Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Brazos River Funeral


The two old ranchers were sitting on the bluff overlooking the Brazos River, performing mouth-to-mouth on a six pack of beer positioned between them.  Sadly, despite diligent effort, the patients were dying, one right after another.

Mike turned to his friend and said, “Why are you here today?  I thought you were going to spend the day with your wife.”

“I was and I did,” replied Kent.  “Least, as much as she’d allow.  After a couple of hours, she told me to ‘Go get lost.’  Well, I figured I’d get lost where I could drink your beer.”

“This ain’t exactly lost.  You’ve been here about as often as I have.”

“Yeah,” said Kent.  “But my wife doesn’t know where I am—and that’s lost enough.”

“I heard from Bob over in Stephenville yesterday.  He’s doing poorly.  Said he doesn’t think he will live through the month.  Said he had a real bad spell last week—even the doctor didn’t think he’d live through the night.  Bob said the only reason he was still hangin’ on was pure anger.”

“Hate to see Bob go, he’s about the last of the old bunch around here, ‘cept for you and me.”

“Yeah,” said Mike.  “Did ya’ ever think you’d get to the point where about the only times you get together with friends was at funerals?

"I know what you mean.  Forty years ago, the wife and I were always going to weddings.  Then, about twenty years ago, it was baby showers and christenings.  Now, it's nothing but funerals and wakes."

Kent reached over and took another beer, twisted off the bottle cap and handed it to his friend.  "Here," he said.  "Keep this, it's valuable."

Mike accepted this cap, but gave his friend a quizzical look.

"It's a genuine Texas rain gauge," said Kent.  "I was at a funeral last month—Philip Odd died.  His whole life, Phil got sick and tired of people making fun of his name, so he left instructions in his will that he wanted his tombstone left blank.  Now, everyone that walks by his grave stares at the stone and says: 'That's Odd.'"

Mike looked at his friend with annoyance.  "You know, I got a brother that talks just about that foolish."  

Mike stared at the distant river for a while and said, "I was just thinking that life is kind of like standing on a sandbar in the middle of a fast river.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Kent.

“Well, at the end of the sandbar, new sand is always washing up, and new people arrive to stand there.  But with time, the leading edge of the sandbar keeps washing downstream, and as the edges erode, people vanish into the river.  Some fight and shove for more space, and before long, the front of the sandbar is just a thin thread of land, with a few old codgers like me and you desperately trying to stay dry.  We’ve lost a lot of family and quite a few friends—sooner or later, we’re going fall off, too.”

“No more beer for you,” Kent announced.  “You’re starting to get mopey.  Besides, you never finished telling me about Bob.  What happened?”

“Well,” said Mike as he reached for the last bottle of beer, ignoring his friend.  “Bob thought he was going to die.  His family and friends thought he was going to die.  Even the doctor said one more clean white shirt would do for him.  So there he was, alone in bed, waiting to meet his maker, when suddenly he smelled the aroma of fried chicken.  His wife was making a fresh batch of fried chicken!”

“No doubt about it, Sue makes the best fried chicken in Palo Pinto County,” Ken agreed.

“Now there is nothing in the world that Bob likes better than Sue's fried chicken, so he carefully got out of bed,” Mike said, ignoring the interruption.  “The Doctor had warned him that if he exerted himself, the strain would probably kill him, but Bob just had to get one last piece of chicken.  So Bob carefully climbed out of bed and tottered into the kitchen, and sure enough, there was a large platter of fresh fried chicken right next to the stove.  Even better, Sue was just starting to fry up another batch.”

“And?” urged Kent.

"Well, Bob put out a shaky hand, reaching for what was probably going to be his last drumstick this side of the flowerbed….and Sue whacked the back of his hand with a hot oily wooden spoon!”

“Leave those alone!” scolded Sue.  “Those are for the funeral!”

“Makes sense,” said Kent.  “Knowing that stubborn bastard, he’s probably going to outlive her for spite.”

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Volunteer Fire Department

Its been a dozen years since the fire and the damage is long gone.  Unfortunately, so is the volunteer fire department.

The fire occurred at a small apartment complex I owned; six modest apartments catering to the needs of people seeking a lower-priced apartment.  Since this was Southern New Mexico, it meant that at any given time, most of the apartments were filled with immigrants from Mexico.  Frequently, they were younger workers with green cards who had brought over an elderly parent.  This was the origin of my firemen.

