every Fortress must have a Journal . . .

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Two White Bull-Calves and the Dragon

"Old Man Oscarsson lived here 170 years ago. Very close to here where we sit. He lived in a great stone house which has since been torn down and used for its stone. He was as rich as Croesus, as rich as the very troll. He could have bought half of Västragötaland and hardly noticed the expense."

"But he was very, very miserly. He was so stingy that his house servants said that they could see a quarter moon shining through the slices of cheese he sliced and gave out at the table. He would argue and harangue for hours without pause over a purchase worth 25 öre - about the value at the time of a loaf of coarse bread. Even the Smålänningar - renowned for their own great cheapness - would accuse the most extreme among themselves of being 'like Oscarsson on a bad day'."

"He worried constantly about his riches. His worst fear was that his wealth would fall into 'the wrong hands' , as he put it, after his death. He had no heirs, no known relatives. Who would end up with his estate? The thought tormented him. "

"One Sunday, when the serving folk and the tenants had gone to church, Old Man Oscarsson hitched up two great gray plow horses to a heavy cart that was used for hauling stone. He filled the cart with his treasure, with plate, heavy boxes of gold coins, ingots of the finest silver, bags of jewels and set precious stones by the hundreds. He drove the cart out on to the heath at Kråk, toward the line of the woods at Knekteskogen."

"There, near the woods, the stream called Kråkån forms a deep pool. Perhaps you know it. The pool is said to be over 100 meters deep. Oscarsson backed up the cart to the steep edge of the pool, unhitched the horses and levered the cart over the side with a long iron rod. The cart rolled down the edge of the pool, into the water, and sank out of sight."

"Oscarsson returned home and went up to his chamber. When the house servants came home they found him in his bed, stone-cold dead."

"Oh yes, people soon realized what Oscarsson had done. And where. Any night of the year, at the darkest hour - even in the summer when it never darkens completely - a shimmering blue flame would burn over the pool in Kråkån, just at the spot where the treasure lay. The blue flame showed that a Dragon had taken the treasure as his own and guarded it at the bottom of the pool. When the flame shimmered and leapt people would say 'the Dragon is cleaning house down there'."

"Many men tried to haul up the treasure. They would come with the strongest teams of oxen or horses. They would hitch up the heaviest tackle to massive steel hooks on coarse naval rope. They would lower down the hooks till they latched on to the cart and then man and beast would pull with all their life force."

"And it didn't work. At best they could haul the cart up a meter or so before the weight would drag them back, their hooves and boots tearing up the soil."

"There was a young farmer named Börje who lived at Vanäs. He was a good farmer, with a a fine cottage, a beautiful wife and two daughters. He knew of the treasure and wanted it. One day, on the way back from the market at Mölltorp, he stopped to talk to his neighbor, Old Yngve. Old Yngve knew exactly what was on Börje's mind:"

"No castrated ox or plow horse can do what you want. Listen carefully, because I will not have the chance to explain to you again. You must have two bull-calves that are new born and entirely white. They must be twin brothers and can't have a single black hair in their coats. You must raise them by hand for three full years. They must eat nothing but their own mother's unskimmed, whole milk. Nothing else. The milk must be pure, fresh and unskimmed. After three years, no less, you can hitch them and haul up the treasure from the bottom of Kråkån. The Dragon will allow it. Do you understand?"

"Yngve had a milkcow that was pure white and a stud bull that was jet black. He led that bull to his cow and he mounted her straight away. In the spring two calves were born, purest white, both males. Börje called them Left and Right. People came from as far away as Vara, just to see them. How was it possible, see the father there in his pen? He was a black as the darkest November night.. But there were the calves, like their mother, the color of the sun. It was most wonderful."

"Börje gave his serving girl, Eva, the responsibility of milking the mother cow and bringing her milk in two pails to Left and Right three times a day. Eva was a very responsible girl, fastidious and prudent in every way and she did this chore with special care. One morning when she was carrying the full pails when she saw a viper in her path. She was so startled that she dropped one of the pails and half the milk in it splashed out on the ground. Suddenly, her judgment, usually good, failed her. She took the half pail of milk and filled it with well water, to conceal the accident. She fed the calves, giving the watered milk to Left, and never said a word about what had happened."

"The three years went by quickly. Börje's daughters were the most beautiful girls in the whole parish and Left and Right had grown to become the most powerful young bulls anyone had every seen."

