Saturday, March 28, 2015

Floating Pride

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a ship that, over time, was a warship in service for six different countries.  Today, I want to discuss a ship that was—for a while—the largest ship in the world.  During her lifetime, she had four names, had almost as many nicknames, was owned by three different countries, and was the most magnificent and luxurious ship afloat...and today, few have ever heard of her.

During the end of the Edwardian Era, the major countries of Europe began an informal contest to develop the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ships afloat.  In the minds of many, there was no better symbol of a country's honor and power than the size of her merchant navy.  Kaiser Wilhelm, jealous of (his uncle) King Edward's naval power, was encouraging his country to construct the largest ships ever built.

Germany knew of the soon-to-be-completed Titanic and her sister ships, and began drawing up blueprints for three ships that would surpass her in every regard.  The Europa, was to be larger, longer, faster, and in every regard more impressive.  Curiously, while England and Germany competed with each other, they both fashioned the interiors of their ships after French style, but if the Titanic and the Olympic were to be French villas, the Europa was to be a chateau.

As the entire world knows, the Titanic was launched first, and almost immediately lost, on April 15, 1912.  About the same time, Kaiser Wilhelm had his ship renamed: she was now the Imperator and when launched, she was the largest ship afloat.  Where the Titanic was 882 feet long, the SS Imperator was 919 feet, and where the Titanic could carry 2600 passengers, the Imperator could accommodate 4600.

Almost immediately, the Cunard Line announced that there new ship, the HMS Aquitania would be slightly longer than the Imperator, so a large bronze figurehead of an eagle was added to Imperator's bow, once again capturing the title—only to lose it again a few months later to her sister ships, the Vaterland and the Bismarck.  (No, not that Bismarck.  That ship was a warship sunk in World War II.)

On her major voyage to New York, a few problems were discovered.  The ship was top heavy and took to listing almost uncontrollably.  Irreverent dock workers began referring to her as the 'Limperator.'  Hamburg America, the owners, took drastic action.  The bathrooms of most of the upper staterooms lost their marble fixtures.  In many places, the heavy Louis XVI furniture was replaced with wicker.  When even this was inadequate to fix the problem, the hollow space between the double bottom hulls was filled with 4 million pounds of cement. 

Now repaired, the ship returned to service, and almost immediately was left tied to a dock in Hamburg for the entirety of World War I.  For four years, she was neglected and abandoned.  When the war was over, she was turned over to the Allied Food Service and Finance Commission. 

The ship was taken from Germany as part of the massive reparations that Germany had to pay in apology for having started World War I.  (If you remember, the war was started by when an Austrian inbred Hapsburg was assassinated in Sarajevo by an angry Serbian, prompting Austria to declare war on Serbia, followed by Russia declaring war on Austria, and so forth and so on.  If you find this confusing because Germany is not mentioned in any of the above....well, just remember that last week I told you the Seven Years War lasted nine years.  If we made this shit easy, then just any moron could be a historian.)

The ship was turned over to the Americans and used as a transport ship to help bring home the one and a half million doughboys we had sent to France.  Now, part of the US Navy, we renamed the ship the USS Imperator.  After bringing home roughly 25,000 Americans, we turned the ship over to England.

The Cunard Line had lost her flagship, the RMS Lusitania to the Germans in 1915, so it was deemed only fair for the German Hamburg Line to lose their flagship to Cunard.  Renamed the RMS Berengaria, she was heavily—and expensively—refitted to assume her new role.  The ship still tended to list to one side or the other, so Cunard added a few million pounds of scrap iron as ballast.  (One can only imagine what the now deposed Kaiser thought of this.  Exiled to Denmark, he had to watch his ship, designed to humiliate the British, now renamed after a British queen.)
 
For decades, the Berengaria was the ship of choice for the rich and famous.  The Berengaria was referred to as the 'Millionaire's Ship.'  First class passengers were especially fond of her two-story indoor swimming pool, patterned after the baths of Pompeii.  Evidently, the irony was lost on them.
 
