The Blessings of Socialism

I think it was P.J. O’Rourke who, writing of the relative backwardness of East Germany, asked what sort of a system is so bad it can make a nation of Germans unproductive. Well, East Germany is just a bad memory now, but there is one artifact that gives a pretty good idea of just what socialism did to that country.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. has a section of the Berlin Wall on display, and with it, a concrete East German guard tower. The idea of the tower, of course, was to give guards a vantage point from which they could shoot anyone trying to escape the “worker’s paradise” and get to West Berlin. The tower is about three stories high and has three levels inside until you get to the top level where the guards are stationed, but here is the telling detail; there are no stairways!


Berlin Wall-East German side: drab gray concrete for a drab gray regime


Berlin Wall-West German side: Graffiti and artwork


East German guard tower with no stairways

No stairways? Then how do the guards get to and from the top level? Well, the procedure was for an officer, or sergeant to accompany each shift change and bring a ladder. He would escort the next shift up to the top one floor at a time, then pull the ladder up and place it to get to the next floor. He would bring the previous shift down the same way in reverse. That way, the men in the tower were stuck there until the next shift.

Why go to all that trouble?….to keep the guards from defecting!

Imagine a system so vile, so oppressive and so dysfunctional that even the guards could not be trusted to tolerate it. That’s communism/socialism for you; it’s not so much a worker’s paradise as a worker’s penitentiary.,

The Critic is your friend (…sort of)

There are many people in this world who have great writing ability, but are unsuited to ever become writers.


That’s right. Because to be a writer, you have to be able to take rejection and criticism. Many would be writers wither at the first rejection or the first encounter with someone who is unimpressed with their work, but this is a mistake. Critics and unfriendly reviewers can be you friend if there’s any sort of consensus. For instance, if just about every review mentions that your characters are wooden, or maybe that you write too much description, you might want to take notice and work on that part of your craft. They can’t ALL be wrong; listen to them.

On the other hand, many one-off comments can be safely ignored with the understanding that if there was anything to it, almost everyone would be saying it. Every writer learns to shrug off frivolous rejection and criticism. After all, even popular works have their critics because different people have different tastes. I once got two rejection letters from two publishers on the same day; one said the work was too unconventional and the other said it was too “mainstream”…and they were professionals!

So some unhappy readers are inevitable, and an unhappy reader is usually the most eager to make his displeasure known on Amazon or some similar public forum. Here’s a little secret that might make it easier: some criticism is worthless and you will never understand it. Here is a case in point….

I haven’t had very many bad reviews, and they are usually of the vague “I didn’t care for it” variety, but recently, I got one that mystified me.

My book The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero has a couple of good reviews, one of which said the book was “brilliant” and “moving” in its depiction of a Spaniard shipwrecked among the Maya and later forced to choose between his Mayan family and the country of his birth. Another said it was “A solid and imaginative story that opens a window onto a vanished civilization.”

But one review rated the book only two out of five stars and said it was “juvenile”, “implausible”, and “politically correct” without giving any actual examples. All right, so he didn’t care for the book; that’s his privilege and you can’t please everyone, but juvenile? The book depicts, among other things, sex, bloodshed, epidemic disease, human sacrifices, treachery, warfare, a rape scene, and slavery. Its characters grapple with culture, religion, duty, loyalty, and the necessity of making hard choices in an imperfect world. Is that what passes for juvenile these days?

As for being implausible, that might possibly apply to various specific actions or plot twists, but the overall plot is based on a true story, and follows the recorded events very closely. If the book is implausible, then so is life.

Finally, we have politically correct. Well, one theme of the book is that the Spaniards were pretty callous and ruthless towards the Indians they conquered, but that is something that is pretty much accepted nowadays. At the same time, I depicted the Maya as advanced in many ways, such as astronomy, mathematics, and writing, but I also showed their  brutality, human sacrifices, constant bloodletting, superstitions, and incessant warfare. At one point, a Spaniard says in exasperation, “Peace? These people have never known peace. When they are not trying to kill us, they are killing each other.” In short, the book never shows a simple view of evil Europeans oppressing saintly and virtuous Indians, so I’m not sure where the political correctness comes in.

So if you are an author, pay attention to your critics….if they are specific, and if they actually make sense.

And now for something completely different

All right; I’m taking a break from blogging about weird historical things and writing in general to indulge in a musical (more or less) interlude about one of the great problems facing mankind. I am speaking, or course, about writer’s block. I was a problem before, but now with untold thousands writing the Great American Novel/thriller/mystery/romance/western/erotica, the problem has grown exponentially. Like the great folk singers of the 1960s, I believe that instead of actually doing something about a problem, it’s so much easier and enjoyable to just sing about it. You get to feel self-righteous without any of the messy work involved in earning it.


What are all these strings for?

So here it is in music video form.

Recently, The Eastern Shore Writers Association held its monthly meeting in Rock Hall, Maryland and asked members to write and perform their own songs. The theme was the Chesapeake Bay, so, naturally, I wrote about something completely unrelated.

