Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Battle of Mosul, Round One

As I write this, American soldiers are involved in the fighting to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS.  This is the second time American troops have fought in a major engagement here: just a dozen years ago, the Marines maintained a large helicopter base there.

The city, normally home to two million people, is located along the Tigris River in northern Iraq, is situated on the key transportation routes connecting Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, and it is very close to Iraq’s northern oil fields.   Beyond all that, the city has a rich history—a history that includes one of the most important battles in history and one that decided the future of Western Civilization—the Battle of Gaugamela.
Philip II of Macedon trained a magnificent army, but was killed before he could put it to work on its greatest challenge—the planned invasion of Persia.  His son, Alexander, took the army and marched east to confront Persia, a far larger and more powerful nation, that was threatening to invade Greece and expand its territory into what is present-day Europe. 
As Alexander left Greece, he left half of his army behind to secure his base there. There would be no revolts while he was busy conquering the world.
Alexander’s opponent in Asia was Darius III, who had ascended to the throne of Persia in 336 B.C.—the very same year that Alexander himself had become king in Macedon. As with most Persian successions, Darius had faced challenges—mostly from his own family—but by the end of 335 B.C. he was secure on his throne and could devote his full attention to the threat from the west and his dream of expansion.
That threat materialized when Alexander crossed into Asia in the spring of 334 B.C. The reported size of Alexander’s expeditionary force varies among ancient sources, but he probably had a fighting force of about 35,000 men.  Of these, the best were the 1,800 Macedonian cavalry, called The Companions, who were fiercely loyal to the young king.
Alexander’s army was a formidable, flexible, integrated force, and was already well-practiced in the art of slaughtering its opponents. The Persians did not realize it yet, but they were in serious trouble.
When Alexander crossed into Asia in the spring 334 B.C., he jumped from his boat and speared the ground in a symbolic act of claim by conquest. He also visited Troy and honored his legendary ancestor, Achilles.  Now that the  religious matters had been seen to, Alexander took his army inland: the great adventure had begun.
Some of the Persian leaders urged Darius to not confront Alexander immediately, but to retreat eastward to draw Alexander away from the coast, while simultaneously destroying the farmlands and the food warehouses in front of the Macedonian army.  Had Darius employed this strategy, a few history books would have a small footnote about an obscure military leader named, "Alexander the Schmuck".  However...
The two armies met at Granicus, beside the Mediterranean, in what today would be northern Syria.  Despite being outnumbered, Alexander was quickly victorious, slaughtering the Persian force.  The Persians had relied on mercenaries for the battle and had badly underestimated Alexander's abilities.  Darius would not make the same mistake twice.
The exact size of the Persian army is not known, since every writer in the last two millennia has (in the interest of a good story, of course), exaggerated the size of the losing army while minimizing the size of the victors.  One source—probably the distant ancestor of Baghdad Bob—put the size of the Persian Army at 600,000.  A more credible number is about 100,000 (including many tens of thousands of Persian cavalry).
Darius decided to refight the battle of Granicus at Issus, but even with a larger force, this was a foolish mistake.  (In all fairness, Darius had not been present at Granicus, so we cannot judge him quite so harshly.)  He maneuvered his large army onto a narrow strip of land that was bordered by the sea on one side and mountains of the other.  The overly confident Darius waited for Alexander, who once again used his superior cavalry to cut through the Persian Army, sending the Persians into flight. 
So complete was Alexander’s victory that he even captured Darius’ baggage train with its huge sums of money, Darius’ wife and son, and the Royal Mother!  The Battle of Issus handed the entire western half of the Persian Empire to Alexander, but the big battle for the whole of Persia was still ahead.
In the months after Issus, Darius sent a series of letters and embassies to Alexander seeking some sort of a negotiated settlement on increasingly generous terms. The story goes that when he finally offered to cede Persian holdings west of the Euphrates, along with a vast ransom for his still-captive family, Alexander’s closest confident and commander of the remainder of the cavalry, Parmenio, commented, “If I were Alexander, I would accept that offer,” to which Alexander replied, “If I were Parmenio, I would too. But I am Alexander.”  So the king responded to Darius in the most arrogant terms.  He already owned the territories west of the Euphrates and he’d be coming for the rest soon enough.
For two years, Alexander busied himself subduing today's Syria and Egypt, while Darius raised yet another army.  Denied the resources of his western empire, Darius had assembled an army from the eastern sectors of his realm.  Once again, we aren’t certain of the size—one contemporary reported it as an even million infantry with almost half that many cavalry—but  there can be no doubt that it was at least as big as the army at the previous battle, if not larger.  Hazarding a conservative guess, we may imagine it as over 100,000 strong, with perhaps 40,000 of that total being cavalry.
