Showing posts sorted by relevance for query spring training. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query spring training. Sort by date Show all posts

27 March 2012

Gone South III -- Play Ball!


Space Coast Stadium, Viera Florida -- Spring Training home of the Washington Nationals

     Several weeks back I mentioned the geographic challenge of uploading timely articles every second Tuesday during the winter months.  Pat and I decided years ago that once we retired we were going to spend as much time as possible each winter away from our home in Washington, D.C.  This year that meant that for three weeks in January we were in the Caribbean – two weeks of which were on a sailboat with the spottiest internet imaginable.  We came back from that trip to spend two weeks at home, making certain that our adult sons had not completely trashed the house, and then took off again to Gulf Shores, Alabama for two and a half weeks in February.  We lucked out there with great internet available in the condo we rented.  Then after another two weeks of checking on the house we are off on the last of our winter trips – a week and a half in Florida devoted to watching the Washington Nationals’ Spring training.  I’ll have some internet access there, but to be on the safe side this article will be scheduled before we leave. 
"Smartie" getting off of the Autotrain.  Everyone laughed.

    While we drove to and from Gulf Shores, our Spring Training tradition sends us south on the Autotrain.  This allows us to leave our bigger "road trip" car in D.C. and travel instead with our convertible Smart car, which would never otherwise see Florida.  (I can’t imagine 900 miles of I-95 in Smartie).


    The train is always a blast. --  dining cars, where, as a couple, we invariably sit across from people we have never met, and lounge cars where strangers sip cocktails together while watching the scenery pass.  No wonder  trains  have always been fodder for mysteries.  I can’t ride an overnight train without thinking of The Lady Vanishes,  Hitchcock’s second-to-last British film.  The 1938 movie (based on the largely forgotten book The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White), together with Hitchcock’s 1959 American film North by Northwest and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express all capture the microcosm that is train travel – a self-contained slice of life, detached from the rest of the world by movement.  No wonder that trains afford a perfect setting for classic golden age mysteries – how better to contain your story and all of your suspects?  While ocean liners are a close second, nothing beats the tightly cabined setting of a train.

    So to and from Spring Training I have little trouble conjuring up SleuthSayer thoughts.  But what about baseball itself? 

    For whatever reason the nation’s pastime hasn’t provided much of a setting for mystery stories.  Perhaps readers will offer up other examples, but the only ones that spring readily to my mind are the Ed Gorgon stories by the great Jon L. Breen.  Jon started the series way back in 1970 and has written that his original inspiration for Ed Gorgon, the baseball umpire who repeatedly is called upon to solve mysteries between calling balls and strikes, was that Frederic Dannay, then editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, liked nothing better than baseball and dying messages.  So Jon served up both in Diamond Dick, the first Ed Gorgon story..  That story, and the further installments in the series, spanning thirty years, are collected in Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon published by Crippen and Landru in 2003. Jon's collection is a fun read and is available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, or direct from Crippen and Landru.   (Tell Doug Greene that Dale sent you!)

Shoeless Joe and Ty Cobb, 1913
    If one casts a wider net other non-mystery baseball stories can be reeled in.  Much of the literature that has derived from baseball seems to have its roots in the Black Sox scandal, in which various members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Even though they were acquitted by a Chicago jury, eight players were eventually suspended from baseball for life, including (famously) Shoeless Joe Jackson, who got his name from once running the bases without his shoes on, and who may have been the greatest baseball slugger of all time.  Ring Lardner was a young reporter covering the scandal, and his impressions of Shoeless Joe were said to be the inspiration for his baseball short stories that were later collected in You Know Me Al, a series of letters authored by a vernacularly-challenged ball player.  Lardner uniformly portrays the White Sox players in You Know Me Al as semi-literate and hopelessly avaricious. 

    A real life episode that has repeatedly found its way into baseball lore followed Shoeless Joe Jackson's appearance before a grand jury empaneled to investigate the conspiracy allegations.  On September 29, 1920, The Minneapolis Daily Star, during the course of reporting on the scandal, published the following account:
When Jackson left criminal court building in custody of a sheriff after telling his story to the grand jury, he found several hundred youngsters, aged from 6 to 16, awaiting for a glimpse of their idol. One urchin stepped up to the outfielder, and, grabbing his coat sleeve, said:

"It ain't true, is it, Joe?"

"Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied. The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight.

"Well, I'd never have thought it," sighed the lad
    The line, and the saga of Shoeless Joe, who may or may not have been guilty as charged, reverberated through baseball literature.  In Bernard Malamud’s The Natural the central character, Roy Hobbs, is offered a bribe to throw a game and is then confronted by a child who says “Say it isn’t true, Roy.”  (The line is only in the book, so don’t look for it in the 1984 Robert Redford film!)   The story of Shoeless Joe is also at the heart of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, based on Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  And, finally, anyone who has seen the movie or stage production of Damn Yankees (a story close to the heart of any Washington, D.C. baseball fan) will remember the refrain “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.”  (Hannibal Mo. had nothing to do with Shoeless Joe, but, hey, a song’s gotta rhyme, right?)

    Well I should stop here and start packing.  We are off on one last winter trip to the south.   Hopefully when we head back to Washington D.C. it will be spring, because if winter persists it will be me who you will hear lamenting “it ain’t true, is it, Joe?”

12 March 2013

Gone South (Again) -- Play Ball!


Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Florida --  Spring Training Home to the Washington Nationals
by Dale C. Andrews

    One of the things about posting articles for over one and a half years on SleuthSayers is that my annual habits begin to reveal themselves.  Nowhere is this more evident than during the winter months.  As I have written before, my wife and I, as we approached retirement, most looked forward to escaping the east coast during the months of January and February.  We are blessed with the fact that our elder adult son lives with us and his slightly younger brother lives close by, so there is no problem each winter with leaving the cats and the house behind along with the weather. 

    This year, like last year, we escaped for ten days in the Caribbean in January, and were under sail on the Island Windjammer ship Sagitta when my birthday rolled around.  Then we were back in the District of Columbia or two weeks before leaving for the Gulf Shores of Alabama, where we encamped for 5 weeks in a condo overlooking the beach and the Gulf.  We have spent most of a short twelve days back in the D.C, survived a final winter snow false alarm, and are now poised, once again, on the brink of our final winter trip – to watch the Washington Nationals in Spring Training in Viera, Florida.
Our Smart Car exits the Autotrain (to general laughter)

    As great as the prior winter escapes were, in many ways this one is my favorite.  Instead of driving our larger “road car” south, as we did when we travelled to and from the Gulf Shore, on this trip we drive our convertible two-seater Smart car the 20 miles to Lorton, Virginia, and then board the Autotrain for an overnight trip to Sanford, Florida, about 50 miles from the cottage we rent across the street from the beach at Cocoa Beach, Florida.  We will be there for one week, then catch a few days in Orlando re-acquainting ourselves with “the Mouse,” and head back to D.C. at the end of March, hoping to have finessed our way through winter once again.

Our rental cottage at Cocoa Beach
    But while the Autotrain and Cocoa Beach are terrific, what I truly love about this trip is its underlying theme:  the return of baseball, and the boys of summer.  It is difficult to understand what it is like to be a Washington, D.C. baseball fan without having lived through the last 40 years here.  Those years included a 33 year stretch without any baseball at all.  Remember that we lost the Senators twice:  First to Minneapolis, then to Texas.  In the intervening years there were repeated attempts to lure the nation’s pastime back to D.C. – one year it became so liklely that the San Diego Padres would relocate here that baseball cards were issued for that team, re-named the Nationals – but all of the previous attempts ultimately failed, generally as a result of a veto by Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who persisted for decades in the smug belief that if he held us captive long enough Washington D.C. fans would embrace the Orioles as their own.  Sorry.  We didn’t.  There are some things that even hostages will not do.   

    All of this is background to explain how our household, and much of Washington, has embraced the return of baseball to the Nation’s capitol.  As Laura Ingalls Wilder observed, joy is always best when it follows sorrow.  Our thirst was quenched following a very long drought. 

    Last year in an analogous post I recounted some recommended readings that embrace the national pastime and that are great preparation, read in early spring, for what is to come with the boys of summer.  This year I thought I would add at least two more gems to the list, each by well-known authors who also apparently can’t get baseball out of their minds this time of year. 

    First up, Stephen King.  King is a long-time victim of baseball fever.  His 2004 non-fiction volume Faithful is based on his correspondence with fellow novelist and co-author Stewart O’Nan, both rabid Red Sox fans, throughout the course of the 2004 season and ending with Boston’s trip to the world series.  King has also penned two short works inspired by baseball, 2010’s Blockade Billy, about a mythical 1957 catcher who, for reasons best told by King, has been erased completely from baseball history, and 2012’s A Face in the Crowd, also co-written with O’Nan, a long short story recounting what happens to a baseball fan who begins to see long-departed acquaintances from his past seated around him at the ballpark.  But while each of these works can serve to establish King’s baseball credentials, to my mind his finest baseball-related work is the 1999 novel The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, the story of a girl lost in the woods who is counseled, in her imagination, by Gordon, the real-life Boston closer from the 1990s, and is ultimately inspired to “close” the novel as Gordon would have a game.  A great read for spring.

