Saturday, March 29, 2014

SS Typhoid

Cruise ship companies are taking it on the chin these days.  Either the ship runs aground, it catches fire, or the entire vessel turns into some form of weird science experiment where half the passengers are stuck in the head while the other half are hanging over the railing.  I don't remember a single episode of the The Love Boat where the ship turned into the SS Barfetorium, so this must be a recent improvement in tourist accommodations.

Frankly, I don't understand the desire to go on cruises.  By the second day, you are so bored that you either spend all your time at the all-you-swill buffet, or go shopping in a miniature version of Wal-Mart.   Sure, there is entertainment, but do you really want to trust a week of your life to the same kind of people who thought up daytime television shows?

Ted, a cousin of mine (Actually, he's my brother's brother-in-law, but I'm from the south and any relation--no matter how distant--rates at least the status of cousin.), just booked one of those nightmare cruises.  They were supposed to leave from Texas City for a week-long cruise along the Mexican Coast.  Instead, after they boarded, a barge collision in the ship channel recreated a scale model of the Exxon Valdez disaster:  it dumped enough oil in the bay that ships were neither allowed into nor out of port until the mess was cleaned up.

Ted and his wife spent the next four days stuck on a ship-to-quite-literally-nowhere.  No destination ports, no outdoor activities due to the cold weather, and no beautiful scenery.  As a matter of fact, Ted could go out onto his luxurious private balcony and have a majestic view of his parked pickup (a pickup that the ship would not let him visit, since the captain wouldn't let anyone depart the ship).  Ted had been shanghaied.  

Taking a ship out of Texas City is not exactly what I would call a lucky omen.   In 1947, the SS Grandcamp loaded with 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded.  When the Grandcamp exploded, it took out the nearby SS High Flyer, similarly loaded.  When these two ships detonated, it was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history at that time.  The Grandcamp's anchor was blown over a mile and a half away.  Taking a cruise ship from this location is the karmic equivalent of taking sail on a ship named after the Titanic.

On the fourth day, fearing a giant mutiny, the captain relented and ordered the press gang to allow the prisoners to escape.  Given a full refund, Ted and his wife fled to their truck.  They also got a coupon good for 25% off their next cruise on the SS No Damn Way.  I get the general impression that Ted is a little less than impressed with the Royal Norwegian Princess Line.

Cruise ship lines have had nothing but bad luck lately.  The Russian liner Lyubov Orlova broke free as it was being towed across the Atlantic to be scrapped.  For roughly a year, it wandered aimlessly, crewed by a horde of diseased cannibalistic rats.  I say roughly because no one knows what has happened to the ghost ship.  Popular theories are that it either sank in February or that it is being blown ever closer to Ireland.  Personally, I think it is on its way to Texas City.  It should be ready in time for Ted's next cruise.

All of this bad press has given me an idea.  Since it is getting harder and harder for the cruise lines to fill their ships, it shouldn't be too expensive to acquire one for use as a great floating location for a reality television show.  Sort of a Survivor meets Love Boat meets Gilligan's Island.  This will definitely be a winner-takes-all show.  And since times are so tough, each season can easily start with a new ship.

This is not a stupid idea when you compare it with all the other reality shows.  I would much rather watch the passengers of a doomed ship fight to survive a germ-infested salad bar than an episode of Amish Mafia.  (Originally, the show was going to be about Baptist Scientists, but focus groups didn't find that believable enough.)

There is almost an endless supply of challenges for the cast.  Can you still fit into your life preserver after two weeks at the buffet?  Will you succumb to the mysterious stomach flu that seems to be coming from the ship's water?  How many newlywed husbands will throw their spouses overboard for the insurance?  Can you escape the man-eating rats before the hepatitis you picked up on the last excursion sets in?

Then, at the season finale, we let Captain Schettino (of Costa Concordia fame) run the ship up onto the rocks while the cast scrambles for an inadequate number of lifeboats.  Survivors who can't find room in the lifeboats are forced to swim for shore past specially imported Australian tiger sharks.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Die Fledermaus-Fiasko

New Mexico has always been the home of the unconventional--that's a nice way of saying weird.  Think of Billy the Kid, the atomic bomb, or ex-Governor Bill Richardson.  Perhaps the truth is that this is the state where you can stage outrageous experiments and no one will notice.

On December 7, 1941, while the Japanese were busy bombing Pearl Harbor, Dr. Lyle Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist was on vacation in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  While he came for the caves, he was fascinated by the bats.  There are, in fact, four large caves in New Mexico, each with over a million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats.  

