Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 3 – Kiev, Hero City

STRATEGIC RESERVE IN UKRAINE: In addition to infinite pierogis, FINE RESTAURANTS will offer you a selection of lard (really, it’s just hog belly). “Lard In The Acute Paprika” is a reason to return to Kiev alone.

Let me get this out of the way upfront. I didn’t even spend long enough in Kiev and I want to go back before it’s too late. My time in the city was all too brief and all too enjoyable, among people who are putting on a brave face over deep insecurity and fear. Get in the habit of saying “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine”. The latter version implies that they are just a region rather than a country, which is very much how Russia regards them. Also, my pierogi lust has no end. I already knew this, but Kiev catered to it.

As a reminder, I left San Francisco the day after the presidential election and arrived in Kiev a day after that. As the only American I met until I got to Chernobyl (even my compatriot was Canadian), the conversations I had with Ukrainians who spoke at least some English generally went like this:

  1. You’re American?
  2. Did you vote for Trump?
  3. How did ANYONE vote for Trump?
  4. What happens next?

Because I’m me with funny answers to questions and a decent knowledge of recent events, Ukranian companions were happy to offer PROTIPS. And I quote from the woman running the front desk at 3am and I had terrible instant coffee with because I couldn’t sleep, “You can get rid of Putin’s puppets. If you paid attention, we showed you how. Just…don’t wait until winter. Maidan was cold.” The assumption from the Ukrainian point of view is that within a year or so, they won’t have an independent country anymore. That with Trump in office there isn’t an America to act as backstop for NATO (read: the Europeans won’t actually do something without America jabbing them in the back with a stick) if Russia decides to “assert territorial rights”. I can’t fault this fear for a second, since they have recent events in Crimea and Donetsk to point to. Some parts of the city haven’t quite recovered from the Orange Revolution, much less Euromaidan, but they put up a nice facade, literally. The empty or damaged buildings around Andriyivskyy Descent have been covered with cloth that have pictures printed/painted on them showing what the buildings looked like when they were occupied or new.

An Iron Cross made entirely of Iron Crosses taken from dead Nazis at the 2nd Battle of Kiev.

Which is part of why I decided to devote what meager Kiev tourist time I had not to staggeringly gorgeous Eastern Orthodox churches, not to the treasures and art that date back to when the the Kievan Rus were Vikings that had neat found a way to trade with/raid Constantinople, not to the many sex clubs that Kiev is quite certain western tourists want…no, I went to the Motherland Memorial, the Rodina Mat, and the Museum of  the Great Patriotic War that rests beneath her feet. To be fair, under de-Sovietification it was renamed the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War which doesn’t quite pop the same way. I could see places where one or two exhibits had been removed or maybe an informational plaque had been changed, but generally it didn’t look like much had been altered from when the place was dedicated in 1981. Based on the exhibits inside, I think it would be entirely fair to call it the Ukrainian Museum of Art Made with Stuff We Took from Dead Nazis Because We Killed A LOT of Them.

And so I set out into Kiev as the snow started coming down. Normally, I would have happily walked across the city from our hotel to the Rodina Mat. That was not a normal day, which is why I summoned my first Uber* ever.

I also have to give the sad report that a lie told enough times becoming accepted fact got proven for me with the driver who was impressed that we had elected Obama, a Kenyan, as president of the US. On a positive note, he didn’t think it was bad that America had elected a non-citizen as president, just odd. We corrected him and also pointed out that Hawaii is one of the states of the United States of America, even if the islands are far away from the continent. The Birther Movement lie is alive and well overseas but with less information about how America is supposed to work, garbling the disinformation campaign. I want to give my driver full honors and accolades for braving the first major snowstorm of the year, driving on slick cobblestone streets, among the other drivers who appeared determined to die. It was a beautiful moment where one remembers humans are the same everywhere: for the first major storm of the year, rain or snow, everyone forgets how to drive in it and hilarity ensues. Doesn’t matter if its San Francisco, Denver, Sydney or Kiev, just listen for the sounds of brakes, squealing tires and crunching fenders.

