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

Hail…Vercingetorix?

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."

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Pancho Villa’s Last Battle

It is always surprising how few Americans know anything about the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.  Those turbulent years saw more than a million Mexicans die, and roughly another quarter million seek refuge in the United States.

Let’s put that another way.  The American Civil War is the most violent war America has ever fought, creating more casualties than all its other wars, from the American Revolution to the Korean War, combined.   If we adjust for population, the Mexican Revolution produced more than six times the casualties!  And many of those battles were right on our doorstep—literally within sight of American homes.

Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso lies the city of Juarez.  In many ways, this was where the revolution really started—the capture of the city by the forces of  future President Madero collapsed the decades-old dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Eight years later, the last great battle of Pancho Villa spelled the end of the revolution and the beginning of the end for the bandit rebel.

Pancho Villa, the larger than life bandit turned Revolutionary General, at one time had amassed the most powerful army in Mexico, occupying Mexico City and most of the country.  However, by 1916, his army of fewer than 300 men had attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus and spent the next year in flight through the rugged territory of Northern Mexico as he was chased by an invading American Army.  While the Punitive Expedition led by General Blackjack Pershing never caught the elusive Villa, it had so greatly diminished Villa's army that he was desperate to make a move that would revitalize his revolution.

During 1917 and 1918, Villa had skirmished around Northern Mexico, until he finally gathered four thousand men and was ready for one last attack—And he returned to the scene of his biggest triumphs, Juarez.   Villa knew that if his revolution was to have a chance, he had to hold a border town where he would have access to supplies.

Finally, in June, 1919, General Villa began the attack on the border town.  On June 12, Villa and his troops moved into Zaragoza, a village just 12 miles east of Juarez.  There, they stopped and prepared for the attack.  The Federal forces, under General Gonzales, knew exactly where Villa was located and instead of attacking, sent a female spy to interrogate the bandit chieftain.

Most of the tall tales you hear about Pancho Villa are simply not true:  they were made up  (usually by Villa himself) to manipulate the press.  Villa (like a few Texans I know) seldom told a story the same way twice, and a good part of his reputation was a curious mixture of bullshit and bravado.  Take for example, the general view that Villa was a renowned consumer of tequila.   This was simply not true—Villa did not drink:  his secret vice was ice cream.  The photo at right shows the guerrilla general (seated on the left) and his men eating banana splits at the Elite Confectionery in El Paso.

On the other hand, almost all the stories about Villa and women are true, so  sending a woman into Villa’s camp showed cunning on the part of the Federals.  The spy was quickly captured, but she was not executed—a rarity in a war where quarter was rarely given.  Instead, she was sent back to the Federal lines with a message from Villa that the Federal troops were to surrender. 

General Gonzales wired President Carranza in Mexico City that he needed reinforcements, then abandoned Juarez and took refuge in Fort Hidalgo, located just outside the border city.  Since there was little difference between the ragtag uniforms his men were wearing and those of the Villistas, Gonzales ordered his men to tie a strip of red cloth around their hats.

Villa, atop a prancing white horse, addressed his troops with a speech that was equal parts anti-Carranza and anti-USA.  He then led his troops to the racetrack on the east side of the city.  The Federal garrison at Fort Guadalupe began firing its entire artillery battery—a single one-pounder cannon.  What the troops lacked in accuracy, they made up in enthusiasm.

Villa rode unharmed under the poorly aimed shells.  One cannonball did accidentally find its way to the racetrack as you can see from the round hole in the dome of one of the racetrack spires.

At midnight, Villa’s forces began the assault on the Federal trenches.  Federal Colonel Francisco Del Arco later reported that, at first, his machine guns stopped the advance of the Villistas.

Until, that is, Villa diverted the waters of an irrigation ditch into the Federal trench.  With water up to their hips, Del Arco’s men still struggled to repulse another charge by Villa’s men—But that was just part of Villa’s plan.

