Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Old Truck

As he pulled the truck up to the barn, the old rancher sighed.  He didn’t really like his new pickup, and wished he was still driving his old Ford.

As he climbed down from the new truck, he glanced over at the old truck, with its multiple dings and dents, with the cracked rear window, and with the twisted antenna that had resisted a dozen attempts at straightening it with pliers.  The old rancher had joked numerous times that the truck was old enough to vote.  Sadly, he had recently realized that the truck was getting close to being old enough to drink—twice.

For years, his wife and son had urged him to replace the vintage Ford, but he had resisted, insisting that the truck was still reliable and that he was used to its peculiarities.  The transmission jammed easily unless you knew how to baby the stick, there was some kind of intermittent short with the turn signals, and the bench seat was about 4 inches lower than it had been when he had bought the truck in the seventies.

Still, he loved the old truck.  It was reliable and he knew all of her quirks and idiosyncrasies.  He had worked on the truck so many times, he could repair anything on it without consulting a manual, and probably already had the necessary parts in the aluminum truck box behind the cab. 

Sadly, however, he had been forced to admit that the old truck was taking longer to get up to highway speed, had a little play in the steering, and was taking uncomfortably longer to brake to a stop.  His wife had been bugging him for years about airbags and better safety, too.  The deciding moment had come when he had loaded the backhoe onto its trailer and attempted to tow it to the dealership for repair.  The old truck just couldn’t handle the job and sadly, he knew then it was time to purchase a new truck.

After spending an entire day wandering the dealerships looking at new trucks, the old rancher had almost changed his mind—the new trucks were depressingly expensive.  Worse, he didn’t like what he saw, as the newer trucks seemed more suited to taking the family to church than to being a good work truck.  He didn’t want carpeted floors or leather seats...he wanted durable vinyl and a heavy-duty bed.  By the end of the day, he had decided he wouldn’t trade his old truck for a new one, even if the dealership had offered the swap for no money. 

There were several things about the new vehicles he didn’t like.  He wanted an 8-foot bed on the truck--one long enough to haul lumber and the newer trucks were too short.  They all seemed too fragile: the metal bodies felt too thin, the bumpers were plastic, and he really didn’t need all the bells and whistles the newer trucks all seemed to have.  As far as he was concerned, these features were just so many fragile toys that would soon need repairs.  The new trucks aggravated him—all he needed was simple transportation and a reliable work vehicle.

In all the ways that mattered to him, the new expensive pickups were just not as reliable as his old one.  Also, the fact that the new trucks cost several times what he had paid for his last pickup made him angry; he felt that half the price he would have to pay was going for ‘pretty’ instead of ‘useful’.

There was, however, no way that he could continue to ignore the obvious—he needed a newer truck.  As much as he didn’t like it, he had to find more dependable transportation.  After several more trips to various dealerships, he finally bought a truck.  Not at a dealership, but from a private owner whom his son had located on the internet.

It seems that the Southwest was a popular place for retiring snowbirds—those poor damn Yankees freezing their asses off up north—to move after retiring.  Brand new travel trailers were regularly towed south by eager retirees seeking to thaw out.  As soon as they arrived, the joy of driving large trucks built for towing a heavy loads soon wore out and they were eager to sell their new trucks and purchase smaller cars.

The “new” truck only had a few thousand miles on it, had cost about half what the dealership wanted, and still had far more features than the old rancher had wanted, but it came with a heavy duty towing package and had a long enough bed that he could still haul a full load.  He doubted the new truck would last half as long as his old truck, despite costing twice as much.

It was going to take a long time to get used to the automatic transmission, as he was used to a ‘four-on-the-floor’ manual transmission.  After buying the truck, all the way home he had kept stomping on an imaginary clutch pedal, something he doubted he would ever stop doing.

It was about a week later that his son came to visit and found the rancher in the barn replacing the spark plugs on the old truck.

“What are you doing, getting it fixed up to sell?”, asked his son.

“Nope.  Going to keep her,” he replied.

“Keep it?  It’s a piece of junk.  And you have a new truck.”

“Yep.  I’ll use the new one on the highway and for towing the trailer.  But I’ll keep using the Ford on the ranch.  She’s a better work truck, and still has years of life on her.”

“You’re just too stubborn to accept change,” his son answered.

The old rancher gathered the wrenches he had laid out on the old Ford’s fender, returning them to the tool box and slammed the hood closed on the truck.  As he walked to the side of the Ford truck to return to the tools to the truck box, the son continued his questions.

“It’s old, and worn out, and no longer works the way it used to.  It’s time to replace it with something newer.”

The old rancher, shut the truck box, turned and leaned against his old Ford.

After a long pause, the old rancher finally answered, “Which one of us are you talking about?”

