Saturday, November 28, 2015

Victory Victoria

In 1759, the British began construction of a new flagship, the HMS Victory, a 100-gun, three-decker, ship of the line.  In the 18th century, this was the nautical equivalent of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and only the most powerful countries could even contemplate the construction of such a ship.

This ship was the most complicated man-made object in the Eighteenth Century world.  Using 6000 trees, 26 miles of rope, and enough sail to cover a football field, she was also the deadliest war machine in the entire world.  From within the wooden walls crewed by iron men, her cannons could loft a ton and a half of iron shot several miles.

The ship was 45 years old when Lord Horatio Nelson used her as his flagship to destroy the combined navies of both France and Spain.  Such ships and such leaders made England's the largest and most powerful navy in the world.

Not only was that navy large, it was damn good.  In several wars and countless battles, the British Navy had humiliated the navies of France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, and Holland.  During the period from 1792-1812, the ships of His Majesty’s navy had fought in over 200 engagements and had won all but five battles.  (And all of those losses were in single ship-to-ship battles—none of them more recent than seven years earlier.)

The inevitable consequence of this incredible string of victories was that an English victory was expected by not only the English, but by the captains and crews of the ships the British fought.  With this attitude, it will not be a surprise when I tell you that no fewer than 170 of the nearly 900 ships that made up the British Navy in 1812 had been captured from other countries during combat. 

But then Napoleon was defeated and peace turned out to be far more difficult for the island maritime power than war.  Ships rotted, experienced naval personnel were put ashore on half-pay, and the general overall condition of the navy declined as a sense of complacency settled over its officers.  Only occasionally did the Admiralty’s office kick into high gear and actually do something (usually after the London newspapers published an editorial about how recent French naval developments put the Empire at risk).  The HMS Victoria is one such example.

In 1859, England launched a new flagship, the HMS Victoria.  She was almost immediately a floating example of the British admiralty’s knee-jerk reaction to all things French.

The French had just built a 130-gun three-decker, the Bretagne, that was designed to be the biggest, baddest warship afloat.  Halfway through the construction, someone noticed that the age of sail—while not dead—was certainly dying.  Even though the hull was already laid down, the builders managed to shoe-horn a steam engine into the frame, making it into an ungainly ship that was so impractical to sail that, within a decade, the French turned it into floating barracks. 

The Bretagne was horribly impractical, but it was bigger than any ship the British had, so the Brits immediately began construction of an even bigger version, with even more firepower.  And deep within her was the very reason why the ship should not have been built in the first place. 

The largest wooden-hulled warship ever built, the HMS Victoria would have twice the tonnage of the Victory, and her massive guns could fire both red-hot shot and explosive shells that could penetrate wood-hulled vessels and then explode.  As a result, the days of the giant three-deckers were already over even before this dinosaur was launched.

While the Bretagne saw brief action in the Crimean War, neither ship had a very long or distinguished career, and by the middle of the 1860’s, both ships were decommissioned and never sailed again.  By the end of the century, both ships had been scrapped. 

A few decades later, the British launched a new HMS Victoria—a new battleship launched in time to celebrate the aging queen’s Golden Jubilee.  Once again, the Victoria was the most powerful ironclad afloat, with the largest guns and the thickest armor, and—as the first British ship to use a steam turbine—one of the fastest warships afloat.

Posted to the Mediterranean Fleet, the Victorianicknamed The Slipper for the habit of the foredeck to slip under waves due to the weight of the heavy bow guns—was put under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon.  Tryon, was a fanatic about Lord Horatio Nelson, both studying the man and personally purchasing the famous Nelson sword (a copy of which can be seen in Trafalgar Square in London).

While Tryon honored Nelson, he was, unfortunately, nothing like the man.  Nelson was famous for drilling his subordinate ship captains in using their own initiative.  He called these men his ‘Band of Brothers’—a line taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Tryon, in contrast, was a dictatorial tyrant who expected instant obedience from his subordinates.

By the late 19th century, fleets maneuvered in two long parallel lines to facilitate faster communication by flags.  This gave Admiral Tryon an idea for an efficient (and showy) method of bringing the entire fleet to stop at an anchorage at once.  The lead vessels of both lines of ships would begin a simultaneous turn towards the other line.  As the following ships reached the same point in the line, they, too, would execute the turn.  When the entire fleet had reversed direction, all the ships would simultaneously execute a ninety degree turn away from the opposing line, come to a stop, and lower their anchors.  Ten ships dropping anchor at exactly the same time would be an imposing sight. 

