Black History Month: Jerry LeVias

Why have a special Black History Month? From this history buff’s perspective, the answer is simple. Because traditional history teaching has tended to downplay black Americans’ achievements and stories, black children have too often grown up thinking there weren’t any. When Nichelle Nichols appeared in the original Star Trek series (1966-69) at her communications station on the bridge of a proud starship, one person later summed up the impact (quote inexact) on his youthful perspective: ‘It was the first time anyone had made me think there would be black people in the future.’

Maybe someday we’ll do a better job of telling all the stories. For now, I’m glad we have a month that emphasizes those less often told. And I like college football, and Jerry LeVias is not well remembered today, so it occurred to me to tell his story.

Born (1946) and raised in Beaumont, Texas, LeVias (leh-VYE-us) starred as a football quarterback in then all-black Hebert High School. As he came of age in the mid/mod-1960s, the nation was in a ferment of change. It may be helpful to understand that full backdrop, which also coincides with my early childhood.

Vietnam had not yet heated up, but the civil rights and women’s rights struggles were well under way. It was not a time, like ours today when civil rights marchers might just get tear-gassed if things got a little rough. It was a time when peaceful marchers could expect to face water cannon, attack dogs, look-the-other-way Klan assaults, baton charges, and lynchings. In most of the places where civil rights demonstrations occurred, hospitals were segregated, so those who were injured might have limited and lesser options. Recourse to the law was rarely even minimal, considering that the law had turned a blind eye toward the violence–if it was not itself the perp. These marchers were warriors, young and old, male and female, and they were getting the hell beaten out of them for what they believed in.

American sports had followed different integration paths, but the college football world might have had the unwieldiest. For decades its governing bodies were weak, regional conference leadership held all the cards, and things were different in East Lansing, Pullman, and Tuscaloosa. In football, most of the northern and western schools practiced a form of segregation called “stacking.” This meant putting all the black players at a couple of positions (wide receiver, defensive back), to avoid a general takeover on the basis of raw talent. My own alma mater, the University of Washington, stood accused of this–and justly, I believe, to our lasting embarrassment. The amount of talent on the table can be estimated if one imagines a modern major college team without black players and with maybe only a couple of Polynesian players.

Think they’d be nationally ranked? Maybe in the ESPN Bottom 10, which in my view is one of the few really good things that emanates from the Eternal SEC Promotional Network.

Many southern universities remained segregated–these were the Wallace days–and many that were not segregated did not recruit African Americans to play football, nor take the field against them. Quite a few northern and western schools enabled this discrimination by benching their own black players (usually just one or two) out of ‘respect’ for the southern schools when matched up against them. By the 1960s, at least, some northern schools began to face student unrest at this enablement of racism.

The Union had won the Civil War, but lost the civil peace.

In 1965, Jerry LeVias was a senior star at Hebert, and had appeared on the national stage when he traveled to Ohio to play with an integrated all-star team of Texas footballers. This was a first, and it helped crack open doors in one of the nation’s biggest football markets–not least when LeVias caught two touchdown passes from roommate and fast friend Bill Bradley, a white.

Over two decades before the NCAA “death penalty” would inflict lasting damage on its program, Southern Methodist University’s football success was a point of pride in Dallas. With a natural crosstown rival in Texas Christian University, Dallas/Fort Worth was a football center in a football-crazy state. The Southwest Conference (now defunct) was in essence the Texas Conference. SMU Mustang football spared no effort or expense to recruit and compensate the best athletes it could find. As of 1965, the majority of black college football players played at historically black colleges/universities such as Grambling, Howard, Alcorn A&M, and many others. More than ever were moving on to play professionally in the AFL, which was just beginning to appear competitive with the old guard NFL, and where black athletes were more welcome and prevalent.

By the spring of 1965, the racial door was letting in a ray of daylight. SMU coach Hayden Fry was ready. Jerry LeVias accepted Fry’s offer of an athletic scholarship, becoming the first African American scholarship player in the Southwest Conference. (He was not the first black football player to appear in an SWC game, it seems. John Westbrook, who debuted as a walk-on for Baylor in 1966, saw the field one week before LeVias’s first appearance. In those days, freshmen simply did not play, so LeVias would not appear in a 1965 game. Westbrook almost surely deserves his own article.)

American life has never been easy for black pioneers, and LeVias took a great deal of abuse on and off the field. Imagine being eighteen or nineteen, and putting up with that while trying to get good grades and improve in sport. Some blacks on campus called him an Uncle Tom. You can guess what many whites called him, though he had Coach Fry’s unbending support. Did the abuse from some of his teammates (those are supposed to have one’s back, as a rule) hurt him more than the blatant personal fouls, spitting in his face, and stunts like when the Texas A&M cadet corps released a black cat onto the field? I’d think so.

How many times have you seen an athlete claim to use an insult as motivation? Believe it. In one infamous 1968 incident, a TCU player spat in LeVias’s face. He threw down his helmet and said he quit. Coach Fry came over to talk with him, convincing him to keep playing. When the conversation was done, and TCU’s punt team took the field, LeVias took his customary station to return it. He carried the punt return for an 89-yard touchdown with eleven tackles broken or dodged, giving SMU the margin of victory over its arch-rival.

