Saturday, February 25, 2017

Brazos Ghost Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean…”

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Let's Dig Into That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Barbecue on the Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such as?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Just a Little Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pulque-It's Not Just for Breakfast

A long time ago, I wrote about tequila, its various forms, and my favorite place to drink it.  I always meant to come back and discuss pulque, but never got around to it.  For some reason, the recent elections have had me thinking a lot about drinking.

Pulque, like tequila, is made in Mexico from the maguey cactus, but whereas tequila is distilled, pulque is allowed to ferment naturally from the juice extracted from the agave plant.  It would be a gross oversimplification to say that tequila is distilled pulque, but--What the hell!--this is a blog, not a textbook.  (Though a few of these postings have actually been reprinted into textbooks by people who must have been unaware of my liquid-assisted research methods.)

While good tequila is made from only the Blue Agave plant, most varieties of the maguey, or agave, plant can be used to make pulque.  While it takes a dozen years for the plant to mature, a single plant can produce hundreds of gallons of pulque.

Pulque has always been associated with the lower classes--with campesinos, peasants, and the working poor.  The beverage was, until recent times, only made in small batches and was not available commercially outside of small local bars called pulquerías.  For a very long time, pulquerías were places which tourists (and even local women) avoided. 

Tourists were warned NEVER to go near these bars, so I went into my first one when I was sixteen.  It was a tiny little place outside of Nuevo Laredo that didn't even open until after midnight.  I went after that place like a Baptist to a honky-tonk, convinced that any place I wasn't supposed to go was exactly where I needed to be.

Actually, I was treated kindly and with far more courtesy and respect than I deserved.  This has pretty much been my experience in Mexico for about half a century.  Even when my own government was predicting that any tourist who dared to cross the Rio Grande would immediately be carried off by flying monkeys, I have always felt safer in Mexico than I did while walking in the downtown areas of most large American cities. 

Years ago, while attending school in Zacatecas, I was doing extracurricular research at the, ah...uh, ...library, when it closed at 3:00 AM.  It was just starting to rain, and my chances of locating a taxi were somewhere between slim and none.  As I walked home, I passed an all-night convenience store and the owner, seeing me, ran out and insisted that I borrow his umbrella.  We had never met previously, and he refused a proffered deposit, just asking that I return it the next day.  This is typical of the kindness I have routinely experienced in Mexico.

Finding the little pulquería in Nuevo Laredo was the most difficult part of the entire experience.  I finally found a cab driver who took me to the tiny little bar on the edge of town.  I eagerly ordered the drink I had heard so much about.  The bartender--traditionally called a jicareno--took what looked like a large green jelly glass and filled it with a pale white foamy liquid from a large earthen jug, covered in cheese cloth.

Pulque does not improve with close inspection.  While I have not personally seen anything moving in the cloudy liquid, it seems that I am the only Texan visiting a pulquería who hasn't.  Pulque is never exported to the states, in part because the beverage is not pasteurized and will quickly spoil.  (I have always wondered how they know when pulque goes bad?  Does it start to smell good?)

What does pulque taste like?  I haven't heard too many people agree on much.  Rarely does anyone say it tastes good.  You hear the word 'citrus' used a lot, but it definitely does not taste like fruit.  In my opinion (distinctly uneducated opinion), it tastes like a mixture of Tang--the old instant breakfast drink--with a dash of light machine oil.  It's tart, with just a hint of slime.

Pulque predates the Spanish by centuries, possibly millennia.  The early conquistadors discovered that the local population already had several forms of alcohol long before Columbus, and in the first centuries of conquest, they freely drank of the native brew.  It didn't take long for the Spanish to regulate pulque production and tax and tax and tax it.  It seems to be the overriding passion of all governments to tax anything enjoyable.  If Washington could figure out a way to regulate the sunrise, we'd all live in darkness until we had paid in advance.

According to one interpretation of the Aztec codices, pulque played a large part in the Spanish conquest.  The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl became drunk on pulque, and slept with his twin sister.  When he sobered up, he left Mexico, sailing to the east, vowing to return in the year One Reed.  In that year--what Europeans called 1519--Hernan Cortes arrived with his army.  Some believe that Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler, mistook Cortes for Quetzalcoatl.   

