Saturday, February 6, 2016

Looks Like a Word

Everyone is familiar with the concept of onomatopoeia—word that is spelled like it sounds.  “Splat” is a perfect example.  This word does not owe its etymology to the Greeks or Romans:  it probably came from some poor writer's dropping his lunch. 

The word “onomatopoeia” on the other hand, is derived from the Greek words for “to make” and “name”—which probably isn’t fair, as the word for onomatopoeia should, by all rights, be an onomatopoeia. 

Most of these words are culturally based, which is why ducks go “wang wang” in China and clocks go “di dah” in Japan.  Cows the world over make some kind of mooing noise, except in Hungary where they go “bu”.  I wonder what sounds Hungarian ghosts make?

These words are often described as a form of poetry.  Certainly, Carl Sandburg thought so—His poem Jazz Fantasia is often cited as the best examples of onomatopoeia in literature:

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes,
sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-
husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

George Eastman was so fond of the sound a camera shutter made—“Kodak!”—that he used the term for his new photography company.  Advertisers have followed his example ever since.  Everyone knows what goes “Plop! Plop! Fizz! Fizz!” and there is probably not a person on the planet who does not know the sound Rice Krispies make in milk.

Even government has gotten into the act.  Several countries have used sounds to promote the use of automobile seat belts.  In England, the campaign was “Clunk, Click, Every Trip”, in Australia, it was “Click, Clack, Front And Back”, and in the U.S., it was “Click It Or Ticket”

Only one business loved these words more than advertisers—the comic book industry.  Bif!  Pow!  Ka-blooey!  Batman practically lived in a monosyllabic world (if for no other reason than the rather short words would fit into a single cartoon panel while expressing both motion and emotion).  The writers quickly learned that the use of onomatopoeia intensified the action of a scene.

In 2002, a writer for DC Comics capitalized on the use of such words by creating a new supervillain by the name of "Onomatopoeia".  In his duels with the Green Arrow and Batman, his dialogue—I bet you are way ahead of me—consisted of single descriptive words.  In one memorable scene, as he shoots the Green Arrow, he softly says:  “Bang!”  While it was meant to be something of an inside joke in the world of graphic novels, the villain was popular with the more literate readers.

Roy Lichtenstein took the onomatopoeia into the world of art in 1963 with his ground breaking painting “Whaam!”  Inspired by a 1962 issue of DC ComicsAll-American Men of War, it is probably his most famous work and shows an American fighter plane firing a rocket into an exploding enemy plane.  (Actually, of course, this piece was fairly derivative of his 1962 painting “Blam” but since the name of that painting used conventional spelling and lacked the all-important exclamation mark, the art world ignored it.)

All of the above are referring to words that are spelled to copy a sound, but as far as I can determine (that means I googled it for about two minutes) there is no noun for a word that looks like what it is describing.  Since the task falls to me, I will do it properly, resorting once again to Greek word roots.  This gives us onomatomalosa, or ‘resemble name’.

I will be the first to admit that onomatomalosa will be a concept that will be used a little less frequently than onomatopoeia.  Actually, after extensive research (I drank two beers) I was only able to come up with three such words.

The first is ‘Bed’.  Okay, I admit that it would be better if we spelled the word as ‘Beeeeed’, but you have to work with you’ve got.  Obviously, the word looks like a bed.

The second word is ‘eYe’.  Yes, I played around with the capitalization a little, but it still works.  And somehow, when I look at the word, it makes me think of owls—smart owls wearing glasses.

I’ve saved the best for last.  ‘Boob’ is a triple onomatomalosa.  Let’s break the word down.  ‘B’ is a top view, ‘oo’ is obviously a front view, and ‘b’ is a side view.

There have to be other such words.  Feel free to add to the list in the comment section below.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Waiting for Battle

I noticed a long time ago that students tended to enjoy lectures in which lots of people died.  It is impossible to lecture poorly about the battles of Cannae or Gettysburg—there is more than enough blood to stir the imagination of even the most bored students.  We remember such battles, but we tend to forget the soldiers who fought in them and that most of their life in the army was not spent in actual combat, but in the seemingly endless periods of tedium and exhaustion that were only briefly interrupted by terror. 

Such a two-dimensional view of these men cheats them and robs them of their true identity.  So let us look at some of the individual men who fought, and what it was like to be a soldier waiting for battle.

