The twenty-fifth of May is meaningful, because a lot of memorable things in history took place on that date. There’s nothing unusual about that, of course. Important situations can develop quickly, and without warning. This fact is well-documented on many television stations, which provide a continual stream of breaking news, even if that news is just a different panel of experts commenting on the same story you’ve been following for the past seventeen weeks.
With a little research, you’ll see that you can pick any day, and it will be connected to a long list of noteworthy events. This gives you some idea how busy the human race has been. We’re all doing something to keep our minds awake and our muscles limber, although most of it is pretty unremarkable. That’s why those lists never include people who became captain of their bowling team, or went to the car wash and found three nickels and a lot of potato chip crumbs between the front seats. It has to be something big and unprecedented, and those kinds of achievements are rare. However, when you step back and look at large expanses of time, there are plenty of substantial incidents to discover. And today’s date is no exception.
Here’s another interesting thing. The criteria we use when considering historical significance tend to change over the centuries. There’s a pattern to it, one that’s somewhat predictable.
For example, most timelines begin around the year 1000 AD. The period right before that was known as the Dark Ages. Things were still happening then, but very little of it was recorded, because the lighting was poor, and it was hard to find anything to write with.
The first few entries on these lists involve emperors and military conquests, as well as the deaths of popes and the spread of plagues. Also, despite our belief that humans just recently began losing their sanity, there have been countless massacres throughout history. At first, these atrocities were committed by roving mobs of pillagers and plunderers, but then local governments took over, which reduced travel expenses.
Beginning around 1700, groups of people began expelling other groups of people from their countries, decapitating monarchs, and starting revolutions. During the nineteenth century, we began to get really good at inventing new types of weapons and making war, and so specific battles became famous. In the twentieth century, we became killing machines, but also found ourselves caught up in the lives of professional athletes and academy award winners.
The events associated with May 25th follow this general arrangement.
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On this date in 1085, Alfonso VI, who had proclaimed himself emperor of Spain eight years earlier, conquered the Muslims at Toledo and occupied their kingdom. According to many historians, this helps to explain the origin of the expression holy Toledo. Remaining a mystery, however, are the phrases holy mackerel, holy smoke, and holy cow.
In 1632, an Austrian general named Albrecht von Wallenstein drove the Saxons from Bohemia and recaptured the city of Prague. I have no idea what the Saxons were doing in Bohemia in the first place, or how von Wallenstein managed to get rid of them. I’m lucky if I can get our cat to move out of the way when I’m sweeping the stairs. I’d like to go to Prague myself someday, and just hope to get a decent hotel room.
Eighty-nine years later, on May 25, 1721, John Copson became the first insurance agent in America. It’s likely he was also the first person to ever utter these words: “I’m sorry, but your husband’s tragic death in the buffalo stampede isn’t covered by your policy. Did you read the list of exclusions, beginning on page thirty-seven?”
In 1738, Maryland and Pennsylvania signed a peace treaty, ending Cresap’s War and a decade of hostilities over a boundary dispute. A similar problem could arise at the Haskell Free Library, which sits right on the border between Vermont and Quebec. So far, no shots have been fired across the reading room.
Speaking of Quebec, in 1837 residents of that province began a series of meetings, elections, and rebellions in an effort to break away from British control and the rest of Canada. Some of them are still at it.
On May 25, 1935, at the age of forty, Babe Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career, going four-for-four in the game and driving in six runs. He retired the next week, a former superstar who had outlived his usefulness to the public, and to the sport.
Eight years later, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Washington to discuss the continued prosecution of World War II. By 1945, more than fifteen million soldiers had lost their lives on the battlefield. Three times as many civilians died on the streets, in schools and churches, and in their own living rooms.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to land astronauts on the Moon. By 1972, we had accomplished the task six times, and grown bored with it.
On May 25, 1965, Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round, with a punch many still deny ever happened. Like Ruth, both men would hang on a little too long past their prime.
In 1983, Return of the Jedi was released, a movie that, if I had to watch it again, would compel me to hold a pillow over my own face.
Three years later, six million people formed a chain known as Hands Across America. The event was intended to fight hunger, poverty, and homelessness.
On May 25, 2009, North Korea conducted an underground test of a nuclear weapon, an act that frightened and enraged the world. Last year, under a different leader, they did it again.
As I said, there seems to be a pattern to our behavior. If I had to pin it down to one sentence, I’d say we stick with some things far too long, and give up on others much too soon. Which makes me wonder if maybe we haven’t quite emerged from those Dark Ages yet. Now that would be breaking news.