Battle of New Orleans

John Cherry?

Did Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry look like this?

In 1959, Johnny Horton sang a song entitled “The Battle of New Orleans.”  (click here to listen) In it, he told of going with Colonel Jackson down the “Mighty Mississip” in 1814.  While this might have been true as far as the date of the trip, the battle did not take place until January 8, 1815, and this year is its bicentennial anniversary.  It should be noted that Andrew Jackson was actually a major general both in the Tennessee Militia and the U.S. Army by then.  There are two things I find very interesting about this battle, the most famous American victory in the War of 1812: first is that my direct ancestor, John Cherry, served in the battle with the 2nd Regiment of the West Tennessee Mounted Gunmen under “Old Hickory” and the other is that the battle had no affect on the outcome of the war.

Let’s address the first interesting point, well, first.  Although I have had ancestors serve in the Revolutionary War (yes, I could be a Son of the American Revolution, if I wanted to take the time and effort), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (on both sides, no less), the only one who bore the Cherry name was John.  The Tennessee Mounted Gunmen were militiamen, not regular army, and knew Jackson very well.  In 1812, he had led them in an aborted attempt to shore up the defenses of New Orleans (a major port and the defender of the Mississippi River artery), but had to turn back when Congress refused to fund the operation (Congress has always shown such great wisdom).  After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Jackson defeated the “Red Stick” Creeks, he was made a major general in the U.S. Army, as well as the commander of the Seventh Military District, which included New Orleans.  And so, in 1814, he took a little trip with the militias from Kentucky and Tennessee.  That included Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry.

Major General Andrew Jackson

Major General Andrew Jackson

The British Navy sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 1814, and easily swept aside a makeshift American fleet.  They landed troops and made camp.  After a night attack by Jackson on the 23rd, the British realized that taking New Orleans might be more of a challenge than the sacking of Washington earlier that year.  The British commander, General Pakenham, decided to slow his advance and to do a reconnaissance-in-force to assess the American position.  This gave much needed time for Jackson to prepare his defenses.  He set up eight batteries with twelve cannons and had his men prepare their earthwork defenses.  Records state that Jackson had 4,732 men comprised of 968 US Army regulars, 58 US Marines, 106 US Navy seamen, 1,060 Louisiana Militia and volunteers (of those, 400 to 600 were free Blacks), 1,352 Tennessee Militia (one of whom was John Cherry), 986 Kentucky Militia, and 150 Mississippi Militia.  There were also 52 Choctows (traditional enemies of the British Creek allies), along with an unknown number of men supplied by Jean Lafitte.

Jean Lafitte Pirate, Patriot or Both?

Jean Lafitte
Pirate, Patriot or Both?

An interesting side note on the the pirate and smuggler, Jean Lafitte, is that the British had tried to woo him to support them.  The Americans had even attacked him to prevent him from helping the British, seizing property, ships and men.  Lafitte had not put up a fight.  He was charged with abetting piracy, but he then offered Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne his assistance in fighting the British and the governor sent word to Jackson.  Jackson replied, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?”  Nonetheless, Lafitte and his men manned American batteries and served on U.S. ships during the battle.  In fact, they fought so well that Jackson commended them and they received pardons.  Unfortunately, this leopard could not change his spots and spent his life oft overstepping the piracy and smuggling laws.  He normally tried to get letters of mark so that he was a legitimate privateer, but did fudge on that.  He died in 1823 attacking what he believed to be Spanish merchant vessels off the coast of Honduras.  They were actually either well-armed privateers or warships.  It is worth noting that he never attacked American vessels and even escorted them safely through dangerous waters at times.  Whether he fought for the Americans out of loyalty to America, hatred of the British or just out of pragmatism we will never know, but I like to think it was for the first reason.

Battle of New Orleans

Battle of New Orleans, with artistic license

The battle has been covered in detail by many sources, including Wikipedia (click here).  In summary, Pakenham’s 8000 men, although outnumbering the Americans, were delayed almost twelve hours in their “dawn” attack.  They suffered under the American artillery barrages (although there is no record of an alligator being used in place of a cannon, as related in Johnny Horton’s song), then hit withering fire from the muskets and rifles.  Since American forces were mainly militiamen, they did not have the inaccurate smoothbores, but rifles (called squirrel guns in the song).  Known as Kentucky long rifles (although not made there), they were accurate for up to over 200 yards, twice that of a musket.  Although they were slower to load and could not mount a bayonet, they were great for men sitting “behind cotton bales” and picking off British soldiers.  Although the British did push back the Americans in the west, their main attacks were thrown back with heavy losses.   When the battle was over, three British generals (including Pakenham) and eight colonels were among the 251 British killed. 1,259 were wounded and 484 were missing in the battle. The Americans lost a total of 11 men and 23 wounded, with no major officers in that number.  It was the greatest American victory of the war.  Or was it?

Here comes the second interesting point: the war was already over.  On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Belgium.  However, there was no telephone to send the word to the armies.  In fact, the Senate did not ratify it until February 18, 1815, for the simple reason that they did not have a copy to do so.  So the battle had no effect on the outcome of the war.  Save one.  It restored national pride, giving Americans a land battle in which they could celebrate.  The outnumbered American militiamen had righteously “whupped” some of the best professional soldiers in the world.  The battle also created an American hero that came only second to George Washington in the eyes of the people: Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johnny Horton April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

Johnny Horton                       April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

An amusing side note is that Johnny Horton found that “The Battle of New Orleans” was not selling very well in the British Isles.  Wonder why?  So he was convinced to make a different version with a different take on the battle, one more British biased.  (click here)  While Johnny was not anti-British (his song “Sink the Bismark” proves that), he should have left well enough alone.  This  revisionist version of the battle just doesn’t work.  Sadly, Johnny died in an auto accident after four short years of hits.  His rockabilly songs and historical ballads are still played and enjoyed by people like me.  Thanks to Youtube, they live on.