"One night in May Börje hitched them to a sturdy wagon and loaded his tackle. When they arrived at Kråkan there were 15 or 20 young men there to watch and to help if asked. Börje rigged the tackle and lowered the grappling hooks down into the pool. When they were made fast he stroked Left and Right on their muzzles and spoke to them kindly."

"Then they began to pull. No one had ever seen such power in a team. They pulled the cart at least 50 meters up off the bottom, the ropes straining with the enormous weight. But then, just as victory seemed near, Left seemed to lose his footing and went down on his left knee. The whole rig groaned and heaved, and the mighty load sank back to the bottom, dragging man and beast along."

"Three times they pulled. The second two times the young men - all of them - grabbed the ropes and pulled as though their lives were at stake. It didn't help. The second time they managed about 40 meters before Left went down on his knee and they were dragged back, straining and cursing, through the dirt. The third time they managed only about ten meters. It was plain they could not win the prize."

"As the treasure sank back down to its resting place for the third and final time every one present heard a deep booming voice calling out over the birch trees that lined the pool:"

"Ha! Unskimmed milk! Unskimmed milk! You have failed for the want of unskimmed milk!"

Franz's Story

Memory can come out like a change in the weather. All it takes sometimes is a Spring day, two people sitting on a porch and some sunshine breaking through.

We had tenants for years when we first moved in. When the boys were small the house was far too large to be reasonably used by one family. Three apartments on three floors, running up and down the stairs in three separate directions - no way. We took over the first floor and rented out the second and the third.

Some tenants were memorable. There were a few I wish to this day that I could forget. Most were no trouble at all.

Franz and Lisa-Britt, as I will call them here, rented the second floor for two and a half years. They were both doctors and worked at the community health-care center on the next block. Both were rapidly approaching retirement. They owned several properties in outlying areas, farms they said. Franz refused to commute and had no intention of owning yet another house. So they rented.

Lisa-Britt was a typical hardworking, polite and contained native. Franz was different. An immigrant like myself he was ebullient, meddlesome and very big. You noticed Franz. Once in the middle of a fierce electrical storm the power went out and the smoke detector started howling on the second floor. I rushed up the stairs. Franz opened the door to the apartment. He was standing just inside the hallway, right under the smoke detector, smoking a huge cigar. The smoke was spiraling, with complete predictability, straight up, right into the smoke detector. Franz was baffled.

"I can't understand why the damn thing is making such a racket. There is no fire here."

One afternoon in late April I was sitting on the back porch when Franz came out and sat down next to me. Would he care for a cup of tea? Certainly. I went into the kitchen and came out with a tray. We sat drinking our tea, making the usual village small-talk, looking at the nascent garden before us in the brilliant Spring sunshine. Not much happening there yet, but very soon it would all happen in a hurry. Seasons here in the North are not leisurely, there is a lot to be done and it all must be done quickly. And Franz had a story on his mind.

"Heh. I remember such a day in the Austrian Alps in 1945. I was twenty years old. I will tell you about it."


"You know the German word Anschluss?"


"I figured. Yes, Austria, my home country, was a part of the Reich. I was there, you know, with my father in Vienna in March of 1938. I saw them. All of them. The Viennese couldn't cheer the Wehrmacht loudly enough. Jumping up and down like madmen. They thought Hitler was the Messiah himself. I was there, I saw them. Cheering their fool heads off. What a sight. You know, today Austria is supposed to have been a 'victim'. That's what they've decided to call it nowadays. Such lies people dream up.

I was a boy and understood nothing. I was just fascinated by the guns and the uniforms and the big cars. My father knew better. He didn't like to talk politics, but I remember to this day what he said after all the parades and the speeches and that wretched plebiscite. He said only one thing: 'No good will come of this.'

Well, I won't bore you with all the details.

Seven years later I was an Alpine Ranger in the Wehrmacht. You wouldn't believe it to look at me today, but I was a good climber, a good alpinist. I loved being in the high country. The military was awful, but we, our little unit, had been incredibly lucky. We had been posted to the Austrian Alps for well over a year. It's like they forgot about us up there. Now it was the Spring of 45 and, as you know, the Reich was in its death throes. But that made no difference at all to the generals. They needed more cannon fodder to throw at the Red Army. And then they remembered us.

So, we got our orders. We were going East. We all knew what this meant, everybody knew and had known for a long time. It was a death sentence, the guys who went to the East did not come back, you could count on it.

