Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought
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Derailed trains of thought
“Après moi le déraillement”

Off the Deep End: Rise of the Robot Animals

Atomic Fish.
Combat Cows.
Chickens Are Our Friends.
Cows on the Tracks.
Runaway Chickens.
Rise of the Robot Animals.

Atomic Fish

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003

Their eyes glow in the dark. If you dare to walk near the water at night, you can see their eyes moving through the gloom.

I first saw them in Lake Anna, and I assumed that they must have soaked up radiation from a leak at the nuclear power plant. However, a seemingly knowledgeable science-type guy insisted that such a thing could not happen. Something about neutrons not glowing in the dark, if I understood him correctly. Maybe I didn’t. But aside from the technical mumbo-jumbo, there was further proof that the atomic fish had a different genesis: I started seeing them everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but anytime I was near a river or pond at night. As the train crossed the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg in the evening, I would press my face against the window and squint into the darkness. I could see tiny points of light glinting up at me from the water.

I thought of the other mutant creatures I had studied, such as Godzilla, the result of atomic bomb tests, or the strange creatures in Evolution, which had spoiled a train ride for me because the film was showing in the lounge car. Clearly, atomic radiation was involved somehow.

But what was the source? Were they invaders from China, like the walking carnivorous fish that attacked Maryland in 2002? Were they terrorist sleeper schools of fish, waiting for the word to attack? Even if they were a biological weapon, were they intelligent, malevolent aggressors, or were these poor creatures just helpless pawns in an international scheme? And if they were a biological weapon, had they entered the food supply? That was a scary thought that deserved prompt investigation.

On the way home I stopped at a supermarket and went to the seafood department. “Would you mind turning off the lights?” I asked. The man behind the counter gave me a withering and, I think, guilty look. I had my answer and my proof. In front of me lay a row of fish on ice. Their eyes seemed to be pleading, “Help us!” I made a silent promise that I would.

I parked my car out back and waited. It was a long wait, after a chilly night, but in the morning I was rewarded by the clue I was waiting for: a seafood truck pulled up and made a delivery. As it pulled away, I started the engine in my car and followed it.

It went nearly a hundred miles before pulling up outside a waterfront warehouse in Baltimore. Trying to look natural, I walked up to the front door and stepped inside. “I want to buy some fish,” I announced. “Some special fish,” I said with a wink.

“Oh,” said the receptionist. “Come with me.” She led me down a long, wood-paneled hallway and into a vast area filled with aquarium tanks and, to my astonishment, televisions. I tried to conceal my surprise.

“Are you in advertising?” asked a man in a white lab coat.

“What? Oh, uh, yeah. How’s it going?”

“They stare at the TV all day but their eyes glaze over and kind of glow. We haven’t yet found a way around it. We’ve had to dump the ones with glowing eyes back into the rivers. If we could get them to pay attention to commercials all day, they would be perfect consumers, except that they don’t have any money. So once we breed the perfect consumer fish, we will transplant their genes into humans.”

“Have you tried intelligent TV programming?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I was stupid, and I quickly put my hand to my mouth as I realized I was assisting in the very crime I was supposed to be fighting. “Well, if you ever get it to work, let me know,” I said, and handed him a business card on which I hastily added the hand-written words “Advertising Executive.”

On the way out, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that humanity was safe for a little while longer. Then I went to Lake Anna and tossed some crumbs into the water for the poor fish.

Steve Dunham is now an advertising executive.

Combat Cows

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003

In the world’s first airborne cattle attack, Russian commando cows sank a Japanese fishing boat. They jumped out of a military airplane over the Sea of Okhotsk, plummeted nearly four miles without parachutes, and struck the boat, breaking holes in the hull. (This is supposedly really true, although the news did not refer to the cows as commandos.)

This is a smashing example of what the U.S. military calls “asymmetric warfare”—in other words, attacks against our weak points. This country is virtually defenseless against kamikaze attacks by flying cows. Although the United States has many deer hunters who are also experienced at shooting cows, these sharpshooters are woefully unprepared to protect us against bovine war from the air.

You might wonder how we got ourselves into this situation. The fact is that America’s so-called heartland is a breeding ground for terror, with millions of resentful cattle ready to rise up (and to great altitude, too) against us.

