August 12, 2010

GRC: Questions

Roadrunner Contest questions will appear in this post. Tweet your answer with my twitter id @DeathEndsFun and remember to also include the tag #DEFRR in your answer. Tweets posted 15 minutes after this question goes up are eligible to win. Good luck! (Other contest details here.)

Previous questions below

Sep 9 2010, Question 7: Three very well-known people were in Selma, Alabama on March 4 2007. (I was there too, but I'm not counting myself ...). Name at least two of them. Why were they there?

Question 7 won by @kingslyj! Congratulations!

The three well-known people (well, besides me) were Hilary and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Hilary Clinton and Obama were then candidates for President. Here's the relevant paras from my book:

In Selma soon after Club Ebony, I have thoughts of Martin Luther King’s more famous dream. It’s the yearly commemoration of Bloody Sunday – 7 March 1965, when the police beat back a procession trying to march to Montgomery. This year, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are in town to make campaign speeches and join the symbolic procession across the Edmund Pettus bridge to where the police swung batons in ‘65.

In the three hours to Obama’s speech at the Brown AME Church, I roam Selma. At a stall outside his home, Benson Webb tries genially to sell me a poster of the Pettus bridge, several unintelligible autographs on it. When he hears I’m from India, his eyes go round and big. “India? You come a LONG way, man!” When he hears I write, he lopes off and returns with an unmarked bridge poster. “If you a writer, I’m ‘on’ get YOU to sign right here, bro! You gon’ be famous man, and when I see that novel you gon’ write? I’m ‘on’ show people that sign a yours!”

Who am I kidding, it feels nice. I sign. Good man, Benson; love the rhythm in his words, wish I spoke like that.

One theme in Barack Obama’s speech is the distinction between what he calls the Moses and Joshua generations. “Moses”, referring broadly to the people – Rosa Parks, MLK, Malcolm X et al – who fought the battles of the ‘60s. It’s on those giant shoulders that Obama and his generation – the Joshua generation – stand today.

But there’s more to that message. In the Old Testament, Moses led the Israelite Exodus out of Egypt to Israel, but he himself never reached. He appointed his long-time apprentice Joshua to succeed him, then died. It was Joshua who led his people back into Israel, thus finishing the job that Moses could not.

Here’s Obama’s point: the struggle for civil rights did not end with the Moses generation of the 1960s. There’s still work to do. Registering voters, to start with – and indeed, that day in Selma more than one desk is draped with “Register to Vote” banners – but also in education, health care, and more. As it was left to Joshua to bring his people back to Israel, it is left to Obama’s Joshua generation to finish what the generation of the ‘60s started.

A simple message, but on many levels so powerful. There’s the idea of continuing the struggle. The imagery of passing the torch. The call to action. The idea of finding a passion, working at it.

As so often on my travels, I am thinking about India. Who calls to the Joshua generation in my home? Who speaks of the work that was left for us to finish by the giants of our past – Patel and Azad, Tilak, Ambedkar, Nehru? Or Gandhi, inspiration to King and an entire planet, his face on a poster Benson Webb has for sale?

That day in Selma, I’m on my feet for hours, standing and listening, eating a hamburger, shaking Bill Clinton’s hand and another that might have been Barack’s I’m not sure, walking with a crowd easily 10,000 strong through downtown Selma and over the Pettus bridge


Sep 6 2010, Question 6: What large object stands outside the Battle Axe Officers' Mess in Jodhpur?

Question 6 won by @sumit15 (twitter handle). Congratulations!

The answer: a tank, more specifically a captured Pakistani tank. The reference is from a section in my book about visiting the Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, where obsolete USAF planes are laid out in neat rows. I wondered why they were there, and what I found so fascinating about such a display. Then:

In truth, I would go out of my way for a display like Davis-Monthan in India, were there one to see. And in fact, I did once stop for something related, yet different and on a much smaller scale, outside the Battle Axe Officers' Mess (“Cut Hard, Cut Deep”) in Jodhpur. It's a sleek captured Pakistani tank, and it has this explanatory notice:

This T59 tk is one of the 20 tks left behind by 22 Cav of Pak Army at Laungewala where Pak 51 Inf Bde GP attacked Coy one PL Posn of 23 Punjab on 05 Dec 1971. The attack was repulsed with hy losses in men and eqpt of Pak 51 Inf Bde Group. Maj KS Chandpuri of 23 Punjab was awarded MVC for his gallant action. This tk was captured intact and driven to Indian soil by Capt RS Khatri of 45 Cav.”