The combination of the Japanese bombing and the incredible number of bats gave the good dentist a great idea:  Could the bats be used to deliver tiny little incendiary devices?  Could thousands of these little guided missiles be dropped over the cities of Japan in such a way that the bats would disperse and seek refuge under the eaves and rooftops of a city known to be filled with homes constructed from paper and bamboo?

For most people, the idea would have died before the inventor had had his next beer, but Dr. Adams was a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady.  When the idea was presented to the president, it was approved, and within a year was being tested on one of the hastily constructed airfields that sprang up like tumbleweeds across the sparse New Mexican deserts.  This particular air base was close to Carlsbad, where there was an abundance of bats.

Louis Fieser, the man who had just developed napalm for the military, designed tiny one-ounce incendiary bombs with timers, that could be carried by the bats.  To make the bats easier to transport, it was decided to chill the bats (forcing them into hibernation), place them in containers, and then drop them over targets at night.  Bats are nocturnal, so they would fly around seeking shelter before morning.  Shortly after dawn, the timers would set off the bombs, allowing the tiny bats to die for their country, while igniting fires all over the targeted Japanese city.

Well, that was the plan.  There were a few problems in the development, however.  Getting the bats to exit the cage was a problem.  If the bat exits too soon, it could be exhausted before it found a proper spot to roost.  Very little is accomplished if it simply rains bats over enemy cities.  And if the bat leaves too late....well, you probably understand that problem.

Eventually, all the problems were actually ironed out.  A little over two dozen trays, each containing 40 bats, could be packed inside a container shaped like a traditional bomb.  The bat bomb would be dropped at 5,000 feet, where the trays would separate and fall freely.  A parachute would deploy at 1,000 feet which would eject the individual bats out of the tray.  If ten B-24 bombers were armed with such devices, over a million "bat bombs" would descend on an enemy city.

Of course, before this new super weapon could be deployed, it had to be tested.  On May 15, 1943 a partially filled bat bomb was dropped over a test facility in the New Mexico desert.  To be fair, it was an accidental testing--they didn't mean to actually drop the armed bomb.  But, the bat bombs did work!  Among other things, the bats destroyed a hangar, a fuel truck, a general's car, and a couple of barracks!  (This raging success was accomplished with only six bats!)

Immediately, the project was transferred to the U.S. Navy, who gave it the code name Project X-Ray and turned it over to the Marine Corps for further testing.  When the Marines tested the device over a mock-up of a Japanese city in Utah, the weapon proved devastatingly effective.  It was calculated that using conventional incendiary devices, a fully loaded B-24 might produce as many as 400 fires.  The same plane loaded with patriotic pyromaniac bats could produce 4000 fires.

The bats never made it into actual combat.   After several years of testing and an investment of several million dollars, Admiral King cancelled the project when he learned that the device wouldn't be ready for use until the middle of 1945.  Simply put, the batty project was abandoned in favor of the atomic bomb.

So, in the end, America's first "smart-bomb" was never used in combat.  Neither was our anti-tank dog--but that is a story for another time.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Politicians Out of Control

Politicians have been in the news again for acting like drug-crazed fools.  No, actually, they weren't acting.

In recent months we have had the arrest of another congressman who, while eager to control your life, has no idea how to control his own.  If you are a conservative congressman from Florida, some might think it foolish of you to risk your career by messing with cocaine.  Being arrested in possession might even sound like risky behavior to some.  If your district is conservative enough to elect you, they probably won't understand when you are accused of using cocaine in the capitol building.

On the other hand, some might say that the worst criminal penalty you can get is only 180 days in jail.  That's not too bad considering you've already been sentenced to two years in Congress. ex-cons have more social respect than congressmen.  As it turned out, this particular hypocrite only got probation.

And we have a Canadian mayor who seems to have either snorted or eaten a drug mule.  All things considered, I sort of like this mayor.  It is enjoyable to watch the antics of a drug-sotted plutocrat while remaining smugly confident it is not your country going to Hell.  This is probably the same feeling that Canadians have enjoyed ever since Watergate. 

God knows, in my youth, I may have inhaled once or twice and at times, I may have consumed more alcoholic beverages than were prudent.  But, I have never run for political office on a family values plank or called for stiffer penalties for drug use, all the while having my local dealer's cell number on my speed dial. 

One of the nice things about alcohol is that--unless you are the pope--you can stand on your front porch with a martini in your left hand while using your right hand to shoot the finger at photographers and not much will happen.  (Hell, you can probably do it bare beam and buck naked and get away with it.)

