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Blood Lines

Author Michael Shaara (1928-1988) is best known for his novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. But Shaara also wrote science fiction.

His father was an immigrant from Italy named “Sciarra,” which a bonehead clerk at Ellis Island recorded phonetically.

A graduate of Rutgers, Shaara was at various times a paratrooper, merchant seaman, police officer, and amateur boxer — who ended up teaching literature at Florida State and writing a lot of memorable stuff.

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Man of Distinction

By Michael Shaara
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1956

The remarkable distinction of Thatcher Blitt did not come to the attention of a bemused world until late in the year 2180. Although Thatcher Blitt was, by the standards of his time, an extremely successful man financially, this was not considered real distinction. Unfortunately for Blitt, it never has been.

The history books do not record the names of the most successful merchants of the past unless they happened by chance to have been connected with famous men of the time. Thus Croesus is remembered largely for his contributions to famous Romans and successful armies. And Haym Solomon, a similarly wealthy man, would have been long forgotten had he not also been a financial mainstay of the American Revolution and consorted with famous, if impoverished, statesmen.

So if Thatcher Blitt was distinct among men, the distinction was not immediately apparent. He was a small, gaunt, fragile man who had the kind of face and bearing that are perfect for movie crowd scenes. Absolutely forgettable. Yet Thatcher Blitt was one of the foremost businessmen of his time. For he was president and founder of that noble institution, Genealogy, Inc.

Thatcher Blitt was not yet 25 when he made the discovery which was to make him among the richest men of his time. His discovery was, like all great ones, obvious yet profound. He observed that every person had a father.

Carrying on with this thought, it followed inevitably that every father had a father, and so on. In fact, thought Blitt, when you considered the matter rightly, everyone alive was the direct descendant of untold numbers of fathers, down through the ages, all descending, one after another, father to son. And so backward, unquestionably, into the unrecognizable and perhaps simian fathers of the past.

This thought, on the face of it not particularly profound, struck young Blitt like a blow. He saw that since each man had a father, and so on and so on, it ought to be possible to construct the genealogy of every person now alive. In short, it should be possible to trace your family back, father by father, to the beginning of time.

And of course it was. For that was the era of the time scanner. And with a time scanner, it would be possible to document your family tree with perfect accuracy. You could find out exactly from whom you had sprung.

And so Thatcher Blitt made his fortune. He saw clearly at the beginning what most of us see only now, and he patented it. He was aware not only of the deep-rooted sense of snobbishness that exists in many people, but also of the simple yet profound force of curiosity.

Who exactly, one says to oneself, was my forty-times-great-great-grandfather? A Roman Legionary? A Viking? A pyramid builder? One of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand? Or was he, perhaps (for it is always possible), Alexander the Great?

Thatcher Blitt had a product to sell. And sell he did, for other reasons that he alone had noted at the beginning. The races of mankind have twisted and turned with incredible complexity over the years; the numbers of people have been enormous.

With thirty thousand years in which to work, it was impossible that there was not, somewhere along the line, a famous ancestor for everybody. A minor king would often suffice, or even a general in some forgotten army. And if these direct ancestors were not enough, it was fairly simple to establish close blood kinship with famous men. The blood lines of Man, you see, begin with a very few people. In all of ancient Greece, in the time of Pericles, there were only a few thousand families.

Seeing all this, Thatcher Blitt became a busy man. It was necessary not only to patent his idea, but to produce the enormous capital needed to found a large organization. The cost of the time scanner was at first prohibitive, but gradually that obstacle was overcome, only for Thatcher to find that the government for many years prevented him from using it. Yet Blitt was indomitable. And eventually, after years of heart-rending waiting, Genealogy, Inc. began operations.

It was a tremendous success. Within months, the very name of the company and its taut slogan, “An Ancestor for Everybody,” became household words. There was but one immediate drawback. It soon became apparent that, without going back very far into the past, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was really the next father in line. The mothers were certain, but the fathers were something else again. This was a ponderable point.

But Blitt refused to be discouraged. He set various electronic engineers to work on the impasse and a solution was found. An ingenious device which tested blood electronically through the scanner — based on the different sine waves of the blood groups — saved the day.

That invention was the last push Genealogy, Inc. was ever to need. It rolled on to become one of the richest and, for a long while, most exclusive corporations in the world.

Yet it was still many years before Thatcher Blitt himself had time to rest. There were patent infringements to be fought, new developments in the labs to be watched, new ways to be found to make the long and arduous task of father-tracing easier and more economical. Hence he was well past sixty when he at last had time to begin considering himself.

