Friday, April 15, 2016

The Quonset

My sisters and I have been in Illinois over the past few days, attending a memorial service for a cousin, whose death reminded us all that there is no time for visiting friends and family like now. My dad grew up in the vicinity of Waukegan, Illinois and although we didn't grow up there ourselves, we have visited the area all my life. While traveling along the road between Gurnee and Waukegan, my nephews were pointing out all the business names that you don't see in California, which is probably how we happened to notice  the sign for The Quonset.

We ofthe older generation immediately remembered our cousins often saying that they were "going to Quonset for pizza". As it happened, a couple of days later, one of my relatives had us over and had the iconic Quonset pizza delivered, in the Chicago thin crust style. We had no problem devouring almost all of it.

At some point in our journey someone asked, what's a quonset? I knew that at least the Quonset hut had a military origin, but at the moment, I couldn't quite visualize one. Certainly The Quonset itself gave us no clues.

But it turns out that anyone who's ever watched a Gomer Pyle rerun knows what a Quonset hut is.

According to,  this is "the westward view of the set of Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., directly across the road from "Wally's Service Station," with Culver City residences visible in the  background".

Wikipedia tells us that the Quonset hut was an American variation on the British Nissen hut, which had been developed by Peter Norman Nissen during World War I. A site called Quonset: Metal Living for a Modern Age says that the American Quonset hut, built originally for use in World War II, was almost identical to the Nissen hut with its corrugated steel outer walls, but a key difference was that the interior wall was of Masonite and the hut was insulated with paper between the inner and outer walls, while the British system used air between the two walls as the insulating factor. Both types of huts were originally 16' by 36', though later versions varied from these dimensions. As this same website tells us: 

Less than three months after initiating the hut design project, the U.S. military had in its arsenal a new demountable structure that could be shipped in twelve crates and put up in one day by ten men. It required no special skills to erect.

And the difference between the Quonset hut and the Nissen hut is evident in this anecdote from the George A. Fuller Company, which the U.S. Navy contracted to manufacture the huts, about some Quonset huts that had been sent to Iceland:

 A night gale of hurricane proportion that wrecked shipping in the harbor, tossed crumpled PBYs on the beach like paper hats, and ripped the covering completely off of many British Nissen huts, left the Quonset huts practically undamaged.

598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War II

The Quonset hut was named after Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, where these huts were first built in 1941. It's interesting if probably coincidental that the word quonset comes from an Algonquian language and most likely means something like a "long, small place." Whether or not it's meant to, this sounds an awful lot like an indigenous North American longhouse, which in turns looks an awful lot like a Quonset hut. Peter Nissen, though inventing the Nissen hut in England, was actually born in America and grew up in Canada, so maybe this is not as much as a coincidence as we might think. 

Powhatan Village, a re-creation in Virginia
*      *     *     *    *

So why was the Waukegan pizzeria called The Quonset? I decided to do a little research into the restaurant itself. I came across an article from the Chicago Tribune entitled "Quonset's Menu is Limited, but That's the Whole Idea." It was written in 1994 and was a special to the Tribune. Much to my surprise, it was not only written by someone I knew, but by the very person who had served us Quonset pizza a few days before. Virginia Mullery is a writer and journalist who once wrote a book about Waukegan and has had a long and active journalistic career in the Lake Michigan region. She was married to John Mullery, who, though a first cousin, was actually more of a brother to my father, so in any important sense, she is my aunt. Here's what she wrote about the restaurant's history:

When Steve Mirretti and Joe Ambrogio were discharged from military service in 1946, they returned home, bought a government-issue Quonset hut and opened a tavern, adding the food 10 years later. The same long bar runs the length of one side, booths line the other. A package goods store and carryout counter eventually were added at one end, then a dining room at the opposite end.
The outside was bricked over, and the roof line no longer resembles a Quonset hut, and for a time neither did the interior. But in a remodeling two years ago, according to Joe Mirretti, who became his father's partner when Ambrogio died in 1984, the original arc ceiling was uncovered. Floral drapes, de rigeur for lounges in the '50s, were added to recapture the original ambience of the Quonset.
The Quonset, interior
To be honest, I haven't been inside The Quonset recently enough to know if it endures in this form or has had another interior renovation since. I do know, though, that as of this week, they are still serving good pizza, same as ever. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