Four little old men—the viejitos—gathered everyday under a tree out back of the apartments to sit at an old dilapidated card table and play dominoes.  Well, they actually mostly drank good Mexican beer (good Mexican beer is a redundant phrase)—Dominoes came second. 

I loved these old men, and they thought it was hilarious that I taught Mexican history.  Some days, I would sit with them while they told the pendejo gringo (evidently, this means "learned scholar") outrageous stories about Mexico.

Half of the stories were the kind of nonsense that too much beer and sun would produce—they variously claimed to have fought with Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata (impossible since none of them was that old.)

But, occasionally, I would hear stories about Lazaro Cardenas standing up to the would-be dictator Calles.  I heard stories about bullfights, about cousins who left to work in the oilfields and were never heard from again, and how they could never have afforded to immigrate to the US if a family member had not won the tanda (a strange Mexican lottery system run among friends and family).

These men hadn’t fought during the Mexican Revolution, but they had been born during it.  They had lived through the Cristero Rebellion, World War II, and countless events that I lectured about, but had no personal direct knowledge.  I loved to ask them questions, and they loved to talk—it was a fair trade.

When the fire started, I was not around.  Another tenant evidently had left a cigarette burning on a large fabric sofa while he went off to lunch.  The first people to realize there was a fire were the four old men playing dominoes—evidently they saw smoke leaking out under the front door.

This presented a real challenge to the old men.  They obviously didnt want the place to burn down because it was their home.  But—like many immigrants—even though they were legally residing in the country, they feared the authorities might deport them.  There was no one else around the apartment complex….what were the viejitos to do?

Im sure the decision-making process was partly "augmented" by the case of beer the men had consumed.  Drunk would be an unkind description—accurate, perhaps, but unkind.

After a quick discussion, the men decided there was only one course of action—they decided to fight the fire themselves.  They carefully broke a small pane of glass from a multi-paned large window.  Then, three of them helped/pushed/shoved the fourth man through the opened window.

After the front door was finally opened, all four men gathered in front of the burning sofa in the living room.  While there was more smoke than actual flames, there was no doubt that the sofa was truly on fire.  What to do?  Each of the apartments had a fire extinguisher, but these men didnt know how to use them.

Eventually, the four beer-filled old men found a more….ah,..natural means of extinguishing the fire.  An unusual but effective method.  It was sort of a group effort and one that left the men drained, so to speak.  Im sure you understand.

One of the other residents finally noticed what was going on and called me.  By the time I had raced over, the "fire crew" had carried the somewhat worse-for-wear sofa outside to air and had returned to the domino game.  There wasnt much for me to do: it wasnt my sofa, and the tenant who had started the fire was so nervous that he was promising to fix the window.

After a moment of contemplation, I got back in my truck and drove away.  When I returned, I gave the firemen two cases of Tecate—my own personal favorite Mexican beer.

After all, I had to refill the extinguishers—there might be another fire!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Football War

During the summer of 1993, I spent a couple of weeks doing research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  This meant that during the day, I spent long hours in dusty archives, dimly lit libraries, and overstaffed government offices.  During the nights, I spent equally long hours in bars.

My reason—well one of them—was because the capital of Honduras during the summer is as hot as Southern New Mexico—but with ten times the humidity.  Because of a water shortage, the town's water supply only functioned two hours a day: between 4:00 and 6:00 AM.  Every morning, when the water was turned back on, you could hear the water rushing through the old, leaky pipes.  The air escaping made a low moaning noise that echoed off the mountains that surround the city.  (This early morning sound has often been theorized to be the cause of the town's high birth rate.  At 4:00 AM, it is too early to get out of bed, but too late to go back to sleep.)

My hotel room was so small it would have been illegal to use it as a jail cell, even in Mississippi.  In the evenings, the room had no water, no window, and nothing resembling air conditioning, so it was no wonder I spent my evenings in bars, drinking the local beer, Port Royal.  (Let me give you a small travel tip:  if you are forced to brush your teeth with either beer or Coca-Cola—use the beer.  You wouldn't believe what happens to Crest Toothpaste when you mix it with Coke.)

