Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Message to Garcia

Several times this week, the conversation has turned to the difficulty of young people seeking employment.  It is summer time, and suddenly students with free time are getting on the nerves of their parents, who collectively turn to their offspring and say, “Why don’t you get a summer job?” 

I remember this well.  I was young with endless time, a yen for adventure, and absolutely no funds or transportation.  So, I got a job, bought a car, and discovered I had no time for adventure.  This condition lasted for about five decades until I discovered retirement, at which point I discovered that time was the adventure.

it was much easier to find employment when I was a teenager:  the pay was lower, the taxes for the employer were lower, and frankly, teenagers of fifty years ago were more productive and had a better work ethic.  Yesterday, I watched what we used to call a “bag boy” at the grocery store and he bore more resemblance to a stalagmite than an actual employee.  I discovered that if I held perfectly still and watched carefully, he actually moved—about as fast as the minute hand on a watch.

Not that long ago, every teenager was familiar with a small essay titled, A Message to Garcia.  When I graduated from high school, every student was given a copy.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I also got two books from the John Birch Society:  J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit and Phyllis Schafly’s A Strike from Space.  Both are horrible crimes committed against trees.  I have yet to find that Commie hiding under my bed.)

A Message to Garcia was written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899 describing the efforts of Lieutenant Rowan to carry a communication from President McKinley to the Cuban revolutionary leader, General Calixto Garcia.  America was on the brink of war with Spain over its brutal colonial rule of the island, and McKinley desperately needed information about the ongoing revolutionary war in Cuba.

The problem lay in how to contact the general.  Cuba was still firmly in the hands of the Spanish forces and no one knew exactly how to find a revolutionary leader hidden in the mountains and jungles of Cuba.  How would a messenger find the elusive general?  How did you get to the island without the consent of the Spanish?  The mission seemed impossibleeven James Bond gets better instructions from M.

Lieutenant Rowan didn’t ask questions, he didn’t demand explanations, he simply set out to fulfill his orders.  He used initiative, did his own research, worked hard, and accomplished his mission.  The trip took the young officer roughly three weeks, but he not only delivered the message, but returned from Cuba with five experts General Garcia had sent to advise the president.  For his actions, Lieutenant was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Hubbard’s essay points out the shortage of employees who can successfully carry a message to anyone without close supervision.  Writing almost 120 years ago, Hubbard says the average employee is more concerned about the clock than about  accomplishing his job.  Furthermore, Hubbard pointedly explains that the only way to correct this thinking is with the toe of a thick-soled No. 9 boot.  (This method does work:  ask my sons, What’s-His-Name and the The-Other-One.)

If you haven't read this essay, click HERE.

I have no idea why we no longer give students this essay.  They certainly have not stopped needing it.  A manager of a local retail establishment recently told me about terminating a young man who couldn’t believe he was fired after he showed up late for work 25 times in just the previous two months.  Such an employee could not be trusted answer a phone call.

After the piece was published in Philistine Magazine, it was reprinted.  Suddenly the magazine was beset for additional copies of the publication.  First in the dozens of copies, then hundreds, and finally an order for an additional thousand copies.  Finally, the President of the New York Central Railroad requested permission to print the essay in pamphlet form to distribute to employees.  Eventually, the pamphlet was printed at half million copies in each of three production runs. 

When a visiting Russian railroad executive read the piece, he had it translated into Russian and a copy was given to every railroad employee in Russia.  By that time, World War I had begun and the Czar ordered that every single soldier in his army be given a copy.  When the Japanese began finding a copy in the personal belongings of Russian prisoners, the piece was translated into Japanese.  A copy was given to every employee of the Imperial Government, civilian or military.

By now, the piece has been printed more than 40 million times, in 37 languages.  it has been made into two movies, the first by Thomas Edison and the second, starring Barbara Stanwyck.  For decades, the phrase “carrying a message to Garcia” was synonymous with showing initiative. 

Elbert Hubbard was a prolific writer whose works have sadly passed from the public eye.  Even his most commonly used creation, the adage “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” is usually credited in error to Dale Carnegie.  He also wrote a clever essay claiming that politically, at least, Jesus was an anarchist.

In 1912, after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Hubbard wrote another popular piece, where he praised the love and devotion of Mr. and Mrs. Strauss.  When Isidor Strauss was offered a space in lifeboat No. 8 due to his advanced age, he refused until every woman and child on the doomed liner was safe.  His wife, Ida, refused to enter without her husband, saying, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.”

Hubbard wrote,"Mr. and Mrs. Strauss, I envy you that legacy of love and loyalty left to your children and grandchildren. The calm courage that was yours all your long and useful career was your possession in death. Happy lovers, both. In life they were never separated and in death they are not divided.”

Three years later, Alice and Elbert Hubbard were aboard the RMS Lusitania when a German submarine fired two torpedoes, sinking the ship.  The couple was last seen calmly entering a cabin and shutting the door behind them.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Remington Nylon 66

Anyone who has raised children knows the three standard answers your offspring will come up with in response to almost any question:

     1.   I didn't do it.
     2.   He did it first.
     3.   That? That's been in the toy box a long time.

The third answer is a corollary of the first two, and is used by children of all ages.  This includes my wife, The Doc, who I suspect uses the line on me regularly when I suddenly notice a new piece of jewelry. 

"This ring/necklace/earrings?  Don't you remember?  You gave me these years ago.  They've been in the jewelry box a long time."

