Saturday, October 22, 2016

It Started With Carla

Hurricane season is over for the year, but all of us vividly remember the television images of Hurricane Matthew bouncing up the East coast, with the Weather Service making hourly updates on where it might land.  And, as the hours and days passed, the updates constantly proved the earlier predictions incorrect.

The Weather Service gave us hourly predictions of the storm’s probable path, based on the latest computer modeling that accurately predicted that the storm would do something, somewhere, at some time.  Mark Twain once said the most ignorant thing imaginable was a lady’s watch, but I think it safe to add the weather service to that list.

Dan Rather was once asked where he thought a hurricane would make landfall.  He answered that he had no idea, but was pretty sure it would not hit Virginia Beach.  When asked how he could be so sure, he answered, “Well, the Reverend Pat Robertson has his headquarters in Virginia Beach, and he prays the hurricanes away.”  So far, his predictions have been perfect.

I can talk about weather from experience:  after six years of living on Galveston Island, followed by three decades of living in the high plains desert of New Mexico, I’ve seen a lot of weather.  Between the two locations, I’ve seen a thunder snow, a flood caused by a 10% chance of light showers, several sandstorms, and the memorable day it rained mud.  Not only did the weather service get most of this incorrect, but at least one of the possible tracks for Hurricane Matthew had it get fairly close to New Mexico.  (And I’ve seen a couple of hurricanes up close—I have the scars and a slight limp to prove it.)

I can’t be the only one who is tired of watching the news channels  report about storms by having someone (usually a reporter we have never heard of) standing out in the weather, telling us how dangerous—and difficult—it is to be an idiot standing out in the middle of gale force (or higher) winds.  Usually, shortly after saying this, several teenaged morons in bathing suits will be seen running past the reporter as they play in the rain.  I can excuse the teenagers for thisafter all, they are the flower of American youth—blooming idiots.

What I cannot excuse, however, is the stupid reporter who is standing out in the storm, with the wind almost blowing him away, as he reminds us, not to venture out in the storm.  I’d be willing to bet that at least half the viewers are wishing for a piece of errant roofing material to suddenly decapitate the idiot on live television. 

Who started this nonsense?  I blame it on Dan Rather.

In 1961, Dan Rather was the news director of KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas.  A good Texan who had spent most of his life on the Gulf Coast, Dan knew something about hurricanes, and he knew more than a little about good television.  At the time, KHOU was working hard to build ratings, mainly by focusing on violence.  As Rather explained in his autobiography The Camera Never Blinks, “Houston was big on fires and car wrecks and murders.”  The inside joke at KHOU was that the best stories focused on FUZZ (the police) and WUZ (the deceased).

A good hurricane would be even better, and Rather was watching one that had just crossed the Yucatan peninsula.  In addition, he knew a few things the rest of the local news people did not:  if the hurricane got near to Galveston, access to and escape from the island via the causeway would be cut off quickly by the rising water.  More important, he knew that the Galveston office of the Weather Service (then called the Weather Bureau) had the only radar scope on the Gulf coast.  This would show the storm’s approach toward Texas and long before the storm actually hit land (and thus hours before any other news agency had any television footage), Rather could show the storm approaching the coast.

So, Rather moved the station’s mobile unit to the offices of the Galveston Weather Service, that was then located on the fifth floor of the post office building and waited.  Sure enough, the storm made its way toward the island and the storm surge cut off the causewaythe single highway link connecting Galveston to the mainland.  Since the radar screen was hard to interpret, a clear plastic overlay showing the Texas coast was laid on top of the scope.  Viewers were astonished to see the massive storm, estimated at 400 miles wide, approaching the coast.

The WSR-57 radar was primitive by today’s standards, but this was the first time a live radar image was broadcast to show a hurricane.  This event changed television news reporting forever.

KHOU not only won the ratings war but its dramatic reporting of the storm's approach prompted the largest peacetime evacuation of civilians in history up to that date: an estimated 350,000 people fled the coast.  For days, Rather reported from Galveston as the storm landed just a few miles south of the island.  Rather was smart enough not to go stand in the storm, but took live photos out the fifth floor window.  His coverage was picked by the station’s network, CBS, and seen by damn near everyone in the country.  At one point, Walter Cronkiteanother good Texanjoked that because of rising water, “Dan Rather was ass deep in water moccasins.”

The snake story was a little fanciful.  Far be it from me to say that a fellow Texan stretched the truth, but while I have seen a lot of snakes following a storm on that island, I’ve never seen them five stories deep.

It doesn’t matter--Dan Rather’s fortune was made.  CBS had seen him think on his feet, had seen him cover a live event, and they hired him away from KHOU television.  Two years later, he was delivering film to a bureau office in Dallas while President Kennedy was passing through town.  Not directly connected to the news coverage of the day, he decided to walk over and see the presidential motorcade pass by.  He arrived at the grassy knoll overlooking Dealey Plaza just in time to see the panic following the president's assassination.

I’m sure that there are lots of reporters who would say that Dan Rather was just lucky.  Possibly trueafter all, Dan Rather certainly had the luck that frequently comes to people who work hard.  But ever since Carla, every time a storm gets close enough to photograph, every local reporter who owns a rain coat heads to the beach and hopes that lightning will strike twice.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Prisoner #1524

The fever was raging through the federal prison, with as many as thirty men a day falling to the dreaded disease.  As fast as the patients became ill, they were loaded onto a small boat—so small that the sick had to sit up in it—and rowed the two and a half miles to a small hospital located on an isolated key, or island. 