Properly lubricated, the locals in the bars had some great stories about life in Honduras.  One of my new-found friends insisted that up in the mountains, there was a tree that was poisonous to touch.  He claimed you could find it by looking for the dead birds that lay around it.  But there was an even better story, about a strange war Honduras had fought with El Salvador over a soccer game—The 1969 Football War.

One of the bar's patron had vivid memories of a C-47 (that's the military version of the civilian DC-3, an old, slow cargo plane from the second world war) flying lower than the surrounding mountain tops as it wound its way through the valley holding the country's capital.  The plane was so low that the man could clearly see the men rolling bombs out the cargo plane's door.  When the plane ran out of bombs destroying the runways at the city's sole airport, the men threw out sandbags on the old adobe buildings of the city center.

The Football War did happen, and although a soccer game really was the triggering event, there were a few other important factors that brought on the war. 

El Salvador is geographically a small country with a relatively large population for its size.  This gives it the second highest population density in the Western Hemisphere—right behind Haiti.  Almost all of the usable farmland is in the hands of only fourteen families or corporations. What little arable land is left is not nearly enough to satisfy peasants desperate for a small measure of financial independence.

Honduras, on the other hand, is much larger, with a smaller population, and still had (at least in 1969), vacant farmland.  The availability of lands and jobs had enticed approximately 300,000 Salvadoran peasants to illegally enter Honduras.  Some purchased land legally, others simply squatted on land and established homesteads, and others found work in the cities.  A few Salvadorans even opened stores or started businesses in Honduras.

By American standards, 300,000 doesn't seem like many, but in Honduras, this meant that one out of every eight workers was from El Salvador.  In the late 1960's, a disease devastated the banana plantations, forcing companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit to begin importing bananas from Ecuador and laying off workers.

Honduras responded to civilian anger and a rising unemployment rate by cracking down on the Salvadorans.  An agrarian reform law was passed under which a lot of immigrant farms were seized—even those that had been legally purchased.  Diplomatic relations between the two countries rapidly broke down.

Still, an actual war might have been averted if not for the 1970 World Cup.  The two countries played the first of three matches in Tegucigalpa, where the locals may have been less than proper hosts.  Thousands of locals stood outside the Salvadoran team's hotel and cheered, honked horns, and beat metal pans all night in an attempt to prevent the team from resting the night before the match.

The next day, the Hondurans won 2-1, but the deciding point was scored in overtime.  Feeling it had been cheated, all of El Salvador screamed, "Foul!"

The second game was played in San Salvador, and when El Salvador won, Honduras not only screamed, but began looting Salvadoran shops in Tegucigalpa and organized an economic boycott on all goods manufactured in the rival country.

Wisely, the third game was played in Mexico City.  The Salvadorans sat on one side of the stadium, with the Hondurans on the opposite side; separating the two were 5000 Mexican cops.  Honduras won the game, so El Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with Honduras, and then sent both its army and air force to invade its neighbor.

Interestingly, both countries had similar military forces; both countries had armies about the same size and both countries used equipment given to them by the United States. Surplus World War II tanks, guns, trucks, and jeeps were used on both sides and both countries flew F4U Corsairs and F-51 Mustangs. 

The only real military difference between the two countries was that the Honduran Air Force was much larger.  Perhaps this is why El Salvador attacked first, and damaged the runways of the Tegucigalpa airport where most of the Honduran Air Force was based.  During this raid, the Salvadorian Air Force did, indeed, use an aging cargo plane to bomb the Honduran capital by rolling bombs out a door designed to be used by passengers.

Despite diligent research, I was unable to either confirm or repudiate the story about El Salvador's bombing buildings with sand bags.  (But, if it is any consolation, the story about a tree with poisonous bark turns out to be true.  Though it was not, in fact, surrounded by dead birds, I have seen it.  I did not touch it.)

For the next two days, El Salvador controlled the sky, allowing its army to penetrate into Honduras about a hundred miles.  This was made easier by the sudden discovery that a Honduran general on the border had a smaller army than his payroll indicated.  It was probably a bookkeeping error.

After two days of repairing the runways at the Tegucigalpa airport, Honduras finally got its planes into the air.

In the last aerial dogfight in history pitting conventionally powered, propeller-driven aircraft against each other—Honduras took control of the sky.  If you are interested, the Corsairs proved superior to the Mustangs, but this may have been due more to maintenance requirements and the availability of spare parts than to the innate superiority of aircraft design.  By the fourth day of battle, both sides were having difficulty getting any planes into the air.