    Batting second, John Grisham.  Long before attending law school Grisham dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals and to this day he is a big supporter of little league teams in Mississippi and Virginia.  His non-legal 2001 quasi-autobiographical novel A Painted House features a narration punctuated by family gatherings around the radio to listen to Harry Caray’s play-by-play of St. Louis Cardinal games.  (Yep, that’s where Caray was, paired with Jack Buck, prior to his Chicago days.)  Even though baseball is only a supporting character in A Painted House, the novel is a fine spring read.  But Grisham truly excels with his 2012 novel Calico Joe, inspired by the real-life story of Ray Chapman, the only ball player ever killed by a pitch.  For a National’s fan like myself the novel proved prescient soon after it was released when, in the summer of 2012 rookie Bryce Harper, the team’s boy wonder, and the closest thing we have to Calico Joe, was beaned on purpose by Philly pitcher Cole Hamel for no reason except that Harper was new, young, eager and poised for greatness.  Like the pitcher antagonist in Calico Joe, Hamels self-servingly defended his action as nothing more than a lesson in “old school” baseball.  Former Phillies pitcher Curt Shilling (and, one would suspect, Grisham, as well) had a better word for it – “stupid.”  That lesson is learned in Calico Joe – another great read as we await opening day.

    Time to pack.  I am off to Florida.  Play ball!

(Next week acclaimed mystery writer Terence Faherty joins SleuthSayers, alternating Tuesdays with me.  Terry’s accomplishments – including authorship of both the Owen Keane and Scott Elliot series of mysteries and numerous awards—leave my own scant efforts in a pale cloud of literary dust.  But at least we have this:  Terry and I both love a good pastiche, as anyone who has read Terry's recent  short story A Scandal in Bohemia (EQMM, February 2013) knows full well.  And this we also share:  an understanding that the rules of constrained writing, once mastered, can also be bent.  This extends not just to plot, such as in Terry's re-imagined telling of Conan Doyle’s Bohemian Scandal, but to writing styles as well.  I noted in my last blog Churchill’s admonition that ending a sentence in a preposition was something “up with which he would not put.”  And here is Holmes dismissing the sanctity of the rule in Terry’s Bohemian pastiche: 
The wording of your note is out of character with a true free spirit.  “A matter up with which he can no longer put,” indeed.  Only someone sitting on a particularly rigid stick would go to such lengths to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.”
I am certain we are all looking forward to welcoming Terry to the SleuthSayers ranks!)

18 March 2014

Bonehead


Rule 59. One run shall be scored every time a base-runner, after having legally touched the first three bases, shall legally touch the home base before three men are put out. Provided, however, that if he reach home on or during a play in which the third man be forced out or be put out, before reaching [a required] base, a run shall not count. . . .
                                   Rule 59 Reach Official American League Base Ball Guide (1908) 


Washington Nationals' Spring Training, Viera, Florida
     It’s that time again. At least once a year my fortnightly spot here on SleuthSayers is devoted to the national pastime. Luckily my wife likes baseball as much as I do. We generally watch every one of the 162 games played by the Nationals in the regular season each year, and this week finds us on our annual one week visit to Florida to watch the Nationals in Spring Training in Viera. If we were not each such devotees it is hard to imagine the marriage surviving. 

       During the winter, when baseball retreats with the sun, I try to fill the void with the next best thing. There are others out there like me, and this usually inspires an annual crop of baseball books, generally published during the winter of our discontent. I have highlighted such books in past March columns here and here, and this year the best of the annual lot may be Where Nobody Knows Your Name by John Feinstein. Feinstein’s book is a non-fiction account of what it is like to play in the minor leagues -- far from the chartered jets and mega-salaries. The book is populated by has-beens and wannabees, and, as a result, in its telling it imparts a wistful sadness that can be found at times in baseball stories. 

       This year I also sought solace watching Ken Burns excellent Baseball documentary, originally released on PBS in nine episodes in 1994 and subsequently updated and expanded to ten episodes (innings) in 2010. The full series, available on-line from NetFlix, and elsewhere in DVD format, is highly recommended. Burns is a master, and his homage to the national pastime regales the viewer with the stories behind the sport. And like John Feinstein’s new book, Burns, too, offers some poignant stories amidst the heroics. A good example is the story of Fred “Bonehead” Merkle, which goes back over one hundred years. 

       In 1908 Merkle was a 19 year old backup first baseman on the New York Giants, a team that that year was in a neck-and-neck race with the Chicago Cubs for the pennant. Merkle had received high praise as an up and coming backup player when in late September the fates interceded. What started the ball rolling (or flying) could have been a big break for Merkle, but, as described by the Sports Encyclopedia in 2001, it didn’t turn out that way. 
Fred Tenney [the Giants’ regular first baseman] woke upon September 23rd (1908) in the throes of a lumbago attack, and 19-year-old substitute Fred Merkle was sent in to take his place at first base. As events turned out, fate would treat Merkle unkindly that day.
       Merkle took his position at first base and all went well until the bottom of the ninth inning when Merkle stepped up to the plate. The score was tied, one to one, and there were two outs. Merkle’s teammate Moose McCormick (what a great baseball name!) was on first base. Merkle singled and McCormick advanced to third. The next batter, Al Bridwell, also singled. Moose McCormick trotted home and the stadium erupted, fans storming the field in celebration of the Giants’ apparent win. 

The field just after Moose trotted home
       Concluding that the game was over, and perhaps a little terrified by the stampeding crowd, Fred Merkle lit out for the Giants clubhouse. But, unfortunately for him and for the Giants, he did this without first tagging second base. The Cubs second baseman, Johnny Evers, noticed this and, with Rule 59 (quoted above) buzzing around in the back of his brain, Evers had an Epiphany moment. He started jumping up and down, frantically screaming for his teammates to throw him the baseball, which he realized was still technically in play. In response a ball was retrieved by the Cubs, thrown to Evers, and Evers tagged second, while continuing to jump up and down to attract the attention of the umpires. 

       It took the umpires and the review process two days to sort out the mess, and they eventually ruled that because Fred Merkle had not tagged second Rule 59 dictated that that when the ball was thrown to second base Merkle was out and that, under Rule 59, the otherwise winning run was negated. This left the game a tie. A makeup game was therefore scheduled for October 8. The Cubs won that game, and as a result the pennant, by a score of four to two. 

       The Giants manager, John McGraw, was furious at the decision, and later handed out gold medals to all of the members of the Giants team proclaiming them the true champions, despite the fact that the Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series. Were the Giants “robbed” of the pennant? Well, it all depends on exactly what happened to that baseball between the time that Al Bidwell hit it and the moment some minutes later when Evers was seen jumping up and down on second base with a baseball in his hand. 

       The story, as told in the Ken Burns series, went like this: When Johnny Evers realized that Merkle had returned to the dugout without tagging second he frantically signaled his teammates to retrieve the ball. Seeing what was going on Giants coach Joe McGinnity tried to prevent the play at second. As the Cubs players raced toward him he scooped up the ball and tossed it into the stands where it was caught by a fan wearing a bowler hat. Two Cubs players then sprinted into the stands, wrestled the ball from the hands of the fan, and relayed it to Johnny Evers at second base for the out. 

       If Burns got it right the play was pretty spooky but it is hard to say how the Giants were “robbed” -- the out was made consistent with the requirements of Rule 59. However the previous sentence begins with a mighty big “if”. The accounts of what happened that day vary radically and, rather strangely, it is almost impossible to find the account that Burns tells in his documentary. By contrast, here is the eyewitness account of what transpired as recorded by Mr. O. C. Schwartz in a diary that was discovered over 70 years later among Mr. Schwartz’s effects at an estate sale. 
       So much has been said about what is commonly called "The Merkle Boner" that, being an eyewitness to the account, I should set the matter straight once and for all.
       It was a Wednesday, Sept. 23 in 1908, my Dad took me to the game , letting me miss school that day. I was only eight-years old at the time, and it was the first chance I ever had to watch a professional baseball game in person.
       I may be 75 years old, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
       The controversy is all about what happened in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Polo Grounds was crowded that day. The fans were all getting ready to rush the field at game's end.
       The score was tied 1-1 with two outs. A fellow by the name of McCormick was on first base at the time. Fred Merkle came to bat and wasted no time getting a base hit and advancing the runner to third base.
       The crowd was absolutely hysterical as Al Bridwell came to the plate. Bridwell singled to the outfield and McCormick scored what was the apparent winning run. The fans all rushed onto the field to celebrate the win as pandemonium filled the ballpark.
       It is a funny thing, but instead of watching all the people or the players, I kept my eye on the ball. It came to center fielder Solly Hofman on the second bounce. Realizing that the winning run was scoring as he fielded the ball, Hofman lobbed a rainbow into the infield. The third base coach Joe McGinnity, pitcher Christy Mathewson and a fan were all in a battle with second baseman Johnny Evers to catch the ball. After a brief skirmish, the fan came away with the ball and heaved it into the stands along the third base line.
       Meanwhile Merkle, who was so excited by his team apparently winning the game, jogged halfway to second base and then starting running towards the Giant's dugout. Mathewson or one of the other Giants in the dugout had yelled to Merkle and he began scurrying towards second base.
       Evers had somehow retrieved yet another ball from somewhere and touched second base ahead of Merkle and the umpire, at Evers admonishing, saw the event and ruled Merkle out, thus negating the winning run.
       So much has been said and talked about over the decades, about whether Evers had the ball that was hit by Bridwell. I saw it with my own eyes, Evers forced Merkle out at second with a ball which was thrown to him from the New York dugout.
       The chaos that ensued was one of the wildest things I have ever seen. The umpires were arguing with Cubs manager Frank Chance and Giants manager John McGraw in the infield. After being swarmed by fans and reporters, the umpires decided to assemble in the umpires quarters which was located behind home plate beneath the grandstand.
       After deliberating what seemed like an eternity, they came back to the field and advised everyone of their decision. They had decided that the force-out at second base negated the run scored, therefore the game ended in a tie, and would have to be replayed, pending a review by the National League President.
       If I forget everything else in my life, I shall never forget the look of sadness and helplessness in the face of young Fred Merkle right then.
       If Mr. Schwartz got it right, it was, indeed, robbery that sent Chicago on the road to the pennant and world series in 1908. After winning the World Series in 1908 the Cubs never again reached that prize, and now hold the dubious distinction of being the team with the longest World Series drought in the history of the sport. Some say this Cubbies curse began in 1945, when owner P.K. Wrigley ejected Billy Sianis, a Chicago tavern owner who had come to Game 4 with two box seat tickets, one for him and one for his goat. But others count that curse as having begun the day that the Cubs, through what may well have been sleight of hand, manufactured an out at the expense of Fred Merkle and the New York Giants. 

