Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘History’

A Way With Words

As I noted a while back in this post, I’m not a fan of the works of William Shakespeare. I put it this way:

Most of us, especially we writers, have an ingrained tendency to be precise and literal when we communicate. We try to speak and write in ways that best convey our intended meaning to others. That would seem to be the point: to express thoughts clearly and precisely.

Shakespeare saw it differently. He was among the poets and authors to whom clarity and precision are optional. Their goal, apparently, was to perform and entertain.

Well, I prefer clarity and precision. So I tune out the likes of Shakespeare in favor of, oh, Robert Frost and Sarah Teasdale and Dorothy Parker and Poe and Kipling.

Shakespeare himself, of course, was a genius. His mastery of the English language was astounding. And he created hundreds of new words and phrases, as well as found new ways to use existing ones.

His phrases “break the ice,” “melted into thin air,” and “the lady doth protest too much” are wonderfully, brilliantly descriptive.

Here are other common expressions Shakespeare is credibly thought to have originated:

All that glitters is not gold
All the livelong day
As luck would have it
Be-all and end-all
Brave new world
Breathe one’s last
Brevity is the soul of wit
Clothes make the man
Down the primrose path
Eat me out of house and home
Fancy-free
Fit for the gods
Foregone conclusion
Forever and a day
The game is afoot
Give the devil his due
Good riddance
Greek to me
Have not slept one wink
Heart of gold
In my heart of hearts
Kill with kindness
Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Lie low
Love is blind
Made of sterner stuff
Method in one’s madness
Mind’s eye
My own flesh and blood
Naked truth
Neither rhyme nor reason
Off with his head
One fell swoop
Pitched battle
Pure as the driven snow
Seen better days
Something wicked this way comes
Smells to high heaven
Star-crossed lovers
Strange bedfellows
To each his own
Too much of a good thing
Tower of strength
Wear my heart upon my sleeve
What’s done is done
Wild goose chase
The world is my oyster

As for the individual words he created, most were legitimate and useful, rarely designed for dramatic one-time use, as in Lewis Carroll’s “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”

Many were existing words he cleverly combined, such as cruel-hearted and never-ending.Or words whose usage he changed — converting verbs to adjectives, nouns to verbs, etc., such as converting the noun elbow to a verb to describe the act of elbowing.

Below is a list — abbreviated, mind you — of words attributed to Shakespeare.

Admirable
Arch-villain
Barefaced
Baseless
Belongings
Birthplace
Bloodstained
Bloodsucking
Catlike
Cold-blooded
Cold-hearted
Countless
Dauntless
Disgraceful
Distasteful
Distrustful
Eventful
Excitement
Eyeball
Fairyland
Fanged
Fashionable
Featureless
Fitful
Foul-mouthed
Fretful
Gallantry
Go-between
Homely
Hot-blooded
Ill-tempered
Indistinguishable
Lackluster
Majestic
Malignancy
Meditate
Mimic
Money’s worth
Monumental
Mortifying
Motionless
Nimble-footed
Overblown
Pageantry
Premeditated
Pious
Priceless
Profitless
Quarrelsome
Rawboned
Reclusive
Remorseless
Resolve
Restraint
Savagery
Shipwrecked
Soft-hearted
Spectacled
Swagger
Time-honored
To blanket
To castigate
To champion
To dishearten
To dislocate
To enmesh
To impede
To muddy
To overpower
To perplex
To petition
To rant
To reword
To secure
To sire
To squabble
To sully
To undervalue
To undress
Tranquil
Transcendence
Unappeased
Unchanging
Uneducated
Unquestioned
Unrivaled
Unscratched
Unsolicited
Unsullied
Unswayed
Unvarnished
Unwillingness
Useful
Vulnerable
Well-behaved
Well-bred
Well-educated
Well-read

To sum up, I give the devil his due. I applaud Shakespeare as a wunderkind, a virtuoso of the English language. In that regard, he is unrivaled.

But in my heart of hearts, writing like this turns me off:

Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And giv’n to time your own dear purchased right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.

All I can say is, to each his own.

Read Full Post »

The Questions…

1. What is the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited city?

2. In the art world, what is bricolage?

3. What was the first country to give women the right to vote?

4. No major league baseball team uses the number 24 to honor what legendary player?

5. What does BMW stand for?

The Answers…

1. Probably Damascus, Syria. Evidence of habitation there dates back 11,000 years.

2. Bricolage is art created from non-standard material — junk, metal parts, etc. — or mixed media. A collage of photos, for example. The word bricolage comes from the French verb bricoler, which means “to tinker.”

