Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Bloodiest Battle

Early in the War of 1812, there was a bloody battle between two evenly matched frigates that established long-lasting traditions for both the American and the British navies.  This was the single most violent ship-to-ship action in naval history up to that date, and probably the finest action of its kind in the history of sail.

Both ships were carrying long 18-pounder cannons on their gun decks with additional 32-pound carronades (heavy short-range cannons nicknamed, "Smashers"), on the main deck.  Captain James Lawrence, while new to the USS Chesapeake, was an experienced captain who knew he had a good ship and a superb crew.  Unfortunately for Lawrence, the British had a good ship with a good crew as well.  British Captain Philip Broke was a superb leader who had just spent the last seven years preparing his crew and ship for just such a battle.  For those seven years he had sought absolute mastery of naval gunnery and what he called naval honor.

A decade earlier, the British Navy had excelled in naval gunnery—in no small part due to constant gunnery drills conducted on all ships.  After the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Admiralty ordered the gun drills halted to save on the cost of gunpowder.  At the time, the Admiralty believed that there were no more enemies left to defeat, effectively electing to take a Peace Dividend”.

Captain Broke ignored that order.  His crew were taught to fire their guns as fast as possible, to hit their targets, and to do it all in absolute silence so that the crew could hear shouted orders.  From his own pocket, he equipped his ships guns with sights, a relatively new innovation that had not yet been adopted by most of the worlds navies.  Long before it became standard practice, he developed an effective fire control system that was capable of concentrating fire on a single point on an enemy ship.  Broke also mounted 9-pound guns on his quarterdeck so he could sweep the decks of an enemy, and in particular, blast away a ships wheel.  If a ship loses their wheel, it cannot control the rudder, which means the ship cannot be effectively steered or controlled. 

Remember, at the time, the main armament of these floating wooden castles were the ships main guns which fired broadsides directly to the port and starboard.  You aimed these guns by turning the entire ship.

Captain Broke had spent his entire naval career practicing for a ship-to-ship action.  During the first months of the war, he had deliberately refrained from capturing American merchant vessels so he would not have to split his crew, despite the fact that taking good prize ship could make a captain and his crew independently wealthy. 

The battle started on June 1, 1813 with the Chesapeake in harbor and the Shannon waiting just outside the harbor.  When the Chesapeake came out, the Shannon withdrew out to sea to await the American vessel.  Due to the ponderously slow nature of warships under sail, both ships had to agree to the fight or it would be almost impossible for it to take place (should one ship be attacked and not wish to fight, it could—unless disabled—simply sail away).  In many ways this kind of battle was actually a duel.  Broke had sent a challenge ashore for Lawrence, but the American ship had sailed before it was delivered.  Even without the challenge, Lawrence had wanted to engage the English ship: before leaving port, he had written to his brother-in-law, entrusting his wife and children to that man's care if he should fall in battle.

This battle should never have taken place—the American navy consisted of only a handful of frigates, each of which was far too valuable to be risked in single ship-to-ship actions.  President Madison had ordered Lawrence to attack the merchant vessels supplying the British Army in Quebec, in support of Madisons planned invasion of Canada.  The odds were, that should Lawrence capture or sink the Shannon, his ship would be too damaged to accomplish his mission.

The Shannon moved about 20 miles off shore and awaited the Chesapeake.  The British ship lowered her sails, leaving just her jib aloft in order to steer.  The American ship had the weather gage—meaning she was upwind and had a tactical advantage.  As his ship approached, Lawrence could have turned at the last moment and passed behind the lightly-armed stern of the Shannon, allowing him to fire a devastating broadside down the length of the ship—a blow that would have almost certainly given him victory over the British ship.  Either Lawrence did not realize his opportunity or felt some misplaced gallantry, for he steered his ship to come alongside the Shannon, which was only a little more than a hundred feet away.

Unfortunately, the Chesapeake came in a little too fast and at an angle from which she could not fire at the British ship as she moved into position.  In most naval actions, this would not matter significantly since a single broadside was not that devastating.  But a broadside from Brokes excellent crew was different.  Every other gun was loaded with double shot, while those in between were loaded with a single cannon ball and a bag of shot. 

As the American vessel moved forward, one by one the British guns carefully fired.  Starting with the stern-most gun, every British gun crew fired and hit an American gun port, while the deck carronades all but destroyed the forecastle.  On both ships, the Marines in the rigging poured deadly musket fire down onto the deck of the opposing ship. 

Lawrence, wounded in the leg from one of the first volleys, realized his mistake, and turned his ship into the wind to halt the forward motion.  Finally, the Chesapeake fired back.  Since the ship was upwind and had just turned, she was heeled over, leaning towards the enemy vessel, lowering her port-side gun ports.  The British fired into the gun ports while the Americans aimed much lower, striking the Shannon at the waterline. 

Both crews fired rapidly, but well-placed carronades from the Shannon took a toll.  The Chesapeake deck was a slaughter house, with almost everyone either dead or wounded and only a third of her gun crews still working.  Every one of Chesapeake's officers on deck was either killed or wounded, but a far more crippling casualty was the ship's wheel, which accurate British fire had shot away, thus leaving her unable to be steered.

The Shannon was also suffering, but by chance, most of her officers were still capable of serving, and the ship could still be steered.

With no wheel to stop her turn, the Chesapeake’s bow continued to turn into the wind and away from the Shannon, exposing her stern to even more devastating fire.  Finally, heading directly into the wind, the Chesapeake lost speed and started moving slowly back towards the Shannon.

