained preacher on the vagaries of fortune and how to make doubt a certainty.  He is one who, in his amusements, eliminates the element of chance; chance is merely the minister in his workshop of luck; money has no value except to back a good hand.”


After pointing out that the claimant had, under oath, claimed he had sworn never to gamble again, Smith was acquitted.


Next to the bar was a cigar store run by Soapy’s brother.  The store, of course, was a front for crooked poker games.  If you wandered the city, you could find other Smith enterprises that sold forged lottery tickets, stock brokerages that sold shares in nonexistent companies, bogus diamond auctions, and jewelry shops that sold knock-off watches. 


Eventually, Smith angered enough residents that complaints reached the governor, who was more or less forced to move in on the city.  This formed a pattern:  Smith would move into an area, take over the town’s illegal gambling operations, then eventually set up a criminal empire that would become so overtly corrupt that either outside authorities would arrive or a citizen’s vigilante mob would (lynch rope in hand) run Soapy out of town.


Just a few steps ahead of the state police, Smith ran from Denver to Creede, Colorado, where he charged people a dime to stare at the petrified remains of a ten-foot giant—actually a human skeleton carefully cut into sections and covered with cement.  From there, Smith fled back to Denver, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and briefly to St. Louis, before eventually ending up in Skagway in the midst of the Klondike Gold Rush. 


Despite all the legal problems Soapy was having, he somehow managed to find the time to offer Mexican President Porfirio Diaz the services of a “Foreign Legion” of American outlaws—for a price, of course—to help “support” his dictatorship.  When President Diaz didn’t accept the offer, Smith offered President William McKinley the services of the “Skagway Military Company” under the command of Captain Smith during the Spanish-American War.  Though the president extended official recognition of the unit, for some reason Captain Smith and his troops never served any official capacity other than a few parades in Skagway.


True to form, eventually the better citizens of Skagway formed a vigilante group, the Committee of 101.  Smith must have felt secure, because, instead of fleeing, he formed his own Committee of Public Safety, claiming 317 members.  When Smith heard the Committee of 101 was holding a meeting on the Juneau Wharf, he decided to confront the group.  When a guard stopped him, Smith argued with him, the argument turned into a gunfight, and both men were fatally wounded. 


Smith’s last words were, “My God!  Don’t Shoot!”  Evidently, Soapy realized a few seconds too late that you couldn’t con a Winchester.


It is a testament to the high regard the city held for the con man, that his grave was a few yards outside the local cemetery.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Pump

The day had started out fine.  When Ben had flown in from Florida, he had spent the day visiting local rock shops, seeking advice from the owners about the best places to begin his search for agates and geodes.


The southwestern deserts were some of best places on earth to search for the semiprecious stones, and since the vast majority of the lands were owned by the government, rock hounds—as Ben thought of himself—were free to search for the elusive treasures almost anywhere.  Ben had been looking forward to this vacation.


After making small purchases at each of the stores in an effort to win over the proprietors’ favor, Ben had asked about the best locations where he might hunt for his own geodes, carefully making notes and marking locations on a map he had brought with him for just this purpose.


While he got lots of advice, Ben also got a lot of warnings about venturing out into the desert.


“This is the wrong time of year to be heading out there,” said one man.  “Temperature is going to reach a hundred by noon, and there’s no water or shade to be found anywhere out there.  It’s gonna be like Hell’s sauna.”


“That’s okay,” Ben answered.  “I’m used to the heat.”  Where he was from in Florida, the summer temperature hit that high every day.


“Well, if you’re dead set on going, leave early and take a helluva lot of water.  And if you are hiking, remember that the desert floor can be 20 to 30 degrees hotter than what the thermometer says.  A man that sits down into that oven ain’t likely to stand back up.”


Ben thanked the man and drove his rental car to the motel for the night, eager to set out early the next morning.


Long before sunup, Ben set out, stopping only to buy a case of 12 oz. water bottles and a few snacks from Walmart and to get a tall chai tea at the local Starbucks.  By the time the sun was cresting above the horizon, Ben was far out of town and looking for the dirt road leading off the highway that would lead to the first site he wanted to check for geodes.


