May 31

“Have you seen the truck yet?” asked the owner of the place, an older man with gray hair, whose eyes narrowed but sparkled , a half-smile crossing his craggy face.

OK. Full disclosure: I’m making this up. I wasn’t there. I have no idea if his eyes sparkled. But I can still see it.

He was speaking to my uncle, who later told me the story, although the facial expressions, as I say, are all mine.

This was at a hotel, a resort really, where my uncle was a guest, and the truck in question had a history. It was functional and used daily by the landscapers, but it had been featured in the 1995 film, “The Bridges of Madison County.” My uncle was a fan of the film, and the owner invited him to sit in the truck, soak up the ambience, knock himself out. So he did, sat for a few minutes in the driver’s seat, remembering the movie, and later he thanked his host.

“I could imagine myself, reaching over to the glove box, Meryl Streep beside me,” he said, and the older man raised an eyebrow, grinned and spoke in a quiet but firm voice, whispery and powerful. “Glad I made your day, Ron” he said as he patted my uncle on the shoulder.

All right. That is a total lie, sorry. I don’t know what he said, or what he sounded like. I don’t know about the shoulder pat, either. I apologize, really. My imagination gets the best of me.

But can you blame me? This was my uncle, after all, and here he was, sitting in a famous pickup truck and having casual conversations with the owner of the Mission Ranch in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the former mayor of that town and by all accounts a very nice guy.

This was Clint Eastwood, by the way, in case you hadn’t picked up on that, or why I got a little gushy there. Clint and I go way back.

My uncle told me several Clint stories; he stays at the Mission Ranch whenever he gets a chance and he has for years. Apparently Clint knows his name, although my uncle will only refer to him as Mr. Eastwood.

Mr. Eastwood turns 80 today, Memorial Day. As I mentioned the other day, my fondness for him and his work transcends (or ignores) the details. I grew up sort of mesmerized, first by the vistas of Spain and then the feel-good, blowing-away-bad-guys films (hey, I watched Bronson too. I was young). As I also noted, his acting ability is nothing to write home about; even unknown actors who share his screen time point up his stiffness and limited range.

And we’re talking movies here, and given his career span a lot of bad movies. Nothing really life changing going on.

Just an appreciation, some affection, some vicariousness in listening to my uncle’s stories. He sat in the piano bar one night at the Mission Ranch, having a drink and waiting for the music, when suddenly Mr. Eastwood slid behind the keys, closed his eyes and played for a few minutes, his beloved jazz, only a couple of feet away. Hard not to get a little shiver of the moment, at least for me.

Mostly, though, I’m at an age when I can look at people who’ve shared my life from a distance, whatever their careers and whatever their talents, and be glad that they’ve been around, and today I’m glad that Clint still is.

 

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May 30

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

        –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn”

 

I didn’t get to spend any time at the Old North Bridge in Concord, MA, which I regret today. I would have liked to have seen this statue, Minute Man, on which the above Emerson stanza is inscribed.

It was designed by Daniel Chester French, who was in fact a friend of Emerson. He was also a friend of the Alcott family, and it was May Alcott who persuaded him to become a sculptor. May Alcott was also an artist, and the youngest sister of Louisa May Alcott. May Alcott was the real-life version of Amy in “Little Women.” We can go on and on.

Daniel Chester French is a famous American, although not so famous that you’ve heard of him. He had a postage stamp and everything, but people tend to slip away.

You might not have heard of this, either: French’s son was deaf, and communicated with sign language.

And if you go to see Mr. French’s most famous structure, the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, you might want to look at the hands. They look very much like they’re signing (ASL) the letters “A” and “L.” Who knows?

I’d like to think so, anyway. I’ve never been to Washington, D.C. and I’d like to, like to see everything but particularly the Memorial. Everyone says it’s a moving experience. Nice to know that it also might be a quiet one.

(Lincoln Memorial, dedicated on May 30, 1922)

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May 29

He would have been 90 this Tuesday, an old man. We can try to imagine him that way — white-haired, waving from a boat deck, leaning on a cane, talking with Larry King — but it’s ultimately futile, a fantasy overshadowed by fact. He remains, instead, a figure in grainy footage, preserved by a trick of historical light. John Kennedy will always be young.