3. New Zealand, 1893.

4. Jackie Robinson.

5. In English, Bavarian Motor Works. In German, Bayerische Motoren Werke.

Read Full Post »

Ethics

Museums are wonderful things, except for their ugly history of acquiring artifacts through illegal or disreputable means. Countless items in museum collections were obtained by theft, coercion, bribery, deceit, etc.

Colonialism had a lot to do with it. For centuries, the European powers felt free to help themselves to the treasures of the countries they occupied, and regularly did.

But now, hopeful signs are appearing. Museums here are there actually are returning purloined artifacts to the rightful owners.

A new policy adopted this year by the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world, is especially welcome. The Smithsonian now is actively working to identify and return objects that were wrongfully obtained.

First on the list is a group of Nigerian plaques and sculptures known as the Benin Bronzes. Hundreds were stolen by the British in the 1890s, and over time, some found their way to the Smithsonian. The museum has identified 29 items as among those looted by the British and plans to return them to Nigeria.

Refreshing.

Booze of Choice

In 1994, on my first raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, I observed that four of the five river guides drank alcohol, and all four drank the same thing: Jim Beam Original white label bourbon.

Not Jim Beam Black, or Jim Beam rye, or the bonded or single barrel versions, or any of Beam’s (yuck) fruity liqueurs. The guides drank Jim Beam Original white label.

I’ve now rafted Grand Canyon four times with two different outfitters. On all four trips, the pattern was the same: the guides who drank alcohol drank Jim Beam white label.

Every evening, after the passengers were fed and the chores were done, the guides usually gathered somewhere to relax, chat, and have a nightcap or three. The nightcap was always Jim Beam white label.

Although I didn’t inquire while on the trips, I can imagine how Beam became a thing. Maybe the alpha male guides preferred Beam — relatively cheap, fairly smooth, a reasonable 80 proof. Peer pressure kicked in, and, voilà, a tradition was born. When new guides were hired, they naturally followed the tradition.

I should mention, too, that after my 1994 raft trip, I switched from Jack Daniels Old No. 7 black label to Jim Beam Original white label. Which remains my booze of choice to this day.

Being Real

In the early 1800s, most runaway slaves in the US famously went north to freedom, but many fled south to Mexico, where slavery was newly banned. Mexico readily offered asylum, and Mexican troops were quick to confront slave catchers who pursued the runaways.

Back then, the Mexican territory of Texas was mostly populated by Anglos, and its economy was deeply dependent on slavery. Slaves not only worked farms and plantations, but also served widely as tradesmen and household servants. The economic importance of slavery was a key reason why Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836.

Mexico’s opposition to slavery and willingness to protect runaways isn’t well known, but it had consequences. It prompted more slaves to escape, and it aggravated friction in the US between north and south. The Civil War probably came sooner as a result.

I didn’t learn all that in school, but I know it now because I’m curious and open to the facts.

As we all should be. Conservatives get apoplectic when anyone challenges the comforting myths about America’s exceptionalism, superiority, and glorious history. As usual, the conservatives are full of it.

Fairy tales are a waste of time. Better to view the past honestly and try to understand how and why things happened. If it hurts your feelings, that’s probably a sign you learned something.

Read Full Post »

Thoughts du Jour

Mummies

Humans have a habit of believing preposterous nonsense — embracing ideas that defy evidence and common sense. I could point to the behavior of today’s conservatives, but instead, consider the ancient Egyptians. They decided that the soul could not live on in the afterlife unless the body of the deceased was preserved. Seriously. Hence, their obsession with mummies.

The Egyptians traditionally buried the dead in the desert sand, which conveniently mummified the bodies. It was fine just to drop common folk in a hole, but it was inappropriate if you were important. So, for the rich and powerful, the Egyptians began building monument-style tombs.

The first such tomb was a mastaba, which in ancient Egyptian means “eternal house.” Mastabas were rectangular structures with inward-sloping sides and flat roofs, constructed of bricks made from mud. They protected the body from animals and grave robbers, but the absence of sand meant no mummification and — drat — no soul living on in the afterlife.

So they developed artificial mummification. For bigshots, of course. In time, the bigshots also concluded that mastabas weren’t elaborate enough, and pyramids became a thing.

