Saturday, September 20, 2014

Felonious Assault on a…Train???

Most stories about the West are completely over dramatized to make them more interesting, but there are a few stories so gruesome and barbaric, that just the opposite happens.  Such is the case with Black Jack Ketchum. 

First off, his real name was Tom Ketchum.  Someone said he looked like a notorious Texas outlaw by the name of Black Jack Christian, and Tom just kept the nickname.  If you have seen the movie, The Princess Bride, then you will understand when I tell you that Tom Ketchum was becoming the "Dread Pirate Roberts".  There is a certain advantage to starting your career in crime with a built-in reputation attached to a different name.  When Doroteo  Arango began his life of crime, he took the name of an established local bandit and became famous around the world as "Pancho Villa".

Black Jack and his brother Sam robbed trains in Texas and New Mexico.  In the movies, train robbers always chase the train on horseback, leap to the moving train, then stop the train miles down the track.  After stealing all the money, somehow, their horses are always waiting alongside the track, showing no evidence of being exhausted after a several mile chase.  If trains had actually been robbed this way, the railroads could have protected themselves by stationing the conductor on the back of the caboose with a bucket of rocks.  Any outlaw on the back of a galloping horse would have been more likely to shoot his own horse than the train.

Black Jack was no fool, so he stationed his horses along the track, then backtracked to the closest watering station.  Those steam locomotives had to stop every 25 miles to take on water.  Ketchum and his men would sneak onto the train while it took on water, then once the train started up again, would climb over the tender and force the engineer to stop the train near their horses. 

On more than one occasion, Black Jack and his crew forced the engineer to uncouple the cars behind the express car, then moved the train far enough forward so that passengers could not interfere while they dynamited the safe. 

The Ketchum brothers always seemed to have a little trouble with dynamite.  On average, it took them about three tries to blow a safe open.  In one case, they probably decided to finally get the job done on the first try, so when the impressive pile of dynamite sticks exploded, it blew the express safe through the roof of the car and scattered the contents.  By the time the posse showed up, the robbers had made off with an estimated $50,000, and $10 bills were blowing in the wind around the wreckage of the train.

Not all the robberies were so successful.  Once, the gang hit a post office and was rewarded with only $9 while a rail station robbery yielded a measly $2 and a Winchester.  And even when the gang was successful—the train robberies would eventually net a career total of over $100,000--they usually spent most of the money quickly by bribing local officials not to reveal their location to federal marshals and railroad detectives.

The two brothers had an active career: they robbed trains, stores, post offices, and rail stations.  They worked together, rode briefly with the Wild Bunch, broke away and formed their own gang, but eventually quarreled and split up.   Sam Ketchum was eventually shot while robbing a train, and left behind by his men.  Captured, he died of gangrene on July 28, 1899.

Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum wandered over to Arizona, where he murdered two men.  Not knowing that his brother was dead, Ketchum decided to return to New Mexico and rejoin the old gang.  When he couldn’t locate his brother and he was running short of funds, he attempted to rob a train single-handed.

Black Jack tied his horse to brush along the track, then hiked six miles back to the nearest watering station outside of Folsom, New Mexico.  He forced the engineer to stop the train at gunpoint, just two miles from the waiting horse.  However, it was here that the robbers plan fell apart.  The conductor, Frank Harrington, had been unarmed when Sam Ketchum had robbed his train in July, 1899, but now he carried a shotgun.

While Black Jack was forcing the engineer to uncouple the passenger cars, Harrington leaned out of the doorway of the passenger car and fired his shotgun.  The blast ripped open Ketchums right arm.  Ketchum ran off into the darkness, eventually reaching his horse, but he was too weak from loss of blood to mount up and escape.  As he began to lose consciousness, he lay down by the tracks and fell asleep.

The posse had no trouble capturing him. Subsequently, he was taken back to town, tried, and sentenced to ten years for assaulting a U.S. mail agent.  While awaiting a second trial, his arm became gangrenous and was amputated. 

At his second trial, Ketchum was found guilty of felonious assault on a train.  At that time in New Mexico territory, this was a capital offense.  Ketchum was the first—and last—outlaw sentence to hang for "assaulting a train". 

Unfortunately, Ketchums execution was not handled well.  It should have been: by the turn of the century, hanging had evolved into a science.  Largely due to the efforts of William Marwood, in London, there was a well-established method for executing a man by hanging. 

First, the man was carefully weighed.  Marwood had established the “Official Table of Drops” that set the distance a man should fall before the rope snapped taut and the mans neck broke.  This table is still in use in those areas of the world where hanging is still the means of execution.  Ketchum weighed about 175 pounds, so he needed to fall 86”.

A new thick rope was procured and carefully stretched with the same weight as the prisoner for 12 hours.  This would remove any ‘givein the rope at the time of the execution.  Then a hangmans knot was tied with 13 coils in the knot.  (According to legend, when black men were lynched in the south, the knot would have only twelve coils.  Even in death, the poor man would be denied equality with a white man.)  Finally, the coils of the rope were soaped to ensure that the knot would slide smoothly.

Unfortunately, New Mexico officials made two mistakes.  First, the only rope available in Clayton, New Mexico was a little thinner than the usual hanging rope.  Second, Ketchum had nothing to do while he sat in jail awaiting his trial and execution, so he ate—a lot.  His weight ballooned to over 200 pounds by his execution date, making the rope 8 to 10 inches too long.

The town tried to do right by Ketchum.  The night before his execution, he was asked if he wanted anything special to eat.  Ketchum turned down that offer, but asked instead for some female companionship for the night.  This request was denied as “the town treasury was insufficient to hire a lady of the town.”

