Saturday, April 24, 2010

Great Moments in Teaching

Finals start within a week, another semester is almost over. This is a great time to look back and think about all the great moments in teaching. After all these years, my rewards for hard work with my students are my memories.

About a dozen years ago, I was teaching a weekend class on the History of Argentina. The class met every Saturday morning for three hours. Argentine history is more than a little interesting, but the kind of student who willingly gives up a weekend tends to be a little on the interesting side.

So there we were, I was talking, the students were pretending to be listening, all was normal and all of us were probably thinking about lunch when suddenly I noticed that a young lady in the second row of seats was wearing a necklace. A necklace that was moving. Right about the time I figured out she had a snake wrapped around her neck, the girl sitting next to her saw the snake, too. It turns out that screaming is contagious.

Eventually, I found out the snake was the young lady’s pet; an Argentine Boa. Since it was from Argentina, she thought it would a welcome addition to class, and I guess it was, since the class ended a little early.

That’s not the only time an animal has livened up a classroom. A few years later, in the same room, a class got a little active for a completely different reason. A young lady in the back of the room suddenly jumped to her feet, screamed, and started pawing at her chest. She eventually got her sweatshirt down and began digging under her bra.

I can’t say that anyone was scared, but everyone was powerfully interested. I was fascinated. Eventually, the young lady pulled out a baby hedgehog. She was raising the little critter and had been carrying it around inside her bra to keep it warm when it had bitten her.

The university used to have a great classroom that though it had over a hundred stadium style seats, only had a single door at the front of the room. Anyone who came late had to enter at the front, interrupting the lecture, and go up a single center aisle to a seat.

I was teaching a survey class composed of mostly freshmen and sophomore students, one of which was unique. This young lady was going through a Gothic phase; lots of torn black jeans, black fingernails, assorted piercings and shiny dangling chains and lots of jewelry. What you really noticed, however, was her hair. Almost every single class, it was a new color, and none of them were to be found in nature. Since she came to class late, every single damn day, it was not hard to remember her. If you are talking about Thomas Jefferson and someone shows up dressed all in black with electric blue hair, trust me, you’ll remember her.

One day, about ten minutes into my lecture, she showed up with fire engine red hair. Well, if fire trucks were covered with glowing red neon lights, it would be fire engine red hair.

“Come on in, Red.” I said. “We were waiting for you.”

She smiled, went to her usual seat, the far back corner and I went on with my lecture. From that day forward, I always called her Red, regardless what color her hair happened to be. This went on for weeks, and I thought I had seen every possible color of hair. I was wrong.

Towards the end of the semester, one day she showed up, late as usual, with a new style. She had shaved her head; she was as pink and bald as a newborn’s butt. Bald, that is, except for a small circle of hair above each eyebrow that she had dyed black. And, she had used something, possibly Elmer’s glue, to fashion them into small devil’s horns.

For several seconds, the room was absolutely still and silent. Then, I roared with laughter, deep loud belly laughs. I couldn’t help myself, if I had even tried to hold it back, my heart would have burst. I rattled the ceiling tiles and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Naturally, because I was laughing, the whole room roared with me. Every time I thought I could get hold of myself and stop laughing, someone else would giggle and I would start up again. And this would set everyone else off again.

“Stop it!” I thought. “Get hold of yourself. Be professional! Think of dead kittens, think of sex with your grandmother! Think of accidentally spilling a bottle of Laphroaig Scotch.”

The only thing that finally stopped us was the simple lack of strength to laugh anymore. I don’t remember if I ever started lecturing again, and it probably doesn’t matter. No one who was in that room that day will remember anything but Red… and her horns.

And those are the moments that reward you in education, knowing that you make a difference.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Damn Yankees

As a child, I was encouraged to believe that Yankees ate their dead.

Yes, the Civil War had been over not quite a hundred years, but somehow the topic was still fresh in Texas. This feeling was encouraged by countless TV shows and a weird revival of Civil War clothing and toys in the stores. As a child we rarely played cowboys and Indians, we refought the War of Northern Aggression. And the South invariably won these reenactments, in part because the Northern army, Texas Division, was pitifully puny; we only had one Yankee kid for miles around, he was forced to fight alone.

Actually, this one poor child didn’t do much fighting; all I seem to remember were his lengthy and dramatic death scenes. This kid could die better than anyone I’ve ever seen, staggering and flopping around for 10 minutes while moaning piteously. His deaths were a glorious conclusion for every victorious battle for, at least the way we kids interpreted history, the south never lost.

Predisposed to hate the north by geography and popular will, I was greatly encouraged by my uncle, who besides providing me with the information that northern funerals were a buffet, filled my head with incredible lies about the world outside of Texas. Actually he believed there was little of value north or east of Fort Worth.

You can imagine my horror when my Dad announced that the family was taking a vacation, by car, to Illinois to visit a preacher friend of the family. Now, I was a product of Texas public education, but I was pretty sure Illinois was a suburb of New York, for damn sure in Yankee territory .