In addition, Darius had 200 scythed chariots, a most mysterious but evidently fearsome-looking contraption—we aren’t sure what they looked like—and probably very effective against peasant armies. However, these vehicles were far less effective against disciplined ranks of infantry.
The real strength of Darius’ army lay in its cavalry. Darius sent scouts ahead to find suitable ground and a site was chosen at Gaugamela, not far from modem Mosul in Northern Iraq. Darius deployed his troops with hills behind him and a plain in front of him, and made sure the plain was perfect for his chariots.  Entrenched, the Great King waited for Alexander to accept his challenge and while he waited, he had his forces smooth out the ground of the plain for those chariots.
Alexander made his way into Northern Mesopotamia and, since it was no secret where Darius and his huge army were located, directed his army to meet the Great King and his troops without too much trouble.  The march from Egypt took the best part of four months. At 9:00 a.m. the twentieth of September 331 B.C., there was an eclipse of the moon, which was noted by the Macedonians the night before they left the banks of the Tigris to meet Darius. Since it is recorded that eleven days elapsed between the eclipse and the battle, we can date Gaugamela precisely to the first of October 331 B.C. On that single and remarkable day, the fate of the largest land empire yet seen on earth was decided.
For an ancient battle, while Gaugamela is exceptionally well documented, we still wish there were more detail of exactly what happened.  Four different writers recorded what happened, but they were limited to reporting what happened in their individual area of the battle.  Partly because of the huge dust cloud generated, and partly because of the natural fog of war, their accounts are limited, but the general course of the battle is known.
Alexander drew up his army in the standard formation with his Greek phalanxes and the infantry in the center, with Parmenio and the allied cavalry on the left, and with Alexander, himself, at the head of his Companions on the right.  However, there were two changes to this standard formation: first, a second phalanx of Greek allies and mercenaries was drawn up behind and parallel to the main phalanx. Second, light-armed and cavalry detachments were stationed on the extreme left and right of the forward formation, but moved back slightly to guard the flanks and cover the gap between the two phalanxes. These troops were positioned for defense, since Alexander expected the larger Persian force to flank his force on both sides—ordinarily a sure sign of an imminent military disaster.
As it advanced, Alexander’s army moved toward the right, where the Persian overlap was most pronounced. Now this may have been an intentional move, intended to generate uncertainty among the Persians and a probe for weaknesses, or it could have been an error. Whatever the case, the rightward shift worked wonders for Alexander. Darius opened by sending his scythed chariots and some of the cavalry units into action, but these had no  real effect. The skirmishers on Alexander's side handled the chariots easily enough, mostly by killing their horses. (You never see this in the movies, but if you really want to stop that stagecoach—shoot the lead horse.  The whole contraption will go ass over teacups—a technical term, of course.)
In the face of the rightward shift of the Macedonian army, a gap opened between the Persian center and its left wing, which was wheeling around in the anticipated flanking movement. Alexander and his Companions were perfectly placed on the right to take advantage of this gap, and wedged the cavalry relentlessly into this gap, assailing the wings of the Persian center and left and pushing to get to the rear to reach Darius himself, who retreated.  The phalanx now engaged the Persian center and began its terrifying work of butchery.  Gaugamela was, in the end, a classic hammer-and-anvil battle, with the Persians pinned by the phalanx while the cavalry drove to the rear.
On the left, Parmenio’s job was merely to hold his command and prevent the Persians from getting in behind the Macedonian line. But he was under immense pressure. Pinned down, a gap appeared in the Macedonian line to the right of Parmenio’s position as the phalanx moved up to engage the Persians—a gap, in fact, almost identical to the one that had appeared in the Persian line. Indeed, some Persian cavalry drove through this gap, but uselessly attacked the Macedonian camp, before the reserve phalanx moved up to neutralize them.
Parmenio sent riders to the king asking for assistance anyway, messages that probably never got through to Alexander. Somehow, Parmenio held out unassisted, and the phalanx, having dispensed with the Persian center, now came to his relief. As word filtered down the Persian line that Darius had fled, the will to fight vanished and the Persians broke and ran.  Since much of the Persian army was cavalry and the ground around them open, casualties probably were only a few thousand. The greatest Macedonian losses were on the hard-pressed left, under Parmenio, but overall they were minimal, only a few hundred.  For so great a reward as the Persian Empire, the cost in lives had been remarkably low.

