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MARCH   2020
The Lawyers Carve Up the Golden Goose


Saturday, May 22, 2010


I wonder how many people worked in the advertising department at the Cole Motor Company in Indianapolis in 1911? Besides supporting Bob Fowler’s “Cole Flyer” transcontinental flight, they also had a big balloon that made appearances at county fairs and a share in the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As their slogan went, “There’s a Touch of Tomorrow in All Cole Does Today”. Well, the touch was not to last forever. Joe Cole had built a fortune in horse buggies before he borrowed enough cash from Harvey Firestone to start his auto company in 1909. He ordered the parts from other manufacturers and assembled them in the Cole building. “A man’s car any woman can drive.”
Joe offered such innovations as “adjustable door glasses” (i.e., removable windows) a 15 foot long dashboard light and a speedometer that read up to 75 mph; unfortunately the car only went up to 45 mph. Bigwigs at General Motors wanted to buy out Cole, and when Joe wouldn’t sell they just bought up his suppliers and gradually cut him off. With the post war recession of 1920-21 Joe realized the jig was up and began a careful liquidation of his company. In 1924, after he closed up his firm, Joe died suddenly. His family rented the building out and kept the name, the Cole Building, into the 1970’s; thus faired the man who sponsored Bob Fowler's flight. 
.After he reached El Paso in 1911, it took Bob Fowler a month just to escape Texas. He crash landed in a rice field outside of Seixas, Louisiana, on Christmas Eve. He landed in New Orleans at about 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. It took him until February of 1912 to reach Florida. He landed on the sand at Jacksonville Beach on February 12, not that anybody noticed, what with the Titanic going down just two nights later. Bob would later observe with understatement, “I was the first to start and the last to finish.” It had taken him 116 days to travel 72 hours of flight time and 2,800 miles across America. The very next year Bob Fowler made the first non-stop transcontinental flight – across the 36 miles of the Isthmus of Panama. Bob Fowler was a pretty crafty fellow.
Bob sold The “Cole Flyer” in 1912, and after being used in the movie business for a few years it was sold again, this time for scrap. The engine is still on display at the Exposition Museum in Los Angles. In 1916 Bob started the “Fowler Airplane Corporation” in his home town of San Francisco. He modified and sold Curtis JN-4’s (“Jennys”) to the U.S. Army as trainers, and after WWI he started Bluebird Airways, a passenger service. He retired to San Jose and died in 1966, at the healthy old age of 82.
Jimmy Ward, the ex-jockey who had the good sense to drop out of the amazing race, died in Florida sometime after 1917, allegedly of stomach cancer. He was buried in an unmarked paupers grave. Some of his fellow aviation pioneers collected money to give him a more respectful funeral, but I can find no record of that ever happening. Perhaps somebody down in Florida can correct my mistake.
Cal Rodgers was testing a new airplane on Wednesday April 3, 1912, just off shore of Long Beach, California when he ran into a flock of sea gulls. The plane banked sharply 45 degrees and slid into the surf, crashing just feet from where Cal had posed grinning in the surf with the “Vin Fiz” in December.
The engine broke loose from its mounts and crushed Cal, breaking his neck. He was still breathing when swimmers pulled him from the water, but he died soon after. Cal Rodgers was the 127th death since the Wright Brothers flight in 1903, and the 22nd American aviator killed. Considering the number of people flying in 1912, those were still terrible odds.
Cal's mother, Maria (Rodgers) Sweitzer, took procession of her son’s body and had it shipped back to Pittsburg. There Calbraith Perry Rodgers was buried in Allegheny Cemetery under an elaborate tombstone, marked with the words “I Endure, I Conquer.”