This is just one of those random things that startled me. Some friends and I read Joyce's Finnegans Wake together every couple of weeks, and having reached the neighborhood of page 480, we encountered the word "lyceum". I know vaguely what a lyceum is, or at least that it has something to do with  education. I even know that it goes back to a teaching center of the ancient Greeks, though whether to Plato or Aristotle, I couldn't tell you.

But the odd thing is that this little passage we were reading is strewn with references to wolves--no, don't ask me why--and that lyceum is one of them. What do wolves have to do with education?

 The Salem Lyceum, circa 1830

As to current meanings, in America, a lyceum can be many things, including a hall where public lectures take place, or the series of lectures and events themselves. It can be a school, particularly a private one and may also mean a secondary school, like the French  lycée, a word to which it is related. In England, it was often the name that British literary societies adopted, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. And there is some overlap with the word "gymnasium", which is not a gym as in American usage, but a school preparing students for higher education in Germany and many other European countries. The overlap of the words' meanings is due to the fact that the gymnasium and the lyceum overlapped in time and space in their origins in ancient Greece.

Aristotle's School, by Gustav Adolf Spangenberg, 1880s

First of all, the original Greek Λύκειον or lykeion was indeed the name of a school in which Aristotle taught,  first in an open public area in a grove of trees, where many other philosophers and sophists had taught before him, Plato and Socrates being among them. Wikipedia tells us that the grove was named in honor of  Apollo. Although we tend to think of Apollo as the sun god, he had many other associations (here is a list of many of them-perhaps the most amusing to me is Apollo Erythibios, "Apollo of the mildew"). One of these many titles was Apollo Lyceus, meaning something like "Apollo in the form of a wolf". However, Apollo was also a protector against wolves. In Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men, he speaks of the many strong links between Apollo and wolves, which can be contradictory. For example the myth of Apollo's birth is that  his mother Leto, impregnated by Zeus,had disguised herself and hidden in a pack of wolves when she fled to give birth to Apollo on the island of Delos, trying to escape notice of the predictably jealous Hera. But he is also invoked by shepherds to defend their sheep against wolves. (This, I feel, is an ambiguity that the Joyce of the Wake would be particularly at home with.)

the ruins of the lyceum in Athens (open to visitors)

Lopez writes that the lyceum became a gymnasium and then a hall where Aristotle taught. So in its earliest incarnation as an actual structure, the lyceum was also a gymnasium. Lopez writes that "at the southern end of the Acropolis in Athens stand the ruins of the Lyceum." Although it is contested, he goes on to say that it is probable that the building was once the temple of Apollo, the Wolf Slayer. 

Quite by chance, I was led to a book by John Patrick Lynch, who happened to be my much revered professor way back in college, with whom I studied a little bit of early Greek history and a full year of Ancient Greek language. Lynch wrote a book called Aristotle's School, which is partially available through Google books, and less so elsewhere. Here is what he has to say about Apollo Lyceus at the beginning of that book:

Despite all the later developments in the sanctuary, there is no evidence in any period to suggest that it contained a monumental temple of Apollo Lykeios. The Lyceum did include a famous statue of Apollo Lykeios, which was described by Lucian (Anacharsis 7) and is known from Roman copies...The Lyceum was clearly important in Athenian life just as a sanctuary, and even after it came to serve other functions, the site continued to be a public religious center.

