Saturday, July 27, 2013

Vice Tubes

After The Doc graduated from four years of medical school, we moved to Galveston Island for seven years while she did her surgery residency.  Little did she realize that the fastest way for a really impressive career in medicine is to do three years of law school and get elected to Congress.

Why Galveston?  I could say that it was because Galveston had the only state hospital in Texas and was home to a premier medical school.  While true, these weren't the primary reasons.  The Doc and I had gone to the University of Houston and on several memorable weekends we had driven my Barracuda the 50 miles down to the beach in order to watch the submarine races.  We thought we "knew" Galveston.  We didn't---we only knew where to find a fairly deserted beach.

Moving to Galveston was fairly easy because we owned several thousand books and very little furniture.  We loaded a U-Haul truck and had it tow our "classic" Ford pickup to Galveston.  By the time we finally reached the island we were almost exhausted.  We had rented an antique house close to the medical school.  The neighborhood was ancient and full of homes built in the nineteenth century.  At the time, we naively believed that these old homes were still standing because they had been built so well they could withstand the hurricanes.  Later, we learned--the hard way--that any house still standing just hadn't been hit.  Yet.

It was June, hot as Hell, and as humid as only an island can be.  And it was hard work unloading that truck.  There have been a few times when I think we own entirely too many books.  By the time we got that truck unloaded, The Doc and I were definitely exhausted.  That old house was a hothouse, clogged with boxes and the electricity wasn't going to be connected until the next day.  We decided to ignore the condition of our house and go for a walk.  We were tired, dirty, and sweaty, but more than anything else, we needed a break.

The neighborhood was wonderful.  It rains every damn day on that island, so the lawns and the gardens are the greenest you will find in Texas.  The magnificent old antebellum houses, the wrought iron fences, and palm trees along the sidewalks give parts of the town a beautiful, perfectly landscaped appearance. 

Just a few doors down from our house was a huge house with a large extended porch.  We were to later learn that the house dated from before the Civil War and that the porch had been used for illegal slave auctions.  While Congress had decreed that no more slaves were supposed to be brought to America after 1808, evidently a few slaves had been smuggled into the country illegally from the ships at the dockyards a half-mile away.  There was a great debate going on in the town when we first got there--the city fathers wanted to restore the home as a museum while the majority of the town's African-American residents thought this last vestige of slavery should be destroyed.  The debate, which at times grew quite heated, was interrupted by the sudden total destruction of the house by arson.  As a debating tactic, this was pretty much the last word.

As we walked down the street, we came across a magnificent mansion.  There is simply no way to describe it accurately, but I'll try.  Behind a tall wrought iron fence and a beautifully manicured garden was one of the largest homes on the island.  By comparison, Tara of Gone With the Wind fame was miserable FEMA housing.  As The Doc and I stood there admiring it, a smiling old man with white hair stepped out of the bushes and approached the fence.

"Would you like to see inside?"  he asked as he unhooked the gate and motioned for us to come in.

After he led us through several grand rooms, he took us to his study and served us lemonade.  This was Captain Julius Jockusch, and the home had been in his family's possession for decades.  Every room was right out of a PBS drama from the Edwardian era--each room had a fireplace made out of a different exotic stone and the walls were of hardwoods from around the world.  And every room had one of those old voice tubes with a funnel on the end.  To communicate with the kitchen, you picked the tube up, blew a whistle to attract the attention of the kitchen help, and then spoke into the funnel to order your mint julep.

"A reporter once wrote about the house," Captain Jockusch explained.  "But the article called them vice tubes."

Captain Jockusch's study was exactly what you would expect in this kind of home---very large, wood paneled and with a large wooden desk.  I still envy the glass-fronted bookcases.  Scattered around the room were several easels holding oil paintings on display.  As I examined one, I suddenly noticed the legible signature in the corner:  Chester W. Nimitz.  All of them were signed that way.

"You knew Admiral Nimitz?  I asked.  I was shocked---Nimitz had been born in Fredericksburg, Texas, and is a legend familiar to every Texas schoolboy.

"Oh, yes." Captain Jockusch said.  He pointed at a framed photo on the wall---the famous picture of Nimitz, on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, signing the Japanese surrender documents that ended World War II.

Captain Jockusch pointed to a uniformed young man in the front rank.  "That's me." he said.  "I was one of Admiral Nimitz' aides."

