That Was Almost Interesting

So there I was, standing in the shooting bay, minding my own business when Bang! The pistol went off!

Which could have been interesting except that I was following all four rules, so the only thing that happened was a hole appeared to the right of where I wanted the hole to be, and I startled, and said to myself, “Self, remember, the trigger on this one is a leeeeeeetle bit lighter than on” [movie announcer voice] “The Snubbie.” [end movie announcer voice]

Usually, I work from lighter trigger to heavier, but this time I wanted to get some things done with the snubbie and Big Pistol* first, including practicing using the speed loaders. So by the time I got to Lighter Trigger, I was hurting. This was partly due to muscle soreness from my heavy workout the day before, and partly because I wasn’t wearing a wrist brace, and partly due to inner perversity on the part of my joints in general. When I hurt, I try to move fast, and I get jerky with my movements, not smooth.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. And accurate.

So when I had Lighter Trigger loaded and pointed downrange at my target, I raised it, cocked it, had my finger on the trigger, and twitched before I was really ready. Bang. It did what it was supposed to do, just a little before I anticipated it to do that. Nothing aside from my ego was damaged. I know better. When I hurt, when I am tired, I must watch myself and focus on being smooth, no matter which tool, vehicle, or piece of equipment I am dealing with. Guns are tools. Knives are tools. Power drills are tools. All can hurt you if you are not careful, or do expensive damage.

The Four Rules. 1) The gun is always loaded. 2) Do not point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy. 3) Do not put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to shoot. 4) Always know what is behind your target.

Rules two and three are often interchanged, but rule one is always rule one. Unless the firearm is in multiple pieces on the table, consider it loaded and treat it that way. If you don’t touch the bang switch, it won’t go bang.

You can apply the Four Rules to other things. I use them for power tools, especially tools that have pieces that might come loose (air hammer, rivet gun).

*Big Pistol is not that big, until you compare it to a snub-nosed pistol of a smaller caliber. Then it looks big. It’s not a .45 or a Desert Eagle. And revolvers always look broad in the beam.


Book Review: Geköpft und Gepfhält. Vampires in Archaeology

Franz, Angelika and Nösler, Daniel. Geköpft und Gepfählt: Archäologen auf der Jagd nach den Untoten. (Darmstadt, Germany: Theiss Verlag, 2016)

I needed some books about Central European history, books not available in English. So, while prowling and its cousins, this popped up. It translates “Beheaded and Staked: Archaeologists on the Hunt for the Undead.” It is a fascinating look at the evidence for belief in vampires and other undead, going back to the Paleolithic and as recently as the early 2000s in Romania. Probably more recently, although many cases of “vampire” elimination probably stay very quiet. The authors point out that moderns are the first generation to not believe in the undead, in people coming back to warn or destroy the living. At least, that is, if the archaeology and anthropology prove true.

This book combines popular science and hard science in a readable volume. Yes, it is in German. I’m used to reading archaeological reports and the like, so I could follow it very easily, although I did look up some legal terms.

The authors start with an overview of vampire legends and recent cases, along with accounts of vampire “scares” in the 1700s and 1800s. Then they look at “life and death in the middle ages and modern times,” including burial rituals and beliefs about death. From there they consider all the terms for “vampire:” draugr, morioi, shroud-chewer, and others, and where the names came from. The unhappy undead are found all over Europe, even if they are not called “vampire,” and took many forms and acted in different ways. “Count Dracula” of Bram Stoker and the movies was actually a bit of an exception, in that he did not focus on blood relatives or former neighbors.

From types, the authors move to ways of becoming a vampire. Some are just cursed, others became vampires by living an unjust life, or working in occupations thought to incline people toward sin and injustice (like being a lawyer or a surveyor!) Babies who died without baptism, women who died during childbirth, men who died while denying their sin, all might return to claim the lives of relatives and others.

Written sources from the Middle Ages come next, followed by archaeological evidence for vampires. This is some of the most interesting material, because it goes back, oh, tens of thousands of years. When people find bodies with stones piled on top of them, or a rock wedged into the jaws, or a sickle resting on the throat, or the head removed and jammed between the feet . . . vampire. Buried face down, or with the feet tied, or even cut off? Vampire or some other form of dangerous undead. Even priests and abbots were not immune to fears of their return, as certain burials showed.

