Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Mexico Got Its Own Eiffel

The story starts in the 18th century: the King of Spain, anxious to convert the natives of New Spain (Mexico) to Catholicism, sent soldiers to guard the priests.  One of these soldiers was sent to a remote location in  Baja California Sur, where he elected to stay after the end of his military service and start a ranch.  A century and a half later, one of his descendants, José Rosas Villavicencio, discovered blue-green spheres of copper—technically called boleos—simply lying on top of the ground.

Gathering up a few of the boleos, he arranged to have them shipped across the Sea of Cortez to Guaymas, where the ore was analyzed and found to be high grade copper—so high, in fact, that the ore required no processing before smelting.   For the meager sum of 16 pesos, José disclosed the location of the copper ore.

For a few years, there was just a little general prospecting (nothing too elaborate), and, then, Porfirio Díaz became President of Mexico.  It is a strange irony that a man who came to prominence fighting against the French invaders, eventually decided to be French.  He dressed in French fashions, ate French food, learned the French language and tried as much as possible to rebuild Mexico in the French model.  And when the people had had enough of this brutal tyrant, he ran away from Mexico and lived the remainder of his life in Paris.

Díaz encouraged foreign development of Mexico and believed that the fastest way for Mexico to develop was for it to lose its "Mexican culture" and to adopt European ideals.  Since all mineral rights in Mexico belong to the government—not the owner of the land—in 1885, Díaz sold the copper mining rights for 70 years to a French mining company that was part of the House of Rothschild.

The Boleo Mining Company descended on this isolated area and started building...BIG:  roads, ranches, farms, water lines, a harbor, and housing for the miners.  They literally built the town of Santa Rosalia, building everything miners needed to work—but not much else.  One of the things considered unnecessary was a church—which is ironic if we consider why the Europeans first came to the area!

Meanwhile, back in France, Alexander Gustave Eiffel—yes, that Eiffel—began a company, Le Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel, that was experimenting with new methods of construction.  Using puddled iron (commonly called "wrought iron"), a small number of standardized structural pieces could be created and used in multiple construction projects.  After a lengthy discussion with the French Governor of Cochin-China (a French colony known today as Viet Nam), Eiffel saw the need for prefabricated bridges and buildings.

Eiffel designed these prefabricated pieces to be small enough to be easily transported to even the most remote locations.  A limited number of types of versatile small pieces meant that each piece could be produced quickly and used in multiple projects.

From his factory just four miles from the center of Paris, Eiffel could build the necessary structures, but instead of joining the pieces together with iron rivets, Eiffel used large nuts and bolts.  This would eliminate the need for skilled labor at the construction site.  Then the structure would be carefully dismantled, shipped to the desired location, and reassembled.  Sort of an Erector set (Meccano to you Europeans)—for big boys.

The concept worked, and was used all over the world.  The Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City, a church for an earthquake area of Chile, a bridge over the Nile River, and even the interior frame for the Statue of Liberty—all were prefabricated in France, disassembled and shipped to the construction site.  Eiffel did this with dozens of structures all over the world.

Which brings us to the Eiffel Tower.  (Trust me, we will be back in Mexico right after we go to Panama.  And Egypt.  And Brussels.)

In 1889, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a world's fair.  The event planners wanted something big, something dramatic to serve as the entrance to the fair.  And they wanted something that could be easily demolished when the affair was over Eiffel's company suggested an iron tower with three levels, that was bolted together to facilitate its eventual removal.

Though somewhat dubious about the project, the fair officials gave him the job of erecting a 986 foot tower in just a little over two years.  Once constructed, it would charge admission for 20 years to recoup the cost of construction, and then be removed.  You wouldn't believe the loud opposition to the "monstrosity" by the artistic set of Paris.  The French writer, Guy de Maupassant, supposedly ate lunch in the tower's restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible.

Ignoring his critics, Eiffel built the tower in just 26 months.  (And while he was building it, he created a small, secret, private apartment on the top floor—just for himself.  It is still there, but that is another story.)  When the fair started, Eiffel exhibited, besides the tower, several of his other creations.  One of these was a pre-fabricated metal church that could be easily shipped to remote locations in Africa, and be reassembled without difficulty.  Since the entire building was made of galvanized iron, it would be hardy enough to withstand the fiercest tropical weather.

Unfortunately for Eiffel, shortly after the fair closed, his reputation was damaged by his involvement in the French effort to build the Panama Canal.  Immensely popular after successfully constructing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps wanted to build a canal across Central America.  Unfortunately, building a sea-level canal in the desert sand was much easier than building a canal through the disease-infested jungles of the tropics.

When the de Lesseps' company, The Panama Canal Company, declared bankruptcy, it sent a financial shockwave through Europe.  Even though Eiffel's company had only accepted the contract to build the future locks for the canal, Eiffel was charged with financial fraud, assessed a large fine, and sentenced to two years in jail.  Even though the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, Eiffel resigned from his company, in which he had been forced to make drastic cutbacks because of financial losses.

While most of Paris slowly fell in love with the tower, Eiffel himself devoted the rest of this life to conducting experiments in meteorology and aeronautics.  Working from that secret apartment 900 feet above the ground, some of the data he accumulated was later used by the Wright brothers in designing their Wright Flyer.

Although the prefabricated church had won a prize at the exposition, it never made it to a French colony in Africa.  Instead, it was disassembled, packed in crates, and stored in a Brussels warehouse, where it remained forgotten for years until a French official of the Boleo Mining Company learned of its existence, purchased it cheaply, and had it shipped to Santa Rosalia.

The Eiffel church was reassembled and named 'Iglesia de Santa Barbara'.  The seventy-year lease for the French expired in the early 1950's and since that time, Mexico has sold the lease to a South Korean Company.  The enormous open pit mine is still there, and though it is no longer a tiny village, so is Santa Rosalia, located south of La Paz, on the southern end of the Baja peninsula.

