Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was one of the three big battles of the Hundred Years’ War.  Of course, this conflict lasted a hundred and sixteen years—which isn’t surprising if you remember that the Seven Years’ War lasted nine years.  (Things are frequently labeled incorrectly—camel’s hair brushes are made from squirrel fur, Panama hats are made in Ecuador, catgut comes from horses, and The Canary Islands are named after dogs.  I once asked why a type of small boat was called a Boston Whaler.  The answer, of course, was because they weren’t made in Boston and had never been used for whaling.)

In all three major battles of the war—however long it lasted—the English defeated the French.  (The French seldom win battles.)  England still managed, however, to lose the war.  (The French seldom lose at negotiation!—Personally, I think the United States should shut down the State Department and turn it over to the French.  We could offer them cost plus ten percent.)

As in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, the tactics and weapons of the English demonstrated that they were more than a match for numbers and stupidity.  (That would be large numbers of stupid French.)

The Leaders

Henry V entered into the family business early, being knighted at the age of 12.  During a time when war usually consisted of lengthy sieges and rare battles, Henry V was an experienced warrior. 

So when his father died in 1413, Henry was already an combat veteran and he was the consummate warrior king.  Henry knew firsthand the rigors of war—the marches, the food, the hardships.  Indeed, 'this' is what eventually killed him a few years after Agincourt:  After laying a siege for seven months (that included the winter), he died of dysentery—a very common disease and a common cause of death among soldiers.

There is little doubt that Henry was ruthless:  He killed his prisoners at Caen, and during the siege of Rouen, he refused food to the women and children expelled from the city and caught between the two lines.  Technically, this was within his rights under the laws of war, but even at the time, it was considered ruthless.

By comparison, the French leadership was a joke.  The King, Charles VI, was insane, even for an inbred monarch.  Periodically, he became convinced that he was made of glass.  The French laissez-faire attitude notwithstanding, they considered this to be something of a negative in a battlefield commander.   And there was the king’s son, the Dauphin, who was next in line….well he was 19, frail, let us just say he was "unmilitary".  As a leader, he couldn't have gotten horny sailors to follow him into a whorehouse.  Going down the chain of command, the next link in the chain would be the Duke of Burgundy or the Duke of Orleans.  Surely, one of these two could have led the Frog army to victory, "Non?"

Well, no.  The Duke of Burgundy had murdered the father of the Duke of Orleans.  Burgundy would be, himself, murdered in revenge just four years, later.  Cooperation between the two men was unlikely and neither could lead by himself without the other's pulling out his troops in protest. (Besides, the Duke of Burgundy was seriously thinking about joining the English.)

It was up to military officers from the royal household to lead the French:  the constable, the marshal, and the Master of the Crossbows.  However, these were not very imposing leaders and they had a hard time maintaining discipline.

The armies

Armies of the 15th century were still based on the man-at-arms.  In other words, a man in a full suit of armor, trained to fight on foot or on horseback.  If he was of high enough social standing and had gone through the appropriate formal ceremony, he might be a knight.  More numerous than knights were the esquires—men of high enough station, but who had not yet been knighted.  Or the man-at-arms might have been simply a soldier.

Knights and esquires were cavalrymen and keeping a man on a horse equipped and ready for battle was expensive.  Far more numerous in the armies were the simple soldiers who were usually armed only with spears.

There were also archers, crossbowmen, and gunners.  By then, the English had come to rely heavily on its archers:  more than 80% of the army was armed with a longbow.  The French had archers, too, but they were still using crossbows.  The crossbow was a great weapon when used in a siege, but the rate of fire was horribly slow, making it far less effective in open battles.

An English archer with a longbow fired eight to fourteen arrows a minute, with a maximum effective range of about 400 yards (although at 400 yards, the arrow wouldn't have killed anyone).  An arrow could kill an armored knight at up to 50 yards and an ordinary soldier at up to 200 yards.  A competent English archer could knock and loose arrows so rapidly, that he might have several arrows in the air at the same time.

By 1415, the date of our battle, there was a bewildering array of gunpowder weapons available, too.  There were handheld weapons and massive bombards, and the French had the advantage over the English in both the quality and the quantity of such guns.  No one has yet figured out why, despite being in possession of such weapons, France did not bring any of them to the battle!  This is technically worse than bringing a knife to a gunfight.


The Hundred Years War was the high point for European Armor.  No longer just chain mail, now the well-dressed knight was covered from head to toe in polished steel.  The metal was tough enough to protect the soldier from arrows unless they were fired at point blank range, or the arrow managed to hit one of the few places where the armor left the knight exposed, like the eye slits of his helm.

Under the plate steel was a padded jerkin, worn both to protect the knight from a severe case of industrial strength metal diaper rash and to absorb impact.  Wearing armor could easily tire a knight, but far more worrisome was the danger of dying of heat exhaustion.  The “white armor” or polished armor was developed more to reflect off a little of the sun’s heat than for aesthetic reasons.

