Tar and Feathering

We have all heard of tar and feathering as a punishment in colonial times, but the question is if it was simply a method of humiliation, or a truly horrific method of torture. The question hinges on what is meant by “tar.” Is it the asphalt tar used today which has to be heated quite hot to become liquid, and also retains much more heat than water? That tar would certainly burn and blister the skin enough to cause death.

(I have experienced a spot of hot asphalt tar in my lifetime.  It burns like crazy, it sticks so tightly to your skin you can’t shake it off, and it delivers so much heat, it continues to burn even when the body part is rinsed in cold water.  Evil stuff!)

But today’s asphalt tar was largely unknown in colonial days. It probably was “pine tar,” a sticky liquid at room temperature and widely used to preserve wood. That would have been available in almost any farmer’s barn, and it was well-known to be very sticky. It is still used in baseball for its stickiness. Also, drawings I have seen of someone tarred and feathered shows the victim riding a pole (as above) or running off, which he could not do if hot asphalt tar was used. “Pitch” could also refer to a pine-tree product, and not asphalt pitch.

Pine tar is a destructive wood distillate.  Turpentine is a naturally-occuring ingredient.  Some claim the more turpentine, the better the product.

Even the nickname North Carolina as a “the tar heel state” probably refers to pine tar that they have long produced from their many pine trees. The origin of the nickname is unknown, but one theory is that it began during the Civil War when North Carolina confederate soldiers were said to “stick together like they had tar on their heels.”

Maybe the story is true, but probably not.


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Pedophilia And the Cause of Homosexuality

I was a loner growing up (still am, basically), often wondering around Philadelphia alone, going to the Ocean City boardwalk alone, so it is no wonder I was often accosted by homosexual pedophiles (two separate impulses, only sometimes overlapping). When I was still in my early teens, I counted 13 times I had been accosted. (I had a cute butt back then).  Being accosted was common for me, even expected, and my reaction when feeling a stranger’s hand resting on my thigh was only a bored sigh and rolling of my eyes, “Here we go again.”  The last that I remember was at Penn State when I was about 20.  I guess I lost my appeal after that.  Every accoster quickly backed off, full of apologies for the misunderstanding, when I loudly said, “Hey, where’s a cop? I’m no queer!” —this coming from the squeaky voice of a skinny 13-year-old, directed at an adult man.

I was once accosted on the Ocean City boardwalk.  The guy paid my way into the Strand movie theater to see an Abbot and Costello movie.  When I pulled my “Where’s a cop?” routine, he claimed to only be reaching for the popcorn in the dark, and we quickly left for the boardwalk.  He wanted to take me back to his room, which no way was going to happen.  I was still figuring out how to get out of the situation (Simply running off was not an option. I don’t know why.), when I saw our classmate, Dick Kitts, of all people, walking alone.  Mutually fortified, we both ran off together.  We later saw the guy on the boardwalk again, alone.  He looked scared to death to see us.

In retrospect, this was cruel, but probably the best response at the time. In those days, even gays thought gayness was an acquired taste, no different than developing a liking for broccoli. You wouldn’t like it at first, but you would learn to like it if experienced often enough. And many adult men were eager to provide the experience.

Since gayness was thought to be learned, the result of some early perverted influence, it could also be unlearned. Just keep an open mind.  If you were not a normal heterosexual, it was because you had learned to like homosexuality too much too early.  You needed to experience more of the much superior heterosexual activity.

So, today when I see gay parades with marchers holding signs, “We were born this way!” I am happy they are finally getting it right, and when this concept becomes widely accepted, such parades will no longer be needed.  And trolling for young candidates will only be a quaint historical activity of a different time, long, long ago.


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Zen And the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig back then.

This is a book that became very popular in the early 1970s when it was first published. I read it then (or thought I did), lost my copy of the book, bought another copy years later that came out for the 25th anniversary, tucked it away unread, forgot about it, recently came across it again, and am now reading it for sure—finally.

It is autobiographical. The author, Robert Pirsig, was a child prodigy with an IQ of 170, but developed mental problems and underwent electroshock therapy that largely wiped out his previous personality and memories. So did the unnamed narrator.  Pirsig died this past April at age 88.

The book is a first-person description of a long-distance motorcycle trip with his son and two friends to Bozeman, Montana,where he was a professor of rhetoric at Montana State University before the electroshock therapy. They stay with old friends who knew him then, but haven’t seen him since.  His two traveling companions turn back for home while he and his son continue on to the West Coast.

We get to know his son, Chris, and it comes as a shock to learn from a Google reference that the real Chris was killed in a 1979 mugging when he was only 22.

The story line ties together Pirsig’s philosophy. The hours of isolation on the noisy motorcycle provide time to think. He calls these themes his “Chautauqua” after the famous series of informative lectures held in Chautauqua, NY.

In the title, Zen is not meant to be part of motorcycle maintenance, but is in opposition to it. Zen represents seeing life in terms of feelings and connections, where motorcycle maintenance represents the logical, technical view where understanding comes by division into smaller and smaller understandable parts. People generally fall into one or the other of those two categories of understanding. He represents the technical approach and does most of his own motorcycle maintenance and repairs. His traveling companions are a married couple who represent the other extreme. They paid a lot of money for a high-end motorcycle, care nothing for how it works, and pay a mechanic to do any repairs or adjustments. Logical explanations actually offend them.

(You may have noticed that instructions everywhere have all but disappeared.  At best, you will get a cryptic sheet of diagrams with no written instructions and the website of a User’s Forum you can search through. Companies have found few people read instructions, anyway, and only look for them when they get stuck.)

Later, he shows how the Zen calming of the mind can improve motorcycle maintenance. He uses the old-fashioned term “gumption.” This is what gives us the courage to tackle a mechanical problem on something as complex as a motorcycle. But then, he says, there are “gumption killers,” millions of them. These cause you to throw up your hands in surrender and pay a mechanic to do it. A good example is when you reassemble the parts all back together, thinking you are finished, and you find an important piece left over. This means you will have to take it all apart again, find where the part belongs, and put it all back together. What gumption you started with is now sprawled on the floor with a bloody head.

His recommendation is to forget about it and come back maybe a month later with new gumption, rather than start immediately all full of anger and impatience. He routinely keeps a notebook of the order of disassembly. He also recommends laying out the parts on newspaper in the order they came apart. Whatever, do not rush the second disassembly and reassembly in an attempt to make up for lost time.

I can relate to this, because I still change the oil in my car, adjust the timing and change the plugs. But my car, a Mazda pick-up, is 25 years old. Newer cars are too complex and need expensive diagnostic tools for anyone to maintain it themselves.

Re-reading the book now, I don’t think I ever read much of it before. I may have started it, but was turned off by all of the psychological references, although I shouldn’t have been. Pirsig creates the ghostly Phaedrus character to represent his former persona, before the shock treatments, a character he recalls in fragments. As the fragments build up, we get a sense of his former self. Phaedrus is just another character that builds slowly.

A study guide that may help you better understand all of this is at http://www.litcharts.com/lit/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance  At the opening menu, click on “Detailed Summary & Analysis” and you will find a chapter-by-chapter summary.

Chapter 11 goes into Kant’s theory of a priority concepts that I first heard about, but didn’t really understand, in my philosophy class at Penn State. Pirsig gives a clearer explanation. If I had ever read that part before, I surely would remember it.

(Kant’s theory of a priority knowledge is knowledge gained by simply thinking, independent of sensory input. Mathematics is his primary example.)

We have a preconceived concepts of all sorts of things that are built up from a long history of sensory input. Motorcycles, for instance. And it is constantly changing with new data. Because of this a priority concept of a motorcycle, we can recognize very different looking brands and sizes as still being motorcycles. (A three-wheeler?  Is that still a motorcycle? Maybe your a priority concept would exclude it, while mine includes it.)