In Memory of Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester May 17, 1944 - April  11, 2014

Jesse Winchester
May 17, 1944 – April 11, 2014

I never met Jesse.  I never spoke with him.  I never saw one of his concerts.  In fact, I did not even know his name until I wanted to quote some of the lyrics from a beautifully written and poignant song recorded a few decades ago by Jennifer Warnes, entitled “You Remember Me.” (Click to listen to it.)   It is about her former lover who became a priest (or a nun, if sung by a man).  It was perfect for my book, Foul Shot, but I knew it was copyrighted material and I would need to obtain permission.  While there are no set rules on this, it can cost thousands to quote a few lines of some rock songs and I wanted to use several verses of “You Remember Me.”  I found that Jesse had written it and contacted him by email.  I explained that I was self-published and did not have a big budget (any, really), but loved the song.  He gave me full permission, gratis, writing, “You have my permission to quote from ‘You Remember Me’ in your book. Thank you for asking, congratulations and good luck with the new publication.”  He requested nothing in return.  I did cite his generosity in my dedication and sent him a copy.  He wrote back that he had received it on February 26, 2014.  He thanked me for it and for mentioning him in the dedication.  “It looks very readable,” he wrote.  It was the same month that he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.  He died just weeks later.  Although I doubt that he had an opportunity to read Foul Shot, I have a faint hope that he did and liked how I used his song.

Although not so famous as a singer outside of his loyal folk music followers, Jesse’s songs were recorded by Nicolette Larson, the Weather Girls, Michael Martin Murphey, Reba McIntyre, Wynonna Judd, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Rush, Ted Hawkins, The Everly Brothers, Patti Page, Ronnie Hawkins, Elvis Costello, Alex Taylor, and many more, as well as Jennifer Warnes.  In fact, Bob Dylan once said of Jesse, “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.”  As is often the case, the recorders of his songs made his works more famous than Jesse was.

There are many ways to judge people.  Without personal contact, we oft judge them by less than reliable sources.  I had minimal contact, only email, with Jesse, but feel I have some validity in saying that Jesse was not only a great songwriter, but a decent person.  In all of our correspondence, he was friendly and gracious.  He was generous in allowing me to quote his song with no remuneration.  He even took time to write a kind note when he received my book, although I am sure it really held little interest for him at that point.  “Your new book arrived – thank you again.  And I appreciate the nice reference . . . . Good luck with your new baby.”   I judge people by their actions and Jesse’s were generous, indeed.  Thank you, Jesse, you were a kind and generous soul.  Your songs will continue to touch our hearts for many years.  And, come spring, another cherry blossom tree will be planted in your memory.

Toast to the Lassies and Toast to the Laddies

I am an unabashed traditionalist. I love having traditions and following traditions.  That includes personal ones like having oatmeal (porridge) and tea for breakfast, doing my New York times crossword puzzle (except for the too-easy Monday and Tuesday ones), and  playing Santa every Christmas.  I follow family ones for birthdays and Christmas as well, such as decorating the house like Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation (well, not quite so much, but close).  Although I was brought up a Baptist, I became an Anglican partly because of their traditional worship.  Since the Robert Burns Supper has certain strong traditions, why would I mess with those?  Well, mess with the Toast to the Lassies and Toast to the Lassies, to be exact.

Robert Burns, Scotland's unofficial national poet.

Robert Burns, Scotland’s unofficial national poet.

For those of you who are at sea with all this Scottish stuff, Robert Burns was Scotland’s favorite song writer and poet.  He lived from 25 January, 1759, until 21 July, 1796.  In his short 37 years on earth, he wrote 558 song lyrics and poems.  Ever heard of “Auld Lang Syne” or “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose”?  Then you know some of his works.  Every year since 1802, Scots, those of Scot’s descent, and those who just love a good party get together all over the world for a Robert Burns Supper on or near his birthday of January 25th to celebrate Burns and his poetry.  There is a tradition of having the haggis (a steamed pudding of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with oats and spices) presented with Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” recited.  A toast is made to women by a man and a response by a woman, known as the Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies.  Finally, an Immortal Memory speech is given in honor of Burns.  These are the current traditions.  And I recently wrote a Toast to the Lassies and Toast to the Laddies that are done in a responsive manner, much like a formal debate.  Was this all that nontraditional?  I say not so.

Kelly and I at the 2014 Robert Burns Supper

Kelly and I at the 2014 Robert Burns Supper

Originally, women were not allowed to attend Robert Burns Suppers except as cooks or servers.  Fortunately, times change and so has the Supper format.  I am not so much of a traditionalist as to exclude the very people that Burns loved most: the lassies.  Having bent that far, it is not that much farther to make the toasts a little more fun.  Click here for how it went at the Gold Country Celtic Society’s Robert Burns Supper this year when Kelly and I did our toasts.  I have to say that I told Kelly that she would get the best lines and I delivered.  But it was all in fun.  Below are the written toasts. Feel free to use them for your Robert Burns Suppers if you are so inclined.  I only ask that you mention my name.


The Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies

R.L.:  Tonight we’ll be giving the Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies responsively.  I will make a pithy and profound observation about the lassies and my wife Kelly will give her rebuttal.  In the interests of equality, we will try to keep them about equal, even though I am sure that will be difficult for her.  You see, studies have shown that lassies speak an average of 20,000 words per day, while men speak only 7000, or about 1/3 as many.  Thankfully, I was not the counter on that study.  According to Dr. Luan Brizendine from Cal Berkeley, that act of talking itself “triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high.”  So men, if you wonder why your lassie often sounds like a video on fast-forward, she’s tripping out on talk.  So don’t blame her if she uses three times the words needed to tell a story.  It’s her fix.  Not only that, the good doctor says that women devote more brain cells to talking than men.  That means that men have more productive things to do than idle chatter.

