Monday, June 30, 2014

Roman York - Cows and Conservation

Akin to many early English and Continental cities York inherited a very sturdy city wall around its central core.  These walls were of vital importance during the restless late Roman and Dark Ages, and continued to be of defensive value well into early modern times.

But when urban life started to get busier in the late 1700s, many cities decided that a course of walls with limited access points was in fact a negative, a drag on modernization and prosperity.  So many fine Roman and medieval monuments were smashed down unceremoniously.

In the case of York the walls were of course in disarray.  The fortifications of the great Roman fortress had deteriorated dramatically by the time the Vikings showed up.  And as to what happened in between, the time of the Anglo-Saxons was almost entirely unknown.  Of course medieval building on top of the earlier stuff, then a long gentle decay had caused the walls of York to be a mish-mash of stonework and crumbling ruins.

So it was not surprising that the city fathers applied in 1800 for an Act of Parliament to knock the walls out entirely.  What was surprising was the degree of emphatic resistance on the part of far sighted preservationists.  Their efforts were not entirely successful, some 300 yards were torn out anyway, but the coherent sense of York as an ancient place is largely intact today, with a fine display of restored walls upon which one can walk and enjoy the city view.  Tourism dollars and pounds have certainly far exceeded any short term gain that could have come from wholesale demolition.

Also, a spirit of inquisitiveness was established.  People actually thought about what they were seeing in front of them.

By 1839 York was starting to wake up in earnest.  That was the year that the railroads came.  By some accounts that was also the year that a tunnel was to be dug through the course of the city walls near the old St. Leonard's Hospital.  (I have also seen 1842 quoted, and it seems more likely).

The purpose of this tunnel is obscure in the on line sources I have encountered, but my tour guide in York last April gave this version.

At this point in time keeping livestock in the city was common.  A farmer had a shed near the earthen berm that was what the city wall had become.  He wanted to make a tunnel so that his cows could exit the city to grazing land without having to traipse through the streets.  Workmen were employed.

But they came across the foundation of a stone tower.  Rather than bash on they stopped, and local antiquarians were called in.  The structure was of ambiguous age, but was felt to be from the mysterious interval between Roman and Viking eras.  It has been dubbed "The Anglian Tower" for this reason.  In fact it sits on Roman foundations and probably was a late Empire structure refurbished by the Angles.

I got a couple of photos of the site, and consider it good fun to try and correlate the images with the history.  I can't promise perfect clarity.  Neither the morning sunlight nor the Light of History are ideal in this spot.

Brick cow shed on the right.  Medievial city wall on the left.  The stubby structure in the middle is the Anglian Tower.  Recall that in the early 1800s ground level would have hidden the tower entirely.

Close up of the Anglian Tower.  The lower levels were excavated in 1970.  Many confusing and confounding wall structures of variable dates were exposed.  A plaque on the site mentions that one of the excavators, a certain Jeffery Radley, was killed in an accident on the site that summer.

Just to the right of the Tower, set into the brick wall of what looks like the lower level of the "cow shed" we see this:

I am assuming that this was the proposed exit for the bovines.  The archway is of indeterminate age and seems to be slopped together from brick and stone.  It looks to be about one cow width in size.

As per my earlier mea culpa, details on this site are hard to come by.  Some sources indicate the tunnel was a more ambitious venture, not just an impractical way to get to the pasture.  Some sources date the excavations on this site to 1969 instead of 1970.  And as to the dating and use for the Anglian Tower, well just don't go there.  Go Here I guess.

But it is a fine, quiet little spot.  Almost nobody goes there.  I think most with an interest in the Roman Remains never get past the more famous Multangular Tower which is to be found a short distance away.  I think that has been sufficiently written about and photographed so will leave you with only one image and one thought...

Ummmm...the Romans didn't really bury people under their defensive tower, did they?  Well of course not.  On that topic, lets talk.  Next posting.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Mystery and Danger Part Two !

After our visit to the bi-level cave Dodge and I drove over to another small town.  It helps our hunting that each and every small burg had to have its own brewery in the 1850s and 60s.

