Saturday, May 31, 2014

Horse Sense

The two old ranchers sat on the front porch of Mike's house, where they had a good view of the Brazos River two hundred feet below the high point of land where the house was located.  They were enjoying the end of the weekend by playing dominoes and drinking sweet tea.

"My son, Matt, brought us a new movie to watch," Mike said.  "The Lone Ranger.  Damnedest thing you've ever seen.  They had that horse, Silver, running on the roof of a train."

"Horse survive?" asked Kent as he placed a domino.  "Fifteen points."

Mike wrote down the points, then said, "The hero's horse always survives.  He has to ride off into the sunset during the credits."

"The horses in these movies don't get much attention any more.  Used to be that the horses were half the show.  Now, the only time they even mention the horses is at the end of the movie when they tell us that none of the animals used in the movie were hurt.  Damn, I'm going to have to draw half the bone yard before I can play."

Mike placed a domino and said, "Twenty points, thank you for the four to play on.   Used to be that the cowboy smiled at the schoolmarm and kissed his horse.  Now, you hardly see the horse and the cowboys kiss each other.  You know, the Lone Ranger's first horse wasn't Silver.  On the radio program...first, he had a horse named Dusty, then he got Silver.  And Tonto rode White Feller before he got Scout."

"And some horses had more than one cowboy," Kent said.  "That big buckskin that Marshall Dillon rodeBuckwas the same horse that Ben Cartwright rode on Bonanza.  I guess they time-shared it."

"Yeah."  Mike played his last domino.  "No points, but I'm out.  How much you got for me?"

"Twenty-five," Kent said, as he turned his dominoes up.

Mike wrote down the points and said, "Your shuffle.  Did you know that the Lone Ranger's horse  was the same horse that Gerald O'Hara was riding in Gone With The Wind when he broke his neck?"

"Nope, never knew that," Kent said, as he drew seven dominoes.   "Did you know that John Wayne had two horses named Dollar and Dollor?  Ol' Dollor got an honorable mention in Wayne's last movie, The Shootist.  Truth is, Wayne never really liked riding horses.  He claimed he never rode a horse unless he was paid for it.  You gonna play?"

"Double five," Mike said.  "When Wayne started out, he had to share his billing with a horse called Duke the Miracle Horsehis horse was called Duke before he was.  Tom Mix had Tony the Wonder Horse and Hopalong Cassidy rode Topper."

"Zorro's black stallion was named Tornado, Gene Autry had Champion, and Festus rode Ruth.  I'll take ten, too," said Kent.

"Festus don't count!he rode a mule."

"Okay, okay!  The Cisco Kid had Diablo, Roy Rogers rode Trigger and Dale Evans rode Buttermilk.  What's the spinner?" asked Kent.

Mike pointed at the double five and said, "Well, he was only in one movie, but Pancho Villa rode a horse called Siete Leguas."

"Well, if you're gonna get historical, Alexander the Great had a horse named Bucephalus.  Five points and out," said Kent as he played his last domino.

"You get ten off me and you won the shuffle.  Caesar rode a horse called Toes while he conquered Gaul."

'Yeah, I know, you went to school," said Kent.  "Robert E. Lee rode Traveler.  Six-four, give me ten."

"Six-One for five.  Custer rode Vic that last day," said Mike.  "What did General Grant ride?"

"Who gives a damn?  Teddy Roosevelt rode Little Texas up San Juan Hill," said Kent.

"Hard to beat Little Texas," Mike said.  "Did you hear about the Baptist preacher that was out fishing along the Brazos River and he happened to drop his favorite bible on the river path?  Three days later, a horse walked up to him carrying his bible in his mouth.  The preacher got all excited, fell to his knees and exclaimed, 'It's a miracle!'  'Not really,' said the horse.  'Your name is written inside the cover.' "

"It's too dark to play, anymoreI can't see the spots on the bones," said Kent.  "But, I got one more for you.  Years ago, I had this special quarter horse.  This Yankee came down and fell in love with it, he just had to have it.  He offered me so much money that I went ahead and sold it.  The Yankee jumped up on the horse and yelled, 'Giddyup!'  The horse didn't budge, so I explained that this was a Baptist horse and it wouldn't move until you said, 'Praise The Lord!' and it would't stop until you said 'Amen!' "

"Well," continued Kent.  "That fool Yankee screamed 'Praise the Lord!' and the quarter horse took off like a stabbed rat, running straight for the bluff overlooking the river.  That Yankee was screaming and yanking at the reins until the last possible moment when he remembered and hollered 'Amen!' and that horse slid to a stop just inches from the edge of the bluff!"

