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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Barbed Wire Fence

The two old ranchers, Mike and Kent, were mending a barbed wire fence along the highway.  Well, mostly they were talking about nothing much.  Both of them were moving as slow as lame mud turtles, but it wasn't exactly like either of them was on the clock.  No, at their age, they were "gentleman" ranchers.  Or, as they say in Texas:  "Big Hat-Small Cattle."

"Did you get the name of the idiot who broke the barb wire," Ken asked.  The top two strands of the wire fence had snapped.  It wasn't hard to figure out how this had happened, as the skid marks on the road led to the muddy ruts that stopped within four feet of the fence.

"No," Mike answered.  "Some damn fool went around that corner too fast and skidded off the road into the fence.  I guess he didn't think that the chance of a steer getting out and wandering onto the highway in the dark was a problem he should report."

Mike carefully backed his pickup up perpendicular to the fence until the trailer hitch protruded just above the remaining wire.  Kent attached one end of the come-along winch to the trailer hitch and the opposite end to the fence post past the break.  Now that the top two strands of wire had broken, the old fence post was leaning at a 45 degree angle.

"I suppose it was some damn fool teenager racing down the road in the dark," said Mike as he carefully used the fence pliers to untwist the broken ends of the wires.

"Ah yes, the Flower of American Youth," Kent said as he slowly worked the come-along until the fence wire was taunt and the post was upright again.

"Yep," said Mike.  "If by 'flower,' you mean a blooming idiot."

Kent pulled off a leather work glove and stared at a red welt on his thumb.  "Damn," he said.  "Why is it you lose the good gloves immediately, but the ones full of holes hang around forever?"

"Maybe you ought to buy gloves that cost more than $2 a pair," answered Mike.  "Good gloves are kind of like oats.  Good fresh oats are fairly expensive, but if you'll settle for poor quality--the kind of oats that have already been through the horse once--they come a mite cheaper."

"Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that Ol' Gertie, Bill Lloyd's mother-in-law, was buried last week?"

"No.  Hadn't heard anyone mention her in a month of Sundays, not since she went to live with her son, George, over in Azle.  Hand me those sleeves next to your foot."

Kent bent over and found the paper bag of wire sleeves in the grass and handed it to Mike.

"Never saw a mother-in-law who will be missed less.  That woman was equal parts mean and nasty," Mike said as he reached into his back pocket for the fence pliers.

The fence sleeve was a small metal cylinder, and once the strands of wire from both sides of the break were inserted through the sleeve, and the wires bent backwards, the pliers could crimp the sleeve flat, making a permanent repair.

"Yeah, I heard living with her other child didn't improve her disposition any.  No matter where she went, she was about as welcome as a skunk at a prayer meeting.  Want me to ease the tension on the come-along?"

"Yeah," Mike answered.  "Back it off about half a foot and let me make sure the tension's the same on each side of the post.   You know, it didn't help any that she didn't have the brains God gave most bait.  How' did she die?"

Kent eased the tension on the come-along and the post moved neither left nor right,  but continued to point straight up.  "Looks good to me.  She was chasing her fool cat through the corral and George's mule kicked her in the head."

"Surprised it killed her!  I didn't think there was anything under her bonnet but hair.  I think this fence will hold--at least long enough for it to be my son's problem when it breaks," Mike said.

"It was a real big funeral.  Must have been two hundred people come from all over the county.  Bill said people he didn't even know drove up from Stephenville," Kent said as he unhooked the come-along from the pickup truck's trailer hitch.

"That's a surprise," Mike said.  "She couldn't have had that many friends.  You don't suppose people were coming to make sure she was actually dead?"

"Nah," Kent replied.  "According to Bill, most of the men who came just wanted to buy that mule."


Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Nicest Ranch You Will Never See

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Billy the Kid and the controversy concerning whether he was left- or right-handed.  Sure enough, my email on the subject was pretty evenly divided on both sides of the controversy.   While I have no reason to stir up that hornets nest again, I do have a related topic to discuss.

In November of 1880, Pat Garrett was appointed sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico.  One of his first jobs was to track down his erstwhile friend, Henry McCarty--alias Billy the Kid--for his murderous role in the famed Lincoln County War.  In earlier days, Pat and Billy had been friends who had frequented the gaming tables in saloons scattered around the south half of the state.  Standing several inches over six feet, Pat was a tall man, and was known as “Big Casino,” while the diminutive Billy was known as “Little Casino.”