What I knew about this site was that a small, walled off section of brewery cave existed in a building that had once been a saloon. And that the brewery was nearby.  Walking along the road in what I figured was the right place for the brewery I found this foundation:

After a while you just sort of know where you will find things.  And, about 10 feet away from this, fronting out onto the road, there was this:

At first glance you think: storm sewer.  But there is absolutely no reason for such a thing to be in this location.  The hill above has no structures of note on it.  The cement work on top of the tunnel mouth looks quite new, but when you peek inside a little ways...

That is old stone work.  Dodge stuck his hand up above the loose fill and could feel a cold draft. Clearly this was connected to something.  Earlier when looking for the brewery foundation he had found a broken shovel and figured this was a Sign.  Carefully he moved a little of the loose dirt.

A brick archway, very typical for a beer storage vault.  He even stuck his head and flashlight a little further in, but not for long. Brewery caves carved from good old St. Peter sandstone are, literally, rock solid.  This space was mostly filled with loose dirt and had a crumbly, insubstantial feel to it. Trust me, no matter how fascinating you find brewery caves you do not want to go into something that looks like this.

Theories?  The hillside did not have a proper, solid rock face to it.  I think this was a brick storage vault.  It looks, from the inside view and from a depression in the hillside, as if it has collapsed.  I do not think this connects with the small section of better quality cave in the building 100 yards away. Maybe that was dug as a replacement.   I also don't understand the cement.  Is it older than it looks?  It was used by the Romans you know.  Or was there some reason to reinforce this structure at a much later date.  A few brewery caves were pressed into service during the Cold War as Civil Defense shelters.

I would take my chances on whatever fox hole I could dig quickly in my own back yard.

Lets be smart in all matters of Exploration.

Addendum.  I should really read all my references before writing.  I actually have an explanation for the odd newer cement overlying the brick vault.  It turns out that the road there was a "new" one, built in 1920.  It went smack through the old brewery leaving only the little section of foundation that I encountered.  It obviously also cut into the brewery cave/vault and has mostly collapsed it.  There must have been enough water drainage from the remnant that an outlet was constructed.  My advice is the same if not stronger now.  Stay Out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Mystery and Danger Part One !

Well, a little of each.

Today some small town brewery caves that I explored with one of my Mole Buddies, Dodge.  I am afraid I shall have to invoke the "no locations" rule for reasons that will become evident. These caves appear to be on public land and there is nothing stopping the careless from getting themselves into trouble...

Our first cave is a curiosity.  It is a two level cave.  Some of the really big breweries had multi-level caves of necessity.  They just had an awful lot of beer to store.  A few smaller establishments seemed to favor a design where three caves would be dug in parallel, with the central one being a bit higher up. My theory is that the central cave would be filled with ice, and since cold air goes down cross channels would keep the beer in the laterals cold.  It would avoid the awkwardness of manhandling two distinct and difficult classes of objects - kegs and block ice - in the same cramped space.

But my theory did not apply to our first caves.  They were up on a cliff face.  The lower entrance was sealed, but a second one about 8 feet higher up and 10 feet over was accessible. This gave us entry to a very small cave.  Too small for beer storage really.  It had some odd features;

A partial brick wall that only went half way across the space.  No use I could see.

This does not show it well, but at the back of the cave was a place where some crude stonework had been broken into, exposing a shaft going down to a lower level cave.  And when you looked up:

A vent in the roof with a large ceramic pipe hanging rather precariously.  The pipe looks to be original equipment, why would anybody replace it after the brewery went out of business in the 1880s?  The site of the vent can still be seen in a dimple further up the hillside, but the channel is choked with roots and dirt that have washed in over the years.

Dodge volunteered to chimney climb down the shaft into the lower cave.  Taking a picture upwards you can see the vent pipe.

The lower cave was clearly where the beer was stored.  A nice space with some attractive limestone coloration.  Also some unfortunate graffiti and a lot of beer bottles.

Dodge shinnied back up the connecting passage with a little difficulty, it is about a six foot drop and a 10 foot climb.  I was sorely tempted to go down myself, so I did a little quick math on his age and mine.

"Hey, do you see yourself doing that kind of climb 32 years from now?"


So I decided to stay up top.  Thanks for the photos and the advice, Dodge.

