Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Dinner

Another Christmas has come and gone and it seems like I have gone full circle.  Four decades ago, my new wife and I traveled over half of Texas during the holidays, visiting relatives.  It was Thanksgiving in San Antonio followed with Christmas in Wichita Falls, one year, and the reverse the next year.  Holidays became synonymous with long-distance driving.

On one of those trips, I tried to outrun a southbound blizzard and got trapped in a little Mom and Pop motel on the outskirts of Stephenville after the Texas state troopers shut down Highway 281 for three days.  I had a tiny little room with frozen water pipes and woefully inadequate heat.  For three days I wore all of the clothes I had with me while lying covered-up in bed.  I could touch all four walls, adjust which of the two channels the television received, and lock the door, without leaving the tiny bed.   Eventually, the roads opened and I made it back to The Doc, my wife, who forty years later has still not forgiven me for having consumed (during my forced confinement) all of the Christmas cookies her grandmother had sent with me.

Evidently, The Doc believes that my starving to death in that frozen crypt would have been a better ending to the story.

Then, there were a few decades where we had small kids and didn't travel during the Holidays.  It was important for the kids to establish their own Christmas traditions--ones that did not involve spending all day in the backseats of cars and eating at truck stops.  It was a lot of fun to spend the holidays at home.  Sadly, those years passed unbelievably quickly. 

Now the boys--What's-His-Name and the The-Other-One--are married and have their own kids, who should stay at home on holidays, so, the now grandparents (once again) must take to the road.  I've come full circle and I'm back to eating lunch at truck stops.  I saw snow today and fully expected to be stuck in another tiny little motel, but this time, I was prepared:  I travel with my Kindle.

There is another Christmas tradition that I can't seem to escape:  Cranberry Jelly.  Why does this stuff exist?  And if--as some people claim--it tastes good, why do we only eat it at Christmas and Thanksgiving?  And why don't we jelly other fruits?  After all, you can't buy jellied grapefruit sauce--some pinkish block of quivering gelatinous mess that just lies on a plate, still shaped like the can it oozed out of.

At one point in my life, I think I actually enjoyed eating the stuff.  But that was before The Doc went to medical school.  That experience definitely changed my mind.  I can explain.

Medical school is expensive.  Damn, we were poor!  I had a job, but I think it paid only a hair more than her tuition.  We had an apartment and no children--and would have been all right financially if we hadn't had  the unfortunate habit of eating.  Eating was definitely a problem. 

My brother worked for Carnation and luckily he could give us a lot of samples.  We made a lot of soup out of Carnation Contadina canned tomatoes.  And, thankfully, Carnation had introduced something called Spreadables.  This was a version of tuna salad in a can.  Evidently, no one bought any, as my brother had lots of samples.  The Doc and I damn near lived on the stuff.

My brother also gave us a couple of cases of something called "Weiner Wraps".  This was dough in a can that you were supposed to wrap around a hot dog and bake.  I think my wife and I were the only people in the country who ever ate them.  Since we couldn't afford the hot dogs, we opened a lot of them and made pizzas topped with tomatoes and tuna salad.  Remember, hunger is the best sauce.

Thank goodness you can go hunting in Texas.  In season, we had some meat on the table.  (And a few times when it wasn't exactly in season: the deer can't read a calendar either.)  One hunting trip, all I brought back was a javelina.  Other than the back strap, javelina are not "good eating".  Just in case one of you ever happens to shoot one of the varmints, let me explain how to cook it:  Chop the meat into coarse cubes and place it in an earthenware pot with an equal amount of chopped onions.  Cover everything with cheap red wine and refrigerate for two days.  Then carefully pour off the wine, drink it, and throw the meat away.

The local grocery store had a cart in the back of the store where cans with no labels could be purchased for a dime each.  The other half of our diet came from that cart.  I usually would just wheel the whole cart to the checkout line and buy the whole shebang.  (What happened to that cart?  I haven't seen one in the store lately.  Do the labels not fall off anymore?  Did some heartless bastard invent better glue?)

Every evening, The Doc and I would select a likely can and--whatever was in there--we'd plan a meal around it.  You would be amazed at the things you can do with creamed corn!  (And I suspect that more than once I made meatloaf from a meat byproduct originally intended for the family pet.)   The Doc and I got pretty good at holding a can up to an ear and shaking it.

"I think it's Chef Boyardee.  Could be spaghetti sauce, but I think it's ravioli."

Then disaster struck.  We got to the Jellied Cranberry Sauce days.  There must have been a mistake at the factory and several cases of the stuff lost their labels.  We must have bought 50 of those consarned cans.  Damn near a never-ending supply of the goop!

We tried.  We really tried.  We cooked the stuff into rice.  We boiled it into pinto beans.  We tried cooking that purplish ooze every way we could think of.  And eventually, we just ended up shaking the can until the slop slid out onto a plate and we sliced it and ate it.

I thought about jellied cranberry sauce a lot this weekend.  There it was on my daughter-in-law's table for Christmas dinner.  And I was offered some.

