Saturday, February 25, 2017

Brazos Ghost Story

Mike was sitting at the breakfast table working on his second cup of coffee when his wife walked in.

“You're up early this morning," she said as she poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot.

The old rancher smiled at his wife.  Barbara was his second (and younger) wife—the one his jealous friends had called his "trophy wife".

"It's all your fault," he said.  "You were having a nightmare and I found a new way to calm you down without waking you up.  All I have to do is wrap my arms around you and put my hand on your breast."

"Uh-huh," answered his wife, a look of clear skepticism visible on her face.  "So why are you awake?"

"I wrapped my arms around you and put my hand on your breast.  What was your nightmare about anyway?"

Barbara sat down at the table with her cup of coffee and began stirring in the sugar.  "The church group women were telling me this long ghost story about someone named Ted Mays.  Seems half the people in town saw him driving around town after he had died and been buried.  They said he got up out of his grave and then drove all over town.  Several of the women swore they saw him in the broad daylight and he waved at them.  I don't believe in ghost stories, but this one must have got to me."

"Ted Mays?  The cattle buyer?” snorted the old rancher.  "Hell, they didn't bury that scoundrel.  He was so crooked that when he died, they just screwed him straight into the ground.  And I know for a fact that he stayed there.  Hell, he was too damn lazy to move an extra ten feet while he was alive, much less after he kicked the bucket.  He ain't no ghost."

"Several of the women said they had seen him riding in town.  You know Debbie:  she hasn't got the brains to make up something, bless her heart."

"I'll tell you what.  You cook me some biscuits and gravy for breakfast, and I'll tell you what happened." 

Then Mike told the story...and he knew it well since he had been part of it.  Ted had been a part-time cattle buyer, but his only real interest in life was duck hunting.  The cattle-buying job was just a way of paying the bills until duck hunting season opened.   He took his annual leave each year just as the season opened and for two weeks could be found in his duck blind on the Brazos River, about a mile upriver from the town bridge.  The road to the blind was poor, requiring a 4-wheel drive vehicle to make the trip, but from the rough plywood blind Ted had had built was located right on the waterfowl's flyway, hunters had a great view both up and down the river.

Mike and Kent had both been with Ted that morning.  Having arrived well before dawn, the three men took position in the duck blind and waited for the sun to come up.  As soon as there was a solid glow to the East, Kent had turned to Ted and tried to make a little conversation while they waited for enough light to see the incoming birds.

"How much longer do you think ‘fore it's legal to hunt, Ted?" asked Kent. 

When there was no answer, Mike had nudged Kent.  "Hey, the great hunter is asleep."

Kent looked over at the corner of the blind, where Ted was wedged in the corner of the blind, his massive frame resting on an old wooden bench.  "Yeah, he's asleep.  His eyes are closed."

"Wake him up.  It's too damn cold for anyone to be comfortable.  If I’m freezing, he needs to suffer with me.”

Kent nudged the cattle buyer unsuccessfully a few times, then bent over and carefully examined Ted's face in the dim light of dawn.  "He ain't sleeping.  He's dead,” Kent announced.

Sure enough, Ted had gone out just like he would have wanted, he’d had a heart attack while duck hunting.  He was wedged upright into a corner of the duck blind, with his right elbow resting on the window sill, his arm straight out from his body, with his hand dangling out in the cold morning air.

Mike dug out the cell phone his wife insisted he carry and called the sheriff.  Since there was no way for an ambulance to make its way down to the river, the sheriff told the two ranchers to stay with the body until the county coroner could make his way to the duck blind in a jeep.

Unfortunately, it was well after lunch before the coroner could find someone to run him down the river.  By the time he had finally arrived, half of Santo had called Mike, asking if it was true, had Ted actually died while duck hunting?  Eventually, the phone’s battery had died, giving the two old ranchers a little peace as they waited for the coroner.  They wouldn’t have minded all the phone calls so much if they hadn’t interfered with their duck hunting.

The two old ranchers had held a brief discussion on the propriety of hunting while Ted reposed in the corner of the blind, but had finally decided it was what Ted would have wanted.  Out of respect for the departed, they had only borrowed Ted’s HE Grade Super Fox shotgun a couple of times each.  Using his double barrel was their way of showing tribute.  Least, that’s what they had told each other.

