20 March 2014

The Man Who Sold the Papacy: Pope Benedict IX

A few years back I wrote a couple of books about "bastards": (in)famous people with a mean streak- including some that many today continue to consider "heroes," or at least "good people"- admittedly many of these historical figures have overall positive public images, but in order to show that most everyone has a bit of the "bastard" in them, I included discussions of George Washington putting the moves on his best friend's wife, Jefferson siring children with one of his slaves, and so on.
More fun to write were the accounts we have of many historical personages who have all but disappeared from the pages of history, and getting the opportunity to lay out just exactly why these characters ought to still be considered "bastards" even today. This is one of those "neglected" personages. The account below is an expanded version of the one that ended up in The Book of Ancient Bastards, and lends more detail than I was given within the constraints of the book itself. I hope you enjoy it.
This entry and the one to follow both deal with medieval popes. One who put the throne of St. Peter up for auction, the other who put the corpse of his predecessor on trial. First, Benedict IX: the man who sold the Papacy.

“That wretch, from the beginning of his pontificate to the end of his life, feasted on immorality.”

                                                                                                 – St. Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus

This week’s bastard is another of those wacky medieval popes who so scandalized contemporary and
Pope Benedict IX
later church writers.  As was the case with one of our previous weekly bastards (Elagabalus), Pope Benedict IX came to his position very young (the sources disagree on this point, but he was definitely no older than twenty) because he was the scion of an extremely well-connected family.

Think about it: who gives the sort of wealth and power that went with being pope to a twenty year-old and doesn’t expect it to go straight to the kid’s head?  Who doesn’t expect someone living the medieval equivalent of a rock-star life to go a bit nuts once thrust into the limelight?

In Benedict’s case that’s precisely what happened.

Born a younger son of Theophylact, the powerful Count of Tusculum, Benedict was “elected” pope in 1032.  In becoming pope he succeeded not one, but two of his uncles, who between them had spent the previous twenty years keeping the papacy “in the family.”  It is a virtual certainty that Benedict’s father spread a fair amount of money around among the papal electors in order to ensure that it stayed there.

Daddy’s purchase of the papacy had a profound effect on young Benedict.  Cynical and capricious from the moment he took the Shoes of the Fisherman, Benedict’s rule was quickly marked by episodes that illustrated not only his complete disregard for either tradition or propriety, but his taste for wretched excess as well.  In the disapproving words of one chronicler, Benedict was a “demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest.”

Pope Benedict VIII, and...
He earned this sort of scorn by working his way through
...Pope John XIX, both uncles of Benedict IX

as many of the Seven Deadly Sins as he could, as quickly and as often as he could.  This pope was apparently on a first-name basis with most of the whores in central Italy, sold church offices for hefty bribes (a sin known as “simony.”), hosted frequent bisexual orgies, sodomized animals, and even went so far as to curse God and toast the Devil at every meal!  Dante Alighieri, author of The Inferno, proclaimed Benedict’s reign the low ebb of the history of the papacy.

Desiderius of Monte Cassino
As was the case with so many medieval popes (including our next bastard, Stephen VII ) before him, Benedict owed his position to the Roman aristocracy, which meant that most of his critics came from among the many German clergymen holding positions in the church.  Most of his opponents considered their reigning head of the church something of a bogeyman; perpetrator of “many vile adulteries and murders.”  Desiderius of Monte Cassino who was a contemporary of Benedict IX and later reigned as Pope Victor III, wrote that Benedict committed “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts.”  Benedict’s reign, wrote Desiderius, was “so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it.”

For his part Benedict doesn’t seem to have given a damn what his critics thought.  His power base was among the members of the Roman aristocracy, and as long as they backed him he felt free to do as he pleased.  Turned out he reckoned without the powerful (and fickle) Roman mob, who rioted in 1036 and ran Il Papa right out of the Eternal City.  The uprising was quickly put down and Benedict returned to power there, but his hold on his throne was tenuous at best after that.

By the time Benedict’s opponents within the church had succeeded in driving him from Rome a second time in 1045, Benedict had tired of being pope.  So he consulted his godfather, a well-respected priest named Johannes Gratianus (“John Gratian”) about whether he could legally resign this most holy of offices.  When the “Godfather” assured him that such a thing, although unprecedented, was wholly acceptable according to church doctrine, Benedict offered to sell it to him for a ridiculous sum that would apparently be used to fund the former pope’s “lifestyle change.”

The older man accepted and took the papal name of Gregory VI.  The bribe he gave Benedict so completely bankrupted the papal treasury that for months afterward the church was unable to pay its bills.  To further complicate matters Benedict’s foes among the clergy had refused to recognize Gregory’s right to the succession, electing one of their number pope as Sylvester III.