I don't really care if she buys the stuff, I would just prefer to accrue the benefit that comes from actually giving her the jewelryit being a well-known fact that jewelry is technically known as 'female Viagra'.  Besides, I have my own toy box, the gun safe, and I am fairly sure that everything in it looks identical to my wife.  As I write this, I am suffering a little rifle envy after a friend purchased a very nice vintage buffalo gun.  I don't have a buffalo gun, and in case of attack by a rampaging herd of bison, how can I be sure my neighbor will protect me?  It would seem only prudent to have the means at hand to protect my family.

Cleaning the guns in the safe (and planning where to put a rifle that will soon have been there a long time), I came across a rifle that I had almost forgotten about--a Remington Nylon 66.  I have an excuse for forgetting about it, it's not my rifle.  It belongs to The Doc, and it has indeed been in the safe a long time. 

Back when Nixon was still in his first term, we were dating, and I decided to teach my girlfriend how to shoot a rifle.  At the time, I owned nothing of a small enough caliber suitable for a neophyte, and since she had an approaching birthday, I decided to gift her with a new .22 rifle.  Giving your girlfriend a rifle is the perfect gift, as not only does it give you an excuse to take her to the gun range, but you get to shoot it, too.

It turned out The Doc is a pretty good shot.  She had no preconceived ideas of how to shoot, so when I told her not to flinch and to keep both eyes open, she did.  it was a little disconcerting that she learned to shoot that well, that quickly. 

Target practice used to be cheap:  for most of my life, shooting a .22 cost only pennies since a box of fifty rounds always cost less than a six pack of Cokes.  For some reason, in the last ten years, the price has become exorbitant.  It now costs roughly a six pack of beer; this is the true measure of inflation.

Purchasing the rifle was easy since I worked for Peden Iron and Steel, a hardware distributor, and we sold the rifles wholesale to stores across Texas.  As an employee, I was able to buy the rifle at a discount, 10% less than the wholesale price.  If I remember correctly, if cost me $34.00.  It was a Remington Nylon 66, the first mass produced rifle with a nylon stock and receiver.  Remington had something of schizophrenic moment, calling the material, "Zytel" even as they admitted the true identity of the material in the gun's name.

Note.  When I told my sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, how little I had paid for the rifle, they immediately demanded to know why I had not purchased many, many more such bargains.  Just as fast, I thought of the time my father had pointed out a former meadow in San Antonio where a huge mall was located.  Then he explained that when he had been stationed in San Antonio during WWII, he could have bought the entire meadow for fifty cents an acre.

“Why didn’t you?” I demanded.

“Hell, son.  I didn’t even know somebody with fifty cents.”

Introduced back in 1959, the semi-automatic rifle held 14 rounds, and supposedly had bearings that needed no lubrication.  And though I have never tested it, supposedly the rifle floats barrel up if dropped in water.  Making guns out of "plastic" was a risk for Remington, but it proved successful.  The gun worked well, but at first, the market was a little hesitant.  Shooters were used to wooden stocks, and somehow a "plastic gun" just didn't seem right.  Remember, this was before the M-16 or Glocks became commonplace.

Firearm companies have a long history of hiring shootists to help market guns.  Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, endorsed the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (destined after a merger to be known as Remington).  The Texan, Adolf Toepperweinperhaps the greatest trick shot artist in historyworked for Winchester and set a record that lasted for over fifty years.  In December, 1907, at the San Antonio Fair, out of 72,500 hand tossed 2 1/4" wooden blocks and at a distance of 30 feet, Toepperwein missed only nine.  He might have shot more, but he had exhausted the town's supply of ammunition.  (He also exhausted his supply of block-tosses!)

In 1959, Tom Frye worked for Remington, and was looking for a way to publicize the reliability of the Nylon 66.  Using three rifles over 13 consecutive days, Frye shot at 100,010 hand-tossed blocks--an average of 1,000 shots an hour (or a shot every four seconds).  As the smoke cleared, and everyone's ears stopped ringing, it was seen that Frye had missed only six times.  Though the three guns had been cleaned only five times each during the ordeal, there were no malfunctions.

Suddenly, Remington could not manufacture the rifles fast enough.  Over their 30-year run, slightly more than a million of them were sold, including (of course) the one that I gave to The Doc.

It was easy to forget the rifle standing quietly in the back corner of the gun safe, since it is still in the rather nondescript box it originally came in.  About the only thing distinctive is the small wooden block, with a small hole in it, that came with it.  The first 100,004 purchasers of the rifle got proof of the gun's reliability.  I have no idea what the other 900,000 owners got in their boxes.  I bet they paid more, too.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

More than the Beast

Previously, I have written about the Presidential railroad cars.  For those of us old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination, we already know more than we wish we did about recent Presidential cars.

That’s the problem:  all the articles I have read lately were about recent cars, all of which were large muscle-bound pseudo-trucks with little character and not much historical interest.  The current presidential limousine is so large that the Secret Service calls it "The Beast”.  Since about the only information that has been released is that it weighs more than seven tons, the name is probably apt.

We are not likely to learn much more about these cars as the Secret Service has announced that when the current limousines are retired, they will either be exhibited—with the doors firmly locked—in presidential libraries or will be blown up with explosives to keep the vehicles from revealing their secrets.  And that is okay with me since I’m not really interested in armored cars disguised to look like  giant Chevy's, but the older cars—the ones you never hear about—have much more character.

