Outreach

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.

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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.

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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.

The Conquistador who became a Mayan war chief

The great thing about history is how weird it can be; how the most unlikely story can turn out to be true. I just released a book based on one of the strangest true stories you are ever likely to hear; the story of Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero was shipwrecked on the coast of the Yucatan in 1511 and captured by the Maya, and struggled to survive and avoid the sacrificial stone.

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After a hazardous struggle to survive in this bizarre and bloody new land, he became a Mayan warrior and married a Mayan woman, the beautiful and clever Zazil Ha. But several years later, other Spaniards arrived bent on conquest, and Guerrero was forced to choose between his new family and the land of his birth. Where does his loyalty lie; to his relatives and family in Spain, or to his Mayan wife and her people, now facing death or enslavement at the hands of the Conquistadors? If he abandons Zazil Ha and returns to the Spaniards, he will be treated as a hero; if he remains, he will become a renegade.
He made his choice….and made history.
Based on the true story, The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero plunges the reader into the dangerous and alien world of the Maya, and the tragic story of the Spanish conquest; a struggle between two worlds that only one could survive.The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero is written from Guerrero’s point of view and answers questions about him that have been asked for centuries. Here is the link.

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Update: Here is a review from Readersfavorite.com

and here is the video trailer

Ghost fleet

Just down the Potomac River below Washington and across from the Quantico Marine Base is a shallow indentation in the Maryland shore line called Mallows Bay. If you look at a satellite image of Mallows Bay, you’ll be struck by what looks like several dozen sunken ship’s hulls just at or below the surface. So what’s the deal? Is it an enemy submarine fleet lying in wait to attack D.C.? You can tell this has to have a weird story behind it, and you’d be right.

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When the US entered WW1, we needed a big increase in shipping capacity and we needed it in a hurry. With so much steel going to the war effort elsewhere, someone came up with the idea of constructing wooden ships to take up he slack. So a big wooden shipbuilding program began and the ships, mostly of 4,000-8,000 ton capacity, started coming off the ways. But the war ended and the ships soon became orphans no one knew what to do with. Over 200 ships of various sizes were sold to a private company for the scrap metal they contained. The company anchored the ships in the Potomac and towed them one by one to a yard where the metal was stripped. Each hull was then taken back and burned to the waterline so that some of the embedded fittings could be removed. But the ships were considered a nuisance and a danger to navigation, so the company bought the land surrounding Mallows Bay and moved the fleet there. The burning and salvaging continued until scrap prices collapsed. The company stopped salvage operations and locals took up the slack, stripping whatever fittings they could carry away. In the 1930s, scrap metal became more valuable and at least some of the stripped fittings found their way to Japan, where they no doubt were later returned in the form of bombs and torpedoes.

Through the years, the hulks, now resting on the bottom to prevent drifting, were being colonized by vegetation and various critters. A lot of political struggling went on  between those who who wanted the eyesores removed and those who thought stirring up the bottom would cause environmental problems. So the hulls remained and today resemble a series of wooded islands as they slowly return to nature.

Carrying the torch

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The history-loving crowd at the Captain Avery Museum

History is always with us, whether we know it or not, because history isn’t so much about what people did as about what people do. The past can give us a better understanding of the present, so it is always encouraging to find people and institutions keeping the past alive and accessible. Such a place is the Captain Avery Museum in Shady Side, Maryland, near Annapolis. Housed in a Chesapeake Bay waterman’s house that was later used as a weekend retreat for a Jewish organization, the museum hosts a series of luncheon lectures in the winter months.I was honored to be the first speaker of this year’s series and gave a presentation based on my book Death at the LIghthouse. This was a wonderful event, full of nice folks with a taste for history (and for the great food that was served.) Everyone was enthusiastic about the tales of rumrunners, bootleggers, murder, and mystery on the Chesapeake Bay. (Not to mention the flappers!) It was a bit crowded, with almost 100 people rubbing elbows, but it was more like a family, sort of the Waltons on steroids. A good and historic time was had by all.

