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The astonishing year(s) of 1996: A confusion of tongues and alphabetical camels The second time as farce

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE YEAR NOW ENDING brought this reader a rich supply of delights, including the following:

A 10th-century Persian vizier had a library of 117,000 books, which he took with him on his travels. He trained 40 camels to carry them in alphabetical order.

Talk about Jane Austen fans! When philosopher Gilbert Ryle was once asked whether he ever read novels, he replied without elaboration: "Oh, yes. All six of them every year."

When the Southern Review rejected the young Eudora Welty's story, "The Petrified Man," she became so disheartened that she destroyed it. Then the editor changed his mind, and she had to reconstruct one of her most famous stories from memory.

The difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Russia today? Th pessimist thinks things can't possibly get worse. The optimist thinks they can.

Of the stars in the movie "Giant," Sun critic Stephen Hunter wrote: "To call any of them one-dimensional is to insult Sylvester Stallone."

Tangy reviews elsewhere: " 'Curdled' is particularly bloody, and some of the heads that have not been severed speak four-letter words."

" 'Barb Wire' includes nudity, profanity, violence and Ms. Lee, who probably deserves a rating category all her own."

An Amsterdam mugger whose fingertip was bitten off by his victim was identified by his fingerprint and arrested. He called his victim a cannibal.

The Dangers of Smoking: In Italy police arrested a fugitive Mafia convict who had been hiding in a room that was virtually invisible from the street. But the chain-smoking escaper was betrayed by the hundreds of cigarette butts he threw from his tiny window.

In Norway a man walking to a police station to report a stolen bike was given a lift by a biker. The bike looked very familiar, so the walker tried his key on its luggage rack and the broken lock fell out. A policeman watching the scene arrested the Good Samaritan.

Marysia of Warsaw, "an attractive, kindly but hard-up doctor, age 25," answered more than 1,000 men who advertised in newspapers for a Polish wife. Back came sweets, coffee, stockings, panties and nearly $25,000 in money. Marysia has been arrested; she's a married man of 38 with two sons.

Howard Schneiderman teaches a college course in social problems. He discovered that two term papers were plagiarized, and warned his class that any plagiarists had better report to him. More than half his students showed up outside his office.

It was the opening scene of the Czech opera, "The Makropulos Case," playing at the Met in New York last January. Tenor Richard Versalle had just sung the line, "You can only live so long," when he collapsed on stage and died from a heart attack.

Hidden Agendas: Once, when Austria's Count Metternich was negotiating with a Russian ambassador, the ambassador died. The count supposedly said: "I wonder what he meant by that."

A Polish fashion model who had canceled her reservation on the TWA Flight 800 that crashed off Long Island was knifed to death outside her Warsaw home within a month of the crash.

When they go down

In rounded figures and with respect to Western-built commercial jets: 4 percent of crashes take place during taxiing, 10 percent during takeoff, 20 percent during climbing to cruise altitude, percent en route, 31 percent during descent and approach, and 31 percent during landing.

The last Polynesian tree snail died in a London zoo last January. The species started its journey about 1.5 million years B.C. At the end it moved about 2 feet a year.

In his recently published "In Search of Nature," Edward O. Wilson estimates that human life could exist for only a few months if there were no insects; that 90 percent of living organisms do not yet have scientific names; that we are destroying as many as 30,000 species a year; and that "more organization and complexity exist in a handful of [earthly] soil than on the surface of all the other planets combined."

To save other endangered birds, federal officials slipped poisoned margarine-on-white-bread sandwiches into the nests of thousands of sea gulls on an island off Cape Cod. Animal activists counterattacked by delivering antidotes in the form of tuna-and-charcoal-filter sandwiches.

A New Hampshire Irish setter named Lyric heard her sleeping mistress' oxygen alarm go off. When the dog couldn't rouse Judi Bayly (who has a breathing disorder), she followed her training: she knocked the receiver off the telephone, bumped a speed-dial button, and alerted 911, which automatically gave the dispatcher the proper address. The grateful owner said Lyric may well have saved her life.

If you spend 50 minutes a month on your car phone, you are five times more likely to have a car accident than otherwise, according to a recent study.

In Norway, a cabby saw a mud slide heading for his house on the edge of the sea. By calling his wife on his cellular phone, he saved her by mere seconds.

Headlines are supposed to help the reader, right? Try these (translation below):

"FBI files figure listed on resume anti-Bush tricks"

"$105M Mourning ends Heat spree"

A tricky headline from the New York Times: "Texaco punishes executives for racial comments and plans to destroy papers"

"My own belief is that history is a tragedy. . . . I don't believe that history is going to be 'solved' inside historical time. I believe that we are morally obliged to work to perfect the society in which we live, but that we must understand that while some of our efforts will succeed, there will be no final success. The hard thing is to act while knowing that our efforts will ultimately fail." -- Syndicated columnist William Pfaff

"Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." -- W. B. Yeats

Silver Lining: An old man was asked what he liked best about being 93. "Less peer pressure."

The Big Question: Are we now three or four years from the millennium? Whether it arrives in 2000 or 2001, the first human beings to live in the new millennium will be on the tiny island of Tafahi in the Pacific kingdom of Tonga, 10 minutes west of the International Dateline. The island is famous for its vanilla.

Headline Translations:

1) A man on whom the FBI has a file cited on his resume some anti-Bush political tricks in which he had engaged.

2) The Miami Heat basketball team spent a lot of money buying new players, including Alonzo Mourning.

Father Gallagher, a retired priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese, this year published "To Hell and Back with Dante: A Modern Reader's Guide to the Divine Comedy."

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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