Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mayor Herbert Cartwright

Previously, I have written about a couple of grand old hotels:  the Flagship in Galveston, and the Shamrock Hilton in Houston.  Thinking it over, I really should write about one more, old lost Texas hotel, the Jack Tar of Galveston.  Sadly, all three are gone now.

Where the Shamrock was a giant relic of a bygone generation and the Flagship was a grand lady killed before her time by a hurricane, the Jack Tar, at least when I ran her, was a wild old drunk with the delirium tremens.   She had endured her share of hurricanes, a memorable fire, and far too many years where owners didn’t put enough of the profits back into maintenance.  If there is a heaven for hotels, then the old Jack slid through the pearly gates dead broke, battered, bruised, singed, and screaming, “What a ride!”

There are a thousand stories about the old Jack Tar.  The Texas Rangers took four rooms and had a combination stake-out and drunken party, a desperate owner ignited a dozen fire bombs for the insurance money, the Ku Klux Klan objected to the cooks in the restaurant, and the Bandido Motorcycle Gang tried to take over the bar—these stories come to mind—and these were events just during the years I ran her.  I will never forget standing in the giant ballroom and watching through the huge plate glass windows as a hurricane whipped the Gulf of Mexico into a white-capped frenzy.  And my nightmares will never stop replaying the memory of when the 70 mph winds of that hurricane blasted a seagull right through that window directly at me.

The hotel was a relic of a forgotten time, and so was one of our tenants.  Herbert Y. Cartwright had been mayor of the island during its rip-roaring gambling days.  His actions made headlines across Texas and he was profiled In Time Magazine, but to the town, he was “Thanks a Million, Cartwright.”  He was notorious, at least until the late 1970’s, when he was mostly forgotten and lived alone in one of the older rooms of the hotel.  Penniless, his bills were paid by a few local businessmen who were still grateful.

The Mayor knew a few stories about the wilder days, when gambling, prostitution, and even liquor by the drink were all illegal throughout the state, but an ongoing and open secret on Galveston Island.  Mayor Cartwright fought the state police for years and got away with it.    Occasionally, I would take a “surplus” bottle of wine to the mayor and listen to his stories.

Salvatore "Big Sam" Maceo with pianist Carmen Cavallaro 
and Galveston Mayor Herbert Cartwright
The Balinese Room was a famous nightclub built on the end of a pier extending out over the Gulf of Mexico.  Besides good liquor, a great meal, and entertainment from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, or the Marx Brothers, you could also engage in a little illicit gambling.  For 64 nights in a row, the Texas Rangers ran down that impossibly long hall connecting the street with the nightclub, only to find that by the time they reached their goal, not only had all the gambling paraphernalia been hidden in secret compartments, but all the guests would stand and sing as the band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas.”

According to Mayor Cartwright, when the Lipton Tea Company sent a buyer to Houston to purchase land for a new site, he was lured to Galveston by the Mayor and a few friends.  By the time he was wined, dined, (and supposedly bedded) for a few days, he had signed a contract to build the new plant in Galveston.   And it is still there.

Eventually, the pressure from the state politicians got to be too much: a political embarrassment in Austin, Galveston had to be closed down.  The Texas Rangers pushed the County Sheriff until he was shocked (Shocked!) to discover that the town he had grown up in had rampant, wide open gambling and prostitution.  It took a while, but eventually, the gambling dens were closed and the prostitutes were driven out of the houses and back into the streets.  While no one even tried to stop the liquor, the golden age of Galveston was over.

Mayor Cartwright told me about the aftermath of the closures.  Someone had to take the blame, so the Texas Legislature had a Senatorial Hearing to investigate the island’s corruption.  Even though most of the senators could have testified firsthand about the situation, they subpoenaed Mayor Cartwright.  Under oath, he was asked to explain why the town had never shut down the vice.

“Didn’t you know that Galveston had whorehouses and casinos?” asked the senator.

“Of course I did,” Cartwright answered.  “I’m the mayor.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

Mayor Cartwright’s answer made the front page of every newspaper in Texas.  Hell, it may have been the start of the Libertarian Political Party in Texas.