The Organization of American States negotiated a ceasefire and El Salvador agreed to return to its side of the border.  Though the war only lasted roughly 100 hours, more than 6,000 people died and 12,000 people were wounded.  An estimated 50,000 people lost their homes as villages and countless farms were destroyed.  Technically, even now—some 46 years later—the dispute is ongoing.

Such a strange war! Now, it seems almost impossible that most of the world missed it.  Even at the time, few people paid any attention to it.  This was not solely because the world cared little about Central America.  Something else was happening that attracted everyone's attention.  The war started shortly after Apollo 11 launched, and ended the same day that Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle, the lunar lander, onto the surface of the moon.

Most of the United States was too busy looking up to take any time to look south.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A New Mexican in Paris

As a student from New Mexico, Glen was excited when he was offered the summer internship in Paris.  The excitement came partly from his finally getting a chance to practice the language he had studied for three years, and partly because it would be his first trip to Europe.   Mostly, however, he was excited to be working for an entire summer at the Notre Dame Cathedral.

This promised to be the best summer of his life.  True, the job was a menial, unpaid position that would chiefly entail running errands and performing tedious tasks, but it was in Paris!  At Notre Dame!

It was not lost on Glen that this also meant that he would miss a summer in southern New Mexico, where the blazing hot winds of June and July were like suffering the hot breath of Satan.  While he wasn't quite sure what the summer would be like in Paris, he was pretty damn sure it would be better than summer in a New Mexican desert.  (At least, he had never heard of a dust storm in Paris.)

As it turned out, the Parisian summer was fantastic!  Glen loved his new job, he loved his tiny student apartment, and of course, he loved the Gothic cathedral where he worked.  Finished in 1365, the old stone cathedral was older and taller than any building in southern New Mexico.

Every morning, Glen would climb the spiral stairways of one of the cathedral's towers to the top.  There, he could watch the sun rise across the famous city.  He had to be careful on the old stone steps--they had been rounded and worn by centuries of use, making them as smooth as glass and almost as slippery.  At the top, Glen always took the time to admire the numerous gargoyles.  His favorite carving reminded him of one of his former instructors, Professor Maleficent, who was now the Dean of Women at the state penitentiary. 

His job wasn't all sightseeing: he spent most of his time running errands for the cathedral.  During his first week on the job, he had been checked out in the cathedral's car, a red Peugeot 308—a type of car not sold in the United States.  The small car had a gold outline of the cathedral on the doors above distinctive large gold lettering: Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.

Once he got used to the insane complexities of driving in Paris traffic, Glen loved to drive the car.  The lack of lanes, the narrow streets, and the insane parking conditions were balanced with the adventure of a new culture, the magnificent architecture, and a city steeped in history.  While he invariably got lost, no matter how tiny a dead-end cul-de-sac or out of the way alley he eventually wandered into, smiling and friendly Parisians came out of nearby buildings and surrounded the car.

Even while driving down major thoroughfares, Glen got the impression that people stopped and waved at him whenever he drove by.  And even the taxis—world famous for their aggressive driving—seemed to brake and allow him to easily change lanes.

Glen could hardly believe how friendly the people were!  He wondered if this was because the locals could tell he was an American....  Or, did they just really like the people who worked at the old cathedral?

One day, Glen asked Emmanuel Cloche, the director of the intern program, about the incredibly warm reception he was getting from the people.  Was it really because they could tell he was an American?

"Êtres-vous fou?" asked Emmanuel.  "Non, no!  It is not you they are excited to see, it is the car they want to see.  It is world famous: everyone on the planet wants to meet la petite Peugeot."

"What?" asked Glen.  "I've never even heard of it."

"Don't be absurd!" cried the Frenchman.  "You have never heard of the Hatchback of Notre Dame?"  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Three Appliances of Heaven

Looking out at my students in class today, I could count more expensive electronic gizmos than students.  There were more iPads, headsets, laptops, and cell phones than it would take to open a good sized Best Buy. 

There is also a similar scene in the parking lot.  Where do "starving students" get the megabucks to buy these new cars?  (And these are not used cars or economy models.  No–that kind of car is only found in the faculty lots).