"No thanks," I said.  "Pass the javelina."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The USS Intelligent Whale

Last semester, I taught a class on the Civil War and a separate course on the History of Naval Warfare.  In both classes, I included a short, mini-lecture (about 10 minutes) on the CSS Hunley.

For those of you who have never heard of it, the Hunley was the first submarine to actually sink another ship.  During the Civil War, the Union Navy blockaded southern ports—allowing neither imports nor exports—in order to economically starve the Confederate States.  The South, with few ships, few shipyards, and even fewer resources, was desperate to break the blockade.  This desperation led them to try extraordinary methods:  ironclads, torpedo vessels, and submarines.

On the night of February 17, 1864, the CSS Hunley cranked toward the 205-foot USS Housatonic, a sail and steam/screw-powered sloop.  I say "cranked" because the Hunley neither steamed nor sailed.  The Hunley was an iron tube 40 feet long, with 8 men inside, seven of whom turned a metal crank that powered the propeller.  (And the poor bastards had to do it in the dark.)  The Housatonic, on the Union side, was a handsome sloop, built to chase and battle blockade runners. 

Despite being seen by the lookouts on the Housatonic, the Hunley was successful in her attack, ramming the pointed spike of a spar torpedo into the side of the Union ship, then backing away (Reverse Crank!) until a pull on a long lanyard exploded the torpedo, sinking the Housatonic—the first ship in history to be sunk by a submarine. 

Unfortunately, the Hunley didn't fare much better.  While the exact cause may never be determined, the sub sank on her way back to the safety of Charleston harbor.  It may have been something as simple as a wave washing over the open conning tower hatch while her captain, Lieutenant Dixon, was trying to set a course to safety.

The Hunley lay on the bottom of the harbor until the novelist, Clive Cussler, led a team that discovered her in 1995.  Five years later, she was raised and is currently being restored at a museum in Charleston.  Nowadays, half the world has heard of her and everyone knows she was both the first submarine and the only submarine of the Civil War.  Except that she was neither.

Alexander the Great supposedly went underwater in a diving bell of sorts, but I'm not sure that counts as a "sub". 

In the 1620's, Cornelius Drebbel built a wood and leather submarine that could stay underwater for hours, that he successfully rowed across the Thames River.  Supposedly, he built several working models and they were so successfully tested that King James I went on a test ride.  Though they undoubtedly worked, no one could think of a practical use them.

During the American Revolution, David Bushnell tried to sink the British ship, HMS Eagle.  Bushnell's ship (which he named The Turtle) was just barely a submarine:  it looked like a barrel.  On a dark night, The Turtle attemptedand failedto attach a bomb to the bottom of the British ship.  The attempt marked the first time in history that a submarine was used offensively.  And while the sub's operator, Ezra Lee, survived—a good thing, so did the British warship—a bad thing. 

There were occasional experiments with submarines, mostly failures, until the American Civil War.  And suddenly, there were lots of experiments.  And while the CSS Hunley was the only sub that actually sank an enemy ship, both sides built and experimented with them.  Altogether, on both sides of the Civil War, there were roughly thirty submarines.  (And that’s not even counting a number of boats that were built so low in the water that a properly-thrown snowball might sink them).  I’m talking about true submarines.

My own favorite has to be the USS Intelligent Whale.  First off, how can you not like the name?  (Though the name does remind me of a certain colleague of mine.)  Second, while the Hunley and the Turtle were interesting, technically they were dead ends.  On the other hand, the Whale's descendants can be found today in the navies of every country in the world.

The Whale was built in New Jersey by the American Submarine Company, which was obviously a little ahead of its time.  One of the owners of this company was a man named Cornelius Bushnella relative of David Bushnell.  Besides being involved with the sub, Cornelius Bushnell was also one of men responsible for the design of the USS Monitorthe North's first ironclad vessel and the ship that spelled the end of wooden warships.

The sub was, indeed, somewhat whale-shaped, and could hold 13 menhalf of whom were needed to turn the crank that powered the ship.  And the sub could submerge or surface  by means of ballast tanks that could be flooded for diving or emptied with pumps and blasts of compressed air for surfacing.  The large whale shape held enough air for the men to stay underwater for up to ten hours.

This was a massive submarine.  A little over 28 feet long, 9 feet tall, and constructed with half-inch iron boiler plates.  For her time, she was fairly modern: She sported a compass, a depth gauge, an air pressure gauge and even one tiny little porthole in her stubby conning tower. 

The war was over before the ship could be used in combat, but the Navy continued to test her capabilities.  In general, the sub did prove deadly.  During one test in 1866, an army officer wearing a diving suit, exited through a wooden hatch in the Whale’s hull, planted a bomb on a target boat, and successfully reentered the Whale.  Then the ship moved a safe distance away, exploded the bomb by means of a lanyard, and sank the target boat.

Unfortunately, the Whale also proved equally deadly to the crews who used her.  The Whale sank three times, killing her entire crew each time.  Naval personnel started calling her the “Disastrous Jonah.”  Eventually, the Navy decided that the project was not worth pursuing, and put her in that same vast secret warehouse where they have stashed the Ark of the Covenant.  (Actually, she is on display at the Militia Museum of New Jersey—but—as far as I know—they may also have the Ark of the Covenant there, too.)

