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On This Day: March 16

The Chinese were the first to develop military rockets with gunpowder way back in the 13th century, but it was an American who made man’s dream of travelling into space possible by launching the very first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926.  Inspired by H.G. Well’s science fiction classic War of the Worlds as a young man, Robert H. Goddard began applying his knowledge of physics and mathematics to work out the best kind of fuel to get humans into space.  Unfortunately, most people thought he was crazy, even after he had successfully proven that rockets could move in the airless vacuum of space.  In 1920, The New York Times went so far as to accuse him of being dumber than a high school student (an editorial that was officially corrected forty-nine years later, just before the first Apollo mission was launched).  Nonetheless, Goddard ignored his critics and soldiered on, continuing to experiment and test different kinds of rockets up until his death in 1945.  Sadly, he never lived to see man walk on the moon, but none of it would have been possible without Goddard’s genius and tireless perseverance.

On This Day: March 17

Saint Patrick, originally Maewyn Succat, was born in Britannia during the twilight years of the Roman Empire.  He was captured by Irish raiders when he was 16 and worked as a slave for six years before managing to escape.  Incredibly, however, he willingly returned to Ireland in 432, believing that he had been called by God to christianize the pagans there, and, by his death in 461, almost the entire island had been converted.  Today, he is honored as the patron saint of Ireland and a potent symbol of all things Irish.  The day of his death, March 17, is celebrated all over the world.  In the United States, we say that everyone is Irish on this day.  Who doesn’t love a pint of green beer?  If you don’t wear the color green, don’t be surprised if someone pinches you!  Parades are also very popular.  The first ever St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in modern-day St. Augustine, Florida, under the direction of the Spanish colony’s Irish vicar.  The parades in Boston (started in 1737) and New York City (1762) are much more famous today, though.

japanese waves, background paper, decorative

On This Day: March 18

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunged the United States into World War II; it also sparked a powerful wave of anti-Japanese sentiment.  Could these people really be trusted?  Of course, there was plenty of hatred for ethnic Germans and Italians during this time as well, but none would suffer more on United States soil than Japanese-Americans.  The War Relocation Authority was created on March 18 of the following year to “Take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”  In other words, entire families – 120,000 men, women, and children – were forced out of their homes, despite having committed no crimes, and sent to internment camps to live like prisoners in their own country.  After the war, as if starving in the camps for four years wasn’t enough, many had nothing to return home to.  They had lost their homes and businesses, and continued to face racial discrimination at every turn.  A formal apology from the U.S. government and reparation checks of $20,000 came eventually, but not until 1990.

academy award, oscars, hollywood

On This Day: March 19

March 19, 1953, marked the first time that normal people all around the country could sit in their living rooms and watch their favorite movie stars and directors receive recognition at the 25th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927 in order to advance the technology of movie making and promote the industry.  Two years later, it handed out its first “Oscar” award, supposedly called that because the little statue resembled the head librarian’s Uncle Oscar.  No one there was really surprised by any of the announcements, however, because the results had already been announced a few months earlier.  This process continued for another ten years, with newspapers keeping the average moviegoer guessing until the day after the event.  That changed, though, after one publication decided to issue the results early.  Ever since, the Academy has used a sealed envelope system for greater secrecy.  For their big 25th anniversary television debut, popular comedian Bob Hope was brought in as the MC (Master of Ceremonies).  Fredric March won Best Actor, and Best Picture went to The Greatest Show on Earth.

plague doctor, cosplay, dressed up

On This Day: March 20

According to top scholars of the day studying at the University of Paris, the “Black Death” was created on March 20, 1345, from a “triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius.”  Modern scientists argue that what we now know as the Bubonic Plague was actually caused by bacteria spread by fleas on rats.  Some experts believe that the disease could have existed for thousands of years in Europe before this, but the first confirmed case was in Mongolia around 1320.  From there it moved rapidly, spreading death and devastation.  One variant killed 95% of those who caught it.  The plague got to Europe in 1346, and by 1352 one third of the entire continent’s population had died – as many as 25 million.  No matter what the researchers said, most people of the time blamed religious minorities in their communities.  They tortured and murdered witches, gypsies, and Jews, while some went so far as to hurt themselves, too, in order to convince God that they were truly sorry.  All of this made a bad situation much, much worse.  Thank goodness we are better prepared to handle massive pandemics today!

like, thumb, butterfly

On This Day: March 23

Whether you spell it O.K., ok, okay, or even okie dokie, there is no denying this word’s popularity.  In fact, it is one of the most widely recognizable words in the entire world.  But where did it come from?  This question puzzled linguists for many years.  Nowadays, most experts agree that the term first appeared in print in an article of The Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1939, as an abbreviation for “oll korrect”.  No, that’s not a mistake you need to correct.  You see, at that time it was popular among educated youth of the day to misspell phrases on purpose, and then use those abbreviations in daily conversation.  Another example was “KY”, which stood for “no use” (“know yuse”).  If you think about it, that’s not much different than some of our modern slang today: “xtreme”, “kewl”, “phat”, “thicc”, etc.  That fad ended, but OK stuck.  What made it so special?  Luckily, OK were also the initials for presidential candidate Martin VanBuren, “Old Kinderhook”.  His supporters adopted the abbreviation throughout his campaign and, later, his presidency, ensuring its survival for centuries to come.

oil rig, sea, oil

On This Day: March 24

When the giant tankship Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef off the coast of Alaska on March 24, 1989, the resulting oil spill – one of the worst in American history – was devastating in more ways than one.  Eleven million gallons of crude oil polluted over 700 miles of coastline, and hundreds of thousands of animals died.  Thousands of volunteers flocked to join the cleanup effort, but poor management and difficult terrain meant that only ten percent of the mess ended up getting cleaned completely.  One private company tried dropping chemical dispersant from helicopters, but this may have had an equally deadly effect on local wildlife.  Holding the Exxon Corporation responsible for their disaster was just as challenging.  Captain Joseph Hazelwood was accused of drinking at the time of the accident, leaving an uncertified crewman to steer the ship unsupervised.  Unfortunately, he received no punishment for this negligence due to an Alaskan law that granted immunity to any individual who reported an oil spill.  The company itself was originally threatened with a criminal penalty of $100 million, but ended up paying just one fourth of that amount.