The submarine that sank a train

As a result of the atomic bombing or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered without the need for an invasion of the home islands. So in spite of all the battles and struggles across the Pacific, the United States conducted no ground combat operations on the Japanese mainland.

Except one.

The only American ground combat action on the Japanese home islands was conducted by the Navy, and it involved sailors from a U.S. submarine who destroyed a Japanese train.


The submarine USS Barb, commanded by Commander Eugene “Lucky” Fluckey already had a distinguished record of sinking Japanese shipping and warships when, on the night of July 23, 1945, in the bay off of Karafuto, Japan, eight men were put ashore in inflatable boats. Their mission was to set explosive charges to destroy a train on a Japanese rail line that ran  along the coast. This was a very dangerous thing to do and there were plenty of ways for the mission to go wrong. The men got to the tracks and started to place the charge when a train came by in the other direction, causing the team to dive for cover.They places a pressure switch they had fabricated on board, so that the weight of the train on the track would set off the charge. The team headed back to the sub, but the next train appeared while they were still in the inflatable boat. The charge blew up the locomotive and caused the train to pile up behind it. The men reached the sub, that was waiting in dangerously shallow water to get as close to the shore as possible, and the USS Barb made its escape. The USS Barb had a number of other firsts, including being the first sub to deploy rockets in an attack, but nothing was quite like being the only submarine to destroy a train and the only American military unit involved in a ground  combat operation in Japan in WWII.

Getting it wrong again

All right, this is repetitious, but is it too much to ask that highly paid TV news people display at least a rudimentary knowledge of what they talk about? I don’t mean they have to be experts in everything, or display a vast range of detailed knowledge, but at least grasp the basics of things most people should know anyway.

Here is the latest case in point.NBC news this morning made a reference to “the time President Clinton was trying to ban automatic weapons”. This is utter nonsense. Automatic weapons, which  to anyone other than an NBC news anchor means machine guns, have been effectively illegal since the 1930s. Apparently they were referring to the so-called assault weapons ban, which did not actually ban assault rifles. (They were already illegal because actual assault rifles have an automatic firing capacity.)

Whatever your feelings on various gun control issues might be, people will take you a lot more seriously if you give some indication that you actually know what you are talking about…even if you are a TV news reporter.


On March 5, I am doing a talk at the Easton, Maryland library on Mayan Conquistador: The amazing story of Gonzalo Guerrero, based on my new book The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero was a real person, a Spaniard shipwrecked on the then unknown coast of the Yucatan in Mexico in 1511. He was captured by the Maya, but in a few years became a warrior and was married to a Mayan woman. Even more remarkable, he helped the Maya fight back against the other Spaniards when they finally arrived.

The library is putting notices up here and there, and they are sending an announcement to the local newspaper, but I wanted to pitch the talk to people I thought might really be interested in the subject: the local Hispanic community. So how to go about it? Well,  there are three Latin grocery stores in the area and they are heavily patronizer by local Hispanic folks, so I went to two of them today. The owners were very cooperative and let me post the announcement in their windows. Here is one of them.

The notice is the one closest to the left side of the door. latinGroceryI hope this will bring out some people who might have otherwise missed it.

mayarevisedhires cover2

The Queen’s blunder

There are few sure bets in this world, but one thing you can usually count on is that when a government sets out to solve a problem, two things will happen:

1- The problem will not be solved, only distorted.

2- New problems will be caused by the “solution” to the original problem.

Examples abound, (Almost any law with the words “comprehensive” and “reform” in the title is a good candidate) but one that I read about recently is a classic. According to author Charles Mann, in his book 1493, England had a problem with a shortage of farmland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first. One day, the queen, or more likely some-up-and-coming courtier, noticed thousands of empty acres of water-soaked fens, moors and marshlands all over the place. So the full might and majesty of the crown pushed an effort to drain these areas and populate them with sturdy yeoman farmers. The areas were drained and the farmland was created, but soon they noticed that people were dropping dead from Malaria in far greater numbers than before. The hardest hit were those who had moved to the newly created farmland, where the numbers were alarming.


What was going on with this brilliant plan?

It seems that the boggy areas were mostly tidal,and were regularly flushed out by the surging of the water. When the areas were drained, however, the action created stagnant pools that were ideal mosquito nurseries. The mosquitoes bred in record swarms and spread Malaria to the hapless farmers and beyond. According to one source, many of the original Jamestown settlers came from such areas and carried the disease to America with disastrous results. Much later, when improved ways of reclaiming such lands were developed, the problem was brought under control, but the death toll in the meantime was staggering.

Of course, the neither the queen nor anyone else had any idea of what caused Malaria at the time, but that’s the point. Sweeping massive government fixes NEVER have all the necessary information, so keeping “cures” modest in scale, at least at first, is usually the prudent way to go. It keeps the body count down.