The last chapters look at the forensics of the undead, and the process of decay (or lack of decay) that were taken as signs of the body housing a vampire. Then what steps were taken to prevent someone from returning, including putting thorns in the shroud, needles or thorns in the feet (to prevent walking), scattering poppy or sesame seeds in the coffin (the dead would have to count all the seeds and gather them before they could leave the grave), taking a winding route to the graveyard, and a different route back (to confuse the dead), burying possible vampires inside thorn-hedges to keep them from leaving . . . There were as many ways as cultures.

The book concludes with the undead of modern times, including Haitian zombies, and the undead in fiction and popular culture. I found the first four-fifths of the book to be the most interesting, especially the archaeology and the typology of restless undead. Popular culture associates vampires with Romania and the Balkans, or New Orleans (Ann Rice and followers), but the undead are found all over the world, and are generally malevolent. There’s no angst or regret for being a vampire in a German “shroud chewer” or his cousins. They want company, and that means killing relatives and neighbors to come join them.

The bibliography includes sources in English, German, and Romanian. Some are popular accounts, but most are academic papers about archaeology and anthropology. I plan to track down a few of the titles, English and German, for future use.

The book is well written and easy to follow. It helps if you know a little about archaeology and about the topic in general, but it’s not needed. Yes, the book is in German. But not academic German, and I had no trouble reading through, even without having a dictionary on hand. The dictionary helped in places, mostly legal terms and a few medical things I couldn’t suss out on my own. Alas, the book was not cheap, but most of that was postage. Boat freight has gone up since 2018, the last time I ordered books from a shipper in Germany.

I highly recommend this book to people interested in the folklore and archaeology of the undead, in vampires outside of Romania, and interested in popular beliefs about death and sin. A basic knowledge of German is needed, and a good dictionary helps.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the publisher or authors.

Yes, I’m a Pedant

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (1992 film) It was very useful for the Lone Hunter’s story, and is a bit different from most Dracula movie scores. However, it had been a while since I’d seen the film, and I didn’t remember all the details, so I went on-line. And remembered why I never finished watching the movie.

I’d hit a wall of disbelief very early on, and had quit. The film depends on a massive theological error in order to make the plot work, and I couldn’t get past that. Now, I re-read the plot, shake my head, and my writer brain kicks in. How could that error become a legit plot point, without making the huge blunders?

OK, I realize that asking Hollywood to get medieval Catholic or Orthodox theology correct is . . . a stretch. However, it could be done. To summarize, in the film Vlad III Tepes is told by a priest that his wife is damned past any hope of salvation because she committed suicide to avoid being captured by the Ottomans*. Vlad loses his temper, to put it mildly, trashes the chapel, and stabs a cross with his sword, swearing that he’ll avenge his wife’s death if he has to draw on the powers of H-ll to do it.

Here’s where I hit the wall. The priest was wrong, at least if you read the Summa Theologica. Suicide was indeed considered one of the fast-tracks to damnation, with a very few exceptions. One of those exceptions was if the person committed suicide to avoid rape. I’m not as conversant with Orthodox theology of the time, but I’ve read that they too had a similar exception. This isn’t the place to argue over theology, but that movie bit was such a blatant error that . . . Yeah. That and that it was Vlad desecrating a painting and the cross*, NOT desecrating a consecrated Host, that damned him as well.

So, here’s where the writer brain kicked in. What if . . . the priest had deliberately lied to Dracula? Why would a priest do that? What if he was in the pay of one of Vlad’s many enemies, and they wanted Vlad out of the picture? What if there was some sort of magical protection tied to being in good standing with the Church, and the priest (who was forsworn, or being blackmailed, or . . .) took the opportunity to push Vlad to the breaking point? Vlad is excommunicate, he loses the shield of faith, and his enemies swoop in. Except he’s a better magic worker than they realize, and he casts a desperation revenge spell that . . . leads to the rest of the movie. And the priest gets what’s coming to him later on, but repents before he dies.

See, that would work, it wouldn’t make me throw things at the screen, and you only add a few elements to the film. But that’s my writer brain, and my having read parts of the Summa and other things. And it would move farther away from Bram Stoker’s book, so Hollywood wouldn’t really be interested.

