Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Goose of Thanksgiving Past

I had a half dozen semi-historical blog ideas for this week, I even had one blood-thirsty Western story about yet another beheading, but—much like my students—I'm a little tired of history right now.  It is the end of the semester, and my students' brains are full.  If I were to reveal the location of the Lost Dutchman's mine or a cure for cancer....well, I'm not sure anyone would listen.

Today was the last day of class until the week after the Thanksgiving break.  The school doesn't call it that, of course:  Enema U refers to it as "The Fall Break."  This clever ruse completely fools whichever group might be offended by using the traditional name.   No, for the last few days, just about all anyone could think of was the impending break, so I thought I might join them and write about my first Thanksgiving with The Doc, my wife.

Now that I think about it, she wasn't actually 'The Doc' yet.  I guess I'll have to call her "Pre-Med."

In any case, we were going to the University of Houston and had a large apartment in a run-down section of town between the Hughes Tool Company and the Maxwell House Coffee plant.  We could hear one and smell the other all night long.  We didn't really mind either of the two industrial plants except for one small detail.  Once a month in the middle of the night, the coffee plant would switch over from producing coffee to producing hot chocolate mix.  The entire neighborhood would wake up at the same time with an irresistible urge for a candy bar.

Our apartment was a fourth of an old large home that had seen better days.  Half a century earlier, this had been a great neighborhood, but while we lived there our neighbor had a sign out front that claimed she could read palms and predict the future.  She must not have been very good at it since she seemed quite surprised when the police arrested her one day for selling stolen goods from her semi-permanent garage sale.

While our apartment was old, it did have wonderful hard wood floors.  Pre-Med and I used to get down on our hands and knees to apply the thick Johnson's Paste Wax.  It took forever, but it gave a great shine.  I can admit that part of the attraction was that by the time the floor was polished, our cats' paws would end up being a solid block of floor wax.  It was hilarious to watch the cats spinning out of control as they tried to run through the house.

That year, we decided to cook a goose for Thanksgiving.  Neither of us knew how to do this, but we figured it couldn't have been that hard.  If Charles Dickens could do it in damn near every one of his books, we figured we could do it.

Looking back, we should NOT have tried!  Evidently, a ten-pound goose contains enough goose fat to produce ten gallons of goose oil.  I had mistakenly placed the goose in a turkey roasting pan, ignorant of the fact that the proper size metal container for cooking a goose was the Exxon Valdez.  Cooking a goose is something that should be avoided like unprotected sex with an Ethiopian transvestite.

During cooking, hot goose grease poured over the side of the roasting pan destroying everything that it touched.  It was kind of like hot molten lava, except it smelled great.  It pretty well killed that oven and several plastic floor tiles.

Sadly, Pre-Med and I decided that we weren't great fans of goose.  We ate it, but....well, it was a little greasy.  Most of it went into the refrigerator for endless rounds of leftovers.  The only fun part of the meal was that we split a bottle of Mateus Rosé wine.  Remember Mateus and Lancer's wine?  These were the wines of the 1970's.  I haven't seen a bottle in 40 years.  (Perhaps this is because Saddam Hussein was hooked on the stuff and had stockpiled warehouses of the stuff in Iraq.  There is a persistent rumor that when the soldiers found him hiding in his spider hole, he was clutching a bottle of Mateus.)

The next day, Pre-Med dragged me screaming and crying to the local church for a concert of holiday music.  I do not like church music.  It was just barely passable before my wife informed me that I had all of the titles and most of words wrong.  The hymn was much more fun when I thought the title was "Our Lord is a Shoving Leopard."  Now, the only possible enjoyment is waiting for the part of Handel's Messiah where the whole choir sings, "Oh, We Like Sheep!"  My wife always elbows me in the ribs every time I go "Baaa!  Baaa!"

