Nov. 2, 2011

Marriage is a Bungee Jump

by Walter McDonald

Marriage is a bungee jump off some box canyon
in Colorado, concession manned by a minion
from the fifties high on weed, beard he hadn't brushed
since high school. The ropes felt new enough

and he swore he measured them, the fall to the rocks
a lovers' leap eighty stories long.
He made us sign a waiver and pay in cash.
Folding the bills away, he slouched back to the shack

and high-fived a friend who passed the bottle back—
Done it again, like cupid. We heard a match strike,
the sizzle of hemp. We checked the ropes, the stiff knots
tied by someone who flunked that lesson in scouts.

We'd checked the charts, the geology of cliffs
and canyons, but no one knows which fibers split,
which granite ledges crack. On the edge of hope
for nothing we'd ever done, we tugged at the ropes,

both ropes, blessing the stretch and strain
with our bodies, a long time falling to the pain
and certainly of stop. Hand in hand we stepped up
wavering to the ledge, hearing the rush

of a river we leaped to, a far-off
cawing crow, the primitive breeze of the fall,
and squeezed, clinging to each other's vows
that only death could separate us now.

"Marriage is a Bungee Jump" by Walt McDonald, from Blessings the Body Gave © Ohio State University Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1920, the first modern commercially licensed radio station — KDKA in Pittsburgh — began broadcasting. The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which had gotten several government contracts to produce radio equipment during the First World War, wanted to get in on the production of content as well as equipment. RCA — the Radio Corporation of America — had a virtual monopoly on broadcasting and radiotelegraphy in the United States, but Westinghouse managed to secure a few patents that RCA had missed, and they also had Frank Conrad. Conrad was an idea man with a garage laboratory, a self-starter who had dropped out of school in seventh grade and worked his way up the Westinghouse ladder. In early 1920, he built his own informal radio station in suburban Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, played some phonograph records, and hired his sons as announcers. Pretty soon the town record store was lending him records in exchange for a mention of their name on the air. Local interest in radio increased, and when wireless sets were made available for sale to the general public — not just to radio professionals and serious amateurs — people snapped them up. No one had ever thought of making radio technology available to the average Joe before, and Conrad's boss at Westinghouse smelled an opportunity. The company would manufacture the sets and sell them, while at the same time generating demand through increased broadcasts. Westinghouse began work on a more powerful transmitter at their Pittsburgh plant, and applied for a broadcast license on October 16, 1920. They hoped to have approval to begin broadcasting by November 2, the day of the Harding-Cox presidential election. Approval came through in plenty of time, and at 8:00 p.m. local time, Leo Rosenburg opened the first broadcast, saying, "This is KDKA, of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We shall now broadcast the election returns."

Today is the anniversary of the maiden — and only — flight of the Spruce Goose, made on this date in 1947. It's technically known as the H-4 Hercules, and it was made of birch, not spruce. Dreamed up by shipping magnate Henry Kaiser, and designed by Howard Hughes, it remains the largest airplane ever built, by far: It's five stories tall, it boasts a wingspan of 320 feet, its cargo area is large enough to hold two railroad boxcars, and it has eight engines with 17-foot propellers. It was made of wood because metal was at a premium during the war, and Kaiser wanted to see if aircraft could be built using other materials. He and Hughes landed a government contract to build three prototypes. Hughes micromanaged every aspect of the design and production process, and the project fell way behind schedule. Kaiser eventually walked away from the whole thing. The plane hadn't even been assembled yet by the time the war ended, and the government began to feel as if it had been swindled. Finally, Hughes completed the plane and, as was his practice, took it out for its maiden flight himself. He reached an altitude of about 70 feet, went over a mile in under a minute, and never flew it again. Some people thought it was because the plane was unsafe, but most likely there was no reason to fly it anymore. He'd proven he could do it, and besides, the war was over, and there was no more demand for behemoth seaplanes.

It's the birthday of cheerleading, which made its debut at the University of Minnesota on this date in 1898. Pep clubs had been around for a couple of decades, especially at Princeton, where their all-male pep club led the crowd in unified chanting to motivate the football team. In 1884, Princeton alum Thomas Peebles moved to Minneapolis, and brought the pep club concept along to the University of Minnesota's football games. Two of the university's rugby players, John Adams and Win Sargent, came up with a "team yell" that same year to cheer on the rugby team: Ski-U-Mah, which neatly rhymes with "Rah, rah, rah!" But all of these chants and cheers were led from the stands.

In the fall of 1898, the U of M's football team had suffered three consecutive losses, and fans were desperate for a way to raise team spirit for the season's final game against Northwestern. The pep club brainstormed plans to further involve the spectators, and nominated a group of "yell leaders" to lead the crowd in the now-traditional chant, "Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-ta!" One of the yell leaders, Johnny Campbell, took the radical step of running out to the playing field with a megaphone. He faced the crowd, whipped them to a frenzy, and got much of the credit for Minnesota's victory.

Cheerleading was a male-only sport until 1923, when the first female cheerleaders took the field. This phenomenon didn't really take off until the 1940s, when the male student body was depleted by World War II. The '20s also saw the advent of acrobatics, human pyramids, and dance moves to accompany the fight songs and chants.

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