General Patton and the Shite Grave

On his daily lunchtime walks, Boyfriend has taken to unearthing tiny bits of the long-forgotten history of Oakland. They are made for one another in this regard, he and Oakland. A city that has only just started gentrifying, Oakland hosts several historically significant sites, handing Boyfriend a new treasure every week. From the evolution of the oldest business owned by an African-American woman to the fate of a Japanese grocery store in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Boyfriend has traced some very interesting stories on his recent afternoon strolls. So it didn’t entirely surprise me when the other day, as we were grabbing a snack in downtown Oakland, he glanced out of the window of the establishment and said, apropos of nothing, “You see that stairwell leading down to the train station? That was the exact location of Oakland’s first public restroom.”

"What did I say about appropriate meal-time conversation, Gustaf?"

“Now what did I say about appropriate meal-time conversation, Gustaf?” (Image source.)

This may not have been the most appropriate snack-time conversation, especially considering the fat piece of roasted potato I had just stuffed in my mouth. But it was a fascinating story. In August 1919, the City of Oakland allotted $10,000 of public funding to build Oakland’s first “comfort room,” on a site that hosted, at the time, a temporary hut for community service volunteers during WWI. The women’s section of this comfort room was provided with many more facilities than the men’s, including passageways that could accommodate baby carriages, and “rest rooms” (as opposed to “restrooms”) for the ladies to, well, rest.

Of course, with Boyfriend the conversation never stops at the end of one story. All that talk of toilets and WWI had led him to yet another tale, and before he could end the Great Comfort Room Saga with the dramatic flourish it deserved, he moved right on, without transition, to this:

“Did you know that the mayor of one of the French villages in which General Patton worked during the First World War mistakenly maintained a latrine pit under the assumption that it was the grave of a fallen American soldier?”

The first thing that comes to mind when one hears the name of General George S. Patton is his role in the Battle of Normandy. Not so well known is his role in WWI, during which he was stationed in France as Captain, and briefly as Colonel. Towards the end of WWI, Colonel Patton was given the responsibility of developing the Army’s Tank Corps. After a thorough recon of the area in 1917, he decided to establish the Tank Brigade Headquarters in a muddy little town by the name of Bourg — because what better place to learn how to man a tank than a large patch of earth slathered in mud.

George S. Patton in France in 1918. (Image source: Wikipedia)

George S. Patton in France in 1918. (Image source: Wikipedia)

But then the war ended, and for a short couple of decades, people moved on with their lives. The next time George S. Patton visited that region of France, he was a General and a hero to the people. For reasons that I imagine were both professionally and personally motivated, he traveled through some of the places he was stationed at during the last war. In Bourg, people remembered him from the last time he was there and welcomed him with a “procession of pitchforks, scythes, and rakes.” As he visited all the places that had been a part of his temporary home back in 1918, the General realized, with much amusement, that a particular “grave” by the name of “Abandoned Rear” was still being maintained by the town. Here’s the story of the grave in the General’s own words:

In 1917, the mayor, who lived in the “new house” at Bourg, bearing the date 1760, came to me, weeping copiously, to say that we had failed to tell him of the death of one of our soldiers. Being unaware of this sad fact, and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the “grave,” so we went together and found a newly closed latrine pit with the earth properly banked and a stick at one end to which was affixed crosswise a sign saying, “Abandoned Rear.” This the French had taken for a cross. I never told them the truth.

The only record of this incident is in the General’s autobiography (from which the above passage is taken), which was incomplete at the time of his death in 1945. I cannot imagine what kind of name the French mayor thought “Abandoned Rear” was, especially considering that the word “abandon” means the same in both French and English. Maybe he thought “Abandoned” was a rank in the US Army, like Captain or Major, and that “Rear” was the last name of said “Abandoned.” Or simply that whoever had gone through the effort of putting this soldier with the last name “Rear” in the ground, hadn’t then taken the time to leave a proper epitaph, instead leaving a quick note indicating the “abandoned” status of Private/Specialist/Corporal “Rear.” Whichever way this worked out, it’s not clear if George S. Patton kept the truth from the mayor simply because he didn’t have the heart to correct him, or because he had a great–if dark–sense of humor.

Personally, when I think of the young George S. Patton being walked to the site of “Abandoned Rear” by an earnest French mayor, I imagine him thinking to himself, “Dude, this is just total shit.”

“…yes, but are you one hundred percent sure?”

And yes, I do wonder if the “grave” of “Abandoned Rear” still stands in Bourg. It’s probably a long shot, but I’d be tempted to take a look if I find myself in that part of the world.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.


The Cold War and Ecological History: Why the Red Deer Won’t Cross the Long-Lifted Iron Curtain

Dearly beloved, I have missed you.