However, if you are the mayor of Toronto, or the conservative congressman from Florida, you will not get away with cocaine.  There was a bargain you made when you decided to run for an elected position:  For as long as you hold public office, you have to show the self-restraint we expect from anyone over the age of nine.  Honestly, we can't put the expectations any lower. 

If you cannot refrain from using a drug that will absolutely ruin your career, end your marriage, and may possibly have you sharing a cell with several large, angry men who, most assuredly, did not vote for you, then it is time for you to voluntarily check in to one of  those happy homes for the criminally stupid, where you can beg for treatment.  If all else fails, ask for treatment that employs a cattle prod and a flaming bull whip--whatever the Hell it takes for you to kick the habit.  Scream at the staff daily, "For God sakes, stop me before I dumb ass again!"

Sure it will be expensive--even the drive-up window at such posh places like the Betty Ford Self-Abuse Resort and Gift Shop will cost a fortune--but compare this cost with your eventual legal bills and then throw in the cost of the divorce, including the inevitability that your ex-wife will get the house, your savings, and half your pension.   (To say nothing of the embarrassment you will suffer when your former spouse gets a seven figure book contract for a bestseller that will leave you sounding like the pervert who was arrested while sniffing bicycle seats at the local elementary school!)

Barring that, would you please go live in Canada?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Invasion By Streetcar

This has been an interesting week to teach military history.  By a cruel ironic twist, this was the week when I lectured about the events leading up to the Second World War.  If you had replaced all the references to Austria and Hitler with Crimea and Putin, the lecture would have still made sense. 

There were two lines in the lecture that were prophetically eerie.  Which one of the following sentences from my lecture notes bother you the most?  "For a decade, there were countries willing to use force to upset the status quo, but there were no countries willing to use force to preserve it."   Or, "The definition of peace is not the absence of fighting, it is the presence of justice."

All of this got me to thinking about the times throughout history when one country has invaded a neighbor.  My favorite is not exactly a significant chapter in the annals of military history.

Back in 1912, the Mexican Revolution was roaring along the Texas/Mexico border.  President Porfirio Diaz had just fled the country and was taking up residence in Paris.  The new President, Francisco Madero, had forced Diaz out by, in part, seizing the border town of Juárez.  Bandits and rustlers--or the victorious army (depending on who was temporarily in power)--were crawling back and forth across the border.  A few herds of cattle were stolen, sold, and resold so many times, it would have been easier to put the livestock on wheels.

Needless to say, both sides of the border had stationed their armies on the border in a futile attempt to keep the peace.  In El Paso, one young lieutenant brought both countries to the brink of war.

Lt. Ben W. Fields had only been at Fort Bliss for three days when he was ordered to take a detachment of 19 soldiers down to one of the two bridges across the Rio Grande that linked Mexico and the US.  After studying a map for a while, he found that he could take his detail to the bridge by using the local street car.

There are two things that need to be explained here.  First, there is nothing in the world more dangerous than a Lieutenant with a map.  Second, El Paso and Juárez shared a streetcar line.  The train went from El Paso across the south bridge into Juárez, looped around the Mexican town, then crossed back into the US by the north bridge.  If you look in the bottom right corner of the photo, you can see the streetcar crossing into Mexico on the south bridge and the north bridge off in the distance.

There was only one flaw in Lt. Fields' plan--he was ordered to guard the northern bridge.  The only transport  there, required that 20 well-armed US soldiers would be riding through Mexico in an open electric streetcar.  This is the kind of thing that people notice

That streetcar made it about 100 yards into Mexican territory before some startled Mexican customs agents managed to stop the car.  Almost immediately, Juárez Mayor Mestas arrived waving a large pistol and leading an angry armed mob willing and eager to defend their country from the pendejo gringos.  (That's Spanish for "nice guys".)

Lt. Fields did not speak Spanish, yet somehow was able to convince the authorities that it was a case of stupidity rather than conquest.  He and his men were released.  Unfortunately, authorities in the US had already panicked. 

Mayor Kelley of El Paso had already wired the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, demanding that more troops be sent to guard the border.  Texas Governor Colquitt sent a message to President Taft demanding a preemptive invasion of Mexico to accomplish a "friendly occupation."  Adjutant General Hutchings, who happened to be visiting Fort Bliss, activated the local unit of the Texas National Guard and ordered them to the border.

