Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Review - Bad Days In History

When it was commissioned on September 27, 1942, no one could know that the USS William D. Porter would almost be involved in one of the most colossal screw-ups of the 20thcentury. A little over fourteen months after it was launched, the Porter was charged with protecting the USS Iowa as it took President Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic Ocean for a meeting in Tehran, Iran with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, when a tragedy almost struck that would have changed the course of modern history. The Porteraccidentally released one of its torpedoes, setting it on a collision course with Roosevelt’s vessel. Because ships were directed to maintain radio silence to avoid German U-boats, an attempt was made to warn the Iowa using a signal lamp, but the first attempt erroneously reported the direction of the torpedo and the second signal sent the wrong message. With literally moments to spare, the Porter broke radio silence, giving the Iowa just enough time to maneuver out of the way of the torpedo (which Roosevelt had been observing from the main deck), which exploded 3,000 yards away.

Stories like these are often relegated to the dustbin of history, but author Michael Farquhar has resurrected this and 364 (or so) other tales for his book, Bad Days in History, A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem and Misery for Every Day of the Year. Unlike Roosevelt’s near miss, far more of history’s worst days did not end so luckily. Indeed, anything from the Middle Ages through oh, about the mid-19th century has a cruelty and blood lust to it that would not be out of place on Game of Thrones. Take December 6, 1741, the infant Russian king Ivan VI was kidnapped from his crib by his cousin Elizabeth (nice, right?) and some palace guards in a bloodless coup. After that, he was basically kept in total isolation for his entire life, devoid of love, affection, or any connection to the outside world save the guards directed to keep a close eye on him. Not horrible enough? Check out March 21st, clocking in with six separate atrocities, from the slaughter of Jews in the German town of Erfurt (1349), to an Archbishop being burned at the stake by Queen Mary I (1556), the opening of the first death camp by the Nazis (1933), and the murder of 69 people in Apartheid-era South Africa (1960). Grim indeed.

Of course, not every day had something so horrific happen. The best Farquhar could come up with for December 30th was the firing of Mike Shanahan by the Washington Redskins. Similarly, few tears will be shed for Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino mogul who, on September 30th, 2006, put his elbow through a $130 million Picasso, especially since he sued his insurer to repair the masterpiece and then sold it for $155 million to a hedge fund billionaire.

What I found most interesting was not the mayhem but the misfortune. Take Siegfried Esajas for example. He was the first Olympic athlete from the country of Suriname, but when he showed up for what he thought was a qualifying race at the Rome Olympics on the afternoon of September 2nd, 1960, he was told the heat had taken place that morning. Ejasas became a laughingstock for oversleeping and it was not until 2 weeks before his death in 2005 that Suriname’s Olympic Committee completed an investigation and determined that Ejasas had been given the wrong start time. In addition to a letter of apology and a plaque, Ejasas got something more important back – his dignity.

Another tale worthy of its own novel is that of Anna Jarvis, the woman who is credited with coming up with the idea for Mother’s Day. On May 9th, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a joint resolution of Congress establishing Mother’s Day, which should have been a signal event in Jarvis’s life. Instead, the commercialization of Mother’s Day (including the popularity of carnations, Mother Jarvis’s favorite flower) steadily made Anna Jarvis unhinged to the point that she lived out her final days in a sanitarium.

And so it goes, from January 1st (Louis XII’s expiration in 1514) to December 31st (a 1926 announcement by the government that they were going to increase the amount of toxin they put into industrial alcohol to cut down on bootlegging during Prohibition). Bad Days is not a particularly heavy read and because each entry is no longer than a couple of pages the chapters do fly by. This book makes for ideal vacation reading or if you are just sitting around the house and want to learn a little bit about world history one day at a time.

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