Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Garden of Memories

My parents met during World War II in Ft. Worth.  My mother was from the panhandle of Texas and moved to the big city seeking equal parts employment and relief from terminal boredom.  I can remember my mother telling me that everything in Plainview, Texas either “Sticks, Stinks, or Stings.” While the town may not have been a great place to live, it was a wonderful place to be from.  (The from-er the better.)  There were defense plants in Fort Worth that fueled a roaring wartime economy, and if you could walk and chew gum at the same time, you could land a job.

My father was from Winters, Texas—a town so remote that, even today, the town proudly boasts the recent arrival of cable-radio.  My Dad had come to Ft. Worth while serving in the CCC—the depression make-work program for teenaged boys and young men, named the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The motto of the CCC was “Have Shovel—Will Travel.”  After Pearl Harbor, these khaki-clad young men were marched into the nearest recruitment centers where they exchanged their shovels for rifles.  Well, to be accurate, in my father’s case, he got a set of wrenches since he was a flight engineer. 

Once my parents met in Ft. Worth, the problem was how to date on a limited budget.  Neither had any money, so they depended on free public amusements and their favorite was the Botanical Gardens.  The largest and oldest such garden in Texas, the original name was The Rock Springs Arboretum, but the name had to be changed when too many people thought it was a fancy name for a swimming hole.  Renamed, the gardens quadrupled in size over the years. 

Evidently, the gardens have always been spectacular.  I know this because my parents took a lot of photos, usually from the same place--leaning against a railing and smiling directly into the camera.  Looking at that photo, staring into those smiles, you can almost see them planning their future, wondering about their lives after the war.

Fifteen years later, I have memories of the gardens as a child.  My parents would take my brother and me to the gardens because the gardens were still lovely.  And because the gardens brought back special memories for them.  (And, no doubt, because the gardens were still very inexpensive.)

Today, seventy years after the war, my parents are no longer with us and my wife and I live in a desert hundreds of miles from those gardens.   My son (not What’s-His-Name, but The-Other-One) lives in Fort Worth with his wife, the Leprechaun, and their child, the Munchkin.  He took the family to the Botanical Gardens last weekend.  Evidently, finding a cheap family outing is still a problem in my family.

In due course, my son sent my cell phone a photo of the Munchkin standing in front of a garden that I immediately recognized.  A few minutes later, I sent back one of those photos of my parents smiling at the railing sometime during 1943.  Seventy years later, you would think that the garden would have changed dramatically.  I know some changes did occur—the people of Ft. Worth have added a Japanese Garden—a highly unlikely to have been there in 1943.  (Two hundred miles south, San Antonio renamed its Japanese Tea Gardens—for the duration—to the more patriotic-sounding Chinese Tea Gardens.)

About half an hour later, my son sent me a second photo.  This one was of him and his wife standing at the same railing, smiling into the camera, with the same thoughts and the dreams of the future evident in their smiles.  The two photos are not separated at all by 70 years and three generations.  In all the most important ways, they are identical.

The Doc and I are planning to visit Ft. Worth soon.  We will go to the Botanical Gardens and have our photos taken.  We’ll stand at the same railing and smile at the camera and think the same thoughts.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Peden Iron and Steel, R.I.P.

Someone I trust has reliably informed me that a dead man cannot sue for libel.  Harry has just recently passed away, so I guess I’m free to tell the story.

There used to be a grand old Texas landmark:  Peden Iron and Steel of Houston, Texas.  Peden sold everything—or at least everything useful.  The name hints about the massive steelyards and fabrication shops.  Peden sold structural steel such as H-beams, channel iron, angle iron, and steel plating.  It also sold mechanical tubing, copper plate, and drill stem pipe.  I can remember walking through a valve so tall I could not reach up and touch the opposite wall of the valve.  Peden sold this steel to companies all over the world, and bought steel products from mills all over the United States.