The area experiences frequent violent storms, but Eiffel's design has proved to be remarkably sturdy and efficient.  After more than a century, the galvanized iron church designed by Gustave Eiffel is still in use.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Burr's Bank (& Water Company)

Two of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, clearly hated each other.  Most Americans are aware that, in the summer of 1804, the two men fought a duel, in which Vice-President Burr killed the former Secretary of the Treasury.  Very few are aware of how the feud between the two patriots started or that there is still tangible evidence of that argument today.

Both men served with distinction in the army during the revolution, and—for a while—were friends.  Burr actually saved Hamilton's life at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse.  Sadly, this friendship did not last for long.

Alexander Hamilton was the consummate politician, and was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Washington, while Hamilton achieved miracles in establishing a firm financial footing for the the new country.  He also established the first political party: The Federalists.  It would be correct to say that Hamilton also invented partisan politics, and this is what started the bad blood between the two men.

Hamilton, with the Federalists, established The First Bank of the United States.  Chartered for 20 years, the bank was to handle the monies of the new government, and both borrow and lend monies.  Almost immediately, it was a powerful tool for the Federalist Party and its supporters.

Just as quickly, the opposition party—the Democratic-Republicans—hated the bank.  The party's leaders, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, fought against the creation of the bank and lost.  The ultimate decision was George Washington's, and the bank was chartered in 1791, so for years, it was the 500-pound banking gorilla in New York.  Between the New York branch of the national bank and Alexander Hamilton's own bank, the Bank of New York, the Federalist party profited from the monopoly on banking and successfully fought against the creation of any other new banks.  (These were the only two banks in the both the city and state of New York).

In 1795, the city of New York saw the onset of a Yellow Fever epidemic that would last for eight years, killing thousands of people.  While every doctor in the city had a pet theory about the cause of the dreaded disease, no one knew for sure, so wild theories were offered:  swamp air, rotting coffee—a few crazy dreamers even blamed mosquitoes!  But everyone could agree on one course of action:  the city's water supply had to be improved.

Aaron Burr, Governor DeWitt Clinton, and few other members of the Democratic-Republican Party proposed a solution:  a modern water supply company.  They successfully petitioned the state assembly to charter the Manhattan Water Company to supply the lower half of Manhattan Island with water.  The company quickly sold $2 million in stock and set up business.

The company was headquartered in a house at 40 Wall Street, and quickly purchased several miles of logs, bored them out, and began using them as water mains.  Wells had to be dug, so  the company secured sites as cheaply as possible—meaning that many of the wells were located in cemeteries, in stockyards, and in feed lots.  In addition, while the company's business was to  supply water to the city, the wooden water lines were laid at first to only the most affluent parts of town. 

Considering the rotting wooden pipes, the potentially tainted locations of the wells, and the total lack of any purification treatment, it is amazing that anyone who actually drank any of the water lived to tell about it!  The few who did, usually added copious amounts of alcohol to the water in the vain hope of making it safe to drink.  (I would love to say this was the birth of the Manhattan cocktail....but it wasn't.  While there are conflicting theories as to the cocktail's origin, it appeared on the scene at least half a century after the water company was chartered.)

Obviously, as a "public utility", the Manhattan Water Company was not really trying too hard.  As a matter of fact, from that original sale of $2 million worth of stock, only $100,000 was used for the water company.   A closer look at the company's corporation charter will reveal what it was actually doing.

Even today, when a new corporation writes its charter application, it pretty much claims that the company will be engaged in every sort of business imaginable, and then waits for the chartering commission to whittle that down.  In the case of the Manhattan company, Aaron Burr had quietly included a clause that allowed the water company "to use surplus capital for banking transaction."

In plain English:  besides selling water, the "water company" could also be a bank.

Since it had only used 5% of its capital for piping bad water to people who wouldn't drink it, the remaining $1.9 million was used to start the bank.  After ten years, the company sold its water assets to the city for an additional $1.9 million.

Alexander Hamilton was furious and never forgave Burr for ending his banking monopoly.  In 1804, when Burr ran for governor of New York, Hamilton denounced him publicly.  Insulted, Burr demanded an apology—which Hamilton refused to give—so the argument was settled in the famous duel on July 11, 1804.

The Bank of the United States didn't last much longer  In 1811, when the charter came up for renewal, the Senate vote was tied, forcing Vice-President Clinton to cast the deciding vote to deny the charter's renewal.  (I'm sure that his being one of the stockholder's in the Manhattan Water Company did not influence his vote.)

The Manhattan Water Company continued as a bank, and since  its charter still called for it to sell water, it continued to offer water for sale until late in the 19th century.  At board meetings, a pitcher of water sat symbolically on the table (though as far as the company records show, no one ever sampled it).

By the turn of the 19th century, the bank bought and merged with other banks, becoming (for a while), the Chase Manhattan Bank with its headquarters still at 40 Wall Street in the Chase Manhattan Building.   Today, the bank is simply known as the Chase Bank, and 40 Wall Street is now called the Trump Tower.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mad Jack

In the history of warfare, there are a few universal constants—a historian once stated that all of military technology could be categorized into hit, cut, throw, and burn.  Sharp sticks, rocks, and clubs turn into swords, bombs, and guns.  Follow the evolutionary trail upward long enough and you get to cannons, and, (eventually) missiles, but no matter how sophisticated the device, you are still hitting, cutting, throwing, and burning. 

Some weapons disappear over time:  I'm not aware of any modern army still using the atl-atl, war clubs, or catapults.  Other weapons make surprising returns: take, for example, the British longbow. 