In summary, the concept arose that your soul is doomed if your dead body decomposes as nature intended. Egyptian society seized on that idea and focused on it for several thousand years. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Island

For four years in the 1950s, my dad was stationed at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and we Smiths lived in nearby Panama City. In 1956, Dad got a one-year assignment as base commander at Thule AFB, Greenland. No dependents live at Thule, so Mom and us kids remained in Panama City.

Dad called, wrote, and sent photos regularly, which kept us up to date about life at Thule. One fact about the place that got a snicker from my 14-year-old self was the story of a small island within sight of the base named, in the Inuit language, Iganaq.

Due to its appearance in profile, people at Thule called the island the Witch’s Tit. Dad got a snicker, too, from telling us that.

In 1958, Greenland changed the name of the island from Iganaq to Dalrymple Rock. This was to honor Dr. Paul Dalrymple, a geographer and meteorologist who spent a good part of his career in Greenland.

Despite the name change, I’m sure the island remained Iganaq to the Inuit. And to the people stationed at Thule, it’s probably still the Witch’s Tit.

Unexpected Journey

When I stopped for lunch in Commerce recently, I had no way of knowing I was about to drive a mom and two preschoolers to the next county.

As I arrived at the Wendy’s parking lot, a female voice called out, “Sir! Sir! My car broke down, and my boys are with me, and my phone is dead! Can I borrow your phone to call my Nanna?”

The mom was in her late 20s and understandably stressed. I handed her my phone. She called Nanna, who didn’t answer, probably because it was from an unknown caller. So the mom sent a text. Still no reply. Nanna was MIA.

The mom thanked me and told me to proceed with my lunch. She said Nanna probably would respond soon. So I proceeded with lunch.

After lunch, I checked, and still no word from Nanna. I couldn’t just leave them stranded, so I told the mom I would drive them to Nanna’s house, which was about five minutes away. The mom protested feebly while transferring the boys and their car seats to my car.

She spent the drive trying to set me up with Nanna, who was described as healthy, active, attractive, and a widow. I was politely noncommittal.

Nanna was home, working in the garden. The mom wanted me to give Nanna my phone number, but Nanna (indeed a handsome woman) steered the mom away while waving a thank-you over her shoulder. I drove back to Commerce, where I bought some dog treats at Marshall’s.

Read Full Post »

The Questions…

1. What flower bulbs once were used as currency?

2. What is a fipple?

3. The best-selling novel of all time was written in Spain in the early 1600s. What is it?

4. In ancient Egypt, what served as pillows?

5. What is the largest known cave system in the world?

The Answers…

1. Tulip bulbs. In the Dutch Republic in 1634, tulips were a new thing, and a wave of “tulip mania” swept the country. Certain varieties of tulip became coveted luxury items that soon were accepted as currency. The speculative bubble burst in 1637, and the fad fizzled.

2. The mouthpiece of a wind instrument.

3. “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes. Over 500 million copies sold.

4. Chunks of wood or stone.

5. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. People have explored 400 miles of it, and national park officials believe another 600 miles is out there. Also, scattered around the region are some 200 smaller caves not connected to the Mammoth system.

Read Full Post »

The short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is highly regarded, and deservedly so. It’s also grim and a bit unsettling to read. The author was a Civil War veteran known for his realistic fiction, much of which, like the story below, related to the Civil War.

A few years ago, I featured another Bierce short story on this blog. That post included more about the author and his mysterious fate.

———

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

By Ambrose Bierce
Published in the San Francisco Examiner, July 1890

– I –

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners — two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.

At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest — a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.

Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground — a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge.

Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators — a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right.

Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good — a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat.

He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties.

The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift — all had distracted him.

And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by — it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell.

He awaited each new stroke with impatience and — he knew not why — apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the 4 trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

– II –

Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime.

Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”

“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”

“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”

“Suppose a man — a civilian and student of hanging — should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood 6 against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away.

An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

– III –

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened — ages later, it seemed to him — by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs.

These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness — of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment.

He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.

There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river! — the idea seemed to him ludicrous.

He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface — knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable.

“To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort! — what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo!

The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake.

“Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these 8 words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface.

He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.

He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf — he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat — all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears.

Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly — with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men — with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words: “Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”

Farquhar dived — dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream — nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning: “The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”

An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo*, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game.

As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond. 10 “They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me — the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round — spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color — that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick.

In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream — the southern bank — and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.

