Dave Barry

Classic ’99: Y1K: Dave Barry’s complete History of the Millennium, give or take three centuries

This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, December 19, 1999

And so we stand together -- the human race, plus the members of “Limp Bizkit” -- poised on the brink of the year 2000.

In a matter of days, we will find ourselves in a new millennium, facing exciting challenges and questions, such as: Why are we lying in a dumpster naked? And when did we get this highly personal Pokemon tattoo?

But this is not the time to think about our New Year’s Eve plans. This is the time to take one last, lingering look back at the millennium that is drawing to a close. For, as the ancient Greek historian Thucydides often said when he was alive, “History is a bunch of things that happened in the past.” His point was that human civilization is a journey, and only by retracing the steps of that journey can we truly come to know, as a species, where we lost our keys.

And so let us now press the “rewind” button on the VCR of time. Let us travel back together, back 1,000 years, back to ...

JANUARY 1, 1000

This was the historic day that humanity celebrated the dawn of our current millennium. The occasion was marked by feasting, dancing, and the public beheading of a whiny, tedious group of people who would not stop insisting that, technically, the new millennium did not begin until January 1, 1001.

But it was not all fun and games back in those days. It was a world of ignorance and fear; a world of pestilence and famine; a world of extremely high b.o. levels. Also there was “the Y1K problem” -- an unforeseen manufacturing glitch that caused parchment to malfunction such that many words were turned inside out (“OTTO,” for example, became “TOOT”).

Fortunately, back then almost nobody could read, so most people were able to continue doing their jobs under the popular economic system of the time, feudalism, which is sometimes called “the Internet of the Middle Ages.” Feudalism was based on a “ladder-type” of organizational structure, similar to Amway. You started out on the bottom rung, in the position of serf. This was not an easy job, but if you worked hard, followed the rules, did not complain and were a “team player,” after a certain period of time, you fell off the bottom rung and died.

This system freed the people higher up on the ladder to form noble families and create new empires, which began ebbing and flowing all over the place -- in the words of the great British historian Thomas Carlyle -- “like Moon Pies on a hot sidewalk.” In Asia, the Chinese had just invented gunpowder, which would have made them the strongest military power in the world, except that they had not yet invented guns. Their tactic was to make a pile of gunpowder on the ground, try to trick their enemies into standing on top of it, and then set it off with sparks, thus blowing the enemy up. This tactic only worked against really stupid enemies, so the Chinese did not become a major power until the year 1083, when they developed both the cherry bomb and the bottle rocket, using plans apparently stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In western Europe, the two dominant cultures were the French and the English, who hated each other because of a bitter, centuries-old dispute over the right way to prepare food. The French, led by the French warrior Maurice LeBeurre, repeatedly attempted to invade England and forcibly introduce the use of sauces. The English, led by King Harold the Comically Monikered, resisted valiantly until 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, so called because England became the sole possession of a man named Norman, who has owned it ever since.

Another big conflict was started in 1095, when Pope Urban II (son of Mr. and Mrs. Pope Urban I) launched the Crusades to get the Holy Land back from the Infidels (so-called because they wore jackets that said “Infidels” across the back). Over the next two centuries, courageous knights wearing gleaming armor suits would periodically set off from Europe, traveling by day and spending each night in a Motel VI, until finally, after years of hard journeying, they reached the Holy Land, where they instantly cooked like eggs in a microwave. The Infidels thought this was hilarious.

“They wear METAL?” they’d say. “In THIS climate?”

Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, Viking adventurers (or, as they called themselves, “Norsepersons”) were looking for new lands where they could loot, rape, pillage and eat without utensils. The most legendary of these was Leif Ericson, who was the son of the legendary Eric the Red, who was the son of the legendary Eric the Mauve, who was the first one to think of wearing a hat with horns. Leif and a hardy crew set sail from Greenland and finally, after many harrowing weeks at sea during which they almost perished, discovered a new land. It turned out to be Canada, so they went home. After that things remained fairly quiet until the early . . .