A cartoon depiction with its
own boner -- Fred in a Cubs cap!
       But fair or not, there is no two ways about it -- the whole mess would have never occurred if Fred had just tagged second. The Giants manager, McGraw, was steadfast in not blaming Merkle. Most everyone else, however, was not that charitable. Merkle played with a succession of teams through 1920, but always under the spectre of that blunder he committed when he was nineteen. By all accounts the blunder stalked him the rest of his life. The following is by Keith Olbermann, writing in Sports Illustrated: 
       It was nearly 30 years after the game—that game—and, Marianne Merkle remembered, even church wasn't a safe haven. One Sunday morning in the 1930s, Merkle and her family were attending services in Florida, when a visiting minister introduced himself. "You don't know me," he piped, "but you know where I'm from! Toledo, Ohio! The hometown of Bonehead Fred Merkle!"
       Little Marianne knew what would happen next. "The kindness drained from [my father's] face," she told me five decades later. Then Fred Merkle rose and wearily told his wife and daughters, "Let's go."

07 November 2011

Ideas R Us


Jan Grape Almost every time I talk to a group about writing and get to the Q and A portion, I’m asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I have a couple of stock answers which usually get a laugh. One is: “I belong to ‘Ideas of the Month Club’ and they send me ideas once a month.” (I think I stole that from mystery writer, Les Roberts.) The other is: “I just go to “Ideas R Us” and buy one when I need it.” (Am sure I stole that from someone, too.)

My own real answer is: Ideas are in the air, all you have to do is pull one down when you need one.

Deadly Allies III wrote two short stories that were inspired by songs. One story was “Scarlett Fever” in the Deadly Allies II anthology and my inspiration (idea) came from a song by Kenny Rogers, titled “Scarlett Fever.” In the song, this guy kept going to a club to watch a dancer named Scarlett and fell in love with her. One night he goes to the club and she’s not there anymore and he’s devastated. My idea was: what happened to this girl? Did she really leave for brighter lights as the club manager says or did something bad happen to her?

My second story is “Deathbed Confession” based on a song by a local Texas writer, Thomas Michael Riley. I can’t really say much about the song without giving away some of the story but it will be published next spring in ACWL Presents: Murder Here, Murder There. This will be the first Jenny Gordon, C.J. Gunn, story in several years and it was nice to find out how the female private investigators were doing. Nice to know that G & G Investigations still is in business. Murder Here, Murder There is the second anthology written by the members of the American Crime Writers League and is co-edited by R. Barry Flowers and myself and published by Twilight Times.

Another story was inspired by a name. A friend of mine, writes a newsy-about-town column in a local weekly newspaper and she writers under the nom de plume of “Ima Snoop.” I thought the name was funny and asked permission to use it in a story called, “The Crimes of Miss Abigail Armstrong.” That story is in the first anthology, from Twilight Times, written by ACWL members and co-edited by R. Barri Flowers and Jan Grape.

My Austin policewoman series was inspired by taking a ten week class, Austin Citizen’s Police Academy training which was offered by the Austin Police Department. In these classes we learned about different departments such as fraud, firearms, robbery homicide, SWAT, etc. After the training was over, I was involved in the alumni association and went out to the academy on numerous occasions to assist in the new cadet training. Training offers set up scenarios using alumni graduates as bad guys and the cadets would have to participate and discover the crime or non-crime committed. Cadets learn how to use their computers, the patrol car’s siren, their walkie-talkies and to quickly access a situation and act accordingly. That was fun because I got to role-play as a bad guy, which soon led to a voice I kept hearing in my head. Fortunately, I began writing Zoe Barrow’s story in Austin City Blue, published in 2000 by Five Star and wasn’t hauled off in a strait-jacket by the guys from the funny farm.

My latest novel, What Doesn’t Kill You, came from seeing a little girl with ears that stuck out like open taxi doors, who was in a bookstore with her grandfather. She wanted to buy a magazine, but gramps said they couldn’t afford it. Somehow that little girl stayed in my mind and eventually became the sixteen year old, Cory Purvis, in that book.

Just yesterday, a friend asked me to do some research on sleepwalking for her. Who knows– I may come up with a character who kills when sleepwalking or so he/she claims.

Today I read a short article in my Sunday newspaper about people selling lollipops which have been licked by children with chickenpox. The buyers are people who don’t want to vaccinate their children but want them to catch the childhood disease. People could go online and look for: 'Find a Pox Party In Your Area' the article said. Cost was $50 a pox-licked lollipop. The sellers are selling these all over the country, sending the candy by mail. Sending diseases and viruses by mail is a federal crime. So some arrest have been made and prosecutors warning parents. Can you imagine giving your child a lollipop, supposedly with chickenpox virus on it? What if it were AIDS virus, or hepatitis? What if it were a more deadly lollipop like Anthrax or something similar? That news article idea sounds like a great plot for a book and I’ll bet we’ll see that used in one very soon.

Newspapers, TV news reports, TV shows, songs, books or stories by other writers, something read on the internet all can give you ideas. So in my humble opinion, ideas are everywhere and all you have to do is pull one down. As a last resort, just go to the mall to IDEAS R US and buy an awesome idea.

09 October 2012

Framing the Pitch


The art of framing the pitch in baseball gives the illusion to the umpire that a ball just off the plate actually crossed the plate. It also gives the impression that the ball 5 or 6 inches off the plate just missed. The umpire may get the impression that the pitcher has very good control which can influence his calling of balls and strikes.

    Having begun the baseball season with a SleuthSayers article inspired by spring training, it seems fitting to return to the nation’s pastime as we move into post-season play.  And what a season it has been here in Washington, D.C. 

The Washington Nationals -- 2012 NL East Champions!
     When I was still an undergraduate at George Washington University the Senators ran away to Texas, leaving the city without baseball for the next 33 years.  I had grown up with Cardinal baseball in my hometown of St. Louis, but, except for one year, after college I remained a D.C, resident.  Some in this city adopted the Baltimore Orioles as their team, but not me.  I spent every one of those 33 years resenting Baltimore, which steadfastly vetoed any attempt by Washington to secure a replacement team.  All of this finally ended in 2005, when the Montreal Expos were relocated to D.C. and re-christened the Washington Nationals.  It’s been a tough eight years between those first miserable years (when twice we had more losses than any other team) and the 2012 Nationals, who have now won the Eastern Division of the National League with the best record in all baseball.

    But in my enthusiasm I digress, and right here at the beginning of the article. 

    The point I do want to make for today’s purposes is that in those 33 years away from baseball – virtually all of my adult life – there were things that others learned about the sport that I did not.  One of those is the importance of the catcher.  As best I remember it, when I was in high school the catcher, well, . . . caught.  That was pretty much it.  But as I began to watch the Nationals over the last few years amazement dawned on me.  The catcher was calling the game, signaling to the pitcher the pitches that should be thrown. 

    And the catcher also had the clever task of framing the pitch.  As the quote at the top from QCBaseball.com indicates, one of the catcher’s challenges is to make pitches seem like those that they are not, to make the truth look like something altogether different to the umpire. When successful, framing the pitch can transform a ball into a called strike.  The sleight of hand that accomplishes this is not unlike that of the magician – hiding the obvious from the audience in whatever way is possible.

    The task is also not unlike that of the mystery writer, particularly a writer of “fair play” mysteries, where the goal is to fool a different sort of umpire – the reader.

    The rules of a fair play mystery are simple:  All of the clues must be provided to the reader.  There can be no “deus ex machine,” no “new killer” or critical piece of evidence introduced in the final chapter or paragraph.  Everything must be capable of being worked out by the reader.  But the trick to the fair play mystery is to accomplish all of this in a way that hoodwinks the reader.  The writer’s task is to make the mystery capable of solution while at the same time ensuring that most readers will not, in fact, solve it.  Ellery Queen was a master at this – clues could be dropped right under our nose and we would miss them, slapping our foreheads later when the solution was ultimately revealed. 

    And that, as promised two weeks ago, brings us to the last article I posted – A Bouchercon Mystery.  The premise of the article is hardly original – the headache-inducing formula underlying the narrative is a favorite on many internet sites.  The version I offered changed a few things, and introduced some new red herrings – extraneous numbers and arithmetic grumblings between the characters.  But at base the story, and the trick to the story, are quite simple.  In this version three people share a hotel room.  The original price for the room is $300.  Each person forks over $100, they do not tip the bellhop, and the three check in.  The bellboy then returns to the room and tells the occupants that there is a special rate of $250, and hands them five ten dollar bills.   They tip the bellhop twenty dollars and each of the three then pockets ten. 

