Just in Case

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1950s the U.S. government built a bunker under the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to “permit the continuation of the American form of constitutional government in the event of nuclear war.” The underground facility could house 535 members of Congress and 565 staff members, with separate chambers for the House and Senate and a hall large enough to hold joint sessions.

No one involved in the construction was told what they were building, but it was clear enough. Randy Wickline, who hauled 50,000 tons of concrete to the site, saw walls two feet thick and a concrete roof buried under 20 feet of soil. “Nobody came out and said it was a bomb shelter,” he told Washington Post reporter Ted Gup, “but you could pretty well look and see the way they was setting it up there that they wasn’t building it to keep the rain off of them.” (Another contractor, who’d been asked to build an “exhibit hall,” said, “We’ve got 110 urinals we just installed. What in the hell are you going to exhibit?”)

In the end members of Congress themselves expressed reservations. House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill said, “Jesus, you don’t think I’m going to run away and leave my wife? That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.” Shortly after Gup’s story appeared in 1992, the facility was closed.

(From Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture, 2001.)

Podcast Episode 262: A Modern-Day Thoreau

https://www.nps.gov/lacl/learn/historyculture/proennekes-cabin.htm

In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear Proenneke’s reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature.

We’ll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase.

See full show notes …

Inhuman Comedy

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The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,– the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man as ‘an animal which laughs.’ They might equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to.

— Henri Bergson, Laughter, 1911

In and Out

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The briefest interview I’ve ever conducted was with Renato Dulbecco, who has since shared in a Nobel Prize for work in animal-cell culture and tumor viruses. Through his secretary, we had made an appointment. When I reached his office, he ushered me in, closed the door, sat down at his desk — and said that he was not going to talk to me. Startled, but respecting him at least for not having imposed on his secretary the task of rejection, I said something about the importance of getting scientific work across to the general public. Dulbecco replied, ‘We don’t do science for the general public. We do it for each other. Good day.’

— Horace Freeland Judson, “Reweaving the Web of Discovery,” The Sciences, November/December 1983

(“I thanked him for the interview and left, promising myself to use it someday. He was correct, of course, though unusually candid.”)

The Warwick Lion Fight

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In 1825, impresario George Wombwell sponsored a fight between six bulldogs and a lion from his menagerie in the English market town of Warwick. Five hundred people assembled in a disused factory yard, and Wombwell arranged for the dogs to attack Nero three at a time, ignoring the pleas of a Quaker named Samuel Hoare, who asked “how thou wilt feel to see the noble animal thou hast so long protected, and which has been in part the means of supplying thee with the means of life, mangled and bleeding before thee?” The lion seemed indisposed to use its full strength against the first three dogs, swatting them away with his paws but never biting. After a 20-minute respite, Wombwell set the next three dogs upon him, and they pinned him to the floor. When a third round brought the same result, Wombwell conceded defeat for the lion, afraid that “the death of the animal must be the consequence of further punishment.”

In a second contest less than a week later, though, a Scottish-born lion known as Wallace fought back ferociously, holding one dog in his teeth and “deliberately walk[ing] around the stage with him as a cat would a mouse.” A second dog “died just a few seconds after he was taken out of the cage,” and a third remained in Wallace’s jaws until a keeper “threw a piece of raw flesh into the den.” A fourth was left in critical condition with “several of his ribs broken.”

The spectacle was widely condemned in the press and informed a new sensitivity regarding cruelty to animals. In 1838 one commentator remarked, “what dogs and lions can achieve in the arena of combat … having now been ascertained, let us hope that no closer approximation to the sanguinary games of the Roman amphitheatre may ever be attempted in Great Britain, nor her soil again polluted by a repetition of such spectacles.”

(Helen Cowie, “A Disgusting Exhibition of Brutality,” in Sarah Cockram and Andrew Wells, eds., Interspecies Interactions, 2018.)

