Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fasten your seat belt: The ups and downs of Pittsfield's airport


Presented to the Club in 2001 by William A. Selke

While we may not be in a position to influence the outcome, those of us in South County are not completely disinterested in some of the issues on which the citizens of Pittsfield have not displayed unanimity. We certainly would attend performances at the Colonial Theatre, probably go out to the ballgame, wherever it may be played, and might possibly fly from an enlarged airport. The progress reports on the Colonial Theatre and the baseball field have shown some of the characteristics of weather forecasts — some days sunny, some cloudy, and too many it seems, stormy. But we can reasonably hope for happy endings.* The proposed expansion of the airport has not received as much attention, but it is not without its critics, who cite both budgetary problems and disruption of the neighboring area. So, it, too, may yet encounter storms.

The history of the Colonial Theatre has been related most generously, and we’ve been told of some of the great ball-players who have faced the setting sun at Wahconah Park, but little has been said about the history of the Pittfield Airport — on the service provided there over the years. It has not been suggested that scheduled passenger air service would commence with the lengthening of the runway. The expansion is aimed at making the airport more accessible to “general aviation”, i.e., private and chartered planes. But if we wonder whether an enlarged airport might attract a scheduled airline, we might look back at what has happened in the past.

Pittsfield’s flying wasn’t always done at its present location; on July 4th, 1919, there was an air show at the field on Allen Farm. Back then, planes were small and were slow. Any breeze at all would be significant relative to the speed of the plane, so the takeoffs and landings had to be headed precisely into the wind. The surface of a hayfield could support the light craft. So flying wasn’t from runways; they were flying fields in those days. For an airport to receive an “A” rating from the Department of Commerce in 1928, it had to be at least 2,500 feet square. If the turf wasn’t firm enough, it could have runways paved with gravel or cinders or asphalt, but there must be at least four of these runways, crossing at the middle of the field, allowing taking off or landing in eight different directions.

The needs of airplanes changed rapidly. As built in the late 1930s, LaGuardia airport had four runways. By 1945, two of these runways had been were abandoned, but the runways which were retained were lengthened, widened, and given deeper foundations.

And so, in the 1930’s when the airport was built in Pittsfield, it had a single, paved runway, 3,500 feet long. In keeping with the new age, in May 1938 air mail service was established. The route was to Westfield, and then on to Boston. For that inaugural flight, mail from South County was flown from Gt. Barrington to join the main volume. Airmail service was discontinued during the war, although, we will hear, was started again and again, each time with great fanfare, in later years.

During the war, tens of thousands of young Americans had been taught to fly, and many more had learned how to service aircraft. Aviation was an area of exciting business growth. Air travel was the future. Thus, it is not surprising that in September of 1946, experienced veterans of the Air Corps started the New England Central Airway System. Pittsfield was included in its routes. There were three flights each day to and from Boston. How could it be anything but successful? Probably some of the same enthusiasm that more recently supported dot-com ventures provided capital for these new investment opportunities. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough customers; it failed within the year.

At that same time, some other veterans saw how air service could be profitable carrying valuable and perishable freight. The Strato Freight company. based in Pittsfield, put a war-surplus C54, the military designation of the DC-3, into service flying newborn chicks south from Connecticut and returning from Florida loaded with gladiolas. A crash in Florida in 1947 killed the pilots, and that company.

A later freight service, Wiggins Air Express, started in 1951 using a smaller Cessna plane. A photograph in the Berkshire Eagle shows the airport manager, John Heaton, loading the plane with fifteen packages, totaling 221 pounds. There were bundles of silk thread from A.H.Rice destined for Los Angeles, Wichita, and San Antonio, some G.E. parts, and Glix-(GLIX)Brand pajamas and women’s housecoats, evidence of the diversity of manufacturing in Pittsfield.

The plane used by the ill-fated Strato Freight company,, the DC-3, played such a starring role in our story that it warrants a diversion in the chronology. This plane is universally recognized as the greatest plane of its time. And some argue that, since it was the plane with which air travel became a regular part of our lives, it is the greatest of all time.

Its origin goes back to 1933, when TWA – then Trans Continental and Western Airlines - invited bids for three-engined planes bigger and faster than the old Ford tri-motor. This requirement of three engines was for safety. Engines, then, weren’t very dependable. Twin-engined planes could be bigger than single engined ones, but both of those engines had to be operating for the plane to stay aloft. Some of you may remember that in his book “We,” Lindbergh related how some of his backers urged him to buy a twin-engined Bellanca plane with more comfort and capacity than the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh reasoned that since the Bellanca could not fly on one engine alone, and the engines were then the most unreliable parts of airplanes, having a second engine doubled the chance of failure. And so,he chose the single-engined Spirit of St. Louis. To achieve safety with larger planes, the solution had been the tri-motor design, since it could fly with any one of its engines dead. This was the state of the art in 1933.

Even though the airline had specified a tri-motor, Donald Douglas designed and built a twin-engine model which could fly on one engine. To prove it, he flew it over the Rockies with one of its engines turned off. This plane, called the DC-2, instantly became a favorite of the airlines. This led to the DC-3, when American Airlines wanted a somewhat larger plane, a sleeper. The result was one which could be fitted with fourteen seats which could be folded down to provide seven berths and seven more berths folded down from the ceiling. A great publicity coup was achieved when Shirley Temple, then aged eight, was a passenger on the first transcontinental sleeper flight on December 17, 1935. In 1936, the day-plane version of the DC-3, carrying 21 passengers — in two seats on one side and one on the other — became the standard transport plane, and by 1939 that model was carrying 90 % of America’s passengers. Ultimately, over 450 were bought by airlines and 10,170 were produced for military use by the United States and Britain — where they were called Dakotas. Over 800 of the craft participated in the D-Day invasion..

There are a few hundred DC-3s still in use; I’ve seen them during the 1990s in airports in Asia and South America. My last trip in one was when visiting a sisal plantation in the north of Haiti. Martha and I flew from Port-au-Prince on a Haitian Air Force DC-3 which took paying passengers. It was landed on a strip between rows of sisal — century plants — with apparent competence. However, we hired a car for the return trip.

All this talk about DC-3s is to establish the significance of what one would see at the Pittsfield Airport in during the mid-1950s. The activity there is graphically clear in a newspaper clipping in the collection of Gilbert Desautels, proprietor of the Elm Street barber shop, who has made a hobby of collecting pictures relating to aviation in Berkshire County. That photo shows DC-3s of two real airlines of the day — Mohawk and Northeast — taxiing to and from the gate, respectively. It is a busy scene. Pittsfield was a crossroads of air travel. Northeast arrived from New York, via Hartford, and went on to Keene. Mohawk came from Boston, via Worcester and Hartford, on its way to Albany, Utica, Ithaca, Rochester and Buffalo. This was before the New York Thruway or the Massachusetts Turnpike were completed, so flying should have been than driving, despite the many short hops..

But soon after establishing the service, those airlines displayed unhappiness. In those days, before deregulation, once service started, federal approval was required to stop it. In 1955, the two airlines joined in a request to eliminate Pittsfield from there schedules, citing that the length of the runway, which limited their service to fair weather. This had little effect. In 1958, Mohawk petitioned Mayor Haughey for his support of their request to the Federal agency. They averaged only two passengers per day to Pittsfield. In winter, the early sunset limited flying to a short day. Lights were not installed until much later, in1972..

In 1962, Northeast finally was able to wriggle out of its obligation to Pittsfield, resulting in another hiatus in airmail service.

One must wonder whether having the mail take to the air directly from Pittsfield really added much speed, anyway. With any of the airlines we will encounter, the flights to or from Pittsfield were likely to be canceled in bad weather. What happened to the airmail then; was it put on a truck with the plebeian first class, or was it held at the airport waiting for fairer times? A cynical view would be that the principal charm of air mail lay in the subsidy it provided to the airline, rather than in speed of transit.

The runway of 3,500 feet, which would have sufficed in the big leagues a few decades earlier, was becoming an inescapable limitation. The local airport commission, headed by Harley Jones, finally received approval and financing for a new 5,000 foot runway, extending over Barker road. Aware that completion of this longer runway would weaken their case for discontinuing service, Mohawk pushed for release and received it in 1965. The new runway was ready for use in 1969.

Mohawk continued to serve Albany. Some of you may remember that several senior managers of GE, Pittsfield were killed in a crash of a Mohawk plane there. Very shortly after that accident, the Mohawk name disappeared completely, from the schedules and from the aircraft, as though it had never existed, replaced by the name of U S Airways, which had acquired Mohawk earlier. This was effective public relations, reducing association with that tragic accident, so that people flying the former Mohawk planes would not feel concerns for their safety.

Professors at business schools could use the ventures in the period from 1963 to 1985, as illustrative examples of misdirected entrepreneurial spirit, undampened by the failures of predecessors. When we look a this now, we may be surprised by such a dismal record. But similar histories may be less uncommon than we think. We are aware of those businesses which thrived and survived to serve us now, and we may even know about their origins and growth. But we may not be as aware of those that failed and disappeared. I allude to the attempts to provide scheduled air service for Pittsfield.

The first of the series of what the federal government designated “third level carriers” was probably the most successful. (Readers of the local paper were never informed of the distinction between first and second level carriers, but, passengers from Pittsfield would be certain that there could be no level lower than what they encountered.)

Yankee Airways, a subsidiary of the Greylock Airways, was headed by John Heaton, who was clearly Mr. Aviation of the Berkshires. It operated DeHaviland Dove aircraft to New York. As fitting for a third level carrier, it did not go to the main terminal, but to the “Marine Terminal,” the original one, built by the WPA. The “marine” in that name probably comes from the service provided for the Pan Am Sikorsky flying boats — the Yankee Clippers — for pre-war travel to London. The architecture and decoration of the art deco Marine Terminal building was recently the subject of praise in an article in the New York times.

With Yankee, air mail again left Pittsfield by air. Passengers boarding the evening southbound flight were made aware of this when they would find most of the seats occupied. In them was a mail bag, with the seat belt strapping it neatly in place. Upon arrival at the Marine Terminal, the pilot would dash out and return minutes later with a small truck, into which he and the co-pilot would throw the mail bags before driving off, speeding those urgent letters on their way. Before taking off in Pittsfield, I recall having the captain say over the speaker to the cabin, “Please fasten your seat belt,” the use of the singular reflecting attention being paid to the number of the seats occupied by animate passengers.

When, in 1970, John Heaton finally gave up on Yankee, a hopeful group, called Executive Airways, started strong, flying their Twin Otters on five trips to New York, and once again, a daily trip to Boston. This soon dropped to just three to New York. In little more than year Executive ceased its service.