But I would also be a liar if I didn’t say I had the most wonderful ten weeks of travel in India. I played ceaselessly bemused voyeur at a friend’s wedding, soaked in the warm rains of Mumbai, picked tea in the Nilgiri mountains, and spent an afternoon socializing with Bollywood celebrities – an experience so bizarre and surreal, it belonged in a Luis Bunuel film.

I also went on a safari in the Mudumalai Forest Reserve in southern India, where I saw peacocks, bison, elephants, and langurs. And deer. I saw lots and lots of deer. Really, after the first thirty seven herds, I lost count. I mean, I understand the forest is full of spotted deer, and that’s fantastic. It’s magical when you spot that first herd: the stags with their majestic antlers, the doe grazing collectively in what I would like to believe is a wonderful show of female solidarity, and the fawns – Oh! The fawns tumbling in the undergrowth. It makes you feel like this little girl doing the rounds on the internet these days, utterly unable to get over her baby brother’s cuteness.

“Oh my gosh! I want him to stay little!”

But then you see another herd. And then another. And then another. And so forth, until the next time your sister pokes you in the ribs and says, “Look! Deer!”, your reaction is something like this:

Anyway, I am back in Berkeley. I’m soft from all the excessive eating, I’m nostalgic about the Indian summer but very, very happy to see the mist in the hills behind my apartment, I’m super-efficient at housework in the wee hours of the morning because my body hasn’t realized that it’s back on pacific time, and I’m eager to tell Boyfriend all about the trip – the tea gardens, the political developments, the trashy movies (of which I watched plenty), and the deer.

Now, he’s a big tea drinker, Boyfriend is. He is a politics junkie, he is even a fan of pop culture. But a wildlife person he is not. By the time I came to detailing my safari to him, Boyfriend had started to lose a little bit of interest in my stories. (And I don’t blame him entirely: at this point I’d been talking for four days straight.) So it surprised me when his ears perked up at the mention of the deer. Of course, I didn’t have to wait very long for the reason why he was interested in them – he held his silence while I meandered through my tales, and as soon as I was done, he said:

“Did you know the deer in the Bohemian Forest between Czechoslovakia and Germany do not cross the line that used to be the Iron Curtain? Even though there is no longer any physical barrier to prevent them from doing so?”

Oh, so that’s why deer interest you now. Because the very idea that some semblance of the Cold War continues today in a little section of the mammalian class, sends orgasmic pulses of electricity to your unabashedly nerdy brain.

But it is a fascinating story, for which you must first picture the Bohemian Forest in relation to the Iron Curtain:

Extent of the Iron Curtain. (Image source.)

Bohemian forest, south-west Czech Republic/south-east Germany. (Image source.)

In the decades following the Second World War, most eastern European countries allied politically, economically, and militarily with the Soviet Union, while most western European countries allied with one another, as well as with the United States. Marking the borders of Soviet influence were East Germany and Czechoslovakia, both bordering West Germany, which represented, at the time, truly deplorable values such as individual freedom and – gasp! – well-coiffed hair.

The Bohemian Forest, which lies at the border between the Czech Republic (formerly a part of Czechoslovakia) and West Germany, and extended the tendrils of a thriving ecosystem into both countries, was ripped right through the belly by the Iron Curtain. Physical barriers were erected along large parts of the Iron Curtain, and one such was a tall fence passing through the Bohemian Forest, marking the border between two countries, two ideologies, and two very different ways of life. Often put in place by the Eastern Bloc nations, which claimed that the barriers prevented western fascists (with their ridiculously sleek hair) from infiltrating their borders and preventing the socialist way of life, these barriers effectively acted as a detriment to large scale migration from the Eastern Bloc to western Europe. Points along the Berlin Wall, for instance, famously had nails lining the ground, so cars couldn’t pass. The fence passing through the Bohemian Forest, similarly, was electrified and heavily manned by Czech armed guards, and in the years before the end of the Cold War, nearly five hundred people were electrocuted or shot while trying to enter West Germany.

The animals of the Bohemian Forest were the undocumented casualties of the electrified fence. The Red Deer heavily inhabited the forest, and during the decades between the end of the Second World War and the disintegration of the Soviet influence, several of this species died at the fence. The ones that remained learned from the reinforced unpleasantness of venturing near the fence, and stayed away from it, thus separating the herds on either side for generations.

After the Iron Curtain was lifted, and its physical barriers brought down, Germany and the Czech Republic decided to work together to establish a transboundary wilderness refuge in the area, extending from the German Bavarian Forest National Park to the Czech Sumava National Park. The idea was for the animals to roam as they pleased, crossing the border at will, and making their habitat where they felt like.