Contrary to what we see in the movies, a knight didn’t need a crane to get into the saddle.  The suit weighed 60-80 pounds, was articulated, and was distributed around the body.  The infantryman in our modern army frequently has to lug a heavier load.  And while a man wearing armor could get onto a horse by himself, he needed help donning that armor.

Actually, the heaviest piece of the armor was the helmet, so it was frequently not worn into battle.  Especially the dog-faced bascinet pictured at right.  (Someone said that the definition of a cultured person was one who could listen to the William Tell Overture without even briefly thinking of the Lone Ranger.  Can you look at this picture without thinking of Darth Vader?)

Normally, the queen of the battlefield was the great sword, a massive three foot sword.  This battle was different:  The key weapon was the English longbow.  Starting in the 13th century, the monarchs of England encouraged the people to practice and develop their skills at archery.  By the time of Agincourt, an English longbow archer had practiced his entire life on a bow with a 150 to 200 pound pull weight.  Archaeologists can identify the skeletons of such archers by the pronounced bone spurs on the left wrists, shoulders, and fingers.  French kings never encouraged their subjects to adopt the longbow, for fear of common rabble using the weapon against the crown.  There is a reason the Magna Carta originated in England, not France.

Henry invaded France in August, 1415.  Needing a port to resupply his men, he laid siege to Harfleur with an army of about 12,000.  With his gunpowder weapons, he was able to destroy the city’s walls, but it took five weeks before he was able to enter the city.  Dysentery had killed 2000 of his men, and another 2000 were so sick they had to be sent home. 

This invasion had already failed, but Henry needed to save a little face, so he decided to leave a garrison force in Harfleur and march the remainder of his surviving army (about 900 men and 5000 archers), north a hundred miles to Calais.  Effectively, he was saying, “All right, I’ll leave, but not until I am good and ready.”

Henry sent a letter to the Dauphin offering to settle the affair by personal combat.  Since this was the equivalent of Chuck Norris challenging Pee-wee Herman to a fistfight, the French refused.

Henry ran into trouble almost immediately, as the French burned bridges, defended crossings, and destroyed all the food stocks that the English might be able to use along their route.  Each burned bridge forced the English to divert further from the shore, exhausting the meager food supply they had brought with them.  Meanwhile, even the slow French were beginning to put together an army and move towards the English. 

Finally, on October 23, the French had blocked the road to Calais and the much larger French army set up camp, posted guards and made merry.  A few miles away, the English were huddled around the few houses of a hamlet, trying to find protection from the rain, and many sought out priests to make confession and receive the last sacrament.

The battle should have occurred the next day, but the French stalled, knowing that time was on their side.  Every day, more French forces arrived while the English, sick and starving, grew weaker.  Finally, on October 25, Henry rallied his men and forced battle by moving his “band of brothers” towards the French.

The Battle

Despite the accounts of no fewer than four eyewitnesses, historians will argue forever about the relative sizes of the two armies.  It is my blog, so I’m going to be a traditionalist.  The English had 812 men-at-arms and 3073 archers.  The French outnumbered the British six-to-one, so it was a fair fight.  The French had 22,400 men-at-arms and 2000 archers with crossbows.

Henry V, leading a really small force of sick and hungry men, announced he would peaceably return to England without killing any more French knights if the French king would give him his daughter in marriage.  Henry was ruthless, but he had big balls.

The French lay down, laughed, drank more wine and ate cheese.  They knew that Henry must drive them off the field and take his men to Calais, and if he failed to do so, the English army would starve. 

Henry had to make the first move.  Riding a small gray horse without spurs—a sure sign that he intended to fight on foot—he reminded his men that the French boasted they would cut three fingers from the right hand of every archer they captured.  (Did Henry’s speech sound anything like the one Shakespeare wrote?  Of course it did.  William would never exaggerate!)

The battlefield was fairly narrow, with the muddy ground flanked on both sides by trees.  The French aligned their cavalry in multiple ranks behind their archers and waited.

Now to win, Henry needed to find a way to goad the French into attacking.  The English army advanced until it was 200 yards from the French, then stopped and the archers pounded their protective wooden stakes into the muddy ground.  The French were enraged when the English archers fired their first volleys.

The French cavalry drove forward, forcing the French crossbowmen into the woods!  And the French cavalry could not flank the English archers because of the woods, so they were forced to attack directly towards the English line.  As they advanced, the arrows fell, and the muddy ground tired horses.  Even if they managed to cross the field, they were stopped by the sharpened stakes the archers had hammered into the ground in front of them for protection.

The French cavalry, blocked, recoiled and streamed backward….into the next rank of advancing French knights.  Forced forward again, they hit the English line, push those back a little….but by now the French forces were too close together—they could not use their weapons effectively, and the arrows were still falling…

The French were exhausted from charging through the mud and climbing over the bodies of dead French.  And as they advanced, they had to keep their heads down to prevent arrows from coming in their visors.  This meant they were advancing blind in the attack.

