Will They Ever Learn?

The novel Gray Gold is set in WWII America, but it could be fit to any time. Anywhere and every time there are rule makers, cronies set up to profit from those rules, and people willing to work around the edges of the system to make their own way. A new article at Reason.com touches on just one golden opportunity set up by modern governments.

Politicians Make Bootlegging Great Again
reason.com

When Prohibition ended in 1933, my great-grandfather, Giuseppe Marano, thought his money-making glory days were over. Having made a good living selling alcoholic beverages to willing buyers at a time when that business was illegal across the country, he and his cohorts certainly viewed the passage of the 21st Amendment as the end of a very profitable era. Except that it really wasn’t. Politicians may have formally dumped the national ban on booze, but in many places they’ve imposed enough foolish restrictions to keep bootlegging a going concern.

If you can pick up a hot 1939 Lincoln like Nick Guyon’s, skip the extra fuel tanks and set it up to run whisky.

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Desert Heat

[Nick Guyon put thought and experience into the kit of tools he took out on jobs.]

I double checked that the pull bar to the carbs was yanked full out to max efficiency. The mechanic who installed it promised the engine would sip fuel like a nun at a whisky bar that way, but if I pushed it in, he had it set to open up wide and give me a good twenty horses over the stock setup.

After I’d bought that rig and tried it out, with a big grin showing, the greasy wrench showed me a bulletin about oiling problems on the aging Ford V-12 design. I was out another sixty bucks for him to fit a secondary oil pump, but I had a hot motor that could outrun and outlast anything on the road.
I’d made a few other changes to the car, but nothing that mattered on a simple escort job like this. All I had to do was keep the truck in front of me, and scare off anyone who approached it. I couldn’t imagine anything getting it its way but a skittish road runner. But since I was technically on detail, I had a few appropriate tools.

The PI-standard snub-nose .38 revolver sat in its usual place, in a pocket holster locked in the glove box. I didn’t like anything about it, but some places that license private investigators actually insist that a .38 revolver is the only piece they carry. Go figure. Anyway, it looks harmless enough that most people aren’t put off by it.

More to my liking, and usually closer to me, was a Canadian-made 9 mm pistol. A lot of guys swear by the big fat .45 caliber rounds, but I had a baseball bat in the trunk which is about as useful for close-range slugging. Plus, when working alone I liked to bring a lot of friends with me, and the 9 mm stacks thirteen rounds under the barrel.

A classic Remington pump shotgun shared the trunk with the bat. It wasn’t real smooth, partly because I’d notched parts of it to make more noise when racking. The noise of a shotgun being pumped is enough to make a mob change its mind, sometimes.

A little food and water, besides what the other driver had handed me, a good flashlight, and an overcoat for the desert night completed my kit.

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The Diggingest Bastard

I finally got around to finishing a long-planned task – reading Marshal Erwin Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks.

From a book like this one can comment on the documented history, the book as literature, the military tactics, and the lessons one can take away. The book review part of this piece I will get out of the way first.

In any biographical work, especially autobiographical, one must look for a positive bias. Some biographies are written by doting fans of the subject. Even the most earnest autobiography will, if only by omission, skew toward making the subject look good. That said, this work is earnest and limited only by its focus on the subject at hand. The exploits of Rommel and his troops are backed up by both myth and medals.

The particular edition I read, an on-demand print of the hurried 1943 American translation, has unique attributes. As a contemporary artifact of WW2, it is honest history — this is what was actually put in front of American officers at Fort Leavenworth. But later editions are reported to be better translations. The figures in this printing are clear but too few and too small. The text is written relying on the intended maps and diagrams for the reader to follow the action.

The writing is clear, literate, and evocative. Certainly it is not a grand novel or a musky thriller, but the action is dynamic (from the actuality and from the writing) and a reader is entertained.

The place in history of this story is World War I, but it gives a slice through theaters that don’t fit the most popular narratives of that war. Rommel was engaged over the trenches of northern France shortly after the beginning of the conflict. Basic lessons had been learned and passed on to units in training, but the great stalemate had not set in. Dynamic action for small units was still possible — if the right leader set up the attack.