The next morning, he ate a large breakfast, dressed in the new suit the town had given him, listened to some violin music, and finally promised all who had been involved in his prosecution that they were marked for death by his (non-existent) gang. 

At a little after 1:15 p.m. on April 26, 1901, the trap door under Black Jack Ketchums feet opened, dropping the man to his death.  He fell too far, too fast, and the rope was too thin--causing the rope to cut his head completely off his body.

A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court looked into the matter and decided that this act was unconstitutional.  (Not the hanging—that was fine, despite its "complication".  In fact, the last man to be hanged in America was Billy Bailey in 1996.)  No, the crime of "felonious assault on a train" was found to be unconstitutional. 

Black Jack Ketchum was the only man ever "hanged" in the West for a crime other than murder.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dog Days on the Brazos

Mike rode out of the yard and down the dirt road leading to the state highway, accompanied by his dog, Steel.  The dog liked to follow the old rancher on his rounds, usually "following" him by staying about 50 feet in front of Mike.

This always upset Mike--he didn't like to believe that he was so predictable and set in his ways that even the damn ranch mutt knew what he was going to do, so every few minutes he would turn the horse sharply to the left or right and force the to dog race to catch up.  It was a short-lived victory however, since the old rancher was about as impulsive as a stalagmite.  About the time Steel had caught up with the horse and rider, Mike would turn the horse back to the original course and the dog would rocket back to his original position in front.

Mike caught up with the dog at the fence line as he carefully guided his horse over the the wide planks laid over the cattle guard.  Steel wouldn't get anywhere near the cattle guard, but would elect to crawl under the barbed wire fence.  Ten years earlier, while just a puppy, he had attempted to run across the cattle guard and his legs had fallen between the pipes, leaving the poor dog to painfully fall on his stomach and bang his nose.  Even after all these years, you could not have forced that dog to cross over the cattle guard if you had pulled him behind a tow truck.

At his age, the old rancher had few regular chores on the ranch.  He would go out daily and check on the cattle, ride along a section of the fence, check the water level in the stock tanks, and then do whatever odd jobs needed his attention that day.  Some days, he thought the only really useful things he did were count the cattle and exercise the dog.

As the old rancher was riding along the fence line, he had to stop while Steel measured the depth of the stock tank by going for his daily swim.  While Mike was waiting, a car coming down the road slowed and pulled over to the easement.  The door of the sedan opened and a woman stepped over to the fence and called to the rancher. 

"Hello," she said.  "Is that pretty barn down the road yours?"

Mike noticed that the car had Illinois license plates.  Ever since some damn travel magazine had published an article about the "picturesque ranches along the Brazos River" there had been a steady stream of camera-toting tourists.  The rancher could tell from the direction the woman was pointing that the building in question wasn't even a barn, but a galvanized metal building the county road crew used to store heavy equipment.

The old rancher got off his horse, turning his head to hide a smile.  Reins in hand, he walked over to the fence.  If there was a chance to pull the leg of a Yankee tourist, Mike would postpone all other forms of entertainment.

"Yes'm," he said.  "This is my ranch."  So far, Mike thought, that's the truth, even if it is not really an answer.

"Are you a cattle rancher?" she asked.

"Oh, yes mam," he answered truthfully.  "And I have the empty bank account to prove it."

"It is so pretty here.  Does your ranch have one of those cute western names?" the tourist asked.

All at once, Mike remembered a joke so old that his father had told it to him.  The only question in Mike's mind was whether he could keep a straight face while he repeated it.

"Yes mam," he said as he took his hat off with his other hand.  "It took my family a long time to agree on a name.  My wife Barbara wanted to call it the Bar-B, but I thought that was a serious case of the cutes.  I liked the Lazy-M, my son Andy wanted to call it the Rocking A, my son, Matt lobbied for the Double-T, and my daughter Megan demanded we call it the Flying G.  Eventually, we all compromised and just called it the Bar-B-Lazy-M-Rocking-A-Double-T-Flying-G Ranch."

"My goodness," said the woman.  "And where are your cattle? I don't see any."


"No ma'm," said the rancher.  "So far, none have survived the branding."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Table for Two

The maître d’ looked up from his clipboard and called to the crowd gathered along the sidewalk, "Jack?  Party of two?  Your table is ready."

The waitress showed them to their outdoor table, leaving menus and promising to return shortly to take their order.  It was a beautiful day, and well worth the half-hour wait for the table with its view of the park. 

Even after the couple had been seated, they were both visibly tense.  The couple had only been dating for a little over a month and there were still those awkward, uncomfortable breaks in their conversation when they were alone. 

They were still smiling and talking softly, when the young girl walked awkwardly up to the table.  The first thing they noticed was that the girl was very pregnant--she was obviously due in the next week or two.

"Jack?" the girl asked.  "What is this?"  From the anguished look on her face, she was obviously hurt.  Her voice was both angry and pleading.  "Who is she?" she asked, pointing to the seated woman.

The young woman sitting across the table looked first at the young girl, then back at Jack.  With wide eyes, she asked, "Do you know her?"

Jack had not moved since the young girl had walked up to the table, his pale face seemed drained of blood as he began to stammer.  "I...I..I d-don't know..." he began.

"Jack!" the pregnant girl wailed.  "I've been calling you for weeks!  I've left word at work, I've left messages on your machine.  Why won't you answer my emails?  You've been avoiding me ever since you found out we were going to have a baby!  I love you!"

By now, the young girl was crying profusely.  As the tears ran down her face, Jack just sat there slowly shaking his head.

On the other side of the table, the young woman leaned forward, pointing at the man's ashen face.  "She obviously knows you, Jack.  Who is she?"
"But I've never seen her before...," Jack began.