    So there are two basic ways to look at this transaction.  The original price for the room was $300.  Since there is no tip, the total price is $300 and each occupant pays $100.  That math works. 

    Alternatively, if you look at the scenario from the perspective of the revised price, it works out like this:  $250 for the room, plus that twenty dollar tip to the bellboy, means the room costs a total of $270.  Since each of the three occupants originally paid $100, and since each got back ten dollars the total paid by each was $90, and $90 times three equals $270.  That works too.  Simple.  No magic.  Anyone could figure this out.

    So what does the writer do to obfuscate those clues in a manner that will confuse the reader?  How does the writer, in other words, make the reader lose track of all those fair play clues?  The answer is you blend the two prices, and you do it fast.  .
    Leigh’s eyes narrowed, and it was obvious he was working something over in his head.  “Wait a minute,” Leigh finally said, a look of incredulity spreading across his face.  “When we checked in, and the room was $300, we each paid $100.  And now, with the special rate, we each got $10 back.  This means we each paid $90, and. $90 times three men equals $270. John just tipped the bellhop $20. That only equals $290!”
    All of the sudden we are left to ruminate over what happened to a seemingly missing ten dollars.

    What’s wrong with this?  As we can now see, quite a bit.  $90 times three is, indeed, $270, but as noted above $270 is the price of the hotel room after the twenty dollar tip has been included.  What Leigh did was add the tip in another time, to reach $290, and then compare that to the wrong number – the $300 price that was paid before the $50 discount.

    As I said earlier, the trick in this story is not mine.  It is borrowed from other internet pages.  Why do I like it?  To my mind, it is a great example of how words can be used to distract the reader, to entice them to reach wrong conclusions.

    It is, in other words, a clever "fair play" example of framing the pitch. 

04 October 2019

Beatniks and Bad Guys: Barry Gifford and David Lynch


David Lynch's Wild at Heart, based on
the novel by Barry Gifford.
Beatniks and Bad Guys was nearly the sole title of this piece, but I felt it just wasn't cool to leave Barry Gifford off the headline. Gifford is, after all, the Kerouac of crime fiction.  David Lynch's connection to Gifford's Sailor and Lula crime-novel series, beginning with Wild at Heart, also warrants room on the marquee. Though I like the way Gifford's writing blows Beatnik riffs in a film noir world, it was Gifford's non-fiction that grabbed me first.

Before cable, film noir (and crime film in general) was all over TV. If you we're a kid planted in front of the small screen,  you we're bound to come across films like The Big Sleep or The Big Heat or The Big Knife. If you weren't put off by black and white, and you liked the dirty dealings, the thrilling bad-assery of it all, likely you were hooked. Those movies kick-started my interest in film, and like most film buffs, I read what I could about how these flicks came to be. When I came across Barry Gifford's love letter to crime cinema, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, I knew I'd come across a kindred spirit.

It wasn't just the subject matter of Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride that intrigued me; it was the soulfulness of his writing, the off-kilter way he came at crime films. When I discovered that Gifford's first non-fiction book was Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, it started to make sense. Gifford had one foot in Birdland and one in Chinatown. He was a Beatnik who dove deep into crime fiction. Technically, he was a little late on the scene to be a real Beat, but he had the heart of one. I wasn't the first kid to read On The Road and have it stick with me for life. Finding an author who mashed up two of my great interests into one unique vision was a big deal.

Author Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford was born in 1946, just a couple years prior to Jack Kerouac's actual road trip that would be the basis of On the Road. Gifford's father was associated with the Chicago mob, and Gifford spent his early years living out of hotel rooms. Regular schooling wasn't in the game plan. "He learned from late-night noir movies and the strange characters that passed through the hotel lobbies," The Paris Review wrote. A stint in the merchant marine (Kerouac did time in the merchant marine, too) sent Gifford to swinging London in the mid-sixties, where he partied with the likes of John Lennon and Eric Clapton.

In 1967 Gifford moved to San Francisco and befriended the Beats who were still living there, including Allen Ginsburg. It was a momentous relocation. He was soon writing for Rolling Stone, and he met his future wife there. Many of the Beats he met provided their stories for Jack's Book. Novels, poetry collections, and more non-fiction followed. He even started Black Lizard Press, through which he published many of his favorite-though-forgotten pulp authors. I'll bet the first Jim Thompson book I ever read was a Black Lizard edition. Black Lizard was a big part of the neo noir boom of the 1980s. This noir comeback included films like the Coen Brothers Blood Simple and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

When David Lynch asked Gifford to write the screenplay for Wild at Heart in 1990, based on the first of Gifford's Sailor and Lula neo-noir novels, Gifford initially refused. Gifford was busy writing the sequel to Wild at Heart (titled Sailor's Holiday) when Lynch called.  Lynch was fascinated by Sailor and Lula, who keep their love light alive in a dirty rotten world. "It was like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad," Lynch later wrote.

David Lynch at Cannes in 1990
with Wild at Heart
Gifford told Lynch to write the Wild at Heart screenplay himself, and then send it back to him for notes. They eventually shared credit for the screenplay. Wild at Heart was a success, winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes and planting its freak flag into the head of the '90s. It made Gifford's book a best seller. The Sailor and Lula series ended up running eight novels long.

The next time Lynch came calling, he wanted Gifford to adapt  one of the stories from Gifford's book Night People. Southern gothic meets the Lynchian edge of darkness in Night People. It might be for the wild at heart, but not for the feint of heart. It's also smartly hilarious. 

Gifford didn't want to adapt one of the Night People stories, though. He wanted to create something new, featuring a character who wakes one day as a totally different person.  Lost Highway's non-linear structure makes it a more difficult film than Wild at Heart, and one viewing isn't enough. It's bizarre and unique, a perfect pairing of two one-of-a-kind storytellers. I don't think Lynch ever had a more perfectly attuned collaborator than Barry Gifford.

I recently finished Barry Gifford's Writers (2015), a collection of short one act plays that feature famous authors in vulnerable situations. I felt he really got to the heart of these scribes in a deceptively quick and fun read. You have to be good to say so much in a such a thin tome, and Gifford succeeds.  "The Last Words of Arthur Rimbaud," featuring the dying moments of the French poet, is haunting and sad. The same can be said about "The Nobody," about Emily Dickinson's relationship with her sister.

"Spring Training at the Finca Vigia" is a masterful portrayal of Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn. Along for the ride are Hugh Casey and Kirby Higbe, real-life pitchers for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's 1941, and the setting is the Hemingway household outside Havana, Cuba. Hemingway comes off as a moody knucklehead, having drunken sparring sessions with the jocks while the cool-headed Gellhorn delivers Martini-dry insults.

At night a hammered Hemingway shoots at imaginary Cuban rebels who he believes are trying to rob him. Gellhorn pleads with him to stop, but Hemingway goes so far as to booby trap his yard with explosives. It's both funny and scary, a combo Gifford specializes in. For me, this mirrored Hemingway's belief that the US government was spying on him. This paranoia is one of the things that's suspected to have driven Hemingway to suicide.  The kicker is that is was revealed that the FBI really was spying on Hemingway, even going so far as to read his mail. Hemingway was right all along. Gellhorn took her own life years after Hemingway did. The same with pitcher Hugh Casey.

Jack Kerouac meets infamous New York mobster Joey Gallo in "One Night in Umberto's Clam House." It's as literal a representation of the Beat-meeting-the-noir that Gifford could have written. Gifford's whole unique vision is kind of summed up in thirteen pages. It also feels like a moment in a Lynch film when there's a snatch of dialogue that's casual and dangerous, past and future, with darkness and murder tiptoeing all around a diminishing edge of light.

For more Barry Gifford, take a trip down that lost internet highway to BarryGifford.Net.

The following articles, excellent all, helped me prepare for this piece: Michael Bible's "Still Weird on Top"; Jim Ruland's "Barry Gifford's Lifetime of Outsiders"; J.W. McCormack's "Barry Gifford is America's Offbeat Dostoevsky"; and Ron Wells' "Interview: Lost Highway Screenwriter Barry Gifford."

I discuss Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride in my earlier two-part Sleuthsayers blog "My Dinner with Lawrence Tierney," from February 8 & 29. Tierney threw punches. Check it out.

I'm Lawrence Maddox, author of Fast Bang Booze, available at Down&Out Books. You can reach me at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Tweets welcome at Lawrence Maddox@MadXBooks. 

20 May 2012

Heel-Walkers


Dixon's stealth article Silence is Golden reminded me of men I grew up around, the last of the naturally rugged. Many came through WW-II one way or another, and more than a handful didn't much like what they'd seen of man's treatment of man while others were determined to do something about it.

The Right Reverend

One of the latter was Reverend Sommers. This kindly man liked working with boys– a phrase that didn't have the taint it does in today's world of paedophilic hysteria. I think he liked getting out of the house– he raised three brilliant, beautiful daughters, Treva, Trilby, and Aloha, and in a house of four females, he may have felt the need to top off the testosterone tank.

Don't let the 'Reverend' fool you. He never committed the sin of evangelizing nor did he let religion get in the way of doing the right thing. Lloyd Sommers was a retired preacher and professional printer– his hands were permanently stained from printers ink– and collected arcane knowledge and odd acquaintances like other guys collect baseball cards. He co-led Boy Scout troop 222, got involved with myriad community projects, and could cook up a fund-raiser on the smell of an oil-rag.

He loved to talk. I don't remember many of his lectures because I was counting fingers. He had the speakers' habit of emphasizing numbers by holding up fingers… except the digits he held up never matched the numbers in his speech. He would say, "You must remember three things…" and he might hold up two fingers or four, but never three.

