Saturday, July 28, 2012

Football Reconstruction

Professor Ken and The Coach were riding a bicycle built for two.  Now, this is much harder work than you might think--for a bike to support the weight of two grown men, the structural integrity of the frame requires a great deal of additional reinforcement.  Including passengers, we are talking about a quarter of a ton precariously balanced on two wheels.

By the time they reached the bottom of the hill, both of the men were already tired, but they bravely tackled the slope.  Professor Ken, in front, was plainly exhausted by the time they reached the top.

"Wow!" he managed to say between large gulps of air.  "I didn't...think we...were going to make it."

"Yeah," agreed The Coach.  "If I hadn't been holding the brakes all the way up, we probably would have rolled backwards down the hill."

This seems to be the purpose of the Athletic Department at most universities.  At any given point, they are working overtime trying to figure out a way to cancel out everything the rest of the university is striving to achieve.   This week, with a record fine being assessed against Penn State in the wake of the Paterno/Sandusky affair, perhaps it is time to consider a period of what I would call “Football Reconstruction”.

It is a common misconception that Reconstruction following the American Civil War was about rebuilding the factories, homes, and infrastructure of the South that had been damaged during the war.   Towns such as Atlanta and Richmond certainly needed a little more than a new coat of paint, but Reconstruction actually refers to rebuilding the society of the South in such a way that slavery would be impossible. 

How many scandals have we had in…oh…the last 30 years involving football corrupting the educational process?  How would we possibly ever know?  The first stage is always carefully hiding the facts to try to protect the football program.  About twenty years ago, a university about 200 miles away had a scandal when the coach and university administrators tried unsuccessfully to convince a young woman not to report that she had been raped.  If you do a Google search for “Athletic Department Cover-up Scandal” you will get over two million hits.  For some reason, there are no hits for “Physics Department Recruiting Scandal”.

As bad as they are, scandals like that are not the worst crimes being committed at our universities by run-amuck athletic programs.  The real crimes are what we are doing to the student athletes.  We bring inner city children to the university and then systematically deny them a real chance at an education.  Can you imagine the societal uproar if we created a permanent class of athletes and then refused to allow them to learn how to read?  Actually, that is exactly what we are already doing.

Mark Twain once said that “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”  We bring students in from all over the country, pretending to educate them while actually physically abusing them for our entertainment.  I can think of very few things that are as cruel.

Do you remember the Len Bias case?  It has been 26 years now, but Mr. Bias is still considered the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA.  He died of a cocaine overdose during his senior year just two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.  When he died, he was 21 credits short of graduation—almost a full year of classes--yet had used up all four years of athletic eligibility.  He had not attended a class in months, and was said to be incapable of writing an essay as simple as completing four simple sentences about a bunny rabbit.

Has the situation changed markedly since the death of Len Bias?  Recent events now indicate otherwise.  I find it deeply disturbing that so many people miss the whole point of the travesty at Penn State.  Sandusky was a sick pedophile.  Paterno was much, much worse; he pimped out children for years just for the sake of an athletic program's reputation.  I would think better of the man if he had done it for money.

It is not enough to simply remove the statue of Parterno.  We need to reconstruct the culture of universities so that the emphasis is placed on academics and a Sandusky/Paterno or a Len Bias case would never again be possible.  We should never hear of a school transferring desperately needed funds from academics to athletics.  We should be far more interested in the student than the athlete.

To be fair, our country failed at Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War.  At best, we made a commitment to finish the job at a later date. It was almost a hundred years before we made a concerted effort to uphold that promise, and the job is still not finished.  When it comes to Football Reconstruction, we haven’t even yet made the promise.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Where did the Books Go?

As a double grandparent, I feel the obligation to pass on the love of books to my granddaughters.  Since neither live within 200 miles of me, this is a little difficult—I can’t read books to them as often as I would like.  So, right now, I’m mainly just buying and shipping the books in the forlorn hope that if I stack up enough of them in their rooms, it will eventually reach educational critical mass.

Never having been a little girl, picking the appropriate books for then is rather difficult.  Eventually, I just decided to buy the books that I loved as a child.  After all, what could possibly be wrong with my granddaughters being more like me?  I am sure that their mothers will agree.

First, I decided to send all the children’s books from the house.  This would inevitably open up space for me to purchase more books for myself.  After a brief search, it was rather obvious that we didn’t have that many.  Years ago, I bought books for the two boys, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One by the truck load.  What happened to them?