We don’t think of him as a member of the Greatest Generation, of course, any more than we like to acknowledge that Willie Mays is 73 or that habeas corpus isn’t the law of the land anymore. Like the late Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, he seems not frozen but unstuck in time, floating through contemporary American history, ready to be plucked by politicians needing the right attitude, or gesture or rhetoric.

Being Kennedyesque is the ultimate attribute, the Holy Grail of the modern political personality. Get the perfect hair, practice the smile, jab the finger some, slip in a New England vowel if you can get away with it, look young, act young, talk about energy and light and toss in a touch of the poet from time to time.

                — “The iWar Generation,” The Seattle Times, May 27, 2007

There’s a timeline in my head, and it’s in living color. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who mentally sees the calendar this way, seasons that have shapes and hues, and I’m sure someone somewhere has studied this and has a theory about how our brains work. I’m not very interested; experience has taught me not to trust a lot of my brain. I’m not so much curious anymore as to why I tend to do what I do; mostly I work on not doing it.

But I see colors when I see history, and dates, sometimes trivial, can leap out and wave their arms, showing off. And sometimes I can use them.

As I used one in the above beginning to a Memorial Day essay I wrote three years ago. John Kennedy at 90? What an impossible picture, really. And now I noticed it again, today, his birthday.

The year 1917 is dark blue, by the way, for some reason. Maybe it’s a war color. I really have no idea.

And none of this matters, to me or to you. Just trivia. Just dumb figures and facts lodged upstairs, waiting to be harvested for a word count or an extra paragraph. There was a time in my life, years really, when I was a student of Jack Kennedy, read everything I could find, knew the little details, tried to find some Grand Theory of America in his life, which barely intersected with mine. Now I have only habit, no interest. Things catch my eye but I barely notice. Even as much as I enjoy reading and learning about U.S. presidents, all of whom are fascinating to me in their own ways, there’s nothing new here. He wasn’t around that long. Hardly knew ye, etc.

I wouldn’t have mentioned it today, either, except I noticed something. Some colors are brighter than others, and draw attention to themselves.

So, today, the 93rd anniversary of the birth of our 35th president, marks the moment when Kennedy has been dead exactly as long as he was alive. “Exactly” if you give me a little wiggle room, about 3 days, but then it’s his birthday. He was 46-1/2 when he died in Dallas, 46-1/2 years ago.

Again, you don’t want to know what goes on in my brain. Crazy stuff there, sometimes.

I do wonder, though, as I get older, about the shelf life of historical figures and the half-life of the rest of us. Is there an obscurity equation out there just waiting to be discovered, and does it correspond with years on this earth and years gone? If I die today, in 52 years will I have disappeared, save for maybe the fading memories of my senior citizen kids? I’m thinking yes, and today I’m getting some comfort from that, really. Living in the moment feels sweet this morning, looking at history and colors, trivial and ephemeral and not all that important.

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May 28

Today is the birthday of this:

 

In a way.

The CAPTCHA that so many of us know and love has only been around a decade, but the theory (a test to determine intelligent, sentient life as opposed to a bot, to simplify things tremendously) is a direct descendant of On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, a groundbreaking scientific paper submitted on this day in 1936 by Alan Turing.

The CAPTCHA, in fact, is basically a Turing Test (maybe a reverse one, since it involves software assessing human beings).

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about Alan Turing and his achievements, which were crucial to a lot of what I do today and am doing, in fact, right now. The idea of a Turing Machine (a programmable machine that can solve any mathematical problem if it were expressed as an algorithm) obviously led us to where we are in 2010, busy writing blogs and playing computer solitaire. But I haven’t got a clue about what it really means. Either my brain isn’t big enough or it’s not the right kind of brain.

I know about Alan Turing, of course. It’s a pretty famous name, if you pay any attention at all to the history of the 20th century. He had his smart fingers in a lot of pies, including code breaking during World War II and, toward the end of his life, chemistry. Although it was a pretty short life. It wouldn’t be inconceivable that Alan Turing would still be alive, in fact, although he’d be 98. Instead, he either took his life at the age of 41 (the official story) or he suffered an accidental exposure/ingestion of some chemical lying around his house.