Now, had you been Captain Broke, you would have wanted to keep away from the Chesapeake, firing round after round into the ship until  either she struck or you decided to board her.  And Im sure this is what Broke would have done had a lucky shot from the American vessel had not shot away the Shannon’s jib. 

Captain Lawrence, still desperately trying to win this battle, prepared his crew to board the Shannon.  He ordered his men up from the gun deck to the quarterdeck to prepare to board….when he was shot again, by a lucky pistol shot from the Shannon’s chaplain, this time he is hit in the groin.  Lawrence called for help, and Third Lieutenant William S. Cox helped the Captain below decks to the surgeon.  Cox did not realize that he was actually in command of the ship, since every other officer had been either killed or wounded and incapacitated—four levels of command had been wiped out in less than ten minutes! 

Without an officer in charge, and with no one left to order the men to board the Shannon, the men on deck panicked and began to flee below deck.  By the time Lieutenant Cox realized his mistake, the press of men rushing to safety prevented him from returning to the deck.

Lawrence, as he was carried below, yelled encouragement to his men, Tell the men to fire faster! Dont give up the ship!

Now, the Shannon was still firing her guns right into the stern of the Chesapeake, wiping out what was left of the gun deck while her carronades and muskets were delivering pure hell to the upper decks.  Powder monkeys—young boys whose job it was to bring powder up from the hold to the guns—desperately spread buckets of sand on the wooden decks slippery with blood so the men could fight back even as the British ship continued to fire her cannons at an ever dwindling range.

Finally, the Chesapeake crashed stern first into the side of the Shannon, about 50 feet back from the bow, and was stuck there on a fluke of the Shannon’s anchor.  Captain Broke had never really considered boarding the Chesapeake, but he saw his opportunity and as the only British officer nearby who was still standing, he ordered his men to follow him as he jumped to the Chesapeake.

The outnumbered Americans were driven back along the deck to the forecastle, where they broke and sought cover below deck.  Then the two ships broke apart and separated leaving about 60 Englishmen on the upper deck of the American frigate. 

Even though this fight was pretty much over, three Americans, probably from the tops (high rigging), attacked Captain Broke.  Broke killed the first with his sword, but the second sailor clubbed the captain with a musket as the third swung a cutlass that slashed the Captains head.  In retaliation, the British boarding party hacked the two sailors to death with their swords.

As a small British ensign was hoisted from the Chesapeake, the Shannon stopped firing. Ironically, when the Shannon’s first lieutenant hauled down the small ensign so he could raise a larger version, a gun captain on the Shannon, believing that the Americans were retaking the ship, fired a round of grapeshot that killed the lieutenant and three other British sailors, putting British Second Lieutenant Provo Wallis in command of the Shannon.

The remaining American crewmen were driven below and the gratings secured over the hatches to keep them there.  Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded, called out for the crew to blow up the ship, but no one carried out his order.

This whole battle took eleven minutes and the butcher's bill was 147 American and 79 British casualties—over a third of the men present.  While the HMS Victory, after the six-hour Battle of Trafalgar, had a few more casualties, the percent of men falling casualty in this battle was much higher..  Captain Lawrence died after three agonizing days of peritonitis, becoming a national hero and his cry of “Don’t give up the ship!became a motto for the US Navy.

Under the command of Lieutenant Wallis, the Shannon towed the Chesapeake back to Halifax, where both ships were repaired.  Now a ship of the British Navy, the HMS Chesapeake returned to Portsmouth where she was broken up and sold for scrap lumber.  Her American flag, bullet-riddled and caked with dried blood is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

While Captain Lawrence, despite his poor judgement, became a national hero, Third Lieutenant Cox was court-martialed for abandoning his command.  Charged with dereliction of duty, he was discharged from the navy in disgrace.  Protesting his innocence, he joined the army and fought in the war as a private.  For decades, his family campaigned to overturn this conviction, and after 139 years they were finally successful.  Lieutenant Coxs rank was restored by President Truman in 1952.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Las Meninas

The painting at first glance seems to be a simple scene of a day in the life at the 17th Century court of Philip IV of Spain, however, the longer you look at it, the more questions arise. 

The painting is a deliberate puzzle and one that cannot be solved as in The Da Vinci Code.  There are no hidden clues, no information hidden in history, and no right answers.  The painter, Diego Velazquez, knew exactly what he was doing:  he wanted to confuse the viewer, and he  has succeeded in doing so for over three centuries.

At the center of the scene is the five year-old Infanta Margarita, the eldest daughter of King Philip IV of Spain.  On each side of her are her Maids of Honor, of whom one is kneeling and offering her a jug of water while the other curtseys.  The masterpiece is named Las Meninas, (The Maids of Honor), and it is the most famous of all Spanish paintings.  A later artist, Luca Giordano, famously said the painting shows the “theology of painting”.

The longer you looks at the painting, the more you notice incongruities:   To the Infanta’s right, is the artist himself, shown painting on a very large canvas.  But, what is he painting?  The artist—like almost everyone else in the painting—is looking directly at you.  Has he been interrupted while painting a portrait of the Infanta?  Or is he painting a portrait of the King and Queen, and we are seeing him from the King's point of view?

