May 17, 2010

Cean Dubh Deelish

by Sir Samuel Ferguson

Put your head, darling, darling, darling,
   Your darling black head my heart above;
Oh, mouth of honey, with the thyme for fragrance,
   Who, with heart in breast, could deny you love?
Oh, many and many a young girl for me is pining,
   Letting her locks of gold to the cold wind free,
For me, the foremost of our gay young fellows;
   But I'd leave a hundred, pure love, for thee!
Then put your head, darling, darling, darling,
   Your darling black head my heart above;
Oh, mouth of honey, with the thyme for fragrance,
   Who, with heart in breast, could deny you love?

"Cean Dubh Deelish" by Sir Samuel Ferguson. Public domain. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1814 that Norway's constitution was signed in the town of Eidsvoll. And May 17th, "Syttende Mai," is a huge celebration in towns and cities across Norway. There are big children's parades, where all the kids dress up in their best and wave flags and walk along with their classmates. It's a day to eat traditional foods like sour cream porridge, cured meat or sausages, fiskeballer (fish balls), coffee cakes with almonds and raisins, fruit soup, krumkake (thin cone-shaped cookies), and pickled herring. By May 17th, spring has finally come to the northern lands, and Syttende Mai is a celebration of spring as much as independence.

And May 17th is the culmination of Russetid, a big three-week celebration for students ending the Norwegian equivalent of high school after 13 years of being a student — gymnasium. During these weeks, the students are referred to as russ. Most of them still have tests to take, but according to tradition, from May 1st until May 17th, russ wear brightly colored overalls that correspond to whatever they studied in school — red, for traditional academic subjects, is the most common color, but there is also blue for those who studied business or economics, black for engineering, green for agriculture, and white for medicine. Students are supposed to wear their overalls all the time, except when they're sleeping, and they aren't supposed to wash them. Students purchase buses and vans and decorate them, and then drive them between parties. They hand out joke business cards. And they wear caps that are decked out with souvenirs that symbolize various dares or feats that they have completed — it started in the 1940s when you tied a knot for each night you didn't go to sleep, got a match stick in your hat for getting in trouble with the police, and a bottle cap for 24 bottles of beer in 24 hours. These acts have evolved considerably over the years, and students can now decorate their hats with a pen cap for getting teachers to autograph their underwear, with bread if they wear bread instead of shoes for a day, a flag for singing the national anthem in a public place without pants on, and plenty more inappropriate activities. May 17th is the final day, on which students conduct a mock-graduation ceremony with each other and write a name on each student's hat that best symbolizes him or her, and then march in the parade, extremely happy and often drunk.

It's the birthday of baseball player James "Cool Papa" Bell, born in Starkville, Mississippi (1903). He is famous for being fast, maybe one of the fastest baseball players of all time. He played for almost 30 years, mostly in the Negro Leagues, but no one is sure of his statistics because record-keeping for the Negro Leagues wasn't very reliable. He grew up in Starkville, where his father was a farmer, and he played baseball in sandlots there. In 1922, he was signed as an outfielder and pitcher for the St. Louis Stars, for $90 a month. His manager nicknamed the 19-year-old "Cool Papa" for how collected he stayed while striking out a player.

There are plenty of stories about Bell. He scored from first base on an infield bunt, he stole two bases on just one pitch, he could run all the bases in 12 seconds flat. Cool Papa Bell played for the best teams in the Negro Leagues — the St. Louis Stars, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Homestead Grays; and he played in Cuba, Mexico, California, and what is now the Dominican Republic. He played his last season in 1946, and then went on to manage and help fellow black players transition into the major leagues. In 1947, one year after Bell retired from playing, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Cool Papa Bell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, and he died in 1991 at the age of 87.

It was on this day in 1792 that the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in New York City, which began the New York Stock Exchange. Twenty-four New York City brokers and merchants met outside on Wall Street and decided to join together and form an investment group. They agreed to deal only with each other, not with auctioneers, and they set a fixed interest rate. It was called the Buttonwood Agreement because they met outside underneath a buttonwood tree, more commonly called a sycamore.

It's the birthday of young-adult novelist Gary Paulsen, (books by this author) born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1939). He's the author of hundreds of books, including The Winter Room (1989), Woodsong (1990), and Hatchet (1988), about a 14-year-old boy who survives more 50 days in the northern wilderness. His most recent novels are Woods Runner (2010) and Lawn Boy Returns (2010).

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