Probably almost any soldier today could write a modern version of this story, but since I’m only a historian, I’ll tell you a little about a soldier in Napoleon’s army.

On the night before the battle at Austerlitz, Napoleon visited the outposts of his army with some of his staff.  It was the classic dark and foggy night with no moon.  The party got a little lost and accidentally made contact with a detachment of Cossacks before it could break away.  To keep this from happening again, the Chasseurs (elite light infantry) of the escort improvised torches from straw and pine boughs so as to light the way.

The troops recognized the party and twisted the straw of their beds into thousands of torches to light the way for Napoleon as he moved through the army.  It was the anniversary of his coronation and the emperor, moved by the demonstration of loyalty and affection, said, “This is the finest evening of my life.”

Neither Napoleon nor his troops slept much that night.  His men stayed up and talked over past successes (or those they counted on achieving shortly).    I’m sure the younger soldiers were excited—no doubt in part by the romance of the Napoleonic legend.  A more realistic outlook was recorded by an officer, a veteran of many battles:

I could not escape the feeling that something huge and destructive was hanging over all of us.  This mood led me to look at my men.  There they were, sleeping around me on the cold, hard ground.  I knew them all very well… and I was aware that many of these brave troops would not survive until tomorrow evening, but would be lying torn and bloody on the field of battle.  For a moment it was all too easy to wish that the Russians would simply steal away again during the night, but then I remembered how we had suffered over the last few weeks.  Better an horrific end than a horror without end!  Our only salvation lay in battle and victory!

Such feelings were common and the evidence suggests that soldiers usually welcomed the prospect of action despite the risk it brought of death and mutilation.  An English soldier wrote:

On the 24th of December 1808 our headquarters were at Sahagun.  Every heart beat with joy.  We were all under arms and formed to attack the enemy.  Every mouth breathed hope:  “We shall beat them to pieces and have our ease and enjoy ourselves”, said my comrades.  I even preferred any short struggle, however severe, to the dreadful way of life we were, at this time, pursuing.

The hardships of campaigning cannot be overstated.  These kinds of details get lost over time, we remember the battles, the treaties, the generals, and the wars, but the suffering of a private simply fades into the background.  Let’s follow one of those soldiers, nineteen year old Jean-Baptiste Barres, a private in the Imperial Guard, through the advance to Austerlitz.  At first, Barres was very enthusiastic:

We left Paris quite content to go campaigning rather than march to Boulogne.  I was especially so, for war was the one thing I wanted.  I was young, full of health and courage, and I thought one could wish for nothing better than to fight against all possible odds; moreover, I was broken to marching; everything conspired to make me regard a campaign as a pleasant excursion, on which, even if one lost one’s head, arms, or legs, one would at least find some diversion.  I wanted, too, to see the country, the siege of a fortress, a battlefield.  I reasoned, in those days, like a child. 

Okay, he was young—but I don’t want you to think our typical soldier an idiot, so let me move forward quite a bit, breaking the flow of our story and give you a line from the end of his memoirs:

At the moment of writing this, the boredom which is consuming me and four months of marching about, months of fatigue and wretchedness, have proved to me that nothing is more hideous, more miserable, than war.

Our young man obviously wised up over time, but let’s go back to our story.  Barres was marching off to war.  He wrote that the march was beautiful, but long and the weather constantly fine.  Yet Barres fell ill, lost his appetite and suffered from a fever.  However, he refused to go into hospital or ride in the carts provided for the ill.    He wrote:

I reached Strasbourg still intoxicated with glory.  Several of my colleagues not more unwell than I was, stayed behind in the hospitals and there found their deaths… Woe to those who go into hospital on campaign!  They are isolated and forgotten, and tedium slays them rather than their sickness.

At Strasbourg the soldiers were issued fifty cartridges, four days rations, and their campaigning equipment.  Crossing the Rhine River, Barres wrote:

I had a secret feeling of contentment when I recalled to memory all the noble feats of arms which its banks had seen.  These warlike reminiscences made me long for a few glorious encounters in which I might satisfy my eager impatience.  But by ten o’clock that night after a long march, I was so weary that I could neither eat nor sleep.

Our young man was learning.  A few days later, he briefly fell out on the march—probably because of dysentery—and could not find his unit for several days—a dismal time without friends or food.  It took him a whole day to rejoin his regiment.  “Ah, it is a nasty thing to be lost in the midst of an army on the march.” 

