Sunday, September 25, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Emperor Norton

I met an emperor!  Well, not really I met a man dressed as an emperor.  Well, not really I met a man dressed as a man who thought he was an emperor.  I've given Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico a shout out before on this blog.  He was a failed businessman who went bankrupt due to an injudicious rice speculation and who appears to have gone completely out of his mind as a result.  One day in the 1860s he walked into the offices of a San Francisco newspaper and handed over a proclamation announcing his accession to the non existent throne and summarily dismissing the president and both houses of Congress.  The newspaper published the proclamation the next day and Emperor Norton had arrived.  Anywhere else he would probably have been locked up or completely ignored but not here.  He became an instant favourite with the people of San Francisco.  He dined in restaurants free of charge, had box seats for every opening night and paid his bills with "imperial treasury bonds" which were accepted as legal tender.  Incidentally if you ever come across one of these bonds keep hold of it.  Wells Fargo Bank has one on display in its company museum, it's valued at US$7,000.

I was going on a historical walking tour around San Francisco with an Emperor Norton impersonator as my guide.  The instructions were simple, go to Union Square and find Emperor Norton.  You wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find someone dressed as a madman dressed as an emperor would you?  Actually I found it difficult to locate Union Square.  The whole area around it is being dig up for a rail line and Union Square is surrounded by fences, boarding and what looks like hessian.  Inside all of this Union Square is still functioning but I walked past it twice before I realised it wasn't a construction site.

Eventually I found both Union Square and the emperor and along with a group of like minded individuals trotted off on a walking tour of the city.  Our guide, decked out in shabby, semi military finery worthy of the emperor himself guided us through the financial district, Barbary Coast and Chinatown with a fund of historical information about San Francisco in general and Emperor Norton in particular all related in the first person.  We went to the small park which was the site of the boarding house he lived in and the spot where, on his way to a meeting, he suffered a stroke and died.

Norton's funeral is still the largest to have happened in San Francisco.  Some two hundred thousand people turned out to pay their respects as his coffin was escorted to its final resting place.  I left my version of Emperor Norton alive and well and went to collect my luggage from my hosts.  A word about my hosts: Adrian & Kevin were amazing.  Anyone wanting to use Airbnb in San Francisco should check them out.

But now I was leaving San Francisco, ahead of me was a trolley ride, a brief walk, a bus ride and a train journey which collectively would deliver me to Portland, the next city in the US to be blessed with my presence.

Travelling Hopefully - Fire Engines and Prison Islands

I rose early the next morning determined to sample the breakfast delights I had missed out on the previous day.  Full of confidence I strolled down to the diner, it was closed.

After this auspicious beginning I hit the streets of San Francisco, my objective; a fire engine.  Open top bus tours of a city are nothing new but in this case the open top bus was a shiny red Mack fire truck, built in 1955, retired from the SFD in 1989 and now carting tourists with an actual or mental age of six through the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back again.  It looked exactly like my childhood impression of what a fire truck should look like, proof that American cultural imperialism is the bit of their imperialism that actually works.

Perhaps there is a goatherd in Tajikistan who doesn't know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.  That goatherd is no doubt mocked mercilessly by his fellow goatherds for his provincialism and ignorance.  Suffice it to say that everyone else on the planet including the aliens who secretly rule us and the netherworldly demons who conspire against them know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.  And it doesn't matter.  It looks exactly as you think it's going to look and it's still breathtaking.  Sydney Harbour Bridge is pretty impressive but it is, and looks, massive.  Raw power is evident in every hulking inch.  The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a weightlifter, the Golden Gate is a gymnast.  The muscle is there but it's clothed in elegance.

After goggling appropriately at the  bridge we rolled back into town passing real or rather, current fire engines along the way.  Fire trucks are something you can always see in San Francisco for a very good reason according to our guide.  After the last major earthquake trapped a lot of the SFD's engines in their buildings a law was passed stating that a third of the departments vehicles must be on the streets at any given time.