Finally, spotting the billboard he had been alerted to look for, Ben carefully eased the rental car onto the dirt road.  Ben wasn’t really happy with the choice of vehicle the rental agency had given him.  He had asked for a four-wheel drive vehicle, but the agency had interpreted that to mean a subcompact van-like car with all-wheel drive.  When he had complained, the agent had explained that it was a ‘crossover’, “combining the best features of town and sport driving”.  Though Ben wasn’t convinced, he finally accepted the vehicle since it was all the agency had available. 


Gingerly, Ben drove the miniature car over the rutted dirt road, frequently having to drive along the very edge to avoid deep potholes or jagged rocks.  Several times, the car bottomed out, scraping its undercarriage over a sandy bump in the road.  Starting to be thankful he had bought the full insurance coverage the car rental agency had offered, Ben was sure the little car would make the trip as long as he was careful and drove slowly.


Finally reaching the end of the miles-long dirt road, Ben loaded his backpack with half the snacks and six of the bottles of water.  Ben locked up the car and headed into the low hills in search of treasure.  Hours later, with the backpack now loaded with rocks, empty water bottles, and candy wrappers, Ben made his way exhaustedly back to the car, feeling lightheaded in the oven-like heat. 


As he emptied the pack of rocks into the back of the car, Ben thought to himself, “I don’t know if it’s the altitude or the lack of humidity, but this is not like Florida.  It’s too hot to breathe.”


Unlocking the car, Ben discovered the temperature inside the car was much hotter, far too hot to enter as the dark plastic upholstery of the car was too painful to even touch.  Worse, the extreme heat had caused most of the remaining water bottles, resting on the passenger seat, to burst.  Searching through the sodden mess, Ben discovered that only two water bottles remained intact. 


Ben’s troubles quickly doubled.  When he tried to start the car, nothing happened.  No matter how many times Ben tried, the car made no noise, no lights lit up on the dash, and the car resolutely refused to start.  For the rest of the day, Ben tried to clean the car’s battery cables, checked fuses, and tried repeatedly to start the car with no result.  Finally, long after the sun set, Ben gave up his attempts to start the car and fell asleep in the car seat.


Despite his exhaustion, it was difficult to sleep because of the cold desert night air.  Ben had not thought he would need a jacket during the summer, nor was there a blanket or any covering in the car.  Ben alternated with shivering in the car, and stamping in circles around the car trying to warm himself up with exercise. 


When the sun finally rose, Ben decided he had to do something.  He had tried to ration the remaining water, but only had one 12-ounce bottle left—not enough to survive another day waiting for people who didn’t know he was missing to start looking for him.  Doubting he would be rescued if he stayed with the car, Ben decided to walk directly towards the city he had left, reasoning that if he could climb a low rise in the distance, his cell phone might be able to pick up a signal.


Using his notebook, Ben left a detailed note in the car, then set off, hoping to travel as much as possible before the sun—and the heat of the day—rose higher.


Surprisingly, the desert was not as nearly flat as Ben had thought.  It seemed that he was almost constantly walking up stony hills followed by walking unsteadily in the soft sand that lay between the hills.  After several hours, Ben couldn’t see that he was any closer to the distant rise, but he could no longer see the car behind him.  Though he had surely covered several miles, his cell phone still couldn’t pick up a signal.


Ben had rationed the water well, taking only small sips when he thought the sun and the heat were making him lightheaded, but eventually, there were only a few sips of water left.  Exhausted, Ben remembered the words of the proprietor of the rock shop and was terrified of even resting for a minute by sitting in the hot desert sun. 


Too late, Ben realized that he should have stayed with the car, which was far more likely to be discovered than a single man walking across an endless desert.  He could have set fire to one of the car’s tires to attract attention, the car’s mirror could have been used to signal, and while the fluid in the radiator couldn’t be drunk, he could have used it to cool off.  All of these thoughts tormented Ben, since he knew he could never make it back to the car, even if he could spot it.