. . . when a Mongol named Genghis Khan (son of Murray and Esther Khan) organized the rest of the Mongols into a fierce horde and took over China by thundering across it on big scary horses that did not care where they went to the bathroom. Khan and his descendants created a vast empire that ultimately encompassed all of Asia, Asia Minor, Asia Minor Phase II and The Shoppes At Asia Minor Plaza.

The Mongol empire had little contact with Europe until it was visited in 1271 by the Italian traveler Marco Polo, who stayed in China for 17 years before returning to Venice with 2,000 little packets of soy sauce. This led to increased trade between Europe and the East that ultimately came to involve soup, egg rolls and any two dishes from Column B.

Meanwhile in England, the English noblemen had become involved in a big dispute with King John over the issue of whether or not he should be required to reveal his last name. This led to a big showdown in 1215 (known to English schoolchildren as “The Big Showdown of 1215”) that resulted in the signing of the historic Magna Carta, which is the foundation of the modern legal system because it guaranteed, for the first time, that the noblemen had the right to habeas corpus (literally, “wear tights”).

But the good times did not roll for long. In 1337 France, which was then under King Philip VI, was invaded by England, which was then under King Edward III, who had vowed to kill any monarch with a higher Roman numeral. This led to the Hundred Years War, which, because of delays caused by equipment problems, is still going on.

Matters were not helped any by the arrival of the bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” which in the 14th Century spread throughout Asia and Europe, in the words of the great historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee, “like the plague or something.” In those ignorant times, it was believed that the plague was caused by evil spirits. Now, thanks to modern science, we know that the real cause was tiny germs, which were carried by fleas, which in turn were carried by rats, which in turn were eaten by cats, which are in fact evil spirits. The plague killed about one-third of the total European population. It was not covered by HMOs.

Elsewhere in the world, important strides were being strode. In South America, the Aztecs had invented a highly sophisticated calendar; it consisted entirely of weekends, and that was the last anybody heard of the Aztecs. In North America, the indigenous peoples, who called themselves “native Americans,” were building hundreds of mounds, and you will just have to ask them why. Meanwhile, way out on a tiny speck of land in the Pacific that we now call Easter Island, giant mysterious stone heads were being erected. This was done by teenagers. They’d erect one, and then hide in the bushes and wait for the homeowner to come out and see it and yell, “Dammit, Marge, those kids have erected a giant stone head on the lawn again! We’re moving off this island!” This led to the development of Polynesia.

Speaking of developments, the “hot trend” sweeping through Europe in the early . . .


. . . was burning people at the stake, which had become the punishment for just about every infraction including jousting without a permit. By the 1430s so many people had been burned at the stake that Europe ran out of stakes and had to start burning people at the lump of peat, which took forever. Eventually the fuel was exhausted, and the Dark Ages began. Virtually all learning ceased as the great universities of Europe closed their doors (although in response to alumni demand they were able to maintain a full football schedule). It was also around this time that Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans (or, as they were known on parchment, the “Tootmans”). This led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire, an important empire that we should have mentioned earlier.

The Dark Ages finally ended when a printer named Johann Gutenberg had a brilliant idea. In those days, printing was a laborious process, because the type was not movable. A typical letter, such as “B,” was 4 feet high and weighed as much as 6,000 pounds. So to print a book, you had to carry the blank paper around and press it against the letter you needed, one letter at a time; this was slow and tedious, and the printers tended to take shortcuts, as we see by the 1412 edition of the Old Testament, reprinted in its entirety here:

“In the beginning etc.”

One day Gutenberg had an idea: Instead of moving the paper to the type, why not move the type to the paper? So he tried it, and on a historic day in 1455, three of his assistants were crushed while attempting to lift the letter “W.” So then Gutenberg had the idea of using small type, and within days he printed the first modern mass-produced book, Codpieces of Passion, by Danielle Steele.

This led to a rebirth of knowledge that we now call the Renaissance (literally, “Easter Island”). It was spearheaded by the brilliant multitalented Italian Leonardo da Vinci. One day he was painting a portrait of a young woman named The Mona Lisa, when they got to talking in English.