Close to the trenches was an electric trolley car line.  Villa's men cut the electric line and tossed it into the water.  As Del Arco later said, "Suddenly, I felt as if a thousand needles were sticking into my body and I saw my men doubling up as if with cramps."

Some of the federal forces died while the more fortunate fought back even as they screamed in pain.   Somehow, Del Arco is able to supervise the digging of a trench to divert the water once again.

Then, Villa launched his main assault.

The Villistas began hurling home-made bombs into the lines.  These were small leather bags filled with dynamite and an assortment of nails, cut horseshoes, bolts, and rocks and hundreds of them were thrown into the federal trenches.  After 3 hours of being shot at, flooded, electrocuted, and blown up, Del Arco's men withdrew back to the safety of Fort Hidalgo.

This left the city open to the Villista forces, who stormed into the town…and took a break.  While Prohibition in the US started in 1920, in El Paso and the rest of Texas, Prohibition started in 1918.  As the saloons had closed in El Paso, they opened up in Juarez.  And as the bars reopened just across the bridge in Juarez, they brought the slot machines, roulette and Keno tables that Texas lawmen had begun to frown on.

As soon as the Villistas discovered such gambling dens as The Trivas, Bagdad, Big Kid, the Palace, Central, and the Mint…well...fighting is dry work and a man could build up a powerful thirst.  The fact that a few of these establishments offered entertainment of a personal and feminine nature was also noted.  Every good battle needs a recess. 

Meanwhile, General Gonzales discovered that the Villistas were trying to infiltrate Federal lines, so he ordered his troops to change from a red to a blue hatband.  (Get your program!  You can’t tell the soldiers without a program!)

Finally, the Federals were ready to counter attack.  Colonel Escobar gathered his men together and rode back and forth on his black horse in front of them, urging them to follow him as they surged forward on their mission to sweep the Villista scum out of Jauarez…

Naturally, as soon as this attack started, Escobar was shot in the chest.  A hundred years earlier, you could have led men on horseback while waving a sword.  But, even in Mexico, this was the 20th century. 

Escobar’s furious troopers ran off the last of the Villistas who weren't otherwise occupied in the various bars and other assorted playhouses and  the Villistas retreated, they opened the cells of the city jail, releasing hundreds of criminals.

The Federal troops put the wounded Escobar back on his horse and led him to the international bridge where the waiting American army ambulance took him to a hospital.

By now, the Villistas—many of them rested and thoroughly relaxed (sated might be a better word)—were returning back to the fight in the center of the city.  As the sun set, the fighting was getting worse, and a lot of the firing seemed to be directed toward El Paso.

American Brigadier General James Erwin had established a headquarters on the tenth floor of the Mills Building in downtown El Paso, from which vantage point he had an excellent view.  For over a month, he had held orders to protect El Paso, even giving him the option of crossing over into Mexico at his discretion—and those orders specifically mentioned the option of driving Villa away.

General Erwin had more than enough troops to accomplish this mission and this was not the same army that had ineffectually chased Villa across Northern Mexico:  the veteran army had just returned home from France.

Erwin placed his men along the border, with machine guns in place to guard the bridges.  Four batteries of artillery were set up at the Union stock yards, which were rapid-firing 75-mm cannon that could fire a 3-inch explosive shell anywhere in Juarez city.  A searchlight battery was also set up on top of the El Paso High School.  With all these preparations, General Erwin was ready for anything.

Reports of casualties on the American side of the border soon started to flow in:  stray  rounds were hitting civilians, including at least one child in her own home.  A few American soldiers had been wounded—perhaps intentionally—along the border, as well

General Erwin sent his chief of staff to the stockyards to see if the sniper fire that had just killed two soldiers was coming from Villa’s men or the Federal troops.  There was only one way to find out, so he climbed to the roof of a building just opposite the rebel forces and he was shot at:  the forces of General Pancho Villa were firing at Americans.