By the 1850's, several German brewers had set up business in Mexico and were turning out some of the same beer that is available today.  It was these breweries that helped bring an end to the era of pulque.  Not only was beer seen as superior, but healthier to drink.  And by the 1930's, at the insistence of the breweries, the Mexican government began to push the small pulquerías out of business.  In 1936, Mexico announced that no new pulqueías would be licensed. 

The breweries were largely responsible for the dangerous reputation that pulque has today.  Among the lies spread by the distilleries was that animal or human feces were added to the cactus sap to start the fermentation process.  I am almost positive that this crap is bullshit.  Yeah, I'm pretty sure.

The few small bars that still manufactured the original brew got new regulations, and were forced to change their way of business.  Fifty years ago, women were not allowed to enter where the beverage was sold, but today the small bars must have bathroom facilities for both sexes.  Slowly, most of the old pulquerías have gone out of business, so there aren't that many of them left.

Pulque, however, is slowly becoming more popular.  A couple of companies are now using aluminum cans to sell a homogenized--and highly flavored--version of the ancient beverage.  The harsh taste is gone, and so is some of the fun of drinking it.  (If it tastes good, how can you still be sure it is bad for you?). Sold under several names, the new version of pulque is marketed as a "heritage drink".  (I doubt a similar sales strategy would work in the United States:  I don't think Madeira wine will sell better just because it's advertised as a favorite of our forefathers.)

If you want to try this new pulque-ish drink, I can recommend the Lincoln Bar in Ciudad Juarez.  They'll sell you a nice meal, several cans of neo-pulque cola, and you'll have an enjoyable evening.  But, if someone offers you a glass of the original pulque, you should not drink it.

No, you should never drink pulque.  Bring it to me, instead.  I'll dispose of it for you.
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Saturday, January 21, 2017

My Brush With the Klan

The morons are still out there, but today, they are like a lot of other vermin—you have to go looking for them to find them.  They shun the light in most places—hiding under rocks and/or secretly meeting in darkened basements.  For most of my life, we never heard of the Klan except at elections, or about large gatherings of inbred morons in some swamp-water town in Louisiana.  The Klu Klux Klan was a relic from the past that was slowly dying out like aging war veterans from a previous century.   

It was a different war, far removed from the Old South, that briefly gave renewed life to the old Klan.  When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, we left a country devastated by war.  As the communists moved in from North Vietnam, fear of reprisals forced millions of our former allies to seek asylum in neighboring countries.  In small rickety boats of every description, Vietnamese refugees attempted to cross difficult seas to reach Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand or Indonesia.  No one will ever know exactly how many of these “boat people” died in the attempt, but it has been estimated that more than half of those who attempted the difficult crossings were lost to storms, exposure, or to the predatory pirates who plagued the South China Sea.

Starting in 1979, Western countries resettled approximately 700,000 of these refugees and a little over 400,000 came to the United States.  I can’t speak about the experiences in other states, but in Texas, the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese was startling, since the state did not have much experience with Asian communities.  Along the Gulf Coast, many of the refugees found work in the shrimping industry.  While this sounds relatively innocent, these new Asian Americans touched off a resurgence in the Klu Klux Klan.

The Texas shrimping industry had already been hit with problems for years.  Too many boats had overfished the coast resulting inevitably in declining catches.  Fuel prices throughout the seventies had climbed, while imported shrimp had brought wholesale prices down.  Then, the Vietnamese shrimpers arrived bringing new problems.

One old Cajun fisherman came to the hotel I ran on Galveston Island and spent some time telling me about long fights over tangled nets.  Supposedly, the Texas shrimpers were used to dragging their long nets parallel to the coast—which meant mostly east to west.  The newly arrived Vietnamese shrimpers were used to doing the same thing—but in Viet Nam the coasts ran north to south

There were language problems and cultural differences, too.  The Texas shrimpers claimed that the Vietnamese moved whole families onto their boats, lowering their labor costs.  Each side claimed the government gave preferential license treatment to the other group.  And the Vietnamese did this, while the Texans did that….and the KKK suddenly came roaring back to life. 

It didn’t take long before there was violence in the form of shootings and more than a few boats that were burned to the waterline.