After a couple of eons, the concert was over and we returned home.  To a disaster!  While we were gone, our cats had figured out how to liberate the goose remains from the kitchen refrigerator.  Evidently, (despite their lack of opposable thumbs) they had enough dexterity in their little, waxed paws to open the fridge, to remove the saran wrap, and to pull out the goose—but NOT to be able to hold the carcass still long enough to actually eat the bird.

So, they had played soccer with it all over the house.  The floor of the entire house was a greasy, nasty, goosey mess.  We just stood in the doorway and cried like Baptists at a funeral.

You don't really clean up goose fat—you just keep wiping until you have evenly applied it in a thin layer all over the floors.  And then, you just keep buffing it until it shines.

Surprisingly, it didn't smell, and the brilliant shine was far better than anything we had ever achieved with Johnson's Paste Wax.  It lasted a lot longer, too!

If you have any wood floors, you really should try it.  Cook a small goose in a large metal barrel, then screw a broomstick into the backside of the bird and use it to mop your floors.  You'll be pleased with the results!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flag Daze

Last week, in a joking way, I mentioned the issue of flag desecration, more commonly called flag burning.  The last time I wrote something that evoked as much hate mail, I had written about religion.  At least this time, I didn't get any death threats from either Saudi Arabia or Arkansas.  Yet.

Since so many people have angrily asked me to explain my position on flag burning, let me tell you a short story.

It was a beautiful October day in Washington D.C.  While at that time of the year in D.C., you can tell that cold weather is coming toward the end of the month, early in the month, it's glorious, with temperatures usually in the mid-70s.
The young man walked half way up the steps in front of the Supreme Court, stopped and pulled a small bundle from the pocket of his windbreaker.  Shaking the bundle up and down, it quickly unfolded to reveal that it was an American flag.  From the same pocket, he produced a disposable cigarette lighter and used it to ignite one corner of the flag.

From about twenty feet away, a second young man noticed the burning flag and rushed over and tried to pull the flag away from the first young man.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” screamed the second young man.  “You cant burn the American flag.”

 “Leave me alone!” screamed the first young man.  “I have a right to protest.”

A third young man, a hundred feet away, had witnessed this exchange, and ran over.  He grabbed the arm of the second young man and tried to pull him off the young man with the burning flag.

“Leave him alone,” said the third young man.  “Hes not doing anything wrong.  He has a right to burn the flag if he wants to.”

We can stop our story right there.  Think about each of the three men: Is any of them right? 

The first young man is desecrating a flag that is dear to the hearts of most Americans.  Personally, I find this disturbing, but the man has an absolute right of free speech.  If burning a countrys flag is not political speech, then I have no idea what it is.  You will forgive me if I hope the young man burns a few fingers while he does this, but he has the right to voice his opinions.

The second young man--no matter how pure his motives--is not defending the United States of America.  Sadly, he is doing just the opposite.  One of the many things that flag symbolizes is the right of everyone to indulge in free speech, no matter how distasteful the rest of us find it.  The First Amendment is unnecessary for the protection of "popular" speech--anyone can go to any capital city of any totalitarian state in the world and praise the current leader.   But only in countries that honor the right of all men to speak any belief freely can someone publicly denounce the leader of the country.

Free speech is not easy--in fact, it is often painful.  And it is easy to understand the desire to moderate this right with talk about "honor" or about "the public good".  Surely hate speech is wrong?  For the good of the public, can we not put sensible limits on academic freedom?  Can we not at least ban the denial of the Holocaust?--as so many European countries have done?

No!--We cannot do this!  The only way to ensure free speech is to have no limits--for who knows who is to decide what those limits are to be?  If you can ban my opinion today, cannot someone else ban yours tomorrow? 

The third young man--the one trying to allow the first man to burn the flag--is the only one of the three who is upholding the Bill of Rights.  He is the only one seeking to protect someones right to voice an "unpopular" opinion and he is the only one who is seeking to honor the flag—even as it burns—by not destroying the ideals that it stands for.

Unfortunately, while you and I understand this, it seems that our own Supreme Court no longer does. 