Cal’s brother John took procession of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” and had it shipped back to Ohio, to the Wright Brother's shops, to be repaired. He offered the Flyer to the Smithsonian but they already had a Wright B, so instead, in 1917, the Flyer was donated to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg. In 1934 the Smithsonian changed their minds and bought the “Vin Fiz Flyer”. Refurbished and rebuilt, that is the plane that hangs from the ceiling in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
And little Maude was determined to endure and conquer as well. After lengthy court battles with her ex-mother-in-law in California, Maude was awarded legal possession of the “Vin Fiz Flyer”. How could this be? Wasn’t the Flyer back in Ohio, being rebuilt? It was. But the contents of the repair car of the “Vin Fiz Special” contained enough spare parts, many of which may have actually flown sections of the transcontinental voyage, to construct a second “Vin Fiz Flyer” and still claim it as an “original.”
Two years after Cal’s death, and after the court battles with Maria had finally been settled, Maude married Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggin, who had shown such faith and devotion to her Cal; two lonely souls who shared an adoration of another man. “Wiggie”, had, by this time, acquired his own pilot’s license. And Maude and Wiggie made a living for a few years barnstorming their “Vin Fiz Flyer” around the country. And then they quietly faded out of history.
It would be ten years later when Jimmy Doolittle would cross the continent in less than a day - 21 hours 19 minutes, with just one stop for fuel. And as you sit in your tiny passenger seat, crammed four to an aisle, held prisoner on the tarmac for endless hours, forced to use a toilet designed for a diminutive Marquise de Sade, charged extra for a micro-waved “snack”, a pillow, a blanket, a soda or a thimble full of peanuts, even the privlige of using the rest room...
...consider the sacrifices of those who suffered before you; landing in chicken coops, landing in tree tops, landing in barbed wire fences, landing in Texas for day after day. And remember the immortal words of Cal Rodgers; “I am not in this business because I like it, but because of what I can make out of it.” It has become the mantra of every airline passenger world wide.
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Friday, May 21, 2010


I know the recipe almost by heart. Coal, “…a readily combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock”, is simply captured carbon, concentrated out of the air by plants. Take a few hundred million tons of plant material and leave it buried under piles of other dead vegetation for 8 or 9 thousand years, and you get peat. Leave that buried for thirty to sixty million years and you get lignite coal; leave it buried for 200 million years and you get Bituminous coal; cook it for 300 millions years and you get Anthracite, the cleanest burning coal there is ("My gown stays white / From morn till night / Upon the road of Anthracite") - “cleanest” being a very relative term, of course. But once you have coal, it takes just a couple of centuries more to produce greed and monopolies. And that is when the real fun begins.
Humans adapted the best word they already had to describe the burning stone; charcoal. And since it was first recognized washed up on beaches near Durham along the Scottish boarder, they called it sea-coal. It was so rare that it was a prized New Years' gift long before there was a Christmas amongst the Saxon savages. Its fire was so smoky that thieves carried chunks of it with them to conceal their crimes. Other than as a smoke screen, it had little practical use. But as the forests of England were chopped down for palaces and fleets, and wood became expensive, the peasants turned to heating their miserable huts with sea-coal. And that is when things started to heat up.
Journalist Edwin Black described the early economics of coal in an article at "" (for May 18, 2009); “In the last four decades of the thirteenth century, the cost of wood increased about 70 percent, while (the price of ) sea coal increased only 23 percent… Londoners had no choice but to resort to sea coal, which was rapidly becoming known simply as "coal." By 1300, London's total annual wood fuel demand was 70,000 acres. By 1400, it was only 44,000 (acres), despite prodigious industrial, commercial and population growth.” The street in London where merchants sold their cargos still bears the name of “Seacoal Lane”. The price stabilization for coal was caused by two rules of economics; the first that a price increase produces an increase in supply - in this case when miners went looking for sea-coal on the land and under it – and the second rule is that an increase in profits produces an alteration in the tax codes - as merchants share their new wealth with government bureaucrats to protect that wealth.
In this case the merchants were a forgotten class of lobbyists called the “Hostmen”. Originally these were the medieval equivalent of modern day Marriot, Hilton and Motel 6 operators. On July 24th, 1567 Queen Elizabeth I granted a patent to a Mr. William Tipper as the sole provider of lodging and meals to “merchant strangers” or “merchant adventurers” (what we would call traveling salesmen) visiting London. For that privilege Mr. Tipper paid her Majesty 40 shillings for each traveling salesman who paid him, and that is the origin for the term “a big tipper”, as in an extra payment for service. But the Hostmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne had bigger plans.
In 1529, to make the tax collector’s job easier, the crown decreed that every commodity harvested or produced within the watershed of the small River Tyne and its tributaries (in the vernacular, the Tyneside), had to be trans-shipped through the port city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. That also made it easier for the hostmen of Newcastle to gain control, since “…once the coal was on a boat, it was in the hands of merchants and shippers.” (Ibid)
“By the fifteen hundred and fifties, the Hostmen (so) commanded the coal--from ground excavation to river distribution—that…in 1590, the Lord Mayor of London complained “…of the monopoly and extortion of the owners of Newcastle coals." (ibid) The tip left on the table for Elizabeth was one shilling paid to her for every 36 bushels of coal shipped out of Newcastle. And it was said that just 10 men - and the Queen - controlled the sale of coal throughout all of England and much of coastal Europe.
After the Virgin Queen’s death in 1603, Parliament moved to cancel the royal monopolies. But by then the Hostmen of Newcastle too rich to be interfered with, i.e. they were too big to fail. Their profit margins remained as high as 65%.
Not even the bloody English Civil War could break their control of coal. “The Hostmen always produced smart defenses, polished cost justifications and retained the best spokesmen to make their case.” (ibid). By 1661 Thomas Fuller could define the popular phrase ‘to carry coals to Newscastle’ as “…to busy one's self in a needless employment.”
The next step was described in “Extracts from the Company of Hostmen, Newcastle-Upon- Tyne (1901): “…(coal) miners soon drove shafts down to underground water levels, and mines had to be drained before production could be raised to meet the new demand…In 1712 Thomas Newcomen's first coal-fired, steam-operated pump was installed in a coal mine in the West Midlands. It pumped 600 liters of water (150 gallons) a minute from the bottom of a shaft 50 m (160 feet) deep…”
In less than a hundred years that steam engine, used as a pump to drain the coal mines, would be placed on wheels and fed coal from the same mines to produce a loco-motive. And it was that invention, intended to further strengthen the wealth and power of the Hostmen, which finally proved the death of their 400 year old monopoly. As Edwin Black observed, “With trains, coal mines far beyond Newcastle were finally able to free themselves from river transport….(and) That was how the Hostmen cartel was finally broken up.”
The final cost of the Hostmen’s monopoly was highlighted on Saturday, December 6, 1952, in the Great Fog of London, when, acerbated by thousands of coal fires heating homes and businesses, visibility fell to one foot and “smoke ran like water.” The next day 6,500 people died while walking to London hospitals, because the fog was so thick ambulances could not safely navigate city streets. On Monday, with most people locked in their homes and avoiding all physical effort, only 900 died. On Tuesday, December 9, the wind finally swept the fog away, leaving a final death toll of 12,000 killed in just four days while just breathing the air.
All killed by the rock that burns.
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I hate to tell you this, but, contrary to common knowledge, we are the ones living in a “simpler time”, not our parents or their ancestors. We have E-mail, and I-phones and twitter and face-book and every other pseudonymous instantaneous electronic communication device which, with apologies to Socrates, proves that a life under punctuated is a life not worth being self-obsessed about. Sharing every naval-infatuated idea has become de rigueur for the Obama generation. There is no longer room for confusion or miss-interpretation, only for over-interpretation. And that makes the world much simpler.
For the first two million years of human evolution the limit to language was the sum of the speed of sound divided by the speed of walking, divided by the number, width and depth of rivers and oceans, and the height of mountains and width of deserts separating you from the persons you wished to speak to. Those kinds of obstacles and those kinds of delays made the world a very complicated place. When the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, the War of 1812 had been over since the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December, 24, 1814. That was three years you needed to refer to while talking about just one battle, because of the delays in communications. How much more complicated can you get than that?
Mail was the first invention in long distance communications. Cyrus the Great of Persia invented pony express riders to carry “words” to bind his empire together. According to Herodotus these civil service riders were so dedicated that “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”; which is not the official motto of the U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Postal service has no official motto.
The next major technical advance in communication didn’t come along until 1792, when Claude Chappe invented a ‘semaphone’ network in France. In his sales brochures he called it a “telegraph” (Greek for “far writing”). It required a series of towers spaced 20 miles apart, upon each of which were erected two moveable arms connected by a longer moveable arm. A Chappe telegraph operator repeated the 174 different combinations of arm positions to relay up to two words a minute. Although this was such a dependable system that the Swedes kept theirs running until 1880, Chappe never saw it turn a profit, for two reasons. First he threw himself down a well in 1805. And second, it never turned a profit. Worse yet, for Chappe’s family, he copyrighted every thing about his brilliant invention except the name.
In 1837 a failed Calvinist minister, a proslavery Federalist, a pedantic anti-catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy freak named Samuel Fineley Breese Morse, co-opted the name for his “electronic telegraph” which he copyrighted from top to bottom, including the name. The first recorded “Mores Code” telegraphed was “A patient waiter is no loser”, in 1838; it the dot and dash equivalent of “The quick bown fox”, etcetera. The more famous message, “What hath God Wrought”, was telegraphed as a publicty stunt in 1844 and was suggested by Anne Ellsworth from my home town of Lafayette, Indiana. She was married at the time to Mr. Roswell, who gave his name to the New Mexico town where, in 1947, space aliens attempted to communicate with humans. Their message appears to have been the alien equivalent of “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” So far nobody has answered that message.
The ultimate expression of this more complicated communication is the traditional or “snail” mail service. The complexities involved stagger the imagination. You write a letter, usually by hand. You take the letter to a collection point, a post office or mail box. A representative of the United States Postal Service (your stand in) then physically carries the actual letter to your friend’s home. There, your friend reads your words from the very paper you once held. It sounds fraught with opportunity for delays and errors, and it is. And yet it has worked in America for two centuries. And what is most amazing is that we expect it to work, and complain when it doesn’t.
As of 2009 the 656,000 employees of the USPS (as it likes to refer to itself) processed 667 million pieces of mail every day (7,700 every second). They generated $75 billion in fees and charges, which left them with a $2.8 billion loss. Still nobody (well, a few libertarian lunatics) are suggesting that snail mail delivery should cease. What a bunch of "Big Government" people these pro-mail people are.
The ultimate complication of this ultimate complication of expression was Parcel Post, in which individuals were encouraged to send not only words from one end of the nation to another, but goods as well. The service was started in 1912 as an attempt to encourage economic development in rural America.
The first flaw in the plan became visible when Postal authorities deemed it permissible to mail live chicks (in special containers) for 53 cents apiece. Now farmers could order chicks from breeders and they would be delivered, cheaply and reliably, right to the farmer's front door. It was a great boon to the egg industry nationwide. But problems arose when some of the little cheepers in ever shipment died in their boxes en route, and the customers sought reimbursement from the Post Office. The rules denied the customer’s appeals, but they appealed anyway. What was not noticed at the time, was the fatal flaw in the logic of “live” parcel post.
The path to Parcel Post ad nauseam was first visible on the morning of February 19, 1914, when Mrs. John E. Pierstroff of Grangeville, Idaho, loaded her four year old daughter, May Pierstroff (above), into the mail car of a train bound for Lewiston, Idaho, 55 miles away. A few moments later Harry Morris, the conductor, stumbled upon the little girl sitting quietly atop a pile of mail bags. Morris checked the 56 cents postage on the tag tied to May’s coat, and since the mother was no where to be seen, allowed the girl to ride in the mail car to Lewiston. There, mail clerk Leonard Mochel delivered May to her destination, the home of Mrs. Vennigerholz, the girl’s grandmother.
It was the beginning of a disturbing trend. Later that same year postal workers in Stillwell, Indiana accepted a parcel post box marked, “live infant”. They delivered the box to South Bend where the “package” was accepted and opened by the infant’s divorced father. Cost for the trip was 17 cents. The next year a Pensacola, Florida probation officer shipped six year old Edna Neff to her father in Christiansburg, Virginia. The postage was 15 cents.
The public was unsettled by this mailing of children, since the percentage of child molesters amongst the population in 1914 was about the same as it is today. The negative publicity probably prevented another child mailing until 1919, when it appears a press agent for the Aluminum Company of America arraigned for the mailing of five year old Marmi Hood and four year old Evan Hedge to their respective fathers, who were locked down inside in the company’s plant in Alco, Tennessee, surrounded by union picket lines. After a two hour tearful visit, heavily documented by the company publicity department, the children were “mailed Special Delivery” back to the Alco, Tennessee Post Office, where their mothers were anxiously waiting for them. Postage for the stunt both ways was $2.26 cents.
On June 13, 1920 The US Post Office Department issued new rules, announcing that children would no longer be accepted as a parcel post. The coda to this regulation, and perhaps a comment on the continued poverty in rural America even during the “Roaring Twenties”, was the C.O.D. package mailed to an undertaker in Albany, New York. It arrived on November 20, 1922, and carried no “return address”. In the box was body of a child who had died of natural causes. She was buried “...through the kindness of individuals” under the name of “Parcella Post.” How could you call such a world "simpler" than ours?
As you would expect from people living in such complicated times, the denizens of that ancient confusion were able to predict the problems and solutions faced by our current, “simpler", electronic age. It turns out the philosophical antithesis to twitter was written in 1854, not long after the Mores telegraph hinted at the self obsessed simplicity which was to follow.
It was written by that old foggey, Henry David Thoreau. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys”, wrote Henry David, “which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And, what with the current Texas Governor advocating the re-secession of Texas from the union of states, it would appear that our modern politicians are leading the way by getting simpler and simpler all the time.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010


I ask you to imagine yourself as the engineer on a westbound freight on the El Paso and Southwest Railroad. It is November of 1911, and the big steam boiler in front of you is a living, soot spewing metal beast with a hot, coal fed craw your stoker has to constantly feed. You climb out of the Rio Grande valley, the empty copper ore cars behind you rumbling around Sierra del Cristo Rey mountain. Then you turn south, coming within yards of the Mexican border at Anapra, before the line swings north again, past “The Lizard”, a basalt dyke basking in the sun on a mountain shoulder (in the distance, above) high above the dieing mining town of Lake Valley. And then, after wending their way between lonely unnamed desert peaks and road cuts, the rails ramp down onto the high Chihuahuan desert floor and the siding and water tower at Mammoth, New Mexico. And that is when you see it. It looks like a giant insect speeding towards you at 40 or 50 miles an hour. But it can’t be. Can it?
In fact it can not. What you are seeing, at a time when most Americans had not yet seen an airplane, is the “Cole Flyer”, piloted by Bob Fowler, using a hand car as a catapult to become airborne, an aviation first. So the engineer can be excused for not recognizing what he saw, as it had never been seen before, ever, in the four billion year history of the earth. It was a desperate measure, tried after Fowler had been trapped in the sand for four days, 16 miles west of El Paso, Texas. The Mexican border was only three miles to the south. And staring head on at the steam engine bearing down on him, Bob Fowler said later he wondered if he was going to become the first pilot in history to crash into a locomotive. Bob lifted off the hand car at the last possible second and became airborne, missing the front of the oncoming locomotive he said, by “…no more than ten feet.” I doubt if the engineer comprehended what he had seen, particularly after it flew off over his head, followed by the shattering crash of the handcar against the breast of the huge iron beast. This makes Bob Fowler the world’s first UFO, if it really happened.
