Saturday, March 31, 2018

El Molino de la Muerte

When I am cooking, the words The Doc fears most are, “Dinner tonight is a little on the spicy side, but don’t worry, it’s not that hot.”

This is her cue to arm herself with her weapons of choice:  sour cream, a carton of half, cheese, ranch dressing, half and half, and a jar of tamarind chutney.  She believes their liberal use will somehow help mitigate the effects of red peppers.  I understand this, since as a child I believed that if you had too much salt on your food, you could negate it somehow with black pepper.  Since I could just barely taste black pepper, I thought it was used like an eraser on a pencil, to correct a salt mistake.

People occasionally say that my sense of taste has been dulled by the overuse of Texas Ketchup (Tabasco) and similar seasonings.  I prefer to believe that my taste buds have evolved to a higher plane. 

Still, I will admit that even I once had a problem with some hot peppers (but only once!).

Years ago, while I was in grad school, I worked at a living history museum in my spare time.   The place was huge, comprised of hundreds of acres on which were dozens of buildings, more or less typical of life in New Mexico roughly about the year 1700 (although a few of the buildings were devoted to showing life in the late territorial period—say, about 1880).   Most of the buildings were real, although several had been moved onsite.  A few structures were actually movie sets, since the idyllic setting was frequently used in movies.  (If you carefully watch one particular famous western, you can see the toes of my cowboy boots in one scene.  If you have very good eyes, you will learn that at least one cowboy in the film had rubber-soled boots.) 

There were two mills on the property, both powered by water.  The larger of the two, had a 20-foot tall overshot waterwheel and was gorgeous.  It dated back to the late nineteenth century and was one of six such large flour mills that had once provided the U.S. Government with enough flour to feed the Navaho.  The government had discovered—much to its consternation—that when people were forcibly moved to infertile land, they had to be fed.  Simultaneously, several industrious merchants learned that it was possible to buy a mill—in kit form—and make quite a profit selling flour to the Army.

This large mill could make over five tons of flour a day, but while the mill was still completely operational, the museum never did run it at capacity.  The old wood and adobe mill could not possibly pass a modern-day health inspection, so we ran the mill at the slowest possible speed and during a day-long demonstration produced 75 pounds of beautiful flour that we were forced to throw away.  (And I did toss it, but first I took it home and ran it through my family’s digestive systems.)

The large complex mill was a wonder to look at and a joy to work in—with all those gears, pulleys, and long leather belts powering the machinery.  It was a marvel what could be done with massive water power.  There was another mill on the property that people hardly ever noticed—a small adobe hut built over an acequía ditch, with a three foot horizontal wheel.  This was one of the last remaining operational examples of the corn mills that Spanish colonists had built using only local materials.

The genius of those small mills—technically gristmills—was their simple design, their home-made parts, and their use of small streams of water.  Despite their simplicity, each was capable of grinding 300 pounds of cornmeal a day.  Without a mill, colonial women had to spend a large part of every day in the back-breaking labor of using a mano and metate (pictured at left) to grind enough corn to make the daily tortillas for a family.  The historical records indicate that such mills were scattered across colonial New Mexico and were probably used communally.

What the records did not show was exactly how such a mill operated.  Since there were no owner's manuals, and no one alive had ever seen one working, restoring the old mill was a lot of trial and error—mostly error.  The ruins of several mills were examined and the remaining debris studied and compared, tested, discarded and tried again.  More than once it was discovered that what had been thought to be a discarded stick or rotting length of leather turned out to be a part crucial to the mill's operation.

Finally, one day, it all worked and after finely adjusting the gaps between the two limestone grinding wheels, we were producing fresh cornmeal.  Have you ever smelled freshly ground cornmeal?  It immediately makes you long for your grandmother's cornbread, fresh out of a warm cast-iron skillet!

Years ago in Mexico, I discovered the incredible taste of fresh-caught trout.  As fast as the fish were caught, they were cleaned, fried, and eaten and then the process was started all over again.  No other fish in my life has tasted half as good as those trout.  I was happy to discover that fresh ground cornmeal produced pretty much the same effect when quickly made into cornbread. 

Naturally, since the old mill was constructed of ancient leather, wood, and adobe, it would never pass a health inspection, either, and we were required to throw the cornmeal away.  Every employee of the museum helped in this task, at a rate of about five pounds at a time. 