But that was only part of what Peden sold.  The multiple enormous warehouses of the wholesaler stocked everything from lion repellent to guns, kitchen utensils to blue jeans, and from baseballs to nails.  If a hardware store or a department store anywhere in Texas had it for sale, it came from the warehouses of Peden.  Peden could sell you all the material needed to construct a house, supply the tools to build it, and then fill it with everything you needed to live in it.  Peden had been doing this since 1905.  The drawing at right dates to 1924, by the time I worked there, Peden had grown much larger.

Among all my other jobs during college, I sold structural steel at Peden.  It was a great place to work, if for no other reason than employees could buy anything Peden sold at wholesale less 10%.  It they had sold food, it would have been the only place I would have shopped.  (I remember buying my wife—The Doc—a Christmas present: a Remington Nylon 66 .22 rifle.  I paid $36 for it, and it still shoots wonderfully.) 

Selling steel was a great education for an engineering student.  I had to learn the difference between steel grades and got to talk to a lot of working engineers and architects.  I could go down in the yards and watch the steel being fabricated, as well as talk to mills about future production runs.  Eventually, I worked up a clientele that called me regularly to negotiate purchases.

One afternoon, I got a call from Brown and Root looking for bridge beams.  They needed huge beams in an unusual length.  There weren’t a dozen places in the world that would have such big beams, but Peden had them in stock.  What they finally picked were 6 beams, 36”x 652# at 60’ for $18.97 CWT.  For those of you who have never sold steel for a living, I’ll translate.  They wanted 6 beams, 60 feet long, each 36” wide, and weighing 652 pounds per foot.  CWT means hundred weight, so the beams cost slightly less than nineteen cents a pound--a fairly stiff price since steel normally sold for about fourteen cents a pound.  I negotiated the higher price because (a) they were desperate and (b) they needed them delivered the next day.  As Brown and Root knew only too well, in chaos there is profit.  (After all, Brown and Root was a subsidiary of Halliburton.)

Peden was one of the few steel service centers that had a fleet of trucks large enough to handle such an oversized load.  Each one of those beams weighed twenty tons and would require its own individual truck.  In total, this was almost a quarter million pounds of steel.  Even Brown and Root didn’t have the ability to move those beams to the construction site.

There was only one small problem in completing the order.  By the time the negotiations were over, it was 4:15 in the afternoon.  About six months earlier, Peden had been purchased by a new owner.  Harry Surrenderstein (a fine old family name that comes from a region of France located close to the German border) had recently sold the chain of department stores that his family had run for 40 years.  With the profits, he had purchased Peden Iron and Steel.  Since his family had sold shirts—I guess he was a self-taught expert on selling steel.

Harry came up with a lot of silly changes, and one of the more obnoxious (in his case ox-noxious) changes was that he had to personally approve any next-day delivery written up after 4:00.  I wrote up the order, and took it to Harry for approval.

“Is it a big order?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “And it is for material we really want to move and it is for one of our best customers.”

I handed him the order slip, which below the billing and delivery information simply said:

6 36”x 652# H-Beam @ $18.97 CWT

Harry looked at the order for a few seconds and said, “I thought you said it was a big order.  There are only 6 of them for $19 each.”

There are lots of reasons given for why Peden went out of business about a year later.  Most of the reasons talk about cash flow, financing, or foreign imports.  If you ask me, I think it was because the president of one of the largest steel service centers in the world ran the place for over six months before he learned from a 20 year old employee that steel was sold by the pound.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Pox On Both Your Parties

I have to admit to being a news junkie.  Being addicted to the news and owning a Tivo is like living in a state that has legalized drugs.  I’m over-dosing.  I watch all the stations, all the news programs, and see shows from multiple countries.  As near as I can figure out, there are about four different countries called the United States governed by several different presidents, at least one of whom appears to be an Indonesian/Hawaiian-born Muslim Kenyan who is a practicing free-market communist, who hates guns but murders some little animal known as skeet—or something—the story changes constantly.

All of this makes me an expert in politics.  Television has taught me that an expert is anyone with an advanced degree from out of town.  I qualify, and as an expert I have some badly needed suggestions for both major parties.

