I fought the law and the law won.
Otter: Point of parliamentary procedure!
Hoover: Don’t screw around, they’re serious this time.
Otter: Take it easy, I’m in pre-law, man.
Boon: Thought you’re pre-med?
Otter: What’s the difference? – Animal House
All laws are created equal, but some are more equal than others. No, not those, I’m talking about the unwritten ones, Murphy’s being the gold standard: widely-quoted, widely-parodied and riffed, but true down to the atom in almost every scenario imagined or lived by anyone and everyone everywhere in the world who’s ever fooked up.
Let me tell you a story. We were 7/8ths of the way through the Old’s Cool Tour, having visited Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, U. Penn, and Princeton, and were swerving north on the New Jersey Turnpike to hit Columbia, and then cannonball home to the finish line in Weston, Connecticut. Wertin and I were mothering a 1979 British racing green Spitfire along with its unhappy, whining alternator, or maybe it was a water pump with a bum bearing, sulky and worrisome, windshield wiper-less, he trying to reclaim his youth, and us continuing our cement-head friendship adventures, mirroring the initial terrorization of Highland Falls all those years ago in his antique-even-then Triumph TR-3.
Which he had bought way, way earlier from his neighbor on layaway as it were when he was 11–it took him three years to pay off with the tip money from a morning paper route and seasonal fig and lemon picking earnings. He couldn’t drive it for another two years, even after he owned it, legally anyway, except around his family’s small vineyard in the heat and dust of St. Helena summers. There are still scratches on both sides from the vines as they hung low with swollen to-be-wine balls, which encroached and narrowed the rows at harvest time so he couldn’t quite zoom through without getting his ass scratched, so-to-speak.
The Colonel, my Berlin buddy, Peter Trautmann, who I had met way back when the Ku’damm still had a few empty lots piled up with rubble left over from the American bombs and Hitler, was in a 1970 Mercedes 200, teal, with sky-blue pleather seats. Four-speed. And no back window–it was blown out by motorcyclist’s helmet as his head passed through it at a stop light in Darien that wasn’t working on account of a microburst that had come through like a vengeful Zeusian thunderbolt and downed wires and trees with impunity, plunging the whole town into darkness. Before the shattering boom even registered in my mind, I threw on the brakes and turned around to see what happened, Evel was lying in the fetal position on the back seat like a broken, anesthetized dog. His nickname, Peter’s, not the motorcyclist’s, which comes from Knievel, was a reference to the “Uncle Sam” character in the Rambo movie First Blood. Riding shotgun in the “Bismarck” (beamy and floating down the road like a battleship) was Luke Bantam, the former Belgium Jeapardy champion, both chattering away in perfect German like there had never been a war.
If you’ve never been driving on the highway in a driving rain without windshield wipers I’d recommend it–you’ll understand what it’s like being severely myopic, psychotic and suicidal all at the same time. We hit a squall, or rather a squall it us in the Poconos on our way down from Cornell, and we were too proud to pull over and suffer the consequences of common sense. All I can say is persistence has saved more people from death than you can count, and we weren’t two of them. The only reason we weren’t killed is because when we did eventually swerve off the road on a giant downhill curve the grassy bank greased us back onto the tarmac when even the tiniest curb would’ve flipped the Spitfire and killed us both instantly. From Triumph to disaster back to Triumph in about three and a half seconds.
But it was the Mercedes that broke down, in the middle of the Turnpike, on a section that had concrete barriers lining both sides of the road, with almost no shoulder on either. We were stuck between the concrete jersey barrier and the high-speed left lane. We called the police and soon a State Trooper flashed up behind us. The Colonel tinkered with the carburetor and got the vehicle running enough to get it to the nearest exit, which was about a half-mile away. We left it in the parking lot of the old headquarters of the Trenton Times, since converted into a charter school.
We left a note on the windshield: “I’ll come back and tow this vehicle home on Tuesday. If you want to steal it in the meantime, be my guest! Call me on (203) 577-2339 and I’ll tell you how to get it started.” The Colonel and I rented a U-Haul trailer and went back on Tuesday afternoon, got the Mercedes loaded, and started driving back to Connecticut. It was a long haul, through the ugly strangled mess of the city, and we were trying hard to get home before dark.
All was rosy for about ten miles, but then the Land Cruiser we were towing the trailer with broke down, just like that!–the universal joint snapped, and was making a horrible hacking metallic racket. Again, right in the middle of the turnpike, with concrete barriers on both sides, and the nearest exit one million miles away. During rush hour. So at that point we were not only scrood, we were at least two disastrous layers deep into disgrace and pathos.