Meanwhile, I was running the old Jack Tar Hotel on Galveston Island.  While the shrimping industry didn’t really concern me, it was a relatively small island.  It was kind of hard not to be affected by the problems down on the docks. 

The hotel employed a lot of African Americans, but when I took over the hotel, all of them were maids, housemen, and janitors.  When I hired a retired African American woman to work as a desk clerk, I got phone calls from people who were concerned that I might be trying to stir up Civil Rights trouble.  Frankly, I hadn’t hired the woman because she was black, I had hired her because she was a retired police officer and one of the meanest women I had ever met.  She was exactly the kind of person I needed on a beach front hotel on the island.  All of this was before the hotel’s owner suddenly had a wacky idea:  Why not open a Chinese Restaurant in the hotel?

The old Jack Tar Hotel was huge, and had several bars and two restaurants—one of which had been closed for years.  The owner, who had nothing to do with actually running the hotel (that was my job) suddenly decided we needed a Chinese restaurant on the property, so I opened one.

At the time, I knew nothing about Chinese food—absolutely nothing.  I learned an amazing amount in a relatively short period of time.  For example, I learned that Texas (at least the Texas of forty years ago) was not a great place to buy the restaurant equipment necessary to run a Chinese Restaurant.  One of the things I had to buy was a Wok Range—a special gas range to hold several woks at one time.  I imported most of the kitchen equipment I needed from San Francisco, I hired several cooks from Houston, I hired Chinese waitresses, I printed menus, and "suddenly" we had a Chinese Restaurant.

At first, at least, the food was horrible.  I tried my best to learn, we made frequent changes, and thankfully, most of our customers knew less about Chinese food than I did.  After a few months, the food had improved, the restaurant was profitable, and the owner was happy. 

Some of the not-so-good ol’ boys in town were less happy.  After the restaurant had been open for about two months, I got a call from the front desk that two men wanted to talk to me and were waiting in the lobby.  When I arrived, I found two men dressed in what you might call “Texas Casual”.  All three of us were wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and short-sleeved white shirts. 

It’s been too many years, so I can’t remember exactly what titles these two idiots claimed to have, but the two men told me they were high bugger bears with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and wanted to discuss the hiring practices of the hotel with me.  There were entirely too many Asians working in the hotel.  The only Asians working at the hotel worked in the Chinese restaurant, but evidently that was too many.

Their visit, they explained was an unofficial visit.  If I wanted, however, they could arrange for a larger, more official meeting. 

I probably stood there like an idiot for a while.  You just don’t expect dinosaurs from another era to walk up and self identify.  They weren’t wearing their mothers' bed sheets and they actually looked fairly normal (well, "Texas" normal), but there was no doubt that they were actually members of the Grand Order of Morons.  One of them even handed me his business card that proudly announced he was a Hungarian Horntail or something.  (This probably meant he carried the matches at the monthly book burnings.)

At this point, I’d like to remind you that I said I had a brush with the KKK.  It was not a long drawn out war—it only lasted for a few minutes.  I have no idea what the protocol is when you are confronted with evil.  I can only tell you what I did.

“Ya’ll wait right here,” I said.  “I’m going to my office and get my shotgun.  When I get back I’m going to kill you.”

When I got back, they were gone and I never saw them again.  Thinking back on it, I should have turned that desk clerk loose on them.


Note.  The real work of destroying the KKK along the Gulf Coast of Texas was done by Judge Gabrielle MacDonald in 1981-82.  The first African American federal judge in Texas, she ruled the Klan’s actions agains the Asian shrimpers was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Railways Old and Older

It is a great history story, and as is true with most good stories, is more apocryphal than perhaps we want to investigate.  Since facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good story, here it is, warts and all.

There is an old truism that you should never invent something twice, and railways are a good example of this.  The vast majority of the railways in the United States, Western Europe, and South America use the same railway gauge, Standard Gauge.  (If you get there first, you get to set the standard.)  The gauge refers to the distance between the two rails, and for Standard Gauge, this is 4’ 8 1/2” wide.  This is not nearly as arbitrary as you might think.

