Friday, October 28, 2011

Hoosier Weekend

Northwestern again looked good in the first half before falling apart in the second against Penn State. On the other hand, they did so while joining the trend of using Future Uniforms meant to invoke the gradual transformation of college football into an underground arena blood sport where defensive backs are allowed to use implements such as pruning shears and laser cannons to slow down offenses.

Northwestern's special alternate
uniforms irritate Wildcat football

The Northwestern defense once again had holes. Penn State QB Matt McGloin wasted no time bombing it to the endzone, and Silas Redd carved up the Wildcats for 164 yards, averaging 9.1 yards per carry while sporting a name befitting a Dickensian villain. The Northwestern offense, prolific in the first half, failed to score a point in the second half. Dan Persa left the game with a turf toe injury, making him questionable for the Indiana game. Joe Paterno won his 408th game and tied the record for most wins for a Division I coach and continuing his undefeated streak against Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats lost their fifth game in a row and now need to all but win out to make it to the post-season. A cyclone has ripped Ryan Field from the ground and deposited it in the lake. Pat Fitzgerald has been spirited away by pirates and is being held ransom for chests of doubloons and spices from the Orient. A Big Ten shaman has placed a curse on the team rendering them unable to wear cleats for the rest of the season. The indoor practice facility has become sentient and turned evil, held at bay only by a mob of Evanston citizens with torches. It has been a rough week for Northwestern football.

Even Air Willie has been mysteriously swapped out for Evil Air


For the Wildcats to make it to a bowl, they'll have to use all of the cunning, strategy, and daring British eccentricity of Geoffrey Spicer-Simson to pull off the seemingly impossible. Spicer-Simson led one of the strangest naval campaigns in modern history during the First World War when he and his men transported two motor boats named the Mimi and Toutou overland from Cape Town to engage with German gunboats in a battle for supremacy over Lake Tanganyika. Spicer-Simson's adventures are chronicled in Giles Foden's Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Taganyika, which details how Spicer-Simson led the expedition, successfully destroyed two German vessels, and inspired the C.S. Forrester novel and John Huston movie The African Queen.

Spicer-Simson was an unlikely candidate to lead the expedition. He did not exactly fit the model of an early twentieth century naval officer. His body was covered in an extensive array of butterfly and snake tattoos and, once deployed on his African mission, he eschewed the tyranny of pants in favor of more breathable khaki skirts. Still, if he had he been the second coming of Nelson, the Admiralty would have probably forgiven his unbecoming epidermal decorations. His naval record, however, revealed a dangerous propensity for incompetence in all manners of sea-borne combat. As Foden relates, Spicer-Simson had already been twice court-martialled: once for smashing his destroyer into a liberty boat bringing sailors ashore for leave; another time he drove his boat onto a beach. Spicer-Simson also nearly sank a British submarine during a periscope hunting exercise and during the war he abandoned his coastal flotilla for an evening reverie with his wife only to watch from a hotel window as German torpedoes destroyed one of his ships. By the time the Admiralty planned to launch an expedition, they seemed wary of allowing Spicer-Simson to command a fleet of rubber animals patrolling a bathtub.

Spicer-Simson shown in naval uniform and as a tin soldier
in his more familiar khaki skirt get-up

The British government had learned of the German presence from a big game hunter named John Lee who spotted the Kaiser's legions aboard a fearsome gunboat called the Hedwig von Wissen while stalking an elephant. First Sea Lord Henry Jackson ordered an attack on the German ships at Lake Taganyika, declaring with the cartoonish hubris of a nineteenth-century British naval officer that "it is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship." At the same time, Lake Tanganyika was hardly a priority for the war, and the Navy had a difficult time finding someone to lead the expedition. Eventually they settled on Spicer-Simson who, according to Foden, was either the last man left or simply in the right place at the right time, sitting at his desk where the Navy hoped he could inflict minimal damage upon their war effort.

Foden wonderfully describes Spicer-Simson's merry band of outcast adventurers that included a Chief Engineer who had been a Grand-Prix-winning race car driver who with limited knowledge of engines, a medical officer described by Foden as having "an odd way with sideburns," an adventurer-reporter who had already been declared dead once, and two enormous kilt-wearing Scotsmen who joined the expedition directly from the tavern. Of course my favorite of the officers was C.T. Tyrer, who affected a monocle, consumed Worcestershire sauce as a beverage, and referred to everyone as "Dear Boy." The plan was to arrive in Cape Town and transport the two eight-ton boats overland through the use of rails, oxcarts, and the occasional pulling power of the beefy Scotsman 10,000 miles to the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.

The map at left shows the distance from Port Elizabeth to where the boats eventually
launched. The transport of the boats went mainly by locomotive, although used a variety
of means of transportation in a military version of Fitzcarraldo

The British operation's absurdity meant it attracted ample attention. As Foden relates by using both British and German sources, the Germans knew of the expedition well before Spicer-Simson reached the lake. Nevertheless, the expedition proved remarkably successful. The expedition captured a German vessel and added it to their flotilla (renaming it from the Kingani to the more terrifying Fifi). They sunk the Hedwig and captured her crew. Spicer-Simson considered his mission completed. The Allied Forces, however, did not yet rule Lake Tanganyika's waves. Another German ship, the massive 1200 ton converted ferry Graf von Götzen, still patrolled its waters. Spicer-Simson was reluctant to engage the larger ship with its imposing 105 mm gun. He sought to counter by adding a larger vessel to his fleet. The naval battle, however, never came to fruition. While Spicer-Simson schemed, British and Belgian forces successfully attacked German positions by land. When ordered to support an attack on a German harbor, he instead ordered his fleet to flee in fear of the fort's guns. British forces captured the fort without him. Spicer-Simson returned to meet with the victorious British army, who, as Foden relates, revealed that he had fled from fake wooden artillery, mocked his cowardice, and, most painfully, cat-called him for his skirt-wearing proclivities. It was a low moment.

As for the Graf von Götzen, Belgian airplanes had damaged it and the German commander had it scuttled. Investigations later showed that the German forces had removed the ship's guns and it too sported wooden decoys. Defenseless, the Mimi and Toutou could have easily sunk it.

Spicer-Simson was rewarded with medals from both Britain and Belgium, but the Navy had apparently seen enough of him. As Foden relates, he was never given command of a ship again and immediately returned to his desk job.

Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure does not stop there, though. Foden appends the book with an entertaining depiction of the making of The African Queen, where apparently Huston descended into directorial madness and earned the nickname "The Monster." The crew suffered tropical illnesses and star Humphrey Bogart self-medicated with an abundant supply of scotch. Foden closes the book with his own journey on the Lake on the Liemba, a cargo ship reassembled from the Graf von Götzen itself.

This still from The African Queen perhaps suggests why Hepburn
later wrote a book called The Making of the African Queen: Or How
I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My


The Wildcats travel overland to Bloomington this weekend to take on another Big Ten cellar dweller in Indiana. This should be a favorable match-up for the 'Cats, but these two teams have a recent history of close games, and Indiana's first-year coach Kevin Wilson must also see this as a winnable conference game for his squad. Wilson, of course, had been instrumental as Northwestern's offensive coordinator, unleashing of the spread offense in the first years of Randy Walker's tenure. Logic says to expect a shoot-out against a similar offense-first opponent, although given how things usually turn out when I predict them, the game will almost certainly end as a 4-2 slugfest with all scoring achieved via safeties and blocked extra point returns.

A loss here effectively ends Northwestern's season, but a victory sets up the possibility of going 6-6 by beating Rice and Minnesota, miraculously upsetting one of Michigan State or Nebraska, and possibly sneaking into a bowl game by stealthily huddling under canoes. Although this season has been maddening through the squandering of many leads, Wildcat fans can at least enjoy watching younger players such as Colter, Siemian, and Smith begin to solidify the offense of the future. A future where Northwestern uniforms include gray helmets and utility belts, and the NCAA is controlled by an even more blatantly corporate cabal of bloodsport-peddlers hoping to harness our amusement for their nefarious double-dealing.

Enjoy your Inevitable Future NCAA Football Dystopia

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