Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Our Lady of the Crack House

Back in May when I was on my digging adventure in Belgium I made reference in a blog posting to the, um, unusual accommodations that were provided.  For the full tale, go HERE .  The place felt like a run down crack house, and in fact turns out to have been a pretty much abandoned building whose last use was as a film set for a TV series that was a sort of Belgian version of Breaking Bad.

The creepy visual motif hit you as soon as you stepped in the door:

I am very excited to have learned a bit more about our mystery woman, but first a short video from YouTube....I'm not sure why a German newspaper found our hovel interesting, they must have been doing a bigger piece on the project:

But getting back to that creepy mural.  

It is based on a picture called Tina that was painted in 1961.  The artist was a British man named Joseph Henry Lynch.  Now departed he was a mysterious figure about whom very little is known.  Various rumors - always interesting even when untrue - claimed he was a nun living in New Zealand or that he was in fact Mexican. He made a living painting a series of similar striking female images.  They seem to occupy a niche in the world of UK popular art that is roughly analogous to "Dogs Playing Poker". His work shows up in the background of assorted TV shows and movies.  Here for instance is a still from Stanley Kubrick's frightening 1971 post Apocalyptic masterpiece "A Clockwork Orange".

Ah my, good times.  Makes living in my very comfortable house back in the states seem just a little mundane.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Our Lady of the Trenches

Many things surprised me about my time digging at the Hill 80 excavation.  Among them was the prominence of religion to the soldiers who were there.  Soldiers of many nations fought and died but the biggest group of casualties we recovered were Bavarians from the 1914 fighting.

Some of them still had Bibles in their packs or in the disintegrating pockets of their uniforms.  We found crucifixes and Rosary beads.  And we found this:

This was at first thought to be pre-war.  Belgium of course like Bavaria was and is a very Catholic region.  But from its find location it seems likely that it was something rather different:

This is a contemporary photo.  The text says "Mary Grotto in Company (Ubichn.) Wytichaete.  The word in parenthesis is of obscure meaning - maybe the name of the commander - but the location, Wytichaete, is the German version of Wychaete, the village where our excavation took place.  So it seems that not only were there no Bavarian atheists in the foxholes, they actually constructed small shrines to the Virgin Mary right into the sides of the trenches.
(Robin Shaefer, who found the above photo in his archival hunts, says the word in parentheses is Abschnitt.  This means "section". And technically this is not the "German" variation of the town name but one of several older versions.  Belgium has a complicated situation with several competing official languages).

Friday, October 26, 2018

Terrifying German Children's Stories

I have not talked too much about my German class.  It is going well.  When you start out with a bit of vocabulary and have few misgivings about babbling away in front of your fellow students it is possible to learn quickly.  

I find occasions where I actually begin to think in German.  This first happened in the shower where I realized that I could tell the story of Hansel and Gretel in its original language.

This was a few days after our Professor had read us selections from an old German children's book called Struwwelpeter.  I was aware of it and actually had read it before in its English translation.  Horrid stuff really, German parents apparently told their Kinder tales in which children get bitten by dogs, set on fire when they play with matches and even get their thumbs cut off.  Rather powerful object lessons there I suppose. 

First published in 1845, it is still in print.  Above is the cover and the subject of one of the stories contained within; Shaggy Headed Peter.  He never combed his hair or cut his fingernails and so became very unpopular.

It is never a good day unless you learn something.  I had not known until recently that this book of "Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures" had inspired a couple of medical terms.

Story number 8 is the tale of "Zappel-Phillip", or "fidgity Phillip".  He can't sit still and accidentally knocks his supper off the table and onto the floor.  In Germany Attention Deficit Disorder is colloquially called "Zappel-Phillip-Syndrom".

There is even a rare condition in which patients have thick, crazy hair that is impossible to comb.  It is of course "Struwwelpeter Syndrom".  *

As my hair gets thinner and so much easier to manage I think my odds of developing this one are dwindling fast.
* On an even better day you learn two things.  Albert Einstein is listed as a "possible case" of Struwwelpeter Syndrome!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Taking the Chill off - Automatically.

I usually arrive on campus 45 minutes before class begins.  Time for a bit of quick review and then often a stroll about.  Today I saw something that did not register immediately as odd....but did after a moment.

I saw a young lady sitting beside a fire pit that was putting out some nice warm looking flames on a crisp chilly morning.  

Well, I certainly was not about to go up and offer to share the warmth or anything, that would seem to be the duty of her age contemporaries.  But then I wondered....who gets a fire pit stoked up on campus on a Wednesday morning?

Then I looked at the second identical unit.  And next to it was this:

Flip that little lid up and underneath is a dial.  You can set it for variable lengths of time and the gas powered fire pit starts up automatically.

Winter is not far off.  I'll take all the help I can get.
Update.  One a chill morning in early November I went back.  On each of the units I pushed the start button and was rewarded not with heat but with the smell of a gas leak.  I figure the igniters have already failed.  I really don't like to think about how much money was spent on this interesting concept that stops working as soon as it is exposed to, oh I don't know, actual weather......

Monday, October 22, 2018

Middle School Robotics Update

Your average middle school is such a hive of noise and chaos that the normal flow of time seems to be suspended there.  So I looked up the other day, actually I looked my calendar, and realized that over half the time for the kids to build their three pound combat robots had slipped away.

It did not help that I had to give up half of our first session to some silly "team building" exercises.  Oh well.

Progress is ongoing but the more complex, powered weapon robots will go right down to the last minute....assuming the kids don't have absences....or that we God Forbid have an early snow day.

Wheels cut from dense foam.  This stuff was FIRST robotics leftovers.

Here is the first machine to actually be driven.  Simple, but simple is actually good. A bit of armor to protect the electronics might be nice.

Three machines running now, and an impromptu scrimmage in progress.  That biggest one looks like a coffee table.  It is sturdy but will be a beast to try and maneuver in real combat.  

Friday, October 19, 2018

Monkey Island Memories

I'm not sure how I got to talking about the Como Park Zoo.  It was I suppose a natural topic to get to eventually, as my grandson is very, very interested in animals and many of the books we read together reflect this.  One of his favorites for a time involved Naughty Monkeys (actually, is there another kind?) at a zoo who reach out and grab the hats of visitors.

It brought to mind a time very long ago, when I was maybe 7 years old and my class at Lowell Elementary school went to visit the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul.

I don't recall much, just snippets.  There was a Galapagos tortoise you could ride. There was a big, languid gorilla; you could put a dime into a vending machine and it would cast a plastic sculpture of "Casey" for you to take home.

And there was Monkey Island.

It was like a big cement swimming pool.  I remember the bottom as being painted turquoise.  The central area was a jumbled pile of rough stone.  The inhabitants were monkeys, seals and alligators.

Each had a role.  The seals swam round and round making rude noises and begging for bits of fish.  These were conveniently for sale.  The monkeys scampered about.  Probably kids also threw them snacks but I don't recall seeing this done.  And the alligators just sat in the sun.

Naturally my young brain saw alligators and monkeys in close proximity and envisioned the possibilities.  Mind you, I did not want the monkeys to get eaten but I did want to see them tease the alligators enough for them to take a lunging snap, followed by general monkey howling and the throwing of sticks and dung!


The last photo no doubt shows a school group much like that in my memories, but a decade or two earlier.

It has long since been renamed Seal Island, the simians having been moved out to sweller digs that have no murderous reptiles to add dramatic effect.

For the best I suppose.

Incidentally, Monkey Islands were once quite common.  Like the Como Park example many were WPA work projects during the great depression.  Changing attitudes towards the care and treatment of our distant cousins seems to have relegated most of them to obsolescence.  

Hmmmm, I could see adding another category called Monkey Island to my subject listings, and start hunting them down with the diligence I have previously devoted to Brewery Caves.......

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Bring me the Head of the Stinky Cheese Man!

There are a lot of fun aspects to being a grandfather.  You get to revisit the fun times of having young children around but without any of the worries that come from direct responsibility.  It's kind of a do over in a sense, you do all the old fun things again. Including reading favorite books.

Of course we have most of the books from when our kids were young.  One of my all time favorites was and is this one:

It is a retelling of old fairy tales in a snarky modern style.  In the one of the stories the Ginger Bread man is made instead out of "stinky cheese".  Naturally nobody is trying very hard to catch him.

My grandson loves the story.  I read it - heck, I could certainly recite it without reading - in an impassioned style and with six or seven distinct voices.  The story ends poorly for Ol' S.C.M. he gets dunked in a river and dissolves.  I usually add a post script to the story not found in the original, it involves dead fish floating down stream.