The first president to ride in an automobile was President McKinley, in 1901.  Horseless carriages were still new, and McKinley rode in a Stanley Steamer—and hated it.  The Stanley twins (pictured at left) had recently sold their glass photographic plate business to George Eastman (the founder of Kodak) and then used the funds to start manufacturing steam-powered cars.  Loud, noisy, and smelly—the early models burned gasoline to heat the boiler—McKinley, who personally handled the reins of his horse drawn carriage, was absolutely sure that these contraptions would never replace the horse as primary modes of transportation. 

McKinley was right:  At least here in New Mexico, horses still outnumber steam-powered cars.

The first car used at the White House, a White Motor Company steam car, was actually purchased by the Secret Service to follow the horse-drawn coach of Teddy Roosevelt.  The president, who was known as a cowboy and horseman, had decided that riding in an automobile would damage his image.  Unfortunately, he later changed his mind. 

While campaigning in Milwaukee in 1912, the former president had just entered his open air automobile and, as he turned to wave to the crowd, was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin.  While his heavy coat, folded speech, and glasses case slowed the bullet, it lodged in his chest, where it would remain for the rest of his life.  Undaunted, Roosevelt continued to the lecture hall and spoke for 90 minutes while his shirt slowly turned crimson with blood.  His physical recovery stopped his campaign for weeks just before the election.  The wound so irritated Roosevelt that he abandoned his usual daily exercise program and quickly became obese. 

If he had kept to horses, he might not have been shot, and he might have been reelected president, and the US would have entered World War I in 1914 as he wanted, bringing an earlier end to a war that devastated Europe… And if my Aunt Gertrude had wheels, she would have been a tea cart.  If you start playing these “what if” games, you will go mad.  And probably start writing a blog. 

When President Taft came to the White House, he quickly introduced automobiles.  (When you consider that at times, his weight ballooned up to 350 pounds, perhaps this is not surprising.  I can just picture Taft riding a Clydesdale.)  The White House stables were torn down and replaced with a four-car garage, which Taft filled with two gasoline powered Pierce-Arrows, a Baker Electric car, and a White Model M steam car (pictured at right).  The White—the last steam car owned by the White House—was Taft’s favorite after he learned that well-timed releases of steam would keep photographers at bay. 

The early Baker electric car was replaced by a 1912 Baker Victoria.  While the two-seater was too small for President Taft, it was used by five First Ladies: Helen Taft, Ellen Wilson, Edith Wilson, Florence Harding and Grace Coolidge.  Edith Wilson was the first First Lady to drive the car personally, and according to her husband, she had a lead foot (Of course the car's top speed was only 14 mph!).  She may have driven the car "fast", but it survived and can still be seen at the Henry Ford Museum. 

You will note that up to this point, the White House was fairly green.  While the official fleet was growing, they had two steam powered cars and two electric cars.  After Taft, however, the cars had ever larger gas guzzling internal combustion engines.  

By this time, automobiles were common.  President Woodrow Wilson loved the White House cars so much, that he purchased one of the Pierce-Arrows from the federal government for $3000.  His successor, Warren G. Harding was the first president who knew how to drive, and was the first to be driven to his inauguration. 

President Hoover purchased one of the largest presidential cars, a huge 1932 Cadillac V-16 Fleetwood Imperial.  While the car might have been practical for the president (who needed a large car for protection), the depression had just started and the president was ridiculed for the extravagance.  Only months after the purchase, Hoover was voted out of office.

While President Franklin Roosevelt owned a Ford coupe equipped with hand controls, he was normally only able to use the vehicle while visiting his Hyde Park home as it is against Secret Service rules for a sitting president to sit behind the wheel of a car.  His best-known car however was the Sunshine Special, the first presidential car built to Secret Service specifications. 

The car, nicknamed Sunshine Special by the press due to the vehicle’s sliding roof, is a 1939 Lincoln K-series equipped with backward opening doors and extended running boards for the Secret Service.  Roosevelt loved the large ten-passenger four-door car, since he could meet the public and make speeches without exiting the vehicle.   While the car was custom-built, it was not armored despite the fact that an assassination attempt had been made on the president while sitting in an open Buick in 1933—an event eerily similar to the assassination attempt on his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt's life.

After Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service decided to modify the Sunshine Special, adding armor, compartments for machine-guns, and a police radio.  Until the presidential limo could be returned, the Secret Service used the strangest presidential limo in history.

The US Treasury had already confiscated a 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan that was perfect for President Roosevelt.  It already had a ton and a half of armor plating, bullet-proof windows, a siren, and a police radio.  Special flashing lights were hidden behind the front grill.  The luxurious and beautiful car, pictured at right was already equipped with running boards for bodyguards.  Roosevelt used the car exclusively until the Sunshine Special’s modifications were finished.

How had the US Treasury come to own such a vehicle?  They had confiscated it to recover unpaid income taxes.  The previous owner?  Al Capone.

Note.  Like a lot of other stories, this one has a few problems.  While some historians have expressed doubts, this is the story that Michael F. Reilly, one of FDR’s Secret Service agents told in his 1947 autobiography, “Reilly of the White House”.  Who are we to doubt a G-Man?  Secret Service records do show a confiscated car from Capone, but indicate it was a 1939 Packard.  In the end, who cares?  Never let facts ruin a good story.

Saturday, May 27, 2017


The Doc and I are just back from visiting Tucson.  Ostensibly, we went to see half of our grandchildren.  Now that I’m back, my bathroom scale thinks we were just visiting a town with real restaurants.

Good restaurants are not something we do well in Southern New Mexico.  For most of this half of the state, a seven course meal would be a six-pack of Mexican beer and a burrito. 