Directly in front of the building housing the Supreme Court, there is a large, flat, beautiful plaza.  There are fountains, benches, and wide open spaces on this black marble plaza and it  is exactly the kind of place where you could sit and discuss constitutional issues--BUT YOU CAN'T.

It is NOT a free speech zone.  (The Supreme Court says so.)

You can carry signs on the sidewalk  (free speech is allowed there), but not on the plaza.  Guards at the Supreme Court will not allow signs on the plaza and T-shirts with political messages are not allowed.  At times, people have even been asked to remove small campaign buttons.

In a "supreme" act of irony, a young man wearing a T-shirt imprinted with the First Amendment was asked to leave the plaza. 

The idea seems to be that while the judges know that a protest would not sway their votes on various cases, they are afraid that some people will not understand this and believe their decisions might appear to have been swayed.  I'm not sure how the geographic location of a protest is supposed to raise or lower the perceived merits of a protest, but I will admit that I am not one of our nation’s top legal minds.

Therefore, there is a 1949 ordinance on the books that prohibits free speech on the plaza.  Recently, a young man challenged this law in court and the judge (who did understand the First Amendment) ruled in his favor, setting aside the 1949 statute.  The Supreme Court sent a lawyer to argue in its behalf at the trial, and when the judge ruled in favor of the young man, the Supremes appealed the case to yet a higher court.

Presumably, the case may eventually be argued in front of the Supreme Court.  Gee, I wonder how the Court will decide.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Politics on the Brazos

Texas Congressmen Bob and Ted were discouraged by the recent election.  While both were reelected, they had won their districts by only the slimmest of margins.  Equally bad, the exit polls were horrible and plainly, the voters were disenchanted with politicians in general, and believed that Washington was out of touch. 

"I know what we can do," said Congressman Bob.  "We need to reconnect with the peopleshow them that we are one of them, that we understand them."

"How do we do that?" asked Congressman Ted.  "We don't know any of those people.  Hell, do we even know anybody who knows those people?"

"That's why we have aides," Congressman Bob said.  "Little people know lots of other little people."

Two weeks later, both politicians walked into a bar in Santo, Texas.  Both men were wearing freshly pressed new Levi's, shirts with more shiny buttons than an Italian sports car, and freshly polished boots with the jeans cuffs tucked in.  Congressman Bob was leading a large dog on a leash.

The bar became quiet as everyone in the bar stopped and turned to look at the two politicians.

"Howdy!  Bob and I just wanted to stop and see what is going on along the Brazos River.  And I'm buying the first round of beers."

Few things will make you friends faster in a bar than a fat wallet, and in only a few minutes, there were abundant smiles as the two politicians made their way around the bar, shaking hands and slapping backs.

Over in the far corner, the two old cowboys were finishing off a couple of plates of catfish and tater tots.  After gratefully accepting the beers, they continued their meal and kept a wary eye on the two politicians as they worked their way around the room.

"Did you vote for either of those two polecats?" asked Kent. 

"Yes, but I wish you hadn't reminded me.  I'm eating," Mike answered.  "Pass the Tabasco sauce.  The one with the dog is our congressman, the other one represents Arlington, I think."

Kent handed the familiar bottle to the other cowboy and watched as Mike liberally spiced up his tater tots.  "Most people use ketchup for that," he said.

Mike put the lid back on the bottle and replied, "This is ketchup.  Texas Ketchup.  And I didn't say anything to you when you drowned that poor fish in vinegar."

"Had to use vinegar--the lemons here are as dry as the Panhandle in June.  What do you suppose these two idiots want?  I don't trust people that smile that much."

Mike looked over at the two politicians.  "Aw, they're just probably trying to prove they understand our problems.  I wonder who ironed and starched those jeans," he said.

Kent glanced at the two men and then said, "I wonder where they rented the dog."

Mike set his fork down on the edge of his almost empty plate and leaned back in his booth.  "Do you remember that county commissioner we used to have?  Rawther or Ransome?  Every four years, he'd drive around in this old ratty station wagon and shake hands.  I guess he didn't think we were smart enough to remember that in between elections he drove a new Mercedes.  I wonder whose barn he kept that wagon in when he wasn't campaigning."