“Leonardo,” said The Mona Lisa, smiling enigmatically, “do you think Man will ever be able to fly?”

“I don’t know, The,” he answered. “But I sure am hungry.” And so he invented pizza, without which the modern world would be a very different place indeed.

But the most important development of the 15th Century was taking place in Spain and Portugal, which were determined to find a new sea route to Asia. Year after year, they sent ships out into the Atlantic; year after year, they were disappointed. And then they had an idea: Why not put men on the ships, to steer them? And thus it was that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain and discovered America, which he believed was the East Indies. The reason he believed this is that prank-loving Vikings, who had discovered America 300 years earlier, had left a sign that said “WELCOME TO THE EAST INDIES!”

Nevertheless, as the great historian Edward Gibbon often used to say before passing out, “once the genie is out of the bottle, the shoe is on the other foot.” The Age of Exploration had begun, and by the . . .


. . . there were ships sailing everywhere, carrying the message of European civilization to the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas (the message was: “Hi! We own you!”). Among the greatest mariners of this era was Ferdinand Magellan, who in 1521 proved that the Earth was round by sailing all the way to the Philippines and getting killed, thus paving the way for what we now know as the tourism industry.

In Asia, many exciting things were happening, but we frankly do not know what they were.

Meanwhile, in Wittenberg, Germany, a priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door. This made the church very angry because nobody could read the Bingo announcements. As a punishment, Luther was sentenced to the Diet of Worms, which was so disgusting that he started the Protestant Reformation. This movement got a boost in 1534 when Henry VIII started the Church of England after the Pope refused to let him divorce his first wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

Henry went on to have a number of wives, most of whom died in freak guillotine accidents. The next major monarch was Mary Tudor, who was known as “Bloody Mary” because she invented the celery garnish. She was succeeded by Elizabeth I, who is the mother of the current queen and is still periodically seen blinking into TV news cameras on her birthday. She presided over the Elizabethan Era, which produced the immortal William Shakespeare, who wrote such timeless works as Richard II, Richard III, Richard III Strikes Back and Hamlet Hears a Who, and who gave us a priceless legacy of famous phrases that, to this very day, are pretty much incomprehensible.

The major world power at this time was Spain, which was ruled by King Philip II (or, for short, “King Philip I”), who was legendary all over Europe because of the unnaturally large size of his armada. (“Hey,” he was always saying to women. “Want to see my armada?”) Then, in 1588, the English fleet snuck up and set Phil’s armada on fire, and that was pretty much all she wrote with regard to Spain being a major world power.

Meanwhile, exciting progress was being made in Russia, which had decided, after centuries of operating under the Marauding Horde System of government, to switch over to the Lone Homicidal Psychopath System, choosing as its first leader Ivan the Terrible (son of Becky the Terrible). And speaking of progress, in the . . .


. . . humanity’s understanding of the universe took a giant leap forward. It had long been theorized that the Earth orbited around the sun, but there had been no proof until one night in 1609 when an astronomer named Galileo, who had just invented a new device called the “telescope,” peered through it and discovered that he could see directly into the bedroom window of a woman who lived nearly 500 feet away. As a result, many guys became interested in astronomy. Or so they told their wives.

Another important scientific advance occurred in 1614 when the logarithm was invented by Scottish mathematician John Napier. Some day, when time travel is invented, high-school students will go back and kill him.

But the greatest scientific advance of the century came in 1687, when Sir Isaac Newton, after watching an apple fall off a tree, wrote his famous Principia Mathematica, which states that there is a universal force, called “gravity,” inside apples. Later scientists would expand this definition to include grapefruit, but the basic concept remains unchanged to this day.

On the political front, 1618 marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War, in which the German Protestants joined forces with France, Sweden, Denmark, Wisconsin and the San Diego Chargers to fight against the old Holy Roman Empire, which was led by the Hapsburgs (Stan and Louise). The fighting went on until 1648, when the combatants realized that they would either have to either stop fighting or change the name of the war. This led to the Peace of Westphalia, under which the various parties formally agreed that the letters in “Holy Roman Empire” could be rearranged to spell “O Ripen My Armhole,” thus paving the way for Europe as we know it today.

