It Happened in 1956

  • Frederick Reines and Clyde L. Cowan, Jr., of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory discover the first evidence of the neutrino in a chamber 12 m under the Savannah River nuclear reactor (called, in the August 1956 Scientific American article that reported the story, an “atomic pile”). The ghostly particle, electrically neutral, was thought at the time of its discovery to have no mass as well, which explained why it hardly interacted with its surroundings and was so difficult to detect. Reines shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work.
  • 11 February: Ed Norton teaches Ralph Kramden how to dance the Hucklebuck in the “Young at Heart” episode of The Honeymooners.
  • 2 August: Albert Woolson, of Companies C&D, 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery, born 11 February 1847 in Watertown, N.Y. and the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War, passes away.
  • Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer meets Donald Byrne in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York. Their game, won by Fischer playing black, is called by many annotators the “Game of the Century.”
  • 19 April: A nuptial mass celebrates the marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III. Kelly exchanges her film career for life as Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.
  • 15 December: The phrase “Elvis has left the building” is first uttered. Elvis Presley’s hits that year include “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Love Me Tender.”
  • IBM Almaden4 September: The IBM RAMAC 305 is introduced, the first commercial computer to use magnetic disk storage, and one of IBM’s last systems to use vacuum tubes. The RAMAC systems (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) used the IBM 350 disk subsystem, which stored 5 million 7-bit characters on 50 disks 24 inches in diameter and mounted vertically in a refrigerator-sized cabinet. (IBM Almaden, originally uploaded by jurvetson)
  • More passings: crusty journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken; A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books; baseball Hall of Famer Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy (a/k/a Connie Mack); Adolf Hitler’s half-brother Alois; Alben Barkley, vice president for Harry Truman; virtuosic bebop trumpeter Clifford Brown; and, in one deadly week in August, painter Jackson Pollack, actor Bela Lugosi, and playwright Bertolt Brecht.
  • 15 October: the first blasts begin construction of the dam across Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, the controversial Bureau of Reclamation project that ultimately formed Lake Powell.
  • Grace Metalious publishes the potboiler Peyton Place; Allen Ginsberg releases a “Howl.”
  • 23 October: Tens of thousands of people take to the streets in Hungary, seeking an end to Soviet domination. Russian tanks roll into the country in November, crushing the uprising.
  • 30 September: The Dodgers win their last pennant in Brooklyn, one game ahead of the Milwaukee Braves. World Series champions the year before, this year the Dodgers lose to the Yankees (again) and Don Larsen’s perfect game.
  • 2 August: The first construction contracts are let under the new legislation enabling the 42,000-mile interstate highway system. Meanwhile, in Edina, in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Victor Gruen opens Southdale, the archetype of the indoor shopping mall.
  • 13 November: the Supreme Court upholds a ruling declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional, effectively ending the boycott that was begun in Montgomery, Ala. the year before when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
  • 3 January: Alan Schneider directs Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida in the first United States production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
  • 6 August: Chris Schenkel wraps “Boxing from St. Nicholas Arena,” the last program broadcast on the DuMont Television Network, America’s first fourth TV network. So long, Captain Video.
  • 26 July: After a collision in the fog off Nantucket the previous evening, the ocean liner Andrea Doria slips beneath the waves. Fortunately, improved communications and rapid response avert major loss of life.
  • John Ford releases the noir Western The Searchers, inspiring living room movie theorists for years to come.
  • The first group of “Hiroshima Maidens,” survivors of the 1945 bombing, return to Japan from New York. The Maidens, disfigured with keloid scars from burns sustained in the attack, underwent plastic surgery treatments at Mt. Sinai Hospital. A contemporary CBC broadcast fills in some of the details of the story. In 1999, survivor Miyoko Matsubara reflected on her experiences.
  • 13 August: Doris and Don Gorsline welcome their brand-new son David into the world.

Thanking the Academy

Leta and I are tweaking the short monologue The Gold Lunch that I will be doing at the one-act festival two weekends from now. Once we got past some initial flabbiness on my part (Leta would say, “You’re not connected to this. You sound like Jaclyn Smith on Charlie’s Angels.”) we found a groove for it.