The mystery here is what the upper cave was for.  Somebody went to some trouble to excavate a space that really had no storage usefulness.  My thoughts are that these caves were probably natural ones that were expanded.  The lower one was closer to the brewery and was enlarged and squared off for storage.  The connecting passage was probably natural, it shows signs of being expanded here and there but was not heavily tooled.  The upper cave may have been dug, or more likely expanded, simply to allow access for putting in that vent pipe.

Beer needs to be cold.  Looking at that passage between upper and lower caves I can tell you for sure, kegs did not traverse it.  Nor did workers with any regularity.  Nope, air flow and nothing more.

Our adventures for the day were not done, but that can wait until next time.

Happily enjoying a beer with my intact ankles propped up.....

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Dog ate my Homework. Also my Vicodin.

There are probably a lot of nurse's stations that feature a little shrine like this:

The nurses have to field a lot of requests for early refills on controlled substances.  Many are legitimate.  People who are on a regimen of pain control meds do after all sometimes develop acute conditions such as kidney stones and broken arms.  A few of the reasons given take a little more consideration.  Here are a few that were offered up:

The first one gets points for honesty.  The second one, well, perhaps for creativity.

Hmmm.  The writing on the second note might be hard to make out, but the comment was "I was shaking so bad, my pills all fell down the drain".  This might be realistic for a Parkinson's patient. There are of course other reasons for people calling for early med refills to be shaking.

Ah, the Classics.  Dogs seem to enjoy prescription drugs.  And the top one made me smile.  I can assure you there is nothing more buoyant than a bottle full of pills.  Assuming it was sealed.  Now, if you were taking the pills while out boating I guess that may have something to do with the subsequent sinking...

All kidding aside health care professionals have a difficult job to do here.  People in pain need to be helped.  But at the same time the unfortunate tendency of the healthcare system to toss habit forming drugs around too freely needs to be controlled.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Qualifications to be a White House Press Secretary

Since one of the reasons I write on a regular basis is to keep in touch with my friends from overseas I occasionally put in a post that helps explain American politics.  Consider it my small effort on behalf of international understanding.

Today's topic is White House Press Secretary.  (Note, as I was typing quickly the word Today at first came on screen as Toady, a Freudian slip on the keyboard I think).

The job of the White House Press Secretary is to stand up and defend anything that the President and his (or at some point one supposes ) her Administration has done or failed to do.  He, or she, can joke, evade, hem and haw, plead ignorance....but it is considered bad form to speak with a visibly forked tongue.

Should you get caught speaking absolute untruths your default mode is to say you were mistaken or that initial reports proved incorrect or something.  In certain cultures, thinkin' Japan here, ceremonial suicide would be called for on a regular basis, making Press Secretary into a sort of undesirable temp job.

White House Press Secretaries are seldom large, imposing, dominant figures.  Their job is to get along with the Press, to be their pals, to be so soothing that awkward questions don't get asked.

Looking over the list of Press Secretaries in the modern era I was surprised to see that many of them have names that fit nicely into the job description.  Is this why they get hired?  For your consideration:

From 1950 to 1953 Press Secretary duties were handled by Joseph Short and upon his demise by Roger Tubby.  Short and Tubby, they just sound harmless and amiable.

It would not do to have a Secretary with a deep booming voice.  That might alarm the timid reporters after all.  In 1964-64 a certain George Reedy manned the podium.

Although technically only the Assistant Press Secretary during the Reagan years the aptly named Larry Speakes filled in for the incapacitated James Brady for an impressive six years.  Republican Administrations by the way seem to have a longer shelf life for Press Secretaries.  The current longevity champion is a certain James Haggerty who served eight years, the entirety of the Eisenhower Administration.  This is not the same fellow who played "Grizzly Adams" on TV, that was Dan Haggerty, no apparent relation.  But a fierce, bearded Press Secretary with a Bowie knife, while not traditional,  might actually be an interesting experiment.

As respect for the authority of the Presidency has declined in recent years we have had some Press Secretaries with what I regard as unfortunate names.

Tony Snow in 2006 and 2007 was likely called upon to deliver a few snowjobs during the difficult G.W. Bush years.

But the current and likely permanent prize winners for inappropriate Press Secretary names belong to the current Administration.  They started out with Robert Gibbs which is just a little too close to "Glib". Next up was Jay Carney.  For my UK pals I should explain that in our parlance a "Carney" is a somewhat disreputable Carnival Worker.  I should know, I briefly was one.

