Saturday, May 27, 2017


The Doc and I are just back from visiting Tucson.  Ostensibly, we went to see half of our grandchildren.  Now that I’m back, my bathroom scale thinks we were just visiting a town with real restaurants.

Good restaurants are not something we do well in Southern New Mexico.  For most of this half of the state, a seven course meal would be a six-pack of Mexican beer and a burrito. 

We have the usual fast-food places, the usual large chain restaurants—including one with “Texas” in the name (despite the fact that the corporation is based out of Kentucky) and it's filled with waitresses who constantly yell “Yeehaaa” for no apparent reason.  I don’t eat there, because the one time I went, I was the only thing remotely Texan in that large dirty barn.  If you eat there, you probably believe Taco Bell is Mexican food, too.

We do have a few very nice restaurants.  Too few, in my opinion.  The reason seems to be that, while this border state seems to be awash in drugs, it is damn near impossible to obtain a liquor license.  Our state legislature seems to believe that if you deny a man a single drink in a bar, it would never occur to him to buy a whole bottle on the way home.   Every third store in town sells alcohol, but a restaurant with a full bar is fairly rare. 

There is a good Italian restaurant that I like, owned and managed by Vince.  On a regular basis, I go to his restaurant, admire the pesto pasta, the calamari, the beautiful pizzas—and then I order the half order of the salmon salad.  Unfortunately, what was once love handles has, over time, turned into a death grip. 

Vince runs a great restaurant where the bread is fresh and the service friendly.  His establishment is definitely one of the exceptions in Southern New Mexico.

The restaurant is directly across the street from Enema U, and I’ve lost track of the times I have eaten there.  Yesterday, I noticed something new.  Vince evidently had the restaurant custom decorated:  along the walls are murals depicting life in Northern Italy.  For the first time, I noticed that a fisherman was loading a net into his boat, whose name was clearly visible: ‘AMB’.

I couldn’t stop laughing.  This was a joke so old, I marveled that Vince knew it.

I used to teach military and naval history, and one of the fundamentals students had to learn was the international naming conventions for ships.  I remembered part of a lecture I had once given my students.

“When we read about the USS Constitution,” I said in my best professorial voice.  “What does the prefix USS stand for?”

“United States Ship,” would be the prompt answer.  (I had great students, since my course was required by neither the College of Education nor the Sociology Department).

“Correct.  President Theodore Roosevelt established this in an executive order in 1907.  The prefixes started as abbreviations to save time and there are a few exceptions.  Privately owned ships used by the Navy have USNS affixed to their name.  During the Civil War, what did CSS stand for?”

“Confederate States Ship.”

“Correct again,” I said.  “When you read about other countries, it gets a little more complicated.  HMS on British ships can stand for either Her Majesty’s Ship or His Majesty’s Ship.  If you are reading about a ship from a century ago, you might see HBMS for His Britannic Majesty’s Ship.  The Titanic carried the prefix RMS for Royal Mail Ship.  And to add to the confusion, lately, the navy of Saudi Arabia has started using HMS as well.”

“Sometimes, those prefixes are important.  During the War of 1812, the British captures the USS President.  Since sailors are superstitious and it is considered bad luck to rename a ship, the frigate became the HMS President.”

“British Commonwealth nations use a variety of this.  Canada uses HMCS, New Zealand uses HMNZCS, while Australia uses HMAS.   What kind of ships does the Transylvanian navy use?” I asked.


“Blood Vessels, of course.  C’mon guys, wake up.  Transylvania is a landlocked version of Romania.  Actually, Romania is one of the many nations that never adopted prefixes in front of their ships' names or stopped using them in the last fifty years.  If you are reading about World War II, neither Imperial Japan nor Nazi Germany ever adopted a standardized naval prefix.”

“Sometimes,” I continued, “the prefix just tells you the type of ship.  RV is for research vessel, PS is paddle steamer, and SV means sailing vessel.  Let’s go back to countries.  Mexico uses ARM, for Armada de Mexico.  While the old Soviet Union did not have an official prefix, some historians for clarity sake used USSRS.”