“God knew what was happening in Galveston, “Mayor Cartwright answered.  “If he didn’t want to shut it down, why should I try?”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Glass Insulator

We have weather!  In southern New Mexico, this is an event worth shouting about.  Usually, we are noted for the absence of weather, at least as most people would understand it.  We have summer for about 7 months, almost a whole month of very mild winter, and then the rest of the year is taken up by a totally unpredictable, but generally mild, season that could either be spring or fall.  The only real difference between the two seasons is whether plants are dying or coming back from the dead.    Right now, several desiccated plants seem to be turning green, so it must be spring.

In the last week, we have had hot weather, a violent dust storm, the thermostat dropping below freezing, a fair sunny sunrise, and a brief hail storm (well, one side of the town had hail, the other side had snow, so let’s compromise and say it was snailing).  The other six days were fairly normal.  I drive to work with the car’s heater turned on and drive home while enjoying the car’s air conditioner. 

The dust storm was spectacular.  At one point, it got so bad that the highway patrol shut down the interstate to California.  (And the town rejoiced!)  Visibility was reduced to about 150 feet and it seemed as if all of Arizona was flying over to Texas.   I have heard stories about topsoil blowing away my whole life, but I never hear about anyone receiving anything but dust—red dust.  Where does the topsoil get blown?

Several years ago, a dust storm did bring me a treasure, or at least something shiny.  I was hiking in the desert outside of Alamogordo when a dust storm blew up.  I decided immediately to cut the hike short and headed downwind.  While this direction was longer, it would take me to the highway, which I could easily follow back to my truck.  Trust me, you don’t want to hike in a dust storm unless you are damn sure which way you are heading, and you never want to head into the wind.  My route was going to add a couple of miles to my hike, but there was no possibility of missing the highway.

Before I found the highway, I found something else: about half an acre of glass insulators.  You know what I am talking about: the heavy glass gumdrop thimble doohickeys that used to be on top of every telephone and electrical pole.  There had to be more than a gazillion of them:  Clear ones, white ones, green glass ones.  Some were in crates, but most were just piled on the ground.  One huge mound of them was over forty feet long and over twenty feet high.  Many of the wooden crates bore dates back to the early 1950’s.

This elephant’s graveyard for glass insulators was not that far from the highway, but the lay of the land prevented anyone from seeing it from the road.  Once I got back to town, it didn’t take too long asking questions of the locals to find the man who owned the land and the insulators.  It seems that at one point in the early 1950’s, a massive increase in size and operations was proposed for White Sands.  Hundreds of miles of electrical lines were planned.  Then the project was cancelled right about the same time that the technology of transmission lines was improved.  The insulators were simply left in the desert and mostly forgotten.

The man who owned the property had exhausted all possibilities of disposing of the insulators and for a small fee, sold me the “mining rights” to the entire collection.  For about a year, I was in the insulator business.
It turned out that the market was truly limited.  When I showed one of them to the manager of a glass recycling plant, he all but chased me off the property with a stick.  The glass was heavily leaded.  Nor was any utility company interested in buying forty year old technology. 

But there were lots of people who actually collected these things.  Searching around the mounds, I had about a dozen different types and colors.  I loaded up the truck and started making the rounds of antique stores, flea markets, and souvenir stores all over the south half of the state.  It was surprising how many of the silly things I sold.  And anybody who didn’t want to buy any still got a case to sell on consignment.  And if they wouldn’t accept that, I gave them a few, told them to try and sell them with my compliments.  If they needed more, they had my card.  I must have moved a ton of them. 

There is a lot of talk this week about market prices of oil—whether the price is set on the international market, the effect of increased production, etc.  The price of something is set by the perception, not the reality of supply and demand.  Consider a hypothetical case.  You enter a room filled with 30 hungry people and announce that you have a bag with hamburgers in it, but you do not have enough for everyone.  Trust me--- you’re going to make a profit as you sell your hamburgers.

