Traffic Maelstrom

My cousin, the Air Canada flight attendant, periodically contributes to this blog. She wrote a post on Venetian Carnevale last Spring, which can be read at this link:

http://alienistscompendium.com/?p=1228

Now, here’s another installment from one of her recent layovers in Italy:

“It is a well-known stereotype – with more than a small kernel of fact – that Italian men drive like lunatics. Nothing that I have seen has lessened that impression. The streets in Florence are clogged with a mixture of ‘regular’ cars (Fiats), Smart cars (those adorable little two seaters), Vespas and other scooters, motorcycles, public buses, street-sweepers, odd three-wheeled contraptions called Crickets, and bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles. Everything is weaving and darting in amongst the pedestrians crossing the streets and not paying attention to where they are going. The mixture entropically flows in all directions, and yet I have seen only two wrecks: a bicycle-pedestrian collision on my first trip here in which both parties were tourists not acclimated to the chaos, and a bus-Fiat impact yesterday, in which the two vehicles smacked and yet never stopped (many cars in town have huge dents from passing collisions just like this one).

Despite this potentially deadly pandemonium, the locals don’t seem to do anything to improve the situation, and in many ways appear to relish the traffic cyclone, revel in it, and even magnify it. Case in point: this afternoon, I was window shopping along a typically clogged road, and a bicycle passed me with a basket on the front. The rider, wearing a delivery uniform, was going at a good clip, dodging in and out of the crowd and avoiding obstacles as they appeared in front of him. I watched as he zoomed past me. He neared a small trattoria ahead, and he slowed slightly and yelled something in Italian at the door. Then he started pedaling like a fiend, laughing uproariously. I wasn’t quite sure at first what he had yelled or what had caused the furious pedaling afterward, but then a very angry appearing Jack Russell terrier came ripping out of the door, teeth bared, snarling furiously, and took off after the two-wheeled interloper.

don't come around here no more!

don’t come around here no more!

Apparently this was a longstanding ‘feud’ and the delivery guy knew that the dog would chase him. The rider was pedaling even faster and yelling at the dog as he looked over his shoulder. Of course, the mad mixture of traffic and pedestrians was parting like the Red Sea, with those in harm’s way jumping to avoid the onslaught. The chase lasted for a full city block, and then, by precedent I suppose, the dog reached the stop sign at the end of the block, past which the bicycle had blasted just milliseconds before, snarled one last snarl, and turned and trotted back to the trattoria. The “audience,” which had just dodged these two Bats out of Hell, applauded heartily up and down the street (I think for the dog, not the delivery guy). The amazing thing was not even the chase itself, but the fact that in the traffic mess, no one was hit or injured!”

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (XII)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

I confess that I can’t tell the difference between a $10 bottle of Shiraz and one costing $40. Likewise, I ordered a pricey steak dinner of Kobe beef when I was in NYC a while back, and I didn’t think it was any better than a good filet from the local grocery store in North Carolina. Many times it seems that you pay for the ambience, the name, the perceived status, and not the product itself.

This is not the case with motels. Trust me.

Normally I love visiting New Mexico, but Boney and I were getting tired, and after seeing The Thing, it was dark and I just wanted to reach our overnight accommodations. Not knowing how many miles I’d cover in any given day, I hadn’t made reservations in advance. Looking at the map, I decided to traverse the Land of Enchantment and make it at least as far as the eastern ‘burbs of El Paso TX before calling it a day.

Setting the cruise control on legal-max-plus-8, we crossed into New Mexico on I-40 near Lordsburg and continued for 170 miles. We approached El Paso after 10:00 p.m., but I still wanted to reach the far side of that dirty urban sprawl before stopping. Skirting just yards from the border, the glow of Ciudad Juarez visible to my right, we proceeded until my eyes became too heavy to continue.

The lights of El Paso were far behind. It was dark ahead. But the sign at Clint TX read “Adobe Inn this exit.” That would be it.

If you look up “Adobe Inn” on Orbitz, you’ll see that it gets 4.6 stars out of 5. Words such as “romantic,” “quaint,” and “charming” are used liberally throughout the reviews. Too bad that’s the Adobe Inn in Carmel CA.

The Adobe Inn in Clint TX has no Orbitz page. However, it does have a Yahoo! Travel profile; there is no picture posted, which is probably for the better. And there is even one Yahoo! review! A fellow named Ray wrote of it in 2009, “we found [the Adobe Inn] after running away from a very scary La Quinta in El Paso. This place… looks like an old design from the 60’s…. Our only complaint was the fuzzy blanket seemed to have someone’s hair stuck in it…. We removed the blanket and used our own quilt. Also, the mattress cover kept slipping around under us and we had to remove it. Unfortunately we ended up with very noisy neighbors out front.”

make your reservations for the Holidays now!

make your reservations for the Holidays now!

‘Someone’s hair’?! ‘Mattress slippage’?! ‘Noisy neighbors’?! And I’d hate to have seen that La Quinta.