“Okay,” I said.  “One last one.  Why does Italy use AMB?”

Silence.  Every student stopped taking notes.  They just knew this was going to be on the test.  Finally, convinced no one knew the answer, I let them in on the joke.

“Atsa My Boat,” I said.

Vince was never in my class, so I have no idea where he heard that old joke.  If you are near Enema U, stop at his restaurant and see for yourself.  I recommend the calamari, even though I've never had any.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Professor Grumbles

There is a sure sign that you have passed a milestone:  You'll know that you are getting old when you start attending far more funerals that weddings.  Yesterday, we lost one of the good ones...One of the irreplaceable ones.

A couple of decades ago, I met Professor Grumbles on my first day of teaching.  I had received a phone call from one of my favorite professors, asking if I wanted to teach a weekend class on Mexican History. 

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”  I owed this professor, and I probably would have agreed to anything he asked...Within reason.

“Day after tomorrow.”  This was unreasonable, but I did it anyway—through a full semester of Saturday morning classes, each lasting two and a half hours.  This is teaching hell, where neither the sleepy students nor the bored professor want to be there.  Despite the obvious obstacles, that first class went well and I have done no honest work since.

The very first day, as I exited my too-small classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus, waiting outside the door was another professor who was clearly irritated that I had kept my class to the last minute.  I remember thinking, "Who is this man?"  He was old, short, overweight, and dressed in khaki shorts, a dark t-shirt, and a faded khaki photographer’s vest with bulging pockets.  He looked like a retired Greek fisherman.  (To be fair, so did about half the rest of the faculty.) 

We hated each other on sight.  He wanted in that classroom early and I believed that if the students had paid for two and a half hours, they were going to get the full measure.  It took a few years for us to actually get to know each other, but we became the best of friends. 

Saturday mornings are the deepest corner of teaching hell, which is why there was a class available for someone who hadn’t even applied for it.  But why was Dr. Grumbles there?  He was a full professor, who was tenured, and who had enough seniority that he certainly did not have to teach on the weekends—unless he wanted an extra class.

I have a theory—supported by no one but me—that the best way to determine who the best professors are is to visit the faculty parking lot on the weekend.  There are few professions where a good job can be done in a forty-hour work week, and that includes education.  Perhaps I just liked the crackpots, but I frequently noticed that all my friends at Enema U—all the faculty that I respected—could be found working through the weekends...And that certainly included Professor Grumbles.

Years later, when he was the department head, Professor Grumbles and I had a meeting with the Dean of Accelerated Distributed Distance Learning Excellence Department (ADDLED).  Or something similar.  She was in charge of the weekend college and we wanted to offer a new course combining language and history for which we needed her permission.  We sat in her office and waited patiently while she had a long telephone conversation.  As we waited, we scanned the books on the shelves behind her, all of which were full of the kind of self-help books one can find in grocery stores.  “Building Teamwork Through Meetings", "Ten Steps to Positive Management” or “Learn to Lead With Post-It Notes”. 

For the next fifteen minutes, we couldn’t look at each other.  One glance and we would have busted a seam laughing.   Eventually, we explained the course to the dean, who immediately responded that she didn’t know if either a language or a history course was being taught on the weekends.  Now, Professor Grumbles and I had been teaching just such classes on weekends for years, in a classroom not twenty feet from her office….all of which he patiently explained to the woman for whom we had been working for years.

“Oh,” she said.  “I didn’t know.  I’m never here on weekends.”

“I’ll be happy to submit a proposal to you,” answered Professor Grumbles.  “On a Post-it note if you prefer.”   The meeting went downhill from there.

