The irresistable allure of the politically incorrect wisecrack

Sometimes I just can’t help myself; I just blurt out something politically incorrect. But in my defense, I have to point out that the straight lines served up to me sometimes make the snarky retort almost irresistible.

Take the morning news a few weeks ago. A morning news show had a story about placing famous women on various denominations of U.S. currency. The female news anchors were positively giddy about the prospect, making it sound as world-shaking as a cure for cancer. They went on about how “historic” it would be, ignoring the fact that Martha Washington got there first in the 1800s.

Martha Washington was the only woman to appear on a U.S. currency note, and that was in the 1800s.

Finally, one of them ended the segment by saying “So you men look out; women will soon be filling your wallets!”

To which I replied out loud, “That will be a nice switch; usually they empty them.”

My wife just shook her head, but I could see that she was laughing, too.

Gobsmacking the reader

Someone, in fact several people, have said that there are only a few basic plots in any story; boy meets girl, the quest, the hero’s journey, revenge, etc. So why do people read fiction? One reason is for the surprise; the twist; the unexpected development. The “didn’t see that one coming” moment.

In my series, the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries, I like to surprise the reader by setting up a scene in where the reader sits back and expects things to play out a certain predictable way, but something startlingly unexpected occurs. The Brits call this “gobsmacking”. (Gotta love the versatility of the English language) One way I like to do this is by having a character introduce a completely unexpected perspective. In Death and the Blind Tiger, Allison Hurlock gets invited to the Algonquin round table in New York by Dorothy Parker and is dazzled by the New York literati in all their quipping, acid-tounged glory. For magazine writer and aspiring author Allison, this is heady stuff, and she tells husband Max how she wants to be accepted by these famous and clever people. The next day she returns early to the Algonquin Hotel dining room, anxious to ingratiate herself with her heroes. At this point, the reader assumes the rest of the scene will consist of Allison trying to be accepted, but that’s not what happens. A waiter appears and is visibly concerned when she says she wants to sit at the round table. He tells her how self centered and cruel the round table denizens can be, then apologizes.

“Well, I’m afraid I’ve spoken out of turn,” the waiter continued, blushing slightly. “Of course you can be seated there if you want. I just thought you didn’t seem like one of them. I know people, you see. After a while you get a sense about people in this job. I can tell you have a kind heart, and I guess I was just trying to keep you away from people that don’t. I’m sorry.”

Allison watches him go, decides she doesn’t want to be like those shallow people, then turns and leaves.

 

In Death in Unlikely Places, Max teams up with a reluctant local sheriff in Florida and they pass a labor gang of black men supervised by overseers on horse back. By this time, it is clear that the chief is not happy to have Max along, and the reader expects some stereotypical southern-sheriff-meets-Yankee-outsider-and-tells-him-how-things-are dialogue. (After all, this is the 1920s) Instead, Sheriff Atley is genuinely outraged and grumbles about unscrupulous labor contractors taking advantage of local blacks. He tells Max how he once let a fugitive escape after giving him five dollars. Max is amazed.

“And don’t you be telling anybody,” said Atley. “I got a reputation to keep up.”

“I don’t see how a sense of justice is necessarily a handicap for a lawman,” said Max.

“You’d be surprised. I been a cop since I got out of high school. It’s all I ever wanted to be, but I wanted to chase criminals, not victims. If that means looking the other way once in a while, well…”

Max smiled. “Sheriff, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”

 

Maybe the best example of gobsmacking the reader occurs in Death at the Lighthouse, where Allison is researching an article on spiritualism and attending seances. She is amazed by the ghostly manifestations she witnesses with local medium Madam De Sousa, until she encounters Houdini himself (it all makes sense in the book) who explains the simple conjuring tricks involved. Feeling she has been hoodwinked by the obviously fake medium, Allison confronts Madam DeSousa. The reader, expecting a storm of Allison’s righteous indignation, expects either a shouting match or the wilting of Madam DeSousa, but that’s not what happens. When Allison accuses Madam DeSousa of being a fake, the medium coolly replies, “Is that so bad?”

“Of course it is!” Allison answers. “It’s fraud.”

Madam DeSousa then shows Allison a book with a list of her clients, explaining the terrible heartache each is experiencing and how desperate they were to contact deceased loved ones for some sort of closure. Madam DeSousa then states her case.

“Allison, you are right. I am a fake. I use tricks and psychology to bring comfort to people that are crying out for it. I give them closure so they can live the rest of their lives in peace. I know they are not really in communication with their loved ones, but who would tell them that? Would you have the heart to crush someone’s hopes by telling them there is no real way to communicate with the dead? So I ask you once more; is what I do so bad?”

“But you make money off of other people’s misery.”

“No, Allison. I make money relieving other people’s misery. Isn’t that what a doctor does?”