No matter, I have an account at the local used book store where my credit balance must be in quadruple digits from taking them all the unwanted textbooks that publishers mail me in the vain hope that I will require my students to buy copies.  At least once every two weeks, I am the recipient of a valuable gift such as The History of the US Postal Service: 1824-1832.  It was hard to part with such a treasure, but I managed.

Unfortunately, my favorite local used book store was strangely out of good children’s books, too.  Almost none of the titles that I remembered from my youth were in stock.  I found a copy of Twain’s Tom Sawyer, but the store only had four bedraggled copies of the Hardy Boys.  Where did the rest of them go?  The Hardy Boys have been in continual production since the 1920’s under the pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon.  Actually, Dixon never existed and the books were written and rewritten by a series of underpaid ghostwriters.  I can remember when my nephew was reading an ancient copy of “The Tower Treasure” when he suddenly had a vocabulary problem. 

“What’s a jal-o-py?” he asked.  It took me a second to understand what he meant--no one jumps in a jalopy to chase after criminals anymore.  Maybe one of the car companies should think about introducing a line of jalopies—authors everywhere would be appreciative.  A chase scene in a Honda Accord lacks panache.

I have no idea how many millions and millions of copies of these books have been printed (the vast majority of them were hard backs).  Where are they?  I know I gave one copy to my nephew, but where are the rest?  And what happened to all the Tom Swift books?  The Nancy Drew series?  I snatched up a single dog-eared copy of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time but could find not a single copy of Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks.  Where was Robert Heinlein’s Star Beast or The Rolling Stones?

Also missing were the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald Sobol, my childhood favorite.  Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown was a smart but otherwise ordinary boy who solved mysteries by using his brains.  He had accumulated a vast knowledge by reading endless books.  This was a very appealing character to a boy who lived in a small Texas town.  I devoured the books.  Encyclopedia Brown, at least to me, made it cool to read and be smart.

Many years later, I worked a couple of years for Bantam Books.  One summer, I got to attend the American Book Association meeting in Miami.  The convention was a lot of fun, chiefly because I got to meet a lot of authors; Leon Uris, Xaviera Hollander, Mickey Spillane, and most importantly, Donald Sobol, the author of the Encyclopedia Brown series.  At some point, I bought Mr. Sobol a drink at the hotel bar and we discussed his books.  Mr. Sobol was intelligent, polite, and talked at length about the publishing business.  To my astonishment—and his amusement—I remembered many of the early stories better than he did.  I had read them since he had, and he had long since moved on to other projects.

Sadly, Donald Sobol passed away last week at the age of 87.  He authored over 65 books, including 28 featuring Encyclopedia Brown. 

As we finished that drink in the bar, Mr. Sobol kindly autographed a couple of his books for me.  I just remembered that I gave them to my nephew. 

I’d call my nephew about those books, but he has four kids and is probably wondering what happened to all the children’s books he used to have.  Where do they all go?  This is a mystery for Encyclopedia Brown.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Weapons of Improvised Cooking

Recently, I taught a class on the history of Spain.  Early in the semester, the class covered the Roman period, and among the topics we discussed were the food and drink of the Romans.  One student, a little more adventurous than most, decided to make garum.  For the Carthaginians among you, garum was a sauce that the Romans used on their food.  As a Texan uses Tabasco sauce, the Romans used garum.  The sauce is made chiefly of fermented anchovies, and is probably the great-grandfather of Worcestershire sauce.

If the class had been in Italy, my student could have purchased the sauce ready-made.  In New Mexico, she probably could find fifty different kinds of hot sauce, but garum is just not for sale.  She found all the ingredients, followed the recipe….and it didn’t turn out well.  It may be hard to get something to ferment in an environment with no more than ten percent humidity.  I had pretty much the same problem in reverse while I lived in Galveston.  If you are trying to make beef jerky while living a block from the beach, you may have to wait a few decades for the meat to dry.

In any case, my student did not produce a two thousand year old condiment.  She did produce something that was halfway between a mobile hazmat super-fund site and a substance that the United Nations would send people in blue helmets to inspect.  That bottle was sealed, wrapped in aluminum foil, and inside multiple plastic bags--and the odor could still gag a maggot off a meat wagon.  This was a stench that made you see dark colors and made you think of creatures that live under rocks.