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The War Horses

Last week, this blog made a slight mistake.  It was a common mistake, but still incorrect.  I wrote about quadrigas, the racing chariots that for centuries raced around the Hippodrome in Constantinople.  While the story, itself, was correct, my mistake was obvious.

I put the cart before the horse.

Specifically, the four magnificent bronze horses pulling the quadriga that for centuries was on display at the Hippodrome.  Over the centuries, the chariot has vanished, but the four horses are still struggling—and traveling—on.

As racehorses, they are anomalies.  Racehorses are normally at their peak as three-year-olds (that being the age of all the horses who run at such events as the Kentucky Derby), but these horses still seem to be in their prime at the age of….well, nobody really knows. They may have been cast as long as 2400 years ago. 

According to one source, the statues were created by the great Greek sculptor Lysippus, the personal sculptor to Alexander the Great.  The classical style and attention to the veins and muscles of the lifelike pieces are certainly in his style, but personally, I think the pieces may be a few centuries newer, as there is a small problem with the material the sculptor used to cast his work (but we’ll come back to that).

There is some evidence that the horses made their way to Rome, where they may have been placed on a triumphal arch.  There are several Roman carvings depicting quadrigas on arches driven by the pagan god Nike, though most bronze statues from that period were later melted down to be recast as Christian art.

Whenever they were made, they were definitely meant to be viewed from below.  While various origins have been suggested from all over the world, all I’ll say is that the sculptor definitely wasn’t from Texas.  The statues are breathtakingly beautiful, but they are not really accurate depictions because their proportions are incorrect when viewed close-up.  They are of no identifiable breed and their necks and legs are too thick while their backs are too short.  This is probably because the Greeks were experts at producing art that looks good from a distance or from a certain perspective. 

Take, for example, the Parthenon.  The giant structure looks perfect, even though it was actually constructed without a single straight line: since the surface of our eyes is rounded, the Greeks compensated for this by adding slight curves to the building.  A similar technique was used to create these horses so that the perspective would look correct when viewed from below.

Constantine gathered art from all over the old Roman Empire when he moved his capital to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople.   The emperor placed the horses and chariot on a pedestal above the Hippodrome in the early 4th century, where they oversaw the violent chariot races there for nine centuries.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III launched the Fourth Crusade (the previous three having been colossal failures even by French standards).  The goal of the valiant crusaders was to board ships at Venice, sail to Egypt, disembark and travel overland to Jerusalem, where they intended to reconquer the Holy Land in the name of God.  Unfortunately, due to the rising cost of purchasing ships, they detoured to the Christian town of Constantinople, where they attacked, sacked, looted, and slaughtered—all in the name of several high-interest Venetian loan sharks. 

This may not sound like a great accomplishment, but the French wouldn’t have another military victory this decisive until a few centuries later when they turned their army over to a schizophrenic teenage girl.

The Triumphal Quadriga was shipped back to Venice, but to make it easier to load onto ships, the horses' heads were cut off.  Upon their arrival in Venice, the heads were reattached, and the horses were placed on display on the exterior of St. Mark’s Basilica—only now they sported collars to hide the seams.  Somewhere on this trip, the chariot was lost and has never been recovered.

Note.  During the rough trip, one of the horses lost a leg.  Among the massive amount of art stolen were also the Four Tetrarchs, a sculpture of four Roman Emperors.  By a weird coincidence, this piece also lost a leg during shipment.  While both statues were repaired, I have always wondered how much more interesting both pieces could have been if the two legs had been inadvertently swapped.

The horses remained at St. Mark’s for five centuries and show up in countless travelers' accounts or artists' renditions of the basilica.  Petrarch visited the city and wrote about the horses:

“I took a close view of the horses of St. Mark’s. When one looks up at them from below, it is easy to see that they are spotted: in places they exhibit a beautiful yellow-metallic lustre, in others a coppery green has run over them. Viewing them more closely, one sees distinctly that once they were gilt all over; and long streaks are still to be seen over them, as the barbarians did not attempt to file off the gold, but tried to cut it off. That, too, is well: thus the shape at least has been preserved. A glorious team of horses: I should like to hear the opinion of a good judge of horse-flesh. What seemed strange to me was, that, closely viewed, they appear heavy, while from the piazza below they look as light as deer.”

For five centuries, the four horses remained at the basilica, until Napoleon took the city.  Following the long-established custom, he began systematically looting the town, snatching centuries of art work.  When the city fathers suggested that he take the four horses and leave behind some of the Renaissance paintings, Napoleon thanked them for their advice, kept the paintings, and took the horses, too!

Back in Paris, Napoleon had the horses placed atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, pulling a newly created quadriga driven by a likeness of the emperor himself.  There are two triumphal arches with similar names in Paris, and this is the smaller of the two.  The larger Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile was finished in 1836, making it the world’s largest triumphal arch until Mexico built the Monumento a la Revolución to commemorate the independence that Mexico “won”, ironically, only because Napoleon had invaded Spain and put his own brother on the throne.  For a while there, Napoleon looked at the assorted countries of Europe and decided he wanted to collect the whole set, placing first one relative then another in charge of his various conquests.