The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape — he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation. By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on.

At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective.

Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange 11 constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which — once, twice, and again — he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air.

How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue — he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet! Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene — perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home.

All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is!

He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon — then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

* Decreasing in loudness.

Read Full Post »

All in the Family

Among the memorable early Romans was Julia Agrippina (15-59 AD), described by history as smart, ambitious, and calculating. Not to mention lethal, allegedly.

Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus, a Roman general, and the granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

The second Roman emperor was Tiberius (brother of Augustus, uncle of Germanicus). Germanicus hoped to succeed Tiberius, but instead, Caligula (son of Germanicus, brother of Agrippina) was named emperor three.

Caligula was assassinated, and Claudius (brother of Germanicus, uncle of Agrippina) became emperor four. Claudius then married his niece Agrippina and adopted her son Nero, whose father Domitius had died suddenly when Nero was two.

Claudius, incidentally, was Agrippina’s third husband. Her second husband Passienus had died a few years earlier, by some accounts poisoned by Agrippina.

Agrippina wanted her son Nero to succeed Claudius so she could retain her power and influence. Soon — oops — Claudius was poisoned, and Nero became the fifth Roman emperor at age 16.

As Nero matured, Agrippina’s influence waned. Ultimately, a nasty power struggle ensued between mother and son, ending in Agrippina’s death at age 44. Nero almost certainly was responsible, but conflicting historical accounts make the truth elusive.

To sum up, Agrippina was at various times the granddaughter, great niece, niece, sister, wife, and mother of the first five Roman emperors. Plus, all three of her husbands died early and mysteriously. Wow.

Equine Slumber

If you’re a horse, you have a unique sleep problem. Namely, you aren’t built to lie down and get back up easily. You do so with great difficulty and are left vulnerable to predators.

As a result, horses have evolved special sleep behaviors. First, they take naps several times a day while standing. This is made possible by specialized tendons and ligaments that allow the horse to lock the major joints of its legs, so it can snooze without toppling over.

But horses also need deep sleep — REM sleep — just as you do. For that, they lie down and recharge for real, usually in short intervals totaling several hours a day.

Yes, they are vulnerable while lying horizontal and unconscious, but other horses always remain awake and on sentry duty.

Whack

Most of the time, my dog Jake is calm and mellow. He gets excited, of course, on such occasions as our morning walk, or when he lights out after a cat, but otherwise, his world is pleasant, and life is good.

There are, however, exceptions. Occasionally, a local redneck goes hunting in the woods, and we hear gunfire in the distance. In which case, Jake’s happy face disappears, and he retreats to the back of my bedroom closet. He won’t come out until the noise stops.

His reaction is the same with fireworks and other loud noises. At the first boom, he heads for the sanctuary of the closet.

Furthermore, he dislikes/fears my flyswatter. If a fly lands somewhere and I whip out the flyswatter, Jake exits the room as soon as he sees it. Apparently, he is upset by my display of violence and the loud whack as I dispatch the fly.

I usually can conceal the flyswatter from him, but the telltale whack can’t be disguised.

Although I feel bad for Jake, the flyswatter is here to stay. And frankly, I find the whack to be oddly satisfying.

Read Full Post »

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● According to the US government, the average dollar bill remains in circulation for 6.6 years.

● Despite its name, the Spanish Flu of 1918 had no connection to Spain. During World War I, Spain remained neutral and did not observe a media blackout. Thus, it reported freely on the pandemic, which led most of the world to associate Spain with the flu.

● The heart of an adult blue whale weighs 400 pounds.

● The only species of penguin found north of the equator is the Galápagos penguin of, you guessed it, the Galápagos Islands. In this case, however, “north” is a stretch; the islands literally straddle the equator.

● Cornell University in Ithica, New York, offers a degree in Enology and Viticulture, which is the study of wine and wine-making and the science of grape-growing.

● The flags of 29 countries feature the colors red, white, and blue.

● A desert is an ecosystem that receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually. About 20 percent of the earth’s surface is classified as desert.

● Apple trees are native to Asia, and they were not found in North America until early European colonists brought them here. Soon, apple pie became a symbol of American culture, as opposed to native cultures and later immigrants, who cooked apples in other ways. Hence the expression “as American as apple pie.”

Read Full Post »

Mystery Pig

File this story under “stranger than fiction.”