Darius fled in fear for his life, only to be murdered by one of his own generals the following summer.  Alexander went on, of course, to conquer the rest of the Persian Empire.
Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian throne. The two main sources of that victory were his driving charge into the gap on the Persian right and Parmenio’s superb holding action on the left.  Had either failed, the outcome of the day would have been very different.
This was clearly a turning point in history: had Darius won, he undoubtedly would have expanded his empire into present day Europe, well before the rise of the Roman Empire.  The modern world might have looked very different had he succeeded.
Alexander probably should have stopped and consolidated his gains, but he continued eastward.  A less powerful Persian Empire would eventually rise after his death, but by then the Roman Empire would have replaced the Macedonians as the great power in the West.
Once again, we are at Mosul, and once again, we are fighting an eastern force threatening to overrun Europe.  I leave it to you whether we have anyone even faintly resembling modern-day equivalents of either Darius or Alexander--and who that might be.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

It Started With Carla

Hurricane season is over for the year, but all of us vividly remember the television images of Hurricane Matthew bouncing up the East coast, with the Weather Service making hourly updates on where it might land.  And, as the hours and days passed, the updates constantly proved the earlier predictions incorrect.

The Weather Service gave us hourly predictions of the storm’s probable path, based on the latest computer modeling that accurately predicted that the storm would do something, somewhere, at some time.  Mark Twain once said the most ignorant thing imaginable was a lady’s watch, but I think it safe to add the weather service to that list.

Dan Rather was once asked where he thought a hurricane would make landfall.  He answered that he had no idea, but was pretty sure it would not hit Virginia Beach.  When asked how he could be so sure, he answered, “Well, the Reverend Pat Robertson has his headquarters in Virginia Beach, and he prays the hurricanes away.”  So far, his predictions have been perfect.

I can talk about weather from experience:  after six years of living on Galveston Island, followed by three decades of living in the high plains desert of New Mexico, I’ve seen a lot of weather.  Between the two locations, I’ve seen a thunder snow, a flood caused by a 10% chance of light showers, several sandstorms, and the memorable day it rained mud.  Not only did the weather service get most of this incorrect, but at least one of the possible tracks for Hurricane Matthew had it get fairly close to New Mexico.  (And I’ve seen a couple of hurricanes up close—I have the scars and a slight limp to prove it.)

I can’t be the only one who is tired of watching the news channels  report about storms by having someone (usually a reporter we have never heard of) standing out in the weather, telling us how dangerous—and difficult—it is to be an idiot standing out in the middle of gale force (or higher) winds.  Usually, shortly after saying this, several teenaged morons in bathing suits will be seen running past the reporter as they play in the rain.  I can excuse the teenagers for thisafter all, they are the flower of American youth—blooming idiots.

What I cannot excuse, however, is the stupid reporter who is standing out in the storm, with the wind almost blowing him away, as he reminds us, not to venture out in the storm.  I’d be willing to bet that at least half the viewers are wishing for a piece of errant roofing material to suddenly decapitate the idiot on live television. 

Who started this nonsense?  I blame it on Dan Rather.

In 1961, Dan Rather was the news director of KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas.  A good Texan who had spent most of his life on the Gulf Coast, Dan knew something about hurricanes, and he knew more than a little about good television.  At the time, KHOU was working hard to build ratings, mainly by focusing on violence.  As Rather explained in his autobiography The Camera Never Blinks, “Houston was big on fires and car wrecks and murders.”  The inside joke at KHOU was that the best stories focused on FUZZ (the police) and WUZ (the deceased).

A good hurricane would be even better, and Rather was watching one that had just crossed the Yucatan peninsula.  In addition, he knew a few things the rest of the local news people did not:  if the hurricane got near to Galveston, access to and escape from the island via the causeway would be cut off quickly by the rising water.  More important, he knew that the Galveston office of the Weather Service (then called the Weather Bureau) had the only radar scope on the Gulf coast.  This would show the storm’s approach toward Texas and long before the storm actually hit land (and thus hours before any other news agency had any television footage), Rather could show the storm approaching the coast.

So, Rather moved the station’s mobile unit to the offices of the Galveston Weather Service, that was then located on the fifth floor of the post office building and waited.  Sure enough, the storm made its way toward the island and the storm surge cut off the causewaythe single highway link connecting Galveston to the mainland.  Since the radar screen was hard to interpret, a clear plastic overlay showing the Texas coast was laid on top of the scope.  Viewers were astonished to see the massive storm, estimated at 400 miles wide, approaching the coast.

The WSR-57 radar was primitive by today’s standards, but this was the first time a live radar image was broadcast to show a hurricane.  This event changed television news reporting forever.