So technically Benedict left not one, but two popes (well, really a “pope” and a pretender, or “antipope”) behind in Rome when he retired to one of his country estates later that same year.
Benedict didn’t waste any time, immediately proposing to a cousin (a common custom in his day).  When she refused him the ex-pope got it into his head that it wasn’t such a bad thing being pope after all.  Within weeks he’d headed back to Rome trying to get his old job back.

This time his allies among the Roman aristocracy deserted him, and Benedict got booted from the city a third time for his trouble.  So now there were three “popes” running around claiming to be the infallible head of the Holy Catholic Church!

The cool-headed emperor Henry
At this point clearer heads prevailed, and a group of bishops sent an appeal directly to Emperor Henry III in Germany, asking him to intervene.  The emperor convened a special church council in 1047, and by 1048 Antipope Sylvester had been convinced to re-take his position as bishop of Sabina, Gregory VI had been convinced to retire, and “Pope” Benedict IX had been officially removed from office.

A year later he was charged with simony (a charge of which he was clearly guilty).  When he refused to appear before the church court that indicted him, Benedict was excommunicated.

How he responded to this latest reversal is unrecorded.  But at some point during the next decade Benedict had a change of heart and as the story goes, presented himself at the abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, and asked for God’s forgiveness.

He spent the remainder of his days as a monk in that abbey, dying there in 1065.

Repentant bastard.

19 March 2014

Paddy v. Puzo, et.al.

by Robert Lopresti

I was watching the local Saint Patrick's Day parade (lots of horses, bicyclists, and bagpipers, all drenched in green), and suddenly an old memory popped into my head.  So I thought I would share this anecdote discussing the profound influence crime fiction has had on popular culture.  Or possibly it's just a silly story.  But to the best of my knowledge and memory, it's true.

I went to high school in New Jersey.  Every March 17 people at my school celebrated Saint Patrick's Day in the usual way.  Wear green or get pinched.  KISS ME I'M IRISH buttons.  Shamrock jewelry.  Nothing unusual there.

But there were some people of Italian ancestry who got irritated. Why did the Irish get all the attention?  And so they announced, completely inaccurately, that the day after Saint Patrick's Day was Saint Luigi's Day, a celebration of Italian-American heritage.  And they came in, dressed appropriately.

Now, this was just after Mario Puzo's classic novel The Godfather was published, so that was how they chose to dress.  Like 1940s gangsters.

Do I need to say I'm not making this up?  I should probably say that while I am half-Italian and one-eighth Irish, I was not part of this group.

Every year it got more and more elaborate.  By the time I was a senior some of the celebrants were arriving on March 18th in  a rented limousine with violin cases containing toy machine guns.

(And let's ponder that for a moment.  What would happen nowadays to a high school kid who even suggested bringing a toy machine gun to school?  He'd be on a plane to Guantanamo before gym class.)

So at long last we graduated and went off to jobs or academe.  One friend of mine, Tim, went to college in Baltimore where he shared a house with several other students.  One day a housemate was strolling through an alley (and what he was doing in a Baltimore alley alone is probably a good story in itself, but I don't know it.)  There, lying on top of a trash can, was a dry cleaner's bag. 

He peeked inside and saw a suit.  Not just any suit, but the kind of suit you would expect to see in the movie version of The Godfather.  Apparently someone had taken this gangster-style outfit to the dry cleaners, picked it up, and then threw it out.  Why?  Who knows?

Tim's friend took it home, check it for bloodstains and bullet holes, and tried it on.  Alas, it was too slim for him.  (Maybe that was the original owner's problem too, come to think of it.)  It turned out to be a perfect fit for Tim, so he graciously passed it on.  Now all Tim needed was an occasion to wear it to.

Now it happened that Tim's university. like many others, had an event called Casino Night, where students could gamble with tokens.  Perfect!  And Tim had a friend who made his pocket money betting on this or the other, and sometimes wore an outfit Tim referred to as "racetrack tout."  So picture the two of them strolling around Casino Night, catching the eye of more conventionally dressed college students.

The friend was sitting at the poker table while Tim stood behind him, standing somberly in his
gangster outfit, both of them looking like they had just strolled out of a noir picture.

And then a female college student,  unknown to Tim, marched up and demanded to know:  "Why are you dressed like that?"

Tim replied with his best Brooklyn accent (which is how people think those from the Garden State talk).  "I'm from New Joisey.  Everyone in New Joisey dresses like this."

"No!  They only dress like that on Saint Luigi's Day!"

And Tim said "WHAT?"

Turns out she had gone to our high school, a couple of years behind us.  They had never met. 

I hope you had a pleasant holiday, and if you didn't wear green, I hope you didn't get pinched.  And kids, if you bring a toy machine gun to school, you will definitely  get pinched.

18 March 2014


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."

17 March 2014

Germaphobic or what?

