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History Trivia & Comment: The Fun, The Useless, The Serious (11/2/07)

November 2, 2007

On this day in…

– 1895, “The first gasoline-powered race in the United States. First prize: $2,000.” … Just think, car-racing has been a sport in the U.S. just as long as basketball—invented by James Naismith in 1891—and almost as long as U.S. football, which began to resemble today’s game in the 1880s. Amazing.

– 1909, “Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity is founded at Boston University.” … Useless information of the day. Absolutely worthless—except to pledges of Lambda Chi Alpha.

– 1920, “In the United States, KDKA of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania starts broadcasting as the first commercial radio station. The first broadcast was the results of the U.S. presidential election, 1920.” … Doesn’t Don Imus (left) look old enough to have been there? He scares me. I don’t know what that guy’s done in his life, but he looks prematurely aged. Cigarettes?

– 1947, “Howard Hughes piloted his huge wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose, on its only flight, which lasted about a minute over Long Beach Harbor in California.” … Did anyone see that Scorcese/DiCaprio collaboration on Hughes? Weird, but intriguing. I’ve been fascinated by planes since around the age of five, when my mom bought me a children’s encyclopedia set. In the “A” volume there were pages of pictures of airplanes under the same entry, the “Goose” fascinated me then. Who knew that thirty some years later the builder of the plane would fascinate me more.

– 1959, “Charles Van Doren admitted to a House subcommittee that he had the questions and answers in advance of his appearances on the TV game show Twenty-One.” … Hey, some dissertation-related trivia! Charles Van Doren would go one to become one of Mortimer J. Adler’s important helpers at the latter’s Institute for Philosophical Research and in Adler’s 1970s Encyclopedia Britannica endeavors. In sum, Van Doren’s importance to history really does supersede the low moment that this NYT entry details. The picture to the right shows Charles in the foreground with his perhaps less-famous father—the poet, great books enthusiast, and Columbia University professor Mark Van Doren. It’s a very humanizing look at this victim of history trivia.

– 1960, “Penguin Books is found not guilty of obscenity in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case.” … Is this a good book? I’ve been curious for some time, and—as is argued by the anti-censorship folks—its controversial history has been provoking my curiosity for some time.

– 1965, “Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker, sets himself on fire in front of the river entrance to the Pentagon to protest the use of napalm in the Vietnam war.” … Reminders of this never fail to touch me. I just can’t imagine it. I certainly can’t imagine it occurring in the U.S. today over the Iraq War.

– 1979, “Black militant Joanne Chesimard escaped from a New Jersey prison, where she had been serving a life sentence for the 1973 slaying of a New Jersey state trooper. (Chesimard, who has since taken the name Assata Shakur, now lives in Cuba.)” … This is intriguing information from the Chicago Tribune‘s Almanac, but is another case where the entry needs some restructuring. Was her incarceration a railroading (i.e. “doubtful”)? How long was she in prison (i.e. difference between purported crime and sentencing)? Who might’ve helped in the escape (i.e. Weather Underground)? When did she leave for Cuba (i.e. 1979 or more recently)? Right now the significance of this entry is the sensationalism of a murder and escape.

– 1982, “Channel 4 in the United Kingdom was launched.” … Is this more useless information than the 1909 founding of Lambda Chi Alpha? Wikipedia is in a race to top itself in the conveyance of worthless tidbits.

– 2006, “The Rev. Ted Haggard resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals after a man said they had had sexual trysts together.” … I remember thinking last year about the sad poetry between his name and his situation. It was a made-for-print-journalism story. I still find it very difficult to feel sorry for the guy.

[Sources: NYT, Wikipedia, Chicago Tribune.]

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