Naturally, all of this provoked a reaction from the Mexican side of the border.  While the Mexican authorities only sent a few more guards to the border, American tourists fled the gambling halls, restaurants, and assorted bars and ran for the border.  To give you an idea of the seriousness, Juárez shut down the horse race track--for a whole day--something they hadn't even bothered to do when President Madero's army had attacked the town the previous year. 

As quickly as the trouble had started, the whole business was quickly put to rest.  Taft ignored Governor Colquitt, who had a room temperature I.Q. on a cold day with the windows opened wide.  Secretary of War Stimson sent a few more troops to Fort Bliss, but otherwise ignored the El Paso mayor.

Lt. Fields was arrested, court-martialed and eventually returned to duty.  In his defense, he explained that he had heard the border was a river, and where he was from, that meant it had water in it.

The Lieutenant further explained that he "had heard that the Rio Grande was a large river and not the small one that it was."

The next day, the tourists were back at the bars, gambling dens, and other assorted playgrounds of Juárez.  The racetrack reopened and the two towns continued to share that streetcar for over sixty years.   The US went on to really invade Mexico several more times over the next few years, but that is a story for another time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Are About To Be Lousy With Babies

This is the last weekend I can say this:  There are three grandchildren on the way.  Both of my sons--What's-His-Name and The-Other-One--have pregnant wives.  AND the former's wife is having twins.  By this time next weekend, the first of the three will be here, and by the end of the year, I will have 5 grandchildren.  I can start my own basketball team.

While all of this is hilarious--at least to me--the rest of my family seems to be in something of a state of frenzied shock.  If I had known how much fun grandchildren were, I would have had them first, and then probably stopped. 

Of course, I already have two granddaughters and I love them dearly.  And I'm not in any way prejudiced, but as I calculate it, I have an 87.5% chance of having one or more grandsons by the end of the year.  Not that I'm counting.  (50% chance of two boys and 12.5% chance of three.)

What's-His-Name is in deep shock--twins!!!  Suddenly, a household of three will grow to one of five almost overnight.  If I could stop laughing, I would empathize.  One child is like living with an entropy generator.  Two children is like having your entire world in a blender with no lid.  Three children under the age of three all at the same time....  Words fail me, but I may buy stock in the company that makes Pampers.

Of course, as a sensitive and caring grandfather, I am being very supportive.  That is why about twice a day, I send a text message to my son:  MINI-VAN. 

I have no idea what it is like to have an instant large family dropped on you, but I am positive the best way to find out is to watch it happen to someone else from a safe distance.  And that is my plan.

Other than the two granddaughters I currently have, I don't know too much about raising girls.  From what I have seen so far, little girls are cute, incredibly sensitive, and very emotional.  This wasn't exactly my experience with raising boys.  That was more like riding a roller coaster without a track through the middle of a scrap metal yard.  If for no other reason than revenge, I hope my sons each raise at least one boy.

I remember well the time when What's-His-Name was supposed to be digging a hole in the back yard to plant a Christmas tree.  (The Doc, my wife, always insisted on a live Christmas tree since nothing will get you in the holiday spirit more than killing a tree in your living room.).  After Christmas, we would go ahead and plant the corpse in the forlorn hope that it would somehow take root and survive.  After two dozen attempts, only three trees survived.

That particular year, What's-His-Name had done something wrong and it was his punishment to dig a hole in the back yard deep enough for the tree.  From the way the boy whined and moaned, you would have thought we had asked him to dig his own grave.  And the progress was slow, despite fairly constant reminders from me to keep moving.  After about two hours, I went to check the progress.  The good news was that there was a hole (although it was about half the size necessary).  The bad news was that the boy was curled up in the hole sound asleep.

He's a good boy, and to this day, he always does what I tell him.  As long as I'm standing near him.

The number of grandkids is more than doubling in one year!   A whole bunch of new names are going to have to be thought up.  This is, obviously, not something my family excels at.  (My mother's name was Bob and I have an aunt Pete, but that is another story.)  I don't suppose What's-His-Name-2 will work.

I suppose my sons could be like this farmer I knew back in Texas who had so many children that he just ran out of names. Eventually, he just started calling his kids after the first thing he saw around his farm.

A few years later, it was the first day of school and the new teacher walked down the row of students and asked each child their name. When he got to one of the farmer's sons, the boy replied, "Wagon Wheel."

The teacher said, "I need your real name boy.", to which the lad replied, "It's Wagon Wheel, sir....really."

The teacher, rather annoyed rejoined, "All right young man, take yourself right down to the Principal's office this minute."

The youngster pushed himself out of his chair, turned to his sister and said, "C'mon, 'Chicken Shit, he ain't gonna believe you, neither."