Meanwhile, behind them, the main force of 14,000 men had begun to move forward, but they, too, were compressed by the narrow space, even while the arrows continued to hiss through the air.  Some terrified knights dispersed and fled.  Some French knights rode forward to their deaths because of honor, or simply not to abandon the many who already lay dead in the field.

By now the French dead lay piled several feet high and the nimble English archers move into the field using whatever weapons at hand to finish off the French men-at-arms.  For many, this meant they used the hammers they normally used to drive in the stakes.

The English troops became ecstatic, not only because they were surviving and winning, but they had a fortune in wounded French knights who could be ransomed for a fortune.

It had only been thirty minutes, and it seemed the English had won, but the battle was not over.  Frankly the English were now tired by the job of slaughter, and they were still outnumbered.  Henry suddenly received news that his supply train in the rear was being attacked by a French force that had arrived too late to take part in the battle.  There were also a number of captured French knights behind his lines who could begin fighting again if rescued.  Henry ordered all but the most valuable prisoners to be executed—which was against the "code".

At first the English soldiers hesitated, not because of mercy, but for fear of losing a fortune, but then they began executing the French.  Since the slaughter of prisoners was a job beneath the dignity of an English knight, the executions were done by the archers.  It was very hard to kill a fully armored man, so many of the prisoners had their throats cut or were stabbed through the eye slit of their helmets.

The supply train really was attacked, but not by French troops.  More likely this was done by nearby townsmen.  Besides the loss of some valuables, the English lost all of their pages, who were young children.  This, like so much else that happened in this battle, was against the laws of war.

Casualty numbers vary greatly, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone.  I don’t know of a battle where they don’t vary, even today.  The English had 450 casualties, with   around 112 dead.  The French losses were staggeringly high:  10,000 or more dead with another 1500 men taken prisoner. 

Though the French eventually won the war, the battle was a high point for several reasons.  It was the high point for the English longbow archers.  Though it would take another two hundred years, gunpowder weapons would eventually rule the battlefield.  French honor and knighthood died that day, as exhausted French knights lay on their backs in a muddy field, while English peasants cracked their shells with hammers. 

Note.  If you would like to know more about this remarkable battle, there are two excellent sources.  John Keegan's The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme is everything a scholarly work could hope to be.  More entertaining, however, is Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt.  A historical novel, it is nevertheless extensively footnoted and accurate in detail.  If you have not yet read a book by Cornwell, postpone all other forms of entertainment until you have.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Writing This Blog is Still Weird

Seven years ago, shortly after I started writing this blog, I penned a short piece entitled, “Writing A Blog is Weird.”  At the time, this blog was four months old and I was astounded at the amount of hate mail I was receiving. 

This week, the blog passed a milestone:  it has had over a million views—a number that grows at about 100K a month.  The volume of hate mail has kept pace, and while about half the hate mail arrives in a language I can neither read nor identify, the rest I carefully read, grade, and return. 

Over time, a few of the blogs have been reprinted—most of them with my permission—while a whole raft of them have been reprinted without my permission on webpages scattered all over the world.  One has even been included in a textbook.  When I started, I never thought about the longevity of a blog post—a blog is immortal!  By this, I mean that no matter how nonsensical the post was, it is still in circulation out there.  I regularly get mail about something I wrote years ago. 

I have discovered that the absolutely essential piece of hardware for bloggers is a notebook.  Personally, I’m obsessed with Moleskin notebooks.  I am constantly writing in them for fear of losing an idea, having learned all too painfully that my memory is only good enough to remember that I forgot something… Perversely, if I actually write something down, I’ll remember it forever.

So, I have a whole pile of little black notebooks filled with cramped, horrible handwriting recording total garbage—notebooks that I have almost never gone back and looked at...Until today.  I actually sat for a couple of hours reading through years of long-forgotten notes.  I thought that I would share a few of these truly Random Thoughts.  (Actually, I wanted to write about the Battle of Agincourt, but The Doc said that no one wants to read about war at Christmas.  Okay, but next week, New Years or not, this blog’s gonna kill some Frogs.)

About half the entries in my notebook were about ideas for future blogs, most of which were eventually written.  The other half are weird little nuggets of brain barf, which are all too frequently about the idiocy of working in higher education.  There were some really bad jokes.  I have no idea where this stuff comes from.  Some of it I probably read, some came from drinking scotch with my friend Jack Wright, and some came from my own fevered brain as I sat in interminable meetings.  Look for yourself:

    In 1884, Thomas Stevens rode a Penny Farthing bicycle (the ones with a big wheel in front and a tiny wheel in back) around the world, and wrote a book about his trip.  In 2008, someone did it again on the same type of bike, 124 years later.    Proof Englishmen Mad?

    Most of New Mexico is just an ordinary small town along a very, very long street.