Here’s where Turing’s life knocks on today’s headlines, though, and why I paid attention:

He was gay.

Gay in the way a lot of people in the 1950s were gay, out of necessity and survival instincts. Furtive gay. Private, secret gay. And, in also a pretty typical story, he outed himself by accident, or an error in judgment. He had a sexual tryst with a stranger, who ended up robbing him. Turing called the cops. The cops started asking questions. Turing told the truth.

Convicted of the same crime (gross indecency) as Oscar Wilde half a century before, Turing could have gone to prison. Instead, he submitted to chemical castration and forced injections of female hormones to eliminate his libido. He grew breasts. His security clearance was removed. No more code-breaking work. His career was essentially over, and two years later he was dead.

Look long enough at history and all you see is murkiness and relativism. Turing’s treatment was barbaric; the justification for some of it (the stripping of his government work) is understandable for the Cold War, if looking an awful lot like overreaction. Clucking over all of this isn’t interesting to me.

What is interesting, or maybe curious, is convergence and coincidence. Turing remains a What If, genius aborted by society, living in the wrong time and place.

And yesterday, of course, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that will, essentially and eventually, repeat Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military without fear of being discharged on the basis of whom they like to hang out with in their off hours.

I don’t cluck over this, either. I’ve watched the men and women who just want to serve being bounced for being gay, and it seems dumb and self defeating. I’d be more passionate if I knew someone in this particular situation; dispassionately, I figured public pressure, more awareness and just time would sort the whole thing out. I have plenty of opinions; they just don’t really count, and I don’t get a vote anyway.

But what happened to Turing happened to others and kept happening, and now maybe there’ll be less of it. Some brilliant military strategist, maybe, will get a chance to serve who wouldn’t before, dunno. It just struck me as interesting this morning, little pieces of history bumping into each other, reminding me that we’re talking about human lives, not algorithms, not really.

(Statue of Alan Turing, Manchester, UK)

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May 27

You either understand The HD Effect or you will. You sit there, smug and cautious, knowing that your old TV is perfectly fine, and then something happens. It breaks, something. And you go to high definition. And you spend a weekend watching The Rodent Network, because rodents are interesting when they’re all nice and sharply defined.

This explains why I’ve been renting a lot of Blu-Rays lately. It also explains why I watched two popcorn movies over the weekend. Sometimes I forget the plot for the pixels. I assume I’ll get over this.

But I didn’t think I’d actually watch The Blind Side, even though it’s been sitting here on my desk for days. I knew what it was. I have respect for Michael Lewis, who wrote the book, and I like Sandra Bullock as much as everyone else does. But I know sports movies, know that they’re diagrammed on white boards with emotional graph lines, and know how they end. There are plenty of admirable true stories around sports, filled with courage and redemption and tragedy and triumph. And they’re all very cinematic. The problem is they’ve been filmed already and it was called “Hoosiers.” Game over.

I watched it, though, sucked in by bright and shiny technology and Sandra, and at least for the first hour I enjoyed it. Whatever.

There’s another story, though, that I’m reminded of today. Sort of peripherally about sports, but definitely about courage and redemption and tragedy and triumph.

It was 15 years ago today, May 27, 1995, that the accident happened, still for unclear reasons; a spooked horse, a tangled bridle, a quirk of mass and gravity. And nine years later it ended, the story, and I woke up one October morning, a column already written, and read the news. This is not a period in my writing career that I like to revisit (for many reasons), and this one makes me cringe a little, but I still wanted to repost it, just to remember. Lots of stories out there. Some of them true. Some worth remembering.

——————-

The Man of Steel

I love movie trailers. Creating them is an art form, a specialized skill that can make money for a poor film and enhance a superior one. I rarely get out to the movies these days, but when I do I get there early. Sometimes Coming Attractions are the best part.

I can still remember previews from years ago. The one for “Jaws II,” for example, I remember as being striking, considering (in retrospect) what a lousy movie that was. The one for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” gave me chills. “Jurassic Park” made me wonder if that was something I really wanted to see (I did).

