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The Capitalist Crucify the Old Man - 1880's


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Saturday, July 18, 2009


I believe the legend that the first time Major-General Louis Berthier met Napoleon Bonaparte, in March of 1796, he confided to a fireside comrade, “I don’t know why, but the little bas---d scares me.” He was called “Berthier the Ugly” because of his squat build, his hook nose, that arose from between his cheeks like a parrott's beak, and a head that seemed three times larger than it ought to. In addition he was clumsy and given to chewing his fingernails. Add in a dose of social ineptness and you have Berthier, the man. He was also a genius of detail. He spent his entire adult life in the military, rising through the ranks under the “Old Regime”. He had fought with distinction under Rochambeu at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 during the American revolution.Napoleon, at 26, was already a blazing comet on the French political scene, while “ugly, little” Berthier, who was already 42 years old, had survived the revolution by keeping his huge head so low it could not be conveniently guillotined. But perhaps Berthier sensed impending disaster on that blistery March morning when they first met. Perhaps on some level he understood that the “Little Corsican” who stood before him would use him over the next 20 years to slaughter a million Frenchmen and three million others who would die opposing Napoleon. I wonder if he also sensed the sacrifice of all those bunnies, as well.Napoleon’s amazing string of victories began at Montenotte, in Piedmont on April 12 and continued at the bridge at Lodi on May 10, 1796. Berthier was there, sharing the hardships and basking in the reflected glory as Napoleon’s chief of staff, translating Napoleon’s detailed instructions into coherent orders, organizing the advance of his armies from the "Battle of the Pyramids" in Egypt to the capture of Haifa in 1798.And when Napoleon abandoned his Egyptian army in 1799 he was careful to rescue Berthier and bring him back to France. And Berthier repaid his master, insuring the victory pulled from defeat at Marengo, in 1800.Four years later, in the spring of 1805, it was Berthier, a Marshal of France now, who meticulously directed the lightning strike of the Emperor's "Le Grande Armiee's" swing across the Rhine to crush the Austrians at Ulam. Berthier oversaw the capture of Vienna, and the defeat the combined Austrian and Russian armies at the Emperor of France’s greatest victory, at "Austerlitz". In 1806 Berthier oversaw Napoleon’s crushing of Prussia army at "Jena", and the frozen bloodbath against the Russians at "Eylau", followed by the decisive victory over the Czar at "Friedland".By the summer of 1807 Napoleon was the master of Europe, referred to by his implacable English foes as "The Beast of Europe". And he would not have been so accomplished if it were not for the efforts of ugly little Berthier. And so it was obvious that when the Emperor sought an afternoon’s diversion, a summer picnic and a hunt in the countryside outside of Paris, it would be Berthier who would organize the entire affair. Surely the man who could plan the conquest of nations could arrange a simple afternoon’s hunt.They arrived en masse, like a column of revolutionary infantrymen swarming a defensive position. The Emperor went nowhere alone anymore. A regiment of cavalry stood guard. Messengers arrived and were dispatched forth, for an Empire run by one man cannot survive long without assurance that the master is always watching.There were ambassadors and royalty and a dozen Marshalls covered in glittering gold braid. There were Generals to carry the Marshalls' eyeglasses and purses and fans. There were servants to serve the lunch and keep the Champaign glasses bubbling over. There were chiefs to cook the lamb and fish and chicken Marengo. There were dozens of carriages and wagons to carry them all from their palaces and mansions and back home again.And once the repast was digested the Emperor and his guests put away their knives and Champaign glasses and took up their weapons. Berthier had prepared this too, down to the smallest detail. In regard to the hunt, Berthier tried to obtain wild rabbits captured on local farms, but the local peasants had been taxed so heavily to pay for the 'Grande Army' and all that gold braid that they had stripped the local woods and fields of wild game.So the ever resourceful Berthier (That's him in an 'offical' painting above, with the reality edited out of him), had bought every domesticated rabbit in the Paris market, some 30,000 of them in all. The beasts had been fattened in pens and cages all their lives. They were released the afternoon before the hunt, in an adjacent field. There were beaters, to drive the bunnies to the guns, for an Emperor does not have all day to spend stalking his prey. So as the Emperor Napoleon advanced into the field with his musket held at the ready, Berthier gave the