    It is simply amazing to think that by the time William Shakespeare was my age, he had managed to be dead for eleven years.

    NEW RULE!  Never again buy a cornbread mix that says it can be prepared in a microwave.

    The State Department should only employ people who live with cats.  You cannot possibly understand protocol until you have been owned by a cat.

    Watching this year’s election is like watching a rat give birth.  In your kitchen.

    Almost hourly, this university reminds me why aliens fly right by us on their way to Roswell.

    Why does the new Performing Arts Building look like a Post-Modern gay prison?  It is impossible to drive by this monstrosity without finding a new feature to hate.  The people responsible for this monstrosity aren’t smart enough to be the towel boy in a Turkish Bathhouse.

    In 1326, Richard the Raker of London drowned in a pool of human shit.  The records do not record which university he worked for.

    You have no choice but to believe in free will.

    Two cannibals are eating a clown.  One turns to the other and says, “Does this taste funny?”

    Compromise is the art of drinking slightly less poison that the person on the other side of the table.

    Worried about bad government, the framers of the New Mexico constitution included a clause that specifically denied the right to vote to “idiots.”  Unfortunately, they did not exclude them from running for office.

    Writing in a notebook is not an old man mumbling to himself.  It is a mature professor in search of an expert opinions.

    Why does the university hold anger management classes?  Wouldn’t it be cheaper to simply employ fewer stupid people?  True, we would have to shut down at least one of the Sociology Departments.  But, there would still be several left. 

    “It is always the best policy to speak the truth—unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.”  -Jerome K. Jerome.  Though his autobiography doesn’t mention it, Jerome must have worked at a university at one point in his life.

    Definition:  Vade Mecum.  A book or guide that you take with you.  Does this notebook qualify?

    In 2017, if Obama moved to Nigeria, he could run for President.  If elected, he would be their first white president.

    The Doc and I are eating breakfast at The Shed.  We are both having Eggs Benedict.  Hers are ham and Hollandaise sauce.  Mine are baked oysters and a green chile sauce.  Obviously, she loses.

    Once again, it is time for the annual History Department Choir Retreat.  This is when all the nutcases gather and allow the voices in their heads to sing in harmony.  Off key.

    What does it mean when I sat at my office desk for five minutes trying to remember the History Department Head’s name?  It didn’t really worry me, as I could have looked it up, but it just didn’t seem terribly important.  Does this say something about him or me? 

    Why do so many politicians claim to love America when they obviously hate Americans?

    First rule of university survival:  Beware the jack-booted pacifist with a cause. 

    Met the dean’s boyfriend at a gas station.  He was driving her car.  He asked me what I did for a living.  I told him I plucked chickens for Colonel Sanders.

    Emergency Room doctors, confronted with alcoholics exhibiting diminished mental acuity, have a simple test for Wernicke-Korsakoff Encephalopathy:  Holding their hands about six inches apart, they ask, “Do you see the red string?”  Since there is no actual red string present, the healthy patient will answer negatively.  Those who answer affirmatively are said to be doing what doctors call Karsakoff Syndrome Confabulation.  Everyone else would call this “making shit up.”    There is, of course, an educational equivalent.  All it takes is for one academic to say, “Can you see the strategic benefits of the Boyer Model?”  All the diseased minds in the room will nod their heads in agreement.

    At a banquet, The Doc asked why the members were called Elks.  I told her that Cecil B. DeMille once said actresses were called ‘starlets’ because ‘piglets’ was already taken.  She’s giving me that look again.

    Tucson is a town only suited to raising insects.  Nasty insects that need stomping.  Somewhere nearby, on the slope of a higher mountain is a community called ‘Hell.’

    It is a strange commentary on mankind when we store oil in salt domes to keep it safe while we print books on paper and store them in wooden libraries.

    Oh shit.  The dean wants the department to set new goals.  Since no one could remember last year's, we looked them up.  “Visibility, Service Learning, and Grant Writing.”  If any of that happened last year, I missed it.  Hoping we would set more realistic goals, I suggested: “Lie, Cheat, and Steal.”  We would have no problem making those goals.

    One of the problems with academia is that it is entirely too easy for idiots to hide among the eccentric.  

    There is a band called 1023 Megabytes.  So far, it hasn’t gotten any gigs.

    The bar is crowded with the afterwork crowd when the phone rings.  Five different guys yell, “If that’s my wife…”  No one notices Dr. Pavlov running out the door, muttering, “I forgot to feed the dog!”

    It was the existence of cats that prompted the creation of purgatory.

    Germanic anesthetic:  A rubber hammer.

    The old rancher took his wife to see old Doc Clarke.  Now the whole community knew that the Doc was an ornery cuss, not exactly known for his bedside manner.  No one doubted he was a good sawbones, but it was generally agreed that he was the kind of man who eats off the same plate as a sidewinder.