But I didn’t have access to the Internet that night, so I pulled up in the parking lot of the Adobe, right next to Cotton Eyed Joe’s Saloon – which also should have been a warning. “It’s okay,” I thought. “I’m only here to sleep for a few hours, and I hate paying big prices for hit-and-run motel stops.”

The Adobe consists of twenty one rooms in two buildings flanking a large partially paved lot, populated on one side with what appears to be abandoned dumpsters. The few rattletrap cars and pick-up trucks parked in front of the guests’ doors were all ‘facing out,’ and I found myself wondering if that were to obscure the rear license plates, or perhaps for hasty middle-of-the-night departures? I pulled up to the small reception hut and went to enter. With apologies to Motel 6, no light was left on for me, and there were no signs of life inside – only the neon ‘vacancy’ announcement. Though it wasn’t yet 11:00 p.m., guests were instructed by a taped paper to “ring bell for service.” I rang twice. Soon a short Hispanic lady appeared, examined me through the glass for what seemed like a long time, and then buzzed me in.

Inside I found a small vestibule and an internal wall and window, on the far side of which was located the reception desk. As I approached the window, I noted that 1. the window’s glass was thick and staggered (so one can’t reach through) and looked to be bullet-proof, similar in appearance to what one sees in bank lobbies, 2. the door to the back room in which was located the desk was braced by a heavy chair from the inside, and 3. next to the window were cards for a local bail bond service, and a large hand printed sign that read, “no unregistered visitors, por favor.”

I asked her for a room. I didn’t inquire if the rates were per hour.

She spoke little, and I wasn’t sure of her command of English. But she knew the drill, and handed over a room key for a mere $49, including tax. I was beginning to regret my parsimony. As I opened my wallet to fetch cash, she caught sight of my DPS badge, and her facial expression changed, though to one of relief or concern I am still not certain.

Inside my room a few minutes later, I encountered Spartan décor that was mid-century Salvation Army at best. The furnishings were identical to what I had seen hours earlier at The Thing. The carpet was stained, the bedspread looked dingy, and the place smelled of stale cigarettes, all of which made the sign over the commode which read, “sanitized for your protection” seem laughable. A single towel and bar of soap graced the area around the sink. A small refrigerator in the corner was making horrible chugging noises which didn’t stop even after I unplugged the cord from the wall (!) And a fist-sized hole in the drywall completed the ambience.

I carried Boney inside. “No doubt he is not the first dead body to spend the night here,” I thought.

Taking a cue from the innkeeper, I braced the door from the inside with the sole chair. I also removed the nasty bedspread and pillow, employing instead my rolled-up pants for a pillow. But by this time I was too tired to care about much else.

At some point during the night I was semi-conscious of red flashing lights in the parking lot. I just rolled over.

Come morning, a few freshly scattered beer bottles rested near the dumpsters. All of the cars and trucks had left. I was alone in the parking lot. It was quiet. Really quiet.

I loaded my calcified friend in the back seat and dropped my key in the slot up front. There were still no signs of life inside the reception area. The ‘vacancy’ sign was still on. We headed for the interstate, foregoing breakfast at Cotton Eyed Joe’s, were it even open.

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Crick and Churchill

Francis Crick (1916-2004) was a brilliant molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist who was co-awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering and describing the structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick

Crick

In 1955, senior British government ministers had proposed that a science and technology-based school be established within the University of Cambridge in England. This seat of learning, to be named in honor of Winston Churchill, was to admit students to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in all subjects except theology.

Churchill

Churchill

On this basis, in 1960, Crick accepted a fellowship at the newly founded (all-male) Churchill College. Before long, though, a sizeable donation was made to the College by Lord Beaumont of Whitley for the building of a non-denominational chapel on the grounds. A majority of the fellows voted in favor of it. Crick the lifelong atheist was incensed at what he saw as the intrusion of mythology into a facility dedicated wholly to rational scientific thought.

Winston Churchill, in an attempt to avoid a very public spat over this controversy, wrote a letter to Crick in which he said that many at the College would “appreciate” a place to worship nearby. The chapel was to be entirely funded through private monies, and would be located on the edge of campus, as opposed to its heart. The chapel further would be open to men of all faiths and backgrounds, and no one would be forced or expected to enter it against their will.

Crick replied to Churchill on 12 October 1961 with a counter-suggestion that many at the College would “appreciate” a brothel nearby. Said bawdy-house could also be funded entirely through private monies and located on the edge of campus. The brothel would be open to men of all backgrounds, and no one would be forced or expected to enter it against their will. His letter to the former Prime Minister included a personal cheque for £10 as the first contribution toward that end.

The chapel was constructed. Crick resigned from the College shortly thereafter in protest. It is said that the two men never spoke again.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Be Careful For What You Wish

My maternal grandfather, James Gilbert Gove, was born in 1884 and raised in the tiny English village of Appley in Somerset. He was a stonemason by trade, and in 1913, age 29, he found himself working jobs on nearby estates and trying to support a wife and growing family.