Fort Jefferson was located on Garden Key, located three hundred miles west of Miami.  The actual fort occupied 2/3 of the twenty-five acres that made up the tiny waterless island, and the large brick fort housed 486 soldiers, 527 prisoners, and the lighthouse keeper and his family.  In addition, many of the officers had brought their wives and children to the tiny fortress island.  Altogether, the tiny island was crowded with people who formed a strange community.  Considering the remoteness of the location, the garrison had the most useless extra security imaginable:  it was surrounded by a moat containing a man-eating shark.  (And yes, on at least one occasion, it ate a prisoner who was attempting to escape).

Fort Jefferson had been under continual construction since 1846, and was still not yet finished.  All of the building materials had to be imported.  Millions of bricks were brought in from Maine, lumber from Georgia, and cement from Boston.  Food for both the prisoners and the soldiers was shipped from Florida, and even the soldiers were imported from the North, as in these days just following the close of the Civil War, the US Army consisted solely of Union troops while the South underwent reconstruction.

The small collection of islands were called the Dry Tortugas, though the press frequently referred to the federal prison as the American Devil’s Island.  Duty on the isolated garrison  was so harsh that the Army had learned that military units stationed there had to be rotated regularly to prevent mutiny.  This policy was only partially successful, as soldiers deserted from the island about as often as prisoners escaped.

For the prisoners, the fortress had the reputation for being the worst prison in the country.  The hot weather, the humidity, and the endless sun were relentless.  The prisoners were attacked daily by insects, particularly by the swarms of mosquitoes that never left the island.  Just as harsh was the discipline.  Since the prison housed the very worst of the nation's prisoners, the murderers and traitors who made up the majority of the inmates were dealt with cruelly.  Prisoners were flogged, beaten, hung by their thumbs, or given long stretches in what the soldiers referred to as the “dungeon.”  Above the entrance to this lightless cell hung an ominous sign, “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind.”

Most prisoners were forced to wear heavy chains, and for the slightest infraction of the prison rules, a 32-pound cannon ball would be added to the chains.  But the wearing of chains did not exempt the prisoners from the work details.  To complete the misery, the food on the small island was all but inedible.  With few vegetables other than potatoes, almost no fruit, and the rotting meat, both the soldiers and prisoners were frequently sick.

Epidemics on the island, however, were all but unknown.  Due to the island’s enforced isolation, infectious diseases were rare.  This changed the first week of August 1867, when Captain George Crabbe returned from a furlough in Havana.  Almost immediately after he returned, he began complaining of a fever and was quarantined in the garrison hospital.  Vomiting started two days later; it was clear at first, but then it turned black.  Within five days, Captain Crabbe died from Yellow Fever.

Yellow Fever is a viral disease that killed one out of five people stricken with the mysterious illness.  Victims complained of intense headaches, fevers, chills, and frequent vomiting.  The patient’s skin turned yellow as the liver slowly ceased to function.  Dark bruises appeared on the victim’s skin and the more severely afflicted began to cough up what looked like coffee grounds—in reality coagulated blood as the victim began to drown in his own blood.

Unfortunately, how the disease spread, what caused it, and even any means to effectively treat it were completely unknown.  The most popular theory was that the disease was caused by an "imbalance of humors" and the result of "bad air".  A common prevention was to open more windows and let in more good air (and a few more mosquitoes).  It is the blackest ironic humor to consider that this disease (like malaria and several others) probably came to the new world in the water barrels of slave ships.  The Amazon rainforest was not a mystery well into the twentieth century because travel to it was difficult—it was because travel in the mosquito-infested wetlands would kill explorers with the diseases that the Europeans had brought there.

For a week, every inhabitant of the tiny island lived in fear.  Would the disease spread?  One week later, everyone on the island knew the answer.  Men began staggering to the prison hospital, their throats inflamed, complaining of fever and chills.  At first, the garrison doctor tried to handle the flood, but then he caught the disease.  By now, two-thirds of the soldiers and inmates were suffering from the same disease.

With no other doctor on the island, Major Stone, the garrison commander, was forced to turn to prisoner #1524, a convicted felon serving a life sentence.  He was presently assigned to a building detail, but before his imprisonment, he had been a practicing physician.

The prisoner, a Southerner had been given a sentence far more severe than his crime, and had been sent to the prison in the hopes he would perish there.  Within months of his arrival, he learned that the new troops being sent to the island were a black unit, and it was rumored that they would exact revenge against Southern prisoners, especially former slave owners like prisoner #1524.  Frightened for his life, he had attempted an escape, been caught, and given heavy chains to wear, condemned to the dungeon for a long confinement, and been assigned the harshest work detail.  The former doctor had no reason to help the commanding officer.  Since most people believed that the disease was spread by contact, the prisoner would be safer if he refused.  (And Major Stone expected the prisoner to refuse, in part as a Southern statement against Northern reconstruction).

Prisoner #1524 accepted the job, took command of the prison hospital and immediately began caring for the sick.  Even today, the only treatment available for those suffering from Yellow Fever is to give them plenty of fluids, make them comfortable, and wait for the fever to pass.  In the nineteenth century, physicians expected a 25% mortality rate, a rate that was much higher than the patients suffered under the care of the prisoner physician.

For 47 days, Prisoner #1524 cared for the sick.  He brought back those removed to the island hospital, correctly reasoning that better care could be given if the sick were together in one facility.  He trained nurses, expanded the hospital, and watched as slowly, the sick began improving.  And shortly after a physician from Florida finally arrived to assist him, Prisoner #1524 caught the disease himself.