I remember very little of the trip up to Illinois, probably because I spent the entire trip with my nose in a book, but when we arrived on the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois I was fascinated. This was a real city, and for a country boy, there were amazing sights. We stayed in a motel, with a pool. And I had never seen so many cars and stores and people. Best of all, right across the street from the motel was an ice cream stand!

Now, I knew all about ice cream, and I had bought it before, but I don’t think I had ever seen a small store whose sole business was to sell ice cream. My father gave me a dollar and let me go get two cones for myself and my brother. When I went to the corner, I found another modern marvel of urban life. There was a sign there that said, “Walk” and “Don’t Walk”.

I’d seen traffic lights, but a lit sign that would help you cross the street was simply amazing. This must be what they meant by city conveniences. I waited until the sign said I was safe, crossed the street and bought two ice cream cones (chocolate) and then stood on the sidewalk and waited until the sign said it was safe to cross. I stepped off the curb….and got promptly rammed by a Chevy. I got knocked a dozen feet and the damn ice cream cones went flying.

I was killed. No, wait, that’s not right, but it felt about like that. Frankly, it hurt, my whole left side felt like it was being eaten by ants. I just lay there in the street trying to get my breath back. The driver, a worried woman, hovered over me and started asking questions about 20% faster than I could hear. Ever notice this about Yankees?

Before I could get my eyes uncrossed, a policeman and a rather large crowd had gathered around me, everyone was talking at once and asking me questions. The policeman helped me over to the curb and I just sat there scared out of my wits. This was more people than I had ever seen in one spot outside of church and rodeo.

“Are you hurt?”

“What’s your name? Where do you live?”

“Are you okay?”

“Where does your father work?”

Obviously, my uncle had been right about Yankees. They have lying signs, they ruin your ice cream, they hit you with cars, and then they want to know every blasted thing about you. And as sure as shooting, Dad wasn’t going to give me another dollar for ice cream.

Well, I was only about 10 years old, but even a kid knows you don’t lead the enemy back home. I wasn’t about to tell them where my family was, these Yankees would probably line the whole family up and hit 'em with cars one at a time. So I stood up and started walking, and not towards the motel across the street.

And, of course, the whole crowd, including the policeman, started following me. Looking back, it’s easy to see what these good natured folks wanted, they wanted to make sure I was okay; they wanted to tell my folks what had happened to me. And, no doubt, they wanted to go through my pockets and get the rest of that dollar: fifty years ago two ice creams cones only cost twenty cents. Damn Yankees.

Well, there I was leading the enemy away from my family, sacrificing myself to spare them…except I wasn’t. I got once around the block, ended up right about where I had started and simply had to sit down because my side hurt. The policeman promptly walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder; I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

It was about this time that my father came looking for the idiot child who took half an hour to walk across the street and back. He found me as soon as he came out of the motel room, I was not exactly hard to find as I had a rather impressive, and slightly official, entourage. Dad always said later that he wasn’t exactly surprised to see that crowd around me and that the policeman’s hand on my shoulder looked sort of natural.

I saw my father and tried to motion him off while trying to send the mental message, “Run! Save yourself!” It was no use, before long, the enemy had surrounded my father, too.

Everything quickly got better.  I got a ride to the hospital and x-rays showed no fractures. I had a world class bruise, and eventually, even got the ice cream.

Two weeks later, I told my uncle the whole story. Predictably, he thought the tale was hilarious and equally predictably, he provided the story its moral.

“Boy, don’t watch them lights, watch the cars,” he cackled. “Them lights ain’t never kilt nobody.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Small Anecdote About Colonel David Hackworth

The statute of limitations has run out, so I can probably get away with telling this story.  Besides, as a historian, shouldn’t I help spread the truth?

Ten years ago, the History Department at my university had a conference on the Korean War.  Southern New Mexico is a popular retirement area for the military, so this was a conference that would be popular with local veterans.  There were so many attendees, that the conference was held at a local hotel’s largest ballroom.

A large conference needs a guest speaker, someone with name recognition, someone like… Colonel David H. Hackworth.  To say that the late Colonel Hackworth was controversial is an understatement of the largest order imaginable.

Colonel David Hackworth was a highly decorated combat soldier who enlisted in the Merchant Marines during World War II at the age of 14.  When the war was over, he lied about his age, again, so he could enlist in the U.S. Army, serving in the occupation army at Trieste.  When the Korean War started, Sergeant Hackworth volunteered for the first of two tours.  Serving in the 25th Infantry, he earned a battlefield commission to lieutenant.  After the successful raid on Hill 1062, he earned a battlefield promotion and the command of the 27th Wolfhound Raiders.  By the end of the Korean War, Hackworth was a highly decorated captain.

Hackworth served with distinction in Vietnam, eventually retiring from the Army as a Colonel.  During his career, he was awarded over 90 combat awards and citations.  Among his awards were eight purple hearts.