Is that a large mirror at the back of the room and has Velazquez depicted himself in the act of creating this painting?  He is working on an enormous canvas, and Las Meninas is the only painting of that size he ever created, but is the subject matter the Infanta, or the artist, or the royal parents?

Artists did not normally include themselves in royal portraits, and as the court-appointed portraitist, it would have been inconceivable for Velazquez to have done so without the prior consent of the king.  A few years ago, the BBC referred to the artist's appearing in this painting as "the first photobombing"—some 175 years before the invention of photography!

The artist is holding a palette of the raw paint that he uses to create the image of the palette and the paint itself.  This is the kind of anachronism we would expect in the surrealism of Magritte, but it is astounding in a 17th century royal portrait—or does this truly qualify as a portrait?

On the far wall is a ghostly image of the king and queen together.  Is this a mirror showing the reflection of the monarchs as they sit for their portrait?  At this point in history, monarchs were rarely depicted together in portraits.  Velazquez was the royal portrait artist, yet this small ghostly image is the only painting he ever did of the royal couple together.  Or is the slightly obscured image a window through which the monarchs are looking into the room where the portrait is being done?

One possible explanation is that the painting shows the world through the king’s eyes—what he sees as he sits for his portrait.  Could it be that this is what the painting meant to Philip, since he hung the painting in his private study for the rest of his life?

Without a doubt, the painting does give us a glimpse of a dying empire.  The Habsburg rule of Spain was quickly coming to an end that was a mostly self-inflicted death.  Fearful of dividing the family wealth, the Habsburgs had been inbreeding for centuries.  Whereas today, marriage between cousins is frowned upon, within the royal family of Spain, it would have been an improvement.  Philip IV married his niece, effectively making the Infanta Margarita her own cousin.  (And her father was her great uncle, her grandfather was her great-grandfather, her grandmother was her aunt, and so forth.)

If you engage in this kind of inbreeding, it is not very long before you produce offspring who sit quietly in the corner all day and lick their own eyebrows—which is exactly what happened in this case.  The Infanta’s brother/cousin, Charles II (after only sixteen generations of inbreeding) was a complete physical and mental wreck who would accomplish nothing more than preside over the funeral of an empire murdered by his father/uncle.  The family tree of Charles II shows one ancestor, Joanna the Mad, fourteen times.

Philip IV was a walking monument to superstition and indecision.  Though he had inherited a vast empire upon which the sun never set, he had also inherited a religious war against an increasingly Protestant Europe—a war that was impossible to win even as it consumed the empire’s remaining resources.  While a strong monarch might have salvaged the situation and saved at least part of the empire, Philip spent long periods in the family mausoleum, wracked in religious guilt for his 32 illegitimate children, his military defeats, and his failure to change the downward spiral of his empire.

Spain lost territories one by one, even while the increasingly strong British Navy robbed the treasure ships coming from the New World.  Portugal and Holland split off, Caribbean islands were lost, and Spain was too exhausted militarily to recover her lost possessions.  Perennially bankrupt, Spain kept raising taxes to fund a lost war to the point of economic collapse. 

If you look carefully at the artist, you will note he wears the Cross of the Order of Santiago on his left breast.  This was an honor added to the painting after Velazquez died (according to legend by the hand of the king, himself).  While Velazquez had applied for the honor before he died, the background investigation had not yet concluded.  Testimony was taken from 148 witnesses who testified that the artist was qualified to be a hidalgo, since he had never worked a day in his life for pay.  It is not hard to imagine the fall of a country that honors the idle over the industrious.

By the time this painting was done, the royal residence could no longer come up with the cash to purchase enough firewood to last the winter.  Even Velazquez was forced to withhold part of the pay of his staff to cover his bills.

And as Habsburg Spain slowly collapsed, protocol and ceremony at court actually increased.  When all else is lost, there is always comfort in pointless ritual.  Look back at that painting and notice how the two maids are kneeling and bowing—a necessity when anything was presented to a member of the royal family.  The infanta is standing proudly, displaying no emotion.  Her father was known to smile only twice at court in his entire lifetime.

The two dwarves to the Infanta’s left were part of a large contingent of court “monsters”, who were more numerous at the Spanish court than at other European Royal courts.  While exempt from the rules of court protocol, their presence at court was both to amuse and to give everyone who saw them a feeling of superiority.  It is not by accident that they are included with the mastiff.

The painting has fascinated generations of artists, each of whom created his own version of the masterpiece.  Goya, Degas, Manet, Max Lieberman, Franz von Stuck, and Salvador Dali recreated the painting in their own styles.  There is even a recreation of the painting in a sculpture garden that will allow you to "walk through the painting".  In 1957, Pablo Picasso became so obsessed with the painting that he recreated it fifty-eight times in less than five months! 

There is even a second version of this painting in England, on display at the Kingston Lacy Estate.  This smaller version was done by either Velasquez himself, or by his son-in-law and successor, Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo.  Some historians believe that this painting is the original, a model (technically a modelleto) to be used for the finished piece, and that the larger version (10.5 feet by 9 feet), on display today at the Prado in Madrid, is the copy.

In the rear of the painting, above the door and the images of the kIng and queen, are two paintings, done by del Mazo.  If the Dorset copy of the painting was done by the son-in-law, then Mazo copied Velazquez’s copy of Mazo’s paintings.  (And this is beginning to sound like something by Dr. Seuss.) 