Note.  To be fair, many of the Americans deserved it.  Hundreds of spectators ran to the border and climbed on top of boxcars to watch the spectacle.  Pretend you are a Mexican soldier fighting for your life and as you take cover behind a brick wall and reload your rifle, you notice just to the east,  pendejo gringos (Spanish for nice guys) watching you like you were in a bullring.  Wouldn't you shoot at them?

General Erwin immediately decided to invade Mexico again, and sent a messenger over to tell Gonzales to get out of the way.  (The US has invaded Mexico so often that it is amazing they don’t move further away.  This could be the real reason Trump might be able to get them to pay for that wall.)

The 24th Infantry Regiment gathered behind two armored cars and began the assault across the bridge.  At the same time, the Second Cavalry Brigade prepared to swim the river 12 miles south of Juarez. 

Trumpets sounded Boots and Saddles, the troopers drew three days rations and ammo and then they gathered at the border under the command of Colonel Selah H.R. “Tommy” Tompkins, the senior colonel of the 7th cavalry (George Armstrong Custer's old unit)

Colonel Tompkins had been at Wounded Knee in 1890, he had battled the Apache in Arizona, had been to Cuba with Roosevelt, had fought in the Philippines with General MacArthur, and had chased Villa through Mexico with Pershing.  The man was legendary for his fighting, his drinking, and (above all else) his language.

He had once occupied a reviewing stand with President Taft as his cavalry paraded past.  When Taft made an innocent remark that the troops were “Fine men”, the cavalry officer had replied, “You bet your ass they are.”

Tommy Tompkins had flair—part of which was his long, bushy, forked, and pink beard—but  most of it was in his attitude.

General Erwin planned to crush Villa in a giant pincer movement as his 3600 troops sprang into action.  The infantry was to cross the bridges, clear out the downtown area, then wheel east toward the race track, thus driving the Villistas in front of them.  Ten miles south, Colonel Tommy Tompkins and his cavalry, having already crossed the border, would head west and wait in ambush.

As Erwin ordered start of the pre-dawn attack, battery A fired high explosive shells while battery B fired shrapnel rounds.  Both batteries fired 30 rounds each into the racetrack, which was the assembly point of Villa's army.

This was far different from the ineffective federal artillery.  Almost immediately, The racetrack began to look like a slaughterhouse.  One of the first rounds spectacularly blew up the water tower.  It took Villa about a minute to size up the new situation, and then he rode away and was not seen again on the battlefield.

Behind the two machine-gun-equipped armored cars, the infantry with fixed bayonets spread into Juarez.  These units were followed by motorized heavy machine-gun companies.  As the troops advanced, the signal corps strung communication wire, keeping the men in telephone contact with General Erwin.  Every officer carried a flare gun, and progress of the American forces could clearly be seen as they spread through the Mexican city by the glow of the green aerial flares.

At this point, a Federal officer joined the US troops informing them that the Federal army, in addition to the blue hatband, had now rolled up the left trouser leg and both shirt sleeves.  Anyone else who was armed was fair game.

As the Americans moved up, exhausted Federal troops who had been fighting for 36 hours retreated, their positions being taken by American troops.  And just as steadily, the Villistas fled the city.

Meanwhile, twelve miles south of the city, Tompkins had crossed the river and was approaching the town from the south.  Finally, Tompkins learned that the Villistas were gathered in the Zaragoza Church, just 5 miles ahead of his forces.

Before the Americans crossed the Rio Grande, a superior office had cautioned Tompkins that this was no time for him to be creative—that this attack should be done “by the book.”  As his forces gathered in the predawn darkness waiting word that Villa’s forces were coming, one junior officer reminded Tompkins that “the book” specified that before an attack, there should be a map briefing for the officers.  Unfortunately, no one had a map of Mexico—actually, they hadn’t brought a map of anything

Finally, one of the officers located a map in his saddle bag—an old map he was using to write an article about the Civil War.  Eager to comply with “the book”, Tompkins gathered his officers around a map of Gettysburg and talked at length about the positions of Union Artillery the morning of July 3, 1863.