The next to try was Command, with some Twin Otters, presumably bought from their predecessors, and Beech 99s. Robert Allardyce, who used to travel to New York regularly to work his evening flights to Europe, wrote me “I recall one losing an engine during climb out of LaGuardia. For a moment or two I wondered if the pilot was going to get the nose down far enough to recover airspeed.” Apparently the pilot did, since Mr. Allardyce wrote that this October. Command gave up in 1979.

When Command withdrew, the oddly named Precision Airlines , filled the gap with stops in Pittsfield on the route from their base in Rutland , Vermont, to New York. With great fanfare, they added two daily trips between Pittsfield and Boston. The Berkshire Eagle reported that while two passengers boarded the inaugural flight eastward, the plane returned empty that evening. In 1980, their first summer, they reported that they didn’t have a steady level of adequate business. In those few times when they had a surfeit of customers, the Eagle stated – without answering the several questions that it raises, that “the co-pilot would give up his seat for a passenger.”

When they ceased the service to Pittsfield, after less than four years, they mentioned that they had been able to complete only 70 percent of the scheduled flights.

Failure to complete flights clearly reduced the income the airline received. But, more importantly, knowledge of the limited reliability of the service figured rather heavily in the judging by the traveler as to whether he should fly or drive. The fact that some of us can remember finding ourselves stranded at LaGuardia once reflects on the airline. When we can recall its happening more than more than once probably reflects more badly on our own judgment.

It usually was early evening when they would announce to the few waiting that the flight to Pittsfield was cancelled. Immediately, necks turn, as the intended flyers look over the fellow victims, guessing whether any of them were going to be part of a solution. “I’m renting a car, anyone want to share it? “Where are you going?” “Pittsfield.” “Becket” “Becket?!?” “ I’m going directly to Great Barrington.” One man slips away. Driving alone is better than being stuck taxiing around Berkshire County. Or maybe he decided to spend the night in New York. In any case, collective action isn’t universally appealing.

One winter night, only one other prospective passenger stood there hearing the unwelcome announcement. The woman, twenty-five or thirty, somberly dressed, seemed stunned. Almost frantically, she blurted out, “What can I do — how can I get to Pittsfield?” She didn’t look like she would be renting a car, or, for that matter, for sharing the price of one. I immediately feared, that she would need to be delivered to Cheshire, Lanesborough. I wanted just to sneak away, but I couldn’t really hide from her the fact that I was going to drive northward. So I gave her a defined and limited invitation: she could come along to Stockbridge, but not a mile beyond there that snowy night. While I rented the car, she telephoned her parents in Pittsfield and arranged for them to come down from Pittsfield to pick her up.

As we drove from the airport, I felt it unlikely that this forlorn person would stimulate sleep-fighting conversation. But away from the lights of the city, covered with the anonymity of the darkness, she began a confessional monologue which turned out to last the entire trip. It did keep me awake; indeed, when we finally arrived in Stockbridge, I was gripped curiosity over of what would unfold.

She had been a member of a cult, living in Virginia for several years. The little communication she had had with her parents conveyed their deep disapproval. A letter from her mother had expressed some sympathy — but a strong wish that she would turn from that path. Her father was unforgiving. This trip to attempt a reconciliation was precipitated by the decision of the master of the cult that the time had come for her to marry; to marry a member he had selected for her.

And so, in our driveway, at eleven that night, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the family members as they greeted each other, the hesitation, the hugging, the tears, before they drove away.

Drama, yes, still, that is not one wants from air travel.

Precision’s replacement, Air Vermont, the last provider of scheduled service from Pittsfield, was bankrupt in less than a year.

But while the airport has been a poor spot for airlines, it has served private planes and special visits. John and Ted Kennedy, flew here during John’s campaign for the senate. The funeral of [longtime U.S. Congressman] Silvio Conte brought several jets full of government notables. WWII bombers, a B-24, and later a B-17 came through on tours. The largest plane to have landed here is believed to be an Air Force C-130 transport, coming to pick up a five man rock music group and take them to their next gig in Pensacola. Corporate jets of various sizes use the airport, although apparently the larger ones can do so only in good weather.

And so the city faces the extension of the 5,000 foot runway to 6,000 feet, as well as the provision of 1,000 feet of safety zone at each end. While this project is expected to cost $20,000,000, the bulk of that will be come from the state and federal governments. Pittfield’s share is expected to be about $1,000,000.

Driving up Barker Road, one can see that extension at that end will have significant impact. Extension to the east would seem to be limited by topography, but a lot of mountain can be moved for $20,000,000.

Pittsfield’s budgetary problems have been cited against the cost of the project. A letter to the Eagle pointed out that the value of a big new strip wouldn’t be realized unless the snow was plowed promptly, and a new instrument landing system wouldn’t be of any use unless it was manned and maintained. There will be that continuing cost. The proponents of the project feel that the money would be well spent.

But if they build it, will they come? If passenger service resumed, would you use it? Are there corporations which will choose Pittsfield for its plants or offices or laboratories if their planes can land there more dependably? However, even if one grants that this could be an economic stimulant, it must compete with the other options.

If you had to choose among a baseball stadium, the Colonial Theatre and the lengthening of the airport runway, would one, two, or all of them win your favor?

________________
*Editor's postscript: As it turned out, since this paper was presented in 2001, Pittsfield has seen the complete restoration of its historic Colonial Theatre, and the airport's runway lengthening project is still slowly advancing — construction is scheduled to start in 2010 and is expected to take two to three years. On the other hand, the dreamed-of baseball stadium was never built, and regular passenger service by air to Pittsfield was never resumed, nor have any major corporations added new facilities in town.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Confidence: A natural history of the con man

Wheatleigh, Lenox, Massachusetts
Presented to the Club in April, 2007 by Martin C. Langeveld

In the summer of 1982, a young man arrived in Berkshire County [Massachusetts] from California and began a lengthy sojourn as a guest of one of our quiet local celebrities. He was a native of Germany, but while in California, he had done quite well for himself as a screen writer, and had gotten a start in the movie production field. He had written the script for a film to be called “Taipei”, and found financing for it. John Huston and Poncho Kohner were to co-produce the film; Charles Bronson was signed for the starring role. Our young guest had come to find some peace and quiet, and to work on his next script, a film called “Project Mankind.”

As his hostess and her friends soon learned, the young visitor’s family back in Germany was wealthy, and he was about to come into an inheritance of several million dollars. After a few months, he let it be known that he was interested in settling in the Berkshires, and he looked at a number of large estates with a real estate broker. The one that struck his fancy was Wheatleigh, the upscale hostelry [in Lenox], then being leased by Mr. and Mrs. Linfield Simon. The Simons had an option to buy the place for $500,000, and our young screenwriter offered them $2 million. They hadn’t planned on flipping the place, but accepted, amazed at their good fortune. The preparation of contracts began, and dragged on for some time, but meanwhile the Simons began shopping for another home.

By this time, it was December. Our visitor made the rounds of holiday parties in fashionable circles, impressing everyone. He dropped by for a drink at the Fitzpatricks [owners of the Red Lion Inn and Country Curtains in Stockbridge]; afterward Jack said that his guest didn’t brag about his past accomplishments, and all in all he found him to be an “attractive young fellow.” Stockbridge musician Ed Flower ran into the new Berkshire luminary at various gatherings and gushed, “The charm beamed on to me.” When the young man’s hostess found herself stranded at JFK airport after returning from a tour of Europe because her connecting flight to Albany had been cancelled, he gallantly chartered a small plane and flew down from Pittsfield to pick her up, along with her friend, [author] William Shirer, who also admired the younger writer. The Reverend Carl Stevens of Bible Speaks had him as a guest on his radio show, where he professed to be a born-again Christian and discussed the spiritual climate of Hollywood. He engaged a Berkshire Community College professor, Jurgen Thomas, to assist him in the development of his screenplay. He asked his real estate agent to look into the purchase of properties abutting Wheatleigh.

Meanwhile, the young man visited Henry Williams, the president of the Berkshire Bank – the original one -- whom he had met at the Fitzpatricks’ Christmas soiree, to ask about bridge financing so that he could acquire Wheatleigh before his own funds would become available. Henry took down the particulars and said he’d get back to the young man, shortly. Something didn’t seem quite right to Henry, and he decided to order a background check. “Finally we came up with a tilt,” is how he described it later.

The screenwriter’s name was Thilo Rethmann. As it turned out, he been convicted in Germany on 57 counts of fraud, mainly writing bad checks for things like a sports car, cameras and other goods. He skipped probation and came to the U.S. In California, he met Blake Champion, the son of dancer Marge Champion of Stockbridge, and also, apparently, Val Bronson, son of Charles Bronson, and Carroll O’Connor’s son Hugh. Along with two accomplices, he swindled his landlady out of $40,000 with the story of the movie to be produced by John Huston. When his friends were arrested, he called the police to say he was coming to turn himself in, but instead he came to Massachusetts and looked up his friend Blake. As a long-term houseguest, he began to borrow money, mentioning the trust fund, from Marge Champion’s secretary, Helen Goff. Helen was flattered by the attention and by Rethmann’s promise to employ her at Wheatleigh. She wrote larger and larger checks to cover Rethmann’s expenses, including funds drawn from her employer’s household account, eventually totaling $20,000.

Our man Rethmann was, of course, what has long been known as a confidence man, a resonant tradition in American history.

The term itself originates in a story published in The New York Herald on July 8, 1849, called “Arrest of the Confidence man”, which describes the arrest of one William Thompson. I quote: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped.” The story goes on to mention that Mr. Thompson was a graduate of the college at Sing Sing, and he would no doubt shortly return to his studies there.

The neologism confidence man caught on, and by 1855, when Wilson was again released from prison, it was fully part of the lexicon. Wilson headed north to try his luck in Albany, where the Albany Evening Journal reported on April 28, under the title “The Original Confidence Man in Town – A Short Chapter on Misplaced Confidence”, that he was up to his old tricks (quoting):

“He called into a jewelry store on Broadway and said to the proprietor, “How do you do, Mr. Myers?” Receiving no reply, he added “Don’t you know me?” to which Mr. Myers. replied that he did not. “My name is Samuel Willis. You are mistaken, for I have met you three or four times.” . . . “I guess you are a Mason,” – to which Myers replied that he was – when Willis asked him if he would not give a brother a shilling if he needed it. By some shrewd management, Myers was induced to give him six or seven dollars.”

The new story made the rounds, and the Evening Journal followed up with “A brief history of the Original Confidence Man”, which included an identification by a New York detective: “Here is No. 1, the Original Confidence Man. I arrested him the first time in New York, and afterward in New Orleans.” This line was enough to inspire Herman Melville to pen the last novel he published during his lifetime, The Confidence Man, which came out in 1857. The real No. 1, original Confidence Man, was of course Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Evil – Melville drew heavily on Milton’s Satan. And the reference to New Orleans suggested to Melville his setting – a Mississippi riverboat as a ship of fools.

A confidence man can be defined as one who swindles another by persuading his victim first to place confidence in him, and then induces the victim to part with goods or money while still trusting the swindler. It is the manipulation of a sucker by non-violent methods. The thief, as we have seen in the case of Mr. Rethmann, must be an excellent actor skilled in improvisation. In Melville’s novel, the protagonist is engaged in a continual masquerade, deceiving a series of fellow passengers during the course of a single day, April 1st – shifting shape all the while like Milton’s Satan. The book's cons are an encyclopaedia of the cons being perpetrated on trusting citizens around the country: a deaf-mute who pleads for donations by means of a slate quoting St. Paul on charity; a black man without legs begging for coins; a merchant with a story of hard times; a representative of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Society operating a bogus charity scam; a man selling stock in a non-existent firm, the Black Rapids Mining Company; a purveyor of a patent medicine called Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator; a procurer of young boys into indentured labor; and a cosmopolitan named Frank Goodman, who simply wishes his fellow passengers to place their trust and confidence in all of humanity. The real mark of Melville’s confidence game, however, is the reader, who is constantly pulled in one direction and another, never sure where Melville is taking him, and discovering, each time a truth seems to be presented, that it is in fact another mask in the masquerade. The novel, itself – perhaps every novel – is a con of the reader who places his trust in the author hoping to be rewarded.

While Melville’s novel received little notice on publication, sold poorly and received virtually no critical attention until a century later, the confidence man motif became a standard in American literature, and later film – and the confidence scheme would return again and again to lighten the wallets of Americans in real life – not surprisingly, because in some ways, the qualities that made a good 19th Century American confidence man – gumption, originality, smoothness, entrepreneurship – were the qualities that won the West and built America. Moreover, antebellum American society provided a rich substrate for the con game – teeming, growing cities, easy anonymity, confusion, portable wealth in the form of paper money. New York police in the 1860s estimated that one out of every 10 criminals was a con man.

The professional con men of the era developed a repertoire with colorful names such as the gold brick, the green-goods scam, the sick engineer, the glim-dropper, the fiddle game, the two red aces, the badger game, the match box, the pigeon drop, the Iron Hat, the Puff Racket, the Tat, the Silver Fox Fur—and its variant, the Cat-and-Rat Farm.

For a con to be successful, it is usually necessary for the victim to be something less than honest. In the words of one professional confidence man, “If there was no larceny in a man, and if he were not trying to get something for nothing and rob a fellow man, it would be impossible to beat him at any real con racket.” And another: “A confidence game will fail absolutely unless the sucker has got larceny in his soul.” In the tale of Thilo Rethmann, the owners of the option on Wheatleigh were lured by the prospect of quadrupling their money in a single transaction; the various lawyers, realtors and engineers involved in the deal all saw a windfall payday ahead as well; and the prospect of a lucrative job running Rethmann’s household motivated Helen Goff to dip into Mrs. Champion’s checkbook.

The typical 19th century and early 20th century con could be elegantly simple. Take for example the glim-dropper, which requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. He goes into a store and makes believe he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye can’t be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper, thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs. The one-eyed man, of course, can not be found and does not return.

Similarly, in the fiddle game, one confederate, shabbily dressed, eats a nice meal in a restaurant, finds himself without cash when the check arrives, and leaves a violin as collateral for payment owed. Later, his accomplice comes in, notices the fiddle, declares it to be a rare and valuable instrument, and offers a large sum for it. The restaurant owner then buys the instrument from the first man upon his return, thinking he has an offer on the table from man No. 2, who, of course, never returns.

And the best-known scam of the information age, the Nigerian oil scam, is really a version of an age-old trick called the Spanish prisoner, which dates from the 16th Century. The con man, accompanied by a beautiful young lady, approached British nobles with the story that a fellow noble, the lady’s father, has been imprisoned in Spain. A letter from the prisoner, smuggled back to England, is shown as evidence, but the prisoner’s identity is concealed, allegedly to prevent the Spanish from realizing they have a valuable prisoner. If the noble would pay the ransom, the letter promised, the jailed father would issue a rich reward upon his release, and perhaps even offer the daughter’s hand in marriage. Money in hand, the con man and his lady friend would disappear, never to return.

While there is some amusement in this kind of scheme, in truth, we have more appreciation for the elaborate con jobs pulled off in movies like the Sting and in novels like Tom Sawyer. We require our confidence artists to do some serious work for their money.

A good con man must be a good actor, a good salesman, have good manners and a good appearance. He must also have a yen for the good things in life, but be too lazy to work for them, and he must have a sizeable ego and be able to think on his feet and live by his wits. And, a genuine con man is a habitual liar, addicted to pursuing one con after another, motivated by the challenge of pulling off another one. One con man described it to an interviewer like this: “Half of being a con man is the challenge. When I score, I get more kick out of that than anything. To score is the biggest kick of my whole life.” But of course a con man also needs to have his end game planned out, which is where Rethmann’s plans unraveled. A protracted scam like Rethmann’s usually requires multiple players to be in on the game, to collaborate by lending credence to one another. But Rethmann, who did learn a few things in the course of getting himself arrested for much smaller scams, in the end could not fool all the people all the time all by himself, and so it was the uncorruptable banker, Henry Williams, who smelled a rat and exposed the scam.

After being arrested for his larceny of Helen Goff’s money — he was never charged in connection with the Wheatleigh caper — Rethmann continued to maintain that funds would imminently arrive from his German trust fund, that his mother would pay his lawyers. Several sets of lawyers accepted this story and then saw through it, before Rethmann ended up with a public defender. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in the Berkshire House of Correction. While he was serving that sentence, Berkshire Eagle reporter Stephen Fay, who had covered the affair from beginning to end, got a collect call from one Tony Valano, another guest of the sheriff. It was a credit check. In a jailhouse poker game, Rethmann had ended up owing Valano $10,000, and Rethmann had told Tony to call Fay, who, he had assured Valano, would vouch for him.

Finally Rethmann wrote Fay a 26-page letter from his cell, explaining that he had been framed by the FBI, Secret Service and CIA as a victim of a top-secret government plot, launched by President Nixon in 1969 to prevent the fulfillment of events foretold in the scriptures. The story of the trust fund, he wrote, was something he told in order to conceal the fact that his movie ventures were actually being bankrolled by an Arab sheik named Al-Fassi, whom he had met in Paris in the course of delivering Ferrari sports cars.

The simplest explanations for what motivates con men may be the best. Clifford Irving was the perpetrator of a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes some decades ago. More recently, he cashed in again by writing a book about this affair, called The Hoax, now made into a movie starring Richard Gere. About the first book, Irving told the interviewer: “It wasn’t about the money. I wasn’t broke. I did it for the adventure.” He added that he was just “a forty-year-old guy who loves adventure and doesn’t think too clearly about what he is doing.” Except for the age difference, that probably describes our larcenous Berkshire visitor pretty accurately.

But at this point in the tale of Thilo, unfortunately, we lose track of our talented young screenwriter, because he had served enough of his Berkshire sentence and was whisked away to face his California charges, and thereafter, the U. S. Immigration Service. Stephen Fay never heard from him again, and Google comes up dry, but I somehow doubt that Wheatleigh was the last mansion he schemed to acquire. But in any case, as long as there are victims who think they may get something for nothing, there will be con artists willing to pull the wool over their eyes.


EPILOGUE:

A few subsequent events in the life of Thilo Rethmann turned up after the original delivery and publication of this paper. About 10 years after the events related above, apparently after dealing with his issues in California and with the Immigration service, in 1994 Rethmann — now using the name Thilo Timothy Newman — was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee on six counts of passing forged prescriptions for the pain killer Percocet. He pled guilty in February, 1995 and was sentenced to two years of probation on the condition that he serve 60 days in jail and obtain full-time employment. He then appealed the jail term and the employment requirement, on the grounds that he was a self-employed. Amazingly, he was able to convince a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals that he was a screen writer, using many of the same claims that he had previously used to dupe his friends in California and the Berkshires, right down to the title "Project Mankind."

The prosecutor and the original trial judge had not fallen for Rethmann/Newman's stories, As the appeals court decision lays out: 
The remainder of the testimony at the hearing [after covering Rethmann's drug dependence] focused on Appellant's occupation. He testified that he had gone to the Munich University Film School in Germany for a masters degree in cinematography and finished film school at UCLA. Appellant told the court that he was a screenwriter and the president of a holding corporation for a film company. He referred to a screenplay he had written called "Project Mankind" and stated he was currently negotiating with Stephen Spielberg to direct the production of the screenplay. On cross-examination, Appellant admitted that no producer had yet agreed to back his screenplay. 
The only witness besides Appellant was William Halbert, a friend and business partner of Appellant. Mr. Halbert corroborated Appellant's testimony about the business they shared and about the screenplay "Project Mankind." He was optimistic about the future of the business and contradicted the State's attorney when he suggested that Appellant was currently experiencing some financial problems. 
The trial court seemed to share in the State's concern that Appellant's business was not legitimate. The trial Judge made the statement that "you can dream about hitting the lottery or making a movie, and you can dream on; but I think it's time to get a job." The trial Judge added that he "want[s Appellant] to have a job. . . . If it's at the carwash or at the Krystal, . . . he needs to put in eight hours a day, forty hours a week awhile, if he's going to be put on probation." In response to the court's skepticism, Appellant introduced a copy of his 1993 tax return showing an adjusted gross income of $106,136 as well as bank statements indicating that an average of $13,000 was deposited in his account each month from July of 1994 through February of 1995, the time the hearing was held. 
At the close of the hearing, the trial Judge made it clear that he did not believe much of Appellant's testimony.
In rejecting the trial judge's findings and overturning the jail term and the employment requirements, the presiding judge wrote:
We also reject any requirement that Appellant obtain full-time salaried employment other than the apparently legitimate business in which he is already engaged. The Appellant asserts in his brief, and we agree, that the trial court "seemed to indicate some disenchantment with the music or video concept in general." Referring to some of Appellant's testimony, the trial Judge expressed his opinion that "having offices in the . . . third biggest studio in the country and being a major player in the world and all this we've been hearing . . . . that's the kind of stuff that these Music City people defraud people with everyday." As stated above, all of the evidence presented at the hearing indicated that Appellant is a successful self-employed business person. We think it unreasonable to require Appellant to leave his successful business in order to secure a job at, as the trial court suggested, the carwash or a fast food restaurant. Furthermore, as this was not a crime born out of Appellant's need for money, but rather a medical condition, we fail to see the relationship between Appellant's rehabilitation and his occupation.
After this, Rethmann's trail truly goes cold. After this story was first posted on the Monday Evening Club blog, one commenter wrote:
When I was in high school, I dated the son of Thilo's neighbor and witnessed much of this first-hand. Unfortunately, I had no clue what was really going on at the time. The last I heard from Alex (the neighbor's son) was that Thilo committed suicide. 
Another wrote:
He ruined my husband's life in Nashville - stole millions of dollars from banks, medical equipment companies and the like - I never liked Thilo and found out through the FBI that he was, indeed, a scoundrel - He and my husband at the time were inseperable, taking painkillers and trying to figure out ways to scam people - Of course, Thilo told everyone that he wrote the script for "Aliens" and many other movies - he brought his script of "Project Mankind" around everywhere to show people that he was legit - He wore makeup, lied about his age and told people that he was dating Ashley Judd - He was the truest form of a sociopath that I have ever known - I divorced Bill [presumably William Halbert, mentioned above by the judge] and wound up with the FBI at my door looking for Bill and Thilo - Thilo was due to show up in court, and fled the country (supposedly) to Germany - He and my husband figured up a crazy plot to fake his death, so Bill  would not have to stand trial in Nashville - I have since moved on, but I still talk to the FBI from time to time - As my mother put it when she met him "He is the Devil"
Somewhere along the way, Rethmann, or an associate, managed to get himself (as Thilo Timothy Newman) listed in various movie databases as one of the screenwriters on the movie Alien, a "fact" that still survives in spinoffs of those databases, apparently by inserting his "Newman" alias as a fake alias for Ronald Shusett, an actual writer on Alien. In fact, Shusett's page on Wikipedia still lists Thilo T. Newman as an alias. A 1997 Google Groups post, possibly by Rethmann himself, turns the tables by suggesting that Ronald Shusett was actually a pen name for Thilo T. Newman.

Finally, "Tim", developer of the movie "Project Mankind", turns up again in 2003 in a book called "I Heard the Sounds of Silence: Are we related?" by Livia Schneider, indicating that Rethmann died of a drug overdose. The book is apparently a family memoir; Livia is actually Olivia Schneider Newman, a Nashville artist. Tim was her son; he had persuaded her to move from Germany to Nashville, but in the end he went back to Hamburg. In her book, she writes, "Pretending was something he was always good at. Make believe was his middle name..." Thilo and/or Timothy Newman, it appears, was Rethmann's real name. In the book, Livia doesn't acknowledge Tim's exploits as Thilo Rethmann — but she had to have known about them, if only because of Stephen Fay's telephone call to her in Germany back in the 1980s.

Still, the feds believe that Rethmann/Newman may still be alive. I received a call a few years ago [2010], after originally posting this story on the Monday Evening Club blog, from an agent in the Fugitive Division of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service based in Nashville, who was still keeping an eye out for Thilo, inquiring whether I knew anything further.

EPILOGUE, PART II

In February, 2017, I heard from Carlton Drumwright, a lawyer in Nashville. He had reminisced with a friend about his involvement in Rethmann/Newman's Nashville legal troubles, and found this blog post after Googling our friend.

In 1995, Drumwright was working as a Community Corrections Officer in Nashville, and Thilo Timothy Newman's case was assigned to him. (That was the name Thilo was using at the time.) As noted above, Newman had been arrested for passing forged prescriptions for the pain killer Percocet, and appealed his jail sentence to a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which swallowed — hook, line and sinker — his story that he was a hard-working screen writer, and commuted his sentence.

The judge involved in the case was Tom Shriver, described by Drumwright as having been "an old school DA" who "could spot fraud a mile away." In assigning the Newman case to Drumwright, Shriver had said, "watch him like a hawk."

As part of his watch on Newman, Drumwright learned of his German birth, and contacted a local Immigration and Naturalization Service agent he knew, to ask him to check out Newman. The agent got back to him saying, “He does not exist.” That is, there appeared to be available INS files on Newman.

Drumwright and the INS agent developed a theory about why there were no records: To get out of some other troublesome situation with the law before the Percocet case, Newman had “snookered” his way into the federal witness protection program, which means that all his files at INS (which is now ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and other federal agencies had been sealed. But then, when Thilo “absconded” from the witness protection program and got into his Nashville legal trouble, the INS failed to unlock the files — so the search on his name came up empty. The witness protection program being what it is, however, they were never able to confirm this for sure.

In any event, eventually the agent did get the files unlocked and learned of Thilo’s California exploits and the 50-odd warrants outstanding against him in Germany. Drumwright doesn’t recall hearing about the Berkshire episode — it’s possible that the INS had not yet connected those dots at the time. Learning about this, Shriver, the judge, decided to nail Newman at his next court date and lined up representatives of the INS, IRS, and Secret Service, all of whom had an interest in Newman, to be present. When the case was called, everyone was in the courtroom, except Newman. Newman’s lawyer, a leading Nashville criminal attorney named Pat McNally, told the judge he had just received a call from Newman saying that he was “on his way,” but had been delayed by having to meet with a “friend in the federal government.” The INS agent rose and told the judge he could “guarantee that Newman has no friends in the federal government.”

Newman never showed up, and was never heard from again. Drumwright said that he also heard the story that Newman had returned to Germany and that he had died by hanging himself. (There are three versions of his death: that he hanged himself; that he died from a drug overdose, as related by his mother in her book; and that he died in a car crash, which is what the ICE agent who contacted me in 2010 had heard. Possibly all three stories emanated from Olivia, Thilo’s mother.)

Drumwright said that eventually, the INS agent was told to leave the case alone. He speculates that Thilo may have talked his way back into witness protection, with the death in Germany story as a cover. But if so, Thilo may have re-absconded, which would explain why ICE was again looking into his case in 2010.






  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One hundred years in the future: A vision glimpsed from 1906


Presented to the Club on May 22, 2006 by Albert E. Easton

By the wise provision of Providence, the future is closed from our eyes. While we can often make predictions with reasonable accuracy, we are never one hundred percent sure of what the future will be. But suppose that we could be. Imagine, if you will, that this paper is being presented to the Monday Evening Club of 1906, telling them what the year 2006 will be like. Surely, some of the future will be as they imagined it, but much of it will seem fantastic and far-fetched, even though the predictions are completely accurate. As I read, you might think about how much life has changed in 100 years, and try to imagine how it will change in another 100 years.

To set the stage, I ask you to imagine that you are in the parlor of one of the fine houses of Pittsfield, awaiting the presentation of this paper. In the dining room, servants are clearing the remains of the fine dinner we have just been served. Cigars have been distributed, but not brandy, since the host, and about half the other members are tee-totalers, very supportive of efforts to amend the constitution to prohibit alcohol of all kinds. The group is somewhat larger than we see tonight, since the club had over thirty members in those days, none from any farther away than Dalton, because of the difficulties of transportation. Members from as far away as Williamstown, let alone Albany, would have had no expedient way to attend meetings.

The speaker has just taken his seat under the brightest gas lamp. The host has made the usual preliminary announcements and has introduced the speaker, who lights up his cigar and begins as follows:

Good evening, Gentlemen, and welcome to our final meeting of 1906. My purpose tonight, is to tell you what the year 2006 will be like. It would be impossible, of course, to cover all aspects, but I hope to give you a good idea of what life will be like in that far distant future. First of all, let me say that the United States will endure to that year with the same democratic form of government as we have today. It will be somewhat different, however. Instead of 45 states we will have 50. Oklahoma Territory, which is already well on its way, will be added, and I’m sure most of you can guess that the next two will be New Mexico and Arizona. You would probably have trouble guessing the last two, though.

Our population will double, and then double again. There will be nearly 300 million Americans in our country, compared to 75 million today. Most of this increase will take place in the south and west, however. California and Florida will have huge increases, but Massachusetts will only double from the 3 million of today to 6 million. Pittsfield will not increase much at all. The population in the city in 2006 will be just under 50,000.

This increase in population will require significant changes in transportation and communication, subjects I expect to spend a fair amount of time on in this survey. The most significant change in transportation will be in the development of the private automobile. I realize a few of you have arrived here tonight by automobile, but you can have no idea of what the automobiles of 2006 will be like. First of all, there will be a great many of them - well over 150 million on the roads of this country, more than one for every two people. They will be easy to drive, and capable of speeds as fast as the fastest railroad engine. And they will be comfortable. The driver and each passenger will sit in a comfortable armchair, in an enclosed compartment whose temperature will be adjustable, both winter and summer. Heat from the motor will be circulated in the winter, and electrical refrigeration equipment will be used to lower the temperature in the summertime. Almost never will there be a paid driver, because the experience of driving will so enjoyable. If the occupants want to listen to music, it will easily be available, by means of several mechanisms, similar, in effect, to today’s phonograph, but sounding nearly as clear as if the orchestra were in the room. Powerful electric lights on the front will permit driving comfortably at night, and wipers run by an electric motor will keep the windshield clear in case of rain or snow.

You may wonder how much all this comfort and convenience will cost, and you probably will be surprised to hear that the average cost of a new automobile in 2006 will be in excess of $10,000. But you need to understand that a large part of this high cost results from a significant change in price levels that will take place over the next 100 years. By 2006, the price of an ounce of gold will be about $700, and since an ounce is slightly more than the weight of a $20 gold piece, that will give you some idea of the change in price levels. If you are imagining $1,000 gold pieces in circulation, that will not happen. All large transactions in 2006 will involve either paper money or checks and other types of direct transfer.

How will anyone afford to pay as much as $10,000 for an automobile? Wages will rise even faster than prices. Instead of representing 20 years pay for the average factory worker, as it does now, $10,000 will be less than 4 months pay. Moreover, most workers will be working only about 40 hours a week instead of the 55 that is now typical. Even with the higher pay, probably many people would find it difficult to raise the amount required for an automobile were it not for the fact that loans will be very readily available. An employed worker will have very little difficulty borrowing the cost of a new car from a bank and repaying the balance over 4 or 5 years, with the value of the automobile standing as collateral for the loan.

So almost every family will have an automobile. And this will make for many changes in daily life. Streets and roads will be much more extensive than they are today. And all, every one, even the shortest lane, will be paved with asphalt or concrete. High speed highways will extend across the country, and it will be possible to drive from here to California in a matter of a few days. Stations will be available along these roads selling the gasoline necessary for the automobiles of 2006.

Imagine the confusion caused by hundreds of private automobiles (and also some commercial gasoline powered vehicles) trying to proceed through Park Square at speeds as fast as 30 miles per hour. How will this be made to work? There will be a detailed set of laws and regulations covering movement of traffic. For example, at many intersections there will be electric lights, a green one showing when it is that line of traffic’s turn to proceed, and a red one meaning stop and wait. Licenses to drive will be issued to drivers only after they have learned the laws and demonstrated their knowledge by passing a test. Failure to obey the laws may result in fines, loss of license, or even, in some cases, a jail sentence.

Travel for long distances will only rarely be done by automobile, however. You are probably aware of the experiments in heavier than air flying machines that the Wright Brothers of Ohio have been conducting over the past several years. By 2006 the “airplanes” as these machines will be called, will offer public transportation to all at extremely high speeds - up to 600 miles per hour, so that at trip from Boston to San Francisco might last only 5 or 6 hours. And the cost will be quite reasonable, allowing for the change in price and earnings levels - a round trip to San Francisco would cost about $400. Transatlantic, and even transpacific, flights will allow trips to Europe or Asia at similar speeds and costs.

The relatively low costs of these flights, by the way, will be made possible by the huge size of the airplanes used. Since you probably find it amazing that a heavier than air craft can even rise off the ground, which it can, you probably will find it difficult to believe that a craft capable of carrying 400 people could do so, but that is just what will happen. You also may be surprised to think that any one but a daredevil would allow himself to be lifted to a height of 6 or 7 miles (the altitude at which these machines will fly) but thanks to careful training of those who maintain and operate them, they will have an excellent safety record.

One of the consequences of the expansion of automobile use and the introduction of airplanes will be the virtual demise of the railroads. Not a single town in Berkshire County will have any actual operational railroad trains except Pittsfield, and Pittsfield will be limited to one train each day to Albany and one to Boston. The railroad station will be a small shack down by the railroad track, not the important commercial center that it is today. In all but the largest cities, street railroads will be a thing of the past, and even there they will be mainly underground. Large motorized vehicles capable of carrying 40 or 50 passengers will operate on the public roads within and between cities like Pittsfield, but they will not be widely used, because the large portion of the population with automobiles will find them less convenient.

You may wonder if some of today’s flights of fancy, such as Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Moon will ever take place. In fact, they will. But travel outside the earth’s atmosphere will prove difficult, dangerous, and expensive, so travel by rocket ship to other planets will not involve transport of men, but only of devices to report back to earth on the features of other planets. By the way, our friend Percival Lowell was mistaken. There are no canals on mars.

As you might expect, telephones will be much more common in 2006 than they are today. It will be very unusual to find a home that does not have a telephone. There will also be wireless telephones utilizing the science that the Italian inventor Marconi has already applied to wireless telegraphy, and many persons will have a wireless telephone that they carry with them at all times. The telephones of 2006 will be somewhat different than those of today. There will be no central operator. Instead, each telephone in the United States will have its own number, and a user wanting to call that telephone will depress keys on a small key pad with the appropriate number and be connected with it- all automatically. And by using special codes, it will even be possible to call telephones in other countries - all over the world.

Marconi’s wireless invention will also spawn another industry - wireless broadcasting. It will be possible to transmit the human voice and other sounds, and organizations, supported by advertisers, will be formed to present programs of music, news and other information that people of the future can sit and listen to, just as we listen to the phonograph, by using a special wireless receiver. Most of you have seen motion pictures produced by Edison’s Kinetescope. As amazing as it seems, motion pictures of the same type will also be transmitted by wireless devices, and almost all homes will have a receiver, called a television, permitting families to watch plays, news, and sporting events, also supported by advertising alone, and without cost to the viewer. I probably should also mention, that means of producing photographs, and therefore motion pictures in color will be developed, so the television programs people watch will all be in full color.

I will need to take some time to describe the final important new means of communication in the twenty-first century - the computer. As the name implies, in its early stages of development, the device will be used for just that purpose - to make complex calculations. But as the years pass, and the speed of computation increases to amazing levels (well over a trillion computations in a single second) the manipulation of huge quantities of information, such as the million or so tiny dots into which a picture can be analyzed will also become part of their job. To tell you all the uses to which these computers will be put would take more time than we have, but one of the important ones is letter writing.

Imagine being able to send a telegram to someone anywhere in the world from your own desk, or to several people if you prefer, and get a response back the same day. And the cost of this service? Nothing! Well, almost nothing. In order to have computer communications facilities available, one will first have to buy a computer, at a cost of, say $500. And then there will be a monthly charge to use communication lines, but only ten or twenty dollars. Allowing for the chance in price levels this will seem like almost nothing.

Several times I have alluded to the use of electricity to operate various devices that will be in wide use in 2006. In 2006, every home, without any exceptions, will be wired for electricity. For those of you who prefer gas lighting, I regret to say that there will not be a single home illuminated by gas at that time. The safety and convenience of electric lighting will make this a clear choice.

Since every home will be wired for electricity, each home will also have a number of electrical devices besides lighting. I have mentioned computers and televisions, which will be in almost every home. In addition, every home will have an electric refrigerating device, used in all seasons to eliminate the necessity for the delivery of ice. Many homes will have electric stoves for cooking, although for this purpose, gas does have advantages, and many will still use it. Cleaning of floors and carpets will be by means of an electrical suction device, which will collect the dust and dirt in a small bag. Most homes will have an almost endless variety of small electrical appliances - electric clocks, electric phonographs (eliminating the necessity of winding) et cetera. Does an electric toothbrush seem far-fetched? Nevertheless, they will be widely used.

Some homes will even use electricity as the source of heat in the winter. Although it is safe and convenient, using electricity to generate that much heat tends to be expensive, and most homes will rely on the less expensive choices - gas or petroleum. Every home will have central heating, and many will also have wood fireplaces or stoves, not generally as a major heat source, but more for the charm and beauty of an open flame. Many homes will also use electrical refrigerating equipment to cool the home in the summer - either the entire house or just a bedroom or two.

Every home will also have indoor plumbing, a great improvement over today. Cities like Pittsfield will have municipal sewage treatment plants, greatly expanded from the one that now exists, but smaller towns and rural areas will still use individual devices to dispose of waste. Bathrooms of the future will usually include a shower for bathing, as well as the familiar bathtub.

An unexpected consequence of the electrical revolution will be the disappearance of domestic servants. By 2006 there will probably not be more than a dozen live-in domestics in all of Pittsfield. It will still be possible to hire someone to come in and clean on a weekly basis, and many will choose that option, but there will be few, if any, maids or butlers. Electrical devices will wash clothes, wash dishes and simplify many of the other daily chores involved in conducting a household. The cost and inconvenience of maintaining a domestic staff simply won’t make sense.

You may wonder how the people of the twenty-first century will generate all the electricity needed for these purposes. As you can probably imagine, all kinds of resources, from water and wind power to coal and oil burning will be devoted to this. One resource you cannot imagine will result from a scientific discovery still to be made. As you know, matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but ways will be discovered of converting matter directly into energy here on earth - creating enormous amounts of energy, and tapping directly the energy source that powers the sun and the stars. Preventing the use of this power for destruction as an instrument of war while still allowing its use for peaceful purposes will be the major challenge for international diplomacy in the twenty-first century.

Before we leave the world of 2006, I should mention the many advances in health care that the world will see in that time. Most infectious diseases will be in fairly good control. It will be unusual, for example, to hear of anyone dying from consumption, or even of anyone suffering from it. One will know of many octogenarians and nonagenarians still enjoying very good health.

As I tell you all this, I’m sure there is a question on many of your minds. The answer to it is: “Yes, the Monday Evening Club will still exist, very much in the form it has today.” With one slight difference, however. There will be no cigars. By that time it will be proven what a few of you already suspect: These things are not good for you.

With these words, the reader snuffs out his cigar, and in an atmosphere hazy with cigar smoke, the comment period begins.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Don't cry for me, Argentina: an exploration of our South American neighbor


Presented to the Club in 2008 by Michael A. Shirley

Jean, my wife, and I have been going to Argentina for the last four years. We spend two months there in our winter. I’ve traveled and worked in a number of countries in my life so to keep going back to the same country four times should mean that it is an interesting place and has something to offer. This evening I should like to share that with you by appealing to the tourist in you as well as the economist, historian, sociologist, politician and observer of world trends. I hope you will be entertained.

Firstly Argentina is on our doorstep. Well not geographically but developmentally. Although in our hemisphere and eight hours by plane from Miami, it was inhabited by indigenous Indian tribes and discovered by Europeans about the same time as North America so we have much in common. But while we have advanced to become the major super power Argentina has spectacularly prospered, being ranked at the end of World War II as the fourth richest nation in the world only to fall back amongst the pack through one economic crisis after another, the last of which in 2001, the largest default the world has ever known, has in this era of globalization led me and many foreigners to explore this fascinating country.

Argentina is the second largest country of South America after Brazil and the eighth largest country in the world. Argentina is a plain, rising from the Atlantic to the Chilean border and the towering Andes peaks. Aconcagua (22,834 ft.) is the highest peak in the world outside Asia. Argentina is also bordered by Bolivia and Paraguay on the north, and by Uruguay and Brazil on the east. The northern area is the swampy and partly wooded Gran Chaco, bordering on Bolivia and Paraguay. South of that are the rolling, fertile Pampas, which are rich in agriculture and sheep- and cattle-grazing and support most of the population. Next southward is Patagonia, a region of cool, arid steppes with some wooded and fertile sections.

Who were here when the first Europeans arrived? There were Indian tribes about whose history is little known. The main group in the North were the Guarani tribes.The traditional range of the Guaraní people is between the Uruguay River and lower Paraguay River in what is now Paraguay, the Corrientes and Entre Rios Provinces of Argentina, southern Brazil and parts of Uruguay and Bolivia. They are still there today but European colonization has reduced their dominance which has been diluted by intermarriage resulting in the term, mestizos. However the language is widely spoken across their traditional homelands most notably in those areas bordering Paraguay where it is used amongst all classes and ethnic groups as a symbol of national distinctiveness, and is an official language.

The other noteworthy tribe is the Mapuche who live mainly in Chile but have in the past spilled into Southern Argentina. They have fought against Spanish incursions for 300 years & have resisted Spanish & Chilean expansion in recent times but the European has proved unstoppable so that their lands have shrunk under pressure from mining & agricultural companies. Encouragingly today their language thrives and with a new found pride they are fighting for their rights in the courts with more success in Chile than Argentina. Little is known of their pre-Columbian history except they successfully resisted many attempts by the Inca Empire to subjugate them, despite their lack of state organization. And as an aside interestingly enough an analysis of their chickens’ DNA link them to Polynesians.

Back to Argentina, actually Buenos Aires for the foundation of that settlement was a key historical event in the future development of the country and that also affected Uruguay and Chile, Latin America’s Southern Cone. The main Spanish foothold, wealth and administration was centered in High Peru around the middle of the 16th century when they defeated the Inca Empire. The famous Potosi silver mines were “the stuff of their dreams”. In short, the conquest and population streams developed by the Spaniards left from three different places: Higher Perú, Chile and Asunción del Paraguay. From Higher Peru, the cities of Santiago del Estero (1553), Tucumán (1565), Córdoba (1573), Salta (1582), Catamarca (1583), La Rioja (1591) and Jujuy (1593) were founded. The stream leaving from Chile founded the cities of Mendoza (1561), San Juan (1562) and San Luis (1594). And the one leaving from Asunción del Paraguay, founded Santa Fe (1573), Buenos Aires (1580) and Corrientes (1588). The Indian resistance prevented these streams from settling down in the South.

The first settlement in 1536 which Pedro de Mendoza founded when he sailed up the Rio Plata never really established itself because of the relentless Indian attacks. It wasn’t until 1580 that Juan de Garay managed to establish a permanent settlement. Yet the city was unable to take advantage of its wonderful situation, on the magnificent estuary of the Rio Plata and with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. In the Spanish Empire it was believed that wealth primarily consisted of gold and silver and Buenos Aires had neither. Before 1610 it was little more than a village with roughly 500 inhabitants, castaways in a double sea, the Pampas which they dared not explore because they knew little beyond the outskirts of the city and the Rio Plata which flowed into the Atlantic.

The Spanish commercial system in the mid-sixteenth century relied on fleets or convoys escorted by warships which sailed twice a year from Spain to avoid the pirates and British. They traveled between Cadiz mainly and the isthmus of Panama, where they would unload their goods to be transported to Panama City on the Pacific coast, reloaded on to ships for a port near Lima and distributed through Peru. The port of Buenos Aires was neglected and registered ships, the only ones allowed, were scarce.

Buenos Aires turned to the nearest ready source of wealth, viz. Brazil, which under the Portuguese was a rich colony but not allowed to trade with the city so smuggling became the main activity. To provide barter and money to obtain smuggled goods a bizarre practice sprang up, a practice which was a precursor of future Argentina’s major industry. Livestock in the countryside around Buenos Aires had been reproducing on an extraodinary scale so groups called vaquerias were set up to slaughter the unclaimed cattle nicking their Achilles tendons & slitting their throats just to obtain their hides leaving the rest of their bodies to the wild dogs & rats which plagued the Pampas. However the vaquerias were important because they gradually began to establish political boundaries.

Of course the issue that must be running through your minds at this stage is the comparison between North and South America. Both Britain and Spain were desperate to hang on to their colonies. In 1776 Britain was losing its grip and the game was almost up. Spain meanwhile was not faced with such determined or organized opposition but she needed to find a more effective way to administer the enormous area under her jurisdiction. That same year the Viceroyalty of the Rio Plata was formed which placed a vast area including Alto Peru, Lima, several well established cities like Cordoba, Mendoza (previously ruled from Santiago in Chile) and Ascuncion, the first city to be founded in what was to become Paraquay. This catapulted Buenos Aires into major prominence but set the scene for the subsequent endless battles, literally, very often, with other cities and jurisdictions.

The formation of the Viceroyalty of the Rio Plata marked the beginning of a prosperous period. Trade expanded enormously with ships arriving from Europe and North America, including whalers. Porteno, the name given to Buenos Aires, trading houses sprung up. Immigration increased mostly from Spain but also Italy, France and other countries.

This period did not last long enough as conflicts between neighboring cities, thoughts of independence from Spain, the French Revolution, turmoil in the monarchies of Europe brought on by Napoleon and English invasions interrupted this prosperity.

In 1806 the English from a base on the other bank of the Rio Plata, now part of Uruguay, mounted an invasion of Buenos Aires only to be repulsed. They returned the following year but with the same result. Oh, Calamity of Calamities, said the English and probably many Argentines too in later years! (Please forgive the jingoism!)

There were repercussions and sequelae. The city gained in prestige, it’s administrative structures suffering no damage and managing to retain the respect of the provinces. Its military reputation soared. The Spanish regiment stationed there was really not interested in fighting so an army of locals was recruited especially before the second assault. The English were not novices but fighting men of note especially in their battles with Napoleon. The people’s courage and enthusiasm won the day. And finally the Spanish King’s Representative had been overthrown, an unprecedented event in Spanish imperial history. That Representative, by name Raphael de Sobramente, had followed to the letter instructions which ordered the Viceroy in the event of a foreign invasion to safeguard royal funds along with those of private individuals and to flee which is precisely what he did.

The year 1810 resembled those years leading up to the establishment of the North American constitution. The May Revolution saw various sectors of society with different ideas for the fate of Argentina come together. Some wanted independence from Spain, others, particularly loyalists especially in the provinces advocated a “wait and see” approach while all debated a new concept, that people could choose their own rulers. The old idea that power lies in the crown because it is legitimately given by God was complicated by the fact that the crown had been snatched from the rightful king. This was all revolutionary stuff. Meanwhile criollo (those born in South America not Spain) power was increasing in the legal and military arenas. Military corps were formed depending on their origins, Galicians, Catalans, Arribenos (citizens from the north), mestizos, Blacks. In general over the next 70 years Argentina was evolving to its present shape. The major problem was the relationship between the progressive more sophisticated Buenos Aires and the outlying provinces which were often run for periods by caudillos (little dictators) while at other times by citizens’ councils. The conflicts and civil wars of the years before 1860 were appalling. Leaders were overthrown or assassinated. Prominent men tried to introduce a constitution to unite the areas into a nation. Interminable arguments centered around whether Buenos Aires should be given the capital, much resisted by those Portenos who wished it to remain the capital of Buenos Aires Province. They did not want to see it given up to the nation. Along the way Argentina formally declared independence in 1816.

Suffice it to say that in these years leading up to the end of the 19th century Argentine society was becoming recognizable as we know it today and the significant events occurring in the rest of the world were coming to bear on that society.

The period from 1880 to 1910 was called the Belle Epoque, characterized by peace in Europe( the last war being the Franco-Prussian War of 1870), France resuming its prominent position, Britain becoming the dominant world power and Germany not yet in a position to put the fear of God into rest of Europe. I might add that from a Latin American perspective the United States was seen to be pursuing an aggressive imperialist policy with its occupation of Cuba, the Phillipines and Puerto Rico and encroaching on Pan-American affairs.

Unlimited progress, the elimination of nationalist movements, the lessening importance of religious ideologies, free capital movement and widespread immigration were all cause for reasonable optimism. Argentina went from a country with fairly promising prospects and valuable natural resources but lacking a capital city or a State apparatus, a country in which a third was occupied by Indians and which had no currency of its own and no importance in world markets, to the most advanced in South America with a significant degree of importance in the world’s investment, production and consumption. It boasted an extensive railroad network. Its education system was admirable and it possessed a sizable middle class giving it a stability it had not previously known. The rather conservative regimes of this period relied on the principles of immigration, education and peace. Immigration was not discriminatory. An emphasis was placed on primary education and a deliberate effort was made to avoid wars with neighbors.

The country took advantage of the technology of the time. Just as barbed wire transformed the Mid West so too it did the same in the vast Pampas, defining property limits and lots for pasture, and with delineating cattle from crops. The Australian wind-pump made water available everywhere and steam seed drills and combined harvesters made an appearance. The other key invention that changed the face of the Argentinian countryside was cold storage. The first refrigerated ship left for Europe in 1879 and soon the demand for tasty, fattier beef spurred crossbreeding of cattle.

In 1910 Argentina was talked about in El Dorado terms. In a very favorable environment a transplant of European civilization had been achieved (Buenos Aires was called the “Paris of Latin America”). And yet the transformation to an orderly, just democratic society did not go smoothly just as you might point out it did not in Europe either. An outstanding problem with Argentinian public life still evident today is the politics of the pact, agreement and alliance. Politics is more about personalities than policies. Yes, this has its uses in avoiding conflicts and confrontations but it did give rise to an illusory and deeply immoral electoral system. Great store was placed in the adoption of an Election Law in 1912 which enfranchised men.

I can’t bore you with the details of Argentinian life until 1943 when the name Peron becomes familiar but I can give you an overview of events and trends. Until 1930 parliamentary politics reigned with identifiable parties, Conservatives and Radicals, but elections were rigged, electoral fraud was rife and the concept of a loyal opposition did not exist. Besides the worldwide Depression hit Argentina as it did everywhere else. The Government announced that they would protect their sources of wealth in order to tackle the crisis and reconstruct the economy. As it happened this wealth belonged to the men in government, the big cattle breeders and farm owners, the people involved in the international meat trade and this was of pivotal importance in overcoming the crisis. The poorer peoples’ suffering was of a lower priority. There was a good side. Rural unemployed moved to the cities and founded small businesses, workshops, textile mills, etc. In 1930 the convoluted politics gave rise to an Army intervention, the first time a national constitutional government had been overthrown. The Army allowed conservative interests to rule, to pursue further accumulation of their riches and ignore the common good. No one seems to remember the date of this military coup and there exists a vague unease and a feeling that it was a despicable moment in Argentinian history.

However the Army was back in 1943. The soil was fertile for some sort of totalitarianism. Its success in Europe may have been blunted in the War but many Argentinians looked forward to the defeat of England and America especially because of its dependence on the former. They saw a way to become the dominant player in Latin America. Democracy did not have a good name because of vote rigging and electoral fraud. A silent workforce had grown up employed in factories and workshops around the cities enjoying high salaries, special status and full employment, a rare state of affairs in Argentina. It backed a national ideology with no political party to represent it but was prevalent in the military and upper classes. It wanted to defend national industry, reduce its dependence on Britain and feel more in control of its own affairs. Besides General Franco’s successes in Spain were an inspiration. With confusion reigning in the political arena and an army clique without a clear idea of what it wanted thrust into the limelight the country appeared leaderless. Great pressure was being applied to abandon their neutrality in the War but the army clung to it as a matter of principle (and it might be added as a matter of sympathy for the Axis). Finally in March, 1945 towards the end of the War they were forced to declare war on Germany and Japan, a prerequisite to join the UN.

The Army’s stock was very low. But there was one thing they could salvage: Juan Peron’s record at the Department of Labor. He had assiduously courted the unions, raising wages, making plans to increase workers’ rights and most importantly organizing unassigned workers into new unions. However his power base was a threat to all the authorities including the US. But despite this, arrest and detention he emerged to win a close election in June, 1946.

His ascent may or may not have filled a void but here was something new. His political language was different, no party agenda other than “social action”, that the State should play a stronger role in the economy, the underprivileged should be helped and while no one quite knew what his totalitarian views were he was helped by often being seen with his wife, Evita, a radio actress and a household name of whom he was very proud. Besides the other side the Democrats were discredited.

What did Peronism mean in the nine years that Juan Peron ruled? It was nationalistic, statist & autarkist, i.e. patriotic, the State to control the economy & the country to be self-sufficient. Argentina’s considerable monetary reserves were whittled away by 1951 retiring a not very big foreign debt, nationalizing foreign companies and vastly increasing the number of civil servants. The country could be self-sufficient right after the war but as nations picked up their economies that became unsustainable, competition for exports increased, investment in nationalized utilities companies lagged and inflation priced their goods out of markets.

He became increasingly dictatorial buying up all the radio stations, starting government newspapers and harassing the opposition even with imprisonment. Evita, an extraordinary woman and the theatrical author of my title, assisted him ably by establishing contact between the government and the workers’ movement through the unions, by leading the Peronista Women's Party (women were newly enfranchised) and by her fanatical oratory which gave her a certain mysticism. She also ran a very visible social welfare program.

Peron altered the constitution and won a second term in 1951. Why Peron should have gone under in September, 1955 remains a bit of a mystery. His power base was enormous, he controlled the mass media and still won elections and addressed huge crowds. His bankrupting economic policies were being reversed to quite good effect.

However, irrationally egged on by subordinates he began attacking the Catholic Church quite viciously, after Evita’s death it became well-known that he began keeping the company of girls from a secondary school and had an affair with a 14 year-old girl whom he installed in the presidential residence. The public still loved him but they lost respect. A General in Cordoba with no real support began a revolt. Even though the Armed Forces were divided no one stepped forward to defend him not even his own supporters. He resigned and fled to Paraguay. Remarkably the most discredited man in Argentina he returned to power 18 years later.

With time dwindling and your patience possibly becoming exhausted I’ll bring you up to date quickly. My excuse is that Argentina may not be a major player in the world but it is in Latin America which is on our doorstep and is currently becoming an area of concern to the US, witness the populist Presidents in Venezuela, Bolivia and Equador. After Peron a cruel military dictatorship took control in 1976 mostly to counteract a growing group of terrorist leftists called Monteneros. Opponents were tortured in prisons around the nation, executed( a favorite way was throwing them out of airplanes) and life became stifling. The junta miscalculated by invading the Malvinas or Falkland Islands and the British launched a counter attack which partly because of tacit American help won the day. This loss sealed the military regime’s fate. They ignominiously were thrown out.

The recent history consists of vain attempts to get the economy right. In the 1990s to prevent a repeat of the murderous inflation they had experienced the peso was pegged to the US dollar, one for one. It worked for a few years but resurgent inflation unbalanced the strategem so imports priced in dollars became increasingly cheap and exports dear. In 2001 the government devalued the peso by 66 percent devastating the poor and middle classes. One day you had $90,000 or 270,000 pesos in the bank the next 90,000 pesos or $30,000. The government defaulted on its debts. You cannot imagine what a devastating effect this has had on living standards, morale and esteem.

In the last seven years a family, the Kirshners from the Southern Province of Santa Cruz has taken control of the government and overseen fast economic growth, 7-9 percent a year by holding the peso’s value down against the dollar and taking advantage of the record world prices of meat, wheat, soya beans and sunflower seeds. To rein in inflation, again now running officially at 8 percent but unofficially at 20 percent the government has slapped taxes and quotas on exports provoking farmers to protest massively by blocking roads and holding back produce. The finance minister resigned last week. Argentina looks headed for another crisis. “But don’t cry for me, Argentina we’ve seen it all before”. I should point out that the Kirshners and allies all belong to the Peronista Party which still dominates political life in the Federal Capital and most of the provinces making the eternal struggle between a centralist government and autonomous provinces easier to manage. One still does not see much meaningful discussion of policies. It’s still personalities being supported or recruited with their power bases.

I like to dwell on the comparison between the evolution of the countries in North and South America. Was the absence of an overriding port or city in North America a factor? Buenos Aires so dominated Argentina that provinces could not display real independence to negotiate as equals. Was an Anglo Saxon heritage a factor? Spanish colonies have not exactly developed into successful democracies. And yet today’s Spain is undoubtedly one. Discussions I love!

Four years ago I happened to land in this interesting country. In many ways it is a European country, not South American especially Buenos Aires. It is cheap even in these days of a devalued dollar. A two-bedroom apartment costs $2000 or less for the month. A meal in one of the many excellent restaurants never costs more than $35 and that includes the most heavenly steaks (from cattle eating grass on the Pampas), a bottle of superior wine and tip.

The Portenos and Argentinians in the Provinces are friendly, welcoming and keen to show off their magnificent country. Perhaps they are a little fascist but they are wonderful soccer players, currently No. 1 in the world and I watch cricket at old British clubs. Their tennis players rank with the world’s best.

Buenos Aires is a fine city with superb art and cultural museums, leafy parks and plane trees lining every street. The summers, our winters, are warm, sunny and inviting. Then there is Antartica and its glaciers, the Andes, Mendoza where Jean and I go for two weeks to taste the Malbecs and this year we went to the Northwest where there is more of an indigenous Indian culture. We have not yet seen the Iguazu Falls which apparently outshine Niagara.

I have not mentioned such fascinating subjects as the Anglo-Argentinian community (in 1900 300,000 English lived in Argentina), the Jewish community ( large and influential), the Blacks (disgracefully and deliberately rubbed out) and finally the Indians (denied their rightful place).

I would urge you to follow the country’s progress. It is and will be important in our hemisphere and I can bet a visit will be an adventure well rewarded.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The fall of a sparrow: Regathering Biblical fauna in the deserts of the Holy Land



Presented to the Club by Erik Bruun


"There's a special providence to the fall of a sparrow"
—Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

1. The Six-Day War


On June 5th, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack on Egyptian armies massed along their border on the Sinai Peninsula. Although they were greatly outnumbered, the Israeli air force had destroyed virtually all of the Egyptian jets in a daring dawn attack, clearing the way for a ground assault.

Three armored divisions invaded northern and central Sinai. While the southernmost division led by Ariel Sharon engaged the Egyptians in battle, the central division raced across the seemingly impassable mountainous desert to two valleys behind the Egyptian army. When the Egyptian soldiers broke into a retreat, they were caught in a trap and soundly defeated. In four days, the Israeli army held the entire Sinai Peninsula and the eastern side of the Suez Canal. Israel lost 338 soldiers in the Sinai, while 12,000 Egyptians were killed, 5,000 captured and 20,000 wounded.

Meanwhile to the north, Israeli soldiers captured Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In less than a week Israel had transformed itself. On June 4th it was a precarious nation surrounded by bellicose and heavily armed governments boasting they would wipe Israel into the sea. By June 10th, all of the Arab armies had suffered humiliating defeats and Israel held key geographic regions to defend itself from attack and important cultural and religious sites, including Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.

2. Don't shoot! It's a Dorcas Gazelle!

In this heroic time, Avraham Yoffe stood out as slightly different kind of hero. A military man all his life, he had fought with the British Army in World War II and three years later led Israeli soldiers in the war for independence against England and later Arab soldiers. In 1956 he led an armored brigade down the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba to capture Sharm el-Sheik, the southernmost tip of the Sinai. And in 1967 he led the central division that cut off the Egyptian retreat and trapped nearly half of the enemy army.

Charming, abrupt and charismatic, Yoffe also had a soft spot for wildlife. He had famously once ordered a cease-fire in a minor battle when he saw an injured Dorcas gazelle trapped between combatants. In 1964, Yoffe became director of the Israeli Nature Reserve Authority. On the seventh day of the Six-Day War, Yoffe's credibility gave his agency newfound power. He used his prestige to expand the agency's reach.

Yoffe established a network of rangers to monitor wildlife throughout Israel and greatly expanded the number of nature reserves in the Jewish nation. Two of these reserves were called "hai bar," which literally means "wild life". The mission of these parks was to gather and breed animals mentioned in the Bible that were either endangered or extinct in Israel with the goal of reintroducing them into the wild.

Hai Bar Carmel in the north was very small. Situated in the forested hills outside of Haifa, it was closed to the public. But Hai Bar Yotvata in the Jordanian Valley in the south was much larger and open to visitors. The Yotvata Kibbutz gave the land to Yoffe for the reserve. The Authority built a chain-link fence around the 8,000-acre reserve. Yoffe collected animals for the parks from around the world. He hired Bedouin hunters to capture 15 ibex from the nearby Judean hills, paid a Catskills game reserve for three addaxes, had antelope brought in from the Sahara Desert, ostriches from Sudan, and the very rare Arabian oryx from the San Diego Zoo.

Ever the wheeler-dealer, Yoffe traded some of his ibex to the Iranian government for two Mesopetamian deer that were on one of the last flights out of Tehran hours before the government collapsed to the Ayatollah Khomeni. A few days later a Revolutionary Guard firing squad executed the Iranian official responsible for the exchange.

Hai Bar Yotvata got a lot of press as a modern Noah's Ark, but it was an expensive endeavor and so Yoffe turned to Jewish and conservation communities in the United States for financial support. The Holy Land Conservation Fund was started to support the two hai bars, and later other conservation efforts in the Middle East.

3. Clueless in the Holy Land


In 1983, just at the time I was graduating from college, clueless as to what I would do with my life, my father was president of the Holy Land Conservation Fund. I had been rejected by the Peace Corps because of bad lungs, but itched for adventure. "Why don't you work for the Nature Reserve Authority in Israel?" my father suggested. And so I did.

I arrived on the floor of the Jordanian Rift Valley at the end of August, just in time for the peak mid-day temperature to drop to 115 degrees. Stepping out of the bus was like walking into an open oven. My new boss, Roni, brought me to a small apartment in Eilat that was my home for the next 6 months and told me to meet him outside the next morning at 5. He, two other workers and I drove in his pickup truck (with me almost always in the back) 30 miles north to Hai Bar Yotvatah to work.