Ignore the peculiar sms-style military lingo, from nearly thirty years before the world had heard of sms. Displaying the enemy's captured weapons from a devastating victory must qualify as a slap in their face – the ancient Romans did it with captive officers, too – besides being still another telegraphed message to lay off. That victory at Laungewala holds a revered place in Indian military history. Just over a hundred Indian soldiers stood firm against nearly 3000 Pakistanis, destroying many tanks and beating back their attempt to invade. Several soldiers won awards for their valour during the rout. So a public display of one of those tanks, “captured intact”, serves well to rub Pakistani noses in it. Always a good thing to do if you're seeking to deter future attacks. The battle was even turned into a wildly successful Bollywood hit, Border. Also a good thing to do to the enemy, make a movie of their defeat.

Yet the most interesting thing about staring at this T59 in Jodhpur is that nearly four decades after the desert dust settled, Laungewala is mired in controversy. The army victory, claimed a retired air force officer who himself won an award in the battle, was a myth. It was Indian planes that “crushed the Pakistanis”, Major General Atma Singh told the Hindustan Times, not the hundred men on the ground. Worse: “no ground battle was fought and the army had merely rehearsed it on a sand model after the ceasefire to cover up the incompetence of senior military commanders.”

The claim of a decisive ground battle in Laungewala, said Singh, was “a mockery of army ethos.”

In March 2008, the Laungewala wrangle merited a cover story in Tehelka magazine. It quoted Air Marshal M. S. Bawa, who was a Wing Commander in charge of the Jaisalmer air base during the battle. Bawa said: “The Pakistani thrust was blunted entirely by air action alone.” This was echoed by one of the pilots who flew the IAF Hunters that day, R. N. Bali. More tellingly, it was also echoed in Pakistani accounts of the battle that Tehelka quotes.

Bawa had these scathing words to say about Major Chandpuri: “When I landed at Laungewala ... Chandpuri was hiding in the trench. ... [He] fell at my feet and thanked us for saving their lives. ... Let us not fake battles to earn medals.”

So much for what a forty year old T59 tank in Jodhpur stands for, so much for the stories it can tell: the real-life ones of betrayal and intrigue and valour rather than idealized good versus unfathomable evil. That’s why the Mahabharat grabs me more than the Ramayan. That’s why I prefer to gaze at Davis-Monthan’s silent display, or at this Jodhpur relic, than at the Republic Day parade


Sep 3 2010, Question 5: What phenomenon does Jared Diamond discuss in his book Collapse that has something to do with a man called Shane Heath? What was Heath's partner's name?

Question 5 won by @UnnamedEntity (twitter handle). Congratulations!

The relevant paras from my book, explaining what Diamond was talking about, is below:

There was a huge forest fire here in 2000. Most of a decade later, tracts of charred and toppled trees are still everywhere, and in my mind I have an image of two young men in yellow shirts and blue helmets. Driving through Idaho yesterday on my way here, I had stopped beside one of the ubiquitous "Adopt-a-Highway" signs. This one had a photograph, a wreath and a sign: "In Memory of Jeff Allen and Shane Heath, Indianola Helitack." 24 and 22 respectively, these firefighters had been dropped into the middle of another great fire in 2003, to clear a spot for a helicopter to land. Overcome by smoke inhalation, they died.

As we walk today through the devastation of the fire in 2000, I can't stop thinking of Allen and Heath. In this part of the country, forest fires are a threat every summer, and men like these two are regularly called on to put their lives on the line to fight them.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond writes about this very modern phenomenon. Starting in the early twentieth century, the Forest Service began trying to extinguish forest fires instead of letting them burn themselves out, because "it didn't want valuable timber to go up in smoke, nor people's homes and lives to be threatened." With improving technology, by the middle of the century this had become a successful policy. In retrospect, though, it became clear that "successful" might not be the right word. Instead of suppressed fires, writes Diamond, by the 1980s there were more and more ...

"... large forest fires that were essentially impossible to extinguish unless rain and low winds combined to help. [The] fire suppression policy was contributing to those big fires."

This had to do with the increased density of trees that would otherwise have not been part of the forest. In the past, explains Diamond, "natural fires caused by lightning ... played an important role in maintaining forest structure."

The upshot of these dilemmas is that the government ...

"... tolerates flammable forests and is forced to spend money unpredictably whenever a firefighting emergency arises: e.g. about $1.6 billion to fight the summer 2000 forest fires that burned 10,000 square miles."

And there's another issue too: homes. People so like the idea of living near or even in forests, they build homes there, even in areas prone to fires. When fires strike, they "expect the government to protect those homes against fires." During the great fire of 2000, says Diamond, some homeowners in the Bitterroot Valley wanted the Forest Service to "hire 12 big firefighting helicopters at a cost of $2000 per hour to save their homes by dropping water on them."

Is this a reasonable use of money? Of helicopters?

What about lives lost fighting fires, men like Jeff Allen and Shane Heath


Aug 31 2010, Question 4: Bldg 98 in Marfa, Texas was once used to house Germans. Who were they (but note I'm not interested in their names)? And what was the famous nickname of their commanding officer?