But as you are selling them, you recount your burgers and discover that instead of 29 burgers, you have 31.  Without telling the group the actual numbers, you announce that you have made a mistake and have more than enough for everyone.  Since you have created the perception of a surplus, you will be lucky to sell half your burgers—you will probably lose money.  While the reality is that supply increased only 7%, the perception will have a far more dramatic impact on the price.

After about six months, that is the way it was with the insulators.  I totally saturated my market and distribution fell dramatically.  When people thought they were scarce, they were collectable and valuable.  When people thought they were common, nobody wanted them at all.  I was out of the insulator business.  While I had made a tidy profit, there was no repeat business.

It has been twenty years, and I still regularly see those things all over town.  The History Department secretary had one as a paperweight until just recently.  She had no idea what it was or where it came from. One day, she decided it was ugly and shoved the highly valuable antique in the closet!  I still have one in my backyard, myself.

My mining rights have expired and it has been about twenty years.  If someone wants to start up the enterprise, for a small fee, I can furnish a map and the real name of the town.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Speed Racer

Cleaning my desk the other day, I found an antique.  A picture of a pinewood derby car my son and I built for the Cub Scouts.  What’s-His-Name and I learned a lot from that car.  One of the things we learned was that we didn’t particularly like the Cub Scouts.

Actually, we built two cars.  I have no idea what happened to the first car, but looking down at the photo of little chunk of blue painted wood, the whole story flooded back, and for a little while there, I had an eight year old boy standing next to me.

When What’s-His-Name joined the Cub Scouts, I remember going to the meetings at the elementary school lunch room.  I wonder how many hours I have spent squirming around trying to fit a grown up ass into those little midget chairs?  If you have small children, before they start elementary school, find yourself a good folding chair you can drag along to such meetings.  If you can get away with it, take a hip flask.

That boy was excited.  A moose hunt in Alaska wouldn’t have excited that boy half as much as sitting on the floor of a school cafeteria trying to tie a square knot.   His ratio was about 5 granny knots to every square knot, but we were both proud of them.  I never told him that was about my square-to-granny ratio, too. 

Then they announced the pinewood derby competition.  We had a month to turn a $2.50 kit into a prize winning racecar.  The rules were fairly simple.  Each boy had to build it himself, under supervision of his father.  There was a weight limit, a maximum length, and a few other assorted rules that escape me twenty years later, but that was about it.

What’s-His-Name had a lot of fun putting that model together, and I can honestly say he did it all himself, while I hovered overhead.  And I can prove it, too.  That car was as ugly as a mud fence and as slow as a lame Mississippi mud turtle.  The nails holding those wheels on were as crooked as a congressman.  We were both proud of that car, but it came in dead last.  And even my son could tell why.   His was the only car in that competition that had been made by an actual cub scout.  The rest of those cars were perfect.  They were fast, perfectly balanced, and beautifully painted.  One father told me privately that he had paid $200 for his son’s car.  About the only thing most of the actual scouts had done was put their cars on the track.

I can still remember the look my son gave me when that race was over.  He was only eight, but he clearly understood that we had been snookered.  We had been played, and neither of us liked it. 

Eleven months later, What’s-His-Name was nine, and we bought the second pinewood derby kit.  And while my son certainly helped build that car, he had a little help.  The “advising” team had a total of 7 advanced college degrees.  It was probably the first pinewood derby car in history that had the weight placement plan calculated by a nuclear physicist.

There was absolutely no problem with the wheels that year.  My son and I had put the nails on a jeweler’s metal lathe and insured they were perfectly round and a perfect match for the wheels that had their cores filled and re-drilled.  The underside of the nail heads had been polished mirror bright.  You could spin one of the wheels on that car and it would turn for an amazingly long time.  And the tread of the tires had been slightly cambered so that only a portion of the wheel actually made contact with the track, thus reducing friction.  His mother, the Doc, helped him paint the car.

Needless to say, What’s-His-Name won.  That car ran like a scalded dog.  And my son could have made a tiny sum that night.  Several fathers wanted to buy it, but he didn’t want to part with it.  He still has it.