KHOU not only won the ratings war but its dramatic reporting of the storm's approach prompted the largest peacetime evacuation of civilians in history up to that date: an estimated 350,000 people fled the coast.  For days, Rather reported from Galveston as the storm landed just a few miles south of the island.  Rather was smart enough not to go stand in the storm, but took live photos out the fifth floor window.  His coverage was picked by the station’s network, CBS, and seen by damn near everyone in the country.  At one point, Walter Cronkiteanother good Texanjoked that because of rising water, “Dan Rather was ass deep in water moccasins.”

The snake story was a little fanciful.  Far be it from me to say that a fellow Texan stretched the truth, but while I have seen a lot of snakes following a storm on that island, I’ve never seen them five stories deep.

It doesn’t matter--Dan Rather’s fortune was made.  CBS had seen him think on his feet, had seen him cover a live event, and they hired him away from KHOU television.  Two years later, he was delivering film to a bureau office in Dallas while President Kennedy was passing through town.  Not directly connected to the news coverage of the day, he decided to walk over and see the presidential motorcade pass by.  He arrived at the grassy knoll overlooking Dealey Plaza just in time to see the panic following the president's assassination.

I’m sure that there are lots of reporters who would say that Dan Rather was just lucky.  Possibly trueafter all, Dan Rather certainly had the luck that frequently comes to people who work hard.  But ever since Carla, every time a storm gets close enough to photograph, every local reporter who owns a rain coat heads to the beach and hopes that lightning will strike twice.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Prisoner #1524

The fever was raging through the federal prison, with as many as thirty men a day falling to the dreaded disease.  As fast as the patients became ill, they were loaded onto a small boat—so small that the sick had to sit up in it—and rowed the two and a half miles to a small hospital located on an isolated key, or island. 

Fort Jefferson was located on Garden Key, located three hundred miles west of Miami.  The actual fort occupied 2/3 of the twenty-five acres that made up the tiny waterless island, and the large brick fort housed 486 soldiers, 527 prisoners, and the lighthouse keeper and his family.  In addition, many of the officers had brought their wives and children to the tiny fortress island.  Altogether, the tiny island was crowded with people who formed a strange community.  Considering the remoteness of the location, the garrison had the most useless extra security imaginable:  it was surrounded by a moat containing a man-eating shark.  (And yes, on at least one occasion, it ate a prisoner who was attempting to escape).

Fort Jefferson had been under continual construction since 1846, and was still not yet finished.  All of the building materials had to be imported.  Millions of bricks were brought in from Maine, lumber from Georgia, and cement from Boston.  Food for both the prisoners and the soldiers was shipped from Florida, and even the soldiers were imported from the North, as in these days just following the close of the Civil War, the US Army consisted solely of Union troops while the South underwent reconstruction.

The small collection of islands were called the Dry Tortugas, though the press frequently referred to the federal prison as the American Devil’s Island.  Duty on the isolated garrison  was so harsh that the Army had learned that military units stationed there had to be rotated regularly to prevent mutiny.  This policy was only partially successful, as soldiers deserted from the island about as often as prisoners escaped.

For the prisoners, the fortress had the reputation for being the worst prison in the country.  The hot weather, the humidity, and the endless sun were relentless.  The prisoners were attacked daily by insects, particularly by the swarms of mosquitoes that never left the island.  Just as harsh was the discipline.  Since the prison housed the very worst of the nation's prisoners, the murderers and traitors who made up the majority of the inmates were dealt with cruelly.  Prisoners were flogged, beaten, hung by their thumbs, or given long stretches in what the soldiers referred to as the “dungeon.”  Above the entrance to this lightless cell hung an ominous sign, “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind.”

Most prisoners were forced to wear heavy chains, and for the slightest infraction of the prison rules, a 32-pound cannon ball would be added to the chains.  But the wearing of chains did not exempt the prisoners from the work details.  To complete the misery, the food on the small island was all but inedible.  With few vegetables other than potatoes, almost no fruit, and the rotting meat, both the soldiers and prisoners were frequently sick.

Epidemics on the island, however, were all but unknown.  Due to the island’s enforced isolation, infectious diseases were rare.  This changed the first week of August 1867, when Captain George Crabbe returned from a furlough in Havana.  Almost immediately after he returned, he began complaining of a fever and was quarantined in the garrison hospital.  Vomiting started two days later; it was clear at first, but then it turned black.  Within five days, Captain Crabbe died from Yellow Fever.

Yellow Fever is a viral disease that killed one out of five people stricken with the mysterious illness.  Victims complained of intense headaches, fevers, chills, and frequent vomiting.  The patient’s skin turned yellow as the liver slowly ceased to function.  Dark bruises appeared on the victim’s skin and the more severely afflicted began to cough up what looked like coffee grounds—in reality coagulated blood as the victim began to drown in his own blood.

