1979

 

There’s a list of books I mean to write, and this one is somehow on it, even though I couldn’t bear to write it, let alone research it. It would be about how in one year three of the world’s worst tyrants – literal madmen – lost their jobs.

  • In Equatorial Guinea, Macías Nguema was executed. He had done the same to perhaps a quarter of his population.
  • In the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa – who, after crowning himself emperor, beat to death schoolchildren – was removed by the French. He got to die of old age.
  • Idi Amin was chased out by a Tanzanian invasion. He got to die of old age too.

I read War in Uganda: the Legacy of Idi Amin, about how Tanzania finally got fed up with the neighbor from hell. It’s by two journalists, Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, who embedded with the Tanzanian military.

It’s a grim book, and part of what makes it so awful is that after the invasion – which was ruinous for Tanzania – things only got worse in Uganda. “The consensus is that [Milton Obote’s] reign from the end of 1980 until the middle of 1985 was more brutal, and resulting in higher number of deaths, than the whole of Amin’s” (History of Modern Uganda, Richard J. Reid).  Anyone who endorses invading other countries for their benefit should at least acquaint themself with what happened in Uganda.

There was, believe it or not, a funny bit in the book. (It’s not, you know, hilarious, but I’m trying to end on an up note.)

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Cabul

 

One is reading the Bible. It’s frightfully good, you know.

-VS Naipaul

 

I’ve been reading the Bible, and doing it the way they say you shouldn’t do it, reading it straight through.

It’s tough going, and there’s a lot I don’t get. I may break down and get one of those “How to Read the Bible”-type books. I dislike the How to Read genre only slightly more than the How to Write.

I’m well into the historical books and am pretty worn out by the villainy and massacre. If you told me that reading the historical books of the Old Testament made you laugh, I would probably run for my life.

At least until the other day. For there I was, chuckling at this passage. It’s from 1 Kings, when Solomon is building the temple. He’s buddies with King Hiram of Tyre, who’s been a big help. When it was all done, Solomon wanted to say thanks:

10 Now it happened at the end of twenty years, when Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the LORD and the king’s house

11 (Hiram the king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress and gold, as much as he desired), that King Solomon then gave Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee.

12 Then Hiram went from Tyre to see the cities which Solomon had given them, but they did not please him.

13 So he said, “What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?” And he called them the land of Cabul, as they are to this day.

 

The footnote says Cabul means “good for nothing.” I looked it up and, sure enough, it’s still called that. You’d think at some point there would have been a rebrand.

The other thing I like about this story is that it has a happy ending, which, believe me, doesn’t always happen in Kings:

14 Then Hiram sent the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold.

 

 

Doom! Shake the Room

 

Image result for telephone

1. Apart From That, Mr. Brzezinski


At 3a.m. on 9 November 1979, [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski was telephoned at home by his military assistant, William Odom, who told him that he had just heard on his communications net that 200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States … He told Odom to put Strategic Air Command on stand-by. A few seconds later, Odom called again. He now said that NORAD had reported that 2200 missiles had been launched. Brzezinski rang off, got out of bed, took a deep breath, and was just about to place his call to the sleeping President and suggest a full-scale retaliation against the Soviet Union when Odom called for a third time. This time he reported that other warning systems had not picked up the launch of any missiles.

 

That, from 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, is an amuse-bouche for the tale of Stanislav Petrov, without whose insubordination I’d be writing on a cave wall, if at all.

 

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Special English

 

Years ago I spent some time in Central Africa. I had a shortwave radio, but it was too complicated for me to figure out, and reception wasn’t always that great, so I’d listen to whatever I could pick up. That’s how I learned to dread Voice of America’s Special English. It was like being stuck in a Bob and Ray routine. Two decades later I find myself thankful for its existence.

 

 

Before winter break I had my students read VOA’s abridged version of “The Gift of the Magi,” perfect for English learners. (Seriously: the first few paragraphs of the original are crammed with highfalutin vocabulary.) It’s part of their American Stories series, which offers a canonical sampler, if apparently filtered by expired copyright.

Now, I consider myself passingly acquainted with the literature of my homeland. If you were to demand my immodesty, I would even confess having contributed thereto. But I’ve read only two stories on that list, and “The Gift of the Magi” is one of them. And: Fitz-James O’Brien? Hamlin Garland? Never heard of them. Sheesh.