Both mills were operational for only a few days a year, during fairs and history days, to carefully demonstrate how people had lived decades in the past.  During one of those days, an elderly woman told us that her grandfather had worked in one of the corn mills back in the 1880’s.  She told us that, besides grinding corn, her father had occasionally ground chile peppers.

This was the first confirmation of something we had already suspected.  In among the abundant  small pieces of wood in the ruins of some of the old mills we had examined, some were faintly stained a dark crimson from chiles.  We knew that at the end of the 19th century, chile ristras had been used as a medium of exchange at trading posts in parts of New Mexico that were so remote that a barter economy was still common as late as the start of the Second World War.  It made sense that the store owner would take those bundles of large chile peppers and have them ground up into chile powder to make the goods easier to transport.

Three of us worked in those mills, and as soon as we heard that woman’s story about her grandfather, we all had to try making fresh chile powder.  Getting hold of 200 pounds of dried red chile was not exactly hard in New Mexico, as chile is still a major agricultural crop.  We put a couple of pieces of plywood across some sawhorses, and started hacking up the dried chiles into rough pieces so we could feed the chunks into the wooden hopper that normally held the dried corn. 

Note.  The country in South America is Chile, the pepper plant grown in New Mexico is chile, the powdered form of this pepper is chile powder, and if you add other spices such as salt, garlic powder and onion powder, it is chili powder.  The latter is used to make a meat dish originating in Texas called chili con carne.  If that dish is made up North by damn Yankees who add everything from lima beans to macaroni, it is called crap.

it took a couple of minutes to find the right adjustment of the grinding stones to produce true chile powder, but in about half an hour, we were producing large quantities of finely ground and wonderfully aromatic chile powder.  We inhaled deeply, the smell was even more pleasing than freshly ground corn meal.  We just stood there admiring the accumulating spice and discussing what we were going to cook with fresh chile powder…

And then we began to cough.  And wheeze.  And had tears running down our faces.  Our eyes burned and our throats were on fire.  Our lips hurt. And the tips of our fingers hurt.  EVERYTHING BURNED AND HURT!

We ran out of that mill, sprinting to the nearest building where we fought over a water hose that was simultaneously desperately needed and absolutely inadequate to the task at hand.  A swimming pool of fresh, cold milk couldn’t have quenched that fire.  Every pore on our skin, everywhere, had somehow absorbed that chile powder and was vigorously objecting to the process.  We had inadvertently produced a military grade biological weapon of mass destruction.  To this day, I wonder why Mexico is not considered a military superpower!

The worst part was that the mill was still running. We still had about 150 pounds of chile to grind up, and since the large hopper was full, it was going to continue the process until the irrigation ditch dried up or the hopper ran out.  We just stood there about 50 feet away, watching a small pink cloud of deadly dust drift out of the mill’s door. 

There was a brief discussion where we considered calling the authorities and having the old mill declared a superfund site, but eventually we began scouring the various museum buildings in search of protective clothing.  Finally, we gathered together enough coveralls, gloves, rain coats, scarves, motorcycle helmets, swim goggles and other assorted gear that we looked like a crew of deranged "Michelin Men".  Picture in your mind what you would wear if you kept a hive of killer bees in Antarctica, and that was about how we were dressed: primitive hazmat suits!

With a little painful trial and error, we discovered that if we held our breath, we could work in that tiny adobe mill for about thirty-seconds at a time.  We eventually, ground up about 30 pounds of chile powder, releasing an estimated additional 20 pounds into the air. 

Given the prevailing winds and the location of that mill, we estimated that most of the noxious cloud eventually blew into the Trinity nuclear testing site, where it should feel right at home with the slowly decaying plutonium.  That’s probably the real reason for all the fences and guards there.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Weird Lost Weapons

There is something weirdly compelling about the obsolete and rare objects from a bygone era, and for a military historian, this means a fascination with the rare and somewhat weird weapons of the past.

There are weapons that seemingly last forever: the Colt 1911 .45 automatic was used in World War I, and has showed up in just about every war since.  The Browning M2 machine gun has been old enough to qualify for Social Security for a couple of decades now, and is still used by armies around the world, including ours.  Barring the invention of a futuristic ray gun, these weapons will probably still be in use a century from now.