While the Intelligent Whale never did make its way into combat, the sub did inspire an Irish immigrant recuperating from a badly broken leg.  Confined to a bed during his recuperation, the immigrant began to design a new sub, roughly the same size and dimensions of the Whale, but with an oil-burning engine.  Eventually, his subs used electric motors to maneuver underwater and were capable of delivering self-propelled torpedoes.

After decades of experimentation, this immigrant—John Holland—designed and sold the first modern military submarines to the United States, Great Britain, and Japan.  While over the last century, his company has split into two divisions and has changed names a few times, today, the former Holland Company is known as General Dynamics (the people who made the F-16 fighter) and the Electric Boat Company (the people who have made America’s submarines for the last 100 years).

And the USS Intelligent Whale still sits in New Jersey, still waiting for a little recognition.  

Note. Today's historians—especially those in England—doubt the veracity of the story about Bushnell's Turtle.  The event does not appear in the log of the Eagle, the design of the Turtle would make it almost impossible to achieve neutral buoyancy, and the hand-crank propeller would have been useless against the strong river current.  Though the event may never have happened, Cornelius Bushnell certainly believed his ancestor had done it.  And his sub, the Intelligent Whale, definitely inspired John Holland. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Last Ride of Man

After he adjusted the cinch, he once again inspected the bit in the horse's mouth.  The horse had a soft mouth and since the new owner would pick up the horse for transport tomorrow, it wouldn't do to bruise the horse's mouth on the last ride.

"Easy Man," he said as he inspected the gentle bit.  Yes, the horse's name was Man.  Everybody has heard of the man called Horse, but...

He climbed onto the back of Man and settled into the saddle.  He had sold the saddle, too.  It was old and he had cared for it a long time.  While part of him hated to part with it after all the long hours he had spent working saddle soap and mink oil into the supple leather--it really made no sense to keep a saddle if you were selling your last horse.

He had thought briefly about painting the saddle turquoise and selling it to some damn fool art gallery in Santa Fe.  Just last summer his wife had dragged him kicking and screaming to the row of galleries on Canyon Road, where each was intensely proud that its multi-million dollar adobe building was still on a gravel road.  Evidently, everyone was trying to ignore the fact that the trendy galleries in the 'City Different' were less than a mile from the state capitol building.

In one of the galleries, he had seen--with his own eyes--an old Tony Lama boot painted purple, with a cactus growing out of the top.  (And they had wanted $500 for it!)    He figured there had to be some damn fool Californian that would pay twice as much for a whole saddle!

He let Man make his own way down the long dirt road they had ridden so many times before.  It was only at the entrance to the large pecan orchard where he reined the tall horse off the beaten path and into the orchard.  He had gotten permission from the farmer to cut across the huge pecan farm.  Since this was his last ride on his own horse, he had planned to make it special--something he had never done before.

It was cool under the endless rows of pecan trees.  To insure maximum efficiency during irrigation, the  ground was as flat as a schoolmarm's chest.  He had heard that the owners used lasers to level the land, but he wasn't sure he believed that.

He had, however, seen the farm workers use something incredible.  This farm had a machine that drove up to the tree and grabbed the trunk with a large mechanical hand.  Then a giant net wrapped around the tree forming a huge funnel under the tree's branches.  Last of all, the mechanical hand shook the Bejeezus out of the tree, causing a gazillion pecans to fall into the funnel.  Within seconds, the net folded back up, the hand released the trunk, and the machine was driven to the next tree. 

He had never asked what this machine was called--he was afraid that it might be something mundane like 'Shaker' or 'Pecan Picker'.  He preferred to call it the Bejeezus Machine.  And he lusted for one. He had looked for one at every farm machinery auction for years without luck.  He didn't own a single pecan tree, but he really wanted to drive the Bejeezus Machine into town and shake the peewiddling crap out of the damn parking meters that were springing up like weeds all over town.

When he told his wife his vision of flying quarters, she'd accused him of being childish.  Maybe so, but he knew Paul Newman would approve.  (Well, at least Cool Hand Luke would!)

There were no Bejeezus Machines present in the orchard today, but he did ride fairly close to the site of old Fort Fillmore.  He reined in his horse and watched a couple of squirrels chase each other under the trees.  However the ground had been leveled and there was nothing left of the old fort.  Looking around, he wondered if old General George Pickett (famous for a failed charge at the Battle of Gettysburg), would recognize anything if he were to come back to the old fort he had once commanded.  Not much recognizable remained, however: the only thing that hadn't changed was the view of the Organ Mountains.

During the Civil War, the fort had been burned.  Despite having more men and a fort, when 300 Texans had attacked from Texas, Major Lynde had led his 500 men out into the desert after destroying the forts stores.  Evidently, some of his men had decided the best way to destroy the forts medicinal whiskey was to run it through their own systems first, so the soldiers filled their canteens with whiskey and marched out into the desert under the hot summer sun.  Baylor Pass is named for the Confederate commander who had captured those parched soldiers when they finally surrendered, at the site where they surrendered.  As far as the rider knew, not a damn thing had been named after Major Lynde.