My son and I both learned something from those races.  The children aren’t always the childish ones  when fathers and sons play together. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Joe Foss and Saburo Sakai

I have previously written a small anecdote concerning Colonel David Hackworth.  After that blog was published, I received enough mail about the Colonel to have written a book about his exploits.  I can only say that the Colonel lived large.  Hopefully, pretty much the same thing will happen this week when I tell my small story about General Joe Foss.

Where do you start with a man like Joe Foss?   Governor of South Dakota, Commissioner of the American Football League, past president of the NRA, and Brigadier General of the Air National Guard.  Probably the best place to start the story is to mention that during World War II, Marine Captain Foss received the Medal of Honor for his victories with the "Cactus Air force" at the Battle of Guadacanal.  A fighter "Ace" early in the war, Joe Foss was a natural leader, and more important, a man who made friends everywhere he went.

Almost twenty years ago, I was invited to a dinner honoring the Marine Corps’ birthday.  The guests of honor were General Foss and Saburo Sakai, the top  surviving Japanese ace of the war.  Actually, this wasn't my first meeting with the famous Japanese ace.  About fifteen years earlier, I had had a lunch with Sakai in New York.  I was working  for Bantam Books and we were publishing his autobiography, Samurai, so I  got the opportunity to talk with him at length about his experiences in the war.

Amazingly, in 1993, Sakai remembered me from our earlier meeting.  There must be a shortage in Japan of geeky guys who stare with their mouths open.   

Inscription Reads: Never Surrender
It was a wonderful evening.  Both men related their experiences of the war and each man complimented the other.  When Sakai was asked who he thought was the greatest aviator of the war, he immediately answered, "Joe Foss."  Joe was smiling, but I'm still not sure what that twinkle in his eye meant.  Both of these men were entirely at peace about the war, and Sakai was actually a Buddhist acolyte by this time.  While neither would have wanted to actually harm the other, it was sort of a shame we didn’t have an F4F Wildcat and a Mitsubishi Zero standing ready at the airport.  The town may have missed an opportunity to have a hell of an airshow.

I had come to this dinner prepared.  Years before when I was cleaning out the attic of my father's house, I had found a mint condition Life Magazine from June 7, 1943.  The cover featured a smiling Captain Foss, America’s top Ace, wearing the Medal of Honor that Franklin D. Roosevelt had just hung around his neck.  Of course, I had kept the magazine—when that magazine was printed, it had cost a dime-- to me it was priceless.

Years later, I was hoping that General Foss would sign that magazine, and if he did, I wanted the signature to be perfect.  I had borrowed a Parker Fountain pen that had been manufactured during the war.  I wanted a period pen for that antique magazine.

Finally, the opportunity presented itself.  I walked up to the general and handed him the magazine and pen, while I politely asked him for his autograph.  As General Foss accepted the magazine, I wondered what he was thinking about as he looked down at a picture taken of himself from fifty years earlier--a time when he had just received his nation’s highest honor.

General Foss smiled.  "Wow!  I haven't seen one of these in years," he said as he autographed the Life Magazine just below his own photograph.  "They don’t make pens like this anymore."

Maybe the most remarkable thing about that truly remarkable man was that he honestly believed he was just an ordinary man.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Educational Embarkation

The budgetary crisis of New Mexico finally sifted down the budgetary maze of state government until it has reached that branch of bureaucracy heretofore known as the Department of Higher Education.  From now on, we will just refer to them as those Bozos in Santa Fe.   For years, the formulae by which universities have been funded was been based on the number of students enrolled in our classes.  If more students take biology than journalism, the biology department is allowed more funds (assuming the football department doesn’t need them) than Journalism.

Similarly, if more students go to Enema University than the Southwest School of Livestock Grooming, then… well, actually, the money will either go the school with the biggest sports program or to school in the home town of the state senator who introduced the governor to his current mistress… but you get the idea.
At least, that is the way it used to be.  Now, higher education will be funded by how many students we graduate.  Not necessarily educate--just get out the damn door robed, capped, and brandishing a diploma they may not be able to read.   Trust me, if we get paid for every student who leaves a classroom, regardless of what they learn while actually in the classroom, the administration will remove desks to discourage loitering.