The prisoner/physician recovered, and Major Stone did not put him back in leg irons.  Instead, he was given work in the prison hospital.  And three hundred soldiers signed a petition to the President of the United States, requesting that he grant an amnesty to the prisoner they credited to saving their lives. 

Even a century and a half ago, Washington moved slowly.  On February 8, 1869, during his last month in office, President Andrew Johnson finally signed an amnesty for Dr. Samuel Mudd, citing his courageous work during the 1867 epidemic.  Dr. Mudd was released from prison one month later, returning to his Maryland farm, where he resumed his medical practice.

There is still no conclusive proof that Dr. Mudd was an active member of the group that assassinated President Lincoln—all that can be proved is that Dr. Mudd met with John Wilkes Booth twice in the months before the president was killed, then just hours after Booth shot Lincoln, Dr. Mudd cared for Booth in his home and set his broken leg.  Dr. Mudd’s military trial was a farce, his harsh sentence was dictated more by hatred than by justice.  Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Dr. Mudd, Prisoner #1524, certainly earned his release.

While the insult “Your name is mud” was used decades before the Lincoln assassination in England, it became a popular phrase in America because of Dr. Mudd’s conviction.  Considering his heroic acts at Fort Jefferson, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the phrase.  Maybe it’s a compliment.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Five-In-One

Almost as soon as there were movies, there were Westerns.  Usually listed as the first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery was a twelve-minute movie filmed in 1903.  Its iconic last scene shows one of the robbers aiming his six-shooter directly at the camera and then repeatedly firing the gun directly into the face of the startled viewer.  A similar scene was used to conclude Goodfellas, and Tombstone, and the last episode of Breaking Bad.

Actually, if you watch the ending (and the movie can be found on YouTube) you will notice that the actor tries—unsuccessfully—to fire his six-shooter seven times.  Evidently, the movie industry had not yet perfected the movie gun that never needs reloading.

This was not the first Western subject ever filmed, however.  Edison had already filmed blacksmiths, Sioux Indians, and both Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley firing their guns.  Almost immediately, there were problems with movies and firearms. 

Firearms manufactured exclusively for the motion picture industry did not yet exist.  Today, there are non-firing replicas, rubber guns, guns that operate by burning propane, and futuristic devices so strange looking that the audience has to be told that they represent weapons.  These replicas frequently cause their own problems.  Rubber guns bounce when dropped, and there is at least one episode of the Netflix series Bloodlines where the villain pushes his gun so violently against the head of the hero that the barrel is clearly bent!

Unfortunately, if you know this, it changes your perception of the movies a little.  In Die Hard, the Beretta Bruce Willis is using isn’t even remotely real.  And there are no "lethal weapons" of any sort in Lethal Weapon.  Strangest of all is that four-shot rocket launcher that Arnold Schwarzenegger uses in Commando:  It’s actually a flamethrower from the Vietnam War.  I’m at a complete loss to explain why the director felt the need to do that and can only guess that, maybe, he thought that anyone stupid enough to pay to see what may well be the worst movie ever made would be too stupid to know the difference between a flamethrower and a rocket launcher.  (And for the record, I only saw it on cable.  Leave me alone...I had major surgery!)

There is an oft-told (which means it is also probably apocryphal) story about the origin of the Star Trek phasers.  The studio was highly sensitive to the possibility of violating industry standards (While endless numbers of villains could be shot, there could be no depiction of blood, or graphic gun violence on television during what was then called the "Family Hour").  Gene Roddenberry solved this problem by equipping his "space cowboys" with ray guns that simply made the victims vanish (or sometimes merely stunned them—the Star Trek equivalent of shooting the gun out of the villains' hands).

In the early days of filming westerns, the firearm supply problem was solved simply by using real guns.  Although they were supposedly loaded with "safe" blanks, accidents were frequent.  It is surprising how often people injure themselves with “harmless” blanks.  A blank round is a cartridge that does not contain a projectile.  It does, however, still contain gunpowder so that when  fired, the blank’s powder is still ignited, there is still a loud report, the gunpowder still produces a bright flash, and depending on the type of powder used in the blank, it still produces a large cloud of smoke.  The only thing that is missing is the projectile—the actual bullet. 

This does not mean a blank cartridge is harmless by any stretch of the imagination.  The explosive force of the gas exiting the barrel of the gun is still dangerous and potentially fatal.  The most famous example of this was the death of Jon-Erik Hexum on the set of the CBS television show Cover Up.  Between takes, Hexum playfully put the muzzle of a revolver to his head and said, “Let’s see if I get myself with this one.”  He then pulled the trigger.  The force of the fired blank drove a quarter-inch piece of his skull deep into his brain, killing him.

Years ago, I worked at a living history museum here in New Mexico.  Annually, there would be a reenactment of a local Civil War battle, featuring people who were dressed in period costumes and who were also equipped with replica guns.  And each year, I would refuse to be on the property while such foolishness was afoot.  All one of the costumed soldiers would have had to do would have been to lean on his musket—muzzle down—and inadvertently pick up a stone, thus transforming a movie prop into a deadly weapon.  For a variety of reasons, I absolutely refuse to be the last Texan killed in the Civil War.

If this sounds like a remote possibility to you, I would point out this is exactly how Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts star Bruce Lee, died while filming The Crow.  A prop pistol was loaded with a combination of non-firing cartridges and blanks.  Somehow, the bullet from one of the non-firing cartridges became dislodged and stuck in the barrel.  When one of the blanks was fired, the stuck bullet struck the actor in abdomen.  Lee died of internal bleeding twelve hours later.