We have the usual fast-food places, the usual large chain restaurants—including one with “Texas” in the name (despite the fact that the corporation is based out of Kentucky) and it's filled with waitresses who constantly yell “Yeehaaa” for no apparent reason.  I don’t eat there, because the one time I went, I was the only thing remotely Texan in that large dirty barn.  If you eat there, you probably believe Taco Bell is Mexican food, too.

We do have a few very nice restaurants.  Too few, in my opinion.  The reason seems to be that, while this border state seems to be awash in drugs, it is damn near impossible to obtain a liquor license.  Our state legislature seems to believe that if you deny a man a single drink in a bar, it would never occur to him to buy a whole bottle on the way home.   Every third store in town sells alcohol, but a restaurant with a full bar is fairly rare. 

There is a good Italian restaurant that I like, owned and managed by Vince.  On a regular basis, I go to his restaurant, admire the pesto pasta, the calamari, the beautiful pizzas—and then I order the half order of the salmon salad.  Unfortunately, what was once love handles has, over time, turned into a death grip. 

Vince runs a great restaurant where the bread is fresh and the service friendly.  His establishment is definitely one of the exceptions in Southern New Mexico.

The restaurant is directly across the street from Enema U, and I’ve lost track of the times I have eaten there.  Yesterday, I noticed something new.  Vince evidently had the restaurant custom decorated:  along the walls are murals depicting life in Northern Italy.  For the first time, I noticed that a fisherman was loading a net into his boat, whose name was clearly visible: ‘AMB’.

I couldn’t stop laughing.  This was a joke so old, I marveled that Vince knew it.

I used to teach military and naval history, and one of the fundamentals students had to learn was the international naming conventions for ships.  I remembered part of a lecture I had once given my students.

“When we read about the USS Constitution,” I said in my best professorial voice.  “What does the prefix USS stand for?”

“United States Ship,” would be the prompt answer.  (I had great students, since my course was required by neither the College of Education nor the Sociology Department).

“Correct.  President Theodore Roosevelt established this in an executive order in 1907.  The prefixes started as abbreviations to save time and there are a few exceptions.  Privately owned ships used by the Navy have USNS affixed to their name.  During the Civil War, what did CSS stand for?”

“Confederate States Ship.”

“Correct again,” I said.  “When you read about other countries, it gets a little more complicated.  HMS on British ships can stand for either Her Majesty’s Ship or His Majesty’s Ship.  If you are reading about a ship from a century ago, you might see HBMS for His Britannic Majesty’s Ship.  The Titanic carried the prefix RMS for Royal Mail Ship.  And to add to the confusion, lately, the navy of Saudi Arabia has started using HMS as well.”

“Sometimes, those prefixes are important.  During the War of 1812, the British captures the USS President.  Since sailors are superstitious and it is considered bad luck to rename a ship, the frigate became the HMS President.”

“British Commonwealth nations use a variety of this.  Canada uses HMCS, New Zealand uses HMNZCS, while Australia uses HMAS.   What kind of ships does the Transylvanian navy use?” I asked.


“Blood Vessels, of course.  C’mon guys, wake up.  Transylvania is a landlocked version of Romania.  Actually, Romania is one of the many nations that never adopted prefixes in front of their ships' names or stopped using them in the last fifty years.  If you are reading about World War II, neither Imperial Japan nor Nazi Germany ever adopted a standardized naval prefix.”

“Sometimes,” I continued, “the prefix just tells you the type of ship.  RV is for research vessel, PS is paddle steamer, and SV means sailing vessel.  Let’s go back to countries.  Mexico uses ARM, for Armada de Mexico.  While the old Soviet Union did not have an official prefix, some historians for clarity sake used USSRS.”

“Okay,” I said.  “One last one.  Why does Italy use AMB?”

Silence.  Every student stopped taking notes.  They just knew this was going to be on the test.  Finally, convinced no one knew the answer, I let them in on the joke.

“Atsa My Boat,” I said.

Vince was never in my class, so I have no idea where he heard that old joke.  If you are near Enema U, stop at his restaurant and see for yourself.  I recommend the calamari, even though I've never had any.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Professor Grumbles

There is a sure sign that you have passed a milestone:  You'll know that you are getting old when you start attending far more funerals that weddings.  Yesterday, we lost one of the good ones...One of the irreplaceable ones.

A couple of decades ago, I met Professor Grumbles on my first day of teaching.  I had received a phone call from one of my favorite professors, asking if I wanted to teach a weekend class on Mexican History. 

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”  I owed this professor, and I probably would have agreed to anything he asked...Within reason.

“Day after tomorrow.”  This was unreasonable, but I did it anyway—through a full semester of Saturday morning classes, each lasting two and a half hours.  This is teaching hell, where neither the sleepy students nor the bored professor want to be there.  Despite the obvious obstacles, that first class went well and I have done no honest work since.

The very first day, as I exited my too-small classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus, waiting outside the door was another professor who was clearly irritated that I had kept my class to the last minute.  I remember thinking, "Who is this man?"  He was old, short, overweight, and dressed in khaki shorts, a dark t-shirt, and a faded khaki photographer’s vest with bulging pockets.  He looked like a retired Greek fisherman.  (To be fair, so did about half the rest of the faculty.) 

We hated each other on sight.  He wanted in that classroom early and I believed that if the students had paid for two and a half hours, they were going to get the full measure.  It took a few years for us to actually get to know each other, but we became the best of friends. 

