Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Old Hoss Radbourne

A brief aside.  Not everyone is a serious baseball fan.  Yes, in particular I am thinking of my small but devoted following from Serbia who visit the site hoping for more pictures of dogs in silly outfits.  So a brief explanation is in order.

In the modern age if a pitcher wins 20 games in a season, or even if he just pitches over 200 innings, well, he is an anchor of the team, a guy who can demand and receive a salary of millions of dollars per year.  The very best of the bunch, winners of the annual Cy Young award sometimes win a few more than that.  The last player to win over 30 games was back in the 1960s, and that was considered a fluke.

Here are comments on this state of affairs, straight from Charles Radbourne:

##%%**!!!! PANSIES! What bunch of %%##!!! CREAMPUFFS!

I am of course acting as spiritual interlocutor, and censor,  for the long departed Mr. Radbourne, a rough hewn fellow who holds baseball records that are not merely unchallengeable, but inconceivable.

Charles Radbourne, nicknamed "Old Hoss" was born in 1854.  A remarkably strong young man he for a time worked at a slaughterhouse where it was his job to dispatch cattle by smacking them between the eyes with a 25 pound sledgehammer. 

His 11 year career as a Major League pitcher started in 1880, and is mostly remembered for his astounding 1884 season with the Providence Grays.  Providence was a troubled club, and actually came close to disbanding mid season.  One of their two pitchers, a disagreeable fellow named Sweeny, showed up drunk for his start in the July 22nd game.  Even drunk he threw well, but continued to drink in the dugout during the game and eventually was asked to leave, still leading 6-2.  He left all right, storming off the field and quitting the team.

With no other real options, Radbourne volunteered to pitch the rest of the season.  Think about it, in the modern era teams generally carry a five man starting rotation Providence had......Old Hoss.

Radbourne ended the 1884 season with some outrageous stats.

20 game winner?  How about a 59 game winner!  (60 games by some counts).

200 innings pitched?  Oh, lets try 678.  For that matter he was over 600 the previous year too with a two man staff.

Radbourne threw 73 complete games-out of necessity.  Some entire modern day teams go a season without one being thrown.

As to that magical 20 games won, why, Old Hoss at one point had an 18 game winning streak going.

At season's end Radbourne was 59-12, and Providence had captured the pennant.

Of course he paid a price, by season's end his arm was so sore that he could not raise it to comb his hair, and it took him hours to warm up to pitch, his first few efforts being pathetic lobs with no strength to them. 

But he went on to a fine career, ending up with a 309-194 record and an enviable 2.68 earned run average.

His post baseball career was short and unhappy.  The reigning Cy Young award winner for 2010 in the National League is a gent named Roy Halladay.  If he does as well this year he will be paid roughly one million dollars per win.  Charles Radbourne seems to have never been paid more than $7,500 a season.

In retirement he ran a pool hall, but was seriously disfigured in a hunting accident.  He died in 1897 at age 42, possibly of syphilis.

Burleigh Grimes and Charles Radbourne make an interesting pair.  Both determined, gritty pitchers of considerable skill, although that of Radbourne has to be regarded as being of near supernatural quality.  Grimes lived on into a long, slightly mellower retirement, but Radbourne died young.

Nobody will ever come close to his impossible 1884 season.  If, and I rather doubt it, there walks among us some heroic demi-god with an arm like Old Hoss he would never be given the chance to pursue these records.  His manager would be fired-or perhaps committed to a lunatic asylum-for even considering throwing a pitcher at this brutal pace.

Obviously Old Hoss has been recognized by election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to whether he also was the origin of the term "Charley Horse", tune in next time.....

Wikipedia on Old Hoss
Someone ought to write a book about him!
A lengthy discussion of his career

Monday, August 29, 2011

Burleigh Grimes-An inspiration to us all.