I suspect he needed money. He joined the local militia, much as people do today when enlisting in the National Guard to earn extra income and educational opportunities, and gain some camaraderie.

The Goves, ca 1914

The Goves, ca 1914

I mean, it’s not like there was a war ongoing at the time or anything.

Mysteriously to his descendants – he had no musical training of which anyone knows – there is an extant photo of him with his unit, a territorial battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, holding a tuba. He seems to have been assigned to the regimental band.

Gove and his tuba, back row, far right

Gove and his tuba, back row, far right

Then in August 1914, the Great War erupted.

Granddad caught wind that his unit was preparing to ship out… to the far reaches of the Empire. To India.

Apparently he didn’t want to go to the other side of the globe.

It was then that he learned that the Royal Engineers were recruiting in the area. Given his building experience and training as a stonemason, he correctly surmised that they might want his services.

He transferred from the Devonshire Regiment to the 505th field company of the Royal Engineers, and promptly left for France.

France was going to be better, right? It’s a whole lot closer than India.

In later years, Granddad spoke little of his life serving in the trenches and defensive earthen fortifications in Flanders. But he did say that there were times in which he was speaking to fellow soldiers standing just a few yards away… as they had their heads blown off by shrapnel or snipers.

And of his former unit, the territorial battalions of the Devonshire Regiment? The majority did indeed ship out to Karachi, Basra, and Lahore, there to spend the duration of the war in arguably less dire straits, far from the mechanized killing fields of the Somme and Ypres.

Yes, Granddad did survive, none the worse for wear. But his is a story to remind you to be careful for what you wish….

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (XI)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the great showman P.T. Barnum, in order to keep crowds flowing through his well-attended carnival exhibits, put large signs with arrows on the walls that read, “THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS!” The masses, ignorant of that word, surged forward to see the Egress! And soon they found themselves on the far side of the turnstiles, keeping the flow moving just as Barnum had wished.

The point? People can start to act like lemmings with the strategic application of ads and signs. Anyone who has been on I-95 at South of the Border, I-75 at Rock City, or I-90 at Wall Drug knows this well.

Thus, in the spirit of the Egress, I give you… The Thing.

After leaving Tombstone, Boney and I headed up route 80 until we intersected I-40 at Benson AZ. Heading east, it wasn’t long before we encountered signs for The Thing: “What is The Thing?” “Dare you to see The Thing?” “The Thing – Mystery of the Desert?” &c.

you know you'll stop

you know you’ll stop

Unlike other stretches of American highway schlock (e.g., SOB signs start a good 90 miles before one hits Dillon SC), we didn’t have far to go before reaching the unincorporated wide-spot of Dragoon AZ, home of The Thing. That said, fear not! The Thing’s handlers make the most of concentrated signage carpet-bombing before you do reach it.

Guide books tell you that The Thing lives in nearby Cochise AZ, but I think that’s merely for GPS purposes. In actuality, The Thing can be found at exit 322, where it resides somewhere behind the pumps at the Johnson Road Shell/ Quickee-Mart, the only structure, it seems, in all of Dragoon.

the anticipation builds

the anticipation builds

There is dispute as to who brought The Thing to its current domicile. The state historical society and the Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff maintain that it was the brainchild of one Homer Tate, an erstwhile carnival worker. Not so fast, said syndicated columnist Stan Delaplane, who claimed in a published 1956 interview that it was instead a local (bored?) attorney, one Thomas Binkley Prince. Either way, where to send thanks may never be entirely settled, since both of the principals have gone to that Great Sideshow In The Sky. This pearl of American culture is now owned and operated from afar by an Albuquerque-based company, Bowlins, Inc. Let’s just hope that they appreciate the magnitude of the caretaking responsibility they’ve assumed for this and future generations.

Regardless, you stop, you enter the Quickee-Mart, and you are immediately assaulted by the usual assortment of male enhancement dietary supplements, beer displays, postcards, cigarettes, bobbleheads, silk flowers, beltbuckles, t-shirts, and packaged snack foods.

don't forget souvenir Thing water

don’t forget souvenir Thing water

You find yourself looking around, expectantly. Something is different, but what? Then you look down and see that there are large yellow footprints on the floor, starting near the cash registers. They lead to the back of the store. There is a door which looks dungeon-esque along with a faux stone wall. Nearby there is an arrow-and-sign that rhetorically asks once again, “Dare You See The Thing?!?” For only $1, payable to the cashier in front, how can you say no?

I backtracked to the cashier and handed over my dollar. “I’d like to see The Thing,” I told him, as if it were the first time, and not the 546th, that he had heard that statement this day. He nodded without even looking up. The yellow footprints beckoned with more urgency now that I had been granted entry to the sanctum sanctorum.