Note.  For some reason, it is damn near impossible for me to type the word ‘gauge’.  My brain insists on typing ‘guage’.  I don’t mean once, but every damn time.  Somewhere in the far recesses of my brain, back where I keep such manly knowledge as how to tighten bolts without reciting idiotic rhymes and I store cool facts about tanks, there is a little voice saying “U Before A except after G…”  This kind of advanced brain rot is obviously the fault of the Russians.

Almost two millennia ago, the Romans used a lot of bronze.  While it was nominally the Iron Age, bronze was still tough, easy to work, and far easier to produce.  Bronze is made up of copper and tin—both of which are individually too soft to be useful for making tools.  Rome had lots of copper, but tin was relatively rare, forcing Rome to send her armies far afield to look for sources of tin.  This quest eventually led the Romans to British Cornwall in the third century AD.

Rome ran those mines for several centuries—long enough that the Roman carts wore grooves in the rock floors of the tin mines.  The methodical Romans had already established a standard wheel base for carts and wagons.  In Roman towns, the streets had a set width, with stepping stones at intersections.  The spaces between the stepping stones were carefully maintained so that carts, with a standardized wheel base, could pass between the stones.  The carts used were four wheeled, pulled by two horses walking abreast. 

By the 18th century, the Romans were long gone from Cornwall.  (See last week’s blog for an alternative ending.)  The deep grooves in the mine floor left by Roman wagons remained, and the miners had learned to build ore carts that used the grooves as tracks.  By the first decade of the 19th century, some of those carts were pulled by steam engines.  More efficient tracks were needed, so the grooves in the floors were replaced, first by wooden rails, and then by iron and steel rails.  And of course they were still using the wheel base first established by the Romans: 4’ 8 1/2”, or standard gauge.  Over half the railroad racks on the planet use this same standard.

This means that half the railroads in the world, their bridges, their tunnels, and all the rolling stock that travels on them, were designed based on the width of two Roman horses’ asses.   I could stretch this story out by telling you how the Space Shuttle was designed around the maximum size of the solid rocket boosters whose size, in turn, was dictated by a railroad tunnel outside the Morton Thiokol plant in Colorado—all of which were determined by those same two horses’ asses…but this story is already stretched a little thin.

There are, of course, other gauges in use.  The wider the gauge, the more distance it takes for a train to make tight turns, so in the mountains, narrower gauges are used.  One of these, called Three Foot Gauge, is widely used at mines located in high mountains and all amusement parks.  Disney probably owns more narrow gauge track and rolling stock than any mining operation on the planet.  There is even an obscure railway gauge halfway between Standard and Narrow Gauge that is called Bastard Gauge.  (That sounds like something you use to measure Congressmen.)

Russia uses a wider gauge, Broad Gauge, supposedly on the orders of Joseph Stalin.  The Russian leader thought that if his country used the same railroad gauge as Germany, it would make it easy for Hitler to invade.  When Germany invaded, they simply moved one of the rails a few inches as they advanced.  When the Germans retreated towards the end of the war, they were far more efficient.  They used a specially designed car equipped with a road wrecking plow, a Schwellenpflug, to destroy the railway as they made their way west.

Once he had won the war, Hitler planned on linking the major European capitals together with a new railroad gauge he called Breitspurbahn, which would have been an impressive 9’ 10 1/8” wide.  And it would have taken half of Siberia to turn this monster around.  No track was ever laid.  Nor has anyone ever explained how, once you got a giant ten foot wide train moving, how you could ever hope to stop it.

By this point, you have probably forgotten that I started this by saying some of the above was stretching the truth just a little.  None of it is completely wrong, but the connection to the Romans is a little tenuous.

Actually, however, there is an even older railway.  One that absolutely existed and was used for centuries long before the first steam engine, even before the creation of Imperial Rome.  This is the ancient Greek railway, the Diolkos of Corinth.  This is without a doubt, man’s first railway, the first profitable railway, and the longest used railway.  While the oldest railway in England is barely two hundred years old, the Diolkos was used for at least 700 years.  You’ve probably never heard of it.