By the Thirties, the ship's glamour was beginning to fade.  She was replaced as the flagship by one of her sister ships, the former Bismarck, now renamed the RMS Majestic.  No longer sought after by the rich and famous, in her later years, she did short cruises from New York for passengers seeking a legal way to get around Prohibition.  Now, she was nicknamed 'Bargain Area.'
 
When Cunard finally retired her, they introduced a new queen, the Queen Mary.  The ship built to humiliate the British was brought back to England and scrapped.  And much of the salvaged metal was used to fight Germany in the next war.  
 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Punctuated Equilibrium and Brown Bess

There is a funny quirk about technological progress and living in the 21st century.  We have a unique vantage point—from our perspective the progress seems to be not only continuous, but charging ahead like a stabbed rat.

For most of human history, technological progress was almost nonexistent.  For thousands of years, there were few, if any, improvements.  Then, suddenly, somewhere, someone made a breakthrough.  The wheel, the club, a clay pot or basket—some technological breakthrough occurred that revolutionized civilization.  This new breakthrough would then be followed by another long period of technological stagnation. 

Anthropologists call this process: punctuated equilibrium.  Viewed as a graph, this process would look something like this.


Interestingly, each advance on this time line seems to occur after less time than the previous interval.  Early man wasn't likely to live long enough to see a single such event.  Today, the intervals occur so rapidly they appear to be continuous.  You aren't aware of it, but while you were wasting your time reading this blog, someone just changed the world by inventing multimurphs.  By the time you learn about it, Apple will probably be selling the iMurph.

But this period of multiple rapid changes is actually a relatively recent development—it hasn't been that long since changes were still rare.  Let's look at an example.

Gunpowder weapons reached Europe about 1300 AD and immediately revolutionized warfare—countries that used such weapons tended to win their battles and those who did not didn’t make the history books.  But after gunpowder was introduced, these weapons did not change much for centuries. 

Ian V. Hogg, the noted historian of artillery and all things that go “BANG,” suggested that if one of Edward II’s gunners were lifted from the battle of Crecy in 1346 and dropped into the middle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he would have soon felt at home, for the level of technology had made only insignificant advances in the interim.

In 1690, Great Britain developed the official Land Pattern Musket.  This was a large, heavy musket kept in the Tower of London where various manufacturers could measure it, examine it, and manufacture exact replicas.  While reliable, this gun could never be described as accurate--it didn't even have sights.  According to British Colonel Hangar, "I do maintain and will prove whenever called upon that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common musket by the person who aimed at him."

Soldiers quickly nicknamed the gun the Brown Bess, either as a corruption of the German phrase "braun buss" or strong gun or (and this is more likely) the British soldier followed a custom as old as warfare itself and named his weapon after a woman.  In common parlance at that time, Brown Bess was a wanton prostitute.

Soldiers loved the gun—it was sturdy, reliable, and long enough to hold a bayonet.  (Despite what you have seen in movies, until the American Civil War, during most battles, more men died of wounds from cutting implements than from gunpowder weapons.)

So Great Britain kept making the guns.  They used them during the War of Austrian Succession, in several wars in India, in the Seven Years Wars (Which lasted nine years and in America was called this the French and Indian War—we do this just to make history difficult.), and at Lexington and Concord.  Since many of the colonists were required to own their own Brown Bess muskets and serve in militias, quite a few of the colonists shot back at the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord with the same weapon. 


England used a metric shit ton of the muskets fighting Napoleon, and after the victory at Waterloo, began selling off a few of the surplus muskets to other countries.  A newly-independent Mexico bought enough of them that Santa Ana used them against Americans at both the Alamo and during the Mexican American War.  When the Marines stormed the "halls of Montezuma,” they were facing troops armed with old Brown Bess muskets.