Looking off to the West, hoping to see the sun lower in the sky than it was, Ben suddenly saw the square outline of a small house.  Removing his hat and using his shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat and grit from his eyes, Ben took a hard look at the small structure, but all that was visible was the upper half of a frame building and the roof.  Ben immediately altered course and walked directly towards it.


Though the building looked like it was only a mile away, it took Ben the rest of the afternoon to reach it.  When he finally stumbled down the last sandy slope leading up to the building, Ben was disappointed to see that the building had long been abandoned.  One corner of the roof was collapsing inward and there were no windows and doors left.  Weeds were growing in the doorway of the small building. 

Then, Ben saw the small stock tank at the far end of the building.  Rushing over to it, he discovered that rusted metal tank was empty, but beside the tank was an old-fashioned water pump with its handle sticking straight up.  Sitting on the ground below the handle was a large glass bottle filled with what appeared to be water.


Carefully, Ben lifted the bottle and read the words on the label on one side of the bottle:


This bottle contains exactly one quart of water.  Use it to prime the pump, which works perfectly.  Use all of the water—it takes the entire bottle to prime the pump, any less and the pump will not work.  Please refill the bottle before you leave.


Ben stared at the words for a long time, trying to decide what to do.  There was more than enough water in the bottle to last for at least one—maybe two days.  But, Ben didn’t know where he was, or even which way he should walk.  On the other hand, if the pump worked, he could stay at the house until someone finally located him or the abandoned car.  But, if he poured the lifesaving water down the pump and it didn’t work—he would be stranded with no water. 


Ben didn’t know what to do.


Saturday, June 6, 2020

History 398

As if I really needed it, I have another stark reminder of my age:  a former student has asked me to advise his son about a degree in History.  What makes this worse is that it is not even the first time this has happened.


Naturally, my first thought was to tell the student to change majors.  I love studying history, and I have no complaints, but the honest truth is that there are far, far too many students getting liberal arts degrees who will never have jobs in their chosen fields.  The vast majority should be more practical and look for majors that will offer better chances of a decent career.


There’s even a simple test:  there is an inverse relationship between the number of math courses a major requires and the chances of receiving a paycheck above minimum wage.  If, as in the College of Education, the only math course required is a farcical course the faculty privately refers to as “Hooray for Numbers”—a course that Clever Hans the Counting Horse could pass—then perhaps you should change majors.

However, if the only thing in the world that will make you happy is to earn a degree in history, then go ahead and scratch that itch.  There are more important things than a paycheck.  Well, a few, anyway.


I had this conversation with the student, thinking that (since he was a freshman) he could easily contemplate a new major...only to learn it was too late:  he was a senior, close to graduating!   He only wanted advice about a specific course, History 398, which was required by the department for a history degree.


Immediately, I understood the problem:  I had taken that course myself, and can only compare it to attending a Mexican bullfight while tripping on LSD. 


To be fair, this is one of the few courses in the department that I have never taught, and it has been a while since I took the course, so maybe it has improved?   Maybe.  Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that there is a general trend in life that when something truly sucks, the people who have the power to change it generally refuse to do so.  “I had to do it, and I got through it, so these students can do it, too.”


History 398 is a course on Historiography—that is, the study of the best ways to interpret historical sources and the ways history is written, as well as the history of the changing paradigms of historical theory.  (At least, that was what the course was supposed to be).  When I took it, it was a series of strange disjointed lectures by emeritus faculty, a few of whom were a little past their sell by date.


The only professor teaching this course was….well….a jackass, with whom I had previously had a  less than happy experience.  We didn’t like each other, and he didn’t want me in his class any more than I wanted to be in it, but since the damn course was required, we put up with each other.  (Come to think of it, after this old-woman-in-pants retired, he opened up a private research business and proudly sent one of his new business cards to the department.  When I discovered the card tacked to the department bulletin board, I used a red pen to correct the spelling errors on the card, gave it a grade of D, and mailed it back to him.)