There are other weapons that simply vanished with time, to be lost, forgotten, and never heard from again.  Here are four of them.

The misericorde was a long thin dagger used in European feudal combat during the 14th and 15th centuries.  This was not a primary defensive weapon, but (as the name implies), a tool to be used to “give mercy” to a wounded knight.  In an age when combat was done almost exclusively with edged weapons, even a knight in full armor could be so wounded that a medical recovery was all but impossible.

A good example is the Battle of Crécy in 1346.  At the end of the battle, there were thousands of wounded knights who had fallen to the superiority of the English longbow.  As the English archers scoured the battlefield looking for French knights worthy of being taken prisoner against a future ransom, those too severely wounded were dispatched by these long daggers being thrust through the vision slits of helmets or through the gap in armor at the underarm, mercifully killing the helpless.

Technically, this was a violation of the chivalric codes of warfare, since unwashed common peasants killing noble knights was not allowed.  (This ignores the fact that those same peasants had been killing the knights throughout the battle with anonymous arrows.)  Since rules are usually written by the victors, no one paid much attention to the violations of a code that was dying faster than the French knights.

Some of the misericorde were shaped like an icepick, with long thin cylindrical blades, sometime called a rondel.  Regardless of the shape, their only use was to provide a coup de grâce to armored knights.

How common the practice of actually using the misericorde was in combat is unknown, since no one was keeping records, but a recent post-mortem on the remains of King Richard III indicates that such a dagger gave him a fatal head wound at the Battle of Bosworth.  A short time  later, gunpowder weapons made armor futile, and the need for a long flexible-bladed dagger.

The atlatl once was extremely commonly used, though it’s hard to find anyone still using it today.  Independently developed all over the world, it was probably in wide use from 30,000 years ago up until 500 years ago, and is still used by a few Australian bushmen.  Essentially a short stick with a bowl or hook at the end in which the shaft of a spear fits—effectively lengthening the throwing arm—it allows the missile to travel farther and faster than a traditional spear.  How fast and how far?  The current record is 858 feet traveling at close to 90 mph. 

This stone age Kalashnikov gave early man a frightening hunting weapon, which explains how wooly mammoths were hunted to extinction.  I would love to tell you that an adventurous historian has field tested this experiment by bringing down a modern elephant, but, unfortunately, I can’t.  I can think of a few desk bound historians who I wish would try it, and I’m certain that a researcher could receive a grant for it.  (You can get a government grant to study where your lap goes when you stand up.) 

No, today’s historians are too gentle and too tame to actually kill an elephant with an atlatl, so a researcher used an atlatl on a deceased elephant and judged whether the wound inflicted would have been fatal.  It would have been.

It is ironic that the word ‘atlatl’ is from the Aztecs, who were one of the last peoples to use the weapon in combat.  The Spanish were sorely tested by the Aztec warriors using the weapon, since the both the range and the rate of fire of the projectiles—called darts—were far superior to the primitive harquebuses the Spanish carried.  When Montezuma gave an atlatl to Cortez, he was mystified when the Spaniard was less interested in this formidable war weapon than he was in the worthless, soft yellow metal the Aztecs called “the excrement of the Gods.”

The atlatl is rare today, but may be making a comeback.  Recently, two states—Pennsylvania and Alabama—made it legal to hunt deer with the weapon.  It is probably only a matter of time before it becomes an Olympic sport (while California bans its possession).

Our next invention was also used by the Aztecs.  The maquahuitl was a cross between a sword and a club.  Made from hard oak and three feet long, the edges were embedded with obsidian stones, each sharper than their steel equivalent blades.  Another version of the maquahitl was five feet long and intended to be used with two hands.

According to the Conquistadors, the longer version could completely sever the head of a horse with a single blow.  I can’t prove this, since as far as I know, no historian has actually tried this on a horse, living or dead.  (And it’s probably illegal to hunt deer with them, even in Alabama.)

The Spanish were fascinated by the maquahuitl, so they took numerous examples back to Spain, where examples soon found their way across Europe.  Since the weapon was sharper, and more deadly than the best steel swords in use at the time, this was understandable.  When the great explorer Sir Richard Burton wrote The Book of the Sword, he went into lengthy descriptions of the formidable weapon.  Since the method of working the obsidian into sharp blades was lost after the destruction of the Aztec Empire, the production of the maquahuitl died with it. 