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, archery became the passion of English males.  Both men and boys endlessly practiced with the longbow—a yew bow roughly six feet long, with an incredible pull weight of up to 140 pounds.  To develop the muscles required to use such a bow took years and years of hard work, but a good archer could release a dozen arrows every minute, with a range of 400 yards.

These bows gave the English victories over the French during the Hundred Years' War, in such battles as Agincourt and Crécy.  There is a tendency for every army to prepare to fight the next war exactly like the last.  (And history has proven that if you are fighting the French, this will work for decades).  But eventually, the French learned, used the same system, and defeated the English.  Of course, it did take 100 years…  A very large piece of paper, would allow us to plot the French Military Learning Curve.

During the American Revolution, the Continental army was desperately short of everything.  Somehow, George Washington had to raise an army, train it, equip it, find officers to lead it to victory over the best army in the world...AND pay for it all.  The colonies manufactured very few guns.  To outfit a man with a flintlock musket, powder, shot, and provisions, cost on average the equivalent of two weeks' wages. 

Benjamin Franklin had a novel solution.  While the fledgling country could not make sufficient muskets, it could produce bows and arrows in an almost unlimited number.   Franklin argued that compared to a musket, a bow and arrow fired faster, was more lethal, and had a longer range than the Brown Bess Musket that the British army was using.  We will never know how such an army would have fared against the British, because the French decided to exact a little revenge for Agincourt and supplied America with sufficient muskets, powder, and bullets to help the colonies gain independence. 

So the bow is dead—tossed out as useless in modern warfare.  Well, not quite yet!

John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill—commonly called Mad Jack or Fighting Jack—was not ready to let a few of those ancient weapons go.  For years to come, historians  will continue to  argue whether Jack was a shrewd soldier or simply stark raving mad.

Jack was born in Ceylon and was educated first on the Isle of Man, and then at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.  Graduating in 1926, Jack served as a lieutenant in Burma for ten years, where he passed the time practicing archery, playing the bagpipes, and racing motorcycles.  Growing bored of a peacetime army, he resigned his commission and got work as an editor for a Nairobi newspaper,  as a male model, and had small acting parts in several movies, in which  he demonstrated his archery skills.  (You can catch a glimpse of him in The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank at Oxford.)

When Hitler invaded Poland, Jack rejoined the army and served with the British Expeditionary Force in France.  When France surrendered, the British forces at Dunkirk were surrounded by the German army, making their eventual escape all but impossible.  When a German patrol came close to his unit stationed near the Pais-de-Calais, Churchill killed the sergeant leading the patrol.  His weapon?—the longbow he carried!  When he shot the sergeant in the chest with a barbed arrow, he became last British soldier in history to kill an enemy with a British longbow. 

Back in England, Churchill joined a new unit, the Commandos, primarily because it sounded dangerous.  Almost immediately, he became known for his unusual fighting style.  On a raid in Norway, he left the landing craft on a motorcycle, his longbow and bag pipes on his back, and a Scottish basket-hilted sword on his hip.  As he charged the enemy forces, he was heard screaming his war cry, "COMMANDOOOO!" 

The effect on the enemy can only be imagined.  The legend of Mad Jack began growing immediately.

The sword became something of a trademark for him.  In the photo to the right, you can see him in the bottom right, sword in hand, leading troops ashore during a training exercise.  According to Mad Jack, "Any officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed."

In 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill led a Commando raid on the coast of Sicily to remove a Nazi observation post.  It was a dark night, so Mad Jack left most of his unit in safety and crawled forward to scout out the enemy position.  When he finally returned, he had 42 German prisoners that he had captured at sword point!  When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, he stated:  “I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry, ‘jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently,”

In 1943, Mad Jack led a Commando raid into Yugoslavia where he was to link up with partisans.  Though he and six commandos made their objectives, they were surrounded by Germans who methodically surrounded the unit and began attacking them with hand grenades.  When all of his men were either killed or incapacitated, Mad Jack continued to play "Will Ye No Come Back Again" on his pipes until he was rendered unconscious by a grenade.

Hitler had a standing order to execute all captured Commandos, but either the Nazis respected Mad Jack's bravery or they incorrectly believed he was related to Winston Churchill.

Now, a prisoner, he was taken to Berlin for questioning (you can imagine how well that worked) and then he was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  This move was, in part, to prevent him from engaging in any more arson attacks on German facilities.  In September 1944, Churchill and a RAF pilot crawled under the wire and through a drain, and then attempted to walk 125 miles to the Baltic coast.  When they were captured, the two were just a few miles from the coast. 

In April 1945, he was taken to a camp in Tyrol where the prisoners were guarded by SS troops.  When a delegation of prisoners told senior German Army officers they feared being executed by the SS officers at the end of the war, the German Army forcibly took over the camp from the SS and released the prisoners.

Churchill, now 93 miles behind enemy lines, began making his way, traveling at night, toward the Allied troops.  Along the way, he used water from puddles in the road to drink and to cook in a rusty can the onions he liberated from farms in the occupied territory.  He eventually made it to an American armored unit outside Verona.

Churchill was then sent to Burma, but by the time he arrived, the war was over.  Furious, Mad Jack stated: "Damn those Yanks! If they’d stayed out of it we could have been fighting for another ten years."

After the war, Churchill served in the Palestine conflicts, and was posted to instruct at a training camp in Australia.  There, he became an avid surfer, who eventually designed his own boards.  When he retired in 1959, he took up surfing in England, being the first person to surf down the 5 foot tidal bore on the River Severn.  In his later years, he could be seen sailing coal-fired boats on the Thames River.

Lt. Colonel Jack Churchill, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, died in 1996 at the age of 89.  As far as anyone can tell, he was the last individual to ever use either a basket-hilted sword or a British longbow in combat. 