As he went through hell, LeVias excelled. In his case, long before AA meant African American, it meant All-American. An electrifying runner, LeVias rewrote the Mustang record books while leading SMU to a conference championship in 1966 and a Bluebonnet Bowl victory in 1968. As Coach Fry told him–meaning it in the best possible way with reference to the public reaction–the more touchdowns he scored, the whiter he got. LeVias went on to a six-year pro career in the AFL and NFL, earning all-AFL honors in 1969.

A gentle-hearted, religious man who always resisted anger, Jerry LeVias would pay for those early days of endured cruelty with years of internalized pain. The price of leading the way for southern sports integration was high. He has succeeded well in life, and nowadays gets some of the recognition he deserves, but I don’t think that many younger fans have heard of Jerry LeVias. All of us who love college football might justly take a moment to give a brave man some respect.


Scumbag studies: what’s wrong with “Hunting Hitler”

You may have seen this series on the so-called “History Channel,” if you could spot it in your program guide against the wall-to-wall junk about ancient aliens and auctioning off abandoned storage units. Hunting Hitler purports to gather a dream team of ex-military, intelligence, and police operatives in order to prove that Adolf Hitler did not die in the bunker in Berlin, but escaped to South America.

The show jumps around between Europe, the U.S., and South America as teams of investigators look into various possibilities of Adolfian escape. Its first hurdle: why shouldn’t we believe the official version–that Adolf and Eva Hitler (née Braun) committed suicide in the Führerbunker on April 30, 1945? The airy dismissal: evidently the bone fragments in Russian possession have been tested and found not to be Adolf Hitler’s, but of a woman under forty years old. What’s wrong with that? Well, assuming the fragments in Moscow do come from the Hitler burial/cremation site just outside the bunker (not proven, and probably not provable), there would seem to be the chance the tested portions belonged to Eva Hitler. She turned 33 in February 1945. There are more questions one should ask and the show does not: so what if the Russians have the wrong bones? All that would prove is the Russians are not showing Adolf Hitler’s bones; it does not prove they do not have them. They might not have them, but that’s a negative beyond our power to prove. But even if they don’t have Adolf’s bones, that doesn’t prove he survived the war. It only means we are not supplied physical proof of his death.

The Russian version, released after the fall of the USSR, is that the NKVD conducted an extensive examination of the bunker’s surrounds. They found the charred remains of the Hitlers, two dogs, and the Goebbels family (children murdered by parents, who then committed suicide). To identify Adolf, they hunted up his dentist and checked his extensive dental work against the records. They gathered up all of it and buried it at an airbase near Magdeburg, in what would become East Germany, without any special preservation efforts. There the remains lay decaying until the late 1960s, when the Soviet Air Force prepared to hand the base over to the East Germans. Someone realized, Oh scheisse, we buried Hitler and Goebbels and all the other bones at that base. You nincompoops! Go dig it up, all of it, incinerate it, pulverize it, and dump it in a river! This was done, say the Russians. In the mood to evaluate the presentation for yourself? Good. Think and research for yourself, rather than just taking me at face value. Hitler’s Death, by Vinogradov, Pogonyi, and Teptzov, presents the evidence. Decide for yourself whether this is all an elaborate hoax. I don’t think it is.

Until the fall of the USSR, we might have dismissed the Soviet version as unreliable for all sorts of reasons. Had they offered it, we might have asked: why then? What would they gain? One thing Soviet leaders did not historically do was reveal hidden truths simply to clear up misunderstandings, especially as Stalin’s stance in the postwar period had shifted to hinting that the Americans had helped Hitler escape. (We didn’t exactly get a lick amiss, as Aunt Polly said to Tom Sawyer, considering that we did cover up for some German and Japanese war criminals where we felt it suited our interests.) Post-Soviet leaders revealed a number of hidden truths, though; logical motives might include improving relations, a spirit of new beginnings, and just to put the matter fully to bed. What is more, the Soviet version makes a fair bit of sense. They had much on their minds in the postwar period, what with half a dozen new satellites to absorb and control, a vast military to stand down in an orderly way, plus the growing tension with their former allies. In order to believe these Hunting Hitler people, we first must dismiss the Russian version. I do not see why we should.

Then there are the real Nazi hunters: Simon Wiesenthal, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and Israel’s famous intelligence agency we know as the Mossad (failing that, the Holocaust Center at Yad Vashem). Wiesenthal has passed on, but he left behind the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Surely all of the above have at least considered the possibilities behind hunting down every unaccounted-for Nazi of noteworthy infamy, even just to learn what became of him or her. If you and I decided to go chasing Hitler, kind reader, I’d probably say: “All right. My first idea is let’s get in touch with the Wiesenthal Center, the Klarsfelds, and if they will talk to us, the Mossad. If you can think of anyone else, great, let’s contact them too. I speak some Hebrew, which may or may not help. If Mossad ignores us, Yad Vashem probably won’t. Let’s ask all of them what they think happened to Hitler, without agenda, and why they believe what they believe. Then let’s examine their reasoning and see if we’ve got a sound basis to think that all these highly intelligent, sophisticated, focused, and very personally motivated people and institutions have somehow given up too quickly.” Then I’d listen to what you thought of my idea, but I’ll take a guess you’d consider that a sound start. The show doesn’t even bring this idea up. Why not?