“A doctor cures people…”

“And so do I. My clients come to me crushed and distraught, and they leave with peace of mind they could get nowhere else….. If you expose me, where will the people in that book go for relief? Who will sooth them in the depths of their grief? Who will help fill the terrible void in their hearts?”

Now the reader may not fully buy the medium’s justification for her deceptions, but it is certainly a different and unexpected perspective, and this gobsmacking, I hope, makes the reader think a bit.

After all, why read anything if you can’t expand your mind a bit?

Haitian salvation

If you lived in Haiti in the late 1930s, you might be excused from being concerned about the rest of the world; you had plenty of troubles of your own. The Americans had occupied the place since 1915 and had only departed in 1935 after fighting a long guerrilla war with local insurgents. The poverty, corruption, disease, and struggling economy remained, punctuated by the occasional hurricane or earthquake. To make matters worse, if that was possible, the world was in the grips of the Great Depression. What Haitian had the time, energy, or resources to even think about helping anyone else? And who could possibly need help as badly as the Haitians themselves?

There was one group in even more desperate straits than the Haitians, however, the Jews in Nazi Germany. The German government was steadily turning the screws on their Jewish citizens, making their lives unbearable and moving towards mass murder. Jews were desperate to escape Germany, but the Nazis would not let them leave.

As bad as things were for the Haitians, no one was trying to exterminate them, but they had plenty of their own problems to deal with. Still, Haiti has always been an unpredictable place, and they were about to pull yet another surprise.

In Haiti, Gontrand Rouzier, a Haitian lawyer and Rafael Brouard, the mayor of Port au Prince collaborated with both the Haitian government and a handful  of local Jewish families to provide financial support and Haitian passports  to some 70 Jewish families and facilitate their emigration, saving some 300 people from the Nazis. About half of these emigres came to Haiti and the others used their Haitian documents to escape to other countries. Some the refugees who came to Haiti remained there, but most ultimately went to New York because the Haitian laws and license fees made economic survival in Haiti almost as hard as in Nazi Germany. But at least they were alive.

Over 70 years later, after the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010, Israeli medical and aid teams traveled over 6,000 miles to  Haiti to come to the aid of the Haitians as the Haitians had once come to the aid of European Jews.

Refugee Bill Mohr and sister Ruth in Port au Prince, 1938

Bill and Harriet Mohr

Bill Mohr today, with wife Harriett-  He has a blog about the survivors and started the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project to document and remember that time.

How stereotypes get started

In our politically-correct world, we are constantly admonished against the use of stereotypes. Even positive stereotypes such as assuming a Jewish person is good with money or an Asian person is good with math are offensive, we are told. Why anyone would be offended by being assumed to be good with money or math is never explained.

The dirty little secret of stereotypes is that many are based, at least to some extent, on observation. Different cultures develop different habits or values and these habits or values surface in their interactions with others. Here is a case in point. French people or, at least French-speaking cultures, have the reputation for being epicures and placing a high value of food and food preparation. Surely the fussy and perfectionist French chef is one of the oldest stereotypes, but is it based on fact? Well, maybe.

Several years ago, we traveled to a waterfront area in Maine, and stayed at a popular tourist motel. Because of the hotel’s proximity to the Canadian border, The clientele seemed to be evenly divided between Americans and French-Canadians from Quebec. (As evidenced by the license plates on the guests’ cars.) A central grassy area was equipped with picnic tables and barbecue grills for the guests to prepare basic outdoor meals. When dinner time came, the Americans broke out hot dogs and hamburgers for the grill and some beer and soft drinks in coolers, and let it go at that. Many didn’t even go that far, and sat at the picnic tables munching pizza out of cardboard boxes, or Big Macs out of a fast-food bag.

The French-Canadians, however, had other ideas of what roughing it should entail. They had come equipped. They covered their picnic tables with checkered tablecloths and candles and started unpacking china plates, silverware, and an impressive  selection of wine bottles and long-stemmed wine glasses. Next came fondue pots, crepe pans, portable ovens, and an assortment of kitchen accouterments. Within minutes, the French-Canadians were in a Gaelic frenzy of preparing and cooking a variety of fragrant dishes. Soon, they were dining on shrimp, sauteed vegetables, soups, various grilled meats, cheeses, bread, fruit, and several types of freshly mixed sauces, all by candlelight and all accompanied by the appropriate wines. It was like someone had torn the roof off the Four Seasons to expose the diners within. Julia Child would have been proud. And this was practically a campground!

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Flash forward to a few weeks ago in the Canadian part of the 1000 Islands. We were in a boat tied to a dock at Gordon Island, part of the Canadian National Parks. There was no running water, and no electricity. The boat on the other side of the dock had a couple from Montreal and their daughter. Dinner time came and the same thing happened. There on a wooden picnic table on a dock floating on the St Lawrence in the shade of the pine trees appeared a tablecloth, china and silverware, wine bottles and glasses, and portable cookers of various types until the table groaned under the weight of freshly prepared delicacies. (Meanwhile, we enjoyed our hot dogs)

So is the idea that French-speaking people are very particular about the enjoyment of food and fine dining just a stereotype? Maybe, but you couldn’t prove it by us.

Bon appetit!

Where do you get your ideas?

Sooner or later, everyone who writes anything beyond a grocery list will be asked “Where do you get your ideas?” Since I write about history, I get most ideas from reading or finding something that makes me want to know more. I wrote Master Detective after reading a brief blurb about Ellis Parker in The People’s Almanac, Evasive Action after seeing a History Channel show about the capture of the U-110, and Nassau after stumbling of the ruins of the Royal Victoria Hotel while on vacation in the Bahamas.

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But probably the oddest inspiration was The Duckworth Chronicles, a children’s book inspired by an unsuccessful effort to name a thrift shop. Several years ago, a group of people in St Michael’s, Maryland were planning on opening a thrift shop and were trying to decide on a name. Since St Michaels is associated with the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay, I thought some sort of duck theme might be appropriate, so I came up with a back story of a local duck who had his own wildlife preserve as a result of saving the life of a wealthy local widow. (It actually makes more sense than it sounds. He squawks and wakes her up when a fire starts in her kitchen.) I thought the story could be that the duck actually owns the shop and stops by occasionally. The story would be posted along with pictures of the duck, and I thought the tourists would find it charming. The duck needed a classy name that spoke of both wealth and good taste, so I named him Duckworth. The story concludes by saying that Duckworth was made an honorary member of the St Michaels Volunteer Fire Department, but rumors that Duckworth was running for mayor of St Michaels are probably exagerrated.

 

Alas, the ladies of the town opted to name the place Treasure Cove instead, and the Duckworth legend was not to be….or so it seemed. At the same time, I had two small granddaughters who were always clamoring for stories, so I told them about Duckworth. Soon, they were asking for more Duckworth stories and of course, I had to deliver. So Duckworth was born and started to spread his imaginary wings with a stream of new adventures. In addition to humor, I incorporated some morals into the stories, mostly examples of Duckworth keeping his head while the other animals went off on tangents. I also tried to put some hidden chuckles in the stories that only adults would understand, such as a crustacean named Buster Crabb, a “racing” turtle named Shelby, a sneaky duck named Cheesy Quacker, an insect named Buzz Bee Berkeley, and Canadian Geese who tell Duckworth to “Keep his stick on the ice.”

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Finally, I had so many stories, I put them in a book, The Duckworth Chronicles, and later into three eBooks, The Duckworth Papers, The Duckworth Dossier, and Duckworth Redux.

And all because of a thrift shop.

 

Of Galleons and Guitars

Back in the 1600s, Spain was pretty much looting the New World. Galleons would sail for Spain in convoys loaded down with gold and silver extracted from the Aztecs and the Incas. These fleets, called Plate Fleets after the Spanish word for silver, also carried people, supplies and trade goods, but it was the return journey with the treasure that really paid the bills. With so much wealth literally floating about, the Spanish government naturally had to and make sure they got their cut. Accordingly, the Spanish Crown came out with a blizzard of paperwork regulating every aspect of the trade, including scheduling, accounting, permits, and exactly how the cargo was to be divvied up, all assuring the King got his piece of the action. The penalties for irregularities were severe, so, among the sailors, Conquistadors, and assorted adventurers on these voyages, each expedition carried a clerk/inspector whose sole job was keeping track of the paperwork, the permissions, the licenses, and the disposition of the cargo to make sure all the mountain of regulations were being obeyed. No doubt it was a full time job. (Monty Python’s famous sketch of swashbuckling seagoing chartered accountants comes to mind.)

Big Island Chronicle | Island Art — A Spanish Galleon Sights ...

Today, most of us are familiar with the extensive reporting and coding requirements of Medicare, and some insurance companies. Even small family practitioners now have been forced to create an office position for someone to keep track of all the intricacies of modern government regulations and requirements. Of course, many people find it necessary to hire a service to help with the thicket of income tax regulations each year as well. These are annoyances of modern life we have come to accept grudgingly, but we may not be aware of just how much is involved in simply figuring out just what is required and keeping one step ahead of regulatory demands in the business world. I was reminded of this the other day when I went on a tour of a local guitar factory.

The Paul Reed Smith Guitar company is the third largest guitar manufacturer in America, and uses a combination of modern production techniques, innovative design features, and meticulous craftsmanship to produce guitars that are not only superb musical instruments, but works of art as well. At one point, I asked the tour guide about the infamous Gibson Guitar raid of 2011. Gibson Guitar’s Memphis factory was raided by a 30 man SWAT team from Homeland Security and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Didn’t know Fish and Wildlife had a SWAT team, did you? For that matter, why is Homeland Security chasing domestic guitar  manufacturers?)

