In a Word

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abscede
v. to move away or apart; to lose contact; to separate

anachorism
n. something located in an incongruous position

longinquity
n. greatness of distance; remoteness

aerumnous
adj. troubled; distressed

In 2007 Brazilian villagers were surprised to discover a 16-foot minke whale on a sandbank in the Tapajos River, 1,000 miles from the sea. Apparently it had got separated from its group in the Atlantic and swum up the Amazon.

After two days, rescuers managed to return it to the water. “What we can definitely say is that it lost its way,” biologist Fabia Luna told Globo television. “It entered the river, which on its own is unusual. But then to have travelled around 1,500 kilometers is both strange and adverse.”

Brazil’s environmental agency said the whale might have been in the region for two months before it was spotted. “It is outside of its normal habitat, in a strange situation, under stress, and far from the ocean,” said whale expert Katia Groch. “The probability of survival is low.”

Getting the Point

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Sixteenth-century England had some singularly inept bowmen:

In 1552, at about 3 pm on the 28th October, Henry Pert, gentleman, went out to play at Welbeck [Nottinghamshire] and drew his bow so fully with an arrow in it that he lodged the arrow in his bow. Afterwards, intending to make the arrow climb straight into the air, he shot the arrow from his bow while leaning slightly over the bow. Because his face was directly over the arrow as it climbed upwards it struck him over his left eyelid and into his head to the membrane of his brain. Thus the said arrow, worth one farthing, gave him a wound of which he immediately languished, and lay languishing until 12 pm on 29th October when he died, by misadventure.

In The Romance of Archery, historian Hugh D.H. Soar adds, “The coroner was sufficiently curious about this circumstance to take matters a little further. He inquired how this accident could happen and was told by knowledgeable colleagues that the unfortunate Henry was notable for using too short an arrow and regularly drawing it inside his bow.”

Happy Landings

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On Sept. 13, 1962, test pilot Bob Sowray told his neighbor, photographer Jim Meads, that he’d be flying an English Electric Lightning F1 jet bomber that day, so Meads brought his camera along when he took his kids for a walk, hoping to photograph the return approach. He found a good position on the runway overshoot and waited for the plane to arrive.

In the end it was pilot George Aird who was assigned to fly the Lightning, and as he approached the airfield a fire in the rear fuselage destroyed the tailplane control system at a height of only 100 feet.

Landscaping assistant Mick Sutterby was just telling Meads that the airfield runway was off limits when beyond him Meads saw the Lightning’s nose pitch up and Aird eject. He had just enough time to line up the shot and snap the shutter before the jet came down nose first.

Aird and his ejection seat crashed through the glass roof of a nearby greenhouse, where they landed in adjacent rows of tomatoes. Aird said later that when the water from the sprinkler system roused him, he thought he must be in heaven. He had broken both legs, but he was flying again in six months.

The Daily Mail rejected Meads’ photo as fake, but the Daily Mirror paid him £1,000 for it. It appeared in the center spread on Oct. 9, 1962.

More details at Fear of Landing.

Losing Time

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There is no December 30, 2011, in the history of Samoa. The island nation requested that at the end of the year the international date line be redrawn to pass east of it rather than west, so that it could share the same time zone as Australia and New Zealand, now major trade partners. As a result, it jumped directly from December 29 to December 31.

Under the old arrangement, “In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we’re losing out on two working days a week,” explained prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. “While it’s Friday here, it’s Saturday in New Zealand, and when we’re at church on Sunday, they’re already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane.”

The move means Samoa can no longer promote itself as the last place on Earth to see each day’s sunset, but there’s a compensating bonus: Since nearby American Samoa remains on the eastern side of the line, “You can have two birthdays, two weddings, and two wedding anniversaries on the same date — on separate days — in less than an hour’s flight across [the ocean], without leaving the Samoan chain.”

Everything evens out cosmically anyway — Samoa had crossed the line in the other direction in 1892 to promote trade with the United States, and in that year it celebrated the occasion by marking the same day twice: July 4, America’s Independence Day.

Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States

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In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

See full show notes …

Memorial

Balloonist Andy Collett was floating over South Gloucestershire in July 2012 when he spotted something striking: a heart-shaped meadow in the center of a stand of oaks. “This was the most amazing sight I have ever seen from the sky,” he told the Telegraph. “It was a perfect heart hidden away from view — you would not know it was there.”

It turned out that 70-year-old Winston Howes had planted the wood to commemorate his 33-year marriage to his wife, Janet, who had died 17 years earlier of heart disease. In the months after her death he filled a six-acre field with thousands of oak saplings but left a heart-shaped clearing in the center, its point aimed at her childhood home.

“I came up with the idea of creating a heart in the clearing of the field after Janet died,” Howes said. “Once it was completed we put a seat in the field, overlooking the hill near where she used to live. I sometimes go down there, just to sit and think about things. It is a lovely and lasting tribute to her which will be here for years.”

The clearing was not visible from the road and remained a family secret until Collett spotted it. “You can just imagine the love story,” he said.

Triangle

When blues singer Sally Osman filed for divorce from ventriloquist Herbert Dexter in 1934, she named his dummy, Charlie, as a co-respondent.

When she and Dexter had married two years earlier, she agreed that Dexter could take the puppet along on their honeymoon, as he had often complimented her through Charlie’s voice. But when they developed a new stage act, the dummy began to interrupt her songs with cruel ad libs and rob her of applause by making rude wisecracks. She asked Dexter to change the act so that she could sing without interruption, but he refused.

In I Can See Your Lips Moving, Valentine Vox writes, “She also accused the duo of physical cruelty, telling the court how she constantly received on-stage blows from the mechanical figure, which left her with severe bruises. One night in particular, Charlie had hit her so hard between the shoulder blades that he knocked the wind out of her.”

Osman further testified that Dexter would take the dummy everywhere they went and spent more time talking to it than to her. “I got to hate Charlie so deeply that homicidal thoughts began to haunt my mind,” she said. “Sometimes when I had Charlie alone and helpless, I fear that I would have thrown him out of the window, had I been able to unlock the coffin-like trunk in which he was kept.”

Dexter never contested the case, and Osman got her divorce. When the judge asked why she hadn’t requested alimony, she said, “I wouldn’t be able to collect it anyway; he spends all his money on Charlie.”

Ends and Means

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Image: Flickr

“I find to my delight that I can make my dog happy by wagging its tail for it.” — Reveille, letter to the editor, quoted in Michael Bateman, ed., This England, 1969

Wakeful Watchers

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas is a floating garden festooned with dolls — the story goes that a local man discovered a drowned girl, hung her doll from a tree as a gesture of remembrance, and was haunted by her spirit ever after, no matter how many dolls he hung. Today, inevitably, it’s a tourist attraction, but it’s still effective — photographer Cindy Vasko called it the creepiest place she’s ever visited.

Below: As her village has dwindled from 300 residents to 30, Japanese artist Ayano Tsukimi has been replacing them with dolls, life-sized figures made of cloth and stuffed with cotton and newspapers. The first was intended to be a scarecrow, but because it resembled her father she found that her neighbors interacted with it. In the ensuing 10 years she’s made hundreds.

“Every morning, I just greet them,” she told NPR. “I say ‘good morning’ or ‘have a nice day!’ I never get a response, but that doesn’t make a difference. I go around talking to them anyway.”