May 1, 2014
It was the first of May
A lovely warm spring day
I was strolling down the street in drunken pride,
But my knees were all a-flutter,
And I landed in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.
Yes, I lay there in the gutter
Thinking thoughts I could not utter
When a lady passing by did softly say
'You can tell a man who boozes
By the company he chooses' — And the pig got up and slowly walked away.
Today is May Day, the first of May, a date that may have more holidays than any other. It's the date when many countries celebrate Labor Day, a tradition with its roots in the 19th-century labor movement in the United States. In 1886, unions around the country went on strike in support of an eight-hour workday. Since many of the organizers of the strikes were communists, socialists, and anarchists, May Day has also come to be associated with communism, and was a big national holiday in the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower tried to take back May Day during the Cold War by declaring it Law Day and Loyalty Day. It remains a day of rallies and protests in many parts of the world, and in 2006, protest returned to the United States on May 1st to call attention to immigrants' rights.
Its roots as a holiday run much deeper than the labor movement, however. It's been a celebration of spring and fertility in places like Egypt and India, and in pre-Christian Rome it was the time of the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers. In medieval England, people gathered flowers to "bring in the May" and erected a maypole bedecked with garlands. It's also the date of Beltane, a Celtic calendar festival celebrating the start of summer. Beltane was known for its bonfires, and has been revived by neo-pagans all over the world as a major religious holiday. In Germany, May 1st was the date of a pagan festival that was assimilated by the Christians and turned into the feast day of St. Walpurgis. The night before — Walpurgisnacht — is still celebrated in parts of rural Germany as a kind of Valentine's Day, with the delivery of a tree, wrapped in streamers, to one's beloved. It's also a day to celebrate Hawaiian history and culture, and it's known as Lei Day in Hawaii. One of the largest contemporary May Day celebrations in the United States takes place in Minneapolis, with a parade and pageant staged by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre. It's been going on since 1975 and attracts about 35,000 people every year.
It was on this day in 1786 that Mozart's first great opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Vienna. It was based on a French play, and it tells the story of a single day in the palace of Count Almaviva. The count spends the day attempting to seduce Susanna, the young fiancée of the court valet, Figaro. Susanna and the Countess conspire to embarrass the count and expose his infidelity.
It was a light-hearted, comic opera, but the musicians and singers could hardly believe the quality of the music. One singer, an Irish tenor named Michael Kelly, later wrote: "I can still see Mozart, dressed in his red fur hat trimmed with gold, standing on the stage with the orchestra at the first rehearsal, beating time for the music. ... The players on the stage and in the orchestra were electrified. ... Had Mozart written nothing but this piece of music it alone would ... have stamped him as the greatest master of his art."
It's the birthday of the man who asked, "What does a sane man do in an insane society?": American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Joseph Heller (books by this author), born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He didn't begin any story until he had the first and last lines in his head, and the idea for Catch-22 came about after he thought of an opening: "It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, 'Someone' fell madly in love with him." He didn't have the character's name — Yossarian — yet, but the story began to unspool from that first line. "It got me so excited," Heller wrote in the Paris Review, "that I did what the cliché says you're supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand. ... One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two."
His agent started sending Catch-22 — called Catch-18 at the time — to publishers in 1953, when Heller was about a third of the way through with it. Simon and Schuster paid him $750 up front, with another $750 to be paid upon completion. Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it in 1961. They changed Catch-18 to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's new book Mila 18, and the title has entered the lexicon as a description of an unsolvable logical dilemma, a vicious circle.
Heller published six other novels, three plays, a collection of short stories, and three screen adaptations. He died in 1999, shortly after finishing his last novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man.
And on this day in 1956, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was made available to the public for the first time. Salk's vaccine used a dead poliovirus, injected into the arm to stimulate the body's production of antibodies. Another scientist, Albert Sabin, developed an oral version that used a live virus, and development of the two methods led to the first mass inoculations against disease. As a result, polio has been largely eradicated from most countries.
Several famous people have, or had, polio, including Donald Sutherland, Jack Nicklaus, Mia Farrow, Neil Young, Francis Ford Coppola, and Alan Alda. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was commonly believed to have been a victim of polio, which he caught while visiting Campobello Island in Canada when he was 39. Though the public knew he had a paralytic illness, he successfully hid how debilitated he was. A review of his case in 2003 determined that he most likely suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, caused by an immune system response to infection, which has similar symptoms to polio.
And today is the birthday of astrophysicist and "ufologist" Josef Allen Hynek, born in Chicago in 1910. He's best known for his work with a series of government projects to investigate reports of flying saucer sightings. The U.S. Air Force formed Project Sign in 1948, changing the name to Project Grudge and then, finally, Project Blue Book in 1952. Hynek, initially skeptical, was brought on board as a scientific consultant, and his job was to investigate claims of unidentified flying objects. He enjoyed his role as government debunker.
Over time, and after investigating several sightings reported by reliable witnesses like pilots, astronauts, and even fellow astronomers, his outlook began to change, and he became frustrated at the refusal of the Air Force and the scientific community to admit the possibility of UFOs. He said, "As a scientist, I must be mindful of the past; all too often it has happened that matters of great value to science were overlooked because the new phenomenon did not fit the accepted scientific outlook of the time." He didn't believe that UFOs were necessarily intergalactic travelers from the far reaches of space, and said, in 1976: "To me, it seems ridiculous that super intelligences would travel great distances to do relatively stupid things like stop cars, collect soil samples, and frighten people. I think we must begin to reexamine the evidence. We must begin to look closer to home." He considered them "an aspect or domain of the natural world not yet explored by science," and he didn't rule out visitors from other dimensions.
He developed the "close encounter" method of categorizing UFO sightings, which inspired Steven Spielberg's 1977 hit movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hynek served as a consultant on the film, and made a cameo appearance near the end, a bearded gentleman with a pipe who steps out of the crowd to gaze in awe at the spacecraft.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®