Eventually, the coroner finally arrived and officially announced what the two men had already figured out:   Ted was, indeed, dead.

Mike was just finishing the story as Barbara put the plate of biscuits smothered in gravy in front of him.  “And that’s how the ghost story got started,” Mike said as he reached for the bottle of Tabasco Sauce.

“What?  You haven’t explained anything.  How does a dead man wave at people?” protested Barbara.

“Well,” Mike said.  “By the time the coroner got there, Ted was stiff as a board.  He wouldn’t fit in the jeep, and it just didn’t seem right to let him roll around in the back of the pickup.”

“You mean…”

“Yep, we put him in the passenger seat of the truck.  Had to roll down the window to fit him in.  Wasn’t our fault we had to drive him through the middle of Santo to get to the funeral parlor.  He must have waved at half the people in town before we got there.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Let's Dig Into That

There is a fundamental flaw with archaeology—you can find all the pieces of junk you want, but without written records, there is no way to bury cognitive thought.  Put more simply:  Without writing, there is no way to tell what the people were thinking. 

You can dig up all the shards (glass) and sherds (pottery) you want, but it won't tell you what the user was thinking, believing, or hoping while he accidentally broke the trash you painstakingly dig out of the ground. 

So archaeologists guess based on careful analysis of the material they dig up.  These are educated guesses, but they are still just guesses.  And inevitably some of the guesses are wrong.  What intrigues me are the many, many guesses that turn out to just be flat wrong.

The famous archaeologist and historian Eric Cline has written that if two thousand years from now, archaeologists were to try to understand daily life in the 21st century without the benefit of our written records, they would undoubtedly believe that Starbucks was a religious shrine.  Look at the evidence:  They are centrally located, sometimes duplicated on multiple adjacent street corners, and every one of them features prominent art work of a priestess with flowing hair and rainbows emanating from her head.  

Personally, I think Cline is onto something.  The people I know who frequent Starbucks do so religiously.  Somebody ought to tell those people that Starbucks is experimenting with a new beverage that is fat free, low calorie, and non-gluten:  It's called coffee.

Any mention of incorrect interpretation of archaeology sites has to include one of my favorite books, David Macaulay's "Motel of the Mysteries".  A beautifully illustrated work of comic fiction, Macaulay chronicles a dig in the year 4450 trying to discover what life was like in North America two and half centuries earlier.  Luckily, they have recently discovered the intact ruins of a religious shrine from the period.  (This is roughly the chronological equivalent of our discovering ruins from the founding of Ancient Rome or from the Battle of Thermopylae.)

As they dig into the ruins, they discover the remains of a priest and priestess on a ceremonial platform, facing a religious shrine, with one of them still holding the holy communicator.  Actually, of course, these future archaeologists have located a motel, with the remains of a couple lying on a bed, where they had been watching television, with the TV remote still in hand.

Note.  Never call an archaeologist a “digger”.  They prefer to be called “Archaeo-Americans.”

The book is a work of genius.  Macaulay has carefully depicted scenes from the motel that intentionally mimic Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of King Tut.  And who knows?  Maybe Carter got it all wrong, too. 

Certainly historians and archaeologists make mistakes.  There are the Runamo rocks in Sweden.  If you look carefully, there is a long line of runic figures in the rock, a form of writing on which scholars worked for hundreds of years to decipher the hidden message.  Learned men from all over Europe offered long explanations that confirmed the runes described the life of this king or that saint, or possibly an epic poem about the Danish king, Harold Wartooth.  For centuries, the debate raged over whether the runes should be read left to right or right to left…and I have no doubt that today there would be an army of would-be scholars writing their doctoral dissertations on the mystery had not some damn geologist proved that the "writings" were actually naturally formed cracks in the rocks. 

There is also a wonderful story about the lost brass plate of Sir Francis Drake.  When the explorer sailed along the coast of present day Northern California in 1579, he went ashore and left an inscribed brass tablet to commemorate the occasion, claiming the lands for his queen.  Historians and archaeologists have spent considerable time looking for the brass plate ever since.  One historian, Eugene Bolton of Berkeley, was obsessed with finding it, driving his university colleagues a little mad. 