Students today seem far more concerned with things than ideas.  When my wife and I were younger, perhaps we were materialistic, too–but our wants were much more modest.

There was a time--not that long ago--when my wife and I, too, were poor, starving students.  The Doc was in medical school with an annual tuition bill that made my eyes tear up every time I read it.  We lived in a tiny, cramped rental house near the campus, drove a $300 pickup that was old enough to vote, and had as our only luxury items, way too many books (and an indecent number of cats).

And we were pretty happy–the kind of foolish happy that can only come with youth, optimism, and hard work, mixed with an equal amount of stupidity, naiveté, and immaturity.  We didn't want for much, but there were a few things we deeply craved:  Appliances.  We really wanted appliances.


There was a Hell–and we knew exactly where it was.  It was the quarter-gobbling, hotter-than-a-pawn-shop pistol, and noisier-than-an-iron-foundry laundromat, located a mile from our house.  This was the Hell where my wife and I spent what little free time we did have--among the screaming children who ran up and down the aisles between the washers and the dryers.  Man!–but we hated that place!

So we dreamed of a washer and dryer.  The house we lived in had a laundry room, but the only thing we kept in there was a litter box.  We also wished for a dishwasher, but that was clearly beyond our means.

Then, beginning with the Doc's third year of medical school, she began her clinical rotations.  The first two years of medical school, she had spent mostly in classrooms or studying at home, but during her clinicals, The Doc actually saw patients and worked in medical labs...and pretty much stopped coming home.  There were probably widowers that spent more time with their spouses than I did.

Naturally, I got bored.  Speaking with the wisdom that only comes from being in my fifth decade of marriage–a bored husband is damn near certain to get into trouble.  Luckily for me, my "trouble" was my sudden decision to solve our appliance problem.

I scrounged around in the local junkyards until I happened upon semi-buried treasure.  I found a washing machine, a dryer, AND a dishwasher–all inoperative (of course!), all filthy, and all for sale.  For only $75, we became the proud owners of all three!  Of course, none of them worked and there was absolutely no way that we could afford to have them fixed.  Unless (of course), I did it myself.

Fixing appliances was something I knew nothing about–perhaps less than nothing.  But, I had tools and an empty garage.  I started with the washing machine.

What a hunk of junk!  I took that washer apart and put it back together at least a dozen times before I understood how it worked...or, well...didn't work.  If people could see the innards of major appliances and know how poorly they are made, before they bought them, they'd think twice about buying them.  

Once I got that enamel-coated exterior off, I had something that looked like it had been assembled by the Three Stooges.  The balancing weights were made of rebar and coffee cans filled with concrete, and the metal frame was a weak amalgam of old wheel weights and rusty beer cans, that had been case-hardened by dipping the whole mess into a languid pool of rancid butter.

It would have been easier to have crafted a better appliance out of nothing but pig shit and wax paper–but it was the washer I had, and it was still a hell of a lot better than going to the damned laundromat...well, it was going to be.  It took months, but with a few scrounged parts from the junkyard and a brand new solenoid....it worked!

Note:  The Doc just reminded me that we had to lift the lid during the rinse cycle for roughly five minutes or it would flood half the house.  Now, while this is true, it is also immaterial.  This minor sacrifice got our clothes clean and occasionally cleaned the laundry room floor.

The Doc and I were as happy as if we had won the lottery!  No more scrounging for quarters!  We could wash our clothes at home!  True–we had to dry our clothes on clotheslines stretched across the backyard (And sometimes, across the garage and across the bathroom, too–it rains way too damn often in San Antonio!), but it would wash clothes!  It also made enough noise to be heard from the street out in front of the house, but who cared?  It worked!

Next, I worked on the dryer.  Back then, these were actually fairly simple machines.  I replaced the nichrome wire that formed the heating element and thought I had it fixed.  But, when I started the dryer, I discovered that the drum was out of balance.  God!–I labored over that thing for weeks!  If the drum was not positioned perfectly, the result was immediate: wild shaking and a high-pitched screech that gave me the galloping shudders and made my eyes cross.  Imagine a motorized version of scraping fingernails across a blackboard.