The formalities attended to, Colonel Tompkins positioned the 5th Cavalry to the right flank and the 7th to the center and left.  Along a three mile front, Tompkins addressed his troops in the dim predawn light, then he raised his hand high, and for one of the last times in the history of the United States Cavalry, screamed, "Charge!"

Tommy really should have gotten a better map.  In the dark, the whole bunch galloped into a series of parallel irrigation canals, so the whole attack was a fiasco of falling and crashing horses.  Tompkins then ordered his men to fight on foot, and using their Springfield rifles, the soldiers all but destroyed the fleeing Villistas.

Eventually, elements of the 5th Cavalry found a bridge across the ditches and chased the remnants of Villas army for fifteen miles.

The cavalry losses were mostly minor wounds.  Altogether, the US had two dead, eight wounded, and had lost forty horses.  The Federals claimed to have lost fifty men, and estimates for Villa’s losses ranged from 500 to a thousand.  Tompkins noted that the path of his army’s retreat was littered with hundreds of bodies.

More important, Villa had lost any hope of seizing power in Mexico.  While he attempted one more small attack against a Mexican town, even Pancho Villa knew he was defeated.  Within months, he accepted a pardon and spent the rest of his life on his hacienda in Parral.

Juarez was angry at the US for a while:  On Monday, when the repair crew from El Paso's electric railroad company went to Juarez to fix the broken electric cable, they were stoned by the Juarez citizens until they fled.  By Tuesday, the bars were open again and the trolley system the two towns shared was bringing Americans looking for a good time across the border in a steady stream.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Fork-Tailed Devil

Because of its climate, New Mexico is considered a flying paradise.  We have on average 300+ VFR (visual flight rules) flight days a year here.  Wide open spaces, few controlled air spaces (except for White Sands) and several left over large WW2 runways provide lots of room for flying adventure.  Add the lack of any appreciable moisture and it is easy to see why the state has a higher ratio of planes to people than almost any other state. 

It helps a little that New Mexico does not charge an ad valorem tax on aircraft—one of the few tax laws New Mexico gets right.  Lots of California companies keep their corporate jets in New Mexico—the cost of flying back and forth to California is less than the property taxes that would be levied if the planes were kept on the west coast.

We have a lot of aging old warbirds hangared here, too.  The Commemorative Air Force (formerly the Confederate Air Force) has quite a few museum quality planes based in our county, one of which is a P-38 Lightning.  Painted completely black, it doesn't fly much, but is in great condition.

Occasionally, however, the museum people do take that hangared "dragon" out of the museum and let it stretch the kinks out of its wings…

So there I was one fine day, cruising along at 5500 feet, flying a 4-seater Cessna—number 738UF to be exact—turning downwind for a landing on runway 26.  (Or, as a flight instructor used to say, “Nothing between me and the ground but a thin blonde...”) 

The wind in Las Cruces is nearly always from the west, and runway 26 means 260 degrees, almost perfectly east/west.  I have made that landing, at that airport, on that runway, hundreds of times.  Unlike at "big city" airports, there is no control tower, so pilots self-announce on a common radio frequency called "Unicom". 

Picking up the microphone, I thumbed the button and announced, "Las Cruces traffic, Cessna 738 Uniform Foxtrot, a Cessna 172, turning base on runway 26, full stop, Las Cruces."

What I had done was to announce to other planes in the area that I was a small plane about 1000 feet above and slightly south of the airport where I intended to land and not take off again (as opposed to a popular practice called a “touch-n-go”, a maneuver that pilots use to practice landings and maintain their proficiency.)