signal, and the beaters advanced. And such was a sight then seen, the likes of which had never been seen before in all of history. And never would be seen again, either.Thirty-thousand Leporidae Oryctolagus cuniculus (European bunny rabbits) charged desperately toward the first human they had seen in 24 hours - humans being the source of all food and warmth in their entire sheltered lives. The figure must have seemed the answer to a domesticated rabbit’s hopes and prayers after an endless cold night in the strange, forbidding emptiness of a field. The figure out front was the Emperor Napoleon Bonapart. If they could have spoken they would have cried out in unison in their little bunny voices, “Take me home, take me home, get me out of here!” But they could not cry out. They could not speak. And so what Napoleon saw as he entered the field with “rodenticide” in his heart, was thirty thousand bunnies stampeding remorselessly toward him, perhaps with regicide in their hearts.Where they afflicted with a pestilence? Where they part of a devilish English plot to murder him? Napoleon had no way of knowing, and little time to decide. But even if the Emperor had suspected the actual cause behind the stamped of cottontails, hunting is not much of a sport when the prey rush you and demand to be butchered en masse.The servants thrashed at the rabbits with whips, the ambassadors and royalty snickered behind their lace cuffs and the generals and Marshals of France threw their gold braid between the homesick bunnies and their Emperor. The sacrifice was futile. For the first time in his life (but not the last) the Emperor of Europe, Napoleon I, was forced to retreat to his royal coach, and then to withdraw back within the walls of his palace, his afternoon sport spoiled.It was prescience of the night after Waterloo, of the snowy road home from Moscow, of the voyage to exile on Elba and Helena. At a time when no force could stand up to the 'Beast of Europe', Napoleon had been defeated by an army of bunny rabbits. Vive la Peter Cottontail!
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Friday, July 17, 2009


I believe that ambitious people tend to be unhappy people. Take Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus as an example, (or, Caesar Augustus, for short) ,who was the first Roman Emperor beginning about 27 B.C. He was the most ambitious man of his age. He invented the Roman Empire. And he lived longer than all but a couple of the Emperors who followed him. He had a big funeral in 14 A.D. That's something you get only if you are very ambitious.Augustus’s last words were, “Did you like the performance?” To which my response is, “In retrospect, it was just okay”. I say this because his show ended in a huge bloody confusing mess which I shall now attempt to explain as best I can. Suffice it to say that if Augustus had seen just how sorry his empire would end up, he might have rolled over in his grave, if he still had one. He didn't, because the barbarians scattered his ashes in 420 A.D. as they burned Rome the first time. That is just one of the ways they earned the title of barbarians. Anyway, the really messy part starts with Julius Nepos.Nepos was governor of Dalmatia and he got the job as Western Emperor in 474 A.D. because he was just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and because he was married to the niece of Leo I, the Byzantium Emperor, and because he was willing to pay for an army to defeat Glycerius, the guy who had knocked off the previous western Emperor.Now, Nepos is Latin for "nephew", and - what a surprise - that is also the root of the term “nepotsm”, which tells you almost everything you need to know about this guy.Nepos was supposed to bring peace and order to the capital of the Western Empire, which was then at Ravenna, Italy, and boy, did he ever screw that up. He started out badly by not killing Glycerius. Instead Nepo took him prisoner and shipped him off to Salona, the largest port back in Dalmatia. There he figured his spies could keep an eye on Glycerius, since he also had him ordained as a Bishop, giving him a steady income. Nepos was assuming, I guess, that this act of charity would win Glycerius’ loyalty. But, as they say in the Emperor business; "No good deed goes unpunished".Caesar Augustus (him again) had established the port of Ravenna in the first century B.C. as the home for the Roman fleet. By the fourth century A.D., with the barbarians carrying off half the Roman forum in a fire sale, the capital had been moved first to Milan, and then to this port because Ravenna was surrounded by swamps and marshes, which offered protection from the invading hordes, of which there were plenty around at the time.But so low had Western Empire fallen that the next invading hoard didn’t even have to invade, because they were already there. Half the army Nepos hired to defeat Glyceriys was made up of German barbarians – er, I mean, mercenaries - about 30,000 of them who had been fighting for Glyceriys. These Germans were led at this opportune