He had become by this time a moderately offensive man. Surrounded as he had been all these years by pomp and luxury, by impressive names and extraordinary family trees, he had succumbed at last. He became unbearably name-conscious.

He began by regrouping his friends according to their ancestries. His infrequent parties were characterized by his almost Parliamentarian system of seating. No doubt, all this had been in Thatcher Blitt to begin with — it may well be, in perhaps varying quantities, in all of us — but it grew with him, prospered with him. Yet in all those years he never once inspected his own forebears.

You may well ask, was he afraid? One answers, one does not know. But at any rate, the fact remains that Thatcher Blitt, at the age of 67, was one of the few rich men in the world who did not know who exactly their ancestors had been.

And so, at last, we come to the day when Thatcher Blitt was sitting alone in his office, one languid hand draped vacantly over his brow, listening with deep satisfaction to the hum and click of the enormous operations which were going on in the building around him.

What moved him that day remains uncertain. Perhaps it was that, from where he was sitting, he could see row upon row of action pictures of famous men which had been taken from his time scanners. Or perhaps it was simply that this profound question had been gnawing at him all these years, deeper and deeper, and on this day broke out into the light.

But whatever the reason, at 11:02 that morning, he leaped vitally from his chair. He summoned Cathcart, his chief assistant, and gave him the immortal command.

“Cathcart!” he grated, stung to the core of his being. “Who am I?”

Cathcart rushed off to find out.

There followed some of the most taut and fateful days in the brilliant history of Genealogy, Inc. Father-tracing is, of course, a painstaking business. But it was not long before word had begun to filter out to interested people.

The first interesting discovery made was a man called Blott, in eighteenth century England. (No explanation was ever given for the name’s alteration from Blott to Blitt. Certain snide individuals took this to mean that the name had been changed as a means to avoid prosecution, or some such, and immediately began making light remarks about the Blotts on old Blitt’s escutcheon.) This Blott had the distinction of having been a wineseller of considerable funds.

This reputedly did not sit well with Thatcher Blitt. Merchants, he snapped, however successful, are not worthy of note. He wanted empire builders. He wanted, at the very least, a name he had heard about. A name that appeared in the histories.

His workers furiously scanned back into the past.

Months went by before the next name appeared. In 9th century England, there was a wandering minstrel named John (last name unprintable) who achieved considerable notoriety as a ballad singer, before dying an unnatural death in the boudoir of a lady of high fashion.

Although the details of this man’s life were of extreme interest, they did not impress the old man. He was, on the contrary, rather shaken. A minstrel. And a rogue to boot.

There were shakeups in Genealogy, Inc. Cathcart was replaced by a man named Jukes, a highly competent man despite his interesting family name. Jukes forged ahead full steam past the birth of Christ (no relation). But he was well into ancient Egypt before the search began to take on the nature of a crisis.

Up until then, there was simply nobody. Or to be more precise, nobody but nobodies. It was incredible, all the laws of chance were against it, but there was, actually, not a single ancestor of note. And no way of faking one, for Thatcher Blitt couldn’t be fooled by his own methods.

What there was was simply an unending line of peasants, serfs, an occasional foot soldier or leather worker. Past John the ballad-singer, there was no one at all worth reporting to the old man.

This situation would not continue, of course. There were so few families for men to spring from. The entire Gallic nation, for example, a great section of present-day France, sprang from the family of one lone man in the north of France in the days before Christ. Every native Frenchman, therefore, was at least the son of a king. It was impossible for Thatcher Blitt to be less.

So the hunt went on from day to day, past ancient Greece, past Jarmo, past the wheel and metals and farming and on even past all civilization, outward and backward into the cold primordial wastes of northern Germany.

And still there was nothing. Though Jukes lived in daily fear of losing his job, there was nothing to do but press on. In Germany, he reduced Blitt’s ancestor to a slovenly little man who was one of only three men in the entire tribe, or family, one of three in an area which now contains millions. But Blitt’s ancestor, true to form, was simply a member of the tribe. As was his father before him.

Yet onward it went. Westward back into the French caves, southward into Spain and across the unrecognizable Mediterranean into a verdant North Africa, backward in time past even the Cro-Magnons, and yet ever backward, 30,000 years, 35,000, with old Blitt reduced now practically to gibbering and still never an exceptional forebear.

There came a time when Jukes had at last, inevitably, to face the old man. He had scanned back as far as he could. The latest ancestor he had unearthed for Blitt was a hairy creature who did not walk erect. And yet, even here, Blitt refused to concede.