The film trailer I remember the most, though, was in 1978. The film I came to see is lost in my memory now, but the music started, there was a frenzy of quick cuts, a flash of red and blue, and then the narration, simple, direct, and perfect:

“You will believe a man can fly.”

There were echoes of childhood for me. I was a huge Superman fan, waiting every afternoon for the old 1950s television show to come on (“Look! Up in the sky!”). It’s now family lore for us, how I wandered around wearing a pair of my mother’s old glasses just so I could whip them off at the appropriate moment, bouncing around the house with a red towel around my neck, bunched up under my shirt. What I would have given for a phone booth in the backyard.

It was a good effort, that first “Superman” film in 1978, although it looks a little cheesy now. Still, it had Gene Hackman as Lex Luther, some nice (for the time) effects, and it was carried by a simple casting decision that made the difference. They found the perfect Man of Steel.

Christopher Reeve was a serious student of acting, going to Cornell and then spending some time at Julliard, where he became friends with another student, a sort of crazy, energetic guy by the name of Robin Williams, a friendship that endured. It was Williams who came through in the dark days after Reeve’s 1995 accident, providing moral and financial support.

Reeve was 25 when he was cast as Superman, 6’4 and handsome but a little on the skinny side. They played around with prosthetic muscles but he hated that, so he got a trainer and bulked up. Hard work, apparently, was not a challenge.

There would be other challenges, of course.

He spent a fair amount of time trying to “ditch the cape,” as he put it. He was an actor first and foremost, and probably had no desire to leave a legacy of blue tights and a big “S” on his chest. And, as it turned out, he wouldn’t.

If there is a more ironic true story that Christopher Reeve in recent years, I don’t know it. The man who became famous playing an invulnerable super hero suffered the cruelest blow to an active lifestyle, a devastating spinal cord injury that left him motionless and dependent on others for his very breath. An accident, a tumble from a horse that could have resulted in only bruised skin and ego, could have, cost him his freedom.

And allowed him to ditch the cape, finally, and show us that heroes come in the off-screen variety, too.

It’s enough just to manage, we think, it’s brave just to keep on living in the face of an injury like this, but Christopher Reeve didn’t want to just keep on living. He wanted to walk, and he wanted others to.

Yes, he had resources. He had money and fame. He was in a better position than most. But he never gave up, never lost the hope, and if he did he told us about that, too, and then moved on.

Spinal cord injury sufferers owe him a huge debt, for he forced the issue, changed the paradigm, re-wrote the rules. It’s not a stretch for me to believe that one day many people will walk once again solely because Christopher Reeve couldn’t, and refused to accept that.

I wrote another column this week, a dumb thing, trying to lighten things up in a nasty political season, and then I logged on and saw the news, and I remembered sitting in a dark theater and believing, at least for a couple of hours, that a man could fly. And I remembered the other story, the man in the wheelchair and on the respirator, the humor he displayed, the courage, the determination. He believed he would walk again one day, and if ultimately his body failed him, his spirit never did.

His screen legacy is brief, with a few bright moments and one iconic role, but there’s more to a life than pretend. More to his life.

Goodbye, Mr. Reeve. Thanks for your activism, for your courage and your commitment. Thanks for making a difference, for opening our eyes, for enlightening us, and for reminding us that even broken bodies have souls, and some special ones just soar.

 

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May 26

For me and mine, it was Clint, and for good reason. We grew up with him, maybe missing his “Rawhide” days but ready and waiting when he started riding onto the big screen. I still remember seeing a preview for “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and instantly understanding that I was seeing iconic cinema being constructed. And I didn’t know what iconic meant.

So Clint can do no wrong, not for me. And driving down to Phoenix a couple of weeks ago from the mountains, my uncle tagged along and told me great Clint stories, having run into him over the years in Carmel, California. I’ll share those another time, maybe.

I completely understand John Wayne’s effect, then, on maybe another generation (although I’m sure he’s always being rediscovered, and I share some of this anyway). A big man, like Clint. Distinctive voice (even more distinctive walk). And definitely iconic.