Bolton belonged to a history club with a drinking problem, the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus.  Supposedly, they were self-professed experts on the qualities of various barroom floors.  When someone discovered Drake’s long lost plate in 1936, Bolton’s friends tried in vain to prevent Bolton from spending his life’s savings—all $2,500—on the artifact. 

Bolton felt vindicated when the plate was authenticated by the California Historical Society and the artifact was variously on display at both the Bancroft Library and the Smithsonian.  Photographs of the plate appeared in textbooks and an exact copy of the plate was presented to Queen Elizabeth II.  Bolton died happy, if somewhat poorer.

Forty years after the plate was purchased, it was scientifically reexamined.  A subsequent investigation proved that the plate was a clever forgery done by Bolton’s colleagues, the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus.  Presumably, the good professor’s "friends" had spent his thousands of dollars on alcohol.  It still belongs to the Bancroft Library, but hasn’t been on display for over a decade.

Besides the occasional mistakes and a hoax or two, sometimes archaeology presents real mysteries.  Such was the case when Leonard Wooley excavated the palace of Nabonidus, the last great king of the Babylonian Empire.  The palace was 2500 years old, but luckily, there were a few mentions of the king in historical documents.  There is a scrap of the Dead Sea Scrolls that mentions him, and the Book of Daniel probably mentions him:

"He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird" (Daniel 4:33).

Ignoring that this is a perfect description of the average academic, today we think that Nabonidus was probably more of an eccentric than the raving lunatic that the Bible describes.  We know he paid scant attention to his official duties, neglected his religious roles, and ignored the needs of his people.  Instead, he spent all his time traveling through the desert examining the ruins of even earlier civilizations. It is possible that Nabonidus was related to Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian King…but we don’t know for sure.  Nor are we sure exactly how he became king—just that the previous king was Labashi-Marduk, a youth who seemed to die suddenly…. Probably just a coincidence.

We do know from other accounts that the kingdom of Nabonidus was conquered by King Cyrus the Great of Persia.  Cyrus was crafty and ambitious, so he allowed Nabonidus to live in relative comfort in his former kingdom, as long as the newly acquired territory continued to pay taxes and join its army to that of Cyrus.  It was, in fact, the conquering of Babylon that created the Persian Empire.

As Wooley excavated the palace, he almost immediately uncovered a problem.  It is one of the cardinal laws of archaeology that stratigraphy indicates age.  Older items are found deeper in a site than newer artifacts.  But in the palace of Nabonidus, this simply wasn’t true.  4500 year-old artifacts from Ur were lying next to 3000 year-old artifacts from Egypt.  And both pieces were inside the remains of a palace that was 2500 years old.

How could this be so?  Imagine that it is 1925 and you are excavating with Leonard Wooley.  What is your explanation?

It took a while, but Wooley finally figured it out.  He was excavating what Nabonidus must have considered his own personal museum.  Nabonidus was as mystified by the ancient ruins present in Babylonia as we are by his civilization.  Those frequent trips he took were to gather artifacts for his collection.  Eventually, Wooley discovered that each piece in the museum was labeled—small clay tablets identified the item in three languages.   

Wooley had excavated the first museum.  Today, many textbooks identify Nabonidus (who was evidently "crazy like a fox") as the “Father of Archaeology”.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Barbecue on the Brazos

The old Rancher stared at the coals in the grill.  Half of the briquettes were still as black as tar, while the other half had turned completely gray, having obviously burned too much to still be useful.  The best he could do was stir them around a little and hope the rest caught fire.  It was too late to wish for evenly burning coals.

"Kent!  Bring me another Tecate, would you?"  Kent, who was over by the back door with the wives, smiled as he grabbed two cans of beer from the cooler and the salt shaker from the table, then walked over to the grill.  Handing one to Mike, he popped the top on his beer and sprinkled the edge with salt before giving the shaker to his friend. 

"I hate cooking with these briquettes, but we don’t get as much mesquite as we used to," Mike said.

"No.  The damn salt cedar is choking the mesquite trees out all along the river."

"Yep.  Forty years ago, when I was working down in Mexico, I helped make charcoal one time.  We dug a big pit in the ground, stacked it full of mesquite wood, and set fire to it.  When the fire was going hot as hell, we covered the top of the pit with corrugated roofing iron, then covered that with about two feet of sand.  The fire was still hot, but was smothered by the lack of oxygen.  When we dug out the pit the next day, we had over 100 pounds of good mesquite charcoal."