“It may be,” he howled, “it must be that my ancestor was the first man to walk erect or light a fire — to do something.”

It was not until Jukes pointed out that all those things had been already examined and found hopeless that Blitt finally gave in. Blitt was a relative, of course, of the first man to stand erect, the man with the first human brain. But so was everybody else on the face of the Earth. There was truly nowhere else to explore. What would be found now would be only the common history of mankind.

Blitt retired to his chambers and refused to be seen.

The story went the rounds, as such stories will. And it was then at last, after 40,000 years of insignificance, that the name of Blitt found everlasting distinction. The story was picked up, fully documented, by psychologists and geneticists of the time, and inserted into textbooks as a profound commentary on the forces of heredity.

The name of Thatcher Blitt in particular has become famous, has persisted until this day. For he is the only man yet discovered, or ever likely to be discovered, with this particular distinction.

In 40,000 years of scanner-recorded history, the blood line of Blitt (or Blott) never once produced an exceptional man.

That record is unsurpassed.

Man of Distinction

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Dick Francis.

 

This Just In

MENOMONIE, WISCONSIN — A BASE jumper who parachuted illegally from the top of a cellphone tower ended up calling the police for help after his parachute got caught on a guy wire, leaving him dangling 50 feet in the air.

Police said the 20-year-old man jumped from a 300-foot Charter Communications tower. After his rescue and treatment at a local clinic, he was arrested for criminal trespass.

Note: BASE is an acronym for the most common fixed objects from which the jumpers launch themselves: buildings, antennas, spans, and earth (mountains, cliffs). BASE jumping occasionally is permitted, but most jumps are done illegally by grandstanding knuckleheads.

BASE

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA A 19-year-old female set her apartment on fire while burning love letters from a former boyfriend.

Police said the woman sat on the floor of her bedroom and used a butane torch to burn the stash of letters, then went into another room to take a nap. She woke up later to find the carpet burning.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze, which caused an estimated $4,000 in damage to the building. No injuries were reported.

The woman was cited for negligent burning.

Burn

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — A woman who dreamed she swallowed her engagement ring woke up to discover it actually happened.

The newly-engaged San Diego woman said she dreamed she was aboard a train and was approached by “bad guys” attempting to steal the ring. To thwart them, she swallowed the ring with the help of a glass of water.

When she awoke the next morning and discovered that the ring was missing, she called her fiance. They went to an urgent care clinic, where an X-ray confirmed the location of the ring. An emergency endoscopy retrieved it.

Ring

 

Stink, Stank, Stunk

I present herewith a variation of a beloved holiday classic, with apologies to Theodor Geisel.

The idea of our deplorable and, I’m pleased to say, impeached President as the Grinch is not new. Comparing Trump to the Grinch is obvious and appropriate.

Many Trump versions of the song have popped up over the years, some with updated lyrics (You’re as racist as a Klansman, etc.). That’s fine, but to me, it’s hard to improve on the gleeful sarcasm of the Dr. Seuss original.

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Trump

Trump-Grinch

You’re a mean one, Mr. Trump.
You really are a heel.
You’re as cuddly as a cactus,
You’re as charming as an eel,
Mr. Trump.

You’re a bad banana
With a greasy black peel.

You’re a monster, Mr. Trump.
Your heart’s an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders,
You’ve got garlic in your soul,
Mr. Trump.

I wouldn’t touch you
With a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.

You’re a vile one, Mr. Trump.
You have termites in your smile.
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile,
Mr. Trump.

Given the choice between the two of you,
I’d take the seasick crocodile.

You’re a foul one, Mr. Trump.
You’re a nasty-wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks,
Your soul is full of gunk,
Mr. Trump.

The three words that best describe you
Are as follows, and I quote,
“Stink, stank, stunk.”

You’re a rotter, Mr. Trump.
You’re the king of sinful sots.
Your heart’s a dead tomato
Splotched with moldy, purple spots,
Mr. Trump.

Your soul is an appalling dump-heap,
Overflowing with the most disgraceful
assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,
Mangled-up in tangled-up knots.

You nauseate me, Mr. Trump.
With a nauseous super-naus.
You’re a crooked jerky jockey,
And you drive a crooked horse,
Mr. Trump.

You’re a three-decker sauerkraut
And toadstool sandwich
With arsenic sauce.

Trump with Santa

 

Quotes o’ the Day

We never really grow up. We only learn how to act in public.

— Bryan White

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Whoever is happy will make others happy, too.

— Anne Frank

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Everyone thinks they have the best dog, and none of them are wrong.

