Thursday, July 30, 2015

A History of Alternate History

Alternate history is fictional history, in which an author changes some aspect of the past and sees how this change would have impacted history as we know it.  The Roman historian Livy wrote the first alternate history around 25 BC, when he imagined a world in which Alexander the Great marched West rather than East.

The first mass market alternate history was written in 1836 by a Frenchman named Louis Geoffroy.  Call it literary wish fulfillment, the book entitled History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon and the Conquest of the World was a smash hit in France.

The first novel-length alternate history written in English appeared in 1895 and was written by an American named Castello Holford.  The book called Aristopia (which translated from the Greek means “The best place”) imagines a world in which one of the first English settlers in Virginia discovers a vast reef of gold.  The hero uses his new wealth to create a planned society where the state looks after the interests of the vast majority of the people rather than the interests of the very rich.  What an imagination!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Washington Speech Writer

     Norbert Ealy, was a talented young man with a gift for words, and should have been one of Del Boca’s most eligible bachelors.  Unfortunately, Norbert’s talents and gifts did him little good when it came to women, because he suffered from a medical condition known as, “involuntary eye roll.”  Whenever, Norbert heard a falsehood, a half-truth, or even a statement that could not be easily corroborated, his eyes would involuntarily roll.  Thus in the midst of passion, if Norbert said, “You are the most beautiful woman in the world,” his eyes would involuntarily roll, since conceivably somewhere in the world there could be a more beautiful woman.  Unreasonably, women accused Norbert of being “the rudest and most sarcastic” man they had ever dated.  When Norbert tried to explain his rather rare condition they called him a “liar”, and he was forced to quickly exit amid a stream of flying books, flower vases, and picture frames.

     Unlucky in love, Norbert was lucky in his professional life, for he was the head speech writer for Congressman Dorrance Ague.  Of course, Norbert’s eyes were constantly rolling given the things that came out of Congressman Ague’s mouth, but his colleagues wrote this off to Norbert’s “coolness”. “Norbert sure doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid,” other speech writers and aides said admiringly.  In the Congressman’s defense, it should be said that most of the words coming out of his mouth (the very words that caused Norbert’s eyes to roll), were, in fact, the words that Norbert had put in the Congressman’s mouth.  No one could make even Dorrance Ague sound positively Churchillian or Reaganesque like Norbert Ealy.  With the insertion of a few “Indeeds” and a rolling cadence, Norbert could turn the dreariest old platitudes into crowd pleasing draughts of inspiration.  A typical speech for the Congressman went something like this.  “We are, Indeed, the American people.  Indeed, we are the people who love Mother (I call my Mother ‘Mom’).  Indeed, we are a great people who love Mom and pie.  Indeed, we love apple pie.  Indeed, we are a great people who love Mom, apple pie….and yes, we are, Indeed, a great people who love, the Flag…the flag that stands for the land we love, Indeed, that land is our home, the land that loves Mom, apple pie and the people of America!”  At this point the crowd was usually on its feet chanting “USA! USA! USA!”

     Had it not been for his unfortunate medical condition, Norbert might actually have been able to take Dorrance Ague’s place in Congress, for Norbert was a talented young man with a gift with words and Dorrance Ague, while amiable, was a dunce.  Of course, it didn’t really matter that Dorrance Ague was a dunce.  He was, after all, only a Congressman, and had once proudly boasted, “I never read any piece of legislation that I ever voted on!”  Dorrance Ague regarded this as good time management.  He knew he didn’t have to waste time reading all of those tedious Bills.  All he had to do was get the word from his primary financial backer the celebrity magician and ventriloquist Selby Ampeter (aka “Selby the Great”) and he would KNOW in his heart how to vote.

     Now normally Dorrance Ague was the easiest man in the world with whom to get along.  But in early January he was tense.  Very tense. 

      “Ealy, Selby the Great is the opening act at the Party’s National Convention in Andromeda City next month and he wants me to give the warm up pitch to his newest magic trick.  This is the biggest speech of my life…you’ve got to pull out all of the stops son…all of the stops.”

      Norbert Ealy knew this was the big one.  All of the Party’s big wigs would be there, not to mention all of the Party’s big donors.  This speech could carry Dorrrance Ague to the VP spot on the national ticket, and who knew, maybe in a few years even beyond.  And Norbert Ealy could be there with him, if he could hit this one out of the ballpark.