He let the horse continue his way west, eventually reaching the Old El Paso highway and the railroad tracks that led north.  He turned the horse northward and let the horse walk on the cleared ground between the railroad tracks and the highway.

Within a few minutes, he heard the distant sound the Santa Fe train coming up from El Paso.  Turning the horse, he carefully moved as far away as possible from both the highway and the tracks.  Dismounting, he took a firm hold of Mans reins as the train came closer, than rumbled by.

Man was about as calm and gentle a horse as he had ever owned.  (Personally, he thought the horse had a general and fairly constant air of total boredom.)  He knew the horse was perfectly calm riding near traffic, even ignoring the occasional car horns honkingbut a train was another matter.  He had no intention of being on a horse that panicked and ran out into the middle of a highway.  Or onto a railroad track.

Perhaps, just to show him that he was being foolish, Man turned to watch the train for a few seconds, then lowered his head and began munching on the grass that grew along the fence line.  This calm disposition was why the new owner had wanted to buy the horse: he intended to use him to play polo in El Paso. 

The rider had never played cow pasture pool, and had no idea what made a good polo pony, but he personally doubted that Man would make a suitable mount.  However, that was the next owner's problem, not his.

Slowly, he was approaching the small village of Mesilla.  While the traffic increased slightly, it was not exactly what you would call busy.  It was midday, and the small town had attracted the usual tourists, who mixed with the few locals going about their business.

The tiny village had been founded after the Mexican American War, when Mexico had ceded most of the southwest to the United States.  Mexican citizens, not happy with suddenly becoming Americans, had crossed the Rio Grande and founded a new town in Mexico.   Mexico appreciated the patriotic gesture so much that seven years later, they had sold a parcel of land, the Gadsden Purchase, comprising the bottom strip of present day Arizona and New Mexico, to the United States.  So the citizens of Mesilla suddenly found themselves American citizens, again.

He guided the horse around the old plaza, and just for the fun of it, rode around all four sides of the plaza, before coming back to the El Patio bar.  By now, he was aware that the tourists gathered in the plaza were delighted to see someone on horseback.  He stopped Man in front of the hitching rail located at the bar and dismounted and tied the horse securely.  This hitching rail, his intended destination, was not only the only one left in the plaza, but as far as he knew, the only one left in New Mexico.  He was pretty sure there had to be another one somewhere, but he didn't know where it was.

He sat at a table near the window in the bar and ordered a beer and a burger.  And while he ate, he kept an eye on his horse, and thought about the plaza.  Right out there, they had signed the agreement for the Gadsden Purchase.  The plaza had seen the likes of Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and John Wesley Hardin.  Now, it was crowded with tourists buying genuine Wild West souvenirs from China. 

The Butterfield Stage and the Pony Express used to stop here.  The building at the corner had been the Confederate Capitol of Arizona--at least until the Union retook Mesilla.  Today, tour buses brought tourists to experience a little piece of the real West, each of them looking for John Wayne. 

Half the town depended on the tourist income and the other half were from California and had built "casitas" in trendy southwestern style.  Mesilla was one of those towns in which there were more houses and fewer people every year.  The town survived by selling a little of itself every day. 

He paid for his food and as he left the bar, there was a scattering of small kids admiring his horse.  Smiling at the kids, he untied his horse and swung up into the saddle.  As he did, he was acutely aware of having his picture taken.  It was time to head home and end the last ride.

"Excuse me," one of the tourists asked.  "Do you ride your horse into town often?"

He stared at the tourist for a long second as he thought about his answer.

"Every damn day, pilgrim."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Old Gringo

A few years ago, I went to school in Zacatecas, Mexico.  This is a beautiful old mining town nestled high in the mountains of Central Mexico.  I had been there several times before, but this was the first time I had been there for weeks at a time.  I loved it.

The silver mine was actually deep under the city and produced staggering amounts of silver ore from the seventeenth century to just a few decades ago.  The town shut down the mine, in part, because they were tired of the blasting rocking the buildings' foundations.  It must have been like living in a permanent earthquake zone.  (Oh, wait!--that was even before the mine opened.)

Today, the town still specializes in a lot of silver jewelry.  The mine, however, has turned into a nightclub.  You can ride down the mine shaft in old ore cars to a dance floor, deep below the center of town, where you can literally rock through the night.

I have to admit, the night club was never my thing:  places where you can still hear the music from last week reverberating should be avoided.  On the other hand, I love Zacatecas.  I love the old world charm of the town, the way the streets randomly intersect, the great food, and the French architecture.

It surprises the first-time tourist how much the town resembles parts of Paris.  Before the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1918 overturned the cultural identity of Mexico, the country copied the art and architecture of France.  The wealthy elite spoke French, guzzled champagne, and ate in the best French restaurants.  When the revolution started, President Porfirio Díaz fled to spend his final days in Paris.  Mexico more or less rejected almost everything European--but kept its belle époque buildings.  (Well, artillery in the war did rearrange the architecture of a few of them, but you get the general idea.)