Well, the old rancher helped his wife down from the buckboard and opened the gate for her as she made her way into the doctor’s front parlor that doubled as the physician’s clinic.  Meanwhile, the old rancher hung around the hitching post out front and gossiped with a few old friends he only got a chance to see when he made one of his infrequent trips into town.

Suddenly, he heard his wife scream—and two seconds later, the screen door slammed open as his wife came running out.  She leaped down the steps and was the better part of a country mile down the road before the old rancher caught up with her and coaxed her back into the buckboard.  It took a solid hour to calm the woman down enough for the old rancher to return to the clinic and confront the doctor.

“What in tarnation did you do that for?” the old rancher thundered.  “My wife is 68 years old and has 8 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild!”

“So?” asked the doctor.

“Damn it,” exclaimed the rancher.  “You told her she was pregnant!”

The doctor pulled his cigar out of this mouth and looked the old rancher square in the eyes.

“Does she still have the hiccups?”

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Price of Power

Normally, this blog does not mention current politics.  I really don’t want to write that kind of blog—if for no other reason than I’m pretty sure no one wants to read it—but when a recent election was so obviously  and spectacularly fornicated skyward, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming urge to, at the very least, make a snide comment or two.

I did NOT strongly support a candidate.  Voting this year was uncomfortably similar to being forced to choose your favorite turd from a Porta-Potty.  In my opinion, you could have dug a pit in the New Mexico desert and caught a better slate of candidates by accident and nothing that has occurred since the election has changed that opinion.

Impressively, at least one campaign promise is already coming true.  Several candidates—even though they eventually lost—promised free college education.  Now, sure enough, the entire country is quickly becoming expert on the Electoral College.  (Well, no one ever said which college that education would be at/about, but come the next election, we will all pay more attention to the fine print!)

The last election once again impressed upon me how swiftly and strongly the American people react to imposed power.  We do not want decisions made by leaders or courts, we somehow prefer inaction while we slowly make up our collective political mind.  The political pendulum moves at a glacially slow pace, and any swift action seems to produce a violent opposite reaction.

By this, I mean when a sitting president uses an executive order to implement a striking change in government, or a court reinterprets a law to make a sweeping change to our society, such actions produce a powerful counter push by society.  Angry voters react so negatively, that the pendulum of social change is pushed violently backward, producing years of fluctuation and political turmoil.  Sometimes, I wonder if the price we pay—those years of arguing and continual court battles—are worth making the changes quickly.

To put this succinctly, I am fascinated by how these changes in government trigger powerful backlashes, which in turn, will produce ever more counter reactions.  As a people, we seem to be incredibly reluctant to directly confront political problems, but when change is forced upon us, we suffer a societal explosion.

There are numerous recent examples of this kind of backlash.  During the early days following the Civil War, Southerners resorted to violent actions to insure that former slaves on plantations along the Mississippi River did not move away from the South.  Called Exodusters, many newly freed slaves understandably wanted to get away from the South, and some wanted to take advantage of land that opened up in Kansas for homesteading.  Southerners, afraid of losing their cheap labor, hanged former slaves who tried to emigrate, intimidating many freedmen into staying on in communities they hated. 

The South’s reaction to Congressional Reconstruction touched off the passage of Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and entrenchment of the Democratic Party in the South for a century.  Then, when our country belatedly moved to finish the work of reconstruction following the second world war, it was chiefly through the courts that progress was made, which touched off two decades of violence and political upheaval.

Don’t misunderstand me—I think the advances in Civil Rights were well worth the price paid for them, I’m just pointing out that when changes are made outside of the voting booth, there is a definite price paid:  there were years of political unrest because of the manner in which the issue was settled.  Our elected politicians could have decided these issues, probably with less resulting political turmoil, but refrained from doing so for fear of potentially losing their next elections.  How many times have you heard a spineless politician refer to a difficult issue as a “third rail?” 

When President Wilson traveled to Paris to negotiate the Versailles Treaty following the first World War, he made the disastrous mistake of making the peace accord a partisan matter.  Wilson, a Democrat, did not take a single Republican with his delegation to Paris, and accepted absolutely no input from the opposing party.  When he returned from Europe, he refused to amend his treaty in any way, insisting that the Senate ratify the treaty in its original form.  America rejected Wilson’s attempt and the treaty was never ratified, which resulted in the United States never joining the newly formed League of Nations, eventually contributing to the start of the Second World War.

This country has undergone several similar changes, each without the consent of a majority of the voters and, inevitably, society paid high prices for those changes in the form of political unrest.  For most of my lifetime, this country has argued about abortion following the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973.  Since then, it would be difficult to find a national election in which the issue of abortion has not been on center stage.  If the courts had not decided the issue, I think it probable that the voters would have finally settled the matter by now.  Was settling the issue early—and without direct voter input—really worth the price we have paid and continue to pay?