Dr. Grumbles showed up regularly in this blog, and always as a sympathetic character.  Come to think of it, he is largely responsible for this blog.  I had written a throw-away piece about learning to sail to enter in a contest.  He liked it and suggested that I write another one...And another one.  That was eight years ago and the good professor somehow found time to comment on each and every one.  See those ads to the side?  They generate a modest amount of money that is enough to pay for a limited number of bound books, each of which is a collection of the blogs for that year.  Professor Grumbles is one of the few people to own the entire set. 

Actually, he wrote half of one the blog posts.  The entire post was just a set of emails we sent back and forth discussing movies, another of his great loves.  Though the post does not indicate it, the emails were sent back and forth during a long meeting where some administrative moron (redundant) read his powerpoint presentation to a group of people possessing at least 50 college degrees.  This is the real reason iPads are taken to meetings.

His support is not that surprising.  A great professor—not so coincidentally the one who offered me that first class—once told me that the rarest thing at a university was loyalty and that the vast majority of the faculty had no idea what loyalty meant nor were they prepared to pay the price it required.  Professor Grumbles was one of the few who did.  He was kind, gentle, and patiently friendly, though this didn't mean he made friends easily.  When he did acquire friends, he stuck with them. 

Something just occurred to me:  That small list of faculty capable of loyalty and the list of faculty who worked weekends, and the list of people whose courses I thought worthy of students' attention…are all pretty much the same list.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

The good professor taught German and I have frequently wondered how I managed to get a bachelor’s degree from his department and never met him.  Whatever the reason, it was not until I became part of the department that I really got to know him.  God, the arguments we had.  And the friendship we formed. 

The good professor got his start in German because of an elderly Mercedes.  This was a pre-war car and the price was cheap because it was in miserable shape.  Luckily, the car came with an owner’s manual.  In German.  By the time that manual got painstakingly translated, he was hooked.  In college, he and a friend bought a motorcycle with a sidecar and traveled across Europe.  By the end of the trip, he was deeply in love with languages.

Another love was the theater.  A professor of Languages, somehow Professor Grumbles was also at one time the head of the Theater Department.  He loved the stage and threw himself into every part.  I lost track of how often the beard and mustache came and went, depending on the role he was playing.  I liked him best in HMS Pinafore, but I must admit that he made a perfect Santa Claus.

One of his favorite courses was the history of German film.  He loved to show movies in his classroom, but towards the end, Professor Grumbles was getting a little deaf.  The sound level in that classroom slowly grew in volume over the years until it was thunderous.  Eventually, I would sneak up to his classroom and use a remote control to lower the volume without his knowledge.  He'd raise it, I'd lower it, and then he'd demand to have the audio equipment repaired or replaced.  Eventually, the university just stopped scheduling classes adjacent to his room.

Eventually, Professor Grumbles became department head and had his turn dealing with a group of faculty that was about half wonderful and half disaster (with a bloated chupacabra thrown in).  As anyone could have predicted, he kindly gave everyone a clean slate and an offer to start over fresh—and everyone immediately reverted to character. 

Professor Grumbles, at least in my opinion, was a great department head.  He was respectful to the administrative trolls, patient in department head meetings, and disbelieving of everything they said.  As was frequently required, enthusiastic departmental cooperation was always reported. 

The university seems to lose a lot of the good ones.  You could make a great university with the professors who have left Enema U in the last ten years and Professor Grumbles was one of the best.

I have to stop.  Professor Grumbles said that while he liked my blog posts, he began to lose interest after 1500 words.  We’re there.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Have Coffin, Will Travel

Juan Perón came to power in Argentina in 1946, largely by being the first to understand the rise of the working class and the effective use of communications.  When he was elected (despite the best efforts of the US State Department), Argentina was sitting on tremendous cash reserves and had a booming economy.   It didn’t take long for Juan and Eva Perón to blow through that surplus.

As a populist President, his wife, the diminutive Eva (or Evita as she was popularly known) was positioned as the Mother of the Country, publicly granting financial gifts to the poor--even as the Peróns siphoned money off to Swiss Banks while destroying the financial wealth of the country. 