Now, Sheriff Garrett gathered a posse and began to chase Billys gang.  Within months, the posse had killed two members of the gang and had captured Billy and the rest.  Though Billy was convicted, he managed to kill two guards and escape from the jail.  In less than three months, Garrett was able to track down and kill The Kid in the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  Like everything else involving Billy, there are differing versions as to how the fight took place.

One thing is certain: Pat Garrett became famous as a lawman and a gunman.  And the sheriff exploited his fame:  he ran for several political offices (usually unsuccessfully), he produced a book about Billy (which was actually ghostwritten by Ash Upson), and he became a rancher.   President Theodore Roosevelt gave him the job of Customs Agent.  For a while, Garrett was even a captain in the Texas Rangers.  Eventually, he returned to his quarter horse ranch on the eastern slopes of the San Andres Mountains. 

Garrett was a difficult man to get along with, and eventually he got into a long feud with Wayne Brazel, a tenant who had leased some grazing land from Garrett.  Garrett, not realizing the rancher intended to raise goats on the land, was furious.  In 1908, while Garrett was riding a buckboard into Las Cruces, Brazel rode up and the two men began to quarrel.  According to the goat rancher, Garrett allegedly bent over to reach for a shotgun but Brazel  drew and fired first, killing the lawman.

Pardon the interruption, but have you noticed that nearly every fact connected to the Wild West is about as firm as fresh cowpie on a hot summer day?  We don't know hardly anything for sure.  There is a great story--probably apocryphal, of course--about an old frontier doctor in the wild, rip-roaring town of El Paso, who best came to grips with this problem.

In 1895, the old doc was called out one night to examine the body of John Wesley Hardin, who was a notorious badman.  When he was poor, he crossed the border into New Mexico territory, where he was an assassin for hire.  At home in El Paso, he was even worse--he was a lawyer!

There is no doubt about it--Hardin was a bad man.  He once (and I hope you understand that I am not at all certain about this story inside a story inside the story about Garrett) shot a man in an adjoining hotel room just because he snored too loudly.  Hardin was mean enough to have a fight with a rattler and give the snake the first bite.

Well, Hardin and John Selman, the local deputy, had gotten into an argument, and Hardin had promised to kill the deputy when next he saw him.  Now, if Hardin had promised to kill you, one more clean white shirt would probably do for you.  Selman--wisely--decided to strike first.

Searching the various bars, gambling halls, and assorted playgrounds that made up the seedier side of El Paso, Selman looked into the Acme Saloon and saw Hardin standing at the bar, playing poker dice with a local.

Everyone was certain that Selman had shot Hardin from the doorway, but few agreed on the details.  Selman claimed that he had yelled, "Hardin!" and as the famed shootist turned to face the deputy, he had moved to draw his gun, forcing Selman to shoot Hardin.

Hardin's friends however, claimed that Selman had not yelled a warning, but had just shot the gunfighter in the back.  The argument was heated, violence was eminent, and so the old doctor was called in to provide the official version of how the famed badman had died.  Had Hardin been shot in the front or in the back?  This was "CSI", Wild West style.

Well, this put the physician in quite a dilemma.  No matter how he ruled, half the town was going to be angry with him.  The doctor's official testimony is a masterpiece of diplomacy:

"If he was shot in the front, it was damn fine shooting.  And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgment."

And so it is with the various versions of what "really" happened in the Old West.  Pick the version you like the best, and ride that horse to the finish line, without looking over your shoulder for stray facts.  Now, back to Pat Garrett.

Garrett's children continued to live in New Mexico, with the last of them passing away just a little over twenty years ago.  The ranch, however, did not stay with the family.  During World War II, 3,200 square miles of desert land east of Las Cruces and north of El Paso suddenly found other military uses, such as for artillery ranges, bomber training areas, missile ranges, and, eventually, as an atomic proving ground.

Some of that land had belonged to ranchers, to miners, and, even to a few homesteaders.  The government used the eminent domain law and bought the land from the previous owners, fenced the whole area off, and installed the kind of armed patrols and electronic security that--for some reason--the federal government today says is impossible to duplicate on the Mexican border just a few miles to the south. 