Rodina Mat (Motherland) Monument- I’m not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is. Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big. Please note the complete lack of other people dumb enough to go out as a snowstorm starts.

For the benefit of folks who don’t know what the Great Patriotic War was, why it deserves a museum, and why the heck does Kiev has this giant statue, here’s a quick review. The Great Patriotic War was the USSR’s term for WWII because, relative to the Soviet Republics, this was a war fought on their soil for their very survival. WWI, for which most of Europe still uses the old term “The Great War” with the assumption there wouldn’t be another war ever, wasn’t something the Soviet authorities were terribly proud of. It was the war that belonged to the Tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution happened at least in part to get the hell out of said war, and to then promptly begin the civil war for control of the former Russian Empire which also wasn’t something to be particularly proud of. Relative to the start of the Soviet Union, this was the big one, the GLORIOUS MOMENT FOR GLORIOUS STATE, and hence the name Great Patriotic War. That demands museums, monuments, and parades to put America to shame; we merely had the Greatest Generation in WWII, they have the Hero Generation of the Great Patriotic War.

The Flame of Glory, Unlit, On a Cold Day

For the cities that fought the longest, that had the roughest battles, the Politburo had a special designation: Hero City. While the casualties were higher and battle of longer duration in Leningrad and Stalingrad, Kiev had the “pleasure” of being a major battlefield against the Nazis twice and a long, lethal Nazi occupation. This monument and museum were part of a larger patriotic park to tell the story of the Battles of Kiev in sculpture and architecture. In a subtle manner, it tells newer stories too; the Flame of Glory, which is a giant Olympic Games-like cauldron that was meant to be an eternal burning flame of memory, is now only lit for major events like Victory Day because natural gas supplies from Russia aren’t to be counted on.

DER FLAMMENWURFER – It wurfs flammens. With great effectiveness, as one of the Nazi terror weapons the helped them win Kiev in the first battle.

Other than the docents who worked there, I more or less had the park and the museum to myself other than the British dad who seemed just a little bit too excited about all the Nazi gear on display to show his son. I was offered an English audio tour of the museum but declined it. I wanted to see how much of the story I could figure out with the limited postings in English, my almost non-existent skill at reading the Cyrillic alphabet, and my compendious knowledge of the horrors of war.

In light of the recent Holocaust Remembrance Day and how badly our administration flubbed it, I want to share with you that the Great Patriotic War Museum very much remembers with a point of view that is powerful. You’ve been repeatedly told “6 million people were systematically murdered by the Nazis” your whole life, the Ukrainians add this addendum: “…and a 1.5 million of that number was from here.” Remember the term “Final Solution” which came out of the Wannsee Conference in 1942?  This was a response to the Nazi death squads wandering around the recently conquered Ukraine in Operation Barbarossa, putting hands on hips, shaking their heads and saying “There’s gotta be a better way” after perpetrating horrors like Babyn Yar. It is hard for Kiev to forget things like Babyn Yar since it happened in a ravine in the northern part of the city, rather than just far enough away from a town for things to be out of sight, out of mind like most of the concentration camps. This also made it really easy for Soviet authorities to go collect artifacts from the killing grounds and the Nazi attempt to hide the evidence of it.

The Babyn Yar Bone Mill, side view

The Babyn Yar Bone Mill, with Fertilizer Sacks.

And, oh that evidence. In this museum, you had to ask if you could do photography first but it was permitted. Every other Holocaust exhibit I have ever been to around the world has strictly forbidden photography. In the Holocaust Room at the Great Patriotic War Museum, I was encouraged to take pictures, of the things even *I* was uneasy with. To remember. To remember the bone grinder used in Babyn Yar to mulch the bodies victims into fertilizer and the Nazi eagle stamped sacks the bone meal went into. To remember the soap made from rendered human fat. To remember and take a REAL CLOSE LOOK at the human skin driving gloves for the commandant’s wife. To remember that all of these “consumer products” were once Ukrainians. That they will never let this happen again because they can’t afford it, the loss was too cruel and dire. I’ve shared the pictures of the bone mill but I can’t quite bring myself to put the human-based products up.