The layout of the city is atypical of Mexico.  Most towns in Mexico follow a strict pattern.  During the Spanish Colonial period, the King found it rather hard to rule colonies three thousand miles away, so he set up a special group--the Council of the Indies--to set laws for the administration of the colonies.  The council was full of experts (that means they were mostly lawyers who had never been to the New World).

The council's rules included the layout of the town, the width of the streets, and the strict position of the church on the town plaza.  This is why the center of town looks pretty much the same whether you are in Tegucigalpa, Chihuahua, or Santa Fe.  Zacatecas, however, is different.

The discovery of silver ore produced a rush to the town.  Long before Spain knew of the discovery, the town was already established.  And it is a mess:  twisty streets that turn a corner and turn into stairs.  Alleys that turn into avenues that turn into alleys again.  And every street goes up and down hills like a roller coaster.  It's beautiful!  Zacatecas is my favorite town in Mexico.

In 1913, Ambrose Bierce decided that he wanted to travel and visit the Civil War battlefields where he had once fought.  So, naturally, he went to El Paso, Texas, and crossed the border to Ciudad Juárez, where he joined the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa.  If you have ever read anything of Bierce, you know this makes perfect sense.  (Nor is it very surprising that Bierce simply vanished, never to be seen again.)

Or maybe not?  No one is really sure that Bierce went to Mexico or if he really joined Villa's army.  But, unless he shows up tomorrow, we are pretty sure that he vanished--it is one of the great romantic mysteries of the Twentieth Century.

Years ago, Hollywood decided to make a movie about the whole affair, called The Old Gringo.  Gregory Peck played the part of Ambrose Bierce and for reasons that only make sense to Hollywood, they added Jane Fonda to play...Jane Fonda.  (Or whatever she was doing in the movie, I was only paying attention to the scenery!).  A lot of the movie was filmed in Zacatecas, in places I knew perfectly.

Every day after class, I used to go sit at a sidewalk cafe, where an imitation French waiter would bring me an Indio beer and a crystal bowl of peanuts, while I read a newspaper or simply watched the people on the street.  Every day, I was conscious that I was sitting in exactly the same place, at the same table, in the same restaurant where Gregory Peck sat in the movie.

And every day, I had the same thought:

"Hell.  I am the Old Gringo."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog

It was a nice study, with just enough bookcases to seem full, but just enough space for a large comfortable leather chair where one might sit next to the excellent reading lamp and enjoy a favorite book for the umpteenth time.

That was exactly what the man in chair was doing:  once again reading Three Men In a Boat.  This was as it should the man you should know: that Jerome K. Jeromes masterpiece is the single best repository of knowledge concerning the human condition.  The man was just getting to the part where the three men had discovered that they had forgotten a can opener when his son came into the room.

“Dad,” the boy said.  “What does it cost to get married?”

The man did not look up from his book--he was at one of his favorite passages, where the men tried to use a knife to open a can of pineapple. 

I don’t know,” he answered.  “Im still paying.”

“Cmon Dad!  Im serious.”

Regretfully, the man carefully put down his book.  He really didnt need a bookmark to find his place because the book was a well-read gift from his wife.   It was the Bristol edition and was in good shape for something 125 years old. 

The man looked at his son and he could tell by his sons face that he was indeed, serious.  “Ahh, the teenage years,” the man thought.  “One existential crisis after another.  Why are we here?  What is the meaning of life?  I havent been able to answer a single question since he asked me to explain the designated hitter rule.”

“Are you thinking of getting married?” the man asked.

“No, I was just thinking.  What does it cost?”

Well,” the man answered.  “Depending on how you do it, it can be very expensive or quite cheap.  I think your mother and I spent about $300 on ours.  We got married in my parentsliving room.  And Ive been to weddings that cost over a hundred times as much.  Either way, you are just as married.  Its sort of like being on an escalator: no matter how fast or slow you walk, you end up in the same place.”

“The whole purpose of the ceremony is a public profession of marriage.   The two of you are professing your love and making a public commitment to the marriage.  You invite friends and family to be witnesses and to ask their assistance in helping you keep the marriage.  Does any of this make any sense?”

“I think so,” the boy said.

“But let me answer the question I think you are really asking,” continued the man.  “A lot of people seem to believe if you marry the girl you love, you will never have any problems.  What nonsense!  I remember when your mother and I were dating, there was this silly movie called ‘Love Story.’  There was a line in the movie that everyone repeated for years:  ‘Love means never having to say youre sorry.’  Which is horseshit!  Love means constantly saying youre sorry, and meaning it.”

“Mom says you were thrown out of that movie.”

“Well, yes I was.  I couldn’t stop laughing.  But, I thought it was a comedy.  I still do.”

“Mom says that you take everything and twist it to your advantage.”

“Thats her way of complimenting me.  Forget the movie.  Marriage doesnt mean you are not going to have problems.  Every couple does.  Some of the problems are huge, and you will have new ones your whole life.  Marriage is a public commitment that the two of you will work through the problems.  That you commit to finding solutions, together, your whole life.”

