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This Day in History – April 18 – Hijinx, Humor, and Insight

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NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.

You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.

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THIS DAY IN HISTORY… APRIL 18

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1521 – Diet of Worms.

This was an assembly presided over by the Holy Roman Empire that took place in the town of Worms. Martin Luther appeared before it to face charges of heresy. At this hearing he defended his “95 theses” and refused to recant his rebellious position. Luther had broken with the Catholic Church over its practice of selling indulgences, or payments for forgiveness of sins. One of Luther’s statements that day was: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” This was the beginning of the Protestant movement and a new religion was born.

I grew up as a Lutheran, so Martin was our man. My grandmother was a very devout woman and she tried to instill that same devotion in me. We lived in a small town about an hour from the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. It seemed farther away, more remote, as the area remained very provincial. A movie came out about Martin Luther and was to be shown at a movie theater in downtown Minneapolis. A woman’s group in our church decided they were going to see it. About forty women, all elderly, piled onto a school bus. And somehow, more than likely at my grandmother’s insistence, I was also included. Ten years old at the time, I was quite possibly the only passenger on that bus who wasn’t born in the 19th century. I don’t remember the movie, or that the trip was particularly painful, but I do remember receiving a lesson in just how backward I really was. We were driving along a street lined with huge, old, ornate houses built before the turn of the century. Looking out the bus window, I was impressed by their grandeur. Then I saw a number above the doorway of one of them. 1910. Wow, I thought, that house was built in 1910. My hometown was so small we didn’t have house numbers, or even street names at the time. Then I saw the number 1890 on a house, then 1884. Getting even older I thought, and was more amazed. The deeper we got into the city the older the houses got. That made sense to me. The 1800s and then the 1700s. I became excited at the history I was seeing.

“These houses are really old,” I said to my grandmother.

Engaged in conversation she offered detached agreement. Fortunately I didn’t pursue it, for somewhere around house number 1492, logic crept into my adolescent mind in the form of “How could that house have been built before Columbus arrived?”

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1847 – Battle of Cerro Gordo.

Battle near Vera Cruz during the Mexican-American War. It featured the American Army led by Gen. Winfield Scott against the Mexican Army led by Santa Anna. The Americans were victorious, driving Santa Anna from the field of battle in such a rush he left behind his artificial leg. The battle was also notable in that it was the training ground for such future Civil War generals as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and P.T. Beauregard. This all came about because of the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” a widely held belief that American settlers were destined and had the right to proceed westward. All of the southwestern United States and California was the prize and this battle was the first step in wresting it away from Mexico.

Manifest Destiny stated in another way is: “You have, we want.”

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1861 – Robert E. Lee turns down command of the Union Army.

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Standing firmly on the side of slavery, Lee instead chose the Confederacy. He lost his plantation in the war and it is now Arlington National Cemetery.

His decision does not rank high in the wise career choice category.

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Birthdays:

1813 – James McCune Smith.

African-America physician, abolitionist and author. Upon graduating from the African Free School in Manhattan, Smith was denied admission to a number of American colleges. So he went to Scotland and where he graduated with a medical degree from the University of Glasgow. The records are uncertain, but he may have been the first African-American to earn such a degree. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, they started the first national organization for black people. Smith was also instrumental in the Underground Railroad which assisted runaway slaves seeking freedom. Despite his degree, Smith was never admitted to the American Medical Association.

We certainly have a long history of crap, don’t we?

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1857 – Clarence Darrow.

Lawyer and civil libertarian. He was a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union. He had many famous cases including the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and the Scopes Monkey Trial, and he defended socialist Eugene Debs who helped organize the Pullman strike, among other labors leaders such as “Big Bill” Haywood. Darrow was one of the greatest defense lawyers in American history and he was often thought of as a champion of the underdog.

Fascinating man. My introduction to Clarence Darrow was as Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind.”

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2017 – A personal entry by Gary Jenneke.

I’m very old, almost history myself. I’m old enough to write about two different trips to Washington, DC, fifty-five years apart.