Even if we do reject the Russians’ version and others’ conclusions–for without doing so, the producers have no show; thus we proceed from here on a “for the sake of argument, let’s assume” basis–we then have to figure out how this frail, decrepit drug addict managed to escape the Soviet encirclement of Berlin. This encirclement was neither lazy nor casual, not with over two million Soviet and Soviet-allied troops ringing Berlin and thousands of Soviet aircraft blanketing an airspace perhaps ten miles in diameter. The show spent much time on one escape bolthole that would have provided a route to Tempelhof Airport, south and east of the bunker. It spent another batch of time on a long street that perhaps could have served as a runway for something like a Fieseler Storch (the Germans’ marvelous scout aircraft). This does not withstand scrutiny. The valid questions: all right, which was it? And why did you spend all this time on one route, then stop talking about it and develop a theory of another route? Unless the researchers answer that question, they’re just trying to establish the possibility. That is not the same thing as demonstrating proof; the most it can do is sow reasonable doubt, which I do not believe it does. Then there’s the question of the long odds against any German aircraft having the good luck (and avgas, in minimal supply) to take off from anywhere in encircled Berlin and escape Soviet combat air patrols. And then, to go where?

Again the show can’t make up its mind, and thus puts forth a couple of theories. Both lead to the southern cone of South America. One departs from northern Germany and then takes a U-boat from northern Norway to South America. The other escapes first to Bavaria, then Austria, to a Spanish U-boat base, then to South America. They can’t decide between these, either, but they find plenty of evidence that could more plausibly be explained by submarine warfare (a staple of the Nazi war effort) and postwar escapes under the aegis of ODESSA, the SS organization that certainly did help numerous war criminals flee the long arm of justice.

All along, the show salts in evidence of weapons manufacture, with dark hints that it could be nuclear. It refers to Hitler’s pipe dream ‘Amerika bomber,’ a series of prototype aircraft culminating in the Junkers Ju-390. Did Hitler want to bomb the U.S.? Of course he did. He also wanted non-Aryans to submit peacefully to slave labor and extermination, and he wasn’t going to get that either. Does that have any relevance to his supposed escape? Not unless one is positing that he somehow had a clandestine way to make these bombers in Argentina, or that he used one to escape–which the show doesn’t do. In any case, if he were to attempt escape by air, it would seem more sensible to use the proven, reliable aircraft used throughout the war for diplomatic missions to South America: the Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, which existed in modest numbers, and could make it to and from Buenos Aires with suitable refueling stops. So that’s a nothingburger. Another such is when the team finds a supposed small arms manufacture plant in Argentina or Chile (I forget which). It drops the inference that this is where Hitler must have been planning his Fourth Reich. Yeah, makes a lot of sense: at most a few hundred guys and some homebrew weapons are going to Make Adolf Great Again. The host government surely won’t mind its territory used this way, right?

Case in point about weapons hints: the team ‘discovers’ that the Nazis were using the facilities at the Norsk Hydro plant near Rjukan, Norway, to manufacture heavy water. This substance can play a role in the manufacture of nuclear fuel. This is not terribly far, they discover, from an obsolete four-gun coastal defense battery near Kristiansand, which they have decided must be Very Special and perhaps part of Adolf’s bugout route. There must be a connection, and this must have been part of Hitler’s Fourth Reich plans! The actors’ eyes grow very wide. Those of their Norwegian guides do not.

Wait, why not? Doesn’t that sound at least a little suspicious? In 1943, Norwegian commandos with balls the size of watermelons sabotaged the heavy water production at Rjukan, generally accepted as the knockout blow to any remote possibility of a Nazi “nucular” weapon, as one of the cast members persists in calling it. This may hint at the educational level to which the show expects to appeal. The Nazis tried to ship out the remaining D2O, and got it as far as a boat in a fjord, which the Norwegians sank. That’s it. That’s the story of Norway and the Nazi atomic bomb, and everyone who knows much of anything about World War II understands this. The fact that the Nazis had a coastal defense battery in south Norway means nothing by 1945, because as a 15.5″ gun battery, it was outgunned more than double by a single Iowa-class US battleship. In an age of air power, the only reason not to bomb such a battery flat is that it was too useless to bother plastering.

So the battery means nothing, the heavy water plant activity is well documented and seriously impaired by 1945, and yet out of this the ‘investigators’ act as if they might find an elderly, disheveled Hitler alive in some hidden hole. In fact, they spend a fair bit of effort trying to find the basement of a long-demolished building which they opine will produce Big Revelations. What big revelations? That the Nazis used the hydroelectric plant to produce heavy water? I hate to think what Knut Haukelid, the senior Norwegian commando on the raid, would make of this garbage.

There is stuff like that in every episode. Found a Nazi coin? Proof of Hitler! Found some discarded Nazi decorations? Hitler Wuz Hear! A Nazi slogan or graffiti? This must surely be part of Hitler’s escape route! We’re onto Something Big!