Edited to add: OK, gang, now I’ve got a mental image of Deborah being all sweet and asking her slightly long-toothed grandfather, “Bunicot, where do Hunters come from?” And Arthur looking thoughtful and saying, “Well, Little One, the tale as it was told to me begins a very long time ago . . . “

*Or out of love when she is told in error that Dracula is dead. Which could still work – again, the corrupted priest or another traitor setting up the situation where Dracula renounces the church and . . .

**OK, I can sort of see the director’s choice here, because Bram Stoker said that using Hosts to deny a vampire access to his resting place was OK, and Van Helsing would have been in as big of a religious mess as Dracula if the director had been consistent. Personally, a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with silver and a few other things would be higher on my list of “things I need to get rid of a vampire.”

Giving Thanks

It is a rare culture or group that doesn’t have some sort of day, festival, or worship service for giving thanks, or showing appreciation for labors and efforts. Harvest festivals are what most of us probably think about, or perhaps offering thanks to the ancestors for deliverance, or thanking a deity for independence, or victory, or the gift of Scripture and teachings, or something. It may be a day set aside on a ritual calendar, or just “when harvest is finished” every year. There’s always been a sense that someone, other than just the people who planted, tended, and harvested, or hunted, or fought, should be given thanks for the good thing that happened.

The US and Canada made that an official day on the calendar. Setting aside a national day of thanks was either the first or second executive order made by President George Washington (historians disagree). The day came and went, and then was made a permanent (this far) holiday, with a set date, in the 1900s. In some places, there are also separate religions days of thanks, like at the church I attended in Not-All-That-Flat state. It was a farming area and a farming town, and every year, when harvest ended, a special service of thanks was held. We also had special harvest and planting devotional guides, and prayer teams for harvest and planting. Yes, it was a very, very important event in the life of the people!

Then we’d have a sort of Harvest Home, minus the alcohol and “corn dollie.” Instead it was hot-dishes, Jellos, ham, and other good things, all cooked by people who did not farm. In part because the farm wives had been doing lots and lots and lots of cooking, and were tired. So the rest of us pitched in instead, and gave them and their families a break. We sang hymns like “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” and “This is my Father’s World,” and celebrated another year in the bin (as they say in that part of the world.) Harvest was close, it was critical, and we honored it.

Giving thanks means that you acknowledge something outside of yourself. It may be a deity, it may be people who helped you, it may just be gratitude to the world for being so beautiful and good. Looking outside of ourselves is important. It’s easy to get wrapped up in “us,” centered in ourselves in a bad way, and forgetful of what goes on around us. Saying “thank you,” acknowledging effort or generosity makes the way smoother and moves us out of our own heads, so to speak. Thus the frequent religious commands in most faiths that believers are to give thanks to the deity/deities for good things, and to apologize when that thanks is forgotten. It also binds people together in society.

Today, in the year 2021, it seems as if it is hard to give thanks, at least the usual phrases. Things are still off-kilter, more so than two years ago. For some of us it is better than in 2020, for others not so. But we are all here, and alive, and all of us have someone or something to give thanks for, even if it is colorful leaves and a beautiful sunset, or appliances that work and a car that runs, or a close family member still being with us and healthy.

So we in the US give thanks, eat festival foods, and think about the good things that we have been given. Who gave them? That’s up to you to say. I give thanks for readers and stories, for family and friends, for a non-leaking roof and a truck that runs, for a beautiful world with music and leaves and sunsets and amazing wonders in it.

Teddy Bears and Tableware: An Estate Sale

An older gent, perhaps late 60s to early 70s, approached the check out with an armload of teddy bears. The lady two customers behind him had two quilts, both embroidered with teddy bears. The gent set down the bears, gave a sheepish grin as he pulled out his wallet and said, “Grandkids.” I left the mail with a watching family member and got out of the way.

The dear old lady who lived a few houses up the block fell twice more. Her family decided that, despite the lady’s assurances, she needed more than just a five-days-a-week visiting nurse and family checking in on weekends with groceries and household supplies (they either live out of town, or have jobs with rotating shifts.) We her neighbors were both sad and relieved. Sad that she had to move out, but relieved, because we had nightmares about her getting badly hurt, or having a medical crisis and not being found in time despite her cell-phone and emergency button.

The family opted to have an estate sale, once the lady settled into her new home and had taken all the things from the house that would fit in her apartment. The family also took some things, and I heard one young lady saying that she was glad to get the heavy desk and office chair, because it would save her a lot of money trying to find a newer set that fit her (she’s smaller than I am. I feel her pain.) They hired professionals to clean, the arrange everything, and catalogue the estate. Then came the sale.