Democrats—You need to stop saying you have created any new jobs.  Jobs are created by the private sector, usually in spite of the government.  In particular, you need to stop saying that you have created 6.5 million jobs.  This is true ONLY if you do not mention either the number of jobs that have been lost or the number of new people who have entered the job market.

Perhaps the Enema U football team should follow this example.  We will just brag about the touchdown we produced in the game—not the five touchdowns the opposing team scored.

And please, stop telling us the number of people who have quit looking for jobs and thus are no longer part of the workforce.  If everyone in the country quit working except Hobo Joe, my gardener, would this mean we had 100% employment?

Republicans—Please stop saying that your opposition to Gay Marriage is a God-inspired mandate to protect traditional marriage.  If you really want traditional marriage, let's go back to the Old Testament.  This would not only allow polygamy, but if a man's brother dies, it would require him to marry his sister-in-law.  Also, I have always felt a little cheated—my wife’s dowry did not include a single goat.

Do NOT say that you hate the sin and love the sinner.  You don't, just admit that gay people scare the shit out of you.  If you are irrationally afraid of spiders and gay people, we won't make you play with either.  Until we can come up with an effective 12 Step Program to ease your fears, let's make a deal:  why don’t you just pretend that gay marriages are like your assault weapons.  If you don't like them, you don't have to get one.

Democrats—Stop calling “taxes” by the incredibly silly name of “contributions.”  Contributions are something you give voluntarily.  Taxes are something you collect with either force or the threat of force.   Taxation is inherently an act of violence.  If you don’t believe me, just make paying taxes a voluntary and patriotic activity for one year.   I don’t so much mind that you are taking my money by force as I do your ridiculous notion that it was my idea.

Republicans—Stop giving President Obama a hard time about using drones.  Personally, I don’t like drones and wish they had never been invented, but can you not see the hypocrisy of advocating almost unlimited private gun ownership while opposing the use of unmanned weapons?  And I have to admit, if I were President, I’d use drones on the morons who use handicap stickers to get a good parking spot at the gym.

Democrats—Yes, Republicans do want to kill Early Childhood Education—mainly because the program simply does not work.  Students have been tracked for years and by the time they reach junior high school, there is no appreciable difference in their test scores from students who did not go through the program.  Think about it, if the program really worked, by now there would be such demonstrable benefits that parents everywhere would demand it.  So why does a failed program survive?  Because anyone who wants to eliminate it can easily be painted as an evil prick who wants to cancel Christmas.  So kill the program and use the money for some useful educational purpose—like a three team version of football.  This should make everyone happy; the new triangular playing field will require the construction of all new—and bigger—stadiums.

Republicans—Give up on abortion.  Actually, don’t run five miles out in the desert and even whisper the damn word to a jackrabbit.  It is over and you lost.  The longer you whine about it, the more you resemble a toothless hillbilly who claims the South will rise again.  Come to think of it, that is your base.

Look on the bright side.  If only the Democrats get abortions and the Republicans don’t, it won’t matter that you have alienated gays, Hispanics, women, immigrants, and Blacks.  In only a few centuries, your party will outnumber everyone else and will once again be a serious contender in a national election.

Democrats—Please stop changing the language just to be politically correct.  We will all agree to stop calling them “illegal immigrants” if you will just let us call them “unregistered Democrats.”

Republicans—Stop nattering about marijuana.  It is not a gateway drug, you cannot overdose on it, it has fewer permanent harmful side effects than oatmeal cookies, and most Nobel prize-winning scientists admit to having used it.  What are you worried about?  George Washington grew marijuana in his personal garden.  Would the nation really be better off today if he had been busted for it before the revolution?

Both Parties--Stop telling me that polls support your opinions.  Have you learned nothing from the last election?  If polls were accurate, right now, everyone but President Romney would be drinking New Coke.  Polls tell us very little except the political opinions of the people doing the poll.  If you let me pick the wording of the survey question, I can prove that most Americans want to have sex with porcupines.