The pregnant woman interrupted, practically screaming, "Jack!  You are the father of our child!"

Conversation had all but stopped in the restaurant.  At every table, people strained to listen to the drama, while trying, unsuccessfully, to appear as if they weren't listening.  No one looked at the three people at the central table, but heads were tilted carefully to catch every word.

By now, both women at the table were crying.  The young woman jumped up and ran from the table, out onto the sidewalk and down the street, only a few feet ahead of Jack as he ran after her. 

The young girl carefully lowered herself into a chair at the table, and buried her face into a cloth napkin.  The waitress came up and placed a comforting hand on the girl's arm.  "Would you like a glass of water?" she asked.

The young pregnant girl just nodded her head as she continued to sob into the napkin. 

By the time the young man arrived, the young girl was more composed and was repairing her makeup as the young man carefully moved through the crowded chairs to her table.

"Been waiting long?" he asked as he leaned over to kiss her cheek.

"No," the young girl smiled as she answered.  "I just got here."

As he sat down, he glanced toward the long line of patrons waiting for a table.  Turning back to his girlfriend he asked, "Then how did you get the table so quick?"

"Silly!  People always give a table to a pregnant woman!"

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Help From the Government

Mike stood directly under the windmill, looking up at the metal tower.  The sun was hot and the old rancher was remembering the tower his father had used more than half a century before.  Constructed of massive wooden beams, it had felt substantial and at the very least had provided a little shade while someone worked on it.  This tower was made of galvanized steel, and while it was probably much stronger than his father's wooden structure, the thin metal angle iron inspired no trust and provided no more cover from the sun than a young girl's bikini.

No real fan of heights, Mike hated climbing the tower, but once a year he forced himself to climb, drain the three quarts of oil out of the mill housing, and replace it with new oil.  It sure as hell wasn't any fun, but few jobs on the ranch were.  Mike took a moment to look to the north, toward the Brazos River, before turning back and reaching for the metal ladder.

His wife, Barbara, kept telling him he was too old to climb the tower, pointing out to him that he was even older than the ancient Aermotor 702.  The old rancher had replied that between the two of them, only the windmill had a bullet hole.  Besides, he had added, it was way too late for him to die young.  Still, (though he wouldn't admit it), he knew Barbara was right.  He was getting a little old to be carrying tools to the top of windmills.

Just as Mike began the climb, a car pulled off the highway onto the dirt road into the ranch.  The car crossed the cattle guard a little faster than the rancher liked, then slowed and stopped next to the windmill.  Stepping back from the ladder, Mike put down the heavy leather tool belt and walked toward the car as the door opened and a man stepped out.

"Government man," Mike thought to himself as he pulled off a work glove to shake the man's hand.  "Howdy.  What can I do for you?" he asked.

The man was short, wearing khaki pants and a clean white shirt.  He held a clipboard in his left hand while he shook the rancher's hand with his right.  "Good morning.  I'm James Stephens, with the Agricultural Division of the Department of Labor.  Are you owner of this ranch?"

"Yes," Mike answered.

"We're doing a survey of agricultural workers: their working conditions, how much they are paid, their benefits, and how they are treated.  I need to meet with your employees."

The old rancher noticed that the man was neither asking nor smiling.  "Well," he said.  "I'm semi-retired and I don't really work the ranch any more.  I lease out the grazing land, so I've only got two employees left."

The government man frowned and made a notation on his clipboard.  "Very well.  Still, this ranch was selected to be part of the survey, so tell me about your two employees."

"Well, some of the work is done by Sergio.  He has been with me for four years.  He does general maintenance, uses the tractor to clear brush, and repairs fences and such.  I pay him $15 an hour, and he gets paid for twice as many hours as he actually works.  I pay his Social Security, and if he has any other benefits, then he's paying for them himself.  He's out of town this week, but when he gets back you can ask him yourself."

Mike wasn't really paying much attention to the government man--he was actually looking at the man's car.  It was a shiny new Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid and on the driver's door, just below the words 'Department of Labor', was printed some kind of motto: "Demonstrating A Strong Commitment to Farm Workers and Their Families."  The rancher wondered when the government had stopped using modestly priced Dodge cars and exactly how the expensive new hybrid car helped farm workers and their families.  And why wasn't the government man concerned with Mike's family?  They had been in the agricultural business on this land for over a century.

"And the other employee?" asked the government man.  "What of him?"

"Well, he's kind of a half-wit," Mike answered.  "There's not much of a chance he can get a real job.   Though he does most of the work around here, I can't really afford to pay him much.  About once a month I buy him a bottle of bourbon and occasionally he gets lucky with my wife."

"That's the man I need to talk to!" exclaimed the government man.  "Where can I find him?"

Mike turned away from the bureaucrat and bent to pick up the heavy leather tool belt as he once again faced climbing up the steep tower.  Not even bothering to look back, the old rancher answered the government man,

"Right now, he's fixing the windmill."


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Didn't That Already Sink?

Part 3 of 3:  The Book Did It First


It was a dark April night as the massive ship cut through the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  The largest ship ever launched, she was considered unsinkable because of her massive size and modern construction.  Over eight hundred feet long, she was attempting to set a speed record by running at well over twenty knots, despite the weather and the presence of icebergs in the area.  The passengers, largely ignorant of the dangers, enjoyed the luxury of the liner and listened to the ship's orchestra as they walked the decks and met in one of the many dining salons of the ship.

When the lookout reported an iceberg ahead, the giant vessel attempted to steer to safety, but nevertheless struck the iceberg on her starboard side and foundered just 200 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

Despite her watertight doors, the ship sank rapidly.  Considered unnecessary on an "unsinkable" ship, Titan had fewer than half the lifeboats necessary to save the maximum capacity of 3000 people the ship could carry.  That freezing April night, as the ship rapidly sank beneath the waves, so few lifeboats could be launched that though there were only over two thousand passengers and crew aboard, over half of them drowned. 