At this time France was experiencing its glory years under Louis XIV, who became known as the “Sun King” because he was more than 2 million miles in circumference. But things were not so good for England, which in 1665 suffered through the Great Plague of London, which was followed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London, which was followed in 1667 by the first recorded attack on London by Godzilla.

Nevertheless there was hope, and that hope was focused on the New World, where a group of hardy settlers had founded the first permanent English colony in Jamestown, Va., where the Native Americans introduced them to a local plant with broad leaves. The Virginians found that when these leaves were cured, shredded and smoked in a pipe, they tasted terrible.

“That’s because it’s corn, you morons,” pointed out the Native Americans. So things looked bad for the colonists, but then they discovered tobacco, which was not as bad, and which was introduced to consumers back in England via a media campaign using the slogan: “Tobacco -- Eventually, You Stop Throwing Up.” This marked the dawn of modern marketing.

Meanwhile, two other famous settlements were being established farther up the North American coast. One was an island on the north end of what we now call New York Bay, which the Dutch settler Peter Minuit purchased from the Manhattan Indians for $24, plus $167,000 a month in maintenance fees. Minuit named this settlement “New Amsterdam,” although after it was taken over by the English it became known by the name that has become synonymous with urban greatness, “Easter Island.”

The other famous settlement was of course Plymouth Colony, which was founded by Puritans, a group of religious separatists who sailed across the Atlantic in search of a place where they could starve to death. In the winter of 1620 they landed in Massachusetts, where they signed the Mayflower Compact, in which they swore before Almighty God that if they managed to survive the winter and create a viable colony, and if that colony prospered and grew to the point where, someday, it boasted a major city with a professional baseball team, and if that baseball team was stupid enough to trade away the greatest hitter of all time, then that team would never again win a World Series. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

In Asian news, the big story was that Peter the Great became the leader of Russia. And if you have to ask why, then you clearly have not stopped to ask yourself how a person gets a nickname like “Peter the Great.”

And speaking of great, the . . .


. . . were a time of important worldwide advances in knowledge that became known, collectively, as “the Enlightenment” because people became so excited that they lost weight. To name just a few advances:

  • In England, a chemist named Daniel Rutherford discovered nitrogen, without which many of us would not be here today.
  • In France, the great philosopher Voltaire wrote his masterpiece, Candide, which tells the fascinating story of somebody named Candide. At least that is our assumption.
  • In Germany, a composer named Johann Sebastian Bach was writing some hot new fugues, including Just Fuguen’ Around, which was to remain No. 1 on the European Fugue Parade for the next 238 years.
  • In Austria, a 4-year-old prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sat down at the harpsichord and began to play music in a style so original and exquisite that his father, Walter “Bud” Mozart, smacked him on the head and told him to go outside and play like the other boys, thus paving the way for what would one day become Little League.
  • In Scotland, an inventor named James Watt was sitting in his laboratory, looking at an engine and trying to figure out how to make it go, when he decided to brew himself some tea. So he put a teapot on the fire, and when the steam came billowing out, Watt had an idea: Wouldn’t it be great if you could heat tea water just by plugging something into the wall? So he invented the watt.
  • In America, Benjamin Franklin wrote Poor Richard’s Almanack, which tells the fascinating story of somebody named Candide.
  • In Egypt, soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone (daughter of Sol and Esther Stone). This was very significant, because it enabled scholars, for the first time, to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which turned out to be a letter from Publishers Clearing House informing the ancient Egyptians that they might already have won 200 sheep.

But this was also a century of great turmoil and radical change, and the center of that change was the New World, where, in the words of the great historian Charles Howard McIlwain, “the American colonies, having for too long been forced to consume the bean dip of tyranny, were preparing to release a mighty wind of liberty into the world.”