As the 2011 baseball season winds down we fans of the Minnesota Twins are not a happy lot.  The shuttle bus from the Big League team to the Disabled List has been running full time this year.  One middle infielder, Alexi Casilla actually managed to come off the DL for one game, hurt himself and go right back to the DL.  I doubt this feat-up to the Bigs for a single dressing change-has ever been accomplished before.

Why some folks, in their subdued Minnesota Nice way, are even suggesting that the current team may not be tough enough.

In that light, and on the minuscule chance that any current ballplayers happen upon my humble blog, I thought I would give brief homage to a couple of players from the past. There was a time in baseball where things were a bit meaner and grittier, but even allowing for that a few guys stood out as Iron Men.  That is in the sense of jagged pieces of iron with liberal amounts of rust and probably infested with tetanus spores.

Consider the gentle ways of a certain Burleigh Grimes .
What are you starin' at?

Burleigh "Old Stubblebeard" Grimes was born in a small Wisconsin town in 1893.  He broke into the Bigs in 1916.  His signature pitch was the spitball, which would be outlawed in 1919/1920 after a poor fellow named Ray Chapman was killed by a thrown pitch. (Not a spitter by the way).  At the time of the ban a few pitchers were "grandfathered" in and allowed to keep using it.  Grimes was the last of these, throwing the final (legal) spitball in 1934.

If that were his sole claim to fame Burleigh Grimes would be no more that a delightful bit of obscure baseball trivia.  No, in addition to being allowed to throw an elusive, bodily fluids laden pitch, Burleigh hated batters.

Not off the field mind you, he was said to be a very nice man out of uniform.  But woe betide any batter who would dare to contest the notion that the strike zone and several feet in all directions around it was the sole property of Mr. Grimes.

In this rough and tumble era of baseball Burleigh would look daggers at a batter scuffling his feet to dig in to the batters box.  He would then bellow out "You comfortable there?  Good, 'cause that's where they're gonna bury you!" and launch one right at the batter's head.  Warnings? Fines? Ejections?  Nah.

On at least one occasion Burleigh was so mad at an opposing team that he threw at and hit, not the batter, but the player in the on deck circle!

But to reach the true Olympian heights of ornery you have to visit Burleigh in spring training late in his career.  This is an apocryphal story,but one that has the ring of truth to it. 

In a rather informal practice Burleigh's 15 year old son asked if he could step in and take a few swings against the Old Man.  Grimes Jr. then made the mistake of "digging in".

Burleigh did not flinch, uncorking a pitch that whizzed by the beardless chin of his son, who sensibly hit the deck.

"Burleigh", his team members admonished, "that was your own son!"

"Damn right" retorted Burleigh Grimes, "and if my own grandmother digs in against me she's going down too!"

 (see addendum)

Burleigh Grimes, Baseball Hall of Famer, passed away in a small Wisconsin town in 1985.  He is said to have been unrepentant.
Burleigh loads one up.
Addendum:  Sometimes the point at which myth and fact overlap can be difficult to bring into focus.  It has been pointed out to me that while Mr. Grimes was married several times, he is not known to have had a son.  So the the "brush back" anecdote seems to be false, or perhaps involved a bat boy or other adolescent hanger on.  Too bad, it had the ring of truth to it.  But if some stories are true while seeming totally implausible, the reverse must also on occasion be the case.

Up next:  Old Hoss

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Last Baby

(Note: this was written a few years ago, in my last weeks practicing Family Medicine)

I think this was the last one.  I am planning a job shift in a month or so, and do not have anyone else due.  Oh, I suppose I might deliver one of my partner’s patients when on call yet, and there is always the emergency “doctor on a plane” scenario.  Heck, maybe I will do the Doctors Without Borders thing one day, but they sure would not need me for the easy, fun ones.

It went well.  It was a second time mom a week shy of her due date.  The OB nurse tried to put a scare in me, saying she thought the baby was presenting breech.  But I had checked pretty carefully a couple of days ago and was confident that things were going the right way.  These new, young OB nurses are just not made of the sturdy timber that the old school had in them.