Question 4 won by @prolificd (twitter handle). Congratulations!

Here's the story and more from my book (Mona is the owner of Bldg 98, and Erwin Rommel's nickname was "Desert Fox").

Intriguingly, Bldg 98 was once a space for German officer POWs from Rommel's Afrika Korps. Two of these POWs – Robert Hampel and Hans Joachim Press – spent their time here painting murals on the walls in pastel shades. There are scenes of west Texas, cowboys and campfires, and they are adorned with obviously German detail. One example, a stag that's only found in the Black Forest. Another mural has a lake with sailboats and a tiny town. When Mona first saw it, she thought it looked familiar. Then she recognized it as a lake in Germany where she went sailing as a child.

Hampel and Press must have liked spaghetti westerns, for some cowboys in their murals are decidedly Italian-looking. Mona tells a story about an Italian visitor to Bldg 98 who looked closely at the cowboy noses in particular and exclaimed: “No way are those Mexican or Texan or Indian noses! They're Italian!” As added proof, there's a bottle of chianti in the picture too. (Mona says, inexplicably: “the kind you put chicken blood in”.) Not a bottle easily found in West Texas.

There are stories outside the building too. The Fort is named for Brevet General David Russell, a Union officer during the Civil War who took over command on a battlefield in Virginia after his superior was killed. When such a transfer of leadership happens, you are a “Brevet” officer, a word derived from old French for “brief”. In Russell's case, it was tragically apt, because his term as General was brief indeed: minutes after he took command, Mona tells me, he was killed too.

The Fort used to be a cavalry outpost, until the Army moved on from its horse-borne days. Sadly, they decided then to destroy the animals. One horse, Louie, was buried in a large field across the road. Three days later, his distraught groom, Sergeant Hayes, went to Louie's grave and shot himself. And on that staple of every ghost story ever told, the full-moon night, you can see man and horse trotting about near the grave.

Mona tells me that she too had a close encounter with them, or something. When she was restoring the building, two of her workers quit in fright. For whenever they went to lunch and returned, there'd be footsteps trailing into the building, a straight line of them from the window that faced Louie's grave. Spooky stuff. To demonstrate what she's talking about, Mona walks across the room from the window in question, straight like an arrow.

Speaking of marks on the floor – those depressions in the floor in another room, Mona, what are those?

“What do you think?” she asks with a wide smile, and by now I'm primed to think ghosts made those too. But her explanation is far less exciting. Turns out they are impressions made by the stiletto heels that women wore to dances held here. No, make that far more exciting


Aug 18 2010, Question 3: I visited Sturgis, South Dakota, for a huge gathering of bikers. Eating dinner with some folks at my campsite before I actually went to the rally, a woman asked me: "It's your first time here, right? Any idea what you're going to see?"

When I said "no, but please tell me", what was her one word reply that had everyone in splits?

Question 3 won by @Keerthikiran (twitter handle). Congratulations!

Here are the relevant lines from my book:

The evening of my first visit to the Sturgis bike rally, I dined with five fellow-campers – two couples and a single friend. All bikers. We introduced ourselves, and then one of the wives, Darlene, asked: “Your first time here, right? You have an idea what it's going to be like, what you're going to see?”

So I said: Actually, no. Tell me what I'm going to see, won't you?

She had a one-word reply. “Boobs.”

Turned out she wasn't entirely right, but not entirely wrong either. The bikini wash ladies, the Playboy models in painfully tight clothes, the women who strolled past wearing twinkling pasties and mesh tees ... Through my days in Sturgis, there was enough feminine flesh on display to delight an unabashed boobs watcher like me, yet also leave the voyeur in me thirsting for more. Thing about displays like that, they have a way of inducing such thirst. Never enough, you know? So while there were boobs to be seen, I can't claim that's my overwhelming impression of Sturgis. Not to the extent that it's what I would, in turn, tell a first-time visitor there to expect.


Aug 16 2010, Question 2: Casey Jones is not his real name. What is, and why was he called "Casey Jones"?

Question 2 won by @prsng (Twitter handle). Congratulations!

Casey Jones: his real name was John Luther Jones. He was a locomotive driver who died when his train crashed in Mississippi. He used to live in the town of Cayce, Kentucky, and that's why he was called "Casey" -- the point being that "Cayce" is pronounced not "Case" but "Casey".

Read all this and more in my book, or if you like in my account from when I visited Cayce in search of Casey, Junction.


Aug 12 2010, Question 1: What startled me about the Missouri monument in the Shiloh Military Park, Tennessee?

Question 1 won by @nihalparkar (Twitter handle)! The monument lists Missouri regiments who fought on both sides of the American Civil War (Union/North and Confederate/South). Read the story (and more) in this lecture I gave a month ago: Find our own Shiloh.

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