But enough of fire engines, I had other, soggier fish to fry.  Alcatraz beckoned.  Pausing only to eat some chicken fried chicken in a restaurant decked out to be the worlds most implausible rainforest imitation I presented myself at the appropriate pier and was directed to the back of a very long queue.  San Francisco is still a working port (they import a third of their pollution from China for example) and while I was there a monstrous cruise ship turned up.  It's name was the Infinity Explorer which certainly takes flatulent pretentiousness to the level of an art form.

My transport to Alcatraz was a box shaped floaty thing of much more modest dimensions.  It was called the Alcatraz Flyer, a name I was prepared to dispute on aerodynamic grounds alone.  They poured us in through a hole in the Flyer's side and when it was full it struggled gamely off in the direction of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz wasn't always prison.  We are informed of this fact so that the boatload of human freaks with a ghoulish interest in what was effectively a human zoo feel a little better about themselves.  "We are going for the history," we tell ourselves, "part of the rich tapestry of human existence in the San Francisco area and we totally don't wish there were still a couple of prisoners around that we could prod with sticks."

Once there of course the mask was thrown off and we all charged for the cell block as quickly as a pack of out of shape, largely middle aged people could, ie not very swiftly at all.  The actual cell block is right near the top of the island unlike the dock which, for reasons of water accessibility, is located somewhere near the bottom.  Warnings abounded informing us of the arduous climb ahead of us and also mentioning that spaces on the little vehicle provided were limited and should be restricted  to those genuinely in need.  A brutal free for all erupted between the obese, the lazy and the occasionally genuinely disabled.  People who looked like there mere effort of drawing another breath would give them heart failure clawed and bit at each other in an effort to get on board.  I was halfway up the hill when the staff deployed the fire hoses but I believe they got it sorted out in the end.

"You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical assistance, everything else is a privilege."  Thus spake the welcome pack every prisoner received on arrival.  As a paying guest I was also entitled to an audio tour.  The voices on the audio tour were provided by a group of former guards and a group of former inmates.  This led me to conclude that the retirement provision for former guards must be disturbingly close to that for former violent criminals.  The audio tour was excellent and spiced with anecdotes from both sides.  Since Alcatraz, like most disused government buildings, is essentially a series of empty rooms (albeit many of them quite small) the audio tour was essential for adding the necessary colour.

After exhausting the interest value of the cell block (which took nearly two hours) I made my way back down to the dock where I joined another very long queue waiting for the ferry to leave.  Disaster!  There were too many of us for the boat.  If this was West Africa the captain would have pocketed a little baksheesh and let us on anyway but here in San Francisco the captain spitefully adhered to the safety regulations and departed leaving those of us stranded on the dock cursing the Fates (and in one case the IRS but that was because a close friend was gaoled for tax fraud).  Just when all hope seemed lost a boxy, borderline seaworthy shape appeared.  It was the Alcatraz Flyer wallowing gamely to our rescue.  I'm getting rather fond of the Alcatraz Flyer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Not Getting Lost in San Francisco

My host directed me to a spot he said was superb for breakfast.  I went to the wrong place and demanded food.  Fortunately I had walked into a sports bar rather than a dry cleaners and the staff were quite happy to accommodate me, particularly as the rest of their clientele wouldn't be turning up for another eight hours.  After a breakfast of spicy chicken burger and garlic fries I wandered off down Market Street.  Feeling vaguely compelled to not let my host down I managed to find my original breakfast destination.  All I could manage by this stage was a cup of coffee but I like to think they appreciated the effort.

Replete with coffee, albeit some twenty minutes after breakfast, I went for a walk and didn't stop for quite a while.  Working on the theory that it's impossible to get lost if you don't know where you're going I struck out with confidence.  An imposing building caught my eye and I altered course to intercept it, fortunately it wasn't moving very quickly.  The building got even more imposing as I approached and it was eventually revealed to be the San Francisco city hall.  It graciously paused for a photograph before we went our separate ways.