moment by an ambitious man who had been a secretary to "Atilla the Hun", named Orestes. And he does not seem to have been very bright. And that is probably why the new Emperor, Nepos, figured that Orestes would not catch when he ordered him take all his German troops and march off to defend Gaul. But Orestes had a Roman wife. I suspect it was she who explained to Orestes what Nepos was really up to, i.e. getting the Germans out of Italy and away from the center of power. Wives have a way of pointing out to their husbands when they are being particularly dense. Anyway, it was probably she who suggested that Orestes should offer the Germans their own villas and farms in Italy, which could be stolen from the Roman patricians who currently owned them. So he did.Which is why, on August 28, 475, the Germans marched off not to Gaul but to Ravenna. Emperor Nepos could have stayed and fought, but then he would not have been Nepos. Our hero jumped ship in the harbor and sailed home for Dalmatia, taking his purple robes with him. Behind Neops' unglorious exit, Orestes walked into the capital, where, instead of crowning himself as Emperor, he did something so smart I suspect it was his wife’s idea; he put the crown and the purple robes on his son.The twelve year old boy was crowned Emperor Romulus Augustus, on October 31, 475 A.D.– on what would eventually become Halloween, for anybody with a sense of irony. Of course Orestes was still the power behind the throne, but this was why the graffiti artists labeled their new Emperor “Romulus Augustulus”, which is the Latin diminutive version of the name – meaning “Little Romulus”. It was the kind of nasty telling political joke which graffiti artists had been scrawling on the alley walls of Rome for a thousand years. And it is further proof of the old adage that historians spend centuries struggling to learn from dusty records and scratches on walls what they could have discovered in five minutes of talking to any guy on any streetcorner in ancient Rome. One of histories’ greatest mysteries, unexplained by the dusty records, is why, having won such power and wealth so easily, Orestes then went back on the promise to his mercenaries and refused to hand over the patrician’s lands to them. Of course the Roman Patricians paid him off. But did he think all 30,000 Germans were not going to notice? Again, I suspect, the answer is that poor old Orestes was just not very bright. The Germans noticed. They quickly rose up under their new commander, Odoacer. And this time they were joined by a lot of the Roman soldiers, and together, in 476, they all marched on Ravenna. Unlike Nepose, brave, couragous, dull headed slow thinking Orestes didn’t have the common sense to run for it. He stayed and fought (badly) and was captured just outside the city, and duly executed.On September 4, 476 A.D. “Little Romulus” handed over his crown to Odoacer. Romulus was thus, according to most historians, the last Roman Emperor, having been emperor for barely 10 months. His puberty lasted longer than his nobility. Some stories say that Odoacer gave Romulus a pension, but that seems a little unlikely to me. Odoacer was not a stupid man.I think he likely packed up the little-last Emperor and his entire family and shipped them off to prison in Campania, in Southern Italy. And I hope Romulus was contented there. You see, history seems at times to be the story of ambitious people getting everybody else into trouble, and this kid never had a chance to be ambitious, even if he were so inclined.The truth is, almost nobody got out of this particular story by natural causes. Poor old Nepos was murdered by his own servants, probably in the pay of Glycerius, on April 25, 480 A.D. Odoacer rushed in to fill the political vacuum in Dalmatia, repaying Glycerius by appointing him Archbishop of Milan. Odoacer then settled down to run his little empire, but he never made the mistake of declaring himself Western Emperor.Still, Emperor or not, it was the Dalmatian land grab which attracted the suspicions of the new Byzantium Emperor, Zeno (above), who, being Emperor, was suspicious of anybody as ambitious as himself. So he offered a pile of gold to the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric, if he would cut Odoacer down to size.Theodoric laid siege to Ravenna for three long, bloody years. Finally, with both armies suffering from hunger and plague, Theodoric offered Odoacer a truce, which Odoacer agreed to. However, at the celebratory banquet on February the second, 493 A.D., Odoacer said something offensive and without warning Theodoric fell on Odoacer and with his bare hands strangled him to death. The repetition of the stupity and violence is a bit depressing, I agree.Little Romulus would outlive most of them but only because he was younger to start with. Legend says he died about 509 A.D., not yet 35 years old, but still residing in his prison outside of Naples. And considering the fate of all the ambitious people in this story, that was a long, if not a happy, life.