The government doesn't lie about what's out there, but it doesn't go out of its way to publicize this land, either.  We're not talking about Area 51, but there are enough stories about lost gold mines, hidden graves, and ghost towns inside those fences to make a real problem for the people charged with keeping the curious away from it and safe.

There are occasional guided tours for those with legitimate reasons to journey into this restricted area, and while the area is a no-fly zone, the government once even gave me permission to fly a small Cessna over it. 

It might surprise you to learn that Southern New Mexico has a daily traffic report.  The broadcast doesn't warn about traffic congestion, and no--it doesn't caution you about "the pass" being blocked by a trail drive.  It will, however, tell you how long the interstate will be shut down due to a missile launch.

A former student of mine, Jacob Harrington, now works as a photographer at the range, and he sent me these photographs.  I have put them here, with his permission, to show what remains of Pat Garrett's ranch.  If you click on the photos, you will get an enlargement.

Finally, here is something we can be sure about.  Pat Garret lived in this house, looked down from this mountain.  He worked this land. 

The land has mountain-fed spring water, and is alive with game.  Personally, I like the idea that this land will never be developed and will remain an isolated place of old memories and forgotten ghosts.  The last people who lived on and regularly walked this land, didn't read about the Old West: they lived it.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death on the Brazos

The thunderstorm was pushing through Palo Pinto Canyon, and while the rain hadn't hit the ranch yet, it was only a matter of time.  Already, the lightning flashes and the rolling thunder were almost constant.  After so many years of drought, it seemed like all the prayers for rain were about to be answered at the same time.

"Damn it," Mike said.  The old cowboy was worried about getting all the horses back from the pasture and safely into the barn before the storm hit.  "Damn fool horses have scattered as far apart as they can get."

"I don't know anything about rounding up horses," said his wife, Barbara.  "But I can tell you how to get a hundred cows into a barn."

"How the hell do you do that?" asked Mike.  This was a strange statement from his wife, as one of the reasons he had married her was that she knew almost nothing about ranching--he had been ready for something different.

Keeping her eyes on the dirt trail as she drove the pickup, Barbara answered, "Easy!  Just hang a sign on the barn that says 'BINGO'."

The old cowboy couldn't help but smile.  When Matt, his son, had asked him why he had remarried a woman half his age, he had replied, "At my age, boy, I prefer the smell of perfume to that of liniment."   While this had satisfied his son, the real reason the cowboy had married the fiery redhead was simply that he was pretty sure the beauty was smarter than him.

The rain was just starting as he got the last of the three horses safely into their stalls in the barn.     Perhaps the drought had influenced his judgment, but the heavy rain sounded like music on the tin roof of the barn to him.  That music almost, but not quite, drowned out the sound of his cell phone.

"Damn," Mike muttered as he dug the phone out of his pocket.  He really hated the damn phone, but it was the second one his wife had bought him in the last three months.  He was pretty sure she wouldn't believe another story about one's accidental death.  Looking at the display, he saw the call was from Kent, his neighboring rancher and close friend.

"Mike," Kent said.  "I just talked to Cathy over in Santo.  Lightning just killed her mare and its colt.  She's pretty upset, and wants to know if we could help bury the horses.  She sounds almost hysterical."

"Aw, that's terrible.  I know how much she loved that horse.  Of course, I'll help.  If the rain lets up, we could do it first thing in the morning."

"Uh..well, she was screaming into the phone," Kent said.

Mike stood still in the barn, his eyes shut.  Cathy was one of those people who didn't just like horses, she loved them.  She lived in a little community of what the locals called horse nuts--people who had moved farther out from the city in order to own a dozen acres or so, in order to indulge their hobby horses.  Mike rode horses, he used them, he respected them--but he did not trust them and he damn sure didn't love them.  In general, he considered them reliable four-wheel drive vehicles that--in an emergency--you could eat.  As often as accidents took horses, Mike was amazed that no one yet had started marketing a line of Horsey-Helper. 

Even though he already knew the answer, Mike asked the question, "What did you tell her?"

"I told her that we would bring your backhoe over tonight and bury the horses," Kent said.

"That Case isn't street legal and the trailer is in the shop getting a new axle."

"I'll come over and drive my pickup ahead of you with the flashers on," Kent answered.  "We'll go slow."