Twenty years down, Czech and German Red Deer refuse to venture anywhere near where the fence once stood. They still live in separate communities, not even crossing over to graze. New generations of deer have been born in the last two decades, generations that never experienced the losses of the Cold War period. But they do not cross the line of ideological conflict that ended two decades ago.

Such is the fury of war. Such is the hatred and inhumanity unleashed upon the innocent babes born to mothers and fathers who hath suffered in woe, mothers and fathers who hath passed on these tales of suffering to their babes. Such is the fury of war, that even the innocent are no longer unsullied. The innocent bathe themselves in the blood of their forefathers martyred at the electrified altar of fascism, and vow to teach their children and their grandchildren that the Great Iron Curtain exists, even though the eye sees it not…

Ok, that’s bullshit. But it’s probably what you’d believe if you read the flurry of media coverage following the study, most of which fattened itself around the juicy angle, “Iron Curtain Still Exists for Deer in German and Czech Forests!” While seeded in the physical bifurcation of the forest, this behavior among the deer has little to do with the politics of the Cold War. It actually comes from migratory and parenting tradition.

Deer have “homebody” instincts, which cause them to migrate within limited areas. Migratory areas are traditional, in that the mother teaches her fawn where to roam. And these fawn, when mothers themselves, teach their children the same, and so forth. So when a two-year old fawn named Ahornia – who is being tracked by wildlife biologists via a GPS collar – mysteriously turns around and retreats when she approaches the area where the electrified fence once stood, it’s not because her mind flashes back to a vision of her great grandfather, Rádsetoulal “Little Deer” Jelínek* having his front right hoof burned to toast at the fence. No. It’s because her great grandmother taught her grandmother, who taught her mother, who taught her that she should graze within the constraints of a relatively small space.

There is, of course, the question of gender. (Isn’t there always?) Pavel Sustr, head of the Czech team studying the migratory patterns of about 1800 deer in the Sumava forest, found that occasionally, male deer venture beyond this ghost-line of the Iron Curtain. Most of them return, but at least they dare to cross it, which is a lot more than the females have been observed to do.

The reason for this too, is tradition. Female fawn remain under the care of the mother for longer than male fawn, who wander off a little earlier with the adult males of the herd. The migratory patterns, therefore, while learned by both, are slightly stronger in the females. So as per the lessons of Deer Survival 101, male deer sometimes venture far from the herd and cross the border not because they are inherently more courageous or adventurous, but because they don’t know better.

History nerds might be disappointed, I know, to learn that this continued separation of deer has nothing to do with Cold War politics. I mean, how mind-twistingly cool would that be, right? But I find this prevalence of tradition among herding animals fascinating too. While it is amazing how the same set of knowledge is passed from generation to generation, it is also interesting to see the complete lack of new knowledge, or even just exploration and curiosity. And it’s interesting mostly because it makes one realize that these are really just expectations we, as naive observers, have of animals in the wild, perhaps because we look for reflections of ourselves in everything. And reflections of our history. Therefore, I believe, the great urge to declare how “Two Decades Later, the Cold War Continues in the Animal Kingdom!”

*No, Rádsetoulal “Little Deer” Jelínek is not a real deer. It’s a name I made up as a (possibly very bad) joke – Rádsetoulal is a Czech name that literally means “liked wandering around,” and Jelínek is a Czech surname that means “little deer.” (Ahornia, on the other hand, was named by wildlife biologists. She probably doesn’t have prominent horns, or something. Don’t blame me for her name.)

Want to know more? Go here. And here. And if you’re seriously scientifically minded, here.

Transnistria: The Last Soviet Republic

Holy shitballs, Russia!

Like large parts of the rest of the world, Boyfriend and I have been following the crisis in Ukraine with keen interest. When protesters first took to the streets, my impulse – like it always is – was to support them, and we watched with sadness as yet another government treated its dissenting citizens with brutality. Then, just as we had begun to lose hope, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, in true dictator style, fled his mansion to an undisclosed location. Revolutionaries took over the Presidential palace and for the first time, the world saw in detail the sordid indulgences this man allowed himself – among other displays of absurdity, there are a couple of zoos with exotic animals on the property. Then reports started to come in about how several factions among the revolutionaries were dominated by conservative, even fundamentalist forces. Accepting that as a (hopefully) temporary part of the package deal of revolution in the modern world, we allowed ourselves to think the drama was now ending on an uplifting note. (Even parasitically corrupt but anti-Russian former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko emerged from prison, signature hairdo in place). Even President Obama came out to play, making one of his baby animal threats to Russia (you know, the kind that makes you go, “Aww!”). It was a nice, symbolic closing act to the theater of revolution.

