Visiting the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

When we visited the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, I was reminded that tourists are ugly from all over. Not long after 9/11, I noticed people coming to take photos of Ground Zero. I can understand that, I like taking photos as well. What bothered me was how they posed in front of it, smiling. It just seems disrespectful. I saw the same oblivious ugliness as tourists posed in front of the list of those who died at Pearl Harbor.

The viewing platform.

The memorial is hallowed ground; the ship is below you. The platform crosses it just behind the front turret, which remains above water. This was a clever way to mark the grave of nearly 1200 men who died during the sneak attack, an enormous cross that’s not there unless you think about it. The bow and stern are marked with white buoys. Around the harbor you see cement markers memorializing the other ships sunk on that day.

The list of those who died at Pearl Harbor, without a smiling idiot.

It’s eerie, looking down through the crystal blue water and seeing the rusted hulk of the ship just below, occasionally seeping oil. Small colorful fish dart around the structure. A sign asks you to not throw coins, which contribute to the decay.

The remains of the front turret, gun removed.

The immensity of the battleship is not readily apparent below the surface. Even when you see the buoys, it’s hard to imagine. I’ve seen larger boats, like the ore boats of the Great Lakes, but not from above. The sailors who shuttle you to the platform remind you that this is a cemetery at sea, and to be respectful, but it’s quickly forgotten.

The ship stretches into the distance.

The small white dot below the other ship marks the stern. That and the slightly rust-colored tinge to the water gives you an idea of the Arizona’s size. A torpedo pierced the bow, but it sank with the superstructure otherwise intact. It’s a solemn place, or should be. Maybe they need more soldiers there to give a presence of authority; at Arlington National Cemetery, people were well behaved, especially during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I think people posed in front of the Eternal Flame, which is still pretty lame.

I didn’t see any people doing this at Bergen-Belsen, or in front of Anne Frank’s grave. Soldiers vs. civilians, I guess. Ground Zero is certainly hallowed ground to the families of the dead, yet tourists feel compelled to smile and pose in front of the empty hole. The stereotype of the Ugly tourist isn’t just for Americans anymore.

The anchor of the U.S.S. Arizona

We visited the U.S.S. Bowfin while we waited 2 hours for our shuttle to the platform. It’s parked right nearby and a good way to kill time while you’re waiting, without sweating with the mobs in the museum and souvenir shops.

The U.S.S. Bowfin, aka “Pearl Harbor Avenger”

It’s about the same as the U.S.S. Growler near the Intrepid museum in NYC. If you’ve never been on a sub before, it’s a good look into the life of a submariner. The cramped beds, the hatchways, the claustrophobic spaces; it makes Das Boot seem roomy.

On the old subs everything is make of brass and looks like antique steampunk machinery. It seems out of place next to the large mechanical switches and analog gauges. It’s sort of in-between the brass equipment of old sailing ships and the voting-booth look of switches and knobs on war machinery of the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m not sure if they allow you on the deck of the Growler, but we got to crawl all over the cannons and guns on this one. And take clever photos. And while I would not pose smiling before 1,177 watery graves, or a list of men who died in combat, I believe the stern of the Pearl Harbor Avenger and Old Glory are perfectly fine.


Adios, Bonnie & Clyde…

Adios, Bonnie & Clyde…

I visited the ambush site of Bonnie & Clyde with a relative of Sheriff Henderson Jordan, who participated in the attack. The article is on Criminal Element today. I spoke with relatives who lived in Gibsland at the time, who remember the car and the bodies paraded through town. 


Belly Up to the Bar with Jason Karlawish

open wound

I met Jason Karlawish at a book event for Frank Bill. He’s a physician and the author of Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont, based on true events which occurred on the American frontier. Jason teaches medicine, medical ethics, and health policy, and writes frequently about these issues and how they affect us. Voting rights and the elderly. Patenting genes and medical discoveries such as biomarkers. I invited him to put his suede-patched elbows on the mahogany over a drink to chew the fat about all these things.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Jason. What can I get you?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: Darkest ale you’ve got.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Then I’ll pour you an Abita Turbodog. Now, let’s talk about OPEN WOUND. As a fan of weird history, I’d heard of the tale of Dr. Beaumont and his patient. Would you recount it for our readers?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: Yes, this is weird history. In June of 1822, on the remote Mackinac Island, a young French Canadian fur trapper named Alexis St. Martin was at the wrong end of an accidental shotgun blast in the American Fur Company Supply Store. He suffered a horrible wound that opened up a hole into his chest and stomach, exposing lung and spilling out his morning meal, but Alexis was a fortunate young man. Dr. William Beaumont, the island’s only physician, came to his aid. Beaumont, an assistant surgeon in the US army, had experience with gunshot wounds from his service as a surgeon’s mate in the War of 1812. Alexis survived.