Unfortunately, how the disease spread, what caused it, and even any means to effectively treat it were completely unknown.  The most popular theory was that the disease was caused by an "imbalance of humors" and the result of "bad air".  A common prevention was to open more windows and let in more good air (and a few more mosquitoes).  It is the blackest ironic humor to consider that this disease (like malaria and several others) probably came to the new world in the water barrels of slave ships.  The Amazon rainforest was not a mystery well into the twentieth century because travel to it was difficult—it was because travel in the mosquito-infested wetlands would kill explorers with the diseases that the Europeans had brought there.

For a week, every inhabitant of the tiny island lived in fear.  Would the disease spread?  One week later, everyone on the island knew the answer.  Men began staggering to the prison hospital, their throats inflamed, complaining of fever and chills.  At first, the garrison doctor tried to handle the flood, but then he caught the disease.  By now, two-thirds of the soldiers and inmates were suffering from the same disease.

With no other doctor on the island, Major Stone, the garrison commander, was forced to turn to prisoner #1524, a convicted felon serving a life sentence.  He was presently assigned to a building detail, but before his imprisonment, he had been a practicing physician.

The prisoner, a Southerner had been given a sentence far more severe than his crime, and had been sent to the prison in the hopes he would perish there.  Within months of his arrival, he learned that the new troops being sent to the island were a black unit, and it was rumored that they would exact revenge against Southern prisoners, especially former slave owners like prisoner #1524.  Frightened for his life, he had attempted an escape, been caught, and given heavy chains to wear, condemned to the dungeon for a long confinement, and been assigned the harshest work detail.  The former doctor had no reason to help the commanding officer.  Since most people believed that the disease was spread by contact, the prisoner would be safer if he refused.  (And Major Stone expected the prisoner to refuse, in part as a Southern statement against Northern reconstruction).

Prisoner #1524 accepted the job, took command of the prison hospital and immediately began caring for the sick.  Even today, the only treatment available for those suffering from Yellow Fever is to give them plenty of fluids, make them comfortable, and wait for the fever to pass.  In the nineteenth century, physicians expected a 25% mortality rate, a rate that was much higher than the patients suffered under the care of the prisoner physician.

For 47 days, Prisoner #1524 cared for the sick.  He brought back those removed to the island hospital, correctly reasoning that better care could be given if the sick were together in one facility.  He trained nurses, expanded the hospital, and watched as slowly, the sick began improving.  And shortly after a physician from Florida finally arrived to assist him, Prisoner #1524 caught the disease himself.

The prisoner/physician recovered, and Major Stone did not put him back in leg irons.  Instead, he was given work in the prison hospital.  And three hundred soldiers signed a petition to the President of the United States, requesting that he grant an amnesty to the prisoner they credited to saving their lives. 

Even a century and a half ago, Washington moved slowly.  On February 8, 1869, during his last month in office, President Andrew Johnson finally signed an amnesty for Dr. Samuel Mudd, citing his courageous work during the 1867 epidemic.  Dr. Mudd was released from prison one month later, returning to his Maryland farm, where he resumed his medical practice.

There is still no conclusive proof that Dr. Mudd was an active member of the group that assassinated President Lincoln—all that can be proved is that Dr. Mudd met with John Wilkes Booth twice in the months before the president was killed, then just hours after Booth shot Lincoln, Dr. Mudd cared for Booth in his home and set his broken leg.  Dr. Mudd’s military trial was a farce, his harsh sentence was dictated more by hatred than by justice.  Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Dr. Mudd, Prisoner #1524, certainly earned his release.

While the insult “Your name is mud” was used decades before the Lincoln assassination in England, it became a popular phrase in America because of Dr. Mudd’s conviction.  Considering his heroic acts at Fort Jefferson, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the phrase.  Maybe it’s a compliment.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Five-In-One

Almost as soon as there were movies, there were Westerns.  Usually listed as the first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery was a twelve-minute movie filmed in 1903.  Its iconic last scene shows one of the robbers aiming his six-shooter directly at the camera and then repeatedly firing the gun directly into the face of the startled viewer.  A similar scene was used to conclude Goodfellas, and Tombstone, and the last episode of Breaking Bad.

Actually, if you watch the ending (and the movie can be found on YouTube) you will notice that the actor tries—unsuccessfully—to fire his six-shooter seven times.  Evidently, the movie industry had not yet perfected the movie gun that never needs reloading.