"Then what happened?" asked Mike.

"Damn fool looked up to God and whispered, 'Praise the Lord.', said Kent.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Not on Your Tintype

While I work at Enema U, I went to grad school at another fine New Mexico institution, The Urination of New Mexico.  They had a wonderful history department, composed of faculty who were almost equally divided between those who were not yet quite dead and those who should have been.

Still, they were good professors, and I learned a lot from them.  One of the things I learned was not to walk into the middle of the department office and whisper, “Billy the Kid was left-handed.”  That was about all it took to start a fistfight among several of the faculty.
This is amusing for several reasons.  First, most of the faculty were so meek and mild-tempered that the most serious injury you could imagine any member of the herd suffering was a paper cut.  And it is almost impossible to find any other resident of this state who harbors any emotion about young punk Billy outside of a general weariness and profound boredom.  Will people never stop talking about that slack-jawed imbecile?

Evidently not--you're still reading.  Im writing this blog for the ad revenue.  Whats your excuse for reading it?

The last reason, of course, is that Billy the Kid was actually right-handed--probably.  If so, then why do so many people continue to claim otherwise?  It has to do with the only known authentic photo of William Henry Bonney.  (Among the things we dont know for sure are such minor details as his parentsnames, the year he was born, and where he was born.  He was probably born in 1859 in New York and his original name probably was William Henry McCarty, Jr., but--like everything else with Billy--who really knows?)

Billy was a criminal—his first arrest was for stealing cheese.  Unfortunately, he soon climbed the criminal ladder until he was wanted for murder.  Subsequently, he was captured, tried, convicted, escaped, and (eventually) shot dead.  While he should have been forgotten, as yet another Damn Yankee who moved to New Mexico….well, between the politicians who used him for publicity and Hollywood, who magnified his short, ugly life into a heroic drama in order to sell more popcorn, there was no chance that Billy would slip into obscurity.

Now, back to the photograph: the only known authentic photo of the outlaw was a ferrotype, or a tintype, taken of Billy sometime in 1879 or 1880 in Fort Stanton, New Mexico.  The ferrotype clearly shows Billy standing, holding his 1873 Winchester carbine in his right hand, and wearing a holstered Colt revolver on his left hip.  Since he is packing his revolver on his left side, he must be left handed...

At least, this was the commonly held belief for most of the 20th century.  Not surprisingly then, in 1959, when Paul Newman starred in a movie about The Kid, it was titled, “The Left-Handed Gun.”  Presumably, had the movie been made in color, we would all now know that Billy had blue eyes, too.

There are more than a few things wrong with the theory of a left-handed Billy.  First, almost all tintype photos are ‘camera originals, meaning that the chemically-coated thin iron sheet (there is no "tin" in a tintype) was placed in the camera behind the lens.  After exposure, the image was fixed in a bath of potassium cyanide, washed, dried and ready to use.  Unless the camera had a reversing prism lens—an expensive rarity at the time—the image was left/right reversed.  Thats right: the vast majority of the daguerreotypes and tintypes you have seen your whole life are mirror image reverses of the original subject.  So Billy is actually wearing that Colt on his right hip.

Not so fast!” cried thousands of people with nothing else to do.  Billy might be using a cross draw holster.  Or the camera that took this photo might have had a reversing prism.  Or maybe someone reversed the photo recently, knowing that the original was a mirror image.  Or… Or… Or maybe some people need to worry about something important.

There are problems with these objections.  Cross draw revolvers have the pistol reversed, the butt end of the grip forward—not as pictured.  And the original of the photo recently sold at auction, so the whole world knows that the popular image was not reversed.  (After decades of arguing about that ferrotype, the auction price of the famous tintype was an astonishing $2.3 million, the seventh highest price ever paid for a photo!)