I guess I expected to open the door and see The Thing standing in front of me, glaring. That is not the case. Instead, one finds a passageway that leads out back. It seems that The Thing lives in an extensive compound of half a dozen buildings – all single-story corrugated steel or cinderblock – arranged in a very large oval such that there is a central courtyard. There are stretches of high fence in between the buildings. There’s nothing of note in the courtyard itself, just some broken picnic tables and benches, dirt, scrub grass, and those yellow footprints on the cement. The buildings and fences, it appears, are arranged that way to form a defensive perimeter to keep prying eyes and non-paying guests out. Or perhaps to keep The Thing in?

I was the only person back there. I followed the footsteps across the courtyard and entered the first building. No Thing in sight.

Instead I was greeted by the oddest assortment of detritus that I’ve seen since I was last in my freshman dormitory’s basement.

Imagine that you have been tasked with creating a museum. That with which you have to work includes the contents of the local Salvation Army thrift shop, a number of mismatched glass display cases, cardboard and paint for signs, cars and appliances in any condition from the local junk yard, all items from the ‘free’ section of Craigslist, and mannequins seized when the recently bankrupted department store downtown was liquidated. This was the apparent scenario faced by Tate/ Prince at the Dawn of The Thing.

Inside The Thing’s compound, one finds a series of displays with no common theme except that they coalesced from the raw materials just noted. Old tractors that are falling apart. A few 1930s vintage cars, including one beat-up Rolls purported to have been owned by Hitler (complete with mannequin in back seat). A wax figure that looks like Charlie Chaplin if you squint. A display of steering wheels. A broken Edison phonograph. Zuni kachinas. An ancient Chinese stool. Excavated soda bottles. Odd wooden carvings of people being tortured in various historical settings. Framed reproduction Currier & Ives lithographs. Some dusty broken rifles. A large covered wagon with wax Indians creeping toward unsuspecting wax passengers and taxidermied oxen. A huge jumble of mason jars. Victorian furniture cast-offs with springs protruding from the frayed upholstery. Several saddles. A weird collection of painted driftwood.

inside a grand exhibit hall

inside a grand exhibit hall

The kitsch here knows no bounds. There are signs next to all of the displays reading, “The Thing Is, This Is A ______.” But no Thing.

Soon I began to think that The Thing didn’t actually exist, but that the dumb signs, worded thusly, are the only connection to the semantics of the roadside ads.

Oh ye of little faith.

Still wandering, alone with my thoughts in the last building and its impressive assortment of obsolete typewriters, I found in the corner ahead a cinderblock bunker perhaps a yard in height. It had a glass top, and over it hung a banner proclaiming, “Here Lies The Thing?” (not sure why the question mark).

the Crypt

the Crypt

Approaching cautiously, peering inside, I found myself face to face with a tableau of two desiccated human mummies, apparently a mother and child. Their sunken eyeless sockets stared back at me, pleading, “this ain’t the Smithsonian… get us out of here!” The pair looked like Slim Jims that had seen better days. I suppose they were real, but it was hard to tell through the dirty glass and dust.

star of the show

star of the show

Remembering the published 1956 interview, when Delaplane asked of the source of The Thing, a Prince family member said that “[a] man came through here… years ago. He had three of them he got somewhere. He was selling them for $50 [each].”

And now for all eternity. In Dragoon. Under dirty glass. Next to the mason jars and wax Hitler. A fate truly worse than death.

Boney-M, I thought, was so much better looking. I felt like heading out to the parking lot and dragging him back inside to charge viewers $1 myself!

But we still had a long way to go. I walked a few more steps and found that I was back in the Quickee-Mart gift shop. As I was leaving, more travelers were lined up at the cashier to hand over their dollars and see The Thing.

P.T. Barnum would be so proud.

[to be continued…]

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (X)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

Bone-man and I sailed east along I-10 until we connected with state route 90, at which point we turned south. At Sierra Vista, we followed state route 92, which eventually brought us to the odd little hamlet of Bisbee, Arizona.

Bisbee has a population of 5575, and is located 82 miles southeast of Tucson as the crow flies. Nestled in folds of the Mule Mountains, it was founded in 1880 as a small copper mining camp, but eventually grew to the point that the seat of Cochise County was moved there from the better-known Tombstone in 1929.

Bisbee is the site of the Copper Queen Mine, about which I’ve posted previously:

http://alienistscompendium.com/?p=514

When commercial mining dried up in the early 1970s, Bisbee was headed for oblivion. Wisely, the town decided that marketing their mining heritage would potentially keep Bisbee alive. Tours were started. Shops returned. A funky little artists’ colony – one that has been visited by over 1M tourists in the past 35 years – has grown from the withering corpse of the original hardscrabble company town.

Sadly, the Copper Queen Mine was the only destination of our cross country trek that Boney and I missed. We arrived… just as a gaggle of Asian tourists, cameras-around-necks, donned their hardhats for the last subterranean trip of the day. Despite pleadings about the distances we’d traveled to get there, the mine foreman refused to allow an extra person on the sold-out tour. Oh well.