But wait a while.  These kind of weapons have a way of popping back up.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Seasonal Employment


Mike, the old rancher, and his hired hand, Sergio, got out early, while it was still cold—a time when Mike's father would have said there was "still frost on the pumpkin."

Mike had always wondered about this, since as far as he knew, his father had never grown any pumpkins, nor had he ever worked on a farm.  The only kind of pumpkins in which his father had ever shown any interest had come in pies.

Still, after a long, cold winter, now it was only half-cold: colder than bus station stew in the morning and hot as sin by the early afternoon.  This reminded him of something else his father used to say:

"Weather in Texas only comes in extremes—we don't do moderate round here."

Mike nudged his horse, Man, toward the left fork in the trail that would take them toward the south stock tank.  He had to estimate how much work the stock tank would need before the "monsoon season" started in May.  The drought in Palo Pinto had reached crisis stage, but this might be the flood year that came along about every few decades.  If he didn't get the Case down here to work with the front-end loader before the rains started, the ground would be too soft for the Case to work.  And if he didn't rebuild the stock tank in time to retain what little rain water they did get, he'd be trucking in water a hundred gallons at a time all summer.

As he rode, Mike kept an eye out for his cows.  This was the time of year for new calves, and while the cows rarely needed any help, the old rancher had too much money invested in them—some of it borrowed—to let nature take its course. 

He felt a little guilty about riding his horse this early in the day, the pickup would have been faster and more efficient, but the old rancher had justified taking a ride because the horse needed exercise.  He deeply believed that fun was anything you did after the chores were done, and he was weeks away from being caught up with those chores, so he justified the indulgence "for the horse’s sake.”

Damn!—The hoped-for spring rains made him think about the spring winds.  If he didn't get up on the roof of the barn soon, it would be too hot to work up there.  Besides, he'd have to wait until his wife, Barbara, was shopping in Fort Worth before he could drag the big ladder out of the barn and get up there.  Barbara seemed to believe that as he got older, gravity got stronger.  She wouldn't let him replace the missing shingles if she knew what he was planning.

As he rode Man up the trail, he notice that the buffalo grass—always the first grass of spring—was coming in nicely.  He would have to remember to get Sergio to move the cattle up here to take advantage of the cheap feed, then he'd have to...


The damn hydraulic line was busted on the Case again!  Mike would have taken the infernal contraption to the dealer to be fixed if the damn line hadn't broken with the backhoe arm in the down position.  Now, there was no way to drive it onto the trailer.  The old rancher had to fix it here, or pay a small fortune to have a mechanic make an expensive road trip.

Mike swore for the third time that day that he didn't like hydraulics, had no talent for working with hydraulics, and generally hated everyone who did.  He stood there in the blistering sun, and estimated that about a quart of hydraulic fluid had soaked into his clothes while he had tried—mostly unsuccessfully—to bleed the air out of the new replacement line. 

The old rancher remembered a time, five decades previously, when he had asked his father—the "original" old rancher—to explain how hydraulics worked.  His father had spent his whole life on this ranch, save for the three years he had spent in the Army Air Corps as a flight mechanic on a B-25 in the Pacific.  His father had spent 20 minutes discussing hydraulic pumps and accumulators, at the end of which, Mike had learned two things:  First, his father knew less about hydraulics than he did, and second, if all the bombers had mechanics like his father, it was a miracle the Japanese had not won the war.

Mike stopped, and walked to the back of his truck to get another long drink from the 5 gallon water jug in the bed of the truck.  The aging Coleman jug was insulated and had been loaded with ice this morning, but by now the water was tepid.  The sun and the heat meant he was  constantly in need of more water and the armpits of his shirt were stiff with the salt he had lost.  What he really wanted was an ice cold beer—something he couldn't have until he had fixed the Case.  Instead of the beer, he took off his John Deere gimme cap and splashed a little water into it before he threw it back on top of his head, relishing the cool fresh feeling as the water ran down his neck and the back of his shirt.

While he was drinking, Sergio came up and told him that the county had said it was too hot, dry, and windy to allow anyone to burn.  Sergio had—before the damn Case decided to take a vacation—been clearing the fire breaks along the fence line of the creosote and cedar brush that grew back every year.  By summer, this brush would be a dry as a preacher's sermon and could catch fire from a cold glance from a hot blonde. 

"Damn!" the old rancher grumbled.  "When it's dry we can't burn and when it's wet, that crap won't burn."

Then the old rancher signed.  For the third time that day, he remembered that Sergio didn't understand English, and his atrocious border Spanglish didn't stretch far enough for his sarcasm.  In Spanish, he told Sergio—at least that is what he thought he was saying—to repair the soft spots in the fence he had discovered while clearing the fire breaks.

Mike took off an oil soaked glove to wipe the sweat off his forehead with an equally oil drenched hand, then turned back to the Case—almost too hot to touch from the noon sun—and started bleeding the air out of the new hydraulic line, again.


For the third time that day, Mike wondered why he didn't get out of the cattle business and start over in the cattle feed business.  He was damn tired of borrowing almost a thousand dollars a year on each calf he hoped to sell a year later.

Hell!—He knew the answer:  He had a cousin who worked in the rodeo, but after years of competition, was far too busted up to ride or rope any more.  Hell, he had so much metal in his hip and both knees, he couldn't get through airport security without carrying a waiver card from the TSA.  The rodeo had found a minimum wage job for him, helping to load and unload the livestock trailers.  In between these jobs, he spent every available moment shoveling manure out of the trailers.

Mike had never asked him why he didn't get a better job, because he already knew the answer.

"What?" his cousin would exclaim.  "And quit the rodeo?"

