Saturday, July 13, 2019

Sheep Business

It’s been a few years, so I can tell the story.  The man in question has been dead for years, and I doubt that anyone will recognize him from this story.

At the time, I was in the computer business—way back in the dark ages, long before smart phones, tablets, email, or even the internet.  Those were fun days, since nearly every day, a new piece of hardware hit the market, everyone was writing new code, and it seemed like anything was possible.

So, when a local businessman presented us with a problem, we were eager to tackle it.  The man had operations in multiple cities across the southwest, and wanted a way for each location to automatically report daily sales figures in several categories back to the home office.

This would be simple problem today:  I can think of half a dozen different ways to accomplish this, but thirty-five years ago, it was a novel problem.  After several days of experimentation, we found a solution using off the shelf hardware and a little bit of new code we had written.  

A week later, we demonstrated the solution at our store.  Using three identical computers, one representing the home office and the other two, different operations in distant cities, we demonstrated how each computer would connect by modem over a telephone line to the “home office” and upload sales figures.  After both computers had uploaded their information, the home office computer would print out the results and turn itself off.

The businessman was delighted with the results and had us demonstrate the system several times.   He took our detailed quote with him and promised to get in touch with us in a few days.

Two weeks later, we still hadn’t heard from him.  Eventually, we learned that he had hired a computer science student from Enema U, handed him our detailed quote, and ordered him to duplicate the system using cheap, junk hardware purchased from a discount mail order house out of New York.

None of the hardware we had quoted was unique, but it was just all good equipment we had offered to sell at a fair price.  The only unique element in our quote was our expertise and that small program we had written.  I could have named a dozen people in town that could have easily duplicated our work.  Unfortunately for the businessman, his new student employee wasn’t one of them.

That student tried, but couldn’t make the computers communicate with each other reliably.  It wasn’t a hardware problem: the student just couldn’t duplicate the program we had written.

About a month later, the businessman returned to our office and wanted to know how much we would charge him to make the equipment he had already purchased work like the system we had demonstrated.  Amazingly, the man didn’t even look even a little embarrassed.

I told him the fee would be the same amount we had previously quoted him.

Naturally, I neither expected nor wanted the man to accept my offer...and he didn’t.  He angrily left, and I never saw him again.  I eventually heard that he fired the student, but never learned—nor cared—if he ever got his new computers to work.  About a dozen years later, he filed for bankruptcy and his business shut down.

What the businessman had done was not illegal, nor am I even sure that it qualifies as immoral.  The man had obviously tried to use my work without either my permission or compensation, but I had given him the detailed quote, and freely demonstrated in general how the system worked.  What he had done was legal, but I no longer wanted to work with him.

Unfortunately, this was not the only person in town that we did not want as a client.  There were half a dozen people in town that we simply would not work with.  One or two who could not be depended on to pay their bills, a couple that were simply too dishonest to trust, and one extremely famous individual (you have absolutely heard of him) who somehow figured that we should be so honored to do business with such a celebrity that we should lose money on every transaction.   In the latter case, we never felt quite that honored.  (Try telling the electric company it should be honored to provide you with power and see how quickly you’re left in the dark!) 

In some ways, I was grateful for that businessman for teaching my employees a valuable lesson:  Every business deal had to be as fair for the buyer as it was for the seller.   Ours was a small town in a small state, we wanted to do business with the same clients for years.  And with the vast majority of them, we did.  I haven’t sold a computer in thirty years, and I still solve computer problems for a few old clients.

My father had taught me this lesson, and like the ol’ Texas country boy that he was, he had done it far more succinctly.  

“Son,” he said.  “You can shear sheep every year, but you can only skin ‘em one time.”

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Pasture Pool -- The Desert Edition

The Captain had a small problem:  He was addicted to golf, but as captain of a ship assigned to the North Atlantic Squadron, it was hard to find time to be able to play.  Though his coal burning ship was frequently in port, many of the places he visited lacked a suitable golf course. 

Several factors had made golf popular recently:  The fondness of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for Scotland, the availability of gutta-percha balls, and the extension of commuter trolley lines out of the cities into the countryside.  All of these had made golf popular around the world.  But, in all of the United States, there were only 250 golf courses, most of them built in just the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Since most of the courses were owned by private clubs, the Captain and his officers could not be certain of obtaining an invitation to play, much less one that was offered when it was possible to leave the ship. 

