August 17, 1978: Give ‘Em Helium

Three Americans from New Mexico completed the first transatlantic balloon flight, landing in a barley field 60 miles from Paris, 138 hours and six minutes after lifting off from Presque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled Double Eagle II covered 3,233 miles in its six-day journey.

Almanac devotees will remember (having most certainly taken notes) that Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel to great fanfare some two hundred years earlier.

Balloonists began attempting the Atlantic crossing in the mid-1800s, with 17 unsuccessful flights, balloonresulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. Two of our three balloonists gave it their first shot in September 1977, aboard the Double Eagle I, but were blown off course, landing off Iceland after 66 hours.  After recovering from bruises, embarrassment and frostbite, they were ready to foolishly rush in again.  A third pilot was brought in to spread the pain.

The Eagle Junior was a big balloon – 11-stories of helium.  It made good progress after blastoff, but during mid-trip, plunged from 20,000 feet to a hair-raising 4,000 feet, forcing them to jettison ballast material and many of their inflight amenities.  Among the items chucked overboard was evidently all of their finer cuisine, for they were forced to finish the trip dining only on hot dogs and sardines. Toward the end of the trip, one balloonist was heard to remark somewhat testily: “Skip the bun; just grease up my hot dog with mustard real good and I’ll shove it in my ear.”

Panic set in when the balloonists couldn’t find the Eiffel Tower.  Blown off course, they touched down just before dusk on August 17, 1978, near the hamlet of Miserey, missing the wine and ticker-tape parade in Paris. Parisians, not wanting to give up a celebratory occasion, amused themselves in honor of the storming of the Bastille.

 

In order to understand mankind, we must look at the word itself, “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean? Maybe we’ll never know. ~ Jack Handey

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May 29, 1913: Ill-Mannered Factions? In Paris?

On the evening of May 29, 1913, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the newest venue in Paris, open for just over a month, was packed.  According to a newspaper report: “Never. . . has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear.” What they were eager to see and to hear was a ballet program celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. Ticket sales were priced accordingly.

Parisian ballet audiences of the time fell into two distinct groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group favoring anything new and nontraditional because it would annoy the snobs in the boxes.

The evening began tranquilly with Les Sylphides, in which Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the main roles, followed by the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts) in which, after various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death.

There is a consensus among eyewitnesses and commentators that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, which was greeted by derisive laughter, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the “Augurs of Spring” with its pipers piping and dancers stomping. The terrific uproar, along with the on-stage noises, pretty much drowned out the performers.  The two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their anger was soon diverted toward the orchestra, and anything not tied down was quickly thrown in its direction. The plucky orchestra played on. Forty or so of the most energetic offenders were forcefully ejected by the police who had arrived somewhere toward the end of Part I. Throughout all this the performance continued without interruption.

Things grew somewhat quieter during Part II, and by some accounts the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence, albeit with a certain amount of muttering.  At the end there were several curtain calls (as opposed to catcalls) for the dancers, the orchestra, and Stravinsky before the evening’s program continued.

Press reviews called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” on one hand and “superb, with the disturbances, being merely a rowdy debate between two ill-mannered factions” on the other.

Paris survived.  The Rite of Spring became a classic.  And puerile barbarity is alive and well.

 

April 12, 1905: Magic Kingdoms Here and There

It was a Big Apple Fantasyland. Finishing touches were still being put in place on New York City’s Hippodrome just hours before its April 12, 1905, opening. Seating 5300 people, it dwarfed the Metropolitan Opera with its 3000 seats. A marvel of theatrical architecture, its stage was 12 times larger than any existing Broadway house and was capable of holding a thousand performers at a time or, perhaps, a full-sized circus complete with clowns and horses and acrobats and a flying elephant or two.

Speaking of Flying Elephants (a Clever Segue to 1992)

Could Mickey Souris really cut it among continental consumers? Would the rodent empire have the necessary je ne sais quoi to win those jaded Gallic hearts and minds? No more guessing or advance planning or idle speculation after D-Day (as in Disney) — April 12, 1992, the day Euro Disney opened its gates in Marne-La-Vallee on the outskirts of Paris. Gladstone Gander or Goofy?
The lucky duck prevailed. The royaume magique became one of Europe’s leading tourist destinations with some 15 million annual visitors. Disney had created another Fantasyland.

Speaking of Disney (a Clever Segue to a Blatant Commercial Message)

Paul wasn’t sure, but the five-foot duck waddling through the throngs of laughing, crying, shouting, whining children appeared to be waddling toward him – a duck with a destination and, perhaps, a mission.  Chances are it had spotted him scowling in a land where grinning is the norm, and it, by God, meant to do something about it.
“Enjoying the Magic Kingdom?” asked the duck upon reaching him. Despite its carefully sculpted plastic smile, this duck wasn’t going to cheer anyone up; its voice dripped sarcasm.
“Of course, I am,” Paul answered, adopting his very own duck attitude.  “Isn’t that why you’re here?  By the way, didn’t I somewhere get the idea that you’re all supposed to be pleasant and cheerful?”
“I’m not even supposed to talk.  Just wave.”  The duck waved and, in silence, could have passed for pleasant and cheerful, albeit of a fabricated sort.
“Then why did you talk to me?” Paul asked.
“Because you look bored – like you positively hate the place.”
“Ah, you’re not just an ordinary duck, you’re a member of the happiness squad, here to lift my spirits.”
“No,” answered the duck.  “I thought you might have a cigarette.”
“That’s an interesting deduction.”
“Well, do you?”
“Yes.”
“May I have one?” the duck asked, sitting next to him on the bench.
“Certainly.  I’ve never seen a duck smoke before.  Rabbits maybe, hedgehogs maybe, but never a duck.  Some people might find that a bit weird.”
“I think most people would agree that what’s really weird is someone talking to a duck.”

Quack here.

 

Bistro

Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.

“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.

Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”

Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.

Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.

“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”

“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”

“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”

“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”

“Vile.”

And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”

“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”

But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.

“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.

In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.

They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”

“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.

Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.

The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.

Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.

 

This is one of ten stories in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.  See more here.