When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

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Warriors In Tights

1994: During the prolonged conflicts in Chechnya, Russian soldiers believed implicitly that their Chechen adversaries were receiving assistance from an unlikely quarter: snipers from the newly independent Baltic states. Female snipers. The women, motivated by love of money and hatred of Russians, were alleged to be members of a biathlon team and could be identified by the white tights they wore.

Source: Questions de Recherche, March 2011

Cool Chronicles

1993: The Black Bible Chronicles translated the scriptures into the language of contemporary black America. “You shouldn’t diss the Almighty’s name,” because, “It ain’t cool and payback’s a monster.” That was the Commandment warning against taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Thou shalt not kill,” became, in the idiom of Detroit and Harlem, “Don’t waste nobody,” and, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” became, “Don’t mess around with someone else’s ol’ man or ol’ lady.”

Source: P.K. McCary, Black Bible Chronicles: Book One: From Genesis to the Promised Land (1993)

Snakes And Ladders

Václav Havel, photographed by Jiří Jiroutek

1990: Caught up in the snakes-and-ladders existence of the East European political dissident, the playwright Václav Havel began 1989 with a prison sentence and ended the year as president of Czechoslovakia. Asked a few months later how he felt to be propelled from prisoner of the state to head of state, Havel said: “If that door over there opened and they came to take me away I would not be at all surprised.”

Source: Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life (2014), p. 379

Difficult To Sleep

1989: Where would you hear “The Electric Spanking of War Babies”, by Funkadelic, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, and “Heaven’s on Fire”, by Kiss, played at maximum volume, 24 hours a day? At the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City.

When the deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega fled to the safety of the Apostolic Nunciature, American forces brought in loudspeakers and bombarded him and the hapless papal nuncio with non-stop hard rock and heavy metal.

Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 126

Reckless Driving

1988: The tradition whereby the victor in French presidential elections granted an amnesty for recent traffic offences led inadvertently to motorists driving with particular abandon in the months immediately before voting. Greater recklessness meant more road accidents; more road accidents meant more casualties. This was particularly noticeable before the presidential election of April and May 1988. In the last seven months of 1987 and 1988 the number of deaths on France’s roads were almost identical – 6,436 and 6,400 – but the figures for the first five months of each year were 3,425 and 4,077 – an increase of 652 deaths, almost one-fifth, during election year.

Source: Claude Got, La Violence Routière: Les Mensonges Qui Tuent (2008), pp. 57–64

Propitious Moment For Signing

Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan sign a missile treaty in the East Room of the White House on 8 December 1987

1987: The high point of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Washington was the signing, with his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, of a treaty on intermediate-range missiles. The ceremony took place on 8 December, at quarter to two in the afternoon. The White House was strangely insistent about the timing; it transpired that a Californian astrologer had advised Nancy Reagan (star sign Cancer) of the precise time that her husband (Aquarius) and Gorbachev (Pisces) should sign the agreement.

Source: Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (1995), p. 498

Almost Unbeatable

1986: Between 1980 and his retirement from the sport in 1993, Jahangir Khan dominated squash. The Pakistani player won approximately 825 professional matches and lost 29; he won the British Open 10 times and the World Open six times. His defeat in the final of the World Open in November 1986 was the first time he had lost a match for 5½ years.

Source: Rod Gilmour and Alan Thatcher, Jahangir Khan 555: The Untold Story behind Squash’s Invincible Champion and Sport’s Greatest Unbeaten Run (2016), chap. 9

Nasty New Meaning

1985: In South African townships, the word “necklace” took on a nasty new meaning. No longer referring exclusively to an item of women’s jewellery, from 1985 onwards it also began to mean a rubber tyre forced over the head and shoulders of a collaborator, an informer or a policeman, doused in petrol, and set on fire, resulting in a slow and painful death.

Source: Violence in South Africa: A Variety of Perspectives, ed. Elirea Bornman, René van Eeden and Marie Wentzel (1998), chap. 6

Instead Of A Tip

1984: Phyllis Penzo had worked at Sal’s Pizzeria, in the Yonkers suburb of New York, for 24 years. Since the late 1970s, police detective Robert Cunningham had been a regular customer. They were good friends.

One night, after his usual meal of linguine with clam sauce, Cunningham got Penzo to help him pick the numbers for a $1 state lottery ticket. Instead of tipping the waitress, Cunningham promised her half the prize money if they won.

When the lottery was drawn on 31 March, theirs were the only winning numbers: 7, 9, 21, 28, 29 and 43, with 35 as a supplementary number.

Penzo’s “tip” turned out to be worth $3 million.

Source: The New York Times, 3 April 1984

No Exceptions

American writer William Saroyan

1981: Despite doubting the veracity of “last sayings”, which he regarded as mostly “inventions of the survivors, members of the family, exploiters of truth and falsity”, the American author William Saroyan offered his own contribution shortly before prostate cancer killed him: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

Source: Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography (1984), p. 307

Claim To Fame

1978: The popularity of the Golden Gate Bridge with would-be suicides has been attributed to the bridge’s fame, to copycat behaviour, to the likelihood that a leap from the bridge will be fatal (very few people survive the impact with the water far below), and to the ease with which those intent on suicide can get over the bridge’s guard rails (which are little more than waist-high).

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Space Ambitions

1977: President Mobutu Sésé Seko intended that the launch, on 17 May, of a rocket from Shaba province, in eastern Zaïre, would set the country on course to join the select club of space nations. The rocket, designed and built by the West German company OTRAG as an inexpensive alternative to NASA and European Space Agency rockets, reached an altitude of 20 kilometres. But any hopes that Shaba would become the Cape Canaveral of Africa, putting satellites into orbit at cut-rate prices, received a severe setback a year later, when another rocket crashed immediately after takeoff, directly in front of the country’s watching president.

Source: David van Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People (2014), pp. 365–7, 369–70

Greater Gravitas

1975: Margaret Thatcher worked hard to improve her public speaking skills. Analysis of recordings showed that over a decade she succeeded in lowering the pitch of her voice by about 60 hertz, which made her sound more assertive, gave her more gravitas. She had less success with the tone of her voice. Even at the end of her political career it still sounded (to use Clive James’s description) like a “condescending explanatory whine” that treated the person on the receiving end as if they were “an eight-year-old child with personality deficiencies”.

Source: Anne Karpf, The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent (2006), pp. 226–9

Tom Swift And Taser

1974: Inventor Jack Cover secured a patent for a “weapon for subduing and constraining” that consisted of a projectile “connected by means of a relatively fine, conductive wire to a launcher which contains an electrical power supply”. Cover called his stun gun a Taser, an acronym he derived from one of his favourite childhood books, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

Source: Los Angeles Times, 13 February 2009

Gusty In Greenland

1972: A storm that battered the Thule area of Greenland on 8 and 9 March produced winds gusting to 333 km/h, which broke both the meteorological record for peak wind speed at low altitude and the anemometer measuring them.

Source: www.557weatherwing.af.mil/
News/Features/Display/Article/
872212/two-of-thules-extreme-storms/