"You try that today and I suspect some government agency would arrest you for something or other," Kent said.

"True enough.  'Course, the drought's been so bad lately, this is about as big a fire as I dare start.  It's been so hot and dry….yesterday, I saw a tree chasing my dog."

"You think that's bad?  My neighbor has started a sideline selling barbecue to tourists out of a stand on the highway.  He just hoses his stock down with steak sauce and sends them out to stand in the sun.  Twenty minutes later, the brisket is piping hot and ready to eat.  He's got restaurants all over Fort Worth crying foul about the unfair competition."

"Humph," Mike snorted.  "The first liar ain't got a chance around here."

"I'm looking forward to that steak.  Ruthie's got me on a low cholesterol diet.  I've eaten so much chicken lately, I'm afraid of growing feathers."

"You and me both!  Have you noticed lately that chicken and tomatoes taste like cardboard?  Corn is tasteless, and it seems like nothing has the flavor it used to.  About the only thing that still has flavor is beef, and now I don't get to eat as much as I used to."

"True enough," Kent agreed.  "But to be honest, most of what we used to eat wasn't very good for us.  Most of what we ate was more or less an oily salt lick covered with butter."

Mike carefully turned the steaks over and answered his friend,  "You're right," he said.  "But, I don't know if you've noticed that it's a little too late for us to die young.  Sooner or later we have just got to reach an age where it doesn't matter any more what we eat.  I just hope we reach that age while there's still something worth eating."

Kent took a hit on his beer and asked, “Why were you down in Mexico, anyway?”

“When I was younger and dumber, for a while I thought I might want to be a cattle buyer, so I got a job as a stock handler with a buyer out of Amarillo and went with him to Zacatecas.  I learned a lot on that trip!"

“Such as?”

“Besides how to make charcoal, I learned I really didn’t want to be a cattle buyer.  And I had a great lesson on Mexican food,” Mike said as he tried to evenly distribute the burning coals under the black coals that had yet to catch fire.”

“We were staying in this little hotel next to the old bull ring.  There’s a new and bigger bull ring now, and the old one has been turned into an expensive hotel.  These days, people pay big bucks to spend the night in a former cattle stall.”

“Well, we went to the bull fight and later that night, we ate at this little hole in the wall restaurant next to the bull ring.  While we were sipping our tequila, my boss noticed a sizzling, scrumptious-looking platter being served at the next table. Not only did it look good, the aroma was wonderful, so he asked the waiter, ‘What is that you just served that guy over there?’ " 

“Now the waiter told my boss that this was a special dish, barbecued bull testicles, fresh from the bullring.  Now that cattle buyer just had to have some, but there was only one serving a day, because there was only one bullfight per day.  But, the waiter said that if my boss wanted to come back the next day, he promised to reserve the order for him.”

“My boss agreed,” continued Mike.  “So the next day, after we got finished inspecting the local cattle for sale, we headed back to the restaurant and they brought him a steaming platter, piled high with steaming onions and peppers surrounding a pair of ‘cojones barbacoa’.”

“My boss, loved them, and pretty well demolished that platter.  But as he finished, he waved the waiter over and asked why his dish had seemed smaller than the dish he had seen the day before.”

“The waiter shrugged his shoulders,” Mike said, “and replied, ‘Si, Señor, sometimes the bull wins’.” 

Humph,” Kent snorted.  “The second liar does just fine.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Just a Little Blood

A publisher recently sent me a free book, hoping that I would adopt it in my future classes.  The idea was that I would force this book down the throats of hundreds of students, each of whom would be forced to purchase the overpriced book. 

It's a good scheme, and it works more often than not, but this time there were a couple of flaws.  First, I've retired, and won't be forcing students to buy any books (but publishers, feel free to keep sending me free books).  Second, the book was pure shit (And old rehashed shit, at that).

There are hundreds of bad books extolling the simplistic theory about Native Americans who lived in perfect harmony with nature (as if they'd been simple children in a Garden of Eden until corrupted by the evil influences of the European invaders).  As a theory, this has died out everywhere except on television and in social media.