The army was approaching the Austrians.  Barres spent two hours on sentry watching an Austrian sentry across the ravine, but neither fired on each other.  Later, Barres was shocked at his first sight of the destructiveness of war when he saw a farm plundered and half demolished for firewood to the keep the troops warm.

I shed tears over the fate of these poor villagers, who had in a moment lost all their possessions.  But what I saw later caused me to regard them as happy in their misfortune.  As I was a novice in the military art, all that was contrary to the principles in which I had been trained surprised me; but I had time, afterwards, to become accustomed to such things.

Barres was learning rapidly.  For the first time he camped in the open during bad weather.

I did not find it very fascinating; it is a dismal way of going to bed, no straw on which to lie, little wood for burning, and a north wind that was like a wind of Lapland.  I passed a wretched night; roasted on one side, frozen on the other.  That was all the rest I got.

Our poor soldier, suffering in the cold—well, not really that cold.  It was only October, so he hadn't yet truly experienced real winter.

A few weeks later the army reached Vienna and Barres was disappointed that the army was restricted to the Palace grounds.  No leave and no peace, for the army was ordered across the Danube and told to continue the war.  Barres continues:

The Russian army retreated and drew us perforce into the most frightful country, and this, above all, at a time of the year unsuitable for marching.  I confess frankly that this departure displeased me sorely.  The only consolation being the many cellars filled with Moravian wine which were met with along our route. 

By the time the army reached Austerlitz, Barres had been on the move for three months, had marched a thousand miles, and had yet to fire a shot in battle.

From these excerpts, we have a pretty good idea what Barres—a young, inexperienced soldier—was thinking.  What about the veterans?  Some welcomed the freedom and excitement of life on the road, especially compared to the boredom and strict discipline of life on garrison duty.

Battle added an element of excitement, glamour and purpose to a soldier’s life—it was the culmination of the campaign, and the chance to prove the man, the unit, and the army.  Confidence was vital to the soldier: confidence in himself, in his comrades, in his officers, and in his commander.  The soldier who entered battle expecting defeat was already half beaten.  One British officer recalls the mood in the army before the Battle of Salamanca in 1812:

There assuredly never was an army so anxious as ours was to be brought into action on this occasion.  They were a magnificent body of well-tried soldiers, highly equipped, and in the highest health and spirits, with the most devoted confidence in their leader, and an invincible confidence in themselves.  The retreat of the four preceding days had annoyed us beyond measure, for we believed that we were nearly equal to the enemy in point of numbers; and the idea of our retiring before an equal number of any troops in the world was not to be endured with common patience.

This self-confidence was built on past successes, esprit de corps, and faith in a commanding general.  This was far more effective than background factors such as patriotism, hatred of the enemy, or ideological commitment. 

Individual soldiers might have varying reasons.  A young soldier might want to prove himself.  A veteran on the brink of his third engagement might want to gain a promotion by proving himself on the battlefield.  An old veteran of forty, with a long record of insubordination and drunkenness, who knew promotion was out of reach, might look to his own survival and hope for plunder.

Everyone, however, had a nagging fear of being killed or horribly wounded.  The soldier who pretended to have no fear was a liar.  And this was worst just before the battle.  One British officer wrote:

Time appears to move upon leaden wings; every minute seems an hour, and every hour a day.  Then there is a strange commingling of levity and seriousness within himself — a levity which prompts him to laugh he scarce knows why, and a seriousness which urges him from time to time to lift up a mental prayer to the Throne of Grace.  On such occasions little or no conversation passes.  The privates generally lean upon their firelocks, the officers upon their swords; and few words, except monosyllables, at least in answer to questions put, are wasted.  On these occasions, too, the faces of the bravest often change color, and the limbs of the most resolute tremble, not with fear, but with anxiety; while watches are consulted, till the individuals who consult them grow weary of the employment.  On the whole, it is a situation of higher excitement, and darker and deeper feeling, than any other in human life; nor can he be said to have felt all which man is capable of feeling who has not gone through it.

Historians frequently say that the age of Napoleonic conflict was one in which military commanders were willing to risk defeat in the hope of gaining a decisive victory.  This was in contrast to the usual 18th century warfare where cautious maneuvering to gain an advantage was more commonplace.  Between 1790 and 1820, there were 713 battles in Europe.  Most of these were only partial combats between detached forces. 