And then, Russia pulled its troops into Crimea, a disputed territory dangling off the southern coast of Ukraine. This morning, I woke up to a BBC news update buzzing on my phone, about how Russia has issued Ukraine an ultimatum: surrender the troops in Crimea in a matter of hours, or else. Vladimir Putin, he-who-rides-horses-topless, he-who-mauls-bears-with-his-bare-hands, is lusting for war, and he doesn’t give a rat’s derriere what the rest of the world thinks.

Holy shitballs, Russia.

I woke Boyfriend up this morning with news of the ultimatum, and he murmured, eyes half-open, “Did you know there is one last Soviet republic that remains in the world today? It’s called Transdneistria.”

I take it the connection was that he was about to say he thinks Crimea is going to turn into Transdneistria too. But he slipped right back to sleep before he could say that.

Not just a funny picture anymore. (Image source.)

Not just a funny picture anymore. (Image source.)

Transdneistria or Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie, as its citizens call it, is a breakaway region of Moldova that measures roughly 250 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west, and sits on the eastern bank of the Dneister river. In 1940, Transnistria was an autonomous region of Ukraine. That same year, in a secret provision of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that the USSR signed with Nazi Germany, Romania was forced to accede a piece of its territory to Soviet control. The USSR created Moldova from this newly acquired territory, and reallocated the Transnister region of Ukraine – a Soviet republic – to Moldova.

Cut to 1990. The USSR crumbled to the ground, leaving a heavy cloud of dust in the air. Many former Soviet republics were more than happy to be independent, Moldova one among them. Originally carved out of Romania, Moldova had a Romanian majority, and never really felt a part of the USSR family. However, over half a century, especially after WWII, the Transnister region had turned into an industrial hub of sorts, attracting workers from various Soviet republics. Over decades the region developed a Russian speaking majority, and a population of factory and industrial workers who were very political, and believed in the Soviet way of life. When the USSR crumbled, the Transnistrians were deeply suspicious of the language-nationalism of the Moldovans, and worried that Moldova might try to reunite with Romania. Transnistria panicked, and declared independence in 1990. Not only did they want nothing to do with Moldova, they wanted to remain Soviet.

Moldova, fueled by the adrenalin rush of its newly acquired independence, attacked Transnistria to force them back into the fold. A bloody conflict ensued which lasted two years and took the lives of about 700 civilians, until the giant that was the Russian Army marched in, shooed the Moldovan forces back, and established peace. Moldova retreated with a whimper and a whine that has lasted more than two decades. The de facto republic of Transnistria, its feelings for both Moldova and the Soviet Union reinforced by the two-year conflict, got exactly what it wanted – the famously glorious Soviet life:

Statues of Vladimir Lenin, the maintenance of which local municipalities prioritize.

A coat of arms, and the only flag in the world, that bears the hammer-and-sickle emblem.

Socialist-realist murals on the walls of museums and government buildings.

A bureaucracy that brings life to a grinding halt every single tedious day.

Rush hour in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. (Image source.)

Rush hour in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. (Image source.)

Organized crime, corruption, illegal arms sales, money laundering.

Complete financial dependence on Russia.

The coveted position of the primary site of the denouement of all conflicts between Russia and other Eastern European countries.

In 2006, as a warning to the newly-elected, pro-Western Ukrainian President Yushchenko, Vladimir Putin – Baba Yaga of former Soviet republics; evil, seven-headed dragon from the Ukrainian fairy tales of my childhood – raised the price Ukraine would have to pay for natural gas from Gazprom. In retaliation, Yushchenko immediately tightened Ukraine’s grip on the throat of Transnistria’s illegal exports, bringing the de facto nation and its truly alternative economy, to its knees. And this is only one of the several occasions when Transnistria has played a convenient battleground for the two countries. Some political thinkers are of the opinion that the existence of this helpless little plaything has thus far prevented Russia and Ukraine from escalating their dispute over Crimea. But now that Vladimir Putin, he-who-must-not-be-named, is baying for fresh blood, Crimea has been brought to the table, and it must be had.

Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca issued a statement a couple of days back stating that Russia’s actions in Crimea are reminiscent of Transnistria. And as much as we may criticize the emptiness of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that He-who-must-not-be-named has “lost the plot,” and the laughability of Barack Obama’s threats, the truth is that no world leader can/will do anything here: there are no good wars, but there are some that are worse than others.

So we watch the schoolyard bully pick a kid up by the collar and threaten to punch his face in. And we hope against hope that it doesn’t happen. And then we make ourselves feel better because Jared Leto mentioned Ukraine in his Oscar acceptance speech last night.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.