Kelly:  Productive things?  You mean reproductive things.   According to the same doctor, men think about sex every 52 seconds.  Women, once a day.  In fact, she says that men’s “sex processors” in their obsessed brains are twice as big as in women.  Any brain cells lost to talking are taken up by sex, not by noble ideas.  What’s wrong with talking anyway?  If you ask a laddie how his day has been, he says, “Fine.”  Or, more often than not, “Lousy.”  That is NOT a description.  How about “I closed a huge deal for the company and I’ll be getting a raise,” instead of “Fine?”  Or “I lost a major account, I got fired and we’re going to lose the house,” instead of “Lousy?”  Which one sounds more like a man and which one takes more brains cells to say?  And communication is not the only area of men’s brains that is inferior to women’s.  Dr. Brizendine stated, “Testosterone also reduces the size of the section of the brain involved in hearing – allowing men to become “deaf” to the most logical of arguments put forward by their wives and girlfriends.”

R.L.:  Ah, logic.  Men, do you think your lassies make logical arguments?  Aren’t women known for intuition rather than logic?  According to Merriam-Webster, intuition is “a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence: a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why.”  Logic is a “reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something.”  Not the same thing.  We’re talking feelings versus reason.  For a man, you win an argument by scoring the last point.  For a woman, you win it by descending into tears.  Maybe that’s why no woman has been elected president.  Do you trust the fate of the free world to be in the hands of someone who weeps uncontrollably while watching Sleepless in Seattle?

Kelly:  Perhaps you’d rather entrust our nuclear arsenal to someone who yells and screams at the TV if the ref makes a call against his team.  Laddies do have emotions, but they’re much less developed than women’s.  To again quote Dr. Brizendine, “Women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road.”  In other words, if the ref makes a bad call or it’s the horny moment in his sex-thought cycle, no other emotion can get past his one-lane bottleneck.  Compassion?  It’ll have to wait until the road clears.  So, is the fate of the world that’s determined by a push of a button safer with a male?  If the missiles are male, maybe it isn’t such a danger.  After all, if they get lost on the way to their target, they’ll never stop and ask for directions.

R.L.:  Maybe that’s because they don’t need to ask.  According to Professor Holloway at Columbia University, men have a better sense of direction than women.  We can find what we aim for, whether it is a target or a T-shirt.  If men go shopping, we make a beeline to buy.  When women go shopping, it’s “roamin’ in the gloamin’.”  The Daily Mail newspaper reported that a woman might become bored after shopping for two hours, but it’s 26 minutes for a man.  They also reported that 58% of the men would pretend to enjoy shopping if they were offered a reward.  However, unless his lassie were having her once-a-day sex thought, no man would have much hope of that.    Plus it’s difficult for men to go shopping with women because lassies are indecisive, they have trouble making up their minds.

Kelly:  Women have trouble making up their minds?  Any woman who has sat through a New year’s Day with the TV on and her laddie with the remote control knows the meaning of indecision.  Is there a reason why he can’t settle on one game and watch it to the bitter end?  Instead he hops from the Gator Bowl to the Heart of Texas Bowl to the Capital One Bowl to the Outback Bowl to the Rose Bowl to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.  Who knows who is playing who?  Is Michigan playing Wisconsin?  Is Stanford playing Baylor?  Who cares?  There might be a good movie on, but instead you sit and watch the images flicker from bowl to bowl while he eats a bowl of Tostitos as he hogs the remote.  However, there is hope.  If he drinks enough beer, he will fall asleep in his chair.  Then you can grab the remote and switch to Sleepless in Seattle.

R.L.:  Let’s finish these toasts with something we both agree on: Rabbie Burns was Scotland’s greatest poet and he loved the lassies.  It’s very appropriate that we toast the lassies in his honor.  If you took out all the love songs and poems he wrote, you’d wipe out the majority of his works.  And without “My Love Is Like a Red, Red, Rose,” any of collection romantic poetry would be sadly lacking.  Even feminists should like him.  After all, he wrote, “And even children lisp the rights of man, Amid this fuss just let me mention, The rights of women merit some attention.”  That was pretty 21st century thinking for a man writing in the late 1700’s.  At that time, the law of coverture said that a man and wife were one, with the man owning all the property and making all the legal decisions.  They couldn’t vote or hold office.  Rabbie was movie-star handsome, too.  A hunk with a heart.  Women should love Rabbie as much as he loved them.

Kelly:  You mean the Michael Douglas of bonnie, old Scotland?  Sex therapist Shelagh Neil says that “Burns could well fit the modern description of a sex addict.”  Although no one seems to be sure about how many lovers he had, we know of at least six and he only married one of them, Bonnie Jean.  He fathered at least 13 children if you count the one who died at birth along with its mother, poor Highland Mary.  And most of them were born out of wedlock.  He believed in equality for women alright: every good-looking woman should have an equal opportunity to hop into bed with him.  I’ll grant you that he wrote beautiful, romantic poems.   What better way to a woman’s heart.  And body.  Judging by the famous Alexander Nasmyth portrait, he was a sexy-looking guy.  But he wasn’t a man you’d want for a husband.  However, we do agree that he was Scotland’s greatest poet and he loved the lassies.  Just too many of them.

R.L.:  Well, it looks like we’re out of time.  And, for once, I’m getting the last word.

Kelly: You betcha!

R.L.:  Gentlemen, be upstanding for a toast to the lassies.  To the lassies!

Kelly:  Ladies, be upstanding for a toast to the laddies.  To the laddies!