“You want to know what a marriage cost?  You will spend a lifetime making payments together.  Marriage is always making sure that your partners needs come first.  Marriage is understanding that everything is your job.  Marriage is holding her hair when she is sick.  Marriage is trying to make sure she eats the last piece of pizza even when she insists that it is yours.“

“You dont make marriage sound like it is worth the trouble.”

“Ive always thought it was.  It is only through living with your mother that I have really become happy.  Take this book, Three Men in a Boat—“

I don’t want to read it.  I tried it and its boring,” the boy interrupted.

“When you are older, and not young enough to know everything, you may change your mind.  No--I just wanted to point out that Jerome wrote this book immediately after he returned from a honeymoon that he spent with his wife boating on the Thames River.  He had spent his whole life on the river, but only understood it after his marriage.“

The man thought he hadn't done a very good job answering the boy’s question.  I don’t think he really understands yet, but he has still has lots of time,” he thought to himself.  “We can talk about this again when he is older.  He will understand long before he is ready to marry.   There was still lots of time.”
“Does that answer your question?” the man said out loud.  He was already opening his book back up again.

“Oh, I didn’t really have a question,” the boy said as he turned to leave the room.  “But I think you need to talk to my sister.”

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Goose of Thanksgiving Past

I had a half dozen semi-historical blog ideas for this week, I even had one blood-thirsty Western story about yet another beheading, but—much like my students—I'm a little tired of history right now.  It is the end of the semester, and my students' brains are full.  If I were to reveal the location of the Lost Dutchman's mine or a cure for cancer....well, I'm not sure anyone would listen.

Today was the last day of class until the week after the Thanksgiving break.  The school doesn't call it that, of course:  Enema U refers to it as "The Fall Break."  This clever ruse completely fools whichever group might be offended by using the traditional name.   No, for the last few days, just about all anyone could think of was the impending break, so I thought I might join them and write about my first Thanksgiving with The Doc, my wife.

Now that I think about it, she wasn't actually 'The Doc' yet.  I guess I'll have to call her "Pre-Med."

In any case, we were going to the University of Houston and had a large apartment in a run-down section of town between the Hughes Tool Company and the Maxwell House Coffee plant.  We could hear one and smell the other all night long.  We didn't really mind either of the two industrial plants except for one small detail.  Once a month in the middle of the night, the coffee plant would switch over from producing coffee to producing hot chocolate mix.  The entire neighborhood would wake up at the same time with an irresistible urge for a candy bar.

Our apartment was a fourth of an old large home that had seen better days.  Half a century earlier, this had been a great neighborhood, but while we lived there our neighbor had a sign out front that claimed she could read palms and predict the future.  She must not have been very good at it since she seemed quite surprised when the police arrested her one day for selling stolen goods from her semi-permanent garage sale.

While our apartment was old, it did have wonderful hard wood floors.  Pre-Med and I used to get down on our hands and knees to apply the thick Johnson's Paste Wax.  It took forever, but it gave a great shine.  I can admit that part of the attraction was that by the time the floor was polished, our cats' paws would end up being a solid block of floor wax.  It was hilarious to watch the cats spinning out of control as they tried to run through the house.

That year, we decided to cook a goose for Thanksgiving.  Neither of us knew how to do this, but we figured it couldn't have been that hard.  If Charles Dickens could do it in damn near every one of his books, we figured we could do it.

Looking back, we should NOT have tried!  Evidently, a ten-pound goose contains enough goose fat to produce ten gallons of goose oil.  I had mistakenly placed the goose in a turkey roasting pan, ignorant of the fact that the proper size metal container for cooking a goose was the Exxon Valdez.  Cooking a goose is something that should be avoided like unprotected sex with an Ethiopian transvestite.

During cooking, hot goose grease poured over the side of the roasting pan destroying everything that it touched.  It was kind of like hot molten lava, except it smelled great.  It pretty well killed that oven and several plastic floor tiles.

Sadly, Pre-Med and I decided that we weren't great fans of goose.  We ate it, but....well, it was a little greasy.  Most of it went into the refrigerator for endless rounds of leftovers.  The only fun part of the meal was that we split a bottle of Mateus Rosé wine.  Remember Mateus and Lancer's wine?  These were the wines of the 1970's.  I haven't seen a bottle in 40 years.  (Perhaps this is because Saddam Hussein was hooked on the stuff and had stockpiled warehouses of the stuff in Iraq.  There is a persistent rumor that when the soldiers found him hiding in his spider hole, he was clutching a bottle of Mateus.)

The next day, Pre-Med dragged me screaming and crying to the local church for a concert of holiday music.  I do not like church music.  It was just barely passable before my wife informed me that I had all of the titles and most of words wrong.  The hymn was much more fun when I thought the title was "Our Lord is a Shoving Leopard."  Now, the only possible enjoyment is waiting for the part of Handel's Messiah where the whole choir sings, "Oh, We Like Sheep!"  My wife always elbows me in the ribs every time I go "Baaa!  Baaa!"

After a couple of eons, the concert was over and we returned home.  To a disaster!  While we were gone, our cats had figured out how to liberate the goose remains from the kitchen refrigerator.  Evidently, (despite their lack of opposable thumbs) they had enough dexterity in their little, waxed paws to open the fridge, to remove the saran wrap, and to pull out the goose—but NOT to be able to hold the carcass still long enough to actually eat the bird.

So, they had played soccer with it all over the house.  The floor of the entire house was a greasy, nasty, goosey mess.  We just stood in the doorway and cried like Baptists at a funeral.

You don't really clean up goose fat—you just keep wiping until you have evenly applied it in a thin layer all over the floors.  And then, you just keep buffing it until it shines.

Surprisingly, it didn't smell, and the brilliant shine was far better than anything we had ever achieved with Johnson's Paste Wax.  It lasted a lot longer, too!

If you have any wood floors, you really should try it.  Cook a small goose in a large metal barrel, then screw a broomstick into the backside of the bird and use it to mop your floors.  You'll be pleased with the results!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flag Daze

Last week, in a joking way, I mentioned the issue of flag desecration, more commonly called flag burning.  The last time I wrote something that evoked as much hate mail, I had written about religion.  At least this time, I didn't get any death threats from either Saudi Arabia or Arkansas.  Yet.

Since so many people have angrily asked me to explain my position on flag burning, let me tell you a short story.

It was a beautiful October day in Washington D.C.  While at that time of the year in D.C., you can tell that cold weather is coming toward the end of the month, early in the month, it's glorious, with temperatures usually in the mid-70s.
The young man walked half way up the steps in front of the Supreme Court, stopped and pulled a small bundle from the pocket of his windbreaker.  Shaking the bundle up and down, it quickly unfolded to reveal that it was an American flag.  From the same pocket, he produced a disposable cigarette lighter and used it to ignite one corner of the flag.

From about twenty feet away, a second young man noticed the burning flag and rushed over and tried to pull the flag away from the first young man.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” screamed the second young man.  “You cant burn the American flag.”

 “Leave me alone!” screamed the first young man.  “I have a right to protest.”

A third young man, a hundred feet away, had witnessed this exchange, and ran over.  He grabbed the arm of the second young man and tried to pull him off the young man with the burning flag.

“Leave him alone,” said the third young man.  “Hes not doing anything wrong.  He has a right to burn the flag if he wants to.”

We can stop our story right there.  Think about each of the three men: Is any of them right? 

The first young man is desecrating a flag that is dear to the hearts of most Americans.  Personally, I find this disturbing, but the man has an absolute right of free speech.  If burning a countrys flag is not political speech, then I have no idea what it is.  You will forgive me if I hope the young man burns a few fingers while he does this, but he has the right to voice his opinions.

The second young man--no matter how pure his motives--is not defending the United States of America.  Sadly, he is doing just the opposite.  One of the many things that flag symbolizes is the right of everyone to indulge in free speech, no matter how distasteful the rest of us find it.  The First Amendment is unnecessary for the protection of "popular" speech--anyone can go to any capital city of any totalitarian state in the world and praise the current leader.   But only in countries that honor the right of all men to speak any belief freely can someone publicly denounce the leader of the country.

Free speech is not easy--in fact, it is often painful.  And it is easy to understand the desire to moderate this right with talk about "honor" or about "the public good".  Surely hate speech is wrong?  For the good of the public, can we not put sensible limits on academic freedom?  Can we not at least ban the denial of the Holocaust?--as so many European countries have done?

No!--We cannot do this!  The only way to ensure free speech is to have no limits--for who knows who is to decide what those limits are to be?  If you can ban my opinion today, cannot someone else ban yours tomorrow? 

The third young man--the one trying to allow the first man to burn the flag--is the only one of the three who is upholding the Bill of Rights.  He is the only one seeking to protect someones right to voice an "unpopular" opinion and he is the only one who is seeking to honor the flag—even as it burns—by not destroying the ideals that it stands for.

Unfortunately, while you and I understand this, it seems that our own Supreme Court no longer does. 

Directly in front of the building housing the Supreme Court, there is a large, flat, beautiful plaza.  There are fountains, benches, and wide open spaces on this black marble plaza and it  is exactly the kind of place where you could sit and discuss constitutional issues--BUT YOU CAN'T.

It is NOT a free speech zone.  (The Supreme Court says so.)

You can carry signs on the sidewalk  (free speech is allowed there), but not on the plaza.  Guards at the Supreme Court will not allow signs on the plaza and T-shirts with political messages are not allowed.  At times, people have even been asked to remove small campaign buttons.

In a "supreme" act of irony, a young man wearing a T-shirt imprinted with the First Amendment was asked to leave the plaza. 

The idea seems to be that while the judges know that a protest would not sway their votes on various cases, they are afraid that some people will not understand this and believe their decisions might appear to have been swayed.  I'm not sure how the geographic location of a protest is supposed to raise or lower the perceived merits of a protest, but I will admit that I am not one of our nation’s top legal minds.

