Sunday, February 21, 2021

That Time We Constructed A Whale

by Mary

We are not two to boast, but a few years ago we outdid Herman Melville in that Three For A Letter features not one but two whales, both of which play major roles in the narrative.

The real whale was mentioned by Procopius in passing in his History of the Wars, wherein is recorded it was a terror to shipping for years, whereas our great grey whale was based upon information gathered from that most engaging work, Hero of Alexandria's Pneumatics.

In the opening chapter of Three For A Letter, a banquet held in honour of Empress Theodora features a presentation of the story of Jonah. To the wonderment of all, our mechanical sea beast appears from behind a curtain painted with a seascape, rolls forward without any visible method of propulsion, halts at the edge of the stage, spouts, and then rolls backwards to disappear behind the curtain.

That sounds somewhat unlikely, someone in the back row has doubtless remarked. But while we have not actually built a working model, our fictional whale's remarkable performance was based upon, and extrapolated from, the aforementioned Pneumatics. Details of its construction we borrowed from Hero includes a method of moving a cart back and forth without being pushed (accomplished by ropes around axles hidden under the whale and two bags of sand) and how to produce a jet of water by the use of mechanically compressed air. We also equipped our whale with a skin of painted canvas stretched over wooden ribbing, glass eyes, and, when the leviathan opens its mighty jaws, the action reveals a stuffed red linen tongue and huge metal teeth illuminated by lamps.

We also featured further artifacts whose inner operations are described in Hero's work, including an automatically opening villa door that terrified John's servant Peter (the original instructions applied to a temple door), a mechanical satyr dispensing an unending stream of wine, and an automaton archer who shoots his arrow at a dragon.

While doubts have been expressed concerning whether any such wonders would actually work, either way Hero's instructions are good enough for us. Dammit, Jim, we are authors, not engineers.

In all fairness, we should mention now and then startling events in our fiction are actually based on real life incidents. How else could John have flown in Four For A Boy? Admittedly his flight lasted only a few seconds and ended with a crash landing but it was based on an account of a failed Victorian era suicide. Fortunately John survived -- and a good job he did too, since otherwise the series would also have come to an abrupt end.

Travels on the Roads of Life

by Eric

The pandemic has forced kids all over the country to learn from home, something technologically impossible when I went to school. The closest we came to distance learning was the occasional episode of Mr Wizard, barely visible on a tiny black and white TV set at the far-off front of the classroom. These days I'm okay with spending hours staring at a computer screen but I don't think I would have enjoyed it growing up. What I would have been happy to escape was the commute to school.

Admittedly, my walk to grade school wasn't bad. All of six tenths of a mile, according to Google Maps. (I'd have guessed it was a lot further.) Down the street past the telephone company where my grandfather worked as a custodian, the dairy, the post office, and the movie theater which charged fourteen cents admission. From there across the highway, past the pharmacy, barbershop, and police station. Yes, it does sound like some sort of small town play set, doesn't it?

The big brick box elementary school sat at the top of a steep hill that could be difficult in the winter when coated with snow and ice. Given that the school year was a mandated 180 days, even accounting for days missed due to chicken pox, measles, flu, colds, and miscellaneous vague discomforts I suffered from time to time when I got fed up with the educational system, I must have been up and down that hill 2,000 times. (I admit my calculations might be off since one of my common ailments was long-division-itis) I can still recall the sidewalks in intimate detail - the bumpy stretch of macadam, the place where a root had buckled and broken a concrete slab. Not long ago I walked up that hill for the first time in ages and those details remained. The sidewalks hadn't been touched in fifty years. The hill seemed steeper though. I wouldn't try running up it these days.

Although the actual journey wasn't onerous I could only run so fast carting my bulging book bag (no backpacks yet) which meant I had to choke down my Cheerios at high speed to arrive before the bell. And naturally the familiar walk soon became boring. I muttered made-up stories to myself to relieve the tedium.

After grade school my commutes got tougher. Sartre had it wrong. Hell isn't other people, hell is a school bus stuffed with adolescents. I can't bring myself to say more.

Driving the roughly twenty miles from home to college was a bit less horrific. Except in winter. The Plymouth wasn't exactly a chariot of the gods to begin with -- the body was mostly patches of unpainted unsanded fiberglass and it left a billowing black trail of smoke in its wake. I had to stop for oil fill-ups more frequently than gasoline. Add to that, during the months of icy weather, the heater didn't work and the tires were bald. One particular intersection required me to start pumping the brakes (such as they were) a half mile in advance when there was snow on the road. Then there was the hill with the sharp curve by the power plant where I twice executed a 180 degree pirouette, luckily not when one of the enormous gravel-laden trucks that frequented the road was coming.

During my last year in law school I worked at a county law library during the day and took night classes in lower Manhattan. This involved bussing from Weehawken NJ (yes, there's really a town with that name) to Jersey City in the morning and taking the subway to Manhattan in the afternoon, then taking another subway at ten PM uptown to the Port Authority in order to catch a bus back to Weehawken. The dark deserted streets I hiked to reach the Canal Street station after classes were exactly as you've seen on film with steaming manholes and the occasional taxi. Since the area was mostly warehouses it wasn't as dangerous as it looked. I felt more uneasy making my way through the maze of corridors, escalators and stairways in the Port Authority.

Luckily I've worked from home for the past twenty-five years and haven't had to commute, so that's that. I'll shut up before I start sounding like one of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen outdoing each other about the hardships of their childhoods, living in shoe boxes or paper bags or an 'ole in the ground.