The small exhibit that got my attention after the Holocaust Room was the one dedicated to the Hero Mothers. Nazi Germany gave medals to the women who had six our more good, racially fit Aryan children for the Reich. The Soviet Union gave medals to the women who had five our more children die in service trying to defend the country from invasion, as opposed to those whose families had been lost to wholesale slaughter. The museum put some of them with their pictures up on display. I’m sure a medal next to her face wasn’t quite enough for the lady with the pictures of nine sons below her, each of them with a red line across his face, crossed with a bullet casing.

But all that is the past Kiev is trying to move on from, to find prosperity and, honestly, the place looks pretty good all things considered. The repeated efforts by Russia, and Ukraine’s own problematic oligarchs, to stifle their modernization are frustrating but haven’t stopped the process, just slowed it down. I’m to understand some of the smaller places away from the capital still have some timewarp/neglect issues, but I can’t speak to what I didn’t really see, other than on the drive to Chernobyl. Having done my fair share of traveling, no city has quite sunk it’s claws into my heart as fast as Kiev did, which is why I also picked up their fear. All the precarious hope for the future, teetering on an uncertain war in the east and a West that wants to ignore what’s going on. This is why I want to go back again, because one day and change wasn’t remotely enough time. I encourage everyone to give Kiev a go while it’s still a free and independent Ukraine. If that dark day comes when they aren’t anymore, I don’t expect them to give up without a fight. I expect nothing less from a Hero City, but I also know it would’ve happened because Putin got a tacit green light from America. I can’t express how disgusted I am by the very thought.

And as long as you don’t travel on the weekends, the roundtrip flights remain surprisingly cheap. After all, that was the first condition I had to fulfill when this trip started back in Part 1. So go, before you can’t anymore.

Folks, they sat me amongst a collection of their finest tubas and fed me “Horseradish Tincture”. I love this place.

 

 


*: Okay, now for the part where I swear I am not sponsored by Uber. Prior to visiting Ukraine, I had never had the Uber app before and only ever rode in Uber vehicles as a passenger. In light of the many people who had warned me about the “mid-trip fare renegotiation” of cabs in Eastern Europe, but particularly Kiev, I decided an alternative was a good idea, just in case. It’d be expensive I reckoned, but always good to have contingency, right? Right. So, let me set the scene.

I had just left the Great Patriotic War Museum. The snow, which was respectable when I’d gone in several hours earlier, had picked up by the time I exited. I slogged through the completely empty park, past the patriotic statuary and frozen friezes, and up the steps to the road to get out to the main streets. Normally, I would be happy take the several mile walk across a new city just for the chance to soak it and have great times in places where people later tell me I certainly should have died (i.e. wandering into communist neighborhoods in Rome). Unfortunately, my nice windstopper fleece & gloves were getting increasingly useless against the accumulating snow, which was melting and wicking through. And so, standing outside Cafe Kupol, a converted sacristy to restaurant, I took off my glove, pulled out my phone, mumbled “Fuck it” to myself, and turned on international roaming so I could summon an Uber to get me back to my hotel. My after action report:

1) It was remarkably cheap. While more expensive than a normal taxi would have been in Kiev, it was a fuckton cheaper than comparable rides I’ve seen in SF & NYC. A ride that typically goes for $50 in those cities, with congestion charges that never ever go away, only hit a whopping $3.05 in Kiev, in the middle of a serious snowstorm and wrecks everywhere.
2) It was a fixed rate, which preempts the “Mid-Ride Fare Renegotiation”. Again, while more expensive than Kiev’s normal cabs, it removes the pain of haggling, which most Americans hate anyway.
3) It got around the language barrier. I requested my ride in my language on a map I could read and it communicated that information to the driver in his language. No pointing and grunting at Google maps which only one of the parties can read.
 