This is a bad version of what we call historiography: the methods of researching, studying, and presenting history. Its key component is critical thinking. “OMG this fortress-like compound was armed and making weapons right here in Argentina! Proof of Hitler!” Oh, really. Yeah, looks like there was some weapons manufacture going on, but if anyone thinks such a location needed to be heavily fortified to protect itself from the Argentine government, ask yourself who could prevent the Argentines from sending a rifle division to surround and reduce this place as a field training exercise. Then ask yourself who else could do so without Argentine consent to the deed. Short of dropping an airborne regiment (which would be an act of war against Argentina), no one. There is no way such a compound could have existed without the assent, silent or otherwise, of the Argentine government. Then why build it?

Here is one reasonable speculation: Argentina was known for sporadic military coups in which the losing side’s leaders might well need a place to hide out for a while. Might some such leader work out a deal for such a hideout to be built for him with expatriated Nazi gold, and have it harbor a small private army loyal to this coronel (or whatever rank), useful in case of sudden security needs? Perhaps. There are many possible speculations as to why a few Nazi coins might be found in an abandoned jungle fortress, beginning with “Some SS cutthroat did indeed escape with a crapton of money, and did this because it made him feel better and he could afford it; the Argentines were glad to receive their regular payments for looking the other way.” That I could imagine. “That it was built to hide an escaped Hitler” is among the farthest-fetched. Historiography works out this reasoning, asks why people would or could do this or that, and seeks plausible explanations that fit the existing evidence and common sense. This show counts upon an audience with no grasp of historiography. It produces various little bits of interesting detail, then skips the whole reasoning process and leaps directly to the desired conclusion.

And what of local witnesses who seem to confirm rumors, or make statements? Don’t underestimate the motion picture industry. There is a term: the ‘frankenbite.’ A frankenbite is a manufactured speech clip, and the short version is this: if Hollywood wants to make you answer “yes” to “Did you have sex with ourangoutangs?”, that isn’t even a challenge for them. It’s a little more work to put a completely false sentence in your mouth, but they can do it. This is how reality shows work. It’s very interesting to talk to people off the record who have signed all those enormous NDAs (sorry, no names; I’m not Hollywood).

Those aren’t my only examples. I have a very close friend who appeared on a documentary as a subject matter expert, and they manipulated his footage so as to make him appear to confirm material he knew to be without substance. So just because some old Argentine granny seems to say in translated Spanish, “Yes, we saw Hitler every day; he liked gardening and hanging captured rats”, that doesn’t mean she actually said that. It means that the show needed her to say that. Hollywood lies. It’s in the lying business, and that’s not a slam; it is just what Hollywood does. It does it very well after many years of refined practice. When Hollywood wants someone to say something, it makes him or her say it. Never cooperate with Hollywood if you have any expectation that you will be presented with integrity. Hollywood does not do integrity.

Ah, but the scanned documents we see the investigators excerpting? Certainly look like the real thing, do they not? I expect they are real–but look what the producers do. Splatters of blocked-out text all over the document, hinting at classification (which is ludicrous in context)–and then the blacking peeled away to show you the five or six context-deprived words that seem to support whatever the show is pitching. Without the context, of course, the words are meaningless, even potentially distortive. For an imaginary example:

“Arcega claimed to have seen copies of Hitler‘s book on many occasions. He reported seeing a number of suspicious German-speaking Argentine nationals around town.”

Does the show go so far as to warp the meaning that badly? We do not know. If not, why do they not want us to see? We are given more than ample grounds to suspect any level of imaginable deception, and the sleight-of-hand here is the hint that the viewer is learning Very Big Secrets. The viewer is not supposed to ask: why are you hiding the majority of the text? Why not just show it all and color-highlight the relevant portion? Are you afraid that viewers will pause the DVR and read the whole document, discovering that it really doesn’t say what you imply it does? This one is so obvious I don’t see how anyone gets past it. It would insult a child’s intelligence.

While the show offers regular insults to the intellect, some of them are beyond the pale. One of the cast members is “Special Forces Tim Kennedy.” I have no reason to doubt that Tim was in SF. However, if he was in SF, he would know that this is not the way they say this. He would say he was ex-SF. He would not say he was “a Special Forces.” He might say he was Special Forces-qualified, or a Special Forces veteran, etc, but if he used it alone as a noun it would refer to SF as a whole. He would use it adjectivally to refer to a member, tactic, facility, or something else owned by SF. But that isn’t the comical part. Another ‘investigator’ is introduced, and we are told he is a ‘Green Beret.’ This term, of course, refers to Special Forces. Yes. I am serious. The show introduces one guy as ‘a Special Forces,’ one as ‘a Green Beret,’ and counts upon us not asking why they used two different terms for the exact same thing. Because it sounds cooler to the audience, is my guess.

I guess they figured that anyone who understands anything at all about World War II, military history, or even the modern military is not part of their audience. This one is aimed at the “too ignorant to know any better, too uneducated to think” demographic easily lured toward a TV by a whiff or Hitler.