Sherlock Holmes: The World’s Greatest Detective

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

While Batman (another favorite of mine) has tried to usurp the title in modern times, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was the first one termed “The World’s Greatest Detective.” Why? He wasn’t the first fictional detective. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is normally given that honor. Dupin solved The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter as well as pointed the way to finding the murderer in The Mystery of Marie Roget. But Dupin is hardly the first person who comes to mind when you hear “detective,” in spite of the fact that the yearly award for the best mystery novel is called an Edgar.

Hercule Poirot

David Suchet as             Hercule Poirot

Sherlock’s claim to the title does not come from  having the most cases in print. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot aces him out on that count. Holmes solved cases in 56 short stories and 4 novels, while Poirot’s awesome case load was 33 novels, 50 short stories and a play, making his creator much more prolific. While some might prefer Poirot, even the Dame of crime herself admitted that Sherlock inspired Hercule when she said, “I was well steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition; so I considered detectives. Not like Sherlock Holmes, of course. I must invent one of my own. . . . . There was Sherlock Holmes – the one and only. I should never be able to emulate him.” In other words, Hercule was her copy that, like most copies, was not quite as good as the original. She made him eccentric and cerebral, like Sherlock, but less macho and more prissy, almost effeminate. Sherlock goes over the Reichenbach Falls wrestling with Dr. Moriarty, while Hercule committed suicide after killing a murderer. Hard to think of Sherlock suffering from such angst. More cases or not, Holmes is still the guy you’d like to have on your side, brain and a bit of brawn. He was a boxer and trained in martial arts (an early form developed by an Englishman who had lived in Japan, bartitsu, which Doyle mistakenly termed baritsu) as well as a crack shot (who could shoot the letters VR on the wall of his flat while lying on his side). He could protect you while Poirot would be waxing his mustache and searching for his heart meds.

spenserDon’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that being a tough guy is what made Holmes the greatest. If so, Parker’s Spenser would win. As a former professional boxer and the mysterious, deadly Hawk as a sidekick, he’s the detective most likely to commit mayhem. He’s well read, able to quote his namesake, the English poet Edmund Spenser, among others. Yet he seems to solve his cases more with muscle than with mind. While Holmes, according to Doyle, had no knowledge of literature and philosophy, he was an expert in fields that applied to solving crime. Chemistry, botany, anatomy and current affairs were his areas. And he was a master of deduction. Can you imagine Spenser saying, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” While a quote from the Faerie Queen might be more erudite, it does not solve mysteries. Holmes is also the one who established the tradition of a sidekick, a person with whom to discuss the case and to act as backup in tough situations. While Dr. John Watson may not have had the deductive skills of Homes, he was an ex-army officer and handy with a revolver. Hawk without the attitude? Spenser, especially when Hawk was with him, might be a better bodyguard, but I’ll take Holmes to figure out who-done-it.

The classic Bogart as Sam Spade

The classic Bogart as Sam Spade

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe were pretty good detectives and no wimps, but they did not solve their cases by observing the clues and deducing the truth. They investigated and often stumbled upon the solution by questioning the suspects and witnesses. Sherlock Holmes, in many ways, was the first forensic scientist, studying footprints and cigar ashes. His CSI: London predated any of the TV shows about American city CSI’s. He set the bar without the use of modern laboratory equipment and it is a high one. True, some of the solutions were not exactly plausible, such as a rope-climbing snake that can hear a whistle and the invented Radix pedis diaboli (“Devil’s-foot root”), but far worse sins have been committed by other mystery writers to wiggle out of a difficult situation.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and David Burke as Dr. John Watson

It is not any one trait that makes Sherlock Holmes the world’s greatest detective, but a combination of them. While not a renaissance man, he is skilled in all those talents that make a good detective. And it’s downright fun to hear him analyze a person’s occupation, habitat and/or past by mud on the trousers, wear of a boot heel, wax on a hat or teeth marks on a walking stick. While a few of his clients dismiss such as parlor tricks, I chuckle at their obtuseness. And so do many others. While he may not be lovable, Sherlock is fun and fascinating. That’s why Doyle’s readers refused to let him kill off the detective, forcing his resurrection from his fall down the Falls. That’s why there are a multitude of clubs and groups that avidly debate aspects of his personality, friends, family and cases, and Sherlockian is the well-known word to describe them. That’s why a small army of actors have portrayed him, both in the original cases, as well as in myriad adaptations of storyline and era. That is why Morg Mahoney, my female detective, is a big fan of his and tries to emulate his powers of observation and analysis. Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, the winner of the title of “The World’s Greatest Detective.”

That Ol’ Time Fourth of July

I grew up in Southern California suburbia.  As kids, my sisters and I had a box of “safe and sane” fireworks (not the big one, but what we could afford) that we would set off on Independence Day.  Piccolo Petes would make ear-piercing whistles and cones would sputter a range of sparkling eruptions, but nothing that would blow your socks off.  Literally or figuratively.  By junior high, celebrating the Fourth of July was more about sitting back and throwing some burgers on the BBQ than really observing Independence Day.  Go to a Fourth of July parade?  How old fashioned, how un-Californian.  When my wife, daughter and I moved to the Isle of Man in 1994, we observed a different July celebration, Tynwald Day, but more on that next time.

