Starting Early

Ronald Reagan received the following letter in April 1984:

Dear Mr. President,

My name is Andy Smith. I am a seventh grade student at Irmo Middle School, in Irmo, South Carolina.

Today my mother declared my bedroom a disaster area. I would like to request federal funds to hire a crew to clean up my room. I am prepared to provide the initial funds if you will privide matching funds for this project.

I know you will be fair when you consider my request. I will be awaiting your reply.

Sincerely yours,

Andy Smith

Reagan replied, pointing out a technical problem: “The authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request. In this case your mother.” He recommended that Andy launch a volunteer program — and sent his congratulations.


What do you get when thousands of drunken sports fans stack their beer cups into a huge chain? A beer snake, that’s what. They’re not very dangerous, as snakes go — they tend to appear at cricket matches, which take hours and sell a lot of beverages. But they get big: The largest so far measured 23 meters. Cheers.

The Lost Colony

In 1590, England sent an expedition to check on a colony of settlers on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. They found the settlement deserted: 90 men, 17 women, and nine children had disappeared without a trace. A search turned up nothing. The only clue was a single word carved into a post: CROATOAN.

There was a Croatoan Island nearby, with a tribe of that name. Had the colonists been killed or captured? No, there was no sign of a struggle. Had they assimilated peacefully? Then why had they left no clue where they’d gone? Had they moved to another base? Tried to return to England? Starved to death? To this day, no one knows.

“Tub of Blood Bunch”

Colorful New York gang names, 1825-1920:

  • Baxter Street Dudes
  • Car Barn Gang
  • Corcoran’s Roosters
  • Crazy Butch Gang
  • Daybreak Boys
  • Forty Little Thieves
  • Gas House Gang
  • Gopher Gang
  • Hudson Dusters
  • Humpty Jackson Gang
  • Italian Dave Gang
  • Mandelbaum Gang
  • Squab Wheelman Gang
  • Yakey Yakes

Slobbery Jim of the Daybreak Boys cut Patsy the Barber’s throat in a fight over 12 cents in 1853. He later rose to the rank of captain in the Confederate army.


“Life is tough. It’s even tougher if you’re stupid.” — John Wayne


Henry Ford was a big deal in the United States, and for a time he was a big deal in Brazil, too. In the 1920s the auto tycoon bought 10,000 square kilometers of land near the mouth of the Amazon. Rubber came from the tropics, he figured, so he’d cut out the middleman and gather it himself.

That’s big thinking, but “Fordlândia” didn’t really work out. The land was rough and unfamiliar, bugs and blight ate the plants, and the natives eventually threw aside their hamburgers and drove the managers into the jungle.

Ford tried again, but by 1945 synthetic rubber had made the whole project look silly, and in the end he took a $20 million loss. That was okay with Ford, for whom active failure was better than passive dreaming. “You can’t build a reputation,” he’d say, “on what you are going to do.”

Wrong Number

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer, once obtained the phone number 888-888-8888.

He found it was unusable — he received more than 100 calls a day from children playing with phones.

Water Music

If you live near the Liverpool coast, don’t be alarmed to see human figures slowly disappearing beneath the waves. They’re part of a modern sculpture, called Another Place, designed by Antony Gormley. There are 100 cast-iron figures in all, spread over a 2-mile stretch of beach.

They’re coming to New York in November.

In a Word

n. rumbling noise in the intestines


American superstitions, collected by folklorist Fanny Bergen in 1896:

  • If you sneeze at table with the mouth full, an acquaintance will die soon. (Virginia)
  • If your shoe comes untied, your sweetheart is talking about you. (Alabama)
  • To go back into the house for something after starting on a journey is unpropitious. To have it brought out is all right. (Iowa)
  • To dream of bread is good luck. (Boston)
  • If you drop the tea-towel, it is a sign of company. (Pennsylvania)
  • Pass a baby through a window and it will never grow. (South Carolina)
  • Dimple in chin, devil within. (Maryland)
  • If you are a bridesmaid three times you will never stand in the middle. (New York)


Beware of that man,
Be he friend or brother,
Whose hair is one color
And moustache another.

(Portland, Maine)