After early action in the French countryside, Rommel took over training up a mountain unit which saw some action in the Vosges before being shuttled to the southeastern fronts. In Romania, Hungary, and Italy Rommel would find great success repeatedly using tactics that he had drilled into his companies. Many will not have learned much about the fighting in these regions, but Rommel makes clear that maneuver warfare was alive and well in these mountains late into the conflict.

Rommel’s consistent tactical approach was to pin his enemy with whatever heavy fire he had or could call up, make him commit against a feint, and sneak around him under cover to attack weak points. Over and over his pin-prick assault squads got behind large units and took many prisoners without firing a shot.

Rommel tells a story of being uniformly aggressive. He explains when to not make a direct attack, but with rare exception comes up with a solution of maneuver. He kept tired troops marching and attacking at every opportunity chasing a retreating enemy. Driving this is his own deep regard for hasty field fortifications.

Rommel explains repeatedly how, by spade and pick, infantry can quickly become almost impervious to conventional artillery. He kept tired troops up all might often digging trenches that would have only a few hours’ use. As a reward they got to carry on with amazingly light casualties and remain coherent fighting units able to beat back counterattacks that should have been overwhelming.

Here Rommel leaves lessons that apply to all warfare with ranged weaponry, from antiquity through today and the foreseeable future. Jumping forward 25 years and halfway around the world, we can look at the long-lasting defenses of Japanese islands. More by digging than by might of arms outnumbered and ridiculously outgunned defenders inflicted outsize casualties on attackers in every place where effort was made to use the ground to full effect. Rommel’s exposition particularly reinforces the wargaming behind X-Day: Japan, the journalistic novel of the planned invasion of Japan. Plenty of picks and shovels are at hand in the Japanese farm land, and plenty of farmers who suddenly have nothing else to do.

I’m glad I read this book. It makes me want to read much more about the time period and the lesser-known theaters of WWI.

Most importantly, finally, I get to say, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

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The Waiting Game

Eventually I found a good place to wait, a rural corner store closed for the day. I was suddenly nervous. I had every reason to be anxious, but up to that point I had been too busy to let it come out.

I went through a practiced routine of exercises to kill the butterflies and settle my mind. I smoked a cigarette, too, but I would have done that anyway.

I thought about getting shot down by Angela Vickers in sixth grade. I thought about getting shot for real behind an underground casino in Newark. I thought about the current situation and decided everything that could be done to control my situation had been done. I was at peace. If things went badly it was just dumb luck.

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“I tame Hellcats!”

One can find thousands of vintage war time print ads which people have scanned so we can poke fun at them later. A popular format was the multi-panel story, in this case in straight-up comic book style.

Until late in World War Two, flight schools in the U.S. were chronically short of the need for combat pilots, which had to be men. Women filled the ranks doing everything short of front line missions, including patently dangerous jobs like initial flight testing or long-range ferry service over the vast Pacific.

On this page for Camel, Ms. Teddy Kenyon (no rank given), puts a Navy fighter through its paces. But the repeated message is that Camel is the men’s favorite. It just happens to also be easy on the lady’s throat.

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Gray Gold teaser – April 16, 1943; Tucson, Arizona

I skimmed the main headline stories while eating. Fighting in north Africa. Fighting in the Solomons. Federal intervention in another strike. Over a cigarette and second cup of coffee I got into my usual chore of working through the inside pages. A kitchen fire with no casualties but loss of the entire house. A war bond event coming up. A war bond event total from two days ago. A boring weather forecast.

I took my time over the classifieds. I wasn’t in the market, but used car ads said much about conditions in any city. At the beginning of rubber rationing, every car ad claimed ‘good new tires’ if it could. Very few made the claim any more. It was a cinch that the wheels of those cars were shod in ratty old shoes. The lucky ones would have gummy cheap retreads.

As I came across space-for-rent listings, I circled some and took a few notes. I needed a more permanent place to live, and a small office would be ok if it could be had cheaply enough. Just into the last paper, the Tucson Citizen afternoon edition from the day before, a short story jumped out at me.

