Tag: California

Day 1000: How It Ends

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Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.

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Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 978: Doc Brinkley’s Magical Goat Balls

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It makes perfect sense. If a man is having a hard time encouraging his noble groin-soldier onto the battlefield, perhaps his problem is a lack of testicular fortitude. If only he could harness the power of nature’s potential through his impetuous manhood. If only he could possess the unflinching might of goat balls.

That’s right: goat balls. These testicular orbs of revered bleat-meat might cure all your ills, male or female in nature. Such was the reasoning behind Dr. John R. Brinkley’s infamous medical gifts, and such was the foundation of his fortune. If you skim past the wrongful death suits, the federal investigations and the sheer audacity of his backhanded disregard for ethics and common sense, Dr. Brinkley could be seen as the medical luminary of his day.

But we aren’t going to skip those parts. For his lifelong devotion to greed, fraud, and the scrotal strength of the capra aegagrus hircus, we’re going to tell the whole of Dr. Brinkley’s story.

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Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1907, John Brinkley enrolled at Bennett Medical College in Chicago, a school of questionable repute due to its focus on ‘Eclectic medicine’, which is somewhat like modern herbal / homeopathic medicine, except with less Far Eastern wisdom and a lot more guesswork. He never finished, and he failed to pay his back tuition, which prevented him from transferring to another school. Eventually he did what any enterprising young would-be healer would do: he bought a diploma from a diploma mill in Kansas City. Read more…

Day 972: Missed It By That Much…

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“If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

So sayeth the big book of unspoken laws – the same book that also condemns hack writers who open articles with unattributed clichés, tagged with stupid quotation marks that indicate that the words have been spoken, though in this case only within the writer’s mind. Hey, sometimes I’m lazy. But at least I’m honest about it.

Sometimes – and this pops up most frequently when an occasion forces me to try dancing without a sufficient dosage of alcohol to abuse my bloodstream – I’m downright incompetent. That’s not a crime; we all take a stumbling stroll through the courtyard of fuckuptitude now and then. The key is not to be incompetent when it really counts. Like when you’re meeting your in-laws. Or performing a recital. Or trying to kill somebody.

That’s a big one. Screw up an assassination attempt and you’ll be plopped into history’s laughing bin , filed under ‘G’ for Gut-Bustingly Idiotic. These five would-be snuffers of life weren’t out for notoriety, and the failure of their mission, though it opened them up for mockery galore, did little to sway whatever kooky inspiration had fuelled them past the checkpoint of legality into the realm of the fiercely wicked. But at that point, who cared?

Get your pointing finger ready and cue up your next laugh. These folks have earned it.

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When a white man fatally shot the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, it stuck a searing needle into race relations. But King had been targeted before – in this instance by a black woman in September of 1958 – and the end result was actually more encouraging than divisive. Izola Curry’s beef with the Reverend was not so much issues-based as it was wacko-nutjob-based. She met Dr. King at a Harlem book signing, and proceeded to jab a steel letter opener into his chest. Read more…

Day 949: Rumble In The Laotian Jungle

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The air was as thick as a steak and almost as full of blood. Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dieter Dengler stared at each of his fellow P.O.W.s and wondered which of them would be up for the escape. There were three men from Thailand, one Chinese man, and an American “kicker” named Eugene DeBruin, all of whom had been working for the CIA’s Air America, covertly delivering food and supplies to refugees in the early stew of the Vietnam War. The other man was First Lieutenant Duane W. Martin, the only other American serviceman among them.

The Chinese man, Y.C. To, was suffering from a fever – he wasn’t likely to keep up. But postponement of the escape was not an option; one of the Thais had overheard a guard mutter something about taking the seven men out to the jungle and shooting them, making it look like they’d been trying to flee. Now the flee would have to be.

Dieter was the one who drew up the scenario. He’d slip out of his restraints while the guards were eating, grab some weapons, then let the bullets fly. Dieter had trained for this. He was ready.

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As a boy in Wildberg, Germany, Dieter had always dreamed of being a pilot. He’d never met his father, and was raised under the tutelage of his grandfather – the lone citizen of his hometown who had not voted for the Nazi Party. Dieter packed up what little he had and made for New York City, where he lived on the gritty streets for a week before popping into the local Air Force recruiting station. Read more…

Day 947: The Vampire Of Sacramento

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Every so often I like to illuminate the pages of this online repository of phact and phantasy with a story so luminous I can practically hear the creak of my readers’ perfunctory grins as their hearts glow from toasty delight.

This is not one of those days.

Today’s kilograph is a meandering stroll through the most dank and squalid corridors of mental illness and human tragedy. The story herein is so polluted with sadness and horror it could make the Coen Brothers squeamish. The only disclaimer I can offer is that the details of this tale will likely pummel your stomach like pizza dough and send you scrounging for a pick-me-up, be it literary, broadcast or pharmaceutical. This is an ugly one.

This is a story of unchecked insanity, of a man who squirmed through the cracks of a system that never clued in to the demons playing table tennis inside his cranium. This is paranoid schizophrenia, cranked up to ten then breaking off the knob. This is how the world utterly and completely failed Richard Chase and those who were to become his grizzly victims.

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At age ten, Richard wholly embodied a phenomenon known as the MacDonald Triad – a trio of symptoms that all but closed the book on a person’s sociopathic bent and/or likelihood of homicidal leanings: he was cruel to animals, he lit stuff on fire and he wet the bed far beyond when a kid should stop. As a teenager, Richard discovered drugs, alcohol and a terrifyingly vivid stew of hypochondria.