In more modern movies, the guns rarely actually fire any kind of missile.  In some cases, the firearms are either carefully manufactured from plastic and rubber, or they are real guns that are so heavily modified that even experts have trouble recognizing the resultant firearm.  On the television show Firefly, Malcolm Reynold's gun started out as a standard Taurus revolver that had enough plastic pieces glued to it that it looked more like something out of the American Civil War than a modern firearm.  

This amount of modification is nothing compared to what was done to create the firearm Harrison Ford carried in Bladerunner.  A Charter Arms revolver had the trigger assembly from a rifle attached to it, in order to create a pistol with one barrel, two triggers, and a bolt action.  For visual impact, a half-dozen LED lights were also added, with the resulting conglomeration being called the "LAPD 2019 Blaster".  If someone had ever actually tried to fire this weird collection of parts, I wouldn't want to be within a mile of it.

What a contrast to the early days of cowboy movies, when movie directors just grabbed a bewildering array of real, though aging, weapons—usually with little regard for the historical accuracy of the time of the weapon's manufacture.  (In The Rifleman, although Lucas McCain was living in New Mexico in 1881, he somehow had acquired an 1892 Winchester .44-40!).  While these old firearms were probably cheap to purchase, it was a nightmare both logistically and in terms of safety.  Could a .45 Long Colt round be used safely in a .45-70 rifle?  And how many different versions of blank rounds did you need on hand if you were using guns chambered for .44-40, .44 Special, and .44 Mag? 

The answer was the creation of the 5-in-1 blank:  a single blank round that could be safely used in .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Long Colt revolvers as well as .38-40 and .44-40 Winchester rifles.  This eliminated a lot of confusion and made using these actual firearms safer for everyone on the set.  There were still a few small problems, of course.  The rounds were way too loud, and the recoil from the rounds was difficult for some actors to use.

The solution has been to manufacture the 5-in1 blanks with varying amounts of gunpowder.  The rounds with only a quarter of the normal amount of gunpowder are normally used while shooting indoors or around horses.  Later, in editing, the gun's report can be changed to make the sound more realistic.  Blanks loaded with half the amount of gunpowder can be used safely outdoors and have very little recoil, while fully loaded blanks give a realistic—and painful—loud report and provide a realistic recoil.  Another special version is manufactured with black powder instead of the more modern smokeless powder and is the version used by the director if he wants a large cloud of dense smoke.

On the set where they filmed the television series Wyatt Earp, the late Hugh O'Brian insisted on full loads for the sake of realism.  Since just about the only other accurate thing on this show was the spelling of the lawman's name, in retrospect, it seems a trivial matter, especially when you consider that O'Brian went almost completely deaf after 6 seasons. 

Note.  This is something they never show in movies:  If you go to the local gun range, after only a few rounds are fired, you'll notice that everyone is talking very loudly.  This is because even with good ear protection, guns are extremely noisy and after even a single gunshot, your ears are ringing.  And that's if you are firing outside.  If you fire a gun indoors, or inside a car, I can guarantee you that thirty-seconds later you will not be having a quiet conversation with anyone.

Over the years, the 5-in-1 blank round was modified several times.  First, the round was changed so it would not work in a .38-40, but despite the fact that the round would now only fit in 4 different firearms, the name was not changed.  Then the casing was changed slightly so the round would fit in .44 Special and .44 Magnum pistols and rifles.  Thus, by now, the usually plastic-cased round should be called the "Eight-in-One", but to this day, Hollywood continues to use the same old name for the sake of convenience.

So, if you are watching a Western tonight, and it was filmed any time after the actors started talking, you can ignore the rounds the cowboy has stuffed in his gun belt.  No matter how macho and steely-eyed the hero is, his gun probably is filled with a plastic cartridge with only a small pinch of gunpowder.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Who Is That Masked Man?

I spent part of my week discussing literature with a colleague who is also recently retired from Enema U.  Jesus Barquet is probably the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to Spanish literature.  I say this even though he dislikes my favorite Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes.  I think it is a high mark of our friendship that Jesus is willing to be completely wrong about Fuentes just to appear humble.

We were discussing the story of El Cid and how the tale of this eleventh century hero shapes the story of other heroes in so much of Latin American literature.  Usually loners, these heroes fight against impossible odds and against an unjust officialdom; their cause is eventually triumphant, (although that triumph occasionally comes after the hero's death).  You can find certain similarities between the story of El Cid and the stories of many of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution.  (Well, we did, but we may have been slightly influenced by some Cuban rum).

Note.  I’ll give a quick example just to prove it wasn’t all rum.  Among the stories of El Cid is a tale that after his death, his body was tied upright on Babieca, his white stallion, in order to confuse the Moorish army.  In Morelos, decades after Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated, the local peasants maintained that the revolutionary could still be seen riding his white stallion along the mountain ridges, still waiting for land reform.

After we had discussed Mexican literature for a while, it was only natural for us to wonder whether this same medieval literature had influences north of the border.  Could we find a similar example in the stories and literature of the borderlands?  In fact, I have a strange candidate for you, but let us start at the beginning. 

Salomon Pico was only ten days old when Mexico won her independence from Spain.  Born in California, he was the son of a prominent family and was a cousin to the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico.  When his father died, Pico returned to Monterrey, the capital of Alta California, where he received an education and was introduced to society.  He married well, and received a land grant from the government for 58,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley.

No one is certain about all the details ok, but Pico probably fought in the Mexican-American War on the Mexican side.  Family stories indicate he might have been a military scout.  Whatever his role, the brief fighting in California ended long before the war was over, so Pico was probably home with his family by the time the war was over and California was annexed by the United States.  At that time, the population of California was very low, and Salomon Pico’s family would probably have been left alone—had not someone discovered gold at Sutter’s Creek.