The problem was that some professions you were just born into.  You couldn't quit, you couldn't just walk away from the land your father and his father had worked.  Somewhere along the way, that sandy red soil got into your blood, so you just kept on.  You were born into ranching, kind of like slavery—which it was—and you couldn't leave this way of life while you were still vertical.

The old rancher had time to think about things like this while he hauled water to the cattle 100 gallons at a time.  While the water gurgled out of the trailer, he moved a little hay out of the bed of the pickup to the waiting cattle.

As he worked, he kept an eye open for Rich, the delivery driver for the local farm and ranch supply.  Sometime today, he was expecting a new cattle guard to replace the one the propane truck had taken out.  The fool driver had taken a wrong turn and used a 10 ton truck to demolish an ancient cattle guard rated to 4 tons when it was new.

When Sergio was finished re-greasing the windmill pump rod, he would join Mike so they could start giving shots to the cattle.  Fall was when you tend to the health needs of your livestock, but the drought was playing hell with the available grass, so occasionally Mike had to drop everything and move feed to the livestock, even though every time he did this, the cost of the feed dipped into his narrow profits.  Maybe next year, the old rancher could do this differently, maybe he could...


God almighty!—it was cold.  Mike took off his gloves and stared at the tips of his fingers, where there was a definite blue tint forming under the finger nails.  While he was terribly cold, his fingers felt like they were burning.

It wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't gotten wet while breaking up the ice in the watering troughs so that the cattle could get a drink.  Now, he had to trace the electrical lines back from the metal tanks to find out why the electric tank heaters weren't keeping the tanks from freezing over.  The work would have been a lot easier if his fingers haven't been so stiff from the cold.

Yesterday had been harsh: he and Kent had had to patch the barbed wire fence along the state highway where some damn fool had driven off the road and broken the wire.  Since yesterday, the wind—already blowing hard enough to neuter a rooster—had actually started blowing harder.  That was the trouble every winter in Texas—a blue norther would start blowing south from Canada, and as it went south, there was nothing but the occasional barbed wire fence to slow it down.  By the time the wind hit you in Texas, it felt like you were being shot with a frozen nail gun.

The horses had to be moved into the barn, and feed had to be put out for the cattle.  What little grass was still available was covered in snow that had melted and refrozen until the grass was hidden in rock hard snow. 

Desperate for a little warmth, he drove back to the house for a cup of coffee.  He was standing at the living room window, holding his coffee cup between both hands, watching the snow coming down sideways in the stiff wind.  As he sipped his coffee, his wife came and stood beside him and together, they stared out into the frozen landscape.

"Wow!  How beautiful!" Barbara exclaimed.  "Don't you just love the changing of the seasons?"

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Private Art

It was still an hour's driving time to Cleveland when I decided to stop and get gas and something to eat.  I was less than 40 miles away, but as the day got closer to noon, the traffic on the two lane state highway got steadily worse, so I decided to stop and eat while I could.  Besides, I was hungry and would rather eat lunch in a small town restaurant than in one of the endless number of franchise restaurants that Cleveland would offer.

Years ago, I had met a retired couple who were crisscrossing the country in a motorhome.   We were on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, and they wanted directions to a McDonalds for lunch.  They said they ate lunch at the hamburger chain every day, no matter where they happened to be.  "That way," the man said, "we always know what we are going to get."

While I really couldn't argue with his logic, it did seem to kind of negate the need for travel.  Why not just park that bus in the parking lot of their hometown hamburger stand and save the gas money?  I suppose this was their way of seeing America, and could easily picture them at every national park telling each other, "It's so real, it looks just like TV."

I stopped for gas, and the attendant there suggested that I eat at a small diner just a few miles farther down the road towards Cleveland, in the village of Chagrin Falls. 

"It's called the Fresh Start Diner, right in the center of town.  You can't miss it; it borders the town plaza and is just across the street from the gazebo.  Great food, the best service you've ever had, but don't eat the chili."

"What's wrong with the chili?" I asked.  "And how do you know the service is the best I've ever had?"

"With your Texas accent, I'll bet you're not gonna like cinnamon in your chili.  As for the service, well, a few years ago, some local guy who ate there every day left one of the waitresses a half-million dollars in his will."

With such a ringing endorsement, I had to try the place, and as it turned out, it really was easy to find.  There was ample parking along the edges of the tree-lined plaza, and it wasn't hard to find the stained glass windows of the diner that was adjacent to the pharmacy.  Stepping inside, I found a cheerful little diner with maple furniture, Norman Rockwell prints on the wall, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee.

I took a table near one of the windows and looked over a menu.  Sure enough, there was something called "Cincy-Style Chili."  I ordered the Portobello sandwich on homemade bread and settled back to enjoy the coffee.  My plan was to eat healthy for lunch, so tonight, once I had reached Cleveland, I could pig out at the Great Lakes Brewery.  I wasn't going to count the calories, but I was sure a little self-control now would cancel out the beers I planned on consuming at the microbrewery. 

Most of the diners' patrons appeared to be locals: there were a lot of people in jeans and work shirts, some of whom had name tags that showed they worked at the nearby hardware store or the bank.  Evidently, I was eating where the locals did—always a good sign. 

After a while, I couldn't help noticing the man sitting next to me.  He was about my age, tall, thin, and with a salt and pepper mustache.  Eating alone, he was just finishing off what looked like a Reuben sandwich, and like me, he was finishing off what had turned out to be an excellent cup of coffee.

The man picked up his coffee cup, drained it, and then looked at the inky black coffee that was left in the bottom of his saucer.  Carefully placing his cup down next to his plate, he dipped an index finger into the cold coffee of the saucer, and began to slowly sketch a design on the maple table top. 