Eventually (roughly 1840) the venerable Brown Bess was obsolete and was retired—there had been another technological breakthrough.  The last time--as far as I can determine—that a Brown Bess was used in a major battle was the Battle of Shiloh, and I pity the poor infantryman who went off to battle with an antique.

For 150 years, the Brown Bess musket in various forms ruled battlefields everywhere the British Army wandered, and that pretty much means the entire world.  It is probably close to impossible to determine how many men were killed by this weapon.

Remember the concept of punctuated equilibrium?  The length of time from the adoption of Brown Bess to the weapon's retirement is roughly the same period of time from the weapon’s retirement to the development of the Stealth Fighter.

I don’t want to give you nightmares, but the next technological revolution in warfare is probably overdue.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Richardson Papers

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has just announced that he will be donating his papers to the University of Texas at Austin.  While this might seem to be an incredible insult to New Mexico, it turns out that it was just an innocent mistake.

Bill evidently thought that Austin was part of New Mexico.  Remember, this is the same governor who set a record for absenteeism from his official state duties—no mean feat when you consider that a few of our former governors returned back east to fight in the Civil War.  Bill was absent from the state for a different kind of fight—he spent a lot of time running for President in 2008.   You are excused if you dont remember that he was a candidate.  To quote Joe Pesci, a.k.a Vinny Gambini, “Youse were serious about dat?”

For the first six months of 2007, Richardson spent more time in Iowa, New Hampshire, or Wisconsin than he did in the state of New Mexico.  Few in the Land of Enchantment missed him--probably because we saw him on television so often.  Each of five years, he rode a float in the annual Rose Bowl Parade emblazoned with a huge sign:  “BILL RICHARDSON!”  On a Post-it note near the back bumper, the sign continued: “….says visit new mexico.”  In total, the five floats cost the state over a million dollars.

This small confusion with geography was obvious while Bill was governor and would explain why, while governor, Bill had the state buy a jet for him to use while traveling around the state.  Now, New Mexico is not that large geographically, but such a plane might be quite useful for traveling to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, or even New York.

Perhaps Bill used the plane to examine the large billboards the state had put up in places like Times Square, where Bill's smiling face (no less than three-stories tall) urged people to visit the state...Or maybe urged them to consider voting for him?  The taxpayers of New Mexico were sure getting a bargain for their tax money.  (And beautifying New York with New Mexico scenery!)  Come to think of it, didn’t Governor Bill order every Department of Motor Vehicles office in the state to have his portrait on the wall?  I wonder what happened to all those portraits. 

At the University of Texas, the newly-gifted Richardson papers will be part of the Dolph Briscoe Library and Hair Salon, where they will be part of a prestigious collection.  Bill Richardson was proud to announce that his papers will be housed right alongside the papers of Willie Nelson (pictured to the right).

Evidently, none of the universities in New Mexico expressed much interest in his papers after learning that he had already finished coloring them.

Still, no one can argue that BR didn't leave his own distinctive mark on New Mexico.  Who can forget the money he spent putting talking urinal cakes in the restrooms of the state's bars?  When...'activated' these devices not only urged the...'patrons' not to drive drunk but to remember 'their future was in their hands'. 

That last line was Bill's way of saying that he was the only one allowed to screw New Mexico.

Equally unforgettable is Bill's silly and hideously expensive creation, New Mexico's own little cargo cult, the Spaceport.  Governor Richardson promised that this project would propel New Mexico into the future, would bring jobs and wealth, and would revitalize our sagging economy.  He not only promised this, he campaigned on the issue.  So the state raised taxes, created a special sales tax, and has--to date--spent over $200 million on a Buck-Rogers-in-the-desert scheme that has done absolutely nothing.  Hell, we can't even use the silly project as a half-assed airport since it was built far from any community and is located so close to the White Sands Missile Range that it is in a restricted air space.  Oops!