Even as I was thinking that our educational ship was sinking, the radio suddenly announced that another Costa cruise line ship had failed to reach its intended port.  The poor cruise line companies may have trouble filling their ships for a while.  That’s when I had the inspiration!  Let cruise ship lines run the university.  If the state wants to sell a 4 year passage through the campus, even an Italian cruise line could do that better than a bunch of academics.
If you think about it, most of the campus buildings could easily be converted to resemble a cruise ship experience.  We have a pool and lots of dining areas, and the library would be a great place to have a book club after we clear out most of those ugly bookshelves.

I can just picture the advertising:

A campus full of possibilities makes the perfect retreat!  Throughout your four year stay, whether you love activity or crave tranquility, the University of Carnival Royal American Princess offers everything you could need for a relaxing, rejuvenating retreat, including a wide variety of freshly prepared cuisine and innovative experiences all designed to help you escape completely.
Fresh, flavorful cuisine cooked with passion and care.  At any hour, wherever you go on your University of Carnival Royal American Princess campus, our chefs are busy baking, grilling and sautéing the ingredients of your next meal. Bread and pastries are baked fresh three times a day, and sauces are prepared by hand.
We have Dining Options to match any mood!  On tonight's menu? A signature U of CRAP pasta – served with freshly-prepared sauces. Or perhaps grilled halibut, perfectly complimented by a chilled glass of chardonnay.  Another night, it could be homemade Italian pizza by the pool. That's the beauty of dining at U of CRAP-–there's always something to match whatever your mood might be.
And you never need cash—just charge it to your prepaid CRAP Card®!
As a student, you have your choice of Anytime or Traditional Dining!  A sumptuous variety of dining options awaits you on every voyage. University of Carnival Royal American Princess offers you the choice of Traditional Dining with fixed time and seating, or Anytime Dining with the flexibility to dine when and with whom you choose.
Campus Activities?  Find your passion. Take a class on cooking, ceramics, photography and more. Shop our duty-free liquor store or log on to the web with your complementary iPad—preloaded with textbooks if you wish to read them. For something physical, take an exercise class at the gym, practice your putt on the green, or get a massage at the spa. It's all here, exclusively at University of Carnival Royal American Princess.
There are endless ways to spend your days at U of CRAP. Even if you never leave the campus, you can always find something new to do.  Visit our boutiques: we have had years of experience selling T-shirts, sweats, and hand bags.  Designer brands and duty-free combine for a great shopping experience. Plus, get great college promos on jewelry, T-shirts and souvenirs to match your major.  We are more than ready to sell you CRAP merchandise.
Our multi-million dollar Arts Center has what you want in entertainment!  Movies, music, shows, and plays!  Want something more relaxing?  Get pampered from head to toe for an hour of bliss or the entire day. Or spend some time limbering up with a personal trainer in our world-class gyms.  We even have an indoor equestrian center!
Cards, Bingo, slots and more!  Whether you've got a favorite game or you're just a beginner, everyone is welcome when the chips are down. We have partnered with a nearby Native American reservation to bring you the finest gambling experience while earning a degree in Anthropology with a concentration in Native American Studies.  Advanced students can qualify for a B. S. in Statistics.
And forget those quaint old dorm rooms.  At University of Carnival Royal American Princess, you can book a luxury suite.  Queen-size bed.  Separate sitting room with convertible double sofa bed and dining area. Large balcony.  Two televisions.  Personal computer.  Refrigerator and wet bar.  Walk-in closet.  Bathroom with corner tub (equipped with whirlpool jets) and multi-directional brass-fitting shower.  Aproximately 1,329 square feet, including balcony.
All this may seem a little radical, but why not?  Even Costa Cruise Lines couldn’t put Enema U aground as fast as the state legislature.