After centuries of careful research and study, today we believe we know the name of everyone in the picture.  The guard, the Lady-in-Waiting, the Maids-of-Honor, even the two dwarves.  We know the name and rank of everyone in the painting, except the dog.  It is amazing that we know so much about a painting where the artist was deliberately enigmatic.

I confess to being fascinated by this painting, but I’m not exactly sure why.  It is either what the painting tells me, or what the mysteries buried within it do not tell me.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

From Stevedore to Captain

The Civil War began as an effort to preserve the union, but as time went on, the North seized the moral high ground by making freedom for southern slaves a major goal of the war.  This did not mean, however, that the North believed in the equality of all men.

It was generally believed that the Negro was mentally inferior and intellectually incapable of performing complex tasks.  Even the abolitionist John Brown believed that the freed slaves would have to be led and supervised like children.  While gathering arms for his proposed black army that would sweep through the south ending slavery, Brown gathered pikes, believing that firearms were too complicated for Negroes.

In the North, for the first years of the war, a law that had been enacted in 1792 prohibited blacks from enlisting or fighting in the war.  Despite the fact that black soldiers had served with distinction in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, even as white men were drafted, black men were not allowed to even volunteer.  The remarkable accomplishments of Robert Smalls helped change this.

Robert Smalls was born a slave, to parents who were slaves, in South Carolina.  Today, the stereotypical view of slaves are of men who exclusively worked in the fields picking cotton or tobacco.  Actually, many slaves worked in town as craftsmen, such as carpenters, blacksmiths, or musicians, who earned wages that were turned over to their masters.  Smalls was hired out as a stevedore, loading and unloading the shallow-draft ships that plied the coastal plantations.

Cotton was the principal cash crop, and every small community had a cotton press built near a coastal inlet or the mouth of a small river or creek.  Loose cotton was pressed (usually by mule, or occasionally, steam power) into bales weighing between 400 and 500 pounds.  Shallow-draft ships would then carry the heavy bales to a larger port where they could be offloaded, sold, and then loaded onto ships bound for Northern U.S. or British mills.

It was on one of those shallow-draft ships that Smalls rose to prominence.  By hard work and natural ability, the uneducated slave became, first, a seaman, and eventually a wheelman (had he been white, Smalls would have been called a pilot). 

Pilots did more than simply steer the ship:  they navigated the course, and most important, had an encyclopedic knowledge of the local sandbars and reefs along the shallow shores of the south all the way down to Florida.  Pilots knew how to interpret the currents, knew the locations of uncharted docks, and had memorized where lay the submerged tree stumps that could easily rip the bottom off a wayward vessel.  On many vessels, a good pilot was paid more the ships's captain.

Smalls was a wheelman on the Planter, and his wages went to his master, Henry McKee of Beaufort, South Carolina.  The Planter  (pictured at right as a prewar merchant ship) was 147 feet long, with a beam of 30 feet.  A steam-powered side-wheeler, with a draft less than four feet, she was the perfect ship for calling on small ports and inlets up and down the coast, transporting heavy loads of cotton.

After the fall of Fort Sumter and the start of the war, the CSS Planter was the perfect ship for transporting men and supplies for the Confederacy.  Stationed in Charleston Harbor and now lightly fortified and carrying two small cannons, she was capable of moving more than 1000 men along with supplies up and down the coast despite the deep draft ocean-going vessels of the US Navy blockading the port.

Smalls continued as the wheelman of the Planter, which by now had a crew of eight slaves and four white officers.  Exactly when Smalls began thinking of escaping from slavery is unclear, but he must have been inspired by the sight of Union ships stationed just past Fort Sumter.  Smalls and the other slaves began plotting their run for freedom.

Against direct orders to the contrary, the captain and his officers slept ashore.   In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, Smalls fired up the ship's boilers as normal--only a few hours early.   No one paid any attention as the ship left the the military docks and proceeded down the river, to a rendezvous point at which it quietly pulled alongside another vessel, taking on the wives and families of the escaping slaves.

As the vessel passed each Confederate checkpoint, the ship gave the appropriate signal.  while passing the guns of Fort Sumter, Smalls donned the Captain's hat, stood on the bow with his back turned to the sentries.  When the ship's whistle sounded the appropriate signal--two longs and a short--the men standing guard on shore waved at the vessel.  Politely, Smalls waved back, while being careful to keep his face averted.

Once past the fort, the deception ended as the Planter did not turn to continue down the coast, but steamed directly for the nearest Federal ship, the USS Onward.  The danger was no longer the Confederate guns, but convincing the naval ships that the Planter was not attempting to attack.  As the Onward's Captain, J.F. Nichols, prepared to fire a broadside into the Confederate ship, Smalls ordered the crew to raise a white sheet as a signal that the ship intended to surrender. 

Not only did the US Navy accept the surrender, but they treated the ship as a captured prize vessel, meaning that the crew was entitled to a cash payment equal to half the value of the ship, plus the value of the cargo--in this case four dismounted cannons and 200 pounds of ammunition.  Smalls would eventually receive $6,500 in prize money ($150,411.12 in 2017 dollars).  In addition, the rear admiral in charge of the Charleston blockade kept Smalls as pilot aboard the new USS Planter.

More valuable than the ship itself, Smalls turned over to the US Navy the captain''s code book and maps showing the location of Confederate mines (then called torpedoes) and coastal gun emplacements.  Back in Charleston, the ship's white Confederate officers were facing court martial.

