Thursday, August 11, 2022

Snow Wonder

“Close the door, they’re coming in the windows!”---E. Barzelay

“We got trouble.  Right here in Glacier City.  With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “C” and that stands for Crowds.”---W. Killeen

Montana is a roomy state.  You can occasionally drive for miles and miles and miles without meeting another vehicle, spotting a human, encountering a traffic light.  The vast open terrain appeals to the human soul, provides peace for contemplation, elbow room for agoraphobes, playing fields for bovine armies.  Even the cities…Billings…Bozeman…Butte… are gridlock free, devoid of lines, noise pollution.

Driving north from Butte, the blessed motorist arrives at the southern tip of lovely Flathead Lake, the second-largest freshwater body of water in the country with an area of 1115 square miles.  The road to the left heads along Flathead toward Kalispell, the one on the right bisects rampant cherry orchards on the way to little Bigfork, where Bill and Siobhan have tickets this night to Mamma Mia at the local Summer Playhouse.  They have seen it when it first hit the stage in Las Vegas with seasoned pros treading the boards at New York, New York, now they will see how rookie college kids deliver the goods.

The town, as always in July, is flush with summer visitors.  The shops are packed, the restaurants teeming, the streets awash in tourists.  Siobhan espies an out of the mainstream rock shop called Keyhoe’s, which has bargains galore and will push our big bag just past the weight limit for free transport at Delta (though they magnanimously forgive an extra two pounds).  If this suitcase had no clever little rollers, Andre the Giant couldn’t move it.  Anyway, with the two-pound handicap we eventually made our weight and didn’t have to throw away any of Siobhan’s extremely valuable rocks.  A load off my mind, for sure.

Puttin' on The Ritz at Bigfork's answer to Broadway.

Thank You For The Music

As everyone knows by now, Mamma Mia, the play, is a thinly-disguised vehicle to present the best of Abba’s long list of songs.  If you don’t like The Four Swedes, you won’t like Mamma Mia.  The music of the Disco Era wore on many and fostered a large resistance army but Abba’s songs always seemed like more than mere Disco tunes.  Critic Gary McAdam notes, “Their material was very well-crafted and easy to listen to but if you actually unpick the songs in detail, they’re surprisingly complex with complicated chord structures in the guitar parts and basslines that are often quite difficult to play.  The recording techniques were also pretty advanced for their day, with multi-tracking used on many songs to broaden the overall sound, using the same idea Phil Spector did with his Wall of Sound.  Studio engineering wizard Michael Tretow deserves a lot of credit for that.”   The bottom line being that Abba topped the musical charts worldwide from 1974 to 1983 and again in 2021, like it or not.

The Bigfork Summer Playhouse was crammed to the gills, all 435 seats occupied, though only two with masked attendees.  “It looks like we’re the local niggers,” Bill told Siobhan in a politically incorrect moment.  The cast performed with aplomb, the music was wonderful, the audience delighted and noone threw lighted matches at us on the way out, which is my definition of a successful evening in Montana.  If assaulted, of course, we had no fear.  We had an unlimited arsenal of deadly rocks crammed in all our pockets and the willingness to use them.

Avalanche Lake at trail's end.  Say cheese.

We’re Off To The Glacier Zoo

Last year, we knew well in advance that reservations had to be made to drive into Yosemite National Park.  That Covid feller, again.  We called on the appointed hour of the requisite day, stood quietly in our nervous telephone queue and captured the brass ring.  We foolishly assumed all of that business was over with by now and jauntily pulled up to the Glacier Park entrance booth, shiny senior pass in hand, only to discover another reservation was required.  To quote William Bendix, “What a revoltin’ development THIS is.”

I remembered that when we were in a gift shop on the way to the park, a customer came up and asked to register for a pass, so I went back and told my sad story to one of the nice Asian girls working there.  In no time, she smiled, whipped out a pass and chirped, “Have a nice day!”  Game on again.  We retraced our steps, entered the park and drove to the western entrance of the Going To The Sun Road at Apgar to wait for the shuttle.  We were not alone.  A host of other candidates—enough to fill a shuttle—were there ahead of us.  Thirty minutes later, we got on the second bus.  Still early morning and now an hour wasted on screwing around.  Not long ago, the National Parks were begging for customers, now they’re dropping from the skies, filling up the parking lots and overwhelming the transports.  There are no good answers to the overflow.  Even if all vehicles are ultimately barred from entry, some enterprising citizens will construct nearby parking lots and the crowds will march on.  Adjust or die.  We decided to adjust.

Going To The Fun Road in Glacier National Park.

On That Road Again

As most people know, the Going To The Sun Road is unexcelled for stunning beauty, left, right and center as it curls up the mountainsides to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, then back down again to St. Mary’s to the east.  The road is two-lane, with no room to fudge and deep drops if Uncle Charley goes over the cliff.  In many areas, there are no guard rails.  Your driver has his choice of paying close attention to business or eyeballing the spectacular scenery and taking a quick trip to Gloryland.  Our first stop, however, was in the lower regions of the GTTSR at Avalanche Creek, and a trail which leads to one of the greatest sights in the park.

It’s a fact of life that the better, more glamorous trails will be very busy.  The same holds true for the easiest paths, thus the level Trail of the Cedars leading to the adventurous Avalanche Creek Trail is double-busy.  Your grandmother could negotiate her way through the former and would probably enjoy seeing the cedars and hemlocks which typically flourish mainly in the rainforests of the northwest.  After the turnoff to Avalanche Creek, things get a little more rugged with a constant gain in elevation and no nice boardwalks.  The Creek, itself, is a constant companion, roaring along beside you, jumping waterfalls and providing numerous photo ops.  After a little less than two hours of marching (at least for folks in the Geezer Zone), the hiker is rewarded with a rarely equalled sight---five waterfalls slowly tumbling down the mountainsides on the far side of Avalanche Lake.  It’s a camera riot as expert lensmen, cell phone amateurs and selfie shooters jockey for position.  Others just dump their backpacks to relax and meditate on the nearby rocks.  This is one of Siobhan’s favorites spots on Earth.  This is where she sits down to eat her banana.

If it doesn't snow in Glacier, how is Billy gonna use his sleigh?