Quoting the number of recorded battles in a span of thirty years seems to lend credence to the idea that war meant an endless series of large battles, but it is actually just another case of lying with statistics.  In actuality, fighting was comparatively rare in the life of a Napoleonic soldier.  Barres experience was not unusual for his spending months of tedium punctuated occasionally by hours of terror.

And when the battle finally came, it could be very bloody—But, not necessarily for everyone.  At Austerlitz, the French had 8,500 casualties out of an army of 65,000 and out of these, 1,305 died.  This means that 49 out of 50 soldiers present at Austerlitz survived.
 
Let’s make those numbers a little personal.  Picture in your mind, your local Starbucks—all the customers and the baristas are sent back in time to fight in this battle.   Chances are greater than 50% that all of them would come back alive.  Four of them would be wounded, but "gloriously" so.

Now, that is only taking into account the men who were actually present at Austerlitz.  Napoleon’s total army in 1805 was approximately 400,000.  Between guard duty, sick call, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, over half of the army in 1805 never saw combat at all that year.

Given all this, it is not surprising that the greatest killer of armies at this time was not the enemy—it was disease and starvation.  Let us take an extreme example, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia:  the best estimate is that for every twelve soldiers who went, only two returned alive.  One fell in action or from wounds, two were taken prisoner, the remaining seven froze, starved, or died of disease.

Nor was anything much better in the British army.  Consider the Peninsular Campaign in Spain: depending on the time of year, between twenty and thirty-five percent of Wellington’s army was sick at any given time.  Probably about 240,000 soldiers in the British army died between 1793 and 1814, but of these only about twelve percent died in battle or from combat wounds.

The soldiers may have expressed their fear of dying or being maimed in battle in their writings, but they were at much greater risk of dying away from battle than dying in it, or of injuries resulting from it.

It has been two centuries since these battles.  Weapons, tactics, the treatment of disease...all of these have changed dramatically.  What has not changed are the men who fight the battles, and what people will remember—and forget—of their lives.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Terror Comes to Iraq

It is hard these days to pick up a newspaper without reading about the latest act of terrorism from ISIS or some other lame-brained group from the Middle East.  Actually, on some level, I can almost understand their anger: they live in a desert, they are dirt poor despite all the oil, they are not allowed to drink beer, and all the women dress like Batman.

This slight over-simplification deserves a little historical background.  As a historian, of course I want to start 2600 years ago, when the area was ruled by the Assyrians, who commanded one of the fiercest military machines ever built in the ancient world.

There were actually two Assyrian Empires—or perhaps two phases of Assyrian history:  the first phase was roughly 1350 to 1100 BC.  The second—the one that I will talk about—is the "Neo-Assyrian Empire" of the early Iron Age of about 900-600 BC.

Ashurnasirpal II—a name so hard for a Texan to pronounce that from here on I will simply call him Ashley—ruled from 883 to 859 BC—either conquered or killed everybody near him.  Supposedly the Assyrians were just retaking their lost lands, but if this were true, he must have had a defective map since Ashley and his kin eventually ruled territory more than twice the size of the original empire.

The Royal Records tell us a lot about the king and his campaigns, and in very vivid and brutal language.  Here is an example narrative of one of Ashley's campaigns:

While I stayed in Aribua, I conquered the towns of Luhuti, defeating their inhabitants in many bloody battles.  I destroyed them, tore down the walls, and burned the towns with fire; I caught the survivors and impaled them on stakes in front of their towns.

Almost all the records are full of such friendly details.  King Shalmaneser fought the great battle of Karkar in 853 BC against the King of Damascus.  His records say the enemy army was huge—thousands of men, horses, and chariots.  Here is the account of the battle:

They rose against me for a decisive battle.  I fought with them with the support of the mighty forces of Ashur.  I did inflict a great defeat upon them between the towns of Karkar and Gilzau.  I slew 14,000 of their soldiers with the sword, descending upon them like Adad when he makes a rainstorm pour down.  I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered fleeing soldiers…”

In the pre-Muslim world of Mesopotamia, Adad was the God of Storms.  Almost all of the accounts of battle are like this, with lots of routs and massacres.  Enemies are cowards who are crushed, cities are sacked, and the air is filled with the anguished cries of women.  