The escaping slaves with their stolen warship were a propaganda coup for the North, with newspapers and magazines turning Smalls into a national hero.  Harper's Weekly embellished the story, having "an aging darky" outwitting the Confederate checkpoints.  In actuality, Smalls was only 23. 

After touring Northern churches, lecturing on the war and slavery, Smalls returned to the Planter, using his knowledge about the South Carolina coast while he participated on over a dozen raids.  In one such action, while under fire, the white Captain fled below decks seeking safety forcing Smalls to take over command of the ship and finish the raid.  Shortly after the raid, he was appointed the ship's captain, a post he held for the rest of the war.

Of the approximate 200,000 black men who served in either the army or the navy, fewer than 80 served as commissioned officers.  

When Smalls escaped, it was still a year before the North would allow Blacks to serve in the Army, and his exploits were among the arguments that eventually allowed blacks to enlist.  Even after Blacks were finally allowed to enlist, initially their monthly pay was only $10 per month with $3 subtracted for uniforms and food.   White soldiers received $13 a month with no deductions.  This contrasted with Smalls, who received $150 a month as a ship's captain.

After the war, Smalls, a Republican, served in the constitutional convention that wrote the new constitution for South Carolina, where he co-authored the civil rights clause.  Serving in both the state's House and Senate, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874 where he served until 1887, after Reconstruction had ended and the state's Democratic Party had disenfranchised Blacks.  Smalls returned to Beaufort, South Carolina as a Customs Agent.  When he applied for a pension, it was discovered that all of the official paperwork had been lost and the Navy refused to grant his pension despite the numerous newspaper and magazine articles documenting his career.  His pension, $30 a month, was eventually authorized by an act of Congress.

Significant among his legislation is a bill authorizing a naval coaling station at Port Royal, South Carolina.  The small outpost grew rapidly over the years and its name was changed several times.  Today, it is called Paris Island Marine Corp Training Depot, where it provides basic training to 19,000 newly inducted Marines a year.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Take this Book and Shelve It

In the last few weeks, I have spent a lot of time in the Enema U library.  This is hardly surprising, as I have spent a significant amount of my life in libraries and bookstores.  (And in  bars—the majority of the rest of my life has been foolishly wasted.  As proof of my love of book collections, I can offer this photo of the library cards from my desk drawer.  Note that these do not include the ones currently in my wallet.)

What I was utterly surprised to find in the library last week were patrons sitting, laughing, and eating pizza.  For some reason, the library has added a coffee shop and now allows food and beverages among the books.  I earnestly desired to kick over the tables and drive out the livestock, but I had forgotten my whip.

The library reminded me of the late Border’s Bookstores, where I always had trouble shopping for books while being forced to listen to the dreadful music blasting from the loudspeakers.  Personally, I am convinced that the main reason the entire chain went bankrupt was that no one contemplated purchasing a book while listening to a recording of someone breaking up a pillow fight in a sorority house by beating a bass drum with a cat.

Librarians are trying desperately to find some way to keep their jobs, or at least to keep the libraries even remotely relevant.   I don’t blame them, since for some reason, the public now believes that libraries serve three main functions:  First, for warehousing of old paper that has not yet been scanned.  Second, as a place to help the dwindling number of people who lack internet in their homes to keep current on Facebook.  Third, as  Public Bathrooms for the homeless.

Some libraries are reducing the number of books they hold in order to make room for meeting rooms, computer labs, and various forms of work rooms.  I’ve read that some libraries are adding rooms with art supplies and 3-D printers for patrons to use.  At least one library has added a workshop full of tools that can be checked out by modelers, so-called “maker spaces”.

If libraries are my temples, then count me as an orthodox conservative worshipper.  I would prefer my library to have more books and a lot less coffee.  I cannot understand why libraries sell books, but I must own a hundred such volumes stamped Ex-Libris.  It should be illegal for a library to sell a book:  they are stealing from future patrons.  (Don’t tell me it is a space problem.  If you have room for that damn coffee bar, you have room for more books.)

The greatest library of the past is the Library of Alexandria, which supposedly burned.  Actually, most scholars today believe that the library eventually was destroyed by the same forces that kill libraries today:  a lack of support and declining public interest.  When Julius Caesar was courting Cleopatra, she supposedly told him to take as many books home from the great library as he wanted.  Caesar supposedly took thousands of scrolls, wanting to build a great library in Rome.

While Julius Caesar wouldn’t live long enough to build his library, after his death Asinius Pollo took up the task, building the first Roman library with the collection equally divided into works in Latin and Greek.  He added statues, paintings, and reading rooms.  Our concept of what a library should look like comes largely from the early Roman libraries.  Rome built lots of libraries, even adding them to the public baths so that even the poor had access to books.  By 350 A.D., Rome had 39 library buildings.

As Rome slowly crumbled, so did its libraries.  By 400 A.D., Rome was slowly closing her libraries.  Over the last decade, libraries all over Europe and America have shuttered their doors, as well.  (Recently, a junior high school librarian told me that over her 35-year tenure in the school library, her budget and the number of books in the collection had decreased every single year.  When the taxpayers voted in a large bond issue for the school library, the funds were used to turn some of the library space over to building new offices for the school administration.)

Libraries in America got off to something of a rocky start.  Though Benjamin Franklin started the first American lending library in 1731, libraries were still both rare and small in the new country when the British burned the Library of Congress in 1815 (along with the National Archives).  To this day, the largest destroyers of books in American history have been the British Army, Tennessee school boards, and various evangelical churches.  