For the ancient Greek mariner, there were substantial profits to be made by hauling goods from the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic.  Rich seaports were already developing ports stocked with trading goods.  One of the largest hazards was sailing completely around the Peloponnese peninsula.  Not only did this make the trip substantially longer, but the area was noted for heavy gales and contrary winds.  At one point, however, the isthmus is only four miles wide, and if this could be crossed, a trip from Athens to Corinth could be shortened by more than 70%.

Constructed in approximately 600 B.C., the Diolkos (Greek for Portage Machine) was a stone track leading across the isthmus.  A boat would pull up on one side of the isthmus, be pulled onto a wheeled cart, then pulled across the isthmus.  The cart had large wooden wheels that sat firmly into evenly spaced grooves on the roadway and could handle loads up to approximately 40 tons.  Once on the other side of the isthmus, the cart would roll back to the waters edge and the ship could be relaunched. 

It was an impressive undertaking.  The railway was a little over 4 miles long and had a grade that averaged about 3% with a maximum of about 6%, which is comparable to that of the American highway system.  Men with ropes would haul the ship up the hill, then slowly allow the ship to roll down the opposite bank while men with buckets of wet sand tried to slow the descent by throwing the sand into the tracks.  For an average-sized commercial boat, the entire trip was just a few hours.

The Diolkos was used for commerce, but figured prominently in multiple wars—including  a rather famous one in which Octavian (who later changed his name to Augustus) surprised Mark Antony in 31 B.C.  by moving a fleet ahead of the fleeing general, forcing him to set sail for Egypt and Cleopatra. 

Eventually, of course, people couldn’t leave well enough alone.  The old saying, "The Enemy of Good is Better", is applicable here.  After centuries of operation, the Roman emperor Nero decided that if a railway was good, a canal would be better.  The construction was started, the docks on both sides of the isthmus were destroyed, and then both Nero and the canal project died.  Over 1700 years later, the canal was completed in 1893 and is still in use.  Sadly, much of the old railway was destroyed in building the canal. 

By now, you must be asking…what was the gauge of the Diolkos?  About 63 inches, or roughly Standard Gauge.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Herman the German Saves English

While this blog has already talked about a lot of Roman victories, today’s focus is on one hideous encounter in the forests of Germany that is occasionally marked as a decisive turning point in the history of Europe.  This was the Clades Variana, the Varan Disaster, The Battle of Teutoburg Forest, or as I prefer to call it, Herman the German Saves the English Language.

A couple of millennia ago, as soon as both Mark Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide, Caesar Augustus found himself in the position of having twice the army that he needed.  He eliminated some legions, and made the remaining ones much smaller.  The remaining streamlined legions were sent to guard the border regions.    Since he had used the army to seize control, he knew the dangers of having too large a military force too close to home. 

The Augustan reforms created a powerful professional standing army of volunteers that was perhaps 350,000 men strong.  For the most part, this force was dispersed around the empire’s periphery, guarding the frontiers. 

The Augustan army was kept busy in campaigning.  The Alps, Spain, the East, the northern Balkans, and Germany were all foci of military activity under Augustus.  Wars of conquest in these regions kept the soldiers busy and far, far away from Rome, and also earned Augustus the glory of military victories that had actually been won by his generals, who were far from Rome and couldn't contest his taking the credit for their wins.  If these same generals lost—well, it couldn’t possibly be the fault of Augustus, since he was far away in Rome, after all.

To the Roman mind, the Germans were the quintessential barbarians, who represented everything that civilization was not: they practiced virtually no agriculture, they were intensely—almost anarchically—warlike, and they were wholly lacking in any form of discipline.  In addition, they dressed in animal skins, they did not have cities or orderly government, and their villages were small and insignificant.  They were fiercely independent and they spent a lot of time drunk, arguing, and fighting each other.  They were true savages. 

Today, we know the Roman view of the Germans was wrong:  Of course they had agriculture and they had small villages based on families, with populations varying between 40 and 200 souls. While they did not have a central form of government, the leaders of different villages could cooperate to achieve common goals.  (Like, for example, killing Romans.)

The Germans, by virtue of their fierce independence and warrior ethos, represented a serious threat to the security of the Roman territory in Western Europe, and they already had a long history of carrying out raids into present day France.  Decentralized political life made a lasting diplomatic settlement with all of them almost impossible, and so, Augustus was determined to conquer them.  (If you can’t talk to them, kill them.)

