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."