Or as a former governor of California once said, "…to crush your enemies, have them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women"

Actually, this is an abbreviation of the Genghis Khan quote: "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."

Okay, that is better than what Arnold said, but Genghis Khan never said, “I’ll be back…”

One of the best examples of Assyrian warfare is in the records of Sargon II, who ruled between 721 and 705 BC.  In 714 he attacked Armenia against two kings who had allied to face the Assyrian threat.  Here is Sargon’s account:

I was not afraid of his masses of troops, I despised his horses, I did not cast a glance at the multitude of his mail-clad warriors.  With my single chariot and the horsemen who go at my side, who never leave me either in hostile or friendly region, I plunged into his midst like a swift javelin.  I defeated him.  I turned back his advances; I killed large numbers of his troops, the bodies of his warriors I cut down like millet, filling the mountain valleys with them.  I make their blood run down the ravines and precipices like a river, I cut down their army and broke up their organization.

You get the picture.  There is not a lot of detail about strategy, but from the sentiment, you kind of get the impression that Sargon didn’t like them.  The written records are full of massacre, blood, and treachery as the Assyrians slaughtered their enemies like dogs. 

Depictions in art of open-field battles are rare, but there is a good example in the reliefs of the Battle of Til-Tuba.  When this was fought in either 663 or 653 BC., King Ashurbanipal—whom we will call Alex—defeated the Elamites of southwestern Iran under King Teumma (hereafter called King Ted).

King Ted had made the rather incredibly stupid mistake of sending hate mail to King Alex.  (Seriously!—Hate mail!)  The Assyrian king came after him and not only did he win a great victory, but he celebrated the victory by having reliefs of the battle made to decorate his royal palace in Nineveh.  (And now they are safely in London after thieves—excuse me, archaeologists—took them home for study.  Had they been left in Nineveh, they would no longer exist—but that is a story for another day.)

The scenes show us a glimpse of how the brutal battles were fought.  Assyrians advance from the right with spearmen, archers, chariots, and cavalrymen working closely together.  The Infantry carry spears and very large shields, while the cavalrymen have lances.  Four-man chariots chase down the primitive Iranian war-carts.  The Elamites are driven into the Ulai River which filled with bodies and the debris of battle.

In a separate set of reliefs, King Ted is dealt with...severely!  These reliefs have captions, like today’s cartoons, so that we know exactly what is happening.  Ted is chased in his war cart, then his cart crashes and he is hit in the back by an arrow.  He flees on foot with his son, but they are surrounded by Assyrian archers and infantry, and are bludgeoned to death with maces.

Defeat in battle and death were not enough, however:  King Ted’s head is cut off and is then transported to a tent full of captive Elamite nobles for identification.   The Assyrians do it right:  they show the Elamites a wide assortment of heads and ask them to identify Ted's among them.  And the caption, loosely translated has them saying, “Yep.  That’s him.”  Then the head is taken to King Alex. 

Meanwhile, King Ted’s family—even his in-laws—are being slaughtered.  King Alex is not only crushing the Elamites, he is destroying the House of Ted. 

This is a great story, with dynamite illustrations so, perhaps, we could call it the world’s first graphic novel? 

Think what the psychological impact of these reliefs would have been if you had been  an ambassador from a rival kingdom coming to see the great King Ashurbanipal (King Alex) of the terrifying Assyrians.  As you are being led into his chambers, you see the depictions of what happened to someone who sent him insulting mail—the towns that had been looted, smashed, and destroyed.  It would make quite an impression.

The most famous of the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum are those showing the Royal Lion Hunt.  These, too, are from the palace of King Alex in Nineveh and are simply amazing.  My children used to complain that I could spend a day in a museum looking at the world’s largest ball of string, but even they stood silent in this room.  (Well, for about five minutes and only because I threatened their lives.)

One last tool of the Assyrians needs comment:  they were highly effective users of terror and they were unbelievably cruel to those they had conquered.  Since this was a deliberate policy, this was "terrorism"Here is an excerpt from the account of King Alex:

Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives.  From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes.  I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts around about the city.  Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire and elsewhere I formed a pillar of the living and of heads over and against the city gate and 700 men I impaled on stakes over and against the city gate.

