Oblivion is not to be hired: the greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. --Sir Thomas Browne
On May 6, 1937, Chicago radio reporter Herbert Morrison was in Lakehurst, New Jersey, covering the arrival of the colossal German zeppelin the Hindenburg. But rather than broadcasting live (as was the strict radio practice of the time), Morrison was recording the occasion for possible future use. He was describing the Hindenburg's docking when suddenly the hydrogen-filled airship exploded. "It burst into flames!" he screamed into his microphone. "It burst into flames and it's falling!" Even as he described the crash, which would claim 36 of the ship's 97 passengers, Morrison had trouble believing his eyes. "Oh, the humanity!" he wailed.
After eluding Nazi officials who wanted to confiscate his recording equipment, Morrison returned to Chicago; the following day WLS aired his report, the first broadcast of a prerecorded news event. A few hours later NBC played the tape across the network, and countless millions have heard it since; it's one of the most-often replayed news reports in history. Though an actor portrayed Morrison in the 1975 film The Hindenburg, moviegoers did hear the original 1937 recording of the disaster. Morrison died on January 10, 1989, in a nursing home in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was 83.
When President Gerald Ford left a San Francisco hotel on September 22, 1975, Sara Jane Moore raised a revolver and took aim. Just as she fired, ex-Marine Oliver W. Sipple lunged for the gun. Moore's shot went astray, and the president was unharmed. Things did not go so well for Sipple. Though he begged the news media to ignore him--"I'm not a hero," he said, "I'm a live coward"--his name was flashed across the country, along with suggestions of his homosexuality. Five days later Sipple filed a $15 million lawsuit for invasion of privacy, avowing that "my sexuality is part of my private life." The suit was dismissed in 1980.
Sipple, who was on disability because of psychological problems following combat in Vietnam, had left Detroit and moved to San Francisco so that he could live as he chose without distressing his family. It was San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who first hinted at Sipple's homosexuality when he noted the failure of the White House to thank Sipple. Eventually President Ford did send Sipple a letter of commendation, which hung in the apartment where Sipple was found dead on February 2, 1989. He was 47.
At a 1959 picnic, Ermal Cleon Fraze sadly discovered he'd neglected to bring a can opener for his beer. He resourcefully pried open the can on the bumper of his car, quenched his thirst, and then went home and designed a pull-tab opener for beverage cans. "I personally did not invent the easy-open can end," insisted the self-effacing Fraze in 1963. "People have been working on that since 1800. What I did was develop a method of attaching a tab on the can top." That same year, Fraze received the first patent for a pull-tab can, which he then marketed to the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).
Born on an Indiana farm, Fraze, an engineer, had lived in Dayton, Ohio, since the 1930s. He died there on October 28, 1989, chief executive of the Dayton Reliable Tool and Manufacturing Company, which he founded in 1950. He was 76.
He had only one hit, but for five weeks in 1966 it was the number one song in the country. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler had cowritten and recorded "Ballad of the Green Berets" as a tribute to the Special Forces. To his surprise, the song sold more than nine million copies and inspired the horrendous 1968 film The Green Berets, directed by and starring John Wayne. Sadler went on to write 20 books of adventure stories featuring his mercenary hero, Casca. Unfortunately, he himself tried to live a life filled with military heroics. While training contra rebels in Guatemala in 1988, he was critically wounded. He suffered irreparable brain damage, setting off a legal battle between his mother and son over control of his affairs. On November 5, 1989, he died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in a hospital named after World War I hero Alvin York. He was 47.
Losing 9-0 in the 1946 All-Star Game, National League manager Charlie Grimm gave the nod to Rip Sewell, a right-handed pitcher from the Pirates. "Throw that blooper pitch and see if you can wake up this crowd," commanded Grimm, alluding to Sewell's unorthodox "eephus" pitch, which arced to a height of 25 feet before plummeting toward home plate. With two men on, Sewell went to the mound to face Boston's Ted Williams, who shook his head at the pitcher, warning him not to throw the eephus. Nevertheless, on a count of two and one, Sewell let it bloop, and the Splendid Splinter creamed the ball, driving it into the right-field bullpen. Sewell later referred to the blast as a "Sunday Super Dooper Blooper."
During his 12-year career with the Pirates, Truett Banks "Rip" Sewell put together a respectable 143-97 record, with 21 wins in both 1943 and 1944. With Cardinal shortstop Marty Marion, he also devised baseball's first pension plan. After losing both legs in 1972, he continued to play golf, which inspired people as much as his baseball heroics. Sewell died in Plant City, Florida, on September 5, 1989. He was 82.