Despite the fact that the Spaceport is an obvious failure, the citizens of New Mexico are still paying taxes for it--and will for some time to come.  All of this wouldn't rankle so much if it weren’t for the irritating fact that today, Bill Richardson is being paid by the state of California to help develop, and sell, yet another Spaceport--this one in the Mojave Desert.  Perhaps Bill thinks that California is part of New Mexico, too!

No--the state of New Mexico will not soon forget Governor Bill!  This state will remember how cash transfers from the Permanent Fund were used to pay for a ballooning budget.  And how monies from the state retirement fund were invested with Bernie Madoff.  And how the federal investigations of numerous 'Pay to Play' allegations were quickly dropped for political reasons shortly after President Obama took office.

The universities of New Mexico will do just fine without Bill's papers.  It is actually a rather small price to pay to finally be done with Bill.  For many here, there was always a niggling fear that Bill just might return to the state and run for the Senate or something.  His last act of disloyalty should finally put that fear to rest.

Perhaps, however, we need to warn the rest of the country to watch Bill carefully!  There are a few early warning signs that can tip you off when Bill is getting ready for a fresh campaign:  First, he shaves off that mustache, and then he suddenly loses weight like a leper on a pogo stick.  Between elections, Bill likes to eat and while he was governor--despite this being a state so poor that one in five of the citizens collects food stamps (New Mexico is second only to Mississippi in family assistance usage)--Bill had two chefs on the state payroll at the governor's mansion.

If a skinny and clean-shaven Bill Richardson suddenly shows up in your neighborhood--put your hand over your wallet and hang on!  You're about to get a Spaceport. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hoist by Your Own Lies

For over thirty years, Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico with such an iron hand that the people of Mexico began referring to him as Don Perpetuo. 

Before Diaz, President Juarez had forsworn business dealings with his rich neighbor to the north, fearing that such dealings would inevitably lead to American economic domination of Mexico.  "Between the weak and the strong, there should always be a desert." said Juarez.

After Juarez died of a heart attack, Diaz had seized the country and changed the country's foreign policy.  He told the people of Mexico to look at a map—Mexico was shaped like a cornucopia spilling its riches towards the United States.

And, for decades, that is exactly what Mexico did.  The United States bought up the resources that Mexico sold it, with Diaz raking in a hefty percentage of everything.  Copper, oil, silver—American industries flourished.  While some grew rich, most of the people of Mexico lived in such poverty, they would have been better living under the rule of the Aztecs, some 400 years earlier.

When the Mexicans began chanting, "Mexico for Mexicans," the remark angered President Theodore Roosevelt.  "Mexico for Mexicans?  I would like to know for who else it would be for, if not the Mexicans." thundered our president.

The sad truth was that foreign industries were simply not playing fair.  They routinely undervalued property in order to avoid paying taxes, they paid Mexican workers less than foreign workers, and rarely promoted Mexican workers regardless of experience.  The foreign corporations could do this because of the bribes and kickbacks that they regularly paid to Diaz.

By 1910, the excesses of Porfirio Diaz at long last touched off a horrendously violent revolution that killed a million Mexicans and drove another million to emigrate.  Remember that Mexico was a small country that shrank from 14 million to 12 million due to this violence.  By the time that the revolution was over, Mexico had a new constitution that gave ownership of all subsoil riches—whether ore, mineral, or petroleum—to the Mexican government.  However, since the only source of hard currency the struggling government received was from foreign corporations, Mexico continued to honor the leases held by the foreign corporations.

This should have been the end of the story, but of course it wasn't.  All the foreign corporations had to do was simply play fair and they might still be operating in Mexico today.  Or even play just close to fair, for the presidents of Mexico after the revolution rather quickly became just as corrupt and easy to bribe as Porfirio Diaz had been—at least, until Lazaro Cardenas became president in 1934.

Lazaro Cardenas was a different kind of president, who took a lot of the ideals of the revolution seriously—including the new constitution.  Cardenas began by preparing for the day when Mexico would control its own resources, by first taking an inventory of Mexico's most valuable asset—the talented workers of the Mexican oil fields. 