Saturday mornings are the deepest corner of teaching hell, which is why there was a class available for someone who hadn’t even applied for it.  But why was Dr. Grumbles there?  He was a full professor, who was tenured, and who had enough seniority that he certainly did not have to teach on the weekends—unless he wanted an extra class.

I have a theory—supported by no one but me—that the best way to determine who the best professors are is to visit the faculty parking lot on the weekend.  There are few professions where a good job can be done in a forty-hour work week, and that includes education.  Perhaps I just liked the crackpots, but I frequently noticed that all my friends at Enema U—all the faculty that I respected—could be found working through the weekends...And that certainly included Professor Grumbles.

Years later, when he was the department head, Professor Grumbles and I had a meeting with the Dean of Accelerated Distributed Distance Learning Excellence Department (ADDLED).  Or something similar.  She was in charge of the weekend college and we wanted to offer a new course combining language and history for which we needed her permission.  We sat in her office and waited patiently while she had a long telephone conversation.  As we waited, we scanned the books on the shelves behind her, all of which were full of the kind of self-help books one can find in grocery stores.  “Building Teamwork Through Meetings", "Ten Steps to Positive Management” or “Learn to Lead With Post-It Notes”. 

For the next fifteen minutes, we couldn’t look at each other.  One glance and we would have busted a seam laughing.   Eventually, we explained the course to the dean, who immediately responded that she didn’t know if either a language or a history course was being taught on the weekends.  Now, Professor Grumbles and I had been teaching just such classes on weekends for years, in a classroom not twenty feet from her office….all of which he patiently explained to the woman for whom we had been working for years.

“Oh,” she said.  “I didn’t know.  I’m never here on weekends.”

“I’ll be happy to submit a proposal to you,” answered Professor Grumbles.  “On a Post-it note if you prefer.”   The meeting went downhill from there.

Dr. Grumbles showed up regularly in this blog, and always as a sympathetic character.  Come to think of it, he is largely responsible for this blog.  I had written a throw-away piece about learning to sail to enter in a contest.  He liked it and suggested that I write another one...And another one.  That was eight years ago and the good professor somehow found time to comment on each and every one.  See those ads to the side?  They generate a modest amount of money that is enough to pay for a limited number of bound books, each of which is a collection of the blogs for that year.  Professor Grumbles is one of the few people to own the entire set. 

Actually, he wrote half of one the blog posts.  The entire post was just a set of emails we sent back and forth discussing movies, another of his great loves.  Though the post does not indicate it, the emails were sent back and forth during a long meeting where some administrative moron (redundant) read his powerpoint presentation to a group of people possessing at least 50 college degrees.  This is the real reason iPads are taken to meetings.

His support is not that surprising.  A great professor—not so coincidentally the one who offered me that first class—once told me that the rarest thing at a university was loyalty and that the vast majority of the faculty had no idea what loyalty meant nor were they prepared to pay the price it required.  Professor Grumbles was one of the few who did.  He was kind, gentle, and patiently friendly, though this didn't mean he made friends easily.  When he did acquire friends, he stuck with them. 

Something just occurred to me:  That small list of faculty capable of loyalty and the list of faculty who worked weekends, and the list of people whose courses I thought worthy of students' attention…are all pretty much the same list.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

The good professor taught German and I have frequently wondered how I managed to get a bachelor’s degree from his department and never met him.  Whatever the reason, it was not until I became part of the department that I really got to know him.  God, the arguments we had.  And the friendship we formed. 

The good professor got his start in German because of an elderly Mercedes.  This was a pre-war car and the price was cheap because it was in miserable shape.  Luckily, the car came with an owner’s manual.  In German.  By the time that manual got painstakingly translated, he was hooked.  In college, he and a friend bought a motorcycle with a sidecar and traveled across Europe.  By the end of the trip, he was deeply in love with languages.

Another love was the theater.  A professor of Languages, somehow Professor Grumbles was also at one time the head of the Theater Department.  He loved the stage and threw himself into every part.  I lost track of how often the beard and mustache came and went, depending on the role he was playing.  I liked him best in HMS Pinafore, but I must admit that he made a perfect Santa Claus.

One of his favorite courses was the history of German film.  He loved to show movies in his classroom, but towards the end, Professor Grumbles was getting a little deaf.  The sound level in that classroom slowly grew in volume over the years until it was thunderous.  Eventually, I would sneak up to his classroom and use a remote control to lower the volume without his knowledge.  He'd raise it, I'd lower it, and then he'd demand to have the audio equipment repaired or replaced.  Eventually, the university just stopped scheduling classes adjacent to his room.

Eventually, Professor Grumbles became department head and had his turn dealing with a group of faculty that was about half wonderful and half disaster (with a bloated chupacabra thrown in).  As anyone could have predicted, he kindly gave everyone a clean slate and an offer to start over fresh—and everyone immediately reverted to character. 

Professor Grumbles, at least in my opinion, was a great department head.  He was respectful to the administrative trolls, patient in department head meetings, and disbelieving of everything they said.  As was frequently required, enthusiastic departmental cooperation was always reported. 

The university seems to lose a lot of the good ones.  You could make a great university with the professors who have left Enema U in the last ten years and Professor Grumbles was one of the best.

I have to stop.  Professor Grumbles said that while he liked my blog posts, he began to lose interest after 1500 words.  We’re there.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Have Coffin, Will Travel

Juan Perón came to power in Argentina in 1946, largely by being the first to understand the rise of the working class and the effective use of communications.  When he was elected (despite the best efforts of the US State Department), Argentina was sitting on tremendous cash reserves and had a booming economy.   It didn’t take long for Juan and Eva Perón to blow through that surplus.