Kent finished a long pull at his beer and answered, "Oh, he didn't keep that in a barn.  No, that was his mother's car.  The one without the dog--isnt that the guy who told us about two elections back that the biggest problem facing America was flag burning?"

 Yeah, thats him, Mike said.  He convinced me, too.  I think every flag in the nation should have a built-in incendiary device so that the flag automatically catches fire when a politician is wrapped up in it.

Laughing, Kent answered, And they both claim they have brought jobs to Texas.  How two men who have never had a real job between them can believe they have created any jobs is beyond me.

About then the two politicians made their way to the two cowboys table.  Bob and Ted immediately shook hands with both of the two cowboys and started in telling them just how much they had had done for this area, how much they had done for ranching...and all the while the two old cowboys were wondering just how polite they had to be in exchange for two free beers.

Ted was just in the middle of expanding on his plans for the great things he and his party were going to do in the future when the front door of the bar opened and a man walked in, stopped and looked around the room until he spotted the two men.  He promptly walked over, squatted behind the dog and lifted its tail.  Staring intently at the south end of a north facing dog, the man grunted, lowered the tail and walked off.

Bob interrupted Ted.  "What in tarnation was that man doing?  That's the third time tonight some fool has walked over and without so much as a hello, has lifted the tail of that poor dog, stared at its butt for a while, then stomped off.   What the hell is going on?  Is this some kind of a joke?"

Mike looked at Kent, who simply shrugged and shook his head.  Mike shifted slightly in his seat to look directly at Congressman Bob.

"Well, Congressman, it's like this.  Santo is a small place and you two have been in here for at least half an hour.  By now, the word is probably out all over town."

"I can understand them wanting to meet us," said the Congressman.  "But why are they bothering the dog?"

Mike looked at Kent and said, "Your turn."

Kent appeared distinctly uncomfortable but looked up from the booth at the Congressmen and said, "No.  I don't think you understand.  They've heard there was a dog in here with two assholes and they just wanted to check for themselves."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

New Mexico Royalty

Like the rest of the country, it is election time in New Mexico.  I can accurately predict the results right now: we will reelect idiots.  The few idiots who will fail at reelection will be replaced with fresh new idiots.

There is not much chance of electing anyone except fools, since only an idiot would run for elected office in this state.  I believe that this state needs to look to our historic past.  The best idea would be to petition the federal government to revoke our statehood and let us return to our former territorial status.  Instead of elected idiots, we could go back to appointed idiots.  This might not give us better government, but at least there would be fewer campaign signs.  As I write this, it is the night of Halloween, and trust me, the scariest thing to ring my doorbell tonight has been a politician out knocking on doors.

Or, let the entire Southwest go even farther back in history and restore royal rule.  For hundreds of years, the area comprising New Mexico and Arizona were under the benignly neglected rule of Spanish Kings--and even then, the Spanish Crowns representatives were mostly idiots since this territory was poor, isolated, and frequently forgotten.  If the King of Spain sent someone to be the new governor of New Mexico, you can be pretty sure that the man had done something scandalous—and illegal—at his previous job. 

It surprises most people to learn that, when Mexico finally broke from Spain and became independent, the first government of Mexico was actually another monarchy.  On July 21, 1822, Agustín I, Constitutional Monarch of Mexico was crowned emperor of all the lands from Costa Rica to Oregon.  While hard to believe, the entire southwestern area of the United States—from California to Texas—was once ruled by a Mexican king.  The kingdom didn't last long because Emperor Agustín was an idiot.  (I bet you saw that coming.)

Emperor Agustín spent most of his reign trying to lay the foundation of court etiquette.  Instead of establishing a banking system or a new judicial system, Agustín imported a marquise from the former court of Napoleon to teach the local yokels how many times to bow as they backed out of his royal presence.  Instead of setting up schools, Agustín dreamed up titles for his children.  (His eldest son was to be called the Prince Imperial.) 