On the wall next to my table was a framed newspaper clipping about the waitress inheriting a half million dollars from a customer who was impressed by her pleasant nature and excellent service.  It turned out the story was true, but it was a little over twenty years old, and when it had happened, the restaurant had been named Dinks.  This had to be one of the largest tips in restaurant history.

Just as I was finishing the article, the waitress—who was pleasant, but not quite worth a tip larger than a few thousand dollars—brought my food.  I asked for Tabasco sauce for the fries, and got that look you always get when you ask for hot sauce anywhere north or east of Louisiana.  A few months earlier, when my job had taken me to Maine, I had discovered people who put vinegar on their fries, and once in New York, I had stopped in a town where they served fries with Thousand Island Dressing, and though I had never seen it myself, a friend of mine swore that in France he had been served Freedom Fries with mayonnaise.  By comparison, in my opinion, a little Cajun catsup is as normal as church on Sunday.

The next time I looked up from my food, the guy sitting next to me was fairly well along with his doodling.  He seemed lost in concentration as he repeatedly dipped his finger into the saucer, then traced and retraced his drawing.  The waitress came by to refill my coffee, and I expected her to say something to the man, but she just smiled at him, silently refilled his cup and walked off.

It was kind of a delicate problem, I wanted to see what the man was drawing, but at the same time, it would certainly be rude to stand up and stare over his shoulder.  So, I pretended to be drinking my coffee while I used my peripheral vision to watch the artwork.  I was straining my eyes so hard, they hurt, but I still couldn't quite make out what he was drawing.  I could tell there might be the outlines of two men, but I couldn't tell what they were doing. 

Suddenly, the man finished his drawing, sat back in his chair and smiled at his work.  Fishing into his pocket, he pulled out his wallet, tucked a few bills under the rim of his plate, then got up and left the diner.  As soon as he had left, I stood up and moved over to the table and looked down at what he had been drawing.

I was shocked!  I knew exactly what the drawing was—everyone knew what this drawing was, even though no one had seen a new cartoon by this man in over twenty years.  What I had thought were two men, turned out to be a small boy and his best friend, a striped tiger, dancing together.   Their simple message of joy was clear and needed no words.

I think I looked at the drawing for about a minute before I realized what this drawing was worth—big money.  I couldn't preserve it, as it was evaporating even while s I was looking at it—but, I could take a picture of it!  My cell phone was in my hand and...

I knew who that man was, and I knew that people said it was easier to see Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster than to actually meet him.  And I knew that he had never merchandized his work, not authorizing a single product based on his creations—even though this had meant he had turned his back on a fortune.  The profit on licensing just a stuffed tiger would have been worth millions—maybe tens of millions of dollars—but the artist had always refused, saying that he wanted to totally control his own work. 

I put the camera back in my pocket, without having taken a single picture.  As I stood looking at the cartoon, trying to memorize it and fix it into my mind, the waitress came and quietly stood beside me.   For what felt like a long time, but in reality was probably only a minute or so, we enjoyed our own private art show, what was for just a little while, a masterpiece owned by just the two of us.

"That was..." I started to say, but the waitress interrupted me.

"I didn't see him," she said.  "No one in this town ever sees him.  This is his home town, you know."  Then she turned back to the table, picked up the bills tucked under the plate, and began to wipe down the table with a napkin.

As I went back to my table, it dawned on me that the service in this diner really was exceptional.  After all, this was the second time that someone had left a half million dollar tip.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Texas Rising Won't Tell You

The History Channel will shortly air a new series about the birth of Texas and the rise of Sam Houston, which evidently starts with the Alamo.  I haven't seen the series yet, but if the teaser ads are any indication, I am sure there are a few things they will not tell you.  Or perhaps, they may omit will telling you the full story.

The Alamo Battle Was Fought, In Part, Over Slavery 

The Texans were planting coastal cotton, a crop that relatively quickly depletes the soil without the use of fertilizers, whose invention was more than a century in the future.  The easiest way for a planter to get around this problem was just to move westward and acquire more inexpensive land.  Planters needed good soil close to a river or creek to use for transporting the bulky cotton to the coast.  Almost all of the land along the Gulf Coast of Texas was perfect for growing cotton.

This type of farming was not profitable without slavery.  The settlers needed slaves and in their original agreement with Mexico encouraged them to bring in slaves as they migrated into Texas.  They also swore allegiance to the Mexican government and promised to convert to Catholicism.  But, in 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery.

The Texans appealed this, and got a short term exemption.  The slaves were converted over to indentured servants with a 10 year contract that was signed for the slaves while they were still legally slaves.  (Cute lawyering is a Texas tradition.)  When the ten-year exemption was up, the settlers didn't want to give up the roughly 5,000 slaves already in Texas (20% of the new immigrant population) and were trying to get a longer exemption, but Mexico refused.

While the battle at the Alamo was being fought, Stephen Austin was in Mexico trying to get that extension—if he had been successful, there probably would not have been a fight at the Alamo.

Slavery wasn't the only issue between the Anglo settlers and Mexico, but it was only issue that couldn't be compromised or resolved.  In many ways, this was a precursor to the American Civil War.

There were no "Thirteen Days of Glory"

When Santa Ana's army reached San Antonio in February, the defenders were shocked, believing it would take far longer for the Mexican Army to arrive.  (Santa Ana was a better general than is commonly believed.)

As soon as he arrived in Bexar, Santa Ana put a loose guard around the Alamo and waited while the rest of his forces arrived.  This would take two weeks, and while he waited, Santa Ana met and married a beautiful local girl, Melchora Barrera.  (Well, kind of married her—the priest was actually a lieutenant in his army who had faked more than one wedding for the general.  After the honeymoon, his “wife” would learn the truth and end up the mistress of one of his junior officers.  No one ever said that Santa Ana was a nice guy.)