But after months of slow but certain recovery, he was left with a deforming injury: a hole into his stomach. Unless Dr. Beaumont kept the hole plugged with a wad of lint, whatever Alexis ate or drank – this pint of ale, for instance – spilled out.

Something happened. Dr. Beaumont came to see his patient as someone, something, that was different than simply a patient well-cared for. His wound became a kind of frontier to explore. Although Beaumont had no training in research, no expectation to do research, he recognized that his patient’s wound was the object of his success. He could study gastric digestion and, in doing so, advance science and also a career that, to date, had been marked by hard work but small rewards. What follows is Dr. Beaumont’s tragic obsession and one of the oddest doctor-patient relationships.

Open Wound is a novel but it’s based on true events — sort of Blood Meridian meets The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lachs.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I can see why you were drawn to this one. It sounds like something that couldn’t happen today. Could it? Or would the poor fella with the hole in his gut be patented by Big Pharma?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: Today, in the US, I doubt a person would suffer such a permanent hole in his side. And yet, patients remain the source of great profit. A patient with a gene or protein or tissue that has value is like gold and the scientists who discover that value will transform it into property and they will “monetize” it. Don’t you love that word?

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Soon we’ll all be monetized, and told to like it. It makes me wonder if we’ll see health insurers asking patients to surrender their rights to any discoveries made with their DNA or their cells before treatment, someday. What dangers do you foresee for patients in the coming years?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: In fact, right now, patients have no claim to ownership of discoveries made from their tissues. The courts have weighed in on that. The “bios” is the new frontier for ownership and profit. Just as American land was in the 19th century.

What is interesting is how the courts are starting to push back on patents on discoveries of nature, such as claims to own genes or proteins that categorize people into states of risk. The courts recognize that no one can own a law of nature. Not the person in whom that law was observed and not the person who observed the law. Prometheus discovered fire, he did not invent it. No patent there. Just the punishment for stealing it from the gods.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve also written about treating dementia. Which next to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is the ailment which terrifies me the most. Are the treatments promising? I’ve had several relatives with dementia, but their doctors never recommended treatment. It’s still seen as a side effect of aging. Will this reach epidemic proportions, with our growing lifespan?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: I’ve done a lot of essay writing on this and some of that is on my website The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and the longer we live, the more likely we are to get it, especially after age 70. In this last century, developed nations such as the U.S. and Japan have experienced an increase in life span that is without precedent. The result? We have more people living more years, which means more people with brain failure because of Alzheimer’s disease.

The funny thing about the epidemic is that we have some control over how big it is. That control depends on how we define it. If we say that older adults who have essentially normal cognition but a brain scan that shows Alzheimer’s pathology, that they have Alzheimer’s disease, then we can overnight explode the prevalence of the disease.

The more we know about Alzheimer’s, the less we understand. I am, for example, fascinated by studies that show how most brains of persons who are demented have, not only the characteristic plaque and tangle pathology of Alzheimer’s disease but they also have other pathologies, or how as many as a third of persons with Alzheimer’s dementia don’t in fact have detectable plaque on brain scans.

We’re likely dealing with many diseases here and so we’re in for a long march to discover an effective treatment.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Writing historical fiction seems a different tack for a physician. Thrillers seem to be the norm, though Josh Bazell’s fiction defies easy description (other than “awesome”) and Glenn Gray uses his medical knowledge to springboard into the unique and bizarre. Medical history is fertile ground for ideas. What do you see in your writing future?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: I’m fascinated with how risk is transforming medicine. The doctor patient relationship is moving from the bedside of the sick patient, to the desktop of the client at risk. I see these events as part of a larger story of what I call “actuarial capture” – the quant boys and girls rule the world. Look what they did to American banking and finance. They almost took down the world’s economy. So I’m working on a story about all this. It’s a dark comedy that starts something like this….