It was just a couple of hours of labor and a few pushes.  No drama, beyond the usual “It’s a Girl”.  No scary drop in fetal heart rate, no gushing blood, no stubborn placenta.

I suppose in the grand scheme of things I have earned it.

Hardly anyone still does OB the way we do.  If we are in town, it’s not our anniversary, and we are not deathly ill; we deliver.  It is the main reason I wear a pager on my right hip.  In fact, it’s the main reason I feel undressed without the pager.

This time I was awakened from a living room sofa nap.  Spouse and I had gone out to dinner.  We deserve it, having been stuck home with kids off of school this past week, and fretting more than necessary about our respective jobs.  Dinner was swell, and I had, gasp!, a nice glass of wine.

That was several hours earlier, so I drove in with no more than the customary apprehension.  Maybe there is another up side to the projected post OB future-if I am off call and want a second drink I am by George going to have it!

Delivering babies is one of those activities that has in it the elements of high drama.  Societies ancient and modern have always had an interest in the continuation of life.  So I guess I could write reams of stories about labors and deliveries I have participated in or heard about.

Once I had the mother of a young pregnant lady call me up and fairly matter-of-factly say that they would sue me if I did not induce labor.

Two times I have delivered a baby to a couple where the husband was terminally ill, in one case he was released from the hospital temporarily just to be at the delivery.  Later that year he died of leukemia.

One time I had an experienced mom, a very relaxed person you see, do crossword puzzles for the entire labor process.  Other times I have had apparently calm women absolutely lose control, and skittish teenagers manage things with a graceful stoicism. 

Many of the stories blur together, defying my attempts to separate the components.  After 700 plus deliveries that will happen.  The children I have delivered would more than fill up an elementary school if you could gather them all together in one place.  Of course, some of them are parents of grade schoolers themselves by now.  I guess if you went all the way back to the babies I delivered as a medical student, a few of them might just manage to be grandparents.

It is fun to deliver a baby when everything goes well.  There you are, a robed celebrant at a sacred event.  The beginning of a new life is magical, and by association the doctor becomes the wizard that makes the magic happen.  Naturally, all concerned are quite aware that the laboring mother is doing all the real work, and that babies miraculously appeared long before things got scientifically organized and technological.

But underneath the fun there is fear.

A certain amount of risk can be predicted, and thereby controlled.  Obviously high risk patients should be referred out to perinatologists, and they are usually happy to be so referred.  And many years of doing anything gives you a certain familiarity with the possibilities.  It does not pay to scare easily.

But there are also unpredictable events.  The fetal heart tones that drop off for no good reason.  The baby with big sturdy shoulders that do not want to budge once the head has made its grudging appearance.  The seemingly non descript symptoms that sound innocuous over the phone, but actually herald impending premature delivery.

If you like to worry about really big stuff, consider comets.  They fly around out there unpredictably, and Hollywood aside, there is not a darned thing we can do about them.  Every few million years a big one plows into Planet Earth and we get Dinosaur Extinction. 

Big, bad obstetrical disasters are like the rare Dinosaur Terminator comets that are flying around all the time, just not happening to hit us today.

I’ve done my best over the years.  I have but a single neonatal death, and the circumstances were unavoidable.  And while I suppose there could always be that belated filing of a malpractice suit, I think my record is clean.

So I close the book on Labor and Delivery adventures. And I am feeling pretty good about it.  Sure, I will miss the new parents telling me I did a good job.  And the brand spankin’ new babies are pretty cute.  But I have a dominant emotion as I consider the Last Baby.


Addendum:  Since this was written I have indeed been called upon to deliver a couple of babies when their attendings could not be there in time, and in one scary case of stuck shoulders that needed a little more horsepower.

The instincts come back at need.  But I am in this aspect of medical practice still happy to be retired.