After a while, the people just gave up on the Imperial Idiot and ran him out of Mexico.  Given a pension he never collected, the poor ex-sovereign was exiled to Europe.  Unfortunately, without his enlightened royal leadership, Mexico continued to suffer intrigues, fairly constant changes of government, and the threat of war.  Eventually, Agustín realized that God was talking to him personally, guiding him back to Mexico to renew his monarchy.  (Rule #2 of Monarchy is that when God speaks to you, obey.)

Agustín I, his wife, and a few of the princelings immediately set sail back to Mexico.  And when Agustín stepped off the boat…he was fairly quickly stood up against a wall and executed.  (Rule #1 of Monarchy states that when God personally tells you to rule a country, both of you are schizophrenic.)

Sadly, Agustín is not the last royal person in the Southwest: there was also the Baron of Arizona.  (If you find all of this weird, look at my competition.  I am trying to write about nonsense and just this week The NY Times this ran an article titled: Can You Get Ebola from a Bowling Ball?

James Addison Reavis was a liar and a swindler, but he must have also been a likable liar and a swindler.  His life of crime began early.  After he enlisted in the Confederate Army, he found that life in the military was not to his liking.  Luckily, he discovered a hitherto unsuspected skill:  He could forge his commanding officers signature on passes.  It didn’t take long for his comrades in arms to notice his frequent absences, so he started selling them passes, too.  Of course, it didn’t take long for these frequent comings and goings—mostly goings—to be noticed and an investigation was begun.

Before Reavis could be caught, he forged leave papers, surrendered to the Union Army, and somehow--instead of becoming a prisoner of war—managed to talk his captors into allowing him to join the northern army.  While there are no records surviving to document his service, I would be willing to bet he continued to have rather frequent leaves.

After the war, Reavis drifted around, spent some time in Brazil, and finally ended up as a realtor in Missouri.  There, he found he had a real talent for helping people sell land that had cloudy titles.  It was simply amazing the number of old, yellowing legal documents that Reavis could find.  But his real breakthrough came in 1871 when he became the partner of George Willing, who was attempting to cash in on an enormous Spanish Land Grant that covered 18,600 square miles of Arizona and New Mexico.  Supposedly Willing had just purchased the land grant from the last surviving male member of the family who had been given the royal grant by King Charles III.  (You will just have to trust me on this, but King Chucky the Third was a spectacular idiot.)

This land grant, the Peralta Land Grant, was about as honest as the last email you got offering you a Nigerian business deal.  Willing had a few documents, but they needed the special kind of help that Reavis could offer.  Shortly into the partnership, Willing died, leaving Reavis to continue on his own.   Almost immediately, the first document discovered was a deed transferring title to Reavis. 

No one can say that Reavis didn’t work on his claim—the man spent years perfecting the swindle.  Reavis learned Spanish, Spanish law, and enough Mexican colonial history to pass my course on the subject.  Then, he went on long trips through Mexico visiting government archives, records offices and libraries.  Such places are very careful to prevent your leaving with documents, but rather careless if you're trying to deposit a few documents.

Reavis was a genius.  He examined real documents, and then forged his own with matching paper, ribbons, seals, and signatures.  He manufactured wills, birth certificates, death records, property transfers, and everything else needed to suddenly create a fictitious Baron Peralta of Arizona.  He fabricated paintings of the family, even wrote a little poetry that was supposedly penned by a member of the family.  Then, (and this is the master stroke) he obtained official permission to copy the documents he had planted, then had the Mexican government notarize these copies as authentic. 

Now, armed with real and legally authentic copies of manufactured nonsense, Reavis dropped the entire bundle of documents on the Federal Surveyor General in Tucson.  This poor man was charged with identifying  the real owners of the lands that had newly joined the United States at the end of the Mexican American War.  This was a task that would take the government years and years to straighten out.