The few that managed to secure safety in the boats remembered silently watching as the triple screws of the massive ship disappeared into the sea, leaving hundreds of bodies and random wreckage floating where the most luxurious passenger ship--a luxury for even the richest people in the world--had once floated.

So sank the ill-fated Titan

No, I don't mean the Titanic (though everything I have written above would be equally accurate if I were writing about the White Star ship).  The Titan is a fictional ship from the novel The Wreck of the Titan, Or Futility , by Morgan Robertson.  His book was published in 1898--a full fourteen years before the tragedy of the Titanic

The chapters dealing with the sinking of the ship sound eerily similar to what we all know about the real tragedy.  Consider this paragraph from the second page of the original edition:

Unsinkable - indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws. These, twenty-four in number, were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold five hundred people. She carried no useless, cumbersome life-rafts; but - because the law required it - each of the three thousand berths in the passengers', officers', and crew's quarters contained a cork jacket, while about twenty circular life-buoys were strewn along the rails.

Morgan Robertson was a writer of short stories and novels that were frequently based on his years at sea.  The son of a sea captain, Robertson started his naval career as a cabin boy and eventually rose to the rank of First Mate.  Though a prolific author, his writing was not financially successful.

Published as a serialized short story, Futility did not enjoy much success when originally published.  Shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, Robertson released the work as part of a book.  Not content with the startling similarities already in the book, the second edition increased the fictional ship's tonnage to more closely match that of the Titanic and, since the original story was rather brief for a novel, Robertson added three more stories to the book, one of which was Beyond the Spectrum.

The existence of Futility is not exactly a secret.  Whether the story is prophesy or a massive coincidence, the story of the Titan has become something of an inside joke among Titanic enthusiasts.  Walter Lord mentioned it in the forward of his great book, A Night to Remember, it was mentioned in an episode of Dr. Who, and it has shown up in countless comic books, video games, and movies.

For some reason, Beyond the Spectrum has been almost completely forgotten.  The 1914 story deals with a future war between the United States and Japan.  Plotting to replace America's economic position in the Pacific, Japan attacks naval ships protecting our military bases in the Philippines and Hawaii.  However, before Japan can land an invasion force at San Francisco, the American hero uses a secret weapon that utilizes bright light and intense heat to both blind and burn the invading army.

Well, no wonder you have never heard of that story!  Nobody would ever believe that crap!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Who Invented That?

Part 2 of 3: Robert A. Heinlein

I can remember the first time I read a novel by Robert A. Heinlein.  It was 1962, the book was Space Cadet, and the entire country was going crazy about space.  John Glenn had just orbited the Earth and anything was possible.  I had no doubt that my children would go to school on the moon.

That was the year that I discovered science fiction and learned a lot of names that are still important to me today: Heinlein, Asimov, Verne, Wells, and countless others.  For me, the books of Robert Heinlein were always the best.  Now, fifty years later, Ive added a lot of names to that list, but I havent moved Heinlein from that top spot.

I could devote a lot of time and space to Heinleins books, but I would be probably be wasting my time.  If you like science fiction, you already know about him.   If somehow youve missed him, start with A Door into Summer, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Stranger in a Strange Land.  I would pay a hefty sum to be able to read any of those again for the first time.

What I would like to talk about, however, is not what Robert Heinlein wrote, but what he invented in some of those writings.  Heinlein wrote about the future, and many of the pieces of technology he described came to actually exist.  Lets start with the waterbed.

The first waterbed was made 3000 years ago.  In ancient Persia, water-filled goat skin bags were allowed to warm in the sun, then used as mattresses.  In the nineteenth century, several physicians substituted rubber for the goat skins, creating a bed that caused fewer pressure points on bed-ridden patients. 

In the 1930s, after an injury that required lengthy bed rest, Heinlein invented the first practical therapeutic mattress.  He first described this bed in his novel Beyond This Horizon (1942).  Almost 40 years later, in Expanded Universe, he wrote:

"I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements - an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds."

In 1942, Heinlein wrote "Waldo", a short story about a mechanical genius suffering from myasthenia gravis.  Physically too weak to cope, Waldo Farthington-Jones creates mechanical hands that he controls with gloves that mechanically magnify his movements.  Today, if you visit a nuclear test facility, you can see such hands being used.  Technically known as remote-manipulators, almost everyone refers to them as “waldoes.

Using his Waldo mechanical hands, the hero builds a smaller set of hands, with which, he builds yet another set of smaller hands.  Farthington-Jones continues this process until he has a set of waldoes that can manipulate material at the cellular level.  In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture that is credited with inventing the field of nanotechnology.  In his lecture, Feynman drew directly on “Waldo” as his primary vision of nanotechnology.

With apologies to Al Gore, Heinlein may have invented the internet.  His first novel, For Us the Living (1938), describes a nationwide information network, where the hero of the novel is able to read a newspaper article dating back to the previous century from his home.  To be fair, this information network is based upon a sophisticated network of pneumatic tubes, but this is just a picky point.  It is an information highway, so why quibble over what material was used to pave it.

Now that Heinlein has invented the internet, we might as well as well give him credit for Amazon.com also.  In 1958, Heinlein wrote Methuselahs Children.  In this story, the hero needs to change his clothing in order to hide from the authorities.  Here is how Heinlein wrote it:

He sat down in a sales booth and dialed the code for kilts.  He let cloth designs flicker past in the screen while he ignored the persuasive voice of the catalogue until a pattern showed up which was distinctly unmilitary and not blue, whereupon he stopped the display and punched an order for his size.  He noted the price, tore an open-credit voucher from his wallet, stuck it into the machine and pushed the switch.  Then he enjoyed a smoke while the tailoring was done.