Far from retired, the captain was, I was to learn over the coming years, a perfect gentleman.   He worked with every charity in town, was a director for the ship channel pilot's association, and was famous for his volunteer work on various veterans' commissions all over the country.  Once, over a martini at the Flagship Hotel, he told me he had grown up in the Steves House in San Antonio--another great old mansion in Texas History.

But what I remember most is not the house, or the paintings by Admiral Nimitz.  I remember the kindness, generosity, and hospitality of this man.  He took two strangers off the street and brought them into his home when they were tired and dirty.  A gentleman is someone who goes out of his way to put others at ease.  I have only met a few of those, and Captain Julius Jockusch was definitely one of them.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ships of the Desert

Years ago, Vernon and I were flying a small Cessna across Southeastern New Mexico.  I'm not even sure why we were there, but anytime you find yourself in a small Cessna, it is mostly for pleasure.  Small 4-seater single-engine planes are slow, impractical, crowded, and fantastic fun.  If you are already a pilot, you know what I am talking about.  If you aren't, don't find out!  Flying is as addictive as heroin--but it costs more.

Somewhere around Roswell, Vernon said, "Hey, you want to see something interesting?"

Of course I did.  Vernon has been flying in New Mexico for much longer that I--he has probably forgotten to log more hours of flight time than I have in total.  So Vernon took the yoke, made a small turn and after a few minutes put the Cessna into a steep banking turn.  The ground, a few thousand feet below, filled my side window as we slowly circled a Nazi battleship.

Actually, there was a fleet of them in the desert, where they had been quietly resting since the end of World War II.  During the war, they had suffered, showing considerable evidence of having been bombed repeatedly from the air. 

The desert southwest is a wonderful place to fly.  We have well over 350 flying days a year.  This is why the military built bomber training bases all over New Mexico.  The flood of student pilots had to have something to practice its bombing on, so the military plowed targets into the ground, or created large berms of sand.  Either way, the lines were then whitewashed.  The most common target was a giant bullseye with a swastika in the middle, while others were ships, docks, and the outlines of cities.  Some of the swastikas were done backwards (but not all).

These kinds of manmade formations are called geoglyphs, and they are not that much different from the famous Nasca Lines of Peru.  While the Peruvian lines are up to slightly over a mile in length, the  largest New Mexico geoglyphs--a bullseye--is 1800 feet wide.  Some of the ships are 800 feet long and 200 feet wide.  In total, there are dozens of them outside of Roswell, Albuquerque, Clovis, and Deming.

If you fly low enough, you can still see the bomb damage around the targets.  While real bombs were rarely dropped, even the 100 pound sand bags, with small marker charges, left a visible crater.  The student pilots bombed the targets from 1942 until 1945.  When the war was over, the targets were allowed to simply weather and slowly start to disappear back into the desert.

Every year, the blowing sand, the rains, and the winter frost slowly work at removing evidence of the targets.  The whitewash and paint are long gone and from the air, it is almost impossible to notice the targets unless you happen to be in a low-flying small Cessna.  The locations were picked for their isolation, so the only visitors on the ground are probably coyotes and prairie dogs.

When archaeologists rediscover the geoglyphs ten thousand years from now, they will be as mysterious as the Nasca Lines.  Undoubtedly, they will say they had some religious purposes--maybe thinking that we worshipped ships by shooting at them.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Future Was Yesterday

Paul Haney was a customer before he became my friend.  I sold him several computers, and somewhere during the business we did together, Paul and his wife, Jan, became important to The Doc and me.  So he was a little disappointed when I sadly announced that I had sold the company and we were leaving Galveston for the mountains and high desert of Southern New Mexico.

"What's so good about a desert?" he asked.

"Well," I answered.  "You would just have to go see for yourself."

So Paul and Jan did.  They went on vacation to New Mexico the very next week.  And when he returned two weeks later, he announced that I had been right.  He and Jan had bought a cherry orchard in High Rolls, New Mexico.  They actually moved to New Mexico months before The Doc and I managed to make the move.

You may know Paul, too.  If you, like I, lived vicariously through the astronauts of the Sixties, then you have certainly heard Paul--he was the "Voice of Mission Control" through the Gemini and Apollo programs. 

Long before I had a blog, I used to write a lot of letters.  I recently found one I wrote to  Paul almost fourteen years ago.  At the time, the whole nation was obsessed with Y2K and the coming new millennium.

Sunday, December 19, 1999

Dear Paul,

I'm supposed to be grading papers.  I keep sneaking away to do something else.