Trouble had been brewing for some time. In 1735, a New York newspaper publisher named John Peter Zenger was arrested after he printed a story alleging that the New York governor had been seen at a Times Square peep show in which milkmaids allegedly operated churns topless (the headline was: “LUV GUV IN BUTTER FLUTTER”). Zenger was acquitted, thus establishing Freedom of Speech and laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become Jerry Springer.

This was followed by the French and Indian War, which further heightened tensions because, contrary to what the name “French and Indian War” suggests, both the French and the Indians were on the same side. Then in 1765 the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which decreed that if the colonists wanted to buy stamps, they had to wait in long lines at inconveniently located postal facilities staffed by surly clerks who periodically went on murderous rampages with semiautomatic muskets.

But the straw that finally pushed the camel over the edge of the cliff and caused the dam to burst came in 1773, when the British Parliament placed a tax on tea. In retaliation, a group of Boston patriots dressed up as Indians, sneaked aboard a ship and threw its cargo into Boston Harbor. Unfortunately, this was a cruise ship, and the cargo consisted of retired couples, many of whom were poor swimmers. But the die had been cast, and there was no way to put the shoe back on the other foot. The hostility between the colonies and the British government, headed by King Big Fat Stupid III, was bound to turn into violence, and finally, on the fateful night of April 18, 1775, the Revolutionary War began when Paul Revere made his legendary “midnight ride,” galloping all the way from Boston to Lexington while shouting the message that would resound through the annals of history: “I CAN’T STOP MY HORSE!”

This rallying cry united the colonies, which decided to hold a Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where, on July 4, 1776, the delegates, after passionate debate, signed the Gettysburg Address. To lead the Revolutionary Army, they chose a man named George Washington, who was known and respected throughout the colonies because his picture was on the dollar. Washington scored many important victories, most notably on the dark and bitter cold Christmas night of 1776, when he set out across the Delaware River in a small boat and, after several anxious minutes, discovered land, which he named “New Jersey,” after his mother.

Finally, after many historic battles whose names all American schoolchildren should be forced to memorize before they are allowed to buy one more damn Pokemon card if you want our frank opinion, the British surrendered. At last, after years of oppression, all Americans were truly free! (Except for the slaves.)

Soon the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hard at work, and in 1788, the constitution they created underwent formal ratification, a complex legal procedure involving actual rats. And thus was born a new nation -- a nation that would grow and prosper and ultimately become the mightiest nation that the world had ever seen, a shining beacon of hope that today is known throughout the world as “Easter Island.”

This new spirit of freedom spread, in the words of the historian William Hickling Prescott, “like crazy.” It reached across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where the French, warmly embracing the concept of democratic self-government, brotherhood and equality under the law, whacked many people’s heads off.

Yes, the times, as Bob Dylan (1746-present) once observed, were a-changing. And the pace of that change would only increase in the . . .


. . . which started off with a “bang” in the form of the Louisiana Purchase, in which Thomas Jefferson bought 828,000 square miles from the French for just $15 million, including all appliances. (The French originally wanted $30 million, but they came way down on price when Jefferson pointed out that the parcel included North Dakota.) The newly acquired territory was then explored by two brothers, Lewis and Clark Expedition, who spent two arduous years traveling through the uncharted wilderness, forced to eat virtually every meal at the International House of Jerky. Finally, the Expeditions returned to Washington and presented Jefferson with a map that was amazingly accurate down to the smallest detail, because it was a map of Germany. And that was the beginning of the Interstate Highway System.

But the fledgling nation was soon to find its very existence threatened with the outbreak of the War of 1812 (1807-10), during which the British marched into Washington, D.C., and, with the help of local residents, burned the Internal Revenue Service to the ground. Tragically, it was rebuilt, and eventually the British went back to England, where many of them still reside today. Fed up with this type of foreign interference, the fifth president of the United States, Monroe Doctrine, issued a decree stating that anybody wishing to invade the United States had better have a valid permit.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte had himself crowned emperor of France in recognition of the fact that he, alone among all the French, could rearrange the letters in his name to spell “Rent An Abalone Poop.” Through a series of brilliant military campaigns, he went on to conquer a large area of Europe, only to meet his Waterloo in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was then exiled to Easter Island, where he invented the cream-filled puffed pastry that we know today, in his memory, as the Hostess Twinkie.