Marijuana, gay marriage, global warming, the role of the EPA, and the Affordable Care Act—none of these issues was decided by a direct vote.  Whether it was by court decisions handed down by appointed judges, regulations generated by unelected bureaucrats, or unilateral presidential directives, these issues were only temporarily settled, and the political backlash became the focus of future elections (And they continue to haunt elections—as well as the courts in some instances.)

It was, once again, no different in our recent presidential election.  President Elect Trump is making no secret that he will reverse many of the Executive Orders of President Obama.  The Affordable Care Act, EPA regulations, drilling in the Alaska Wilderness, the routes of several proposed oil pipelines—all of these decisions will likely be reversed or modified in the months to come.

If history is any guide, for most of these problems, these issues are being reversed only temporarily.  The pendulum will swing and reverse, then swing and reverse again, exacting high prices from each of us before the disputes are finally settled decades from now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Pelican Island

One of the surprising things about studying history is discovering how the threads of history, the stories, intertwine and change over time.   It is amazing how often things in our lives connect to surprising events. 

Pelican Island is one of those strange threads of history.  A small marshy island north of Galveston Island, it remained deserted for a very long time—at least until its original couple of hundred square feet were enlarged significantly by dredging.  If you have ever been in a coastal swamp along the Texas coast, you’ll know why few ventured there.  Such areas are teeming with life, and all of it wants to eat you at varying rates of consumption.  The land does protect the north side of the island, and helps protect the docks and wharves from storms.

The Civil War started the island's transformation.  Recognizing that the location of the island would make an ideal defensive position, the Confederates built a small fort there in 1861.  Unfortunately, they were short of the artillery necessary to protect the fort.  In fact, the fort was armed only with “Quaker Cannons” (wooden fake cannons), so the Union quickly captured it.  Eventually, the Confederacy was able to recapture the fort in 1863 and, after putting real cannons in the fortress, were able to hold the island and the channel to Houston for the rest of the war.

For a few decades, the island was used primarily by the occasional fisherman or oysterman, but mostly, it was left to the mosquitoes, the crabs, and snakes and it might have stayed abandoned if not for disease.  The presence of mosquitoes, a thriving rodent population, and the constant influx of ships meant that Galveston Island nearly always had some kind of health problem.  Smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, dengue fever, diphtheria, measles, influenza, and whooping cough were nearly always present somewhere on the island.  In 1899, approximately three dozen smallpox patents were moved to Pelican Island by the town’s public health service.  Suddenly, the small island off the larger island had a new purpose—it became a medical quarantine and, eventually, an immigration center.

Pelican Island soon became known as the “The Ellis Island of the West”.  The federal government wanted immigrants to move into the western states and not stay in the large cities on the eastern coast.  Galveston—the largest city in Texas until the disastrous 1900 hurricane—took in immigration ships, quarantining the new immigrants on Pelican Island until they were certified to be disease-free, then sent them west by rail.  The government had arranged reduced rail tickets to move them out of Galveston when it was still too devastated by the hurricane to entice the immigrants to stay.  Between 1903 and 1914, nearly 50,000 immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, passed through the island.

Of those 50,000 men, women, and children, one group still stands out, or should.  History books in Texas seldom mention them, overlooking an important story.

In 1903, in the Russian town of Kishinev, the inhabitants somehow became convinced that the local Jews were slaughtering children to use their blood to make matzo for Passover.  (And you thought Fake News was a new problem.)  The violence started when a girl committed suicide by taking poison.  In an attempt to save her life, the girl was taken to the nearest medical facility, a Jewish hospital.  When she was pronounced dead, the pogrom began, prompted by the insane rantings of the town’s Russian Orthodox bishop.

Starting the day after Easter and lasting two days, the rampage resulted in the deaths of 47 Jews, injuries to hundreds, and the destruction of some 700 homes and 600 Jewish-owned stores.  The violence then spread across Russia.

In America, Leo Napoleon Levi, a native-born Texan, started a petition to Czar Nicholas II that demanded that the Russian persecution of Jews stop immediately.  Leading Americans, including President Theodore Roosevelt, endorsed the effort and ordered the petition, bound into a book and fitted into a custom wooden box, be delivered to the Czar by the Secretary of State.  The Russian government refused the Kishinev Petition, which today is housed at the National Archives.

This touched off the Galveston Movement, a humanitarian movement to move Jews from Russia to the Western States through Galveston.  Before the first world war shut down emigration from Europe, over 10,000 Jews came through Pelican Island, with a majority of them eventually settling in the Southwest.

For a long time after the war, Pelican Island fell back to the control of the insects.  An experimental concrete ship, the SS Selma was sunk at one end of the island, and is still visible today from the causeway.  (If you are wondering why a ship would be made out of concrete instead of steel, you are showing you have more brains than the people who built her.)

Since I moved from Galveston, a branch campus of Texas A. & M. has grown up on the island, today teaching more than 2000 students.  Industry is moving onto Pelican Island, and the state has announced that a newer and larger bridge will be built to the small island.