As a populist President, his wife, the diminutive Eva (or Evita as she was popularly known) was positioned as the Mother of the Country, publicly granting financial gifts to the poor--even as the Peróns siphoned money off to Swiss Banks while destroying the financial wealth of the country. 

By 1951, the Perón rule was obviously coming to an end.  A country known for its endless rolling wheat fields and limitless cattle herds was rationing food and subjecting the populace to “wheatless” and “meatless” days.

The elections slated for 1952 were pushed forward to 1951, and during the campaign one of the candidates for the presidency was arrested and another was shot.  Evita—now in a hospital and being treated for cervical cancer—proclaimed that anyone who did not vote for Perón was a traitor. Thirty-six percent of those voting in November met Evita's criterion for treason since Perón received only 64 percent of the votes cast--at least according to official accounts.

By June 1952, Evita was out of the hospital, but weighed only 80 pounds and was obviously ailing. Vast crowds of women surrounded the presidential home, praying on their knees for a miraculous recovery.  Despite this effort, on July 26, 1952, Evita, 33, died of a disease she was probably never told she had.  Two million hysterical mourners attended the funeral services that lasted for thirteen days.

Finally, Evita’s body was moved into the Ministry of Labor’s building where her body began a very long embalming process.   Dr. Pedro Ara began pumping the cadaver with alcohol, glycerin, and plasticizers—a process that lasted almost two years.  Unlike most mummification processes, Dr. Ara left all of Evita’s internal organs in place.  His goal was to preserve a perfect Evita for all time. 

During the long process, Dr. Ara practiced, making both wax and vinyl replicas of Evita.  In essence, he made a small army of life-sized Evita Barbie dolls.

In the meantime, the government began planning the largest memorial for a dead woman since the Taj Mahal.  The monument never got past the stage of digging a huge hole in the ground, but when finished, the monument was supposed to be larger than the Statue of Liberty.

Lonely, Juan Peron passed the time with a small squad of teenage girls whom he gifted with matching motor scooters.  Let’s not judge, remember, Juan was a grieving widower.

While all of this was going on, the labor unions of Argentina began petitioning Pope Pius XII to begin the proceedings for Evita Perón's canonization.  The annual request—and its subsequent denial—has been repeated annually ever since.  Who knows, since the current pope is not only an Argentine but a past Perónista Party supporter, who knows what is in the future?

As the last wheel fell off the economic wagon of Argentina in 1955, a new general took over in a military coup, and Juan Perón fled the country.  During his travels afterward, he met Isabel Martinez, a Panamanian nightclub dancer with a fourth grade education, and she accompanied him to Madrid, Spain.  President Franco had offered his fellow Fascist a home in exile.  Since the Catholic people of Spain frowned on the former dictator living with a teenager who wasn’t his wife, Juan married for the fourth time. 

Meanwhile, back in Argentina, the military was afraid that the body of Evita might become a rallying point for a new army of Neo-Perónistas.  They confiscated the body and ordered its destruction, but the military officer assigned the task couldn’t bring himself to destroy Evita.  Well, not all of her.  He was a little skeptical that the plastic dummy in the glass coffin was real, so he cut off one of the fingers to see if it was real.  It was. 

First, the body was moved to a wooden coffin which was hidden in a wooden packing crate.  Then, the body was hidden in the municipal water works, but the secret leaked out, and when mourners started showing up, the crate was moved to various military offices before finally being shoved into the back of a windowless van and parked in an alley behind a theater.  When flowers and candles began appearing next to the van, the crate was moved to a Major’s home and hidden under old newspapers in the attic.  The pressure of having Evita in the attic must have weighed heavily on the major, since he shot his pregnant wife one night, supposedly in the mistaken belief that revolutionaries were breaking into his home to liberate Mrs. Perón.

Note.  I don’t know about you, but I have these mental images of an army marching into Buenos Aires to do battle, carrying the coffin of Evita in the van, sort of like it was the Ark of the Covenant.

Finally, the military leadership of the country decided it was time to move Evita completely out of the country.  Shipping off the various vinyl and wax duplicate corpses to various Argentine embassies as decoys, the real coffin was shipped by cargo ship to Italy where it was buried in a cemetery outside of Milan in a grave marked ‘Maria Maggi”.  Naturally, it didn’t stay there long.

Meanwhile, the former president of Argentina, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu (the general who had ousted Juan Perón in 1955), was kidnapped and executed by supporters of Juan Perón.  A few years later, they stole his corpse and offered to trade his body for that of Evita. 

In 1971, when yet another general staged his own military coup against his former military comrades, he took over a country that was yearning for the good ol’ days of a past that had never existed.  Desperate for support, the new president made a deal for the endorsement of Juan Perón, who was still exiled in Spain.  For $50,000 in cash, the restoration of his lost citizenship, and the return of the body of Evita, Perón heartily endorsed the new president.  This was a monumentally stupid move on the general's part, since all it did was legitimize Perón in the eyes of his supporters.

Spanish and Italian police accompanied the hearse bearing Evita’s body to Perón’s home in Madrid, where the former President had had the world’s largest Barbie doll placed in an open coffin on the coffee table.  Nightly, Juan’s third wife, Isabel combed her hair.  According to one source, he occasionally had Isabel lie on top of the coffin to absorb the “energy” from Evita.