Therefore, there is a 1949 ordinance on the books that prohibits free speech on the plaza.  Recently, a young man challenged this law in court and the judge (who did understand the First Amendment) ruled in his favor, setting aside the 1949 statute.  The Supreme Court sent a lawyer to argue in its behalf at the trial, and when the judge ruled in favor of the young man, the Supremes appealed the case to yet a higher court.

Presumably, the case may eventually be argued in front of the Supreme Court.  Gee, I wonder how the Court will decide.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Politics on the Brazos

Texas Congressmen Bob and Ted were discouraged by the recent election.  While both were reelected, they had won their districts by only the slimmest of margins.  Equally bad, the exit polls were horrible and plainly, the voters were disenchanted with politicians in general, and believed that Washington was out of touch. 

"I know what we can do," said Congressman Bob.  "We need to reconnect with the peopleshow them that we are one of them, that we understand them."

"How do we do that?" asked Congressman Ted.  "We don't know any of those people.  Hell, do we even know anybody who knows those people?"

"That's why we have aides," Congressman Bob said.  "Little people know lots of other little people."

Two weeks later, both politicians walked into a bar in Santo, Texas.  Both men were wearing freshly pressed new Levi's, shirts with more shiny buttons than an Italian sports car, and freshly polished boots with the jeans cuffs tucked in.  Congressman Bob was leading a large dog on a leash.

The bar became quiet as everyone in the bar stopped and turned to look at the two politicians.

"Howdy!  Bob and I just wanted to stop and see what is going on along the Brazos River.  And I'm buying the first round of beers."

Few things will make you friends faster in a bar than a fat wallet, and in only a few minutes, there were abundant smiles as the two politicians made their way around the bar, shaking hands and slapping backs.

Over in the far corner, the two old cowboys were finishing off a couple of plates of catfish and tater tots.  After gratefully accepting the beers, they continued their meal and kept a wary eye on the two politicians as they worked their way around the room.

"Did you vote for either of those two polecats?" asked Kent. 

"Yes, but I wish you hadn't reminded me.  I'm eating," Mike answered.  "Pass the Tabasco sauce.  The one with the dog is our congressman, the other one represents Arlington, I think."

Kent handed the familiar bottle to the other cowboy and watched as Mike liberally spiced up his tater tots.  "Most people use ketchup for that," he said.

Mike put the lid back on the bottle and replied, "This is ketchup.  Texas Ketchup.  And I didn't say anything to you when you drowned that poor fish in vinegar."

"Had to use vinegar--the lemons here are as dry as the Panhandle in June.  What do you suppose these two idiots want?  I don't trust people that smile that much."

Mike looked over at the two politicians.  "Aw, they're just probably trying to prove they understand our problems.  I wonder who ironed and starched those jeans," he said.

Kent glanced at the two men and then said, "I wonder where they rented the dog."

Mike set his fork down on the edge of his almost empty plate and leaned back in his booth.  "Do you remember that county commissioner we used to have?  Rawther or Ransome?  Every four years, he'd drive around in this old ratty station wagon and shake hands.  I guess he didn't think we were smart enough to remember that in between elections he drove a new Mercedes.  I wonder whose barn he kept that wagon in when he wasn't campaigning."

Kent finished a long pull at his beer and answered, "Oh, he didn't keep that in a barn.  No, that was his mother's car.  The one without the dog--isnt that the guy who told us about two elections back that the biggest problem facing America was flag burning?"

 Yeah, thats him, Mike said.  He convinced me, too.  I think every flag in the nation should have a built-in incendiary device so that the flag automatically catches fire when a politician is wrapped up in it.

Laughing, Kent answered, And they both claim they have brought jobs to Texas.  How two men who have never had a real job between them can believe they have created any jobs is beyond me.

About then the two politicians made their way to the two cowboys table.  Bob and Ted immediately shook hands with both of the two cowboys and started in telling them just how much they had had done for this area, how much they had done for ranching...and all the while the two old cowboys were wondering just how polite they had to be in exchange for two free beers.

Ted was just in the middle of expanding on his plans for the great things he and his party were going to do in the future when the front door of the bar opened and a man walked in, stopped and looked around the room until he spotted the two men.  He promptly walked over, squatted behind the dog and lifted its tail.  Staring intently at the south end of a north facing dog, the man grunted, lowered the tail and walked off.

Bob interrupted Ted.  "What in tarnation was that man doing?  That's the third time tonight some fool has walked over and without so much as a hello, has lifted the tail of that poor dog, stared at its butt for a while, then stomped off.   What the hell is going on?  Is this some kind of a joke?"

Mike looked at Kent, who simply shrugged and shook his head.  Mike shifted slightly in his seat to look directly at Congressman Bob.

"Well, Congressman, it's like this.  Santo is a small place and you two have been in here for at least half an hour.  By now, the word is probably out all over town."

"I can understand them wanting to meet us," said the Congressman.  "But why are they bothering the dog?"

Mike looked at Kent and said, "Your turn."

Kent appeared distinctly uncomfortable but looked up from the booth at the Congressmen and said, "No.  I don't think you understand.  They've heard there was a dog in here with two assholes and they just wanted to check for themselves."