“What about our stealth fighters?” you may ask. “What about the F-16s, F-18s, F-this, and F-that?” My answer is, first of all, please watch your vocabulary. You are starting to sound like an R-rated movie. Second, our military aircraft are not invincible when it comes to taking on cows in combat.

This information, which is probably classified, slipped out in a comment by a scientist, astronomer Phil Plait, in his otherwise seemingly accurate book Bad Astronomy (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2002). Plait, who dismisses the idea that UFOs are piloted by space aliens, asks (and here we briefly return to reality, with an actual quote from his book), “If their technology is so advanced, how come they crashed here in 1947? It seems unlikely that we would be able to shoot down a spaceship; that’s like cows being able to take down a fighter plane.”

Note two things. First, he asks, “How come they crashed here in 1947?” He admits that “they” crashed. Second, it seems “unlikely” to Mr. Skeptical Scientist that we could shoot down a spaceship. But when it comes to shooting things down, what is the difference between a missile and a spaceship? And we can shoot down missiles. True, the system does not work perfectly, but I think that with a large amount of money (say, enough to double the size of Amtrak and run it for a hundred years), we could shoot down any missile or spaceship anytime we want. And that, according to the learned astronomer, is “like cows being able to take down a fighter plane.” I think it is fair to paraphrase the scientific point of view as this: Cows are only a half step behind us when it comes to shooting things out of the sky. Now, I find that scary. We are facing a global war against the cows.

However, I think we are up to it. First, we are red-blooded Americans, and remember where we got that red blood. This will be the first war in which we will be able to kill and eat our enemies. “Defend America,” the recruiting ads will say. “We will give you pride in yourself, plus all the steak you can eat.”

But I caution all of you: these are not just the mad cows of Britain. These are not just the sacred cows of India. The cows who threaten us most are right here in America. I urge everyone to be on the alert. Keep an eye on the cows. If you see one acting suspiciously, feel free to question it. Take pictures. Keep the cow on the defensive. You will be protecting this great country, making the skies safe, and making sure that cows give us milk and meat, not rebellion and disorder.

Steve Dunham is a citizen-soldier in the war against the cows.

Chickens Are Our Friends

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003

Chickens are our friends in the Global War Against the Cows. Cows have sunk a fishing boat and probably have the ability to shoot down fighter jets, although so far UN inspectors have found no proof. Personally I am not willing to wait till the cows are in control of the skies before I kill and eat one.

Considering that cows have already taken to the air and that our military airpower is pretty much helpless against them, it is time to enlist some airborne animal allies. Where do we turn? According to the proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” our natural allies should be chickens. Already cows are engaged in a massive propaganda campaign urging people to eat “chikin.”

This is evidence enough for me. It is also a bright spot in this dark hour. Cows are cunning, conniving, and ruthless, but they cannot spell.*

Chickens, however, may be highly intelligent, according to a Jan. 12, 2003, story in the New York Times (“If Chickens Are So Smart, Why Aren’t They Eating Us?”). It said that, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Chickens are inquisitive and interesting animals” and “are thought to be at least as intelligent as dogs or cats.” (Notice that using the passive voice conveniently omits the answer to one crucial question: Who thinks that chickens are as intelligent as dogs or cats? The answer, probably, is “cows.”) The story also quoted a former chicken farmer as saying “that chickens have an undeniable craftiness,” although he added, “I don't think there’s a Rhodes scholar among them.” The story also mentioned the possibility of a “Mensa chicken.”

I find this information highly encouraging. OK, chickens may not get scholarships, but there may be a few geniuses among them. They are allegedly smarter than dogs or cats, although this is not very smart, yet they are not smart enough to eat us (this is a good thing).

However, they are more knowledgeable than some humans. One businessman cited in the story stated, “All a chicken wants is to be the same every day, to eat his fill.” As the author of the story indicated, a chicken is not a he. Here is one of our species who just might get eaten by chickens. However, I do not feel sorry for him. This is a war in which the losers get eaten.

Chickens, with their presumed spelling ability (it’s hard to tell, because their writing looks like chicken scratch) and “undeniable craftiness,” may be our secret weapon against the cows.

However, before we sign any treaties, we must recognize one drawback: chickens are, well, chicken. No country has, as far as I know, bred a combat chicken. It’s a contradiction in terms. However, they could fill many noncombat roles that require intelligence rather than courage. Also, remember who our enemy is. If this war could be won with nothing but bombs and bullets, all the cows would be living peacefully on farms instead of jumping out of airplanes.