And the current Press Secretary?  Well he had to stand up in front of a skeptical bunch of reporters recently trying to explain how the IRS - that Agency of Mythical Power and Vision - couldn't come up with a bunch of (potentially incriminating) emails from one of their top officials.  Let's let the man speak for himself, shall we?

"You’ve never heard of a computer crashing before?" White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One.

Your call I suppose, is he joshing or being earnest here?


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Dead of Bewcastle

In my post on Bewcastle you may have noticed a large number of moss covered old tombstones.  The St. Cuthbert's church yard, while new by the standards of the site, contains quite a few graves that are 200 to 250 years old.  We visited on a gloomy, overcast day.  This, along with the interesting effects of wind and moss in this remote place, made for some evocative pictures.

Ah, I am a realist.  My recent 1200 word essay on the intricate history of Bewcastle will get less attention on Google Search than this post that contains phrases like "Creepy Old Graves" and "Really Old Tombstones".  Sigh.  Well, if you turned up here looking for images like that you are welcome to use them.  Link back HERE if you want to know more.  Hey, I also have a cute llama pic there....

As you wander virtually around the church yard at Bewcastle, you notice how often the names of certain ferocious old Reiver families turn up.  Armstrongs, Nixons, Musgraves...

Notice also how many graves have a military theme.  It has ever been true that once you persuade your border ruffians to fight for you rather than against you, they become some of your very best troops.

The Church Yard.

A tomb with a view. The Norman castle is just over the fence.  I wonder how many Roman artifacts come up when they dug graves here....

Seems like the moss is trying to pull this one under.

I like the inscription on the left.  Here Lieth the Body of Margaret, wife of John Baron of Pigshead...
One sort of imagines the inhabitants of a village so named might have been a bit tipsy in life.  They certainly are here, in death.
Dog? Cat? The snout looks more like an anteater.
You see plenty of graves with what I assume are family crests.  Or Regimental insignia?
An interesting marker.  I recall that some of these had the names and dates on the back.
I really like this style.  The lower third is odd.  Was something plastered over here?  Or did you pay not only by the letter but by how much of the rough stone was prepped for carving?  Sort of ruins the effect in my opinion.

The Dead of Bewcastle are not all ancient.  Here rests John Gass of the Border Regiment.  He died in 1917 from wounds suffered on the Western Front.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bewcastle - History On the Edge

When excavating at the Vindolanda Roman fort site we get the weekends off.  In theory this is to rest sore muscles and do laundry.  In practice we usually pack Saturday and Sunday with expeditions to other area Roman sites, shamelessly exploiting diggers who brought cars!

Last time up several of us went to a place called Bewcastle.  Stepping onto the site I realized, and said aloud, "This church yard has more history than all of Wisconsin combined".  Quite true, and that is not even making allowances for the many things that have been forgotten at this lonesome spot.

We tend to think of Hadrian's Wall as the frontier of the Roman Empire.  While convenient for reference it is not strictly speaking true.  There were Imperial incursions short and long north of the Wall.  But if for several centuries the Wall was the boundary, you can imagine Bewcastle as being an observation post out beyond, out in Hostile Territory.  It had a garrison and fortifications and was linked to the more organized forces seven miles to the south by a series of signal towers.

It was an odd fort.  Most Roman forts are of a standard type.  Roughly the shape of a playing card and with the usual structures - granary, headquarters, latrines - in the usual locations.  Bewcastle fort was in the shape of an irregular hexagon.  It probably was built by simply using the footprint of an already extant British village or hill fort.  This would never pass muster within the Empire proper!

Even the name of the place speaks to its origins.  According to the Ravenna Cosmology - one of those maddening fragmentary Dark Ages sources - there was a fort in these parts called Fanum Cocidi. Since Cocidius was a local British deity, and since six altars to same were found on site, the conclusions are that this was indeed the "Shrine of Cocidius" and that the name preserves the earlier British identity of the spot.

Maybe in fact it preserved it for quite a while.  In 1937 excavations at the site uncovered what was thought to be the fort's strongroom.  In material dated by pottery and coin evidence to circa 266-273 there were found two votive silver plaques of Cocidius.