     And so on the fateful night Congressman Dorrance Ague said, “My fellow Americans, many in America now-a bed shall think themselves accursed that they were not here with us tonight!  Here, on this historic anniversary month of Rosa Parks’ birthday.  Indeed, on this most historic of Thursdays.  Rosa Parks thought about buses in a new way.  Indeed, what she did on a bus changed everything.  And now, what Selby the Great will do has the potential, Indeed, holds out the promise to future generations of Americans, that all things are Indeed possible in this great land and that if we embrace the old with the innovations of the new we can all move forward, together, to the bright sunlit uplands!  Behold as Selby the Great makes a pig dance and sing for its supper!”

     The entire crowd was on its feet chanting, “Ague! Ague! Ague!”

     Norbert Ealy felt tears in his rolling eyes.

This story is from the "Del Boca" social satire series.

Reality is no respecter of delusions, except perhaps in Del Boca, a model American community, struggling to be heard above the din. The days are fully packed as the good people of Del Boca deal with such problems as elitism, education reform, celebrity culture, political correctness, free speech, science, and politics. A social satire about life in our times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


The Spaniards conquered Peru over the course of several decades in an atmosphere of civil war and chaos.  The Incas had just concluded a war between two brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar when the Spanish arrived on the scene.  Atahualpa had just captured Huascar and was heading south to enter his capital, Cuzco, when he himself was made hostage by the Spanish.  Atahualpa then had Huascar murdered.  After extorting the proverbial king's ransom, the Spanish, in turn, murdered Atahualpa.  The Spanish next marched on Cuzco, the capital and Holy City of the Inca Empire, installing a puppet emperor.  Throughout the period the Incas scurried about trying to hide the most sacred religious items from defilement.     

Gold and silver had no monetary significance to the Incas.   They were considered sacred, with gold regarded as the sweat of the sun and silver as the tears of the moon.  Religious items were made of gold and silver, but they had no worth, other than artistic, to the common man. 

Huascar's Chain: On the occasion of Huascar's weaning ceremony, his father decreed that a gold chain be cast for the dancers to carry as they went through their ritual dance.  The chain later disappeared, never falling into the hands of the Spaniards, and in all probability guarded somewhere in the remote mountains.  The chain is described as being seven hundred feet long, twice the width and length of the great Square of Joy in Cuzco.  The two hundred dancers were scarcely able to raise it.

Atahualpa's Mug:  One of the Emperor Atahualpa's favorite possessions was the head of an enemy general named Atoc.  One of the Spaniards, Cristobal de Mena saw this "head with its skin, dried flesh and hair.  Its teeth were closed and held a silver spout.  On top of the head a golden bowl was attached.  Atahualpa used to drink from it when he was reminded of the wars waged against him by his brother.  They poured the chicha (beer) into the bowl and it emerged from the mouth, through the spout, from which he drank."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Lost Inca City of Paititi

One of the enduring legends of Peru is the lost city of Paititi.  In 1533, fleeing the Spanish conquerors, some forty thousand refugees of the crumbling Inca Empire, laden with golden religious treasures, fled into the remote jungle of what is today Peruvian Amazonia, where they established a great city.  A Jesuit missionary named Brother Lucero wrote that the city lay behind the forest and mountains eastward of Cuzco in the general area of Madre de Dios.  The Spanish tried to pursue the fugitives, but turned back after being ambushed by the savage Chuncho Indians.     

Several attempts have been made to find the city in recent years.  In 1972 a Franco-American expedition led by explorer Bob Nichols disappeared and was never seen again.  It is believed that this expedition may have fallen victim to the Machiguenga Indians who, at the time, had never previously had contact with the outside world.  Many of the remote tribes of this region have the habit of killing intruders on sight. 

The region of Madre de Dios in Peru is one of the remotest regions of the Amazon.  The purported coordinates of Paititi are 71 degrees 30' minutes longitude West and 13 degrees latitude South.  If these coordinates are correct, the city lies in the heart of an area guarded by the ferocious Yaminhuah Indians.  

Monday, July 13, 2015

Origins of the Confederate Battle Flag

     On July 21, 1861, at a crucial moment during the First Battle of Manassas, a courier came riding into Confederate lines with a message to the effect that the Federals had reached the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad, and were marching on the Confederate lines with a heavy force. The arrival of this force would decide the fate of the battle.