When I knew Pelican Island, there was not much on it.  At the end of the single road that crosses the island was a World War II submarine.  The memorial is named “Seawolf Park” after the USS Seawolf, but the submarine on display is the USS Cavala, roughly the same class as the USS Seawolf.  It would be kind of hard to display the actual Seawolf, since she was lost during the war, unfortunately, by friendly fire.

About the only other building on the island was a steel warehouse.  To get to the island, you drove down to the docks and crossed a causeway that connected the small island to the large island.  Halfway across the causeway, a drawbridge could be raised to allow ships pass the west end of the tiny island.  One summer day, my business partner and I got a call to work on a computer in the warehouse and, since it was a slow day and the little island was beautiful…we both went.

As soon as we crossed the bridge and pulled up into the parking lot, we heard the siren.  People started pouring out of the warehouse and pointing out into the bay, where a large waterspout was slowly moving towards the island. 

If you have never seen one, a waterspout is basically a tornado moving slowly over water, and the column appears to be completely full of water.  Technically, there are two kinds of waterspouts:  Tornadic waterspouts are real tornados and can do incredible amounts of damage.  Non-Tornadic waterspouts are smaller, have winds less than 60 mph, and can form on clear days.  Hundreds of the smaller ones form on the Gulf Coast every year, most of which do little or no damage during their usually thirty-minute lifespan.

This benign description of a non-tornadic waterspout reminds me of the words of Max Stanley, the great test pilot for Northrop Aviation.  "The Piper Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you."

The waterspout that day was indeed a non-tornadic waterspout.  And as far as the two dozen odd people gathered in that parking lot was concerned, it was a category 5 hurricane.  When they are that close, there are NO small tornadoes.  And in the brief few seconds while we were all absorbing this information, we suddenly heard the klaxon for the drawbridge.  Turning just slightly west, we sawthe bridge slowly raising until the movable section was pointing up, sort of a personal obscene salute.

There is, of course, a reason why drawbridges are raised during storms.  If the bridge is damaged while it is down, the ships in the channel could be blocked for months.  The flip side is that if the bridge is up during a tornado, the people on the island are screwed.  All of the people in that parking lot—now stranded on a relatively small island (myself included)—ran into the warehouse for safety.

As safe places go, a warehouse full of scrap metal is probably about as safe as trying to suck start a shotgun.  We all just stood there looking at the pipes, angles irons, and piles of sheet metal.  In case of an actual tornado, this place was full of exactly the kind of crap you don’t want to be near when things start flying around.  By comparison, Sharknado is tame.

Note:  In hindsight, there was a remarkably safe place to go:  Probably few places on earth make a better storm cellar than a large metal submarine, even one dragged up onto a sand bar.  Not one of those present thought of that option, possibly because in the average lifetime, never once has your brain said, “I know what to do!  Go jump into the submarine!”  If your brain has said this to you, you live a very strange life.

Trapped like rats in a metal abattoir, we just stood there listening to the coming tornado.  On television, there is always some slack jawed hillbilly saying the tornado that squashed his trailer sounded like a train.  This is incorrect.  It sounds like two trains!  Fucking.

The metal warehouse rattled, the wind howled, pieces of corrugated roofing material began to peel back from the warehouse, and the noise was deafening… Then the tornado passed by and within seconds, it was very quiet.  Until we heard the klaxon. 

Everyone ran back out of the warehouse and stood and watched as the drawbridge being lowered.  Looking to the east, we could see the waterspout wandering across the bay.  We should have all turned in the direction of the bridge controller and “saluted!"

I’ve never been back to Pelican Island.  If they finish that new bridge, and it isn’t a drawbridge, I’m ready to go back.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bucking the Tiger

Growing up in the fifties and the sixties meant that I watched a lot of television Westerns.  It is fair to say that my family was addicted to horse opera. My mother was a fan of Have Gun Will Travel, my father never missed an episode of Gunsmoke, my brother liked Hopalong Cassidy, and I was obsessed with James Garner in Maverick.  For most of the early sixties, at any given hour of the evening, at least one of the three television networks was offering at least one Western.

This was not exactly educational television…I think we personally saw more Indians killed on television than probably existed in the New World when Columbus arrived.  Even as a child, I knew that these television shows had a strange sense of geography since their version of Texas never looked like where I lived.  As I got a little older and studied history, it was downright hilarious how little of it television got even remotely correct.

If you will forgive me, I’m about to correct another one of those popular myths:  While gambling was indeed very popular on the frontier, it was not Five Card Draw Poker that was usually played in those cowtown saloons and gambling houses—it was a card game called Faro.  You have probably never played it and probably have never even seen it played, but from just before the Civil War until the last decade of the 19th century, it was the most popular gambling game in the West.  (And James Garner never mentioned it in a single episode of Maverick!).