Tryon issued his orders very carefully.  When the Victoria raised her orders by flag, each of the other nine battleships in the fleet was to repeat the orders on its flags, helping to communicate with the rest of the fleet and at the same time, indicating that it was standing by to execute the order.

Leading the other line of ships was the HMS Camperdown, under the command of Vice Admiral Markham, Tryon’s second in command.  He had already expressed an opinion that this maneuver should not be attempted unless the two lines of ships were at least 1600 yards apart.  On June 22, 1893, off the coast of Libya, Admiral Tryon decided to attempt his showy maneuver—at the time, however, the two lines were only 1200 yards apart.

Believing the maneuver to be dangerous, Markham did not immediately indicate he was ready to comply, and composed a message to be sent to the Victoria indicating that he thought the two lines were too close to each other, but before the message could be sent, Admiral Tryon sent one to Markham:  "What are you waiting for?"  Markham cancelled his message and complied with Tryon’s order.

The reason for Markham's hesitation was simple:  Each lead ship of the column weighed 10,000 tons, was steaming at nine knots, and had a turning radius of 800 yards.  Ironically, each ship was equipped with a steel ram on the bow; a device that the Admiralty had recently decided was obsolete and no longer useful.

Halfway through the turn, Admiral Tryon could see the disaster that was, by this point, inevitable.  He ordered the engines reversed, but it was too late:  The Camperdown tore deep into the starboard side of the Victoria, then as the two ships continued to swing towards each other, the Camperdown’s ram opened up the side of the Victoria like a can opener, making a hole roughly 100 square feet in area.  (By comparison, the hole that sank the much larger Titanic was only fourteen square feet.)

Almost immediately, the steel ram and the heavy bow guns pulled the bow of the ship down and the Victoria sank in less than ten minutes, killing 358 men (almost exactly half the ship’s compliment).  As the ship sank, Admiral Tryon repeatedly said, “It’s all my fault.”  Of course—as was the custom—the admiral went down with the ship.

After this, the British Navy stopped naming battleships after Queen Victoria.  The HMS Victory is the oldest warship still on the rolls of any nation's navy, although it hasn’t been in a battle since Lord Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Four years ago, the wreck of the Victoria was found off the coast of Libya.  After 111 years underwater, she was discovered with her stern some 350 feet underwater.  Miraculously, when the ship sank, her 14,000 hp engines continued to turn the screws, driving the bow of the ship deep into the mud, so that the wreck is standing completely upright—appropriately, like a tombstone.

The diver who discovered the wreck managed to reach Admiral Tryon’s cabin and located Admiral Nelson’s sword, but hid the sword deep inside wreck to prevent future divers from finding it, so it will probably stay there forever. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

GPS: Global Perplexing System

Confession Time:  I love maps.  One of my best friends is a geographer and I am continually amazed at how often we study the same events, but where I properly place these events in a chronological matrix, my friend is overly concerned with location.  He stubbornly resists my efforts to educate him for, as he is wont to say, “Without geography, you’re nowhere.”

We both, however, agree on our love of maps.  My truck is full of maps (I even have maps of places where I have no intention of going).  I’m fairly certain that no one ever got lost because he carried too many maps.  (Except Second Lieutenants--but they are an exception unto themselves.)

My wife, The Doc, however, seems to believe that maps are just a questionable opinion from an unreliable source.   Useful in a sort of an amusing way, but no more reliable than a husband she once saw check a baby’s diaper using the “finger dipstick method”.  Of course, she is wrong about maps.  (And I only did that dipstick thing once!)
In my opinion, most women don’t really understand maps.  While there are probably endless numbers of men who don’t understand maps, either, deep down, I still sort of believe that map reading may be a Y-chromosome-linked ability.  (Sort of like the exclusive male ability to tighten something without the need to mentally recite: “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey").  And while I have no scientific data, I believe that most women believe that Left and West are synonyms.
It is not that my wife can’t read a map, it’s just the way she gives me the information found there.  As I’m approaching a freeway interchange in Dallas known as the “Mixmaster” is not when I want to hear the words, “I don’t think this map is right...”