This was not the first Western subject ever filmed, however.  Edison had already filmed blacksmiths, Sioux Indians, and both Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley firing their guns.  Almost immediately, there were problems with movies and firearms. 

Firearms manufactured exclusively for the motion picture industry did not yet exist.  Today, there are non-firing replicas, rubber guns, guns that operate by burning propane, and futuristic devices so strange looking that the audience has to be told that they represent weapons.  These replicas frequently cause their own problems.  Rubber guns bounce when dropped, and there is at least one episode of the Netflix series Bloodlines where the villain pushes his gun so violently against the head of the hero that the barrel is clearly bent!

Unfortunately, if you know this, it changes your perception of the movies a little.  In Die Hard, the Beretta Bruce Willis is using isn’t even remotely real.  And there are no "lethal weapons" of any sort in Lethal Weapon.  Strangest of all is that four-shot rocket launcher that Arnold Schwarzenegger uses in Commando:  It’s actually a flamethrower from the Vietnam War.  I’m at a complete loss to explain why the director felt the need to do that and can only guess that, maybe, he thought that anyone stupid enough to pay to see what may well be the worst movie ever made would be too stupid to know the difference between a flamethrower and a rocket launcher.  (And for the record, I only saw it on cable.  Leave me alone...I had major surgery!)

There is an oft-told (which means it is also probably apocryphal) story about the origin of the Star Trek phasers.  The studio was highly sensitive to the possibility of violating industry standards (While endless numbers of villains could be shot, there could be no depiction of blood, or graphic gun violence on television during what was then called the "Family Hour").  Gene Roddenberry solved this problem by equipping his "space cowboys" with ray guns that simply made the victims vanish (or sometimes merely stunned them—the Star Trek equivalent of shooting the gun out of the villains' hands).

In the early days of filming westerns, the firearm supply problem was solved simply by using real guns.  Although they were supposedly loaded with "safe" blanks, accidents were frequent.  It is surprising how often people injure themselves with “harmless” blanks.  A blank round is a cartridge that does not contain a projectile.  It does, however, still contain gunpowder so that when  fired, the blank’s powder is still ignited, there is still a loud report, the gunpowder still produces a bright flash, and depending on the type of powder used in the blank, it still produces a large cloud of smoke.  The only thing that is missing is the projectile—the actual bullet. 

This does not mean a blank cartridge is harmless by any stretch of the imagination.  The explosive force of the gas exiting the barrel of the gun is still dangerous and potentially fatal.  The most famous example of this was the death of Jon-Erik Hexum on the set of the CBS television show Cover Up.  Between takes, Hexum playfully put the muzzle of a revolver to his head and said, “Let’s see if I get myself with this one.”  He then pulled the trigger.  The force of the fired blank drove a quarter-inch piece of his skull deep into his brain, killing him.

Years ago, I worked at a living history museum here in New Mexico.  Annually, there would be a reenactment of a local Civil War battle, featuring people who were dressed in period costumes and who were also equipped with replica guns.  And each year, I would refuse to be on the property while such foolishness was afoot.  All one of the costumed soldiers would have had to do would have been to lean on his musket—muzzle down—and inadvertently pick up a stone, thus transforming a movie prop into a deadly weapon.  For a variety of reasons, I absolutely refuse to be the last Texan killed in the Civil War.

If this sounds like a remote possibility to you, I would point out this is exactly how Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts star Bruce Lee, died while filming The Crow.  A prop pistol was loaded with a combination of non-firing cartridges and blanks.  Somehow, the bullet from one of the non-firing cartridges became dislodged and stuck in the barrel.  When one of the blanks was fired, the stuck bullet struck the actor in abdomen.  Lee died of internal bleeding twelve hours later.

In more modern movies, the guns rarely actually fire any kind of missile.  In some cases, the firearms are either carefully manufactured from plastic and rubber, or they are real guns that are so heavily modified that even experts have trouble recognizing the resultant firearm.  On the television show Firefly, Malcolm Reynold's gun started out as a standard Taurus revolver that had enough plastic pieces glued to it that it looked more like something out of the American Civil War than a modern firearm.  

This amount of modification is nothing compared to what was done to create the firearm Harrison Ford carried in Bladerunner.  A Charter Arms revolver had the trigger assembly from a rifle attached to it, in order to create a pistol with one barrel, two triggers, and a bolt action.  For visual impact, a half-dozen LED lights were also added, with the resulting conglomeration being called the "LAPD 2019 Blaster".  If someone had ever actually tried to fire this weird collection of parts, I wouldn't want to be within a mile of it.