One particular guest lecturer droned on for two hours straight, seldom finishing a sentence with the same topic on which he had started.  In his prime, this professor had been a real firebrand who had led student protests against the war in Vietnam, had staged sit-ins at the Administration Building, and had been arrested numerous times at demonstrations.  That particular day however, his talk was borderline incoherent and put the audience to sleep.  Literally.  This is the only class I have ever heard of in which the professor fell asleep. 


This didn’t stop the speaker, who went on with his lecture, bouncing from one topic to another so fast it was difficult at any given point to determine what he was talking about.  A tiny little man with a wild head of long white hair, he seemed to bounce as he talked, waving his arms in the air while pouring out a steady stream of dates, events, and ideas that just didn’t seem to connect in any meaningful way.   Suddenly, he made a reference to a man sleeping with a Nazi spy while living in London:  a brief statement that caught my attention, so I inadvertently spoke out loud.


“JFK,” I said, pleased that I had finally deciphered something the man was saying.


“Ah!” the speaker said, obviously pleased that someone in the room had finally responded.  He stopped and pointed a finger at me.  “I see you have heard of Jack the Zipper!”


My laughter woke up the professor, which I still think was one of the all-time great moments in education!


The major requirement for the class was an extensive research paper on an assigned topic.  Students spent the entire semester researching and writing the paper, which formed the sole grade for the class.  Depending on the topic assigned, this could make the experience either enjoyable, or, as it was in my case, an absolute living hell.


The professor was obsessed with the multivolume set of slave narratives published during the depression by the Works Project Administration.  During the Great Depression, so many people were out of work that the government created jobs for people, and (inevitably), some of those jobs were of questionable value, prompting some people to say that WPA actually stood for We Piddle Around.  Someone in Washington noticed that the population of living ex-slaves was dying off at a rapid rate, so the government hired people to interview the surviving elderly freed slaves and record their experiences, eventually publishing ten thousand pages of interviews.


Far from being the historical treasure trove that you might imagine, the multi-volume set of books have always been a questionable source of information.  First, the former slaves were interviewed 70 years after the events they were describing, and everyone interviewed was at an advanced age and so, frequently not in very good physical condition.  Those interviewed had no incentive to provide accurate or detailed history.


Additionally, the WPA workers were white, were usually Southern, and were frequently interviewing former slaves who were now living as sharecroppers on the plantations where they had once been slaves.  You can just imagine an interview:


“How did your master treat you?” asks the suspicious white government employee.


The former slave thinks to herself, “Well, that evil bastard raped me, worked me half to death, and sold our children down the river so I never saw them again.”  That might be going through her head, but she answers, “He was okay, didn’t treat us too bad.”


The WPA interviewer nods her head, and writes down, “Our master was wonderful to us.  He always treated us like family.”  Later, other southern white people typed up the documents, editing them still again.


Collectively, the slave narratives, as historical documents, are fairly worthless and are about as fun to read as the Hong Kong phone book.


The professor assigned each of us a specific topic—I think mine was slave music—and mandated that our sole source for the paper was to be the Slave Narratives.  I read thousands and thousands of pages of highly censored and suspect testimony.  I had to wade through more than a hundred pages just to find a single brief reference to music that allowed me to finally make a brief note before I started reading again. 


I read those damn narratives for months (that seemed like years) and, after a while, it began to warp my brain.  Long before that paper was finished, I started having nightmares about life on the plantation, where I was the evil slave master.  If I had been forced to read those damn narratives for another semester, I might have been forced to do something truly desperate—like change my major to education.


My eventual paper was some forty-odd pages long, not counting the footnotes.  I sincerely doubt the professor did more than weigh it in his hand before awarding me an ‘A-‘.  I never picked up the paper and did not keep a copy. 


No, I didn’t tell the student any of that.  I just told him to start work on his paper as soon as possible and to try to work on it as often as possible.  If I had told him the truth, he probably would have changed his major to sociology, and that’s even farther downhill than education.


By the way, If you would like to read a few pages of those slave narratives, in the intervening years since I was forced to read them, they have all been put online—you can download all 34 volumes.  Have fun.