The great boom in American libraries occurred at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, largely because of the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who as a poor young immigrant had educated himself at a public library.  Carnegie eventually built 2500 libraries across America, including “Colored Libraries” for the South.  (Jim Crow laws in places like Mississippi forbade library and school books read by “coloreds” to be read by whites.  Those laws were still in force during my childhood.  To this day, many Southern states continue to treat education as a communicable disease.  Today, in order to not appear discriminatory, the same states have eliminated the problem by not teaching anyone how to read.)

From roughly 1900 to the end of World War I, huge libraries were built in New York City, Philadelphia, and at Harvard and Columbia University, and at the Army War College.  When libraries grew to hold millions of volumes, old wooden bookshelves would no longer suffice—there was simply no longer enough space.  The Snead and Company—manufacturers of bookshelves, solved the problem by building heavy duty steel bookshelves with adjustable racks.  These bookcases rested on large marble slabs and were tall enough to help support the upper floors of the library.  Despite having adjustable shelves—enabling frames to be adjusted to hold more bookshelves—the bookshelves become more stable after being loaded with books, becoming an integral part of the building’s superstructure.

These huge heavy duty libraries were necessary to hold the rapidly expanding number of books that libraries housed.  (Or, in the case of Enema U, due to the rapidly expanding bulk of the dean of the library.)

For fifty years, the Snead bookshelves were synonymous with large libraries.  They are the basis of the Library of Congress and they hold the ten million volumes of the library at Harvard University.  But, they are no longer modern, they take up too much room, and they limit the function of a library to only—gasp!—holding books.  When the main library of New York City decided to move a large part of its collection to New Jersey in order to provide space for more meeting rooms….well, it couldn’t.  The structural engineers who studied the problem discovered that if the books were removed from the huge Snead bookshelves, the building would collapse. 

Which brings us to the lesson I sincerely hope librarians all over the world will take to heart:  When you take the books out, the library will collapse—in more ways than one.   

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Thinking Inside the Box

The history of warfare is full stories of unintended consequences, in which small actions by the military  trigger events that continue to affect the civilian world long after the fighting stops.  For example, when the British Navy sought uniform pulley blocks in sufficient quantity during the Napoleonic War, they inadvertently helped develop the concept of manufacturing interchangeable parts, fueling the Industrial Revolution. 

In the same conflict, the French offered a cash reward to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food suitable for use on ships at sea.  The prizewinning process was the method for safely canning food.  (This also means that the can of Wolf Brand Chili I’m having for dinner tonight  qualifies as French Cuisine, so I’ll serve it on the good china.)

Which brings us to shipping containers, those aluminum shipping boxes that seem to be everywhere.  I was stopped at a railroad crossing the other day and it seemed that half of the passing train consisted of flatcars carrying 40’ shipping containers.  It seems that the venerable boxcar is slowly becoming as extinct as the caboose.

While we think of container shipping as a recent development, the idea of shipping freight in standardized boxes that could be offloaded onto trucks or ships actually goes back over a century, but the idea was slow to be adopted because of numerous problems.  Wooden boxes fell apart too easily and steel boxes were too heavy, but the biggest problem of all was the constant interference by the Interstate Commerce Commission whose bizarre regulations all but prohibited any improvements in shipping technology.  Attempts were made to develop containerized cargo during the Great Depression, but the Federal Government forbade it, fearful that it would hurt employment.

This fear of improved technology disrupting the status quo is called creative destruction, and some economists believe that this irrational fear of the future has been the biggest obstacle to the creation of wealth all through human history.  

Here in the US, there was fierce union opposition to containerized shipping.  Even after the container ports in New Jersey were killing off the shipping industry in New York, unions on the docks in New York were still demanding that companies hire crews of twenty-one men to load a ship when the job was actually done by three men and a crane.

On April 26, 1956, a quiet revolution occurred on the docks of Newark, New Jersey.  Malcolm McLean had managed to quietly dance between the regulations and load 56 aluminum truck trailer bodies onto the SS Ideal-X, a former World War II tanker that had been converted to cargo use.  Five days later, a crane lifted the truck bodies off the ship in Houston, Texas.  The facts that Nabisco had just shipped its baked goods to Texas a little faster than normal and at a fraction of the usual cost was largely ignored at the time—as were the facts that that the goods had arrived in better condition than usual and that the cargo had suffered none of the usual  dockside “shrinkage".

What McLean had just done was eliminate the connection between geographical locations and manufacturing.  Factories no longer had to be built near ports and population centers.  While full implementation was still decades in the future, eventually economists would realize that fast, safe shipping all but eliminated the cost of transportation in manufactured goods.  Today, it costs more to upgrade the radio in your new imported car than it does to ship it from Asia to America. And the fact that your new radio may have been shipped to multiple countries for relatively minor steps during the manufacturing process does not figure significantly into the cost.

Which brings us to the Vietnam War and LBJ.  (Yeah, as a transition, that sucked, but remember, I have to tell this whole story in about 1500 words or people won’t stay on the page long enough for the advertisers to pay me the fraction of a penny per reader that runs this site.)

In 1965, we had roughly 24,000 soldiers in Viet Nam The logistics of supplying them was such a nightmare that the Navy was pulling rusty old World War II cargo ships out of mothballs in a desperate attempt to supply the troops.  Long before they had solved this problem, President Johnson suddenly announced the tripling of forces in the country.  Logistics immediately went from bad to totally fornicated skyward. 