I just recently returned from a trip to our nation’s capitol. I had been there before, as a young sailor on liberty. I was stationed on the east coast, going to school to become a radioman, and I had the weekend off. Traveling alone I hopped on a bus to DC. Lost, uncertain how to proceed, I wandered into a USO. I sat on a couch and thumbed through a LIFE Magazine. Oddly enough, there was a pictorial article on a town where I had lived in Minnesota. Glenwood was a hotspot for ice-fishing and there were photos of ice houses scattered across Lake Minnewaska. Fighting off a brief surge of homesickness, I set the magazine aside.

“Hey buddy.” A soldier sitting across the table from me said, “Want to go on one of these tours?” I looked at the pamphlet he shoved at me. It would take us to various memorials, the Smithsonian Institute, Arlington National Cemetery, and ended with a tour of the White House.

He seemed friendly enough, so I agreed. Don was his name and he had an outgoing personality. “Cold,” he said, as we stepped outside. He was from somewhere down south, I forget where. It was a gray, drizzly day in January, and being from Minnesota I thought it pretty mild.

At some point during the day, I don’t know when, a photographer, unsolicited, took my picture as I walked alongside the White House. Being very naïve at the time, I imagine I paid too much for it, but I’m happy I have it now.

We did the tour, seeing the memorials dedicated to Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson, and we took an elevator up the Washington Monument. Because we basically were still kids, I had barely turned eighteen, we raced down the steps of the monument. At the castle-like Smithsonian museum I saw the Spirit of St. Louis and Alan Shepard’s space capsule. We were at Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard, and it made me uncomfortable. Because we were in uniform instructions were given to Don and I on standing at attention and when to salute. Forced to become part of the pageantry, I felt conspicuous and on display myself.

The last stop was the White House. There was no security, we were simply led in through a side door. I don’t know if the President and Jackie were even in the house at the time. Understandably, their living quarters were not part of the tour. About all I remember is peeking into various rooms, looking at ornate furniture, and listening to the guide talk about how Jackie was redecorating the place. That is until Don leaned over and whispered “Hey.” I looked at him. “I just saw Danny Thomas and Rosemary Clooney down that hallway. I bet they’re visiting the President.”

Maybe a lot of people now don’t know who he was, but at the time Danny Thomas was one of the biggest stars on television. And Rosemary Clooney was a famous singer. She was also an aunt to current actor George Clooney. I can’t say I was overly excited by Don’s sighting of them. Just a couple of big-time celebrities who lived in a far different world than mine. In fact I was tired of the tour, wanting to go off and do something else. “Let’s wait outside, maybe we’ll get a chance for an autograph.” Don suggested. I said nothing but my internal reaction was somewhere along the lines of “big deal.”

The tour ended, and Don and I stood on the sidewalk at the side the White House. A big, black limousine was parked on the street and Don was convinced it was waiting for Thomas and Clooney. He was right. We waited only a few minutes before they came out and headed for the limousine. “Excuse me, can we get your autographs?” Don boldly walked toward them. I reluctantly followed, expecting a rebuff. They stopped and Danny Thomas turned toward us. Rosemary Clooney gave an off center smile in our direction and without making eye contact climbed into the back of the limousine.

I expected the same from him but what happened next totally surprised me. Danny Thomas stood on the sidewalk, in the cold, and talked to us. Not the perfunctory “Where are you boys from and thank you for serving blah blah blah crap.” He actually engaged us, for ten minutes, maybe even longer. He apologized for Miss Clooney, saying she wasn’t feeling well. He asked if we enjoyed the tour, inquired about our duty and where we were stationed, and his interest seemed genuine. That’s the impression I was left with, that he was a genuinely nice man. He gave Don his autograph, and then looked at me. I’ve never collected an autograph in my life, it seemed like a strange pursuit to me. So I just shrugged, and gave him a little, apologetic smile. He looked at me, then a big grin crossed his face, and he clapped me on the shoulder. I took it that he understood.