A few years later England and China got into the Opium War, during which soldiers on both sides spent most of the time lying around staring at candles and going, “Wow!” England at this point had a new queen, Victoria, who was much beloved despite having basically the same facial expression as a grouper. She reigned for the next 150 years, during which the sun never set on the British Empire, which as you can imagine experienced an alarming increase in skin growths.

Meanwhile a great Industrial Revolution was taking place, thanks to a cavalcade of technological and scientific advances:

  • In 1807, an American inventor named Robert Fulton put a steam engine aboard a ship called the Clermont. Needless to say, it sank like an anvil, thus confirming the widespread scientific belief that gravity was still working.
  • In 1808, a German musician named Ludwig “van” Beethoven revolutionized the tedious, labor-intensive task of composing when he harnessed a steam engine to a symphony-making machine, which cranked out Beethoven’s fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth symphonies in just 12 minutes before exploding, leaving Beethoven permanently deaf and foreshadowing the music we now call “hip-hop.”
  • In 1825, a British company came up with the idea of attaching a steam-powered locomotive to a train of passenger coaches. Tragically, this did not float any better than the steamboat did.
  • In 1834, a mechanical “analytical engine” -- the great-great-grandparent of today’s computers -- was invented by English mathematician Charles Babbage. He died in 1871, still waiting to talk to somebody from Technical Support.
  • In 1844, American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated that if he sent an electrical current along a wire, he could cause a magnetic device at the other end to make a series of clicking noises. These noises made no sense to him, so, following the common practice of the time, he attached his device to a steam engine. The rest is history.

But even as these advances were being made, the United States was like a luxury cruise ship drifting toward a hidden iceberg of war, soon to erupt with a bitter brew of hatred that would spill over onto the white linen tablecloth of the nation’s consciousness like a slap in the face with a dead flounder. The trouble began in 1836, when legendary frontier figures Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Roy Rogers were killed while defending the Alamo, a horse-rental agency, from an army of irate Mexican businessmen protesting what they perceived as outrageous refueling charges. This led to the Mexican War, which ended in 1848 with the United States getting Texas, California and all future rights to Salma Hayek.

But the ensuing peace was to be short-lived. The issue of slavery was tearing the United States apart, fanned into flames by the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which told the dramatic story of evil slave overseer Simon Legree’s obsessive hunt for a giant albino whale. In 1858, two Illinois candidates for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, held seven historic debates moderated by Regis Philbin, who declared Lincoln the winner when he correctly answered the question “When did Johann Strauss compose The Blue Danube waltz?” (Lincoln’s answer: “Not yet.”)

In 1860, Lincoln ran for president (slogan: “He’s Taller Than You”) and was elected, only to see the nation rent asunder in 1861 by the Civil War, starring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. America descended into a long, dark nightmare as brother fought against brother. As you can imagine, this drove their mother crazy.

“You boys stop fighting RIGHT NOW!” she would yell.

But they would not listen, and the nightmare continued until 1865, when the South surrendered, and the slaves, after so many years of bondage and oppression, were finally free to get beat up a lot. The bruised and battered nation was running on a wobbly treadmill, and matters were only made worse when Lincoln, while attending a play, was fatally shot by an actor named John Wilkes Booth. This tragedy led to the passage of a federal law, still in effect today, requiring actors to use blanks.

But despite the disrupting influence of war, progress continued:

  • In 1859, English naturalist Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking work Origin of Species, in which he theorized that life evolves, through natural selection, from lower and cruder to higher and more sophisticated levels, except in Kansas.
  • In 1869, the Suez Canal was finally completed, which meant that for the first time ships could go from wherever the Suez Canal started to wherever it ended, something that had not been possible before.
  • In 1876, inventor Alexander Graham Bell spoke into his new invention, the telephone, and transmitted history’s first voice message over a wire to his assistant in another room: “Watson, hold my calls.” The modern business era had begun.
  • In 1877, inventor Thomas Alva Edison leaned over a device and recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a loud and clear voice. Nothing happened, because the device was a pencil sharpener. Embarrassed, Edison vowed that one day he would invent an electric light so he could see what the hell he was doing.
  • In 1896, inventor Guglielmo Marconi patented the wireless telegraph and set up the world’s first broadcasting station, which began transmitting a format advertised as “Easy Listening Morse Code.”

