Friday, August 29, 2014

Factoid or fictoid?

I wrote this and posted it in 2007. With some minor editing I am presenting it again.

This morning I got one of those e-mails that friends pass along to you. It was titled Did You Know and included “facts” like “Stewardesses is the longest word typed with only the left hand and lollipop with your right.”  Who figured that out, and should I believe it? I'm not going to go through the unabridged dictionary typing out words to see if I can make one with my left hand that's longer than the stewardesses, so it’s basically impossible to know if it’s true or not.

Suspicious type that I am, I call little factoids like that “fictoids,” because I suspect they may be fiction.

I am willing to accept some things the e-mail says like, “A dime has 118 ridges around the edge,” or “Peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite,” because I believe those facts could be readily checked. I'm not going to go check them by counting the ridges on dimes or blowing myself up with dynamite to see if the taste in my mouth as I die is peanutty, but they sound reasonable. I’m less willing to accept at face value that “the average person's left hand does 56% of the typing,” or “women blink twice as much as men.” How could I check either of those? Into the suspected fictoid file they go.

One of the factoids had a familiar ring to it. “If the population of China walked past you, eight abreast, the line would never end because of the rate of reproduction.” I heard something similar over 50 years ago when I was in junior high. The teacher who said it to us had a slightly different, more ghoulish, take: “If you lined up all of the Chinese and machine-gunned them as they walked by you you'd never kill them all because they'd reproduce too fast.” Those were the years of more open and casual racism. There was the Cold War: China was Red China, Chairman Mao had his Little Red Book, and fresh in our memories was the Korean War and thousands of Chinese soldiers coming over the hills in North Korea to engage our guys in battle. My smartass classmate, Richard, piped up: “It'd be hard for them to ‘do it’ if they were walking.” The teacher looked at him for several seconds until the laughter died down. “All right, it would,” he conceded, and went on to another subject. I got a mental image of people having sex and babies while lined up, walking, waiting to be machine-gunned to death.

In 2014 I ask, was this fictoid determined before or after the Chinese adopted the one-child to a family rule? They do have a lot of people. According to no less an authority than the CIA China has a population of about 1,300,000,000 people in a land mass a little smaller than the U.S. The U.S. has a population of 300,000,000, or roughly one billion less residents. So would you be able to machine gun all of the residents of America if they’d be so dumb as to march by you and be shot, or would we be reproducing too fast, too?

Whew! That is a lot to think about from one little e-mail.

Here is another factoid I consider suspicious: “If you are an average American, in your whole life, you will spend an average of six months waiting at red lights.” Awww, c’mon! If you live in Utah like I do you just blow through red lights. That could skew the averages. Over a lifetime Utahns probably only wait three months at red lights. People in Utah do not think of a red light as stop, but more like a challenge to get through an intersection without being t-boned by another car. Into that alleged fictoid file it goes.

I have no way of knowing if this is true or not (it’s the first time I've ever read it, and I’ve read a lot about Prohibition-era gangsters): “Al Capone's business card said he was a used furniture dealer.” But I like it. You could sound real smart at a party if you dropped this one into a conversation. “Well, you know,” you say grinning, slowly rotating the ice in your whiskey glass, “Al Capone’s business card said that he was a used furniture dealer.” Gasps of astonishment come from the crowd. You are suddenly the smartest guy in the room, with the most unusual and arcane trivia. Is it factoid or fictoid? You don't care. They don’t either.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

“To kill, Drill Sergeant!” Virgil Partch military cartoons

I wrote this post in 2006, and with a couple of edits I am presenting it again.

Vip (Virgil Partch) was a cartoonist who was popular from the 1940s right up until his death in 1984. He did the “Big George” comic panel for national syndication for years, and filled up magazines with his bizarre cartoons. He was a master of grotesque line, as well as some pretty funny captions.

Last night I went through a couple of his old cartoon compilations, Water On The Brain (1945) and Armed Farces (1968). Some of Vip’s best subjects were military. I’m showing you some of my favorites.

The above cartoon reminds me of my basic training days and learning to use the bayonet. I planned on never getting that close to anyone who was trying to kill me, and especially with a bayonet. So I went through the drills half-assed. The drill sergeant had his routine down pretty well. After one ragtag attack by our platoon on the bayonet practice dummies, he screamed out, “YOU MEN DON'T LOOK LIKE YOU WANT TO KILL SOMEBODY! YOU LOOK LIKE YOU WANT TO MAKE LOVE!”