The last rare weapon is the col de mort, the collar of death.  This is a small sharpened metal point to be slipped over the otherwise safely blunt tip of a fencing epee with the aim of turning a safe sporting implement into a murderous weapon.  This is the exact opposite of the safety tip that could be affixed to a regular epee to render the weapon safe during practice.

This is a fascinating device, and without a doubt, the most rare of the four weapons discussed here.  Actually, this weapon is so rare that it may have never existed at all, since the earliest reference I can find of the col de mort is in the 1940 novel, Over My Dead Body, by Rex Stout.  All of the numerous other written references that I can locate were either anecdotal or reference Stout’s work.  And no source that I can find includes a photo of such a device.

Since fencing dates back to the end of the 15th century, and was fashionable long after the sword stopped being a significant weapon of war, it is almost impossible that someone didn’t use a similar device at least once.  When fencing salons were mandatory parts of every aristocrat’s education, there must have been at least one “accident” committed somewhere.

This is exactly why I have included the col de mort in this list.  Somewhere, someone may know of an earlier example.  I’m waiting to hear from you.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Building Committee

A little over a hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to show the world that America was a new and great naval power by sending the entire U.S. Navy on a round the world voyage to “show the flag”.  Such an expedition was a costly affair, and a frugal Congress strongly disagreed with the waste of taxpayer money, and promptly cut the annual naval budget in half, to prevent just such a voyage.

Undeterred, Teddy promptly sent the fleet off to circle the globe, telling Congress, “I have enough funds to send them halfway around the world.  If you want the fleet back, come up with the other half of the money.” 

I’ve always wondered if that was what the President of Enema U had in mind a decade ago when the university requested from the state legislature enough funds to replace the aging and cramped old library building.  The politicians knew that the library still possessed plenty of books that the football team had not yet colored, so they gave the Athletic Department a new electronic scoreboard and a crate of new crayons, and gave the administration roughly half the amount necessary to construct a new library.

Since the university president (like all administrators) suffered with a near-terminal case of Edifice Complex, the university constructed a new hemi-library, about a block away from the old library.  The books were cleverly divided between the two buildings in such a feat of legerdemain that it was always necessary to trudge back and forth between the two buildings to conduct any research.  Naturally, it cost twice as much to run two such buildings instead of a single library, but evidently that was the intent of the design specified by the building committee, since the new library was deliberately constructed in such a way that it was impossible to expand it with future construction.

Who knows, in another decade or two, they may add a third library building.  (It will probably include a basketball court).

This is the way universities usually design new buildings—stupidly.  This process is all but guaranteed by using committees, and since I once had the honor of serving on such a committee, I can tell you exactly how the process works.

First, the university ignores all actual needs and decides to erect a new building.  Since the true purpose of any new building is to enhance the résumé of the university president in order for him to move to a larger university with a more successful football program, the project must be something large and impressive.  A new art building, a new performing arts building, or a new semi-library—these are perfect projects.  Since no one would be impressed with a new classroom building, no matter how desperately needed, such mundane structures are rarely constructed.  

It is the stated goal of all universities that as much education as possible should be done online, not actually in a building that requires costly upkeep.  In a future and perfect world, the student will be able to stay home and just send money off to college—a place that will consist of several large multi-story administration buildings.   And a stadium.

After the decision is made to construct a new building, a committee must be appointed to decide on the details.  Most of the members are department heads, faculty members, and assorted administrative toadies—almost none of whom have had any actual experience in construction, design, or engineering, or who will ever actually work in the future building.  At least, that was true of the committee I served on.

The university has whole departments full of engineers, draftsmen, and people with real construction experience—almost none of whom will ever be asked to serve on such a committee.  My committee had two students, a nurse, and several people who didn’t know the difference between concrete and steer manure, and they were the people who monopolized the meetings.

Our first task was to select an architect from the numerous applicants, each of whom had submitted impressive stacks of photographs and drawings of similar buildings that had been built at a rival university.  On several occasions, the committee members actually traveled to other universities and inspected the sample buildings.  All of this was a waste of time, since the architect selected is almost invariably from a firm doing business as far from the local university as possible.  (Remember, the definition of a consultant is someone with an advanced degree who lives out of town.)