Prominent in section B, on the front page under the fold, was the headline “Another War Truck Hijacked on NM Highways”. The article mentioned the Zelatoff company, that it was a critically needed load of copper wire and plate, and that the entire vehicle was taken. Thankfully my name wasn’t mentioned, just that, “a hired armed escort was overcome entirely by the brigands and did not even observe the direction of their escape.” I thought it was a hatchet job, but wasn’t about to call in and complain.

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For Whom the Booze Tolls

Liquor production for civilian use was greatly curtailed during World War II. By 1945, with the end in sight, big money was lining up to push old and new brands in front of post-war consumers. It was expected to be a wet gold rush.

ad Schlitz beer 1945

ad Shenley whisky 1945

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Research Done Right

Hemingway spent years in Spain during the revolution before writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Fleming went through and deep into every place James Bond worked. The American Southwest is the setting for Gray Gold and its likely sequels.

A trip through New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California was essential to this author before trying to bring alive breathing characters in those challenging deserts and bountiful orchards.

A sharp eyed reader will recognize the arrangement of this shot from the real Fort Selden, in Radium Springs, New Mexico.

The ship yards of San Diego are likely to turn up in print also.

One certain thing is that Nick Guyon spends a lot of time on the open road.

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Fact, Fiction, and Real Probabilities

“I suppose,” I remarked, “that, homely as it looks, this [hat] has some deadly story linked on to it — that it is the clue which will guide you in the solution of some mystery and the punishment of some crime.”

“No, no, No crime,” said Sherlock Holmes, laughing. “Only one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles. Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal. We have already had experience of such.”

– The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, A. Conan Doyle.

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Those Infernal Effusive Ineffable Adjectives

[cross-posted from riverratsc.wordpress.com]

Lately we are reading the last book from Alistair Cooke, which is also one of his first. “The American Home Front” was completed as a manuscript in 1946, based on Cooke’s road trip around The USA in late 1941 through 1942. It was rediscovered just before his (timely) death in 2004 and published in 2006. This charming anachronistic gleaming gem is of great interest to the Bureau of the Impertinently Inane, as much of his tour neatly parallels a research trip planned by one of our associates for forthcoming material.

Cooke faced a dilemma, one faced by any diligent earnest long-serving writer. If, in previous writing, one has given up all the most grand, magnanimous, and superlative adjectives to something remarkable, and then met its superior… well then what?

“There is a special disadvantage that weighs on anyone living in America who would try to describe what the Greeks coolly labeled ‘sublime’. Our addiction to grandiose adjectives makes grandeur ultimately indescribable. In reading most pieces of American writing on the war, whether it is a statistical summary of airplane production or a color piece on migrant labor, the reader’s admiration is staked out for him by the recurrent adjectives: vast, huge, enormous, tremendous magnificent, immense, and the like. If you have already pinned the word ‘magnificent’ on the mountain country of the East, on the Green Mountains, say, or the Appalachians, what words are left to describe the Rockies, the High Sierras, the Coast Range, the Cascades, and the Bitterroots? There is a more elemental difficulty over nouns we share with England, the nouns that describe the simple configuration of the earth at our doorstep. A ‘big tree’ in England would be a copper beech, in Texas it might be a healthy cottonwood. What simple noun and adjective shall we use, then, to celebrate Sequoia sempervirens? Something Miltonic is demanded, but even if the supply of Miltons were not strictly limited, Milton used his epic vocabulary on the hills and lakes of pretty Italy and on fantasies he would have been shocked to see as the actualities of the Carlsbad Caverns (the natural setting for the Inferno), the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, the Great American Desert, and the shaggy forests of the Northwest.”

But the immutable inestimable skillful Cooke does not leave the reader in intractable dank hapless despair – he has a way out. As a veteran writer, he always has another duplicitous rhetorical device. Instead of painting the scene literally with adjectives, he brings the reader through an evocative experience which draws up similar emotions:

“The Bitterroots are, then, not to be described, at least not by me. I can merely say that once again the innumerable spires of great firs, and the solemn hush of entering a high world of impenetrable evergreens, gave me the sense of coming out of a pressing world of little facts into a cathedral.”

In the current context, we will call his writing “good”. Also, as a firm solid rule going forward we will not use more than two adjectives at once.

[p.s. Since we know you’re thinking of it, ]
Alistair Cookie

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