History no longer records exactly what Augustus wanted to do after he had invaded Germany, but the thinking is that he either wanted a natural frontier along the Danube River, or (being a Roman) perhaps, he just wanted to keep moving his back fence until somebody stopped him.  Personally, I think the latter reason is more likely.  Romans were fierce believers in The Toddler’s Laws of Ownership:

1.   What’s mine is mine.
2.   If I see it, it’s mine.
3.   If it’s yours and I like it, it’s mine.
4.   If you want it, it’s mine.

So, the Roman Army invaded the dense forests of Germany and successfully subdued the Germanic people—for a while.  In A.D. 6, Augustus appointed Publius Quinctilius Varus, as his representative in Germany.  Varus was perfectly qualified, since he had married the grandniece of Augustus.  (Marrying the right person has always been an excellent method of proving one’s military genius.)

Actually, Varus wasn’t all bad: he had lots of experience, and on examination, his record shows that he was probably competent, but not very imaginative.  He was also absolutely heartless in his treatment of the Germans, who, according to one source, he treated as “people only in limbs and voice.”

It was not long before Custer—I mean Varus—began to waste time holding hearings and establishing laws, and, to quote a contemporary, “came to see himself as a city praetor administering justice in the forum and not a general in command of an army in the heart of Germany.”  Varus did make one serious mistake: he placed too much trust in a German tribal leader named Arminius.

Arminius was a prince of a powerful German tribe, who had served in the Roman army as an auxiliary commander.  The Romans had long brought local leaders to their side like this in the expectation that by securing their loyalties they could indirectly control their dependent populations.  This was the Roman equivalent of the US Cavalry's hiring Indian Scouts after the American Civil War.

Arminius, in his mid-20s, was convinced that Rome had to be stopped and began planning an ambush.  At the same time he wormed himself into Varus’ good graces.  He knew the language and how to relate to men of status, like Varus.  We are told that the two men dined together frequently.  Arminius apparently added personal charm to his native intelligence.  He used that intelligence to orchestrate the single worst defeat inflicted by native troops on a professional and disciplined army in the annals of warfare. 

Iron Age German warfare was normally small-scale and low-intensity, and was conducted by small bands of a few dozen warriors under strong leaders.  Roman commanders in Germany had found it very difficult to bring the tribesmen to a pitched battle (the preferred Roman technique of settling matters decisively).  Instead, they found that the small and simple Germanic communities dissolved before their advance, while the Germans launched ambushes and surprise attacks against their armies who were  on the march.  (Damn, do you think the Apache are actually the lost tribe of Germany?) 

If they had to, the Germans could indeed gather a large force together for a short time.  Armed with longswords, heavy wooden shields, javelins, axes, and short stabbing spears, their attacks were terrifying.  But the highly disciplined Roman Army knew how to fight, and if allowed to fight their preferred method, could handle the German forces.

Now that is the key, right there.  The Romans expected to be able to fight the same old tried and true method they had used to conquer the world, and Arminius was going to change the rules.  (For a second there, I stopped thinking about Custer and started thinking about General Giap and Viet Nam...But, only for a second.)

In September, A.D. 9, Varus, at the head of three legions, six cohorts of auxiliaries, and six squadrons of cavalry—about 20.000 men in all—was heading back to his winter quarters along the Rhine and the Lippe Rivers.  Arminius, meanwhile, had raised a native army of substantial size.  (Historians say things like that when we don’t have a clue.  The army was big.  Huge.  Maybe as big as Varus’ army.  Maybe not.  But, HUGE.)

News was brought to Varus that a German tribe was in rebellion.  Believing the natives were scattered, Varus took his army on a several days' march (but without taking the necessary precautions, such as scouting out the locals).  Arminius and most of the other Germans suddenly decided they had pressing engagements back home and quietly left the Roman army, as it began marching through the dark forest.  Then, suddenly, flying monkeys swooped—no, wrong story!  (But, at this point you do have to wonder if Varus had ever watched television.)