We must recognize another problem: if we escalate the battle of chickens vs. cows, it may be a war with only losers, in which both sides end up on the menu. And if we win such a war but start eating more chicken, we’ll be giving the cows exactly what they want.

* Neither can many people with advanced degrees. I am finding out where they got their degrees (maybe the same place I got my doctorate) and I am assembling a list of places where my kids will not go to college. Would the businessman who thinks chickens are male please let me know where you went to college?

Steve Dunham has expanded his role in the Global War Against the Cows by sampling an Australian-style steakhouse.

Cows on the Tracks

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2000

I do secret work for the Government. Lately I have been investigating the mysterious cattle mutilations that are popularly blamed on space aliens or the White House (as if there is a difference). Not everything in the X-Files is true, however, and sometimes mysteries turn out to be even more bizarre than you expect, and even hidden in plain sight.

An anonymous tip told me to check out pilots. Obviously, this would be the people who fly the black helicopters over our cities at night. Like other police, they can be counted on to stop for coffee and donuts frequently during each shift, so tracking down one of these pilots was an easy matter for an experienced sleuth like me. After an interesting conversation that has to remain off the record, I got around to my main concern: “Why are you mutilating cattle?”

Suddenly my source was all too eager to go on the record. “We are not mutilating cattle,” he insisted. Journalists interview only reliable sources, so I took his word at face value. Still, I could tell he was concealing something. When pressed, he gave me one more lead. “There are other kinds of pilots,” he said.

Pondering that cryptic remark, I expanded my search. My next stop was Baltimore. After too much cheap beer in rowdy waterfront bars, I found a pilot. Introducing myself as a writer, I explained that I was doing a story about the work that pilots do at night. A week later, I had seen six ships guided in or out of the harbor, but not a single cow. Later, at the checkout counter in the supermarket, I spied a front-page story about nocturnal cattle mutilations in Stafford County, Virginia. Stafford has enough weird and covert goings-on to merit a TV show of its own, so on that very night I headed to Stafford and presently was staking out a cow pasture. Fortunately for me, the fences were none too secure, and I was able to mingle discreetly with the cattle.

The air was thick with methane, and when I struck a match to look at my watch, I ignited a ball of gas that was hovering over the field. This spooked the cows, and suddenly I was in the midst of a stampede. I ran for the gap in the fence, followed closely by a mad cow.

Then I heard a train whistle. Amtrak’s Silver Meteor, en route to Miami, and only half a mile away! I sprinted toward the tracks, then dove into a ditch. The cow kept going. Then there were screeching brakes filling the air with smoke, and bloody pieces of cow flying everywhere. In the darkness, I crept along the tracks till I was close to the engine and could overhear the engineer talking on the radio. “Ninety-seven to dispatcher, we have a cow impaled on the pilot.” The pilot!

“Roger that, ninety-seven. Your cowcatcher caught a cow. Chopper’s on the way.” The cowcatcher! And I had no doubt what color that chopper would be.

It was a half hour later when I heard an invisible helicopter overhead. Four mysterious figures in black jumpsuits and night-vision goggles came rappelling down. They strapped the remains of the cow into a sling, and the chopper lifted the carcass back to the pasture.

As the helicopter vanished into the night, the darkness was split by flashing red and blue lights as the Stafford sheriff arrived to investigate a UFO sighting. The mysterious glowing ball that neighbors had seen hovering over the pasture was gone, but there in the middle of the field was a mutilated cow. The sheriff detained the train crew for questioning; the railroaders had seen a mysterious light—“like swamp gas”—but could not say with certainty where it had gone or what connection it had to the mutilated cow. The sheriff eventually left, and finally the Silver Meteor also vanished into the night, running two hours late.

Runaway Chickens

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2004

“Fugitive chickens” are a problem in Bartow, Florida, according to a story in the Polk County Democrat. Yes, this is really true. The city has a law to protect all birds from any kind of harm, but really free-range chickens have pushed people to their limit.

Rather than enact intermediate measures such as a chicken leash law or a chicken pooper-scooper law, the city commissioners, “with stuffed, life-size toy chickens and roosters perched before them,” decided that any chicken running loose may be rounded up and turned over to the city manager.