Overnight, Americans stampeded to the territory and poured onto Pico’s land.  Exactly what happened is disputed, but one story is that a party of miner’s raped and killed Pico’s beloved wife, Juana.  Another story is that the miner’s brought disease with them, and when Juana became ill, Salomon took her to Monterrey where she died in late 1848.

Pico could neither farm nor raise cattle on his land grant as he had no way of forcing the trespassing miners off his land.  Harboring a powerful hatred of Americans, Pico moved southward, out of the gold country and into cattle country.  As with every other “gold rush”, the people who became wealthy were not the miners, but those who sold food and supplies to the minters.  Suddenly, the cattlemen of Santa Barbara were becoming rich selling meat to the hungry miners.

By the same token, Salomon Pico and his gang got rich by robbing the miners as they rode south into cattle country.  Some of the miners were never seen again, though years later, bullet-riddled remains were found in the countryside.  According to one source, Pico began taking souvenirs from those he robbed:  he would cut an ear off his victim.  Another story held that his favorite weapon was his riata, or lariat, that he used to break the necks of his victims.

Pico enjoyed the admiration of the local people and obviously no small amount of unofficial protection from the local authorities.  Since the Hispanic population, the ‘Californios’, were still in the majority in the Southern part of the state, the locals who were arrested and tried could usually depend on a split jury.  Pico became so popular with the locals—who felt he was defending his people from injustice—that it was frequently said that locals would allow him to ride his horse into their homes in order to hide from a posse.

Salomon Pico quickly became notorious—partly because of his new-found wealth, and partly because of his distinctive dress.  Pico rode a black horse and was dressed all in black except for the scarlet sash around his waist, into which he tucked a Colt revolver. He was also armed with a shotgun in a scabbard and a long knife that was only partially concealed by his elaborately stitched boots..

Unfortunately, fame eventually was Pico's undoing.  He was flamboyant, so he was too easy to remember and identify.  Vigilante gangs were formed and they vowed to lynch the bandit if they caught him.  Pico fled south, from California into Mexico.  Whether he was executed there when the Mexican government began arresting local bandits in an effort to pacify the border region is still debated, but there is one more story about Pico that is fairly well established. 

In 1857, four American businessmen were arrested in Santo Tomas, Baja California, and placed in jail.  Pico had accepted the position of Captain of the Guard for the local presidio, and it was his job to guard the prisoners.  Tensions along the border were high, and many thought it was only a matter of time before a race war broke out between the Americans and the Californios.  Around midnight, a mob of angry Mexicans marched to the jail with the intent of hanging the four Americans.

Salomon Pico, placing himself between the mob and the jail cell, talked the mob into going home.  Somehow, Pico had evolved from defending just his own people to defending justice for everyone.

Four decades after his death, his story was resurrected.  A police reporter from back east, Johnston McCulley served as a public affairs officer in California during the first World War.  During his spare time, he studied local history and began writing short stories for pulp magazines.  Using over a dozen pseudonyms, he made up stories about an incredible list of characters:  The Spider, The Mongoose, Thubway Tham, The Thunderbolt, The Crimson Clown, and Black Star—and you are forgiven if you have never heard of any of them. 

But one story, The Curse of Capistrano, which was written in 1919 and serialized in Argosy Magazine, featured a character you probably have heard of—Zorro.  A masked vigilante of justice who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, he fought injustice and left his mark, not by cutting off ears, but by engraving a ‘Z’ into the clothing of the hapless army of the corrupt local governor.  Zorro was quite obviously patterned after Salomon Pico.

The story is a quick and interesting read.  Similarities with the Story of Salomon Pico—including an account in which Zorro rides his horse, Toronado (tornado), into the home of a peasant to avoid a posse—can be found in every chapter. 

Within a year, Tyrone Power and Mary Pickford made a movie based on the story which was re-released as a book with the same title—The Mark of Zorro.  McCulley, over the next three decades, wrote dozens more stories and novels about Zorro, who has been in over forty movies (two are in the works as I write this with one somewhat improbably set in the future) and a dozen television series.

Bob Kane credited Zorro as the inspiration for Batman, and to make sure that no one missed the point, had Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered as they came out of the theater after watching Tyrone Power in the movie, The Mark of Zorro.  But should it really have been titled, The Mask of Pico?  Or The Mask of El Cid?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Classroom Oops!

My teaching career has come to an end.  From now on, my lectures will be confined to this blog and my to long-suffering wife, The Doc.  This brings my career full circle, since when I started teaching history, my first classes were two and a half hour sessions on Saturday.  To practice, i used to try out these lectures on the birds in the back yard or on The Doc.  As I remember it, the birds did not flee as rapidly as my wife did.

In total, I think my teaching career was pretty good.  All my classes “made," my evaluations were pretty good, and, in over two decades, I did not miss one single class due to illness.  In that time, I taught 29 course titles—everything from the History of Technology, to the History of Naval Warfare.  Over half of those classes were taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  It was a hell of a lot of fun, and in every class, I learned far more than my students did.  Frankly, if I had known how much more you learn preparing to stand at the front of a classroom—as opposed to sitting in one of the desks—I would have skipped the student phase of my education and just started as a professor.

Still, not everything that happened in those classrooms went as planned.  There were days that I just could not get things to go right, and, here, I’m not talking about power failures, or fire drills during exams, or similar accidents.  I mean the times when I—all by myself—totally screwed up a lecture. 