What does this have to do with Dixon's article on stealth? I'm getting there.

Those Who Know

One of the great assets of Rev. Sommers was the unusual array of people he knew. Most were men, but a few were women. After we boys finished our mile swim and lifeguard training with a beautiful, deeply tanned woman, Sommers asked us to guess how old she was. Fourteen-year-old boys didn't have a clue, but she seemed an ancient 35 or 40. Nope, the lady was in her mid-70s and could out-swim any of us.

But the men… these were men who lived off the grid long before there was a grid or a name for it. They weren't People Magazine people but Argosy with pages from Popular Mechanics. They weren't antisocial, but they preferred their own company.

Some were expert bow hunters. The State of Indiana had (and may still have) a two-week deer season for bow hunters followed by two more weeks for solid-slug shotgun hunters. Bow hunters were so good– remember this was before the compound bow– that bang hunters lobbied for the seasons to be reversed: they claimed bow hunters thinned the herds before they got their shot.

Borderline and sometimes actual hermits, some of these men would go to ground in winter and emerge in spring looking as if they'd hibernated those few months. Some carved birds indistinguishable from Audubon paintings. A few were self-taught machinists who could build engines from scratch. Others collected 'points' and 'birdstones' meaning arrowheads, spear tips, and a type of sling or throwing stone Indians used to bring down birds.

This might be hard for people to understand, but the interesting part wasn't what they did, but what they knew.

Parental Guidance Suggested

I need to add my father to the list of male influence. At 6'4 and 230 pounds of muscle– he once lifted out a tractor stuck in mud– he was gentle with children. Animals trusted him. Women loved him.

A note about my mother: As World War II ended, rationing was still in effect when my parents married. They were farmers, but they refused to cheat. While their fruits and vegetables came straight from the orchard, most farmers and ranchers felt they didn't deserve better than soldiers or city folk.

My newlywed mother struggled to put meals on the table until she remembered her carbine. From time to time, she supplemented rations with squirrel and rabbit, pheasant and quail. Don't mess with my mother.
He had no patience with cruelty or waste– if you hunted, you ate what you killed.

Although he owned a couple of shotguns, he disdained them. He insisted if you couldn't bring a duck down with a rifle instead of a scatter gun, you shouldn't be hunting. After one 'hunter' from the city proudly offered Dad a brace of rabbits he'd nailed with a 20 gauge, Dad drawled, "Thoughtful of you to strip the meat off." Later he muttered, "Gives a whole new meaning to choke."

You've seen movies and television where the hero sets a tin can or bottle on a fencepost for target practice. Not for Dad. He lined up spent .22 shells on a fence post. "That's your target, son. Don't miss."

He didn't 'collect' guns, but he accumulated a few: Spencer and Marlin and Remington and a couple of octagonal barrel antiques. Between Dad and the mentors provided by Rev. Sommers, we learned to disassemble and reassemble Colts, Springfields, and even an M-1… blindfolded. It's not as hard as it sounds, but they felt 'field-stripping' was important to learn.

I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to modern (semi)automatics and frankly the idea of a Glock without a safety scares me. But one day if I meet up with David, Dixon, or RT, perhaps they might teach me the basics.

Shades of Sherlock

I value a comment from a New Yorker who said "Leigh can talk with anyone, banker or biker, Wall Street, Main Street, or Park Avenue." It goes hand-in-hand with a philosophy I do my best to remember, that everyone in some way is my superior.

Back to these quiet men: One was a 'deer stalker'. Squirrels would descend from trees and climb on his shoulders, poking their noses into pockets of his flannel shirt. He was good with animals, but his true art was silent stalking. Through a fringe of trees, he could slip up on an unsuspecting doe and stroke her back or slap the rump of a surprised buck.
A note about animals: In the country and in the wild, people are often obligated to aid injured animals– a fox, a rabbit, a cow in breech-birth. It's surprising how often animals– even wild animals– will trust a human– perhaps a demi-god to them– especially when they're in great pain. It's possible the story of Androcles and the Lion has a factual basis.

Unlike humans, animals given over to trusting a human almost never scream but simply endure. It's amazing to me.

The Indian Brave

I have distant Algonquin blood, as my parents sometimes reminded me usually when it came to braving pain. Physical pain I can tough out– it's emotional pain that's my weakness. In a hospital or on a roller coaster, I can't stand males who scream.

But we kids tried to learn from the handful of old Indians. They called most of us, me included, 'heel walkers'. They meant we clomped through brush like a marching drill team, clapping heel down first. Dixon's article describes how to 'toe' the ground and then rock the rest of the foot into place. The rule is: quick isn't quiet.

Downwind

I'll add another point to Dixon's article. My sense of smell isn't terrific, but mentors hammered home the point that humans stink. It might be a good scent or a bad stench, but humans emanate body odors like few other animals.

The effect is worse in forest or field, but odor can be a give-away even in an urban setting. A seductive perfume, the manly aftershave, that new 'fresh scent' deodorant can make one's presence known. My ability to smell may be attenuated, but even I can detect cigarette smoke in parts-per-billion.

It's not merely colognes and unwashed bodies. In tense situations, breath turns sour and sweat floods the skin. If terrified, the very frightened may not be able to maintain control over the bladder and bowels. It just happens.

When sexually excited, pheromones change again. How that might be used in a mystery, I don't know, but there you have it.

In the meantime, shhh

23 November 2015

Know Your Terrorist


Most of us are still reeling over the mass murders in Paris and in Mali this week. I'm upset by the Americans of all nationalities and religions and races wanting to close our borders and keeping anyone who is Muslim from entering especially refugees from Syria. But I don't think this forum is a place to get too political because we talk about mysteries and writing.
However, a friend of mine named Sharan Newman is a mystery writer who writes historical mysteries usually set in Medieval Times. She also writes non-fiction books. She researches her books meticulously and when I read anything she has written I feel I can understand and also trust her research is as true as possible. She has written several articles on Know Your Terrorist. One she had written this week caught my eye and I asked if I could use it for my blog. She agreed. Then in trying to locate that article, she found one she had written earlier and I think is more informative. So following is a wonderful article on the known terror groups who are in our immediate headlines and does a lot to explain who is who.

Know Your Terrorist

The recent tragic events in France have made it clear that most of us are a little vague on the different terrorist groups operating in the world today. Even the terrorists there weren’t sure who they were working for. When I realized that even they were confused, it seemed like a good idea to give a simplistic explanation of the major non-governmental terrorists so that the next time someone takes you hostage and says that they are from the Broccoli Liberation front, you can explain to them why they should kill you for another reason, rather than to free oppressed broccoli.

Here are the most active free-lance groups. In my next essay, I'll consider the governmental and corporate terrorist organizations that have created the more openly violent cadres.

BOKO HARAM
As the link below and all the news reports seem to agree, Boko Haram, operating in Northeastern Nigeria, is the most brutal and least comprehensible of the active terrorists. They love mayhem, murder and rape and don’t seem to be making any ideological demands apart from a fuzzy connection to Islam. Originally a non-violent group that protested oppression by the Nigerian government, it grew to oppose any form of what it considers Western influence. This is why even Muslim children are killed or kidnapped at western-style schools. They say they are Islamic but, as with another group, ISIS/DAESH, they are imagining a mythical Islamic past. Actually, I think they are also imagining a mythical Africa derived from western films seasoned with Lord of the Flies.

For connected topics see: Nigerian Army, Nigerian Government, International Oil Cartels, Koch Brothers. A more academic explanation is here:
http://ijpr.org/post/nigeria-boko-haram-continues-its-campaign-terror

AL-QAEDA
This is not the oldest group but one of the most visible. It began in the late 1980s in the wake of the years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “With Soviet forces withdrawing …, the idea of a global jihad suddenly seems possible, and al Qaeda, literally “the Base,” is born. “We used to call the training camp al Qaeda,” bin Laden would later recall. “And the name stayed.”´ [sic] (http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/17/al-qaeda-core-a-short-history) Doesn’t that sound cozy?

Al-Qaeda was founded by Osama bin-Laden, born in 1957 to a Syrian mother and Yemeni father. The senior bin-Laden was a self-made millionaire contractor who became the major builder for the Saudi Arabian monarchy. PBS Frontline has posted a fascinating biography, written by one of bin-Laden’s followers, portraying him as a pious young man who was doing contracting in Afghanistan when the invasion of Kuwait began: “While he was expecting some call to mobilize his men and equipment he heard the news which transferred his life completely. The Americans are coming. He always describes that as a shocking moment. He felt depressed and thought that maneuvers had to change. Instead of writing to the king or approaching other members of the royal family, he started lobbying through religious scholars and Muslim activists.”  [sic]

(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/bio.html)

Al-Qaeda was born because of the American support of the Saudis and vice-versa. Osama was considered a terrorist by the Saudis and, under him, A-Qaeda organized mutual support with the Taliban. “The leader of Taliban Mulla Omer was keen to meet Osama. He met him early 1997 after two TV interviews, Channel 4 and CNN.[!?] Mulla Omer expressed respect and admiration but requested him to have low profile…. Bin Laden noticed that the driving force in Taliban were Ulema (religious scholars). He made very good links with them and lobbied specifically for the subject of American forces in the Arabian Peninsula. He was able to extract a fatwah signed by some 40 scholars in Afghanistan sanctioning the use of all means to expel the American forces from the Peninsula. The issue of that fatwah was an asset to him inside Taliban domain. He felt that Ulema were at his back and he could go high profile after long silence.” (ibid)

“His relation with Taliban would best be understood if Taliban themselves are understood properly. First of all Taliban are not simply another Afghan faction supported by Pakistan. Taliban are sincere to their beliefs, a religiously committed group unspoiled by political tactics. They would never bargain with what they see as matters of principle. Bin Laden for them is a saint. He is a symbol of sacrifice for the sake of jihad. They see him as very rich Arab from the Holy Land who gave up his wealth and luxury to fight for the sake of his brother Muslims in Afghanistan.” (ibid)

I wish there were more such biographies.  It is essential for us to comprehend the rationale of the many people who support the terrorists. One problem we have is understanding why these terrorist leaders are so protected. If you read the whole article, it continues explaining why the Taliban and Osama were so revered. The author doesn’t mention bombings, murder, or the oppression of women and minorities, of course.