We bought a cheap breadmaker the other day.  Dillard's had a $30 model.  Karen and Sonja, a neighbor, looked at it and Sonja bought it.  It worked pretty good, but only made a one pound loaf of bread.  Karen thought the bread was good, so she bought a slightly bigger version that makes a 2 pound loaf for $80.  Somehow, it has become my breadmaker.  So, I loaded it up late last night and set the delay to come on this morning early enough that I could eat fresh bread while watching Meet the Press.

After I had the breadmaker ready, I ground some coffee beans, loaded the coffee pot and set it to go off just as the breadmaker was finishing baking the fresh bread.  All the while, I'm watching a news program out of Seattle on the satellite TV system.  There was a loud party down the street, so I put all the outdoor lights on the motion sensor mode.  I finished cleaning up the kitchen, loaded the dishwasher and put it on a 2-hour delay so it wouldn't come on until everyone was asleep.

Before I went to bed, I turned off the lawn sprinkler system, since the temperature was supposed to drop to freezing during the night.  The grass is still green (Isn't southern New Mexico great!) and will water it once a week until it turns brown.

Just before going to bed, I turned off the TV in my office and shut down the computer that has been downloading a new version of Internet Explorer for the last two hours.  The only email I had received that evening was the new Dave Barry editorial in the Miami newspaper.

(Okay, I admit it, I stole the cartoon from his column.)  By now, I am sure you have gotten the point of all of the above.  Maybe the 21st century came a while back and we didn't notice.

I may have more toys than most people, maybe I like little techno gadgets more than most, but there is something unreal about the last 10 years or so.  I exchange messages fairly routinely with people who live so scattered around the world that not even Phileas Fogg could visit them all in three months.  My children do their homework from databases around the globe.  I did most of my Xmas shopping from stores that are so distantly remote that I have no idea what state they are located in.

Almost everyone I know has an email address.  The only exceptions are children and the elderly.  And not all of either of those categories.  As much as we have talked about a computer revolution or an internet revolution, we are barely halfway through the changes.  The internet is almost 50 years old, at least the concept is.  In 1953, Robert Heinlein wrote a story called Methuselah's Children, where the hero shopped for new clothing over a computer terminal, examining clothing styles and colors until he was satisfied.  He pressed a credit slip to the screen and placed his order.  The functional difference between that and how I order books from Amazon is too minuscule to notice.

Even five years ago, while shopping this way might have been possible, it would have been very strange.  This Christmas, no one knows how much E-Commerce (how old is that word?) is going on, but it may be as much as 15% of all gift shopping.  How much more is coming?  Will ATM machines turn into internet kiosks?  They better, because the need for cash is all but over.  I access my bank online nearly every day.  Will malls vanish?  How much computing power will my car have?  Will notebook computers become more common than briefcases and backpacks?  Will my next cell phone have a GPS?  A camera?  A screen?  Will the word 'film' become as obsolete as 'phonograph?'

Between Karen's office and our home, we own a fax machine, two copiers, two scanners, two cell phones, a satellite dish, three stereo systems, a DVD player, 3 VCR machines, 6 computers, 3 laser printers, and two color inkjet printers.  We own twice as many computers as television sets.  Ten years from now, what will an updated list reveal?  How many of those systems will have merged?  How many will have disappeared?  Will we wonder how we ever got along without polymorphs?   Or whatever the next new gizmo is.

Sorry, I didn't mean for this to turn into a rant.  Write soon and tell me how the cherry trees are faring.

Well, it's been almost 14 years, and I guess the "polymorph" turned out to be the iPad I wrote all of this on. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wouldn't a Bonfire Be Easier?

The black dragon lobbed over an egg-shaped thing fully the size of a peck measure it was.  And it burst, and a dragon flew out with peals of thunder rolling.  In the air it was like a blazing and flashing fire.  The first bang was like the dividing of chaos in two, as it mountains and rivers were all turned upside down...
Chiang Hsien, 1431.  The Jade Box Collection.

It is the day after Independence Day.  The barbecue grill is cold, the beer is gone, and spent fireworks litter the yard.  While we still struggle to digest the massive amount of undercooked beef we consumed, it is time for a little introspection.

Assuming that you still have both eyes to read this, you are probably not one of the 6300 Americans who went to an emergency room yesterday with a fireworks related injury.  A large portion of those fireworks injuries were probably due to the beer.  The more beer you drink, the more skilled you believe you are with fireworks.  When it comes to sex, karaoke, and fireworks--beer lies.

