So if you’re in my age cohort you grew up seeing the opening credits of Tales From The Darkside. You know, where the camera pans across footage of a forest while the foreboding voice of Perilous McDoomenough intones, “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he BELIEVES to be … reality.” And then the screen fades to a posterized negative image about how there is “unseen by most an underworld”. And then you changed the channel because whatever was coming next would have to be way too frightening to watch.
I got thinking, you know, this has to be like slasher movies were. The hype makes it sound like this intense and barely-comprehensible experience. And it turns out to be about as scary as an SCTV episode. I was too much of a coward to watch horror movies as a kid. I mean, except the one time that they had us do a sleepover for Vacation Bible School and we camped out in some of the classrooms off in the CCD wing. And one of the things they showed was Friday the 13th. I thought it was pretty good. Also I don’t understand how this could have happened. We went to a pretty liberal diocese but still. I think we also watched Heathers. I know Vacation and European Vacation we watched at my friend Eddie Glazier’s bar mitzvah. I’m not sure I should be talking about this 35-plus years on. I might be getting somebody in trouble.
But that’s sort of how terror was for a white middle-class kid growing up in the suburbs in the 80s. And yes, I mean New Jersey-type suburbs, which in other states are what you would call “urbs”. Or “great undifferentiated mass of housing developments and corporate office parks stretching from the Amboy Drive-In to the Freehold Traffic Circle, dotted by some Two Guys department stores”. Still. I grew up a weenie and I would be glad for that if I didn’t think being glad about myself was kind of bragging.
And we knew how to be recreationally scared. We just had to think about the nuclear war. New Jersey enjoyed a weird place for that. I know in most of the country you came up with legends about why the Soviets had a missile aimed right at you. One that would be deployed right after they bombed Washington and New York City. “Of course the Kremlin knows Blorpton Falls, Iowa is the largest producer of sewing machine bobbins outside the New York City area. They’ll have to bomb us so the country can’t clothe itself well after World War III.” It was a way to be proud of your town and not be responsible for surviving the nuclear war.
Central Jersey? We didn’t have to coin legends. We knew, when the war came, we’d be doomed. It wouldn’t be for any reason. It’s just we’re close to New York City, we’re close to Philadelphia. Nothing personal. All we were doing was being near something someone else wanted to destroy. This turned out to be great practice for living in 2020 that I don’t recommend.
Oh, sure, there was the soccer field what they said used to be a Nike missile base that would have protected New York City from the missile attacks. Maybe the Soviets would have an old map, or refuse to believe that they built a soccer field in the United States in the 60s. That former-Nike-base could be a target, if the Nike missiles to intercept the missiles didn’t work, which they wouldn’t.
You might ask: wait, why didn’t they put the base that was supposed to protect New York City in-between New York and the Soviet missile bases instead? The answer is that in-between New York City and the Soviet missile bases is Connecticut. The construction vehicles for the Connecticut site set out on I-95 in 1961 and haven’t made it through traffic yet. Central Jersey was a backup so they could build a site that couldn’t work but could abandon. Anyway I don’t know the soccer field was ever actually a Nike base or if we just said it was. If it really was, I suppose it’s a Superfund clean-up site now. Makes me glad I realized I didn’t want to socc. I wanted to type in word processor programs from a magazine into my computer.
Anyway after thinking about that long enough, it turns out the movie threats we faced were kind of cozy. Yeah, they might turn you into an Alice-in-Wonderland cake and eat you, but at least you’d be singing all the way.
So back to Tales From The Darkside. You know what you find if you go back and watch it now? Tales From The Darkside never even had episodes! They knew everybody was going to be scared off by those credits. Each episode, for all four seasons, is one frozen negative-print posterized image of a tree while someone holds down a key on the synthesizer.
It is way more terrifying than I had ever imagined.
The Phantom had busted up a Rhodian column that was messing around in Wambesi territory. Their goal: Chatu, The Python, who a decade ago was the big terrorist nemesis of The Phantom. From a Bangallan prison he orchestrated the apparent death and actual imprisonment of Diana Palmer Walker, the Phantom’s wife. Since then he’s been held by his Wambesi countryment in a secret jail. And now The Phantom was settling in for a serious talk with Chatu about the deal and what is with it.