He was born 102 years ago today, Marion Robert Morrison, although he’s been gone for 31 years now. He wasn’t much of an actor, really, but then neither is Clint and I have no idea why that doesn’t matter but it doesn’t. I’ll stop what I’m doing and watch the Duke in anything for at least a few minutes, and if it’s Rio Bravo or Rio Grande or Stagecoach or The Shootist or The Cowboys or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or The Searchers or The Quiet Man or…hmm. More than a few minutes.

Not True Grit so much.

There’s a lot to dislike about John Wayne the man, if that’s something you want to spend time on. He was a foul-mouthed, hard drinking (and mean drunk), womanizing, racist draft-dodger, if you like, although some of this has to do with era and standards we apply now (he had some wrong-headed ideas about race, but it’s not like he was in favor of lynching. And even though he avoided service in World War II — and was despised by many veterans at the time for this – he was 34 and arguably did more good making movies. It’s not like he hid in the basement).

Anyway. In honor of the Duke, a little trivia:

He died of stomach cancer, not lung cancer as many people believe (although he had lung cancer in 1964 and lived the next 15 years with only one lung, still smoking cigars but giving up his six pack-a-day cigarette habit).

Speaking of cancer – 91 people who worked on the 1956 film The Conqueror, including Wayne, Agnes Moorhead and Susan Hayward, developed cancer and over 40% died of it, a huge statistical anomaly. It was made in Utah, downwind of nuclear tests.)

He was asked by Mel Brooks to play the Gene Wilder role (the Waco Kid) in Blazing Saddles, although Wayne thought it was too racy for his image (but said he’d be the first guy in line to see it).

He was the great-uncle of heavyweight boxer Tommy Morrison.

It was in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that Wayne’s character used, “Pilgrim” (and used it a lot), which became a trademark for mimics.

Another phrase he used, in The Searchers, was “That’ll be the day!” Buddy Holly was inspired (seriously) and wrote the song.

And finally, he wanted very much to play Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, although he was considered too old for the part.

So here’s to John Wayne, and also Clint. And to She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, which I forgot before. I’ll watch that, too.

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May 24

Years ago – and I’m thinking it’s closer to 15 than 10 – I decided to soldier through the Bible. I can’t remember what particularly inspired me, although I probably just thought I’d find some surprising things and it was something I should read straight through, as opposed to using it as a reference or for an easy quote.

Whatever the reason, I decided to read a book a day, just put my head down and burrow through the whole thing in 66 days (Protestant style). This isn’t an optimal way to read it, I guess, but sometimes I’m not an optimal guy.

And Numbers about killed me. After getting through Numbers, not only did I not want to finish my project, I didn’t ever want to read anything again. Numbers to a casual Scripture reader is like hockey to most Americans. Fill in your own joke.

But it was from Numbers that Annie Ellsworth, daughter of U.S. Patent Commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, grabbed a verse and shoved it into history. This would be 23:23, and in the KJV it reads, “What hath God wrought?” Samuel Morse took the ball and ran with it, tapping out those words and sending them from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., on this date in 1844. Thus inventing instant messaging.

I’ll admit to a little fascination with 19th-century technology origins. The Internet is nice and all, but these people were essentially working with stone knives and bear claws. And I grew up watching “The Wild, Wild West,” which explains a lot of this.

It also explains why I enjoyed “Sherlock Holmes” last night. That and Robert Downey, Jr. And Rachel McAdams, who’s becoming a favorite. Not so much Jude Law, but he was fine. Just not a big Jude Law fan.

I’m not a huge Holmes/Doyle fan either, meaning that of course I’ve read a lot of the stories and of course I enjoyed them, but not so much that it bothered me that this movie played around a bit with Mr. Holmes. That was perfectly fine with me; in fact, I sort of saw the Downey character as a Holmes-like man and forgot about the books.

I think I’m more easily amused these days, or at least that’s my explanation for not only enjoying “Sherlock Holmes” but also “2012,” which is really awful and totally awesome. Or maybe because I watched them both late at night when I really had nothing better to do.

And I won’t talk anymore about either, since my wife plans on watching Downey/Holmes tonight and sometimes she reads my blog. I will say, though, that 19th-century technology has a place in the film, and it made me think that, no offense to Will Smith, Robert Downey, Jr. would have been the perfect James West in a remake of that series.

I wouldn’t cast Jude Law as Artemus Gordon, though. But again, not much of a fan.

Separated at birth.

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May 23

I spent some time, a few years ago, with a young guy who was funny and nice and started every earnest conversation with, “I’m not gonna lie to you.” This is a verbal tic, sure, not a Freudian clue, but it was always an interesting way to start a conversation. A preemptive strike, sorta.

So I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m getting older and it’s on my mind.

And to paraphrase what supposedly was the wit of George Bernard Shaw or maybe Churchill (or maybe it’s made up), all that’s left is to negotiate the price. How much is this aging business going to cost me in terms of cliché and irrelevancy?

I fight it all the time. Don’t talk so much. Don’t reminiscence. Don’t get cranky or sullen or wistful or sentimental. Wear headphones instead of turning the TV up to 11. Don’t drive so damn slow. Really. It’s sort of a pathology.

Then there’s the constant musing on death, this relentless pursuit of old friends, the desperate search for coherence when it comes to ideology and political viewpoints, and the fear of wasting time.

Although you could blame a lot of this on Facebook, too.

Mostly, though, I try to observe people who seem to be aging well and do what they do. A lot of them are 20 years or more older, giving me a little time. Some of them are famous. Pretty much everyone has more money than I do.

It’s not just now, either. I remember distinctly, back in the 70s, seeing a picture of Warren Beatty on the cover of a magazine and being amazed at how young and good looking he still was. “The man is 42!” I said, easily impressed.

Of course, when he reached 60 Beatty went through that embarrassing period when he tried to manage lighting whenever he appeared in a film or on TV, giving him this artificial glow and making everyone gag. Humiliating, but then welcome to the club.

It’s a good lesson, though. Tricks are just tricks, whether they involving backlighting or hairpieces, and there’s really no point in lying. My opinion, anyway. It’s either accept our fate or emulate Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who died in their mid-20s on this day back in 1934, having lived fast and left good-looking corpses, or maybe they did; probably depends upon the lighting. I prefer my way, which is to ignore most signs of aging and to embrace the rest, but it doesn’t keep me from thinking about it. While I’m driving, usually. Which explains a lot.

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May 22

On this date in 1906, Wilbur and Orville Wright were granted a patent for their Flying Machine. In case you want to throw that detail into your Saturday mix.

I was on one of their flying machines last week, and flying into Seattle reminded me once again how much pleasure that gives me. I have a feeling I could travel to the most exotic place on earth and still get a little thrill on swooping down over the Sound. Water, islands, green. And after leaving the Southwest, it felt like I was landing in Ireland.

And this was my favorite approach, flying north past the airport, making a U-turn over north Lake Washington and descending over the city. This time, sitting next to obvious tourists, I tried to imagine seeing the sights through the eyes of strangers. Considering that I had the window seat and wasn’t about to share.

So I looked right away for the Space Needle, the most recognizable landmark, and there it was, right where it was supposed to be (whew).

I haven’t ridden the elevator to the top in years, many years, but of course people still do. It’s a great view unless you have problems with heights. Or maybe if you’re a 20-something former high school wrestler from Colorado.

Or maybe Minnesota. I do think they were wrestlers, though. And they were taking a tour of our fine city one day during trip for a meet, and they went up in the Needle.

I mean, someone had to be up there. And most likely it would be tourists, I guess. But there they were, right at the top, enjoying the scenery, when they had the relatively unique experience of being up in the air at the top of a tall, skinny structure when a major earthquake struck (the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001).

The Space Needle is a pretty safe place to be during an earthquake, by the way. Although you can’t plan on those sorts of things.

These kids had a close encounter with coincidence, then, and I’m thinking it probably changed them. Maybe they’re amused by the wackiness of life. Maybe they have issues with heights now. Most of them probably don’t wrestle anymore.

And finally, it was on this date in 1960 that an earthquake struck Chile, about 400 miles south of Santiago. It measured 9.5 on the moment magnitude scale, and thus was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. In case your day needs one more bit of trivia.

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