The artwork in the reliefs confirms this violence:  we are shown people staked down, whose tongues pulled out, after which they are flayed alive; people have their hands and feet cut off and are impaled on stakes; and severed heads are heaped in piles or are nailed to the city walls like grisly hunting trophies.  In one particularly cruel scene, captives are shown being beaten and forced to grind the exhumed bones of their ancestors, so that not only were the living being destroyed, but so was their past.

From the point of view of the Assyrians, they were not being unnecessarily cruel:  this was effective psychological warfare that would force potential enemies to think twice before opposing them.  This harsh treatment was not dealt to territories that surrendered before the fighting began, nor was it very often meted out to the newly-conquered—it was nearly always reserved for provinces that had rebelled.

One last scene in the reliefs is very instructive: ambassadors from other lands are being shown the insulting clay tablets that the Elamite King Ted had sent King Alex.  In the next relief, they are looking at captives staked to the ground while being skinned alive—an object lesson meant to be impossible to misinterpret.

In several places, the royal records have chilling lines.  Written in the first person, the king is recorded as saying, “I poured terror out over the land.
 
Yes. He. Did.

Two hundred years ago, Carl Von Clausewitz said that war was an extension of politics by other means.  The Kings of Assyria would add that terror has long been an effective instrument of war.  We should not be surprised when a culture embraces terrorism as a political tool when it has been used since its earliest recorded history.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Skunks Are Back

The skunks are back at Enema U.  I’m not referring to the two-legged variety that have been absent since the end of the last semester, and only manage to stagger into the building at the start of the next semester—no, the faculty are not the polecats I’m referring to. 

No—the skunks in question are the four-legged variety that seems to be living in every drain pipe, basement, and crawl space on campus.  They have been missing since the snows fell in December, but now that the weather is back to normal, they can be seen on campus again.  Since there is rarely a showdown between any of the students and the skunks, these critters are much smarter than I had imagined.  And while I wouldn’t say they are domesticated, they seem to be at least as tame as the feral administrators.


If you want to see the wildlife of Enema U, you have to hang around the buildings until about midnight.  (Alternately, you could go to a faculty meeting.)  Then suddenly, out from under metal gratings and from all the other hidey holes around the aging buildings emerge skunks, feral cats, and an astonishing number of field mice.  I don’t blame them for living here—the university is a large, beautiful park, with manicured trees, well-watered lawns, and enough food to be found in the assorted trash cans to provide easy banquets.  Their only natural enemies are the occasional hawk or owl, and a few pet dogs that learn the hard way not to examine the interesting smells coming from drain pipes.

Has Southern New Mexico always had this many skunks, or is this yet another animal that has seemed to increase in number as the human population has increased?  Supposedly, the state has more coyotes and politicians than ever before, so I suppose that skunk population could behave similarly.   Certainly there is less incentive to shoot the four-legged polecats than there seems to be to eradicate the other two pests.

Skunks have long been a part of the family history.  Almost half a century ago, I took my wife, The Doc (then a pre-Doc), on a long walk in the countryside.  As we approached an old building, for some reason I warned my wife that this was good skunk country.  (I’m still not sure exactly why—perhaps I smelled something?).  Despite the warning, a few minutes later I looked back at my wife, who was standing on tiptoe to look through the window of what was left of the old building.  Standing directly beneath her, was a skunk. 

“Don’t move!” I yelled.

Of course, she moved.  And the skunk did what skunks do best (Besides running for Congress...).  You cannot believe how angry she was when I made her sit in the back of pickup on the way home.  Actually, to this day, The Doc still gets angry whenever I mention this incident, and I’ve noticed that over the years, her version of the story has gradually changed.  I believe that currently, as she tells it, I threw the skunk at her while her back was turned.

Several years ago, we took our sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, camping at a state park.  The boys got the tent, while The Doc and I slept in the back of the truck.  Somewhere after midnight, I heard the sound of a small voice coming from the tent.

“Nice kitty,” he said.  “You’re a good cat.”

I sat up and watched my youngest son, The-Other-One, feeding leftover fried chicken to a small pack of skunks.  (What is the proper collective word for skunks?  A "stench" of skunks?  A "noseful"?  A "phew" skunks?)

Watching your son feeding skunks produces a whole series of mixed emotions.  If I try to rescue him, I’ll probably only succeed in getting us both sprayed.  Is there a potential problem with rabies?  Probably not: the boy is old enough to stop biting.  In the long run, I just went back to sleep.  Milliorn’s Rule of Child Raising:  Children have a right to be eaten by bears.  Or in this case, skunks.