After that I headed down Larkin Street (see, still not lost) in the, as it turned out, justifiable belief that I would eventually reach the bay.  Several eventuallys later I was indeed overlooking San Francisco Bay.  I invite you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine the scene; the tang of salt in the air, fishing boats unloading the days catch, sailors of a dozen nations races and creeds rubbing shoulders as they go about their business.  Have you got all that?  Good, because it was nothing like that.  Instead there were souvenir shops, more seafood restaurants than a location at the water's edge could possibly justify and honking big sea lions.  Or if you prefer it big honking sea lions.  Also there were some of the most impressive looking seagulls I've ever seen.  At least I think they were seagulls, they definitely weren't ducks.  Some ducks had been provided for easy comparison.

Having reached Fisherman's Wharf I wandered along it checking out the sea lions, ducks and probably seagulls until I reached the Musee Mechanique.  It was free to enter so I did and checked out at first hand how people entertained themselves before the invention of play stations.  Not far away a World War II submarine isn't on display.  To explain that last sentence I should point out that a World War II submarine normally is on display but some time prior to my arrival it was taken away to dry dock, something they have to do from time to time to maintain it at peak readiness or at least stop it from sinking permanently below the waves.  There was an audio-visual tour of the submarine shaped hole in the bay but I decided to give it a miss.

Since I was in the vicinity I decided to justify my presence by checking out the starting points for my next day's tours.  That done I bought an ice cream and left the sea lions, buskers and souvenir sellers alone in their domain.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - American Customs

My plane was late arriving in San Francisco due to the aforementioned issues hosing the straw off it in Sydney.  Once it spat me into the terminal building I found myself being closely questioned by a customs officer.  "Why have you come to America?" is fair enough as is "Where are you going in America?" But "Why are you going to New York when your return flight leaves from San Francisco?" seemed a little much particularly since after sitting on a 747 for seventeen hours I couldn't come up with a coherent explanation.  I think I said something like, "New York, big buildings, yay!".  As for the coming back to San Francisco part the real answer is that I was making up the holiday as I went along but I doubt if that would have impressed him.  Eventually after making me sweat for a while he released my passport and waved me through.  I'm still not sure if he was genuinely suspicious or whether as a proud San Franciscan he honestly didn't know why anyone would want to go to New York.

Through absolutely no skill on my part I've managed to fall on my feet in San Francisco.  I'm staying in The Castro a predominantly gay part of the city.  My host, a charming gentleman named Adrian greeted me with Bloody Marys and a lunch invitation.  Just the thing at midday on a Monday when you're trying to stave off jetlag.  It worked so well that I'm currently writing this blog entry while clinging to a table top and holding my eyelids open with paper clips.

First impressions of San Francisco?  It's hilly, quite hilly.  If you climb to the top of a hill you will be treated to the sight of another hill.  Possibly it's just the area I'm in but the people seem quite friendly.  At least the restaurant staff were quite happy to serve someone whose jetlag status had reached drooling on a plate stage without any qualms.

After a semi delirious car ride (I was semi delirious, not the car) I was released onto the streets where I proved that near terminal brain disfunction wasn't enough to stop me from finding and buying coffee the consumption of which is the sole cause of any passing resemblance to coherence this blog entry possesses.

Now, however I am done for the day.  The afternoon sun is warm and my eyeballs are contemplating claiming asylum in someone else's body.  My body thinks they already have.

Travelling Hopefully

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Which is proof if proof were needed that all you need to do to gain a reputation for wisdom is state the bleeding obvious in a sufficiently portentous voice.  A foreign accent also helps.  If you can achieve the latter you will find yourself in the happy position of having a wide eyed pack of awestruck acolytes treating your miscellaneous collection of desk calendar quotes as holy writ.

A somewhat less well known corollary to the piece of wisdom disseminated above is that if that single step had been at Sydney Airport the philosopher in question would probably have turned around and gone home.

I actually think Sydney Airport has improved since I was last here.  It still manages to be aggressively bland (an impressive trick in itself) but it seems to have been decorated or at least cleaned since the last time I was here.  Everything is the same but it all seems a little brighter.  As I sat there I was able to imagine that my soul might not get sucked completely out of my body.  This turned out to be fortunate as I spent an hour longer there than I intended.  Apparently the stable boys had some difficulty coaxing my plane out of its stall.

Eventually though we were herded onto our noble steed of the stratosphere and catapulted in the general direction of San Francisco.  A menu was handed out offering us a choice between Texas beef and chicken cacciatore.  I received duck a l'orange and the woman next to me who had asked for a vegetarian meal was given cheese sandwiches and an apple which seems to be stretching the term vegetarian (to say nothing of the term "meal") to breaking point.  For dessert I had what was probably an ice block although it was a little difficult to tell with my tongue and lips stuck to it.

Despite these minor inconveniences (I can call them minor because I wasn't the one starving because they forgot my meal) the plane is about to deposit me on the tarmac in San Francisco.  Now all I have to do is figure out how to get from the airport to The Castro, something I might have been wise to work out earlier.  I tried to look out the window as we came in to land but all I saw was the back of my neighbour's head.  Since she was half mad from hunger by this stage I didn't consider it wise to press the point.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Silly After Action Report Part 3 - Right Down to the Wire

It was with a small measure of despair that I picked up my game with Ivan Kent for the final few turns of Polish Panzerjagers.  With my centre force crushed I could see little hope of victory.  Still I resolved to fight on at least for a while in the hopes of better fortune.

Better fortune arrived, for Ivan.  Over in the north a pair of PzIIs had been facing off a pair of Ivan's tanks and looked set to remain in frozen immobility for the remainder of the game.  Then I had managed to introduce an atr toting squad to the occasion and Ivan decided it was time to move.  He started up one tank, and rolled it past my atr squad.  I fired and missed but I wasn't too downhearted.  He only had one way to go, straight past a PzII (with an 8-1 armour leader).  He moved forward, I fired and broke MA.  Ivan trundled his tank away with impunity placing it where it could overlook the battlefield then, with nothing left to fear he did the same with the other.  I may have offered to concede at that point but I regained my nerve and played on.

The rest of Ivan's turn consisted largely of slinking out of my line of sight with one dreadful exception.  Over in the south he had a HIP unit that had sternly held its fire while pretty much the entire German army had rolled by on either side of it without ever entering the hex.  Now with my troops up on the hilltops he revealed it and made a dash for my already captured level 3 hexes in the south west.  I may have screamed just a little.  Fortunately my incompetence now came to my assistance.  I have already noted that I felt I had brought on some of my troops too late in the game.  One 5-4-8 squad with an mmg and 9-1 leader was thus lagging behind my main push from the southern hills.  I needed them forward but needs must and they set out in pursuit of Ivan's squad.  I'm pleased to say they caught it and broke it before it could capture more than one hill hex which they then managed to retake.

Back in the main battlefield a brief lull settled over the centre as various officers of mine tried desperately to cobble a battlegroup together out of a mess of shattered units.  In the south however I eased forward, capturing a few more single hex buildings and a couple more hill hexes.  I pushed forward a PzII to provide at least a pretence of protection from the trio of Polish tanks now rolling up the village street to add some weight to his defence.  I had other plans for my PzIV.  Single hex buildings were all very well but if I wanted any chance to win I had to grab a couple of those big multihex five pointers.  One of them was well within reach in the southeast.  There was also one well within reach in the centre but I had nothing to reach it.

While my troops hopped nervously forward to capture the most apparently vulnerable of his single hex buildings I managed to build up a multisquad force to take the southeastern building.  Unfortunately it was defended by an elite squad with an hmg and an 8-1 officer.  Sleaze from my PzIV was the order of the day.  Capturing that building was actually a little anticlimactic as bounding fire broke the squad and I essentially just walked in.

Not far away Ivan poked one of his tanks around the corner to challenge my guarding PzII.  My PzII opened fire, and broke its MA.  In return Ivan gained a shock result.  I recovered from that the next turn whereupon Ivan shocked it again.  With the big building captured my PzIV moved on to the next target pausing only to break its MA along the way.

You may recall to the left of centre Ivan had a squad, 9-1 and hmg guarding a building (and a flank) which had cheerfully slaughtered a tank and anything else that had tried to approach.  It followed this up by shooting an adjacent squad of mine out of a building it had taken and recapturing it.  They say that doing the same thing again and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity.  I did the same thing again (vehicle sleaze followed by squad assault) and this time it worked and I managed to take back both the building I'd lost and the hmg squad's original home.

Meanwhile my 81mm mortars were proving that bringing them on late really was my worst mistake.  After dropping smoke onto both of his remaining 75mm guns they then shot up and managed to shock both of Ivan's tanks that had swanned past my PzII guards.  This was helpful as my one remaining PzII over there and my heretofore impotent atr squad had done a run down the northern side to try and snatch a couple more level 3 hexes.  Thanks to my mortars they were able to do so, a few more VPs for Neil.

Which only leaves the centre.  I had managed to rally a squad and a half hiding in trees and another halfsquad hiding under the dubious protection of one of my burning tanks.  Ivan shot at these worthies and they promptly went berserk and charged the full squad that had had the temerity to open fire on them.  I said a quick prayer and didn't expect to hear from them again but bless their little berserk cotton socks if they didn't shrug off all defensive fire, plunge into close combat and kill an entire squad thus delivering up another building to me.

With one turn to go a quick count up of VPs stunned us both.  I was only about four short of the total I needed.  One multihex building would win it for me.  There was one (just) within reach.  In the centre just past the small hill which had been the grave of so many of my hopes.  Ivan had it garrisoned with a squad but yet another of my PzIs was sitting in bypass in the hex preventing it from firing out.  To boost his firepower Ivan had brought up one of his tanks from the southeast which was now sitting exactly where I needed to run if I were to reach the building.  To add to the fun he had a squad and mmg covering the road I would need to cross.  I had a crew with a captured mmg right next to his tank, I opened fire and blew the thing up in a mass of flames, now I had a little cover.  I CXed a squad and leader forward, over the hill and into the newly created smoke.  Ivan fired his mmg but didn't get a result.  I had more troops coming in from the south led by an 8-1 leader, they seized the other hex of the building and to add the final touch I brought forward the crew of my 37mm gun (which I never even bothered unhooking from its truck) to also go for the building.

It all came down to the final CC.  Ivan had a squad.  I had a CX squad, a crew and an 8-1 leader.  Ivan rolled, snake eyes.  He promptly withdrew from CC into the other hex of the building and I was left just a point or two short.

This one had some wild swings of fate.  I honestly thought I had no chance after my centre was destroyed, Ivan and I seriously discussed a concession at the end of turn 6, I'm so glad I kept on despite losing by an eyelids width at the end.  Cheers to Ivan for an awesome game.  Incidentally no photos in this one as I was too gripped to reach for my camera the entire time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Silly After Action Report Part 2 - My Panzers are Getting Jagered

I scarce know how to begin.  My cheeks are wet with tears and the groans of my heart are fit to drown my words.  Nemesis has descended among my troops and it turns out she's a real bitch.

As you were probably expecting things haven't gone so well for me in the second part of my game of Polish Panzerjagers with Ivan.  In fact things have gone rather dreadfully and a fair amount of it was my fault.  That too probably won't surprise you.  Things started on a hopeful note.  My artillery got back in action and I dropped a smoke concentration on Ivan's recently revealed third 75mm gun.  With hopes of extending the screen the next turn I was feeling mildly cockahoop a feeling that increased when Ivan broke his 81mm mortar.  Sadly the next couple of turns would prove my hoop to be well and truly cocked.

I can deal with the flanks first and gain what shreds of comfort I can from the achievements there.  On the southern hill mass I extended my position, snatched a few more level three hexes and starting moving a few squads down towards the village.  In response Ivan has sent a platoon of tanks in that direction and soon I suspect there is going to be a bit of an armoured bloodbath but for right now the flank is looking good.  Over on the northern side I achieved a certain amount with skimpy forces.  A squad toting an atr dashed up to the hill mass and advanced up courtesy of some well placed smoke from one of my PzIIs currently facing off the rest of his armour.  A lone halfsquad meanwhile is making a suicide run deep into Polish territory and has so far survived despite my expectations.

So much for the good news.  Now for the bad.  My centre has been destroyed.  All that is left is a group of shattered squads whimpering amongst the trees.  How did this happen?  Partly my fault,  feeling the pressure of time I pushed a couple of units forward looking to draw some fire, if they survived they would be well placed.  They didn't survive, Ivan shot them to bits but even so I was sanguine.  The shots had revealed some positions, the last of my reinforcements were arriving and I had a decent force prepared to assault in the centre.
Things are looking very briefly up
Then everything went terribly wrong.  A PzI was reduced to a burning wreck by an atr.  Ivan scored a critical hit with a 46mm mortar and followed it up with a snake eyes on the effects roll.  Over to the left (south) he had a squad, hmg and 9-1 leader in a building behind the wheat fields, I roared another PzI up and bypass sleazed him hoping to move other troops up to hit him in CC.  Nope, didn't happen, the other troops got broken and my tank was left to deal with the squad itself.  It surprised me by surviving two full turns but then Ivan killed it without taking so much as a scratch himself.  Meanwhile I was getting desperate to capture the small hill in the centre.  Not only did it have three buildings worth a VP apiece but I needed it as a platform for an assault on the village proper.

Having learnt my lesson from the reckless charges of earlier I eased forward, assault moving and being as tactical as I could.  It didn't really matter, Ivan managed to roll a succession of threes which smashed this second attempt and left me back at my starting point.  Even now I thought I might gain success.  My smoke FFE2 proving to be less than useless I decided it was time to bring the artillery down on this centre hill itself.  It was risky, my troops were close but I picked my spot,  there were five hexes where the artillery could stray to Ivan's detriment and only one where it might hurt me.  Do I need to mention what happened at this point?  Suffice it to say I've managed to break two and a half squads of my own troops plus an officer and I have virtually nothing left to take the hill.

The hill looks undefended but getting there was virtually impossible


I say virtually nothing, I managed to divert one squad from its previous task of attacking his hmg unit and a crew toting an incredibly heavy atr headed towards the hill as well.  My own 81mm mortars have finally arrived (bad mistake on my part delaying them so long, I should have brought them on a turn or two earlier) and after the carnage in the centre my own little 50mm mortar decided to go on a rate tear.  It pounded the hill and broke all of the defenders on it.  The hill is mine if I can actually find a living soldier to take occupancy.  Naturally the good news couldn't be completely good.  The mortar shot which broke his last squad on the hill also generated a sniper which broke the mortar crew.

Over on the north hill Ivan revealed a 46mm mortar which promptly managed to massacre a squad and a half of my troops over on the south hill.  Vengeance, however, was swift as my atr squad in the vicinity gave up thoughts of tanks for a moment and slaughtered the impudent little beggars in close combat.

The last point at which it looked good.
Over in the south my troops have started moving towards the village and have actually snatched a couple of buildings but the core of his defence remains and sooner or later his trio of tanks are going to do something unpleasant.  This is where we left it for the night.  On paper I look well poised to push forward but my casualties have been so high that I daren't take risks and the time for risk taking is now.  I've finally managed to get a unit onto the centre hill but I'm not really placed to take advantage of it now although I have finally taken one of the buildings.  In the south a somewhat incoherent move forward looks impressive but I'm not sure if I really have the firepower to produce a result.  Somewhat to my surprise I still have some tanks left and I rather suspect they are all going to have to be sacrificed if I have any hope of getting a result.

I'm almost as good at killing my troops as Ivan is
Friday is D-Day, I'm leaving for ASLOK on Monday and would dearly like to go there on a win.  I rather suspect I might have to sell my soul.  That isn't a problem, the difficulty is finding a buyer.