Careful examination of the photo closes the argument.  Look inside the red boxes of the photo at the right.  The ejection port on the Winchester 73 is on the right side, Winchester NEVER made one on the left.  And the buttons on a mans vest are on the right side.  So unless Billy was dyslexic, carrying a rifle he whittled out of a pine tree, and was wearing his mothers clothes, he was right-handed.  Case closed!

But I wont say that out loud in a faculty meeting--even here at Enema U.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Battle of the Nile

The French navy has been in the news this week: it seems that while the rest of the world is trying to figure out a way to isolate Putin for seizing the Crimea, France is going to sell him two modern warships.  This is probably not something we should worry about—the words ‘French’ and ‘Navy’ have not belonged together in a sentence for over 200 years.  Naturally, I’m going to give you an example.

By 1798, Admiral Horatio Nelson had been in the military serving his king since the age of 12, serving on both land and sea.  He had lost his right eye fighting the French in Corsica, he had fought the Spanish in Nicaragua, and he had lost his right arm fighting the French near Tenerife.  (In more ways than one, the navy had "made" Nelson.)  Severely wounded when his lone ship captured two French warships, he was hospitalized for months, and when he returned to the fleet in 1798, he had been promoted to Rear Admiral.

This was a dark time for England.  On land, Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to be invincible.  France had found a prodigy whose skill matched his ambitions, and that was unusual.  This is probably where I should point out a great military truism:  The French Army can win, but only if led by a schizophrenic teenaged girl or someone who is not French (Napoleon was a Corsican).

Napoleon had a plan.  He knew that he could not invade England without naval supremacy, and while France was furiously rebuilding her navy, Napoleon knew it would be years before France was ready to challenge England.  Where else could the British be challenged?  Bonaparte eventually came up with the plan to challenge England’s Far East trade with a campaign in the eastern Mediterranean.

England was hardly strong in the Med, since by this point, Italy was already in the hands of France.  The English knew that Napoleon had left France with a fleet, but what was he planning?  Nelson commanded a thin column of ships which was sent to the Med to discover what was up--and more important--to find and stop Napoleon.

During the voyage, the young admiral--not yet 40--spent the time instructing his captains.  Nightly, he gathered them on his flagship and drilled them in his methods and plans for an attack.  Every eventuality, every contingency, was discussed, and practiced on paper during the trip. 

Napoleon called his captains his "Band of Brothers", taking a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V.  He was, in effect, charging each of them come the day of battle to behave like the heroes of Agincourt, giving each of  his subordinates respect, responsibility, and authority.  This was such a proven formula for success, that even today, no one uses it!

Of course, even as time helped Nelson, it was also aiding the French, who, led by Admiral Bruey, spent the time to making their position impregnable.  He anchored his fleet in a sandy bay, protected by shoals, with one flank anchored near the shore, the other end of the line of ships extending to an island where a fort had been built.  The admiral had placed his ships close to shore so that he was certain that the English ships would only be able to fight on the starboard side of the French ships.  This allowed the ships to move the gun crews and some of the cannons over to the starboard side, in order to concentrate their fire on the approaching English ships.

Admiral Bruey must have smiled while reflecting upon his perfect position.  Records show that on the morning of the battle, even though he knew that Nelson's fleet would be upon him before the day was over, he let parties ashore to gather fresh water.

The French had a perfect defensive position that would lead to a perfect victory for Nelson. 

Nelson had to sail into the bay under the concentrated fire of most of the French fleet, which lay in a slight curve, and as the British fleet sailed in, Nelson could hardly believe what he saw.  The French flank was close to the shore, but not anchored completely.  A skillful captain could sail around the end of the French fleet and attack from inshore!  And while the guns of the ships pointing out to sea were undoubtedly loaded, manned, and ready to fire…  The remaining port battery of guns were most likely unloaded and useless.

Other captains noticed that the interval between the French ships was too wide, there was room for a skilled captain to sail through this gap, raking the enemies on both sides as he went.