My job was to feed six small herds of animals every morning and then undertake different tasks in the early afternoon--drive along the fence to check for holes, help at the entrance gate, or some small job that needed to be accomplished. The reserve was definitely a desert. There was an elevated water table underneath our feet that nourished acacia trees and enough plants to sustain a small collection of gazelles trapped inside the reserve when the fence was built, but it was hardly an oasis. To the west lay the Judean hills and to the east a gigantic wall of mountains that was Jordan, which was still officially in a state of war with Israel. You could see military convoys driving north along the foot of the mountains from Aqaba carrying ammunition and weapons from the United States to supply Saddam Hussein's army in his war against Iran.

Although I was alone most of the time, I felt taken in by my co-workers and the wildlife rangers. Within a week of my arrival they included me on a two-hour, four-jeep convoy to one of the most beautiful valleys I've ever been. One of the rangers was getting married. He had just returned from serving in his military unit in Lebanon for the event, to which he carried an M-16 semi-automatic rifle. Six months earlier, he and one of my co-workers, Natan, had been captured near this very spot by an Egyptian border patrol, held hostage for a day, beaten up, and then released. Natan lost a tooth in the deal. Despite the good-natured protests of his colleagues and future wife, the groom insisted on keeping his rifle strapped on for the wedding ceremony. It was the first Jewish wedding I had attended, and the most memorable.

4. Noah's Ark


I tended to seven different types of animals at the Hai Bar. The most familiar to you and the most difficult to take care of were the ostriches. Cartoonists at Looney Tunes couldn't come up with a more preposterously dumb animal. Equipped with the brains of a bird, they have zero sensibility and endless curiosity, mainly in a quest to eat anything they can get down their throats. One time I hammered nails along a pen that held some of the adolescent ostriches. They gathered around me and kept trying to eat the nails and grab the hammer with their beaks, which have tiny teeth. In addition to hurting like heck when they bit my hand, if one had gotten a hold of a nail, it would have punctured the ostrich's intestine, resulting in death.

This did happen once while I was there when tourists on a bus threw food, including tomatoes, at the ostriches that would literally go up to the windows of cars and buses and peck at the glass. I still remember the row of tomatoes lodged in the neck of an ostrich like a stack of billiard balls. Someone threw a piece of metal also, though, and it killed the ostrich that ate it. I did the autopsy with Roni. This consisted of cutting into the underbelly of the gigantic dead bird and putting our hands into the intestines until we found the object. Ick!

Ostriches were one of the two most dangerous animals in the park. They have gigantic and powerful legs with huge claws at the end of their feet. In mating season male ostriches become wildly aggressive and will attack other male ostriches and people who enter their territory. The way they fight is to lift their feet and thrust their claws downward, like a knife plunging from a piston. A couple of years before I got there Natan had been attacked by an ostrich. His abdomen had been ripped open and he was hospitalized for several weeks.

The other particularly dangerous animal to humans was the Arabian oryx, which inspired the mythical unicorns. They are antelopes with horns that stick straight out. When seen from profile, it appears as if they only have one horn, similar to a unicorn. Like all of the antelopes in the park, the male Arabian oryx used their horns when they fought over the female oryxes. But because the horns are straight like a dagger, they can kill whoever is at the other end of their attacks. At that time, Arabian oryx were extremely rare, having been hunted out of existence in the Arabian Peninsula by hunters, so the bachelor herd was kept separate from the females and the one lucky male who ruled the herd in an enlarged pen.

The two other antelopes were the scimitar oryx and addax. The scimitar oryx is very similar to the Arabian oryx except that the horns curve backwards, making them much less dangerous in conflict. Addax have corkscrew-like horns and were very docile, with the exception of one very old addax who was named Moses. He lived on his own, away from the herd, in a seemingly perpetual grumpy mood.

The Persian wild ass, or onager, was the most promising animal for re-introduction. Related to domestic donkeys and zebras, they are very durable animals, capable of running hundreds of miles without stopping. We also had Somalian wild asses, which had more distinctive coloring and were notable because the males would castrate or kill each other during mating season. These males, too, were kept in separate areas.

Finally, there were the ibexes, which are wild mountain goats similar to our big horn sheep. The males have gigantic nautilus-like horns. In mating seasons they fought in what appeared to be a dainty dance, standing on their small rear legs and then bouncing toward each other to slam their horns with a thunderous clang. It was a stunning sight.

The Hai Bar also held other wild animals, including the gazelles I mentioned earlier, rodents, small foxes and poisonous snakes, which lived among the hay bales that I gathered every day to feed the herds.

5. Kafka's grand nephew


Little did I know when I arrived at the Hai Bar that I would become a bit player in the internal politics of the agency. Shortly after I arrived, a fifth employee joined the Hai Bar. She was from Jerusalem and having grown up in British-speaking Ghana spoke fluent English. "Hi my name is Tal," she said with a beaming smile on her 25-year-old face. "It means precipitation!" My stumped look prompted further explanation. "You know like the bits of water on the grass in the morning."

Tal's job was to cover the entrance gate. She was delightfully fun and to my annoyance took up with an Argentine boyfriend named Andres who was doing a doctoral study on the group behavior of a desert breed of starlings.

When I went north to visit Jerusalem Tal had offered her parents to host my stay. Her mother was away and so I only met her father. He was a quiet man and as we sat at dinner the television was on, broadcasting a documentary about the Holocaust. He broke our awkward silence by telling me that he had been in the Holocaust working on a road gang for six years. "I never got sick for a single day," he said and told me about some of the conditions he survived. He ended the discussion by saying the Six-Day War was the worst thing that had ever happened to Israel and would eventually destroy the nation.

When I returned to the Hai Bar, Tal apologized with a roll of her eyes that I had been "stuck" with her father. "No, it was interesting," I said. "He told me about his experiences in the Holocaust." Tal's jaw dropped to her bellybutton. "He's never said a word to me about it," she answered, holding tears back.

Roni was my boss. His great uncle had been Franz Kafka. "A real nut," Roni observed. His mother was from Prague and had spent World War II at Auschwitz. When I met her, I saw a number tatooed on her wrist. His father was a Palestinian Jew and had fought in the 1948 war. Roni had fought in the Golan Heights in 1973. Roni took very good care of me, as did his wife Mali. They had a small daughter Yara, who I occasionally baby-sat. I admired Roni very much.

Iran was another co-worker and a very kind, if timid man. He had the weakest handshake I have ever encountered and seemed in total contrast to the image of a rugged Israeli. It looked like a stiff wind could knock him over. He had a German non-Jewish girlfriend who had about 25 pounds on him, mostly muscle.

Finally, there was Natan, the scariest person I've ever known. Like all Israelis, he was a soldier, but Natan had also been a mercenary in the Rhodesian civil war. You got the feeling that not only had Natan killed people, but that he might have enjoyed it. I remember him talking about "khafers" with a sparkle in his eye that seemed more like a menacing glee than a twinkled nostalgia for the black people of southern Africa.

Natan had worked at the Hai Bar for many years and did not like Roni. He talked a lot about the good old days when an American named Bill Clark ran the Hai Bar before it had been open to the public. Among other things, he said that they used to hunt the wild gazelle that ran inside the park. It turned out that Roni wanted to fire Natan, but he did not have the manpower to replace him until Tal and I arrived.

When Roni did fire Natan there was a bitter divide within the southern section of the Nature Reserve Authority, revealing an agency-wide rift between the soldiers and hunters that Yoffe had brought into the authority and the more traditional conservationists who staff these types of agencies around the world. Despite the role I played in Natan's departure, he treated me extremely well and seemed to like me. Nevertheless, he was very bitter about losing his job, mainly I think because he loved the animals. It was as if he had lost his chance for redemption.

6. The fall of a sparrow


Twenty-five years later, many of the Hai Bar animals have been released into the wild. Persian wild asses live in the Ramon Crater deep inside the Negev, as do ostriches and even Arabian oryxes. Scimitar oryxes were sent to Senegal to re-populate the Sahara Desert with the wild antelopes. When Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, the Nature Reserve Authority sent ostriches as a gesture of good will.

The Hai Bar has added a predator center and a nocturnal exhibit that are open to the public for visitors, making the place seem more like a zoo than the wild game park I experienced. It has become a fixture as a tourist attraction for visitors to Eilat, a seaside resort that is very popular among northern Europeans.

I stayed in the job for six months and when it was over I flew to Kenya by myself for a month. I returned to Israel for a couple of weeks, briefly contemplated staying in the country to become a citizen, but then decided to return to the United States. I went back to visit Israel in 1987 and saw Roni at the Hai Bar. I have hardly given any thought to this experience until writing this paper. What strikes me the most in looking back is the stunning contrast between the people and events that made the Hai Bar possible and the mission of the wildlife park.

This was the toughest collection of people I've ever encountered (with the possible exception of the Monday Evening Club, of course). Roni's immediate boss from Haifa had fought in every Israeli war since 1948. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, age 50-something he was a sniper who covered an infantry platoon that included his oldest son. His boss, in turn, was a man named Dan Perry who lost a leg to a land mine in the Golan Heights. Then there was Shalom, a bird enthusiast whose heart raced at the prospect of a warbler's song. Shalom had lost his hearing in one ear from a bombardment in the 1948 war. Whenever we parted he held my hand with both hands and said "shalom, shalom" in the gentlest way you can imagine. If a teddy bear had a human face, it would look like Shalom. And to go back to Avraham Yoffe, despite his well-known charming charisma, in researching this paper I learned that soldiers under his command in the Sinai had killed Egyptian prisoners of war and that he, like other Israeli generals, turned a blind eye to it.

So here were these hardened soldiers working with the children of concentration camp survivors dedicated to preserving the lives of the most obscure collection of animals you could imagine so that they could live in the wild in places that practically no person ever visits.

It was an expensive, labor-intensive enterprise undertaken by a nation at war with its neighbors and later torn apart by the Entifada rebellions by Palestinians inside of Israel. I am hard-pressed to give a rational reason why with all of the troubles that Israel confronts the government would support year after year a project with so little quantifiable benefit.

But there it is and in a way that I cannot explain with words I completely understand it. The image that comes to mind is of when I was driving across the desert on a red 1968 Ford tractor with a cloud of dust trailing behind me and the jagged Jordanian mountains looming over the scene. I felt so small and yet complete.

It turns out that one of the prized Arabian oryx that was released into the wild died shortly afterwards, apparently bitten by a poisonous snake. I can just picture Roni's response after all the work he and so many people had put into giving the antelope the opportunity to live free in the wild.

"Well, it's the chance you take."