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JULY  2017
Greed and Monopolies Take Over the Ship

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Friday, September 21, 2012

POLITICAL SPEAK



I wonder how many of you know, dear readers, that the word “Gobbledgook”, being a nonsensical word or phrase designed to imply importance but in fact meaning nothing, has an actual birthday? The word was born on Sunday, May 21st, 1944, in the pages of “The New York Times Magazine”. And it is just one of the many American words born out of American politics.In 1812 the Massachusetts’s legislature contrived, with the help of Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Jerry"), to redraw the lines for the Essex County Congressional District, to insure who won the elections there. According to legend it was famed painter Gilbert Stuart who first examined the bends and curves of the new district and observed that, to him at least, a map if it resembled a salamander. But whoever said it first, it was Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston Sentinel, who renamed the proposed district a Gerrymander, after the Governor. That name now applies, as a verb, to the redrawing of congressional district boundaries (Gerrymandering) to insure the election of one particular candidate or party. And allowing politicians to control the drawing of districts has Gerrymandered all negotiations out of American politics. Almost as old as Gerrymanding is the word “Bunko”, meaning a fraud or a fraudulent spiel used by salesmen of bad or faked products. Police departments around the nation still have squads of officers assigned to uncovering fraud and cheating scams, named “Bunko Squads”. Some linguists say this word originated with a Mexican card game, a version of three-card monty, but that is just so much "bunk". Thirty years before the invention of the Mexican card game the word was used to describe a speech by Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina.Walker had been born in 1753 in the mountains of western Virginia. He worked as a store clerk in Charleston, South Carolina, and tried homesteading with Daniel Boone in Boonsboro, Kentucky. He fought in the American Revolution, and served in the North Carolina House of Commons, the state legislature. In 1816 he was appointed to Congress, to represent the Blue Ridge ‘hollars’ and the French River valley of Buncombe Country.The county was named after American Revolutionary War hero Colonel Edward Buncombe, who had been wounded and captured at the battle of Germantown, in 1777. Recovering from his wounds in occupied Philadelphia, one night in May, Colonel Buncombe was sleepwalking. He fell and bled to death when his wounds were reopened. The new county named in his honor was so large it was locally referred to as “The State of Buncombe.”Facing contentious re-election in 1818 and again in 1820, Felix Walker quickly learned the value of a well publicized and well received speech. And on February 25, 1820, while the House of Representatives was debating the crucial issue of the “Missouri Compromise”, deciding wether or not to take the first step that would lead to the Civil War, Congressman Walker arose and began to pontificate about the wonders of Buncombe County.The leadership were ready to put the matter of the Compromise to a vote, and after listening to Walker’s rambling speech for several minutes, they urged Walker to stop wasting the Congresses’ time and sit down. But Walker explained that his speech was not intended for the benefit of the congress, but for the "simple folk of Buncombe County back home". And then Walker returned to his endless platitudes.Almost overnight Walker’s speech was transformed from being about Buncombe to being “pure Buncombe” itself. And, with a little modification in spelling, it changed from "Buncombe", to "bunkum", and then to "bunk", as in a useless, pompus and empty speech, or "bunko" a false promise intended to further a fraud.Gobbledygook has a much simpler history than bunko, and more recent. It was the purposeful invention of the one term Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and later Congressman, the Honorable Fontaine Muaury Maverick. The mayor served only one term because a communist had rented a meeting room in the cities' Civic Auditorium. By law, Mayor Maverick could not refuse to rent the room to anyone. But because he failed to "lock out" the commie his opponents were able to rabble rouse a riot, complete with tear gas shells being lobbed about in front of the auditorium. This typical "Texas-Hysteria”, was in response to Maury’s defense of "Freedom of Speech", and almost got him lynched. And it allowed his opponents to brand Maury himself as a communist, which led to his defeat for re-election as Mayor. But that is beside the point.Maury Maverick later won election to Congress, where, during WWII, his honesty, intellect and energy convinced others to make him chairman of the "Small War Plants Committee", overseeing and coordinating the work of thousands of small factories contributing to the American war effort, seeking to avoid duplication of effort, shortages of raw materials and general waste. Being a man interested in results Maury quickly grew frustrated with the growing complexity of official language which prolonged the already almost endless committee meetings he had to attend. In his article for the New York Times magazine, Maury defined his new word as a type of talk which is long, vague, pompous, and uses mostly Latinised words "…when concrete nouns are replaced by abstractions and simple terms by pseudo-technical jargon…" all of which made him think of the mating call of the wild turkey’s back home, as in "gobble, gobble, gobble, gook".In a later memorandum Maury ordered, in pure Texas style, "Anyone using the words “activation” or “implementation” will be shot”. Of course no one was executed. But perhaps because no one was, the continued human attraction to verbosity has since produced nonsense such as "Pentagonese", "Journalese", "circumlocution", and other such gobbledygook words used to describe Maury’s gobbledegook.In an interesting (I think) side note, gobbledegook was the Maverick family’s second addition to the American lexicon. The first was their family name. There was a Maverick aboard the Mayflower. And a 17-year old apprentice, Samuel Maverick, had been struck down by 'lobster backs' at the Boston Massacre. But the most famous Maverick of all was another Samuel, this one born in Pendleton, South Carolina, in 1803.This Maverick, Samuel Augustus, graduated from Yale in 1825 and was admitted to the bar in 1829. A year later, he ran for the South Carolina Legislature, but his anti-secession opinions contributed to his defeat. In 1835 Samuel Maverick moved to Texas. He was one of two men from the Alamo elected to the Texas Independence Convention. Thus his career in politics saved him from being butchered by Mexican soldiers. Because of his political obligations he also missed the victory at San Jacinto. Never the less, he was elected Mayor and then Treasurer of the city of San Antonio, and later served in the seventh and eighth Texas Congresses. He also dabbled in East Texas land speculation, and sometime in 1843 or 1844, as payment for a bad debt, Samuel Augustus took possession of a ranch around Matagorda Bay, Texas.The only problem was that Maverick had no experience in ranching and no interest in learning. When he saw that every other rancher had branded their cattle, Augustus decided there was no need for him to bother with the expense of branding his. In 1847, when Samuel moved back to San Antonio, he left his cattle under the care of his ranch hands, who saw no reason to pay more attention to their jobs than their absentee boss. They let their animals wander the open range.Cowboys who found unbranded cattle thus identified them all as the property of "Mr. Maverick", and mavericks thus became any unbranded cow or horse. Samuel Augustus Maverick favored Texas being annexated by the U.S., and after it was, he fought its secession from the Union in 1861 until he realized there was no stopping it. After the Civil War he opposed Reconstruction. When he died in 1870 he left holdings of over 300,000 acres and a reputation for independence - not being branded by any special interests. His son, Samuel Maverick jr., fought with distinction in the Civil War (for the south) and was promoted to second lieutenant.After the civil war Maverick jr. became a lawyer, helped preserve the Alamo, donated "Maverick Park" to San Antonio, and as a judge, lived to swear in his own son, inventor of the term gobbledegook, as Mayor of San Antonio. Maverick junior died in 1936 at the age of 98. And so he never had to deal with the gobbledygook his son did.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SOME GOD-DAMNED THING


I don't think they even saw each other. The German sailors were shooting at blips on a primitive radar screen, and the British and Americans were just panicking, like chickens with a fox in their hen house. But in that confused melee on a moonless April night ten miles out in Lyme Bay off the English coast, Nazi Germany might have come within one torpedo of winning the Second World War. All they had to do was sink one more of those lethargic targets waddling across their sights at ten knots, and the Allied invasion of France would have been delayed for months, perhaps forever. But how could they know that, when the vital importance of these fat clumsy ships came as a surprise even to the man who inspired their creation? A year earlier Winston Churchill had complained that “ the destinies of two great empires . . . seemed to be tied up in some god-dammed things called LST's”
The need for such a ship occurred to Churchill in June of 1940 when 300, 000 British and French soldiers were rescued off the beaches of Dunkurque. The men were saved, but all their trucks and tanks and cannon had to be left behind. So, the need was simple - a vessel which could run up on a beach to directly load or disgorge heavy tanks. Of course in practice things were more complicated. The ship would require a shallow draft to “beach” itself, but a deep draft to remain stable while crossing the open sea. While loading and unloading it had to remain level with its stern afloat and its bow on dry land and pointing “up” the beach. Naval Architect Rowland Baker was ordered to design this floating contradiction. Luckily, he knew enough about ships to be a genius
Like all engineering problems, the most elegant solution was the source of the problem, in this case sea water – too little or too much. Impact with the land would require the strength of a double hull, while pumping sea water between the hulls would lower the draft, making the ship more stable in the open sea. Selectively pumping that water out of compartments between the hulls would allow the ship to come inshore, while balancing level. All it required was a bit of plumbing, which Baker ingeniously provided. Britain managed to convert three small oil tankers to the new design, but their ship yards were already stretched thin. So, in October of 1941 Baker was sent to Washington on a Lend -Lease shopping spree.
The U.S. Bureau of Ships considered the design submitted by Baker, and they assigned John Niedermair to fix it. He made the ship bigger (330 feet long), which allowed it to carry 2,100 tons of equipment, and he added a winch system to the anchor chain to help drag the ship off the beach. He even made the bow doors wider. In early November of 1941, Britain immediately ordered 200 of the new Landing Ship Tanks. And then in December Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and then Hitler, for some insane reason, declared war on America, as well. And suddenly the US Army and Marine Corps were demanding as many of this ship as possible, when two months earlier none of them had even heard of. And that created a new problem.
The U.S. Navy went from 790 active ships in December of 1941, to 6,700 in August of 1945. There was no room in U.S. shipyards for the last minute orders for LST's for our own military, let alone the British. So the decision was to open “cornfield shipyards”, with companies like Chicago Bridge and Iron on the Sennica River in Illinois, Dravo in Pittsburgh and American Bridge in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron in Evansville, Indiana. - all on the Ohio River, and all building LSTs. It took them six months to build the first ones. That was incredibly fast for ship building, but not fast enough.
The original plan to invade France called for just three divisions in the first wave, and the only American division was to land on the beach code named Omaha. It was clear, that would not be strong enough to guarantee success, but with only 300 LST's in Europe, they could not land more. In September of 1943 the head of the U.S. War Production Board, Donald Nelson, visited London and experienced Churchill's panic first hand.. Nelson cabled his staff that LST's were “most important single instrument of war”, and he added “the need for these ships has been grossly understated”
On September 8, 1943 the keel was laid for LST number 507 at the Jefferson Boat and Machine Corporation in Jeffersonville, Indiana, on a bend in the Ohio River. Like all 117 of her sister ships built here – like the 1,000 of her sisters built in America, the 507 was assembled from 30,000 separate parts, and built in sections, which were then welded together, mostly by women earning $1.20 and hour and working 9 hour shifts and a 54 hour work week. Building an LST Ten weeks later the 507 was launched sideways into the river, and after fitting out with her deck guns, she sailed to New Orleans, where she officially joined the U.S. Navy on January 10 – 124 days from laying keel to joining a convoy. She was just one of 62 brand new LST's that reached England that winter.
This amazing influx of LST's allowed allied planners to add two divisions to the first wave, and a second American beach, this one to be named Utah. But just inland from Utah beach, on Omaha's right flank, the Germans had flooded the land, leaving only two roads off the beach. That tactical problem could be solved, but the Americans needed someplace to practice, someplace with a lake just inland of a beach. And in December of 1943, three thousand British citizens were evacuated from the south coast of Devon in southwest England, around an area called Slapton Sands. It was a duplicate of the topography in Normandy. It was here that in April of 1944, the allies staged Operation Tiger, a full scale live-fire practice of the Normandy landings.
At 7:30 in the morning of Thursday, April 27, 1944, 30,000 men of the U.S. 4th division were to rush ashore on Slapton Sands from, among other ships, 300 LST's. But a glitch had thrown off the time table for the first wave. The gunnery ships were half an hour late, but some of the landing craft stayed on the original schedule. The gunnery officer on the cruiser HMS Hawkins, noted, “they had a white tape line beyond which the Americans should not cross until the live firing had finished. But...they were going straight through the white tape line and getting blown up.” About 300 men were killed or wounded. After that “glitch”, the rest of the first day's operations went smoothly, at least until after midnight, when the follow up units were preparing to practice their part.