She collected teddy bears. Almost a hundred, according to MomRed, who had gone over earlier and returned with some bedding, pillows, and things for Little Bit. And two antique hat pins for me (I need to find caps for them. Those always disappear.) When I went later to deliver some mis-delivered mail, I saw teddy bears being carried out, a steady stream of bears. And bear-embroidered quilts and coverlets, bear-bearing plates, and similar. They went to appreciative homes. Books also went quickly, alas, and small items.

The furniture sold fast, per the woman’s grandson-in-law. So had valuable collectibles, and the lawn furniture and some other things.

I’m glad that people wanted the items, and that they will be used and loved. I hate to see good things going to the dump, although I know styles change and some places just don’t have room for, oh, a china cabinet or wardrobe. The house is quiet. Those of us who live around the lady’s house keep an eye on it, just in case, and the family comes by the take care of the lawn and do more things inside.

Times change, people age. The lady is doing OK in her new residence. Moving did not solve her medical problems, but she has full-time care and is much closer to the hospital and her doctors. That’s a blessing.

Cornbread: Baked Good or Religious Denomination?

Well, it’s that time of year, and “cornbread” seems to be the topic of friendly but intense argument in the blogosphere in 2021. It ranks up there with “dressing or stuffing” among Americans from certain regions as a topic that can be – and is – argued with religious fervor.

A note for my readers from outside the US and Canada, at least those who have not encountered this particular dish before. What Americans call cornbread is made from ground maize. It is rarely eaten outside North America, as best I can tell. The grind of the grain is different from that used for polenta, and the grain is not treated the way maize used for tortilla flour is processed before grinding. The resulting baked good does not rise like wheat bread, and is more crumbly because of the lower gluten content. However, it is a native food, and in some parts of the country, was (or is) the main starch that accompanies many meals. So cornbread is yellow, low-rising, and generally crumbly. You can’t slice it the way you do wheat breads. But we love it anyway.

When you start asking people about family cornbread recipes, the line falls on “sugar in the dough” and “no sugar in the dough.” Some people will allow a little wheat flour and baking powder added in, others add egg, there’s “rye-n-Injun” which is a rye-cornmeal bread, and others prefer fried cornbread to baked cornbread. All discussion of those topics seems to pale when compared with the intensity and fervor that accompanies “with sugar or without?”

Purists insist that “bread” means “no sugar.” Unlike wheat breads, where the sugar helps encourage the yeasts to do their thing and cause the dough to rise, or sweetened breads that are supposed to have sugar (or honey, or molasses, or . . . ) cornbread does not need yeast-food. The chemistry doesn’t require sugars. Hot-water cornbread, the ne plus ultra of minimalist cornbread has nothing but very hot water, cornmeal, shortening (lard, bacon-grease, or vegetable shortening) and salt. It can be baked or fried. Cornbread is for workin’ folks, farm folks, it’s not fancy. Light-bread is fancy, and for special occasions only. Cornbread is what you eat to fill the hole when you start running out of bacon or salt-pork to go with the beans and collards (or turnip greens). Or the New England version thereof, because New Englanders leaned on cornbread for quite a while, back when.

Other people add a pinch of sugar, just because. The result should not be sweet. Others make a sweet cornbread, just like some people add canned corn to the mix, or cheese, or jalapenos, or other things. Flour can make a soft, not-crumbly cornbread, more of a fluffy quick bread with corn in it. But that’s not “real cornbread.” One of the blogs I frequent almost had a knives-out argument recently over sugar or no sugar. This is a place where we can talk religion, politics, handgun caliber, domestic or imported motorcycle, you name it (other than cornbread) without resorting to violence. Cornbread . . . is a sensitive topic among a group of Southerners, or at least people who grew up on “poverty food.”

At RedQuarters, we add a bit of sugar.

1 cup yellow corn meal

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour (not self-rising)

1/4 C. sugar (can be omitted. We leave it in.)

1/2 tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder.

1 egg

1 C. milk

1/4 C shortening.