For years, I taught the same, exact class, twice a day.  For reasons that escaped me, the university preferred to have two classes of 35 students instead of one class of 70 students.  Usually, before every class, I would spend about an hour reviewing my lecture notes, making certain that the PowerPoint slides—if any—were synced with the lecture, and generally making sure I was ready.  You would think that giving the same lecture twice in a row would be a no-brainer and, at the very least, the second class would be a home run; it should go flawlessly.

Nope—It rarely seemed to work out that way.  Usually, both classes would go well, but not always.  Sometimes, despite having a well-prepared lecture, it felt like I was speaking an unknown language:  I simply could not reach the students (And it seemed to happen in the second class about as often as in the first).  I’m still not sure what went wrong in those classes.

Then there were classes where the problem was obvious and the fault was clearly mine.  On an exam, I once wrote a question that asked the students to explain the dichotomy involving the Aztecs' fascination with poetry or delicate, beautiful art, and their incredibly violent religious sacrifices and their methods of fighting wars.  Unfortunately, the test answers did not reveal the students' knowledge of the Aztec empire, as I had intended.  What the test answers did reveal was that the students believed that the word, ‘dichotomy,’ was the first step in a male-to-female sex change.  Several students even graphically described this gruesome form of religious sacrifice!

In total, I’ve given about 5,000 history lectures, and while I’m sure a lot of them were examples of deathless prose, I’m also sure that a few of them were, well….total shit.  While talking about the Greek Hoplite Phalanx, I described how the front ranks of soldiers held their spears horizontally as they moved forward.  The rear ranks however, held their spears vertically and as they moved forward, would drive their spears down into the bodies of fallen enemies to finish them off.  The rear ends of their spears had brass pointed butt spikes designed for this purpose.  Well, that’s what I should have said.  What I actually said was:  “As the phalanx moved forward over the bodies of their enemies, with all their might, the hoplites drove their spears downward, each spear equipped with a butt plug…”

Boy, those Greeks were mean…

I’m not the only professor whose mouth has operated faster than his brain.  A friend of mine has told me about a few of his "verbal adventures" in class.  He once told an auditorium full of students that “the Jurassic Period was a long period noted for their giant orgasms.”  He meant to say, “giant organisms”, but I’m sure the students preferred the former.

This same professor, during a lecture on climatology, once accidentally substituted “giant warm wet air mass” with “giant warm wet hairy ass”.  Only now are we beginning to recognize the true dangers of global warming.

One of my favorite students came to me just before class started one day and asked if his father, who was visiting from Australia, could observe my class.  Of course, I said "yes" and proceeded to give my lecture on Argentina's Juan Peron.  Only after class was over did my students tell me that for the entire lecture, my brain had never once come up with the word “Argentina” but had substituted “Australia” at least a dozen times.  The students hadn’t said anything, because “we knew what you meant.”  Somewhere there is one father who wishes he hadn’t paid so much tuition to send his child to a school where they think Buenos Aires is located in Australia.

While discussing the Mexican underground newspapers during the Mexican Revolution, I could tell that several students were unfamiliar with the term.  “Underground newspapers are unofficial papers that the authorities frown on and would like to suppress.”  I explained.  “This campus, for example usually has one or more unofficial newspapers that are critical of the administration.  I’ve lost track, what is the name of the current underground paper?”

One of the seniors promptly said, “Lately, it’s called Random Thoughts by Mark Milliorn.”

In spite of our best efforts, it sometimes hits us hard that we certainly can’t reach every student.  When I started teaching, I was assigned lots of survey courses.  These are introductory history classes usually taken by freshmen and sophomores with the average class size between 75 and 100 students.  It was final exam time, and a student came to my office practically in tears because he had overslept and missed the exam.  I agreed to let him take the test, but he couldn’t remember the course number of his class.

“No problem,” I said.  “If the course was about Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, you are in Western Civilization.  If the course was about Pilgrims, George Washington, and the Revolutionary War, you are in Early American History.”

“The Egyptians,” he said and I handed him the appropriate test. 
An hour later, he handed the test back to me, and I was a little surprised to see that he had scored phenomenally low.  The reason, of course, was that it turned out he was actually enrolled in the American History class.  After thinking about this situation for a while, I finally gave him a failing grade in both classes.

The above examples are bad enough, but without a doubt, the worst verbal adventure that ever happened in my classroom was done by a student.  We were in an American Military History class, and the class was deep in discussion about the French and Indian War.  Several students were passionate about their point of view and defending it vigorously.  One non-traditional student (that’s educational code for an older student—probably retired) suddenly referred to the war with such an obscene and racist label that it stunned the class into absolute silence.  Luckily the class was about over and I let the students escape so they (and I) could recover our sensibilities.

However, that was neither the end of it nor was that the truly horrible part of the problem:  the phrase the student had used had branded itself into my brain!  Now this was a phrase so vile and so hateful, that I wouldn’t run five miles out into the desert and whisper it to a jackrabbit.  Simply speaking these words out loud would end anyone’s career immediately.  If some poor soul on the International Space Station muttered it in his sleep, he would probably never be permitted to land on Earth again. 

But I knew the phrase, it was in my head and refused to leave.  I was terrified that at some point, those words might escape.  I discussed the problem with a colleague who laughed at me initially, but a week later told me he was having nightmares where he had used the phrase in one of his classes.  To this day, he cannot get the words out of his brain.   For years, I still lectured about the French and Indian War, but I always spoke very carefully...and slowly.

