The Sephardic Heritage Museum Explores THE LIFE AND ESCAPE of the JEWS OF SYRIA

Past Articles:

By: Tuvia Cohen

The following is not for the fainthearted. It is a tale of conflict and heroism, battles, guns, and weapons. Everyone who knows even a smattering of history will remember that once upon a time, armies fought upon open fields, and were equipped with swords, spears, and lances. These objects of war were called “armes blanche,” the French for “white arms.” This expression comes from the bright gleam of steel blades. These objects of war were specifically designed for hand-fighting, stabbing, bashing, cutting, and thrusting. One can picture, with some degree of horror, the scene at ancient battles as the antagonists charged each other with swinging blades and fearful cries. With fierce combat at close quarters, each individual tried to decapitate his foe, while trying his best not to be decapitated himself. Not everyone succeeded.

Warfare using bows and arrows was a great advance, with definite advantages. The yard-long arrow shot from a longbow could pierce armor. When men fought with swords and spears, the number of combatants actually using their weapons at any instant was bound to be roughly equal on both sides. An army fighting with a greater number of men is not necessarily an advantage, because they cannot all be employed. If, however, the fighters are armed with missile-type weapons, there is no limit to the number of such weapons that can be aimed at the enemy. The more men, the more bows; the more bows, the more arrows raining down on the enemy. The disadvantage is that the archers require strength and skill, not to mention great courage to stand their ground until the charging horsemen are within easy range. And you could run out of arrows!

Enter the gun. With the development of gunpowder in the
15th century, everything changed. No longer would mighty castles with thick walls provide safety for the lords and barons; the heavy iron cannon balls demolished everything in their path. Gunpowder enabled bullets to be shot out like missiles, with enough speed to pierce the toughest armor. And the gunner did not need the archer’s strong arm. There were, however, many difficulties to overcome before guns became really efficient. Early muskets and cannons were hopelessly inaccurate. The first musket balls fitted loosely inside a smooth barrel. As they were fired, the balls bounced from side to side along the barrel, and left the muzzle in unpredictable directions. Any slight unevenness in shape made
the ball swing in flight. You had to ignite the gunpowder and take aim at the same time. And, you had to keep it all dry if it was raining.
Most worrisome of all was that the musket balls had a very short range, and were so unsafe that they often burst before they could leave the barrel, much to the consternation of all concerned.

Many refinements and advances in design were introduced through the ages, such as engraving the inside of the barrel with spiral grooves (‘rifling’), causing the projectile to spin as it went, which eliminated the tendency to veer in any one direction.
Another improvement was elongating the bullets in order to increase their range, and using lead bullets with a slightly hollow base. When the bullet was fired, the soft lead base expanded to grip the rifling. Advanced design! But not nearly as good as a 30-inch-long little rodent whose weaponry is so efficient that it can kill a mountain lion, and who is so superbly protected by its armory that it need fear no one. Who is he? Enter the porcupine.

As it enters, please make sure that you are well protected.
Even though it is true that a porcupine has a placid disposition and generally dislikes battle, once he decides to advance, nothing in the world will halt his course. He weighs only 15 to 25 pounds, but he is armed with a terrifying armory of quills that sprout from his head, back, and powerfully muscular six-inch tail. When he walks, he rattles like a quiver of arrows – which is exactly what he is.
The quills are hollow, tubular, and so lightly fixed in his skin that the slightest touch will dislodge them. Just hope that they never come your way! The quills are as sharp as needles, and are covered with a multitude of barbs. Do not read any further if you are of a sensitive disposition! As soon as the quills enter the warm moist flesh of a victim, they begin to swell up, with the barbs sticking out more and more. Because of the slant of the barbs, the quills work deeper and deeper into the victim’s body. Advanced intelligence?

Read on! If Mr. Porcupine falls into the water, his air-filled quills keep him afloat as buoyantly as a cork. If he tumbles out of a tree (his favorite habitation), his cushion of quills gives him a comfortable landing. Should an enemy be foolish enough to threaten him, his behavior is always the same. He brings his feet close together, hugging the ground to guard his unquilled underside. Next, he raises his quills until, like a fantastic pincushion, he looks twice his size, and vigorously flips his tail from side to side. If the attacker is wise, he goes away. However, not everyone is wise. If the attacker tries to close in on the porcupine, Slap! – the muscular tail lashes sideways and drives as many as 20 jagged stilettos deep into the attacker’s flesh. One slap is generally sufficient to drive off even a bear, but should the enemy stand his ground, the prickly porcupine advances.

In order to protect his nose, the only sensitive part of his body, the porcupine goes into reverse and advances backwards, flailing his tail furiously. As he advances, the quills are sent whizzing. Ten quills will drive off a fox, 20 will send a wildcat away screaming in pain.
Both mountain lions and bears have been killed by porcupine quills. The big worry is whether the porcupine will ever run out of ammunition! Have no fear, for he has been well designed.
The lost quills will be replaced by new ones within a few months. In the meantime, he is unlikely to run short, for he has no fewer than 30,000 quills, each one a magnificent and terrifying weapon, covering the length of his little body.

Not every aspect of this amazing animal is understood. A female porcupine is only some 30 inches long, yet her baby offspring are often 11 inches long, larger than the newborn cubs of a bear. If human babies were as big, comparatively, as new born porcupines, they would weigh some 80 pounds! And here comes the most amazing fact of all. Even before birth, porcupines possess quills that are half an inch long. Experts have long pondered over the problem of the delivery of such uncomfortable infants!

Even barbed arrows and bullets have been superseded by something much more malicious: chemical warfare. The very name strikes terror into the heart of the reader, and for good reason. Here is the most advanced technology, utilized in a manner designed to cause maximum damage, guaranteed to make the victim feel
both powerless and vulnerable – just like a skunk. Unlike his reputation, the skunk is both affable and complacent, and well may he be, for he possesses a weapon that makes chemical warfare look like a water fight.

Even the very first time the skunk (a small mammal 28 inches long) confronts an enemy, instinctively he knows precisely what to do. Let us say the enemy is an angry canine. When this canine aggressively approaches, the little skunk lowers his furry head, delicately arches his back, and with grave earnestness thumps his forefeet on the ground. Most animals know the sound, and run, but this foolish dog thinks it a silly antic, and he charges again. The skunk does not yet act. Instead, he stares straight before him, and with unblinking eyes, shakes his head from side to side. It is Part Two of the three-part warning.

Still the dog does not comprehend, and the time has come for the third and final warning. Gracefully, the skunk lifts his broad tail. Only for an instant longer does he hesitate, then abruptly he turns around and presents his rear to the dog. His strong little back arches in a sudden convulsive movement. Then, a thin jet of liquid glimmers phosphorescently in the dusk. Trees and grass are spattered by a burning spray. Acrid, choking odor saturates earth and leaves, and drifts on the air for hundreds of yards. Animals race
for their lives to escape the suffocating fumes. And from afar, the skunk hears the agonized yelping of a running dog who will never again antagonize a skunk. His hide has been drenched with a powerful sulfide, mercaptan, and the fiery spray splashed into his eyes and was inhaled into his lungs. The poor dog will be blind for at least two days. You were warned that this is not for the fainthearted!

Let us be honest. Who taught the little skunk to manufacture such a potent chemical? Why does it not burn itself up, and how does it eject it in a fine spray? Who instructed the porcupine to manufacture quills that expand inside their hapless victim? Who is the designer behind this advanced weaponry? The answer is that intelligence does not come from nowhere. It has a source. And that source is the greatest Intelligence of all.

Tuvia Cohen is a humorist, scientist, and an accomplished author.