Now the newly selected architect will spend hours and hours with the committee, making lists of the required features.  Most of the suggestions will be idiotic or contradictory, and the architect will promise to include them all.  Of course, the new building will be “green” and energy efficient.  Of course, the new building will blend in with the campus, be beautiful, and attractive…  And so forth.  In the end, the actual building will be a stuccoed concrete horror with tiny windows that don’t open, closely resembling a bus station or a prison, and surrounded by landscaping selected by morons who have never lived in New Mexico.

Take that new demi-library building:  for some reason the architect decided that a new building erected in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert should be surrounded by palm trees.  Evidently, he thought all that local sand was a beach.  To be fair, I will grudgingly admit that a building surrounded by tumbleweeds might not look attractive on the photos shown by our recent president at his next university.

The new building that my committee was tasked with designing was actually remodeling and combining two existing buildings and adding a few desperately needed classrooms.  The committee met for weeks and heard ideas of what the new classrooms should look like.  Most of the talking was done by people who had no recent experience in teaching—a universal requirement for administrators.  These same administrators were never going to teach in the new building, either.

The traditional design of large classrooms is fairly simple:  long rectangular spaces with the floor sloping downward to the front of the room, where raised platforms holds a lectern and the walls hold blackboards.  The rooms contain either desks or tables at which the students can sit and take notes.  Lately, modernized classrooms contain computerized projectors, white boards, and large screens, but the basic design has not really changed since  the days of Socrates.

President Garfield once defined the ideal college as a log with Mark Hopkins (his mentor) on one end and a student on the other end.  I wish to hell Garfield had been on my committee.

No, it turned out that both President Garfield and I were wrong.  Over and over again, experts told the committee that the “Sage on the Stage was dead.”  Lecturing was out and education now was cooperative learning in a reciprocal environment that would lend itself to group work.  The floor would be flat (no raised stage), the desks would be on wheels for ease of rearrangement into different groupings, and “every wall would be a learning wall.”

“Imagine,” I said, “that you are a history professor with one hour to explain the Protestant Reformation to eighty freshmen who took high school history from a football coach who thought the Renaissance was a casino in Vegas.  How the hell do you do that in a room where every other desk is facing the wrong way while students are staring at a learning wall, waiting for a movie to start?”

I never did get an answer.  

None of this deterred my committee and we rarely agreed on anything.  It was at this point that the goals and aims of the committee began falling apart like a leper on a pogo stick.  It turned out that only one voice mattered—the dean.  She appointed enough new committee members from her staff she got what she wanted—including a machine that would generate the smell of fresh baked bread.  The building wouldn’t get the actual bread, just the smell.

We were tasked with designing a horse and in due course provided a blue print for a two-headed camel.  The design was to connect the existing two buildings with lots of open interactive spaces where professors could mentor students after class, with study corners, and with new offices for administration where there had once been several serviceable, if old, classrooms.  The resulting new building would have been a nightmare to construct, would have been as ugly as a mud fence, and would have been about half as useful as the two original buildings had been.  Frankly, the state could have saved a ton of money by simply updating the existing two buildings, but that was never even contemplated.

So, after a year of hard work, the committee was thanked for its work, was congratulated for the finished product, and was dismissed.  The state had appropriated a set sum of money to remodel two existing buildings and add more classrooms, and my committee had done—mostly—its job.

Then the administration threw away the plans, bulldozed down both buildings and erected a new one with fewer classrooms capable of seating fewer students. 


Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Bull Rider

The Brazos River Boys were sitting in the corner of the local cantina, playing their favorite game—watching the various patrons.  Over a couple of cold Mexican beers, they had ignored the young men playing pool and the grizzled old regulars who could be found hunched over the bar in any booze joint in the world, who had been quietly nursing drinks from the moment the bar had opened until closing time.  What caught the attention of the two old cowboys was a group of men sitting at a table in the middle of the bar, loudly discussing the recent Palo Pinto County Rodeo.

Pointing at the table, where a man was standing and waving his arms, and smiling as he talked, Mike said, “Looks like Jack is wound up about something.”

“Yeah, once he gets going, Old Jack can talk the ears off a wooden Indian,” agreed Kent.  Let’s go over and see what he’s got to say today.”