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I've never been germaphobic. In fact, I've always thought and even heard all my life that a little dirt is good for you. That you need to keep your antibodies built up and how some germs help that.  But I just spent eight days fighting what I self-diagnosed as norovirus. It's also called intestinal flu, where you erupt at both ends. I first got sick on Wed. March 5th. This episode lasted for about four hours. A friend came over to help me and brought some Pediasure which was a good thing because I was getting dehydrated and didn't realize it.

The next day I was better and even better by Saturday the 8th. Suddenly, the virus flared again. Lasted about an hour this time and wasn't as severe. In the meantime, I read up on my virus and discovered it was a very nasty virus. That the germ could live on a countertop or hard surfaces for weeks. A lot of people also have a high fever with the illness. I only had a low, about one degree to one and a half. I also had a sinus/allergy problem or a cold. None of it was fun.

This was just after my wonderful sixty-fifteenth birthday party which was super. All three of my grown children and spouses came, two of my grandchildren came, a niece and her son and his family came. My nephew's daughter is a great-great niece so that made it even more special to have family there. A large number of close friends also came. I think about 45 people came. The next morning the 2nd of March, my son and his family from Ft. Worth and my daughter from Nashville and I had a late breakfast before the FW group had to get on the road. So thinking again about germs, I was in two restaurants with a large number of other people inside so I could have picked up the germs in several ways.

After that Saturday I started feeling better again. Everything I read said you have to go three days without symptoms before you're germ free. I slowly felt good each day once again until Wednesday, the 12th, and the virus flared again. Each day as I was getting better I did have a vague uneasiness in my tummy. Not sick, but just not real good. I did talk to my doctor's nurse. I was doing everything that she suggested I do. Of course she asked who diagnosed norovirus. I said, I did. Might not have been but sure acted like it.

 I ate or drank a lot of soup. Drank a lot of Seven-Up and Pediasure. Ate bananas and rice and bland things. No sense in tempting the fates. The only good thing about this ordeal is I did lose seven pounds, it was just a horrid way to lose them. Now if I can just keep that number going down without being sick anymore I'll be a happy camper. I'm finally feeling almost normal, whatever "normal" is.

In thinking about the topic of my blog this week. I couldn't help wondering if anyone has written a story with a main character who is germaphobe or even if such a character is anywhere in a story. I don't know of any, but I'm fairly sure someone has written one. If you know of someone please comment about it. Actually the only famous people I've heard about who are germaphobic is Howard Hughes and Howie Mandell. And although I'm going to be a little more cautious, I'm going to be nutzo about it.

In the meantime, stay away from germs. Wash your hands with soap and water often and use one of those sanitary cleaners. I know that that's my plan.

Photo below taken on March 1st at my party which was held at a Mexican Food Restaurant and that's why I have on a huge sombrero. The staff brings it for you to wear when it's photo time. Prior to that I was wearing a tiara that a friend brought for me to wear.

Jan Grape

16 March 2014

The Long Sulk

I have a 14-year-old boy Donnie (not his real name) and his father living in my house. Jan Grape’s written about her ‘alien’, her grandson, but presumably to have a grandchild, she must have had children. I haven’t had that experience.

If you’ve ever seen the Greg Daniels / Mike Judge television series, King of the Hill, Donnie bears an uncanny resemblance to the cartoon character Bobby Hill in looks and personality. At least he looked that six months ago, he’s shot up another few inches since. The comparison to Bobby is so strong, that his classmates tease him with the name, which naturally he hates. But Bobby, er Donnie, is a gentle, kind boy. At heart, both lads are decent and both find it difficult to lie. The London Free Press claims Bobby Hill "arguably was the most interesting, complex and in some ways 'real' kid in TV." I can't argue otherwise.
A shock came learning about today’s modern school system. It’s no longer drop below 70 and you fail, then repeat until you get it right. Failing is now defined below 50, but not even that: So that we don’t bruise the fragile egos of our most important children (student athletes), even grades of 0 are awarded 50%.

If enough classmates fail Spanish, then the tests are considered defective and the class passes automatically though they can’t translate ‘Buenos dias’. (There's a joke there.) Politicians rather than educators are
meddling in the system.

Intestinal Fortitude

As you might imagine, a teenage boy eats a LOT. McDonald’s rolls in an extra supply truck when he visits. More than once we've had conversations that run like "Where's the frozen dinner pack I just bought? The package said it serves eight." "Oh, I had that for after school snack." "What about the roast beef?" "It was only two pounds, but great on rye."

Like Bobby, Donnie’s a surprisingly good cook although his only acceptable vegetable is French fries. Oddly, he despises leftovers, which is a problem because his dad deliberately cooks food in advance to eat when he's not around. Donnie calls leftovers “old food” and won't touch them. Think I’m kidding? I have found five opened jars of peanut butter and a sixth about to be violated.