The traffic pattern is a large imaginary rectangle, roughly a thousand feet above the runway.  You enter the pattern—usually, by making a right turn into downwind (the long arm of the rectangle parallel to the runway that you are going to land on).  By the time you turn to base, you should have the plane fairly well trimmed up to land.  As I do this, I mentally go through the time honored GUMPS check.

GUMPS is an acronym for a safety checklist before landing:

Gas—The fuel tank selection is on "Both", and carburetor heat is on.  This is no time to have the engine conk out, as the plane would be too low to recover.  Undercarriage—They say that every pilot, sooner or later, will land with the wheels up.  I don't believe this, if for no other reason than it costs a lot more to rent an airplane with retractable gear.  The particular plane I was in that day had fixed gear, but I glanced out the window to see the left wheel—and, well, I had at least one wheel...  Mixture—The air/fuel mixture should be "full rich".  Propeller—The plane did not have a variable prop, but nevertheless I dutifully checked to see that it was still there.  Seat Belts—Well, I had put it on before I took off, and I damn sure hadn't left the cabin, so it was still on (but I tightened it just a little, to be sure). 

So, I was good for a perfect landing!  When I turned final, the plane would continue its descent to just past "the numbers" onto the beginning of a very long runway.  (Long enough that I could have landed, taken off...and landed again!  Trust me, I've done that, and so has every other pilot who regularly flies out of that airport.)

So, I was going to just drift down to the runway, pull the power, and try to just hold the nose of the plane off the ground as long as possible and just "grease the wheels..."  And then, I heard...

"Las Cruces traffic, this is X-Ray 123 Tango Lima, a Lockheed P-38, on extended final to runway 26, full stop behind the Cessna, in sight.  Las Cruces."

That meant that somewhere east of me (and not that far away) was a P-38 (THE P-38, since there is only one in the south half of the state!)—coming straight in for a landing.  He was not going to enter the pattern, but was going to make a long straight approach to the runway.   This was okay, since it is not a controlled field, and many pilots, especially those flying commercial planes, elect to do this in order to save fuel.  While it's not exactly recommended, every pilot—including me—has done it.

I thought, "There is a P-38 going to land at my airport!  And I am going to miss seeing it land, since there is no rear visibility in a Cessna!"  Even if I hadn't been a little busy (first rule in aviation:  Fly the plane.  Fly the plane.  Fly the plane.), there is no way to see through your own tail.

"Las Cruces traffic.  738 Uniform Foxtrot declaring a missed approach, proceeding upwind runway 26, full stop.  Las Cruces."—That was my next communication with the other air traffic.

No longer landing, I pushed the throttle back in and as the plane responded and began to climb, I began to raise the flaps.  As soon as the plane had regained a little altitude, I turned crosswind—a little too early (it's an uncontrolled field, after all), and shortly afterwards used the radio to announce that I was going to re-enter the downwind pattern, (also just a little too soon). 

I was now facing the approaching fighter plane, but to the south of, and several hundred feet above, the aging war bird.  And there it was, a spectacular twin-engine Lockheed fighter plane, a few hundred feet lower and just north and east of my position.  She was sexy enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

Of all the places to watch a P-38 make a perfect landing, the best place is from the air...and it was!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Trip of a Lifetime

The two old ranchers were working in the barn, watching the aoudad munching on grass out on the point overlooking the swollen Brazos River.  Texas never does anything in moderation—as witnessed by the multi-year long drought ending with a flood that had sent the river up over its banks.

Kent reached over to take the can of oil Mike was handing him when he noticed a peculiar white scar on the back of the old rancher's left hand. 

"How’d you get that weird scar on the back of your hand?" Kent asked.

"You want the truth or a good story?" 

"Hell, I never heard any good true stories."

"An Apache Indian stabbed me," Mike answered.

"Okay, now tell me the truth."

"An Apache Indian stabbed me."

Kent put the can of oil back on the workbench and stared at his friend.  "There are no Apache in Texas, and hasn’t been since before your father was born," he said firmly.