Logan Pass

Back on the shuttle, we head for the top of the park at Logan Pass, elevation 6647 feet, with the intention of hiking to Hidden Lake.  Two days earlier, the road to Logan was closed due to excessive snow and though the path is cleared, the white stuff is everywhere.  90% of the Hidden Lake Trail is covered and tough to negotiate.  We have experience with this trail.  Even under moderate conditions Siobhan requires a giant pole to stabilize herself on the snow and this trail once gobbled up the soles of my hiking boots, leading to the famous Episode of the Clown shoes.  We decide to pass and catch a bus going back, the driver avidly signaling for two more customers.  By the time we discovered it was going the wrong way---to the east---we were well on our way.

While the western leg of Going To The Sun Road climbs from stunning valleys past cascading waterfalls to snowy Logan Pass, the descent to the east is completely different.  Now, the brilliantly aquamarine waters of St. Mary Lake come into view and stay with you for a good part of the ride down.  Not far from the eastern terminus at St. Mary is the spectacular ages-old Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake, a spectacle to be visited at least once in a lifetime.  We got off a couple of stops earlier, looking for a ride back up, and we had plenty of company.

Among the multitudes, there was a cluster of youngish Amish girls, about nine of them, from Iowa.  Preferring to ride as a group, they passed up opportunities on the 12-seat shuttles and stood off to the side, frustrated.  Only one of them seemed interested in communicating with anyone not of the sisterhood.  She sat next to me and asked how my day was going.  The woman seemed more adventuresome than her colleagues, asking about places unseen and far away, expressing a hope to travel to them some day.  She seemed in need of a kindred spirit.

“Is this the life you chose?” I asked her.  She replied that she followed the ways of her parents, unquestioning and hopeful.  “Is happiness a consideration?” I asked.  The girl laughed slightly and reflected.  “We have a different kind of happiness.  We are happy if our group is happy.  We have pride in performing our duties and being selfless.”  I told her I respected her beliefs but she should give some time to thinking about something important; “You have only one life to live and one-third of it is gone.  Make sure you get everything you can from the rest of it.”  An odd half-smile creased her face.  “Thank you for speaking to me,” she said.  “I will give much thought to what you have told me.  I think you must be a sage.”

Wow, I never thought about being a sage.  I think I’m going to add that to my business card.  “Bill Killeen---Writer.  Faithful Friend.  Eternal Optimist.  Sage.”  It has a nice ring to it.

Hungry Horse, the best little town in Montana by a damsite!

Hungry Horse & Beyond

Having seen and done everything we came to Glacier to accomplish, we passed on the teeming crowds, the stuffed shuttle buses and the registration requirements on our last vacation day.  Instead we visited nearby Hungry Horse Dam, as suggested by our friend, Boxcar Paco.  The imposing barrier was well down a lightly traveled road and Siobhan had her doubts, but the Hungry Horse more than lived up to expectations.  The dam rangers smiled to see someone so early in the morning, happy for conversation.  They told us the engaging story of the dam, whipped out some data sheets which favorably compared the HH to its better-known bro, Hoover Dam, and promised they had the cleanest bathrooms anywhere (they did).

We moved on to Whitefish, a clever little town growing daily in population and notoriety.  You could probably call Whitefish a resort town with its skiing facilities, mountain-bike trails and tourist-oriented shops but more people are moving in, the head count reaching upwards of 8000 as of last year.  It is not a town for poor people and none were noted strolling the decorated downtown streets.  Despite the average age of the populace, the town has a younger contingent and occasional hints of New Age activity.  Near the end of our afternoon, a few grumpy clouds settled in, boding rain, which we had seen none of on our entire vacation.  I pointed to the heavens and a tremendous flash of lightning shot across the sky.  “Come on, sage,” said Siobhan, “let’s get out of here before we drown.”  I merely waved my hand and the clouds parted.  Some got it, some don’t.

The trip home was filled with early wake-up calls (try 3:30 A.M), the joys of airport security, and a late-arriving flight to Atlanta, which threatened our chances of making a Delta 4 p.m. hop to Gainesville.  Miss that and you’re camped out at the airport waiting for the last plane out at 10:35.  After a quick jaunt through the corridors and an angst-ridden train ride, we finally arrived at the gate, the last passengers to show up.  The lady taking tickets even knew our names and endowed us with needed bottles of water.  Snug in our seats savoring our accomplishment after running through airports, we were not gratified to hear we’d be waiting another 15 minutes for a Miami-bound pilot who was stuck in traffic.  We could have crawled through the terminal and still been on time.

Thanks to Sharon of the Fairfield Home Guard for expert house and pet management and to Julie and Laura for not letting the business fall apart.  We are not through with this traveling business yet, with a short trip to New York and New England on the horizon.  Hopefully, there will be scads more memorable moments, exciting adventures and lobster dinners.  In fact, we’re sure of it.  The sage has spoken.

Above, scenic Whitefish; below, chasing the bright elusive butterfly of love.  The flyboy photobombed our picture-taker at the last minute.  What a ham.

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, August 4, 2022

Montana Panorama

“In Montana, a policeman will pull you over because he’s lonely”---Rich Hall

Ever heard of a town called Glendive?  It’s in Montana, at the eastern end of the Dinosaur Trail.  Don’t worry, nobody else knows either.  Glendive is a small place, uncomfortably close to the North Dakota border, 251 miles straight north from the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  We arrived there in late afternoon after enjoying the Tower’s delights and following a 3 1/2-hour journey during which we saw absolutely nothing save vast oceans of tier-3  agriculture.  If you think we’re running out of room in this country, take this trip someday.  You could move the population of the entire East coast in there and still have room for Ossining.  If you like the wide open spaces out where the echinacia grows, this is for you.  Matter of fact, Glendive, itself, might not even be there if it weren’t for the ancient dinosaurs which once roamed the land.  They have their own museum in town and fans who come from everywhere to dig their bones.  Literally.  For some reason, Siobhan P. Ellison is one of them.

Being a dutiful husband, a phenomenon of recent years, I make a point of considering my wife’s bizarre predilections when planning vacation trips.  Rock hunting and fossil recovery are high on her list so the shopping often involves long drives to lonely oases, like, for instance, the 9000-acre Baisch Ranch just outside Glendive, where the deer and triceratops roam.

One fine day, Marge Baisch was out running horses on her dad’s place when she spied something odd on the trail.  “Too old to be a horse or cow bone,” she thought as she scooped it up and put it in her jacket.  It turned out to be a triceratops toe bone, but not your simple everyday version.  There were Tyrannosaurus Rex teeth marks in it.  To dinosaur fans, this is like having a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card which never came out of the package.  In the 50+ years since Marge stumbled onto the toe, Baisch and her family have found over 1000 dinosaur bones and fossils on their neverending ranch.  They donated some of the loot to museums, sold other pieces and now welcome visitors like us to hunt for their own.  $80 a half day for adults, free if you’re under 12.  The paleontologists don’t like the bones leaving town but the Baisch’s don’t really care.

This is Siobhan’s kind of fun.  Bill is more dubious, never having found the pot of gold his Uncle Arthur guaranteed him was at the end of the rainbow.  Shana Baisch, our chatty and knowledgeable troop leader, eyed our shiny Equinox and nixed it for travel on the bumpy, hardscrabble farm roads.  She loaned us a mud-covered beater that was used to abuse.  We jumped in and followed her on the long, jarring trip to the bonefields, along with about a dozen other optimists.  When we got to the swag area, Shana equipped us with screwdriver and other implements of destruction.  In less than two minutes, I found a brontosaurus bone and sounded the alarm.

“That’s not a brontosasurus bone, Siobhan fussed, “It looks more like a cow bone.  Now you’ve got everybody all excited.”

“Well, it looks like a brontosaurus bone to me,” I argued.  “What’s a cow bone doing here, anyway?”  The bone expert looked it over with a frown.  “The cow probably died in this creekbed.”  What?  Died in the creekbed?  What kind of cattle farm are these people running?  Shana came over and agreed it was a cow bone, but my discovery was still the high point of our half-day.  Siobhan climbed all over the place, poking and prodding while I took pictures.  No luck.  Our colleagues, digging away on a small hill, were likewise frustrated.  Undoubtedly, hiding somewhere in the depths of this enormous property, dinosaur bones were drinking hard liquor, playing cards and laughing it up.  But there was no joy in Mudville, mighty Ellison had struck out.

Shana Baisch shows fossil-hunters her swag; Florida girl digs for glory; Bill discovers fool's gold.

Billings & Beyond

Sitting comfortably in the south-central section of Montana is the seat of Yellowstone Country, chummy Billings, the largest city in the state with 147,972 happy souls in residence.  Calamity Jane lived in Billings and Charlie Lindbergh once was stranded there for four months, during which he fired up the locals with some rip-roaring parachute jumping exhibitions.  The Lewis & Clark expedition explored Billings in 1806 and William Clark climbed an enormous rock he dubbed Pompey’s Pillar to honor the son of his interpreter and guide, the famous Sacajawea.  Clark inscribed his name and date on the rock and you can still see the inscriptions today at the now-National Monument.

We were up early in 53-degree Billings to walk the venerable Rimrock Trail overlooking the city.  The Rimrocks are geological sandstone formations that outcrop the town.  The views of the city from the long winding trail are spectacular, the path dotted with friendly parks for hiking, bouldering, biking and even rappelling.  The cliffs rise up hundreds of feet over the Yellowstone river as it dances through town.

Lunch the same day was in Livingston, which you know more about than you think.  The fabulous movie, Rancho Deluxe, with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston was filmed there and Jimmy Buffet contributed a few songs, including Livingston Saturday Night.  The iconic film A River Runs Through It was made in and around Livingston.  The town also served as a depot of sorts for the characters in the television show, Yellowstone.  Walking the streets of the small city reminds one of towns of long ago, with an eclectic collection of shops, very old buildings, and businesses that seem lost to the past in most of the country.  You can also sign up at Livingston Militia Headquarters for friendly instructions in rifle and shotgun maintenance and learn from certified experts how to shoot down federal government helicopters with clever pocket rockets.  For the genteel distaff side, the ladies auxiliary meets for pie and quilting every Thursday night at 7.

Overlooking Billings

It’s Hoot, Visit Butte!

Back in the good ol’ days of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Butte, Montana was a big deal.  The mining boom town was once the largest city in the Rocky Mountains thanks to miners’ discoveries on “the richest hill on Earth,” the gold, silver and copper that brought it fame and attracted a large, multi-ethnic population of immigrants.  At its peak, Butte was home to over 100,000 people, the ultimate melting pot of Irish, Scandinavian, Serbian and Asian cultures.  Things are quieter now after the decline of mining. 

The non-profit World Museum of Mining on the west side of town celebrates Butte’s lusty past, diving deep into the mining history of the city.  The Museum’s collection comprises a wide variety of exhibits and artifacts and the property itself sits atop the retired Orphan Girl Mine.  The Museum offers a daily guided tour of the mine which takes visitors (if they are not named Siobhan Ellison) 100 feet deep into the gloomy depths.  Siobhan has not been a fan of dark tapering caverns ever since we explored the Ape Caves on Mount St. Helens and found ourselves crawling backwards on our stomachs.

A top attraction at the Museum is the recreated town of Hell Roarin’ Gulch, a scale replica city block featuring several Old West storefronts and decorated interiors, including a bank, a dentist’s office, a saloon and a Dunkin’ Donuts shop.  The management, alas, is missing a bet by not including the old town’s infamous Dumas Brothers whorehouse, perhaps adding a few ladies of the night for picture-taking purposes; “C’mon Dad, let’s get a picture with some of the whoores!”

Adjacent to Mining World is the modest campus of Montana Tech and its fabulous Mineral Museum, open to the public with free admission.  Whether you’re a rockhound or not, the collection there is headspinning, featuring a vast selection of rocks and minerals from across the world.  Currently, the museum has over 13,000 specimens and over 1000 are on display in its large, airy exhibit hall, including a chunk of gold big enough to buy the Vatican.  Even for those who claim size doesn’t matter, the dimensions of the stones on display here will knock your Birkenstocks off.  As a special bonus inducement, the place is now featuring pieces of a meteorite that recently plunked down in nearby Beaverhead County.  Beaverhead County?  Leave it to Montana.

Reconstructed town of Hell Roarin' Gulch; the Orphan Girl Mine in Butte; a small part of the enormous rock and mineral displays at Montana Tech's Mineral Museum.

Go West, Young Man!

Our unlikely journey has taken us from swaggering Chicago to jaunty Rapid City, straight west into Wyoming and north to the Dino fields of Glendive.  From there, a swooping drive through Billings, Bozeman and Butte, soon north along the shores of scenic Flathead Lake just in time for cherry season.  Bigfork, Kalispell and Whitefish await, waving in the distance, making promises they can keep.  The weather is perfect, the companionship still civilized and the car rolling along without protest despite little notes on the message board about scheduling an oil change.  Montana is big, bold, often beautiful and completely unmasked.  To date, we have noted one African-American person, noone of the transgender persuasion and few Democrats, but the morning air is cool, the skies wide and the colors sharp.  If there ever was any, the rain is gone, there are no obstacles in our way.  It’s almost tomorrow and here comes the sun.

That’s all, folks….


Thursday, July 28, 2022

Cheap Thrills In The Black Hills

“Give me a ride in your car, car!”---Woody Guthrie

Honesty is the best policy 99% of the time.  Not so much, perhaps, in transactions involving rental cars.  The rent-a-car business was once a leaser’s delight, nice new vehicles readily available wherever you went, and cheap.  You could even pick the auto manufacturer, model of the car you wanted and have your choice of ebony, mauve or eggshell.  It was a buyer’s market.  Enter Covid, stage left.

Suddenly, everybody stayed home, rentals languished and Misters Hertz and Avis began selling off their fleets.  They figured they’d slowly build them back when the storm was over.  Nobody expected an enormous groundswell of vacationers to rise up as soon as they felt safe, the result being a shortage of vehicles.  You want a sedan?  Forget about it, we’ve got a pickup or a hatchback, take your pick.  Too small or too big?  Sorry….next in line?

It also became impossible to rent a vehicle in Seattle and leave it in, say, Portland.  No deal, Lucille, not for any price.  Now, I am as honest as the next guy, probably more so, but sometimes life demands chicanery.  In the Orlando airport, late at night, I required a rental for the trip home to Fairfield.  There were two men in line ahead of me.  The first sought a car to drive to and leave at Daytona.  “Unavailable,” said the National man.  The second was going to Cape Kennedy and flying home from there.  “Can’t help you,” said the counterman.

Now, I am no genius but I can usually see which way the ball is rolling.  “Need one for the day, bring it back tomorrow,” I told the guardian of the vault.  “Sign here,” said he.  I left the car at the Ocala airport the next day.  The oversold agent there was giddy to have it.  No penalty came of my transgression.

I was hoping this sort of thing had subsided in the last year, but when I tried to reserve a car in Rapid City to leave in Kalispell, I heard the old refrain:  “Got nuthin’.”  After two tries, I rented whatever I could get with more than four cylinders to be returned to the airport of origin.  It turned out to be a large Chevy Equinox, not my first choice, but acceptable.  There wasn’t much discussion at 4 a.m. when I returned the car to the sleepy Kalispell airport and left the key in the requisite box with a brief note about a family emergency.  So far, no repercussions, and I don’t expect any.  Could be once the car is released, the renter is only legally bound to return it in the  contracted time to a National corral.  Could be I’m deadass wrong and my Discover bill will reflect the painful truth.  Either way, mission accomplished.  And that Equinox wasn’t bad at all.

A note of caution.  It’s probably not a good idea to rent a car and leave it somewhere the rental car company you got it from has no office.  You have not actually returned the car and Officer Friendly may come knocking at your door.  I did this once, leaving a car in Key West, where National had no office yet.  I tucked in into Mr. Hertz’s lot and left a nice note.  National called me the next day with hurt feelings because they had to send somebody down from Miami to pick up the car.  Happily, we worked out a suitable settlement fee.  I did give the negotiator some unasked for advice.  “If you want to play with the big boys,” I preached, “you gotta have an office in places like Key West.”  Three months later, they did.  They even wrote and told me.

By the way, I thought you might like to know I’ve whipped up a new line for police emergencies.  When the cops come knocking, I’ll say, “I beg your pardon—you can’t put an 82-year-old man in jail!”  I’ll let you know how it works out.  I can’t help being optimistic.

Are There Any Rapids In Rapid City?

In a word, no.  There is a modest limestone spring stream that passes through the city, but who wants to name their town Superficial Stream?  Founders have made this mistake before in Possum Trot, Kentucky and Toad Suck Ferry, Arkansas.  Imagine the stadium announcer in Possum Trot screaming, “Here come the Fighting Possums!!”  The other team would be rolling on the field, laughing.  Or what about the dignified, tuxedoed Master of Ceremonies introducing the Toad Suck Ferry Symphony Orchestra?  Did somebody snicker?  Sometimes you have to fib a little when naming a town.  That’s still no excuse for Upper Snodsbury, England or Havre de Grace, Maryland.  Please, a little humility.

We had images of Rapid City as an arid, flat, boring tract of land inhabited by militia neophytes and maldressed goobers, placed there as a convenient base camp for visitors to Mount Rushmore.  In reality, Rapid City is a very pleasant town of 74,000 average Joes surrounded by rolling hills and pretty country.  The first guy we met was the rental car man, a recent immigrant from Hawaii.  “Isn’t this supposed to work the other way"?” I asked him.  “Native South Dakotan aspires to future in glamorous Waikiki?”

The man smiled weakly.  “My father was from this area before he went to the islands.  He always wanted to come back.  If you think California real estate is outrageous, try buying something in Hawaii.  In South Dakota, you can actually afford to buy your own home.”  Point taken.  When we were in Honolulu in 1970, a lonely shack by the railroad track cost $400,000.  Now you couldn’t buy one for a sack of teenage kidneys.

It was an easy drive to our nine-story Rushmore Hotel in downtown R.C., the only town in the USA home to metal sculptures of the first 42 presidents.  We’re not sure whether they ran out of street corners or deigned not to waste the bronze on the rest of them, but 42 it is.  We meandered a little, had dinner and checked the next day’s route, which passed through what looked like a little whistle-stop named Hill City.  Turned out the hills were alive with the sounds of tourists, not to mention the vroooms! of bikers warming up for August’s infamous  motorcycle rally at nearby Sturgis.  In case you’re a collector of arcane information, there is a Harley-Davidson shop in every town in South Dakota with a population of more than six.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Four Amigos

The park surrounding Mount Rushmore is well-thought-out and of suitable size.  There are a couple of trails on which to shake a leg and obtain unique photo angles of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and (Teddy) Roosevelt.  A pedestrian mall leads to the mountain sculptures and there is a fair-sized outdoor auditorium on a lower level for ranger talks, meetings of large delegations and dubious militia shenanigans.  A sign near the stairway to the area disclaims the park’s approval of some of the things that go on down there but also reminds us the U.S.A. is still a free country and we have to let the shitkickers and headbangers have their fun, too.

The magnitude of the carving on the mountain is impressive.  The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was the son of Danish immigrants.  He had in mind the three earlier presidents but added Roosevelt at the behest of Calvin Coolidge, who insisted that at least one Democrat be represented.  Borglum’s original design had the sculpture extending down to the subjects’ waists, but after 14 years he needed a trip to the beach.

As Universal is to Disney, just down the road from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial Gold Mine.  It’s not really a gold mine unless you’re one of the owners of the property sucking in $30 a carload and another six bucks to take a tram to the bottom of a mountain featuring an incomplete sculpture of the famous Lakota warrior.  The statue has been languishing there for seventy (count ‘em—70) years, the drawing card for what might be called Tontoland, several buildings full of old Native American treasures and endless retail merchandise celebrating Indian life and lore.

Siobhan asked our defensive bus driver, cleverly disguised as Wilford Brimley, if the natives saw any money from this colossal enterprise which feasted on their accomplishments.  After much huffing and puffing, the answer turned out to be not much.  After that, she wasn’t in a mood to hang around and watch the movie.

The Ziolkowski family, descendants of the original sculptor, Korczak, claim to have donated $500,000 to Native American students over the years but the Indians point to millions of dollars in profits.  They feel that the deal made by their forebear, Henry Standing Bear, required the Ziolkowskis to finish the sculpture with the proceeds from the park enterprises and 70 years seems like a reasonable enough time to do it.  The Ziolkowskis brought a note from their mother saying the dog ate their homework, but they’d get right on it.  Hello in there, profiteers---it only took 100 years to create Chicago.

The Devil Made Us Do It

We’ve always known the Devil’s Tower was sitting out there in lonely Wyoming, we just never got around to seeing it.  Like Rushmore, it was at the western end of a little-used trail with no frills and little local razzmatazz.  When the U.S. Army built a large base on top to accommodate an alien parlay in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we thought the moviemakers were kidding.  The Tower looked far too small for something like that.  Well, guess again—the thing’s a monster, far bigger than it appears in photos and videos.  It beat the hell out of a half-finished sculpture of Crazy Horse, even with the free, autographed picture of Jay Silverheels.

A shaded trail at the base allowed for a nice little hike around the monument, which impressed from every angle.  A park requirement to register with the rangers if you wanted to climb on the boulders below the Tower was largely ignored by hikers, a couple of whom took to actually climbing the perfectly vertical monument.  They were about 25% of the way up and struggling mightily when we got bored and moved on.

How was Devil’s Tower formed?  Well, geologists will give you a lot of mumbo-jumbo about rain, snow, oxidation and sedimentary rock but what really happened was revealed by the elders of the Kiowa and Lakota tribes.  Apparently, a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them.  In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock and fell to their knees and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them.  Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit caused the rock to rise from the ground to the heavens, leaving the bears dazed and confused.  Seriously irked at this disappointing turn of fate, the bears left deep claw marks, which remain today, on the sides of the monument while futilely trying to climb it.  When the girls finally reached the sky, they were turned into the stars of the Pleiades.  Nice!

Who needs Mother Goose when you’ve got the Kiowas?

That’s all, folks….        

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Town That Billy Sunday Couldn’t Close Down

This is not a mere photograph of the city of Chicago.  It is a lovingly woven piece of fabric given to Doctor Teepu Siddique by a grateful ALS patient.  It hangs in his Northwestern medical center building, a testament to imagination, craftmanship and love.

Different things happen in Chicago than in, say, Passaic, New Jersey.  In 2017, there were over 50 sightings of a flying human-like figure near Lake Michigan and a few dozen more in 2018.  Some appearances had the creature swooping down over startled passersby, others had it landing on top of cars with a large thud.  More than one observer reported the winged wonder taking off from the top of the Willis Tower and flying low over the lake.  Did Mothman make a temporary comeback, and if so, why Chicago? 

On a beautiful August day in 2004, the Dave Matthews tour bus was rolling through the city and over one of its famous little bridges, the Kinzie Avenue span, when the driver suddenly realized what a wonderful spot this would be to release the 800 pounds of human waste stored up in the lavatory.  Just as the fellow hit “Release,” an architecture tour bus passed under the bridge and 120 unsuspecting tourists were drenched in Davedoody.  Matthews apologized profusely and donated $50,000 to the Chicago Park District and another fifty grand to Friends of the River, but the legend of Poopgate lives on.

In 1903, a Chicago bartender named Mickey Finn was found to be giving his customers altered drinks to incapacitate them so he could rob them.  In 1918, over a hundred waiters followed suit using “Mickey Finn” powder bought at waiters’ union headquarters to poison bad tippers.  Only three people died, so it could have been worse.  And you were worried about someone spitting in your soup.

Let’s not forget legendary Chi-town mayor Big Bill Thompson, whose antics ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Thompson once held a debate between himself and two live rats.  He also staged a real live rodeo inside the City Council chambers.  The mayor owned a brothel and a floating speakeasy and was on good terms with megagangster Al Capone.  In a city well known for its corrupt politics, Thompson eventually earned the vaunted title, “Pioneer of Chicago Corruption.”  Carp at Big Bill if you will but our crooked pols almost never provide actual rodeos.

And then, of course, there was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which was unfairly blamed for kicking over a lantern and burning the city down while being milked in 1871.  The livestock defense firm Pushem, Pullem & Milkem rushed to the fray and pointed out that dairy farmers didn’t milk cows in the evening (when the fire started).  The true cause of the blaze is lost to the ages, though it could have resulted from the internal combustion of hay in the O’Leary barn.  A Chicago journalist named Mike Ahearn claimed that two ne’er-do-wells had snuck into the O’Leary’s shed to steal milk and thought they heard someone coming, then ran out and knocked over their lamp, starting the fire.  Ahern liked the cow story better, though, and that’s the newspaper tale he fabricated.  Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

We Need a Whole Lot More Of Jesus And A Lot Less Chivas Regal

“Listen!  Seventy-five percent of our idiots come from intemperate parents, eighty percent of the paupers, eighty-two percent of the crime is committed by men under the influence of liquor, ninety-percent of the adult criminals are whisky-made.  The Chicago Tribune kept track for ten years and found out that 53,556 murders were committed by men under the influence of liquor.”---Billy Sunday

In 1918, firebreathing evangelical preacher Billy Sunday returned to his home town of Chicago to take on the devil of all social demons, the saloon.  He came to Chicago not only as a religious man but also as a social reformer.  His crusade in the Windy City illustrated how revivalism often had the secondary motive of Prohibition reform, and it was successful to a point.  In 1920, the making, sale and movement of alcohol was outlawed in the United States for the next 13 years.  Thirteen YEARS!

All this was just fine with an enterprising criminal by the name of Al Capone.  Big Al and other Chicago bootleggers flooded the city with their own brand of liquid fun, earning a fortune and making a joke of the law.  The government responded with the Federal Prohibition Unit, which consisted of untrained volunteers from the public, one of whom was Izzy Einstein, a former postal service worker.  Izzy and his crew melted in well to the saloons and speakeasies, using a range of disguises.  At one time or another he arrested bartenders while pretending to be a German pickle packer, a Polish count, a Hungarian violinist, a Yiddish gravedigger, an Italian fruit vendor, a Chinese launderer, a black man from Harlem and Mr. Peanut.

Despite the efforts of Izzy, Billy Sunday and the famous Carrie Nation, Prohibition ultimately failed in Chicago and elsewhere because of inadequate resources at the federal level and a lack of commitment at the state and local levels.  Several states refused to pass prohibition laws, which meant that their law enforcement personnel had no authority to enforce federal prohibition laws.  Also, it was clear that more than half the adult population wanted to carry on drinking.  The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed in 1919, paving the way for Prohibition, was repealed in 1933 by the 21st amendment, which cancelled out the 18th.  This is the only time in American history that a Constitutional amendment has been rescinded.  Make a quick note of this for the next time you’re on Jeopardy.

Above, "Eat your heart out Dashiell Hammet;” below, the view from Lakefront Restaurant at twilight.

We’re Off To The Coxville Zoo

Despite flying out of Gainesville Intergalactic Airport, we made it on time to Chicago and our new digs at the end of Navy Pier.  The Pier stretches from downtown well out into Lake Michigan and all the rooms in our Sable Hotel overlooked the lake.  The hotel, itself, was chummy, moderately expensive and convenient for our purposes.  Unfortunately there was a brassy bar almost beneath our third floor room that featured hysterical yowling on the last night of our visit.  Thank God for those little balls of cotton they put at the top of your medicine bottles which can be pulled apart and stuffed in your ears.

The Pier is ground zero for all boat rides on Lake Michigan.  It also features a small amusement area with tiny carousels and the requisite giant Ferris wheel which all big cities are now obliged to have under penalty of being sniffed at for not being cool.  Especially in the early morning, joggers and dog-walkers traverse the Pier in pursuit of health and beauty, often accompanied by varying degrees of fog.  The views of the lake and skyline from the Sable windows are invariably smashing.

Siobhan and I have come to Chicago to visit Doctor Teepu Siddique of Northwestern University, the leading man in her non-profit company’s battle against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Dr. Siddique, a native Pakistani who has been investigating the disease for nigh on to 30 years, is likely the most accomplished ALS researcher in the U.S. and perhaps the world.  He is one of a baker’s dozen researchers Siobhan has tracked down and melded into a panel which meets via Zoom regularly to share information.  This group is more progressive than your average ALS research teams, which don’t seem to be in much of a hurry.  Siobhan does not have the benefit of unlimited time, since her main concern is her friend we've dubbed Captain Noonan, who has been wasting away with the disease for over three years now.  Despite their many phone calls and Zoom meetings, this is will be the first time Siobhan and Dr. Siddique meet in person.

The meeting ground is the well-situated Lakefront Restaurant not far from downtown.  The evening is pleasant, though cloudy, temperatures suited for outdoor dining.  The food is good, the service uneven, but nobody cares since we’re here for lengthy discussion.  Teepu’s affable American-born wife Nailah is the fourth participant in the affair.  I have come to know the wives of these researchers quite well, as Siobhan’s talks with the academicians often reach stratospheric scientific levels which we commoners are unequipped to contemplate.  Nailah turns out to be fun, the brilliant Chicago skyline sparkles in the distance and the walkers, runners and cyclists scampering through the nearby lakeside mists provide a wistful atmosphere.  Our dinner table is a pleasant place to be.  The company is good, the conversation easy and the surroundings elevating.  The Windy City rarely disappoints in the halcyon days of Summer.

Cruising Down The River….

After dutifully checking to insure the Dave Matthews tour bus was nowhere in the vicinity, Nailah Siddique bought us all tickets for the Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tour, a midafternoon cruise on the Chicago River past strapping antique buildings which have stood the test of time.  If that sounds like a snooze to you, you haven’t been reading USA Today’s Readers Choice poll which calls the trip the #1 boat tour in America.

For more than 25 years, the Architecture Center’s expertly trained volunteers have led the river cruise, sharing spectacular stories about more than 50 iconic buildings along the route.  Riders learn how Chicago grew from a small settlement into one of the world’s largest cities in less than 100 years.  Over the course of 90 minutes, customers get a great overview of Chicago, it’s architecture and its history.  Our boat, the First Lady, was full but comfortable.  The docent, an elderly woman, was extremely knowledgeable and spoke clearly with plenty of volume.  She was passionate about her buildings and often funny.

When we approached the Kinzie Avenue Bridge everyone rose nervously for a moment of silence for the victims of what the volunteer woman called “the Disaster.”  A few cruisers sneaked a peek upwards to insure no similar offenders lurked.  After an agonizingly slow passage beneath the scarred span, everyone sat and exhaled.  We were safe from Dave Matthews for another day.

Above, the Deadly Duo in Lincoln Park; below, the Teepu Crew. 

Teepu’s World

Over the last three years, Siobhan and I have learned a lot about ALS.  If we had illusions that all scientists and researchers were pure of heart, we eventually accepted the reality that they are much like other humans, running the gauntlet from dedicated and genuine to dishonest and greedy.  When you are doling out grants for studies to advance a hopeful new technology, as Siobhan’s Neurodegenerative Disease Research, Inc. does, prospective recipients will promise you anything and often deliver little.  Finding the heroes requires slashing your way through the jungles of false promises and gilded information to reach the City of Gold.

One reason researchers are able to blithely report “Oh, well...” is that they are safely ensconced in their ivory towers having little face-to-face with victims of the disease.  They don’t see the day-to-day deterioration, nor do they feel the despair.  Many ALS victims are people who took excellent care of themselves, were in the peak of health, did everything they were supposed to do to remain vigorous and strong.  Our captain Noonan is such an example.  ALS doesn’t care.  Whoever draws the short straw takes the gaspipe.  Muscles weaken and twitch, there is a loss of mass.  Joints stiffen.  Speaking, swallowing and breathing become difficult.  Mouth and throat muscles become paralyzed.  It becomes more difficult to bring in oxygen.  And all the while, the victim knows no cavalry will arrive, there will be no reprieve call from the governor.

Doctor Teepu Siddique sees all this because he is not just a researcher, he is directly involved with patients.  Northwestern is unique in that ALS victims are presented with a team of helpmates to ease the struggle, allay the confusion, lead the way through the maze.  The crew includes a nutritionist, a cardiologist, a respiratory specialist, a psychologist, the works.  Almost anywhere else, ALS victims are on their own, dazed and confused, waging a lonely, terrified battle against impossible odds.  Seeing the slaughter every day has a way of altering a man.  Consider Teepu Siddique sufficiently altered.

On a walk through Lincoln Park after a visit to the Zoo, we walked together as Siobhan and Nailah lingered behind.  Teepu was happy to have a free day, enjoyed his walk, had a spring in his step.  The doctor is still vigorous at age 75.

“When will you retire, take some time for yourself?” I ask him.  He smiles, a combination of sadness and good humor.  “I think about retiring,” he says.  “My wife would probably like it.  Travel a bit.  Go to Florida to see Siobhan’s goats.  Maybe we will take a bit of a vacation, but retire, that would be difficult.  When I dream about retiring, spending my life having fun, I think of my patients.  I feel like I can still learn things, make discoveries, make a difference to humanity.  So as long as I can make a contribution, I will carry on.”  Then he smiles his patented Teepu smile and laughs.  “Hey, I’m having fun now, right?

Whenever you have fears about the declining quality of the human race, think about Doctor Teepu Siddique toiling away in his lab up there in Chicago, confronted with the ultimate Rubik’s Cube of medicine.  He will not be camping out in the Tetons this year or taking in a play on Broadway because he knows that ALS takes no holidays, that every year another 20,000 victims will be struck down and that he is one of the very few who has an iota of a chance to stop this heedless juggernaut.  He has his mission and he chooses to accept it.  Thank you, Teepu, and Godspeed!

A parting dinner at the Somerset Restaurant with Nailah, Teepu and daughter Niaz, who took the photo. 

That’s all, folks….  


Thursday, July 14, 2022

Rebirth Of The Con

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”---P.T. Barnum

“Make that TEN suckers.”---W.T. Killeen

Donald Trump is just the latest in a recent line of neo-carnival shucksters laying the con on the criminally naive American public.  His extraordinary success, however, has made us indelibly aware the boys are back in town, the genre is experiencing a rising tide and the end is not in sight.  But who started this ugly business, what evil genius first sold us a bill of damaged goods?  Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear and a man named Clark Stanley.

The First Snake Oil Salesman

The origin of the curious term dates back to the California Gold Rush when Chinese immigrants arrived to seek their fortunes as indentured labor for the Transcontinental Railroad.  Among the medicines they brought along was snake oil made from the mildly venomous Chinese water snake.  The oil was rich in omega-3 acids and was said to reduce inflammation from arthritis, bursitis and sore muscles caused by hewing granite to make way for the rail lines.  It was so effective, the medicine found a wide market in the United States and its wonders were greatly exaggerated, first and foremost by one Clark Stanley, who slit open snakes and boiled them at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago.  He told the story of an ancient Hopi remedy learned by cowboys as he skimmed fat from the roiling water.  As time went on, Stanley had many imitators, selling concoctions of all descriptions.

In 1917, Clark Stanley was prosecuted and fined under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 for selling patent medicine that contained only mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper and turpentine, and “snake oil” became a synonym for fraud and fakery in popular culture.

Even before Stanley, however, newspapers carried ads on their front pages for Needham’s Red Clover Blossoms & Extracts, which was said to cure cancer, rheumatism, all blood diseases, dyspepsia, liver ailments, piles, kidney disease and a partridge in a prune tree.  Oh yeah, it also regulated the bowels and purified the complexion.  We haven’t been able to find any lately, alas, and the scary piles season is almost upon us.

The Con Man Hall Of Fame

Throughout history, con artists have wreaked havoc on many a man.  Evil geniuses like Gregor MacGregor and Victor Lustig come to mind for pulling off astounding schemes.  Lustig actually sold the Eiffel Tower (twice!).  MacGregor, a Scot born in the late 1700s, put together a scam which included inventing an entirely false country in what is modern-day Honduras and convincing investors to hand over capital to exploit the natural resources found in “Poyais,” the fake nation where he just happened to be a prince.

In latter times, Lou Pearlman, the driving force behind the Backstreet Boys, went on to perpetrate a $300 million Ponzi scheme that essentially saw him taking suckers’ money, promising to invest it at a high return, then simply spending it on himself.  That little dandy earned Pearlman a 25-year prison sentence, though he was given the opportunity to knock a month off the sentence for every million he was able to recover.

Charles Ponzi, the Original Schemer (and isn’t it nice to have something named after you?), was born in Italy but died in Brazil, which tells you something already.  Back in the early 1900s, he turned a nifty profit buying postage stamps in one country and then selling them for profit in another.  Profitable or not, it was a slow slog through a dense bog and Charlie moved on to better things.  Ponzi eventually happened upon the Wonderful World of Investors, bilking the lot of them for $20 million and destroying six banks.

Basically, the Ponzi scheme is a fraud that lures fleets of investors, paying off the old ones with funds from the new.  The investors are led to believe the profits are coming from legitimate business activity.  The scheme can maintain the illusion of a sustainable business as long as new investors continue to contribute new funds and most of the investors do not demand full payment.

Ponzi’s $20 million haul would amount to $196 million in 2022 dollars, a piffling amount compared to Bernie Madoff’s colossal swindle which collapsed in 2008.  Bernie nailed the boys for about $18 billion, about 53 times the losses of Ponzi’s investors.  Charlie gets naming rights, though, because he thought it up. 

It's Only A Paper Moon

Dennis Hope is peddling property on the Moon, and it’s a seller’s market.  Laugh if you like but over the past 32 years Mr. Hope has salted away more then 10 million dollars.  That’s not soggy gingerbread.  See, back in 1980, the former ventriloquist and car salesman was out of work, going through a divorce and struggling to make ends meet.  Driving along, forlornly wondering what he might do for cash flow, Dennis looked through his car window and saw the Moon.  “Now there’s a mess of real estate,” he thought.  A brilliant idea popped into his head….a potential business with no competition.  Dennis Hope would sell lots on the Moon.

Hope did some research and discovered the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a pact in which dozens of nations including the U.S. laid out the basic legal guidelines for dealing with celestial bodies.  Dennis thought he saw a loophole.  The treaty declares that no nation can assert sovereignty over the Moon, but it fails to say clearly that individuals can’t.

Encouraged, Hope sent a note to the United Nations laying claim to the Moon as well as the other planets and moons in our solar system.  Then he put out his realtor shingle under the moniker Lunar Embassy, selling a typical Moon acre for the bargain price of $24.99.  (If you want a real bargain, the entire planet of Pluto is going for $250,000, though it probably fails the “location, location, location” test.)  Hope’s claims of a $10 million windfall from land sales seems inflated, but who knows?  Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.  Oh, and always take pause when you run into someone described as a “former ventriloquist.” 

Scams ‘R’ Us

Cons are many and varied and crimes of this nature have been taking place for hundreds of years.  In 1871, two miners tricked Tiffany’s into buying a fortune in fake diamonds by leading representatives of the jewelry giant on a four-day expedition to a field they had littered with faux gems.  The Tiffany men thought they got the best of these naive goobers, offering the dumb miners $600,000.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s wasn’t all tea and crumpets when the truth finally came out.

Five rabbis, three New Jersey mayors and two state legislators were arrested by the FBI at the end of a two-year investigation into a massive corruption scandal spanning from New York to Israel.  The rabbis were charged with laundering tens of millions of dollars through charities in both countries and one suspect was accused of selling Israeli donors’ kidneys purchased for $10,000 for up to $160,000.   Worshippers were praying when federal agents stormed the Deal Synagogue in Long Branch, New Jersey and seemed flabbergasted by the charges.  “Such meshuggeneh!” said one of the templegoers.  “Even on the black market you can get a kidney for eighty thousand.”

GoFundMe scams are too numerous to mention, raking in numberless good-hearted suckers every week.  Since GFM’s founding in 2010, about 250,000 campaigns have been launched just to pay for “health care costs.”  That’s a full third of the site’s total campaigns, raising over $650 million in contributions.  It’s anybody’s guess how many of these are phonies, but there’s no shortage of criminal intent.  Last year, the mastermind of an elaborate GFM scheme which duped thousands of victims out of more than $400,000 was hit with a 16-count federal indictment a month after pleading guilty to state charges stemming from the hoax involving his ex-girlfriend and a homeless veteran.

Mark D’Amico of New Jersey was indicted for a raft of charges connected to a 2017 scheme which conned contributors into believing homeless vet John Bobbit Jr. gave D’Amico’s then-girlfriend Katelyn McClure his last $20 when she ran out of gas on a darkened freeway off-ramp in Philadelphia.  The rewards for Bobbit’s alleged selfless act poured in as D’Amico’s marks supposedly rewarded man’s humanity to man.  “This clown bought himself a goddam BMW with some of the proceeds!” said an unidentified federal investigator.  “He bought his girlfriend luxury handbags.”

Good news, though.  GoFundMe, suffering a tidal wave of bad publicity, eventually returned all the donations to the people who were duped.  Don’t expect that to happen every time. 

The Internet Evildoers Meet The Avengers

The computer era has opened up a whole new world to scammers of every description.  Lonelygirl15, allegedly a teenager named Bree, turned out to be an actress named Jessica Rose.  This YouTube sensation broke many lonely hearts who thought they shared a special connection with the webcam princess.

Online Dating Scams, of course, are a staple of the industry.  Shysters construct fake profiles, try to get the marks to fall for them, then slowly reel them in.  They often profess love at an unusually early point and try to get their fish to chat on alternative apps, the better to be not shut down by the dating app.  The scammers will eventually ask the newly beloved to cover the cost of something, perhaps a plane ticket they’ll need to come visit you.  After that, it’s “See you later, sucker!” 

And how about them Nijerians?  Scamming is a cottage industry in the capital, Abuja, where some of the leading fraudsters have earned celebrity status.  There’s even a rap song called “Yahooze” about the perpetrators by local singer Olu Maintain with more than 3 million hits on YouTube.

This is not all bad for clever phonies like London-based comedian James Veitch with not much to do.  “I set up multiple pseudonymous email accounts and began replying to these guys,” says Veitch.  “I must have gotten on some sort of sucker list because the Nijerian Prince emails started arriving in torrents.  I’ve been replying as much as I can but it’s challenging.”  James eventually wrote a book compiling some of his more entertaining transactions, one of them involving a Nijerian man who professed to have “cancer of the lever.”  Vietch sympathized, saying “I’m so sorry to hear of this.  Cancer of the lever can be deadly.  Are you sure it’s your lever, though, and not your second wife poisoning you?  Make sure you check your food before you eat it.”  John’s book is available on Amazon and his funds are still in his pocket.

Decent Exposure

Robocalls are rampant and more than 40% of them are likely scams.  Last year, Microsoft discovered that more than 60% of the population of 16 countries including the U.S. were targeted in tech support scams.  This incurred the scary wrath of an online activist with the secret identity “Jim Browning.”  Browning likes to go after scammers in India who make robocalls advancing a computer repair scheme.  He plays the victim, listening to scammers tell him they need access to his computer so they can give him a refund.

"These guys will typically use a phrase like 'We are a computer company going out of business.  You paid us in the past and we're going to refund your money,'" Browning explained.  He lets them into his computer, but they fail to realize Jim now has access to their computer and can spy on their operations.  Once in, he watches them, listens to them, and worms his way into their systems, where he can cause untold havoc, and does.  Browning's strategy for dealing with these crooks has proved popular on YouTube where one of his videos has garnered over two million views.

An unnamed Canadian man received a call from an alleged “tax officer” telling him he was implicated in a fraud.  If he didn’t call back immediately, he was facing jail time.  The victim, however, knew the Canada Revenue Agency was based in Ottawa and only contacted people by mail. 

“So I called back and asked for their address.  They wanted to know why and I explained I wanted to pay my debt in person.  They hung up, of course.”  But the would-be mark wasn’t through with his new pals.  He now calls them daily, about 15-20 times a day.  “They keep asking for my name and hanging up.  I get three different Indian guys answering in what sounds like a call center.  I keep calling and letting them know I’d love to visit.  After awhile, that started begging me to stop calling.  I reminded them they had insisted I call and I was doing just that.  I have nothing better to do.  I’ve started calling them every 15 minutes and I think I’ll keep it up for another two weeks.  It’s really fun.  They sound so defeated.” 

Our heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

That's all, folks....