More than the mine, the entrance to which is decidedly non-descript, the visual ‘gem’ of town is the late Victorian Copper Queen Hotel.

the Copper Queen Hotel

the Copper Queen Hotel

It is located just down the street from its namesake. Originally offered to any local resident for $1 by the mining company as it closed-up shop, it was eventually purchased by an artist couple as the anchor to the soon-to-be-reborn downtown – now ranked one of the ‘quirkiest’ places in the US by AAA and AARP. Before long, not only artists, but counterculture types and hippies who were fleeing the gentrification of California, Arizona, and Colorado, found Bisbee much to their liking. Coffee shops and galleries cropped up in place of dance halls and saloons. And property values soared.

Quirky? Take for example the Ice Man Competition held yearly in town. It celebrates the guys who once delivered ice to people’s homes before electricity. Entrants race up 155 steps carrying 10lb blocks of ice with antique ice tongs to cheering crowds.

It’s a shame that wasn’t happening when we were there.

Back in the car, we wound our way up state route 80 to nearby Tombstone, population now 1504.

Tombstone was founded in 1879 by one Ed Schieffelin on a mesa above the Tough Nut Mine. He had been staking claims in the area, then still considered dangerous because of the presence of hostile natives. One of his colleagues had said that the only “rock” he’d find there was his own tombstone – hence the name of Schieffelin’s original claim, and then the town which sprang from it.

Lots on Allen Street – the main dirt thoroughfare in town – sold originally for $5 each. Soon, there was the luxurious Grand Hotel, an opera theatre, an ice house, a school, two banks, two newspapers (the Nugget and the Epitaph), an ice cream parlor… and more than 125 saloons, gambling halls, and brothels, all built on top of the labyrinthine mine tunnels below.

And of course Tombstone was the site of the immortalized Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on 26 October 1881.

Although it reached a maximum population of more than 14,000, by 1890, the mines started to dry up. Several devastating fires that swept through flimsy wooden buildings didn’t help matters. Tombstone’s population dwindled to less than 650 by 1910. And it was that precipitous population drop that preserved our site of main interest on this trip.

You see, history records the generals and kings and cardinals of days past. But it is the life of the common man, anonymous and forgotten, that is almost always lost to future researchers.

On 25 December 1881, the Bird Cage Theatre opened on Allen Street.

the Bird Cage Theatre

the Bird Cage Theatre

A favorite of Doc Holliday’s and Bat Masterson’s, it was a combination show venue, saloon, gambling parlor, and bawdyhouse, taking its name from the dozen curtained private boxes, called ‘cribs’ or ‘cages,’ that overlooked the main stage, and which were used for, er, visiting with very friendly barmaids.

the Bird Cage cribs

the Bird Cage cribs

The year following its opening, the New York Times described the Bird Cage as “the wickedest, wildest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” Still, it drew some big name entertainers of the day – Lillian Russell and Lillie Langtry to name two. It was open 24/ 7/ 365 until it closed its doors eight years later, and is said to have been the site of the longest running poker game in history (in the basement) – one in which more than $10M changed hands over its eight years, five months, and three days in operation.

When the Bird Cage went bust in 1889, it was boarded up and abandoned. For over 45 years on Allen Street it sat. The town’s population had shrunk to the point that no one wanted the old building, and it was too much effort to tear it down.

When it was finally purchased in the mid-1930s, much to the shock of the new owners, the entire building was furnished and stocked as it had been on its last day in business. Nothing had been removed. Dishes, glasses, chairs, and tables were all still there. Bottles of liquor were lined up on the bar. Musty carpets and pictures and wallpaper stood sentinel. The player piano was sitting by the stage, and props were backstage. Beds and linens remained in the girls’ rooms. Plus there were more than 120 bullet holes in the ceiling and walls. It was an unprecedented time capsule of the common man’s Wild West, and one, to my knowledge, that has never been replicated anywhere else.

And it’s been featured on Ghost Hunters (2006), Ghost Adventures (2009), Ghost Lab (2009), and Paranormal Files (2011). I’m not sure what they found.

Don’t miss seeing it when you’re next in Tombstone.

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (IX)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

Although Boney and I were heading due east, there are no easily traversable roads in that direction when one exits the missile facility – there are goat paths and large mountains on the horizon ahead. Thus, it’s either turn-right/ south into Mexico, or turn-left/ north to the interstate. As my friend did not have a passport, we opted for the latter.

It’s only a dozen miles to the highway near Tucson, and this backtrack gave us an opportunity to quickly visit a site I’ve seen several times previously, but one that I never miss if possible.

saguaros

saguaros

Paradoxically, the giant saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, is a universally recognized symbol of the American West – its blossom is the state wildflower of Arizona – and yet it grows in the U.S. in only a relatively small swath of territory south of Flagstaff and in a sliver of southeastern California (there are far more saguaros in Mexico than in this country).