My one-man book club’s 2019 reading list is shaping up. Yes, I’ll read the unabridged versions.

 

Minimum Sentence

 

Below are sentences from books I read this summer. I was going to add comment, but kind of prefer them without.

 

A new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

*

Once you have 10 percent or more women at a party, you cannot serve only beer.

Skin In the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

*

Both the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Vietnam chose Colonel Pham Tuan for the Soyuz 37 spaceflight because on the evening of December 27, 1972 … he became the first Vietnamese fighter pilot to shoot down an American B-52 bomber.

Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, Neil M. Maher

*

File:Spreading homo sapiens.svg

Averaging about ten miles a year, the marchers moved along corridors with walls of ice on both sides.

Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent, Ted Morgan

*

If you thoroughly mix up a deck of 52 cards … there is a very good chance that the order you obtained has never been seen before and will never be seen again, even if every person on earth produced a new shuffled deck every minute for the next million years!

The Magic of Math: Solving for X and Figuring Out Why, Arthur Benjamin

*

Three hundred S.S. men in Berlin have started learning Swahili.

Berlin Diary, William Shirer

*

Please say hello.

Siren Song: The Autobiography of America’s Greatest Living Record Man, Seymour Stein

*

William sensed that this insight hadn’t produced in his companions, as it had in him, an aesthetic breakthrough.

Good Trouble, Joseph O’Neill

 

Some Friendly

 

Demolition Class, 1944 (US National Archives and Records Administration)

 

Ten minutes later it happens again. Someone shouts, “Forty-eight!” Then half the room responds “Forty-nine! Fifty!” And everyone bellows, “SOME [RUBBISH]!” They dissolve into laughter. This, I discover, is the Jedburgh tradition reserved for any speaker who dares go on too long. It came from one of the American trainees who, when ordered to do fifty push-ups, counted the last few out loud: “Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Fifty!” then jumped to attention with a very audible “Some [rubbish]!” The British Jeds parodied it and it quickly caught on as a tactic to sabotage boring lectures from visiting officials…

 

That’s from Dadland, Keggie Carew’s memoir of her father, who’d been a British commando in France and Burma in World War II.

Be a lamb and don’t tell my students about this. I much prefer they maintain this disposition.

 

Canicularities

Recent assertion of the unshakeable alliance between the United States and Poland reminds me of a previous demonstration of friendship between the two countries.

It’s from Alan’s War, the memoir of an American draftee in the Second World War. (The book is a masterpiece, not least because of its beautiful illustrations.)

Alan’s armored car crew had been joined by a hungry stray dog, who wouldn’t respond to commands in a variety of languages. Then one day the driver was building a bench. He accidentally banged his finger, and cursed in Polish. The dog perked up his ears and ran over, delighted to find a compatriot.

 

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Our Ford

1. Henry Ford Is the Village Industry Preservation Society

Henry Ford will necessarily be remembered in the United States for centuries, and often, when he was talking to me, a little inquiry arose in the back of my head as to the thing for which he would be best remembered. After much consideration, I reached the conclusion that future generations would honor Ford most, not because he acquired a billion dollars by paying better wages and selling good automobiles for less than anybody else; nor because of his marvelous ability as an industrial organizer; nor because he took the first great steps to stop the waste of water power; but because he revolutionized agriculture.

I came across The New Henry Ford in the stacks of the Boston Athenaeum. It was published in 1923.

Ford had it figured out so that farmers would work for 25 days on their farms, “and have the other 340 days, except Sundays, to earn money in village industries.”

When it comes to agriculture this city boy doesn’t know his adze from his elbow, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how it is.

 

2. Anyone for Tolerance?

 

I saw this in a school a few years ago. It stopped me for a couple of reasons.

Given that Ford’s empathy for the Abrahamic faiths was, er, selective, his success seems due perhaps to some other secret:

During the months that I was in Ford’s office obtaining the material for this book, Ford often talked to me about the Jews. He gave me two leather-bound books composed of articles printed in the Independent and asked me to read them. He quickly learned that I did not share his views… “Well, read them right away,” he continued, “and then if you do not agree with me, don’t ever come to see me again.”

 

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