Or, these days, perhaps they figure Hitler has enough closet fans (and nearly all of those are too dumb to think much, or they wouldn’t be closet Dolphies) to make a pretty big market for the demographic that would love to hear of Hitler’s escape.

I suspect the first. I don’t rule out the second.

They Causewayed it

Ireland has a great many antiquities and splendid sights, many of which require very much walking. It is not their way to build large interpretive centers. However, Ireland’s economy depends heavily on the fundamental prostitution that is tourism (something we in Oregon understand well), and this means the Causewaying of the major attractions.

“To Causeway” a place is Deb’s and my term for doing to said place what has been done to the famous Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. It means the building of a large parking lot, convenient to the Visitors’ Centre/souvenir shops/pissers, with lots of reserved room for gaudy emerald green tour buses labeled “PADDYWAGON” depicting a stereotypical laughing ginger leprechaun (I am not making this up). The tour buses’ peristaltic process delivers large numbers of tourists to pay admission at the site, and to tack on a shuttle bus fee if they prefer not to take a little walk to the attraction itself. For those not riding the tour bus, never fear; one can pay for parking at the time of paying admission. I did a little mental math based on rough estimates, and the short version is that any area that had an attraction as well publicized as the Causeway would make a great deal of money, but at the price of ruining the site. Make it that easy for that many people to overrun the place, and they will; they will of course leave with much lighter wallets. If they’ve come this far, are they going to refuse to pay to finish? No; thus one may charge them just about whatever one wishes. And the Irish (in this case, the UK Irish) do just that.

And it does ruin it, because the main attraction in any Visitors’ Centre is not the interpretive part, nor even the attraction, but the gift shop. All the touristic garbage one could want can there be had. There the fundamentally prostitutive impact payload arrives: you’ve had your fun, now a tip would be nice. Don’t you need a supposedly hand-knit sweater or a stuffed leprechaun, maybe a coffee cup with a shamrock?

I think the Irish mostly hate this at heart, even those who make their livings from it. I can’t judge them harshly for the practice. I can only hate it along with them, and for my part, I’m not going to any more Causewayed destinations. If it’s famous, I will check to see if it has tour bus parking and a Visitors’ Centre. If it does, I will assume it has been destroyed for the sake of maximum revenue, and will go somewhere else.

If the Irish liked this, they would have built Visitors’ Centres for many more places. They did not. Left to themselves, our experience suggests that the Irish will create a small parking lot rather a good walk away from the attraction, post an interpretive placard (if they feel they must), post a Fógra (“warning”) advising visitors to respect antiquities and do nothing to harm their preservation, and leave it at that.

The good news about traveling around Ireland on your own is that there are a great many spaces of scenic beauty where one can’t park a tour bus, a great many antiquities on roads a tour bus cannot navigate—but your compact rental car surely can. The Cliffs of Moher are fully Causewayed, but the coastal drive north and east from them is breathtaking. The Burren region is full of un-Causewayed megalithic tombs, dolmens, ancient forts, castles, and what have you. While the cattle of tourism accept their herding from bus to attraction to bus to next stop, you can go see anything you want.

Another Causewayed place, perhaps the first place to be so handled, is Bru na Bóinne. Known in English as Newgrange, this is the home of famous megalithic tombs. It has an interpretive center, plenty of tour bus parking, all that. When the Irish speak of it, I see a bleakness in their eyes, a sense that all its charm and character has been sucked out of it along with the commercial wind that gathers up Euro, pound, and dollar notes and slurps them into the state’s coffers. Thus, I am told, with the whole town of Killarney, and certainly with Blarney Castle. There may be more.

We will strive our best to evade them. There’s too much real Ireland out there to find.

The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.

Why I don’t have or want a so-called “smartphone”

It may come to pass that I am the last holdout in this area. This bewilders all but a handful of those I know. How could I possibly not want one of these devices? They act as though this were a Luddite decision, a sort of insanity, Old Grumpness lived out.

Not so.

I use technology (such as now) when I see the benefit from it. What I never do is adopt technology for the sake of technology. If the corporate world holds up an object and says, “This is what you get now,” most people just say “okay” and buy it. I do not. Instead of assuming that the corporation is presenting me A Good Thing, I assume the corporation is my adversary and never has my interests at heart. And that’s fair; if it were up to me, the corporation would probably see some dark days (and worse ones when it actually sinned), so I can’t expect it to mean me honest fairness when I mean it anything but.

So we begin with me thinking the corporation considers me too mindless to do anything but Just Buy Now, and me looking at the corporation like a suspicious car lurking in front of my house or Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on my front steps. It means I will think most critically about whether I want the thing. The corporation does not enjoy the presumption of honest intentions; the default assumption is that it wants me to spend money I should not. It spent a lot of money creating marketing in order to do this.

Must admit: naming it the “smartphone” was a stroke of marketing genius because it hoodwinked the world. This thing isn’t smart! This is just a miniature laptop with Internet and phone capability. I grant that some of them are gaining ability to interpret simple commands and engage in something resembling conversation, but this thing is not a fraction as smart as an average human being with a search engine. Most people just accepted the term “smartphone,” which made it sound as though all other phones (and by extension, other phone users) were dumb. It is my way in life to analyze clever marketing. If it offends me, I feel free hold that against the marketer. So, for starters, I don’t want one because the name is misleadingly stupid and insults my intelligence. For that alone I would resist owning one. I keep retraining myself to say ‘mobile phone,’ but that also includes my flip phone that doesn’t have Internet access.