It was a very long drive into town.  The backhoe wasn't designed to drive the ten miles into town, and between the big shovel on the front end and the backhoe behind, every time the vehicle got over about ten miles an hour, the heavy machine would begin rocking back and forth on the twisting road coming down off of Chesnut Mountain to the small town of Santo, built along the Brazos River.  It took over an hour to drive the dozen miles through the town to the two dozen homes of the small community where Cathy lived, and most of the way, Mike thought the backend of the Case was trying to pass itself on the curves.

Kent got out of his truck and opened the gate into the corral as Mike drove the backhoe over to  where the two dead horses lay, the smaller one just a dozen feet from the larger body of the mare.  In the frequent lightning flashes, Mike could see that surrounding the horses were a dozen or so raincoat-clad people from the community, standing reverently in the steady downpour.  These were the horse nuts, collectively they couldn't tell dung from wild honey.

While Kent went into the house to confer with Cathy, Mike sat in the Case's cab, wondering just how he had got involved in all this stupidity.  As far as he could tell, he was sitting in the largest hunk of metal in the area, with the tall arm of the backhoe stuck straight into the air--like a lightning rod--in the middle of an electrical storm.  Contrary to popular opinion, lightning did strike twice--or more--in the same area.  Whatever the conditions were that made lightning strike at this point, they were now improved by the addition of several tons of steel.

Shortly, Kent walked back to the backhoe.  "She wants them buried here in the corral," he said. 

Not bothering to reply, Mike started to use the backhoe to dig the hole.  He would need a hole about eight feet deep and just as wide to bury the two horses.  Even in the soft sand of the corral, this would likely take hours.

As Mike worked the backhoe, moving the dirt to the side of the hole, it seemed the rain was working equally hard to refill the hole with water.  The small community of mourners stood around the impromptu grave, shining their flashlights into the hole.  Mike's mind really wasn't on the work--he kept thinking, "Well, I guess the only way you make this backhoe a better lightning rod would be to bury the bucket deep into the muddy ground.  Like, I'm doing now."

After what seemed like an eternity in the rain and lightning, one of the mourners walked over to the cab and shouted up at Mike, "See if you can put the two horses into the grave gently, and we can ask Cathy to come out while we say a few words before you cover them up."

"Right," Mike thought.  "And if we stand close enough to the hole, when the lightning strikes, we can all just fall in."

Feeling a little guilty at what he was thinking, Mike tried to change the subject by innocently asking, "What was the mare's name?"

"Lucky," the man replied.

Mike didn't even bother to reply, but thought to himself, "If the colt was named Lightning, this would just about be perfect."

Finally, the hole was finished, though there was at least a foot of water in the bottom.  Mike thought hard about how to put the horse into the hole.  Neither the large bucket of the front end loader or the backhoe's bucket was exactly designed to do delicate work   The result of using either could not exactly be called "gently."

Mike tried to slide the bucket of the front end loader under the mare, but succeeded only in shoving the horse along the soft mud.  Finally, in desperation, he moved back several yards and moving forward rapidly, scooped up the mare in the bucket.  Raising the bucket several feet, he moved the Case over to the hole and pulled the lever that allowed the bucket to drop its load.

The mare executed almost three quarters of a complete revolution, landing with a great splash on its legs--at least for the briefest of seconds before the horse collapsed into the mud and water, its legs splaying out to the sides or folding up alongside the horse.  The effect, was horrible and even over the roar of the engine, Mike could hear the collective gasp of the mourners.

Before the mourners could voice any criticism, Mike roared off with the Case and repeated the procedure with the colt.  Perhaps the bucket was raised higher, or maybe it was because the younger horse weighed less than its parent, but the colt did a complete revolution and landed in the pit on its back--legs in the air--directly beside the other horse.

Mike couldn't help himself, he started giggling.  The flashlights of the mourners didn't reveal the contents of the bottom of the pit, but the periodic lightning flashes certainly did.  The two horses, with their legs pointing in opposite directions, were ghastly to look at. 

"That looks good," Mike yelled to the mourners,  "Bring her out!"  Mike was on the edge of hysteria--he knew that if he started laughing, he wouldn't be able to stop.

Two hours later, Mike was back at home.  Cathy had not, after all, come to view the horses in the grave.  Mike had simply pushed the accumulated muddy dirt back into the hole and followed Kent's truck back to his house. 

"So, how did it go? asked Barbara as she met him at the door."

"Oh, not bad," answered Mike.  "Not everyday you get to do a burial at sea."