Sunday, January 30, 2011

Captain Blood Did Not Save the Whales

Mack Hall

Captain Blood Did Not Save the Whales

Captain Blood, the 1922 Rafael Sabatini novel on which the terrific Olivia DeHavilland film is based, is insensitive on many levels, and not appropriate for the delicate tastes of our progressive times.

The crime of Captain Blood is that it is a pirate yarn with no redeeming value, no politics, no didactic meaning. Instead of preaching global warming or whales or green something at the reader the novel presents murder, comradeship, treachery, fortress assaults, swordfights, sea-fights, and a rather turgid romance, but no sex.

In its relative political innocence Captain Blood is not unlike other pre-1968 adventure stories in books and films: Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, Prince Valiant, Robin Hood, Kim, Sherlock Holmes, and lesser fictional boy-book heroes long-since filed away down the Orwellian memory hole. Totalitarians have always purged disagreeable individuals and disagreeable books, but now such anti-democratic behaviors are called inclusion.

The plot of Captain Blood is almost fatalistic, based as it is on the hero’s reactions to events which he seems unable to control: 30-ish Irishman Peter Blood, a veteran of Dutch and French wars, settles down to practice medicine in the west of England in the late 17th century. While treating a survivor of the Battle of Sedgemoor (Monmouth’s wonderfully stupid attempt to usurp the Throne), Dr. Blood is accused of being one of the rebels, not unlike America’s historic Dr. Samuel Mudd. After months of imprisonment and maltreatment, Dr. Blood and others are brought before the infamous Bloody Assizes of Judge Jefferies, and sentenced to slavery in the colonies.

In Jamaica, Dr. Blood’s skills as a physician brings him to the attention of the governor, and this provides Blood some protection from the perverse brutality of his owner, Colonel Bishop, and brings him to the notice of Colonel Bishop’s beautiful daughter, Arabella.

Dr. Blood and his pals stage a violent and confused escape, and our hero, now styling himself Captain Blood, forms a pirate crew, re-names his captured ship the Arabella, and merrily robs French, English, and Spanish ships. In Sabatini’s world the English are hypocrites, the French are foppish hypocrites, and the Spanish are (prepare ye now for a catalogue of 1922 stereotypes): cowardly, brutal, sneaky, treacherous, lascivious, sniveling, posturing, pompous, ignorant, superstitious hypocrites. Whew.

Surprisingly, the middle part of the book is when the action drags. Captain Blood, the Scourge of the Spanish Main and manly leader of men, begins perpetually whining about Miss Arabella Bishop and the rude things she said to him. In this Facebook-y emo-ing he seems more like an 8th-grade schoolgirl (with apologies to 8th-grade schoolgirls) than a pirate, and takes to his cabin, the bottle, and passivity. Through the secret service of England (this was when England was England, not vapid, inclusive Britain) he takes a commission in the Royal Navy, and then gives that up. Then through the secret service of France he takes a commission in the French Navy, and lets that go too because the French are Not Nice. Whew again.

In a climatic battle with the Spanish, Captain Blood saves Port Royal, is reconciled with the new English government under William of Orange (who was Dutch), and is made governor of the colony while Colonel Bishop, who had lately been made governor, has left the colony unguarded while chasing Captain Blood.

Captain Blood’s reconciliation with Arabella is abrupt and incomplete, and as the book ends the humiliated Colonel Bishop, now a prisoner himself, is marched into Governor Blood’s office.

The 1935 film adaptation with beautiful Olivia deHavilland and that fellow from Tasmaina serves the story better by eliminating a great deal of the extraneous muddle in the middle, and tidying up the finish much more satisfactorily.

Many a boy came away from the Saturday matinee of this film, made a sword of a convenient stick, and refought pirate battles with his friends until dusk.

And that is good. Captain Blood is not history; it is a yarn, a story, two hours of happy anaesthesia, just like the Robin Hood stories.

One fears a serious, grim, grainy, ill-lit re-make of Captain Blood with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the leads, and with a George Bush double as Colonel Bishop.

Errol Flynn, the fellow from Tasmania, was a great Captain Blood, also made a great Robin Hood, as did his good friend, Richard Green. Their Robin Hood is, at heart, a ten-year-old boy stalking imaginary deer and the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham with a homemade bow strung with twine from feed sacks and with arrows made from weed stems.

Alas for civilization that, beginning in the 1970s, sour, humorless, Miz Grundy filmmakers decided that Robin Hood should no longer be a joyful man defending the good and having a merry time while do so, but rather a sour, humorless, Facebook-ist moping sulkily around a Sherwood Forest that is more Miss Havisham’s decaying wedding breakfast than anything else.

