Today in History: May 25

Today is Towel Day.

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May 25, 1986, was a Sunday. For those of us in America, the day offered a New Yorker the chance to join hands with someone who was holding hands with someone who was holding hands with someone … all the way to the Pacific Ocean (or for a Californian, vice versa, to the Atlantic). It was Hands Across America Day, and Hands Across America was a one-time-only fundraiser for the USA for Africa charity.

Perhaps it is easy to forget that Hands Across America truly happened, that six million individuals actually paid money to reserve spots, which was how the charity raised money. The name itself sounded too much like a punchline awaiting a setup, and the event’s idea sounded forced. One can not predict that an event will be memorable or not. One can not sell that future memorability as a reason to pay money to participate.

As “Do Good/Feel Good” activities go, it may have inadvertently emphasized the “feel good” side of the equation over the “do good,” but 30 years ago today, a line of Americans six million long was indeed assembled and that line did indeed raise an estimated (and estimable!) $34 million to fight hunger and homelessness in America.

If you owned a television set that year, and if it was turned on for even just two minutes during the spring of 1986, it probably showed part of this music video (below the jump):

(Once upon a time, Susan Anton was as famous as Jeff Bridges.) The ad made it look as if there were enough celebrities to form the line across America, which may have been part of why the event was ridiculed by late-night comedians.

Ultimately, it was a success in that the line across the continent actually happened and money was raised, and that is what counts. To the organization’s great credit, the website created to mark today’s 30th anniversary has a section titled, “Hunger & Homelessness Today,” in which it reminds us that the event did not end hunger or homelessness, and it offers links to charities helping the hungry and homeless.

On a personal note, I do not remember whether I participated or not. No one I have met in the years since has told me that they did.

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I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.—President John F. Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961

President John F. Kennedy had already delivered his first State of the Union address of his presidency in January 1961, shortly after he was sworn in. Within months of taking office, though, his administration realized it needed him to speak once again with the entire Congress and the American people about several topics: Cuba, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, disarmament, the Space Race. He spoke to a joint session of Congress 55 years ago tonight.

The Space Race came last, but it may have been first on his mind: on April 12, the USSR had successfully orbited a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, and Gagarin was suddenly an international hero. The United States had not yet sent a man into orbit. Kennedy tasked his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, with assessing America’s space program. Johnson, a Texan who supported NASA, which was partly based in Houston, Texas, reported back that NASA thought America could achieve a Moon landing by 1970.

And so 55 years ago today, President Kennedy, who had considered NASA a boondoggle while he was a senator and supported ending the space program, laid out a challenge by which he is still remembered: to land a man on the Moon before 1970. A newsreel from the time:

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Mickey Mouse’s friend, Goofy, is 84 today. The character made its first appearance, as Dippy Dawg, in Mickey’s Revue, a short released on May 25, 1932. The film:

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A film, Star Wars, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, opened in theaters 39 years ago today.

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The final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired five years ago today.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 on this date. Theodore Roethke was born on this date in 1908. Lindsey Nelson was born in 1919 on this date. Robert Ludlum was born on this date in 1927. Raymond Carver was born 77 years ago today.

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Sir Ian McKellen is 77 today. Leslie Uggams is 73. Frank Oz is 72. Jamaica Kincaid is 67. Eve Ensler is 63. Connie Sellecca is 61. Paul Weller is 58 today. Mike Myers is 53. Poppy Z. Brite is 49. Demetri Martin is 43. Molly Sims is 43.

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One comment

  1. Lola · May 25, 2016

    Wow – a blast from the past! Thanks again, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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