The saguaro is often used – incorrectly – to convey a sense of the Southwest, even if the product in question has no connection to Arizona or the Sonoran Desert. For instance, no naturally occurring saguaros are found within 250 miles of Texas, but its silhouette is found on the label of Old El Paso brand products. And though the geographic anomaly has lessened in recent years, Western films once enthusiastically placed saguaros in Monument Valley far to the north, as well as in scenes from the Lone Star State, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada.

Saguaros don’t sprout their familiar ‘arms’ until almost a century in age, and can then sometimes grow to a final height of more than 65’. When close, one can often see ‘bird holes’ drilled in the sides of adult saguaros, in which nest woodpeckers, martins, finches, and flickers. Even when they die, the saguaro persists in its stately presence; the endoskeletons – reminiscent of the staves of a barrel – can remain standing, bleached and firm, like ghostly sentinels. These living giants are a truly magnificent presence in the wild, and are not to be missed.

Saguaro National Monument was created by President Hoover in 1933. It was then elevated to National Park status in 1994. The park is divided into two sections lying east and west of downtown Tucson, the total area of which is over 91,000 acres. This protected wilderness is largely devoid of evidence of humans, despite its proximity to population centers; there is a one lane road that snakes through the park, plus hiking trails and scenic stops. Both sections of the park conserve impressive tracts of Sonoran ecosystem, which includes not only a vast number of saguaros, but also barrel cacti, cholla, and prickly pear. There are petroglyphs in the park, and more than a few endangered animals, including the Lesser Long-nosed Bat and the Mexican Spotted Owl. Plus there’s the abandoned Old Yuma Mine, though it’s off-limits to visitors.

Even outside the park, harming a saguaro in any manner, including cactus plugging (i.e., target practice) is illegal under Arizona law. When houses or highways are built, special permits must still be obtained to move or destroy any saguaro affected. Penalties for violators are stiff.

Time is of the essence, and the Bonemeister and I can only enjoy a brief drive around the perimeter road of the easternmost half. Those few minutes do not begin to do justice to these amazing giants, but I don’t pass up the opportunity to stop the car and stand next to them. The saguaros are best seen at twilight, when they are silhouetted in the beauty of a desert sunset. But my late colleague and I have miles yet to go, and we want to reach our favorite brothel before it closes that afternoon.

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Modern Carnevale

One of my cousins lives in Ottawa and is a flight attendant for Air Canada. As such, she gets to visit some pretty cool places, and she has agreed to periodically guest blog when she has an interesting story. Here is her first, in part, from a recent trip to Italy…

Carnevale in Venice is something like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, only with class. Costumes (and there are many) are mostly 18th century in style. For those of you who remember Heath Ledger’s movie Casanova, that is a very accurate portrayal of the flavor of Carnevale, at least what I observed. In addition to exploring the city, my friends and I one evening attended Verdi’s La Traviata, performed in a 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canal (the building happens to be for sale, for only $9,000,000 for those of you who might be interested). And though I’ve been to Venice several times before, we did all the usual touristy things, like having our pictures taken on Rialto Bridge, buying souvenir masks, and taking a gondola ride during our lay-over.

About that gondola, it was pretty amusing, but not for the reasons you might expect. We caught a gondolier on his way home at 9:00 p.m., and he agreed to give us a cut-rate ride (probably because it was on his way home anyway and he figured, “what the heck, I’ll make some extra money for doing almost nothing.”) I didn’t know about chartering a gondola after dark, but it was great! Three of us piled in, and before long we were gliding along deserted canals. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of the boat’s wake against building walls, and the occasional call from the gondolier as we rounded blind corners to make certain we didn’t run into another near-silent gondola coming from the other direction. Remember that there are no headlights on these black-lacquered missiles, nor are there streetlights over canals. It was totally peaceful and quiet. No one was talking. We were just basking in the calm and silence. And it was dark. Really dark.

All of a sudden, there was a jarring noise that pierced the night like a siren. Just as happens when your clock’s alarm goes off early in the morning, you vaguely recognize the sound in your brainstem, but it takes a few seconds for your mind to wake up to the point that you can process and identify it. My brain immediately recognized this blast, but for a few seconds, I couldn’t place it in context. And then it hit me – it was the gondolier’s cellphone! He was guiding us down silent 16th century canals in the dark, and now was talking to his girlfriend about groceries, her day, what to bring home, &c.!

"can you hear me now?"

“can you hear me now?”

I had to laugh, because even in Venice at night on the canals, the 21st century intrudes in very unexpected ways.

Think of that the next time you see someone cruising down the QEW gabbing on the phone and driving with one hand. The gondolier was doing the same thing, just 75 kph slower, on water, and without rear view mirrors!

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (VIII)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

It was a long drive past Wickenburg, Phoenix, and Casa Grande before reaching Marana, where was located our Holiday Inn Express for the night. Pulling into Marana, I stopped at a 24-hr McDonald’s to get something to drink, and saw the first saguaro of the trip – a tall and majestic cactus with its sweeping arms, symbol of the West, towering over me on the median strip of a common strip mall parking lot.