The Phantom explains how he turned back the Rhodian column. Chatu says he doesn’t see why The Phantom is trying to mess with his head like that. As if the Ghost Who Walks would play head games. But it tells The Phantom that Chatu did not organize this breakout attempt. There’s no way to know how the Rhodians got word of Chatu’s secret prison, unless any Wambesi person said anything to any Rhodian person about it. Chatu taunts that he’ll kill Diana Walker yet, and The Phantom slugs him. Then heads home, along the way asking Babudan what was with his poking in around the corners of that last story. Babudan gives a noncommittal answer. And this wraps up the story.
The 253rd daily-continuity story, Unfinished Business, began the 24th of February. The Phantom, riled up by punching The Python, heads to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he punches successor top terrorist The Nomad. … I figured this summary would run a bit longer, but that is the important stuff.
The Phantom snuck in to Guantanamo Bay and disguised himself as Commander Burford. Eric “The Nomad” Sahara acts familiar with The Commander. I’m not clear whether it’s The Nomad being all smug or whether we’re expected to believe that American intelligence agencies will partner with the worst people in the world as long as they’re right-wing enough. The Phantom talks about the woman who captured him, Heloise Walker. The Nomad had thought Heloise Walker a Bangallan intelligence agent, and takes this as a sign the Americans have captured her.
Then The Phantom reveals that he’s not Commander Burford. He’d been using shadows and night as cover. Saying he wants The Nomad to know he’ll never be safe from him, he slugs the prisoner enough to break his jaw. He gloats that his daughter fought back against him. With The Nomad unconscious, The Phantom escapes to the fishing trawler he’d used as cover to get to Cuba. The action may seem pointless, but it turned out also to be dumb. Now it’s got The Nomad wondering why Heloise Walker matters to The Phantom.
The poacher’s easy to find; just follow the trail of slaughtered animals. His guides are nervous, afraid of what the Llongo people will do. The Phantom’s friends know: their queen’s ordered them dead. The Phantom talks them into seeing if they can’t stop the poachers without so much bloodshed. They’re up for it. They sneak up on the poacher’s camp and clobber the guides. The poacher himself needs more coaxing, by having Devil, the Wolf Who Walks, poised to rip out his throat.
The Phantom checks out the poacher’s home movies. Turns out he had wounded a lion without killing it. That’s a problem, as a badly wounded lion might turn to hunting humans. The trail leads into a forbidden forest, which the Llongo warriors won’t venture into. All right. The Phantom puts the poacher and his guides in the Llongo’s care and recommends they be handed over to the Jungle Patrol. And resolves to go into the forbidden forest by himself to track down the wounded lion.
That’s where the story sits as the first full week of May begins.
So this is the first, and surely last, time one of my recaps spans three Phantom stories. I’m delighted. This covers the last couple months of 2018. If it’s much past about March 2019 when you read this you’ll probably find a more up-to-date recap at this link. The link covers both the weekday continuity and the separate Sunday storylines. But it should be clear enough what I’m writing about, either way.
The Ghost Who Walks had spent a couple months on his back, last time I checked in. He was recovering from major injuries after a failed capture of Eric “The Nomad” Sahara. The Nomad was in Manhattan, having one last weekend with his daughter Kadia, before going into hiding. Also spending time with his daughter’s roommate, Heloise Walker. Sahara concluded, wrongly but not stupidly, that Walker was a secret agent plotting to capture or kill him. So he threw together a plan. He reported Heloise as a terrorist to the Transportation Security Authority. They arrested her in front of Kadia and everything. This so Kadia would not try to work out Walker’s disappearance. Sahara then collected the released Walker, planning to fly her somewhere she could be killed without detection. My last recap ened with them on the runway, Sahara getting his private jet up to speed.
Walker recovers consciousness just into takeoff. She fights him in the cockpit, sending the plane out of control, crashing it into the suburban neighborhood beside the airport. Walker and Sahara are still alive, and keep fighting, Walker thinking of the 21 generations of Phantoms before her. Walker knocks Sahara unconscious and drags him out of the plane before the airport emergency crash teams can get there.
The first cop on the scene is one who’d arrested Walker at Sahara’s misdirection earlier. Walker tells him Eric Sahara is The Nomad, internationally wanted terrorist. She flees. The cop follows, and shoots, but into the air. She escapes.