Fifty-five years later I was in DC again. The world has changed immensely since then. The spot where Don and I stood and talked to Danny Thomas is no longer accessible to the public. Barriers and security personnel keep citizens from meandering that close to the executive mansion. And there’s no signing up for a tour and getting into the White House on the same day. It is necessary to sign up months in advance in order to get security clearance. The Smithsonian has expanded greatly with eleven museums in proximity to the mall. Tourists now flock to DC, whereas in 1962 it was not a cottage industry. There are more memorials now with more probably coming. To me the most significant addition has been the Vietnam Memorial.

I hadn’t planned it that way but I was in DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Me, a couple of hundred thousand other tourists, but the cherry blossoms were a no-show. So there were crowds of people, too many people, when I visited the Vietnam Memorial. Nevertheless, I found it a sacred place. I read names as I moved at a slow pace along the black granite wall. Anger and sadness engulfed me. It helped to pick out a name and then say it out loud. It felt like a bridge to the spirit of someone, someone I didn’t even know, who had died in that unfortunate war. A name, a person, who for a moment, wasn’t forgotten.

But there were too many people there. Kids running and screaming, tourists having their pictures taken in front of the wall. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t the solemn experience I had been seeking. I gained no peace or understanding. Maybe someday I’ll go back, go there at night when it’s quiet. I never did know Don’s last name. My last thought upon leaving was I hoped it wasn’t carved somewhere onto that wall.

Here are two photos, one from each visit, with the White House visible in the background of each shot. I was obviously pretty much a squared-away “boot” in the first photo and would become much “saltier” later.

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Postscript.

The next day, Sunday, I went to the Capitol. My father said I should introduce myself to the Representative from our district and he’d show me around. Except the only time I could get liberty was the weekend and of course nobody was at the Capitol on a weekend. I rattled the locked door anyway and tried to peer inside. I can’t imagine getting away with that act in today’s world either.

I walked back down the nearly deserted steps of the Capitol. Halfway down there was a family, the father taking a picture of his wife and two kids. I don’t know what mischievous impulse seized me but just as he snapped the photo I jumped into the frame next to his family. He initially frowned but his wife and kids began laughing. They insisted he take a couple of more pictures with me included. So somewhere in Indiana maybe there is still a family photo album with me in it.

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ABOUT GARY JENNEKE

At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.

You can reach him at gary@newswhistle.com.

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CREDITS

The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers:

Sources:

Wikipedia.org

History.com

Britannica.com

OnThisDay.com

BlackPast.org

We’d also like to thank the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:

* Lead-In Image  – Clarence Darrow (Image) – Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com – “The House Committee in the District of Columbia holding hearings on a bill to abolish capital punishment listens to famed criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow, speaking in favor of the bill. Feb. 1, 1926.”

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* Diet of Worms (Podcast) – Podcast Zone / YouTube.com

Battle of Cerro Gordo (Podcast) – American Military History Podcast / YouTube.com

* Robert E . Lee (Portrait) –  Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com

* James McCune Smith (Video) – New-York Historical Society Museum & Library / YouTube.com

* Clarence Darrow (Video, Circa 1932) – Leigh Bienen / YouTube.com

* Gary Jenneke (Portrait) – Courtesy of Gary Jenneke

* “Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon)” – Courtesy of SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com

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OTHER DAYS IN HISTORY …

December 5

* December 11

* December 16

December 18 

* December 22

December 28

January 3

* January 4

January 7

January 11

* January 14

* January 15

January 19

January 22

January 24

January 29

February 1

February 3

February 5

February 9

* February 10

* February 14

February 15

February 20

February 21

February 25

February 28

March 2

March 6

March 9

March 12

March 14

March 17

March 19

March 21

March 23

March 27

March 29

April 2

April 3

April 6

April 11

* April 13

April 23

April 28

May 2

May 6

May 10

May 15

May 19

* May 26

June 1

June 8

June 13

June 18

June 24

June 29

July 3

July 9

* July 13

July 17

July 23

July 30

* August 3

August 10

August 16

August 21

August 25

* August 31

September 5

September 11

September 16

September 21

September 25

September 30

October 7

October 12

October 16

October 25

October 30

November 4

* November 5

November 8

November 9

November 14

* November 19

November 23

November 30

* Stay tuned for more!

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