This is why I have long lusted for one of those GPS devices you could install in your car that would provide instant and reliable navigation.  Every time I mentioned one, my wife would take this as a personal affront to her intelligence.  While traveling, I once managed to rent a car with such a device, and my wife immediately labeled it untrustworthy and unreliable.  This was the moment I knew for sure, we would never have such a device in our car.
Then, came the iPhone, Google Maps, and Siri.  Suddenly, nearly everybody had a GPS unit.  “Siri,” I can now say confidently.  “Directions to Joe’s Crab Shack.” 
Almost immediately, Siri responds.  “In 2.1 miles, turn left onto North Wilmot Road.  Your destination is on the left.”

This is infinitely better than The Doc suddenly announcing, “Get ready to turn.”
“What?  Which way?  I’m in the middle lane!” I cry as I frantically check all the mirrors.
“Never mind,” The Doc says irritably.  “You missed it.”

The Doc refuses to use Siri, believing that SIRI is an anagram for Somewhere In Rhode Island.  There are currently 31 satellites 12,500 miles straight up, each circling around the earth twice a day, and another three dozen are scheduled to be launched.   Using this technology, even my iPhone can locate me with an incredible accuracy of roughly plus or minus 25 feet.  Siri can now tell me exactly how fast, when, and where I took the wrong turn and got almost lost.
And you can use these tools even when you are not in a car.  Siri is accurate enough for me to have located, just yesterday, my wife inside a MegaStore.   (I didn't even know that store had a curtain rod section.)

Now, every morning, when I start my car, the screen on my iPhone says that traffic is running normal and that it will take me thirteen minutes to drive to work.  Of course, the traffic is always normal in Southern New Mexico and it only takes 8 minutes to drive to work, but this is still amazingly accurate.  And polite.
This is not, however, accurate enough for The Doc.  She steadfastly remains convinced that Siri and GPS are working together to try and kill us.  She claims that Siri has more than once told her to turn off a bridge, take a shortcut through a vacant field, or routed her onto a freeway for a destination only two blocks ahead.  Naturally, I was not present in the car during any of these experiences.

Siri once did tell me to execute an endless series of U-turns to reach a restaurant only three blocks ahead, but that was in Tucson (and the food was so bad that Siri was probably trying to save my life).  And once, while trying to find a grocery store in Alamogordo, she directed me to a store 90 miles away--but once again, Siri was probably just trying to get me out of Alamogordo before the sun went down and the police rolled up the sidewalks.

There is a feature that perhaps should be added to these devices.  A “Wife Mode” would be instructive to single men (God knows we married men don’t need this feature).  After missing a turn, Siri could refuse to provide directions and loudly announce, “If you’re not going to listen to me, you can just find it yourself.”  Or, perhaps, Siri could, on a random basis, ignore where you want to go and direct you straight to The Pottery Barn or Tuesday Morning.
I’m not sure if The Doc and I will live long enough to own a driverless car, but I’m pretty sure that if we do, she will have to wear a blindfold while traveling in it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Murder Most Fowl

There is a universal military problem:  When the war is over, how do you turn soldiers back into civilians? 

This is a tougher problem than you might think.  Young men, skilled only in violence, do not take kindly to being suddenly unemployed during a post-war recession.  In Latin America, at least historically, this situation usually leads to revolutions.  Julius Caesar solved this problem by creating farms for his former soldiers—as far from Rome as possible—in newly conquered territory.  Perhaps this example is what led Australia inadvertently into a war.
After World War I, Australia had a similar problem with returning servicemen and some bright government official decided that the best solution was to turn former soldiers into farmer soldiers.  Over 5,000 farms were created out of barren land in Western Australia—the sort of land where even lizards normally had to pack a lunch to cross:  lands so harsh that only the ruggedly unusual wildlife of the Australian Outback could survive.  Here, the newly-created farmers were to grow wheat!
The government promised subsidies (which never materialized), a growing market for agricultural products (which promptly crashed with the advent of the Great Depression), and price supports (which the government could not afford to pay).  Things were not working out well even before the drought started….but even that paled in significance to the emu problem.

The Australian Emu, locally known as a yallabiddie, is a large flightless bird that almost defies description.  It looks like the result of a drunken one-night stand between Big Bird and a Velociraptor.  Adults can be six feet tall, weigh 120 pounds, and have powerful legs with amazingly sharp claws.  Migratory packs of them soon moved into newly created farm lands.  Roughly 20,000 birds arrived—a ravenous and implacable enemy army.
Some of the soldier/farmers couldn’t afford fences, not that this really mattered, as the birds pretty quickly destroyed what fences were already there.  And just as quickly, began destroying the wheat fields. 
The farmers tried to handle the problem for themselves, they picked up their rifles and shot a few of the birds, but they managed to kill only a handful of the pesky varmints before they ran out of expensive ammunition.  The farmers could have asked for help from the Minister of Agriculture, but being soldiers at heart, instead asked for help from the Minister of Defense.  Specifically, they wanted enough ammunition to wipe out all 20,000 birds, and they wanted machine guns to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently.