Even before Osama bin-Laden was killed, his grip on Al-Qaeda was slipping. Other groups in the Sudan, Nigeria and Syria, were not looking to them for leadership. Many, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, do not have a firm theological base other than, West and Jews = bad; our Islam = good.
See Taliban, George W. Bush, Oil Cartels

THE (so-called) ISLAMIC STATE
Of the Muslim-associated terrorist groups, this is the most interesting to me because, unlike the others, there is a medieval flavor about it. Sadly, as I mentioned above, they don’t seem to have any historians among them, so that the caliphate they plan is drawn from fantasy. They do appear to have some serious and competent Muslim scholars in their ranks, but they haven’t made it clear what school of Shari’a law they are working from. Of course, few people outside of fundamentalist Islam know that there is more than one branch. Have you ever noticed how many problems occur because no one thought to consult an expert in history?

ISIS grew from the Syrian al-Qaeda sector as a result of the Syrian civil war. The reasons for that war, beyond the Arab Spring, have been minutely dissected without any consensus. Suffice to say that ISIS is the richest and best-organized of the Islamist groups operating today. As with the first two groups, they succeeded because a dictator or other person in power was tormenting a minority group and they were able to come in and fill a vacuum. In this case, they began as rebels against the government of Bashir al Assad, which is not only dictatorial but heretical in their eyes. They state that they have set up is an Islamist Caliphate. The last Caliphate in the area was defeated by the Ottoman Empire over 600 years ago so the blueprint is rather old. Both the Abbasid and Umayyad Caliphates in the 8th through 11th centuries tended to be fairly easy going about minorities, even Islamic ones. I believe that, like Boko Haram, ISIS has been taken over by the psychopathic wing of the party. Their treatment of the Yazidi is an example of this. It’s not likely that their Caliphate will resemble the ancient ones.

Much has been made of the foreign volunteers coming to fight for ISIS. Some of these fighters arriving from other countries are devout Muslims who may be horrified by what they find. Indications are that others come in a spirit of adventure or from a feeling of failure at home. But too many recruits have come because they love having power and not having any rules of behavior. For historians out there, think French Revolution.

There are many other terrorist groups that have no religious attachments. Most of these are political or territorial. ETA, or Basque liberation, has been attempting to find a peaceful solution recently as has the socialist FARC, in Columbia. Greece has the far-right Golden Dawn; Ireland, the reformed Sinn Fein. All of these have used violence and terrorism in their quest to achieve their goals.
There have been many explanations for the success of the recent Islamist terrorists. Some say that it is a relic of European colonialism. Others that the terrorists are a reaction to oppressive governments and cultures of corruption and bribery at every level. Well, I don’t think any of these things helped. Certainly, many of the most violent groups are fighting against leaders who have ignored and oppressed sections of the society.

After much consideration, it seems to me that we and much of the media are looking at the problem from the wrong direction. We see the horrific actions of ISIS and Boko Haram, but these are distracting us from much more widespread and pernicious terrorism.

As I was working on this, I began to realize that, while we are busy trying to stop murderers, rapists and torturers, the people who are really responsible for their actions are thousands of miles away, moving pieces on metaphorical chess boards.
I do think it's fantastic to know quite a number of mystery writers, especially when you know one who has already done the huge amount of research that you thought you were going to have to do.

Thank you, Sharan, for allowing me to use your hard work here. Sharan is off to spend a month is Paris, doing research and although some folks ask if she might rethink going to France now, she reminds everyone...if we stay home and hide, the terrorists win. We can't let them rule our lives.

06 April 2012

Explosives 103: Non-Electric Blasting Caps & Fuse


A Quick Recap
1.The Explosive Train is a chain of explosions used to detonate a large, stable charge though what’s known as “Sympathetic Detonation” (one explosion causing another).
2.The first explosion in the chain is usually quite tiny; the next a little larger … and so on … until you manage to generate a walloping BANG!
3. The little explosive gadget most often used to initiate the Explosive Train is a Blasting Cap.
4. Blasting Caps come in two primary types: Electric and Non-Electric.
5. Last time, we covered general practices for using an Electric Blasting Cap.

So, this time we’ll be turning our eyes toward:

Non-Electric Blasting Caps
Note: Should anyone be familiar with a product or firing system known as NONEL, please be forewarned: NONEL is not what we’re going to look at today; it’s a completely different kettle of fish, which permits a blaster to fire a charge almost instantaneously (in fact it’s so nearly instantaneous, that’s it’s often referred to as being “an instantaneous firing system”). Standard non-electric blasting caps work differently, using Time Fuse, which is NOT an instantaneous ignition source, so it’s important not to confuse the two.
The picture on the left shows a bundle of non-electric caps rubber-banded together.

I’m sure we’ve all seen action heroes light a fuse that’s connected to a bundle of explosives, in a movie. When a character lights a fuse to set off an explosion, that person is — generally speaking — using a Non-Electric Blasting Cap to set off the charge. Technically, the first non-electric blasting cap was patented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel (because he needed something that would set off the dynamite he’d also invented).

Below are a couple of “cutaway” drawings that should give you a serviceable idea of what’s inside a non-electric blasting cap. One picture is a little more detailed than the other, but both clearly reveal how a non-electric cap is contained within a metal tube, which holds a primary explosive (also sometimes called a “booster”), and a secondary or output explosive — just as an electric blasting cap has. But, they also have an initiating charge that starts the explosive ball rolling.




The diameter of the blasting cap’s metal tube usually runs about a quarter-inch wide by two to three inches in length. (A quarter-inch equals 0.25 inches, versus the 0.241-inch measurement at the base of the cap [right side] in the lower drawing, and the 0.260-inch dimension at the open [left] end in the same drawing.) In both cases, the area to the left of the ignition charge (the charge labeled Pyrotechnic Ignition Mix in the color drawing) is hollow. This hollow section of tube is there so you can slide your Time Fuse into it, butting the end of the Time Fuse up against the initiator, and crimping the fuse in place so it won’t slip out.

The idea, of course, is that one lights the far end of the Time Fuse, then the powder train inside the fuse burns slowly along its length, until that flame spurts out at the other end — right into the initiator (or Pyrotechnic Ignition Mix), which is highly volatile and explodes because that tiny little spurt of white-hot flame is enough to set it off.

The initiator’s small explosion sets off the Primary Explosive (AKA: intermediate charge, or “booster”), which makes a greater explosion, which in turn sets off the Secondary Explosive ( AKA: base charge; AKA: output explosive), which is large enough to (hopefully) detonate the dynamite, TNT or C-4 (or whatever) that the blasting cap is snuggled up inside of. And . . . WHAMMO!

Fuse

Generally speaking, one sets off a non-electric blasting cap by lighting a fuse. That fuse runs into the blasting cap, so the fire from the lit end of the fuse can find the place where it can set off the explosive chain.

Fuses come in many different types, depending on what you want to classify as a fuse. A fuse is essentially anything with black powder (or other well-burning substance) running through the middle of it. If you’re like me, you may have disassembled the fuse of a Black Cat fire cracker in your youth, and discovered that it was primarily a black powder train running through (wrapped in a tube of) something similar to newsprint. That’s a pretty simple fuse.

But, what makes a fuse, a fuse?

When Richard Sharpe (of the Sharpe’s Rifles series, set during the Napoleonic era) pours a line of black powder along the ground, from an ammunition dump, then lights the far end of that powder line in order to blow up the ammo dump — is this a fuse? Well, maybe. But, the word “fuse” usually connotes the idea that the “burning agent” (such as black powder) is combined with some sort of fibrous material to make it more reliable.

In that Sharpe’s Rifles example, for instance, the powder train could easily be disrupted by kicking apart the loose powder on the ground. If that were to happen, the flame would burn along the black powder train right up to the point where it ran out of any more flammable material, at which point the flame would fizzle — and that ammo dump wouldn’t blow up.

If you soaked a string in kerosene or gasoline, you’d have a rudimentary sort of fuse that couldn’t be so easily disrupted. Nobody could just kick it apart, for instance; they’d have to take additional time to cut it apart. However, it wouldn’t have a long life (because things like kerosene or gasoline evaporate fairly quickly), and it wouldn’t necessarily burn at a steady rate. Black powder, however, doesn’t lose its efficacy as quickly, and it does tend to burn in a fairly uniform manner. As noted earlier, though, a black powder train — in and of itself — can easily be disrupted.

One obvious solution is to weave a line of black powder into a line (string or rope) as the line is being braided. (In case you’re not familiar with the term, “braiding” a rope means making a rope by twining several lengths of twine or string together. If anyone is interested in the details, let me know and maybe I can do a post about Pioneering [the use of rope, for lashing poles in the construction of towers, derricks, or cranes, for instance].)

