Today in History: Memorial Day

In America, today is Memorial Day. It is a day of remembrance for those Americans who died in war. There is a long history behind this day, which was first named “Decoration Day,” as those in mourning for dead relatives would decorate the graves of the dead soldiers. It dates from shortly after the Civil War. Memorial Day is a commemoration, not celebration, as this is not a day for celebrating.

The commemoration that this day represents is an acknowledgment that soldiers are sent to fight and many die. War is a saddening, maddening fact of life, whether or not it ought to be.

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On this date in 1911, the first edition of The Indianapolis 500 was run. Ray Harroun won (photo at top), in a controversial fashion, as he was the only driver to not have a passenger with him. (What?!?—needle scratches across record.)

All the other cars had a “mechanician” (the word used at the time) standing on the car’s side running board throughout the running of the race. The mechanician acted as a rear-view spotter and an on-the-spot tire-changer and mechanic. The driver and the mechanician made up a two-man, always-at-the-ready, pit crew.

Harroun was different. He was not the first person to think up the idea of a rear-view mirror, but he may have been the first to develop a mounting to actually install one. He was the first to use one in so prominent a venue as a race that had been advertised internationally among the incipient racing fraternity. He later said that the mounted mirror bounced so much on the brick track that it was useless, but the fact of its use did reduce his car’s weight by one entire person compared to the other cars.

Harroun won the race with an average speed of 74 MPH. (It took almost seven hours to run the 500 miles.) He had come out of retirement to compete in the event and he re-retired after. He never raced again and died in 1968, the year of the 52nd running of the race. Yesterday was the 100th running of the famous race.

A newsreel about the first Indianapolis 500:

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Sun Ra left this planet on this date in 1993.

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Mel Blanc was born on this date in 1908. Benny Goodman was born on this date in 1909.

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Pauline Oliveros is 84. Keir Dullea is 80. Michael J. Pollard is 77. Gale Sayers is 73. P. J. Carlesimo is 67. Stephen Tobolowsky is 65. Ted McGinley is 58. Wynonna Judd is 52. Tom Morello is 52. Stephen Malkmus is 50. Idina Menzel is 45. Manny Ramirez is 44. CeeLo Green is 41.

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Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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