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Category archive: 1980s

No More Peace And Quiet For Berlin Bunnies

The Berlin Wall, looking east at Potzdamer Platz, photographed in November 1975 by Edward Valachovic

1989: Spare a thought for Berlin’s bunnies. For 28 years they flourished in the “death zone” on the East German side of the Berlin Wall. Hopping about, nibbling grass, relaxing in the sun. No speeding cars, no farmers with shotguns, no farmers’ dogs. Until November, when hordes of noisy humans came stomping through rabbit heaven.

Source: The New York Times, 24 November 1989

Digestive Difficulties

1987: Japan’s former agriculture minister Hata Tsutomu told a luncheon on Capitol Hill that the United States should not expect his country to suddenly step up imports of American beef.

Hata cited as “fact” that Japanese people find it more difficult to digest beef as they have longer intestines than Americans. Centuries of eating a diet heavily reliant on grains had lengthened Japanese digestive tracts, Hata claimed; consequently any beef consumed would remain in the intestines longer and be more likely to spoil.

Source: www.apnewsarchive.com/1987/
Stepped-Up-Beef-Imports-Can-t-
Stomach-It-Says-Japanese/id-
8fff51f61de3400636ec9af70a2680d8

Knock-On Effect

White stork, photographed by Dick Daniels

1986: The meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, released a cloud of radioactivity that affected not only the nearby human population, but also, indirectly, the stork population. Storks hunted for beetles, grasshoppers, frogs and other small prey in cultivated fields and meadows. When the Soviet authorities ordered the evacuation of residents from a wide area around the power plant, the abandoned fields and meadows became overgrown with tall grass, bushes and saplings. These made it difficult for the storks to forage for food, which in turn led to a decline in their numbers.

Source: Bird Census News (2000)

Breaking The Habit

1985: Photographs of the young Fidel Castro showed him, more often than not, with a haze of cigar smoke wafting round his head from the Cohíba between his fingers. The Cuban leader stopped smoking in 1985, 44 years after he started.

Source: Volker Skierka, Fidel Castro: A Biography (2004), pp. 239–40

Nine Lives

1984: Over a five-month period, the Animal Medical Center in New York dealt with 132 cats that had fallen from the city’s windows and roofs.

Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff, who gathered and analyzed data from the clinic, found that the shortest fall was two stories, the average fall 5.5 stories and the longest fall 32 stories. Four of the cats had fallen previously; two cats fell together. Most of the cats fell directly on to concrete but, despite this, 44 of them didn’t need treatment. One-tenth of the cats that did require treatment died, but nine-tenths survived. Treatment was mainly for respiratory problems, facial wounds and bone fractures.

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Nuclear Annihilation Averted

1983: American President Ronald Reagan didn’t mince his words. The previous year, he had predicted that the West would consign Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. In March 1983, he labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire”.

Also in March, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In April, the United States Navy conducted a large fleet exercise in the northern Pacific. An important NATO exercise was planned for Europe in November, around the same time that Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were to be deployed in West Germany.

Viewed from Moscow, all this bellicose rhetoric and activity was highly alarming. Was it the prelude to a sneak attack on the Soviet Union?

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“Yellow Rain”

1981: Alexander Haig announced that the United States was in possession of “physical evidence” that the Soviet Union was supplying its Southeast Asian allies with biological warfare agents for military use against their opponents. According to the Secretary of State, the Soviet Union was providing Laos and Vietnam with mycotoxins – poisonous compounds synthesized by fungi.

The “physical evidence”? Hmong villagers, refugees from fighting in Laos, had seen low-flying aircraft spraying what the Hmong called “yellow rain”, an oily liquid that left a residue of yellow spots on leaves, rocks and rooftops. Villagers caught in these chemical showers exhibited symptoms that included blurred vision, breathing difficulties and skin burns. Between 10 and 20 per cent of victims died.

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Kaboom!

1989: Spooked by the downfall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet officials at the KGB office in Dresden desperately destroyed records of agents and operations. They burned so many files, recalled one member of staff, Vladimir Putin, that “the furnace burst”.

Source: Vladimir Putin with Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (2000), p. 76

We’re Watching You

1988: The Stasi employed a work force of 102,000 to monitor a population of 17 million: one secret policeman for every 166 East Germans, compared with one Gestapo official for every 2000 citizens under the Third Reich and one KGB agent for every 5830 people in the Soviet Union. In addition, the Stasi had at least 174,000 regular informers among the population, 10,000 of whom were under the age of 18. There was one Stasi employee or regular informer for every 66 people; if part-time informers were included, the ratio of agents and informers to citizens may have been one to 6.5.

Source: John O. Koehler, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (1999), pp. 8–9

Billions And Billions

1987: The United Nations designated 11 July as the day on which the world’s population would exceed 5 billion. It was impossible, of course, to pinpoint the date – the Day of 5 Billion was largely symbolic. More credibly, though less precisely, population experts estimated that the number of human beings reached 2 billion sometime during 1927, 3 billion during 1960 and 4 billion in 1974.

Source: Geoffrey Gilbert, World Population: A Reference Handbook (2001), pp. 35–43

Fluent Cantonese

1986: Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents provided visitors to Hong Kong with the right phrases for unexpected situations:
“I forgot to wind up the doll.”
“A petty worker’s income is deplorable.”
“He was made so angry as to thump tables and throw bowls.”
“Many wizards hoodwink people all the time.”

Source: Zeng Zifan, Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents (1986), pp. 10, 54, 89, 119

Self-Loathing

Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, photographed in 1971 by Forrásjelölés Hasonló

1985: Petar Shapallo was a dentist from northern Albania who resembled the country’s Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha. After the secret police forced him to undergo plastic surgery, the likeness was even closer.

For years, Shapallo acted as the dictator’s double. He talked the way Hoxha talked, smiled the same reassuring smile, lost weight when Hoxha dieted, limped when Hoxha sprained his ankle.

When the Great Leader died, Shapallo lost his job. When communism collapsed, Shapallo was attacked by Albanians who feared he was the ghost of their despised leader. Shapallo loathed his appearance. When the torment became unbearable, he used a knife to gash and gouge his face.

Source: Lloyd Jones, Biografi: An Albanian Quest (1993), pp. 1–5

Deadly Witch-Hunts

1984: Between 1970 and 1984, police in 13 regions of mainland Tanzania recorded a total of 3,333 cases of witchcraft. This wasn’t harmless hocus-pocus: 1,407 men and 2,286 women suspected of being witches were murdered.

Source: Denise Roth Allen, Managing Motherhood, Managing Risk: Fertility and Danger in West Central Tanzania (2005), p. 249

Senior Comrades Drop Like Flies

Moscow by night, with Lenin’s mausoleum at the side of Red Square and the Kremlin behind, photographed by Andrew Shiva

1983: After years of arteriosclerosis, severe coronary disease, leukaemia and emphysema, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982 at the age of 75. Yuri Andropov was already seriously ill with chronic kidney disease and diabetes when he stepped into Brezhnev’s shoes, and died 15 months later. Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, suffered from emphysema, cirrhosis and hepatitis, and survived only 13 months in the top spot.

In the summer of 1983, and perhaps indicative of the doddery health of the Soviet leadership, an escalator was installed in the Kremlin to help ailing elderly comrades cope with the short climb to the platform on top of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square.

Source: Dmitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev (1998), pp. 371–2

Cactus Fights Back

Saguaro cactus, photographed in Arizona by Andrew Horne

1982: On 4 February, David Grundman drove out of Phoenix into the Arizona desert with one of his buddies, lots of beer and a shotgun. After a few drinks, Grundman began taking pot shots at saguaro cactuses. The smaller ones toppled over, but a big old saguaro stubbornly refused to fall. Grundman poked it with a stick. That dislodged an arm and then the whole cactus – more than a tonne in weight – wobbled and crashed down. Unfortunately for Grundman, it fell directly on its tormentor.

Source: Tom Miller, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen (2001), pp. 184–95

The End Was Nigh

1989: Whew! That was close! An asteroid measuring an estimated 300 metres across, travelling at 74,000 km/h, came within six hours of slamming into the Earth. The asteroid, named Asclepius, crossed Earth’s orbit and passed within 650,000 kilometres of the planet. A collision with an object of that size, moving at that speed, would have seriously rattled the crockery.

Source: Gerrit L. Verschuur, Impact!: The Threat of Comets and Asteroids (1996), p. 116

Smelly Armpits

1988: Geruchsproben, or smell samples, provided the German Democratic Republic’s secret police with a highly personal way of keeping tabs on citizens.

Based on a theory that everyone possessed a separate, identifiable odour and left traces of that odour on everything that he or she touched, the Stasi built up an extensive collection of smell samples.

Surreptitiously collected garments or pieces of fabric bearing individual odours could then be matched, using trained sniffer dogs, against smells found (for example) at the scene of an illegal meeting.

Source: Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall (2004), p. 8

Midair Emergency — We’re Out Of Fuel

Air Canada Boeing 767 on the ground at Gimli air force base after its unscheduled landing

1983: The “Gimli glider” was the nickname given to an Air Canada Boeing 767 that made a forced landing at Gimli, in Manitoba, after running out of fuel in midair.

On 23 July, halfway between Montreal and Edmonton, one of the engines of Flight 143 lost power, and shortly after, the other. The pilot put the airliner into a glide and headed for the disused air force base at Gimli.

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Burning Babies

1982: At the Barbir hospital in western Beirut, medical staff treated casualties from the Israeli Army bombardment of Palestinian camps. Some had been hit by phosphorus shells, including 12 members from the same family.

Two 5-day-old twins had already died, but when they were brought into the emergency room, they were still on fire. “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames,” Amal Shamaa said. “When I took them out half an hour later, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for several hours.”

Next morning, when Dr. Shamaa took the corpses out of the mortuary for burial, they again burst into flames.

Source: Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (1990), pp. 282–3

Omnivorous

1981: A survey of the feeding habits of London foxes found potato peelings in the stomachs of 8.4 per cent of them, birdseed in the stomachs of 1.9 per cent, cooked peas in 1.1 per cent and Chinese takeaways in 0.2 per cent. Nonfood items included rubber bands in 1.6 per cent, cigarette ends in 0.4 per cent and lollipop sticks and shoelaces in 0.2 per cent.

Source: Mammal Review, December 1981

Double Take

1980: The gold medals in the men’s coxless pairs rowing event at the Moscow Olympics were won by identical twins, likewise the silver medals. Bernd and Jörg Landvoigt of East Germany finished in first place, with Nikolai and Yuri Pimenov of the Soviet Union in second.

Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 19