At the Gate

Attempted mobile phone post: On the plane (American Flight 1825 from ORD to SFO). We are late because of a drain problem on the aircraft (a 737). The good news is that the heavy weather, which everyone is talking about, hasn’t made an appearance yet. The other good news is that I’m experiencing postmodern traveler’s Nirvana–I have a window seat with an empty middle seat next to me. That’s all for now–let’s fly.

[Update: We got out about 40 minutes late and the flight west was uneventful. The blizzard watch the National Weather Service posted Sunday has been replaced by a blizzard warning–looking for a foot or more of snow for the northern half of the state. Essential Chicago weather resource: Wrigley Field weather cam (the source of the image below).]


Wind and Snow Report


[Sorry–the map above is not clickable: Here are the links to the best storm-related weather sites for Chicago:
Chicago Weather Center: Detailed, newsy blog with good historical statistics from WGN (Chicago Channel 9) weather staff.
National Weather Service, Chicago: Everything you need to know.]

I’m heading back west tomorrow afternoon, American Airlines willing, and I chanced to look at the National Weather Service forecast page for the Chicago region. That big green area, which covers a good chunk of the northeastern corner of Illinois, is for a blizzard watch. If a storm moving across the Plains tracks as modeled, snow will start tomorrow afternoon, ease up a bit, then come in with a vengeance Tuesday into Wednesday. An excerpt from the NWS watch:


One sometimes has occasion to wonder what it would be like to deal with this climate again (after the storm blows through, a pretty good cold snap if forecast, with highs in the single digits later in the week). As a kid, news like this would prompt anticipation, excitement, exhilaration–even beyond the prospect of getting a day off of school. Now, part of me would love to see the show; but I’m thinking more of snow blowing sideways and wondering how quickly the airport will become a mess once it starts coming down tomorrow afternoon.

In Other Tourism-Related News

That's the external fuel tank from a 1989 space shuttle mission, a picture my brother-in-law Dan happened across while we were discussing shuttle history (and he was correcting my memory on a couple of fine points, such as the fact the first during the first four missions, the shuttle was equipped with ejection seats). The subject came up while we were remembering the Challenger disaster in 1986 (a subject another friend brought up on Facebook).

Anyway, I'm always a sucker for a good space program picture, and this is one. Not to over-romanticize, you could look at this and say it's simply part of a wasteful industrial process (the external tank is jettisoned and partially disintegrates as it falls through the atmosphere into the Atlantic). There's more to it, for me: a picture from an untamed place that holds unlimited promise, a picture of our civilization reaching to extend its understanding and its capabilities. 

Sure, we have lots of problems here at home (that blue background–what a beautiful place). It's always seemed to me we ought to be able to extend our reach out there and do the work we need to do down here, too. 

(End of the foregoing.)

Snow, and Snow


I haven’t had to live through a Chicago-type winter in ages. So sights like the alley behind my sister Ann’s house on the North Side of Chicago have a certain appeal: The light on the snow, the tire tracks. Very atmospheric. Of course, I’ll be back in the warm zone in a few days. The atmosphere might be lost on those stay behind, judging by this comment from Ann: “By this point, every time I see it snow, I go, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ “

Of course, there’s snow, and then there’s snow. Below is a shot from my brother John, in Brooklyn, where they had their second foot-plus snowfall in a month yesterday. Atmospheric in a whole different way.




The Missouri River just south of Chamberlain, South Dakota (about 150 miles west of Sioux Falls).

In some part of my mind, I pleasurably anticipate travel. But I don’t like planning for an airline trip or packing for it. I don’t enjoy dealing with the virtual and physical gauntlet air travel forces us to run. I don’t relish facing the group unhappiness that greets you at the gate and accompanies you as long as you’re in the isolated world of your flight. No, I’m not enamored of any of that.

But from the moment the plane leaves the ground to the moment it touches down, it’s hours of visual poetry (assuming of course I have the window seat I want).


The approach to O’Hare, just west of the airport.

Off to Winter

I’m leaving the Bay Area, sunny, highs in the high 60s every day while we start to break a collective sweat about our nearly rainless January, and traveling to Chicago on Thursday for a long family-visit weekend. The weather in my hometown? Well, it may get above freezing when I’m there, with daily chances of snow. I’m not sniveling. Yet. However, I realize that my winter wardrobe is really a coastal Northern California winter wardrobe–something you might break out in the Midwest’s early fall. I guess we’ll see how it, the wardrobe, and I hold up.

The Origin Files: ‘Busting a Cap’

The weekend before last, we went to see the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.” I liked it, and liked it more than my date, who insisted the 1969 version with John Wayne was more compelling because it depicted a deeper emotional connection between Mattie Ross, the young girl bent on bringing her father’s killer to justice, and Rooster Cogburn, the old manhunter she hires for the job.

So the next night, we rented the original “True Grit” and watched that, too. The capsule review: John Wayne had almost audibly creaky knees. His acting, likewise, was almost audibly creaky. But there were a couple of pleasant surprises: Robert Duvall, who plays the bad guys’ ring leader, Lucky Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper, who has a bit part as one of the gang. (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of the new movie, with some good observations on the differences between the versions and the performances therein.)

truegrit.jpgOne of Duvall’s moments really stood out, but not because of any piece of acting craft. At one point, Lucky Ned warns Rooster that he’s ready to shoot the captured Mattie: “I never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen. But it’s enough that you know that I’ll do what I have to do.”

That line did not jump out at me in the Coen Bros. remake. And I don’t know whether it’s in the 1968 Charles Portis novel that the movies are based on. [Update: In the novel, Portis has Ned telling Mattie: “I have never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen years but I will do what I have to do.”] But like many others I’ve found comments from online, I thought “bust a cap” and variations like “pop a cap” were more recent coinages. Talking to my movie-viewing partner and speculating on the origin, the one clue I could come up with that would support a 19th century origin was the percussion cap–part of the firing system of guns before the advent of cartridges (a.k.a. modern-day “bullets,” including primer, powder and projectile in one integral unit).

To bust or pop a percussion cap–that would make a certain amount of sense. What’s the evidence that the phrase actually arose during the percussion cap era as opposed to the late 20th century gangsta era?

The source of choice is Google Books–mostly because it allows you to search phrases by date (the caveat: the search only returns sources in print that have made it into Google’s database. Still, that gives some idea of when terms have gained currency). A search for “bust a cap” and variations shows the phrase appearing rarely (fewer than 10 times a decade) up to about 1940, occasionally (say 10 or 20 times a decade) up through 1960, and becoming increasingly common (dozens or hundreds of mentions a decade) since.

Now, there was a mini-burst of “bust a cap” and “pop a cap” references in the 1860s, mostly connected to the Civil War. These, and virtually all of the other appearances of the “cap” phrases up through the 1950s, come from the South. Here’s one, an anecdote published in 1866 in a magazine called “The Land We Love,” (published in Charlotte, N.C., and edited by D.H. Hill, a former Confederate commander). It explains an insult commonly applied to green troops. From a veteran to one of the untried:

” ‘Axin yer pardon, stranger, my old gun is dirty and I wanted to clean her out. I’m jist gwine to pop a cap. Don’t be skeered, honey!’ From this, started the taunt so often used to cowards, ‘Lie down, I’m gwine to pop a cap.’ “

The ultra-modern sounding “bust a cap in your ass”? That phrase and variants, popular in movies since 1972’s “Superfly,” shows up nearly verbatim in a 1907 appellate court case regarding a homicide in Kentucky:

“Dave Grant testified that’ between 11 and 12 o’clock, at Landon’s barber shop, he heard Henry Cooley say ‘he would bust a cap In somebody’s ___ …”

Later, “bust a cap” appears in a form very close to the one in “True Grit.” Frank Hamer, the former Texas Ranger who led the posse that tracked down and killed Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934, is widely quoted as saying he’d been reluctant to shoot Parker:

“I hated to bust a cap on a woman, especially when she was sitting down, but if it wouldn’t have been her, it would’ve been us.”

The oldest documented reference I turned up? It comes from 1865 and was published the following year in “The Index to the Executive Documents of the United States. First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress.” Among many other papers, the volume contains the proceedings of two courts-martial held in the occupied South during 1865. The cases are harrowing and involve circumstances unthinkable in the southern states, and unusual anywhere in the country, before the Civil War: white defendants being held to answer for the murders of black victims. The first case involved a former slave who allegedly stole a horse and was shot and killed by the horse’s owner (the verdict: guilty of manslaughter; sentence: 10 years in a northern prison).

The second case involved a woman, Nellie West, killed by two men in Taliaferro County, Georgia–a former plantation overseer and a young friend of his–who wanted to stop her from reporting earlier maltreatment to the local military authorities. Here’s the overseer, John M. Brown, describing his accomplice, Christopher Columbus Reese, in action:

I was near the railroad crossing, and Columbus Reese was crouching behind the bushes, about seventy-five yards from me, close by the railroad track; I heard him pop a cap, and heard Nellie say, “Yes, I see you are trying to shoot at me.” … Reese then appeared to be putting another cap on his gun, at the same time hastening after her. I hallooed to bim, “Quit, don’t do that,” but he made no reply, but ran after her into the pine. … I then heard the gun fired, and saw him, after firing, turn round and stop. Nellie screamed two or three times, but I could not see her where she stood. Reese came back out of the pines and asked me to shoot my double-barrelled gun into her head to make sure that she was dead.

Both Reese and Brown were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged (their chief defense was that the court had no jurisdiction in the case). Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, endorsed an appeal for clemency in Reese’s case to President Andrew Johnson. As the scheduled execution date in January 1866 drew near, Reese came up with a story—not in evidence previously—that Nellie West was the aggressor and tried to kill him with a piece of scythe blade, that he killed her in self-defense, and that he had falsely implicated his alleged accomplice, Brown, to save himself. The Army’s judge advocate general responded in a letter to Johnson, “The attention of the President is respectfully called to the significant fact that not a particle of proof … to lend probability to his shocking charge.”