"I know that," Mike said"Never said it happened in Texas.  It was in New Mexico.  You can’t just open up the book of my life and start on any fool page and expect it to make sense.  You have to know the whole story."

"Aw’ right, tell me the whole damn story, but I reserve the right to call bullshit on you."

Well," Mike said. "It started with a hunting trip almost 50 years ago.  I was just a teenager on the loose with a nice truck and…"

It was about as cold as bus station stew, and the snow was falling steadily, building up in the drifts between the pine trees to over three feet, and as the sun set, the temperature was dropping rapidly.  Mike was in trouble, and he knew he had to make a decision soon, because the longer he took, the choices remaining open to him narrowed. 

Looking back, this whole hunting trip had started great—a chance to hunt elk on the Mescalero reservation didn’t come along very often.  His father had been offered a cow permit as payment on a debt that he was otherwise unlikely to collect, and when his father could not get away, Mike had eagerly jumped on the chance to take his place.  As a Texas boy, the chance to hunt elk in New Mexico was too tempting to pass up—there were no elk anywhere near the Brazos River, and the average cow elk was more than twice the size of any of the white tail deer he had ever brought down. 

Even the idea of hunting on an Apache Reservation was the most exciting thing he had ever done.  Unfortunately, ever since he had left Palo Pinto County, things had started to go wrong.  Most of the problems had been connected to his ‘63 Ford pickup.  While Mike loved the truck—he hated the damn three-speed column shift. 

He had no idea why Ford had moved the stick shift from the floor, where it belonged, to up on the steering column, but every time he stopped the truck, the stupid linkages locked.  This meant that he had to crawl under the truck and pop the linkages on the transmission back into position.  This wasn't too bad while driving across the Panhandle of Texas, but as soon as he passed Roswell, New Mexico, there was cold wet snow on the side of the road.  Now, he had the heater on full blast trying to dry out his coat, while driving in his shirt sleeves. 

Mike liked the heavy Ford:  he liked the steady straight six cylinder engine...he liked everything about the truck—except that damn shift lever mounted on the steering wheel.  He swore that he would never again buy a truck that didn’t have the stick shift on the floor where it belonged.

Worse yet, he had started having electrical problems:  the lights kept dimming and the starter motor seemed to hesitate every time he restarted the engine.  Shortly after midnight, he pulled over into the deserted parking lot of the Ruidoso racetrack for a nap in the cab of the truck.  By dawn, despite all the blankets he had brought, he was shivering with cold.  As soon as there was light enough to see what he was doing, he dropped the tailgate of the truck and fired up the two burner Coleman stove to make coffee. 

As the water heated, he removed the battery cable, cursing a blue streak when the wrench slipped and caused him to bark his knuckles on the ice-cold battery mount.  Then he began the task of cleaning the battery terminals.  Lacking a brush, he scraped them with his pocket knife, then cleaned them with an old t-shirt soaked in Coca Cola until they were as clean as he could make them. 

After he had reattached the battery terminals, it was time for breakfast.  Digging through the box of food he had brought, he selected a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, removed the lid, and put it on the Coleman stove with the blue flame set as low as it would go and still stay lit.  He actually only had three choices for every meal:  Wolf Brand Chili, Ranch Style Beans, or Dinty Moore Stew.  He preferred the chili, but was rationing that to one can a day.

He should have had enough money to stay in a nice motel and eat a real meal, but at the last moment before leaving, he had given in to temptation and had replaced his aging ’03 Springfield rifle with a second-hand Winchester Model 70.  He had originally purchased the Springfield from Sears and Roebuck for $24.95—having to pass up the optional Monte Carlo stock because he lacked the extra $12.  While the aging weapon dated from the first World War, it had proven to still be incredibly accurate, so he didn’t really need the new rifle….but it was a pre-64 model in .30-06, the same caliber as his old Springfield.  The temptation had proven too strong to resist and now Mike—temporarily impoverished—would be sleeping in his truck and eating out of cans for the duration of the trip.