Amino Domina, Roman Empire.
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Thursday, July 16, 2009


I can imagine the unease felt by the technicians at Power House Number One, three miles above the St. Francis dam. The needles on their Steven Gauges, indicating water level in the reservoir, had been slowly dropping for hours. It was worrying, and more importantly the night shift workers who had just checked in for work had reported a foot drop in the road along the eastern abutment of the dam. When Ace Hopewell reported for work a few minutes later he reported hearing what he thought was a landslide somewhere in the dark near the reservoir. Finally, about 11:57 P.M., somebody got worried enough to pick up the phone and call the dam keeper in Power House Number Two, a mile and a half below the dam. Was everything okay? “Yes”, came the quick answer. But the haste of the response belied its assurance. And fifteen seconds later, at 12:57:30, Monday March 12, 1928, every light in Los Angeles went out. At that instant 53 million tons of water (12 billion U.S. gallons) wrenched apart the St. Francis Dam, and released a 10 story wall of black water desperate to reach the Pacific Ocean, fifty miles away.In August of 1924 (two months after the first bombing of the Los Angeles Aqueduct) William Mulholland began construction of a new dam in Francisquito (Fran-sis-kito) canyon. Originally the concrete gravity arch dam was to be 600 across at the top and 185 feet high. But almost immediately Mulholland decided to add ten feet in height, increasing the storage capacity of the future reservoir by 2,000 acre feet. What must have daily haunted Mulholland at this point was the ease with which the angry citizens of Owens County could cut off the drinking water to the city of Los Angles. And this reservoir was the final piece in a series of dams and reservoirs which would give Los Angeles a year’s supply of water within their own reach.Baily Haskell was one of the construction workers and decades later he noted to a local newspaper that in their rush to finish this final addition to the aqueduct system, Muholland’s mangers were using gravel directly from the bed of Francisquito creek “They didn't use washed gravel”, he said. “I could see these great chunks of clay going right into the dam.”A year later, as negotiations with the Watterson Brothers in the Owens Valley stalled, Mulholland increased the height of the dam by another ten feet, to 205 feet high. This increased the 3 mile long and ½ mile wide reservoir to 38,000 acre feet. But no strengthening was made to the base of the dam. On March 1, 1926 water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct began to fill the canyon above the dam.As the great Cecilla Rasmussen, writer for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out in a February 2003 column, “From the day the St. Francis Dam opened in 1926, it leaked. The folks in the farm towns downstream used to joke that they'd see you later ‘if the dam don’t break’.” On March 7, 1928 the intakes were closed. The reservoir was now full and the water was a mere three inches from the top of the dam. That week drivers along the east shore road above the reservoir complained that the road was sagging near the dam’s eastern abutment. But at every step in the filling of the reservoir Mulholland personally checked the dam and declared it safe, the last time between 10:30 and 12:30 that day. Again, and for the final time, Mulholland declared the dam safe. Less than 12 hours later it collapsed.It was not a landslide that destroyed the dam. That did not occur until after the 250,000 ton concrete structure had been wrenched apart like a child’s toy by the weight of the water that had soaked into its porous concrete.I still have a three pound chunk of the dam sitting in my living room, and what stands out to me are the large miscellaneously shaped rocks peppered throughout the concrete, and the rough and uneven feel of it in your hand. As the dam was twisted apart a wall of black water 140 feet high burst forward and began to scour the walls of Francisquito canyon. The first to die was Tony Harnischfeger, the watchman, who was probably inspecting the dam he was so nervous about. Tony’s body was never found. The corpse of his girlfriend, Leona Johnson, who shared his cabin a quarter mile below the dam, was found wedged between two pieces of concrete. The body of their six year old son, Coder, was found further down stream.Lillian Curtis was startled awake in her cabin near the three story Power House Number Two (above). She remembered “a haze over everything”, as her “big, husky cowboy” of a husband, Lyman, lifted Lillian and their three year old son Danny out their bedroom window.Lyman told her to run up the hill next to the penstock water pipes while he went back for their two daughters, Marjorie and Mazie. Panic drove Lillian up the almost vertical slope in the dark, along