What a contrast to the early days of cowboy movies, when movie directors just grabbed a bewildering array of real, though aging, weapons—usually with little regard for the historical accuracy of the time of the weapon's manufacture.  (In The Rifleman, although Lucas McCain was living in New Mexico in 1881, he somehow had acquired an 1892 Winchester .44-40!).  While these old firearms were probably cheap to purchase, it was a nightmare both logistically and in terms of safety.  Could a .45 Long Colt round be used safely in a .45-70 rifle?  And how many different versions of blank rounds did you need on hand if you were using guns chambered for .44-40, .44 Special, and .44 Mag? 

The answer was the creation of the 5-in-1 blank:  a single blank round that could be safely used in .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Long Colt revolvers as well as .38-40 and .44-40 Winchester rifles.  This eliminated a lot of confusion and made using these actual firearms safer for everyone on the set.  There were still a few small problems, of course.  The rounds were way too loud, and the recoil from the rounds was difficult for some actors to use.

The solution has been to manufacture the 5-in1 blanks with varying amounts of gunpowder.  The rounds with only a quarter of the normal amount of gunpowder are normally used while shooting indoors or around horses.  Later, in editing, the gun's report can be changed to make the sound more realistic.  Blanks loaded with half the amount of gunpowder can be used safely outdoors and have very little recoil, while fully loaded blanks give a realistic—and painful—loud report and provide a realistic recoil.  Another special version is manufactured with black powder instead of the more modern smokeless powder and is the version used by the director if he wants a large cloud of dense smoke.

On the set where they filmed the television series Wyatt Earp, the late Hugh O'Brian insisted on full loads for the sake of realism.  Since just about the only other accurate thing on this show was the spelling of the lawman's name, in retrospect, it seems a trivial matter, especially when you consider that O'Brian went almost completely deaf after 6 seasons. 

Note.  This is something they never show in movies:  If you go to the local gun range, after only a few rounds are fired, you'll notice that everyone is talking very loudly.  This is because even with good ear protection, guns are extremely noisy and after even a single gunshot, your ears are ringing.  And that's if you are firing outside.  If you fire a gun indoors, or inside a car, I can guarantee you that thirty-seconds later you will not be having a quiet conversation with anyone.

Over the years, the 5-in-1 blank round was modified several times.  First, the round was changed so it would not work in a .38-40, but despite the fact that the round would now only fit in 4 different firearms, the name was not changed.  Then the casing was changed slightly so the round would fit in .44 Special and .44 Magnum pistols and rifles.  Thus, by now, the usually plastic-cased round should be called the "Eight-in-One", but to this day, Hollywood continues to use the same old name for the sake of convenience.

So, if you are watching a Western tonight, and it was filmed any time after the actors started talking, you can ignore the rounds the cowboy has stuffed in his gun belt.  No matter how macho and steely-eyed the hero is, his gun probably is filled with a plastic cartridge with only a small pinch of gunpowder.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Who Is That Masked Man?

I spent part of my week discussing literature with a colleague who is also recently retired from Enema U.  Jesus Barquet is probably the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to Spanish literature.  I say this even though he dislikes my favorite Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes.  I think it is a high mark of our friendship that Jesus is willing to be completely wrong about Fuentes just to appear humble.

We were discussing the story of El Cid and how the tale of this eleventh century hero shapes the story of other heroes in so much of Latin American literature.  Usually loners, these heroes fight against impossible odds and against an unjust officialdom; their cause is eventually triumphant, (although that triumph occasionally comes after the hero's death).  You can find certain similarities between the story of El Cid and the stories of many of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution.  (Well, we did, but we may have been slightly influenced by some Cuban rum).

Note.  I’ll give a quick example just to prove it wasn’t all rum.  Among the stories of El Cid is a tale that after his death, his body was tied upright on Babieca, his white stallion, in order to confuse the Moorish army.  In Morelos, decades after Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated, the local peasants maintained that the revolutionary could still be seen riding his white stallion along the mountain ridges, still waiting for land reform.

After we had discussed Mexican literature for a while, it was only natural for us to wonder whether this same medieval literature had influences north of the border.  Could we find a similar example in the stories and literature of the borderlands?  In fact, I have a strange candidate for you, but let us start at the beginning. 

Salomon Pico was only ten days old when Mexico won her independence from Spain.  Born in California, he was the son of a prominent family and was a cousin to the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico.  When his father died, Pico returned to Monterrey, the capital of Alta California, where he received an education and was introduced to society.  He married well, and received a land grant from the government for 58,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley.