While you could already get a Diners Card when Heinlein wrote this, Heinleins “credit voucher” was before American Express, Visa and Mastercard.  The name seems to imply that it is used more as a debit card than a credit card; if so, Heinlein was truly prophetic.


To me, this shopping experience sounds pretty much like Amazon--but with delivery faster than even Amazon's proposed use of drones would provide!  If you doubt me, click here and compare the result.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

In the Beginning, There Was the Book

Part 1 of 3: Superman

Stop me if you have heard this story before:  Even as an infant, our hero had already exhibited unusual strength: he could lift heavy furniture and he demolished his crib with a single hand.  Then, as he grew older--in an effort to live a normal life--he kept his incredible abilities secret from the other children, adopting a meek (some might say "boring"), life style.  He grew into a handsome young man, who had a splendid physique and his black hair was so dark that it was almost blue.

As he grew older, his strength increased.  He could leap to dizzying heights, he was faster than a speeding locomotive, he could bend iron bars, and bullets bounced off his chest.  He built himself an isolated fortress where he could learn to use his powers.  So amazing were his abilities that he was referred to as The Man of Iron.

Of course, you know this story--the hero is none other than Hugo Danner from the book, Gladiator, written by Philip Wylie in the 1920s and first published by Book League Monthly in March of 1930.  Were you--perhaps--thinking of someone else?

Obviously, this sounds a lot like Superman, but Gladiator was in print eight years before the first Superman comic book hit the stands.  Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, claimed that the inspiration for the character came from the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Perhaps this is true, but some of the dialogue in the first Superman comics closely (very closely, in fact) matches the Wylie book.  And, six years before the premier of Superman, Siegel published a favorable review of Gladiator.

There are some crucial differences, however.  First of all, Hugo (the picture above was from the book) was not an alien from another planet, but the result of a scientific experiment, in which his scientist father injected a serum into his wife while she was pregnant with Hugo, thus changing the infant's  molecular structure.  Hugos powers were not hereditary, but could be duplicated by treating other expectant mothers in the same way.

Fundamentally, Hugo was a much more complex character than Clark Kent.  Hugo struggled to hide his talent his whole life, he tried to fit in with the rest of humanity, and he tried to find a use for his powers.  Whereas Superman easily found admiration, in Wylies world, Hugo's superhuman abilities elicited envy, jealousy, fear, and ultimately hatred.

Hugo Danner tried over and over to find a useful role in society.  He worked as a circus strongman, a merchant marine, a farmer, a pearl diver, and eventually enlisted as a soldier in the First World War.  While he was successful in every activity, he remained friendless and unhappy.

As a child, I read Superman comics and watched the George Reeves television version of the storyline.  As an adult, I think I have also seen most of the movies--but it was not until I read the Wylie book that it occurred to me how isolated such a person would actually be, had he existed.  His abilities would completely separate him from the rest of mankind.  Wylie is probably correct--such a "gift" would destroy a man.

Toward the end of the book, when poor Hugo began to hate the inferior humans who feared him, he said “I defy you with all my strength, to think of what I can do to justify myself!”  Possessing neither a cape nor a secret identity, Hugo never received an answer and his loneliness turned to rage.

Spoiler Alert.  I must warn you that I am about to reveal the ending of the book.  Revealing the ending to a book is a high crime so heinous that normally I only inflict it on first class passengers on planes I am boarding with the rest of the peons.  But, since I doubt that many of you are interested in reading an 85 year-old obscure science fiction story, I hope I will be forgiven.

Eventually, Hugo was convinced that as there was no way he could live with humanity, he so must create a society of supermen where he could live with his equals.  Brushing briefly on the subject of eugenics, Wylie took his hero to a mountain top, deep in the Mayan jungle, where Hugo knelt and asked Gods blessing to begin duplicating his fathers experiment.  Was it okay to create a race of supermen?

God promptly killed Hugo off with a bolt of lightning.

That should have been the end of the story--but over the last few decades both Marvel and DC Comics have sporadically published comics featuring Hugo Danner.  It turns out that even God couldn't kill a super man.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Memoirs of a Wuzard

I used to be magical.  I used to have a lot of super powers.  Now, I am just a shadow of my former self and about the only one of my super powers left is that I have a fair amount of common sense (which is a super power only when you consider that I'm a government employee).  At Enema U, this ability almost entitles me to wear a cape! 

I have another super skill which I use regularly at work: I seem to be the only person left in the building who knows how to Google something—but I’ll be modest, and list that as only a minor magical power.

My other supernatural abilities seem to have dimmed to just a faint, dim glow.  Once upon a time, my children knew that I was twelve feet tall and covered with hair.  Today—sad to say—they believe that I need a cane and hearing aids.  I am no longer a wizard—I am a wizard has-been.  (Does this make me a ‘wuzard?’)

It hasn’t been that long--I remember when one of my sons would come to me with a broken, treasured toy, tearfully holding it up to me and ask in a small voice, "Daddy, 'fik' it?” And I could. Muttering arcane incantations, I resurrected broken cars, reattached wheels, furnished new batteries, and dispensed glue and duct tape in massive quantities. 

And I used to be blessed with magical medical powers, too.  I could “fik” all manner of booboos, banged knees, and invisible bruises with just a single kiss.  For major maladies, I had Band-Aids—I could fix anything with a Band-Aid!  Hell!—Once I cured the four-year old's equivalent of a nearly detached arm with a single large Band-Aid and a magical kiss! 