As the two old cowboys moved over to the next table and sat in a pair of empty chairs, Jack kept on with his story.

“…was a pretty good rodeo all around—the Livestock Association puts on a great show.  I really liked this year's clowns; those boys do a job I wouldn’t touch for love nor money.  I liked the bull riders the best, but the boys today aren't near as good as they were back in my day—“

“Who was the best bull rider you ever saw?” interrupted Mike.  Having learned a long time ago that Jack told his best yarns when challenged, Mike had decided to test the man’s creativity and see what he came up with.

“Well, that’s a good question.  I saw Freckles Brown in his prime, and he was damn good.  And in ’82 I watched Lane Frost win in Fort Worth—I think he could've been the best there ever was—if that bull hadn’t killed him in Cheyenne.  But, my favorite all-around bull rider never even competed in a rodeo.”

“How’d ya know he was any good if he never competed?” urged Kent.  Like his friend, Kent knew that Jack needed a little periodic encouragement to spin a really good yarn.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” continued Jack.  “Back in 1979, I was working on offshore oil rigs out of Galveston.  The boats would take you out for a week, then bring you back ashore for a week.  We made more money on those rigs than we could spend ashore, but God knows, we tried.  The biggest bar in the world was Gilley's, about 20 miles up the highway in Pasadena, and they had a mechanical bull—“

“Yeah,” interrupted Mike.  “We saw that damn fool movie, Urban Cowboy.  Because of John Travolta, half the country thought Texans had a New Jersey accent.  That movie was horse shit.”

“You ain’t fixin’ to tell us about a mechanical bull?  I thought we were talkin' rodeos,” demanded Kent.  “The difference between a toy mechanical bull and real  bull riding is like the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit!”

“I didn’t say nothing about no damn rodeo!  I’m telling you about my favorite bull rider, the best I ever saw.  And this was more than a year before that fool movie come out.  After the movie, Gilley's was crawling with so many Yankees in designer jeans that no oilfield worker could squeeze in the door.  'Sides, that ain’t even the bar I’m talking about.”

Satisfied that he had quieted the hecklers, Jack continued.  “No, Gilley's made the mechanical bull popular, so a place opened up further down the highway on Galveston island.  Called ‘The Country’, it was about half the size of Gilley's, it was closer to where we lived and it was a lot cheaper...And they had the same mechanical bull.”

“The guys used to come in, hoping to ride a cowgirl, and when they failed to find a willing partner they'd pay good money to sit on that contraption as it spun, bucked and spun again.  Actually, since that machine could change direction so fast, spin and buck, jerking around, it might have been almost as hard to ride as a real bull.  'Course, instead of hitting the ground, in the bar you landed on soft foam padding, and the bull couldn’t trample you or gore you.  That’s what had killed Lane Frost that day in Cheyenne:  the bull turned and gored him after he had hit the ground.”

At this the men sitting around the table looked at each other and nodded.  An angry bull was just about the most dangerous animal around and a cowboy didn’t have to attempt to ride one for eight seconds to have the beast kill you.  A mechanical bull, by comparison, was a toy.

“Well, guys used to bet who could ride that fool thang the longest, so they had regular contests and some real money changed hands.  Every now and then, some tall, lanky boy with an empty Stetson would challenge the reigning champ—a waitress named Lucy.  (Leastways, that’s what we called her.).  She was Vietnamese and nobody could pronounce her real name, but she told me it meant jade.”

“Now, this was right about the time there were all those fights about the Vietnamese shrimpers moving in, and those city cowboys—all hat and no cattle—they just couldn’t believe that the champ bull rider was a little girl that didn’t know John Wayne from Tom Mix, so they were more than willing to put a little money on the proposition.  About once a week, somebody wearing a belt buckle the size of a hubcap would pony up a couple of hundred bucks and challenge Lucy.”

“Being the defending champ, Lucy always let the challenger go first, and he’d sit atop that bull, get a death grip on the rope and holler ‘Let ‘er Rip!’  As that bull twisted and jerked, the cowboy would wave his hat in air, whooping and shouting until the bull would go one way while he went the other and he’d be jerked clean off it.  If the kid was any good, it usually took about twenty seconds before his butt hit the floor.  Then it was Lucy’s turn.”