Now that my teaching career is over, I can probably relax.  And my friend has announced his imminent retirement, so he is probably safe as well.  I’m fairly sure the curse will die with us, unless….I receive a certain amount of hate mail each week.  Maybe I should email each of those senders back.  (At least one of them has to be a teacher.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Star Spangled Banner

Historians are often accused of being the most boring people on earth.  Either we are telling you what you already know, or are telling you something you don’t want to know.  Today, I will probably do both.  Everyone knows "The Star Spangled Banner", but few people listen to it.  It is a story about a battle and it is also a history lesson in song.

So now let me tell you how it came to be written.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the United States was caught in a battle between the two great countries of Europe: Great Britain and France.  The primary issues were freedom of the seas and free trade.  A new and inexperienced government was no match for the schemes and plans of the two larger, much older countries.

In particular, British ships were stopping American ships and “pressing” our sailors into serving on their ships.  Relatively few men volunteered to serve on British ships, so this form of kidnapping into what amounted to slavery was common.  British military ships rarely even docked for fear that the crew would escape.

This led the United States to declare war on Great Britain in 1812, even though militarily, America was absolutely no match for the powerful country.  Surprisingly, for the first two years of the war, the new American country did fairly well, in that if it hadn’t won the war, it hadn’t lost, either.

Great Britain didn’t have time to worry about the United States because she was busy fighting for her life with Napoleon's army.  Even as the Americans began mobilizing, Napoleon invaded Russia.  Most military experts expected the diminutive emperor to be successful, and soon in control all of Europe, which would have left Great Britain isolated.  

For a while, America held its own, with small naval victories, such as Oliver Hazard Perry's defeat of the British on Lake Erie.  He sent an electrifying message to his country, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”  It was only a matter of time, however, before the large British Navy would be successful.

Nor was the new nation completely unified in its resolve to fight the war.  Some state militias refused to fight outside of their native states.  New England, hard hit by the economic boycott placed on Great Britain, threatened to secede from the Union.  Many merchants ignored the boycott and continued to trade with their country’s enemy.

Before the United States could really prepare for war, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and forced to withdraw.  Shortly afterward, he was forced to abdicate.  Now, Great Britain was able to focus on winning the war against the United States and move its vast military assets from Europe to North America.  A three-pronged attack was planned, to divide the United States and force its surrender. 

       The northern prong was to attack south from Canada and seize the vital ports of New England.
       The southern prong was to take New Orleans and sail up the Mississippi, effectively cutting off the west.
       The central prong was to attack and burn Washington, DC, and then seize Baltimore which was the largest port south of New York.  Since the vast majority of Americans still lived close to the coast, if Baltimore was taken, the country would be effectively split in two.

The outcome of the war and the fate of the new nation depended on the success or failure of this central prong.

As the British forces neared Washington on August 24, 1814, most of the defending militia fled.  President Madison frantically rode on horseback throughout the night, trying unsuccessfully to rally some form of defense.  The British troops easily moved into the city, burning most of the government buildings.  When they arrived at the White House, they found the dining room set for a fancy dinner.  After they toasted the King with the president's wine, they set fire to the building.

As the British moved toward Baltimore, they found a thousand men blocking the path into Fort McHenry.  Even today, you can look at the satellite photos and see how the fort commands the harbor.  For the British plan to be successful, the fort had to be taken.

As the British moved through Maryland, they had arrested William Beanes, an elderly physician.  His lawyer, Francis Scott Key had boarded the British ship where Beanes was imprisoned to plead for his release.  The British captain agreed to release the physician, but only after the battle for the fort was over, so two Americans witnessed the entire battle from the unique perspective of a British ship.

The attack on the fort began the evening of September 13, two hundred and two years ago this week.

As the twilight deepened, the two Americans could see the American flag flying over Fort McHenry.  But after the sun set, all they could see were the red trails of the British Congreves rockets and the exploding rounds of the British shells.  As long as the fight continued, the two men knew that the fort was still fighting.  A few hours before dawn, the fighting stopped.  Had the fort surrendered?...Or had the British quit their attack?

The only way for the two men to discover who had won the battle was to wait for the sun to rise and see if an American or a British flag flew over the fort.  It must have been a very long night.

We can only imagine the tension the two men must have felt as they waited for the sun to rise.  Over and over, the two men must have asked each other, “Can you see the flag?  How about now, can you make out the flag?”

After the battle, Key wrote a poem recounting the night of the battle.  Originally called “The Defense of Fort McHenry”, the poem was published by newspapers across the nation.  Later, he took the poem to a music publisher adapted the it to fit the tune “To Anacreon In Heaven”, a British tune usually associated with drinking.  This was the second time that Key had used the tune to turn one of his poems into a song.  Interestingly, the earlier song had also alluded to a ‘Star Spangled flag”.

"Anacreon In Heaven" is a slightly different tune than the national anthem we know today.  You can listen to it here, to compare:

By the time of the Mexican-American War, the song had already become an unofficial de facto national anthem, but did not receive official recognition until Congress based a bill designating it as such in 1931.

Now that I have explained the background, let’s actually look at the words.  The first verse is usually the only verse that most people know, and it only tells part of the story.  As the song starts, it is Doctor Beanes asking the question.  Here are the words, and you can sing them to yourself.

Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The ramparts mentioned are the thick walls of Fort McHenry.  Now it is a shame that this is the only stanza that is commonly sung for it leaves us with an unanswered question.  Is the flag still standing.  The second stanza gives an answer, an answer that most Americans have never heard.

On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep.
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
'Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

"The towering steep" is again, the protective walls of the fort. The answer, of course, is that the attack has failed and the fort is still in American hands.  The grand strategy of the British has failed and all they can do is sail back down the Chesapeake and withdraw.