As a boy, Armand Catalano learned to fence from his father, an avid swordsman. It seemed a useless skill, even for New York City, where Armand worked at a soda fountain and then in the garment industry. But eventually the tall, darkly handsome Catalano found work as a model and actor, and in 1957 Walt Disney Studios gave him a screen test. They were looking for someone to play the role of Don Diego de la Vega, the aristocratic fop who by night dons a black mask and carves up the dark underbelly of Spanish California. In a word, Zorro. A quick parry, a riposte, and the job was Catalano's, who had already assumed a double identity of his own: he now called himself Guy Williams.
For two years Williams was Zorro, bounding across the screen on ABC TV each Thursday night. He went on to star on film as Captain Sinbad in 1963, and from 1965 to 1968 appeared on CBS as Professor John Robinson, whose TV family was Lost in Space. Williams was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment on May 6, 1989. He was 65.
In 1977 the Illinois Entertainer was looking for a letters column "with a little kick." Rather than give the task to some young hipster, Entertainer founder Ken Voss assigned the column to a 50-year-old mother from Palatine, Marion Nugent. "To everyone around the Chicago scene in the mid-1970s, she was the mother of the local rock scene," Voss told the Chicago Tribune. "She was out in the clubs until all hours of the night, listening, supporting, and rooting for the groups." Ma Nugent's favorite rocker was undoubtedly son Ted, whose big hit was the high-decibel "Cat Scratch Fever."
After Ma began wintering in Florida, her column, "Ma Nugent's Mail," was taken over by a ghostwriter. It continues to appear in the Entertainer. She died in Brooksville, Florida, on January 28, 1989. Ma Nugent was 62.
On September 12, 1940, while playing with friends near Montignac, France, Jacques Marsal missed his dog, Robot. The animal had disappeared into a hole, and the boys hurried toward his furious barking. Entering a narrow fissure in a rock wall, they discovered a series of caves whose walls were covered with ghostlike paintings of woolly ponies, leaping stags, and prehistoric bison. After two days, Marsal and his friends revealed their secret, and various authorities, led by famed archaeologist Abbe Breuil, descended on the site. Pending further investigation, the cave was temporarily sealed, and Marsal and his friends were designated the site's temporary protectors.
What Marsal had fallen into was his life's vocation. The caves of Lascaux became one of the world's best-known displays of prehistoric art, and Marsal remained there for the rest of his life. (The caves received their name from the family who had acquired the land in the 15th century.) Marsal served as a guide through the Paleolithic galleries until their closure in 1963--the carbon dioxide in tourists' breath harmed the 15,000-year-old paintings--and then stayed on as their guardian. He died in Bordeaux after a long illness on July 15, 1989. He was 63.
In the summer of 1951, Washington, D.C., welcomed Princess Elizabeth, the future queen of England. Everywhere the strictest protocol was observed, until the young princess was introduced to William "Fishbait" Miller, the doorkeeper of the House of Representatives. Where others had bowed or curtsied, Miller proffered only an insouciant "Howdy, ma'am." "Well, Fishbait," said President Truman (who had let the royal entourage know that Miller was a "character"), "I warned them and you sure didn't let me down."
Nicknamed "Fishbait" as a child because of his small size, Miller came to Washington in 1933 to work in the House post office. In 1949, when the Democrats assumed control of the House, he was appointed doorkeeper. He eventually oversaw a $3.5 million budget and a staff of 357. Miller even claimed to have helped Democrats receive the best office assignments by sanding his fingertips that he might better identify the metal disks blindly drawn to determine office locations. Miller lost his post following a 1974 party caucus, but had his revenge three years later when his autobiography exposed the drinking and sexual escapades of various congressmen. He died in Greensboro, North Carolina, on September 12, 1989. He was 80.
Despite a happy childhood in the Bronx, George Jorgensen Jr. was frustrated by feelings that he was a woman trapped in a man's body. In 1950, following his honorable discharge from the Army, he began a series of hormone injections to change his sex. The transition was completed in 1952 with surgery in Copenhagen, and George became Christine Jorgensen. The first U.S. transsexual to publicly announce her change of identity, Jorgensen was subjected to an onslaught of publicity. "At first I was very self-conscious and very awkward," she remembered later. "But once the notoriety hit, it did not take me long to adjust."
Rather than ignore the spotlight, Jorgensen turned her newfound notoriety to her favor. "I decided if they wanted to see me they would have to pay for it," she said, and embarked on a series of lectures. Eventually she put together a nightclub act, in which her theme song was "I Enjoy Being a Girl." In 1959, Jorgensen, who could not bear children, was denied a marriage license. Following a long battle with cancer, she died in a San Clemente, California, hospital on May 3, 1989. Jorgensen was 62.