Likewise, he’ll use a third of a tube of toothpaste or half a bottle of shampoo and refuse to use any more. What’s with that? His dad compounded the situation when he added ‘old shampoo’ from a pink (yes, pink!) bottle into the new Brut Shampoo for Men. Horrified, Donnie switched over to using my shampoo, not as Brutish, but still masculine.

Back to food: The downside of his gastronomical adventuring is breath-stopping biogas production. Here we come to another peculiarity: He doesn’t like to visit any ‘facilities’ other than his own bathroom. That means all through the school day, he stores and composts everything from the previous 24 hours.

I don’t know what organic chemistry goes on inside his large intestine, but ever been around construction sites with large, belching earth-moving equipment? Recall the rumbles, the growls, the grinds, explosions and fizzles? All that occurs before the kid's load of a dozen fragrant water buffalos empties into a straining septic system.

There could be a positive side. His dad won’t let him near girls at this point, but I think his concerns might be mitigated if he considered potential on-line personal ads: “Likes candlelit dinners, long walks on the beach, and frequent flatulence.” So much for romance.


I know parents who think boys need to be toughened up, not shown affection and not comforted when they're hurt. I'd like to smack such parents. His dad's long-term girlfriend constantly calls Donnie a liar and a loser. She doesn't like Donnie… at… all. Lying isn't something Donnie does easily or well. It tears him up. Like Bobby, he has a strong sense of honor and lying doesn't fit that image, which the lady doesn't grasp.

The dad's girlfriend dotes on her own, very pretty, talented daughters, but she disdains Donnie often to the point of omitting him from extended family events. When one of the girls recently won an award, Donnie wasn't invited– not cool enough it seemed.

When Donnie was excluded from another event, I shoved him in the car and took him to a new neighborhood Japanese restaurant. It wasn't the same as spending time with the family unit, but he tried Japanese food for the first time and loved it. He tested something new instead of sitting in his room pretending he wasn't crying his heart out. So far we've tried Greek, Chinese, Mexican, and Cuban foods. When shut out, eat out.

Mood Machine

Like Bobby Hill, the lad's not athletic although he's a good shot, as his ROTC instructor learned. Nonetheless, Donnie excels at certain olympic events, such as the Long Sulk. I switch to my sportscaster voice:
“Donnie represents team USA this week, going for the record now held by the young Russian, Uvreli Pismiof. Uvreli’s record is 42 days, 14 hours and 10 minutes, but young Donnie has positioned himself as the current challenger. His patented scowl in place, Donnie hunches over his bowl, glaring at the wildly cheering crowds. Wait… We thought we saw a quiver of his lip… yes, there it is again… It doesn’t qualify as a full-fledged smile… but hold on… While the judges are reviewing the tape, the seconds continue to tick… 8, 9, 10, 11… YES! Ladies and gentlemen, a new world record!”
Those of us who’ve worked in offices have noticed women knowingly roll their eyes and whisper about some colleague “It’s her time of the month.” Let me tell you folks, they haven't experienced a 14-year-old boy. Around here it’s his time of the minute. Emotions erupt faster than a sour-tempered Tasmanian tantrum.

Donnie's unusually prim. He avoids sexual topics with his friends and won't look at nekked photos. (It's been suggested he was exposed to sexuality when he was quite young and this may be a reaction.)

I’ve never before heard Donnie swear, but the other day over the most minor incident, he told me “ƒ you.” Whoa! I didn’t tell him I was more amused than angry, but I superseded parental authority and confiscated his new bicycle, Play Station, pellet gun, newly purchased hunting/fishing knife, and NetFlix. It’s taken him a few days to apologize, but last evening he wrote me a contrite note. So far, only his bicycle's been returned, but good for him.

Death Threats

When upset, he tries a ploy that may have succeeded with his parents, slamming doors, punching walls, and shouting, “I'm going to run away.” I said, “No kidding! Do you want dessert first? Mmm mm, chocolate mousse. We'll give your room to a little girl named Ruthie who smells like strawberry candy floss and will replace your Call-of-Duty posters and baseball caps with pink pony decorations.” “Seriously?” He looked stricken.

Then he upped the ante. “I’m going to kill myself.” The first time, I dryly said, “Okay, just do it quietly. This is a no-wake zone.” He looked at me in disbelief, then burst out laughing.