This raises some interesting questions.  The known garrisons at Bewcastle were from the Provinces of Dacia and Germania.  Does the presence of a Celtic religious item in such a place of prominence mean that the continental troops adopted the local religion?  Or was there extensive recruitment among the local peoples?  If so, does that have something to say about the loyalty of the troops?  Bewcastle, unlike most forts along the frontier, does show convincing evidence of destruction on two occasions.

In the general smash up that was the 5th century collapse of Roman power Bewcastle drops out of history for a while.  Something was certainly going on here, probably a thriving monastic community. As a location for such it did have advantages.  Isolation for serenity and residual fortifications for security.  And who knows, did the early Anglo Saxon (or Irish?) monks specifically chose a spot with strong religious roots?  And if so, did they do it to tap into existing spirituality or to plant the cross of Christ defiantly on the grave of paganism?

Because plant a cross they did.  Bewcastle is the location of what has been described as the best example of an Anglo-Saxon cross still in existence.  It dates to the late 7th or early 8th century.

The crossbars are gone, time has weathered the carvings tragically, but it is still a magnificent specimen.  Scholars have been arguing about its content for over four centuries.  It has weird reliefs of animals and birds, England's oldest sun dial, and runic letters that may link it to Efgrid, nephew of our old pal the far flung St. Oswald.  I refer the interested to a more in depth study of the cross. Wikipedia is a decent starting point.  But here is one image that caught both the light and the mood of the place nicely.

Somewhere in the medieval period the site became known as "Bothycaster".  This combines the Latin term "Castrum" for fortress with an old English word, "Bothy".  The latter means sheds or enclosures for animals.  I presume the term "booth" descends from this root.  So at some point the monastic era ended and "Bewcastle" was a ruin with sheds.

But the location remained strategic, so the Normans built a castle there in the 1090's.  They probably found the local population just as suspect as every government before or since.  The somewhat redundantly named Bewcastle Castle was the site of much fighting between rival families of "Reivers" up until the point of its final destruction by the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1641.

Celtic shrine, Roman fort, Dark Ages monastery, Norman castle.  It is a lot to pack into one small place.  Bewcastle has been ruled - if often rather loosely - by Emperors, by Kings great and petty, by Abbots and Knights and various levels of war lords and plain brigands.  Sometimes it has in all likelihood been ruled by no man.

It has seen the march of disciplined Roman troops.  Once there was a garrison of 1,000 men here.  It has seen barbarian hordes besieging the place or swarming past it for better pickings in the more civilized lands to the south.  Grim Normans glowered out of stone ramparts and dreamed of sunny, far away France.  Feuding Reivers, those borderland equivalents of the Hatfields and McCoys, carried on their endless cycle of cattle theft and murder and vengeance.

For all that it is an idyllic place today.  There is one farm where nobody seemed to be about.  And a church, open but empty on a Sunday afternoon.  Everything from the ruined castle to the field walls was constructed of robbed out stones from the Roman fort.

A quiet place indeed.  But still a border land.  If Scotland indeed votes for independence there may well be a frontier crossing right down the road.  Times have become less militant of course, so there may be no need to upgrade the current garrison of Bewcastle....which consists of a small troop of placid llamas.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


My father started out life as an uncomplicated farm boy.  Uncomplicated is not the same as simple.  In fact the farm was an extremely complex place, one with rhythms and cycles of its own.  There was the annual cycle of spring and fall, of planting and of harvest.  And the longer cycles that represented the lives of the farm animals.  Later in life he would often speak of the quiet dignity of the horses and the clever loyalty of the farm dogs.

It was an old school farm, they still had a few of those horses in the 1920's. And they still spoke German three generations after their emigration.

But the modern world eventually came barreling down the dirt road in the form of a brand new school bus that took students to the nearby town.  My father did well there.  He was valedictorian of his high school class, and near as I can figure was the first of our tribe to attend college.  For sure he was the first to go further in his education, racing through medical school under a wartime program designed to turn out physicians for the armed forces.