Most card games in America got their start in Europe and migrated to the new world with immigrants.  While no one is completely sure, Faro probably started in Venice, migrated to France where it was called Pharaoh, then moved to America in the early 19th century.  Since the game was played with a French deck (one with 52 cards), as the game became more popular, the popularity of the Italian deck (with only 40 cards) ended, as did most of the games played with the smaller deck.

Following the Civil War, the most popular deck of inexpensive cards was made by the Russell and Morgan Playing Card Company.  Their deck, the Tiger 101 deck, was used so often, that the game of Faro became known as Bucking the Tiger.  Saloons that wanted to advertise the availability of a game, simply put a small sign with a Bengal Tiger in the window—gamblers knew what it meant.

Faro is not even remotely similar to poker.  In Faro, the betters, called punters, do not hold cards, but bet on which card will next be dealt from a shoe, or box, containing all 52 cards.  There can be as many punters as can crowd around a table, most of the rules are very simple, and the game is fast-paced.  These factors made the game very popular in gambling dens and saloons.

Five guys sitting in a bar playing draw poker does not make the bar any money.  There is no “house” in a traditional poker game.  But in Faro, the table is run by the bar and the rules are set up to give the dealer, the house, a slight edge.  And the faster you play the game, the more money the house makes.

Here is simplified version of how the game works:  A dealer sits behind a large table that has thirteen cards glued or painted onto the table.  While the suit doesn’t matter, traditionally these cards were usually spades.  Players could place their bet in the form of chips, usually called checks in faro, on any of the cards, essentially betting that the selected card value—regardless of the suit—would be the next winning card. 

The dealer would then deal one card from the spring-loaded box face up.  This first card was the “losing card” and the dealer would collect any chips that had been bet on that card.  The next card dealt face up was the “winning card” and bets placed on those cards would be paid the same amount they had bet.  At this point, punters could make new bets, move, or remove existing bets and wait for the dealer to deal two more cards.  In the case of a pair, meaning that the winning and losing card had the same value, the dealer won half the bets on that card.  This last rule gives the house a very small edge.

Here’s an example.  You bet $5 on the Three of Spades.  The first card bet is the Jack of Diamonds, and the dealer collects all the losing bets, then his next card dealt is the three of Hearts.  You win!  And as fast as the winning bets are paid and the losing bets can be collected, the dealer is ready to deal two more cards.  You can see why this was a fast paced game.

To help collect the bets, and keep track of the betting, usually the dealer had an assistant who sat in front of a special device that looked like an abacus.  This kept track of every card that had been dealt in the game.  Called the “Case Keeper” or the “Coffin Keeper” the assistant also helped the dealer watch for card cheats.  And cheating was a large part of the game.

It was incredibly easy to cheat in Faro, especially for the dealer.  Among the simpler methods to cheat the player was to simply stack the deck so that pairs of cards came up more often.  Even small amounts of cheating enabled the dealer, and thus the house, to make more money.   This, in turn, made the game very popular with saloon keepers.  During the Civil War, there were 160 faro parlors in Washington DC alone. 

It was also easy for the punters to cheat.  You could “copper” a bet by placing a penny, or copper coin, over your checks.  This meant that you were reversing your bet, betting that the card would lose instead of win.  Some punters would glue a long thread or hair to the back of their copper coin so they could quickly yank it away after they saw the first turn of the card.

The rampant cheating prompted a lot of violence on the part of the punters trying—almost always unsuccessfully—to recoup their losses.  There is a wonderful, and thus almost certainly false, story about Wild Bill Hickok recouping his losses by flipping a Faro table upside down and demanding his money back at gunpoint. 

This violence meant that larger cities began to outlaw the game, and before long, faro parlors vanished in most eastern cities.  But, in the West, the game flourished.  Nightly fights in a bar are hardly good for business, so in many towns, the House simply rented out the Faro tables to men who could run them and maintain order at the same time: gunfighters.

Some of the most famous lawmen of the Old West, either ran Faro tables on the side, or quit being marshals and sheriffs to be gamblers full time.  Ben Johnson dealt  in the Bulls Head Saloon in Ellsworth, Kansas.  Luke Short ran Faro in Fort Worth’s famous White Elephant Saloon, Arizona.  Bat Masterson, Bill Gates, and Wyatt Earp all ran Faro tables.  Many historians believe that the famous ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ was fought over who got to control the Faro tables in Tombstone, Arizona.

Before long, most of these men were making far more money from gambling than law enforcement. 

Having a notorious gunfighter dealing the cards didn’t stop all the violence, but it slowed it down.  After a while, however, even the Western border towns tired of the fighting in the bars.  One by one, towns began to ban the game.  By 1890, both poker and blackjack were more popular in the West.  By the turn of the century, the game was getting hard to find.

The last games were, of course, played in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The last recorded Faro game was played at the Palace Station in 1979.  Other than a few antique stores, the only remaining Faro table in Vegas is on display at the Clark County Museum.