While the Federal government pondered the dilemma, Reavis went ahead with the next step of his plan.  He offered to sell quitclaims to the trespassers of his property at rather reasonable rates.  These trespassers included a dozen towns, countless mines, and hundreds of farms, ranches and assorted businesses--and a big chunk of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Railroad lawyers inspected the paperwork, and quickly paid Reavis $50,000 for a quitclaim.  A large mine paid $20,000 and, suddenly, there was a stampede of people trying to protect their property from seizure.

Reavis decided to protect his claim by adding just a little more proof.  He produced the last surviving member of the Peralta family, Sofia Loreto Micela Maso y Peralta de la Cerdoba.  (Actually, she was a young girl with an Navaho mother and an Anglo father.   But she was willing to get a name change for the right price.)  Reavis gave her some of the fastest etiquette lessons since Agustín hired the marquise, and introduced her to society as the Baroness de Peralta and just as quickly married her.

Reavis—excuse me, he now called himself the Baron of Arizona y Los Colorados—took his wife to Spain and presented her at court.  While they were there, he managed to visit the archives in Madrid and Seville and leave a few more old (new) documents that helped to cement the existence of the entire Peralta line.  It was at this point that he discovered the family coat of arms.

By now, the Baron had a small army of agents who were out collecting rents and selling quitclaims to the supposed tenants.  In total, the Baron collected $5.3 million from his tenants.  But, this was the high point of the entire enterprise.  After seven years of inspection, the Surveyor General threw the claim out, letting title remain in the possession of those currently holding the land.

The Ex-Baron should have quit while he was ahead, but decided to stubborn it out.  He sued the federal government for $10 million, claiming that was the value of the land the government had issued to homesteaders and the railroad.  While this was certainly brave, it was also stupid—perhaps even idiotic. 

The government sent better investigators to look at the documents, and the fake documents were exposed for what they were.  Several things gave the forgery away.  Reavis had used a pen with a steel nib to fabricate documents that were dated before such a device had been invented.  Several documents had questionable grammar, or words had contemporary spelling instead of that which was used in the late 18th century.  Most damaging of all, while Reavis had been successful in planting documents into the middle of bundles and drawers of documents, he frequently failed to update the accompanying indexes the Spanish kept.

The former Baron of Arizona was tried, convicted, and sentenced to six years in jail.  He was released early for good behavior and began his inevitable downward spiral.  He tried to sell his autobiography, but had little success.  Reduced to living in a home for paupers, he died penniless in Denver in 1914.

While I doubt that next Tuesday's election will give us another Baron, I have no doubts that we will end up with yet another set of idiots.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Interchangeable Parts

If you had been standing by the roadside in Surrey, England in 1908, you might have caught a glimpse of three remarkable cars driving down the road.  The cars were all identical Cadillac automobiles, but they were certainly…different.

The worlds first racetrack, Brooklands, was conducting a test of a relatively radical new idea for automobiles: interchangeable parts.  Up to that time, each car had had hand-fitted parts made for that vehicle specifically.  Even two apparently identical vehicles had variations in their parts, and if one needed a part replaced, it required a skilled mechanic to alter and fit the part.

In 1908, the Royal Automobile Club sponsored a test for standardized parts.  While ten car companies were invited, only the Cadillac Motor Car Company showed up.  Three different Cadillac cars, painted three different colors, were dismantled and the parts placed in a single pile in the middle of a garage.  89 parts were randomly removed and replaced with new ones straight from the Cadillac storeroom in London.

Then, the mechanics reassembled three cars using only screwdrivers and wrenches.  The resulting cars were no longer very attractive, as each had doors, fenders, wheels, and hoods of oddly mismatched colors.  Then the three cars were driven 500 miles around the Brooklands track and the nearby streets of Surrey without a breakdown.  Cadillac was awarded the Dewar Prize, the automotive equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

This feat changed everything in the automobile industry.  Now, every car company had to rush to offer interchangeable parts.  I blame this on Napoleon.