The next morning, the boys were fine, the skunks were gone, and so was all the leftover chicken.

I’ve had my own run-ins with skunks, too.  The Doc and I own a small cabin up in the mountains.  Now when people tell you they have a cabin, it usually turns out that they have a condo or an apartment in one of the Instant Ghettos that are springing up inside the city limits of every community located anywhere near the mountains.  That is not what we own.  Ours is a ramshackle cabin located in what is technically called ‘Dumbfuck, Nowhere”.  It was built by drunks—I know, I was one of them.

One day, there was a plumbing problem under the kitchen sink that required me to crawl under the cabin, on my back, into the narrow space under the kitchen floor.  The spider infested crawl space was cramped, tight, and almost impossible to move as I lay on my back working with a wrench above my head on a stubborn pipe.  After a few exhausting minutes of work, I laid the wrench down, and took a rest.  As I turned my head to the right….there was a skunk about two feet away from my face, staring intently at me.

Looking back on this, he was just curious, almost catlike.  He was giving me a look that said, “Hey, hand me the wrench and let me try that.”

At the time, however, the feeling of being trapped under the floor with a skunk was terrifying.  To this day I can’t believe that I didn’t make a basement door right through that kitchen floor.  What I actually did was ever so slowly, inch my way out from under the basement floor as carefully and quietly as I could.  Once free, I shook like a leaf, about as furious as I have ever been.  Fetching a rifle from the cabin, I searched unsuccessfully for that skunk for an hour.  I would have shot that damn skunk even if it had been sitting atop the propane tank.  Of course, the worst part of the story is that I eventually had to crawl back under that damn cabin to finish the fixing plumbing.  Thankfully, I never saw the curious polecat again.

Last spring, the weather was wonderful, and we had a backyard barbecue as the sun set.  As we enjoyed the wine and a beautiful New Mexico sunset, suddenly four baby skunks came bouncing out from under the deck, heading in a parade more or less straight for us.  While they were undeniably cute—tiny little black and white balls of fluff making preposterous leaps through the grass—we still didn’t want to share our dinner with them. 

This, of course, was not really an immediate problem, since the skunks were so small that crossing the yard would take them a while—and just how risky are baby skunks, anyway?  Can they even spray at that age?  (As I found out later, yes they can.)

Occasionally, doves nest in the backyard trees over the patio table and cause a small inconvenience to our eating in the backyard.  The Doc disapproves of me shooting them and making impromptu additions to the menu, so to please her, I had just purchased an air horn—you know, those devices that one normally finds at hockey games, on ski boats, and at other similarly cultured activities of high society.  All I had to do was use the air horn to scare off the skunks, right?

I’m still not sure what went wrong.  Did you know that air horns actually attract skunks?  Neither did I.  Or maybe they just wanted to share our fried chicken.


A few months later, I successfully trapped one of the parents of the skunklings.  Using a raw egg as bait inside a Havahart trap, the adult skunk was safely enclosed in the rectangular wire box trap.  Safe, but really pissed off, and I had no idea what to do with the critter.  Luckily, the County government has a Wildlife Control Division, and they sent a young man who promised to take the trap far out into the desert, safely release it, and return my trap. 

 “How are you going to do this without getting sprayed?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not hard if you are an expert,” he answered.

I stood way back in order to safely watch an expert at work.  Thank God he knew what he was doing, otherwise the EPA might have designated my house as a Superfund site.  As it was, that skunk only sprayed the expert, the trap, my garden shed, and his pickup.  

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Who Murdered the Mystery?

There used to be something called mysteries.  These were stories printed in books (and, sometimes in newspapers or other periodicals) that presented a puzzle to the reader, who tried his very best to solve the puzzle before the protagonist of the story revealed the answer in the last chapter.  Originally called “detective puzzles”, this distinctly American art form was an invention of Edgar Allan Poe, and was perfected in England by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

We don’t do this anymore.  For some reason, today, the word, mystery means that you read a book where A kills B, then for 250 pages, you passively watch C figure out what you were told on page 10 of the book:  A did it.  Surprise!