I no longer wear a pager.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The King and his Court

I think that only once in my life have I literally not believed what I was seeing.  By that I mean that the light was good, my view was unimpaired, there was no trickery involved, but the information that was being transmitted from my eyes to my brain was being rejected as patent nonsense.

It was in the late 1960s, and my dad took a couple of us kids to see a barnstorming softball team called The King and his Court.  The King was a certain Eddie Feigner.

Eddie was a World War II marine who in 1946 started a four man softball team that would travel about beating the pants off of local all star teams.  Eddie pitched and the other three were just there to fill out the squad.

Feigner could do things with a softball that defied belief.  For instance:

He started playing on adult softball teams when he was 9 years old.
He barnstormed from 1946 until a stroke sidelined him in 2000. 
During that stretch he is estimated to have played over 10,000 games, and to have won 9743 of them. 
He played games in all 50 states, 98 foreign countries, and at locations as exotic as Yankee stadium and the Great Wall of China.
While playing against a team of major league baseball players he once struck out five future hall of famers in a row.
He struck out 141,517 batters.  He threw 930 no-hitters and 238 perfect games.
He could throw a softball, underhand, at an estimated 104 miles per hour.

But it wasn't his speed that defied belief.  No, Eddie Feigner appeared to be able to make a softball do whatever he told it to.

Granted I may have been an impressionable lad back in the day, but I saw the King throw strikes pitching behind his back.  I saw him strike batters out while standing not on the pitchers mound, but on second base.  And for his signature finale....he put on a blindfold and threw perfect strikes without being able to even see home plate.  According to his meticulous records, Eddie accomplished this feat 8698 times, not counting the time he knocked a cigar out of Johnny Carson's mouth on the Tonight Show.

Softball has devolved in recent years.  It was once a serious game played with intensity, now it is generally speaking a pleasant way to pass the time while sipping a beer on the bench.  Or out in left field in more casual leagues.

So I think it is fair to say that Eddie Feigner was that rarest of things.  He was the best softball pitcher that ever was.  And more definitively, barring some future cyborg league, he was the best that ever will be.

Here is a newsreel clip of Eddie in his prime.  It does not do him justice.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Honey War of 1839

Wondering about useless things can often lead in interesting directions.  After discovering the Treaty of Ouchy that ended the Italo-Turkish War I got to thinking...why Italo-Turkish, why not Turko-Italian.  Frankly I think the second version sounds better.  Is there some convention in these matters?

I have a theory on that but it will have to wait for another day.  Because in researching a list of 19th century wars great and small I ran across the Honey War of 1839, fought between the Missouri and Iowa.  Wisconsin was sort of involved as well.

It all started with some rotten posts.  Back in 1816 a fellow named J.C. Sullivan surveyed the northern edge of what would become Missouri.  It was a fairly casual effort, a line of wooden posts every now and then, and some ambiguous reference to a series of rapids that could have been on two different rivers.

In 1837 the state of Missouri wanted a more precise survey of their northern boundary.  They asked if their neighbors to the north wanted to participate.  This was in the brief two year period in which Iowa was actually part of Wisconsin Territory.  Wisconsin showed no interest in the project, seeing as how the area was in a matter of months going to become Iowa Territory.

Several different "lines" were drawn by the new survey.  The old posts could no longer be found and it was unclear which river rapids were mentioned in the original survey.  One version of the survey just happened to be nine and a half miles into Iowa, and included properties that could be taxed by whichever entity could claim them.

Missouri asked for the tax money.  The self identified Iowans refused.  So Missouri sent tax agents into the area.  The agents cut down three honey trees, the confiscated honey being a very valuable commodity on the frontier, and threatened the locals with action by the Missouri State militia should continued tax resistance be contemplated.

Well, cutting down honey trees and making threats.  As the saying goes, "them's fightin' words".