Almost everyone in America knows that interchangeable parts are something that started with Eli Whitney and the production of guns for the US government.  I remember learning this in the fifth grade.  I think that was the last thing I learned that year, since shortly after that day in history class, I started to change my opinion of the relative ickiness of girls. 

(Actually, of course, the first true universally interchangeable parts were created when the first United States Congress convened in 1789.  There hasn’t been a pennyworth of difference among those idiots in the last 225 years.)

Eli Whitney was a fake: in 1808, he wanted the government contract so much that he claimed he could manufacture a large number of guns with interchangeable parts--and his claim seemed plausible, since he let Congress examine a few carefully selected muskets.  The congressmen took the muskets apart, piled up all the parts, stirred them around and then put the muskets back together.  Since they still worked, Congress gave Whitney the contract for 10,000 muskets.

There is only one way to truly create interchangeable parts—with machinery.  There is simply no way to rapidly duplicate precise parts by hand.  A skilled craftsman can slowly produce a limited number of parts possessing fairly close tolerances--and this is how Eli Whitney was able to fool the US government.  However, only machinery can rapidly turn out identical pieces and this form of technology did not exist when Whitney won the contract.  (This is why Whitney delivered the muskets years late, and none of them had interchangeable parts!)

In fact, not long after this, the ability to mass produce certain parts became a critical military requirement.  (And if necessity is the mother of invention, it follows that "a critical military requirement is the evil mother-in-law".)

Now, fast forward to 1810, when England was at war with Napoleons France.  (Ah, the good old days, when you could have a war with someone you could--even if only occasionally--actually like.)  The British government was suffering something resembling an embarrassment of riches.   The British navy was made up of 191 giant ships of the line, 245 frigates, and numerous other smaller warships--giving it over 860 ships altogether.  (And another 56 ships were being constructed.)

Not only was the navy large, it was damn good.  In several wars and countless battles, the British Navy had humiliated the navies of France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, and Holland.  During the period from 1792-1812, the ships of His Majestys navy had fought in over 200 engagements and won all but 5.  (And all of those losses were in single ship-to-ship battles, none of them more recent than 7 years earlier.)

The inevitable consequence of this incredible string of victories was that an English victory was expected by not only the English, but by the captains and crews of the enemy ships the British fought.  With this attitude, it will not be surprising when I tell you that no fewer than 170 of the ships that made up the British Navy had been captured from other countries during combat. 

This huge navy was a virtual forest of masts and rigging in Portsmouth Harbor and all of this rigging had to be constructed and maintained for the navy.   Some of the required items were pulley blocks that enabled ships to raise and lower sails, steer ships, and lift heavy cargo.  These giant pulleys were all made of wood and no two of the hundreds of thousands of them in service were exactly the same.

Between the needs of new ships and replacing the blocks of older ships, the Admiralty office was purchasing an astonishing 100,000 new pulley blocks a year. 

Marc Brunel revolutionized the Portsmouth Block Mills at the harbor by introducing machinery run by conveyor belts, powered by two 30 hp. steam engines that automated the entire process of manufacturing the pulley blocks.  The forty-five separate machines that performed 22 processes could turn out standardized blocks in three sizes--and every piece was uniform and could be used to replace a defective part of the same-sized block.  

Not only was a superior block produced, but the labor savings were enormous.  Where 110 men had worked previously to produce a limited number of blocks of varying quality, ten men using the new machinery were capable of producing 130,000 blocks a year.

The nineteenth century saw the end of the great wooden ships, as first iron, then steel monsters replaced the beautiful great ships of the line.  Sails gave way to coal- and oil-fired ships.  Napoleon died, and (sadly) France and England became allies.  Brunels pulley blocks fared much better.  The machinery making them was still in use during World War II, only ceasing production in 1960.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yonder's Your Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tool Time on the Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike dropped the pliers and looked up at his wife. 

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

"Let me see that."

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

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

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

One Ship--Six Navies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, that is another story. 

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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tapping the Admiral (or Sucking the Monkey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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