Getting it wrong: The menace of the quilted uniforms

In the fall of 1950, the allied forces, mostly American, had defeated the Communist North Korean invaders of South Korea and pushed them farther and farther north towards the Chinese border. The Chinese, viewed this development with alarm and crossed the border with over 100,000 troops. The Chinese overwhelmed the South Koreans and the Americans, setting off a panicked Allied retreat south. The Chinese then surrounded about 30,000 Marines and Army troops at the Chosin Reservoir, setting off one of the most brutal battles in U.S. history. After weeks of hard and constant fighting in subzero temperatures, the Allies fought their way out of the encirclement, leaving thousands of Chinese dead on the frozen ground around them.

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Chinese Peoples Army soldier, 1950- Note the shoes. The rifle appears to be a Russian  Mosin-Nagant, or possibly a war surplus Japanese Arisaka. Both were bolt action weapons that were no match for the American semi-automatic M-1.

Before they broke out, however, the Marines and Army troops suffered terribly from the brutal cold, with frostbite almost as feared as the Chinese. The American press often regards America’s adversaries as inferior when they are losing, and as supermen when they are winning. They picked up the idea that the reason for the initial success of the Chinese was that they were somehow immune, or at least better acclimated to the sub zero temperatures because they were from Manchuria and were better prepared because they wore “quilted uniforms.” The quilted uniforms meme became an accepted fact in many of the press reports at the time and even in some books on the subject, and a reader would be forgiven  for thinking “Why didn’t we think of that?” The truth, however, is quite different. The fact is that, compared to the Americans, the Chinese were poorly equipped for operations in northern Korea in the winter.

The Chinese wore quilted winter uniforms because they were relatively simple and cheap to produce. They were warm enough, but were slow to dry out if they became wet. (This could easily prove fatal in winter conditions.) Instead of waterproof insulated boots as the Americans had, the Chinese wore rubber and canvas shoes resembling tennis shoes. Needless to say, tennis shoes provide almost no protection against the cold, and the incidence of frostbitten feet was far higher among the Chinese than the Americans. In addition, the Chinese had no sleeping bags and even very few gloves. The Americans also rigged up warming tents, and the Chinese didn’t. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Chinese were seldom able to evacuate their wounded due to their primitive transport and American air power.

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Chinese POWs

The result of all these shortcomings was frightful. Chinese sources estimate that as much as 90% of their troops suffered some degree of frostbite, not just in the feet or hands but in entire arms and legs. Many froze to death in their vastly overrated quilted uniforms. Overall, even though individual Chinese soldiers might possibly have had good resistance to cold weather, the People’s Liberation Army was woefully unprepared for the conditions in which it fought, and the foot soldier paid the price. The reason for their initial success was surprise, overwhelming numbers and a disregard for their own soldiers’ lives. In the end, that wasn’t enough. The U.S. Marines and Army lost about 3,000 killed at Chosin Reservoir, while the Chinese dead numbered about 35,000 . Seven Chinese divisions were crippled or destroyed.

So, once again, it’s a good idea to take early breathless press reports with skepticism.

“Don’t be humble; you’re not that great”…..Golda Meir

If you are in a position where you manage or supervise others, you can be justly proud of your accomplishment, and  that you have been entrusted with that responsibility. But never assume you are necessarily smarter than those you supervise. If you do, you might just get a reminder. Consider this conversation I overheard at a local office supply store.

Supervisor: “Would you look at this? I just found a box of business cards we printed up for somebody and they never picked them up. What’s more, there’s no paperwork with them. It got lost.”

Employee: “Those things are all paid for in advance. Why don’t we give the person a call and tell them to come pick up the cards?”

Supervisor: “Didn’t you hear me say there was no paperwork? We don’t have any record of the person’s name or phone number. We have no idea who ordered the cards or how to contact them.”

Employee: “They’re business cards. They have the person’s name and phone number on every one.”

Supervisor: (blushing slightly) “Oh…er…right. I’ll give them a call.”