In my prime, I could even have wiped out this current Ebola problem in Africa with three Band-Aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome.  (Which in our house is still called "Monkey Blood".)  

To increase the effectiveness of magical medicines, two (or more) had to be used in massive quantities together.  Take for example, your son has a sticker in his thumb.  Pull the sticker out and smear the Mercurochrome over as much skin as possible, then partially cover with the largest Band-Aid in the box.  If you add a sling for the arm, I can guarantee that the child will walk again.

As a major wizard, I knew all and I could explain all.  My sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, would sit enraptured at my feet while I explained the Wonders of the World.  Then they got older, and suddenly, the foolishness I uttered embarrassed them.  For years, I was just an old fool with too many dusty books and a bright, shiny, new Kindle.

Eventually, right about the time my sons married, they started to consult me again for minor advice.  Frequently, they were amazed at how much the ancient idiot had learned in the previous few years!

Is it possible that I didn't really lose my magic?  Is it possible that my spells only work on the young?  I now have a herd of granddaughters (and a single grandson who will probably have to take karate lessons to defend himself) who seem to think that, occasionally, I can rekindle a spark of my former powers.

Naturally, I am not nearly as formidable a wizard as their fathers, my former apprentices, but I am still powerful enough for small spells.  I can tie shoes, locate interesting bugs, and other such minor miracles.

Do children become immune to magic as they grow older?  If you perform the same trick too many times, do your kids lose their ability to see the enchantment?  If so, I think I know when it happens.

There was a day, when What’s-His-Name played with his stuffed purple dragon--his favorite toy.   That night, he went to bed, and when he woke up the next morning, it was the first of the endless days when he never played with it again.  Something had  happened that night, and the magic started to end.


If I were really magical, I would use all my powers to bring back that previous day!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tabasco Sauce

Since I wrote about Worcestershire Sauce last week, it seems only fitting that I finish the conversation and discuss the history of Tabasco Sauce.

Where Worcestershire Sauce was a legacy of the Roman Empire, Tabasco Sauce actually got its start from several American wars and an Irish immigrant named Maunsel White.  White came to America at the age of 13 and settled in Louisiana.  Most of his early history is lost, but he seems to have drifted into the local militia (like a lot of immigrants did), and by 1814, he was a captain in the militia, reporting directly to General Andrew Jackson.  He also participated in the last great battle of the War of 1812: the Battle of New Orleans.

By the time the war was over, White--now a Colonel--had excellent business and political connections in New Orleans and the surrounding countryside.  He started a bank, bought a sugar plantation, and generally prospered. 

Following the Mexican-American War, soldiers returning from the invasion of Mexico arrived in port at New Orleans.  One of these returning soldiers gave White the seeds to a fiery red pepper.  There are differing stories about how the plants came to be called “Tabasco Pepper” but it is possible that the name was simply picked at random from a map of Mexico.  However the name came about, by 1850, the New Orleans Daily Delta published an article stating that “Col. White has introduced the celebrated Tobasco (sic) red pepper, the very strongest of all peppers, of which he cultivated a large quantity with the view of supplying his neighbors, and diffusing it throughout the state.”

White was even making a 'pepper sauce' and bottling it, but he considered the concoction to be a remedy for cholera.  Other people must have enjoyed his sauce, because several old recipes mention it.  As late as 1879, a riverboats dining menu listed the sauces available for patrons of their dining room.  Just below “Lea and Perrin Sauces” is a mention of something called “Maunsel White.”  This sauce was manufactured for over 20 years, but seems to have stopped production somewhere before 1900. 

White's sauce was neither prepared like nor tasted like the present Tabasco Sauce, but one of his neighbors and a fellow banker was a man by the name of Edmund McIlhenny.  As a banker, McIlhenny had heavily invested his banks bonds in Confederate War Bonds, then had retired to Avery Island, a plantation owned by his wifes family.  Avery Island is located over a salt dome and during the Civil War, salt became a valuable commodity, so when the Union Army seized the island, the McIlhenny family fled to Texas--unable to profit from it.

When the war was over, McIlhenny was financially ruined: the plantation was wrecked, his bank was gone, and his war bonds were worthless.  (Really worthless!  If you believe the House of Romanov will rise again and cast the likes of Putin out of the Kremlin, you can still buy bonds, issued by the Czar—at greatly reduced prices, of course.  There are exchanges that will still sell such junk.  You can even buy bonds issued by the German Kaiser.  But it is illegal to trade in Civil War bonds or currencies for anything other than as an antique curiosity.  The South aint gonnarise again!)

What McIlhenny did have, however, was a warehouse full of empty perfume bottles, an island full of salt, a few acres of pepper plants, and a wrecked sugar cane plantation.  However, the ingredients of Tabasco Sauce are fairly simple: pepper juice, salt, and vinegar.  (McIlhenny made his vinegar out of fermented sugar cane juice.)  His first commercial sale, bottled in those little cologne bottles, was in 1869.

The sauce was a success, of course.  The McIlhenny Company is still owned by the descendants of Edmund McIlhenny, and Tabasco still has only three main ingredients.

Like Worcestershire Sauce, the military has taken Tabasco Pepper Sauce around the world.  In 1898, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitcheners troops took it with them on the British invasion of Khartoum in the Sudan.  That same year, McIlhenny's son--the second president of the company--left his job to join Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and took the fiery red sauce to Cuba.
When the US military decided to end the border depredations of Pancho Villa, General Blackjack Pershing's Punitive Expedition took it along on the 1916 invasion of Mexico.  Tabasco was present in both World Wars, in Vietnam, and is currently issued inside of military MRE rations.   Recognizing the simple necessity of the sauce, both England and Canada now issue Tabasco in their military rations.