There are a few variations on this formula.  The hero owns a bookstore or the heroine owns a cat that is so precocious and cute that, by the middle of the book, you yearn for a coyote to eat the damn feline!  And, for some reason, almost all of the current books are written by geriatric, matronly women who all seem to believe that they possess the talent to be the next Agatha Christie simply because they resemble Miss Marple.

What passes for mysteries on television are not even that sophisticated.  It doesn't matter which show you watch, the murderer is nearly always the highest paid guest star.

It is getting very hard to find an author who understands the genre.  Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald….the ranks of authors who know how to write a good mystery are thinning out fast.  We should pray for the continued good health of Lawrence Block, because when he leaves us, I will be forced to read something like D is for Cup, or whatever the hell Sue Grafton calls her books.

My love of mystery books dates back to the Hardy Boys.  I think I devoured those books, abetted by the simple fact that my parents had learned that a $2 book would keep me out of mischief for a few days.  (This was the 1950's version of Ritalin.). Fenton W. Dixon was the house pseudonym the publisher used for the poor souls who were hired as ghostwriters to crank out the formulaic stories for the paltry sum of only $200 a book.  Even as a child, it didn't take me long to discover there were no real mysteries to decipher in these books, leading me to want something better than Frank and Joe Hardy.

It was Scholastic Press that brought me something better—much better.  Once a month, every student got a little flyer advertising the books of the month at a greatly reduced price.  One month, I selected The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle.  I have no idea what attracted me to it, but I bought the book and was introduced to Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, the Thinking Machine. 

I am embarrassed to admit, that I still have that book.  I have no idea how Scholastic—the same wonderful publishing company that recognized the genius of J. K. Rowling after so many other editors had rejected Harry Potter—managed to print a thirty-five cent paperback that has survived on my bookshelf for well over fifty years.  There is a two year-old textbook currently resting on my desk that, despite costing almost as much as my first car, is just barely held together by enough rubber bands to retread a Chevy.

Obviously inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Professor Van Dusen solved crime with logic and a keen mind.  In almost every story, he would say something along the lines of, "Every problem can be solved with logic alone.  Two and two does not equal four some of the time, but all of the time."  When told that finding a solution was impossible, the professor would invariably answer, “Nothing is impossible.”  These were heady words for a small boy living in the Texas countryside.

Perhaps the best of these stories is The Problem of Cell 13.  Professor Van Dusen, in order to prove the mind is capable of solving any problem, wagers that he can escape from a death row prison cell in one week.  If this were the only story Futrelle had written, he would still qualify as a great mystery writer.  Luckily for you, it is not necessary for you to hunt down an aging paperback to read this story (though, happily, all of the Thinking Machine stories are still in print) because the entire story is available for you to read, for free, by simply clicking on this link.

Futrelle's stories, set at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, featured the newest of technology—electric arc lights, the telegraph, and the telephone.  The professor specialized in figuring out what today is called the "locked room" mystery: usually a murdered victim was found locked inside a room from which there was no possible way for the murderer to have escaped.  Using logic, Professor Van Dusen always discovered the answer, and though all the clues were clearly presented to the reader, I was always baffled. 

Unfortunately, there are only a few dozen of these stories available, for Jacques Futrelle did not live long enough to enjoy the fame his mysteries were already starting to bring him.  At the time the first of his detective stories were serialized, Futrelle was writing for the Boston American, a Hearst newspaper.  Futrelle quit his job and began writing full time and his first book of stories was soon published.  Newly famous and with a hefty advance on his next book in the bank, Futrelle took his wife to Europe to finish his manuscripts and to meet European publishers.  Unfortunately, he and his wife decided to return to America on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic.

Early on the morning of April 15, 1912, Futrelle helped his wife, May, board lifeboat #16 as the ship foundered.  As the lifeboat slowly lowered, May’s last sight of her husband was watching him light a cigarette while he talked to the American financier, John Jacob Astor.  According to May, the hand that held the match never trembled as she watched his face in its light for the last time.

The photo, showing Futrelle aboard the Titanic, is the last photo taken of the author.  Despite being the master of the impossible escape story, Futrelle could not devise a plan for his own escape.  His body was never recovered, and his unpublished manuscripts went down with the ship.

May Futrelle, an author in her own right, republished as many of her husband's stories as she could--she had to, as the publisher sued her for the return of the advance money for the book that was lost.  Sadly, within a decade, the Thinking Machine stories, and their author, were all but forgotten.