Dec. 15, 2012

Aldershot Crematorium

by John Betjeman

Between the swimming-pool and cricket-ground
   How straight the crematorium driveway lies!
And little puffs of smoke without a sound
   Show what we loved dissolving in the skies,
Dear hands and feet and laughter-lighted face
And silk that hinted at the body's grace.

But no-one seems to know quite what to say
   (Friends are so altered by the passing years):
"Well, anyhow, it's not so cold today"—
   And thus we try to dissipate our fears.
'I am the Resurrection and the Life':
Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.

"Aldershot Crematorium" by John Betjeman, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. Reprinted with the permission of the author. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of civil engineer Gustave Eiffel, born in Dijon, France (1832). He was an early pioneer in using metal to construct bridges. In 1879, he was tapped to replace the chief engineer for the Statue of Liberty. Eiffel designed the skeleton that supported the Statue of Liberty's copper skin. He and his crew built the entire thing in France to test its structural integrity, then dismantled it again, sending it on its way to its permanent home in New York Harbor.

He went on to build the Eiffel Tower for the World's Fair in Paris in 1889. At 1,000 feet, it was the tallest structure in the world at the time, and Eiffel decided to leave the metal scaffolding exposed because he thought the tower would be more stable if the wind could blow through it. Many people at the time thought it was ugly, but it still holds up to the wind. In 1999, Paris was hit by a windstorm that knocked down more than 100,000 trees. The Eiffel Tower only swayed nine centimeters. Not only is it stable, but it is also remarkably efficient in terms of materials; if melted down, the metal structure of the tower would only fill its base to a depth of two inches. Eiffel gave his name to the famous landmark, but it was his work on the tower itself that gave him his nickname: "the magician of iron."

Today is the birthday of Nero, born in Antium, near Rome, in the year 37 A.D. His father died when Nero was two years old. His mother, Agrippina, had a falling out with her brother — who happened to be the Emperor Caligula — and was exiled shortly after her husband's death. Caligula seized Nero's inheritance and then sent him off to live with an aunt. When Caligula, his wife, and their baby daughter were murdered in 41 with no clear heir, Caligula's uncle Claudius became emperor. When Claudius married Nero's mother and adopted Nero, the boy suddenly found himself next in line to rule the Roman Empire. Four years later, Claudius died under mysterious circumstances, probably poisoned by Nero's ambitious mother, and the 17-year-old Nero became Emperor.

He fancied himself a poet and a musician, and often gave public performances, playing his lyre and singing. He admired Greek culture, and established several theaters and gymnasiums. He also put on a huge festival, the Neronia, which featured music, poetry, gymnastics, and horsemanship. He was obsessed with being popular among the people, and many of his policies benefited the lower classes. But he was also ruthless, ordering the death of anyone who displeased him or got in his way — beginning with his scheming mother and his first wife, because he didn't trust them.

In 64, Rome burned. It's not clear whether it was a case of arson, or just an accidental fire, which wasn't unusual. The story of Nero fiddling while the city collapsed around him was just a rumor that grew into legend. There were no fiddles in Rome at that time, for one thing, and he most likely wasn't even in the city when the fire broke out. When he heard of the fire, he returned to the city to organize a massive relief effort. After the fire, Nero took the opportunity to rebuild Rome — at great expense — in the Greek style, and people began to whisper that he had started the fire just to have an excuse to make the city over the way that he wanted it. When he heard the rumors, Nero shifted the blame to early Christians, to take the heat off himself.

As his reign went on, he made enemies in a wide variety of groups. He became more and more delusional, and scandalized people by appearing in theatrical productions; it was bad enough that he took the stage at all, but he didn't even play legendary heroes. One legate said, "I have seen him on stage playing pregnant women and slaves about to be executed." Revolts began cropping up all over the empire, and the Senate finally condemned Nero to a slave's death of crucifixion. Nero fled the city, and then stabbed himself in the throat rather than face the humiliating execution.

Big band leader Glenn Miller's plane disappeared over the English Channel on this date in 1944. Miller and his orchestra were popular and successful, with a string of hits like "In the Mood," "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," and "Moonlight Serenade." Miller walked away from all of it to enlist in the Army in 1942. He led the Army Air Force Band for two years.

On this date, Miller boarded a plane at a Royal Air Force base in England, en route to join the rest of his band in Paris. His plane never arrived, and no trace of wreckage or bodies has been found. The official story was that fog and bad weather had brought the plane down somewhere in the English Channel. The most likely explanation, based on a statement by an RAF navigator, is that Miller's plane had wandered off course into a no-fly zone where British pilots were in the process of jettisoning their unused bombs, and it was brought down by friendly fire.

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