The only problem is that, even though every historian in the country knows better, books pushing the same old nonsense continue to be written, published, and sold.  There are a host of similar widely held, but preposterous similar subjects:  People in Central America couldn’t have come up with the concept of building pyramids, so there must have been some contact with Egypt that taught them how to build such complicated structures.  In the seventies, there was a prolific author—who damn sure doesn’t need any more publicity from me—who got rich peddling a series of books promoting foolishness about how ancient aliens were responsible for all the new world civilizations.  Such ideas are nonsense at best (and more likely, racist). 

Perhaps we should sit quietly in a corner for a few minutes, in deep introspection and try to figure out why we find these absurd theories so attractive and comforting? 

Did Native Americans live in harmony with nature?  (You know, kind of like Iron Eyes Cody in the classic Keep America Beautiful public service announcement where, after watching people littering along the highway, has a single tear form in his stoic Native American face?  Well, probably not exactly like him, since he was actually Italian and just looked Native American.)  The idea of Indians living in harmony with nature just never seems to die.

Native Americans exploited their environment to the limits of their technological abilities.  It wasn’t Europeans who hunted woolly mammoths to extinction.  And if you need more proof, look at ‘Head-Smashed-In-Site’ in Alberta, Canada.  The Native Americans put up stone markers along a trail for over five miles so they would remember the trail they used to stampede herds of buffalo off a cliff.  Far more animals were killed than were butchered—and the site was used for seven thousand years.  Survival was tough, and Native Americans would have hunted with flame throwers if they could have—and so would you after you skipped about three meals.

Perhaps the best example of an educated scholar refusing to quite literally read the handwriting on the wall is Giles Healey discovering the Bonampak Murals.  Healey was an anthropologist from Yale, who spent years living and working in Central and South America.  Early in his career, he spent two years collecting curare from South American jungles so that the deadly poison could be studied and used in medicine.  During World War II, Healey and his wife moved to Mexico and began searching for new Mayan sites.

It is amazing how much we have learned about the Mayans in the last few decades.  Sites have been located, their written language has been decoded, and thousands of archaeological sites have been located.  When Healey first began his work, however, the established belief was that the Maya were peaceful astronomers, poets, and time keepers living in a Utopian world.

The truth, of course, is that the Maya were ruthless, violent people who sacrificed their victims in the most horrific ways imaginable.  There is not enough room here for a history lecture, but suffice it to say that the Maya were obsessed with blood.  If they could not use blood from victims captured in battle, the Maya used their own blood.  Even their royalty were not exempt:  Mayan kings pierced their genitals and passed ropes of woven thorns through the punctures to produce blood as an offering to the gods.

Note.  This always makes me think of the same two thoughts.  (Well, three, if you count “Ouch!”)  First, this kind of religious belief makes it easy to understand why the Maya converted to Christianity so readily.  A god who died on the cross made perfect sense to them.  Second, if our modern day political leaders were required to do a little genital bloodletting, it might thin out the herd of power-hungry plutocrats a little.

Healey was producing a film about the peaceful Maya when he was led to a previously unknown site, the Bonampak temple.  Inside the temple, the walls contained the magnificent murals that completely rewrote our understanding of the Maya.  The murals covered the walls of three rooms of the temple, and clearly showed the history of a battle, as well as the torture of captured enemies.

Yes, they do show torture...And the Titanic was a rather large boat.  Neither sentence does the subject justice.  The murals are absolutely horrific:  A quick example would be the drawings showing the Maya ripping out fingernails, leaving blood spurting from the fingers of the captives.  As wall art, only the Assyrians painted anything close to this kind of horror. 

But when Giles Healey saw the paintings, he searched the murals, looking for the bucket of red paint that the Maya had dipped their fingers into.  He never found the bucket, and since the facts did not support his conclusions….he ignored them.  When he produced his movie, Maya Through the Ages, he did not include a single reference to Bonampak, instead showing the Maya as mystics who lived in total harmony with nature, who  spent their time studying the heavens and perfecting their calendar.

Healey cleaned the accumulated dirt of centuries off the murals, photographed them and published his work, but he could not accept the truth that the murals plainly stated.  (Nor was he alone, as the book I just finished reading proves).

No matter how often we repeat the truth, there will always be a market for the books and movies that tell the more comfortable lies.  More often than not, written history tells us what we need to (and want to) hear.  In doing so, it often tells us more about who we are now, than what happened then.