As my student gave me the sample she was just about in tears.  From her story, the damage to her house bordered on permanent.  Supposedly, the only good thing about the experiment was that the house no longer had an ant problem.

My whole family could sympathize—but at my house we refer to it as the root beer episode.  I am still surprised that you can make root beer without a license.

Actually, to make root beer all you need to do is go to the grocery store.  You need root beer extract, sugar, yeast, and a hell of a lot of empty bottles.  It also helps to have an indulgent wife.    Making the root beer is simple: mix it all up, bottle it, cap it securely, and wait a few weeks for the yeast to ferment.  I made several batches and the boys really enjoyed them. 

The last batch…well, I’m still not sure what when wrong.  The bottles had been stored in an empty kitchen cabinet for weeks when one of the bottles started leaking.  I took all the bottles out of the cabinet, washed them off, and left them stacked on their side in the double kitchen sink.  Then the whole family left for a movie.  The house wasn’t the same when we came back.

The first clue was the absence of cats.  My wife has two—otherwise known as the crazy cat lady starter kit.  The cats always meet us at the door in the hopes that we are bringing more cat food.  That day, no cats—either at the front door or anywhere near the front of the house.  We didn’t find the furry cowards for hours. 

As best as we could recreate the events of the disaster, one of the bottles on the bottom of the pile exploded from the pressure.  This detonation took out all the other bottles in an uncontrolled chain reaction the likes of which had not seen in New Mexico since 1945.  The destruction at ground zero was impressive.  Besides bathing the entire kitchen in a fine and sticky mist of root beer, it took out the ceiling light, and scattered glass all the way across both the dining and living rooms.  Scattered might not be the correct word—blasted is more to the point.  Some shards could not be pulled out of the walls or ceiling even with pliers.  In several places I plastered over the glass and covered it with paint.

If you know where to look, the wooden paneling in the living room still has a piece embedded next to the window.

There must be some lecture where I can work in a discussion of root beer—I’m just dying for one of my students recreate this experiment.  It has to be a student--my wife and cats won’t let me.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Welcome to Montgomery County--NOT!

When I was the Resident Manager of the Flagship Hotel in Galveston, some of the many problems I had to put up with were the conventions that we scheduled.  Conventions maximize profit: the rooms are all full, the bars are at capacity, and the restaurants are packed.  On the other hand, a convention booked at a beach hotel is not there to do much work.  The average patron after a week of heavily organized frivolity is sun-burnt, hung-over, sick, and too broke not to leave for home.  This is not a recipe for happy guests. 

Some conventions were fun.  Others were an adventure in combat anger management.  In 1971, the Veterans of Foreign Wars had a convention in Houston that was attended by Governor Reagan and Vice-President Agnew.  Thousands of students laid siege to the hotel, protesting the war.  Except for the rather humorless Secret Service agents, I thought the whole affair was great fun--in part because I was the only college student at the protest who was getting paid.  But, I was only a lowly security guard in those days--you have a different view when you are management.

Undoubtedly, one of the worst conventions the Flagship ever hosted was The Telephone Workers of America.  This group of miserable, angry drunks (What is the collective noun for a gathering of assholes?  A toilet?  A hemmorhoid?) held its convention at Halloween.   We had more fist fights—in costume--than a Golden Glove bout.  One drunk in particular created havoc by making an endless series of obscene phone calls to every room in the hotel.  Somehow, even in his inebriated state, he had figured out that he could call room-to-room without the assistance of the hotel operator.  No amount of pleading from his wife and friends could convince the large and violent drunk to stop making the calls.

Like most of the staff, I was in costume, dressed as Dracula--complete with a large flowing black cape.  I opened the door to his room with my passkey and stepped in, loudly announcing in my best Tex-Transylvanian accent, “Good Evening!”  As everyone stared at me, wide-eyed and frozen, I walked over and removed the handset from the drunk’s hand, yanked the receiver wire out of the wall, and left with the telephone.  No one in the room moved or said a word until I was back in the hall, with the door securely shut behind me.  I have always wondered how much the drunk remembered the next day.

The worst convention—by far—was the Texas Peace Officers convention.  I would not do that convention again without… hell, I have no idea.  Combat pay?  Personal protection provided by Delta Force?  None of that would be enough.  Part of the problem is that the police do not believe that rules are written for them.  As one sheriff put it, “You can’t break the law when you is the law!”  That seemed to be the general attitude of pretty much everyone at that convention.