Uber is, and this feels weird to type, a superior product which also fulfills a need when overseas in unregulated markets. Uber-level self-regulation is a step up when the local flavor of regulation is None. To a stable, regulated market they are cancer. While points #1 & #2 are nice, to the usual monolingual American with travel hesitancy because of that, #3 opens up the world. The fact that Uber doesn’t tout this as a major selling point in astounding because it’s an actual problem they solve, rather than create for a change, is telling.
 
 

Money Rant Two & Blood of the Harpy Update

First off, I want to share these updated pictures that I have in the wake of the “Money Rant Two” post from a few weeks back. I got a lot of emails and tweets telling me how much they enjoyed the tale and also amazed that I am unapologetically a coin collector, in public, with no shame about this. Folks, if loving coins and currency, and subjecting people to long Connections-like historical trivia related to cash, is wrong then I don’t wanna be right. This inspired me to take the time to track down the other two North African provisional currency bills, the $1 and $10, and actually get a hold of some of the Hawaii bills for my collection.

Complete Set of “North Africa” Silver Certificate Provisional Currency, SO HAPPY!

I’ve been meaning to complete this set for well over a decade now but never quite got over the “do you REALLY need this?” denial of self-gratification hump. So, thank you for that extra push, everybody.

Meanwhile, on the Blood of the Harpy front, the demand has been, frankly, astonishing. I think a production window only sold out faster when I raised the “HELP LAURIE, BUY GOAT BBOTE” signal. I’m glad people have been enjoying it and the order notes people have left have kept a grin stuck on my face everytime I go to update my production board. Thank you for helping Mer get the HARPYCORPS project off the ground and supporting Paul Komoda’s art. When watching the news and reading the internet is mostly wincing, this has been really gratifying to know that people are enjoying my wares and I get to help a friend make a dream come true. So, thank you. Thank you very much.

At some point in the near future I’ll finish “Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl and Kiev Part 3: Kiev, Hero City” for you to enjoy. In light of recent events, perhaps sooner than later. I feel some rant energy as word propellant building up and that usually accelerates things a bit.

An Old Friend Returns and the Harpy Cometh

DON’T PANIC – In customary Megadodo Publishing “Super Soothe” font (courtesy of BBC Two Productions)

Got a few changes to report to you this Inauguration Day. Don’t panic, this is all good news.

First of all, I’m happy to report the return of Ipsento Panama BBotE, the lovely tart blueberry light roast coffee which has been missed by yours truly, is back for little while. The nice folks at Ipsento were kind enough to roast a small lot for me even though it isn’t currently on offer at their shops. So, if you look closely on the radio buttons when making an order, you’ll see it’s back as an option.

For those that were concerned and asked, I seem to have a good line on Jamaica Blue Mountain supplies for the moment. While it remains painfully expensive, it won’t be vanishing in the near future.

Blood of the Harpy – A New Label for a New Blend and a New Era (instigation by Meredith Yayanos and art by Paul Komoda)

Second, I am happy to announce a new label for BBotE and my first ever BBotE blend as a project with my friend Meredith Yayanos in support of the HARPYCORPS Project. I’ve mentioned Mer to you all before, usually around Halloween to share my dad’s endorsement her previous project, The Parlour Trick, as “The finest spooky music for the season since the Omen soundtrack.”

So, this is something a little different than normal. When my friend Mer first proposed this in support of her HARPYCORPS Project, she wanted something special, something dedicated to the harpy, a symbol embraced to properly express rage and unapologetic living. Or, to paraphrase Randall said Clerks II, reclaiming harpy from it’s connotations as a nasty or contentious woman. If I remember our conversation over pizza correctly, “The Blood of the Harpy needs to be a bit harsh, like a cruel truth, but invigorating once you accept it.” Blood of the Harpy is a blend of the African BBotEs with a primary base of Death Wish, and an extra spice kick. Accordingly, the caffeine content on this one is a might bit higher than normal run of the mill BBotE, but milder than just straight up Death Wish. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

The exquisitely detailed label was drawn and hand lettered (something I still can’t believe he did) by noted sculptor, monstermaker, horrorsmith and friend of Mer’s, Paul Komoda. If you need your home to creep people out more than it already does, please purchase anything and everything you can from him. My only warning is that, oh yes, his work appears and then sells quickly. You’ll have to be on the ball.

For the record, if you would like this filled with something different because you think the bottle is awesome but can’t take the elevated caffeine level of the Death Wish base, I understand. I am willing to do so, just leave me a note with order and let me know the variety you’d like and I’ll make it happen.

With that, I give you the Blood of the Harpy. Enjoy everybody and, please, look out for each other.

Money Rant Two: America Could Plan Once

In the previous money rant, I finally addressed Lesson Nine from this list of potential rants. It’s time to move on to a more positive one. Let’s talk about a time when America had its shit together, The Great Depression. No, really. I’m not kidding.

Much as we may deride President Woodrow Wilson for other very racist things, the League of Nations was a great progressive idea. Unfortunately, Great Britain and France wanted to see Germany burn at the end of World War I, so it all fell apart promptly. It’s understandable but the American government was left throwing its hands in the air and saying, more or less to quote Cartman, “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” Admittedly, a Congress that felt that America had no business in Europe, other than Business, had no interest in it. Also, they wanted their war loans that they gave to the Allies paid back; a creditor/debtor relationship does not make for good international relations. But that doesn’t mean that the machinery of American government wasn’t looking around and paying attention. Okay, to be fair, it didn’t do much until FDR got into office. The Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations were, in short, pretty excited about things going on in America and hegemony in the Caribbean, less so further afield.

But come 1933, by my general feel of history, an American generation that had not been listened to during and in the wake of WWI found itself in power and said collectively to themselves, “Let’s not do that again. Also, this Depression sucks.” There may also have been a glance over toward Europe with a wince and the pained teethsucking noise of “Oooo, ouch. Well, at least we aren’t Europe. We tried to tell ’em. This Hitler guy seems to be a bit of a dick and, MAN, do we not like what Japan is up to over there. They better not fuck with the Philippines, we just finished pacifying that a little while ago. Invented ridiculously high caliber guns to do it and everything.” While trying to figure out a way out of the hole America had fallen into and fix the myriad problems, the New Deal bureaucracy FDR’s administration assembled was thinking big. Beyond the borders of America big. How to win the peace of the next war big.

Since you’ve read this far it shouldn’t come as big surprise the answer to this was money.

The idea they came up with was called Provisional Currency*. Cash that the United States could bring with them to a war theater and instantly reconstitute an economy that we could participate in and bring into the American sphere of influence. Oh sure, it would obliterate the previous economy that was there but the US Army isn’t completely dim, they would happily exchange the old precious metal currency that may have remained for the Provisional Currency. But more importantly, if the US lost and had to abandon territory (unthinkable!!!) this was currency that was different than normal domestic US legal tender which could be disavowed. We could easily say “Things that look like $QUALITY? NOPE, those aren’t valid anymore. You sure do have a lot of these, Mister… [reads passport closely] Berwin Rommelle?”

Let’s have a compare and contrast moment starting with a pre-Monopoly money five dollar bill.

Five Dollar Federal Reserve Note, Obverse, Series of 1963A (from the Broughton Collection)

Please note the specific wording used on this bill. It is a “Federal Reserve Note” worth “Five Dollars” and “This Note Is Legal Tender For All Debts, Public And Private”. I don’t want to start a fiat currency argument here, but let’s just leave it at this bill is worth five bucks but it’s some what nebulous what exactly a dollar is. Prior to 1964 and the demonetization of silver, we had had another kind of bill called the silver certificate. This bill was worth its stated value but you could exchange it for an equivalent amount of legal tender in silver, i.e. coins. While I don’t have a crisp normal five dollar silver certificates in my collection, I do have a one dollar silver certificate.