America’s greatest industry, healthcare, has collapsed and the news reports give the angry and confused residents gathered in the Fox Run Retirement Community’s Commons Room someone to blame—Doctor Apsara Everett, a Vietnamese-American refugee turned celebrity physician—but what the news does not report, yet, is that one of their fellow Fox Run residents, the quiet and solitary Doctor Robert Fane, is her father, and that why her career crashed and Fane family fell apart are part of a larger story of the corruption of American medicine, freedom, and a nation seduced by risk and numbers.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I like dark comedy, and I think anyone who deals with our health care system would love to read about the reality behind the mess we see as the final consumer. Okay, Jason. Death row time. Or, terminal disease in your case, Doc. The end is near. Pick a book, a movie, an album and a last meal.

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK:  So many titles to pick from – Blood Meridian, Lolita, Let the Great World Spin — but I think I’ll go with the book that has stayed with me the longest. Why? That means the book still has something to say to me. A good book speaks to you, changes you. A great book keeps on doing that. It’s a relationship.  I’ll read, yet again since I first read it in college, some 25 years ago, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Yes, it’s a stepchild to his “best seller” Madame Bovary, but it’s captivating tale of young men and women, free and able to make of their lives as they desire, and yet failing miserably at it.

I’ll take a break from this uplifting tale and to listen to Radiohead’s In Rainbows or watch anything by the Cohen brothers and nibble just a few cheese crackers while I drink—yes, I’m lovin’ this ale—but I’ll go out with a case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for dropping by, Jason. Open Wound sounds fascinating, and I look forward to your next.

BW Beer Mug


“Now, we are poor people, individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to striking sanitation workers. Full Speech

Of the many challenges Dr. King made to the power structure, I believe this is what terrified them the most. It took down apartheid in South Africa twenty years after his death. Non-violence in the face of hate and brutality is probably the bravest thing I can imagine. Would you step in the ring, knowing you can’t hit back? Most won’t fight even when they can hit back. We still have a long way to go toward reaching Dr. King’s dream of being judged by the content of our character. It may be something beyond human ability, to put aside what our eyes tell us. But this man showed us that in the face of immense power eager to crush you down,  where raising your fist will only give them reason to destroy you, that we still have the power to make their violent means impotent and redirect it against them like a judo throw.


Tommy Salami in Spaaaace!

The Museum of National History is one of my favorite places. I first went as a kid and remember what every kid does- the enormous dinosaur skeletons, the huge diorama of the whale and the squid, the windows upon windows looking upon the Ark’s worth of critters that Teddy Roosevelt shot. Much of it is the same today, only modernized. It is still a temple to science, as it should be.

My favorite hangout is the Hayden Planetarium, where they have a spectacular display outside to explain the incredible scales of the universe. From quarks and protons to the greatest stars, these spheres put the universe in perspective. And sometimes, you need a little perspective.

They don’t have a T. Rex, or we missed it. But they did have full skeletons of cave bears and other huge mammals like this one. I think it was a sloth.

They have a lot of other fun stuff, like an excellent exhibit of human ancestors. Yes, the dioramas may be modernized but they still feel weird, as you stare at the oddly pale hominids in unlikely states of undress. I’m unsure what that teaches us, other than that Neanderthal women had nice tits. The skulls and skeletons, and the straightforward explanation of our complicated ancestry, our knowledge of which is still evolving, was the star of the exhibit.

Between this and the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my imagination was piqued as a child and I still love wandering these museums and drinking in history and the discoveries we have made about the universe.

And just for fun you can put yourself in different videos. Exploring the ocean, or on the sadly dust-binned space shuttle:



Mind Your Business

The first American coin, the Continental Dollar, was not emblazoned with the motto “In God We Trust.” Nor E Pluribus Unum, the unofficial motto of the 13 original colonies, “One of many, One.”

Treasurer Salmon P. Chase urged that “In God We Trust” be  put on coinage during the Civil War to suggest that God was on the side of the Union, and it was added to our paper currency in 1956 after lobbying by The Fellowship, the group that created the National Prayer Breakfast.