In all, four English ships sailed around the French flank.  These ships, like all of Nelsons fleet, anchored in position and began to fire on the French fleet.  The English flagship and all succeeding ships sailed down the seaward side of the French line, firing at every ship as they passed until every ship was anchored alongside a French ship. 

As the sun set, gun-flashes and burning ships lit up the night sky.  Nelson later wrote in his dispatch, “Each knew his duty.  I was sure each would feel for a French ship.”

Nelson was on the HMS Vanguard, on the deck, observing what he could of the entire operation.  As always seemed to happen to Nelson, he was wounded, getting a long gash in the forehead above his sightless right eye.  Head wounds bleed profusely, even the smallest cut to the forehead bleeds like a fatal wound.  Nelson thought he was dying, and though forced below to the surgeon, he refused medical attention until the sailors were treated first.  It took a while to convince him he was going to live.  Nelson had just returned to the deck to witness the witness the most spectacular event of the night.

At about 10 at night, the French flagship, L’Orient, was seen to be burning out of control.  Men were jumping overboard.  Suddenly, the ship blew up.  The roar was so loud that every ship in the bay stopped fighting briefly, believing they had been hit.  A tremendous blazing column of fire blew into the air, showering burning debris down on several ships, setting fire to the sails of the HMS Alexander

When the battle resumed, only two French ships of line (out of thirteen) and two frigates were left not sunk or captured (And many of those had had their gun ports destroyed, so they were unable to fight, even if not sunk or captured.).  All of the others were destroyed, captured, or grounded.

French Admiral Bruey died in the loss of the flagship and the few ships that were left retreated under the command of Rear-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve.   Later, Napoleon did not praise this admiral’s escape, but somewhat sarcastically referred to him as ‘Lucky.’  (Napoleon was more than capable of holding a grudge.  A few years later, when Admiral Villenueve was found dead in an inn, stabbed seven times in the lungs and heart, it was ruled a suicide.)

As the sun came up on August 2, 1798, it showed one of the most unusual scenes in naval history.  “Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene,” said Nelson. 

He was quite right: this was his masterpiece, for Nelson always preached "completion".  Three French battleships—including the flagship—were destroyed, while 9 were captured.  Thousands of French sailors were wounded, killed, or captured.  The British did not lose one ship.

Nelson exploited his triumph.  Ships were repaired, the captured French ships were made-seaworthy and  given to English officers, dispatches were sent--in duplicate, a blockade was organized on the Egyptian coast, and an officer was sent to carry the news to the East India Company in India.  The Directors of this company were so grateful for Nelsons actions that they sent him a present of  £10,000 (British pounds, equal to about $14 MILLION USD these days--not a bad "gift"!)

The effect of this battle was like an electric shock sent across Europe, because it was the first real military defeat of Napoleon.  The French army was cut off in Egypt and Napoleon, in order to escape, was forced to abandon the army and return to France secretly.  His plan to invade India was a failure and was abandoned forever.

In London, when Lord Spencer, the head of the Admiralty, heard the news, he fainted.  Nelson won a peerage from a grateful king.

You may know a little about this battle, if for no other reason than you might have heard the poem about the loss of the L’Orient.   Here is the first verse:

The boy stood on the burning deck
        Whence all but he had fled;
    The flame that lit the battle's wreck
        Shone round him o'er the dead.

The poem is Casabianca,  In it, Giocante, the young son (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post as ordered and perished when the flames caused the gunpowder magazine to explode.  The rest of the poem is dramatic-if not quite accurate:

The flames rolled on—he would not go
        Without his Father's word;
    That father, faint in death below,
        His voice no longer heard.

And so forth and so on for verse after verse until we get to:

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
        That well had borne their part—
    But the noblest thing which perished there
        Was that young faithful heart.

This poem was published in the 1866 edition of McGuffey’s reader and stayed in American lore forever, though by my generation it had magically turned into:

The boy stood on the burning deck
        Eating peanuts by the peck;
    His father called, he would not go
        Because he loved those peanuts so.

Strangely, some of you may have unknowingly seen a representation of the battlefield.  Years after the battle, Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson was in her declining years.  She complained one day to her friend, the Marquise of Queensbury, that while it was possible to visit a battlefield on land, it was impossible to do that with any of her former lover’s great naval battles. 