One Dollar Silver Certificate, Obverse, Series of 1957 (from the Broughton Collection)

While the statement about legal tender is there, you can see some differences. First off, rather than saying “Federal Reserve Note” it has “Silver Certificate” at the top. Instead of just declaring ‘The United States of America”, in case you forgot which nation would put Lincoln and Washington on its money, the words “This Certifies That There Is On Deposit In The Treasury Of” above it to make a leading statement that continues with the additional words below. Instead of just saying “One Dollar”, we also promise “In Silver Is Payable To The Bearer On Demand”. The earliest versions of the silver certificates were missing the statement about deposit with the Treasury which, technically, meant every single bank had to maintain sufficient silver on hand to cover every yahoo that wanted sacks of coins rather than bills. This lead to all kinds problems, hence the change, but that’s a different story that involve bank runs, bankruptcies, bank robberies and other phrases that involve the word bank. But the most plain difference between the two different kind of bills was the color of the seal and serial number: federal reserve notes were green, silver certificates were blue. Similar to the silver certificates, there had been gold certificates with a yellow seals and serial numbers, but gold was demonetized in 1933 and the gold certificates discontinued. This meant that in 1934 the color yellow was available to use to do this.

Five Dollar Silver Certificate Provisional Currency, Obverse, Series of 1934A (from the Broughton Collection)

The appearance of this bill is inconsistent. You have all the silver certificate language. You’ve got serial numbers done in blue, like a silver certificate should have, but then you’ve got this giant yellow seal like it should be a gold certificate. In short, it’s weird and sticks out like a sore thumb in any stack of money. As long as we all agree it’s valid money, it’s valid, but it’s really easy to tell people what to confiscate/ignore if you disavow it. This is the original Provisional Currency that the United States printed up in preparation for the next time they had to occupy a country and had it available in $1, $5, and $10 denominations. Please take a moment and look at the year.

Yes, that’s right. You read that correctly.

NINETEEN FUCKING THIRTY FOUR! WE HAD THIS READY FOUR YEARS BEFORE THE FUCKING NAZIS ANNEXED AUSTRIA, MUCH LESS ANYTHING ELSE. SEVEN YEARS BEFORE GODDAMN PEARL HARBOR.

[takes to deep breath and a swig of bourbon to calm down]

Not that we actually used them until 1943 after Gen. Patton landed in North Africa, which is why the yellow seal silver certificates are colloquially known North African bills. As the story goes, the first wave of landing ships dropped off Patton and his tanks and the second wave brought the pallets of cash. I don’t believe that for a second, but it’s a nice story. Actually, the funny thing is that they’re known as North African bills and not Reconstruction bills because there was a diplomatic rift about whether to use them in an increasingly liberated France. Use ’em in Africa and Italy? No problem. France? SACRE BLEU, NON! As an empirehaver that intended to get it’s empire back once this “small German embarrassment” was resolved, France wanted to make sure the Francophone world that looked to Paris for authority also recognized the supremacy of the Franc, so no yellow seal bills for France.

But those are all game time decisions when you roll the Provisional Currency out. The fact of the matter is that we had it and had been sitting on the final printed product for almost a decade before using it. We were ready. We had the experience, we knew how the economy got disrupted in war, and we knew how to start putting things back together and make friends (okay, that term might be a bit strong) while doing it. Even if you take the usual black market and profiteering into account, they’re working with with the currency and formal markets we created because nothing else works at the moment and that, sort of, makes even the criminals our allies. Rather than pillaging the treasuries of conquered lands and replacing their money with pot metal, which is what the Nazis & Fascists did everywhere they went and their Occupation Currency coins are fucking garbage, we dropped a limited functionality Army-driven American economy on them. When you stack things like the much grander Marshall Plan on top of this after the war is over, you start to marvel that America used to have an incredibly competent leadership across the entire span of government in career, appointee and, yes, even elected positions that earned the respect of the entire world.