It just didn’t seem right (but more on that magnificent flora later).

Suitably hydrated and arriving at the hotel very late, it was tempting to leave Boney-Dude in the trunk. As had been the case in Vegas, though, I didn’t want to lose him to a random break-in after all we’d experienced together. So I dutifully lugged him upstairs in his pool filter box and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

A sleep, unfortunately, that wasn’t nearly as long as I would have liked. Morning came quickly. Boneman and I still had many miles to go and much to see. We couldn’t lounge in bed (or box).

On the way out of the hotel, I was pushing a luggage cart with my suitcase and the pool filter box when I encountered a gaggle of Little Leaguers swarming around me in the lobby. They were in town for some playoff games, and the group was wound tight on adrenaline and sugar as are only parentless 11 and 12 years olds on an extended road trip. The chaperone was distracted. One of the wee terrorists slammed into my luggage cart while trying to escape from his friends. He turned and looked at me and my box. “Hey mister, what’cha got in there? A body?” By now, several of the other ne’er do wells had caught up with him, laughing and punching and poking, and heard his question. Several more immediately chimed in. “He’s got a body in there!” “Let’s see the body!”

Their attention span disintegrating, they ran off.

It all happened so quickly, but I have never been so tempted in my life.

Once back in the car, my late colleague and I proceeded through Tucson and past the San Xavier Reservation and Mission. The terrain by now was that of a flat dry valley with cacti and other scrub growth, rimmed by mountains in the distance.

And then we came to Green Valley AZ, 15 miles south of Tucson, and its Dr Strangelovian time capsule.

For those of you too young to remember, Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was a 1964 black-comedy satirizing the atomic military-industrial complex and the Red Scare of the era. It was directed, produced, and co-written by none other than Stanley Kubrick, the disturbed cinematographic mind who also brought us A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket.

[sidebar: the Dr Strangelove character, a presidential advisor in the film, is said to have been a composite of three men: Henry Kissinger, Edward Teller, and Wernher von Braun]

At a time when ‘duck and cover’ exercises were commonplace in American schools, silos filled with intercontinental atomic weapons dotted the heartland; Titan II missiles were located not only south of Tucson, but also at McConnell AFB near Wichita and Little Rock AFB in Arkansas. The Titan II Missile Museum at Green Valley – more officially known as ‘USAF Facility Missile Site 8’ or ‘ICBM Site 571-7 of the 390th Strategic Missile Wing’ – was activated in 1963 and fully operational until 1982; it is the only remaining missile silo and complex of that era. As such, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.

The Titan II – an instrument of war only Dr Strangelove could love – was the largest and most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile ever fielded by the United States. It had a single warhead with yield of 9 megatons, or more than 500 times the explosive blast of the bomb which leveled Hiroshima in 1945.

Not much of USAF Facility Missile Site 8 can be seen from the road – only a tall barbed wire fence, a few small outbuildings and vehicles, and the modern visitors’ center with gift shop and book store are visible. However, once inside the perimeter, one discerns the presence of a much larger world underfoot. Locked stairs lead downward. The silo complex consists of a three-level launch control center as well as the eight story tall missile (103’) with its requisite diesel generators, air filters, antennae, and miles of buried cable, tunnels, pipes, and tubes. The complex was built of steel-reinforced concrete with walls as much as 8’ thick in places, as well as doors resembling those of bank vaults that weigh up to 3 tons each. And the whole subterranean catacomb is situated on massive steel springs to absorb shocks from (those anticipated and hopeful) near-miss enemy explosions up top.

Titan II

Titan II

The extant missile, as you might expect, is now inert, its uranium removed, and the nose with a large hole drilled in the side to allow verification that the cone is, in fact, empty. The silo cover is also permanently fixed half-open and cannot move, a stipulation of the strategic arms treaties with the former USSR to ensure compliance with disarmament.

What is far more interesting than the missile itself is the control and command apparatuses still in place. The original consoles, chairs, telephones, teletypes, intercoms, maps, desks, and computer mainframes have never been replaced. When technology advanced to the point that vacuum tubes and early transistors just didn’t cut it anymore, new computer hardware was installed inside the original metal cabinetry. To walk inside the launch room (1963) is to take a step back to an era before the first hand-held calculator (1967) or computer mouse (1968). When the Titan II went live, the floppy disc, the VCR, Atari’s ‘Pong,’ the disposable Bic lighter, the post-it note, and the Sony Walkman hadn’t been invented. Everyone still used rotary dials, music was on vinyl LPs, and businessmen presented with Kodak slide carousels in lieu of Microsoft’s Powerpoint. It is sobering to think that with technology that pre-dated the 8-track tape (1964), the lives of millions rested.

launch room computers I

launch room computers I

launch room computers II

launch room computers II

computers and console

computers and console

When active, USAF Facility Missile Site 8 could attack one of three pre-determined targets, all of which were unknown and unknowable to the crew. To change the target, all the silo commander had to do was push a different button on the console, almost like changing the speed on one’s blender – thermonuclear technology coupled with primitive consumer electronics! At the time of its deactivation in 1982, the missile’s computer was programmed to fire against Target #2. We still don’t know what was Target #2, as all ICBM targets remain top secret to this day, even though the missiles are long gone and the adversary, by its former name, no longer exists. All we know for certain is that Target #2 was programmed to be a ground impact blast (as opposed to an air blast), meaning that it was almost certainly a hardened underground military facility.

