If you were granted a wish and could temporarily go back in time to be present at some past event, what would be your choice?
An interesting dilemma for most since our imaginations and sensibilities are tickled by a lifetime of experience, perceptions, and passions. Have you ever posed this question to yourself? I ponder it quite often as the months and years fly by. Traveling along this one-way journey in time called life, we all encounter knowledge, events, and people that pique our interest and stimulate our imagination; sometimes we are just plain fascinated by certain events and people, and it can happen that our fascination seems misplaced in the normal scheme of our thoughts and priorities…and we wonder why.
Finding answers to the latter question can lead to some interesting self-analysis! In that vein, and in an attempt to answer my own question posed at the beginning of this blog, I have made some progress and have surprised myself in the process!
Here is my take: My natural inclination is to favor serious events and people, those responsible for substantial contributions to society. It seems fitting that special consideration should be given to those events and individuals responsible for increasing our knowledge of the universe by revealing, through science and mathematics, the timeless workings of nature.
Catering to that instinct alone, I would choose to be present in Isaac Newton’s quarters in August of 1684 when Edmond Halley (of comet fame) traveled from London to Cambridge University specifically to ask Newton a question about the nature of planetary orbits in our solar system. The question stemmed from on-going coffee-house discussions among Halley and his respected scientific colleagues in London. At that time, Newton was a young, relatively unknown, reclusive professor of mathematics at Cambridge, but rumors of his immense intellect had begun to leak out in local circles and had come to Halley’s attention.
As I describe in my own book, the upshot of that historic meeting was the publication three years later of the most important scientific book ever published – Newton’s Principia, in which physics, celestial mechanics, and mathematics were revolutionized in a most major way. In the process, his book provided ample mathematical justification for Newton’s concise answer to Halley’s question that day, namely, that planetary orbits would be elliptical! Halley’s visit not only instigated Newton’s involvement, Halley also pushed Newton to write the book and guaranteed its publication with his personal funds. I would like to have been there during his visit!
I also hear strong calls from other quarters. Being present on November 19, 1863 to hear Lincoln deliver his Gettysburg Address (see my last post) is a strong historical contender. I would like to have been there!
From the arts, there are a couple of contenders which I can only say come as somewhat of a recent surprise to me. Lately, I have indulged an interest that had simmered essentially unrecognized beneath the surface for years, and that is a fascination with the big-band era of swing music which encompassed the late 1920’s to the late 40’s. A chance browsing encounter in Border’s Bookstore (RIP!) several years ago resulted in the purchase of Ken Burns’ book Jazz: A History of America’s Music. I now have a music mini-library which includes books, much music, and Burns’ ten-DVD set, Jazz. The music and its history have brought great joy these past few years, and I regard them as serious aspects of our history and culture. I also play the trumpet – a truly related activity.
Given that, and being a great fan of Benny Goodman’s swing/jazz music, I am intrigued by the thought of being present on two storied occasions: His famous performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935, and the ground-breaking appearance of his band at staid Carnegie Hall in 1938. At the Palomar, Goodman’s young and struggling band created a music sensation when, half-way through their typical program of “danceable music,” they threw caution to the wind and launched into the up-tempo swing style they had been steadily perfecting. The crowd stopped dancing and gathered around the bandstand to just watch and listen while responding with wild enthusiasm to the startled musicians; this famous event fueled Goodman’s rapid rise to the top of the music business as “The King of Swing” and ushered-in swing as “America’s music.” The movement became nothing less than a cultural revolution which had a profound effect on depression-era Americans.
Carnegie Hall, being a staid bastion of classical music, was tilling new ground by letting in a swing, or “jazz” band like Goodman’s for the first time in 1938. Benny’s band was a good choice at that time, for history records it as perhaps the finest of all the big bands. Harry James, Goodman’s great trumpet player, nervously peeked around the stage-curtain before the performance began and famously offered, “I feel like a whore in church.” Goodman, James, and crew nearly brought down the church-walls with a legendary performance that had the well-heeled audience, dressed to the hilt in evening attire, toe-tapping and grooving throughout. I would like to have been there – for the pure pleasure of it all!
Finally, there is one historical event which I find especially irresistible – one which encompasses many diverse elements. I would really like to have been present at Roosevelt field, New York, on that rainy morning of May 20, 1927 when Charles Lindbergh gained just enough altitude to clear telephone wires at the end of the runway on his way to Paris and a rendezvous with destiny. If I could further have bypassed the limitations imposed on us by space and time, I would have relished subsequently being there at Le Bourget Airport in Paris 33 1/2 hours later when he swept in out of the night sky to a frenzied reception by thousands on the airfield turf and a well-deserved place in history. If only I could have been there!
Please comment and briefly share your personal candidates with the readers of this blog. We would enjoy hearing about them!