By 1973, Perón was once again elected president and returned to Argentina, leaving Evita in Madrid.  When Juan died in 1974, his wife Isabel briefly became the president--the first female president of a country anywhere in the world.  Anxious to appease the country’s Perónistas, she had Evita shipped from Madrid to Buenos Aires where Evita lay in state at the Casa Rosada (the pink house is the Argentine equivalent of the American White House).  Within days, the body of former President Aramburu was found abandoned on a Buenos Aires street.

By now, Evita needed a "little" repair.  For too many years, the crate had been left standing upright, so her feet were broken.  There was also evidence that someone had opened the coffin on occasion and had hit her with something.  Her nose was broken, and well….as it says on a box of cereal, “Some settling of contents many have occurred during shipping.” 

Who do you call to fix a really big Barbie Doll?  It may give you some idea of her condition when I tell you they called in an Art Historian. Really! There are lots of pictures!

Eventually, the coffins of both Juan and Evita were put on display one final time in 1976, and once again, the people of Argentina stood in long lines to gaze down on the remains of their beloved former dictators.

When the military finally had the next,  inevitable coup in 1976, they quickly put Isabel under house arrest, and scooped up the coffin of Evita.  It was time to permanently settle a problem that had needed a solution ever since the woman had died, twenty-four years previously.  Separating the couple forever, Evita was taken to her father’s family vault and buried under three steel plates and 18 feet of concrete, deep enough to survive a direct nuclear hit.  Ironically, she is located in Recoleta Cemetery, fairly close to the grave of President Aramburu.

Come the Apocalypse, the only thing left on Earth will be cockroaches and Evita. 

All of that concrete and steel was probably a good idea.  In 1987, vandals broke into the tomb of Juan Perón and sawed off his hands.  They have not yet been recovered.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Detective Lost in the Dark

A little more than a century ago, Mark Twain was testifying in front of a Congressional committee about legislation concerning impending copyright laws.  Twain had fought mighty battles to secure the rights to his books in both the United States and Europe, and had some unique ideas concerning intellectual property rights.

While the author really wanted rights in perpetuity, he was willing to settle for the life of the author plus fifty years.  At one point in his testimony, Twain seemed to contradict himself, saying for the vast majority of authors, the copyright laws were meaningless, since the life of most literary works was substantially less than the copyright law.  As Twain said:

….One author per year produces a book which can outlive the forty-two year limit, and that is all. This nation can not produce two authors per year who can create a book that will outlast forty-two years. The thing is demonstrably impossible. It can not be done!

Twain believed that the popularity of most literary works would not last long enough to matter and that the famous authors of today would be forgotten within a generation—a prophecy that was certainly borne out.  How many books published in the 19th century have you read?  For the vast majority of Americans, Twain and Conan Doyle may be the only authors of the century most of us can name, much less claim to have read.

The list of authors who momentarily burned bright in the spotlight only to vanish a few years later is seemingly endless.  Together, these forgotten works form a literary goldmine for the reader interested in just a little digging at the local library.  And since Congress did not listen to Twain, most of these works are not in the public domain, meaning that you can read them online or download them to a Kindle for free.

This brings us to Ernest Bramah.  I can just picture you saying, “Who?  Never heard of him.”

Bramah was a British writer of a century ago.  A failure at several occupations, he began his writing career by sending in letters to a local newspaper.  Supported by his father, Bramah lost a small fortune as a farmer, then lost even more money when he attempted to sell a book about his misadventures behind a plow.  After this failure, he found menial employment as a secretary on Grub Street in London. 

Grub Street was a poor section of London known for small publishers of books and magazines of low cost and perhaps of even less value.  These were the kinds of literary endeavors that would later be called “Pulp Fiction”.  It was there that Bramah eventually found employment, working for Jerome K. Jerome, the author and magazine editor.

Note.  It was only after reading the works of Bramah that I became interested in his early life and discovered his connection to Jerome, one of my favorite authors.  (If I could own only one book—a nightmarish prospect—it would be Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.)  The writing styles are not similar, either in tone or subject matter, so there is no apparent connection between the two authors, yet something attracted me—It can’t be a coincidence.

Bramah eventually wrote another book, a novel about Kai Lung, an itinerant Chinese peasant whose travels give him the opportunity to spin gentle morality tales in which peasants invariably find peace through frugality and humility.  The first book, The Wallet of Kai Lung was submitted to eight publishers before it was finally accepted.  Perhaps the reason for multiple rejections was that Bramah knew nothing about China.  Bramah simply made up a world with imaginary customs, laws and people and labeled it China.  Since his readers knew no more about the real China than Bramah, he got away with it.

Bramah is still getting away with it:  Have you ever heard of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”?  This is not Chinese, it is Bramah.  Though by now, I have no doubt the saying has actually made its way to China.

In 1914, Bramah began publishing a series of detective stories in The Strand Magazine.  Today, Tht Strand is familiar to most for publishing the Sherlock Holmes stores of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  At the time of publication, however, the magazine frequently gave top billing to a forgotten detective, Max Carrados, an invention of Ernest Bramah.

Max Carrados was a brilliant detective, very much in the tradition of the English mystery, who solved mysteries despite being totally blind.  It was this disability, perhaps, that heightened his other senses and allowed him to find solutions to crimes which even Scotland Yard had failed to solve.  The stories are nothing short of brilliant.