…and then you look at Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq and ask what the hell happened? We walked into Iraq with the assumption oil revenues, oil that wasn’t America’s, would pay for everything. We took planeloads of cash to Iraq & Afghanistan to nominally rebuild them, which mostly vanished back into the coffers of American contractors, sucking the air out of the local economies rather than rebuilding them. How did we clearly learn the lessons of how to win the peace and then forget them so quickly?

I don’t know the answer to this question but I like to look at my yellow seal $5 silver certificate and remember “Once upon a time, America knew how to plan.”

 

 

 


*: Okay, America wasn’t the only nation that thought up provisional currencies but we were the only one that decided to put the full faith and credit of the nation behind it. In fact, America had two provisional currencies, though the second one was a little less planned.

On the other side of the world from North Africa, after Pearl Harbor there was a bit of an “Oh shit” moment with respect to Hawaii as the powers that be considered the real possibility of Japanese invasion of the islands, in particular that this would mean they’d get to seize all the American currency that was there. In January 1942, most all paper currency was withdrawn from the islands with strict limits placed on how much individuals ($200) and businesses ($500, other than payroll) could possess. By June, bills from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank showed up freshly stamped with the words “HAWAII” in a particularly unsubtle manner on the front and back with a red seal**. After they showed up, it became illegal to use currency in Hawaii that wasn’t stamped. Just like the yellow seals, if the Japanese managed to capture the islands, all bills stamped “HAWAII” could be disavowed.

One Dollar Silver Certificate Hawaiian Overprint, Obverse, Series 1934A (courtesy of the Langford Collection, photo by Anthony Langford, 2017, all rights reserved)

 

One Dollar Silver Certificate Hawaiian Overprint, Reverse, Series 1934A (from the Langford Collection, photo by Anthony Langford, 2017, all rights reserved)

 

But why didn’t they just use the already made Provisional Currency with the yellow seals in Hawaii? I don’t know the actual justification but I can think of a few reasons. First, they were intended to reconstitute an entire country not, don’t take offense Hawaiian readers, what was at the time a lightly populated island chain of strategic importance but with a comparatively tiny economy. Secondly, and I think more important as I put all scenarios through my Lazy/Horny/Greedy Filter of Human Motivations, the yellow seals were on the wrong side of the Rockies from Hawaii. Much easier to just go grab some of the cash sitting in unused in the vaults in San Francisco and just stamp HAWAII on them than load the yellow seals up on trains, send them west, and then ship them from SF to Hawaii.

After the war was over, they were demonetized and most were burnt, rather than shipped to the mainland for destruction, in the local crematorium and the furnaces of the Aiea sugar mill as fuel. These days, it’s a point of pride in the islands to own any of the old stamped bills.

**: Please don’t ask me to explain where the red seal came from. That is a very ugly discussion in it’s own right and we are well rid of the United States Notes.

 

Good Enough for Government Work

Okay, yet another rant. This is an old saw of mine which I’ve decided I want to write up so I could point at it later.

One of the many places I don’t EVER want to hear this phrase uttered in its current form. (photo courtesy of the Department of Energy)

When I hear someone doing a half-assed job that they’re just going to walk away from, usually incomplete, say with a shrug “Good enough for government work”, I get angry. I get particularly angry if this comes from a co-worker because for the last 15 years, in one form or another, I have either been a state/federal government employee or contractor. My co-worker is, effectively, letting me know that I’m going to need to redo their work, wasting my time, and they think it’s funny as they collect a paycheck doing it. When you add the extra layer of “Dammit you’re supposed to be a steward of taxpayer dollars and government resources, WAIT A MINUTE I’M A GODDAMN TAXPAYER!!!”, well, there’s a reason I asked to be transferred away from certain people. This is the behavior that erodes trust and leads people to think it’s okay to divert money away from government programs to private industry.

NOTE: I have never seen private industry actually do a job they’d been contracted to do work out to be cheaper. Oh, workers were certainly paid less and they had no pension to speak of but somehow the total contact cost never ended up cheaper than the original program. Ah, but this is a different rant.