One recent Saturday, Jake and I went walking at Jefferson Middle School, where he could go off-leash and perform zoomies. Before long, we came upon an unoccupied pickup truck parked on the grass. Next to it was a wire pet cage, empty, door open.

And under the truck, cowering next to a wheel, was a piglet. It was a tiny thing, about six inches high and a foot long. A rope around its neck secured it to the truck.

Jake danced around and snuffled the piglet with great excitement, but didn’t hurt it, because, well, Jake loves all living things. The piglet seemed confused about being licked by a large animal.

Did the truck and the pig belong to someone working inside the school? Was the pig left outside because it wasn’t housebroken? A baffling scenario.

I tried to get Jake to continue our walk, but he wasn’t going anywhere. I allowed him a minute more of snuffling, then hooked up his leash and led him away. Poor Jake. So disappointed.

Why a piglet was tied to a truck next to an open pet cage on the lawn of the middle school that Saturday, I’ll never know.

Tuaregs

The Tuareg people of North Africa, nomads of the Sahara Desert since the 4th Century, are unique among Islamic ethnic groups.

Unlike in most Muslim societies, Tuareg women have high status. They control most of the property, and the lineage of families and clans is traced through the women.

Further, Tuareg men, not women, wear veils. When Tuareg men reach adulthood, they wear the tagelmust, a veil that reveals only the eyes, for the rest of their lives.

The Tuaregs believe the veils protect them from being possessed by evil spirits that enter through the nose and mouth. Why women don’t need the protection, I can’t say.

The concept of evil spirits and veils is, of course, preposterous nonsense. I rank it right up there with belief in a God who is omnipotent and benevolent, yet is okay with widespread starvation, disease, war, and suffering. That should strain anyone’s credulity.

Greek to Me

A while back, on a lark, I bought a copy of Georgia Outdoor News (GON), a monthly magazine about guns, hunting, fishing, and guns. I wanted some reading matter that was different, and GON certainly is that.

Frankly, I detest guns, and I strongly object to hunting and fishing. Guns are an abomination, and stalking and killing animals is making a special effort to be cruel. The articles and ads in GON confirm how callous and sadistic people can be toward other living things.

One particular tip that made me wince was a suggestion to fishermen: slice open your live bait so the blood in the water will attract fish.

But I digress. It was fascinating to get a peek at the world of hunters and fishermen as they talked to each other. For example, a “Fishing Reports” article gave tips on when and where to fish on various Georgia lakes. This is what one guide reported about West Point Lake near Columbus:

The herring population seems to have exploded this year. Try fishing riprap around bridges with spinnerbaits, small crankbaits and Zoom Super Flukes. Try an unweighted merthiolate Zoom Trick Worm or an unweighted Zlinky.

One other pattern is to look for fresh blowdowns with the leaves still on them. Try a Jerkbait or Zoom Super Fluke worked around the outer limbs. Lots of spotted bass are caught by casting Spot Remover heads loaded with Ultravibe Speed Craws.”

I know what riprap and blowdowns are, but otherwise, that’s just word salad. An experienced fisherman probably would get the message loud and clear.

I hope so. Better to use a Jerkbait or Zoom Super Fluke than to slice open your live bait.

Read Full Post »

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The Toyota Corporation was founded in 1937 by Japanese inventor Sakichi Toyoda to manufacture automatic looms to weave cloth.

● The smallest bones in the human body are the malleus, incus, and stapes bones located in the middle ear. They carry external sounds to your brain.

● The people of Turkey drink the most tea annually, consuming about seven pounds of tea leaves per person. Ireland is in second place with about five pounds per person.

● A cria (Spanish for baby) is a young llama, alpaca, vicuña, or guanaco, all of which are Latin American relatives of the camel. Llamas and alpacas are domesticated, whereas vicuñas and guanacos are wild, but are protected as endangered species.

● Wayne Allwine, a sound effects specialist for Disney Studios, was the voice of Mickey Mouse for 32 years — from 1977 until his death in 2009. In 1991, he married co-worker Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse.

● Sweden has not been involved in a war since 1814.

● English is the native language of 350 million people. English is the second language of two billion people.

● The first know automobile accident occurred in 1891 in Ohio City, Ohio, when John William Lambert lost control of his vehicle and hit a hitching post. Lambert was driving a Lambert, a gasoline-powered, three-wheeled vehicle of his own design. He went on to hold over 600 automotive patents, but the Lambert brand couldn’t keep up with Ford et al and fizzled.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »