I’m sorry I’m late. I got caught up in thinking how it was just 31 years ago tonight that I was sitting up watching, on TV, the coverage of the 20th Anniversary of Apollo 11. Gosh. You never see time moving, especially not this year, and yet there it goes nevertheless. You realize next year is going to be the 10th anniversary of the 20th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch? Just amazing.
We haven’t heard from Robert Benchley in a while, have we? Here’s a piece from Love Conquers All, from the section that consists of book reviews. Benchley found in books of facts almost exactly the same thrill that I find in them. The reference to the Treaty of Breda makes it possible to say confidently that this essay was first printed in 1920. The student of post-Great-War America might have figured that out from the gently pointed social commentary near the essay’s end. A fascinating thing about the Treaty of Breda which Benchley doesn’t mention is that since it was to end the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which included fighting all over the world in a time when communications were slow and clumsy, it specified different dates on which the hostilities would officially end for different parts of the world.
MR PHILIP R DILLON has compiled and published in his American Anniversaries a book for men who do things. For every day in the year there is a record of something which has been accomplished in American history. For instance, under January 1 we find that the parcel-post system was inaugurated in the United States in 1913, while January 2 is given as the anniversary of the battle of Murfreesboro (or Stone’s River, as you prefer). The whole book is like that; just one surprise after another.
What, for instance, do you suppose that Saturday marked the completion of? . . . Presuming that no one has answered correctly, I will disclose (after consulting Mr Dillon’s book) that July 31 marked the completion of the 253d year since the signing of the Treaty of Breda. But what, you may say — and doubtless are saying at this very minute — what has the Treaty of Breda (which everyone knows was signed in Holland by representatives of England, France, Holland and Denmark) got to do with American history? And right there is where Mr Dillon and I would have you. In the Treaty of Breda, Acadia (or Nova Scotia) was given to France and New York and New Jersey were confirmed to England. So, you see, inhabitants of New York and New Jersey (and, after all, who isn’t?) should have especial cause for celebrating July 31 as Breda Day, for if it hadn’t been for that treaty we might have belonged to Poland and been mixed up in all the mess that is now going on over there.
I must confess that I turned to the date of the anniversary of my own birth with no little expectation. Of course I am not so very well known except among the tradespeople in my town, but I should be willing to enter myself in a popularity contest with the Treaty of Breda. But evidently there is a conspiracy of silence directed against me on the part of the makers of anniversary books and calendars. While no mention was made of my having been born on September 15, considerable space was given to recording the fact that on that date in 1840 a patent for a knitting machine was issued to the inventor, who was none other than Isaac Wixan Lamb of Salem, Massachusetts.
Now I would be the last one to belittle the importance of knitting or the invention of a knitting machine. I know some very nice people who knit a great deal. But really, when it comes to anniversaries I don’t see where Isaac Wixon Lamb gets off to crash in ahead of me or a great many other people that I could name. And it doesn’t help any, either, to find that James Fenimore Cooper and William Howard Taft are both mentioned as having been born on that day or that the chief basic patent for gasoline automobiles in America was issued in 1895 to George B Selden. It certainly was a big day for patents. But one realizes more than ever after reading this section that you have to have a big name to get into an anniversary book. The average citizen has no show at all.
In spite of these rather obvious omissions, Mr Dillon’s book is both valuable and readable. Especially in those events which occurred early in the country’s history is there material for comparison with the happenings of the present day, events which will some day be incorporated in a similar book compiled by some energetic successor of Mr Dillon.
For instance, under October 27, 1659, we find that William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson were banished from New Hampshire on the charge of being Quakers and were later executed for returning to the colony. Imagine!
And on December 8, 1837, Wendell Phillips delivered his first abolition speech at Boston in Faneuil Hall, as a result of which he got himself known around Boston as an undesirable citizen, a dangerous radical and a revolutionary trouble-maker. It hardly seems possible now, does it?
And on July 4, 1776 — but there, why rub it in?
Apparently for its sesquicentennial Rider University in New Jersey got people organized to set the Guinness World Record for the “longest line of fruits”, by stringing together 10,036 cranberries. I don’t question the wisdom of this, naturally. I don’t know a better way to celebrate a sesquicentennial than setting a fruit-string record. I’m reminded of how Piscataway, New Jersey, celebrated its sesquicentennial by placing in a line an estimated twelve tomatos. (It was founded in 1666, so its sesquicentennial was in 1816, so it was harder to get fresh fruits back then, so lay off. Also it was only Piscataway.)
And I don’t argue with the choice of cranberries. If you want to set a record that’s going to stand you’re going to need a lot of fruits, and cranberries are pretty good because you get a lot of them from wherever it is cranberries come from and they’re all small, so you’re not going to have to up all your storage space for cranberry depository needs. If you were trying to string together over ten thousand watermelons you might well have a line that runs out of New Jersey, through Pennsylvania, and into a little bit of Kentucky before someone checks the map and says that’s not possible.
Plus, and I don’t want to sound too enthusiastic about the state of my birth, but New Jersey is a great place to get cranberries. It’s not obvious from the toll roads, but nearly three-quarters of the land area that isn’t toll roads, outlet malls, or that little bitty mountain range in the upper left corner are cranberry bogs. There’s so many cranberries in New Jersey that you can’t toss an otter into a cranberry bog without getting a lot of cranberries tossed back at you by otter-defending cranberry beasts. Compare this to the in-state availability of, say, durian and you can see why cranberries are almost inevitable.
It’s the number that’s got me: why did they stop at 10,036, instead of the obvious round number of 10,030? Why not go on to a clearly more attractive 10,044? It’s not that the previous record was 10,035; the article I read about it said they broke the old fruit string record by over four thousand pieces of fruit. Possibly they ran out of cranberries, although I’d imagine for the cause of getting to a lofty number like 10,054 someone could have run to the store and got another can, or taunt a nearby otter. Maybe they ran out of string. I could see that stopping the whole project dead. They could resort to twine for the end, although that might get them in trouble, and besides any ball of twine anyone thinks they have is always, always, purely notional. Nobody has had the twine they thought they had since 1942, which wasn’t any particular anniversary for Rider University.
Rider’s director of media relations, Kristine Brown, pointed out that Guinness requires that food used for records be “used in some way”, so apparently when all the record-certifying is done, and someone goes home knowing that their career has caused them to take a trip for the purpose of verifying a string of cranberries, “we’re gonna string them on the trees around campus so all the birds and the squirrels and everybody can enjoy them”. And this offers another clue why cranberries were used, because you can see obvious problems in trying to decorate a university campus with strings of some other fruit, such as squash: I don’t think squash is a fruit.
I’m not sure the exact biology of it but I’m pretty sure fruits are defined as “the plants that people eat because they like eating them, as long as candy bars aren’t available”, while vegetables are “the plants people eat because they feel they should be eating vegetables or because it’s winter and they retain oven heat like crazy”, and then there’s big leafy stuff like lettuce and spinach that people eat because they hold salad dressing. You couldn’t put even world-record-setting strands of squash around campus, not without getting caught or the string breaking.
Also, I had never before thought to frock a university campus in strands of cranberries for the fall, but now, I have a new prank to play.