Me and my closest buddy decided that we would not follow along. On the evening that the trucks came we ran for it. Right up the trails. Running at top speed with our packs. Imagine! Ha! Now I get winded going up the stairs.

They didn't come after us, there was no time.

Well, we had been trained to live up there and that training came in very handy. There were caves, milking lean-tos you could sleep under and even food if you knew where to look. It was still bitterly cold on the slopes, so it wasn't fun. But we were alive and nobody was shooting at us.

The people who lived in the high country knew we were there. They knew everything that happened up there. They were kind to us and gave us food at times, although they had little enough themselves. End of the winter at the end of a time of pure hell. A old farmer showed us a tiny cabin in one of the highest summer pastures and said we could stay there. It could have fit in your kitchen, easily, but to us it was like a paradise.

We went out every day and ranged over the slopes. We figured that if we kept moving during the day - moving and watching but out of sight as Rangers are taught - we would be invisible. We came back to the cabin after dark, very carefully, very slowly. We would eat in the dark and sleep a few hours, and go out again at the very first light.

And then it happened. One night we came down off the mountain and approached the cabin. The area was clear, we were sure. We went down to the little door in the pitch darkness. And there was a note on the door. Written with a pencil on the back of an old envelope and jammed in the door frame: 'Beware you two. The Gestapo knows about you and knows of this place. They are coming. Get out.'

We turned around and went right back up the mountain. No more paradise! Ha!

Of course, had they found us, had they surprised us at night when we were sleeping, for example, they would have shot us immediately. Right there, no problems, no questions whatsoever. They were doing this, shooting people you know, right through April and into May.

Then Hitler did the only good thing he ever did in his life and Berlin fell. We found out a couple of weeks afterwards. We were well hidden, I assure you. Two twenty year old kids, can you imagine it? Ha! Twenty! Barely one whole brain between the two of us but we got out of that mess alive.

And we walked down, off the slope. It was a day rather like today."

Thursday March 6th, 2008: London: A Chat with a Genuine Bigot

I've always admired the English for their willingness to speak their minds, even to complete strangers. As an old-timey native New Yorker I sympathize with that urge, the urge to get the message out at any cost. Still, Londoners are far more ideological than New Yorkers.

R and I were walking down a side street near Kings Cross talking about all the Ethiopian shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. R is well familiar with London and was explaining the ebb and flow of different ethnic and national groups over the years since he first came to London as a boy.

We were standing outside of a butcher shop, admiring the excellent cuts of meat in the window, when a older man came shuffling out the door with a white plastic bag.

This gentleman looked a bit down on his luck. He was of medium, bent-over height, had long, greasy grey hair, a stained white beard and was wearing a soiled t-shirt and bedroom slippers. I'll call him G.

G: Hello, gentlemen! Fine cuts they have here!

R: Oh, yes. We were just wondering if we should buy some of the lamb. Looks very good.

G: It's fine! I've got two fresh chickens here, but not for myself, no! These are for the foxes!

Y: Which foxes?

G: Why, the foxes right here, of course! London is full of foxes and they must be fed to stay healthy. I have a young fox, a male, that comes by my back yard often for chicken. What a beauty he is!

Y: How remarkable. I had no idea that foxes lived in central London.

G: They do in considerable numbers, my friend. You know, I came to think of my foxes just last night while watching the news. In Afghanistan, they said, over a hundred were killed by a bomb while watching dog fights. And I say good job! Can you imagine, dog fighting? Those bastards richly deserved what happened to them! More, I say! Let them kill one another to a man - rather than come here with their damned business. Which they are doing anyways.

R: I take it you don't like immigration.

G: No, I don't! Those miserable buggers have been coming here for years and years and look what they've done to us! Look what they've done to the City! It's a damned disgrace. And now, as if things weren't bad enough, there's a black trying to be president in America. It just shows how low the world has sunk.

Y: Barack Obama is going to be the next president of the United States.

G: More the shame for the United States. It's unfathomable. Good day to you.

G limped off with his plastic bag, cursing to himself.

R watched him for a moment as he disappeared up a side street.

R: What a horrible character.

Y: A real misanthrope. But he likes foxes, apparently.

Why I Don't Argue With People

When I was a young man I learned a very valuable lesson. I haven't been able to apply this lesson in the intervening years nearly as often as I should. This is not the fault of the lesson, it's my fault.