It was after one in the morning of Friday April 28th, that eight LST's were plowing broad circles at ten knots in the calm, cold waters of Lyme bay, off Slapton Sands. Their crews joked that the ship's initials actually stood for “Large Slow Target” or “Large Stationary Target”. This morning they were about to be proven correct. These eight ships carried quartermasters, engineers, and even a graves registration unit, the house-keeping support without which an army cannot fight for long. Bearing down on them were nine German Schnellbootes, (fast boats), each 120 feet long, armed with four torpedoes and cannon and machine guns and capable of 42 knots – or four times the top speed of the LST's. All of the German boats carried radar. Only one of the LST's did.
According to the official U.S. naval history, issued in 1946, “LST 507, the first attacked, was hit by several torpedoes which failed to explode, then was set afire by a direct torpedo hit. Another struck five minutes later. The enemy craft strafed the decks with machine guns, and fired on men who had jumped into the water. LST 507 began to settle. About the same time, LST 531 was hit and set afire... About 0210(am), LST 289 was hit by a torpedo which destroyed the crew's quarters, the rudder and the rear guns...” Amazingly, with its stern almost blown off, LST 289 was able to make it safely back to port. But after burning for two hours, LST 531 sank. Finally a British destroyer arrived to pick up survivors, and was ordered to sink the wreckage of the pride of Jeffersonville, Indiana, LST 507. She had been in existence for six months, from birth to death. Her remains now lay 200 feet beneath Lyme bay, at 50°29′N, 2°52′W. The cost of that April night was 198 dead American sailors, and 551 dead American soldiers – 749 total, plus wounded. So tight was security surrounding the invasion that all survivors, the wounded and their doctors and nurses were sworn to secrecy, and many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves.
For the planners, the loss of three LST's meant that on D-Day, June 6, 1944, there were no LST's in reserve. One more sinking would have meant a weakening of the invasion. That was how close the German sailors came to stopping D-Day. They never knew it, of course. They never saw what kind of ships they were shooting at. On June 6, 1944, the landings on Omaha Beach came perilously close to a disaster. After losing 3,000 casualties, American troops were able to push barely 1 ½ miles inland. Meanwhile, on Utah, the beach added because of the rush the previous summer to produced LST's, 23,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles pushed almost 5 miles inland, at the cost of only 200 casualties.
As of May 1st, 1944, the full production of LSTs was assigned to the Pacific.  During a war, the key to success, is to not look back. But looking back after the war, it was clear the invasion of Normany was the product of total war -  in this case, the genius of a British design, improved by an American, implemented by the entire American economy, including thousands of women who had never before had a job outside the home, and never dreamed they would build a sea going ship, who strained to build enough, to build that one ship more than was needed to give the allies a chance at victory. When you speak of war, it is best to remember not only how many lives it costs, but also the unimagined demands it makes on the nation. Because you can never know in advance, what God-damned thing will be vital this time.
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Sunday, September 16, 2012

GEORGIA PEACHES Part One

 have always been confused about Patrick Henry. He is famous for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death”, a bold statement that should have gotten a lot of press and yet, nobody at the time recorded him saying it. He also supposedly said “If this be treason, let us make the most of it”, another bold statement which, again, nobody wrote down at the time. What is fact is that he was a lawyer, whose most famous trial was defending the colony of Virginia against a greedy minister. Patrick was a three time governor of Virginia, and so suspicious of the power of government that we largely have him to thank for the Bill of Rights, today a beacon of freedom for billions of people world wide. But then there was his time as CEO of the Virginia Yazoo Company, when he sold swamp land to unsuspecting suckers – the American taxpayers.
My guess is the Yazoo Indians were only joking with French explorer Robert de La Salle, but maybe the gag was lost in translation.  In 1682, when la Salle asked about the water at the edge of their town, they told him it was a river; ha, ha.  But before fifty years of back breaking clearing of undergrowth, followed by two centuries of unending and expensive flood control, that “river” did not so much flow to the Mississippi, as it seeped. In an hydrological provenance this 100 mile wide by 180 meandering mile long sponge on the east bank of the Mississippi River is more correctly described as a flood plain. However there have been far drier places in America which the natives have more honestly refereed to as a swamp. But the last laugh was on the Yazoo Indians because La Salle named the “river” after them.