The third stanza shows Key, utterly victorious, gloating over the British defeat.  We can be fairly sure that the two men did not act this way while on the British ship, or they might never have been released.  This verse is decidedly anti-British, understandably so at the time, but after the two World Wars, when the British were our allies, this verse stopped being sung, but here are the words: 

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution. 

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Of course, the reference to hireling and slave refers to the fact that Americans fought as volunteers to a country they owned.  Neither mercenaries, nor men serving their master the king, but they fought as independent men.  In the United States, men were not shanghaied or pressed to serve in ships, but voluntarily joined crews.  Prospective crew members could even inspect a ship and talk to other crew members before enlisting.  Nor were captains of ships afraid to dock their ships lest a crew escape.

When Key wrote these words, the only country in the world with a volunteer military was the United States.  Our soldiers and sailors fought because they wanted to, because they believed in the causes their country was fighting for—not because they were subjects to a monarch who owned them and their country.

The last verse—the most beautiful of the four verses—is a sincere hope for the future.  Though rarely sung, when it is, it is usually sung slightly slower than the other verses, as if it was a prayer.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n - rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto—"In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Once again, the song stresses that the Americans are freemen who are fighting for a cause they both understand and believe in.

Now that you know what the song means, I hope you will listen to it with more respect the next time you hear it.  It should mean a lot more to us than simply being a preamble to “Play Ball!”

Note.  Like many of my blog posts, this started out as a lecture for a history class.  Much of the original idea and quite a lot of the material, came from several writings of Isaac Asimov.  After twenty years of giving this lecture, I no longer know who wrote what.  If you liked part of it, it was probably his. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Voter Fraud

Voter fraud is in the news again.  It seems that several models of electronic voting machines are susceptible to being hacked, perhaps throwing the election to the other unqualified and much despised candidate.  While this is not really the topic that I want to discuss, I do have a suggestion:  Unplug the machines from the internet and manually add up the reports from each machine.   Tallying the final results will take longer, but trust me, this is not an election where anybody is desperate to hear the results. 

There is all kinds of voter fraud.  In 2004, Florida determined that at least 100,000 of its registered voters were also registered to vote in other states (chiefly the states of New York and Georgia).  While it proved impossible to get an exact number, the states cooperated and determined that some voters had indeed registered in both states.  And for decades, the number of registered voters in Mississippi exceeded the state’s population.  Today, it is estimated that 1.8 million deceased people are registered to vote in the upcoming election.

And just a few minutes ago, I heard of a new—and weird—form of voter fraud.   Several states have such a lengthy early voting period, that by the time this blog post is online, voting will have already started in several states.  The problem is that--regardless of when you vote--you must be alive on Election Day for your vote to be valid.  And with an early voting period of two months, there are a predictable number of people who won’t still be around on Election Day.

Personally, I don’t think that any of this adds up to a significant number, and I’m not worried about it.  When you get right down to it, I’m not worried about any form of voter fraud: I just do not believe that it is a significant problem.  This is a leap of faith for a Texan;  in the Lone Star State, as I was growing up, I was heavily steeped in the lore of “Landslide Lyndon” and a few of his friends.  El Paso once had an election in which the number of votes cast was three times the number of registered voters!

While I am sure there are still isolated cases of voter fraud, they probably do not favor any one political party, but rather, statistically cancel each other out.  (Of course, if it is done well, you will never know the voter fraud occurred.)

The problem is that quite a few people are convinced that voter fraud actually is a problem.  There is not much in the way of proof available, but that is not the problem.  If people actually believe that American elections are in any way corrupted, then we do indeed have a problem. 

Every American should have the right to believe that his vote is important and that his vote matters.  Today, the issued that probably upsets the most voters, however, is not how much voter fraud might be occurring, but the issue of voter identification.

Somehow, this issue has deeply divided this country.  While you have to show an ID to board a plane, check out a library book, or buy pain or cold medication from a pharmacy, in almost half the states of the US, no identification is necessary at the polls. 

I understand the arguments against voter ID, and at least part of me agrees.  I don’t like showing an ID, and perhaps getting an ID might put a hardship on some people, but I thought I might share a little information on the subject that I found surprising.

Mexico has required a government-issued ID card since the 1990’s.  And Mexico adopted the cards for a simple reason:  their citizens no longer believed their elections were fair and honest.  Mexico had a long tradition of electoral crooks known as Mapaches, or raccoons, who went about stuffing and stealing ballot boxes.  The new ID has been widely accepted by the citizens and helped foster a feeling that democracy works in the country.

Interestingly, several Latin American countries started using voter ID as a means of insuring that the votes of minorities were included.  This view is polar opposite of what many who oppose voter ID in the United States believe.

As far as I have checked, every country in North and South America requires an ID of some form, with a photo.  The only country that does not is the United States, where thirty-three states have some form of identification requirement.  The laws in five of these states are being challenged in federal court.

In several countries, Argentina is an example, voting is mandatory.  When you vote, a notation is made on your ID card.  If a policeman examines your card and notices that you did not vote, you can be fined.  The system is not perfect, especially in poorer countries.  The poor in countries like Bolivia have a difficult time establishing their identity, but the country is making progress in fixing this problem.

Not only does all of Europe require an identification card to vote, but it seems to be true all over the world.  In the entire world, the only country I can find, other than the United States, that does not require an identification card before you can vote is the Philippines.   If you are voting there, you do not have to show an ID, unless an election official asks to see it.

I found a few countries that would allow provisional voting without an ID, giving you time later to prove citizenship.  And several countries would allow two or more citizens with proper identification to sign an affidavit testifying citizenship for a third party.  But, I found no country that would allow people to vote without a form of identification.

Other than United States.