Somehow, the birth of our nation has always been tied to fireworks.  Consider what John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about celebrating the birth of our nation:

[The day] "will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams got a lot of that correct--the parades, the guns, the illuminations, etc.  All he forgot to mention was barbecue, beer, and the picky little detail of the date.  Adams wrote the above about July 2--the date the Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution for independence.  July 4 was the date the congress accepted the declaration written by Thomas Jefferson.

Americans may be celebrating the wrong date, but we are certainly doing it in style.  Last year, Americans used over two HUNDRED MILLION pounds of gunpowder, just for fireworks--that's not even counting the gunpowder we used to shoot each other.  And a hell of a lot of it was purchased from...China.  That's right, we celebrate the most American of holidays with Chinese fireworks.  If we are going to use all this gunpowder, maybe we should learn something about it.

Gunpowder, of course, was invented in China.  It was an accidental invasion--the Chinese doctor was experimenting with medicine when he stumbled upon the formula.  History does not record his name, but it does mention that his house burned down.  Rapidly. 

Gunpowder is a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter.  The crucial ingredient is the saltpeter.  If the mixture contains a fair amount of saltpeter it will burn.  If the concentration is 75%, when it burns it will produce 3000 times its volume in gas.  That much gas in a closed container is called an explosion.  That much gas in a large room is called Congress.

(Please don't take this as an encouragement to start playing at medieval alchemy in your basement.  There are only two kinds of people who play with gunpowder.  The moron who has already hurt himself and others or the moron who is about to.  It's no joke.)

Sulfur has been known since biblical times, it is not that difficult to identify, nor is it hard to collect and purify.  It can easily be ground into a fine powder.  Nor is charcoal exactly hard to find.  It turns out that several kinds of wood work well:  willow, alder, and grape vines were widely used.  In China, adding charred grasshoppers was believed to give the powder "liveliness."

Now we need saltpeter.  The best natural place was a hot climate that encouraged natural decomposition and a long dry period that allowed nitrates to leach to the surface.  In China, it wasn't hard to find places like that, but in Europe, you had to find a different source.

It was the 1300's when the knowledge of gunpowder reached Europe.  Saltpeter forms naturally in smelly, rank, damp, and decomposing areas.  This describes all of Europe in 1300 and many public places in France today.  Saltpeter formed naturally in privies, stables, and tombs.  It was common in cesspools, old manure piles, and outhouses. 

In a cave near Moscow, where large numbers of soldiers had been dumped in piles, a rather macabre form of recycling was practiced.  The decomposition produced saltpeter, which was turned into gunpowder, which was then used to kill more soldiers, who presumably could be dumped in the cave.  Any day now, Putin will claim that Russia invented sustainability.

If none of these olfactory delights produced enough saltpeter, you could just cook it.  The recipe calls for human feces, urine from people who drank wine or beer (it was widely believed the best urine came from priests), horse shit, and a lot of lime.  This witches brew had to stored indoors out of the rain for about a year and the concoction had to be stirred once a week.  For every hundred pounds of this delightful sludge, you would eventually harvest half a pound of good saltpeter.  (For a Bomb, James Bomb, it is shaken not stirred.)

After the discovery of gunpowder, it took less than a single century for the Chinese to begin making fireworks.  Firecrackers and small bombs were made first, then small propellant charges were added to arrows.  Before long, stronger charges were self-propelled, the arrow was unnecessary.  After that, it was just a steady growth in size, range, and destructive power. 

As difficult as all of this is, it was remarkable that the use of gunpowder didn't die out.  Seems like peace would have been a lot less trouble and it had to smell better.  I understand the impulse--I like fireworks.  Humans glory in destruction.  We instinctively love fire, thunderstorms, loud noises and a good all-around mess.  Gunpowder gives us all of this at the same time.  But, maybe, it is past time to move beyond all this.

Let's just blame it all on the Chinese.  Or maybe bamboo.  It turns out that if you put a single segment of green bamboo in a hot fire, when the air enclosed suddenly escapes, it will produce a loud bang.   (The first firecracker was probably gunpowder stuffed into bamboo.)  By the thirteenth century, even before gunpowder, Chinese New Year was about as noisy as it is today.

Last year, we celebrated an American holiday with $227 million in Chinese fireworks.  Next year, why don't we just buy bamboo?