With continued grumbling from the Iowans a 600 man detachment of Missouri militia was eventually dispatched.  They came with six wagons of provisions, five of them said to be full of whiskey.  To their disappointment there was nobody around to fight, so they just drank the whiskey and went home, after at one point engaging in target practice against haunches of venison dubbed "Boggs" and "Lucas" those being the names of the respective governors involved.  It does not sound like a serious military operation in any respect.

Eventually the Iowans got around to mounting a belated armed response, although lacking a formal militia the best they could manage was a contingent of rustics armed with pitchforks and Revolutionary war vintage muskets.  This elite fighting force did manage to capture the sheriff of Clark County Missouri and briefly imprison him in the jail at Muscatine Iowa.  The Missouri troops had gone home by then.  It is beyond reasonable scholarly doubt that additional whiskey was consumed in celebration.

Cool heads prevailed, and the matter was referred to the Supreme Court.  Ten years later an unambiguous line was drawn pretty much where Sullivan put it in the first place.  This time they used iron posts.

Thus ended the Honey War of 1839.  It sounds like all concerned had a pretty good time.  There was no loss of life whatsoever, and the only casualties were, one assumes, a few bee stings and a larger number of hangovers.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Treaty of Ouchy

So, I was doing some casual reading the other day on the unhappy politics of the Ottoman Empire pre-World War One.

You may at this time think or even say out loud "Why, why for the love of God?".  Well, that does not matter.  Suffice it to say that my eye-admittedly slightly glazed over in boredom-was drawn to a passing mention of The Treaty of Ouchy.

As a pleasing cross linguistic phrase with a new meaning this one delights me, displacing that long time fave The Diet of Worms.

Maybe just knowing that there was a Treaty of Ouchy is sufficient, but if you want to know a bit more you could go here Ouchy!

The short form version is that it was the treaty that ended the now almost entirely forgotten Italo-Turkish war of 1911/1912. Fought mostly in Libya-some things seem constants-it was pretty much a shameless land grab by Italy, the Ottoman Empire being so rotten from within that all the Great Powers were eager to grab bits of real estate.  It was in some ways a dress reversal for World War One, and answers the interesting question of what happens when two more or less incompetent militaries mix it up.  Answer: inconclusive results that cost more than either side expected.

The Treaty has a bunch of clauses relating to some Greek islands that Italy also wanted, but the parts I found interesting were:

Article 7, an Italian engagement to suppress Italian post offices in the Ottoman Empire whenever other powers do so.  ('cause ya know, those Italian post offices just can't be up to any good.  And Allah be praised we will deal with their treachery just as soon as everyone else does.)


Article 9, a Turkish engagement to restore dismissed subjects of Italy to their administrative positions in the Empire without loss of retirement pension rights (you have to live in Wisconsin to appreciate this one, we have had protests that paralyzed state government over reducing public employee pensions, so it is interesting to see that one minor war has been fought at least in part over the issue!)

Ouchy Castle!  In Ouchy Switzerland.  This is where the Treaty of Ouchy was signed.  It looks like a very pleasant place.  Probably it is pronounced differently there than here.  It is near Lausanne, so is likely in the French speaking part of Switzerland.  "Oo-shay"?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Oh, those Ranting Methodists

A sign on a building in Hexham, England

These days Methodists are a mainstream denomination--if anything a bit on the boring side.  Not so 200 years ago when they were an impassioned sect, with itinerant preachers holding "camp meeting" style outdoor services.  They came in for quite a bit of criticism from the Church of England who decried them as "ranters".  They seem to have adopted the insult as a badge of honor.

The local newspaper, the delightfully named Hexham Courant, has kind of a fun feature.  When a historic property is for sale-and in that part of the world most everything has a bit of history to it-the realtor writes up a brief history of the place.  Here is some background on Ranting Methodists

As near as I can figure the property with the bronze plaque was at some point a Reading Room.  It was not clear if it was still in service as such.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Seeking the Holy Grail

Admit it, in our modern educational system most people encounter the literature of the Holy Grail by this route:

Which is not really all that bad, the Pythons are/were the most classically educated comedians in modern history and they took the hopelessly muddled, anachronistic gamish that is Arthurian/Grail literature and made an extremely funny movie about knights wandering about...hopelessly muddled and anachronistically.

