Tag: Plaque

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 960: Day Three of Peace & Music

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“And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.

And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.”

 

As the bone-soaked and weary revelers packed together their tin-foil hash pipes, their mud-crusty jean-shorts and their near-sentient hangovers to leave the festival, one wonders if the historic weight of their experience could be fathomed among any of them. Leaving a grisly wake of discarded garments, blankets so infused with dirt and sweat they could never be clean again, and a weekend’s worth of rubble from the small city that rose and fell upon Max Yasgur’s farm over four days, they likely had other things on their minds.

Would their parents be worried? Those whose jobs necessitated a Monday appearance had likely been trapped in Bethel, New York until the crowd was ready to disperse – would they still have employment upon their return? No doubt a handful were wondering how they’d describe the wondrous soul-swoosh of the previous weekend to their friends and family serving overseas in Vietnam, or if they’d ever get the chance.

Judging by the overwhelming jubilance witnessed in the Woodstock documentary film, some may have tasted the optimistic truth that such massive accumulations of good vibes are possible, and that a few more parties like this might end the war and straighten up humankind’s preternatural bent toward self-destruction. Could any of them have foreseen the generation’s collective retreat from idealism and decay into boring ol’ adulthood?

And how were they going to clean this mess without the use of flame-throwers?

And how were they going to clean this mess without the use of flame-throwers?

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Love Generation, when Free Love meant death from AIDS, when the only war we could protest was the UN’s righteous removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and when drugs were not – as we were told – a liberating force, but rather the egg goop that would sizzle upon the frying pans of our brains, Woodstock became an ideal. We watched the movie, we found the music more engaging than M.C. Hammer’s instructions of what we can and cannot touch, and we subsequently glorified the festival and its citizens. Where was our Woodstock? Read more…

Day 942: The Hounds Of Golden Gate City

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Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.

Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.

Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.

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Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival. Read more…

Day 907: Who Stole The Moon?

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I’d like to open today’s missive with a few kind words about President Richard M. Nixon. In an act of international fraternity and savvy diplomatic P.R., the Nixon administration celebrated the American victory in the Space Race by doling out gifts of free moon rocks to every state, every US territory, and a long list of nations. Ever since humankind first stretched its grumpy morning arms over its evolutionary head we have been fascinated by that giant glowing rock in the sky. Now Dick Nixon was dispersing little bits of it all over the world. It’s kind of sweet, really.

The rocks – four per gift, each about the size of a Nerds candy – were mounted in an acrylic bubble within a commemorative plaque that also featured that nation or state’s flag, which had been part of the Apollo 11 payload. So everyone was getting a print of their own flag which had been to space, as well as a few morsels of lunar gravel. The gift was repeated once more after Apollo 17 with a fresh batch of moon-crumbs.

NASA has always been meticulous about tracking the whereabouts of every lunar sample that has been packed in our cosmic carry-on and brought back home. But once these babies touched down into foreign palms, NASA no longer followed their progress, probably assuming that each would end up in some museum under armed surveillance and the snazziest of security. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

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Out of 270 gifted rock-nugget plaques, roughly 180 have since gone missing. Nixon’s gesture of international goodwill clearly received a meh-level fanfare from the majority of its recipients. In 1998, NASA became sufficiently irked by the growing black market for lunar pebbles that they decided to team up with the US Postal Service for a sting operation. Joseph Gutheinz helmed the scheme for NASA, and along with postal Inspector Bob Cregger they plopped an ad into USA Today looking to buy up some moon rocks. Read more…

Day 792: The Day The Suffragette Was Run Over By A Horse

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It was a beautiful sunny June afternoon at the 1913 Epsom Derby in Surrey. Thousands of people had gathered to watch horses run in a circle because it was 1913 and television was not yet invented. Also, the horse of King George V was among the competitors, which added the thrill of watching a celebrity to the event. No one expected to see a horrific crash – had that been on the program, I’m sure the stands would have been packed with an even greater crowd.

The crash was not notable for its carnage, nor was it significant because the king’s horse was involved. It stands out in history because Emily Davison, a famous figure in the world of women’s suffrage, martyred herself by leaping in front of the royal steed, taking her own life.

Or did she?

Recent analysis of the incident – and yes, there was actually film footage which could be reviewed obsessively like the Zapruder film – has called into question this alleged ‘suicide’. Either way, it succeeded in drawing attention to Emily’s cause. Not that she ever had a problem doing that.

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Emily worked for her own education, first as a governess then as a teacher. She poured her earnings into classes at Oxford, studying biology, chemistry and English literature – despite the fact that she could never attain a degree. Oxford’s degrees were for dudes only back then. Emily was a first-class honors student, and this antiquated policy no doubt riled her toward the cause of women’s rights. Read more…

Day 564: Have Gum Will Travel

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There is something blissfully inelegant about chewing gum. As soon as you pop it in your mouth, you are in possession of a piece of eventual garbage that, if you don’t start out with an exit strategy, may finish its life crammed under a desk or depurifying the bottom of someone’s brand new pair of Nikes. Chewing gum is – for those of us who don’t opt for the sidewalk-disposal solution – a responsibility.

And in an act of deplorable inconsideration, many gum companies have upped the ante of commitment by replacing the easily-unwrapped and fashionable sticks with little candy-covered cubes inside loud plastic bubble-packs. These things obnoxiously announce to everyone within a three-room radius that you are about to partake in some quality chew-time, and they can all shut the hell up and resume their conversations once you have begun your mastication.

I hate those things. Give me an old foil-wrapped stick of Juicy Fruit or a paper pouch of Big League Chew any day.

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Way up in the forests (or possibly plains, maybe mountains – I really didn’t pull too hard at this thread) of Yli-li, Finland, archeologists have unearthed evidence of gum from the Neolithic age. A chunk of 5000-year-old bark tar that was chewed and not swallowed, possibly because of its medicinal properties, or maybe because it was never too early in history to look cool. Read more…