By 1951, the Perón rule was obviously coming to an end.  A country known for its endless rolling wheat fields and limitless cattle herds was rationing food and subjecting the populace to “wheatless” and “meatless” days.

The elections slated for 1952 were pushed forward to 1951, and during the campaign one of the candidates for the presidency was arrested and another was shot.  Evita—now in a hospital and being treated for cervical cancer—proclaimed that anyone who did not vote for Perón was a traitor. Thirty-six percent of those voting in November met Evita's criterion for treason since Perón received only 64 percent of the votes cast--at least according to official accounts.

By June 1952, Evita was out of the hospital, but weighed only 80 pounds and was obviously ailing. Vast crowds of women surrounded the presidential home, praying on their knees for a miraculous recovery.  Despite this effort, on July 26, 1952, Evita, 33, died of a disease she was probably never told she had.  Two million hysterical mourners attended the funeral services that lasted for thirteen days.

Finally, Evita’s body was moved into the Ministry of Labor’s building where her body began a very long embalming process.   Dr. Pedro Ara began pumping the cadaver with alcohol, glycerin, and plasticizers—a process that lasted almost two years.  Unlike most mummification processes, Dr. Ara left all of Evita’s internal organs in place.  His goal was to preserve a perfect Evita for all time. 

During the long process, Dr. Ara practiced, making both wax and vinyl replicas of Evita.  In essence, he made a small army of life-sized Evita Barbie dolls.

In the meantime, the government began planning the largest memorial for a dead woman since the Taj Mahal.  The monument never got past the stage of digging a huge hole in the ground, but when finished, the monument was supposed to be larger than the Statue of Liberty.

Lonely, Juan Peron passed the time with a small squad of teenage girls whom he gifted with matching motor scooters.  Let’s not judge, remember, Juan was a grieving widower.

While all of this was going on, the labor unions of Argentina began petitioning Pope Pius XII to begin the proceedings for Evita Perón's canonization.  The annual request—and its subsequent denial—has been repeated annually ever since.  Who knows, since the current pope is not only an Argentine but a past Perónista Party supporter, who knows what is in the future?

As the last wheel fell off the economic wagon of Argentina in 1955, a new general took over in a military coup, and Juan Perón fled the country.  During his travels afterward, he met Isabel Martinez, a Panamanian nightclub dancer with a fourth grade education, and she accompanied him to Madrid, Spain.  President Franco had offered his fellow Fascist a home in exile.  Since the Catholic people of Spain frowned on the former dictator living with a teenager who wasn’t his wife, Juan married for the fourth time. 

Meanwhile, back in Argentina, the military was afraid that the body of Evita might become a rallying point for a new army of Neo-Perónistas.  They confiscated the body and ordered its destruction, but the military officer assigned the task couldn’t bring himself to destroy Evita.  Well, not all of her.  He was a little skeptical that the plastic dummy in the glass coffin was real, so he cut off one of the fingers to see if it was real.  It was. 

First, the body was moved to a wooden coffin which was hidden in a wooden packing crate.  Then, the body was hidden in the municipal water works, but the secret leaked out, and when mourners started showing up, the crate was moved to various military offices before finally being shoved into the back of a windowless van and parked in an alley behind a theater.  When flowers and candles began appearing next to the van, the crate was moved to a Major’s home and hidden under old newspapers in the attic.  The pressure of having Evita in the attic must have weighed heavily on the major, since he shot his pregnant wife one night, supposedly in the mistaken belief that revolutionaries were breaking into his home to liberate Mrs. Perón.

Note.  I don’t know about you, but I have these mental images of an army marching into Buenos Aires to do battle, carrying the coffin of Evita in the van, sort of like it was the Ark of the Covenant.

Finally, the military leadership of the country decided it was time to move Evita completely out of the country.  Shipping off the various vinyl and wax duplicate corpses to various Argentine embassies as decoys, the real coffin was shipped by cargo ship to Italy where it was buried in a cemetery outside of Milan in a grave marked ‘Maria Maggi”.  Naturally, it didn’t stay there long.