For some reason that hit me real funny and I started to snicker, then broke out into a big laugh. His response to that wasn’t to thank me for appreciating his good humor, but to put me down for 50 push-ups.

He also did a call-and-respond riff by yelling, “WHAT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE BAYONET?” and our answer back (we were coached, of course) in unison, was, “TO KILL, DRILL SERGEANT! TO KILL!” I was pissed off over the 50 push-ups. I stuck in an extra word, so what came out of my mouth was, “TO KILL THE DRILL SERGEANT! TO KILL!”

Despite Vip’s creativity, he wasn't above swiping from himself. The top cartoon is from 1945, the bottom from 1968.

The final cartoon is pure, vintage Vip. That's one tough sarge!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Orange is the new comedy?

My wife, Sally, and I are finishing up watching Orange Is the New Black on NetFlix. We think it is a great series, but the last thing we would describe it as is a comedy.

But comedy is the niche into which it fits for the benefit of the Emmy Awards.

It’s not that humor isn’t a part of the show, because there are absurdities about life in a women’s prison that make us laugh. But to call it a comedy is a misclassification. Or is it? I look at the publicity picture I took off the Internet for illustration purposes and it certainly looks like it could be a comedy. Those wacky prison gals! A barrel of laughs! That is when they’re not engaged in sex acts or violence, both of which make up other parts of the storyline.

Maybe I’m wrong, but in my mind a comedy is a half hour show where people shout lines at each other, all of them zingers (or they are supposed to be, anyway; some are better than others.) In a comedy there are quips every few seconds, and there are often laugh tracks which describe an audience reaction to hilarity I’m not seeing on my TV screen. In other words, the less funny, the louder the laugh track.

In recent episodes of Orange we have seen inmates trying to seduce other inmates into having sex as part of a game, we have inmates in a plot to smuggle contraband, we have had the main character, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) transferred to a federal prison in a vain attempt to get her to testify against a drug lord. Before that Piper and another girl got into a bloody brawl that got Piper sent to the SHU (maximum security).  You know, real funny stuff!

Now that I know it is supposed to be a comedy I may actually cut loose with a laugh. If I see anything funny, that is.

On the other hand I didn’t notice any Emmy nominations for another series I watch, Sons of Anarchy, which is played so deadpan and serious that it makes me laugh. What is played as unfunny becomes just as phony as those comedies I describe.

It is in its final season, and god help me, I have watched all of them. I keep watching, hoping to see all of these serious, frowny-faced and murderous bikers meet their ends in the kinds of violent ways they dole out to others. It probably won’t happen, but I can dream.

This is a cast picture. Ron Perlman, whom you may recognize as the gray-haired actor* who played Clay, the leader of the pack, was shot and killed by his stepson, Jax, who is next to him on Clay’s left. Jax is now the president of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals). He had the job anyway, even before assassinating Clay, because Clay was in prison. The gang is responsible for all kinds of mayhem. They ran guns too, until they got out of that business.

The fact that they do it under the noses of law enforcement and no one can seem to catch them in the act means the police in this series are Keystone Kops.

In the 1970s I worked with bikers on two separate jobs. They were not that smart. They were interested in getting loaded and riding motorcycles, and not necessarily in that order. They wore a uniform which shouted out to every cop they drove by on the streets that they were outlaws waiting to be shaken down for weapons or drugs. And they often were, as I sometimes reminded my biker colleagues. “Take off the colors (jacket) with your club name on it, and cut your hair so you look like a human being.” No chance of that...they were too proud of their outlaw associations and they paid the price.

Something that makes Sons of Anarchy seem fake to me is Jax himself. Played by actor Charlie Hunnam, his face is in a perpetual frown. Nothing good happens to him: his mom (she was once married to Clay)  is overbearing, his wife is conspiring to take his kids and make for parts unknown,he has enemies all over the place. Oh, and I watched him committing some murders last season, any one of which would get him life w/o parole or even the death penalty. No wonder he is glum. But the other thing can be seen in the picture. He wears white athletic shoes. In all my time spent around bikers I never saw one of them wearing anything but boots; motorcycle boots, heavy, with steel-toes for inflicting maximum damage during a fight. The bikers I knew would have looked at Jax and hoorawed him out of the club.