The post-script (by way of a footnote in “The Papers of Andrew Johnson: September 1865-January 1866”): Johnson at first approved the hangings. But after receiving appeals for mercy for both defendants—and despite the patently false confession of Reese and the judge advocate general’s opinion that “if the law does not take the life of such a monster of crime as this [Reese], then it is believed that the penal code has been enacted in vain”— he blocked the execution. History, so far as I can consult it on my laptop, doesn’t record what happened to Brown. Reese went on to once more bust a cap—this time in a bar-room brawl in which he killed a man.

Crab and Whine–I Mean ‘Wine’–Days


Fort Bragg, Pudding Creek in the foreground.

Our son Thom set up a weekend for us in Fort Bragg over the weekend–the beginning of Mendocino County’s annual Crab and Wine Days. The centerpiece event of the weekend was a crabcake cookoff in a big white tent on Fort Bragg’s Main Street. Attendees tried the various crabcakes on offer from local inns and eateries and voted on their favorite, then did the same for wines from county vintners. I will admit that after a while one crabcake seems much like another to me, but I did manage to savor and vote for both a favorite crabcake and a wine I thought was pretty good (neither my palate nor my appetite was improved by a mid-respiratory tract cold I seem to have come down with as soon as my time off from work started).

Much of the Mendocino Coast is given over to high-end tourism. Driving up Highway 1, you pass one small settlement after another that were once logging and fishing outposts and are now mostly given over to expensive inns and restaurants. A few places on the coast–Fort Bragg is one–are in the midst of a transition from dependence on timber and fisheries to tourism and nouveau agriculture (the latter term embracing both viticulture and winemaking and the not-legal marijuana industry). Fort Bragg’s past is everywhere, from its fishing port on the Noyo River (source of the crab harvest) to the barren, cleared parcels on the water side of the coast highway that used to house mills.

Anyway. What I forget in what might seem a bleak recitation of economic realities is the utter beauty of the place. Thom got reservations in The Beachcomber, a motel just north of town. Nice place, dog-friendly and not outrageously expensive, but its principal amenity is that it abuts parkland and beaches and looks right out on the Pacific. When Kate and I got there Friday night, we went out for a walk on the paved trail behind the place. Heading south into town, the path crosses a trestle over Pudding Creek, one of the few streams on this part of the coast said to still have a viable wild coho salmon run. Didn’t see any fish–this would be steelhead time, if any are showing up–but I saw plenty of opportunity for night-time picture experiments.


Pudding Creek, moonlight.

Bears Down

If graciousness were in my playbook, I’d say, “Go! You Packers! Go!” and wish them well in bringing home the bacon to old Green Bay. But that’s a big if. Instead, I’ll note that the sum total of my media experience for the game was turning on CBS Radio when we got back in range (we were driving home from a weekend outing to the Mendocino coast) and hearing, “So the Packers will move on to the Super Bowl, beating the Bears 21-14.” Which only left the suspense of how well or badly the game was actually played. I come away from the game stories I’ve seen feeling like the Packers needed luck to get out of there with the game and the Bears supplied it. Not a bitter disappointment–the Bears were clearly not a great team, but they were entertaining on their better days. It would have been a great story to see the third-string quarterback bring ’em home.

Rooting Interest

I’m going to do what no Chicago sports fan should ever do—the great majority of us seem not to abide by this wisdom—and say I’m really hoping they win tomorrow. Beyond matters of vicarious athletic attainment and hometown pride, I hope they prevail for aesthetic reasons. In an anthem vs. anthem matchup, Chicago’s “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” must triumph over Green Bay’s polka-flavored, raccoon coat-evoking slop, “Go! You Packers! Go!” I submit lyrics and clips in support of my position, starting with “Bear Down”

Bear down, Chicago Bears,
make every play clear the way to victory.
Bear down, Chicago Bears,
Put up a fight with a might so fearlessly.

We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation
With your T formation.

Bear down, Chicago Bears,
And let them know why you’re wearing the crown.
You’re the pride and joy of Illinois,
Chicago Bears, bear down!

And here’s a representative performance of “Bear Down” :

Now, here’s the Green Bay hymn:

Hail, hail the gang’s all here to yell for you,
And keep you going in your winning ways,
Hail, hail the gang’s all here to tell you too,
That win or lose, we’ll always sing your praises Packers;
Go, you Packers, go and get ’em,
Go, you fighting fools upset ’em,
Smash their line with all your might,
A touchdown, Packers, Fight, Fight, Fight, Fight!
On, you Green and Gold, to glory,
Win this game the same old story,
Fight, you Packers,
Fight, and bring the bacon home to Old Green Bay.

And here’s a specimen rendition of the above: