A History Lesson featuring A.V. Tanager

20 Jul

I’d like to take a break from answering unanswerable (and the occasional shouldn’t-be-answered) questions to introduce you to my grandfather, Artemis Valiant Tanager. While I won’t be introducing you to him literally, mainly due to his having passed on decades ago, I’d like to treat you to one of his wonderful stories about his days in the Spanish-American War, also known (mainly to him) as The War to End All Wars. He also referred to it as the Great Depression and The New Deal occasionally, when not referring to it as The Era of Good Feelings. He did love a good generational label.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate a photo of Grandpa Artemis, no doubt due to photography still being very much of a “dark art” during his most photogenic years (age 12 and age 31, if I’m not mistaken). However, I did find a rather nice scientific drawing of a Palm Civet Cat, who will be featured prominently in the following tale. Enjoy.

My great-grandfather, Artemis Valiant Tanager, was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. Keeping with the family tradition (which he had just started that afternoon), he would often sit down on quiet nights and regale us with horrendous tales of his proud service of his country (mostly the United States).

He’d dim the lights, often inadvertently, before beginning his story. As an “attention-grabber,” he would sometimes accompany the dimmed lights with a lusty yell and a few muzzle-loaded shots, usually aimed high and wide, thanks to his delirium tremors and failing eyesight.

We’d gather around his feet, our little hearts racing and our little hands surreptitiously checking ourselves for bullet wounds, and sit in rapt, near-catatonic attention as he began:

“We were encamped for a few weeks, nestled deep within the lovely rolling hills on the outskirts of southern Manila. Unfortunately, many of us were too dead, too wounded or too scared to enjoy what was left of the scenery and most of these autumnal memories have only returned via gunfire-triggered flashbacks or years of regression therapy.

The Filipinos were somewhat ill at ease as well, what with their country being used as a war-ridden playground for a battle between Spain and America. We indicated through a series of inept hand gestures that their invitations to play “host” for this war must have been lost in the mail, a common occurrence with drunken Pony Express riders and their none-too-sober mounts.

In fact, their invitations had been lost, having been bundled with several thousand care packages on a steamer located up in Cleveland, OH. It had followed a circuitous route through the Great Lakes before emerging in the Atlantic and heading for the Philipines. Unfortunately, a calculated attempt to “stir things up” saw the ship run full-bore onto the nearest Filipino beach, launching itself over a scrub-covered mound and unceremoniously drop its entire load directly between the two peaks that bookended Manila. Obviously it was a huge mess and those at the receiving end were none too pleased.

Anyway, the men and I had received our orders earlier that day via the Filipino version of the Passenger Pigeon: the Palm Civet Cat. The small packet of top-secret information and lifetime supply of cyanide pills was carefully inserted by highly trained couriers into the lower intestine of the cat.

Though known for their ill-tempered clawing and unrestrained bowel movements, they actually could become quite tame given the proper training, although the constant stench was somewhat of an annoyance.

Ike, you can use the facilities when this story is finished. It’s rather rude to keep interrupting.

(An aside: Grandpa was referring to my cousin Ike, who was three years my junior and somewhat of inconvenience to be around, thanks to his constant urination which led directly to his constant dehydration. Spending time with Ike meant rotating between the nearest restroom and nearest sink/water fountain. He was also a poor conversationalist, what with his words being continually drowned out by his water intake or muffled by the door to the men’s room.)

Someone had discovered, most likely due to boredom or being hopped up on the local fortified mango wine, that the beans found in their heaping piles of feces could be used to brew a rather strong cup of joe. Of course, “joe” had not yet become widely used slang for coffee, but instead referred to the eye-wateringly powerful beverage made from a mixture of civet cat feces and the 90-proof mango wine.

We lost a few men to what we now know as “e coli” and a few more to the heart-stopping power of the wine’s most active ingredient: polypropylene glycol. While its many uses around the world render it safe to consume in small quantities, a weeklong-bender’s worth would usually turn a healthy man’s blood into something between high-pressure plastic and memory foam. Shortly thereafter, it would turn their minds into a mush we referred to as “Mango Madness.” Those under the spell of “MM” often rushed headlong into the nearest body of water before emerging briefly to futilely attempt to set themselves on fire.

Ike– again. You can wait. All this urination can’t possibly be good for your remaining kidney. Maris, stop picking at that bullet wound. There’ll be plenty of time for that when the wound becomes infected.

Anyway, the messages would be retrieved from the civet cat droppings along with the precious coffee beans and assorted roughage. After a quick cup of joe and a scan of the illegible map, we were ready to storm whatever the hell it was that to the very blurred north of us.

Long story short, within 24 hours we had reclaimed the capital from the peaceable but proud Manilans and were celebrating with a spiked cup of deadly mango-joe. We sold our coffee secret to Juan Valdez Sr. who promised to take it to his grave as soon as he made a quick fortune.

The rest of us adopted a fair amount of the tamer civet cats as pets, taking them home with us to become coffee makers, guardcats and handy shipping containers for various illegal products and substances.

Ike, as soon as you’re done collapsing in pain, you may use the restroom. Maris: I’d like to take a moment to refer to the release form you signed prior to your visit.”

– Clifton L. Tanager

16 Responses to “A History Lesson featuring A.V. Tanager”

  1. elizabeth3hersh July 20, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    This will be a brief comment as I am on a ‘working vacation’ (by working vacation, I mean I am taking a vacation [I am permanently on vacation] specifically in order to work). Clifton, you are a masterful story-teller. This is as book-worthy a story as I have ever read. So much so that I am looking forward to reading more about your great-grandfather as well as your father and the other great-grandfathers and grandfathers (to include aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, au pairs, household staff, pets, boarders, spouses, ex-spouses and their respective families). I haven’t been this interested in a family since I read The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed ten years ago.

    The only possible way I could enjoy this story more would be to sip a cup of Kopi Luwak while reading, but at ~$500/lb it might be a little too rich for me. One can dream.

    • elizabeth3hersh July 21, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

      A news clip today declared that Indonesia’s top Islamic body has ruled that Muslims CAN drink Kopi Luwak. It had been suggested that it might not be halal since its provenance (civet dung) made it unclean. I’ll look into whether it is kosher.

    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

      Elizabeth –

      A working vacation, eh? Sounds like the sort of thing I’ve always avoided. After a certain number of years and cheap watches, I find it easier to take a vacation while “on the clock.”

      Usually this would take the form of extended newspaper reading during extended break times and culminate in an afternoon visit to a client, who usually could be persuaded to meet me at the local OTB parlor.

      I’m sure there will be more on the way from various family members, all who seem to have lengthy, pointless stories to tell. We may not be Gucci, but we like to believe we’ve lived rich, full lives of exaggeration and misplaced information.

    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

      As to your follow-up, I can’t imagine a religion that finds pigs unclean is going to slap the “K” on excreted coffee beans. I think what it all may boil down to (I mean, other than fecal water) is how many Jewish delis want a piece of the dung pie. Which is made of hyper-expensive coffee. (Maybe if they sold it as “Koffee”?)

      • elizabeth3hersh July 25, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

        I spent a good 15″ scouring the Internet trying to finding a ‘circle U’ and ‘star K’ symbol that I could insert here…alas, no such luck (as in ‘circle U’ are so funny and Kopi Koffee spelled with ‘star K’…some Jewish humor there). Kashrut.com has not responded to my inquiry, but I can tell you that Jews are notorious for finding ‘loopholes’ around prohibitions. Speaking of dung, I read a fascinating story in the New York Times about a poop transplant. For your reading pleasure:


      • Clifton L. Tanager July 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

        Elizabeth –

        I certainly appreciate the extra effort you made to secure various letters and medically solid excretory anecdotes. That one was certainly eye-opening. It’s as I’ve always suspected: surgeons are constantly looking for new ways to put something into something else.

  2. lookingforsomethingtofind July 20, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    Nice post and history lesson, in my family there is one Spanish American war story, sort of. Although I never met the man, my great great grandfather told stories of the Spanish American war, and told many people about his service. There was only one problem, he never actually served, or fought in any war, everyone who knew him, knew that, he went so far, and I swear this is true, to document his fictional service (only it was just on plain paper, and was clearly his own handwriting)but no one wanted to spoil his fun, so they all played along.

    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

      Looking –

      You bring up a good point. No one in our family ever bothered to verify our grandfather’s stories. This was most likely due to his use of weaponry as an attention-getter. It seemed to indicate that all stories should be listened to in rapt, unwavering attention.

      I may have to go check out the bus station storage locker where his unclaimed memoirs and other related paperwork currently rest and do a little research. Unfortunately, this means a trip to another bus station storage locker to retrieve his pocket contents, which include the key to the first storage locker.

      Let this be a lesson to everyone, especially those of you staring down the business end of the life expectancy figures: hire a good lawyer for your estate planning, rather than just picking one out of the phone book alphabetically. (Steer clear of AAA Lawyering in particular.)

  3. thestuffinbetween July 21, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Death by coffee! I will never think of “cup of joe” in the same light. That propylene glycol is nasty stuff, too, and is in all sorts of products.

    I don’t blame Ike at all and am glad he was a water-drinker. I hope he ended up with a very cleansed system and was able to ditch a lot of these stories by being in the bathroom instead, hopefully reading Reader’s Digest rejected submissions or at least “Humor in Uniform.”

    Thank you for this slice of life spiked with the eye-popping mango-wine “joe”!:-).

    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

      Stuff –

      The “joe” was truly some amazing stuff, what with its power to redefine “bloodflow” and reroute major parts of your upper nervous system.

      Ike was ahead of the curve, and really should have made some money in the bottled water market. Unfortunately, his regular consumption of over 8 gallons of water per day turned his urine into little more than slightly warmer water. Thus, every single one of us learned the hard way to avoid drinking his self-bottled water.

  4. Scott Oglesby July 22, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    I can’t decide which I like more, your dear Grandfathers awesome name; I mean Artemis Valiant…(how unbelievable retro/comic book/sexy/cool is that?) or his amazing literary skills or his being visually represented by a Palm Civet Cat which only serves to make your already super cool grandpa into a really, really uber cool grandpa cat.

    That generation loved their labels didn’t they? Everything from Indians to Land Owners to The Help to the Polio Bug. Wasn’t that also the group that commissioned Brokaw to become known as The Greatest Generation or was that the baby boom people? I always get my super generations muddled up.

    Any Clifton I really enjoyed getting to know your granddad as much as anyone can get to know anyone else that has been dead for decades. His style of poetic and moving prose allows me to see where you inherited your talent from.

    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm #

      Scott –

      Grandpa did have quite the moniker. He used it more than once to turn ladies’ heads. Unfortunately for him, it was usually contested at border crossings and during his many attempts to be released on his own recognizance.

      While his name may have been too “awesome” for his time, he had no problem adapting various labels to fit himself and his activities. If he had lived to see the turn of the century (I mean the most recent one), he would have no doubt branded himself the “Original Tea Partier” and have declared any additional exertion on his part to be a major factor in “The Surge.”

  5. bschooled July 23, 2010 at 1:16 am #

    Lovely story, Clifton. Now I know where you get your gift for narrative from. Artemis Valiant sounds like he was quite the character, not to mention a stickler for good manners.

    While I myself don’t drink coffee (I find it gives my Amphetamine-induced tremors the shakes) and am deathly allergic to cats (I get allergies, they die), I can definitely relate to the effects of polypropylene glycol. Having worked for three years at a Chemical Company on the verge of bankruptcy, there were times when my pay came in the form of a slap on the back and a four liter jug of the stuff I was told would “put hair on your chest”.

    Which probably explains why, to this day, I still feel self-conscious if I’m not wearing a dickie under my V-neck.

    Commendable post as always, Clifton. Were Artemis alive today, he would be proud. (Not to mention really, really old.)


    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

      Bschooled –

      Old A.V. did influence my narrative style, thanks to his incessant stories and “at gunpoint” delivery.

      It is wonderful to see that your lifetime of allergic killings and various jugs of killing products hasn’t changed your bright outlook and outsized sense of decency. Oddly enough, the Dade County sheriff’s office considers someone wearing “just a v-neck over his dickie” underdressed and subject to public indecency charges.

  6. Dan McGinley July 23, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    Damn good story, Clifton. The emtire Palm Civet Cat coffee element comes at a good time, as I had the pleasure of seeing a live civet rep at Jack Hannah’s University of Connecticut presentation this past spring, where he educated us all on the coffee-bean-through-the-intestine fermenting process. The civet is a cute little bugger. And this morning I tried jump-starting with only one cup of coffee in an attempt to cut down. It was a disaster, and a horrific day of confusion and delusion ensued. Once an addict . . .

    Great post, great story, and I thank-you.

    • Clifton L. Tanager July 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

      Dan –

      I’m glad that someone has actually seen a Palm Civet Cat “in action,” so to speak. It seemed to be somewhat of a non-urban legend, especially considering its somewhat questionable source. Anyone who tells stories at gunpoint (and without restroom breaks) should probably be taken with several grains of salt, especially if he sees fit to weave in a thinly-disguised Cleveland Steamer joke for no apparent reason.

      Thanks for the visit, Dan.

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