Back home in Bangalla, The Phantom wakes after uneasy sleep. He gets the message Heloise Walker left earlier in the morning, and in my previous recap. The one about her having found The Nomad and her then-plan of getting him to share his plans. The Phantom’s ready to run for New York, despite his neck being only barely connected yet. It’s moot anyway. Heloise Walker calls with the news about The Nomad’s arrest.
She’s stumbling around convenience and dollar stores. She’s trying to disguise herself. She’s certain that the authorities have her picture, and soon, her identity. The authorities publicly claim the cop’s body camera malfunctioned. That initial reports of a girl being with Sahara were mistaken. That it was that one airport cop to credit for this capture. Heloise guesses, correctly, that that’s a lie. And she’s torn between pride in her having stopped a major international criminal and wanting to go home.
In this he lays out some of the setting. Notably about his tutor, Kyabje Dorje, who gives off strong Phantom vibes himself. That he’s a scholar, a gentleman. He occasionally returns from disappearances with unexplained injuries. (Be a heck of a thing if he goes flying off to vanquish evil and maybe reconnect with his mentor in El Paso who taught him the mysterious ways of the cowboy, right? By “a heck of a thing” I mean “a thing that seems like the premise of a guest-star Control agent on Get Smart”.) And about Chief Constable Jampa, the local corrupt law agent. They got off to a bad start, with Jampa holding this foreigner at gunpoint. He relented only because Kyabje Dorje’s whole monastery insisted. Since then … well, we haven’t seen anything. But we’ve got the threads for this ready to go.
Anyway, he wraps up, congratulating his dad for capturing The Nomad and all. He makes a couple ironic jokes about his sister having a soft time of it. And he sends his love. And wraps up the letter and burns it to ashes, the better to keep family secrets.
And that’s that story. This past week, the 10th, started the 251st daily-continuity Phantom story, “Heloise Comes Home”. The title picks up from what Heloise said in the last strip of “A Reckoning With The Nomad”. She’s made her way back to the Briarson School, not because she figures she can return to classes. “Crashed Your Roommate’s Father’s Private Jet And Got Him Arrested For Terrorism” gets you out of the semester in most any school. It’s only an urban legend that it’s an automatic A for the semester, though. Walker gets back to her room and very briefly informs Kadia they have to flee now or they’ll never get out of the country. But that’s all she’s had time to do.
I have no information about where the story might be going. (And I’m not seeking any. I’m content to read the comic like anyone might. Let actual comic strip news sites carry teasers.) I can see obvious potential paths. It would be ridiculous were authorities not to investigate Kadia Sahara. This though she does appear to be wholly uninvolved with anything. Fleeing the country would be the first suspicious thing she might do that we’ve seen on-screen. Heloise Walker would likely be investigated as someone near to Eric Sahara even if she weren’t on the body-camera footage. That her mother’s got a senior position with the United Nations is likely to attract more official attention. And it makes me realize I don’t know what the world thinks the senior Kit Walker does. That is, they do see this fellow named Mr Walker who’s always wearing sunglasses and has antique airplanes and the like. I don’t know what people imagine his day job to be.
A running thread of Heloise Walker’s story has been her desire to be a female Phantom. It’s quite fair that she might be afraid of that now that she’s been through an intense and terrifying experience. (Can’t forget that, for all her poise and formal-dinner-wear outfit, she is a teenager, 15 or 16 years old.) Reconciling the fantasy of her family’s superheroic lifestyle with the reality is a solid character challenge as well.
I just knew going in that describing the size of Rhode Island in terms of football fields was going to be a popular one, because it just had that certain xkcd-ish nerdly panache to it, by combining geodesy, sports, and things that other things get compared to a lot even if you don’t really know or care much about the things. So I was happy about all that.
But, and I know this is ridiculous: I was deeply worried about whether I would get this right. I knew that by giving stuff that could be not obviously wrong numbers I was potentially arousing the powerful Worldwide Nerdly Precision League. This is a shadowy group, communicating primarily by means of pun cascades and posts that convert things — any old things: speeds, fuel economies, lists of Vice-Presidents of the United States with their pets — into stupid measurements like “furlongs per fortnight” all the while trying to troll others into correcting mistakes they pretend to make. Rouse them and they will hound you past death, trying to pin down whether you meant the London firkin or some other non-London yet nevertheless English firkin, such as the Bristol firkin, and they will not accept that you could care less, an expression that they’ll also debate with you.