The situation got worse after the Pentagon decided that since internal transportation in South Vietnam was poor (few highways, only one deepwater port, no real rail system, and dilapidated docks and harbors) the military would run a push supply system instead of a pull supply system.  This meant that instead of shipping to Vietnam what units had requisitioned, the Pentagon would ship everything to Vietnam in anticipation of future requisitions.  Or to put in more modern terms, instead of being Amazon with Prime shipping, the Army was going to be a Super Walmart.  And the people who were deciding how to stock the shelves knew nothing of shipping, the facilities available to unload and warehouse the inventory, or even the needs of combat units fighting in a jungle in Southeast Asia.

We shipped everything and the kitchen sink to Vietnam.  And the kitchen.  In triplicate and in every available color.

The docks in Vietnam were a nightmare.  First, there weren’t enough docks for the ships.  So we towed a DeLong dock from South Carolina, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific to the new port of Cam Ranh Bay.  A DeLong dock is a 300’ barge with holes in it, designed to towed into position and secured with pilings driven through the holes.  This was to be the first of many such docks towed to Vietnam. 

Even if the docks had been there, most of the harbors were too shallow to allow deep-water cargo ships.  An LST (Landing Ship Tank) would sail adjacent to the cargo ships, the freight would be transferred by hand to the LST, which would ferry the goods to the improvised dock…where there were not enough warehouses for the material to be stored.  The military would usually just leave the goods on the ship until needed, turning a valuable cargo ship into a floating warehouse.  And usually, by the time the goods were needed, it usually took too long to unload them.  Eventually, so many ships were waiting to be unloaded that many were sent to wait in the Philippines so the Pentagon could avoid paying combat pay to the crews waiting.  And since nobody knew where (or even if something was), commanders in the field screamed for more supplies, which were shipped in triplicate, adding to the logistic nightmare.

This mess was largely cleaned up by Malcolm McLean, whose company was now called SeaLand, who lobbied and eventually persuaded the Pentagon to give him the contract for containerized freight to Vietnam.  His flat rate shipping contract paid for loading containers, shipping them to Vietnam, and offloading the containers by crane onto waiting truck bodies and delivering the cargo to any desired warehouse within thirty miles of the port.  His shipping system was run by computer with an IBM punch card for each shipping container.  Naturally, he charged enough to take the empty container back to the states and still make a good profit.

Eventually, SeaLand was shipping 1200 containers a month to Vietnam.  McLean bought new ships and an ever increasing number of aluminum shipping containers.

It is almost impossible to determine how much profit McLean made from this, but we can safely say his company was very profitable.  Profitable enough that containerized freight, although still in its infancy, expanded quickly.  McLean designed new ships, built the special docks necessary to handle containerized freight in new port cities, and expanded his operations into Europe. 

Which brings us to those unintended consequences that I mentioned in the first paragraph.  McLean rather quickly decided that since he had all those empty containers over in Southeast Asia, and since he was already being paid to ship them back, any money he could make shipping goods east would just be so much extra profit.  So he went to Japan and asked the fledgling electronics industry if it was interested in shipping goods at a discount to the United States.

His first customer was Matsui—but it sure as hell wasn't the last.  Just how much the Japanese electronics industry profited by having access to cheap containerized shipping that early on is impossible to gauge.  Exports of goods shipped to the United States increased dramatically, changing sleepy American west coast ports into active centers of commerce.

Containerized shipping was spreading worldwide and Japan was going to benefit from it even if McLean hadn’t made that initial and early offer.  And Japanese electronics firms were going to compete with American companies eventually, but there is no doubt that it would have taken years longer for companies like Sony and Matsui to penetrate the American market.  Perhaps long enough for the American electronics companies to expand and find a way to compete.

Today, I read in the news that Oakland is going to convert an old Army base into the largest container port on the West coast.  When completed, it will be capable of handling the new Super Container ships, the largest of which is the new OOCL Hong Kong.  Ships are measured today by their TEU capacity, or how many twenty foot long containers they can carry (even though most containers today are forty foot units).  This new monster ship is rated at 21,143.

Or put is this way.  She can carry the exact same as the old SS Ideal-X could carry—on 209 trips.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe

A colleague of mine once told me that whenever he was doing research in the library, after he had located the desired book, he turned around and selected a volume at random from the opposite shelf.  He called this ‘serendipity research’ and claimed it frequently gave him new insight into the topic he was researching.

I’ve tried this method a few times myself, but unfortunately, I have a mind like a ping-pong ball.  I start out researching British logistics in the Revolutionary War and end up reading about sewage treatment plants in Mozambique.  The problem seems to be that I will read anything from soup cans to westerns—anything but romance novels, that is.  (My taste in westerns is old-fashioned:  the hero is only allowed to kiss either the schoolmarm or his horse.  I recommend the works of James Reasoner, a grade school classmate.)

Now that I’ve retired from the classroom, I've decided to give myself a small gift:  I’m going to buy and reread all of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout—in order.  After a protracted search, I think there is space on the top of the second bookcase in the guest bedroom.  I thought I had located space for another entire bookcase, but The Doc stubbornly insists that the guest bedroom should contain at least one bed.

