Every year as August opens, I reminisce on historically important things which have occurred during the "dog days." Most Americans know we dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan Aug. 6, 1945, ushering in "the atomic age." More significant events have transpired in August than space permits mentioning; today I’ll focus on things pertinent to this specific date as Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009, dawns.
Here, then, are my "Top 10 Dog Day Thoughts."
10. Widely known across America as "Archie Bunker" and in these parts as "In the Heat of the Night" Chief Bill Gillespie, actor Carroll O’Connor, was born on this date in 1922. His portrayal of the bigoted Bunker on the sitcom "All in the Family" helped Americans from all walks of life discuss issues from race to religion to politics. O’Connor became a central figure in Partnership for a Drug Free America following his son’s suicide after years of battling drug addiction. Has "old Arch" really been gone now since 2001?
9. Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead, from behind, by Jack McCall on this date in 1876. Playing poker at Saloon Number 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota, Wild Bill was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, known now as "the dead man’s hand."
8. New York Yankees captain and one of the grittiest catchers ever to play baseball, Thurman Munson, died piloting his private jet near Akron, Ohio, in 1979. Like many star players with more money than they know what to do with, Munson had been learning to fly a jet. Seasoned aviators, and the National Transportation Safety Board, agreed that Munson was too inexperienced to handle that plane in bad weather, which contributed to the crash that killed him.
7. Barely a quarter-century after the Bubonic Plague, or the "Black Death," killed between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population, the world’s first roller skating rink opened in London on this date in 1375.
6. Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and the year 1492 are generally connected with Christopher Columbus. But on this date, in that same year, the royal couple expelled all Jews from Spain. Jews faced increasing discrimination in 15th century Europe in the wake of the "Black Death," which was thought to have been spread by fleas riding to Europe on minority immigrants.
5. America’s Declaration of Independence was formally signed today, in 1776.
4. Boston introduced the nation’s first street mail boxes on this date in 1858, and San Francisco made the first trial run of America’s only mobile national monuments — cable cars — in 1873.
3. In 1943, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 was rammed by Japanese destroyer Amagiri in the Solomon Islands. Years later Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero. "It was involuntarily, I assure you," said JFK laconically, "The enemy sunk my boat."
2. Nineteen years ago today, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The 1990 Gulf War seems more distant than that, yet sometimes as if it were yesterday. I remember Texas firefighter Red Adair helping snuff hundreds of oil well fires set by the Iraqi Army. "If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job," Adair said, "wait until you hire an amateur."
1. Twenty years ago, today, I was on my way back to Covington from four weeks on "the Quad" at Notre Dame, where I’d studied Blaise Pascal on a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities. Gifted philosopher Tom V. Morris guided 15 of us as through Pascal’s thoughts on the divinity of Jesus Christ and the fallacies of every other religion.
Pascal, a 17th century Frenchman, planned an apology for the Christian belief but before he could complete it, died at 39. Pascal’s thoughts "pensees" — were found written on scraps of paper, tied in bundles ostensibly planned as chapters, and were subsequently organized into the book, but lacking Pascal’s brilliance to explain them, of course.
Through Morris’s lectures and the interaction with others participating in the seminar — "Faith, Reason, and the Meaning of Life" — Pascal made crystal clear everything I believed about the Christian faith, but had been previously unable to put into words.
C. S. Lewis explained: "Apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I’ve just successfully defended it."
Pascal said, simply, that "a Christian can see God in everything; a non-believer cannot see God in anything."
As the "dog days" unfold, as Americans wonder why rain falls on the just and the unjust, as some wonder why bad things happen to good people, I celebrate a summer some 20 years removed and a special group of friends who have kept in touch all the while — and the beautiful insight of a Frenchman whose teachings are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.