Even so, I might have ended up with one of these phones had I not come to hate them 98% of the time. Not just a garden variety casual hate, but a long, slow, muriatic loathing that is to be savored. I hate them because people behave in shocking fashion with them. Look at a breakfast table, and you’ll see five people who got together for breakfast. All are silent and appear to be contemplating and/or manipulating their genitals. They are all texting. Some probably felt the world needed to see a picture of their food. Many will take calls at a restaurant table, or just about anywhere, having an outside-voice conversation in absolute disregard for everyone else. They have come to worship these things, to give them priority over the people they love the most, certainly over any consideration to complete strangers. For that alone I would hate them. Remember payphones? Eating in a restaurant these days is like in the old days if your table was next to a bank of payphones.

Then there’s usability. I am a man. While I have a man’s hands, I admit to a great vanity over them. They are big without bulkiness, almost ridiculous-looking on me, except that they border on feminine. They might be the hands of a WNBA center. And I’m good with my hands. I’m the guy who fixes the little screw on someone’s glasses, or achieves some other tiny, fussy, precise little repair. I type about 80 wpm, which by male standards is not bad at all. All this bragging is to explain that my hands are not clumsy bunches of sausage-shaped paw-tips. And yet I find it difficult enough to hit the right depressable buttons on my flip phone. To type on tiny chiclet-sized images on a glass screen, I would need a little stylus. My fingertip is big enough to hit four of those images at one time. Anyone who writes will tell you that s/he expects and requires keys to make, when struck with fair accuracy, the impressions s/he intends. Any other situation is intolerable. And while I muddle with the thing trying to figure out what to do, as when my wife asks me to look something up, it goes dark on me, and I have to wake it up again.

Then there is the screen. At 19″ my monitor isn’t large by modern standards, but it’s large enough to meet my needs. The modern mobile phone screen looks to me about 4″ diagonal, max. This is unusable for any sustained period. So my rejoinder is: “When you violate all the laws of physical space and time, and invent a telephone that fits in my pocket but has at least a 17″ screen and a full-sized 102-key keyboard, definitely get in touch with me, and let’s do business. Until then, I don’t want one of these.”

Also, I can mooch. Everyone else has one. If we as a group are going somewhere, and cannot find it, I don’t need to have one of these because someone else will. Probably everyone else will–and they will enjoy using them to solve our problem. I acknowledge the benefit of access to the data; I just don’t like the medium most of the time. So why not just mooch off those who love the medium? All I have to do is refrain from saying something hateful about the device while it is benefiting me. I’ll go that far. Since it’s a device, I owe it no consistency of opinion. I am welcome to like it in someone else’s hands, at his or her expense, while it’s making my life easier. I can hate it the minute someone pops it out to text in the middle of a once-civil conversation. Next time it does me some good, I’ll remember to be quiet for the duration of the benefit, and we all get along fine.

So I don’t need one. I don’t need to check my email when I’m out. I don’t need to be on Facepalm 24/7. I can do them when I get home.

And given the costs of these things, mooching is no small benefit. These are hideously expensive, with constant ‘new’ models that become faddish and create enormous buzz. “Do you have the new Hamhock FY2?” “No. I’m waiting for the Hemroid 5bs. It has a home colonoscopy app.” Monthly costs are outlandish, especially with data plans. I know because I pay our bills, and I see what we pay for my wife’s phone activity. This amount is far more than the device is worth to me–especially when I can mooch.

And even if I wanted one, there are some companies I won’t deal with on any terms. If Arrogant Turds & Trash buys out our current cell provider, we’ll hit the road. There is nothing I would wish to mail to that company that the law allows, except for perhaps a bag of small gummi penes. There are no telecom companies I want to deal with, only those I dislike least. When my wife’s former employer required her to accept a company-provided Ipad and pay a monthly (reimbursable) bill to Abhorrent Tongues & Tushies, requiring me to send money monthly to that company, I was not a happy person. Had she not been in a somewhat delicate position, I’d have tried to get her to refuse–what’s with this idea of making it obligatory for employees to lend money to the employer? So even if I did want one, I’d be choosing among the least hated, not the most liked.

Now you see what a stony resistance lies along this path.

It’s like with debit cards. Same thing happened. Corporations mailed them out and said, “This is what you get now.” Most people accepted the clever marketing implication that if credit cards got you in debt, and ran up your bill, debit cards did otherwise and were better. Debit cards simply give your money away sooner. If you do not realize why this is bad, read up on a concept called the Time Value of Money. You may not care, but your bank definitely does. I see two uses for debit cards: for people too lazy or innumerate to manage a checking account, or for people who want the free ATM feature (so they can pay cash for more things, again proving they haven’t read about the time value of money). I guess they might be okay for people whose credit or self-discipline precludes using a real credit card.