Never mind the expense. So I walked to the exit, and over the overpass, and voila, there happened to be an Enterprise car rental right there. I couldn’t believe it. And they had a Suburban with a trailer hitch. And a car dolly. I called The Colonel and told him to see if he could inch the Land Cruiser over here in first gear, and we’d tow both it and the trailer to a gas station that was about five miles up the road. He did. And we did–first we took the trailer with the Mercedes on it, which we unhitched at the gas station. We went back to Enterprise and got the car dolly, and then back to the gas station with the Land Cruiser and parked it next to the trailer. We then went back to Enterprise and dropped off the car dolly. We then went back to the gas station for the Mercedes on the trailer.
But we couldn’t get the trailer back on the hitch, since the slope and angle of the gas station was against the wind, and it was dark. We ended up getting a couple of guys at the 7/11 across the street who had a truck jack and muscle to finally help us wrestle it back on with a lucky chunk and thunk. We left the same note on the Land Cruiser we had left on the Mercedes–Good luck stealing this!–and we headed back home about 5:30 am.
By about 7 or so we got a call from Dipankar, who said he was the owner of the garage. We told him to fix the Land Cruiser, and we’d come back down and pick it up when we dropped off the Suburban at the Enterprise up the road. We then continued our expensive chevachee back to Weston and pulled into the driveway at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Dipankar called the next day and said the universal joint had shattered and punctured the muffler, and driving it had damaged the front axle. The bill was more than the vehicle was worth, so I told him I’d sell it to him for a song and I’d just send him the title and bill of sale. He said ok. I then called Enterprise and told them I’d just drop off the vehicle in Danbury instead of driving all the way back to Trenton. They said that would cost me an arm and a leg. I said fine, I have two.
Then Dipankar called me back and said I needed to come to the garage and sign the title over, and have both our signatures notarized. So I called the Enterprise guy back, delivered the Suburban to him in Trenton, signed over the title to Dipankar, handed him the cash, and then went to the bank next door together to have it notarized, shook hands all around, and left. The Colonel and I drove back in another rental, a flunky trailer-park beige Kia sedan with cloth seats and an Alabama license plate, since I was all out of vehicles, at least any that ran or were registered, and the whole fiasco had only cost me slightly more than a frontal lobotomy at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Which would have had the same effect, more or less, as a lifetime of fiascos and failures, cumulatively have had, at a millionth of the cost.
I like to quote British diplomat and philosopher Lord Acton “More was lost at Appomattox than Waterloo” which, having joked for years that I was glad we won the war any time I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, to anyone who would listen, I’ve come to the exact opposite view and see the unquivering wisdom of the man. Macro becomes micro becomes singular: the War of Northern Aggression was the death knell for individual liberty, and it’s only taken about 150 years for that to become obvious, since it was always true. But he’s most famous for his eponymous Acton’s dictum: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In contrast, there’s a ripe bunch of esoteric and unfunny ones, e.g. Stang’s Law in Proto-Indo-European phonology where a word ending with a vowel followed by a laryngeal or a semivowel “y” or “w” followed by a nasal, the laryngeal or semivowel is dropped, with a compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Or the Schottky-Mott rule which predicts the barrier height based on the vacuum work function of the metal relative to the vacuum electron affinity (vacuum ionization energy) of the semiconductor.
Others are less esoteric and more thought provoking: Clark’s Third Law, named after science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from magic. Or the Streisand effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer for trying to publish aerial photographs of her Malibu mansion: Any attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. And Wolff’s Law: bone adapts to pressure, or lack of it. Which brings to mind Allen’s Rule: endotherms from colder climates usually have shorter limbs than the equivalent animals in warmer climates.
There are a lot of dry, wry ones too: Wilio’s Law: Communication usually fails, except by accident. Or Betteridges’s law of headlines: any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” Sayre’s Law–in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue–and adds as a corollary, “That is why academic politics are so bitter.” Rothbard’s law: Everyone specializes in his own area of weakness, is sadly true. And then there’s my buddy and fellow West Point dropout Edgar Allen Poe chiming in with a beaut: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody (fundamentalism) in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” Hilariously true.
I might do a series on these “laws” in the coming weeks–diving in and slinging some info, enlightening, educating, and having a bunskle of subversive and quasi-scientific fun. I might not.