The Marquise owned a large amount of land, including the town of Amesbury, and most of the surrounding farmland known as the Salisbury Plain.  A beech forest was carefully cut to represent the shoreline, and clumps of trees planted to represent each ship.  Known as the Nile Clumps, as far as I know, this is the only naval battlefield you can walk through.

You may have seen them--today, they are about a mile away from, and on the other side of the highway from the Marquise’s other tourist attraction: Stonehenge.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Inevitable Extinction

When the first astronauts arrived, they discovered the planet was rich in resources, teeming with a wide variety of life forms and possessed of a surprising amount of water.  These first explorers were startled at how much the planet reminded them of home--especially its blue sky and mild climate.  Quickly, the explorers unanimously decided to call the planet Elysium.

After filing an initial report, the spacemen set up a preliminary base and started mapping the planet.  High orbital satellites photographed the planet while drones were sent out to take samples.  There was much to do before the first colonists would arrive to take the place of the spacemen,  By the time the first permanent dwellers arrived, the spacemen were eager to leave the planet.  No matter how idyllic the planet, troops who had joined the service to spend their careers in space quickly tired of any planet, not matter how beautiful.

Among the first wave of colonists were specialists in exobiology, astrobiology, agriculture, and mining.  Luckily, most of the plant and animal life was already compatible with the the colonists dietary needs--unlike on so many previous worlds where the colonists found none of the indigenous life forms edible.  Luckier still, was the surprising discovery that almost no terraforming would be necessary.  While there were some large toxic areas that would have to mapped, marked, and eventually cleaned up, most of the land mass of the planet was already suitable for habitation. 

Still, there were certain crops and livestock that needed to be introduced--if for no other reason than to make sure that  the new colonists felt "at home" on their new planet.  Introduction of alien life forms to a new planet was risky, and had to be done gradually.  The exobiologists had to work carefully to avoid disaster.   Everyone remembered an earlier occasion on a far distant planet, when a single strain of bacteria--eventually traced back to a variety of fowl they, themselves,  had introduced to the planet--had aggressively multiplied and totally wiped out all the indigenous life forms.  While the planet was still habitable, the accidental extinction of so many native life forms was considered an unforgivable ecological disaster.

Not that all existing forms of life on the new planet would be kept forever: after study, classification, and collecting the DNA of some life forms, it was expected--even necessary--for some species to be eliminated outside of a few specimens kept in special game preserves and research labs.  Some life forms, from the largest and dangerous down to microbes would have to be exterminated.

In other cases, the simple competition for resources and space would mean the extermination of some life forms.  Large animals that required extensive habitats, especially if located in close proximity to mineral deposits, were usually the first to disappear.  A species that might require hundreds of square kilometers per animal was inevitably destined to be sacrificed by the needs of a technologically advanced civilization.

This was especially true for species that had limited intelligence.  Bitter experience on other worlds had shown that the higher the intelligence of a species, the more tenuous its ability to survive the shock that the introduction of new species inevitably produced.  It seemed to be a universal constant that the hardest species to exterminate, the most resilient, were rodents and insects.  These species always seemed to quickly adapt to living near the colonists.

At the earliest contact by the exploring spacemen, it had been known that a species of animal on this planet had a form of limited intelligence.  From the time of the first wave of colonization, anthropologists and exobiologists had begun frantically working to gather as much information about this species as possible.  The scientists and colonial leaders had all agreed to try and collect as much data as possible about this species, since sadly, they had also reluctantly agreed that its eventual extermination was inevitable.

Sadly, within a few generations after the arrival of the new settlers, this semi-intelligent species was extinct.  While much of the data collected on the species would eventually be studied by future generations of scientists, most of the colonists knew very little about the planet's original inhabitants.  Even the official record had only the briefest of mentions:  "The inhabitants of the third planet around the yellow star called themselves 'Men.'  They tasted like chicken."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Blue Pig

Mike, the old rancher, had a hell of a problem.  His property along the Brazos River was being overrun by feral hogs.  They devoured the grain he put out for his cattle, they fouled the few water holes, and they frequently tore up his fences.