“Lucy was no bigger than a minute, a couple of inches shorter than five foot, all of 90 pounds soaking wet, and most of that was in her hips and legs.  While she looked like a frail little girl, Lucy had been trained as a gymnast and had a body hard enough to roller skate on and legs so powerful she could‘ve cracked pecans between her thighs.  She’d get on that mechanical critter, squeezing it tight with her legs, firmly locking the rope in an iron underhanded grip, holding her body as low as possible, and then—when the bull started gyrating-she’d kind of let her upper body go limp.  Hell, her center of gravity was probably lower than the top of the bull.  Every time that bull leaned forward, she’d lean back, never leaning more than a few inches one way or the other to stay centered.”

“Lucy made riding that fool contraption look easy.   And it probably was if you were only 90 pounds of solid muscle.  I never did see her get thrown—she’d just sit on that gyrating critter until she had busted the challenger’s time and then tell the operator to flip the switch on the beast.  She’d collect her winnings and go right back to waiting tables.  I think she only worked there so she could challenge those citified cowboys.  I know for certain she made more money on the bull than she did serving beer.”

“What happened to her?” questioned one of the men sitting at the table.

“Nothing happened to her,” answered Jack.  “When Hurricane Alicia flattened the bar like road-kill, she made a deal with the bar’s owner.  Last I saw of her, she was driving a pickup west into the sunset, over the bridge towards Houston.  The bull was tied securely in the bed of the truck.  For all I know she’s either found another bar, or she’s trying to cross breed the damn thing with a riding lawn mower.”

Finished, Jack picked up his beer, draining what was left, staring at the men sitting around him as if to challenge any of them that dared to doubt his story.

Kent leaned over to his friend and whispered, “Well, when you ask a man for a bullshit story, you generally get a bullshit story.”

“Yeah,” Mike answered.  “Though this is a first:  A mechanical bullshit story.”

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Two Lucky Women

And the men who profited from their luck.

Historically, the major difference between successful exploration and failure is frequently simply luck.  In the case of two such explorations, that luck came in the form of women whose contributions (and women's role in exploration is usually overlooked) meant the difference between life and an untimely death.  As clues to understanding the exploration of North America, the stories of these two women have much in common, even though their travels occurred 300 years apart .

By 1519, the Spanish had thoroughly explored and  tamed the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, but knew almost nothing about the mainland to the north and west. The island natives had told many tales about lands with abundant gold just a few days sailing to the west and explorers had briefly landed on the coast of Vera Cruz, but the contact with the natives had been brief and violent.  Finally, Governor Velazquez of Cuba decided to send a large expedition westward.  Velazquez thought he had just the man for the job, a bright Spaniard who exhibited initiative and leadership:  Hernan Cortés.

Cortés threw himself into the work of preparing the expedition.  As he prepared eleven small ships, he hired men, gathered arms and supplies, and worked tirelessly to ready the expedition.  Cortés worked so hard that Velazquez soon realized the central problem with funding expeditions—If Cortés were successful, it would be Cortés who profited, not Velazquez.

When Velazquez sent word to Cortés to delay sailing off in his search for gold, fame, and glory (with the emphasis on gold), Cortés immediately confirmed the governor’s suspicions by ordering his men to set sail and embark immediately.  By defying Velazquez, Cortés was taking a desperate gamble:  if his expedition was not wildly successful, he would either be killed by the natives or executed by Velazquez.

When Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico, almost immediately he discovered that two lost Spaniards, all that remained of an errant Spanish ship wrecked on the Mexican coast by a passing hurricane, had been forced to live with the Mayans long enough to learn the local language.  One of these shipwrecked survivors, had married and “gone native”, with no desire to leave, but the other survivor, Gerome de Aguilar, was desperate to be rescued. 

It is difficult to imagine the incredible luck for Cortés, to discover an interpreter almost immediately upon landing on the coast of a foreign and unexplored land.  It is through the efforts of Gerome that Cortés is able to make peace with the Mayans, who gifted the Spaniard with twenty young maidens, among whom was Malinche.