Grass Valley's antiques fire truck in Nevada City

Grass Valley’s antiques fire truck in Nevada City

Fast forward to after we returned from the Isle of Man in 1999 and moved to Nevada City in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.  On the Fourth of July in 2000, I stepped back in time.  We went back to small town America when it was cool to be patriotic and local amateurs were appreciated.  My wife and I went to watch the Independence Day parade in Nevada City.  I felt like I was on the set of the Music Man.  The short stretch of Broad St. that is the main drag had its Gold Rush era buildings festooned with bunting.  Flags were everywhere, on lampposts and buildings as well as in the hands of most of the spectators lined three, four or more deep along the sidewalks.  As the tongue-in-cheek

Capt. Rufus T. Whizbang along with OPHIR PRISON MARCHING BAND

Capt. Rufus T. Whizbang along with OPHIR PRISON MARCHING BAND in Grass Valley

Ophir Prison Marching Kazoo Band and Temperance Society led off, dressed in prison-blue shirts and shorts with Capt. Rufus T. Whizbang leading the way with toilet plunger held high, the crowd broke in to wild cheers.  They were surprisingly good, with brass, reeds and drums.  Different local groups and individuals followed in many varied costumes.  Some had homemade floats, some were in oft-classic cars and others just marched.  For every entry, the crowd applauded and yelled encouragement.  This was so not California, the land of the jaded and the blase.  I loved it.  We even went to the county fairgrounds afterwards to hear the Ophir Prison Band again, as well as the performances of an Elvis impersonator and various local groups.  When the night darkened the sky, fireworks lit it up.  It was a heady experience.

Gold Country Celtic Society Precision Marching Unit.  I'm in the white helmet.

Gold Country Celtic Society Precision Marching Unit. I’m in the white helmet.

Now that I’ve lived here for almost 14 years, I still go to the parades.  However, now I march in them with the Gold Country Celtic Society.  Our precision marching unit carries the flags of the seven Celtic nations (name them, if you can) as well as those of the UK, Canada, California and, of course, Old Glory.  Maybe calling us “precision” is pushing the envelope far past literary license since our only practice is lining up a half hour before the parade, but we did tie for first place for marching units two years ago and won first last year.  Like I said, it’s small town America.  No doubt having a piper gives us a leg up (but you’ve got to be careful when you do that in a kilt). 

The pipes, the pipes are callin'

The pipes, the pipes are callin’

The crowd goes wild when his bagpipes begin to wail.  The location of the parade alternates each year between Nevada City and adjoining Grass Valley, but the feeling never changes.  I will be marching again this year, my third year as the Society’s Parade Marshall.  It is supposed to be about 100 degrees, but I’ll be in kilt like several other of our Society’s marchers.  It’s all part of being in small town America in a time warp.

The Gold Country Celtic Society march into the sunset in Nevada City.  Well, since the sun isn't setting, use your imagination.

The Gold Country Celtic Society marches into the sunset in Nevada City. Well, since the sun isn’t setting, use your imagination.

Oh, the seven Celtic nations?  Although some are actually regions of larger countries, they are Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia.

Manx Classic Car Club

Isle of Man 1994 Yearbook

Isle of Man 1994 Yearbook

When I moved to the Isle of Man in 1994, I bought a copy of The Official Isle of Man Year Book.   This is not like my high school yearbooks with photos of everyone there, but more of an almanac with 336 pages of statistics, names of government officials, important information about almost everything to do with the Isle, as well as listings of a multitude of Manx clubs and organizations with contact info.  I had shipped over my ’56 T-Bird and my ’63 Vette when we moved there, so one that caught my eye was the Manx Classic Car Club.

Now I have been a car fanatic since I was old enough to push around my toy cars, but I had never joined a car club.  Originally, my cars had not been old enough to be classics, mainly muscle cars that were two to five years old.  However, when I got the T-Bird, it was about 20 years old and the same for when I later got my Vette.  Still, I saw no reason to join a club when I could just hop in and drive them anywhere I wanted to without any formal organization.  But, since we knew no one but our real estate agent and his wife when we moved there, it seemed like one more way to meet people.  When I called the contact number, I found that there were no meetings, the dues were minimal (just enough to cover periodic mailing costs) and the main activities were cruises around the Isle, normally with some sort of food and beverage at the destination.  There were no real qualifications for membership and, although you were expected to take your classic car on the cruises, they did not have a firm definition of “classic.”  It sounded good and I joined.

One of the roads on a Manx Classic Car Club run.

One of the roads on a Manx Classic Car Club run.

The way it worked was that I would get a notice in the mail of the next run.  Then I would meet the club on Glencrutchery Road in Douglas, in front of the TT grandstands.  I would get printed instructions with the route and the final destination.  Since the cars had widely varying levels of power and handling, you were not expected to stay behind a slower car if yours were faster.  It was an individualistic cruise rather than a caravan.  One memorable run was when my daughter Noelle and I took the ’56 T-Bird.  There was an optional, more challenging route, which we took.  It became so narrow that I had to crawl out over the trunk lid to get a picture because the brush would have scratched the doors of the T-Bird if I had opened them.  Fortunately, the weather was unusually sunny and I had left the hardtop at home.  When we arrived at our destination, it was well worth the drive.

Our Host's Humble Abode

Our host’s humble abode

We had been invited to park our cars on the lawn of a rather impressive house.  Everyone brought a picnic lunch and we all dined with a view of a beautiful lawn and garden that surrounded a quite large house.  Painted white and with castellated walls, it was a bit of Camelot on Man.  Our host collected antique, historic motorcycles and showed them to us as he gave us a tour of the grounds.  It made for a pleasant afternoon, although Noelle and I lunched on sandwiches and Cokes while a few of our group laid out linen, china and crystal as they dined on cold roast beef and champagne for their midday repast.

The T-Bird joins the Jags and Rolls Royces.

The T-Bird joins the Jags and Rolls Royces for a picnic on the lawn.

Although most of the cars in the club were English, ranging from Rolls Royces and XKE’s to TR’s and MG’s, there were also a couple of Porsches and one Citroen.  I had the only American cars in the club.  As far as I know, I had the only T-Bird and one of two Vettes on the Isle, and the other Vette was a late 70’s unrestored one whose owner was not in the club.  It was humbling when club members complimented my cars and even asked if it were okay to take pictures of them when many of theirs were far more impressive than mine.  One of the picture-takers was the owner of the red 30’s Rolls Royce in this photo.  So if you ever get to the Isle of Man and hang out with the Manx Classic Car Club, ask them if they remember the crazy American who used to cruise with them.