The actual nature of the Grail is even mixed up, by most accounts it was the drinking vessel used at the Last Supper, but a parallel tradition has it being a vessel used to catch some of the blood of Christ on the Cross.

The word Grail is thought to derive from the Old French graal, via the Latin gradale, and ultimately from the Greek word krater, which was a two handed drinking vessel.  A totally different and later explanation is that it is a contraction of Sang Real, or "royal blood".  Minstrels performing the Grail/Arthurian cycle at court probably liked to play up this angle of things for their royal patrons.

In any event, somewhere way back there existed, one presumes, an actual vessel used at the Last Supper.  Having excavated no small number of Roman era pottery vessels reduced to scattered shards, it is difficult to be too, er, sanguine, about the prospects of it surviving; but of course it might have been a more upscale container of some sort.

Many years ago, back in high school I actually did a report on surviving containers felt to possibly be The Holy Grail.  I was very enamoured with one specimen, the 'Antioch Chalice.'

The discovery story is so "Indiana Jones" with well diggers finding a silver treasure trove at the site of an early Christian Church.  Here is an abstract written soon after its early 20th century discovery:Antioch Chalice Discovery

And what a great image;

It was said to be an earlier, simple drinking vessel covered over by an elaborate, nicely crafted exterior showing twelve seated disciples/philosophers; along with numerous animals including a lamb, and enough other symbolic stuff to cover just about all the mythic spectrum.

Alas, alas.  As you can see in a page from the Metropolitan Museum of Art who own this object, more recent scholarship has said-no way.

In part it is the scale that fools you.  It is a lot bigger than it looks.  Also it is felt to be sixth century instead of first century.  In fact, it is now considered to not even be a drinking vessel, more likely a "standing lamp".

Sigh.  Not an object of holy veneration and eldrich power.  Just a bit of home furnishings from some Byzantine era equivalent of Ikea.

The Pythons would find this funny.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Downstream in Ancient Rome or, Signs of the (Ancient) Times

At a roman archaeological dig you find many occasions where stones have been reused.  Why carve a new one when you can just pick up a nice specimen from a nearby ruin?  Altars, tombstones, dedicatory inscriptions, all end up being built into new walls.

Sometimes it is hard to tell.....

The Vindolanda site has some water issues, so there are drains everywhere.  The above stone was built into the side of one.

Was this an example of reuse?  Or did it indicate that "this way is downstream"?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Read them the Riot Act

It saddens me to report that the metaphorical name of my blog "Detritus of Empire" has become literally true as civil unrest in London and other British cities has raged out of control for several nights.
The streets of Liverpool, from the BBC

As is so often the case the problems of the UK and the US are similar, and we have had our own episodes of unacceptable civil disturbance closer to home.  Unrest in Milwaukee

Something is clearly amiss in our respective lands, and the police in each instance have not appeared to be able to restore order in a timely fashion.  At least in the UK they have had the option, until very recent times, to have the authorities confront a mob and "Read them the Riot Act".

In current usage this is a phrase used to describe stern sounding threats of future dire consequences, generally from a parental figure to a surly teenager who is seldom impressed by the effort.  But not so long ago the Riot Act was a very real thing, and to be ignored at considerable peril.

The Riot Act was enacted by Parliament in 1714 and allowed local authorities to declare any collection of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and to disperse or face punitive action.  The official name of this legislation was very direct and to the point:  "An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters."

The Act had to be read aloud to the rioters.  If in one hour they had not dispersed the authorities could take any action necessary including deadly force. 

Here is what was read:
Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!
That's it.  In one hour the mob disperses or in theory, the authorities could draw sabers, level pikes and halberds and sound the charge.

