Grainy Sand That Isn’t Sand

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photo-41The wide sandy beach looked calming from a distance. It stretched far out into the appearance of a seashore. But appearances can be deceiving. Edging closer, the sand seemed to be way too grainy, much more so than the usual fine sandy beaches I was used to back home.

“Patagonian sand must be more granular than American sand,” I thought out loud. My Argentinian friend stared for a moment.

“This isn’t sand.”

“No? Sure looks like sand. Just gritty.”

“It’s pumice. Here, take a closer look.”

He tosses what appears to be a large pebble in my direction. I reach out to grab it but end up batting it away because its weight is less than I anticipated. In fact, it has hardly any weight at all.

“It’s pumice.”

Pumice? Wait, I remember this from my geology classes. Pumice is what happens when super-hot, highly pressurized rock is violently ejected from a volcano.  The depressurization creates bubbles (in technical terms, it lowers the solubility of gases like water and carbon dioxide dissolved in the lava; these gases then escape), which results in a “stone” laced with holes and air.

There were stones of pumice mixed in with the finer – but still grainy – ash that made up the beach, which had appeared only after a terrific volcanic eruption from neighboring Chile, the border being only a few kilometers from here. The ocean, of course, wasn’t an ocean either – it was a huge lake in Bariloche, northern Patagonia. The beach was at least 10-20 centimeters thick and had covered what had previously been a grassy area next to the lake. Rivulets of water spurted out from now-underground (or under-ash) springs that once ran directly overground to the lake. Now, these rivulets carried a film of ash and pumice.

This was just one of the many surprises I experienced during my recent travels to Patagonia. More can be found on my Science Traveler website.

And yes, there is a story behind the crutches. More on that later.

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David J. Kent is an avid traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Spicy Travel

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BanchanI love traveling to Asia, in part because the travel is as spicy as the food.

On a recent trip to South Korea I got a chance to try new kinds of spicy. We were in Seoul on election day – South Koreans were replacing their impeached president. Various protests and/or rallies would pop up randomly, mostly calm but always with a continent of police and military overtly present to keep it that way. The odd juxtaposition of South Korean and American flags were usually a tip off that the crowd was supporting the ousted president, who happened to be arrested for corruption a few days before our arrival.

I also got to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), an anxiety-filled buffer between these two countries who signed a cease fire, but no peace agreement, sixty years ago and don’t seem capable of reaching one any time soon. [As I write this the “heads of state” of the USA and North Korea are shooting off nuclear insults to each other like children who don’t know their bombs are real] Walking through the “3rd tunnel of aggression” and seeing the two sides battling for the highest flag pole across the border was not particularly reassuring.

Returning to Seoul – a short missile flight from Pyongyang – we were need of spicy food to compensate for the spicy travel. Near Doeksugung Palace and City Hall sits a tiny restaurant perched on the second floor of corner building. Not surprisingly, the menu was pure Korean food (a KFC next door was getting most of the business). My choice – spicy octopus, of course, with the usual Korean banchan side dishes of pickled cucumber, kimchi, and danmuji radish.

I can’t wait until the next spicy food, and travel.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like”my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is an avid traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Photo credit: By National Institute of Korean Language

A Toothbrush for Lack of Teeth

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cw tooth brush and pasteMen volunteering for the Union army in the Civil War were required to pass a physical. Those lacking at least six opposing upper and lower front teeth were rejected. After all, how could one bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with muzzle loading rifles without them? Even with this minimum stipulation, toothbrushes were not standard issue.

Dentistry was not unheard of prior to the Civil War. Entrepreneurial dental surgeons sprang up at least two decades before and the American Dental Association was officially established in 1859. But there was no Union dental service (ironically, the Confederacy did start one). Dental health actually became worse as the period saw an increased use of refined sugars in foods and greater consumption of fresh, not salted, meats. The rough terrain and occasional Minié ball to the jowls didn’t help matters.

A Dr. Samuel Stockton White met with President Abraham Lincoln to tout his new invention, SS White Tooth Powder. Not much came of the meeting but the powder did make its way to some soldiers. Most soldiers made due by wiping their teeth with any handy rag, salt, their finger, or leaves. Chewing sticks, actual green twigs from dogwood, olive, walnut, cherry, apple, or birch, could be chewed until the fibers became soft and spread.

Of course, some soldiers did have actual toothbrushes. These were hand-carved from wood or cow bone with coarse boar hairs inserted into carefully drilled holes. The boar hairs quickly wore down with use, so it was a constant battle to find replacements.

Overall, the state of most soldiers’ dentition was so bad that the term toothbrush could very well have been accurately described – for a single tooth.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like”my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Experiencing Traditional Hanoi, Vietnam

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Ho-Chi-Minh-museumMany years ago my first taste of world travel took me to Hanoi, long before Vietnam joined the WTO and became “modern.” Then, the traditional was the norm, and the experience gave me fond memories that remain with me today.