Later while serving post war in Germany he dabbled with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, that being all the rage back then.  He even visited Vienna, and told me he once was "analyzed".  I suspect it was the whole Freudian, lay on the sofa kind of deal.  It makes for one of those great "could have beens", but I am by no means sure he would have been a good psychiatrist.  He had an abundance of empathy for people and their troubles, but being as I said a little uncomplicated I can't see how he would have been good at understanding the true dark places of the human heart.

We shall never know.  He came back from the service, did a little more training and followed the old school medicine track of that time.  He married a nurse, hung out a shingle as a Family Doctor, had a bunch of kids.

I am sure he was a good family doc.  In that day, and even today somewhat, it was rare that the patient actually needed a complex procedure or an exotic prescription.  More often, most often, they needed a good listener with common sense.

He threw himself completely into his practice, or perhaps it was that his practice dragged him in completely.  We boys saw him late, tired and sometimes not at all.  It was not until I went off to college that I had the revelation that normal dinner time was 5 or 6. Gee, I figured everyone sat down at about 8pm.

But I at least got to know him a little better over time.  Through some mixture of admiration and lack of imagination I followed in the paternal footsteps and became a family doctor myself.  So our conversations through my residency and early practice years were interesting ones.  I would tell him about the latest diagnostic technologies.  He had a genuine surprise and delight hearing about them, no doubt the same sentiments he had as a young lad on the farm seeing his first airplane or his first glimpse of a big city.

Nothing lasts forever.  My father practiced until he was 70 years old.  By then he had taken the logical step of joining a group as a part timer.  But they had a mandatory retirement age.

So one morning, medicine just stopped.  Or rather, it went on and left him behind.

He did not know what to do.  He kept a huge batch of journals and browsed them from time to time. He went to hospital staff meetings as an emeritus member, but eventually the city driving got too much for him.   He tried a few hobbies, joined a few groups and such but his heart was not in it.

Once my older brother and I took him on a fishing trip.  He seemed apathetic.  It was a lack luster experiment that we did not repeat.

But oddly enough, after his 80th birthday he started to get....happier.  It seems strange to say that dementia has a good side but in dad's case I think it does.  We no longer talk about medicine and I get the sense that he wants it that way.  He has forgotten the sense of loss.  He has forgotten the dark moments that we all have in our careers.  He no longer broods on the one time he got sued.  The many aggravations of trying to run a one man practice, all the vacations deferred, all the personnel decisions, all the insurance hassles....gone.

So distant when we were growing up, he now finds that visits from his children and grandchildren are his great joy in life. Although as his 90th birthday came and went he had more difficulty telling the grand kids apart, and spends more time snoozing on the sofa.   Yogi, a dim-witted dust mop of a dog, became his constant companion.  And if he is a poor substitute for the cleverness of the long ago farm dogs he makes up for it with his unquestioning loyalty.

The farm days were featured more and more in his conversations.  He was so happy there as a child, so eager to get out as a young man.  He went through a phase where the farm worried him a bit.  It was abandoned now, and there was discussion about what to do about it.  But after a while he no longer cared about that.

His memories of the farm became brighter, more vivid, complete with sights and sounds, and smells and a cast of characters.  And they went farther and farther back.

I recall one conversation where he was describing the experience of walking behind the plow (horse drawn I think) looking with fascination at the things unearthed.  Rocks, worms, the hope for an indian arrowhead.  It was the memory seen from age 90 of being perhaps 5 years old again.

And he was happy.  The cares and troubles of the adult world had all been set aside.   The cycle had run to completion and he was once again an uncomplicated farm boy.

I wrote that last year, at a time when Dad's health appeared to be failing fast.  But we are a durable bunch we children and grandchildren of the farm.  He is still with us this Father's Day, still snoozing on the sofa a lot of the time.  Still seeing the past more clearly than the present.

Or is he?

A couple of months back I visited and was telling him the family news.  "Hey, M____ and B____ (my son and his wife) are going to have........chickens."

I saw his eyes spark to life at the pause before the punch line.  Clearly he was one step ahead and was thinking he was about to become a great grandfather.  So, Happy Father's Day Dad.  If you are in fact smarter than you let on, well, it has always been that way.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Importance of Shopping Carefully

At the hardware store:

Not a good time to go cheap and just buy the $2.99 stuff.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Stranded in Istanbul

Below is the text of an email that came to me the other day.  The sender appeared to be a woman we will call "Mary Ann".  I know her slightly, my wife knows her casually.  My comments for a possible reply are highlighted...