But let’s talk about the phrase itself, “Good enough for government work.” The original phrase was “CLOSE enough for government work” and it came from the machinist trade. Prior to WWII, FDR’s administration reviewed the state of America’s manufacturing and were a bit disappointed that not much had changed since WWI. In WWI, American troops tended to use British and French artillery and machine guns because our own gear was so deeply unreliable, inferior, and just old by comparison. FDR’s War Department saw the writing on the wall in the 1930s and wanted to get things improved. For a while (so the story goes) there was the general industry machining schedule and the government machining schedule being used side by side*. The idea being that the government schedule would eventually  become the industry standard, since you couldn’t get government contracts unless you agreed to meet it and were tooled to meet their specs, at which point the government could go back to buying on the general market rather than demanding special requirements.

Also, as part of the Lend/Lease Act with us selling war materiel to the Allies before Pearl Harbor, the Allies had no interest in buying our crap unless we modernized our production. So, there was that too.

The original meaning of the phrase had an entirely different pejorative. Rather than meaning you’d done a half-assed job, it meant that you’d done such a precise job on this thing you’d made that it could potentially be sold to the government. That its precision could actually meet the exacting standards of the government schedule. It carried the implication of “We aren’t selling to the government, buddy. How much company time did you waste making your work of art when you probably could’ve made 12 more normal ones?”

And this didn’t original sense of the phrase didn’t go away with the end of WWII. My mother told me about working for an early semiconductor manufacturer in Florida that did work supporting NASA. While she wasn’t specifically working on production that was heading to Kennedy Space Center, other people certainly were, so two different quality standards were in use in the fab. She got yelled at by her boss for making wafers that passed through QA with too few flaws. It was assumed that she was wasting time being a perfectionist, despite the production reports and timecards that said otherwise. She was told “This isn’t government work, just get it done.”

I’m not quite sure when the Bizarro semantic shift in this phrase happened but the fact that it did says something. While I would like to blame it on Reagan and the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike shattering the strength of unions in America, the change seems to have already happened at some point in the 1970s. The current connotation is corrosive to trust and belief in the machinery of government. It’s an assertion that the people that make up the machine are incompetent at best, malign leeches at worst, rather than stewards of the public trust. Why would you ever want to go work for an organization like this? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; give it enough time and enough potential employees who decide not to work in public service and, yes, the incompetent and leeches are the only ones who will be left…

…which is why you then contract all your work out to “Trusted Private Sector Industry Partners”. This very much smells like a return to the spoils system instead of the merit based appointments that the civil service reforms of 1883 were made to fix. Oops, I just wandered into that chunk of horrible American history I love and history classes like to ignore because those four decades after the Civil War are incredibly complicated and ugly. “Good Enough for Government Work” is a toxic meme that has spread around the world, impairing efforts to reform straight up corrupt bureaucracies, like America’s was before President Chester A. Arthur signed his name to obliterate the system that made him. We really don’t want that back. For the record, I have heard this phrase uttered in every country I’ve ever been to, except Ukraine though that might have been a function of not staying there long enough.

I want “Good Enough For Government Work” to be a statement of pride, with no pejoratives. That you’ve done your job well, that you aren’t phoning it in, and more importantly that we, as citizens, expect it.

 


 

*: My main problem with this excellent story is that I have never been able to lay hands on or even find a picture of the original government schedule or equipment. There would have been reference tools and charts for the quality assurance people to make sure that work was within acceptable tolerances for the gov’t contract, and the separate set for the normal industry ones. As I cast my mind back 20 years to my History of Science and Technology class with Prof. Hugh Torrens, this is exactly what he was talking about with the practical bits of technology vanishing. Even the most packrat of machinists, and I know a few, must to toss these particular items out of their shops whenever they’re superseded lest they work to an old standard by accident an get torn a new one by auditors**. If you can lay your hands on a side by side comparison of these ~80 year old mundane bits of shop gear, I’d love to see them.

**: Wait, shit, I’m one of those people. Dammit.