Of course with any legal power of this magnitude it was employed in both good and bad cause, the Peterloo Massacre being an especially egregious use of force.

The Riot Act gradually fell out of use, its last public reading being in 1919 when it was employed to deter looters taking advantage of a widespread police strike.  It remained on the statute books until 1973.  I understand that Scotland retains a version of the law, in a land where tumults and riotous assemblies are historically a normal state of affairs.

I am enough of a Tory to wonder if the UK might not benefit from a revival of the Riot Act.  Here in the US we shall, alas, have to find some other way to maintain order.  We fought a Revolution to get away from this sort of thing.

Besides,  commanding a crowd in the name of "Our Sovereign Lord the President" might not work out very well at all.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Beseeching an Unknown God

A household altar found recently at Vindolanda.

No inscription, just the odd serpent figure and what look like two mountains.  Or was it the letter M?

To what deity was this devoted?

Mons Gemini?


Don't laugh too hard at that last one....there is a known inscription from Vindolanda dedicated to "DEO MOGUNDI"  which is pretty close.  And for that matter there are also two prior known inscriptions to "The Mother Goddess" DEABUS SVIS MATRIBUS.  Which is probably what Madonna considers herself to be.

More on inscriptions, dedicatory and otherwise, at Vindolanda carved in stone, so to speak

The wise heads of the Vindolanda Trust are pondering this artifact, and will no doubt offer up the official word in the excavation off season.  In the meantime a suggestion from one of the excavators that perhaps this was a practice piece for someone learning the stone carvers trade has something to recommend it.

Photo from the WeDigvindolanda site linked on the sidebar.  Worth an occasional visit for those with an interest in such things.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Know your Alaska Salmon

This is a time of year which often finds my sons and I in the far, far north of Alaska, fishing for salmon.  Other commitments, and a sufficiency of fillets from last year, are keeping me closer to home this time.

But in case you go, here is a handy field guide to Alaska salmon.

King Salmon.
aka (lower 48 states name) Chinook
Size: 20 – 80 pounds!
Fun to catch factor-very high
Good to eat-smoked is best.
How to catch ‘em-usually river fishing, from boat or bank...we caught this guy white water rafting!

By way of reference, fisherman is 6 foot 1

Silver Salmon
aka Coho
Size: 10 -20 pounds
Fun to catch factor-very high
Good to eat-not bad, you tend to catch so many of them that you have lots to tinker with different recipes
How to catch ‘em-river fishing and especially in the bays as they wait to run upstream.  Boat fishing the usual rule.

note the variable levels of enthusiasm on display

Red Salmon
aka Sockeye
Size: 5 -10 pounds
Fun to catch factor- medium
Good to eat-probably the best of the bunch.  
How to catch ‘em-river bank fishing
After a long fruitless day on another river, we caught our limit next to where we were camping!

Pink Salmon
aka Humpbacked
Size: 5-15 pounds
Fun to catch factor-medium.  When they are running they are present in massive numbers.  You could get sore arms.
Good to eat-nah, not really
How to catch ‘em-bank fishing.  You could probably walk over and club ‘em with a stick.

Here are roughly a bazillion pink salmon trying to get back to the hatchery they came from! Go Away! A chilling prospect to any parents who worry about adult children returning to the nest.

Dog Salmon
aka Chum
Size: I’m told around 10 pounds
Fun to catch factor-seemed very elusive…we could see them but not persuade them to bite.
Good to eat-name comes from their use as sled dog chow.  Even the dogs would prefer something better.
How to catch ‘em-you are asking the wrong fishermen.  This proved to be the White Whale for my serious fishing son, obsessive hours spent to no result.
We'll get you yet.

No, this one is not a salmon at all.  Just keeping you on your toes.

It’s a ling cod, perhaps the most repulsive fish we have every caught.