This step was brilliant, because Cardenas needed to know who his future leaders in the industry would be.  There is an old story—possibly apocryphal—about J.P. Morgan:  When the famous financier was asked what his most valuable asset was, the reporter probably expected to hear about a bank, a railroad line, or possibly a factory.  Instead, Morgan answered, "My good men. Take away everything else, but leave me my good men and in five years, I will have it all back."

After inventorying his human capital, Cardenas helped organize a union--The Petroleum Workers Union of Mexico.  This union presented a list of demands to the petroleum companies, asking for equal pay with that of foreign workers, safer working conditions, and an 8-hour workday.  Despite the fact that the demands were entirely modest, the companies refused to either negotiate or to even realistically recognize the workers' right to collective bargaining, so the unions promptly went on strike.

Declaring that the petroleum sector was essential to the Mexican economy, Cardenas promptly exercised the right given to him under the new constitution to refer the matter over to binding arbitration.  (This is essentially the same thing as an American Taft-Hartley Injunction.)  The arbitration board was composed of three members, with the union, the oil companies, and the government each appointing one member.  (Naturally, the arbitration board sided with the union.)

The Oil Companies refused to comply and took the matter to the Mexican Supreme Court, which rather quickly ruled to uphold the arbitration board's decision.  The Oil Companies still refused to comply—obviously, they were doubling down on stupid, but evidently believed they were so powerful that Mexico would be powerless to stop them.

On March 18, 1938, President Cardenas promptly cancelled the oil companies’ leases, effectively nationalizing the holdings of all of the foreign oil companies. 

It is impossible to overemphasize the oil companies' absolute fury.  They demanded that President Roosevelt—not Teddy, but the other one—go to war with Mexico.  Unfortunately, FDR had just announced a new foreign policy initiative for Latin America called "The Good Neighbor Program".  It would have been rather awkward to work a war into being a good neighbor.

The oil companies, for their part, had crippling power to refuse to buy, transport, or refine Mexican oil, and they could help organize an economic boycott on all Mexican goods (including the silver that the US government used to mint money).  This threatened to collapse the entire Mexican economy.

Meanwhile, Mexico had to pay for the assets it had nationalized.  According to the constitution, the payment had to be prompt, effective, and adequate.  The problem was how to interpret those words.
       
The foreign oil companies were eager to help.  By prompt, they demanded an immediate payment.  Effective meant dollars, gold, or pounds sterling.  And adequate?  It took the oil companies a little time to add up all the costs of the equipment, the pumps, the dock facilities, the holding tanks, and the buildings...call it $450 million.  (Those are meaningless 1938 dollars from back when you could have bought half of Arkansas for $3.50, so just pretend I said "All the money in the world.")

Mexico had a slightly different interpretation.  "Prompt" meant 10 years of payments, with 3% interest.  "Effective" meant....you think I'm getting ready to say Pesos, don't you?  No, effective meant some dollars, but mostly Mexico would pay with oil.  And "adequate"?

Here, Mexico did something completely unexpected.  It paid the amount the oil companies had been reporting as the basis of property taxes—$24 million.  If you listen very carefully, you can still hear the oil companies screaming.

As Penn Jillette says, "There is nothing worse than cheating, and still losing."

Naturally, the oil companies refused the settlement.  They were determined to bankrupt Mexico.  With Mexico's lack of adequate refineries and oil tankers, and its total dependence on the United States as a trading partner—the oil companies would eventually win and Mexico would surely lose this contest, unless someone saved it.

And someone did.  Hitler invaded Poland September 1, 1939, touching off World War II.  Suddenly, there was a severe shortage of petroleum.  Sinclair was the first of the oil companies to accept the settlement and within a year, all of the American oil companies had accepted.   Within ten years, Mexico had paid off the entire settlement, with interest.

It has been said that Lazaro Cardenas gambled the entire Mexican revolution and won.

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!