What is still difficult, what we are working and reworking like a fussy passage in an oil painting, is the opening 60 seconds. I’m giving this from atop the customary 3-level podium (John B. is building it) all lit up like Oscar night. This is the piece’s expository passage, where the Medalist (as we’re calling Ron Carlson’s anonymous narrator) has to sell the audience on the idea that Eating Lunch with Your Ex-Wife is now a medal sport in the Olympics. Once he gets us through that section, he can go on (from a set dressed with a lovely tile table and chairs that we found in the theater lobby) to show how he won the gold.

But it’s that opening minute (out of maybe 13:00, tops) that is killing us. Leta has tried suggesting any number of images—Lou Gehrig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium, the kiss-and-cry area just off the ice at a figure skating competition, Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech, getting a mic shoved in your face by Mary Hart at the Emmys—to motivate what happens. We’ll find something that works, eventually.

I found a suitably smudgy recording of the national anthem to play for the opening music, but Leta kiboshed my recording of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” for curtain call. We’re going to try some Blossom Dearie instead.

Why I’m still reading “The Twenty-Seventh City”


Joe Queenan’s bedside bookstand
must be a library table: at any given moment, he’s reading two dozen books.

The closest I can come to understanding my reading habits is the possibility that I became addicted to starting books as a child because books usually take off like a house on fire but then ease up around Page 70. The Iliad kicks off with Achilles’ decision to go off and pout, denuding the narrative of its star performer, so it is understandable why a thrill-seeking kid might set it aside and take a crack at Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Most books written by journalists start off with two good chapters, followed by loads of padding, then regain a bit of momentum for the big roundup. This is because editors encourage writers to frontload the merchandise, jamming all the good stuff into the early chapters, the only chapters that will ever get read. I was once told that readers regularly abandon books around Page 60, vowing to get back to them later. Well, I do get back to them later. I started Lord Jim in high school and finished it when I was 52. Gratification delayed is gratification all the same.

At least they didn’t specify marble

If you’ve ever wondered why all the underground stations of Metro look so much alike, and why you can’t just glance out the window and find where you are from the color of the posts (as in Chicago, for instance), you have the Commission of Fine Arts to thank, in part. The CFA had oversight over Harry Weese’s station designs, and reviewed them at critical points in 1967, according to Zachary M. Schrag’s excellent The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Certain members of the CFA, among them architecture critic Aline Saarinen, admitted that they had little experience with underground transit—she took hired cars in New York—and yet she said, “I don’t really believe if I’m on a subway I come to and say, ‘Oh, that’s the blue station; I’ve got to get off here.'” (Schrag, p. 91)

Of course, our out-of-town visitors sometimes take the Red Line/Orange Line/etc. designations too literally, and wonder why the stations aren’t the same color as the line designation, instead of their impressive and uniform concrete gray, brick red tile, and granite.

Why we put pepper in the bird feeder

Via Tangled Bank, Coturnix interprets research by Joshua Tewksbury and Gary Nabhan into the two-part evolutionary strategy of hot chili pepper plants: the fruits are brightly colored, soft, and sweet-smelling in order to attract birds, but unpleasantly spicy to repel mammals. The team fed peppers to birds (a species of thrasher, specifically), which passed the seeds in a viable state; but the seeds of peppers fed to packrats and cactus mice were usually partially digested.

In Martinsburg

Saturday morning I spent drinking coffee and reading a not-great short story anthology by a well-known American novelist, early-career efforts that were solidly mediocre, while I sat on Audrey and Charlie’s deck, listening to their neighbor running a backhoe across the top of the next ridge, scraping the pasture into what will become lawn. Along with the mockingbirds disputing territory and the goldfinches singing just to be singing, I watched a pair of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) visit Audrey’s sugar-water feeder. The feeder was close enough that I could hear the buzz of wings as the birds hovered. And I heard something new, as a bird decided to perch up, the better to slurp artificial nectar: small chip notes, like tiny sneakers on a basketball court.