Sometimes he felt his heart stop beating. Other times he was convinced someone had stolen his pulmonary artery. Vitamin C might fix him, or so he believed, leading him to hold oranges against his head in order to allow the vitamin to ooze past his skull via diffusion. I’m just guessing, but I doubt Richard scored a lot of high marks in biology class. At one point he became convinced that his cranial bones were shuffling around like drunken salsa dancers, so he shaved his head to keep track of them. Read more…

Day 942: The Hounds Of Golden Gate City

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Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.

Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.

Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.

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Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival. Read more…

Day 940: The Fists That Punched The Olympics

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The morning of October 15, 1968, just four days of sun-bathed pomp and cheer into Mexico City’s Olympic games, was perfect for a foot race. Australian speedster Peter Norman blasted through his 200-meter quarterfinal race like a sugar addict in the opening throes of a pixie stick; he finished in 20.17 seconds, a new Olympic record. After coming in second in his semifinal, his motor was cackling in high gear for that final sprint, due to take place the following day.

Alas, the wind parted not for Peter in that final round. While he finished with a boast-worthy 20.06 – an Australian record that still stands some forty-six years later – the gold went to American Tommie Smith. Another American, John Carlos, poked his nose past the finish line just 0.04 seconds after Peter, meaning Peter was to find himself sandwiched between a pair of Yanks on the podium. No matter, it was still a day for the books.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos approached Peter after the race, and asked him if he believed in human rights. He did. Then they asked if he believed in God. No doubt feeling a smidge uneasy about this bizarre line of questioning, Peter replied that yes, he did. He’d been raised in a Salvation Army household – a military brat for Jesus, if you will – and his belief in God was as sturdy as any Stenocereus cactus popping out of the Mexican sand. Then the Americans confessed what they planned to do on the podium.

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The raised fist was a symbol of Black Power, an emblem of a cultural struggle for basic human equality that at the time was pummeling America from a racist nation into a… a slightly less racist nation. Yes, the Black Power clenched-fist was also thrust in the air by those militant few who exercised their violent tendencies for that cause, but six months had passed since Martin Luther King’s assassination; more than anything, Tommie and John were making a solemn statement for equality. Read more…

Day 923: The Moderately Bungled Legend Of The Dalton Gang

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Of course, we all know the stories of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James, but do we really know… wait, I can’t make that assumption anymore. There have been maybe three or four decent western movies released in the 22 years since The Unforgiven, so it’s a safer guess that our collective knowledge of old west outlaws is probably somewhat shallow, apart from basic name recognition.

So maybe most people only know Jesse James as that West Coast Choppers guy, and maybe there are some who believe Billy the Kid was the character Gene Wilder played in Blazing Saddles. A hundred years ago, anywhere from 10-20% of American movies were westerns; now the genre barely shows up as a blip on the map. But alas, I’m digressing off the dusty path.

If the biggest names of America’s frontier days have already drifted into pop-culture obscurity, then I’m sure the tale of the Dalton Gang is utterly recondite. This is a tale of outlawism, of high aspiration and of ludicrous ineptitude. It’s a story that truly deserves a modern re-telling (and perhaps a resurrection of one of film’s most delicious genres).

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It all begins here, with Frank Dalton. Frank was the eldest of 15 kids, a Deputy US Marshal and by all accounts, a hero. He was shot dead in the line of duty while trailing a horse thief through the Oklahoma Territory in 1887, and within three years his brothers (Grat, Bob and Emmett Dalton) had followed in Frank’s footsteps and joined the noble side of law enforcement. After a monetary dispute left the brothers feeling soured on their distinguished vocation, they hopped across the proverbial tracks and became bad guys.

Let’s do a quick sweep of the Dalton Gang that formed in 1890:

–       There were the brothers: Gratton (Grat), the eldest brother who had idolized Frank; Bob, the wild man who murdered a romantic rival while he was still a deputy; and Emmett, the youngest of the bunch. Another brother, Bill, was also an outlaw, but he spent most of his years out in California on his own. Read more…

Day 922: Riding That Train, High On Cocaine & Pretty Much Everything Else

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Within a span of about five months, the notion of the Grand Hippie Music Festival had deteriorated from a three-day swoon of good vibes, great drugs and phenomenal tuneage at Woodstock into an angry and disorganized mess at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. I’ve written about the latter already, and I’ll have plenty to say about the former in an upcoming piece, but the question left unanswered by Altamont can only be: “what happens next?”

The digestible myth is that the disastrous Altamont concert nudged the nail in the sixties’ coffin, not only landing near the decade’s calendar terminus but also smushing into ash any hopes that the peace ‘n love generation could haul their good vibes into adulthood. But beyond Altamont you’ll still find the stellar 1970 Isle of Wight festival and the poorly-managed (but heartily rock-tastic) Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The dream wasn’t dead, it just took a nasty little hit in late ’69.

One of the first post-Altamont gathering of groups took place in Canada in the triumphant early days of 1970’s summer. Where festivals like Woodstock and Monterey Pop had previously lured fans from neighboring time zones and beyond to the event, the Festival Express was set to cruse across the country, bringing the idea of a super-conglomeration of super-groups to a myriad of cities. It was a concert game-changer, and solid proof that the perpetual party of the previous decade had not yet reached last call.

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Originally known as the Transcontinental Pop Festival, Ken Walker (above) along with his partners Thor and George Eaton aimed for four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. They secured a 14-car Canadian National Railways train for the artists, and booked a documentary crew to film the entire event. Walker and his associates booked passage for themselves on the train also, as no self-respecting businessman of that era was foolish enough to throw a party like that without attending it. Read more…