A ten-year-old boy now who displayed an interest in cap pistols, bows and arrows, and stick-swords would probably be identified as a menace to vegetarians and referred for political re-education. For his own safety he’d better stick to electronic games in which he can destroy whole planets instead of the Sheriff of Nottingham.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cloning the Woolly Mammoth

Mack Hall

Woolly Booger

Scientists from several countries are using the frozen DNA of a long-gone woolly mammoth in an attempt to make a new one.

The problem is this: if biochemistry majors behind thick spectacles build a woolly mammoth (“It’s alive! It’s alive!”), what will they do with it?

The exotic-animal market might take to this scheme. Instead of baby alligators or snakes, the rich and pointless might bring home cuddly little woolly mammoth babies to indulge. But then there is the fear that once the novelty has worn off the owners might flush the baby mammoth down the toilet (I hear the rich have really big toilets, royal flushes), leading to a new category of cheap sci-fi flicks featuring braless federal agents in really tight pants being chased along the sewers of New York by computer-generated woolly mammoths.

Texas Aggies would be tempted to kidnap the critter and cook him the night before the big game with the University of Texas, thinking the woolly mammoth just a Bevo belt-buster special.

There are moral issues in cloning, of course. Scientists with no moral grounding might reproduce Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Dung, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Saddamn Hussein, or, worse, The Captain and Tennille (shudder).

Our present federal regime would surely declare the woolly mammoth an anchor mammoth, and steal…um…reallocate yet more Social Security from the working poor to give the woolly mammoth medical care, a monthly check, and free tuition to any out-of-stone-age university.

The Tea Party, however, would want the woolly mammoth for a reality show featuring Sarah Palin and a high-powered rifle, while the Republicans would hold hands across the aisle and utter such vagaries as “We respect the privacy rights of a woolly mammoth to choose a dignified death because this is a quality-of-life issue. We wouldn’t kill a baby woolly mammoth ourselves, but we understand that others might want to do so.” Cue the default soft-rock Republican convention music.

Few situations are more wake-up-at-0200-screaming-terrifying than woolly mammoths rampaging through the streets or Republicans trying to be cool.

Native Americans can then appear before a federal judge claiming that the critter is “The Sacred Woolly Mammoth of Our People” and should be turned over to the ancient casino authority.

The S.E.I.U. will demand that only they are legally entitled to care for the woolly mammoth, but when they all go out one night to beat up people in the streets the woolly mammoth might die of neglect.

Catholics are a problem too – aging hippies would dismiss the woolly mammoth as decidedly pre-Vatican II while the rad-trad-more-Catholic-than-thou types would bemoan its lack of Latin.

The Chinese will undoubtedly buy up all the available cloning resources and relocate them to China so they could monopolize the world-wide manufacture of woolly mammoths.

Finally, the African elephants and Indian elephants would sneer at the woolly mammoth as inauthentic. Woolly mammoth sympathizers would form Elephants Without Frontiers, one of the many organizations shamelessly profiting from riffing on name of the noble French organization, Doctors Without Frontiers.

Perhaps scientists should leave off trying to clone the woolly mammoth as a wool-of-the-wisp; too many hairy situations and legal hirsutes might arise, and there’s nothing to Rogaine from it.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Katherine Mattie Bevil Blanchette Hall, 1922 - 2011

Katherine Mattie Bevil Blanchette Hall

In 1917, Louie MacMicken (Mack) Bevil left off pitching pine-knots into the firebox of a Santa Fe locomotive and joined the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard to fight in France. As reported by Mrs. Lera Crow of happy memory, Mack and his sweetheart, Mae Christina Herndon, scandalized polite Kirbyville society by kissing goodbye in public on the depot platform. Mrs. Crow added: “But when he came home he married her, so it was all right – I suppose.”

In 1922 their only child was born: Katherine Mattie Bevil.

Katherine grew up in Kirbyville and graduated from Kirbyville High School. After her family moved to Kingsville for her father’s new job with the Missouri Pacific Railway she attended Texas A & I College for a year before marrying Claude Blanchette, second officer on the tanker S.S. Muskogee.

In 1942 the Muskogee, en route from the Caribbean to Halifax, Nova Scotia with a cargo of oil for the Canadian and British fleets, was reported missing. Although there was no doubt that the ship fell victim to a Nazi u-boat in those terrible times, Katherine never knew exactly what happened until one day, some fifty years later, when she saw on the front page of the Beaumont Enterprise a photograph, taken from the deck of a German submarine, of Claude Blanchette and other survivors on life rafts just before the sinking tanker exploded and killed them. In the chaos of war the United States government had overlooked telling Katherine and the other families.