— Attributed to W. R. Purche

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A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines.

— Frank Lloyd Wright

White-B

White

Wright-FL

Wright

 

Got it

Please wait

Unplug

Sorry

 

C. Hart Merriam

I’m always impressed by, and more than a little envious of, people who make genuine contributions to society. Most people, including me, and maybe you, are just taking up space. No offense intended; that’s just the way it is.

One such person who left his mark is the naturalist and zoologist C. Hart Merriam (1855-1942). Merriam was born wealthy and well-connected, and he could have settled back and lived a life of indolence and privilege. Instead, he built upon his status, applied himself, and made a difference.

Clinton Hart Merriam was born in New York City, the son of Clinton Levi Merriam, a member of Congress, and Carolyn Hart Merriam, the daughter of a judge. The younger Merriam chose to go by “C. Hart” because his father already had a claim on the name Clinton.

The Merriam family wintered in New York City, but otherwise lived at Locust Grove, an estate in rural Lewis County in upstate New York. Growing up there, young Merriam developed an interest in the natural world.

By the time he was 15, he had learned the basics of taxidermy and amassed a sizable collection of animal specimens. To encourage the boy, his father introduced him to Spencer Baird, a naturalist at the Smithsonian Institution. Impressed by young Merriam’s collection, Baird arranged for him to take professional lessons in taxidermy.

In 1871, when Merriam was 16, Baird appointed him to accompany the Hayden Geological Survey to Wyoming as a naturalist. The Hayden expedition explored the territory that later became Yellowstone National Park.

Merriam returned with hundreds of bird and nest specimens. His report on the trip was his first contribution to scientific literature.

In 1874, at Baird’s urging, Merriam enrolled at Yale University, where he studied anatomy and natural history. While at Yale, he published several scientific papers, including “A Review of the Birds of Connecticut” and, following a trip to Florida with his father, “Ornithological Notes From the South.”

Merriam’s interest in anatomy soon led him to leave Yale and enter medical school at Columbia University. He earned his M.D. degree in 1879 and returned to Locust Grove and Lewis County, where he established a successful medical practice.

Merriam stayed in touch with his naturalist friends and continued to add specimens to his collection. He also began studying mammals as well as birds.

Another interest that surfaced was the question of species distribution — understanding the factors that determine where living things make their homes. Preparing for future study, Merriam hired a clerk to research weather statistics and to document monthly temperatures at different locations and altitudes.

In 1883, a group of scientists created the American Ornithologists’ Union, patterned after a similar British organization. Merriam was elected secretary and treasurer as well as chairman of the committees on Bird Migration and Geographic Distribution.

Merriam’s grand plans for his committees far exceeded the organization’s resources. But Merriam had resources of his own: a father serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and friendships with John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The elder Merriam arranged the creation of an ornithology section within the Department of Agriculture, plus $10,000 annually for a chief ornithologist. In 1886, the younger Merriam was chosen for the job. Through the magic of political connections, he thus transitioned from medical doctor to scientist.

In time, the ornithology section became the Bureau of Biological Survey, which Merriam headed for 25 years. In 1940, it evolved into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1886, Merriam married his secretary, Virginia Gosnell. In 1888, he was among the 33 notable Americans who founded the National Geographic Society.

Then, in July 1889, he set forth on a scientific expedition in Northern Arizona that led to the insight for which he is best remembered.

Bankrolled by a $600 grant from his department, Merriam and a small team conducted a survey of plants and animals in the Flagstaff area. The survey extended from the San Francisco Peaks to the Painted Desert to the floor of Grand Canyon.

For several months, they worked from a series of remote base camps in the region. One, located about 20 miles north of Flagstaff, is today a National Historic Landmark.

Merriam-1

Merriam (center), his wife Virginia, and staff members at the base camp near Flagstaff.

The team’s findings led Merriam to conclude that the changes occurring in flora and fauna as you gain altitude are the same as changes occurring as you travel north. Most naturalists at the time thought of “zones” in terms of eastern, central, and western.

Going further, Merriam identified seven “life zones” that support specific types of plant and animal life.

The zones, from highest to lowest in altitude:

1 – Alpine (arctic)
2 – Sub-Alpine (tundra)
3 – Hudsonian (spruce, fir)
4 – Canadian (mixed conifer)
5 – Transition (ponderosa pine)
6 – Upper Sonoran (grasslands)
7 – Lower Sonoran (desert)

Merriam said the zones are based on differences in temperature and humidity and are applicable everywhere.