For me Sons of Anarchy is more like Sons of Absurdity.

*Also Vincent in Beauty and the Beast and Hellboy in two movies.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri — protesters taking to the streets over the police shooting of an African-American man — and crowd control with tear gas, brought to mind something I wrote in 2008. My own experience with tear gas seems relevant to the situation. With some minor editing I am presenting it again.

The years 1967 and 1968 in America were years of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. Watching old film on TV of protesters being gassed by police reminds me of an old line I used to use: I went through more tear gas than most demonstrators.

Despite the Vietnam war being current, when I took U.S. Army basic training in January, 1967 it had a definite World War I flavor. We went through an infiltration course where we came out of trenches, then crossed a simulated battlefield while live machine gun bullets were shot over our heads. I guess the Army brass figured if World War I ever came around again we’d be trained for it. We also had gas canisters thrown at us. That wasn’t the first time we'd experienced gas. Our introduction to that took most of a day. We were taken to a place on the Fort Lewis, Washington Army base with several run-down looking shacks. I also noticed a sand pit with wire stretched over the top. “That just doesn't look very good,” I thought. I was right.

I’ve pushed a lot of this unpleasant experience out of my mind over the years, but here’s what I remember. We were marched, 10 or so at a time, wearing our gas masks, into a small shack. In the air was a thick mist of CS gas, also known as tear gas. We were told, “when it's your turn, take off your mask, say your name, rank and service number, then right face, put your hand on the shoulder of the soldier next to you. When everyone has said their piece, we will march around in a circle and out the door. At any time if anyone breaks rank and runs we will all be brought back to do it again.” After taking off the mask and gasping out name, rank, and service number, then marching around the shack praying for the ordeal to end, had any one of the group run the rest of us would have killed him. We stood outside with our faces to what breeze there was, our eyes watering and stinging.

A while later we went into a chamber filled with chlorine gas. We went in without masks, and told we had nine seconds to don our masks or die. Seemed drastic to me, and I’m still not convinced that stuff was really lethal. The capper was the aforementioned sandpit. We were lined up four men abreast. We had our masks in our carriers at our sides. We low-crawled through the sand, and then a canister of vomit gas was thrown amongst us. We had a few seconds to get our masks on. Some guys tried to jump up, and that’s what the wire stretched over the pit was for. A jumper would bounce right back into the sand. Several guys — but not me — crawled to the end of the sandpit, threw off their masks and ran for the nearby woods where they heaved. Some guys vomited in their masks. Not me. I had my mask on in no time, because I was watching the sergeant’s movements as he got the canister ready to throw. I had my mask on before the first fumes hit me.

After the training we were lined up in formation to march to our barracks. I looked back and at the edge of the wood line I saw a soldier skulking through the trees. I grabbed the snaps of my mask carrier. I told the guy next to me, Porter, “Get ready, we're gonna get gassed again!” Porter looked at me stupidly, and then the canister landed right by his foot. We had been told if we saw anyone throwing gas we were to yell at the top of our lungs, “GAS!” The hell with that, I was too busy getting my mask out. Porter made no move for his mask, but I had mine on before the gas got to me. He just stood there looking dumb, and when the gas hit him he headed for the woods. It took fifteen minutes of the sergeant hollering, “Porter! Come out! Private Porter, report for formation, NOW!” before they could convince him to come out of the woods, and even then he was suspicious he’d be gassed again.

In my service time, two years in the regular Army and two weeks serving with an Enlisted Reserve unit in California 18 months after leaving Germany, I went through tear gas five times. None of the experiences were even remotely pleasant, but by the fifth time into the chamber I felt I had it down. The instructions were, “Take a deep breath, crack your mask, remove your mask, say your name, rank and service number and then walk in an orderly fashion for the door. No running.” I thought, I know this drill. But when it got to be my turn I turned things around. I cracked my mask, then took a deep breath, pulling a big load of tear gas into my lungs. What came out of my mouth was a strangled peep. The sergeant grabbed me by the arm and threw me out of the chamber.

What I learned about tear gas is that you really want to avoid it.