If you have ever been to see the Statue of Liberty you have probably also seen a statue of Claude Blanchette. At the ferry landing at Battery Park there is a memorial to the America’s Merchant Marine, the civilian sailors who never took the military oath but who died as the heroes they are. One of the figures, of three desperate men clinging to a life raft, is Claude Blanchette, based on the photograph snapped by a young German sailor, almost surely a teenager who loved his family too, on a terrible day in 1942.

Claude Blanchette never knew his son, Claude Bevil Blanchette, born several months later.

In 2009 Katherine journeyed to Halifax and so finished, 67 years later, that voyage for Claude Blanchette and the rest of the crew of the Muskogee.

After World War II one of the many young Kirbyville men returning home was Hebo Ogden (Bo) Hall. He had landed on Normandy on the second day of the invasion, and said he hadn’t missed anything by not being landed on the first day. He fought with the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion across France and into Belgium, where he spent the Christmas of 1944 on the defensive perimeter outside Bastogne. Bo and the 602nd were the first allied soldiers to enter Ohrdruf, part of the Buchenwald complex, and then among the first to enter the main camp. The 602nd then drove through Munich, where Bo took time to pose for a photograph outside the beer hall where Hitler made his first try at politics, and then on to Zwickau and the end of the war in Europe. After the war he spent several months with an allied commission helping rebuild the police department of the city of Marseilles, France.

When they were in school before the war Bo Hall dismissed Katherine Bevil as an obnoxious little red-headed brat, and she didn’t like him either, so naturally they married in December of 1945. Bo raised Claude as his own son. Priests are said to be priests after the order of Melchizedec; men who adopt are fathers after the order of St. Joseph, and there is no nobler calling because St. Joseph wants every child to have a father.

Katherine and her husbands Claude Blanchette and Bo Hall, true heroes, were a part of what has truly been called America’s greatest generation, children of the Depression who became the men and women of World War II. They took a starving, desperate nation and, almost with their bare hands, built a free and prosperous nation to give to us.

The younger Claude’s life was complicated in 1948 by the birth of twin boys, Hebo and Mack, who insisted on more than their share of the spotlight. You can always spot the oldest sibling in a family; he or she is the one with the pained expression of existential despair.

Katherine was very proud of her sons, none of whom has yet been arrested, but, hey, they’re young; there’s still time.

And she was proud of her nieces, Donna and Mary, daughters to her, who took her for dinner and shopping every month, and occasionally to Missouri to visit grandchildren and great-nieces.

We are told that America enjoyed great prosperity after World War II, but East Texas never got that news. For farm families the 1950s were but the Great Depression continued, only with a chance of a television set someday.

Those who were raised by the children of the Depression and World War II remember vividly the commandment that there are few crimes greater than wasting food. Our parents never asked us if our supper was good; they asked us, in depths of fear and meaning we can barely comprehend, if we had gotten enough to eat. For the rest of us, their work and their sacrifices mean that we have never gone without food, but they themselves never forgot the hunger of the Depression and the desperation of global war; the fear of hunger and war haunted them always. If we fail to understand that, we fail to understand them, and that would be to fail to honor them.

While Bo farmed and raised dairy cows, Katherine worked outside the home: for the Woods Brothers, for Dr. John Thomas Moore, for Drs. Richardson, Jones, and Bailey, all of blessed memory, and then for Burdett Pulliam, CPA, and his son Ross in Jasper.
Katherine began crunching numbers for Burdett in the 1970s, and theirs was a wonderful relationship: they took turns firing each other. Their arguments were reported by the traumatized witnesses to have bridged the philosophical gap between a train wreck and an air raid. They enjoyed scrapping so much that they kept at it for over twenty years, with Mrs. Pulliam always taking Katherine’s side, and after Katherine’s retirement Burdette and his family always remembered her with gifts or dinners out every birthday and every Christmas.

Katherine loved her flowers and her birds and her books and her dachshunds and her grandchildren, probably not in that order.

When her three sons were young a Christmas custom was for Bo and them to scout out the woods for the perfect Christmas tree. One Christmas they also brought home a little magnolia, and planted it in the front yard. All of Katherine’s grandchildren loved to play in that magnolia tree when it was grown, and often that happy tree hosted all of the grandchildren, laughing and giggling, at one time.

And Katherine finally got to travel: she visited Pearl Harbor, and read the names of her generation engraved in the memorial above the USS Arizona. She and Maudie Barton flew to Ireland, that land of saints and scholars and good beer. One winter she made a pilgrimage to England with her granddaughter Sarah, and saw London and the Home Counties where Bo had spent a year in training for the invasion of Europe. She was privileged to worship God at the site of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral, and saw the White Cliffs of Dover, only twenty miles from France.