During the Vietnam War, Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny issued the Charlie Ration Cookbook.  The small booklet came wrapped around a 2-ounce bottle of Tabasco and taught soldiers how to make a C-ration almost edible.  Among the recipes were Combat Canapés, Cease Fire Casserole, and Breast of Chicken under Bullets.

Tabasco has been everywhere!  It is served on Air Force One in special bottles, it was standard issue on the space shuttles, and it has been to both Skylab and the International Space Station.  It can also be seen in the Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times and it is already listed on the prototype menu for the first Mars trip. 

A hundred years from now, I have no idea where people will have ventured.  But, I'm willing to bet they take Tabasco with them.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Worcestershire Sauce

Once, I was a "poor starving student."  Amazingly, we still use that phrase at Enema U, but today it means a student who has a two-year-old smart phone and has to settle for only a tall mocha crapochino instead of the venti. 

But a few decades ago (quite a few) "poor" meant that I had trouble buying enough to eat.  I worked as a night security guard at a hotel that had large restaurants.  Unfortunately, they were closed by the time my shift began, but the empty restaurants had loads of little baskets full of cellophane-wrapped saltine crackers.  More than one night, I made a meal of out of those crackers.  I discovered that with a little imagination, a cracker soaked in Worcestershire Sauce until it turned brown could remind you of meat--sort of.  If you don't understand this, you need to remember that hunger is the best sauce.

Since then, I've always had a certain fondness for Worcestershire Sauce, and not just because it makes crackers taste good--it also has a history.

Previously, I have written about garum, the anchovy sauce that seems to have been used throughout the Roman Empire, and I described how a student of mine tried to follow the ancient recipe to make a sauce that would have made Caesar proud.  (Or, perhaps just hungry.)

The student's project was a total failure, and the EPA has designated his former home as a potential superfund site.  The resulting toxic sauce was securely sealed in a Mason Jar and buried at the Happy Farm (the same place where I used to take my children's pets when they were so old they had to go live where they could run and play in the sun everyday--you know: a hole dug in the backyard).

Evidently, things do not ferment correctly in the desert almost a mile above sea level.  Which may be just as well, since now, if you really want to try it, you can buy authentic garum from Amazon.  (It's getting hard to think of something you can't buy from Amazon.)  Or, you could just sample the modern day version that is sitting in your kitchen.

As the Romans conquered the known world, they took with them their methods of war (Stick the pointy end into the other fellow.), construction (We need another thousand slaves!), and food (Add enough salt and rotting fish sauce and this tastes pretty good.).  And when garum sauce eventually made its way to India, it stayed.  And stayed.  In fact, it outlasted the Roman Empire.  Over time, a few more spices were added and the flavor became a little less dependent on rotting anchovies. 

Eventually...the British arrived.  (Yes, that was a rather long interval...Several hundred years, in fact...Think of this as the blog equivalent of a dramatic pause.)

Though there are several versions of this story, here's the version I prefer:  In the 1830's, the wife of a British Colonial Official returned to England from India after many years of living "in country."  Her years in India had changed her palate and she found it difficult to adjust herself to British fare.  Once one has sampled curried lamb and vindaloo chicken, it is rather difficult to enjoy a traditional English meal of cold lard balls swimming in a butter sauce.  (I don't know what that meal is called, but I was served it more than once in London.)

Hoping to recreate a little bit of India in England, she took a recipe for a favorite sauce to the establishment of two spice merchants in Worcester.  (For the benefit of the Americans reading this, you pronounce this as 'Wooster."  It should rhyme with rooster.  So the sauce is pronounced "wooster-sure" sauce.  It should not sound as if you are asking for something like  "Winchester Shire" sauce."  (Although, that would make an excellent name for a gun oil.)

The two merchants, Mr. Lea and Mr. Perrins set about making a batch of this in a small wooden barrel.  Not every ingredient was available and some substitutions had to be made.  When finished, the two gentlemen sampled the concoction and immediately labeled the sauce as horrible.  History has lost all record of exactly what was said, but I think Mr. Perrins turned to his partner and said, "I wouldn't let a cow drink from that barrel."  (Well, I have no idea what he actually said, but that's what a Texan would have said.)

The two men wrote the concoction off as a total loss, hammered the lid back down on the barrel, and moved it to the basement.  (They were probably waiting for a moonless night, so they could dump the contents into a nearby canal.  I've run a boat down that canal and somebody has dumped quite a few suspicious things into it, some of which looked a lot like lard balls in a rancid butter sauce.)

Several years later, someone trying to find a little extra space in the basement came across the barrel and decided to sample it.  (He probably wanted to get the taste of lunch out of his mouth).  Surprisingly, the concoction now tasted excellent.  What the two spice merchants had not realized was that the sauce needed time to ferment.

Of course, the sauce has been on the market ever since.  In England, the same company still makes it, while in America, a different company has licensed it and makes it under the same name: Lea & Perrins'.  And today, the company still ages the sauce in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. (This is after they age the salted anchovies in barrels for three to five years.)

As I discussed last week, the British Army has been all over the world, and everywhere it went, the British Mess included Worcestershire Sauce.  Archaeologists have uncovered these distinctive bottles at the remains of almost every old British fort and military encampment.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Why?  Why did the British Army take this sauce everywhere they went?  It doesn't taste that good."

The answer has to do with British military rations.  The British army shipped canned beef to its soldiers all over the world and some of the preservatives used turned the meat a pale green!  Even Englishmen found it hard to eat green canned beef.  Besides adding flavor, as we all know, Worcestershire Sauce will paint almost anything a dark brown color.  You can make almost anything--even green beef--look like "normal" meat. 