But then, just when everything seemed to be going great, bang, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor in what became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and the Spanish-American War broke out. The U.S., determined to liberate Cuba from Spanish control, dispatched the famous “Rough Riders,” who were led by Theodore Roosevelt in the legendary charge up San Juan Hill, only to enjoy a hearty laugh at their own expense when they realized that San Juan was in Puerto Rico. Historians believe this is the first known instance of the Central Intelligence Agency in action.

And speaking of action, things REALLY started heating up for humanity in general once we entered the . . .


. . . which had historic events occurring left and right, starting in 1901, when Queen Victoria died, although nobody noticed this until 1907. Meanwhile, in the United States, Theodore Roosevelt became president and began building the Panama Canal, which would one day connect Panama with Albany, N.Y.

But an even more important thing happened in on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C.: two bicycle mechanics named Wilbur and Orville Wright Brothers, who as boys had dreamed of building a flying machine so they could drop bombs on the kids who laughed at them for being named “Wilbur” and “Orville,” successfully tested the first airplane. It took off with Wilbur at the controls and a flight attendant named Nancy clinging to the undercarriage with one hand while using the other hand to fling packets of honey-roasted peanuts, one of which struck Wilbur in the eyeball, causing him to dive and crash into the first commercially successful automobile, which coincidentally was being tested at Kitty Hawk by Henry Ford. The Transportation Age had dawned.

It was also an Age of Exploration, as bold adventurers ventured to the far corners of the Earth to check it out. In 1909, Robert E. Peary reported that he had reached the North Pole; in 1911, Roald Amundsen reported that he had reached the South Pole; and in 1913 Walter M. Fleemotz of Decatur, Ga., reported that he had discovered the West Pole in his basement.

Yes, these were exciting times, but it is important to remember that the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) was, in the words of historian James Mill (1773-1836) “not a weenie roast.” The same can be said for the maiden voyage of the British ocean liner Titanic, which, while crossing the North Atlantic in 1912, struck an iceberg, which sank to the bottom with all aboard. This tragedy led to strict new laws against carrying passengers on icebergs.

But even that was not enough to prevent Europe from plunging into World War I, which caused so much bitterness that traces of it still linger in certain European waiters. At first the United States was not involved, but in 1916 Woodrow Wilson was re-elected to the presidency with the popular slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War,” leaving him with no option but to get us into it. Finally (we are skipping some parts here) the war ended, and the League o’ Nations was formed to make sure that the world would never, ever, ever again go to war until everybody had acquired bigger weapons.

On a more upbeat note, the Russians, after centuries of oppression, finally got rid of the Czar System of government and switched to the Communist Dictator System, epitomized by Joseph Stalin, who came to power with the popular slogan “He Wants To Kill Pretty Much Everybody.”

Important governmental changes were also taking place in the United States, which in 1919 and 1920 passed two historic constitutional amendments:

The 18th Amendment, which banned alcoholic beverages. This worked liked a charm. All of a sudden, bang, everybody stopped drinking alcoholic beverages! And there was no crime! This paved the way for the War on Drugs.

The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote (for men).

In the arena of scientific progress, a German-born physicist named Albert Einstein was thinking up things that were so amazing they made his hair stick out. In 1915 he developed his General Theory of Relativity, which holds that the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass in the space-time continuum contributes to the quantum perihelion Brownian motion of submolecular particles, which is why eating cheese makes you get stopped up. This knowledge was to prove vital in making the atomic bomb.