Her last adventure in this life was to visit Canada, God’s second-favorite nation, where she took pictures of every flower in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and reflected in the quiet of the site where the Acadians of Grand Pre’ were exiled from the world they had made. In the harbor at Halifax she remembered Claude Blanchette and all the other young men of 1939-1945 who will never grow old.

In her mid-eighties her health weakened, but not her spirit.

She began to take to the moral perils of gambling with Harold and Jenny, yes indeed! Her granddaughter Sarah says that Katherine and Jennie planned gambling trips while still in the pews just as soon as the final “Amen” was said, but this is not true – sometimes they planned gambling adventures before Mass, too!

Only a few weeks ago she fell while trying on a new pair of size-eight jeans, but the next day she was at Mass wearing a gynormous (as Sarah would say) pair of sunglasses to cover the shiner, and, yes, the new size-eight jeans. You just can’t keep a Depression-baby down.

And she sneaked cigarettes, like a naughty teenager. Well, why not? If you’re 88 years old and have survived depression, war, farming, and children, you’ve earned a cigarette, so go ahead and light up.

Last Friday night she visited her great pals, Pete and Peggy Stark, as she did most evenings, for coffee and comradeship, and stayed for supper. As she drove herself home she began feeling bad, and knew that the long-ago diagnosis was falling upon her at last.

So many of the wonderful friends who blessed her through the years made her happy by blessing her again with visits on Saturday for good-byes, which are only temporary, of course. As the older English funeral service says, we live “in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.”

Not even a big book could name the people who were such a joy to her – how could any Life of Katherine be complete without, for instance, mentioning Linda the Dog Lady? -- and this memorial is only a few sheets of paper, so thank you, everyone; thank you, thank you, thank you.

And so the tough little redhead is gone; her passing was one of dignity, courage, and grace. We are the less for her passing; we are the more for her blessing.

“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual Light shine upon her.” – Psalm 111

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saving Private Robot

Mack Hall

Saving Private Robot

30 robots wearing European faces and controlled by Filipino technicians are teaching English in South Korean schools. With South Korea suddenly our dependent child again, the ROK government needs more of its people learning how to say, in English, “Give us more money, stupid Yanks” and “Send your young people to die protecting us while we carry on business as usual and pretend to be your BFF.”

On the second day of school half the robots called in sick with those fakey coughs.

One wonders if the robots wear no-name sneakers and Goodwill ties, and are programmed to blurt out every ten minutes some moldy platitude prefaced with “When I was your age….”

But, really, how can anyone tell the difference between a human English teacher and a robot English teacher?

But how will the teacher-robots cope with being covered with sticky-notes reading “I get high on 30-weight” and “Your mama dates a garbage disposal?”

This robot idea could be applied to other occupations. A robot clerk in a big-box store could flee from customers at higher speed, and a robot waiter at a really fancy restaurant could ignore diners in French as well as in English.

Robot motorists – hey, they couldn’t drive worse than humans.

Robot Catholics – they’d all start ‘blogs and call each other sedevacantes and Vatican Two-ists and rad-trads.

Robot citizens would argue politics but they wouldn’t bother to vote, just like human citizens.

Robot culture – Robots reposing silently for hours with their unblinking ocular receptors of e-audioanimatronicbionic rods and cones registering images of Dancing with the Stars.

Robot supervisors with the Texas Department of Transportation would drive around all day in large white TXDOT pickups while overseeing the undocumented worker robots.

Robot shoppers wouldn’t simply push each other down, they would blast each other into non-existence with warbling death rays.

Toyota robots would sneer at Hyundai robots as declasse’.

Each robot would start its own church. The Electrons for Jesus would maintain that the Pixels for Christ aren’t scripturally sound, and the Pixels for Christ might argue that the Electrons for Jesus smell of ritualism.

Q: Why did the scientific robot cross the road?
A: Because it was programmed to do so.

Q: Why did the philosophical robot cross the road?
A: To argue determinism with the chicken.

Q: Why did the killer robot cross the road?
A: To destroy the other half of humanity.

Q: Why did the robot throw the alarm clock out the window?
A: To measure the horizontal and vertical deterioration, in centimeters per second, of the trajectory of hurled object with reference to air temperature, barometric pressure, and wind speed.

A priest, a rabbi, and a robot walk into a bar…

But at this point a large North Korean generalissimo with immobile facial features clomps mechanically into the bar with a glowing, pulsating collection of conflicting nuclei under his arm, and even the robot falls silent, trembling.

One question, though: why don’t our governments send the robots into battle and have young Americans teach English to young Koreans?