Modern psychologists have a different theory. In the first three years of life, we generalize every specific. We may have a specific toy boat, but we generalize it so that when we see a real boat, we can recognize it as also being a boat. The real boat may be a fishing boat or a battleship, but we know it is a boat. That is why we cannot remember anything before we were about three. Sometimes, a child gets the generalization wrong. Many teenaged boys have been embarrassed when a child, a stranger, calls them “Daddy.” The child got the category wrong, thinking “Daddy” meant any man, not the specific man that sired them.)

Pirsig also points out Kant’s opposition with David Hume, the Scottish philosopher. Hume maintained all thoughts ultimately derive from the senses. Suppose a child is born devoid of any of the senses: no sight, no hearing, no touch, no smell, no taste. This child is kept alive by technology. When this child reaches age 18, does he have any thought at all in his head? Hume would say No. Such a believer is defined as an empiricist.

Where, then, do we get the idea of cause-and-effect? Hume would say From our own imagination. Nature’s law of cause-and-effect is only in our minds.

Kant would add some concepts do not come from the senses, but are organizational concepts preformed in our brains. Space and time are examples of these a priori concepts. But Kant goes further. A motorcycle is also an a priori concept that allows us to recognize a wide variety of sensual inputs as all representing a motorcycle. Our a priori concepts may be wrong and are changeable. Maybe what we see is not a motorcycle at all, but some sort of motorized scooter. (Pirsig did not agree with Kant. Neither would modern psychologists.)

Chapter 12 opens with a return to the trip, and we hear nothing more about Hume, or much of Kant, or a priori.

If all this speculation bores you, this book is not for you. There is no moral attachment to this, so don’t feel guilty about it. But then you may miss something that would change your thinking forever, such a discussion on eliminating grading of schoolwork, or of goals in life. It’s all up to you to decide if the chance of discovery is likely to be worth the effort.

The second half of the book is mostly a discussion of Quality. When we hang a painting on a wall, why is it better than the bare wall alone? Quality. The painting has Quality; the bare wall does not. But what does that mean? And does Quality exist in objects, or in ourselves? They were important questions in the 1970s when Pirsig wrote the book, the age of the beat generation.

The narrator gradually comes to understand the search for the meaning of Quality was the source of Phaedra’s mental breakdown when he finds it is the basis of everything and is synonymous with the “Way” of the Tao Te Ching, the holy scripture of Taoism.

I’ll cut this short. You may already be bored. I’m getting bored, myself. Read the book, or at least the online summary.

You can’t read this book too often. You can’t read this book too little.


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Renewing Sewer Pipes

The old way: Dig up the street where the pipes are, haul the old pipes away, lay new pipe, connect the side pipes leading to the houses, refill the trench, repave the street. Time required: most of the summer.

The new way: Use an electric winch to drag a soft, plastic tube down one manhole, through the old sewer pipe, and out another manhole, maybe a quarter of a mile down the block. The tube is about an inch thick and 10 inches in diameter, soft and collapsed, but heavy.  Pump steam through the plastic pipe, inflating it and pressing it tight against the wall of the old sewer pipe. The hot steam also hardens it. Run a robot camera through the pipe to see where the connections to the houses are, and use another robot to cut out the plastic at each connection with a router bit.  The cutting robot also has a camera to see the process, but the camera is not as good as the first camera.  The cutting is all controlled by computer; no human touch is needed.  It’s funny to see these Ed-Norton-types handling this hi-tech equipment.  Time required: one day.

I read about this new system before I retired about 25 years ago, but it sounded so complicated, I never thought it would be practical. It turns out, almost anything is practical when compared to digging up a street.

They are doing this in front of my house right now. There are about six trucks involved. The company is from Virginia and works under contract all up and down the east coast. The next job could be anywhere.

Energy for the steam, the electricity for the winch, all come from the trucks.  They are self-sufficient.

The company doing this in my neighborhood is AM Liner East.  Their website gives more details about the process.

Sewer systems are actually two independent systems: the sanitary system that takes all of the dirty stuff to the wastewater treatment plant, and the storm system for the rainwater. A heavy rain would otherwise overwhelm the sanitary system. Nobody seems to care about the rainwater pipes. In Ocean City, these are the pipes crossing the beach at numbered streets. They carry the rainwater from the streets out into the ocean.

They tell me our sanitary sewer pipe is only 10-inches in diameter.  I had pictured something much larger, like the Paris sewers Jean Valjean ran through.  The storm sewer pipe, about the same size, runs parallel to it, closer to the center of the street, and deeper.

Like any retiree, I am out there criticizing and getting in the way.  The procedure is a strong geezer magnet.  The workers are friendly and seem used to our questions.  The main guy I was talking with was sitting in a truck with a “Datsun” baseball cap on the dash.  He proudly showed me pictures of a Datsun B210 he was restoring.

Growing up in East Lansdowne, we frequently went into the storm sewer to retrieve baseballs and footballs that had rolled into the street drain.  It took several of us to lift the heavy manhole cover  enough to squeeze through.  There were always ladder-rungs built into the wall.  I would guess the bottom was about 10-feet down and was usually dry if it hadn’t rained recently.  Rats?  I suppose they were there, but I never saw any.  We were glad to have a volunteer to go down and would reward him with bragging rights. (Always a “him.”  Girls would not go down.)

Trivia: Why are manhole covers round? A: Round is the only shape that cannot fall through the hole it covers.


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Female Beauty, Year By Year

Gene Tierney in 1941. Great lighting!

I recently came across a website (more of a click-bait site) where you enter the year you were born, and it shows you a woman, usually a popular movie star, considered to be a great beauty that year.

But when I tried my birth year (1936) it did not go back that far, no surprise. Their list starts in 1941 with Gene Tierney. But, I thought, that doesn’t matter anyway.  I should enter 1949 when I was 13 and just beginning to notice women. That brought up Gene Tierney again, only 8 years older. She never impressed me much, but I guess she was a recognized beauty in 1949. I never impressed her much, either.

Maybe I really came of age in 1945. Lauren Bacall was the beauty that year, and she did excite me—still does, though not as much now. Because of her, I was long attracted to skinny girls who never smiled and tilted their head down so they looked at me from the tops of their eyes. Her appearance had many similarities with my sister, and once I realized that, her look turned me off.  The only women with that look now are peering at me over their reading glasses.

My wife once told me years ago, with great insight, I would not want to be married to a skinny, glamorous woman, anyway.  She would take forever to put on her makeup, get dressed (even for a quick trip to the Acme), and would be a picky eater with many digestive problems (both ends). Besides, she would be like making love to a skeleton, all bumps and hard bones.  A heavier woman is obviously sensual about food and would probably be sensual about sex, too.  The longer I live, the more I am convinced she is right.

I loved Lauren Bacall’s role in her first Bogart movie, To Have And Have Not, where she plays a drifting, out-of-work lounge singer. (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?  Just put your lips together and . . . blow.”)  Hard to imagine her ever becoming a cub-scout den mother, though. That’s what I’d be looking for now. I think she was only 17 at the time of the movie, so of course she looked terrific. We all did at that age.

Brigitte Bardot didn’t make the list until 1959, the first year I was out of Penn State and on my own. She excited every guy. When I see pictures of her today, I am glad she was unobtainable.

1958 was Sophia Loren, still a good choice, and 1957 was Marilyn Monroe. They were three good years in a row. 1955 was Elizabeth Taylor. More good.

1963 was Barbara Streisand (an acquired taste), 1967 was Twiggy (Oh, puleeze!), 1994 was Drew Barrymore (Really?). I don’t recognize most after that. Their list ends in 2008 with Rihanna when trash-talking,  potty-mouths were in. She is pretty, though.

Don’t take the list seriously. It was probably made up in one afternoon by a 20-year-old intern with a stack of old movie magazines and no idea of who these women were.


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New Castle, Delaware

A shop window in historic New Castle.

New Castle is a nice place to spend a summer day if you are looking for something to do, a place low-key and easy to get to. It is where William Penn first landed, and is the pivot point for the circular top boundary of Delaware. The historical center is the Green, where anyone can direct you if you have trouble finding it (unlikely). There, you will find a statue of Billy Penn, himself, (larger than life, but one you can touch and climb on) several historical buildings, a historical cemetery, and quaint shops and restaurants. (I am not qualified to recommend shops or restaurants. Try them all.)

You can then walk along The Strand, the street along the river with magnificent historical old houses. (Don’t think about buying one.  Many cost over a million and rarely come up for sale.) There is plenty of free parking available on the streets, so there are no commercial lots.  In fact, you could drive around and simply pull over to see something interesting. (At least on a weekday.)

“Strand,” by-the-way, means a strip of land next to the shoreline, so London has a more famous road along the Thames called “The Strand,” and there is a Strand movie theater on the Ocean City boardwalk.

The city dock on the Delaware River is only a block or two away from the Green.  See what’s there, look across the river to rural Jersey, then walk south (away from the Delaware Memorial Bridge, visible in the distance) past the small beach and sailing club, and you will come to the river walk (Battery Park) that continues along the river for another mile or two. Most walkers turn around before reaching the end. Note the range lights, still lit, that once guided ships from the bay onto the river.

The historical part is similar to the Old Town section in Philadelphia, except smaller, less crowded, and friendlier. Plus you have the river walk in Battery Park if anyone still has energy left.

Google the town, and you will find links to several websites. Here is one.

I consider New Castle to be an undiscovered gem, small but far more accessible than anything in Philadelphia.  This is just between you and me—lets keep it undiscovered.

(In all of this, I am talking about historic New Castle.  Other parts of New Castle have a reputation for motorcycle clubs and late-night bar fights.  But these parts are out-ot-the-way, and you would be unlikely to end up in one.  Signs to the historic district are clear, and the route is direct.)

In memory of
Erasmus Jackson,
a native of Ireland
who departed this life
March 13, 1800
Aged 33 years.

He was beloved in life
And lamented in death

Here lieth the body of
Erasmus Jackson
daughter of
James & Jane McCullough
who departed this life
July 1 A.D. 1818
In the 42nd year of her age

And at her request was interred in
the same grave with her Husband

—gravestone in New Castle, DE



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I Love Air Dancers

The Pep Boys store only about a block away on Concord Pike has an air dancer, and I have to laugh each time I see it, waving its arms and flopping forward and back.  I wanted to learn more about them, but I didn’t know what to call it.  There was no name anywhere on it, not on a tag, not on the heavy base that contains the blower.

Almost everything I learn today comes from a Google search, but you generally have to know the name of what you are searching for. Finally, after futzing around for a while in cyberspace, I came across the name. They are commonly called “air dancers.”  The name is not standard, but that is what you search for if you want to buy one on Amazon. The blower costs about $150. A good, 20-ft. air dancer costs another $100, and that’s just for a plain one. Almost all are customized with the advertiser’s name, which can cost much more. (The one in the stock photo above looks to be about 10-ft.)

Other names are “sky dancer,” “tube man,” and “sky puppet,” but “air dancer” seems to be the name most recognized.

I was thinking of ordering an air dancer made up to look like Pierre du Pont and setting it up in front of his mansion at Longwood Gardens. Maybe even a second one made up like his wife, Alice. (A dozen staff members just fainted.) Of course, I am kidding, but I bet it would draw a crowd.

On second thought, forget it. I don’t want to be known as the looser who was fired from a volunteer job.


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