If the Yazoo River - slash swamp - was owned by anybody in 1789 besides the natives who lived there, it was Charles IV, King of Spain. Of course, an absentee landlord is an invitation to fraud, and it wasn't long before the confidence men showed up. And since nobody would be interested in buying a section of the Yazoo Swamp, in their advertising these con men called it the Yazoo Lands. And it was this fraud that Patrick Henry, patriot and ex governor of Virginia, put his name on. In his defense, he needed the money. And his company had company.
Besides Patrick Henry's Virginia Yazoo Company, there was the Tennessee Yazoo Company and the Carolina Yazoo Company, all wanting to sell a swamp they did not own. They formed the first American lobby firm, the Combined Society, whose secretly stated purpose was “By means of certain influences...to obtain from the State (of Georgia) large grants of land...for the end of making a large sum of money...” They were certain they could obtain a deed from Georgia, because Georgia not only needed money, it also needed people.
Now, by “people”, I mean white men with property. In this new American democracy the people living on the land, the Yazoos, the Creek and the Shawnee, did not count as people. They were savages. And the dark skinned souls forced to literally slave in Georgia, were 'simple darkies'. And neither were white women. They were hysterical. And neither did white men who did not own property. They were lazy, stupid alcoholics. No, this little fraud was conceived, packaged and sold exclusively by morally superior rich white men. But don't worry, the people who ended up paying for it were sexually and ethnically a very diverse group; everybody else. And the people the rich white men started by fleecing were the war veterans.
See, after the revolution the rich white men running Georgia saw the veterans as young hotheads – we might even call them “revolutionaries”. The state had promised them rewards, either cash, which it did not have, or  land, which would give the hot heads the right to vote which the powerful did not want to share. What seemed to be the solution to this conundrum popped up in 1784, going by the name of Colonel Thomas Marston Green. Green had been living in the woods out near the Mississippi River, when suddenly a bunch of Spanish soldiers and bureaucrats showed up. Spain had a new treaty from France giving them property rights to the area - again, nobody asked the Indians - and the new owners wanted to do inventory. Well, Colonel Green realized that after the inventory would come the taxes. And he hated paying taxes. So that fall he showed up in the state capital of Louisville in Jefferson County, demanding that Georgia take over the Yazoo territory, forming the largest county in the young United States around his plantation. He would run this new Bourbon County, of course. He had no objection to collecting taxes. And since this would swallow up all those troublesome veterans, on February 7, 1785, the rich white men running Georgia passed the Bourbon County Act. Snap: problem solved.
Unfortunately, it didn't work. Green went home and told the Spanish that Georgia was now running things and they could just get out. The Spanish authorities threw him in jail. And as long as Georgia was taking that attitude, the Spanish decided Americans could no longer use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce to market. That made the settlers in Kentucky and western Georgia, very unhappy. They needed New Orleans to reach their customers; no customers, no money. In 1788 the state of Georgia backed down and repealed the Bourbon County Act. But that still left the problem of all those veterans.
The next answer they tried in the fall of 1788 was the infamous Pine Barren Land Speculation, in which about thirty million acres of Georgia were awarded to a dozen rich white men, who surveyed it (badly) and sold it off (quickly). The only problem was that Georgia at the time contained only nine million acres in total, which meant a lot of veterans and speculators were granted duplicate titles, and pretty much left to fight it out amongst themselves. When the would-be farmers realized the level of fraud, land prices went from sky high to bargain basement overnight, inspiring a fake advertisement, offering, “ Ten millions of acres of valuable pine barren land in the province of Utopia, on which there are several very sumptuous air castles, ready furnished”.
It was a great scandal, and lots of people (including a lot veterans) were financially broken in the scam. But like the Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980's, nobody learned a thing from it. Just a year later, in 1789,  the state of Georgia, under the governorship of an arrogant fire plug named George Mathews, did it all again, only bigger. And this was where Patrick Henry got into the game – which was rigged, of course. And by him, of course.
It was enough to make you wonder why the American people continue to have such childlike faith in capitalism, considering how often they keep end up getting screwed by it. It's a morality play, of sorts, if the moral is "they never learn"..
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