When a black powder train is woven into a line (string, rope), in a manner that insures the powder train runs all the way through without interruption, the result is a strong, flexible fuse that has a fairly consistent burn rate and is not easily disrupted. It’s also easy to carry (coiled in a backpack, for instance) and can be cut to any desired length. And this is basically all that a fuse really is.

Non-electric caps can be set off in other ways, but this post will deal primarily with the use of Time Fuse, when it comes to setting off blasting caps.

Time Fuse

The fuse used to set off a contemporary blasting cap is normally called either Time Fuse, or Safety Fuse. It comes in spools similar to the one seen above.

I’m used to calling it Time Fuse, since that’s what the Army calls the stuff it uses. However I’ve worked with Safety Fuse in other countries, as well as when dealing with civilian blasters here in The States. The two fuses are really interchangeable, and are composed of a black powder core that’s protected by a fiber wrapping (or wadding) encased in a water-proof plastic or waxed coat.

Imagine you took a brown paper lunch bag and fed it through a cheap paper shredder (one strong enough to shred a paper bag, that is). You know the sort of shredder I mean: it cuts the paper into long, skinny strips — almost as if making thin ribbon, or paper fettuccini. Now, imagine you waxed the interior and exterior of the brown paper bag before feeding it into the shredder; the strips of waxy brown paper that came out would be very similar — in both appearance and feel — to the braided wadding inside of Time Fuse.

The black powder is sort of “woven” into the braided twists of waxy brown paper strips to make a long braided cord. In some types of fuse, this cord is then encased inside something very much like a thick, hollow cotton shoestring for added durability when bending the fuse. Then, this cord is covered with a plastic coating. In civilian versions, this plastic coating may be day-glow green, or pink – even orange. With military Time Fuse, this coating will be olive drab (OD) green, with twin yellow hash marks every foot-and-a-half or so.

(You may be interested to know: When movie actors handle bombs with powder-blue Time Fuse, that powder-blue color is actually a telltale indicating the fuse being used is inert. Nearly all military training explosives — fake TNT blocks, Time Fuse, Det Cord, etc. — are this powder-blue color, making it easy to differentiate the real stuff from the practice materials. Blue, training materials show up in a lot of movies. You might find it fun to watch for them.)

Lighting Time Fuse

Time Fuse just needs heat, to be ignited. But, it needs quite a bit of heat.

You can light it with a match, if you hold the match to the fuse long enough. Or, with a Zippo or Bic lighter. You can also use a cigar, because cigars burn in excess of 700° f. You can’t light Time Fuse with a cigarette or pipe, because they don’t burn hot enough.

But, the surest way to light Time Fuse is by using a Mechanical Match.

The Mechanical Match in the picture on the left is lying on a plastic sheet of some kind. The device, itself, is a plastic tube with screw-on lids at both ends. If you look at the picture, you can see that the device is thinner in the middle, than it is on both ends. This is because those thicker ends are actually screw-on caps. The thin, middle part is the plastic tube they screw onto.
One end of the Mechanical Match has a pull-ring, similar in appearance to the pin on a hand grenade. This end contains a trigger, that’s hooked to the pull-ring pin (The pin is that short-looking shiny metal rod that runs out of the top of the screw-on cap and has a hole that the pull-ring goes through.). The trigger and a spring-loaded firing pin assembly are inside the tube. When the pull-ring is yanked out, it lifts the pull-ring pin, which fires the spring-loaded firing pin. The firing pin shoots across the inside of the plastic tube, to ram its pointy end into a shotgun primer that’s loaded into the other end. That shotgun primer detonates from the impact, igniting the Time Fuse.

Looking at the picture, you’ll also see an olive-drab (OD) green string or cord that comes out of the screw cap near the pull-ring, on the upper right side, then is laid across the front to the left side. If you look at the Mechanical Match, on the other side from where the string comes out (i.e.: the string comes out on the right, so looking on the left side of the device . . .), you’ll see a thin, straight line sticking out of the screw cap. This thing is actually the end of a cotter pin, which locks the pull-ring pin in place, acting as a kind of “safety.” To use the Mechanical Match, you first have to grab that OD green string (which is attached to the other end of the cotter pin) and use it to pull the cotter pin out. Only then can you pull the pull-ring.

The shotgun primer is actually held in one end of the thinner “tube part” of the device. And, the screw cap just below it has a hole in the end. In the picture, to the left of the Mechanical Match, you’ll see some small plastic doodads. Those are shipping plugs that normally block the hole in the end of the screw cap, so dirt doesn’t get in the hole and foul the shotgun primer.

To attach the Mechanical Match to Time Fuse, simply unscrew that screw cap a little bit (this loosens up two C-shaped plastic pieces inside the cap), then pull the shipping plug out. Then slide your Time Fuse up inside the hole until it bumps into an obstacle. That obstacle your Time Fuse just bumped up against is the shotgun primer. So, all you need to do is hold the Time Fuse in place – so it doesn’t slip back out – and screw the cap back tight. When you screw that cap tight, it causes those two C-shaped plastic pieces inside to tighten together, clamping your Time Fuse in place. Now you can let go, and your fuse isn’t going anywhere; it’s held fast against the shotgun primer. When you yank on the pull-ring, the firing pin will strike the primer, which will explode, and the Time Fuse will be ignited by the bang.

On the right is a picture showing a Mechanical Match hooked to Time Fuse. The pull-ring is folded back behind the device, near the top of the man’s hand. His other hand grasps the cotter pin string, preparing to remove the cotter pin "safety."

Cutting Time Fuse for Proper Burn Time

Time Fuse usually burns at about twenty to forty seconds per foot. In other words, it takes about half a minute for the flame inside to travel one foot along the powder train inside the fuse. However, it’s important to understand that Time Fuse has certain properties that cause it to burn at different rates under various circumstances.

For instance, if you compress Time Fuse while it is burning, it will burn faster. Essentially, by compressing it, you’re sort of squeezing the fire down the powder train at a faster rate. It’s similar in mechanics to what happens if you squeeze a garden hose. If you squeeze that hose, the water at the end shoots out with a lot more force, and it shoots much farther through the air. Doesn’t it? Well, this is roughly the same thing that happens when you squeeze Time Fuse; it really amps up the burn rate — the speed at which the flame travels along the powder train. In fact, you can even make the flame shoot out farther when it reaches the end. (I once used this idea to lend greater probability of success to a charge, when I had blasting caps that didn’t seem to have been made very well. The caps kept malfunctioning when I tested them out. Consequently, I covered the last couple of feet of Time Fuse with rocks, in order to amp up the power just before it hit the blasting caps used to set of my charge. My hope was that this would help boost the probability that the caps would get a bigger jolt from the fuse. It worked like a charm.)

There are a lot of ways to compress Time Fuse. You can bury it under dirt, or lay a line of rocks or bricks over the top. You can even squeeze it with your hands. But, watch out! That stuff’s hot! The plastic coating on the outside will bubble up and melt or burst as the fuse burns inside it. But, if you suddenly decide to abort your explosion, you’d better cut your Time Fuse about two or three feet beyond the point where that bubbling and melting is going on, because the fuse is actually burning about 18 inches ahead of that point.

The well-trained blaster takes this compression factor into account when camouflaging his/her Time Fuse, knowing that it will burn faster if it passes through a constriction such as a tight wall join, or mound of earth. Or if it’s hidden under layers of sticks or branches.

The compression factor also means that Time Fuse burns more slowly at higher altitudes (where there’s less air pressure) than it does at sea level. And it burns much more rapidly under water! (Remember: it’s water proof, and has it’s own oxygen source on-board, so it burns very well under water. In fact, you can even light it under water using a Mechanical Match!)
Ambient temperature can also effect Time Fuse’s burn rate. It tends to burn a little faster in a hot climate, and slower in a cold one. Other factors that influence burn rate include: its age, how well it was made, and how well it’s been cared for.

Because of all these variables, the good blaster doesn’t worry about the idea that this stuff is supposed to burn at around 30-seconds a foot. Instead, s/he knows this ratio is very mushy, and therefore conducts a test burn.

A test burn is (usually) a fairly easy thing to do, and can aid a blaster in getting his/her charge to go off within one second of when that explosion is desired. To begin with, s/he cuts 3 feet of fuse from the roll s/he plans to use when setting off the charge. Then, s/he carries this fuse (along with a mechanical match) to a setting that’s as similar to the location where the charge will be placed, as possible. If the charge is going to be used to blow down a train trestle that runs across a mountain pass high in the sky, then the blaster needs to take that test fuse up a mountain to the same elevation. If the charge is going to be set 300 feet below the ocean, the blaster needs to don a wet suit and air tanks, and take it down beneath the waves – preferably to 300 feet of depth.

Once the blaster has gotten as close as possible to the expected conditions, s/he then pulls out a stop watch, hooks up the Mechanical Match, and sets off the Time Fuse. The blaster times how long it takes, from the moment the Mechanical Match is fired, until that little spurt of flame shoots out the other end of the fuse.

Now, the blaster takes that number (the length of time it took to burn three feet) and divides it by 3 (the number of feet it burned in that time). The answer tells the blaster what this specific Time Fuse’s burn rate will be under those conditions.

If, for example, it somehow took 3 minutes to burn three feet, the blaster would divide the 3 minutes (time it took to burn) by the 3 feet (the length of the fuse tested) and arrive at a burn rate of 1 minute per foot. Since s/he now knows that this fuse will burn at the rate of 1 min./ft, if the blaster wants a 6-minute fuse, s/he will divide those 6 minutes by the burn rate. 6 mins. ÷ 1 min./ ft. = 6 feet of Time Fuse. In other words, s/he now knows to cut off six feet of Time Fuse, if s/he wants the fuse to burn for six minutes before the explosion occurs.