However, the Captain was resourceful, so he decided if he couldn’t get to a regular golf course, he would just build his own.  Using a lathe, the ship’s carpenter fashioned him several golf balls out of cork and soft pine.  After each was painted white, the Captain found that, after a hard swing, the balls would travel, at most, about 50 yards.   On a windless day, the cork balls traveled further, but were more susceptible to being carried by a breeze.

After a little experimentation, the Captain discovered that his new improvised balls would loft like a regular ball, but the distance the balls traveled was about a quarter of what the gutta-percha balls did.  This meant, that the entire nine hole golf course could be laid out in any five acre meadow.   Each hole of the par 36 course ranged from 35 to 75 yards in length.

Unfortunately, that is about all of the story that I can tell you.  History doesn’t record exactly how long the captain and his crew played their diminutive version of golf.  Perhaps they were still playing it when the World War I started.  Certainly, there would be little need for such an informal golf course today, the captain would probably have a choice among several military private courses.

Exactly how many military golf courses there are is a little confusing.  The Pentagon claims to have 234 such courses, but lists only 194.  No, the discrepancy isn’t because the missing 40 are secret.  I checked, and both the courses at Area 51 and the one at  Guantanamo are on the list.  The course at Guantanamo is a little challenging—all nine holes are part of the driving range.  While the official name is Yantera Seca, it is popularly called the Lateral Hazard Golf Course.

Just as confusing, the Pentagon claims that the number of holes on those courses is 2874—a number not divisible by either 9 or 18.  Somewhere, there is a 12 hole golf course.  (I checked, we don’t have a course in France.)

The Pentagon’s list of courses includes sites from the Caribbean to the Middle East, and just about everywhere in the United States where there is a military base.  In New Mexico alone, there are five military courses.   Most are 18-hole courses, though the monster course at Andrews Air Force Base sports 54 holes.

Don’t misunderstand me, the courses generally break even on operating costs, and are not nearly good enough for our military.  Not only do I sincerely hope the military builds more of them, but I will eagerly accept an invitation to play on any of them.

The story of the Captain’s impromptu courses did inspire me, however, to try my own hand at creating my own version of pasture pool.  New Mexico is a little short of empty meadows, but we have a surplus of empty places.  I don’t think anyone in the Southern half of this state is more than a five-minute drive to an empty desert area.  In my case, it is less than a five-minute walk.

I used empty soup cans for cups, The Doc fashioned flags out of scrap cloth and dowel rods, and I substituted plastic whiffle balls for wooden balls.  (I did discover I had to substitute a real ball for putting.)  Since my course was sort of a bastard cross from the world’s largest sand trap and a gravel parking lot, I decided not to use my good golf clubs, but substituted a few “practice” clubs I bought awhile back for $5 each at a local pawn shop. 

After a little experimentation, I learned that the only clubs I needed to play “the course” were a five wood and an eight iron.  Coincidentally, those are also the same two clubs I use most often on a “real” course, so this may say more about my game than about what anyone else would use.

My course has a few “house rules”.  Each player is required to bring a cooler of beer to the course.  A pickup truck may be—and always is—substituted for a golf cart, and it is conveniently parked—with the beer—in the exact middle of the course.  Any lie can be improved by a club length to avoid creosote bushes, cactus, or the occasional snake hole (or snake!).  To avoid making the course a continual sand trap, you may tee the ball up on any shot.

My version of a golf course also has quite a few benefits that a regular course does not.  First, there are no green fees.  Holes are almost never closed due to the sprinklers.  You do not need to play in a foursome and tee times are always available.  And any golfer may, at his discretion, suspend play briefly to shoot at the jack rabbits.  If you hit one, you’ve automatically “shot par” on that hole.

I’m pretty sure they don’t allow that at Andrews.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Blood and Sand, New Mexico Style

The marble slab is a little cracked and the hand-chiseled lettering is starting to widen with age and erosion.  Since the sleepy little plaza has been resurfaced several times, the edges of the marble marker are now encased in concrete, leaving only part of the slab visible.

Looking up, I can see my granddaughter crossing the tree-shaded plaza, curious as to what I have been staring at.  Mesilla Plaza is an ideal contemplation place for a historian, since the small plaza has seen the visitation of countless people—both the famous and the infamous in the annals of the Southwest.  Over there, where we ate lunch, is where Pancho Villa, John Wesley Hardin, and Kit Carson stayed.  That building used to be the jail that held Billy the Kid, while over there was the Pony Express, and the theater around the corner once housed the Confederate Capitol of New Mexico and Arizona.  It would be easier to list the famous figures of the Old West who haven’t stood in this old plaza. 