In truth, it isn’t that simple. Other factors besides temperature and humidity affect the distribution of plants and animals. The direction in which a slope faces, for example, and the type of soil.

But Merriam’s general concept was quickly recognized as significant. Over time, a few tweaks were necessary, but his zone system remains in use today.

His work also tied in nicely with other thinking about species distribution that led to the new science of ecology.

During his research trips over the years, Merriam found that “the locals,” aka Native Americans, were valuable sources of information about the plants and animals he was studying. Eventually, he became interested in the tribes themselves, particularly those in California. He even picked up enough of several native languages to communicate with his contacts.

As the 20th Century arrived, the native populations were decreasing rapidly. Concerned that their knowledge, languages, and traditions were being lost, Merriam resolved to collect as much information as possible about the tribes before it was too late.

From about 1910 to 1939, leaving his previous scientific life behind, Merriam began collecting information about the tribes. Taking advantage of his notoriety, he also advocated for and assisted them.

Merriam collected vast amounts of data on 157 tribes and published much of it. Today, his field notes are housed in the Anthropology Museum at the University of California Berkeley.

He died in Berkeley in 1942, age 86.

Merriam was a dynamic, driven guy. He was, it seems, a bit flighty and erratic, but his curiosity always seemed to lead him down worthwhile paths.

He was a medical doctor, naturalist, zoologist, ornithologist, mammalogist, ethnographer, anthropologist, and more, always fully committed to the project of the moment.

A full and eclectic life that made a difference.

Impressive, indeed.

Merriam-2

Merriam-3

Merriam-4

Merriam-5

 

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

In 1778, two American sailors were arrested because they accused the Navy’s commander of torturing British prisoners. The Continental Congress stepped in and passed the first law protecting whistle-blowers. The commander was fired.

The maximum number of clubs a golfer can carry, according to the rules of the U.S. Golf Association, is 14. The accepted standard is 12.

President William Jefferson Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III. His father, Blythe Jr., died in a car accident three months before Blythe III was born. Widow Blythe later married Roger Clinton, Sr.

At age 15, the future president began using the last name Clinton, but he later wrote that his stepfather was a gambler, an alcoholic, and a wife-beater.

Two of the 12 countries in South America are landlocked. One is Bolivia, which stretches from the Andes Mountains to the Atacama Desert to the Amazon rain forest. The other is Paraguay, which is mostly swampy lowlands, but does have a route to the sea via the Paraguay River.

South America

The force of gravity varies with mass, so different planets have different gravitational forces. A person weighing 200 pounds on Earth would weigh 76 pounds on Mars and 12 pounds on Pluto.

Hedgehogs are small, nocturnal mammals distantly related to shrews. The word hedgehog, which dates back to the 1400s, probably arose because the animals frequent hedgerows and have a pig-like snout. Prior to that, they were called urchins.

Bonus fact: sea urchins (related to starfish, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers) are so named because their appearance is similar to the animals formerly known as urchins.

The Polish-born French scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934), was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win two Nobels, and the only person to win a Nobel in two different fields.

Curie received a Nobel in Physics in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity. She won a Nobel in Chemistry in 1911 for discovering the elements radium and polonium. She died of aplastic anemia caused by exposure to radiation.

The first person to make a high-altitude parachute jump was André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823), a French balloonist. He made the descent in 1797, riding in a basket suspended from a silk parachute.

In 1798, his wife Jeanne Labrosse Garnerin (1775-1847) became the first woman to ascend solo in a hot-air balloon. In 1799, she became the first woman to descend in a parachute.

Balloonists

Author Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence, 1920), was a dog lover. She owned dozens of dogs during her lifetime, and her Massachusetts estate featured a dog cemetery within view of her bedroom window.

She and her husband were founding members of the SPCA, and they campaigned to place water bowls for dogs on the streets of New York City. Wharton once published a short poem that read, “My little old dog: A heart-beat At my feet.”

The 180 species of woodpeckers around the world peck trees mostly in search of insects for food. They can peck up to 20 pecks per second and, on average, 8,000 to 12,000 pecks per day.

The first serious, large-scale electronic computer in the U.S. was ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It was completed in 1945 at the University of Pennsylvania and initially was used to calculate artillery ballistics for the Army.

ENIAC could calculate the trajectory of an artillery shell in 30 seconds, a task that took a human 20 hours. In 1947, ENIAC was moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where it ran in continuous operation until 1955.

In April 2002, the Muppet character Elmo appeared before a House subcommittee to ask for increased funding for music education. His appearance stands as the only testimony before Congress by a non-human.

Elmo