Malinche had been born the daughter of a local chief of one of the Nahua tribes on the outskirt of the Aztec Empire.  After her father died, she had been gifted to another tribe as a child, then in turn was either given or traded to the Mayans.  By the time she met Cortés, she was roughly twenty years old and was described as graceful and beautiful.  We don’t know whether Cortés chose her for her beauty or for her ability to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl—the language of the Aztecs—and he also took the young woman for his mistress.  (Officially, Cortés chose her to be the companion of one of his men—one that he "coincidentally" chose to send as an emissary back to King Charles of Spain.)

The best eyewitness account of Cortés's conquest of the Aztec Empire was written by Bernal Dias del Castillo, who wrote that, next to God, it was Marina—the name Malinche took after she had been baptized into the Christian Faith—who was most responsible for the success of the expedition.  She not only acted as translator for Cortés, she told him about the Aztecs, their way of life, their way of war, and the gold they possessed. 

Malinche stayed by Cortés throughout the conquest, so much so that all of the surviving Aztec codices depicting Cortés, show Malinche by his side.  The Aztecs even referred to Cortés and Malinche with a single collective word—Malintzin.  Without the contributions of Malinche, it is doubtful that Cortés would have ever successfully traveled far enough into the interior of Mexico to even meet Montezuma, much less conquer his empire.

After the conquest, Malinche bore Cortés a son, Martin Cortés, and lived in comfort for the rest of her life in a house that Cortés provided.  In Mexico, her memory is, at best, mixed.  Her son is considered to be the first mestizo and so she is regarded as either the mother of modern Mexico or a traitor to her people. 

Three hundred years later, an expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase also depended on a woman for success. 

When President Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, the nation acquired a little over 828,000 square miles for just over four cents an acre.  While historians are still arguing whether the sale was legal—Napoleon didn’t have a clear title and the U. S. Constitution doesn’t mention the power of a president to buy new territory—it’s ours because we occupied it.  However, before settlers could move in, somebody had to find out what was there.

Jefferson asked Congress for $2500 to fund an expedition, then he hired Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark to explore and map the territory.  (And, as we discussed last week, to look for a few wooly mammoths.)  This being a government activity, the two eventually spent merely twenty times what they had been budgeted, but considering what they accomplished, it is still chump change.

Shortly after the expedition started in 1804, they wintered over in present-day North Dakota and began looking for local trappers who might be able to guide them up the Missouri River as soon as the spring came and the ice melted.  Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper was hired, along with his wife, Sacagawea. 

Sacagawea had been born in present-day Idaho into the Shoshone tribe.  As a young girl, a raiding party of Crow had kidnapped her, eventually selling her, against her will, to Charbonneau as a wife.  By the time she joined the Lewis and Clark expedition, she was pregnant with her first child, and gave birth just before the explorers began their journey up the Missouri River.

Almost immediately, Sacagawea proved to be a useful addition to the expedition.  Not only could she translate to the local tribes, but the very presence of a nursing mother proved to the various tribes that this could not possibly be a war party. 

When the explorers finally reached the Shoshone—whose help was an absolute necessity for the success of the expedition— Sacagawea was delighted to discover that in the years since she had been kidnapped, her brother had become chief of the tribe.  As Meriwether Lewis recorded in his journal:

Shortly after Capt. Clark arrived with the Interpreter Charbono, and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait. The meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares and rejoined her nation.

Through the influence of Sacagawea, the Shoshone provided Lewis and Clark with horses and guides over the Rocky Mountains.  Sacagawea could have stayed with her own people, but chose to continue with the expedition not only on to the Pacific Ocean, but returned all the way back to St. Louis, Missouri, where she lived the rest of her life, dying of an unknown fever only a few years later, in 1812.

If it was unlikely that Lewis and Clark could have found a trapper who could speak Crow and it is almost impossible that he would also be married to a woman who could speak both Crow and Shoshone.  If we stretch the odds to make this woman, who had been kidnapped for years from her own people, to just happen to be the younger sister of the chief of the Shoshone, the whole affair becomes preposterous.   This is luck beyond calculation.

It is remarkable that the success of the two most famous explorations of North America were both successful because of the contributions of two very similar young women, the details of both of whose contributions have been largely unknown.  Though both were forced to participate, both became indispensable, both stayed with their expeditions when they could have left, and both have become footnotes in the history of those expeditions.

The sons of both women went on to become educated, traveled to Europe, met royalty, and returned home; both had successful and colorful careers, but those are stories for another time.