   I hope you get this on time,I made a trip to Istanbul (Turkey)and i had my bag stolen from me with my passport and personal effects therein. (Gee Mary Ann, I asked my wife and she said you had just gone to Milwaukee.  Must have been quite the detour.  Savvy move bringing the passport though, you can just never tell sometimes.) The embassy has just issued me a temporary passport but i have to pay for a ticket and settle my hotel bills with the Manager. (I am inferring that this Manager is a towering authority figure.  You capitalize His name.  And refer to yourself as "i", lower case.  He must have you really cowed.)
I have made contact with my bank but it would take me 3-5 working days to access funds in my account,the bad news is my flight will be leaving in Few Hours ( can your flight leave in a Few Hours if you do not have money to buy a ticket?) from now but I am having problem settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let me leave until I settle the bills,I need you to help me with LOAN financially($2,450) and I promise to make the refunds once i get back home,you are my last resort and hope,Please let me know if i can count on you and i need you to keep checking your email because it's the only way I can reach you. (Mary Ann, I really feel that I should help you out.  I mean, it looks to me as if you have become so distraught as to forget everything you learned during your long career as an editor.  Punctuation for instance. Have you considered just hanging out in Turkey for a few more days?  It is nice, your bank is going to come through for you shortly, so perhaps something can be salvaged from this situation.  Oh, and while I am offering you, my now close friend, some useful advice might I suggest you cancel your credit cards right away?  Shockingly, appallingly, there are some in the world who try to take advantage of others.)

And as to the last sentence of yours - which by the way ran on for a stunning 105 rambling words - I am flattered to be your friend in a time of great need.  "Last Resort"....that sounds a little familiar:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Defending the Homestead

I have written a few posts on the matter of our family closing up the old homestead over in Minnesota. (Here and here and especially here) It is where our family got its start in America and we have always had an interest in the place.  So you can imagine my excitement when I got a call from my older brother.  He had gone out for one last look around, and had found something remarkable.

Up in the attic of the 1875 farm house he found a sealed off area.  As the house was slated for demolition this summer he had no qualms about knocking off a couple of boards for a peek inside. Along with some more mundane artifacts he discovered a firearm. He described it to me over the phone as being a "musket" or rife, with a large bore.  It looked old.

This got my imagination going.  To review the Family History - and making a few needed allowances for exaggeration - it seemed to me that he might have found a gun that could have:

A: come over with the family from Germany in 1859
B: could have been one of the weapons they had on hand for defense when they briefly fled the Sioux Uprising in August of 1862.
C: been a "take home" weapon from one of the several young men of that generation who served in the Union Army.

So, lets have a look see and try to solve the mystery of the Gun in the Attic.

Well for sure it is old.  This is a weapon that was fired with a percussion cap. That is, it was a muzzle loaded gun with the black powder being ignited when the hammer came down on a special explosive cap.  This was a style intermediate between the flint locks of the Revolutionary War and the more familiar cartridge firing guns of the modern era.  The innovations of the Civil War era pretty much made these obsolete.  Date of manufacture?  Could be anywhere from the 1820s to perhaps into the 1870s, but lets say 1850s or 1860s as most probable.

No, it was just the camera staring down the muzzle, not my nose.  What this shows is that it is a single barrel shotgun.  No weapon firing a solid slug this size could get away with having walls that thin.  At least not for very long.

The quality of the gun is "ok". Frugality is a dominant trait in my family.  No fancy design work but a little bit of silvering still hanging on. Condition of course is very poor, the stock will need to be glued together.  And the degree of rust is such that making it safe to fire again is simply out of the question. Now, as to details.  We do have a few:

Here is a bit of clumsy repair work.  There must have been a ramrod holder on the undersurface of the barrel.  It broke off, was crudely welded back on.  And then broke off for good.

This is a proof mark.  They are usually stamped on the bottom of the barrel and indicated successful firing at the factory.  This one is on the top for some reason.  The ELG over a small star indicates the barrel at least was made at Liege, Belgium.  This style of mark was in use from the early 1800s up to 1893.  Removing the barrel I did find a mark hidden underneath.  It is not all that helpful but may indicate the specific maker of this unit or a certain workshop within a larger factory.