According to most historians, during the time it took for the army to arrive—those "Thirteen Days of Glory"—not a single defender of the Alamo died until the morning of the final attack.  There was little fighting and no effective bombardment of the fort.  The largest pieces of Mexican artillery were the last of Santa Ana's units to arrive, and by the time they reached Bexar, the Alamo had fallen.

The Battle Was Not a Costly Victory for the Mexicans.

There is a general rule of thumb in military battles: the defenders have a 3:1 advantage.  If there are a thousand defenders, you need at least 3000 men to attack.  Following this rule, the 180-250 (estimates vary endlessly) defenders of the Alamo should have killed far more than the 450-600 Mexicans believed to have been killed during the battle.  A casualty ratio of 2:1 is considered fairly low for the defenders of a fort.

As Santa Ana said, “What are the lives of soldiers than so many chickens? I tell you, the Alamo must fall, and my orders must be obeyed at all hazards. If our soldiers are driven back, the next line in their rear must force those before them forward, and compel them to scale the walls, cost what it may."

Actually, the Mexican army almost reached the wall during the early morning attack without an alarm being raised.  The Mexican reports show that the Texas guards were asleep.  The first attack was successful and the battle was over in just a few hours.

The Alamo Was Not an Important Fort

Actually, Sam Houston wanted to destroy the fort, but was prevented from doing so by Governor Henry Smith.  The damn fort was not in a strategic location and was far too large for the number of men present to guard it.  This was precisely why the Texans were able to take it away in 1835 from General Cos—who went to Mexico and came back with Santa Ana and enough men to take it back. 

With the few men Travis and Bowie had under their command, they could not adequately defend the walls and still man their cannons—nor had they used their time wisely while waiting for the Mexican Army to arrive.  There were several weak points in the wall that almost could not be defended.  And no preparation for feeding the men had been made until February 23—the date the Mexican Army arrived.

If Travis had burned the fort and joined up with the men at Goliad, this would have added about 700 additional men for General Houston, an incredibly valuable addition.

Some of the Texas Heroes Are....Different!

Sam Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee after his wife left him—shortly after the wedding.  For years, there were strange rumors of alcoholism and infidelity.  During this time, Houston met Congressman William Stanbery while walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Since Stanberry had recently publicly accused Houston of fraud, Houston beat the congressman to the ground with his hickory cane.  Though the congressman tried to shoot Houston with a pistol, the former governor escaped when the gun misfired.  Despite being defended by no less a lawyer than Francis Scott Key, Houston was fined $500 in damages, but left for Texas without paying.

Jim Bowie was a criminal wanted in America for illegal slave trading and in Mexico for land swindles.  If he had survived the Alamo, he would probably have spent the rest of his days in prison.

Jim Bowie was already famous for a spectacularly crazy battle called the Sandbar Duel.  He, and at least 5 other men, had variously shot, stabbed, and cut each other until the fight was over, by which time Bowie had been shot at least twice and stabbed six times.  This kind of lunacy made him, and his large knife, famous (or infamous). 

David Crockett had just been voted out of Congress, and was looking for a small pond in need of a big, albeit second-hand, frog.  Before leaving Tennessee, he wrote to friends encouraging them to move with him to Texas “if Van Buren were elected President.”  Van Buren was, and Crocket did, along with 30 friends. 

When William Barrett Travis arrived in Texas, he was running away from a failed marriage, mounting debts for which he was about to be arrested, and two children when he came to Texas.  At least one historian has put forth the theory that Travis was insane as a result of drinking mercury in a failed effort to treat his venereal disease.  Somehow, he had accomplished all of the above relatively quickly—he was only 26 years old when he died at the Alamo.

There Were No Survivors.

Well, yes and no.  None of the men who fought survived.  While there is scant evidence that a handful of men, including David Crockett, were taken prisoner during the fighting, if so, none were allowed to live long.  While General Cos did not believe in executing prisoners, and argued for mercy at both the Alamo and later at Goliad, General Santa Ana insisted that Mexican law, which labeled the defenders of the Alamo as pirates, be enforced. 

There were certainly survivors.  Nearly twenty women, children, and slaves did survive the siege of the Alamo and were allowed to return home.  The best known of these were Susanna Dickinson and Joe, the slave/indentured servant of William Barrett Travis.

The Battle Did Not Buy Time for Sam Houston

First, the battle did not delay Santa Ana any significant amount of time. 

Second, for most of the time during the actual battle, Sam Houston was on leave from the army, which existed mainly in theory, anyway.  During this time, he took care of personal business, negotiated with the Cherokee Indians, and was a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Conventions.  Houston did not return to the army until March 6, the same day the Alamo fell. 

Now in command of a small, but growing, army, Sam Houston planned to lead Santa Ana ever closer to the Louisiana border, where an American army was waiting, just across the Sabine River.  While Washington debated the wisdom of adding more slave territory to the Union, the army was waiting on the border to implement whatever policy the politicians finally agreed upon.  If Houston could somehow create a conflict between Mexico and America, Texas would gain a powerful supporter in the latter.

Sam Houston knew his army was what were at the time called irregulars, meaning an undisciplined and untrained force.  Houston knew that he could probably get, at most, one good fight out of them before they deserted and went back to their families. Knowing their true worth, he was not about to risk the future of Texas by actually using the army unless he had to.

Santa Ana had almost forced Houston to strike by dividing his army twice while pursuing the Texan army over the 45 days after the fall of the Alamo.  Then, suddenly, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston realized his chance and attacked the sleeping army of Santa Ana at San Jacinto.  In a battle that lasted eighteen minutes, Houston had done the impossible, securing Texas Independence.