So far, my other responses to that challenge have been:
  • Wow, like Moaning Myrtle. You’ll have to live in a loo where kids barfed in the sink and peed on the floor and the walls turned slimy green.
  • Not again! Shouldn’t you plan something new this week?
  • Sticking your head in an oven won’t work. If you can survive your own flatulence, nothing will do you in. Besides, our stove is electric.
  • Really? Leave a note on the fridge so we can identify the new odour in your room.
  • Man, you’re so lucky! You won’t have to worry about that first kiss thing with Abbie or Leona or Ishtar. And who’s that other girl who liked you since forever and her mother told her to marry someone like you? They’re so cute, but they might get annoyed.
  • Don’t make a mess. We’ll have to stop dinner to clean up and the garbage men complained recently. Can you pass the peas?
  • Cool! We could turn you into a mummy. The Egyptians did really neat things with bodies. They stuffed your innards in Canopic jars and they used special tools to pull your brains out through your nostrils. Their funeral guys preserved bodies with natron, which made them flammable. Not a lot of firewood could be found in the desert, so when trekkers needed a fire at night, they dug up a mummy and lit it. That would be so cool to try. Wait until we order natron from K-Mart.
  • No! I hate it when bits and pieces of body parts lie around all sticky with blood dripping from the walls. The pancreas and gall bladder are slimy, with so much gall your mother will have to clean up.
  • In this Florida heat, intestines rot from the inside out, your belly will expand and bloat, and you’ll explode all over the place causing squirrels to run for cover. How stinky and messy that is. When your friends visit and ask where you are, we’ll have to say everywhere.
  • EPA will come with biohazard suits and pick up pieces with tweezers they’ll stick in blue plastic barrels to bury in hazardous waste dumps in Bithlo. Can you imagine having an address for all eternity in Bithlo? Since no one can visit, they’ll mark your barrel on GPS. Other than that, how’s school?
  • Wow, that’s exciting. Death by peanut butter is really sticky. Jelly might be better if you remember to wash afterwards. A friend told me about death by sugar. If you fall into a huge pile of sugar, you sink to the bottom and as you try to breathe, you suck in nothing but more sugar until you choke, gag, and literally drown in it. One guy wasn’t discovered for more than a week when the rats found him, but not before most of the sugar was used in Kool-Aid.
I dramatized this last with my hands around my throat, gasping for breath. Nothing like a crime writer to turn a kid green, although I think he now threatens to see what I’ll say next.

Don’t criticize me– I’m winging it. Parents out there… what’s your advice?

Series created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. Production: Film Roman, 3 Arts Entertainment, Deedle-Dee Productions, Judgemental Films. Distribution: 20th Century Fox Television. Copyrights and trademarks property of their respective owners. Blue barrels from Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, Allentown, Pennsylvania; photo credit: Theme Park Review.

15 March 2014


by John M. Floyd

Like many writers, I enjoy wordplay of almost any kind: rhymes, puzzles, riddles, puns, etc. And Fran's mention the other day of Lynne Truss and her wonderful Eats, Shoots and Leaves made me remember something that I haven't thought about in some time.

I'm one of those people who like clever titles for books, stories, and movies. Examples: Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, A Hearse of a Different Color, The Scoreless Thai, The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker. My alltime favorite is probably Apocalypse Pretty Soon. I also like titles that were so mysterious I didn't even know what they meant until later in the story, like Rain Man, Catch-22, The Green Mile, The Prince of Tides, Cool Hand Luke, The Dead Zone, and Dances With Wolves.

Sometimes those you'll-find-out-what-it-means-later titles are acronyms--words that are formed by the initial letters or groups of letters in a phrase, like SCUBA or RADAR or NATO--and that can make the effect even better. Everyone knows by now what M.A.S.H and S.W.A.T. stand for, but when I went to see the movies Wall-E, F.I.S.T, TRON, and RED, I didn't have a clue that they referred to Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class, Federated InterState Truckers, The Real-time Operating system Nucleus, and Retired, Extremely Dangerous. (Oh, and I didn't mention C.H.U.D., which translates to Cannabalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller.)

Crying U.N.C.L.E.

Acronyms within titles, or within the stories themselves, can also be interesting. One of the first that ever caught my attention--I thought it was cool, because as a little kid I thought Napoleon Solo was cool--was the one for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. And the villains that the man From U.N.C.L.E. fought were employed by an equally wordy outfit: T.H.R.U.S.H., the Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. Other spooky organizations in that era were Bond's old enemy SPECTRE (the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion); Matt Helm's company, I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage); and our man Derek Flint's employer, Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage). Since I'm already knee-deep in all this, I should probably also mention Marvel Comics' S.H.I.E.L.D., which has had several meanings over the years. (I won't burden you with them; just plug in words from those given above--you get the idea.) Not that it matters, but Maxwell Smart's boss (CONTROL) and his archenemy K.A.O.S. weren't smart enough to have expanded names and therefore were not acronyms at all.

My favorites, besides Z.O.W.I.E., are probably K.A.B.O.O.M., the Key Atomic Benefits Organization
Of Mankind, from one of the Naked Gun movies, and G.R.O.S.S., or Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS, from Calvin and Hobbes. Those preferences alone should give you a pretty good idea of my level of intelligence.