Eulogy for The Dog


“The only four-footer with rudiments of altruism and a sense of God!”- John Galsworthy

Today, June 3, 2013, I killed a true and loyal companion.  No, I did not shoot her or actually commit the act myself, but I commissioned it.  I had my vet give a lethal injection to a kind and gentle soul who never committed any crime.  I do feel that, if she could have spoken to me about it, she would have asked me to do it.  With incurable chronic kidney failure and pancreatitis, she couldn’t stand up without help and could barely stagger a few steps.  She was in misery.  Yet, it hurt like a knife through the heart when she went away and the ache is so strong I have a hard time not breaking out in tears now.  Only you who have had to go through the same situation can understand.  Those who have not might dismiss this, saying, “She was only a dog.”  To me, she was The Dog.  The Dog: a noble title, duly earned, that was bestowed upon Jillaroo, affectionately known as Jilly.  I often called her nicknames like Jilly-Dog, Dog-Dog and, these last few years, Old Dog, but the “Dog” part was not an insult, but a term of respect.  Much like when Sherlock Holmes referred to Irene Adler as “The Woman.”

Back in 2004, I was looking for a dog.  We had lost our Sheltie, Fionna, a couple of years



before.  I issued her death warrant too, mainly because liver cancer was causing her great pain.  After that, I had planned never to have another dog.  The pain of killing her, albeit indirectly, and the loss was just too great.  But I missed that “friendly presence,” a being who always welcomed you home, no matter how long you left her alone, and was there even if you ignored her, satisfied with having you around.  I finally decided to find another faithful companion.  I did not want another Sheltie because it would feel like I was trying to replace Fionna.  For me (and everyone is different in this, so it is not a slam for those who feel otherwise), it would almost seem disloyal.  But, liking the nature and temperament of  herding dogs, I decided on an Aussie (Australian Shepherd).  I contacted Aussie Rescue.and established a line of communication.  Then I got a call and the lady who ran it let me know that there was an Aussie in the Woodland Animal Shelter that needed a home.  All of the normal foster homes were full and the dog was in danger for her life if not adopted.  She said, “You’d be a hero if you took her.”  Concerned with saving a dog’s life rather than our own heroic status, my wife Kelly and I hopped in our car and headed to Woodland, CA.

When we first saw Jilly, or the Aussie who was to become Jilly, she did not look good.  She had suffered from a severe infestation of fleas and had gnawed all the hair off her hindquarters.  She had kennel cough, so she was in isolation instead of the “adoption line” and lethargic.  The animal shelter had a gravel yard to get to know your possible adoptee and Jilly was let into it with us.  She immediately did her business, both types, but didn’t run up to us with butt (Aussies have no tail) wagging.  Kelly looked askance, seeing a haggard, stand-offish dog, and asked, “Are you sure you want her?”  Somehow, I knew Jilly was the right one.  “Definitely.”  So, on the 23rd of October, 2004, Jilly became a part of our family.

As an aside, she had a chip and the animal shelter had called the name listed as owner.  He had told them, “I gave her away years ago.  I don’t care what you do with her.”  Her name on the chip was Mesa.  Odd name for an Australian, eh, mate?  So I found Jillaroo, which is an Aussie term for a female ranch hand.  Later I found out that Aussies are not Australian, but American.  However, I still will take Jilly over Mesa.  We did also find out from the chip that Jilly (not Mesa) was born on May 27, 2000.


Jilly, the Superdog

From the beginning, I called her “the good kid.”  She didn’t have a mean bone in her body.  She did get a little crotchety with other dogs in her old age, but was never mean to them.  She was smart.  Very smart.  Even though we spent little time training her, she quickly learned “sit,” “lie down,” “shake,” and “play dead.”  She also would talk on command.  I have videos of her doing so that I will watch again.  In time.  If you said “go to bed,” let’s go outside,” “want to go for a walk?” or “how about breakfast (or lunch)?”, she knew exactly what you meant and acted accordingly.  When I took her for a walk on the trail along our local canal (on a leash), she was always friendly to people and other dogs.  Sometimes the other dogs, often illegally off-leash, were not as friendly, but she seemed to say, “What’s his problem?” instead of growling back.  (Why is it the owners always said, “He’s never done that before?”)  I started carrying a walking stick to keep the hostiles at bay.

She wasn’t perfect, but her flaws were self-destructive rather than destructive.  She would get “hot spots” at times due to excessive licking of herself.   We had to put on the dreaded “hood” to stop her at times.  She always gave such a tortured look when we put it on her.  The worst problems were also the funniest in hindsight.  Twice she got out (she was not good at “come”) and was lost for a couple of hours each time.  When we found her and brought her home, after a few hours she started staggering, almost falling over.  We took her to the animal hospital (it happened after her vet’s closing time, of course).  They took her in and put her on an IV.  The first time it happened, the hospital thought she was going to die, but she miraculously recovered.  Then it happened again.  The vet at the hospital asked us, “Is there any pot growing around your house?”  While I could definitely state not at ours, we live in a wooded area and who knows what private stash might be growing.  “Then the vet said, “Of course, it could be hallucinogenic mushrooms.  I’ve seen this before and I’m pretty sure that’s what caused her problems.  She OD’ed.”  Fortunately, she recovered again and never lapsed back into her drug habit.  I had one of the few dogs who went into rehab.  Considering the price of the animal hospital, I would have been better off sending her to Betty Ford’s.  After that, I sometimes called her Stoner Dog.

Jilly and Snow Dude.  He survived.

Jilly and Snow Dude. He alone survived.