I took one look at debit cards and said: “This makes no sense. This benefits only the bank, at my expense. Forget it.” One credit union blithely mailed me one anyway. They did not do this a second time. To this day, I have had a debit card only for as long as it took me to drive the mailed item to a credit union branch and have the discussion. I have never used one.

So, no. I don’t want one of these phones. No, I’m not going to chew you out for having one. I may even mooch off what you can do with it. (Not “off of” what you can do with it. Anyone who uses that combination, please desist. It is acceptable until about seventh grade.) But I don’t want or need one.

When you find one that has a full-sized keyboard and monitor, yet fits in my pocket, made by and with serviced provided by companies that don’t roil my stomach too much, let’s deal.

What your keys used to do, long ago

What did they do? Why did they have weird names? Why on earth are some of our current computer keys called as they are?

This is an IBM Selectric typewriter. If you think electric typewriters sound painful to write with, you need to try a manual. For one thing, on a manual, light strokes would produce light or no impressions. You had to try for a consistent level of physical force when hitting keys; if you didn’t produce enough power, the type character might not make it to the ribbon at all.

I included this picture so that you didn’t have to guess what my 1980s writing implement looked like.





Starting along the top, the Mar Rel stood for Margin Release. Once you set your margins, the carriage (the typing ball and its mechanism) would not move past them. If you wanted to finish a word that went one character past the margin, you hit Mar Rel so that it would let you past just this once.

I’m serious.

The Tab worked much as it does today, except that it relied upon ‘tab stops’ which one set wherever one wanted to indent. Typical was five spaces in from the left margin, for para indents, but one could set more tab stops. As the web came along, this morphed into a way to cycle through links and fields, as one does now on a fillable PDF or online form.

I don’t even remember how we got [brackets] on the 1. On the number keys, of course, we got the symbols instead by holding down the Shift key–not different from now. For the alphabet, of course, that’s how we did upper case on a letter-by-letter basis. To get italics, we had to change out the ball, which was easy enough but tedious to do very often–if, of course, one had a ball with italic type of the same style. I never did, but I assume they existed. The Selectric was way ahead of other typewriters because you could change out the ball. Different fonts! Miraculous!

Notice that the shifted 6 is the ¢ sign, which one now has to hunt up in the ASCII character set. Nowadays you get the ^ (caret) for a shifted 6. The caret was unknown on the electric typewriter.

See the with the _ above it? Since we didn’t have italics or bold, by and large, we did emphasis using the underbar. We typed the text, backspaced to where we wanted to start underlining, and held down Shift and the hyphen. In both its forms, that key was one of the machinegun keys–if you held it down, it kept striking until you let up (as all modern computer keys seem to do). Very good when you wanted to underline a whole sentence. I do not remember the full inventory of machinegun keys from that era, but my hands would remember them. If you held down a key that was not a machinegun key, it typed its symbol once and did nothing further.

Backspace backed you up one space without deleting anything. In effect, it was the left arrow key. To delete something, you either painted it with white-out, or put tape over it or slipped in a sort of white carbon paper, and re-struck the key. Since photocopies cost $0.10 each in 1978 dollars (minimum wage was about $2.20 or so per hour; imagine if copies cost about $0.40 now), we used carbon paper, or ditto machines. Some forms still use carbons, mostly in government. Of course, if you made a mistake, you’d have to fix it on all the carbons. Sensibly, Backspace was a machinegun key.

Index has vanished as a concept. What did that thing do? It turned the carriage roller–advancing the paper one line–without returning the carriage to the left margin. It was more precise than turning the roller by hand, since the roller could be turned less than a full line. It clicked as one turned it, unless one released the catch that kept it in synch–then it rolled smoothly with nothing keeping it in horizontal alignment. Do that, and you would have a hell of a time getting it back into perfect alignment.

On the second row, notice that the ! has its own key, which shifted to °. For years, typewriter manufacturers varied on what symbol belonged with the number 1. (We obviously did not have a separate number pad, arrows, num lock, or accompanying mathematical operators. Had the number pad not come along early in the computer world, I’m not sure what accountants would have done. Seppuku, perhaps.) In any case, this is where IBM was putting the exclamation point on this model of the Selectric.

Return has become the Enter key, but you still hear people call it by the old name; early in the PC days, it retained that label. That was an important key because it advanced the roller one line and ran the carriage back to the left margin; one did it at the end of each line. On manual typewriters, this was truly manual. They had a bar one grabbed and ran the carriage back with physical effort. As word processors came along, we got the soft return and the hard return as concepts. Soft returns change positions with margin, font, etc. changes. A hard return says: “Start a new para no matter what.” Novice authors usually clutter their mss with loose hard returns. You’d be amazed how many create these awesome title pages (which should have been their very last act, not their first) and use a bunch of hard returns to center the title rather than use the software’s functions correctly.

Some writers don’t know how to tab or indent. They instead just hit the space bar five times. Dirty secret of editing: when I first begin to edit a ms, I clean up all the incontinent extra hard returns littering the place. I then do a global search and replace for two spaces with one, which fixes all the archaic and novice misuses of two spaces. Except that sometimes it’s ten spaces. I re-run the S&R until it makes no corrections. Even dirtier editing secret: I judge my client’s word processing software usage competence by the quantity of loose spaces and hard returns. If there are a lot of these, I know that my client doesn’t really understand much about document creation’s technical details. She may be a superb writer, but that’s not coupled to her user level on software. I’ve had clients come out and call themselves techno-doofuses, even those whose uses of English were at high levels.