I've Been Motivated

Goofy acronyms are of course not limited to TV shows, comic strips, spy novels, and movies. My two primary employers in my life have been IBM Corporation and the U.S. Air Force, and between them they have possibly generated more acronyms than the rest of the free world combined. My wife once said to me, after overhearing my end of a phone call with the computer guys at one of my IBM customers' locations, "Do any of you ever speak English?" Her question was understandable: the entire conversation had been full of words like VTAM, DB2, Oracle, UNIX, CICS, Domino, RAID, OS/MVS, etc. At one point I think we even discussed SPOOLing, which meant Simultaneous Peripheral Operations On-Line. As Stephanie Plum would say, Jeez Louise.

One of the IBM acronyms that I liked was the old ATM program COLTS, which stood for Consumer On-Line Transaction System. The software was developed in Baltimore, and was named for the then-Baltimore Colts football team. Oddly enough, a lot of financial institutions' customer-delivery programs over the years have had cute nicknames; one ATM system was called Harvey the Wall Banker. And I remember that when plans were being made for a teller automation system at the Nashville-based First American National Bank, some smartaleck suggested in a planning meeting that they name it First American Remote Teller. Fortunately, the "Remote" was changed to "Automated," and it became the FAAT system instead. Not exactly a snappy acronym, but certainly more acceptable.

No time for insurgents

As for military lingo, I watched In Harm's Way on DVD the other night, and John Wayne and crew were always talking about Sink-Pak, spelled CINCPAC (Commander-IN-Chief, U.S. PAcific Command, who turned out to be Henry Fonda), along with a dozen other examples of alphabet soup. More currently, and in real life, there's now some dude with the incredible title CDRUSPACOM (CommanDeR, U.S. PAcific COMmand). And of course there's always the most famous acronym of all, taught to us by shows like The West Wing and House of Cards: POTUS.

One personal story. When I was in the Air Force in the 1970s, I was at one time stationed at a support base with folks assigned mostly to two groups: Engineering and Installation. The prefix for all organizations at the base was EI, followed by another E or I depending on which side of the mission fence you were on, so all our departments began with the letters EIE or EII. I was on the engineering side, and one of my extra duties (most military personnel are saddled with "extra duty" designations) was Information Officer for the group. So, although it's more of an abbreviation than an acronym, one of my titles during this wild and crazy period in my life was--you guessed it--EIEIO. With a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there . . .

The funniest two acronyms I remember from the Air Force were related to a person's duty station and his state of mind. You probably won't find it hard to believe that many servicemen (and women) were not always fond of their locations, and sometimes they requested orders to transfer out, or to leave the military entirely. When their requests had been granted, they were said to be FIGMO, and usually walked around with a laid-back, happy-go-lucky attitude, as in "Why's Joe smiling all the time?" "Oh, he's FIGMO." The acronym meant **** it, I've Got My Orders. Occasionally, though, these sent-from-heaven orders got cancelled, and when that happened, one moped around with slumped shoulders and a long face. In that case, the affected party was said to be OMGIF, which is FIGMO spelled backward: "Why's Lester dragging around, today?" "Haven't you heard? He's OMGIF." It meant Oh My God, I've been ****ed. Sometimes it's strange the things you remember, from forty years ago.

A story by any other name

In closing, I do realize that this is a mystery/suspense blog, and that I've strayed some distance off the written path, so I have a question. Do any of you Sayers of Sleuth recall a mystery/crime story or novel or movie whose title is an acronym? The only ones I could remember were S.W.A.T. and RED. And have any of you ever used an acronym in your titles? I can see how it'd be effective, but I've never done it.

Maybe I need to watch some more M.A.S.H. episodes.

14 March 2014

Crime Cruise-Aruba

Last week, we returned from an eleven-day pleasure cruise in the Caribbean. All of the port stops along our route can be considered as warm places to get out of snow country during the winter months. We went for the fun, relaxation and pampering you get on a cruise ship, plus the chance to visit places we hadn't seen before. But, being a writer of crime and criminals, I naturally sought out some of the darker side at each port of call.

Our departure was from a large pier in Ft. Lauderdale at an entrance to the Inter Coastal Waterway. But since Leigh does such a good job at exposing the seamy underbelly of Florida, I will leave reporting on this area to him.

First stop Aruba

The Tour

Haystack Hill, tallest point on island
Aruba is a flat, sandy island about six miles wide by twenty miles long, located approximately seventeen miles north of Venezuela. Due to its arid climate, the island has to produce its own water via a desalination plant, thus water is very expensive, as is electricity generated by the same plant. According to our tour guide, only the rich Americans and the thieves can afford swimming pools. Thieves being defined as politicians in the Aruban government. None of the local's houses had green lawns for a yard, only sand and cactus. Yes, the one golf course was green, but this was a result of recycled waste water from the resorts and if you were in the know, you waited for the course to dry before moving around on it.