Of note, the highest state of alert ever ordered at USAF Facility Missile Site 8 was on 22 November 1963, only months after it became operational – and the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. At that time, not knowing if the murder in Dallas was the opening salvo of a Soviet strike, orders were issued by SAC to remove the launch keys from their protective cases and keep them at the ready on the consoles. The keys were not, however, ever inserted into the launch switches. Or so we’re told.

Once back up top, what better souvenir to take home… than an original 1960s can of government emergency drinking water from the silo complex’s survival stockpile?

emergency water

emergency water

Water can in hand, I returned to Boney in the parking lot. We had to make it to a nearby brothel before it closed.

[to be continued…]

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (VII)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

The Bonemeister and I made it to Kingman before long and then proceeded on I-40 east. After less than 30 miles we approached the merger with state highway 93-south, which heads toward Wickenburg, more than 100 miles distant. From Wickenburg, roads lead to Phoenix, Tucson, and points toward the border.

We left the interstate and veered onto this secondary route with a spectacular but rapidly fading desert sunset over our shoulders.

I-40 is a major east-west artery. Phoenix is a vast metro area. But oddly that day, Rt 93, connecting the two on a NW-SE axis, seemed wholly deserted as it ran through terrain more vacant than inhabited. Few vehicles could be seen in front or behind. The occasional car passed us going in our direction. Headlights driving toward Kingman intermittently appeared on the horizon and quickly disappeared as tail lights in the rear view mirror. Aside from that, we were essentially alone on Rt 93 as an early moonless nocturne enveloped the countryside.

It was before we reached Wickenburg, in the middle of nowhere, in the inky darkness, that I noticed a beautiful and increasingly rare phenomenon.

With all of the problems facing the 21st century world – global warming, nuclear proliferation, unsustainable deficits – artificial light might not seem too serious. Light pollution is simply the excessive, misdirected, or intrusive presence of human-generated light. But its lack of media attention does not minimize the impact it exerts on the environment and inhabitants.

Light pollution is a side effect of unfettered growth and industrialization. It disrupts ecosystems, especially of nocturnal flora and migratory fauna. It can endanger aviation. It interferes with our intrinsic night vision. It wastes resources (indoor and outdoor excess light in the U.S. is estimated to burn the equivalent of 2M barrels of oil per day). It ruptures circadian rhythms. It is far from harmless. And in reaction, since the early 1980s, a nascent global ‘dark sky’ movement has emerged – one that advocates efficient and judicious use of artificial light – as more people become concerned with the degradation of the natural environment – but seem in most quarters to be fighting a losing battle.

My observations that night commenced with a simple need to answer the call of nature – no rest stops out here. I pulled the car over on gravel by the side of the road next to what appeared to be a large empty field with black woods around. I turned off the engine and headlight, and only then realized just how dark it was.

Granted, the natural atmosphere is never perfectly dark, even in the absence of proximate foci of light. Upper atmospheric radiation produces ionization which can result in a diffuse ‘airglow’ under the right conditions. All phases of the lunar cycle but that of a new moon throw illumination, even when still under the horizon. Studies have shown that artificial emanation, especially when the sky is partially cloudy, can still be detected up to 60 miles from an urban center. All notwithstanding, the contrast with the ‘normal’ industrialized sky to which we’ve all become accustomed, as I stood there in empty rural Arizona that night, was striking. It took a while for my senses to accommodate. I looked overhead and gasped… there was brilliant twinkling from one horizon to the next. Constellations were easily visible that I had seen before only in books. The sky was a velvet drape of pitch on which seemed to sparkle millions of carats of extraterrestrial diamonds.

And the silence was intense. Mesmerized, I remained transfixed for what must have been twenty minutes – that’s a long time to be standing doing nothing in the middle of nowhere. After a while, a soft low humming noise was detected, almost imperceptibly at first. But from where did it come? I had not noticed it before. I then realized that it was the sound of an approaching car… while still a mile(s) distant. Sure enough, a tiny glow then appeared on the horizon, and after waiting longer did a vehicle appear and flash past, only to be swallowed as it rocketed into the opposite darkness.

Then the Stygian night and silence returned.

The observation that I was entirely alone, my surroundings like obsidian, in total silence, with a dead guy in my back seat didn’t dawn on me until much later.

After absorbing as much of this strange otherworldly beauty as I could handle, I returned to the car, fired up the fire-breathing dragon – it seemed now so noisy and bright – and headed south. We still had a way to go before our hotel in Marana.

[to be continued…]

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]