And finally the stock of the gun.  It is of an unusual shape, one that my limited research to date suggests was more common in European made guns than in the US.

So, how do we put it all together?  I think we can dismiss the notion that one of the ancestral Boys in Blue brought this home.  Shotguns were occasionally used early in the war by cavalry who had nothing better, but a ridiculously long and heavy single shot weapon would be out of the question.

Liege was a major supplier of weaponry.  There are references both to complete weapons and to large lots of barrels being shipped to the US.  In the latter instance the weapons would be completed here, usually in New York state or St. Louis.  The European looking stock makes me lean towards it being a gun completed in Liege.

Now, there is no way to be sure whether this was a weapon brought over from Germany or one bought in some pioneer emporium on their arrival.  Both stories are cool.  But given the age of the weapon, the context in which it was found and the evidence of long hard use, I am inclined to think it was once loaded and pointed nervously out into the dark thickets as my pioneer forebears scampered off to Carver, Minnesota after hearing word that the town of New Ulm - less than fifty miles as the crow or the rumor flies - was under attack.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Old Patients Telling Half the Truth

An interesting shift.  I had an 87 year old trauma patient in.  He had a sort of military bearing about him so I asked.  He said he did his time at various places in the Southern US.  True, but only half true.  His grandson told me that the old gent had lied about his age to join the 101st Airborne Division.  He parachuted into Normandy and fought at Bastogne.

Earlier in the day I had a 94 year old former policewoman in.  It seems she worked undercover when she was a young woman.  After hearing her tale I stuck out my hand because I simply had to shake the hand that had shaken the hand of Al Capone.

"He was a nice guy", she said.  I asked if she ever had a drink with him.

She claims that the answer is no.

Friday, June 6, 2014

York - Whittling away at History

Last post I mentioned the portcullis at Monk's Bar.  For those of you less into medieval fortifications a portcullis is a wooden screen that would be lowered down to block a roadway below.  As it turns out, there was also a portcullis at Bootham Bar, one that was of considerable antiquity.  But it fell on hard times.

During the Second World War, the area around York had lots of air bases.  British, American, Canadian, Free Polish.  When off duty the dashing airmen did the logical thing, they came to town and tried to woo the local girls.  With some success it appears.  When in York I went on a marvelous free walking tour by the York Voluntary Guides Association.  I recommend it.

Our guide took us up into Bootham Bar and told us the following story.  Evidently it was customary for the soldiers to walk the course of the York walls with their sweeties.  And when inside the Bootham Bar - it is by the way a nice dark place for a quick smooch - to carve off a bit of the portcullis as something of a souvenir.  Eventually the whole thing was in ruins and had to be replaced.

The portcullis today:

If you look very closely indeed, you will see evidence that the tradition has not quite vanished.

When you wander into York proper you find a wealth of ancient buildings.  Here is an interesting one, it is the front door of St. Williams College.  It was founded in 1461 and served as a residence for the priests who chanted commemorative prayers at York Minster.  Later it served as the location for Charles I's printing press during the English Civil War.  But it is just the front door that interests us today:

The door is modern.  It was a custom job by the Robert Thompson workshop.  It is run by his descendants now but Robert "Mouseman" Thompson specialized in very high end oak furniture.  Today it is a highly profitable enterprise but back in 1919 Thompson was complaining to a fellow craftsman that he was "as poor as a church mouse".  As a joke he carved a mouse into the project at hand.  It became his trademark.  Now a mouse on a bit of oak furniture is a symbol of high status.  Lets peek at the St. Williams doors.  First the right hand one:

Then the left:

I don't think this is petty vandalism, I figure somebody shaved this off to take home and glue it onto their charity shop quality furnishings!

If Mouseman furniture interests you, visit their site HERE.  Warning, keep the credit card in your pocket unless you really need a $10,000 dining room table.  Charmingly the "Mouseman" has prompted other craftsmen to adopt similar trademarks.  Other Yorkshire workers in oak adopted monikers such as "Gnomeman", "Beaverman", "Eagleman" and "Squirrelman".

History.  The fun thing is that it is still being made.