The resort area, the white sand beaches and the clear waters of the ocean were beautiful, therefore it was interesting to talk to those fellow passengers who had only seen that small part of the island. They were the ones who wanted to return to Aruba for an extended vacation. Those of us who had seen the full island weren't so sure. Tourism is Aruba's main source of legitimate income, but once you've seen a large rock hill (remember this is a flat island), a naturally formed stone bridge (there were two, but the other one collapsed nine years ago) and the California Lighthouse (named after a ship that ran into the island), what's left is the resort area and the beaches.

Baby Bridge, only one still standing
To mingle with some of the locals after the tour concluded, four of us went to Iguana Joe's for beer and nachos. It was much like any warm climate bar with open air seating, plus it was located on the second floor where patrons could watch people and traffic moving on the streets below. Found out too late that the local Starbuck's had free wi-fi for those who made a purchase.

The Crime

The first settlers of this island were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians, who sailed over from Venezuela about two thousand years ago. They were followed by the first tourists in 1499 when Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the island for Queen Isabella. Guess you could say he was the first thief on the island. He named the land Oro Hubo, which meant there was supposed to be gold on it. The Spanish soon left and the island changed hands several times before the Dutch ended up with it.

Tourist Beach
During the time period when the Spanish conquistadors were looting Mexico and South America and sending all that gold on ships back to Spain, pirates and privateers decided that Aruba made a good base to hide out between raids. You could say they were the second set of thieves.

In more modern days, the island has continued as a smuggler's paradise, dating this occupation back to colonial times when it was used to avoid taxes from the Spanish monopoly. For instance, Aruba was the most important exporter of coffee, however there are no coffee plantations on the island. Cigarettes and whiskey were other major exports. Appliances, perfumes and other items were smuggled to Venezuela and Colombia. Once, when a large refrigerator was being swung over from the dock to be loaded on a ship headed for Colombia, the refrigerator suddenly opened and a cache of guns fell out on the wharf. They were immediately picked up and no official mention was made of the incident.

Downtown, Haystack Hill on distant right
One Aruban politician signed a residence card for a Colombian cartel member so he could live on the island. Money was invested. A scandal ensued, but that politician later became Prime Minister for Aruba. Go figure. The cartel member later visited the island anyway without problems after the residence card was subsequently rescinded. No wonder our tour guide referred to the Aruban government as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Still, we had a good time on Aruba and do not regret having made this port of call.

See you in Cartagena in two weeks.

13 March 2014

Robert Benchley, Please Come Home

(We've been out of town, and so, here's a reprint of one of the classic works on how to write, by the master, Robert Benchley.)