Standing next to me, my granddaughter, Alice, looks down and gazes at the marble slab.  “Who was Fountain?” she asks.

As he saw the postman approaching, the old man pulled on the reins and stopped the buckboard.  The horse immediately began pulling at the sparse grass that grew under the nearby creosote bush.

“What’s the matter, father?” asked the eight year-old boy.

“Nothing, Henry,” the man answered as he pulled his coat collar a little higher to ward off the cold February wind.  “Just going to stop and talk to a friend for a second.”

“Hola, Colonel Fountain,” said the mail carrier as he stopped his horse alongside the buckboard.  “Are you going to push on to Mesilla tonight?”

“Yes, Saturnino.  Mariana is expecting us for dinner.  And I think Henry here is coming down with a cold; he needs his mother’s care.” 

“Maybe you should ride with me back to La Luz.  I have to ride to Mesilla, tomorrow, and we could ride together.  I’ve seen some riders following you, said Saturnino Barela as he gestured east towards the dunes of White Sands.

Barela knew that Fountain, a lawyer prominent in territorial politics, had as many enemies as he had friends—Not only because he had defended Billy the Kid for the murder of a local lawman, but also because Fountain was trying to prosecute several powerful local ranch owners for cattle rustling. 

Fountain considered the postal carrier’s advice as he looked down at Henry, who was huddled under an Apache blanket, eating the stick candy he had purchased this morning.  Fountain had given his son a quarter to buy candy, but the boy had only spent a dime, tying up the change in a corner of his handkerchief. 

Fountain regretted bringing the boy along on the trip, but his wife had insisted that no one would attack him while he had his eight-year-old son with him.  The 150-mile trip to Lincoln had taken three days and then they had spent two days in court, securing the indictments against the rustlers.  The first day of the journey home, they had spent at a friend’s home near the Mescalero Reservation, followed by the second night spent at the small settlement at La Luz, and now Fountain was eager to get home.

Fountain gestured to the Winchester leaning against the seat of the buckboard.  “I think we’ll be okay.  We’ve been traveling for three days since we left Lincoln, and we’re both anxious to get home.”

After a final wave from Henry, Barela watched the buckboard continue west, before he continued on his way to La Luz.

The next day, as the mail carrier was making his way back to Mesilla, when he passed Chalk Hill, he saw that the tracks from Fountain’s buckboard suddenly departed from the trail and headed into the hills.  Ominously, the sand showed the prints of several horses going into the desert on both sides of the buckboard.

Saturnino Barela continued on to Mesilla, telling Fountain’s wife Mariana and his son, Albert Jr., what he had found.  When a search party scoured the desert around Chalk Hill, they found the abandoned buckboard near large patches of bloody sand.  In their search of the buckboard, they found that the lawyer’s valise had been emptied and all his legal papers were missing, along with his Winchester.  On the seat of the buckboard, was a handkerchief with a nickel and a dime tied up with a knot.  Alarmingly, the handkerchief and coins were charred with burnt gunpowder.

Of the Fountains—either father or son—there was no trace.

I smile at my granddaughter.  “He was one of the people who built this plaza.  He and his son vanished and were never found and whatever happened to them is still a mystery.”

Alice looks at the marker then stares back at me.  “Did the police look for them?”, she asks.

“Some very famous lawmen looked for them.  Pat Garrett and the Pinkerton Detective Agency looked for them, but no one ever found them.”

“Was this a long time ago?” Alice asks.  (She has learned that most of my stories are about a time long enough ago that they don’t matter).

“Yes.  And no.  Depends on how you look at it.  It was 123 years ago, but you see that house over there?  The woman who told me the story lived there, and the missing eight year-old boy was her uncle.  It didn’t seem like a long time ago to her.”

I don’t tell Alice that one of the men who was probably responsible for the murders later became a senator and the first presidential cabinet officer to be convicted of corruption.  I also don’t tell her that Colonel Fountain wasn’t the first in his family to vanish.  His father, Solomon Jennings, had vanished in China.  Nor do I tell her that the violent deaths of Colonel Fountain and his son so horrified the authorities in Washington that they delayed statehood for the territory of New Mexico.

As we leave, I can almost see the wheels turning in Alice’s head.  All my history lesson has done is convince her that, like my story, I am really old.