Napoleon evidently didn’t really appreciate the four horses.  At the height of his power, he suddenly decided to have the horses melted down for cannon balls.  Luckily, the smelter declined the job, since after an analysis of the sculpture, it was revealed that the horses were almost pure copper, not actually bronze.  When the pieces were originally cast, they had been gilded in a process that required heated mercury.  Copper has a much higher melting point than bronze (Which I do NOT understand since bronze is about 90% copper and 10% tin.)  Considering the complexity of the gilding process and the difficulty of casting copper, I think it unlikely that Lysippus actually created them.

Note.  You are probably wondering what is wrong with copper cannon balls.  At the time, “everyone” knew that copper cannon balls were poisonous, making their use effectively a war crime, though why anyone would worry about a little poison after being hit by a cannon ball is beyond me.  During the Mexican American War, the United States was outraged that Mexico used copper cannon balls.  Obviously, there was nothing actually wrong with copper cannon balls.  Tests done by the US Army later proved that copper cannon balls had similar range and accuracy results when compared to iron cannon balls.  Ironically, most military ammunition is now clad in copper.

After Napoleon lost at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington felt that the stolen artwork (none of which had come from England) should be returned to its rightful owner...Well, most of it.  Roughly half of the art was returned to its countries of origin, a little trickled back to England, and the remainder can still be found in Paris. 

In the case of the four horses, the Austrian Emperor sent Captain Dumareq, a veteran of the Waterloo battle, to insure the safe return of the sculpture to Venice.  Strangely, the city that tried to sacrifice the horses to save a few paintings had a celebration upon their return.  The partying must have been intense since it is recorded that the town’s brothels closed for the day.  Back in Paris, copies of the horses replaced the originals on the triumphal arch.  Today, Napoleon is no longer driving the quadriga, but has been replaced by an amorphous male figure who is ironically labeled “Peace”.

War again moved the horses during World War II, when Allied bombing was directed at the Venetian harbor.  Carefully crated, the horses spent the last months of the war securely hidden away in Rome, only to return to Venice after peace was declared.  Finally, just a few years ago, the horses were moved again, this time for protection from acid rain and toxic pollution.  Today, the horses are safely inside the basilica while copies are on display outside, over the loggia of St. Mark’s. 

So, the pagan horses of St. Mark, that may have been originally from Greece, traveled to Rome, were then taken to Constantinople, where they were seized by Crusaders (who were supposed to be in Jerusalem), so they could be taken to Venice to decorate a Christian church.  Once in Venice, they stayed there, except for the period when Napoleon moved them to Paris (or the time when World War II sent them to Rome).

It seems to me the least the people of Venice could do is to make a fourth set of copies and send them back to the Hippodrome.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Baseball and Chariot Racing

All day long, all I could think about was horse racing.  One of the nicest things about being retired is that I no longer read anything because “I have to”.  I used to "have to" reread the books I assigned my students, or read books written by my colleagues or read the new publications in my fields of study, so there was little time left for pleasure reading.  Happily, now I can read anything without that guilty feeling that I am wasting time, which means I am catching up on a few favorite authors I have lost track of, one of whom is Dick Francis.  

Francis had something of a varied career: he trained horses during the depression, flew Spitfires during the war, became a famous jockey—riding for the Queen Mother, all of these before settling down as a prolific author.  Francis was the only mystery writer to win an “Edgar” three times and all of his novels revolve around some aspect of the racing world. 

Race tracks are large and complicated enterprises, with much of the operation all but invisible to the fans.  Francis took some little-known corner of the racing world, such as the track bar or the horse transport service, and made it the central core of one of his mysteries.  In every book, a curtain is drawn back to reveal a world the reader has never known even existed. 

While Francis passed away in 2010, luckily, his son Felix (who had co-authored several novels with his father) has continued to write books still centered around the racing world.  His latest, Triple Crown, reminds me of another racing story from long, long ago.

Fifteen hundred years ago, the people of Constantinople were obsessed with chariot racing.  This sport was far from a new, as both the Greeks and Romans had built costly race tracks to enjoy the spectacle of quadrigas—open back chariots—racing around a long oval track pulled by four powerful horses.  Racing fans wagered huge sums on the outcomes of the races. 

On a race day in Constantinople, as many as 100,000 people—including the emperor and most of the royal court—would pack the stands to watch a full day of races.  Unlike the gladiatorial combats that had fallen out of favor due to high costs, the races were encouraged by the emperor and could be attended by women as well as men.  The fact that the races were incredibly dangerous, with frequent fatal accidents, helped make the sport popular, too.