On a recent grand kid visit this little wedge of foam rubber promoting Wisconsin Cheese turned up.  Just right for adding a few details and making it the head of the Stinky Cheese Man.  It kept turning up all over the house.  And at least my son and I played along, holding our noses and saying "PU!" every time it was brought to us.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Going Back to University after age 60. Not quite Free....but cheap.

Note please, this information pertains specifically to the State of Wisconsin.  Similar programs exist in many other states.  Have a look at A Senior Citizen Guide for College for details.

Lets say you are a dutiful, tax paying citizen of the fine state of Wisconsin.  You've done your share to make the Badger State budget work, and now our old pal and Spirit Animal Totem Bucky Badger would like to do a little something for you in return.  How'd ya like to go to school for free after age 60?

There are of course strings attached.  You only get into classes that have empty spots after the regular, tuition paying students get first dibs.  That's fair, the youngsters have to try to fit all the puzzle pieces together in a fashion that gets them a degree in a reasonable number of years.

Oh, and you will be auditing the class.  No grades.  No credit towards a degree.  In theory you don't even have to do the tests and homework but I have yet to meet a Senior Student who is not eager to tear into exams and show what they've got.

This offer applies to both the University of Wisconsin system and to all of the Technical Colleges.  I've taken advantage of both.

Now, about that free part.

I've previously gone to the local Tech College on an over 60 audit basis, so I knew that no tuition does not really mean free.  There are books to purchase. A parking permit perhaps.  And there are some "fees".  When making inquiries about University I was told that the fee was a reasonable sounding $60.

Your starting point for information such as this should be the Admissions office.  Usually there is a contact person specifically for "Special Students", and in my case she was very helpful.  I was told you have to first enroll as a regular student then change your designation.

There were a few other formalities.  I got a photo ID.  As previously mentioned I took a placement test to see which section of German I should be taking.  I had to contact the instructor and get permission to audit his class.

When I went online to pay the bill it was a ridiculous amount.  $1,417.  For one four credit class. That of course was the full ticket, no student aid price.  After a few more forms had been filled out I got a revised bill.  It was still $612.  Clearly the computer system and/or its human minions were not fully grasping the concept.  Another trip back, another pleasant chat with an employee of about my vintage.  Oh, how about $240.  Now this is reasonable, and somewhat reflects my initial info.  I was not told at the time that it was $60 per credit, but hey, its worth it.  

Basically everything you've heard about the escalating cost of higher education appears to be true.  I won't even tell you what the fairly simple text books I acquired cost, but even with one on a "rental" basis the tab would have, back in the day, paid for my Friday nights at Culla's Tavern for a full semester.

But keeping the big picture in mind, I figure that if instead of going to college four days a week I went to an upscale coffee joint and sat there for a couple of hours I would be spending more and learning less.

So be persistent in your pursuit of knowledge.  And of the correct price tag.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Hammond Wisconsin. A Lost Brewery? And a forgotten graveyard.

My postings on Forgotten Brewery caves have become less frequent.  Oh, my part of the world once had hundreds of them.  The easy ones I have already covered.  Some of the big urban ones I do know about but prefer not to discuss because I don't want to point out any sites that might lead to injury or incarceration.  Many of the smaller caves from rural brewery sites have just vanished.

Take Hammond Wisconsin.  It is a hamlet about 20 miles from the Wisconsin/Minnesota border.  This was just far enough from the big breweries in Hudson and Stillwater that a small operation existed in Hammond for a few years in the late 1870s.  Location?  Unclear, it does not show on any map I know of.

But recently an acquaintance told me that his uncle was from Hammond and used to refer to an area on the south side of town as "Brewery Hill".

That was enough to warrant a quick side trip there recently.  Using the customary template for finding brewery sites (hillside, stream, road access, near or better yet just outside those pesky city limits) I spotted this.

Although heavily remodeled the grey house has a peculiar central chimney.  It reminded me of a 19th century brewery building.  But to be fair this style of building was also sometimes built as a house in the early 20th century.  The taller of the nondescript white buildings on the hill is also a potential candidate.  The odds of a small brewery building surviving from that era are actually much improved by the fact that it was only in use for a few years.  So many of these early wooden breweries went up in flames regularly.

But what I am fairly sure of is that the hillside between these two buildings is dimpled with a couple of areas that look very much like collapsed brewery caves.  