Sir George Pearce, the Minister of Defense, quickly agreed.  Not only would this make the government look like it actually cared about the farmers, but Pearce thought it would be good target practice for his men.  He sent Major G.P.W. Meredith, two soldiers, two Lewis machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammo to Western Australia, so confident of a quick success that he sent a Fox Movietone cameraman along to ensure that the Army received the proper credit.
The war commenced on November 2, 1932.  Meredith and his men found a small flock of 50 birds, set up their machine guns, dropped in 97 round drums and commenced firing.  And immediately, the Emu Army used a tactic that had not been planned on—the birds ran out of range. 

The Australian Army does not give up quickly, so Major Meredith and his men advanced on the enemy and resumed fire.  They enlisted the aid of farmers to try to herd the birds into an area where they could be entrapped and slaughtered.  This is the problem with subversive enemy emus:  they cannot be counted on to do their patriotic duty when required and those birds ran everywhere but toward the guns.  By the end of the day, Major Meredith reported that “a number of birds were killed.”  No doubt, this is true.  One is a number.  (So is zero, for that matter).
Two days later, the army was back.  Major Meredith had reconnoitered the area and found a perfect site for an ambush near a dam.  More than a thousand thirsty emus were moving toward the position.  The gunner waited until he could see the oranges of their eyes, opened fire….and managed to slaughter only a dozen of the enemy before the machine gun jammed and the avian army executed a rapid strategic withdrawal.

The enemy was proving to be more difficult than expected.  As one of the soldiers put it:
 "The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”
At this time, Major Meredith decided that, if infantry tactics would not work, it was time to try the cavalry.  Borrowing a farmer’s truck, he had a machine gun mounted on the bed of the truck so that the Australian Army could pursue and destroy the enemy. 

There proved to be a small flaw in this tactic:  Those birds are tall and, when running, they have a nine foot stride across rough terrain and can sprint seemingly forever at 31 mph.  (Given the sort of motivation that only a pursuing machine gun can provide, the emus can hit 35 mph).  And, while they are flightless, their stubby wings are quite efficient for helping them make surprisingly sharp turns while running at top speeds.  Wild cats can run faster than the emus for short distances, but they cannot turn fast enough to catch the elusive emus.

The truck however, had a top speed of 24 mph over flat land—a terrain found almost nowhere in Western Australia—and frankly, the truck’s turning radius sucked.  The soldiers were so desperate to stay in the bouncing swaying truck that no attempt was made to shoot at the enemy.  Finally, in desperation, the truck managed to run over one of the birds.  While this did indeed kill the emu, its body got so tangled up in the truck’s steering that the truck crashed through a farmer’s fence, severely damaging the vehicle.
Even more surprising was the fact that when the soldiers performed a necropsy on the corpse of the enemy slaughtered by the truck, they were astonished to find that it was carrying around several bullets from their machine gun.  It seems that the birds were so tough that only a shot to a vital organ would kill it.  As Major Meredith later described it:

“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world. They could face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus, whom even dum-dum bullets would not stop.”
It was at this point that the Australian House of Representatives began discussing what the newspapers were calling the "Emu War".  When one politician asked whether “a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war”, a colleague answered that they should rightly go to the emus who “have won every round so far.”
Major Meredith continued the war until December 12, 1932.  While he reported that his force has expended 9,860 rounds, his force had killed only 980 of the enemy (a number that was widely doubted by the farmers).

Over the next twenty years, the farmers repeatedly asked the Australian Army to once again take to the field and help them rid their farms of the enemy emus.  Each time, the Army politely—and very quietly—refused.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

White House Games

Without a doubt, being President is the hardest job in the world.  (With the possible exception of being the dean's secretary.)  With such a hard job, it is no wonder that our Presidents have tried to relax as hard as they work.  Sometimes, their hobbies and pets have bordered on the bizarre.