As soon as the sun was up, Mike cleaned up and made his way to the address he had been given on the reservation to pick up his guide.  The house he was looking for was on Highway 70 just past Apache Summit.  Outsiders weren’t allowed to hunt on the reservation without a guide, and Mike was hoping that his guide would be an experienced hunter—a lifelong resident of the mountain forest that made up the reservation.  Unfortunately, when Mike finally found the house, he was a little disappointed to discover that his guide was a 15 year-old Native American named Janet, who knew the reservation's dirt roads and trails, but knew very little about hunting.

The next several hours of hunting turned out to be fruitless, as they had driven all over remote parts of the reservation, had stopped frequently to look for signs of elk—but to no avail.  Eventually, in a last ditch effort to find an elk before the sun set, they had driven up the side of Sierra Blanca, up a trail that according to a sign would lead to “Cow Camp 3".

As the sun set, Mike and Janet decided it was time to turn the truck around and slowly make their way down off the mountain.  Even as Mike turned the truck around, the snow had started to fall again, so Mike switched on the truck’s headlights.  Almost immediately, the glow from the lights started to dim, which was soon followed by the truck’s engine suddenly quitting. 

As Mike tried unsuccessfully to restart the truck, he realized that what he had thought was a problem of corroded battery cables was actually a dying generator.  Unfortunately, the realization came a little late.

This was why Mike was forced to make that decision pretty quickly.  The temperature was dropping fast, and the snow was still coming down.  He doubted (and Janet confirmed his doubt) that anyone knew where they were hunting, so that help was unlikely to find them anytime soon.  They could either spend a miserable night in the freezing truck, or they could try to walk out.

The best Mike could figure, they were about two miles east of Highway 70 as the crow flies, (Janet had told them the Apache referred to the crows as “Air Dogs”), and more than five miles from the highway if they tried to stay on the twisting dirt trails they had used coming up the mountain. 

To Mike, it seemed that the best method would be to walk out, heading due east until they hit the highway.  Heading out cross-country would be a harder journey, but they could not help but eventually hit the highway.  If they tried to follow the dirt roads back, it would be far too easy to take a wrong turn and wander around endlessly in the wilderness area.  With the snow coming down, the tracks his truck had left coming up the mountain would disappear soon.

Besides, Mike thought, Janet was an Apache, born on the reservation, raised to live in harmony with nature:  she should be perfectly at home in the forest and all he had to do was follow her down the mountain.  Hell, this would be an adventure that he could tell his future kids about…

Mike stopped telling Kent the story and went to refill his coffee cup.  The aoudad outside the barn saw him moving through the open barn door and started to disappear over the rim of the point.

“That’s it?” Kent said.  “You’re going to stop there?  With your Indian guide leading you down a dark mountain in a snowstorm?  What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Mike said.  “It turned out Janet knew less about that mountain than anyone on the reservation.  If I had let her pick the path, we’d still be circling that Ford truck.  That was the clumsiest woman I ever met—she must have tripped over every branch and rock all the way down that mountain.  I spent the better part of the night picking her up all the times she face-planted herself in the snow.”

“Then what happened?”

“Her uncle gave me a ride into town where I bought a rebuilt generator, we used jumper cables to start the Ford, and I drove down the mountain,” Mike said.

“What the hell has any of this got to do with that scar on your hand” Kent asked.

“Well, later that day, Janet guided me to a new spot, where I finally shot an elk.   When she tried to help me field dress the elk before I loaded it into the back of the truck, she tripped and stabbed me in the hand.”

“Why the hell didn’t you just say that?  All I wanted to know was how you got the damn scar!” Kent said.

“Nope,” Mike answered.  “You said you wanted a story.  You got one!—I told you the parts I remembered best.”

“Did any of those parts happen to be true?”

“Every damn word,” Mike said.  “Give or take a lie or two.”