This affects me because clients generally expect me to provide them with free Word tech support, especially with regard to tracking changes. I dread this; since this feature is central to my work, I don’t really have a choice. If they can’t use it, they can’t process my efforts efficiently, but it’s also hard to make people understand that I am not necessarily seeing what they see and can’t always just walk them through changes. The only place where I flat decline is typesetting; i.e. finishing the document. I don’t know the software well enough to help with that, it is beyond my scope, and I may punt.

The Clr/Set rocker was how we set our tab stops. The On/Off rocker is self-explanatory. When typing, things were clackety-clack noisy; when not typing, there was a quiet whirring hum.

The Lock you see at left, third row, is the caps lock. Num lock and scroll lock came along with computers.

Shift, of course, got us the upper case or other shifted character outcome. We needed one on each side because we were coached to station our fingers on the home row: asdf jkl; . Thus, if you wanted an A, your right hand did the shifting. If you wanted a P, your left pinky held down shift (if you were doing it exactly as taught). My high school had a yearbook advisor who had lost an arm in some accident, and having two Shifts must have been pivotal for him.

They called it the Space Bar because that’s what we used it for, much as now: advance the carriage one space without any image. Except there’s a big difference that I don’t think a majority of computer users grasp. While the space looks to people like an absence of something, to a computer jock or sophisticated user, it’s a character. It has more in common with an ñ or F or ^ than with nothingness. When you hit the space bar now, you type a character; it just happens to be a blank character.

We did not have: Esc, Ctrl, Alt, any of the F keys, `/~, \ / | (the backslash and vertical bar, in case that looks weird), Ins, Home, PgUp, PgDn, Del, End, Pause, or the stupid Windows keys I always pop off my keyboards. A typist circa 1975 would have wondered what in hell all those weird keys did.

“Pause? It pauses any time I do nothing. I don’t need a key for that!”

“PgDn? Page down, you mean? That’ll just spit the current sheet out. Pointless.”

“Esc? I’d like to escape, all right; I’d like to escape back into what I know, which isn’t this.”

Thing is, the transition happened by degrees and with variations before the advent of the 84-key keyboard (had only ten function keys, arrayed at left; combined directional keys with number pad). Only portables, then laptops had the number pad mushed into the main keyboard (which sucked then and sucks now). Each time there has been change, it has taken time to absorb. Some have made sense, but some have made none.

In any case, if you’re looking at a fiftysomething, now you see where he or she learned to type. And that fiftysomething probably learned on an electric typewriter; imagine the heckling he or she took from the die-hard manual typewriter oldsters as to how easy it was now.

I assure you of this: I completed a degree in history, resulting in a stack of term and other papers an inch and a half thick. And I typed every one of them three times (at least) on an electric typewriter. There actually was college before an Internet, and you’d be surprised how much we managed to learn without the ability to google anything.

Tree topplers

Ever since I was a kid helping decorate the tree (and the one year where my toddler sibling and myself had the misapprehension that ornaments were meant to be stomped into the carpet for fun and noise; our parents issued correction), tree toppers have struck me as stupid. Not because the idea is stupid, but because none of them fricking work. They all assume the top of a tree to be ramrod-firm and straight, capable of supporting an ornament. I call them tree topplers because what they mostly do is fall over and piss me off.

This year, I finally did something about it.

We use a plastic tree (we don’t really need to kill one and clean up a lot of fir needles) and it already has integrated lights. Just like a real tree, its tip sucks for a tree topper. This year I threw away our old one, which I remembered only as a source of pissing-me-off; it was the kind where the insertion hole was a sort of spring, which sounds like a great idea until you try to use it for real.

First, I went out and got a new topper–I didn’t even care how heavy it was–with a straight-up hole in the base rather than a spring. I then bought a dowel that fit the hole, and cans of spray paint: black, forest green, and flat clear. I already owned spring-loaded clamps in great surplus and could easily dedicate two to solving this annoyance for me forever.

Then I spray-painted dowel and clamps green, let it dry, and added a mottling of black splotches. On the clamps’ rubber tips and handles, the paint was very tacky even when fully dry. The flat clear coat changed that. I sprayed every cranny I could hit with it.

When it was all dry, I brought the dowel in, put it on the back side of the ‘tree’s’ ‘trunk’ with the top near where I wanted the topper, and clamped it to the ‘trunk’ from behind. On with the topper. It fits perfectly, stays straight, is at zero risk of falling off unless the whole thing goes over (for example, someone sets off fireworks and our miniature schnauzer decides that his fate depends upon burrowing into its lower branches), and looks great. The clamps and dowel blend in well. You have to look twice to notice anything special about the topper.

Nearly fifty Christmases of irritation, problem at long last addressed. If you have experienced the same irritation, this post is your Christmas present. Happy topping.

Ho ho ho.

This, by the way, is available for $100 at Gorilla Goodies.

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