Today in History: Dec. 4

In the photo at top, the smiling child has just met her father, who is waving to reporters. He is Terry Anderson, and in the photo he is in the middle of his first day free after 2454 days as a hostage held in Beirut, Lebanon, by Hezbollah. A bureau chief for the Associated Press in Beirut, Anderson was grabbed from the car he was driving, grabbed in front of his colleagues, and taken prisoner on March 4, 1985. His wife was pregnant when he was taken hostage.

Six and a half years later, 25 years ago today, Terry Anderson and his daughter met when his captors decided to free him. Until 2013, Anderson was the longest-held American hostage in any circumstance; on November 26, 2013, Robert Levinson, held by unknown parties in Iran, may have broken Anderson’s record, but Levinson was last verified alive in 2011. Anderson may still own the sad record.
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A Range of Emotions, All of Them Good

My girlfriend says it is like watching a kid in a candy store when we visit a book store. I suddenly appear to have multiple arms, like a Hindu deity, and my stride becomes a purposeful lurch.

Any purpose to my stride can be attributed to my knowing that she is not much of a fan of shopping at all, and less of a fan of browsing, of idling, of whiling away the hours, of fantasizing about future possessions, of wasting time! in a store whose shelves are taller than six feet and could crush us. I, on the other hand, experience a range of emotions, a panoply of feelings, all of them having to do with enjoying life, in a bookstore.
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Today in History: Dec. 3

NBC aired Elvis, a one-hour TV special starring Elvis Presley and his band on this date in 1968. In subsequent years, the show came to be known as Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special, and it was the biggest television hit in 1968.

Elvis, clad in a black leather jumpsuit, made the world notice something: that it missed having an Elvis Presley who performed live. For part of the show, Presley and his band performed in front of a small audience, which was seated around the stage, in NBC’s Burbank television studio in June 1968. It was his first live performance since 1961.

The rest of the show was bigger: choreographed with dancers and set changes, but the intimate show, with Elvis informally joking with the audience and band, is what is remembered.
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‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was honored today with a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. He died thirty-one years ago today. Larkin’s memorial sits between those of Anthony Trollope and Ted Hughes. Chaucer’s tomb sits nearby. Edward Lear’s memorial stone is immediately above Larkin’s.

I wrote the following essay in June:

* * * *
“I don’t know that I ever expected much of life,” Philip Larkin wrote to his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis in October 1979, “but it terrifies me to think it’s nearly over.” He had another six years of life left, but the emptiness of the end—”the total emptiness for ever,/The sure extinction that we travel to”—was much on his mind.

The poem from which those lines originate, “Aubade,” was published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Larkin had started it in 1974, worked at it that year, and then left it until 1977, when he finished it. “Death is the most important thing about life,” he wrote his companion, Monica Jones, when they were both still young.
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Today in History: Dec. 2

“To be a king is to inherit old ideas and genealogy. I don’t want to descend from anyone.”—Napoleon Bonaparte

On this date in 1804, Napoleon was crowned (or crowned himself) Emperor Napoleon 1 of France, because he did not want to be merely king.

The crown was one that had been designed for him, as the crown worn by the King of France was destroyed during the French Revolution. As Pope Pius VII brought it forward, he took the crown from the pope’s hands and placed it on his head himself, in order to forestall any potential papal claim over his throne. In November, French voters had approved Napoleon’s new constitution, which named him emperor, by a 99.93% to 0.07% margin.

Napoleon then crowned his wife, Joséphine, empress.
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Today in History: December 1

The Great Train Robbery, a film directed by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Studios, was first shown at Huber’s Museum in New York City in 1903 on this date. It is the first Western, the first action movie, the first fictional film to use on-location shooting. Made on a budget of about $150, it earned that back and more for Edison, and it rapidly became an international success: the first action movie blockbuster.

Legend has it that at the last sequence, a frame of which is seen at top, in which actor Justus Barnes takes aim at the camera and fires point blank, audience members dove for cover. Nothing that “real” had yet been seen on screen, and audiences had no training in how to watch a film. As legends go, it makes its point, but it most likely never happened: no contemporary accounts describe audiences in panic.
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Today in History; Nov. 30

Every minute on the minute, twenty-four hours a day, every day, a chime is heard and an unidentified male voice announces the time. This is the bulk of a day’s programming for radio station WWV, which operates on five radio bands: 2.5, 5, 10, 15 and 20 MHz. A ticking sound is also heard throughout the day; this sound is an audio version of a clock’s second hand. This audio clock is calibrated to the U.S. government’s atomic clocks so that anyone tuning in to WWV can set their own clocks by the radio broadcast.

WWV is the oldest continuously operated radio station in the United States; it was launched in May 1920. Its operations are a part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the branch of our government that measures things. Until 50 years ago today, the radio station and transmitter were headquartered in Maryland, but at precisely midnight December 1, 1966, WWV switched its broadcast to a new transmitter in Fort Collins, Colorado, a location that every device in America that sets its own time knows intimately. This new location brought the station transmitter so much closer to our nation’s atomic oscillators that its time measurements and announcements were brought ten times closer to true time.
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Century’s End

Every person who is not Emma Morano (pictured above) of Verbania, Italy, was born after January 1, 1900. Ms. Morano was born on November 29, 1899, a mere 117 years ago today, and she is the oldest person alive on the planet now and is also the last human being who was here the century before last. The 19th Century still walks among us.

In the United States, the last living connection with 19th Century was severed last May with the death of Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York, who was born on July 6, 1899. She held the title of oldest person in the world from June 2015 until this May. Every person alive in America right now was born after the dawn of the 20th Century or in this current one.
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