No one is certain about all the details ok, but Pico probably fought in the Mexican-American War on the Mexican side.  Family stories indicate he might have been a military scout.  Whatever his role, the brief fighting in California ended long before the war was over, so Pico was probably home with his family by the time the war was over and California was annexed by the United States.  At that time, the population of California was very low, and Salomon Pico’s family would probably have been left alone—had not someone discovered gold at Sutter’s Creek.

Overnight, Americans stampeded to the territory and poured onto Pico’s land.  Exactly what happened is disputed, but one story is that a party of miner’s raped and killed Pico’s beloved wife, Juana.  Another story is that the miner’s brought disease with them, and when Juana became ill, Salomon took her to Monterrey where she died in late 1848.

Pico could neither farm nor raise cattle on his land grant as he had no way of forcing the trespassing miners off his land.  Harboring a powerful hatred of Americans, Pico moved southward, out of the gold country and into cattle country.  As with every other “gold rush”, the people who became wealthy were not the miners, but those who sold food and supplies to the minters.  Suddenly, the cattlemen of Santa Barbara were becoming rich selling meat to the hungry miners.

By the same token, Salomon Pico and his gang got rich by robbing the miners as they rode south into cattle country.  Some of the miners were never seen again, though years later, bullet-riddled remains were found in the countryside.  According to one source, Pico began taking souvenirs from those he robbed:  he would cut an ear off his victim.  Another story held that his favorite weapon was his riata, or lariat, that he used to break the necks of his victims.

Pico enjoyed the admiration of the local people and obviously no small amount of unofficial protection from the local authorities.  Since the Hispanic population, the ‘Californios’, were still in the majority in the Southern part of the state, the locals who were arrested and tried could usually depend on a split jury.  Pico became so popular with the locals—who felt he was defending his people from injustice—that it was frequently said that locals would allow him to ride his horse into their homes in order to hide from a posse.

Salomon Pico quickly became notorious—partly because of his new-found wealth, and partly because of his distinctive dress.  Pico rode a black horse and was dressed all in black except for the scarlet sash around his waist, into which he tucked a Colt revolver. He was also armed with a shotgun in a scabbard and a long knife that was only partially concealed by his elaborately stitched boots..

Unfortunately, fame eventually was Pico's undoing.  He was flamboyant, so he was too easy to remember and identify.  Vigilante gangs were formed and they vowed to lynch the bandit if they caught him.  Pico fled south, from California into Mexico.  Whether he was executed there when the Mexican government began arresting local bandits in an effort to pacify the border region is still debated, but there is one more story about Pico that is fairly well established. 

In 1857, four American businessmen were arrested in Santo Tomas, Baja California, and placed in jail.  Pico had accepted the position of Captain of the Guard for the local presidio, and it was his job to guard the prisoners.  Tensions along the border were high, and many thought it was only a matter of time before a race war broke out between the Americans and the Californios.  Around midnight, a mob of angry Mexicans marched to the jail with the intent of hanging the four Americans.

Salomon Pico, placing himself between the mob and the jail cell, talked the mob into going home.  Somehow, Pico had evolved from defending just his own people to defending justice for everyone.

Four decades after his death, his story was resurrected.  A police reporter from back east, Johnston McCulley served as a public affairs officer in California during the first World War.  During his spare time, he studied local history and began writing short stories for pulp magazines.  Using over a dozen pseudonyms, he made up stories about an incredible list of characters:  The Spider, The Mongoose, Thubway Tham, The Thunderbolt, The Crimson Clown, and Black Star—and you are forgiven if you have never heard of any of them. 

But one story, The Curse of Capistrano, which was written in 1919 and serialized in Argosy Magazine, featured a character you probably have heard of—Zorro.  A masked vigilante of justice who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, he fought injustice and left his mark, not by cutting off ears, but by engraving a ‘Z’ into the clothing of the hapless army of the corrupt local governor.  Zorro was quite obviously patterned after Salomon Pico.

The story is a quick and interesting read.  Similarities with the Story of Salomon Pico—including an account in which Zorro rides his horse, Toronado (tornado), into the home of a peasant to avoid a posse—can be found in every chapter. 

Within a year, Tyrone Power and Mary Pickford made a movie based on the story which was re-released as a book with the same title—The Mark of Zorro.  McCulley, over the next three decades, wrote dozens more stories and novels about Zorro, who has been in over forty movies (two are in the works as I write this with one somewhat improbably set in the future) and a dozen television series.

Bob Kane credited Zorro as the inspiration for Batman, and to make sure that no one missed the point, had Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered as they came out of the theater after watching Tyrone Power in the movie, The Mark of Zorro.  But should it really have been titled, The Mask of Pico?  Or The Mask of El Cid?