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Government protecting you against undocumented wood. Note the sidearms.

The raiders said they had a warrant, but said it was “sealed” and could not be seen. They herded the employees outside, shut down the factory, and carted off half a million dollar’s worth of wood and guitars as “evidence”. When the dust settled, Gibson was told they were in violation of an old law against importing endangered animals that had recently been amended to include plants and wood. At issue was some mahogany imported from Madagascar whose documentation was apparently suspect.  It was the old “Your papers are not in order” routine. Gibson claimed the wood in question was actually from India, but documenting each individual strip of wood was difficult. After years of wrangling and leaks to the press, thousands in lost income from the factory shutdown, and mounting legal fees, Gibson was forced to settle by paying a fine of $250,000 and make a $50,000 “contribution” to an environmental activist group !!!! (No word on whether this was the same activist group that lobbied to have the law expanded in the first place.)

Although the alleged violation was apparently serious enough to warrant a SWAT raid and $300,000 in fines, no charges were ever filed, and the confiscated  guitars and suspect wood were all returned to Gibson. Apparently there was no endangered wood there after all, but the ransom still had to be paid. Gibson got a tiny measure of revenge by using the returned wood to build a line of guitars they called their “Government series” ! The full story  is here.

Back to my conversation at the PRS plant: The PRS person said they were well aware of the Gibson case and in response, had employed a full time person to continuously monitor the laws, permits, documentation and all the complex regulatory requirements that go with making a product that incorporates exotic woods. Think about that a moment; a full time person just to keep the SWAT teams from  the door. It’s the Spanish Plate Fleet all over again, with the threat of  the Spanish Inquisition thrown in.

... Guitars PRS Private Stock Paul's Guitar #40, Copperhead Burst

PRS Guitar

And wood is not the only regulatory pitfall. PRS has stopped using Ivory for the tiny fretboard bird inlays on its lower end models, and has gone to plastic. African elephant Ivory is illegal, of course, but Mammoth Ivory from old Mammoth tusks that PRS used, is completely legal. The problem was providing documentation to be able to prove that every tiny piece of ivory on every location on every fingerboard was not the wrong sort. It just wasn’t practical, so plastic is now used.

PRS have come up with a variation of their bird-inlays for the ...

Abalone inlays

Guitar Custom Collection | The page for guitar pro's

Plastic inlays

The upshot of this story is that there is a hidden cost of regulation as time, energy, and resources that could have been applied to improving products or services, or  lowering prices, are diverted to defensive regulatory compliance. When regulatory laws are written, it seems doubtful anyone takes these hidden costs into account, but as long as regulatory agencies have the power to demand exorbitant fines for unproven, and even unfounded charges, this will continue.

A blast from the past

If someone asked if you’d like to “fire Brown Bess”, you might wonder exactly who Brown Bess is and what she did to  deserve being fired…especially since she’s such a big shot. That’s right; Brown Bess is a firearm. Specifically, the famous Tower musket, a muzzle loading flintlock that was the standard weapon of the British armed forces from 1722 to 1838.  It was simple, rugged, and deadly. At .75 caliber, it threw a chunk of lead almost the size of a marble, and woe to anyone who got in front of it. So what was it like to actually fire one of these cannons? Well, now you can find out.

At Colonial Williamsburg, you can now fire one of these historical monsters yourself  instead of just watching reinactors do it. For a fee, instructors will take you to the range and instruct you on the loading, handling, and firing of the Brown Bess, along with a somewhat smaller hunting piece. You get about 10 shots at paper targets, and the right to brag that you are one of the few modern day people to have fired a flintlock.

Of course, it’s not quite the same experience that the old  British redcoat had. Aside from the fact that no one was shooting back, you have to wear eye protection, sound deadening “Micky Mouse ears”, plus a very baggy and garish colonial overshirt to protect against sparks and black powder residue. These babies are messy. The instructors all had small holes burned in their sleeves.

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The modern shooter with eye protection, and ear protection. The very ugly shirt is supposed to protect against sparks and black powder burns, but the way I shot, I think it was so no one would recognize me.

The first thing you notice is just how heavy the blasted thing is, and how long. Once the musket is loaded, primed, and cocked, you aim and fire. There is a slight delay, then the powder in the pan goes off in a blinding flash and a puff of smoke, then the slug is on its way. For such a big caliber, there isn’t much of a kick, possibly because of the weight. Accuracy, however, proves elusive, thanks to the smooth bore of the barrel,the time delay between trigger pull and firing, and my no-longer-young eyes.

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the musket is firing or exploding.

Anyway, it was a great experience for anyone who wants to feel a little closer to history. So how did I do? Well, if I am ever attacked by paper targets, I will be in big trouble.