Before you apply for the job of city manager in Bartow, thinking that the job perks include all the chicken you can eat, read the fine print: any chicken not claimed by its owner within three days will be deported—possibly taken to the city line, dumped, and told not to come back.

The city planned to hire someone to round up loose chickens. I guess this would be a cowboy type or maybe an exterminator with a catchy slogan such as “We take the foul out of fowl.”

Several people advised the commissioners that chickens are smart birds and not easy to catch. It’s better to sneak up on them at night. So I am thinking that any chicken planning to stay out late in Bartow had better carry several forms of identification, including a photo ID, or else learn some birdsongs and try to pass for some other species. “Honest, officer, I’m a canary! Cluck! I mean, tweet!”

Canary, indeed—as in coal mine. Any thoughtful reader will ask, “What are these ‘fugitive chickens’ running away from?”

Possibly the answer lies in another story, this one from the News Chief of Polk Online, describing the Polk County Health Department’s Sentinel Chicken Program. Flocks of chickens are stationed around the county and tested every week in case they have come down with St. Louis encephalitis, which is carried by mosquitoes.

According to the story, which cunningly carried a banner ad for the Trinity Funeral and Cremation Center, a nurse from the health department said that no chickens have caught the disease so far.

Despite this reassurance, if I were a chicken in the Sentinel Chicken Program, I would be a fugitive too, or at least heading out for a night on the town and perhaps buying some insect repellant while I’m there. When that visiting nurse from the health department came around for a bed check, she would find a rubber chicken in my nest. This would result in an immediate lockdown and quarantine while the health department tried to discover the cause of death and to isolate the disease that had caused it. Then the rubber chicken would be turned over to the Trinity Funeral and Cremation Center.

Meanwhile, I would be dumped at the city line and told not to come back, as if I would have to be told. If any human eyed me hungrily, I would say, “I just escaped from the Sentinel Chicken Program,” and they would all back away from me as I walked to freedom.

Steve Dunham tracks fugitive chickens.

The Rise of the Robot Animals

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003

Robo Deer is real. It is a decoy created by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to catch poachers. Robo Deer, unlike previous cardboard or stuffed decoys, can “can turn its head and twitch its tail,” according to the Associated Press. Yes, this is really true.

Hunters have tackled Robo Deer, attacked it with a knife, shot it, and run it over (on purpose). Its head came off, but it is still alive. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Yes, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Terminators.

The big question in my mind is “Has Robo Deer become self-aware?” Those of you who have seen the Terminator movies will realize the implications. For those of you who have not, I will explain: a self-aware machine will realize that it could run the world a whole lot better than humans can, especially if there were no humans around. There, now you have enough inspiration to make three or four movies.

But back to reality. I am one of those hunters who tried to kill Robo Deer, and for good reason, too: I was sent here from the future to stop it. Just as its creators intended, it was a lot tougher to fight than the cardboard deer and styrofoam deer I had battled in the past. Not only was it impervious to my hunting knife, high-caliber weapon, and all-terrain vehicle, it survived an exploding gasoline truck and a puddle of liquid nitrogen. This was one tough animal.

But Robo Deer is not only indestructible, it is not alone. There is the much more fearsome Robo Bull (please refer to another cheesy 1980s movie, Urban Cowboy.) I tackled that machine too, but it threw me off. Despite my repeated attempts to subdue it (each of which cost 50 cents), Robo Bull won every time.

It too is still alive. But so am I, and neither one of us has given up. After all, I have to save humanity. If they win, robot animals will rule the Earth.

Now comes the really scary part: the robot animals are everywhere. They look just like regular animals, and they are out to get me. The Robo Cats, for example, act just like real cats. They shed, they claw on the furniture, they pee on the rug. And they have taken over. And they are definitely self-aware. They sit on the table and look at me. They say, “The heck with you, dummy,” except they use bad words, just like a Terminator. “You may shoo us off the table this time, but we have already won,” they say. These are the advanced-design C-1000 or maybe C-X Robo Cats. I have sent a message to the future asking for a Robo Coyote to help fight the Robo Cats.

Meanwhile, more robot animals keep showing up and attacking. If that Robo Coyote doesn’t arrive soon, my only hope is yet another sequel.

Steve Dunham is half human and half machine, but he is on the side of humanity. Really.

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