The forest was so dense that the Romans had to cut down trees to make a path wide enough for their wagons, which were already struggling because of a fierce rain storm.  Suddenly, thousands of warriors begin attacking on all sides from the cover of trees.  The Romans, who were tied down with women, children, carts and horses, couldn’t spread out in their usual battle formations.  And the Roman infantry, fighting with swords, found no one close enough to fight as the Germans hurled spears from behind trees.  Advancing across muddy ground was almost impossible, and the rain made the wet strings on the Roman bows useless.

The forest was too dense for the Romans to fight back, so they tried to form a defensive camp even though there was a pouring rain and the spears were still falling.  The soldiers burned their wagons, lightening their loads as much as possible in order to travel faster, but there was no escape and the Germans continued the attack the following day.

The second day was a replay of the first.  It was impossible for the Romans to counterattack an enemy they could not see, an enemy that continued to rain missiles down on the ambushed Romans.

By the third day of these terrifying assaults, Roman discipline broke as frightened units descended into chaos, bumping into each other in the darkened woods.  As news of the running battle spread among the Germanic tribes, more and more warriors showed up to do battle.

Some Roman officers died in battle, some died as they attempted to flee the battle, and a few committed suicide as the remaining troops were mercilessly slaughtered.  Three whole legions,  XVII, XVIII and XIX, the heart of the Roman force in Germany, were annihilated, and two of their eagles captured.  The third eagle, by the way, was hidden in a bog by its faithful standard-bearer.  The Roman captives were brutally tortured to death, sacrificed to woodland gods, or kept as slaves.  Varus’ body was found, mutilated, and with his head cut off; it was sent to a rebel king in Bohemia, who then thoughtfully forwarded it to Augustus, who had it buried in the Varan family tomb. 

Rome promptly left Germany, and pulled its forces back across the Rhine.  At Rome itself, there was panic, as ghosts of barbarian incursions past haunted the Roman imagination.  The numbers and the names of the three legions lost by Varus were permanently retired. 

An unkempt Augustus is reported to have walked the palace corridors at night, tearing his clothes and crying out in anguish: “Quinctilius Varus—give me back my legions!”

The Rhine River became the northern border of the Roman Empire and stayed that way for the next four centuries.  The Romans never again attempted to subdue the Germans permanently.  That ambition perished in the rain, mud, and blood of the Teutoburg Forest in September of A.D. 9, along with the 20,000 soldiers.

Archaeologists have pinpointed one of the sites of this running battle near present day Kalkriese.  Thousands of artifacts have been found, ranging from weapons, to pieces of armor, and ceremonial face masks.  My own favorite find at Kalkriese however, is an intact skeleton of a mule with a cowbell that had been stuffed with grass to silence it.  Apparently, the Romans at some point in that three day battle that stretched for miles were trying to quietly move through the forest.   They obviously didn’t make it.  Whoever was leading that mule was just one of the 20,000 casualties the Romans lost in the battle.

The German resistance was successful, though not personally for Arminius.  Six years later, the Romans captured his pregnant wife and took her back to Italy.  Both she and her son spent the rest of their lives as Roman slaves.  Arminius was recognized as a hero by the Germanic tribes for a while, then they began to fear he was trying to become a king, so they killed him just a dozen years after his great victory.

If Arminius’ life was short and not particularly happy, his afterlife has been glorious.  Renamed “Herman” by Martin Luther—a bogus Germanicizing of the word Arminius—he has been a hero of the German people from the time of the Renaissance.  On a hilltop near the present-day town of Detmold stands a colossal copper statue of him, replete with winged helmet and raised sword, surveying the native forests he so ably defended.  Completed in 1875 this, the Hermandenkmal, Herman monument, remains today the single most popular domestic tourist attraction in Germany. 

Great historical weight has been placed on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  In the view of some, it was one of the most important battles in European history.  Had the Romans conquered the Germans, goes this line of thinking, the free spirit of the tribes would have been broken, the Germans incorporated into the sphere of the Romance world, Christianized, and given Roman law and government.  The unconquered German tribes would not have destroyed the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century, and that Empire might have continued longer; who knows, perhaps even down to the present.  If so, there would have been no Anglo-Saxon England, no English language, no Frankish France, and no medieval world.  All of history would be altered.  

Perhaps the worst possible outcome, this blog would have been written in French.  With a Texas accent.