So, it's not just for crackers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Fight

There is a new movie out that posits the question: "What would the world be like if the United States of America had never existed?"

As you can imagine, that generated a little discussion among some people here at Enema U.  A few people are of the earnest opinion that America would have been a much nicer, more civilized, and all-around cultured society had we remained under the enlightened rule of the English.  Other people were sober.

Engaging in this kind of speculative history is a mental curse that, if not stamped out immediately, will lead to madness.  If we had not fought the British, would the colonies have stopped growing at the Appalachian Mountains?  If Napoleon had not sold Louisiana, would today’s Texans speak French?  If my Aunt Sally had been born with wheels, would she have been a tea cart?

I have tried to ignore this “counterfactual speculation.”  (This is what academics call it when they sit around bullshitting each other.  Other than the name, the only real difference is that when you do it, you’re probably thinking:  “I wonder if I can get Chuck to give me another beer.”  When an academic is doing it, he’s thinking:  “I wonder if I can get the NEA to give me a grant on this?”  This is why you can NOT leave serious history to amateurs—they just don’t think big enough.)

What I can NOT stop thinking about, is the nonsense about the "enlightened" and "beneficial" society that would have come about if the colonies had just  remained under the leadership of gentle, non-violent, and all around peaceful England.  England???

Peaceful Ol’ England is mean enough to hunt bears with a hickory switch.  Now, don’t get me wrong--I really like England.  (Except for the food!  I think the national dish is pork tartare.) I probably like England because she is NOT peaceful. 

Hell, compared to England, the United States is Mother Teresa.  England has invaded--at one time or another--over 90% of the Earth.  At last count, of the 200 odd countries that make up our planet, England has invaded all but 22 of them....So far.  And most of those 22 were spared because they were landlocked (and it was considered too difficult to put wheels on the British Navy!).

As an example, I give you the British invasion of Argentina.  (No, I am not talking about the Falklands War.  It is not an invasion when you take back your own island.  And even if it were, that would have been the third British military invasion.)

In 1806, Commodore Sir Home Popham was given command of a fleet and sent to attack Cape Town and drive the Dutch out of South Africa.  Taking 1600 soldiers 6,000 miles from home is a difficult task, but Sir Popham was eager to distinguish himself.  Unfortunately, by the time his British force arrived in South Africa, the Dutch had already been driven out, and the area was firmly under British control. 

Poor Sir Popham!  He had an army that was all dressed up and had nowhere to fight.  So...he invaded Buenos Aires.  Wrong country.  Hell, wrong continent! The invasion was not authorized, and was a gross over-stepping of his orders (a hanging offense in those days).  Fortunately, for Popham, he was successful.  The Spanish army ran away as the British troops came ashore. 

When word of this unexpected victory reached London, the people rejoiced.  With Britain simultaneously at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the war news lately had been rather grim.  Napoleon was in control of most of Europe and a lot of people weren’t really sure where Argentina was (or just why England needed it), but they had won something!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived.  While the Spanish had run, the people of Buenos Aires had not.  Under their own leader, they organized an impromptu militia, counter-attacked, and captured a large portion of the British forces.  Sir Home Popham was forced to retreat to Montevideo, in present-day Uruguay.  He was recalled, and while a court martial condemned him, the merchants of London presented him with a sword for opening up a new market.  

While England had not planned on a war in Argentina, now that its military honor (I guess since it's the English, it should be ‘honour’) had been insulted….Well, a second invasion had to take place.  This time, the English would do it right.  In 1807, they sent 10,000 troops.  Unfortunately, they also sent Lieutenant General John Whitelocke. (That's pronounced, "Leftenant General", since he was English, of course.)

When Whitelocke arrived, he seemed to believe that he was fighting just a few pro-Spanish fanatics.  However, what he was actually fighting was a city full of fiercely independent Argentines who, after they were successful with this second invasion, went on to establish the first independent nation in Latin America.  (The consensus in Argentina was: The Spanish ran from the British, and we beat the Brits…Why exactly do we need Spain?)

Whitelocke could have won.  Unfortunately, in the face of a superior enemy, he decided to split his forces.  There is an iron-clad military rule about this: "If you are a general and feel the need to split your forces, you are supposed to pull out your wallet and check your driver’s license.  Unless it says your name is Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Robert E. Lee, don’t do it."  (In England, this is known as the Montgomery Rule.  There is a Montgomery Martini that is fifteen parts gin to one part vermouth.  Supposedly, Monty would never attack without those odds.)

Whitelocke attacked in two wide columns separated so far apart that neither column could support the other.  The people of Buenos Aires, armed with the guns from the first British invasion, fought from behind barricades made from large leather bags filled with sand.  After a day of fighting, Whitelocke had lost a third of his men--killed, wounded, or captured.  Forced to seek terms, the general agreed to withdraw.  At his subsequent court-martial, he was declared, “totally unfit and unworthy to serve His Majesty in any military role whatever.” 

Today, in Buenos Aires, the British embassy is located on the Calle Reconquista.  Just around the corner at the Santo Domingo church, you can see the captured British Battle Flags.  England will get them back about the same time Argentina gets the Falklands.

And what of Sir Home Popham who started all this?  He continued to serve in the military and had a distinguished career in the Napoleonic Wars.  His failure in Argentina was the sole blemish on his record, and that was primarily due to poor communications with England. Ironically, his greatest triumph was also in communications: He developed the semaphore system that is still the basis of the flag system used by navies around the world.

Shortly after he created the flag system, it was most famously used for the signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" that was sent just before the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle that ruined the navies of both France and Spain.


No--I don’t think the United States has anything to teach England about aggression.