I learned that you shouldn't argue with people. Ever. About anything.

Sure. There may be a few exceptions. If life and limb are at stake or huge moral damage is about to be done, fine. Go ahead and argue. These kinds of situations can arise but it's worth thinking about how frequently they actually do come up. Also, you might want to think about the usefulness of debating under these extreme circumstances as opposed to running, calling the cops or looking around for a baseball bat.

That leaves the other 99.9999% of all arguments: Is Hillary Clinton an agent of Satan? Should the Yankees move to New Jersey? Is Putin a true democrat? Is global warming due to carbon dioxide or to hot air? Are Zionists Jews? How many Palestinians are on Facebook? Is the Church of the Latter Day Saints bigger or smaller than Safeway? Does Purgatory really really exist? Is the Apple Corporation run by a secret Masonic conspiracy?

Many years ago I was in a small Greek city. It was early Spring and the great Aegean sun was already gaining the upper hand. The fogs and the cold inland breezes that come down off of the mountains were retreating higher and higher into the snowfields. The small meadows in the valleys were gleaming green, the mud was starting to dry in the roads and people began, very slowly and judiciously, to unwrap the shawls and black cloaks that had warmed them in the preceding season.

I had come to town from the countryside to do some shopping. The usual vegetables and cheeses that were not easily found in the villages, some razor blades, a newspaper, some envelopes. One doesn't need a lot.

I was on my way back to the bus station when it occurred to me that I needed some suntan lotion. And at just that moment I saw a shop with a shelf facing the street filled with plastic bottles that looked right. Sure enough, suntan lotion. They were European brand-name products, a bit faded, undoubtedly left over from last summer, but who cared.

The proprietor was sitting at a small table just inside the shop door. As soon as he saw me looking at his bottles he got up and came out with a big smile.

Stavros: "Hello! How are you?" (in English)

Y: "I am well, thank you. And yourself, how are you?" (in Greek)

S: "Ah! You speak Greek!"

Y: "I am just learning."

S: "Nonsense! You speak Greek very well!"

Y: "Thank you, you are too kind. Tell me, these lotions . . . I see you have numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 - but my skin is quite white after the winter. Do you have any higher numbers? That are stronger protection against the sun? 10 or so?"

S: "My friend, please! You don't understand at all! Those numbers have no such significance - protection and such. Not at all! Those numbers are simply for us retailers to be able to identify the product. When I call my supplier I just say: 'Bring me ten 3's and five 4's.' That is all that it means, you see. Nothing else!"

This was the great moment. And, of course, the Greeks have a word for it: ἐπιφάνεια or epiphany. A mighty revelation was put before me, a veil was torn from in front of my eyes and the lesson was revealed to me right there in front of that shop.

Arguing with this guy, explaining that he was in the wrong on this small point, was futile. Not just futile, but going against the grain of the entire texture of human existence. To start a discussion about sun block at that moment would have instantly dragged up all the discord of the last 1500 years of Greek history. The Western Powers would once again betray the innocent and abandon the loyal, the Eastern Powers would resume their eternal attack on freedom and true faith. Blood pressures would rise and smiles would vanish. A conspiracy would be joined, a bad rumor would spring up and the sun would go behind a black cloud.

Debate is useless. Pointing out to people that they are wrong, that they have a mistaken opinion, is folly. What is to be gained? Are you going to feel better? To shine in the light of your own superior understanding? Says who? Are you educating the world? What are you, some kind of smoldering Prometheus, lugging your dubious light around, looking for takers? You're right, you're right, you're right - except you're wrong.

And I saw this, all laid out as neat as you please.

Y: "Of course. I'll take a 5."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More ranting in the Times

This is a no-brainer, except for badly confused people.

Same sex couple who fulfill the same criteria for household residency as opposite sex couples obviously have the same rights to shared, job-related benefits.

If you believe an invisible spirit told you differently maybe you should ask the spirit for clarification. You might have heard wrong.

The judge got it exactly right:

“A bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot provide a rational basis for governmental discrimination,” Judge Reinhardt wrote.

Rational? The current denial is not based on any form of reason. It's based on mass hallucinations.

Me in the Times, again

The Republican party has devolved from class acts like Eisenhower and - yes - Nixon to a small town, bush league, political hack nobody like Cheney.

It’s a sad story. A democratic political system requires a functioning, intelligent opposition. The US currently doesn’t have one. We have people like Gov. Palin.