So in my quest to get the measurement of Rhode Island right I discovered there are no two sources on the entire Internet that agree about how big Rhode Island is. A lot of them just round it off to the nearest ten miles, even though that risks rounding the state down to a slender twig blown about in the strong wind. Some of them give up altogether: Wikipedia just describes Rhode Island as being “larger than three elephants standing end to end, but not much. Not those elephants, a different three elephants”. Finally I gave up and found the United States Coast Guard’s Geographic Information Services depository and got a map of Rhode Island that if the Coast Guard is fine with I can live with. I trust the Coast Guard to keep track of Rhode Island even though it’d save them a lot of craggly little corners if they lopped off the whole island and went with those pretty straight borders on the east of Connecticut and south of Massachusetts instead. I guess that might risk their running a cutter or whatever they have into Quonset but the people of Quonset have dealt with worse. I imagine. They’ve done a lot of stuff, what with making huts and not being Woonsocket, I guess.
But this set off a new problem because the best GIS software I could find was QGIS, which is open source. Open source software is different from professional software because, when you want to get a piece of professional software, you download it and then run it. With open source software, you download it, and then discover that to run it you have to download something else. When you download that something else and try to run it, you find out you have to download some other thing. That other thing you can download, but to actually run it you have to resolve some package dependency issue. You Google for that and discover one StackOverflow page with somebody describing what sounds like your problem, except that when you describe your problem there’s antecedents and verbs and the sentences parse. It seems close enough, though, so you follow what you think is the best answer, as it’s the one in which all the sentences parse even though the paragraphs don’t, and the settings it describes aren’t exactly in your version of the software but some things described with imperfect synonyms are, even if none of them are under the described menu options, which are different anyway, that the StackOverflow answer says. This works, except that every time you start the program it pops up an alert box containing nothing but an exclamation point and three buttons marked “OK”, “Dismiss”, and “Cancel”, all of which do the same thing if you click them twice, which is to go away and let you use the program, except every now and then the software switches the typeface over to I’m going to guess Korean and you have to delete the preferences and start over. But it’s worth it because if you complain about it someone tells you to pitch in and help fix the problem instead of just complaining.
It was easiest to measure the lengths not at all because while you can turn on a grid to make measurements of stuff in QGIS, it’s open-source software, so while you can do pretty much anything, there’s no guessing how except that it won’t be anything like you learned from any other program you ever used, ever. But when I found how — it required three sherpas and a gyrocompass — it was easiest to measure the state in kilometers and I was going to accept that, because I could convert the size of a football field into meters and just do the stupid division like that. I finished all that and scheduled the article to be posted and went off to play pinball all day.
Except. Right about when the post was scheduled to appear I thought: did I convert “120 yards into meters”, or did I screw up and enter “120 feet into meters” instead? Did I make Rhode Island three times as big as it should be? Or worse did I somehow make it one-third its rightful size? I did my best to struggle on with making a shiny ball bounce against a diverse set of things a lot of times, but I kept thinking of how I’d get home to face dozens of comments from the New England Chapter of the Worldwide Nerdly Precision League, and I’d have to flee my home and move to some other country where they don’t play American football. And not a small country either, something that would take dozens of thousands — literally, scores of great grosses — of football fields cricket pitches to cross. I swear, I spent hours thinking I might just be an idiot for having come up with numbers like “1772” or “1999” or even “788”. At least the “4940” I was pretty sure about.
Anyway, mercifully, I got back home and checked my notes and it looks like I was wrong about being mistaken, and I had not messed up calculating this bit of nonsense. So there’s that. You’re welcome, all.
As I make it out by the way Rhode Island is about 86.4 kilometers east-to-west, about 97.5 kilometers north-to-south, and about 247 meters top to bottom because nobody’s told me about any part of the state that’s dry land but below sea level, so if you want to figure out what that is in terms of Canadian football fields or cricket pitches or pinball table sizes good luck.