Robert Benchley, “How to Get Things Done”
from Chips off the Old Benchley ©1949

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is "Don't you wish you knew?" and a pretty good answer it is, too, when you consider that nine times out of ten I didn't hear the original question.
But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, writing and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes, I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls disguised as Louis XIV or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. "All work and all play," they say.
The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
The psychological principle in this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
Let us see how this works out in practice. Let us say that I have five things which have to be done before the end of the week: (1) a basketful of letters to be answered, some of them dating from October, 1928 (2) some bookshelves to be put up and arranged with books (3) a hair-cut to get (4) a pile of scientific magazines to go through and clip (I am collecting all references to tropical fish that I can find, with the idea of some day buying myself one) and (5) an article to write for this paper.
Now. With these five tasks staring me in the face on Monday morning, it is little wonder that I go right back to bed as soon as I have had breakfast, in order to store up health and strength for the almost superhuman expenditure of energy that is to come. Mens sana in corpore sano is my motto, and, not even to be funny, am I going to make believe that I don't know what the Latin means. I feel that the least that I can do is to treat my body right when it has to supply fuel for an insatiable mind like mine.
As I lie in bed on Monday morning storing up strength, I make out a schedule. "What do I have to do first?" I ask myself. Well, those letters really should be answered and the pile of scientific magazines should be clipped. And here is where my secret process comes in. Instead of putting them first on the list of things which have to be done, I put them last. I practice a little deception on myself and say: "First you must write that article for the newspaper." I even say this out loud (being careful that nobody hears me, otherwise they would[Pg 253] keep me in bed) and try to fool myself into really believing that I must do the article that day and that the other things can wait. I sometimes go so far in this self-deception as to make out a list in pencil, with "No. 1. Newspaper article" underlined in red. (The underlining in red is rather difficult, as there is never a red pencil on the table beside the bed, unless I have taken one to bed with me on Sunday night.)
Then, when everything is lined up, I bound out of bed and have lunch. I find that a good, heavy lunch, with some sort of glutinous dessert, is good preparation for the day's work as it keeps one from getting nervous and excitable. We workers must keep cool and calm, otherwise we would just throw away our time in jumping about and fidgeting.
I then seat myself at my desk with my typewriter before me and sharpen five pencils. (The sharp pencils are for poking holes in the desk-blotter, and a pencil has to be pretty sharp to do that. I find that I can't get more than six holes out of one pencil.) Following this I say to myself (again out loud, if it is practical) "Now, old man! Get at this article!"
Gradually the scheme begins to work. My eye catches the pile of magazines, which I have artfully placed on a near-by table beforehand. I write my name and address at the top of the sheet of paper in the typewriter and then sink back. The magazines being within reach (also part of the plot) I look to see if anyone is watching me and get one off the top of the pile. Hello, what's this! In the very first one is an article by Dr. William Beebe, illustrated by horrifying photographs! Pushing my chair away from my desk, I am soon hard at work clipping.
One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or[Pg 254] "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture. What a lot one learns simply by thumbing through the illustrated weeklies! It is hard work, though, and many a weaker spirit would give it up half-done, but when there is something else of "more importance" to be finished (you see, I still keep up the deception, letting myself go on thinking that the newspaper article is of more importance) no work is too hard or too onerous to keep one busy.
Thus, before the afternoon is half over, I have gone through the scientific magazines and have a neat pile of clippings (including one of a Viper Fish which I wish you could see. You would die laughing). Then it is back to the grind of the newspaper article.
This time I get as far as the title, which I write down with considerable satisfaction until I find that I have misspelled one word terribly, so that the whole sheet of paper has to come out and a fresh one be inserted. As I am doing this, my eye catches the basket of letters.
Now, if there is one thing that I hate to do (and there is, you may be sure) it is to write letters. But somehow, with the magazine article before me waiting to be done, I am seized with an epistolary fervor which amounts to a craving, and I slyly sneak the first of the unanswered letters out of the basket. I figure out in my mind that I will get more into the swing of writing the article if I practice a little on a few letters. This first one, anyway, I really must answer. True, it is from a friend in Antwerp asking me to look him up when I[Pg 255] am in Europe in the summer of 1929, so he can't actually be watching the incoming boats for an answer, but I owe something to politeness after all. So instead of putting a fresh sheet of copy-paper into the typewriter, I slip in one of my handsome bits of personal stationary and dash off a note to my friend in Antwerp. Then, being well in the letter-writing mood, I clean up the entire batch. I feel a little guilty about the article, but the pile of freshly stamped envelopes and the neat bundle of clippings on tropical fish do much to salve my conscience. Tomorrow I will do the article, and no fooling this time either.
When tomorrow comes I am up with one of the older and more sluggish larks. A fresh sheet of copy-paper in the machine, and my name and address neatly printed at the top, and all before eleven A. M.! "A human dynamo" is the name I think up for myself. I have decided to write something about snake-charming and am already more than satisfied with the title "These Snake-Charming People." But, in order to write about snake-charming, one has to know a little about its history, and where should one go to find history but to a book? Maybe in that pile of books in the corner is one on snake-charming! Nobody could point the finger of scorn at me if I went over to those books for the avowed purpose of research work for the matter at hand. No writer could be supposed to carry all that information in his head.
So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles of the books. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a[Pg 257] shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command written in the sky: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.
In order to put up the shelf, the laws of physics have decreed that there must be nails, a hammer and some sort of brackets to hold it up on the wall. You can't just wet a shelf with your tongue and stick it up. And, as there are no nails or brackets in the house (or, if there are, they are probably hidden somewhere) the next thing to do is to put on my hat and go out to buy them. Much as it disturbs me to put off the actual start of the article, I feel that I am doing only what is in the line of duty to put on my hat and go out to buy nails and brackets. And, as I put on my hat, I realize to my chagrin that I need a hair-cut badly. I can kill two birds with one stone, or at least with two, and stop in at the barber's on the way back. I will feel all the more like writing after a turn in the fresh air. Any doctor would tell me that.
So in a few hours I return, spick and span and smelling of lilac, bearing nails, brackets, the evening papers and some crackers and peanut butter. Then it's ho! for a quick snack and a glance through the evening papers (there might be something in them which would alter what I was going to write about snake-charming) and in no time at all the shelf is up, slightly crooked but up, and the books are arranged in a neat row in alphabetical order and all ready for almost instantaneous reference. There does not happen to be one on snake-charming among them, but there is a very interesting one containing some Hogarth prints and one which will bear even[Pg 258] closer inspection dealing with the growth of the Motion Picture, illustrated with "stills" from famous productions. A really remarkable industry, the motion-pictures. I might want to write an article on it sometime. Not today, probably, for it is six o'clock and there is still the one on snake-charming to finish up first. Tomorrow morning sharp! Yes, sir!
And so, you see, in two days I have done four of the things I had to do, simply by making believe that it was the fifth that I must do. And the next day, I fix up something else, like taking down the bookshelf and putting it somewhere else, that I have to do, and then I get the fifth one done.
The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at that newspaper article the first thing Monday morning.