For relaxation, Calvin Coolidge enjoyed playing with his pet pygmy hippopotamus, John Quincy Adams liked to scare guests with his pet alligator, and Theodore Roosevelt kept a whole damn zoo:  packs of dogs, a clowder of cats, a dozen horses, a macaw, a rat, two kangaroos, an owl, several roosters, five snakes, a hyena, a coyote, a raccoon, a lion, a
zebra, a flying squirrel, five bears, and enough snakes to frighten Indiana Jones several times over.  Oh, yeah!...And a badger.  (When T.R. left office, incoming President Taft said, "Badgers?  Badgers!  We don't need no stinkin' badgers!")

Pets have not been the only presidential diversions.  Thomas Jefferson kept a skeleton of a mammoth in the White House and amused himself by trying to piece it back together.  Zachary Taylor was proud of being able to spit tobacco with deadly accuracy and Chester Arthur had a monster rummage sale of furniture and knickknacks left by his predecessors that netted him an impressive $8,000.  None of the stuff he sold was "his", but everybody has to have a hobby, right?.

Many of our presidents played sports when they were young, and continued to do so once in the Oval Office .  Nixon played baseball in college, and followed the game closely the rest of his life.  After he lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, he was offered the job of Major League Baseball Commissioner.  I wonder how history would have been different if he had accepted the job.

Dwight Eisenhower was a star player in both baseball and football.  His sports career was cut short when West Point played the Carlisle Indians in 1913 and Ike unwisely cut in the way of their star player on his way to a touchdown.  Future Olympian superstar Jim Thorpe broke Ike's leg so badly that the future president had to switch to golf as a sport.

This is just a blog, so we don't have the space to list all the sports that Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed while president.  The White House had a shooting range, a tennis court, and a boxing ring, but the sport that might surprise you is "stilting".  You knowwalking on tall wooden stilts.  Evidently, it was something the whole family enjoyed. 

Today, there are a lot of sport facilities at the White House, including a jogging track, a pool, a tennis court that doubles as a basketball court, a pool table, a putting green, and an exercise room.  Less well known is that the White House also has a bowling alley...or two...or several.

Harry Truman was a part-time bowler, and in 1947, added a two-lane bowling alley on the ground floor of the West Wing.  It there stayed until Eisenhower had the alley moved to the Old Executive Office Building across the street, so space in the West Wing could be used to move in one of those new-fangled mimeograph machines.  Today, that space is used for the Situation Room, where the long lanes have been replaced with long conference tables and the walls are covered with monitors.  This is the room where President Obama watched the strike on the bin Laden compound.

The newer alley is still across the street, and while not exactly open to the public, it has been used by thousands of bowlers over the years.  Named the Harry Truman Bowling Alley, it was used frequently by President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson.  President Nixon, definitely the most avid presidential bowler in history, used it frequently until he built the other White House Bowling Alley. 

Yes, another bowling alley:  This one is a single lane built in the White House basement under the North Portico, where President Nixon could practice his game without leaving the White House.  How good was Nixon?  Supposedly, he once bowled back-to-back 300 games and (depending on who you believe) had an average of either 165 or 232.  But, like many other things about Nixon, it bears a little fact checking.  If you look at the photo to the right, you can clearly see that Nixon has fouled by crossing the line, though I'll bet money that the Secret Service didn't call him on it.

This lane is still there, but reportedly in rather sad shape.  No president wants to spend public money on such a self-serving project, though a few years ago, several bowling organizations volunteered to remodel the lane.  The picture below is an artist's attempt to show what it could look like.

Actually, there is also a third presidential bowling alley.  This is a double set of lanes that President Eisenhower had installed in the Hickory Lodge at Camp David.  Supposedly, this is the set of lanes most used by every president since Nixon.  When Premier Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he asked to see the lanes and seemed fascinated to see the automatic pin setting machines.  Evidently, he was expecting serfs.

This is where President Clinton taught Secretary of State Madelaine Albright how to bowl, where Chelsea Clinton had her Sweet Sixteen birthday party, and  where President Obama celebrated his 48th birthday.  According to the White House press release, he scored a 144.  If true, he had obviously been practicing, since he was observed in April, 2008, bowling a game in Pennsylvania while campaigning for reelection:  That day, he had bowled a 37.

Perhaps this is why he once promised, that if reelected, he would rip out the Presidential bowling alley and replace it with a full-sized indoor basketball court.  So far, this is just another unfulfilled campaign promise.  In politics, as in bowling, split happens.