There are so many fond memories.  She loved the snow, romping through it when it was up to her belly, yet hated rain.  She didn’t tear up things in the house, but destroyed her toys.  All except “Snow Dude,” which was the weirdest, ugliest one of them all.  I guess she felt pity for him.  Snow Dude outlived Jilly.  Almost every morning, I would get up early, eat breakfast, and sit in a recliner while I did the NY Times crossword puzzle.  She would lie next to the chair and I would rub her behind her ears while I crossed pens with Will Shortz and his cohorts.  Often she would flip on her back for a belly rub.  She loved it most when I went out on the deck to fill in the blanks.  When I went up to my office to work on the computer, she would follow and lie beside me.  It didn’t matter if I reached over to pet her.  She loved being near me. As I sit here typing, I feel her presence even though she is not here.

I started this post with sadness.  I’ve tried to make it a little more upbeat as I went along.  In time, those “up” moments should dominate my memories.  For now, I can only paraphrase Robert Burns, “Jilly Dog, when will we see your like again.”  Good bye, old dog.  I miss you more than I can say.

Irish Whiskey and Just a Wee Dram of Scotch Whisky

Some more observant readers will notice “Irish whiskey” and “Scotch whisky.”  This was no typo.  Irish and Americans distill whiskey, but the Scots distill whisky.  Since both words come from the English translation of the Gaelic translation (uisce beatha in Irish and uisge beatha in Scots Gaelic) of the Latin for distilled drink (aqua vitae or water of life, because it was thought to be medicinal for everything from the common cold to smallpox), it’s understandable that there might be a little confusion about spelling.  But enough etymology, what about the booze?

Copper Pot Stills

Copper Pot Stills

All whiskey (or whisky) in the British Isles is produced with basically the same process.  First, barley is malted, i.e., it is soaked in water for a number of days and allowed to sprout.  This allows it to produce the sugars necessary to make alcohol.  Then the malted barley is dried in a kiln and ground into a grist.  That grist is then put into a vat with water and heated to produce what’s termed a mash.  The mash is filtered to give a sweet liquid that is called the wort.  Then the wort goes into huge vats where it ferments in a beer-like liquid known as the “wash” with a low alcohol content (maybe 6-8 %).  Finally, it is pumped into a still (normally copper pot stills that are large, bell-shaped vessels with a bend at the top) and the alcohol is boiled off and collected by cooling coils.  This produces what is termed a low wine, which is about 25%-35% alcohol.  That is distilled again to produce whiskey.  In Ireland, it normally undergoes one more distillation.  This stuff, which is what early whiskey would have been like, is pretty raw and has plenty of bite.  In Ireland, it was (and is) called poteen, which has a strong similarity and kinship to backwoods America’s white lightening.  Nowadays it’s aged at least a few years and often blended with milder grain spirits in Irish whiskeys like Bushmills and Jameson, as well as Scotch Whiskys like Johnny Walker, Dewars and Cutty Sark, to name just a few.  Any questions?

Jameson Whiskey and Jameson 12 yr old

Jameson Whiskey
and Jameson 12 yr old

In honor of my heroine, the straight-shooting, hard-drinking female P.I. Morg Mahoney, I’ll focus on the Irish bit-of-the-creature in this post.  Morg’s poison-of-choice is Jameson.  Jameson has been made in Ireland since John Jameson founded the distillery in 1780.  It is a blended whiskey, having a corn-based spirit added, but is the only one I know that makes it in the same copper stills as is used for its malted barley wash.  It is called a single pot still, which is more traditional than the continuous still normally used to make bourbon.  It is incredibly smooth (or “Smooooth!” as Col. Potter used to say about his bourbon whiskey on the appropriately named show M.A.S.H.), yet has a great flavor.  So why wouldn’t Morg love it?  Maybe a little too much.  She does drink a lot more Jameson than I do all whiskey and whisky combined, but that’s her character.  I did do a tour of the Jameson distillery in Dublin.  Unfortunately, it is more of a museum than a tour of a working distillery, but they do have a nice gift shop.  For great distillery tours, there are a few in Scotland I could recommend.

Bushmills and Tullamore Dew

Bushmills and
Tullamore Dew

Is Jameson the only Irish whiskey?  Not by a long shot.  Check it out online.  Another famous one is Bushmills, made in Antrim, Northern Ireland.  Since King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland) granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps the right to distill whiskey in 1608, Bushmills claims to be the oldest distillery in all the world.  Because the company Old Bushmills Distillery was not organized until 1784, that might be debated.  Some Irish don’t like it because it is not from the Republic of Ireland.  I don’t like it because I think it is too bitey.  But then I don’t like the peaty Islay Scotch whisky for the same reason and some people love it.  I do like Tullamore Dew, but it tastes more like Jameson than Bushmills.  In whiskey or whisky, it’s all a matter of taste.

Originally, there would only have been one type of whiskey from any distillery and it would not have been a blended.  To appeal to a wider customer pool, the stronger-flavored single malts gave way to blendeds in the last century.   But tastes have changed and now people want “the good stuff.”   Hence, the rise in popularity of expensive single malts in Scotch as well as single malts and aged single-pot Irish whiskeys.  Oak casks that once housed sherry, bourbon, cognac or Madeira infuse a slight nuance from their original usage into the whiskey or whisky.  What’s next?  I have no idea, but I am sure distillers will come up with a new way to produce a more expensive, more elite bottle of booze.  After all, a bottle of 64-year-old Macallan single-malt whisky in a Lalique Cire Perdue decanter sold in 2010 for $460,000.

Finally, good whiskey (and whisky) is to savored, not knocked back as shots.  It is to sipped, not slurped.  It is not to be mixed.  Single malts and single pot still whiskeys can have a splash of water and blends are okay with ice.  No mixers, including soda, improve a good Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey.  If you want to drink to get drunk, find another choice.  Cheap vodka or tequila, perhaps.  Don’t waste your whiskey.