Meanwhile, the former president of Argentina, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu (the general who had ousted Juan Perón in 1955), was kidnapped and executed by supporters of Juan Perón.  A few years later, they stole his corpse and offered to trade his body for that of Evita. 

In 1971, when yet another general staged his own military coup against his former military comrades, he took over a country that was yearning for the good ol’ days of a past that had never existed.  Desperate for support, the new president made a deal for the endorsement of Juan Perón, who was still exiled in Spain.  For $50,000 in cash, the restoration of his lost citizenship, and the return of the body of Evita, Perón heartily endorsed the new president.  This was a monumentally stupid move on the general's part, since all it did was legitimize Perón in the eyes of his supporters.

Spanish and Italian police accompanied the hearse bearing Evita’s body to Perón’s home in Madrid, where the former President had had the world’s largest Barbie doll placed in an open coffin on the coffee table.  Nightly, Juan’s third wife, Isabel combed her hair.  According to one source, he occasionally had Isabel lie on top of the coffin to absorb the “energy” from Evita.

By 1973, Perón was once again elected president and returned to Argentina, leaving Evita in Madrid.  When Juan died in 1974, his wife Isabel briefly became the president--the first female president of a country anywhere in the world.  Anxious to appease the country’s Perónistas, she had Evita shipped from Madrid to Buenos Aires where Evita lay in state at the Casa Rosada (the pink house is the Argentine equivalent of the American White House).  Within days, the body of former President Aramburu was found abandoned on a Buenos Aires street.

By now, Evita needed a "little" repair.  For too many years, the crate had been left standing upright, so her feet were broken.  There was also evidence that someone had opened the coffin on occasion and had hit her with something.  Her nose was broken, and well….as it says on a box of cereal, “Some settling of contents many have occurred during shipping.” 

Who do you call to fix a really big Barbie Doll?  It may give you some idea of her condition when I tell you they called in an Art Historian. Really! There are lots of pictures!

Eventually, the coffins of both Juan and Evita were put on display one final time in 1976, and once again, the people of Argentina stood in long lines to gaze down on the remains of their beloved former dictators.

When the military finally had the next,  inevitable coup in 1976, they quickly put Isabel under house arrest, and scooped up the coffin of Evita.  It was time to permanently settle a problem that had needed a solution ever since the woman had died, twenty-four years previously.  Separating the couple forever, Evita was taken to her father’s family vault and buried under three steel plates and 18 feet of concrete, deep enough to survive a direct nuclear hit.  Ironically, she is located in Recoleta Cemetery, fairly close to the grave of President Aramburu.

Come the Apocalypse, the only thing left on Earth will be cockroaches and Evita. 

All of that concrete and steel was probably a good idea.  In 1987, vandals broke into the tomb of Juan Perón and sawed off his hands.  They have not yet been recovered.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Detective Lost in the Dark

A little more than a century ago, Mark Twain was testifying in front of a Congressional committee about legislation concerning impending copyright laws.  Twain had fought mighty battles to secure the rights to his books in both the United States and Europe, and had some unique ideas concerning intellectual property rights.

While the author really wanted rights in perpetuity, he was willing to settle for the life of the author plus fifty years.  At one point in his testimony, Twain seemed to contradict himself, saying for the vast majority of authors, the copyright laws were meaningless, since the life of most literary works was substantially less than the copyright law.  As Twain said:

….One author per year produces a book which can outlive the forty-two year limit, and that is all. This nation can not produce two authors per year who can create a book that will outlast forty-two years. The thing is demonstrably impossible. It can not be done!

Twain believed that the popularity of most literary works would not last long enough to matter and that the famous authors of today would be forgotten within a generation—a prophecy that was certainly borne out.  How many books published in the 19th century have you read?  For the vast majority of Americans, Twain and Conan Doyle may be the only authors of the century most of us can name, much less claim to have read.