After the war, Colonel Hackworth became a successful businessman, a bestselling author, and a journalist for Newsweek Magazine.   Colonel Hackworth passed away five years ago from cancer, probably related to the defoliant Agent Blue, which the United States used during the Vietnam War.

Colonel Hackworth was a plain spoken and articulate critic of the way the Korean War had been fought, and his opinions had been clearly stated in several of his books, so the conference was a great success.  Everyone wanted to hear his views on the Korean War, and he did not disappoint his audience.  I won’t pretend to be able to accurately present the colonel’s views, but let me sum up by suggesting that, in his view, the contributions of the United States Air Force in the Korean War were not… helpful. 

Colonel Hackworth told the old joke about how the only way some infantry units could tell that the Air Force was fully cooperative, perhaps even participating, in the war was by the numerous times they were bombed by mistake.

When his speech was over, Colonel Hackworth left the ballroom and appeared, at least to me, to be making a direct advance on the hotel bar.  On the way, a tall white-haired Air Force Colonel intercepted Colonel Hackworth, “Colonel, I served in the Air Force during the war.  I disagree with several of the things you said about the Air Force.”

Colonel Hackworth replied, “Really?”  Then he decked the Air Force colonel.  Hackworth wasn’t nearly as tall as the Air Force colonel, so he had to really reach up to hit him, but he did a great job.  One hit and the colonel hit the ground with busted glasses and a bloody nose.

I have always thought that this pretty well settled the question of which was more effective; the Air Force or the Infantry. 

Hackworth continued on to the bar.  My boss spent the next half hour trying to convince several people that no one really wanted to call the police.   I didn’t hear much of that conversation: I was in the bar, too.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Great Dying Words

Yesterday, I was reading the local newspaper and came across the obituaries. Yes, I know what you are thinking: once again it was a miracle, everyone died in alphabetical order.

Newspapers never print the last words of the deceased. And this is a shame, for some last words seem to encapsulate a person’s whole life in just a few words. Queen Elizabeth had some very sobering last words, “All my possessions for a moment of time." Probably the most truthful dying words of all time.

Shot as he drove home from visiting his mistress, Pancho Villa said, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something important.” Even after his incredible life, at the end, he had nothing really to say.

Of course, sometimes the irony simply drips. During the Civil War, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, General John Sedgwick said, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…” Pity he wasn’t an elephant, for a Confederate sniper’s bullet killed him before he could finish the sentence.

Food seems to be on the mind of some people as they die. Lou Costello, the obese half of the comedy team Abbott and Costello, said, “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.”

Or take the last words of Kit Carson, the famous explorer of the great southwest; “I wish I had time for one more bowl of chili.” I’m surprised this hasn’t been used in a TV commercial for Wolf Brand Chili.

Lots of dying words involve alcohol. Everyone knows of at least one teen-aged flower of American youth (blooming idiot) who, shortly before dying spectacularly, said to his friends, “Hold my beer and watch this.” This happens often enough in the South that it is a rite of passage.

But alcohol also figures prominently in the last moments of, for lack of a better word, normal people. Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” Or take the example of Dylan Thomas: “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record . . .”

But these words only tell part of the story. What happened after these words were spoken? Why was the person dying? Imagine how much more interesting those obituaries would be if the newspaper would tell how the deceased died? Remember the golden rule of blogging: Bad Decisions Make Good Stories.

Let me tell you how Jack Daniels died. Yes, that Jack Daniels. I leave it to you to imagine why, but Jack couldn’t remember the combination to his safe. Eventually he was so frustrated that he fetched the safe a great rattling kick. This didn’t faze the safe much, but it injured Jack’s toe, and within a few days he died of blood poisoning.

And what were Jack’s dying words? “One last drink, please.”

Every now and then, someone’s dying words almost predict their own death. Take Isadora Duncan for example, who some have dubbed the ‘Mother of Modern Dance’.

This talented and beautiful woman died in a freak accident in Nice, France. She was known to wear long, flowing scarves that would often be seen flutter behind her in the wind. On her last day, her friend picked her up in his convertible, and she said to her friends, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" (Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!). As the car raced off, her scarf became caught in the car’s wheel spokes. Isadora died instantly from a broken neck.

These stories are all famous, but there are thousands of great dying words that history doesn’t record simply because the dying person wasn’t famous. Here are a few of my favorite great dying words that aren’t famous:
  • What is that?
  • Did you put that back together right?
  • Is it loaded?
  • Oh, shit!
  • I’ve always done it this way.
  • Only one way to find out…
  • No guts, no glory. 
Maybe history should record dying conversations. My favorite would be the last conversation a man had with his wife as he slowly passed away.

“Honey,” the dying man gasped. “I want to confess something to you. I slept with both your sister and your mother.”

“I know.” His wife answered. “Now lay still and let the poison work.”