Preheat oven to 425 F.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add egg, milk, and shortening. Beat until smooth. Bake in greased 8″ square pan in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes. Best served warm with butter and honey, or molasses, or sorghum syrup, or apple butter. Or served with butter to go with something that has a sauce that needs to be sopped up (collards, turnip greens, bean soup . . .)

To me, it does not taste sweet.

Note: this recipe does not keep well. It goes rancid in as few as three days if you do not eat all of it, refrigerate it, or use it in other things (dressing for the turkey/duck/goose/ham).

Edited to add:

“Jiffy” is a brand of cornmeal with flour and other things pre-mixed in. It’s like Bisquick™ for rolls, pancakes, and biscuits, except you use “Jiffy” for cornmeal-based baking.

A “chub” of sausage is the small, blunt-ended cylinder of ground sausage (breakfast sausage), usually packed in a soft wrapper so you can either trim off the end and squeeze the sausage out like toothpaste into a bowl or pan, or you can use a sharp knife, cut the chub into slices, and remove the wrapper from each slice. Then you have home-made, thick, sausage patties.

What Purpose War?

It depends on the conflict, the participants, the causes . . . Glory for the ruler, or for the country (and the ruler), gain territory, redress past losses, revenge, gain territory, loot and run, because of alliances, to end oppression and evil, for the glory of G-d and to win souls (which is not strictly limited to the three monotheisms, as it turns out), to gain territory . . .

I got to musing on this because of teaching 1.5 wars (Austrian Succession, Seven Years’ War, American Revolution), preparing for another one (Napoleonic), listening to Sabaton, and reading about the news from Central Europe. Not so much why do men fight, although that is a lot of what Sabaton’s music explores, but why do nations and countries go to war? And what is the purpose.

Those of you who have read my stuff for any length of time know that I vehemently disagree with the “War is good for nothing” line of thought. There are, indeed, worse things than fighting and death. Look at political prisoners in Lenin and Stalin’s Gulags, the Killing Fields, Timurlane’s little trip through Central and South Asia, the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and a few other incidents documented in oral tradition and archaeology. War to keep would-be-Stalins from taking over? War to end Nazi atrocities? War to stop hostile military-aged invaders from overrunning your country ahead of someone else’s armed forces? War to secure a border when a nut-case with delusions of being the next Alexander tries to take over? In the name of his deity? Oh yes. Just War Theory and the international laws the derive from it always allow self defense. Most government laws in the US allow self defense, and the defense of those who cannot defend themselves.

What about war for territory? Used to, that was the main goal. It might be territory for a tribe (or super-tribe, a nation), or a monarch, or a deity (the Northern Crusades, jihad, the Inca’s early wars.) Winning made it yours. That was the only justification needed, although reasons and excuses generally followed, after the fighting stopped and the land had been claimed and pacified. Louis XIV was pretty up-front about setting the Rhine as his eastern border, and the lands that bordered the Rhine, and gaining glory for France—which meant glory for Louis. Other rulers were similar, he was just one of the more flamboyant and less successful. I think resource control can come under territory. Old school, very traditional, and frowned upon today. Not that it stops certain groups or individuals from attempting it.

To be honest, I can respect “I’m fighting to conquer land and rule it because I can” honesty. The silken phrases of professional diplomats wear on a person. “We need oil and farm land. You have it. Next question.” I may disagree, but it’s pretty clear what the goals are.

National honor? Well, what exactly does that mean? For China it means conquering Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, probably chunks of Korea and Vietnam, and controlling the territories that border Chinese territory. It means being recognized as the only power in the world, and all the other powers paying homage and kowtowing, possibly even literally (the nine bows and six prostrations). For the US? Um, heck if I know. Helping allies if they are attacked, keeping our word?

What about WWI? I think as much ink has been spilled on the “real purpose of WWI” as on the battles themselves, if not more. To preserve empire? To uphold alliances? To gain territory? To get even with Serbia for assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Because everyone wanted a short, hard war to “clear the air” and sort out who the fittest was for the next stage of evolution? Because Europe was due? Aliens? (OK, I have not found that one yet, but it’s probably out there.)

Like anyone who really studies military history, or who has been in the military, I don’t want war. War is an evil, although a lesser evil compared to some. Just as killing in self-defense is still taking a life, no matter how justified. War is hell, war is terrible, war can bring out amazing and wonderful things. It is something to be avoided if possible, and fought when needed. For there are worse things than fighting a war. No matter the original purpose of the war.