     What the Confederates took to be advancing Federals were, however, troops of the 33rd Virginia, outfitted not in grey but in blue.  Both armies were clothed and equipped in an irregular and eccentric manner at this point in the war, each unit dressed in an outfit of its own design.  The Federals were fooled, at their approach, as were the Confederates, and did not realize their mistake until the Virginians crashed into their flank.  Close range volleys from the 33rd Virginia against the Federal flank scattered the infantry, leading to the rout of the Union army.

     The Confederate battle flag was born as a result of such confusion on the battlefield.  At First Manassas, amid the smoke of combat, Confederate soldiers had difficulty distinguishing which troops were carrying the American flag and which the Confederate, because the first Confederate flag so closely resembled the American flag, being red and white stripes aligned next to a ring of white stars set on a blue field.  After the First Battle of Manassas, General P.G. T. Beauregard approved a new flag: a red square, with diagonally crossed blue bars and stars, to be carried as the Confederate battle flag (not to be confused with the official flag of the Confederate States of America).  Beauregard was intent on making his troops easily identifiable.

Historian Shelby Foote on the CSA Battle Flag

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Trans-Gender Woman in Custer’s Old West

     The thrice married Mrs. Nash joined Custer’s Seventh Cavalry as a laundress.  She always wore a veil, and is described as “rather peculiar looking.”  In 1872 she married a private named Noonan.  The couple lived together on “Suds Row”, east of the Fort Lincoln Parade grounds.  While Noonan was away on a scouting expedition, his wife died.  When her friends came to prepare the body for burial, they discovered that the much married laundress and popular mid-wife was not a female.  The news was reported to Custer’s wife Elizabeth (“Libbie”) Custer, who was much amazed.

     The Bismarck Tribune subsequently reported: “Corporal Noonan, of the 7th Cavalry, whose “wife” died some weeks ago, committed suicide in one of the stables of the lower garrison.  It was reported some days ago that he deserted, but no one this side of the river had seen him.  It now appears that the man had kept himself out of the way as well as he could for several days.  His comrades had given him a sort of cold shake since the return of the regiment from the chase after the Sioux, and this, and the shame that fell on him in the discovery of his wife’s sex, undermined his desire for existence, and he crawled away lonely and forsaken and blew out the life that promised nothing but infamy and disgrace.  The suicide was committed with a pistol, and Noonan shot himself through the heart.”

For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reconstruction in Mississippi 1865-1875

Holly Springs, Mississippi

From 1865 to 1875 the state of Mississippi underwent “Reconstruction”, a plan to reintegrate the South into the Union. Three companies of Federal troops, under the command of Major Jonathan Power, were stationed in Holly Springs. A circular of instruction to post commanders read, “. . .you are particularly directed not to molest or incommode quiet and well disposed citizens and will be held to strict accountability that your men commit no depredations of any sort. Houses, fences, farm property, etc. will be secure and remuneration will be compelled and punishment inflicted for all infractions of the rule. The well disposed people must be made to feel that the troops are for their protection rather than for their inconvenience.”

In 1860 the population of Holly Springs had been 5,690; by 1865 the population had declined to 2,000. The survivors found themselves without money, cotton, horses, livestock or provisions. Most had lost loved ones and many had been burned out. For the vanquished ex-Confederates it was a period in which the social order was turned up side down. Individuals prominent under the old regime were disenfranchised, while former slaves and new men from the North took the most prominent positions in the state. The ex-Confederates struggled to regain power. Elections were characterized by bribery, intimidation and trickery.

The Democratic Party was comprised of Southern whites and a few blacks who remained under the influence of their old masters. The Republican Party was comprised of a few native whites known locally as, “turncoat scalawags”, interested in the spoils of office, Northern “carpetbaggers” and ex-slaves, attracted by promises of obtaining, “forty acres and a mule.”

Blacks were in the voting majority throughout Marshall County in 1865, having 3,669 males of voting age in the county while the whites of voting age numbered only 3,025, a large number having been disenfranchised because of their activities during the war. During the entire Reconstruction period, blacks formed more than fifty percent of the total population of the county.

A portrait of Holly Springs, a small but prosperous town in northern Mississippi’s Marshall County, during the years of the American Civil War and the era of Reconstruction. This is a glimpse of life in Mississippi during these dramatic years, relying on the words of the people who lived during that time and on other primary historical sources to tell the story.