Accuracy in Guns or Gunning for Accuracy

While it may not currently be politically correct to talk about guns, my characters carry them.  Morg is a P.I. in Christmas Cracker and Vince is a Chicago PD detective in the soon-to-be-released Foul Shot.  Neither of them run around shooting up the neighborhood, but carry them in their respective jobs.  However, I try to make their guns and and the guns of their foes accurate in what they are and how they work.  Sadly, this is not always the case with authors.  While you don’t have to have fired the weapon you describe, you should do the research by talking with someone knowledgeable of doing a little Net research to be accurate.  Hit your mark, so to speak.  So let’s start with a few who were way off target.

Let’s start with an “automatic revolver.”  It means that when you fire it, the hammer is automatically cocked to fire again. If you are a fellow reader of mystery and P.I. novels, you will probably have come across that term.  There have been very,very few made and the most famous is the Webley-Fosbery that was made from 1901 until 1915.  Not exactly a common handgun.  Very rare, in fact.  So why do writers use the term?  Because Dashiell Hammett used it in The Maltese Falcon (and Bogart mispronounced it in the movie of that name).  Hammett knew the gun and named it in his book.  So why has such a rare gun cropped up in later books?  Poor research. Those writers are not talking about a specific gun, but are using the term generically, as though all revolvers are also automatics.  However, while an automatic cocks itself after every shot, so that a relatively light pressure on the trigger is all that is needed to fire, the revolver does not.  Well, except for the Webley-Fosbery and a very few others.  Considering the times I’ve read about automatic revolvers in books, it must be a favorite among killers.colt

This brings me to another pet peeve: safeties on revolvers.  I have read about some character releasing the safety on his revolver.  There’s no such thing.  Nowadays, most revolvers are double action, which means when you pull the trigger the hammer comes back and then strikes the firing pin.  There’s no “safety” to release to make it fire.  But the pull of the trigger is, in itself, stiff enough to be a safety.  So if you read about someone releasing the safety on a revolver, it’s pure B.S.  Bad Search-engine.

The manThen we have recoil.  If you’ve seen Rambo or Arnie movies with the hero grabbing a couple of .50 caliber machine guns and storming in, guns blazing with belts of ammo draped around them, you know fantasy.  There have been instances in battle where a soldier has actually picked up one machine gun and fired it, but they are rare.  Accuracy goes down the tubes.  Recoil is one good reason for not trying.  There’s no way anyone (even Sly or Arnie) could hang on to one of these bad boys while firing with one hand.  But we’re not talking movies here, so let’s go back to the books.  I recently read a mystery where a woman, who had never fired a gun before, shot an attacker at the top of a staircase above her with a 9mm handgun and hit him in a non-lethal part of his body on purpose.  The recoil of the shot slammed her against the wall and almost knocked her out.  Wow.  Since guns always tend to shoot high when shooting uphill or downhill, that was one lucky shot.  Hitting the attacker in a non-vital part of his body was even luckier.  But the recoil blows me away.  Obviously, the writer had neither fired a 9 mm or talked to anyone who had.

There is more, but I think I’ve made my point.  What’s my point?  Research, research, research.  When I wrote Foul Shot, I went to Chicago, spent time with the police and met people in Little Italy.  A Catholic priest, who is a friend, critiqued my book and I even visited hospitals mentioned in the book.  It’s release has been delayed because I am researching exactly what a certain Chicago hotel was like in 1982.  Will I make mistakes?  Very likely.  But it won’t be because I was not willing to ask questions and learn from others.



The Decline and Fall of the English Language

“Would you like any more coffee?” you ask.
“I’m good,” is the response. And no one blinks an eye.  Adjectives and adverbs are becoming interchangeable.  Or maybe indistinguishable.
“You promised to be here by noon and it’s now after two.” you say.
“My bad,” is the response. And no one shivers at the sinful syntax.

What has happened to the English language?  Although there have been changes over the centuries, they were evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  That is no longer so.  Google is now listed as a verb in that last bastion of language traditionalism, the Oxford English Dictionary.  Mind you, I am not saying that is wrong.  Brand names often become the generic term in common usage, such as Kleenex and Scotch tape, but it is rather rare to have that happen in the OED and never so quickly.  It is a sign of the times, although not a bad thing.  It is the rapidly progressing decay of proper English that appalls me.  It is not so much an evolving of, or even radical revolution in, the rules, but a total disregard for them.   “Rules?  We don’ need no stinkin’ rules!”

If you have read any of my writings, you will know that there are times when I will use a sentence fragment, often in dialog.  Why?  Because we all do it in everyday speech.  In the same way, having a character answer a question with, “It is I” rather than the incorrect, “It’s me” would sound ridiculous.  I use the same chatty tone in my newspaper column and this blog as well.  Yet, I choose to do this to maintain a certain voice.  Know the rules before you break them.  Sadly, fewer people know the rules that they break on a habitual basis.

Texting has been no friend of correct spelling.  Knowing when “i” is before “e” is fast becoming an arcane ability.  In fact, my retired-school-teacher sister was told by one of her principals not to teach spelling at all because it was not on the standardized California tests, which were all that mattered to the school’s rating.  Yes, there is spell check, but will it know whether you meant to write there, their, or they’re?  Or, for that matter, whether or weather, write or wright?

When we come to examples like my first two, it gets worse.  “Me and him are going to the store.”  I cringe when I hear someone say that.  “It be cool.”  Ouch!  “I don’t got nothing.”  Yuck.  I could go on, but I’ve made my point.  I’m not saying that I’ve never made a mistake.  I am aware of two typos and a grammatical error in the printed version of Christmas Cracker (which I did correct in the Kindle version), but they bother me greatly.  If we could imbue the youth with a grammatical and syntactical  conscience then there might be hope.  I hate to say it, but I do not see much chance of that.

Maybe I should join the crowd,  Down with the tyranny of grammer and spelling rules!  Guy Fawkes lives!  Texters of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but your ability to spell and write a complete sentence!