The list of authors who momentarily burned bright in the spotlight only to vanish a few years later is seemingly endless.  Together, these forgotten works form a literary goldmine for the reader interested in just a little digging at the local library.  And since Congress did not listen to Twain, most of these works are not in the public domain, meaning that you can read them online or download them to a Kindle for free.

This brings us to Ernest Bramah.  I can just picture you saying, “Who?  Never heard of him.”

Bramah was a British writer of a century ago.  A failure at several occupations, he began his writing career by sending in letters to a local newspaper.  Supported by his father, Bramah lost a small fortune as a farmer, then lost even more money when he attempted to sell a book about his misadventures behind a plow.  After this failure, he found menial employment as a secretary on Grub Street in London. 

Grub Street was a poor section of London known for small publishers of books and magazines of low cost and perhaps of even less value.  These were the kinds of literary endeavors that would later be called “Pulp Fiction”.  It was there that Bramah eventually found employment, working for Jerome K. Jerome, the author and magazine editor.

Note.  It was only after reading the works of Bramah that I became interested in his early life and discovered his connection to Jerome, one of my favorite authors.  (If I could own only one book—a nightmarish prospect—it would be Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.)  The writing styles are not similar, either in tone or subject matter, so there is no apparent connection between the two authors, yet something attracted me—It can’t be a coincidence.

Bramah eventually wrote another book, a novel about Kai Lung, an itinerant Chinese peasant whose travels give him the opportunity to spin gentle morality tales in which peasants invariably find peace through frugality and humility.  The first book, The Wallet of Kai Lung was submitted to eight publishers before it was finally accepted.  Perhaps the reason for multiple rejections was that Bramah knew nothing about China.  Bramah simply made up a world with imaginary customs, laws and people and labeled it China.  Since his readers knew no more about the real China than Bramah, he got away with it.

Bramah is still getting away with it:  Have you ever heard of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”?  This is not Chinese, it is Bramah.  Though by now, I have no doubt the saying has actually made its way to China.

In 1914, Bramah began publishing a series of detective stories in The Strand Magazine.  Today, Tht Strand is familiar to most for publishing the Sherlock Holmes stores of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  At the time of publication, however, the magazine frequently gave top billing to a forgotten detective, Max Carrados, an invention of Ernest Bramah.

Max Carrados was a brilliant detective, very much in the tradition of the English mystery, who solved mysteries despite being totally blind.  It was this disability, perhaps, that heightened his other senses and allowed him to find solutions to crimes which even Scotland Yard had failed to solve.  The stories are nothing short of brilliant.

It is impossible not to compare Sherlock Holmes to Max Carrados and wonder why one is a household name and the other all but forgotten.  There are several obvious reasons.  Doyle developed all the characters in his stories, bringing London to life for readers of any age, while Bramah focused on Carrados and his overcoming his handicaps, assuming that a contemporary reader was already familiar with Edwardian London.  In addition, while the action stories of Doyle readily lend themselves to television and movies, Carrados—operating quite literally in the dark—can only easily exist in the imagination of the reader.  It is for this reason that Carrados has been successful produced several times on the BBC radio, but has never been tried on the big screen.  Sherlock Holmes, by comparison, appeared in movies as early as 1900.

Bramah wrote science fiction, predicting airlines connecting the countries of Europe before a plane had even crossed the English Channel.  His work of political fiction, What Might Have Been (1907), predicts the rise of Fascist Germany with depressing accuracy.  The work was even later credited by George Orwell as an inspiration for his own (slightly more well-known) book, 1984

Of all of Bramah's works, I can only heartily recommend the mysteries of Max Carrados, but it still is a shame that he has been forgotten by today’s readers.  I highly recommend that you access and read them here.  Long after Twain argued for a copyright that expired fifty years after the death of the author, the European Union extended the rights to seventy years postmortem.   Which meant for the works of Bramah, the copyrights expired five years ago.  

It turns out that Twain was correct.  The copyrights on the works of Ernest Bramah no longer matter.