Just to make things a little more ambiguous, if you look up "Apollo Lyceus" on Google, you'll soon find yourself at the Wikipedia page "Lyceus", which is all about an Apollo Lyceus type, which is a certain way of  depicting Apollo in art. It's a type that supposedly has its source in, you guessed it, the vanished statue of Apollo at the Lyceum. The type, according to Wikipedia, shows  "the god resting on a support (a tree trunk or tripod), his right forearm touching the top of his head and his hair fixed in braids on the top of a head in a haircut typical of childhood."

Apollo Lykeios at the Louvre

Not, I'm thinking, very much in his wolf-slaying mode.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Doctors Without Borders on Syria

I just watched this live webinar from Doctors Without Borders on their collective experience trying to give care to Syrians in an extremely harrowing situation. I thought that particularly on a day where Europe has seen another attack from Muslim extremists forces, it might be a good time to realize that the West is not the only place that suffers and radical Islamists are not the only one with powerful bombs at their disposal. The suffering of the innocent is everywhere.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


Pamela Shows Mr. Williams A Hiding Place For Their Letters, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4

You may have the wrong idea about why I got interested in this word. That's because my attention was snagged by a secondary meaning. I was reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela recently, which,in the unlikely event you were planning to do so too, I won't spoil for you. But suffice it to say that at a certain point our eponymous heroine is detained against her will. Seeking freedom, she needs to divert one of her minders and comes up with this:

So I went towards the pond, the maid following me, and dropt purposely my hussy.

This single sentence doesn't exactly reveal what a hussy is, but it's clear it isn't our common usage, which is usually a derogatory term for women. We'll get to that. I tried to come up with what a hussy in this instance might be, and thought well, maybe it's some kind of scarf. I mean what else would you be able to drop without the person you were walking around with noticing? 

But I was wrong. A hussy turns out to be a needle case. Similar, I think, to the borrowed French word, etui. Although this interesting looking blog, Costume Historian, tells us that a hussy was usually more of a rolled up cloth with little compartments for tool, while an etui was a more generalized case which could carry an assortment of small objects. Here's a modern day reconstruction of a hussy from Nehelenia Patterns:

The interesting thing is that hussy as a needle case doesn't either precede the other use for hussy or follow it. In Pamela the word appears in both its senses. And this gets us into the other definition of the word, the one we're all more familiar with, meaning either a brazen or promiscuous woman or a saucy or impudent girl. 

But hussy originally didn't have such a pejorative meaning. In the 1520s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it simply meant the mistress of a household or a housewife. (Our needle carrying hussy also derives from this sense, I suppose the task of the housewife and her tools becoming conflated.) Housewife was pronounced  "huzzif" which made it more of a match with "husband", but in the sixteenth century, it began to be thought that there should be a bit of separation between the good housekeeper and the bad one, and so "housewife" became the more accepted way to describe the venerable matron, while hussy, well, you know where that led. 

I've come across this slow slide that words relating to females make from perfectly respectable to not respectable at all a time or two before and wonder if, in our still benighted times, anything related to the feminine simply slides toward the derogatory. "You throw like a girl," being a  more modern day example. 

It's worth quoting once again from a post on the OUP blog by linguist Anatoly Liberman called "A Flourish of Strumpets", which I quoted sometime ago in a post on the word "slattern":

The author of an old dissertation (a Swiss researcher named Margrit Keller) examined British dialectal dictionaries and found about 600 words and phrases meaning “girl” and “woman.” Most of them are derogatory and harp on a few familiar notes: slovenly, lazy, garrulous, flighty, ugly, and too accessible for men’s pleasures. One or two are interesting to a linguist.  

*The picture from the novel Pamela is from a marvelous series by Joseph Highmore an 18th century portrait painter. I found the whole series on a fascinating blog called A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, which among other things, analyses costume in paintings. I have to own that I find the painted series much more charming than I found the book, and begin to understand what its contemporary readers may have seen in it.

Joseph Highmore, self-portrait

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Microsoft Security Essentials--the scam

I got a phone call last night, a Friday night, at about 10:30.My phone said "unknown caller", which usually I screen, but as I thought it might be someone in my circle of friends and family at that hour, I picked it up. A woman with an Indian or Pakistani accent said something that I don't quite remember, but it led me to say, I think you have the wrong number. But she was adamant that she had not, said my name, and so I stayed on the line. She told me that my Microsoft Security Essentials components weren't working and that if we didn't fix it, Microsoft would have to revoke my ability to use the license.

A couple of things ran through my mind as she was talking. One was, why in hell are they calling at 10:30 PM on a Friday night? But then I thought, well, they're obviously not on Pacific time, so maybe they're calling in daylight where they are. And when I say "they", I mean that I could hear lots of sounds in the background, implying some sort of phone bank. It's funny that we know enough about the fact that companies employ workers in Asia that we can believe all that we are hearing is legit.

I'm not particularly adept at picking up on scams, especially in person. I've been taken in by a couple of young hucksters in town in my time, though only to the tune of of a few dollars. Luckily for me, I am kind of ornery when it comes to phone calls from people soliciting anything--it kind of pushes a button in me, which sometimes I feel bad about afterwards. But in this case it kind of got my back up that Microsoft was calling me at 10:30 in the evening. I did feel a little anxiety at the idea that some sort of access to the internet would be denied, so seriously, I could easily have been taken in. But when this woman told me to boot up my computer to start some process or other, I just didn't feel like doing that. So I said, "You know, maybe you could send me an email about this, because I don't really believe that you are who you say you are. Sorry. Goodbye." And I hung up.

Now, you  may have noticed that this blog isn't called "The Confessions of the Super Savvy", so I didn't get off the line feeling triumphant or anything. I actually thought, well maybe my internet access will be cut off or something. I even turned off my router so that no nefarious scheme could be enacted. But after a while, I thought, if this was a scam, there will probably be something out there about it. And sure enough, there was. Tons of stuff. I even came across something where Microsoft sort of wrung their hands, saying, we get calls about this every day, usually AFTER someone has been taken in by a scammer. I got the feeling that they thought this was a bit pathetic, but if you are outside their inner track, I think the spiel is convincing enough that you might fall for it, so don't feel bad if you do. Like I said, I fall for scams all the time. The only reason I wasn't taken in by this one is that I got riled by the intrusion.

Later, of course, I started thinking of revenge. I know, revenge usually serves no purpose, etc., etc. But in this case the purpose would be to slow them down a little, which is all to the good. I thought of several tactics, such as leaving them on hold, staging some sort of violent scene which would frighten them, or asking them if their mother really thought when they were born that this was the kind of work they envisioned their child doing. I don't know that I will get another call any time soon, so if you do, I urge you to be inventive. Like this guy:

Monday, February 15, 2016

milk float

This is just a funny little one that I had never heard or at least never noticed before, and now it's come up in two out of the last three books I've read. Once was in an older mystery novel called A Perfect Match by Jill McGown, and just now in Mick Herron's more recent spy novel, Slow Horses.

McGown, page 164: "He heard the milk-float clanking its ghostly way up to the pumps, and it seemed very important that he put out the empty bottle."

Herron, page 17: "On the street below, a milk float rattled past."

It seems fairly obvious that a milk float is some sort of conveyance for milk, but as with many things that a writer thinks everyday enough to need no further explanation, we don't really get a clear picture of it if we've never seen one. We don't have milk floats in the U.S., or I should say in my part of the U.S. We do have floats, but they usually associated with parades, like homecoming parades, the Rose Bowl parade or the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. Milk when it used to be delivered, was delivered in trucks, or before that in wagons. So I'm not sure what a milk float is closest to, but the phrase conveys odd images to my mind.