I had originally wanted to learn how this thing worked by dismantling my mother's dryer, but she stubbornly refused to aid in my education.  These days, of course, I would spend 15 minutes with Google and download a service manual, but back then....well....I.... improvised.  Through trial and error (and even more error), I eventually figured it out.  I drilled out rivets and substituted sheet metal screws....only to discover that there was a reason why the original manufacturer had used rivets.  So, I took out the screws, drilled new holes and learned how to use a pop riveter.  

And eventually–against all odds–the damn thing worked.  True, too, just like the washer, the dryer shimmied "a little" during operation, but if we wedged a pillow between the two appliances, this was enough padding to keep the two machines from disassembling themselves.

By this point, my appliance repair skills had considerably improved.  I think it took me only a few days of tinkering to get the dishwasher to work.  It was a monstrous, roll-around box that had to be moved next to the kitchen sink and then connected by a special water line to a faucet.  The capacity was small and the unit was as ugly as homemade soap, but...it worked!

What a difference these three appliances made in our lives!  Who knew that Heaven consisted of just a washer, a dryer, and a dishwasher?  That was forty years ago--and other than buying our home, no single purchase has ever made us as happy as those three busted appliances. 


In some ways, I feel sorry for the students today.  They will never experience the happiness of overcoming the challenge of a car so old that you push it almost as much as you ride in it.  No $900 smart phone will ever bring the happiness my wife and I received from a truckload of scrapped second-hand appliances.  We knew we were rich!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ricardo's Rule of Comparative Advantage

Economists have a tool called Ricardo's Rule for Comparative Advantage.  This rule states that instead of each country's trying to become self-sufficient in the production of all goods, it is better for each country to specialize in the production of those products where it possesses a material or cultural advantage.

Simply put, it is better for all three countries if Italy produces fashionable clothes, if Argentina produces meat products, and if Japan makes electronics.  In an open market, through specialization, each country would be able to afford more purchases of all three products than if each country tried to become self-sufficient in all three.  The reverse is just not practicalit is difficult to imagine any gaucho pants-wearing multitudes driving their Lamborghinis to drive-thru restaurants named Jap-In-The-Box for orders of Kobe beef to go.

Ricardo’s Rule works and it has applications far outside the world of international economics.  I propose that, since universities are also large businesses, it is time for small cash-strapped states to apply this rule to their state universities.  Let me explain....no, there is too much.  Let me sum up..

Universities employ two types of professors: tenure track and adjunct.  Tenure track professors are employed to teach classes, to conduct research and to publish their research.  It doesn't matter if the professor is a chemist or a choir director, an engineer or an English professorthey all have to conduct research, publish their research, and teach.  After 6 years, a committee of their peers reviews their work to see how well all these jobs have been done. 

If the committee approves, the faculty member is given tenuremeaning he or she has a lifetime employment contract.  This is to ensure that every tenured faculty member can maintain academic freedom.  That is, the tenured faculty is freed to pursue knowledge, publish, and teach without fear of being fired for publishing or researching "politically incorrect" ideas.  

Of course, it is also common knowledge that having "politically incorrect ideas" is the surest route to failing to obtain tenure these days, so the issue of having politically incorrect ideas AFTER gaining tenure is actually pretty much a moot point.  Even more to the point, no one cares what any professor says in a classroom anymore.

The other type of professorsadjunctsare hired sołely to teach.  They are not required to do research or to publish, and they have no job security whatsoever.  While they are incredibly poorly paid, they teach their asses off:  they frequently teach twice as many classes (with often a larger class size) than the average tenure track or tenured professor teaches.  In their non-existent free time, they scavenge through supermarkets in search of Bottom Ramen.  

This is the model that is followed by most universities, both public and private.  But should it be like this?  A state agricultural college in a poor state may want to excel in all fields, but can it afford to? 

Mention university research to someone not employed at a university, and what comes to mind is probably the mad scientist in a test tube-filled laboratory, working through the night to breed a mosquito that will suck fat instead of blood.  The truth is closer to someone who's sitting in an office, writing yet another article on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  (An article that almost no one will ever read.)

Last year, in just the sciences, over 1.5 million scholarly articles were published in 23,500 journals.  Remember, that astonishing number is just for the scholarly science articles.  This doesn't count the articles written about art, history, anthropology, sociology, etc.  There are other journals for those articles.

