In a hundred years or so, humanity will have good fun sharing oral histories about 2020 around the campfire while historians dig through preserved editions of the Daily Mail. Perhaps they’ll tell the story of how nobody stopped climate change in a yearly pageant titled “We Didn’t Listen,” or how folks fought over wearing masks amid a pandemic. But right now? Our wildest stories to recount come from generations past and, let’s face it, they probably were less hilarious to the people who lived through them. Whether you’re into sports, animals or politics, there’s something here for everyone.
Fiona Zublin, Senior Editor
all creatures great and small
1. Grin and Bear It
Syrian brown bear Wojtek was adopted by Poland’s 22nd Artillery Transport Division during World War II and became a beloved member of the company. Known for sneaking into the mess tent and raiding the honey stashes, drinking from bottles of beer and eating cigarettes, Wojtek was also famous for wrestling soldiers — though he ended matches he won by licking the soldier on the face rather than eating him. After the war, he was transferred with his company to Scotland, where he ended up living out the rest of his days in the Edinburgh Zoo. A prominent statue of him still stands in the Scottish capital’s Princes Street Gardens.
2. Steed Up
Turkmenistan traces its iconic gold Akhal-Teke horse, which does actually shimmer, all the way back to Alexander the Great’s favorite mount. Its lineage remains unconfirmed, but Akhal-Teke is an extraordinary animal — one that was threatened during the Soviet era, when private horse breeding was banned and strong, fast animals were turned into sausages. They’ve made a comeback under post-Soviet dictatorial rule, with former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov installing his Akhal-Teke as the nation’s official emblem. Not to be outdone, current leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov unveiled an extravagant, gold-leaf statue of himself on horseback in Ashgabat — two years after he fell off the horse during a race (an event that is still illegal in Turkmenistan to watch video of).
Murthy the Indian elephant had left a murderous wake (he’s said to have killed 28 people during his rampages), but instead of taking a life for a life, forest rangers who tracked him down in 1998 decided to rehabilitate him. They brought Murthy to an elephant training camp, where they nursed his wounds and removed 15 bullets from his body. After he began to recognize and like his trainers, they taught him to be a kumki, an elephant who helps humans chase away or capture wild pachyderms to keep them from trampling human settlements. Murthy is retired now, and lives semi-wild in the jungle, returning to the camp for food and his evening bath — and to pose for photos with fans.
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On July 12, 1979, Chicago’s Comiskey Park, hoping to boost flagging attendance numbers, held a Disco Demolition Night, promising to blow up a crate full of disco records on the field in the middle of a double-header between the White Sox and the Tigers. Spectators filled the sold-out park, and the promotion turned into a riot that forced Chicago to forfeit the second game. But, as this episode of You’re Wrong About argues, the record burning was about more than anti-disco backlash: The mayhem on the field revealed that the rioters were largely motivated by racism and homophobia, since disco was considered a style of music that celebrated marginalized communities.
2. Cav Not
We could argue forever over the best NBA player of all time — or we could all agree on the worst, Gary Suiter, who played in 30 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970. Not only did he average just 1.4 points per game, but he was notorious for accidentally locking himself in bathrooms, calling the team while posing as an anonymous fan to demand more court time for himself and even scamming a funeral parlor by using its phone to place long-distance calls to other NBA teams about a potential job (he racked up a $700 bill, which the undertaker then had to demand from the Cavaliers).
Sweden’s 1912 Olympic Games are notable not just because they were the first to include Japanese athletes but also because they marked the beginning of the slowest marathon in history. Runner Shiso Kanakuri began his race but collapsed after 17 miles, and secretly fled the country in shame to return to Japan. Fifty years later, with Kanakuri still listed as a missing person in Sweden, officials came knocking to ask whether he wanted to finish the race. Then 75 years old, the aging athlete agreed, and successfully completed the slowest race ever — at 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.
The Watergate break-in and subsequent fallout changed media and presidential history. Yet, it might never have happened if not for the “bum squad,” a trio of cops dressed as hippies and unrecognizable to the burglars’ lookout. By the time the lookout clued in to the gun-toting hippies, officers had entered the building and arrested five men crouching behind a few desks. The rest is history — but only because the uniformed officer originally tasked with answering the call was reportedly too drunk to respond after getting free bourbon and Cokes at a local bar.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a historic night, and you can thank two guys who made it up as they went along. The first was Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski, who stumbled while reading a press release and (mistakenly) told a news conference that all GDR citizens could go through border crossings, starting immediately. The second was Lt. Col. Harald Jäger, the senior officer at Berlin’s main border crossing, who faced crowds demanding to be let through and felt there was no alternative but to open the border. They both got fired, but Berlin had one helluva party that night.
In 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world. No, really! A midcareer military officer at the height of the Cold War, he was on late-night duty at a Moscow command center when his computer started telling him there had been an American missile launch. The appropriate military response would’ve been to retaliate with a Soviet strike. But Petrov decided it had to be a glitch and waited 23 minutes — the time it would have taken U.S. missiles to reach Russia and obliterate him — rather than launching a counterstrike and starting a nuclear war.
4. Hot Dog Man
Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was very territorial about his personal papers — in fact, as he had them prepared for donation to the Library of Congress and Harvard Law School, he stipulated that they had to remain secret for 16 years. They were opened to the public in 1967, two years after Frankfurter died — and in 1972, the Library of Congress noticed they had been plundered, with more than 1,000 pages missing. The mystery has never been solved, though this episode of More Perfect, a podcast about the history of the Supreme Court, dives into some of the potential culprits.
in sickness and in health
1. Do No Harm
We all know by now that quarantine saves lives. But a fake quarantine can save lives too, as Italian doctor and anti-fascist Adriano Ossicini found out firsthand. When Jews fleeing Nazi persecution showed up at his Catholic hospital in 1943, Ossicini handed them a diagnosis of “Syndrome K.” Of course it was fake, but it terrified the Nazis, who feared infection from the faux disease and steered clear of the hospital, just one of the lifesaving ploys that led to 9 in 10 Roman Jews avoiding Nazi arrest during the war.
2. Can’t Get Enough
Maybe you’ve heard enough about pandemics for one lifetime. But if not, try this free Yale history course about humankind’s experience with various contagious diseases from ancient history onward. Be warned, it gets gruesome — but it’s also filled with crazy details, like smallpox remedies that included surrounding patients with the color red, applying ice bags to the face and irritating the skin on the back so that the face wouldn’t be severely scarred (this does not work).
3. Bend and Snap
A good exercise regimen is one you can do anywhere, so perhaps it was a solid first test that Joseph Pilates developed his iconic series of toning exercises while locked up in an internment camp. The German-born circus performer and boxer living in Britain during WWI was hoping to keep fit (and help his sickly fellow inmates do the same). After watching cats stretching, Pilates developed a fitness system to stretch human muscles and build strength. Originally called Contrology, we call it Pilates.