On this day in 1847, the first group of rescuers reached the Donner Party.

Heavens, what a horrible trip these poor people had.  As you may know, the Donner Party is famous for having had to resort to cannibalism to survive when their overland journey from Illinois to California was stalled by deep snow in the Sierra Nevadas.  To me, one of the most unfortunate parts of this tale of woe is that, when the first rescue party arrived, while 14 of the emigrants had died, there had been no cannibalism.  However, in the week-long interval between the arrival of the first and the second relief parties, the survivors had begun to eat their dead.  Desperate times, desperate measures.  It’s not impossible to imagine. 

Today is the day that 30,000 United States Marines (boo-rah!) landed on Iwo Jima in 1945.  The image of the American Flag being raised by six soldiers was taken on the 5th day of the 35-day long battle by photographer Joe Rosenthal, and was the first photo to win a Pulitzer prize in the same year it was published.  Three of the six men in the photograph were killed in action during the conflict, which was ultimately a victory for the Allied Forces.

It’s the birthday of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, born in 1876.   Bohemian, with a rare ability to capture essence rather than appearance, Brancusi was a shepherd-turned-sculptor who excelled in carvings in wood, stone and bronze. 

He also made most of his own furniture and doorways, so he was clearly handy to have around the home.  A spiritual man, he nevertheless had a strong appreciation for wine, women and smokes. In the last 19 years of his career, Brancusi only made 15 sculptures, and in an interview towards the end of his life, was said to have been puttering around his studio, “communing with the silent host of fish, birds, heads and endless columns he’d created.” 

He’s known for having created the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction ($37.2 million).  Sorry to be a modern art ignoramus, but I have to ask why this piece sold for that much.

Brancusi’s grave is in Montparnasse in Paris, which ironically has several sculptures that he crafted as gravestones for others.  His grave is remarkably unadorned, and for a reason that I can’t identify, he appears to have been buried with abstract husband-and-wife painters Alexandre Istrati and Natalia Dumitresco.

Today is British actress Merle Oberon’s birthday (1911-1979).  Beautiful yes, but honestly, I never thought much of her acting skills.  She’s always seemed so wooden and as if she were overacting.  She was the mixed race child of a British subject and a Ceylonese/Maori Eurasian woman, though it is unclear if her mother was actually her mother or, in reality, her grandmother.  After a car crash in 1937 resulted in severe facial trauma, she was somewhat obsessed with film and lighting techniques that would minimize the appearance of her scars onscreen.  She died from a stroke at the age of 68 and is now a resident of the famous Forest Lawn Cemetary.  (I had a friend who urinated on graves there by accident once in the dark.)

Today in 1963, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking feminist book “The Feminine Mystique” was published.

I waited on Betty Friedan back in 1981 when I worked at a clothing store in Harvard Square called Serendipity.  I recall sneaking peeks at her as I ran her credit card through the machine.  I have to say, and I truly, truly, mean no disrespect by saying this, that she was one of the ugliest women that I have ever seen.  Though I did compliment her on her book.  Even though I never read it. 

It’s Chocolate Mint Day.  If you’ve never grown it in your garden, I’d encourage you to do so.  It really does smell just like chocolate when you rub its little leaves.

And lastly, it’s the 12th anniversary of the death of Grandpa Jones.  Known as Grandpa due to his extreme grumpiness when he arrived for early-morning radio shows, he was a remarkable clawhammer banjo player and a longtime cast member of “Hee Haw”, which will, no doubt, only be familiar to Southerners of a certain age.

When I was 15, I was forced to participate in a “talent” show at Theosophy Camp in Hot Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, where I was staying with my grandmother one summer, and the skit in which I had to perform was a recreation of the singing washboard women from Hee-Haw.  Oh, dear.  I’ll leave the whole damn thing to your imagination.

Thus endeth the history lesson.  Hope you feel slightly enlightened.

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