In the Pink

It is not every maiden, in these prosaic days, who can summon the ‘tell-tale blood’ to her cheeks at will, or silently reveal by an opportune roseate flush, those inward feelings to which many young ladies experience such difficulty in giving verbal expression. But as the value of the blush, as a highly effective weapon in the feminine armory, is still universally recognized by the sex, although it would appear to have somewhat fallen into desuetude, French ingenuity has been at the pains of devising a mechanical appliance for the instantaneous production of a fine natural glow upon the cheek of beauty, no matter how constitutionally lymphatic or philosophically unemotional its proprietress may be. This thoughtful contrivance is called ‘The Ladies’ Blushing Bonnet,’ to the side ribbons of which — those usually tied under the fair wearer’s chin — are attached two tiny but powerful steel springs, ending in round pads, which are brought to bear upon the temporal arteries by the action of bowing the head, one exquisitely appropriate to modest embarrassment, and by artificially forcing blood into the cheeks cause them to be suffused with ‘the crimson hue of shame’ at a moment’s notice. Should these ingenious head coverings become the fashion among girls of the period, it will behoove ‘young men about to marry’ to take a sly peep behind the bonnet-strings of their blushing charmers immediately after proposing, in order to satisfy themselves that the heightened color, by them interpreted as an involuntary admission of reciprocated affection, is not due to the agency of a carefully adjusted ‘blushing bonnet.’

London Telegraph, via Robinson [Ill.] Constitution, Dec. 1, 1880

The Bridegroom’s Oak

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In 1890, a Leipzig chocolate maker named Wilhelm fell in love with a girl named Minna. Her father disapproved of the match, so the two exchanged letters by leaving them in the trunk of an oak tree in the Dodauer forest. Minna’s father eventually relented, and the two were wed under the tree in 1891.

Since then the hole has become a public letter box for people seeking romantic partners. Anyone can send a letter to be delivered to the tree, and anyone can read, take, and answer any letter. At least five, and reportedly more than 100, marriages have been brought about in this way.

“There’s something so magical and romantic about it,” ex-postman Karl-Heinz Martens told the BBC in 2018. “On the internet, facts and questions match people, but at the tree, it’s a beautiful coincidence — like fate.” Here’s the address:

Bräutigamseiche
Dodauer Forst
23701 Eutin
Germany

Good luck!

Podcast Episode 259: The Astor Place Riot

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The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, “one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history.”

We’ll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs.

See full show notes …

Also-Rans

Japanese racehorse Haru Urara became “the shining star of losers everywhere” when she racked up a record of 0 wins and 113 losses in the early 2000s. In the face of a national recession, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “The horse is a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat.” For the horse’s 106th race, Japan’s premier jockey, Yutaka Take, was brought in to ride her. She placed 10th out of 11.

British Thoroughbred Quixall Crossett ran to 103 consecutive defeats in the 1990s. Assistant trainer Geoff Sanderson said, “He got the most tremendous cheer you’ve ever heard on a race course. … The horse doesn’t know he gets beat because he gets a bigger cheer than the winner.”

American Thoroughbred Zippy Chippy retired in 2010 with a lifetime record of 0 wins in 100 starts, though he did once outrun a minor league baseball player. Racing historian Tom Gilcoyne said the horse “hasn’t done anything to harm the sport. But it’s a little bit like looking at the recorded performances of all horse races through the wrong end of the telescope.”

In Common

In his 1991 book Human Universals, American anthropologist Donald Brown listed “features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”:

  • fear of death
  • tickling
  • baby talk
  • territoriality
  • rites of passage
  • hairstyles
  • belief in supernatural
  • dance
  • containers
  • jokes
  • shame
  • turn-taking
  • weapons
  • myths
  • musical variation

The whole list is here. “We can look forward to the time when a great many cultural features are traced beyond the time and place of their invention to the specific features of human nature that gave rise to them,” he wrote. “The study of human universals will be an important component of that task.”

(Donald E. Brown, “Human Universals, Human Nature & Human Culture,” Daedalus 133:4 [Fall 2004], 47-54.)