The original coin was labeled with “Fugio,” Latin for “to fly,” and a sundial meaning Time Flies, and more importantly, three words long forgotten from our lexicon:


Do we even know what that means anymore? Everyone’s business is our business now. We watch reality shows, to discuss the petty peeves and peccadilloes of otherwise unaccomplished people. “Mind Your Business” was not a finger-wagging phrase to chide you for nosiness. It stated a simple fact: if you are overly concerned with your neighbors’ business, you cannot adequately mind your own. The penny version, shown below, was designed by Benjamin Franklin, that coiner of aphorisms.

Other writers find me to be prolific. I consider myself rather lazy as a writer. I write one or two times a day, at lunch and after dinner, every day. Sometimes I only eke out 500 words, but I always write something. Where do I find the time? By minding my own business. I don’t care if two women want to get married. Or if some guy wants to hoard guns. Or if a has-been movie star went on a self-destructive rant again. This is not my business. Oh, I have political opinions, and I vote religiously. But unless someone’s basic human rights are being violated, I don’t care what other people do. Some woman wants to have 30 children to serve the Lord? Go right ahead, I’ll even pay taxes for their health care. A guy likes to rock climb and sucks at it, and we have to pay to put him in a cast every six months? Have fun, maybe you’ll write 127 Hours 2: Another 48 Hours.

You want to make snarky comments about someone’s lifestyle choices, cluck your tongues and shake your heads? By all means, have at it. But don’t expect me to take you seriously.

Time flies; do your work.

That’s my two cents… or $1.01, actually. On another note, I collected coins as a kid, until my collection was stolen by movers. I never owned a real Continental coin, they range from thousands to hundreds of thousands. If I am ever shamefully rich, I will buy one of these and keep it in my pocket. 

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Ghost Hunting in the Devil’s Den

When Milky and I went to Gettysburg last month, we visited The Devil’s Den, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. It was so named after a vicious snake that lived among the piles of rocks known as glacial erratics, large boulders pushed forth by the movement of glaciers. These rocks turned out to be a perfect vantage point for snipers as infantry fought to control Little Top, a hill with a strategic observation point covering much of the battlefield.
The site is best known through a photograph taken after the battle of a Confederate sniper by a makeshift bench rest made from a rock shelf. It is believed to have been posed by the journalists, so we’ll never know if the fallen soldier was a sniper at all. He’s just one of the hundreds of thousands of men who died in one of the bloodiest battles in history.
Here is the same spot today. The rocks have been cemented to dissuade souvenir hunters, though there are plenty of pebbles around the site if you want one.
We decided to visit the site that night after dark, after we missed two ghost tours around town, which seemed kind of lame anyway. I don’t want to pay $9 to walk around and hear stories by candlelight! I want to visit the battlefield, which is open to the public until 10pm. The information desk lady sneered at me with that Pennsyltucky inhospitality when I asked about night tours, so we did it on our own. After a quick dinner at the Appalachian Brewing Company- a pork chop & bacon sandwich to fuel the ghost hunting fires- we drove the Blue Meeny into the dark twisting roads of the Gettysburg battlefield.

That’s the view of the Den from Little Top, where cannon rained grapeshot and canister down on the men charging the hill, tearing them to pieces.
Imagine charging up that hill under fire, with snipers on those rocks behind you. Not a pretty sight. We arrived in darkness, with flashlights. Milky’s the ghost expert. I left the spook summoning to him. When he called upon the spirits to contact us in some way… it began to rain. So the ghosts apparently wanted us to leave, or buy parkas. I got a chuckle out of that. But more interesting, when we left in the sudden downpour, we saw a large black snake crossing the road. A descendant of “The Devil?”
Well, that one wasn’t going to spread his demon seed. He slithered right under my tires and felt like a firehose when I ran him over. I felt bad but I wasn’t going to go check on a wounded snake in the rain. It was probably a rat snake, but it was one of the biggest snakes I’ve seen in the wild. Maybe the rain was a good thing. It didn’t look like a poisonous species, but I could only judge size and color in that brief glimpse. But I wouldn’t want to have stepped on it in the dark!

And that is the nearby Wheat Field, the site of the bloodiest battle of the war, where it was said you could walk across the field on the bodies of the slain and wounded. Men lay for days before they were tended to, as wild hogs rooted through the corpses and fed on living and dead alike. It was one of the most horrifying tales of modern warfare. Even the wheat seems reddish in hue, as if the blood from all those men still steeps in the soil. Sometimes history is scary enough without ghosts. But of course there were no ghosts to be seen. No orbs. I keep my lens clean.