Now I must admit I had been through Hammond a couple of years earlier.  I had  rejected this location for an early brewery for the simple reason that a church and cemetery were very near by.  Even in Germanic communities putting the church next to the brewery would be a bit edgy.  And a grave yard could serve as a stark reminder that an excess of alcohol is not all that good for you. Now that I think of it the separation of breweries and cemeteries probably goes way, way back.  Just imagine the water quality near medieval burying grounds!

But when I went back to my sources I found an 1876 map that showed something interesting.

Alas, the brewery is not shown.  It should be just north of the railroad (the line with alternating light and dark bars) and about half way between the depot and the main north south street.   

But if you look up a bit you can see a cross just above the L. Davis property.  This then is the original 1870's cemetery for Hammond.  The cemetery near the potential brewery site seems to be twenty years newer and must have been started long after the brewery closed.

Of course I will be by for a closer look at the cemetery next trip through.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Academic Life on the Margins

I try to take the sillier aspects of modern campus life seriously.  I really do.  But the other day I was on my way to an exam and distractedly got off on the wrong floor.  And lo and behold I found yet another office that seems to exist for reasons of political correctness.  There are more than a few of these.*

Of course I am sympathetic to people with problems.  But you know, strictly speaking as I meander about with students roughly 45 years younger than myself....a case could be made that I am the marginalized one.**

I mean, I'm old, unemployed and can't hear as well as I used to.  That strikes me as some kind of trifecta.

I won't do it of course but I admit to a moment of temptation.  I could show up and volunteer to be part of their research project.  Exactly what the input of a cantankerous straight, male conservative would do to their data collection is unclear but one hopes it would play merry hob with it.
* My survey is far from comprehensive but in casual wandering I have found three "safe spaces", as well as additional specific places for women and gay folks.  To be fair I also ran across the Veteran's Lounge mentioned previously and even a small study area for Non Traditional Students.  I guess that's me. 

** I consider myself something of a "Stranger in a Strange Land" in this setting. Anyone who would take offense at my musings might consider this to be the mirror image of a young, progressive person with multicolored hair and political views to match getting a job at the local Country Club.  I'd expect wry insights on how silly the Elks and Kiwanis clubs were in their natural settings.  And I'd find them humorous.  Perhaps extended life on this planet just makes one better able to smile over things that could make others fume.  

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Lamb at Fox Lake

A child's grave in Fox Lake Wisconsin.  Rest in Peace Irene.  Note the little animal curled up at the base of the monument.  I've seen a few of these before.

So what is it?  Lamb?  Dog?  

The tail threw me off.  I've seen quite a few lambs and they all have those cute little puffball tails.  Well, that's because their natural tails get "docked", or cut short.

So for this example anyway, Lamb it is.  Although when you look it straight in the eye it rather resembles a classic Area 51 alien!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tree Shaped Tombstones - A Bud Plucked by God

Plymouth cemetery in the quiet countryside west of Janesville Wisconsin.

A tombstone for Ella, wife of J.W. Grenawalt and for their infant daughter Margie Ruth.

The sickle and sheaf, sign of a life taken too soon.

Ella died in 1894, aged 36.  Margie Ruth had died the year before, just six months old and likely a victim of one of the infections now vanquished by modern vaccines.  The inscription is a sad one.  "A bud plucked by God To bloom in heaven."

I wonder if the tombstone was ordered when the infant died, leaving the space above blank.  But as it happens, not for long. Did Ella die in subsequent childbirth?  And I wonder what became of J.W.?

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Not a Handmaid's Tale

Strolling through campus today I was wondering if current political events would lead to some sort of protests.  So when I saw a group of people gathered together wearing what looked like 18th century clothing I figured it was one of those "Handmaid's Tale" themed protests.  There have been a bunch of these of late, especially in association with the Supreme Court nomination.

But it didn't seem quite right.  For one thing, protests usually attract crowds, said crowds being a mixture of supporters, opponents and people just trying to get through to their next class.  Also, these people were singing.  And not impassioned, angry protest songs.

They were singing hymns.

As it turns out this was a choir from a local Mennonite community.  I have to assume that their presence was a previously scheduled event that just happened to have a bit of inadvertent political relevance.

They sounded great.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

At Least it wasn't in the Computer Science Building....

It's all about branding these days.  So pretty much all the signage at the University I am attending is in blue and gold color scheme.  At times this can have jarring and unexpected results....

Ponder that for a moment.  Square.  Blue.  How is that name familiar?