Over time, four teams came to dominate the races and each had its own group of fans.  The Reds, Greens, Blues, and Whites had distinctive clothing, members wore their hair differently, and they had the kind of rowdy fans one normally associates with British football.  A winning team frequently had to win both on and off the field, with the latter contest involving thousands of fans.

Emperor Justinian was an open supporter of the Blues, while his wife, Theodora, was rumored to despise the Greens.  (It will help in this story if you don’t think of this as chariot racing, but of baseball.  The Blues are the Boston Red Sox and the Greens are the New York Yankees.  The Reds and Whites were still around, but they were too few in number to actually matter, so think of them as the Cubs and the Mets.)

Over time, two teams, the Blues and the Greens, began to dominate the sport, with their influence growing to include both political and social spheres.  The Hippodrome, Constantinople’s enormous racetrack, became a place where people of all social classes—even those wearing the royal purple—could air their grievances.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say the track was a free speech zone, since the emperor came to the races with his soldiers, but people could give public voice to their concerns—albeit politely.

In the closing days of the year 531, the factions of the Blues and Greens quarreled over the results of a race.  The quarrel quickly turned into a riot that resulted in the murder of several people and the soldiers arrested the instigators, both Blue and Green.  Quickly tried and condemned, the guilty were to be hanged.  Mass executions were almost as popular as races back then, and attracted large crowds.

At the executions, two of the accused escaped when their nooses broke.  One Blue and one Green fell from the scaffold, bound and injured but still alive.  The gathered crowd protected them while they ran to a nearby church, where they claimed sanctuary, even as the emperor’s soldiers surrounded the church. 

Now, the rioters demanded that the last two survivors be pardoned and, surprisingly, the Blue and Green factions were united on this issue.  Justinian, nervous because he knew the people had been unhappy about the high taxes he had imposed to finance his war against the Persians, sought to placate everyone by commuting the penalties of the condemned to lengthy imprisonment and by declaring a full day of races. 

The day started well, but by race 22, the crowd had stopped cheering for either team and had begun demanding that the two prisoners be released, shouting, “Nika! Nika!” (meaning victory).  Their anger turned into a full-fledged riot, as the 100,000 Blues and Greens banded together and began burning the city.  One of the first buildings to be burned was the church where the men had taken refuge (after the men had been they could join the riot!).

The Blues and Greens were united, but united as an angry mob.  There is a simple mathematical formula for calculating the I.Q. of a mob.  Take the I.Q. of the dumbest member present and divide it by the number of people in the mob and this mob was no exception.  In one bizarre case, the rioters went to the house of one of Justinian's political rivals, hoping that he would become their leader.  Upon discovering that he was out of town on business, they burned down his house.

For five days, the riot continued, destroying over half the town and killing tens of thousands of people.  Eventually, the mob selected its emperora Green—and assembled back at the Hippodrome.  With fewer than 2,000 mercenaries who remained loyal as long as they were paid, Justinian thought about fleeing to safety but his wife, who was made of sterner stuff, ignored the protocol against a woman's speaking at council:

“If you wish safety, my Lord, this is an easy matter.  We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships.  But consider whether if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death.  As for me, I like the old saying that the purple is the noblest shroud.”

Consider that phrase, “yonder our ships.”  Theodora might have been a Texan.  She definitely had bigger stones than her husband, Justinian. 

His spine suitably stiffened, Justinian tried subterfuge.  First, he sent what few loyal troops he had left to surround the Hippodrome.  Then he sent the diminutive court eunuch into the Hippodrome, armed not with a weapon, but with a bag of gold. 

The mob that had killed thousands and had looted and burned over half the city, spared the pitiful eunuch, believing him to be no threat.  But, once the eunuch was allowed entrance, he went to speak with the Blues, who were gathered at their traditional places in the stands.  The eunuch reminded them that Justinian was a Red Sox—I mean Blue—fan and the man pretending to be the new emperor was a Green.  Then the emperor’s eunuch began handing out the gold....but only to the Blues.

As you have probably guessed, the Blues accepted the money and promptly left the stands.  As soon as they were gone, the soldiers rushed in and began the systematic slaughter of the Greens, who'd stayed behind.  The soldiers finally stopped when they were too exhausted to slit another throat, having slaughtered 30,000 Greens.

In Texas, there is a famous saying, “One riot, one Ranger.”  This is a reference to Captain MacDonald of the Texas Rangers, who supposedly stopped a riot in Dallas singlehandedly.  I guess the Constantinople version would be, "One riot, one eunuch."

The result of all of this was that Justinian got to stay in power.  He rebuilt Constantinople, including that church.  Today it is known as the Hagia Sophia. 

As for chariot racing, it never really made a comeback.  It turns out that if one side has a complete victory and literally kills off the competition, the games stop being any fun—something the Boston Red Sox need to remember.  And they should change their mascot to a eunuch.