In reality, our blaster is much more likely to get a number like “1 minute and 18 seconds”, or “1 minute and 42 seconds” when s/he does the three-foot test burn. The easy way to handle this is to convert minutes to seconds and add it to the seconds left over. (For example, if our time was 1 minute and 42 seconds, we’d convert our 1 minute to 60 seconds, then add that to 42 seconds. 60 + 42 = 102. So, now we know it takes 102 seconds for the fuse to burn 3 feet. Dividing 102 seconds [the time] by 3 feet [the distance burned] gives us a burn rate of 34 seconds per foot.)

In the example above, if we wanted a 6-minute fuse on our charge, we’d divide 6 minutes (which is the same as 6 x 60 = 360 seconds) by 34 seconds/foot.

360 seconds ÷ 34 seconds/foot = 10.5882 feet. But, what about the .5882 feet?

Well, now we multiply 0.5882 x 12 to get inches. 0.5882 x 12 = 7.0584 inches. So, now we have a fuse that’s 10 feet and 7.0584 inches long.

But … what about the .0584 inches?

Simply multiply 0.0584 x 16 to get sixteenths of an inch. 0.0584 x 16 = 0.9344

0.9 can be rounded up to 1, so … we’re going to measure out 10 feet and 7 & 1/16 inches of Time Fuse, then we’re going to cut off that hunk that’s 10 feet and 7 & 1/16 inches long.

That may seem complicated, but I guarantee that if you spell it all out, a reader will be convinced you know how to cut Time Fuse! And that will lend a sense of verisimilitude to your story — which is what I’m aiming for by writing this little reference guide.

If you don’t quite get how it works, feel free to use my numbers. Or, contact me and I’ll be happy to run whatever numbers you want. Either way, no one will doubt that your character knows what s/he is doing. And that’s what counts!

Cutting and Crimping (or “Romper, Stomper, Bomper, Boo!)
Do you remember an old kiddy show called Romper Room? I don’t know if it showed all over the country, but I’ve spoken to a lot of guys (particularly Special Forces Demolitions Sergeants) who remember that the lady who ran the show used to sit in her chair, holding a thing that (I think) was supposed to be a hand mirror (but had no glass, so that you could see right through it) in front of her face as she looked out at the audience (Okay! Actually, she looked straight into the camera lens. But, hey, I was just a kid!). She’d hold that thing up and look out through it, while mumbling something about the “magic mirror” and intoning: “Romper, Stomper, Bomper, Boo! I see Mary and Jacky and Mark and Lisa …” and she’d go on and name all these kids whom she could supposedly see watching the show, by looking through her magic mirror.

You remember that?

You don’t!?!

Well . . . Damn it, Jim! I’m a demo man, not a child psychologist! So . . . on with the penultimate phase of today’s post.

You can cut Time Fuse with a knife, but it takes a little finesse — and a lot of sawing to work through that plastic and cordage. The result is often a frayed mess that doesn’t bolster a blaster’s confidence in his/her charge going off right.

Consequently, one of the best ways to cut Time Fuse is to use Crimpers. The crimpers in the photo on the right (above) are military crimpers similar to the ones I had in the army. On the left, you’ll see an older set of civilian crimpers.

Crimpers are a little like wire cutters in a way. You know how wire cutters often have two functions: you can use one section to strip the plastic coating off of wire, and you can use another section to actually cut the wire? Well, crimpers are sort of similar. That hole near the end can be used to crimp a blasting cap onto Time Fuse (we’ll get to that in a minute), but the scissors jaws just below that hole can be used to cut the fuse. And this cut will be very clean, quick and efficient.

The scissors jaws — as the name implies — cut Time Fuse in the same way scissors would. However, because most scissors tend to be straight, the cutting action would shove the round, smooth-sided time fuse down their length, reducing their cutting effectiveness. Hence the term “scissors jaws”. The jaws part comes in, because the scissors jaws are curved. Sort of like the letter C and its mirror image, where the inner line on the C would be very sharp. This curved C-shape helps hold the Time Fuse in place while you’re cutting it. And the sharp edges slice cleanly through the tough fuse material.

To attach your Time Fuse to your blasting cap, you need to slide the fuse into the cap until the fuse bumps up against the initiator (pyrotechnic ignition mix) inside. Then, you have pinch the metal cap into the fuse, in order to anchor the fuse in place. This pinching process is called “crimping” the cap.

There are a lot of ways to crimp a cap, including the bite-down method, in which you squeeze the cap into the fuse by biting it between your teeth. I don’t suggest you try this.

The preferred method for crimping a blasting cap onto Time Fuse is to slide your fuse inside the cap as described above. Then pull a set of crimpers out of your pocket and hold them up in front of your place. As a mnemonic device, an aid to keep you from cutting the cap instead of crimping it, you then look through the open hole of the crimper, while intoning the words, “Romper, Stomper, Bomper, Boo!” just like that lady on Romper Room. (This may sound silly, but it’s very important: cutting the cap could lead to an explosion.)

Once your sure you know which part is the crimper, you slip that part of the crimpers around the cap, about 1/8th to ¼ of an inch below the top of the hollow end of the blasting cap. After the crimpers are firmly seated, but before you crimp down, you rotate your arms to bring the cap-fuse-crimper assembly out to your side, down low, but as far away from your body as possible, while turning your face in the opposite direction. Then you squeeze the crimpers, crimping the cap onto the fuse. You do all the turning away, etc. to protect your eyes and upper organs from possible shrapnel, should the blasting cap explode when you crimp it. (Now you see why I don’t recommend crimping with your teeth. Right?)

A Final Note of Caution For Writers, Concerning Primer Cord Confusion

In some films you watch, you may hear characters refer to the fuse they’re going to light as: “primer cord” or “Prima Cord.” Please DO NOT make the same mistake in your writing!

“Primer cord” is Detonating Cord, which is NOT a fuse. And, “Prima Cord” is just a manufacturer’s brand name for a type of detonating cord. Detonating cord (often called Det Cord) is filled with PETN or RDX, which burns at 22,000 feet per second if you’re using military grade stuff.

With that burn rate, Det Cord doesn’t really just burn. It EXPLODES!

I mean it. It really does explode. For example: I have personally used Det Cord to cut down small trees in order to create emergency helicopter landing zones (LZ’s). I have also used it to cut through wooden doors (Use it on the hinge side, and it cuts the door off its hinges, for instance.), and to make fairly clean, linear cuts in thin metal.

For those wondering how to use it to open an area for an LZ here’s how it works: If you have a fairly large field with a few too many small trees growing in it to make a good LZ, you just run a line of Det Cord over to the base of a small tree and wrap it three to six times around the trunk (depending on diameter), then keep running the Det Cord over to another tree and wrap it around that one three to six times, etc., until you’ve got the bases of all the trees that are in your way wrapped with Det Cord. After that, you hook up a couple of blasting caps and tape them to one end of the Det Cord. Then, just back off and fire the caps. When the caps go off, the whole line of Det Cord goes BANG! and the trees all fall down. Then you and your buddies move in and drag off the trees, so they won’t get blown up by the rotor wash and knock down the chopper with flying branches when it tries to come in for a landing.

To illustrate the difference between Det Cord and Time Fuse, let me explain that if you run Time Fuse through trees in a similar manner, all you’ll wind up with is Time Fuse that’s melted to the base of the trees and all along the ground. Time Fuse absolutely does NOT explode. That’s why it makes such a good fuse.

Now, let me also warn you that you may run into somebody, someday, who says: “I once lit Det Cord (or Primer Cord) with my trusty Bic lighter, and all it did was burn. It doesn’t explode!” My suggestion is that you simply nod and remain silent, and hopefully that idiot will go away. Because, he’s probably telling you the truth.

If you set Det Cord on fire with a match or lighter (For God’s sake DON’T EVER use a mechanical match, or you might kill yourself!) the stuff will burn and smoke, and stink to high heaven (I know because I’ve done it). But, it won’t explode — because RDX and PETN (Det Cord is usually filled with one or the other) doesn’t go off from heat alone. It requires heat AND shock or compression. (That’s why you don’t want to set it off with a mechanical match; that shotgun primer will give it both heat and shock/compression — and the result will be an explosion.)

In this context, Det Cord is a little like C-4, because — as I’m sure R.T. and most of our other Viet Nam vets will attest — if you light C-4 with a lighter, it also burns without blowing up. In fact, you can even use C-4, that way, as a sort of heat tab, to cook on it. But . . . if a person tries to put out the flame by stomping it with a boot heel, that person is likely to be called “Stumpy” for the rest of his/her life. Because stomping on the burning C-4 usually provides all the shock/compression it needs to explode. And the resulting explosion is probably going to blow that stomping boot (along with the foot inside it) right off the end of the stomper’s leg.

And, just so we’re clear: slowly pushing down with that boot heel, to sort of grind out the flame without stomping it, can also sometimes provide just enough compression to accomplish the same thing (i.e.: earning a new, undesirable, nickname).

Det Cord works the same way. If that idiot who set it on fire had then hit it with a hammer, you’d probably have been spared his odious visit!

So, as I’ve hopefully convinced you, no matter what you’ve seen or heard on TV or in the movies, Primer Cord (or Prima Cord – remember, that’s just a brand name) is not a fuse; it’s an explosive.