I had my doubts. But according to the New York Times, on July 24, 1904, three New Jersey teenager couples borrowed a similar handcar for a Saturday night “joy ride”. After some drinking and dancing, at about 11 p.m., they found themselves pumping their way across a bridge over the Delaware River with a Lakawana passenger Express bearing down on them. It sounds like a turn of the century version of “Saturday Night Fever”. All the couples jumped to safety, with only one male, Albert Jones, suffering injury, a broken shoulder. According to the Times, the express “barely escaped being wrecked”, but it did escape. So I guess it could have happened the way Fowler tells it. Bob would use a handcar catapult to launch himself three more times on his journey to the Atlantic Ocean. But he would never again come so close to being killed by a locomotive.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angels, Cal Rogers was slowly recovering from his injuries. Propped up in a wheel chair, with both legs in casts, his wife hovering on his right, his mother perched judgmentally to his left and his brother standing back out of the line of fire between them, Cal assured the doubtful reporters, “I’m going to finish this flight, and I’m going to finish it with the same machine.” It must have been a contentious press conference, since everyone in the photo looks as if one of them has just stepped in something very unpleasant. I wonder who that could have been?
Cal had, by my rough count, crashed 70 times in crossing the country, (23 times in Texas alone!) or about once every 43 miles. His sponsors must have been fed up with the repair bills. And with all the engine problems of late, Cal must have been a bit uneasy about trusting his life to the skills of the 17 year old Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggen, his new chief mechanic (with Cal, below), since Charlie Taylor had opted out of the little opera being staged aboard the “Vin Fiz Special” back in Texas.
Poor old Cal; one great-grandfather, Oliver Perry, had been the hero of the 1813 battle of Lake Erie. His other great-grandfather, John Rogers, had been captain of the USS Constitution. His great-grand-uncle, Matthew Perry, had sailed four warships into Tokyo Bay and opened Japan to trade in 1853. But Cal’s own father had turned away from the sea and became a cavalry officer, with a rather less distinguished record. He had fought bravely against the Cheyenne in the freezing rain at Slim Buttes in 1876, and even against the Nez Pierce in 1877. But his career had come to a shockingly less than glorious conclusion on August 23, 1878, when he was struck by lightening.
You might say his father's demise left the young Cal with a bit of a negative buzz about him. And then there was the deafness thing, and his mother’s remarriage. So his family history may explain why Cal was so determined to make it to Long Beach, no matter what the obstacles. He explained, in an interview he gave just after reaching Pasadena, “I am not in this business because I like it, but because of what I can make out of it.”
On December 10, 1911 Cal hobbled out to the Vin Fiz one last time. He lashed his crutches to the wing strut, checked his lucky soda bottle and waited while Weggie primed his propellers. Then he rolled (Weggie having replaced the skids with wheels) across the Compton field and rose into the air. Twelve miles later he settled down in front of 50,000 people in Long Beach.
After landing, Cal had his plane pushed forward until the wheels were in the surf. Cal Rogers had said he would reach the Pacific Ocean, and now he had. But whether it was in the same airplane was debatable. The only parts that remained of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” that had taken off from Sheepheads Bay, New York on September 17th. were one vertical tail rudder and the oil pan. Nobody was even willing to claim it was the same Vin Fiz bottle hanging off the strut.
On New Years Day, 1912, Cal made a few hundred dollars flying over the Rose Parade and dropping rose petals. He needed the money. Cal and Mable Rogers were now flat broke. Congratulations, Winner!
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