Last year, over 1500 scholarly articles were written about "Hamlet", alone.  How many baby seals would have died and how much of the polar ice caps would have melted if society were missing just one of those articles?  (How many trees were sacrificed to print those articles?Alert the Druids!)

Let’s take a hypothetical example:  Professor Carrabosse does research on popular culture.  After she was hired, she began a lengthy period of research on the historical inaccuracies found in Disneyland’s Frontierland.  It turns out that the Magic Kingdom’s version of Davy Crockett is not an accurate representation of the American West.

Eventually, with the help of a kindly editor who just "happened" to be her brother, Professor Carabosse published her research in a thin volume.  Despite the fact that there are about as many albino dwarves playing in the NBA as people who actually read her book, she was given tenure and a hefty pay raise.

Twenty years later, she is still teaching (though judging by the relatively few students in her class, somewhat badly).  Sadly, this does not really matter, as her annual evaluations are based mainly on her continued research.

And her sole book?  It turns out to be one of the most expensive books ever purchased by the state of New Mexico.  In salary, pensions, and employment benefits to Professor Carabosse, it cost the state well in excess of two million dollars. 

This is roughly the same amount that Christie's received the last time it auctioned off an entire Gutenberg Bible.  Save the funds from two such professors and you can buy a First Folio Shakespeare.  And it will even include "Hamlet".

And since Professor Carabosse is not a talented teacher, she influences relatively few students.  Nor could the department afford to replace her, she is tenured. 

Does every department in a state university need to hire research professors? 

Can New Mexico really afford this?  Does an agricultural college in an impoverished state have to pretend it is Harvard?  Does every faculty member have to be a researcher?

The sad truth is that no one who has worked in academia has ever heard of any professor—at any university—who has been denied tenure on the basis of bad teaching.  Nor has anyone ever heard of a professor's being tenured for good teaching. Sadly, there is no connection between good research and good teaching, either.

Every university claims that teaching is important, that it is respected, and that those who do it are rewarded, but this is more of a mantra than a statement of fact.  Sadly, teaching is one of the least important activities at a university.  If tenure must be given, then is time to hire some professors whose only goal is to teach, to tenure the outstanding ones, and to pay them adequately.

Critics of such a change would lament that I am proposing to turn research centers into trade schools.  Possibly.  Or perhaps, I am just saying that it is time for a fiscally constrained state to stop purchasing what it doesn't need.

Poor states like New Mexico need universities: they need them to help lift their citizens out of poverty and to create the economic opportunities that other states enjoy.  This means that the state universities should focus on education first, not researchat least not in every department with every faculty member.

Let New Mexico universities excel in those areas where they naturally have an advantage:  agriculture, energy, international business, and border studies, among others.  

And if New Mexico isn't a world-renowned center for research on "Hamlet" and that one extra scholarly article is never written?  Then I guess we will just have to let the ice caps melt and allow the baby seals to die.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Lincoln's Favorite Rifle

When it comes to rifles, most men are predictably conservative.  Tell me which gun someone first learned to shoot well, and I'll tell you what he considers the finest rifle ever made.

Take that guy who has shot 70-pound white tail deer in the hill country of Texas with his Daddy's old .30-30: he's going to be hard to convince that he needs a rifle with a little more authority when he crosses the border into New Mexico in search of Rocky Mountain elk.  He will never even consider replacing that antique lever action.

Interestingly, this rule works the same way for military rifles.

In the late 1930's, the Marine Corps started issuing a new combat rifle, the M1 Garand.  In  hindsight, there is now fairly universal agreement that this was the finest rifle of the Second World War, but at the time, the Marines hated it.  About the nicest name the Jarheads had for the rifle (and certainly the only one I can put in this blog) was "the Mickey Mouse rifle."

The Marines had been using the Springfield Rifle since 1903 and had used it in the First World War, the Philippines, and Nicaragua.  It worked, they trusted it, and they knew exactly how to use it.  The Marines--more than any of the other services--consider themselves riflemen, and they treasured the '03 Springfield, and refused to consider a replacement.

Guadalcanal changed their minds.  The Mickey Mouse rifle did a great job--it was accurate, it was reliable, and it could fire eight times as fast as you could pull the trigger, so it didn't take long for the Marines to fall in love again:  with a new, treasured rifle.