If you have never read any of these books, I envy you the enjoyment of first discovering the brilliant armchair detective, Nero Wolfe.   When Stout created the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin—Wolfe’s assistant and narrator of the stories—the American version of the mystery was still new.  In the early 1920’s, Carroll John Daly invented the hard-boiled detective story, and when he did, murder left the British vicar’s rose garden to enter the seedy dark alley of the American metropolis.

Enough has been said about Nero Wolfe—the character—what drove me to the library stacks this week was trying to figure out who Rex Stout was.  Who was this man who wrote his books on a schedule of thirty-eight days, completed them on time, and never did re-writes?  And most importantly, how did he come up with Nero Wolfe?  There have been some fantastic answers proposed:  Was he the result of an illicit affair between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler?  Or was he the son of Arsene Lupin?  Just as most people mistakenly "identify" Harper Lee with "Scout" in To Kill A Mockingbird instead of “Boo Radley” because the story is written in the first person, by the same token Rex Stout is frequently miss-identified with Nero Wolfe, yet his personality is much closer to that of Wolfe's assistant, Archie Goodwin.

An American detective needs an American origin, and I think I have some of the answers—and if I am correct Wolfe’s origin is as surprising as one of the endings in the detective’s most infamous murder mysteries.

Rex Stout came from a long line of hardy Quakers, and his American roots dated back over 400 years.  Growing up, he heard fascinating stories about his ancestors. In 1642, Penelope Van Princin was scalped and partially disemboweled, yet she somehow survived to have 19 children, and lived to see her 109th birthday.  A century later, another ancestor, Regina Harman, spent 19 years as a captive among the Native Americans;  still another ancestor was the sister of Benjamin Franklin.

Stout was born in Indiana in 1886 and after graduating high school early, drifted to New York City—the future home of Nero Wolfe—to enlist in the Navy in July of 1905.  As a condition of his being accepted in the Navy, Stout had to have his tonsils removed.  He paid a doctor two of his last three dollars so he could undergo the tonsillectomy while reclining in a barber chair—in order to report for duty the following day (after he had spent the night "recuperating" in agony on the floor of the barber shop where the surgery had been done!).

The next day, Stout passed his physical and enlisted for four years.  This was a time of transition for Navy, and the receiving ship where Stout was trained was one of the last three-masted vessels still in service.  After training as a yeoman pay clerk, Stout was assigned to the USS Mayflower, the presidential yacht, which was frequently used by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a naval historian, and an ardent—if frequently sea-sick—sailor.  The president had received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a settlement to the Sino-Japanese War aboard the yacht.  Accompanying Roosevelt, Stout traveled 20,000 miles aboard the Mayflower, visiting such as exotic ports as The Canal Zone, Havana, Guantanamo, Argentina, and making four separate trips to Puerto Rico.  While on shore leave in Santo Domingo, Stout was in a brawl that resulted in his being shot in the leg. 

The presidential yacht could barely make 20 knots, and the president frequently passed the time by reading and discarding popular fiction books.  Rex Stout frequently snatched up these books and read the British detective stories of Anna Katherine Green, Israel Zangill, and Lord Godfrey Benson. 

Stout (pictured at left on the Mayflower) later confided that he wasn’t too impressed with President Roosevelt.  He disliked his choice in literature (he was dismayed to find that Teddy disliked Thomas Paine), he hated the President’s overtly macho attitude, and on at least one occasion, he disliked the president's losing his temper.  Teddy Roosevelt demanded that his yacht be run to strict regulations and Stout thought the ship exhibited a little too much, pointless ‘spit and polish’.

Decades later, Stout would admit that he patterned the New York policemen, whom he called the “flat-footed myrmidons”, after some of the worst officers of the Mayflower.  But, what if that was not the only inspiration he got from the ship?

Nero Wolfe was obese, sedentary, and the antithesis of archetypal virile male.  In short, he was the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt who championed the vigorous life.  Whereas Wolfe was contemplative and given to long periods of reflection, Teddy was impulsive and quick to act.  Roosevelt delighted in long hikes while Nero Wolfe never left his beloved brownstone residence.  Roosevelt had a rifle range and a boxing ring on the White House lawn.  The closest Nero Wolfe got to outdoor activity was raising orchids in a hothouse on the top floor of his brownstone (In a private moment, Rex Stout admitted to hating orchids, but liking lilies).  Teddy Roosevelt was practically a teetotaler, while Wolfe consumed five quarts of beer a day (though frequently promising to restrict his consumption in the future to only two quarts a day).

Roosevelt’s family was wealthy, and the president never gambled, eschewing all non-physical games.  While on board the Mayflower, Stout was paid $26.20 a month, and estimated he earned another $150 a month playing whist (with the officers).

Teddy Roosevelt loved the military.  He formed his own volunteer regiment of cavalry to fight in the Spanish American War, rising to the rank of Colonel and being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits on the San Juan Hills.  Rex Stout, after serving two years in the navy, secured a bogus letter showing his acceptance into law school and purchased his discharge for $80. 

In short, I maintain that President Theodore Roosevelt was the inspiration—more like the "anti-inspiration"—for Nero Wolfe.  Now, as I reread the 33 novels and 39 various novellas and short stories, I frequently find Teddy Roosevelt hiding in Nero Wolfe's mirror.

Nor is that the last influence I discovered at the library.  Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter, named several of his paintings after detective stories by Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout.  His painting, The Companions of Fear, painted during World War II was influenced by the Nero Wolfe story, The League of Frightened Men...

But, that’s a story for another time.