There was an enormous amount of drinking, which was followed by an equal amount of puking, retching, gagging, and upchucking.  Most people, when they drink, pass through familiar stages of inebriation: loud, obnoxious, intelligent, handsome, and finally, invisible.  With the police, it is angry, screaming, rampaging Cossack, and finally, crack shot. 

As I have previously explained, the Flagship was situated on a pier over the Gulf of Mexico.  Every room was over the water.  So, when a group of East Texas policemen (including quite a few local cops) managed to force open the door to the roof so they could conduct some target practice at 3:00 am—evidently the Balinese Room a quarter a mile away was the target—other guests in the hotel couldn’t help being aware of the situation.

“Is that gunfire I hear?” asked every phone call to the front desk.  “Is someone shooting?  Should we call the police?”

“The police already know about it.” I answered.  “With any luck, any second now they will shoot themselves and fall off the damn building into the water.”

NO!  Of course I didn’t answer that.

“No!” I actually said.  “That is the sound distant thunder makes when it comes rolling in from the sea.”  I doubt that I was believed.  What I was actually counting on was that the idiots on the roof were too drunk to reload.

The first night of the convention, the deputy sheriff from Montgomery County, Texas staggered out of the bar, stumbled and fell.  A tiny little Spanish .25 automatic fell out of his sock, hit the floor, discharged and fell apart as the receiver, slide and spring all bounced in different directions.  The anemic little toy had punched a neat hole through a nearby window, just inches above a local police lieutenant’s head. 

The lieutenant was a little pissed.  As he grabbed the deputy by the neck, he said, “I hope for your sake that you are a cop.”

The Montgomery County Sheriff was very angry at the cost of replacing that window.  As it turned out, he got a lot angrier.  The hotel had a parking problem when it was at full capacity.  Because of this, the local fire marshal required us to keep the spaces directly in front of the hotel’s doors empty at all hours.  He had ordered that appropriately marked red sawhorses block these spaces at all times.

That night, the sheriff came back to the hotel late, and not finding a close parking space, had moved the sawhorses, parked his squad car, and then moved the sawhorses back in place.  By the time he had finished this chore, the lobby bellman had alerted me, and I was waiting at the front door.  I was very polite, he was very drunk, and found my request to move the car hilarious.  He didn’t even answer me as he got in the elevator and went to his room.

I didn’t live in Montgomery County, and didn’t want to.  I did live on Galveston Island, and did know what the fire marshal would do if he found that fire lane blocked.  I doubt the sheriff had reached his room before I had called the tow truck.  The wrecker driver thought the whole affair sidesplitting.  The sheriff’s car had rotating lights, an official paint job, radios, and a shotgun in the rack between the seats.  And I had it towed away.

The next morning, the lobby was full of policemen from all over East Texas, each of them laughing his ass off while waiting for the sheriff to come to the breakfast the convention was hosting.  When the sheriff finally stepped out of the elevator, the lobby was quiet for a few seconds, then the gathered cops started laughing.  The sheriff, realizing that he was the object of the gathered mirth, looked out the glass doors and figured out the joke pretty quickly.

Furious, he marched over to me.  “Where the hell is my car, boy!” he thundered.

I told him the car had been towed, and gave him a business card from the wrecker company. 

“You better get my car back, boy!” he yelled.  Every word was punctuated by him stabbing me in the chest with his finger, his red face just inches from mine.  “You better get it back now, boy!”

“No sir.” I answered.  The gathered police were roaring with laughter.  I was wondering if any of them would try to stop the sheriff if he was to draw his gun and try to shoot me.  Or would they just laugh harder?

“YES YOU WILL!”  By now, the sheriff was screaming.

“No sir.” 

“That’s an official po-lice car,” shrieked the sheriff.  “Just what the hell were you thinking, boy?”

By now, the finger poking was getting painful, but I had an answer.  Calmly, but loud enough for every law enforcement official in the room to hear me, I said, “I thought it made up for every parking ticket I ever got.”

The last thing that sheriff said to me as the room erupted in laughter was very quiet, and very close to my ear.  “If I ever catch you in Montgomery County, boy, you’re a dead man.”

That was almost 30 years ago.  I know exactly where Montgomery County, Texas is.  I still haven’t been there.