An even more extreme example can be seen a decade before the Civil War.    This was a period when firearms were starting to change dramatically and there was pressure for the US Army to modernize.  A cavalry unit stationed at Fort Stanton, New Mexico was issued Sharp's Rifles to evaluate.

The Sharp's was a breech-loading rifle that could be easily loaded and fired accurately while mounted on horseback.  These cavalrymen had been using the Model 1841 carbine.  Not only was the musket clumsy and so inaccurate that they couldn't hit the side of a barn unless they were inside it, but the muzzleloader was almost impossible to reload on horseback.  (You can imagine the difficulties of trying to use a musket's ramrod while on a moving horse!)

It’s easy to understand the difference this new rifle made to the soldiers.  They loved the Sharp's Rifles, and when the testing period was over, enthusiastically encouraged the military's adoption of the rifle for all mounted troops.

When this endorsement reached a general higher up in the chain of a command, he rejected the new rifle, claiming that the new firearm was "a breech-loading toy."  This general knew that the M1841--a gun he had used during the war in Mexico--was the better firearm and wouldn't even consider a new firearm, so the cavalry never got the better rifle.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had heard of a new "super rifle".  Not only could it accurately fire seven rounds without reloading, but was easy to operate and maintain in the field.  While most muskets and rifles of this period used paper cartridges that were extremely sensitive to even the slightest moisture, this rifle used metallic cartridges impervious to moisture.  This weapon could even be used reliably in a driving rain! 

With paper cartridges, even the lightest rain forced soldiers to fight with bayonets, knives, or even their hands.  At the Civil War Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the two armies fought for 18 hours in a heavy rain that made gunpowder all but useless.  The fighting was the worst at the Bloody Angle, where the men fought until the muddy earthworks had become so slippery with blood that the men could hardly stand.

Lincoln had heard of the new rifle and wanted to test it for himself.  Now, these days, the idea of a head of state personally firing a military firearm seems ludicrous.  (Hell, I still can’t believe that President Obama shoots skeet!)

In Lincoln’s time, however, it was actually fairly common.  Honest Abe was fairly besieged by inventors--each promising that his newfangled gizmo would win the way by the end of the year. 

So many of these crackpot inventors wanted to demonstrate some form of bullet-proof armor that Lincoln finally established a new rule:  anyone wishing to demonstrate body armor had to wear it, himself, while Lincoln personally tested it by firing a rifle at the inventor.  This rule considerably thinned the herd.

So, in August of 1863, it wasn’t all that surprising when Lincoln met Christopher Spencer on a small hill close to the partially constructed Washington Monument.  Aiming at a target 40 yards away, Lincoln fired and hit the target seven times in just a few seconds.  Impressed, Lincoln wanted the new lever action rifle for all of his troops.

This was a sound decision.  In time, the Spencer Rifle was the most sought after rifle in the Union Army.  Besides being a superb combat weapon, it had a little known extra advantage:  if captured by the Confederates, the weapon became all but useless.  The southern states were suffering a copper shortage so severe that the moonshine stills of Kentucky and Tennessee temporarily vanished.  When Southerners give up Bourbon, you know there wasn't enough copper to manufacture ammunition for the Spencer, either.

After the war, Major General James Wilson wrote: “There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral.  Our best officers estimate that one man armed with [is] the equivalent to three with any other arm.”

Today, some historians have argued that if the Spencer Rifle had been issued to Union troops, the Civil War might have been concluded two years earlier.  So, why wasn't it used?

Brigadier General James Wolfe Ripley, the Army’s Chief of Ordnance, refused to purchase breech loading rifles.  His arguments included the fact that the North had large supplies of older muzzle loaders in warehouses that could be used and that rapid firing rifles would encourage the soldiers to waste ammunition.  His arguments delayed the large scale purchase of better weapons for years.

By the end of the war, the North had purchased only 12,472 Spencer rifles.  This is a pitifully small number when you consider that 2,896,537 men were mustered into the Union army.

After the war, The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was sold, eventually being bought by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company which still manufactures lever action rifles.

And Christopher Spencer?  He went on to make quite a few other things.  The first successful pump shotgun, a steam powered horseless carriage, a sewing machine, and the first automated machine to manufacture metal screws.  By the time he died in 1922, he held 42 patents, and despite being 88, was taking flying lessons.

And what happened to General James Wolfe Ripley?  Who cares?