Bigger than I expected, Hanoi itself was incredibly busy. Thousands of people on motor scooters and bicycles crowded every street. Many of them wore scarfs over their mouths and noses because the air was so polluted. As I rode around town on my Xe om (a kind of motor bike taxi), it was interesting to contrast the many tiny streets teeming with people doing business on the sidewalks with the ornate mustard-yellow official buildings left over from the many years of French occupation. The mausoleum of Vietnam’s revered former leader Ho Chi Minh (called “Uncle Ho” by the locals), had a prominent place in a large square. Usually visitors can see his preserved body there, but at the time of my trip he was in the middle of an official face-lift, so to speak, so a visit to the adjacent museum had to suffice. Within its halls I wandered into a back room where local musicians played traditional Vietnamese instruments and sang haunting melodies. After the show one attractive musician handed me, the lone westerner in the small room, a ravishing red rose and a seductive smile.

Though my time in Vietnam was way too short I didn’t just stay in Hanoi. Hopping on the back of one of the Xe Om motorbike taxis I had rented for the day ($20 for two, a month’s income for the drivers), I ventured far out from the city to two of the small villages. Bach Trang specialized in making pottery, most of which was brought into Hanoi on bicycles or carts pulled by an ox or pony. The other village was called Nhing Heip, which was reached by an extremely bumpy Xe Om ride over rough roads. Nhing Heip is where they make fabric, and was the location of one of my fondest memories from the trip. Because very few westerners ever make it there, my oddly pale face attracted a great deal of attention. This was especially true with three little girls of about 4 years old who would run up to me and then run away and push their friends toward me, all the while laughing hysterically. My companion informed me that they kept saying “Look how white he is.” The commotion they were causing led to one of the girls’ grandfather seeing us and inviting us into his house for tea.

The house was actually a single room that resembled more a garage with a simple fabric covering the large opening. Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so we drank many cups of tea while he chatted away in Vietnamese about how America is rich and Vietnam is very poor but they work very hard (he was obviously proud of his culture). Of course, most of this I found out after the fact from my companion since I had learned only about 10 words of the language in my four days in Vietnam. I had no idea what he was saying but I enjoyed it immensely. It was a most delightful and memorable experience and one that I will treasure forever.

A conversation I didn’t understand of which I would be reminded years later when I engaged in another discussion where neither I nor the gentleman I was conversing with had any idea what we were saying to each other. More on that event later.

Read more on Hanoi here and here.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like”my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Soil-ain’t Green

lincoln_youthWhen Abraham Lincoln was seven years old his father once again uprooted the family and moved from the impoverished soil of Kentucky to greener Indiana. Young Abe, taller and stronger than average, “had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument.” Indeed, Abraham joined his father in the male-dominated duties of a new claim, while Sarah learned from their mother about running a household.

The Little Pigeon Creek land offered good soil for growing crops and sufficient water access for drinking and farming, as well as accessibility to markets down the nearby Ohio River to sell excess crops. But the next thirteen years gave the same result as the farms in Kentucky. When the soil is tilled year after year it oxidizes out all the vegetable matter, thus making it impossible for the useful bacteria needed for nutrient replenishment to exist. The result is a dead soil that exists only as a mechanical retainer of the concentrated fertilizer applied. Over time, the soil loses its capacity to grow crops.

And so they moved again, this time to Illinois, where the now grown Lincoln wisely abandoned his reliance on the soil to reap the greener pastures of law and politics.

[The above is adapted from my new book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due in stores July 31.]

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like”my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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The grit of a bulldog

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lincoln+bulldog+gripAbraham Lincoln was frustrated with his generals. They don’t have grit, he lamented. General McClellan was a great organizer who whipped his troops into fantastic fighting shape, but he had a case of the “slows.” He just wouldn’t put those troops into battle. Other Generals were more or less competent but they too failed to pursue the enemy. Too many chances were lost that could have ended the war early.

And then came along Ulysses S. Grant. Rumored to be a hard drinker, Grant was nonetheless a fighter. He had started the war on the western front in Missouri and slowly worked his way toward the Mississippi River. Caught by surprise at the battle of Shiloh in early April (Grant had been unprepared and slow to react), he was chastised for the massive casualties accredited to his bare-knuckle fighting style and alleged drunkenness. When pressed for his removal, Lincoln refused, reportedly saying “I can’t spare this man; he fights!” It was a gamble, but Lincoln had a feeling about this man.

“The great thing about Grant, I take it, is his perfect coolness and persistency of purpose. I judge he is not easily excited, – which is a great element in an officer, – and he has got the grit of a bull-dog! Once let him get his ‘teeth’ in, and nothing can shake him off.”

Lincoln’s faith in Grant paid off. The day after the Union victory at Gettysburg – on July 4th, Independence Day – Grant captured Vicksburg. The Union had cut the South in two, with the states west of the Mississippi River—Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas—now isolated from reinforcements.

Following Vicksburg, Lincoln promoted Grant to Major General and gave him command of a newly formed Division of the Mississippi, where he directed several armies through major battles in the region. His skill and leadership would eventually lead Lincoln to commission him Lieutenant General and command of all Union armies as General-in-Chief, answering only to Lincoln.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the war. Six days later Lincoln was dead. Four years later Grant himself was inaugurated President. Lincoln’s faith in Grant had been warranted. Unfortunately, Lincoln was not around to see Grant rise to take his place.

[The above is adapted from my new book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due in stores July 31.]

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]