And both of you—Stop calling the other party the party of NO.  Both of you have done your share of blocking votes and appointments while the other party was in power.  And in the long run, it doesn’t really matter—this country is not in trouble for the things you blocked—we are in trouble for the things to which you said YES.  Congress needs to stop acting like a drunken sixteen year old girl on prom night before the entire economy is knocked up.

And for The Press—Stop reporting anything about North Korea.  When spoiled children have tantrums, you should either ignore them or throw them in the pool.  I've done both, but the latter only works well in winter.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Check's in the Mail--Somewhere

I got an intriguing letter the other day.  It was interesting in part because it was from me--but mostly it was interesting because of all the places the letter might have traveled.  God alone knows where.

About two months ago I was paying bills and sent a check to the Archer County Tax Collector for $3.31.  I would hate to describe the miserable lil' piss-ant chunk of land that has an annual property tax of only $3.31--but let's just say that if I retire to the Texas ranch, I'll have the only working hamster spread in the state.  Come branding time, I use a bent paperclip in the shape of a question mark.  You may not like it, but trust me, it impresses the stock.

The Tax Collector at Archer County sends me my tax bill on a postcard.  Personally, I resent people sending me bills that don't enclose a return envelope--subconsciously, they are telling me they want to be paid last.   I wrote the check, grabbed a blank envelope, shoved it in the laser printer and printed the address. 

Now, do you use Microsoft Word?  If you do, you know that when you use the program to address envelopes, Word searches through your open document for an address to use.  If you don't like the auto-selected address, you can write over it.  When I made the envelope for the Archer County Tax Collector, I must have forgotten that last step. 

At the time, I was working on a lecture about Mexico, so Microsoft Word did its very best, and addressed the envelope to:

Viceroy Juan O'Donaju
San Juan de Alua
Vera Cruz

For those of you who aren't enrolled in my class, O'Donaju was the last Viceroy of Mexico, and San Juan de Alua is a fortress in the town of what is now known as Veracruz.   You can understand why the post office had a little trouble delivering the letter--the recipient has been dead for almost two centuries.  Undoubtedly, I now possess the man's last piece of correspondence.  I'll put it on Ebay.

The Post Office had the letter for almost two months--I wonder where it went.  Do you suppose it actually made it to Mexico?  There are are very few marks on the envelope, so there's no hint what the itinerary was.   And that got me thinking.  What happens to our mail? Where does it go?  How many stops?  How is it handled?

Naturally, I have an idea.  Action sports cameras are all the rage now: you can mount one on your helmet and document exactly how you came to be in traction.  Everyone from skydivers to skiers are using them.  Why not put one in a box, aim it out a hole in the side of the box, and mail it somewhere?  Set the camera on time-lapse and let it film the entire trip until it is delivered.  Since the camera is tough, it should survive the journey (but just in case, I suppose you could insure the package).

I'd like to see such a film, but I'm willing to bet that the whole idea is against some law.  It seems like everything is illegal these days (especially in New York). Or fattening.

If we could watch such a film, I'm sure we would discover that the Post Office does its very best to deliver the mail promptly and accurately.  Sadly, this is not the general impression that most people have about the Post Office--people have a bad impression about the mail service. 

There is an old story about a postal employee who was sorting the mail one day and came across an envelope hand-addressed in a barely legible scrawl,  "To God".  Intrigued, he opened the envelope and read the letter inside.

Dear God, please, please help me.  My purse was snatched this morning and the thief stole my last $100.  I can't pay my gas bill or buy groceries for the rest of this month.  I'm afraid I will starve to death in the cold.  Please help.

Our hero was touched by the story and passed the hat among the rest of the mailmen and ponied up their lunch money for a total of $90.  With the return address on the envelope, the cash was promptly delivered by special delivery to the woman.

A few days later the Good Samaritan was sorting mail when he spotted another letter addressed to God in the same handwriting.  He opened the letter and read:

Dear God.  Thank you for the $100.  Without your divine intervention, I don't know how I would have survived the month.  I really appreciate your help.

P.S.  The envelope only had $90 in it, the missing sawbuck was probably stole by those thieving bastards in the Post Office.