But I'm pretty sure the TV show will tell you that.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Goering’s Bison

Perhaps one of the weirdest stories about animal conservation involves the strange and twisting story about the European Bison, or Wisent.  These strange, large herbivores—distant cousins to the American Buffalo—once survived only in a few scattered zoos.  Today, they number in the thousands, with over two thousand reintroduced into the wild.

The largest wild animal left in Europe (bulls can weigh more than a ton), once had a range that stretched across the continent of Europe.  Where the American bison prefers to live on the grassy prairies, its slightly larger European cousins lived in forests, and as man converted the continents forests into farmland, its habitat shrank rapidly.  The bison disappeared from Greece by the 3rd century AD, from Gaul by the 8th century AD, and from England by the 12th century AD.  Their numbers drastically reduced, the bison survived in only a few forests in Eastern Europe.
As their habitat shrank, bison were hunted for their meat and frequently just for the sport.  Just as the American bison were brought to the edge of extinction by hunters seeking only their hides or tongues, European bison were slaughtered to make beer steins from their horns.
Eventually, the only preserve left was Bialowieza Forest in Poland, and after the 16th century, this area was "usually" a royal preserve with hunting limited only for the highest nobles.  The exact legal status changed from monarch to monarch until 1887 when Tsar Alexander II established it as his private preserve.  While the Tsars rarely exercised their royal prerogative—Nicholas II's last hunt was in 1912—they did occasionally find a use for the last remaining bison, quite a few were shipped off to various zoos across Europe.    

The First World War was tough on the bison (and Tsar Nicholas II didn't fare much better).  The preserve was invaded by the German army, who shot all of the bison, along with thousands of deer and wild boar, motivated equally by hunger and boredom.  By the time the Germans withdrew, there were only 54 bison left in Europe and none of them were in Poland.
This might be a good place to mention that these are not really what you might call "game animals."  The bison are not shy, nor are they fast or elusive.  Frankly, they would be about as hard to shoot as a city bus driving in slow, lumbering circles in an empty parking lot.  The Tsar and his wife used to shoot a few dozen in a single day with almost no effort—they sat in chairs and slaughtered the bison as they were herded past them by beaters.  A herd of one-ton animals with wide horns, stumbling through a forest, is going to be about as hard to locate as a big-haired blonde at a Texas wedding.

With 12 animals from various zoos, a breeding program was started at Bialowieza.  Slowly, the bison were reintroduced into the forest, and their numbers started to climb, until by the beginning of the 1930's, hunting was allowed, in order to stabilize the population at a manageable number.  Herman Goering, Hitler's second in command, hunted in the preserve, and quickly identified with the bison.
In some strange way, Goering thought of the bison as "Aryan".  (If this seems absurd, remember that in 1936 the Third Reich would sign a treaty with Japan that not only made the two countries allies, but identified the Japanese as ehrenarier, or "honorary Aryan.")  Just as Goering believed that racial inbreeding had diluted the true majesty of the Aryan man, he believed that domestication had diluted the nature of animals.  In the bison, Goering believed he was turning back the clock to true essence of the beast.

Goering quickly arranged to take four bison—three cows and a bull—back to Germany for the preserve he was building 40 miles north of Berlin.  The fact that his miniature herd was impossibly inbred (coming from a pool of only 12 animals from zoos), seems to have been lost on him.

At Carinhall, named for his deceased first wife, Goering created a perfect playhouse for an immature Nazi.  Huge banquet halls, an indoor pool, lakes, shooting boxes, hunting trophies, incredibly elaborate furnishings, and a blonde mistress.  Goering even built a huge model train layout with over 320 feet of track, tunnels, and bridges.  This train layout was so elaborate that on the eve of the war, it was insured for $265,000 (the equivalent of millions today).  Eventually, he planned a 960 foot wing addition to house the Herman Goering Museum featuring the art he had stolen from all of Europe.
When Goering was ready to show off his toys to the outside world, he invited a large group of ambassadors to tour the grounds with him.  As they stood around a pen containing the three cows, Goering made a long winded speech about the triumphal nature of all things Aryan before opening the gate that would allow the bull to rush into the pen and demonstrate the virility of the true Germanic animal. 
Goering, besides being Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe and second-in-command of the German Reich, was also the Reichsminister of Forestry and the Hunting Master of Germany.  As such, he should have known that like most wild herbivores, bison only mate in season.  So, unfortunately, at his demonstration of "German virility", the bull refused to enter the pen with the cows, and when forced to pass through the gate, took one look at the cows and scampered back to safety. 
Well, perhaps, it really was a perfect example of Nazi Virility.

The ambassadors quickly wrote up the account and sent it to their respective countries.  Sir Eric Phipps, the ambassador to Germany from Great Britain, was so derisive that his cynical dispatch is legendary; historians refer to it as the "Bison Dispatch."
Eventually, after Germany invaded Poland, the herd of bison at Bialowieza came under the control of Goering, who ordered the continuation of the preserve and the protection of the herd.  As Germany lost the war, he ordered his Luftwaffe to totally destroy Carinhall.  While almost all of the buildings—and the incredible model train layout—were destroyed, the preserve and most of the animals survived.
The preserve at Bialowieza changed hands several times.  In 1939, the Russians chased out the Polish gamekeepers and replaced them with Russian gamekeepers, who were replaced by German gamekeepers in 1941.  The Russians were back in 1944, and declared the area a park.  In 1991, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in the park and formally signed the Belavezha Accords that formally dissolved the Soviet Union.  Today, the preserve is slightly over a hundred square miles, which straddle the border dividing Poland and Belarus.

And the bison?  Today, there are roughly 5000 of them, with about half of those in the wild and the other half living in zoos and scattered breeding programs.  And if you go to Germany, for about $2,000, you can prove shooting one.  Goering would be proud of you.