It is amazing how much damage the hogs could do in only a single night.  The damn pigs even occasionally killed other livestock.

The problem was a relatively new one.  Prior to European colonization, the New World had no pigs, hogs or wild boars.  The current hog problem was simply the result of escaped pigs that had gone feral and rapidly bred.  At the time, in Texas alone, it was estimated that there were at least 2 million hogs: the pests were overrunning the state!

The problem had been growing steadily for years.  Mike could remember when he was a boy, he'd occasionally heard stories about the hogs, but other than a few people who went over to the 'Piney Woods' of East Texas for a 'wild boar hunt,' no one had actually seen them.  Mike had lived on the property his whole life, but had never seen a hog until he was a grown man.  On the other hand, Matt, his son, could not remember a time without the porker pests.

The state government of Texas had certainly tried to get a handle on the problem.  There was an open season on the hogs, no hunting license was required, and in a last, desperate measure, the state just recently had allowed companies to exterminate the hogs--for a hefty fee--with helicopters and machine guns.

"Fat lot of good that nonsense does," said Mike to himself.  "Unless you are going to do the same damn thing on every neighboring ranch for a hundred miles...  About as useless as setting up a 'No Peeing' section in a pool."

Still, something had to be done.  Mike met regularly with his ranching neighbors, and in desperation, the ranchers decided to do something--to take action on their own.  One of the ranchers had heard of an old Cajun who lived just over the border in Louisiana, who claimed to be able to eradicate the hog problem.
Cajuns and Texans were not exactly the best of friends.  The Texans generally believed that the  Cajuns had too much French in them to be trusted, and the consensus in most of Louisiana was that the line dividing a coon-ass from a horse's ass was the Sabine River that separated the two states.  Still, Mike convinced the ranchers, who agreed that almost any price was cheap compared to the expensive damage the hogs were causing them.

The ranchers were desperate, so they had Mike represent them in the business transaction.  He make the trip to Louisiana and met the old Cajun at his home on a bayou swamp.

"Yeah, I can get rid of those tuskers for you," the Cajun said.  "You'll never see another blasted porker.  But, before I start, you have to agree to two conditions.  First, it'll cost you a thousand dollars--in advance!"

"Okay," agreed Mike.  "What's the second condition?"

"I do it my way," said the Cajun.  "I don't want any interference.  Every question you ask me will cost you another thousand dollars."

"You got a deal,” Mike said.

Less than a week later, Mike and the other ranchers were waiting in the small town of Santo when the old Cajun pulled up in his dilapidated ancient pickup.  In the back of the truck was a green tarp covering a large square shape.  Careful not to upset the Cajun, the ranchers remained silent as he got out of this truck and walked over to the assembled ranchers.

The Cajun held out a hand and demanded, “Where’s my money?”  Silently, the ranchers watched as Mike counted the bills as he put them in the Cajun’s hand. 

Satisfied, the Cajun shoved the money into the pocket of his jeans and walked back to his truck and lifted the tarp, opening a door on a wire cage underneath.  Instantly, a huge, blue pig leaped from the cage and began running toward the edge of town.  The ranchers just stood in amazement as the giant porker began to run around the edge of the small town, grunting loudly as it ran.  While the astonished ranchers watched, the blue pig ran around the small town several times over the course of a few hours, and with every circuit, hogs came stampeding out of the woods and brush to run behind the blue pig!

After two hours, the blue pig had a crashing mob of feral hogs thundering behind it--hogs of all sizes and ages.  And as the ranchers watched, the blue pig suddenly turned and crashed into the Brazos River!  Within minutes, the hogs following the blue pig had all vanished beneath the waters of the river.

The Cajun called over to the ranchers, "You will never see another hog in Palo Pinto County."

Mike and the rest of the ranchers withdrew a few feet and talked quietly among themselves.  Then each rancher produced his wallet and began pressing cash into Mike's hand.  After counting the money, Mike walked over to the waiting Cajun.

"Thank you for taking care of our hog problem. but we do have a question we just have to ask," said Mike as he handed the large wad of bills to the Cajun.

"Do you have a blue Yankee?"