How to catch ‘em-deep sea fishing
Fun Factor-mostly just showing it off, reeling it in is like winching up an old stump. (which would be more attractive, come to think of it).
Good to eat-allegedly.  I was unimpressed.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

St. Croix Cougar. Rest in Peace

For those of you in my real world neighborhood this will not be news, but last month I lost a casual acquaintance.  And a distinguished one at that, as he was likely the greatest traveler his kind has ever produced.  I never actually met him, but that is irrelevant, our paths crossed.

In December of 2009 reports started trickling in of cougar sightings near the Minneapolis-St.Paul metro area.  These were the usual mix of ambiguous tracks in the snow, missing poodles, people who saw "something", and more reliable accounts.  In particular the proliferation of "game cams"-automatic motion sensor cameras-allowed rapid confirmation that indeed a cougar was revisiting areas where his kind had been hunted to extermination in the 19th century.

Generally when this situation arises there are two theories put forward.  Either this was a "tame" cougar released from captivity by owners who have come to regret a rash decision to adopt a sizable carnivore; or a restless young male specimen on the prowl from the nearest known reproducing population out in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

This particular cougar hung around eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin a while, apparently swimming or walking across a frozen section of the St. Croix river which divides the two. 

He then spent a few months in northern Wisconsin where in February of 2010 there was a confirmed sighting about two miles from my cabin.  Now, as I spend a good deal of time at said rustic manse it is quite likely that while I did not see or hear him, that he saw and heard me in my comings and goings.  I know several sober minded folk who actually saw a cougar in the area, although some circumstances suggest that there may actually be more than one beast involved.  Most enigmatically a fellow who conducts guided cougar hunts out west took it on himself in the summer of 2008 to run his dogs out after a reported sighting.  He claimed to have treed a female cougar.  Unless he was pulling my leg, and I see no motivation for such monkey shines, the St. Croix male was visiting the area on a social call.

Technology is a wonder indeed, and the progress of the St. Croix cougar was tracked by of all things, DNA testing on his droppings.

In May of 2010 S.C. Cougar seems to have exited Wisconsin heading into the upper Peninsula of Michigan.  From there he may have wandered up into Canada, somehow crossing over substantial water perhaps by swimming across at Sault St. Marie.

Eastward, ever eastward his journey.  Food was to be had aplenty.  And there was no organized attempt to hunt him down both for sentimental reasons and because he was passing through regions that no longer had any rules and regulations for hunting cougars.

Eventually he ran out of continent.  After a brief but probably memorable sighting at an exclusive prep school outside of New York City, he wandered onto an expressway near Milford Connecticut and was struck and killed by a car on June 11, 2011.

Here is his odyssey.

Quite the trek.  Some 1600 miles even if he did not take side trips.  And on autopsy he was confirmed to be the same specimen tracked across the Midwest, and to have been a wild cougar with origins in the Black Hills.

Impressive.  And in a time when we think we have the frontier permanently closed, when we imagine that outside the circle of our figurative firelight there are no longer hungry wild things lurking, a bit to think about.

Cougars in Wisconsin. Yikes, what would that yield on a Google Seach!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Two Story Outhouse

I guess the picture pretty much tells the story.  This is a two story outhouse in a tiny town in rural Illinois.  It is said to date from 1872, and its unusual dimensions were to accommodate a two story structure-general store with apartments above-that stood a few feet further up in the lot.  A walkway allowed the second story occupants to reach the accommodations without having to run down the stairs.

It was padlocked, so we were unable to admire the highly ingenious internal construction details that allowed multi-level use without untoward repercussions.

The outhouse sits in a one lot sized park. 

There was a small information kiosk.  In a fine little touch, the box holding the comments card looked like this:

The roof hinged back to give access to the cards.

On a somber note the park also contained a memorial to 21 year old Cole Spenser "American by birth, Patriot by choice", who died in Iraq.  For the small towns of America from which a disproportionate number of our servicemen arise the loss of a single native son is deeply felt.