horse-drawn milk float in Montreal, 1942, Conrad Poirier

So what is a milk float? Wikipedia tells us that in Great Britain (and some other European countries), milk floats are vehicles run on electric batteries, though formerly they were horse-drawn wagons. Being electric, they are pretty quiet, despite the two descriptions above, which I think must refer to the milk bottles clanking around and not the sound of the milk float itself.

a milk float in Liverpool, 2005 Tagishsimon

Sometimes, they have an enclosed area in the back which keeps the milk colder, like this one:

Dairy Crest Ford Transit,Oxyman

Although I believe this last is actually a diesel operated truck, not an electric vehicle. As in the U.S., door to door delivery from local dairies has declined thanks to more places people can just go buy milk nearby, but home delivery does still exist. The routes are just longer, requiring higher powered vehicles.

I think the idea of slow moving milk floats progressing (mostly) silently through the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning is pretty cool. If you do too, you can check out a website called Milk Float Corner, where you can find out more about milk floats, watch videos and read the FAQs.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


This is a word I expect to have seen only in one instance and never see again, but words have a funny way of reappearing once you've really noticed them, so maybe I'm wrong about that. In a recent reading of A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd, "laterite" appeared not once but six times--I know because I used Google Books to find the different instances. Although it becomes clear that it's some sort of paving substance, it never really gets any clearer what that substance is.

"a well-trodden patch of laterite"

"a bald laterite square"

"the far end of the laterite compound"

"a rutted laterite track"

I suppose the one thing you can gather from this is that laterite is a commonly used substance, at least in the West African country that Boyd has invented to tell his story. But maybe we can learn a little more than that.

Wikipedia has an uncharacteristically "we throw up our hands" sort of comment about laterite:

Laterite has commonly been referred to as a soil type as well as being a rock type. This and further variation in the modes of conceptualizing about laterite (e.g. also as a complete weathering profile or theory about weathering) has led to calls for the term to be abandoned altogether. At least a few researchers specializing in regolith development have considered that hopeless confusion has evolved around the name. There is no likelihood, however, that the name will ever be abandoned; for material that looks highly similar to the Indian laterite occurs abundantly worldwide, and it is reasonable to call such material laterite.

More helpfully, though, they do agree that it is an iron oxide rich substance formed by long weathering of the parent rock. Laterite tends to be found in wet tropical places. 

About the origin of the word, however, things are a lot clearer. Again via Wikipedia, it was named by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish physician who after time spent in the Merchant Navy ended up in India. He seems to have been a man of diverse talents, as, in addition to becoming the surgeon to the Governor General of India, he also got together the Calcutta zoo. He was asked to do two very extensive surveys of regions in South India, which included reports on things as diverse as topography, antiquities and agriculture. In 1807 he named a rock formation he'd come upon laterite, taking later from the Latin for brick. (You can find a nice quote from him about lateite at a website called Z'shell-TeR .)There is even a monument to mark the spot where he defined it in Angadipuram, Kerala, India:

                                                    Werner Schellmann
For, although so far I've mentioned laterite as a paving surface, it is also quite commonly formed into bricks. Even Angkor Wat, the famous Cambodian temple known for its  beautiful sandstone relief work has an underlying structure of laterite. National Geographic has a nice short video explaining all this.

                                                    Werner Schellman

The usage I had more in mind,though, relates to laterite used as pavement in Africa.  The French used it a lot in their colonies, including their African ones. As William Boyd pointed out in his interview at The White Review, the part of West Africa where he grew up wasn't colonized, but the practice of using laterite for roads and the like must have spread to the region, since he uses the word so casually in his novel. An African road of laterite in Senegal looks like this:

                                                                         Dorothy Voorhees

Apparently, these roads work quite as well as gravel roads, but as there is clay in their composition they have a tendency to get slick when wet.

In Boyd's novel, I still am not sure what all the areas he mentions laterite in actually look like. The trails probably look a little like the picture above, but the laterite square could have been paved with bricks like this:

If it was made of laterite, though, it almost certainly would have been some sort of shade of rusty red.