The years 1920 through 1929 are often referred to collectively as the “Roaring Twenties,” because the name of each year has “twenty” in it. And it is not hard to understand why, when we look at some of the events that occurred during this tumultuous decade:

The great American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway threw up about 5,000 times apiece.

Not to mention Babe Ruth.

A lanky young aviator named Charles Lindbergh astounded the world when he took off from New York and landed, 14 hours later, back in New York, because he had to go to the bathroom. And that is why today we have toilets on planes.

Al Jolson starred in the first “talking” motion picture: The Jazz Singer Strikes Back, also featuring Charlton Heston as the young Yoda.

Yes, the nation was riding high, but in 1929 it came apart, in the words of the French economist Francois Quesnay, “like a club sandwich without toothpicks” when the Stock Market crashed because of rumors that there would be no such thing as the Internet for more than 50 years. The nation was plunged into the Great Depression, which resulted in joblessness, homelessness, poverty, hunger and literally millions of Shirley Temple movies, traces of which can still be seen today. In desperation, the nation turned to Franklin Delano “Teddy” Roosevelt, who in 1933 started the New Deal, a group of massive government programs designed to guarantee Americans that they would never again be without massive government programs.

But there was trouble ahead, and it spelled its name “Adolf Hitler.” His evil treachery at Pearl Harbor forced America into World War II, and when it was finally over, there was dancing in Times Square until somebody said, “Hey! Stop dancing! The Cold War has started! Also, somebody took my wallet!” And it was true. The two great superpowers -- the United States of America and the Union of United Soviet Socialism Godless Red Communists of Russia -- were staring eyeball-to-eyeball through an Iron Curtain in a nuclear confrontation that pitted brother against brother. It was only a matter of time before “Korea” became a household name.

And yet at the same time, there were bright spots. In 1947, a courageous young athlete named Jackie Robinson became the first African American to break the sound barrier, and the Space Age dawned. There was also hope in the Middle East, where the state of Israel was born in a happy celebration highlighted by festive artillery fire that is still going on in some areas.

By the 1950s, America had entered a period of conservatism and conformity under the administration of its grandfatherly war-hero president, Ed Sullivan. But all that was to change when a young Mississippi truck driver named Elvis Presley appeared on national TV, wiggling his hips and wowing the nation’s youngsters with a revolutionary new trend that was to become, over the next five decades, the dominant cultural force in the world: the hula hoop. In response, the Russians launched a satellite named “Sputnik” (Russian for “I spit on your knickers”), which flew into space and shot down an American U2 spy plane piloted by a promising young actor named James Dean. Shocked and confused, the American voters turned to younger leadership in the form of John F. Kennedy, and what happened next was, to quote the eloquent historian Thomas B. Macaulay, “bad.”

Assassinations. Vietnam. Civil rights. Woodstock. Watergate. Romilar brand cough syrup. These are words that took on new meaning as the era that became known as “The Sixties” engulfed the nation in a tidal wave of events that occurred. But finally it was over, and the nation entered an exciting new era, which became known as “The Seventies,” during which nothing happened. Then came “The Eighties,” which lasted until 1989, when the people of East Berlin, fed up with decades of oppression and deprivation, tore down the Berlin Wall in response to rumors that it contained Dove Bars.

This caused the Soviet Union to collapse, leaving the United States as the world’s only superpower. And in the Nineties, this nation has become even more dominant under the leadership and guidance of President Monica Lewinsky. Today, as we stand on the brink of the year 2000, we are a nation of almost unimaginable wealth. Everywhere we look, we see rich people: millionaire athletes; billionaire dot-com Internet geeks; people on TV quiz shows becoming millionaires by answering questions so easy that they would not stump a reasonably alert stump. And although this makes us want these people to get hit by cement trucks, it also makes us realize that we have come a long way in the past 1,000 years.

And so, this New Year’s Eve, when the clock strikes 12, raise a glass to toast the millions of our ancestors who went before us, paving the way for the safe and secure civilization that we enjoy today. Then, when the clock strikes 13 and the lights go out, start your generator and load your gun.

© 1999, Dave Barry

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