It is impossible not to compare Sherlock Holmes to Max Carrados and wonder why one is a household name and the other all but forgotten.  There are several obvious reasons.  Doyle developed all the characters in his stories, bringing London to life for readers of any age, while Bramah focused on Carrados and his overcoming his handicaps, assuming that a contemporary reader was already familiar with Edwardian London.  In addition, while the action stories of Doyle readily lend themselves to television and movies, Carrados—operating quite literally in the dark—can only easily exist in the imagination of the reader.  It is for this reason that Carrados has been successful produced several times on the BBC radio, but has never been tried on the big screen.  Sherlock Holmes, by comparison, appeared in movies as early as 1900.

Bramah wrote science fiction, predicting airlines connecting the countries of Europe before a plane had even crossed the English Channel.  His work of political fiction, What Might Have Been (1907), predicts the rise of Fascist Germany with depressing accuracy.  The work was even later credited by George Orwell as an inspiration for his own (slightly more well-known) book, 1984

Of all of Bramah's works, I can only heartily recommend the mysteries of Max Carrados, but it still is a shame that he has been forgotten by today’s readers.  I highly recommend that you access and read them here.  Long after Twain argued for a copyright that expired fifty years after the death of the author, the European Union extended the rights to seventy years postmortem.   Which meant for the works of Bramah, the copyrights expired five years ago.  

It turns out that Twain was correct.  The copyrights on the works of Ernest Bramah no longer matter.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Prom Night Along the Brazos

The two old ranchers were sitting in the Buckhorn Cafe early, working on plates of biscuits and gravy when the deputy sheriff walked in. 

"Morning Mike, Kent," the deputy said as he sat down on one of the counter stools and turned to the waitress.  "Morning to you, too, Mary Lou.  Can I get a cup of coffee?”  The last greeting was unnecessary as the waitress was already moving, a pot of coffee in one hand and a large white, porcelain cup in the other.

"Good morning, Bob," answered Kent while Mike, with a mouth full of breakfast, just waved a fork at the deputy. 

As the waitress poured a cup of coffee, she asked, “Aren’t you getting off a little late this morning?”

Mike swallowed his biscuits and added, “Yeah, I thought you were on the graveyard shift.”

“I still work nights, but the whole department got a workout last night.  I just now cleared all my calls.  It’s the end of the school year and the high school had their damn prom last night.  We had anxious parents calling in all night, wondering where their children were.”

“Probably afraid their young’uns were doing exactly what they had done on their own prom night,” said Kent.  The old cowboy smiled, undoubtedly remembering his own high school adventures.

As Mike reached across the table for the bottle of Tabasco Sauce, he saw the smile on his friend’s face and snorted.  “Don’t know what you’re grinnin’ at,” he said.  “When we went to school, they hadn’t invented dancing yet.”

The deputy put his coffee cup down on the counter and swiveled his stool around to look at the two men.  “As far as I can tell, no two teenagers in the county slept in their own beds last night, and less than half of them were sleeping anywhere!  I think every pasture in the county has a family sedan stuck in the mud up to the floorboards.  The tow trucks will be busy ‘til Memorial Day.”

The two ranchers laughed.  “Is that what had you busy all night?  Are we going to have some shotgun weddings in a few months?”

The lawman shook his head and answered, “As far as I can tell, there were more fathers worried about their cars than there were fathers worried about their daughters.  There was one interesting moment last night—I think I met the smartest kid in the county and think that boy’s going to be a future congressman.”

“I hope you shot the little weasel, we already got more politicians than skunks,” said Mike.

“Pay no attention to him, Bob.  He’s just acting ornery because Barbara’s got him on a low cholesterol diet again.  The fat content in his head’s about a quart low.  That’s why we snuck out to eat breakfast here.  He’ll feel better after he finishes his bacon.  Tell us what happened,” urged Kent.

“I was driving down the dirt maintenance road along the Brazos River, looking for couples out parking.  The sheriff says not to bother anyone unless we suspect there is underage drinking or someone is a little young to be out there….y’all understand, we don’t go looking for trouble, but we are trying to prevent it before it happens.”

Both of the old ranchers nodded their heads in agreement and the deputy continued his story.

“Well, I was about a mile down from the bridge below Santo, almost to the catfish restaurant when I see this car pulled off the road, way back under the trees.  That sure as hell wasn’t unusual last night, but the interior light was on and I could see a young man sitting in the front seat and a young girl in the back seat.  That was unusual, so I decided to get a closer look.”

By now, Mary Lou had come out of the kitchen, and was listening as intently as the two ranchers while she refilled the deputy’s coffee cup.

“Well,” said the deputy.  “I turned on the light bar, and pulled up behind their car.  As I was walking up to their car, I could see the boy was reading a magazine and when I got up to the window, there was this young girl, sitting in the back seat doing her fingernails.  They were just as cool and calm as a pitcher of buttermilk.”

“Well, the boy rolls down his window, and I start to question him,” said the deputy, and then he recounted his conversation with the two teenagers.

“Evening.  What are y’all doing out here this late?  Having car trouble?”

“No, sir.  Just reading this hunting magazine, officer.”

“What’s she doing in the backseat?”

“She’s doing her nails.”  At this, the young girl looks up and smiles sweetly at the deputy. 

“How old are you?”

“I’m nineteen, sir.”

“How old is she?”, asks the deputy, pointing to the girl in the backseat.

The young man looks down at his watch for a second, then answers, “She’ll be eighteen in eleven minutes, sir.”

Both of the ranchers laughed while Mary Lou just smiled and walked back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, that sounds like a budding politician.  What did you do then?” asked Mike.

“Wasn’t much I could do,” said the deputy.  “I told her ‘Happy Birthday’ and left.”