with the family dog, Spot. Then......Five minutes after the initial dam collapse (now 12:02 a.m. Tuesday March 13th ) a wall of water pounded the Power House and its adjoining cabins and the seventy employees and their families into oblivion. Waist deep water pulled at her but Lillian was just able to reach the safety at the top of the ridge. Lillian and her son, and another employee, Ray Rising, were the only survivors of the seventy. Ray had to fight to get out of his own cabin. “The water was so high we couldn't get out the front door... In the darkness I became tangled in an oak tree, fought clear and swam to the surface... I grabbed the roof of another house, jumping off when it floated to the hillside... There was no moon and it was overcast with an eerie fog - very cold.” Ray lost his wife and three daughters to the flood. Just downstream the waters engulfed the Ruiz farm. Dead in an instant were Rosaria, Enrique and their four children, one an adult. The farmhouse and barn were wiped out as if they had never existed. Next the tidal wave swept across the ranch and trading post owned by silent film star Harry Carey, before sweeping across Castaic road junction where it destroyed the encampment of 150 California Edison employees, killing 84 of them. The victims did not drown. They were found, mostly, caught in trees, stripped of their cloths, “battered and bruised, but didn’t show any anguish – so probably they were taken in their sleep.”By one in the morning the reservoir was empty. “An entire lake had disappeared” in less than an hour. But the flood was just getting started. At about 1:20 a.m. the warning finally began to go out to the little farming towns ahead of the flood.The wave was 40 feet high as it swept down the stream bed of the Santa Clarita River, plowing through orchards and farms and homes from Piru to Fillmore and through Santa Paula. It reached the ocean just before dawn, a wave a quarter of a mile wide as “50% water, 25% mud, and 25% miscellaneous trash” according to one witness. Along the way it had demolished 1,200 houses and smashed 10 bridges. The dead would be washing up for days as far south as San Diego and Mexico. The inability to build a head end reservoir had now produced dried out orchards in the Owens Valley and drowned trees in Southern California. The last known victim of the flood would be uncovered in the city of Newhall, in 1992. How many were carried out to sea or remain buried in mud closer to home will never be known, but it seems unlikely to me that the toll of the dead could be merely the 450 officially claimed. I would estimate it could not be much fewer than 1,000 lives, counting migratory workers and unemployed living in the fields and orchards along the river.Mulholland began by inspecting the disaster the next morning, insisting the failure must be more work by the Owens Valley dynamiters. But the evidence and the official rush to close the matter boxed him in, until he said he “envied those who were killed.” The corner’s jury was convened within the week, and issued its report 12 days after the disaster. It recommended that “…the construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent.. .... for no one is free from error.” The St. Francis dam, it added, had been constructed on the site of an ancient landslide. No one could have known that in 1928. And for seventy years that was the accepted version.But in the late 1990’s Professor of geological engineering J. David Rogers, of Missouri University of Science & Technology reached a different conclusion. “Probably the greatest single factor", he wrote, "was the decision to heighten the dam a second time. "Had the dam not been heightened that last 10 feet, it might have survived.” But the ultimate failure, alledged Professor Rogers, was the concrete. So rushed was the construction that it was never allowed to properly cure, never prepared as carefully as it should have been. “If it had been of better quality, it (the dam) would have never fallen apart as it did. It was so filled with fractures.” The disaster’s cost was later estimated at $13 million ($156 million in 2007). A year after the disaster William Mulholland resigned and, in the words of his grand-daughter became a “…stooped and silent” recluse. His onetime friend, Frank Eaton, died on March 12, 1934 at the age of 78. His grandson described his last years as bitter. “…he felt he'd been made the goat for all the troubles that came to ail the Owens Valley, and because he felt he never got the proper credit for his role in the creation of the aqueduct.” Just over a year later that other dreamer, William Mulholland, passed into the valley of death in his home, July 22, 1935. And the Long Valley reservoir, was finally opened in 1941, and was named after a Catholic priest who had fought for peace between the DWP and Owens Valley residents; Crowley Lake
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